Chapter 124

Michel’s down,” I said, as soon as all of the lines were connected. “He’s bleeding and I think something happened to his throat. We need to get him out of here.”

Mila responded first. “Where are you? How do you know that?”

I’m inside the building,” I said. “The details don’t matter. Where are you and can you get here to help me with him?”

I’ve got a location on her earbud,” Max offered. “She’s on the other side of the building, but she can cut through some back rooms to get to where you are in a few minutes.”

On it,” Mila said.

Devlin?” I waited for a few seconds before I remembered his situation. Facing off with the kidnappers’ spokesperson meant that he couldn’t vocally acknowledge anything I was saying. “Devlin, we’re going to extract Michel to somewhere safe. If possible, we’ll try to get him out of the Park entirely so that he can get medical attention.”

When he spoke, he wasn’t speaking to me or to the rest of the team. “We had a deal,” Devlin said. “When you told my bodyguard here what you had in mind, I showed up here willingly. But if you aren’t going to stick to your word, I don’t see why I should waste any more time here.”

We hadn’t planned on your ‘bodyguard’ sharing our plans with you,” the lead kidnapper said. “But it doesn’t really change much on our end.”

You keep saying ‘we’ and ‘our,’ like you’re the one pulling the strings,” Devlin said. “I’d lay even odds that you don’t even know what your bosses actually have in mind.”

I don’t.” The admission was frank and forthright. “With as much money as they offered me to bring you and your associates in, I didn’t really need to know, either.”

Then you don’t really need the other one, either,” Devlin shot back. “Bring him out, make the trade, and then I can sit down with whoever is actually in charge.”

The lead kidnapper hemmed and hawed for a few moments before speaking again. “Where are the rest of your people?”

Devlin let out an obnoxious laugh. “My people? I’ve got people everywhere. You’re gonna have to be more specific than that.”

From what I understand, you were asking questions that you shouldn’t have been asking and getting answers that you shouldn’t have been able to get,” the lead kidnapper said. “That’s what the deal was for: you and anyone who worked with you on your latest project.”

Then that’s just me,” Devlin said. “I don’t bring people any further into my business than I have to and the investigation you’re talking about was just a mite too sensitive for me to have complete strangers crawling around inside of it.”

I don’t buy it. We were given considerable research on the techniques used to uncover some of that information, along with a list of possible suspects. So, I’ll ask you this another way: where’s MaxHeadroom?”

Max gasped and it sounded like she’d made the sound directly into my ear.

Max,” I said, temporarily blocking out the conversation between Devlin and the lead kidnapper, “this was always a possibility. We knew this. Someone matched your work with your screen name; that doesn’t mean they have any idea who you, personally, are.”

You know how many people in the world can identify my work?” Max asked.

I didn’t have to answer that. While most of the remaining members of the Community – TannGate, Frizzle, and myself – would likely be able to ferret out the telltale markers of her hacks, we were all indisposed or in hiding. That left only one person with the skillset to pierce through dense layers of code and the motivation to go through the effort: the Mouse or, more accurately, his alter-ego as Caelum.

It doesn’t change anything,” I said. It took effort to keep my voice steady as I contemplated the ramifications. At the same time, in my peripheral vision, I saw Barrett rip a length of fabric from Michel’s shirt, then prop him up just enough so that he could bind the wound. “We need to handle this, right now, and then worry about what comes next later.”

That was the kind of thing Devlin would say, if he were freely able to speak. Max’ breathing slowed noticeably in the comms, became less panicked and gaspy, so it must have worked.

The door into the room burst open, nearly banging against the wall as it swung out on its hinges. Mila, sucking down air and noticeably favoring her left leg, stood in the doorway. Her hair lay flat against her head, soaked through with sweat and a thicker substance that could very well have been someone else’s blood. Her eyes went from me, to Barrett, and then finally landed on Michel. She didn’t even seem to notice the dead body in the room’s corner.

How long?” Mila asked.

