I’d never learned how to ride a motorcycle, but Adel’s customized bikes had seats large enough to fit two. We quickly decided that Michel should take one, Barrett should keep his own Harley, and that I would ride together with Mila when we left. Before we mounted, I took the time to pass out earbuds to every member of the group.
“These aren’t as good as the ones we’ve used in the past,” I said to Michel and Mila, “but they’ll still work.”
“What’s the difference?” Mila asked. She fitted her earbud in place with only a slight grimace of discomfort.
“The encryption protocols, for one thing.” I put my own earbud in as I spoke. I’d grown so used to their presence during my exclusive partnership with Devlin that I barely felt its presence. “These aren’t sophisticated enough to support anything particularly complicated.”
“In layman’s terms?”
“It’s possible that we’ll pick up interference,” I said. “If we end up near anywhere with a lot of radio traffic, it’ll get worse, but it shouldn’t get to a point where they’re unusable.”
“Like Bluetooth?” Barrett asked.
“Yes and no. For the purposes of this job, let’s just call them the same and move on. The details don’t really matter.”
Montez made a point of collecting gear and safety equipment, for when he needed to test some creation around the lot. Adel returned with heavy, padded jackets for each of us and passed them out without any complaint.
“He doesn’t keep track of these,” she said in explanation. “I wouldn’t bring them back and tell you that you borrowed them, though. Think of it as a free promotion.”
“Ride a potential death trap off onto the open road,” I muttered, “and you can also leave with a free set of Ginsu knives. Fantastic.”
“What was that?” Adel asked. She paused before handing me my own jacket.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m just getting myself in the right headspace for this.”
She gave me a measured look, shrugged, and then walked over to speak with Michel in hushed whispers about some details I wasn’t interested in.
The jacket was a little baggy around the bustline and shoulders, but it fit well enough for a rush job. Mila wore hers as comfortably as if she’d been born in it and Michel was a common enough size that his gear looked natural as well. I tried not to resent that as I fished out Devlin’s tablet and opened the program that would connect all of our earbuds into a single line of communication.
“These are pretty fancy,” Barrett said. He tapped one side of his helmet with an index finger. “And you say you guys normally use better equipment than this?”
“When we have the opportunity to properly supply ourselves, sure.” The tablet had enough memory to handle the communications program, but it was unwieldy. I tried to find a comfortable position, where I could hold the tablet and also not fall off of the bike, to no avail.
Barrett chuckled. I couldn’t see his face through his helmet’s pitch black visor, but I could hear the smile in his voice when he spoke. “Here. Try this.”
He reached under his seat and withdrew a plain black book bag. He tossed it in my direction and, thankfully, I caught it without fumbling. The bag was sized for him, but it only took me a few seconds to tighten the straps and slip it on. The main compartment was big enough for the tablet, with room to spare. During the ride, it would slide and shift, but that was a small inconvenience.
“Thanks. I, uh…didn’t think to bring one of my own.”
“It happens,” Barrett said. He shrugged. “You can get me back next time, if you really want to show your appreciation.”
I started to say something about his casual assumption of a ‘next time,’ but Michel and Adel returned at that moment. “We can go whenever you are ready,” he said, nodding to me. Adel handed him a helmet.
Mila experimentally revved the engine of our bike and, simultaneously, stared daggers at the young mechanic. Adel was too focused on Michel to notice or care about the murderous intent radiating from Mila’s direction. I wasn’t, though.
“You going to be okay?” I asked, as I mounted the bike behind Mila and wrapped my arms around her waist.
“I’m fine,” she said. The answer came out just a touch too quickly. Mila must have realized how she sounded because, after a second, she audibly sighed. “I’ll be fine.”
Another problem to be added to the growing pile of issues that we needed to work through. It was a minor miracle that our team continued to work so well together professionally, when we were suffering under the weight of a half dozen personal issues each. Still, I put that out of my thoughts as best I could.
“Michel?” I asked. “What do you have for me?”
With his helmet on, I couldn’t see his expression. That might have bothered someone like Devlin, who was used to reading people’s thoughts through the subtle muscle movements in their face, but I’d spent my criminal career with nothing but voices and camera feeds as company.
“Not enough,” Michel said reluctantly. “There are at least three different routes they could take to get out of Dallas, depending on how many trucks they were using and how quickly they wanted to get to their destination.”
“I counted four,” Mila said. “But there could have been more before I got there.”