We got here maybe five minutes ago,” I said. “He could’ve been like this for longer, I don’t know.”

Barrett moved aside as Mila stepped over, ceding his position with only a single nod of acknowledgment. She quickly checked Michel’s body, hands flying professionally from his head, lingering around his chest, and then moving down to just above his waist.

So?” I asked, when my anxiety grew too powerful to ignore.

The blood loss is the problem,” Mila said. The tremor in her voice was slight, almost unnoticeable, but I’d been around her in distressing situations far too often. Even the most subtle difference in her flat, matter-of-fact delivery stood out like a beacon. “He’ll definitely need a doctor. A professional one, too.”

That would cause problems. We could hardly walk into the ER and declare that Michel, a foreign national who’d entered the country under a false Visa, had been injured while dealing with a group of kidnappers who’d taken one half of a Yakuza hit squad hostage through sheer force of arms.

My father can help with that,” Max said, through the comms. “I mean…I don’t know for sure, but he’s got to know someone who’s either a doctor or at least knows one.”

We still have to get him out of here,” Mila said.

Michel tried to say something, but his words came out in a wet gurgling sound. I placed a finger over his lips to keep him quiet.

Between the three of us,” I said, “we can get him to an exit. You had to clear a path out to get here in the first place, didn’t you?”

I did the best I could, under the circumstances.” Mila drew in a deep, steadying breath before continuing. “But I can’t know for sure how many people I missed. Judging from the resistance I encountered, there are probably at least five other kidnappers roaming around the premises.”

Sweat began to drip from my forehead into my eyes. It was hot, but the beads of perspiration had nothing to do with the temperature. I ran one hand from my forehead, up through my hair, and blew out a lungful of air. “We don’t have a lot of options, do we?”

That’d be suicide,” Devlin said, quite clearly, through the comms. It took me a moment to realize that he wasn’t talking to me. “I might as well put a gun to my head and pull the trigger myself. I’d have about as much luck getting what you offered my employee here.”

I don’t see where you have much of an option,” the lead kidnapper said. “You’re right; we don’t need the other twin. Akumi can collect her brother and run away with him to whatever corner of the world they choose; as far as me and my people are concerned, they’re not our business. What we do need is to take you, along with anyone who helped you get as far as you did, and bring you to whoever is paying the bills.”

You aren’t the least bit curious?” Devlin asked. “You want to believe that you just took this job, no questions asked, and there isn’t a little voice in the back of your head wondering what it’s all about?”

For the first time, his question seemed to give the lead kidnapper pause. A few seconds passed before he answered. “In my experience,” he said, “anyone willing to pay what we’re getting paid is also willing to terminate any loose ends after the fact. I can’t speak for anyone else who decided to take the contract, but I’m not eager to become a loose end.”

They weren’t negotiating. If that had ever been the truth, the situation had long since changed. Devlin was stalling. What I was listening to told me that the lead kidnapper was both intelligent and circumspect. His men, hired hands or long-time allies, might lack his self-awareness, but the leader himself? He sounded like a man who remained aware of his surroundings and kept himself up to date on the state of play.

In other circumstances, that same self-awareness might have meant that the lead kidnapper could be reasoned with or paid off. Now? It meant that he was going to take Devlin, one way or another. Even if the unnamed “sources” weren’t named before the snatch-and-grab, it was better to get away with the most powerful player in Texas while possible, instead of trying to maneuver their way into a second opportunity.

If I could pick that up just through the comms, then Devlin would have come to that conclusion from body language and word choice a long time ago.

Akumi won’t help him get out,” I said to Mila.

It wasn’t a question, but she looked up from Michel and shook her head. “No. Not if getting him out puts her brother at risk.”

Akumi wore the same earbuds as the rest of us. Just because she’d been silent didn’t mean that she hadn’t been listening in on the conversation, weighing when she might have to go into action.

He’s here,” I said, willing myself to mean the words in a way that couldn’t be misinterpreted. “I know he is. The lead kidnapper’s too smart to leave him somewhere that the bulk of his men weren’t.”

So?” Mila asked. “What does that have to do with anything?”

It means,” I said, “that Akumi needs to stay in place. Before she does something that actually does put her brother in danger.”

In her role as Devlin’s silent bodyguard/betrayer, Akumi couldn’t verbally respond to my plea and I couldn’t see her to know if she’d even acknowledged it. That said, I was fairly certain that I’d know almost immediately if she decided to act on her own accord. That we hadn’t heard the beginnings of a gun fight already was encouraging, but there was no guarantee that Akumi would wait indefinitely. She’d never struck me as a particularly patient person.

Can you support him without me?” I asked Mila.

She raised an eyebrow.

We can’t leave Devlin in there with the kidnapper,” I elaborated. “If they don’t knock him out and throw him into the trunk, they’ll just kill him for not being the Texan.”

And since Akumi won’t protect him…”

Someone has to get him out of there.” I wiped sweat away from my forehead. “But we can’t all be involved in that. You’re going to have to get Michel out of here. I’ll come up with a way to make an opening for Devlin.”

Alone?” Mila asked.

Not alone,” Barrett said. He walked over to the dead man in the corner and began to systematically pat him down. “Odds are these people have something to do with the ones who tried to kill me earlier. That’s the theory you guys have been working on this whole time, right?”

That wasn’t quite true, but it was simpler to assume that all of our varied enemies were really just different tools used by a single antagonist. It also kept me from succumbing to anxiety or fatigue while imagining an endless roster of criminals who had it out for us.

Let’s go with that,” I said.

Well, then it’s in my best interest to deal with them now, while they’re all in one place, isn’t it?” Barrett stood back up, holding a handgun in one hand and a reasonably large switchblade handle in the other.

They aren’t all here,” Mila said. She’d already positioned herself beneath Michel’s arm. Though he was taller and heavier than her, she showed no signs of struggle with his mass. “Whoever is doing this, they’ve got more in reserve.”

Then maybe I can give them an incentive to look for other employment.” Barrett checked the magazine and chamber of his newly acquired weapon. “Either way, I’m not going to let you go serve as a distraction all by yourself, Sarah.”

That’s what we’d allowed Devlin to do, although he had stringently insisted that he was the only possible fit for the role. At the time, I hadn’t felt good about the decision, but I also hadn’t felt guilty about it. Now, looking at Michel’s injured body and Mila’s worried expression, I couldn’t quite suppress a pang of shame. Here was Barrett, a man who had absolutely no skin in the game, willing to serve as backup for someone he barely knew. And here I was, stalling for time and contemplating whether or not my ex-husband, my friend, my partner was in mortal danger.

Mila shifted Michel’s weight so that he lay more evenly across her shoulders. “Sarah?”

The single word contained a wealth of questions, all of which I understood instinctively. “It’s fine,” I said. “CJ is out there, trying to draw my parents and Virginia away. If you can separate him from that group, he might be able to help.”

And if not?”

If not, we’ll have to catch up later.” I paused for effect and willed Mila to understand. I had to do this. “All of us will find you later.”

She lingered for a few precious moments. A moment passed when I wasn’t sure if she’d actually go or if she’d refuse to leave me, her charge, in such a dangerous situation. On the one hand, there was her contract to keep every member of the team safe and whole. On the other hand, there was Michel.

Mila looked away from me, in favor of Barrett. “If Sarah gets hurt,” she said, “understand that I’ll be coming for you.”

Barrett nodded absently. He was looking speculatively at the dead man, as if he might still possess some useful secrets or some bit of gear that we might be able to make us of.

No,” Mila said. She snapped her fingers to get his attention and the sound was both crisp and brittle in the otherwise still air. “I need you to say it. Say that you understand.”