Michel sighed. “That does not narrow it down.”
“Split up?” Barrett suggested.
I put my helmet on as well, expecting my field of vision to grow dimmer. Surprisingly, there was only a slight haze effect over what I could see. “That’s not an option. When we find them, we won’t have time to regroup and coordinate. We’ll just have to try them one at a time and hope to get lucky.”
The communications program finally came to life on the tablet. My earbud popped twice to tell me that it was online. “Can everyone hear me? I mean, through the equipment?”
Everyone else nodded. Adel looked curiously at us, but didn’t say anything.
“Alright, then. Michel takes the lead and we follow him as closely as possible. I can’t isolate lines while we’re riding, so we’ll all hear everything that everyone else says. Let’s try to keep the comms clear, if possible.”
“Roger that,” Barrett said. He revved his motorcycle a few times, apparently savoring the throaty roar that his Harley produced. “After you?”
Michel finally got onto his own bike and coaxed it to life. Mila did the same. Instead of the Harley’s deep rumble, Adel’s customized bikes produced a higher pitched whine. The chassis of the bike beneath me shook and rattled in a way that made me feel even less sure about what we were going to do.
I swallowed against my nervousness, reminded myself of the stakes, and took a steadying breath. “Michel, you’re up.”
Leaving the junkyard was a rough, uncomfortable trip, considering the limited distance. There wasn’t a proper road, or even a path, leading from the garage back out to the road. We hit bumps and divots frequently for about five minutes. Even moving slowly, taking into account our unfamiliarity with the machines, my thighs were already sore by the time we reached something resembling pavement.
From there, though, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Adel’s work held up well under the stress of higher speeds. The engines whined higher and higher, but the rattling evened out as we accelerated. By the time we reached the first of Michel’s interstates, I had almost forgotten my fear to begin with.
“These are not bad,” Michel said into the comms.
“The bikes?” I asked.
“I would not have thought a body like this could safely use this much horsepower,” he said.
Someone snorted. I suspected that it was Mila, but I couldn’t be sure.
“Someone’s got to ask,” Barrett said. “What exactly are you hoping to do if we even find this convoy?”
“When we find it,” I said.
I decided to ignore the sarcasm, rather than waste time arguing. “We need whatever information he’s trying to secure,” I said. “But if any of his goons can identify us later on, then we’re going to have a problem down the line.”
“Good thing we have these helmets then, isn’t it?” Barrett asked.
That was a stroke of luck, even if it had come about in an unintended way.
“I reached out to an associate,” I lied, “and got my hands on some software that will basically bug the servers themselves. When they’re switched on, the program takes effect and we’ll be able to monitor what’s on them in real time.”
In reality, I’d written the program myself for use in far less stressful situations, but I was fairly sure it would still work. Besides, my team didn’t even need the information itself; we only needed to make it look like the Magi had attacked the Texan without provocation. If the program didn’t work, it wouldn’t cost us anything, so long as it looked authentic to anyone examining the servers later.
Barrett didn’t need to know about our true goal or that I’d been the one who created the program in question. The former might cause him to go rogue when the job started in earnest; the latter would only be another breadcrumb leading to my alter-ego as Irene Adler online. I doubted that Barrett knew anything at all about the intricate workings of the Community, but I couldn’t afford to take the risk.
“Bold,” Barrett said. “Reckless, but bold. I like it.”
“You’re a cat burglar,” I said. “You’d like anything that sounded reckless.”
He laughed. “Fair enough, I guess.”
Mila’s abdominal muscles tightened under my grip. She stayed silent, though. I wished that I could finagle some way to isolate lines on the run but, unless I was willing to dig around in the book bag for the tablet, that was out of the question.
The first interstate yielded no results. We found an off ramp, traversed through some abandoned back roads, and then found an exit leading to the second. As we swerved into the sparse traffic on the second interstate, I realized that I’d been unconsciously attempting to keep track of the time. The moon was a slim crescent in the sky, noticeably higher now than it had been when we’d left the junkyard. I was pretty sure that meant it was either at or nearing midnight.
We traveled down that interstate for fifteen minutes, weaving in and out of traffic as necessary, until all of the other cars fell behind us. We kept going like that for ten minutes. I was about to suggest switching off and searching for an entrance to the third interstate, when I heard a sharp intake of breath over the comms.
“I see it too,” Mila said. “Sarah?”