Barrett met her eyes. There was an intensity in his gaze that I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t quite the same as Devlin’s, but it was close. The devil-may-care attitude, the charisma that could sell sand to a Bedouin, and the cocky surety that I couldn’t help but admire…it was all there in his eyes, plus more.

I won’t let her get hurt,” Barrett said, deadly serious for once.

Mila considered him for a long while before turning back to me. “As soon as I’m sure Michel’s okay, I’m coming back. And Sarah?”

Yes?”

I’m coming in loud. This was a bad idea to begin with and I’m not going to let it get any worse.”

I almost laughed. Worse? I was supposed to be wandering around the outskirts of the Creative Arts Building, monitoring radio frequencies and tolerating Max’ continued presence. Instead, a member of my team was injured, one was leaving to see to the first team member’s injuries, and the third – ostensibly our field leader, although both he and I would likely balk at the term – wasn’t in a position to call the shots. Worse was apparently very relative.

We’ll take care of it,” I said.

Mila didn’t wait for an explicit invitation, although she did linger for just another few seconds to glare at Barrett. With some difficulty – though, not as much as the size difference between the two would indicate – she made her way to the door and, after pausing momentarily to listen for any approaching kidnappers, left the room through the door.

I opened my mouth to say something to Barrett, even though I had no clue what actually needed to be said, but the earbud popped twice in my ear before I could find any words.

It’s just the two of us,” Max said, directly into my ear. “I…I didn’t know if you’d want anyone else to know.”

Know what?” I asked. Barrett raised an eyebrow.

Your…friend, I guess? Your hire? I don’t know what the deal is with the two of you, but the point is that I can’t reach him.”

My blood’s temperature instantly dropped and a pit opened up in my stomach.

You can’t reach him?” I repeated. “What do you mean by that?”

He was talking to the lead kidnapper,” Max said, “Then they stopped talking and there was some static…now he’s gone. I’ve got a weak signal, but no audio.”

Gone. He was gone.

No,” I said out loud. “Not gone yet.”

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Chapter 123

The earbud came back to life, almost immediately.

You’re going to what?” Max asked.

I’d expected her to pair the lines up, and then isolate them from each other entirely. She may have done that – keeping Devlin and Akumi linked, as well as Michel and Mila – but she did not break her own ability to eavesdrop. That wasn’t particularly surprising. In her position, I had often done the same thing, although every party had been aware of my telepresence.

I ignored her, in favor of Barrett. “I don’t have time to explain the details,” I said, “but there’s something going down in that theater and I need to be there.”

If that’s the case, why aren’t you?”

Because you brought my parents here,” I snapped. “If I’d known they were going to be sightseeing, I would’ve come up with some other plan, but this is what we’ve got.”

Partially true, but only partially. If I hadn’t been forced to manage the Fords, my proper position was with Max, manning the electronics cart. But Barrett didn’t know that and he couldn’t hear anyone say otherwise, so I didn’t think it likely that he’d call my bluff. I was getting a lot better at half-truths, lately.

What do you need me to do, then?” Barrett asked.

I held up a hand and shifted my attention back to the earbud. “Max? I assume you’re still listening?”

Was this part of the plan?” Max’ voice was a mixture of incredulity and fear. I could relate. “Is this something the rest of you put together on your own and you’re just now telling me about it?”

Don’t worry about that,” I said, trying to sound more confident than I felt. “We always knew things were going to be loose and I need you to just roll with this. Can you do that?”

I listened as she took in several deep, shaky breaths before finally answering. “Yes, I…I think so.”

Alright then.” I pitched my inflection so that Barrett knew I was speaking to him, as well as to Max. “Here’s the plan. I need to see what’s happening inside that theater, but I can’t split my attention. So, Max, I need you to keep me updated on what the others are saying.”

Okay,” Max said slowly. I mentally filed away the knowledge that she was actively listening to all of us and reminded myself, once more, to check all of our electronic devices for hidden spying programs.

CJ.”

Yes?” He didn’t sound scared or nervous. I couldn’t imagine any dangerous situation involving my grandmother – at least, not before I’d inadvertently drawn her into my own web of intrigue – so he must have learned how to deal with unseen threats in some other venue.

You’ve got to get my parents out of here,” I said. “Fabricate some sort of threat, lie if you need to. If you can tip Virginia off, she’ll be able to help. Cover for me, so that they don’t insist on dragging me out of here to talk to some doctor. I can’t be worried about them while I’m worried about my team.”

He nodded. “And if these kidnappers target your family?”

I took a moment to recall what stories I might have told CJ and compared it with what he might have put together on his own. The only people who knew about my online life, and were able to connect it with my real identity, were my team and Max.

They won’t,” I said. “There was a very specific reason for them to go after Akumi’s brother, and there isn’t a similar reason for them to risk a confrontation over Mom, Dad, or Virginia. We’re pretty sure that they’re hoping to get through this without attracting any attention they absolutely don’t have to, and I’m certainly not going to give them a reason to throw away that plan.”

CJ was wearing a light jacket, despite the temperature. He reached one hand inside the jacket, checked what must have been a concealed weapon, and then let both arms fall by his side. One hand clenched into a fist momentarily, before it relaxed again.

If there was any job I could absolutely trust CJ to do, it was keeping Virginia out of harm’s way. He wouldn’t need to use his gun, unless things went horribly and catastrophically wrong. But, if that happened, I probably wouldn’t be in any position to comment on that development. That thought was cold comfort, but it was oddly comforting, nonetheless.

Barrett, you’re good at infiltration. Guess what I need from you.”

I do most of my work at night,” Barrett protested. “Rainy, dark nights, if possible. And without the added handicap of a few hundred, maybe even a thousand, perfect eye witnesses.”

Going into the theater isn’t against the law,” I pointed out.

Then why do you need help getting in?”

Because,” I said, “the rest of my team is working their own angles. If I’m spotted by the people we’re trying to deal with, it could put everyone in jeopardy.”

A tiny voice piped up from the depths of my mind, pointing out that the safest thing, then, would be to stay the hell outside like I was supposed to. That voice was quickly overridden by the rising tide of anxiety and excitement heating up my veins. I could help. I would help.

Looks to be about twenty-thousand square feet,” Barrett mused to himself. “Only two floors, which is good. Without any tools, I couldn’t get us higher than the second floor anyway. But someone’s going to call the cops if they see us scaling the side of the place, so…hmm.”

Can you do it?” I pressed.

We could just go in through the front door,” Barrett said.

I gave him a flat look.

No,” he said, “I’m serious. You said that your team is working things from their end. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the people you want to avoid are going to have their hands full dealing with your people. The last thing they’d expect is someone just strolling in through the front door. Besides, even if they do have a problem, you’ve got a perfect cover.”

That being?”

You’re Sarah Ford.” Barrett shrugged. “You could say that you’re interested in donating to the upkeep of the building or something like that. It’s not like they’re not going to leap straight to thinking that you’re a part of some criminal conspiracy.”

Oh.” I blinked, dumbfounded at the simplicity. “I…didn’t think about that.”

I would be exposed, but that exposure would itself become a sort of disguise. As long as I was relying on the public’s attention, I might as well make use of their gaze as a means of protection. I only needed to get inside the theater without arousing a response from the kidnappers before I could drop the act. Besides, as long as they were looking at me, they wouldn’t be keeping an eye out for whatever sabotage Michel and Mila were wreaking on their numbers.

Devlin is negotiating with the kidnappers,” Max said.

Negotiating for what?”

Time, I think? I don’t think they brought Akumi’s brother with them. Or, if they did, then he isn’t in the same room as Devlin and the lead kidnapper.”

I cursed softly. Button cameras were fairly inexpensive and easy to construct, but we hadn’t been able to get them to work properly with the electronics cart. I wanted eyes in the room, but it was too late to complain about that now.

What about Mila?” I asked.