Squinting past the haze of the helmet’s face mask, I tried to look into the approaching darkness. Years of pitch black rooms and glowing computer screens had taken their toll on my eyesight, so I was the last person out of the four of us to see the dim lights of a caravan in the distance.
“Is that what we’re looking for?” Barrett asked.
“It looks like it,” I said, “but I’m not sure. Can we get closer?”
In response, Michel took his bike up another gear and leapt forward in a huge, explosive burst of energy. Barrett followed suit. Mila, graciously, waited until I’d adjusted my seating and tightened my grip around her stomach, before she accelerated to keep up with the others.
As we drew closer, I realized that I hadn’t been thinking of the Texan’s convoy in the appropriate terms. It wasn’t one or two eighteen wheelers; at least a half dozen different trucks rumbled down the interstate in single file. They weren’t moving quickly, but they were traveling at a deliberate pace towards their destination. I didn’t see any cars escorting the caravan, but that didn’t mean anything about the potential security. He could easily have staffed each truck with a dozen armed men, ready and able to perforate anyone who attempted to board.
A collective gasp went over the comms from all of us, Barrett included. Michel swore in French. Mila grunted, but I wasn’t able to divine her emotions from that single noise.
“I’m not one to shy away from a challenge,” Barrett said, “but I’m also not suicidal. This might be an opportunity to exercise the better part of valor, don’t you think?”
He wasn’t wrong. The smart play was obvious: retreat, regroup, take the necessary time to plan an assault on the Texan’s stronghold. Only I didn’t know where that stronghold would be and I didn’t have the time to do much planning. Barrett didn’t know about my network’s security timer, inexorably ticking away. Discovering what the Texan knew about the Community – and, judging from the size of his convoy, I was certain he knew something – wouldn’t do any of us much good if the Mouse was able to accurately identify me.
“He won’t be expecting an attack while they’re on the road,” I said. I injected as much confidence into my voice as possible, which wasn’t very much. “If this cache of intelligence is ever going to be vulnerable, it’s going to be now.”
“And how exactly are you planning to take advantage of that vulnerability?”
Mila’s abs tightened under my hands. I felt my own stomach perform a similar move. Already, the adrenaline was rising, flooding into my veins at an alarming speed. It was worse than it had been before and, after a moment, I realized why that might be true.
Devlin wasn’t here to course correct if things went wrong. When things went wrong. I felt suddenly sick at the thought. I couldn’t do this. It was certifiable to think it was possible, even for an instant. I’d overreached and my arrogance was going to get my friends captured, hurt, or possibly killed. I needed to call this off and figure out a way to deal with the Mouse in a way that didn’t drag everyone else down with me.
“We’re going to steal one of the trucks,” Mila said in a clear voice. I heard her voice in my ear, even as I felt her back straighten. “More, if we can get away with it. All we need is something to use as a bargaining chip.”
“You’re going to steal a truck?” Barrett asked incredulously. “While it’s in motion? That’s your plan?”
“You’re damn right,” Mila said. “And we don’t have the luxury of convincing you or discussing the matter with you. You said you’re in, so be in. No more second-guessing.”
“If Sarah says that we can do it,” Michel said, “then we can do it. With or without you.”
The comms were silent for a few seconds, and that silence was only accentuated by the high pitched whine of our custom bikes and the deep rumble of Barrett’s Harley. After an eternity, he sighed.
“No more questions,” he said. “No more second-guessing. What do we do first, then?”
I’d seen the looks they’d exchanged. I wasn’t as good as Devlin at that sort of thing, but I also wasn’t an idiot. They both had their doubts about the operation, about my ability to play the role of shot caller. Yet they’d both stood up for me, without any hesitation. They were both willing to follow my orders, consequences be damned.
That didn’t do anything to quell the tide of nausea building in my gut, but it did make me lift my head a little higher. “Catch up to the rear truck,” I said. There was a little more surety in my voice than before. Not much…but still, a little more. “Not too close that they’ll know we’re targeting them. I’ll make an assessment from there.”
Barrett and Michel answered by revving their motorcycles and accelerating ahead of us. Mila and I stayed slightly behind them.
She couldn’t say anything to me without Barrett overhearing, but Mila did turn her head a fraction of an inch to one side. I imagined her looking at me underneath the helmet’s opaque visor. I nodded.
Words weren’t necessary, after a certain point. Michel and Mila believed that I could do this, regardless of their private doubts and concerns. Now, it was up to me to prove them right.