She’s been keeping count,” Max said. “Four kidnappers neutralized, plus the three they neutralized before going into the theater, all on the upper floor. They’re…yeah, she just said that they’re moving on to sweep the first floor now.”

Seven kidnappers, plus the one talking to Devlin. It was likely that they’d brought at least two times as many, perhaps three, just to ensure a numerical advantage in case a fight broke out. If she took her time and didn’t set off any alarms, I could easily imagine Mila successfully taking down twelve, perhaps fourteen, in isolated ambushes. It was only a matter of time before someone managed to raise an alarm, though, and when that happened, events would quickly descend into a free-for-all.

Anything else?”

Nothing right now,” Max said. She hesitated and then continued, in a lower voice. “You’re sure that this is the best idea, Sarah?”

I’m sure that it’s what we’re doing,” I responded. “So let’s make sure we do it the best way we can.”

Barrett had been waiting patiently during my conversation with Max. Without an earbud of his own, he could only listen carefully to my half of the conversation and use context to create a script in his head. I ran back through what I’d said, realized that very little of it had been descriptive enough to help, and decided that I was okay with that. Information was an invaluable currency and I wanted to hoard as much of it as possible.

There are probably going to be guards on the inside of the theater,” I said to him. “We don’t know how many or how motivated they’re going to be.”

That’s not ideal.”

You don’t say.”

I’m not complaining,” Barrett said quickly. “Just pointing out that this is going to be, uh…interesting.”

I rolled my eyes. “CJ, go ahead and get started. I don’t have my phone on me right now, but you can send a text if something goes wrong. I’ll find out what it says. Right, Max?”

Uh…yeah,” Max said. At least she had the grace to sound embarrassed about it.

CJ took off, double-time, to catch up with my parents and steer them out of the park. As soon as he disappeared from sight, I forcefully put him out of my thoughts. I needed to be in the moment.

Are you armed?” I asked Barrett. “Carrying any sort of weapon at all?”

I don’t have a gun, if that’s what you mean,” he said. “Kind of hard to justify that with your parents.”

Does that mean you don’t have anything at all useful?”

Barrett grinned. “Didn’t say that, now did I? I’ve got some odds and ends that I don’t leave home without. If things get hairy, I can probably take out one, maybe two people, assuming they don’t see me coming.”

When things get hairy,” I corrected. “They’ve already gotten hairy. The hairiness is a matter of record, now. So keep your eyes open.”

I’ve dealt with guards before,” Barrett said.

Good. Why don’t you show me how it’s done, then?”

He accepted that light challenge with gusto. Taking long steps that ate up the distance, Barrett blazed a path through the teeming crowds of people. A combination of his natural size and a palpable aura of confidence moved men and women out of our way, so subtly that they might not even have been aware that they’d moved at all. More than a few of the women looked appreciatively at him over their shoulders. At least two stared a little more lasciviously.

None of them seemed to look at me, at all. I wondered if that was another trick he was employing: assuming a posture so striking that it became difficult for anyone to notice anything or anyone else.

We reached the community theater without incident. “Max,” I said. “Any change?”

Mila and Michel split up,” she said. “He thought it would cover more ground; she argued against it, but he won.”

The more people they could take out of action, the better, but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of Michel operating on his own. He’d picked up the basics of everyone’s specialties like a duck to water, but he still wasn’t a specialist, per se. At least, not in the areas of thievery and crime that we could tutor him in. From ambush, with the advantage of size or strength, I had no doubt that he’d ultimately come out victorious in any brief skirmish. But those skirmishes might attract the attention of passing kidnappers or the win itself might come with an injury too demanding to be ignored.

To say nothing of the possibility that he might be the one ambushed, now that there was no one watching his back.

And Devlin?”

I think they’re at a stalemate?” Max’ uncertainty made my skin crawl. “The lead kidnapper won’t bring out Kira, no matter what Devlin says. I think he might not believe that he’s actually my dad.”

How would he know that?”

How should I know?” Max asked.

Akumi had been tasked to bring the Texan and anyone else who knew anything about his current area of study to the kidnappers. She’d only brought the Texan. If the Magi or the Mouse was aware of Max’ activities, it wasn’t unreasonable that the kidnappers had also been told to expect at least two people. If they had even the faintest inkling that my team might also have been on site, they would probably be waiting for even more.

They probably think he’s keeping his sources safe,” I said, delicately.

Max cut through the diplomatic phrasing immediately, though. “They’d only want the source who was helping him cut through their security: me. You’re talking about me. They’re talking about me.”

Maybe,” I conceded. “Probably, even. But they can’t know if there’s more than one of you and, until they do, they can’t really risk overplaying their hand.”

I made an effort to sound more sure of that conclusion than I actually was. There was a more dire possibility that I didn’t want to acknowledge, and my thoughts retreated from that idea without allowing it to clarify into anything intelligible.

Door’s locked,” Barrett said. A moment passed while he fiddled with the handle and some tiny tools that were barely visible in his hands. “Well, it was locked.”

I waited for about fifteen seconds until I was certain no one was looking directly at me before I slipped inside the theater. Barrett followed behind me and carefully, slowly closed the door so that the click when its lock re-engaged was soft enough that no one else could possibly have heard it.

Now that I was inside the theater, the myriad reasons as to why this was a very bad idea came rushing to the forefront of my mind. It was too late to go back, though. We’d look even more suspicious and, besides, it was always better to commit to the job than to attempt a reversal. That was one of the first lessons I’d learned about Devlin’s side of things.

Because we hadn’t known about the specific meeting site before entering the Park, there hadn’t been time to get our hands on any floor plans for the theater. I drew in a deep breath and examined my surroundings as thoroughly as I could, given the time constraint, and hoped that I’d get enough of a feeling for the building that I wouldn’t walk into a dead-end or accidentally open the door to a room full of armed kidnappers.

The building was a lot larger than I’d assumed. The community theatre itself was only one small part of the entire creative arts center. To my left and right, long stretches of hallway peppered with irregular doors hinted at private viewing rooms, practice spaces, and larger spaces for traveling exhibits. The theatre was somewhere in the center of the building, more or less, if the signs placed on the wall were accurate. A pair of heavy double doors just in front of me most likely led directly to the theatre, but I wasn’t silly enough to take those.

While I wasn’t the best at sensing when things were awry, I’d gotten better at that intangible skill over the last six months. Nothing inside the building tripped my internal sensors. In fact, the lack of warning signs was alarming in its own right. I knew there were people here, both on my team and working in opposition to my friends. There should have been some sound, coming from somewhere.

Max,” I said, in a voice so soft that I could barely hear my own words. “Where is Devlin, in relation to the front door?”

Silent seconds stretched out into a silent minute before she answered. “There’s a path to the stage that goes through the dressing rooms and backstage. That’s probably your best bet.”

Which way?”

There should be an intersection to your right,” Max said. “About three or four doors away?”

I looked in that direction. The closest intersection was actually five doors away. Max’ inexperience, combined with her very reasonable fear, was getting in the way of her ability to accurately do her job. Chastising her would only push her further into her own head, though, so I shelved any rebuke for later.

I see it,” I said. “We’re going in that direction. Link us up with Michel, too; he might have a better idea of what’s happening on the ground, so to speak.”

Max swallowed audibly. “Alright.”

Barrett and I crept down the eerily silent hallway, careful to step as softly as possible for fear of a creaking floorboard. I found myself mimicking his exaggerated motions. He was the professional when it came to infiltrations like this; it only made sense to do as he did.

We were at the fourth of five doors, almost to the intersection when I would need updated instructions, when a belabored moan pierced the heavy air. I froze in place, one foot barely touching the floor.

What was that?” I asked.

One of the kidnappers?” Barrett suggested.

I would have accepted that answer, if Max hadn’t chosen that instant to reconnect the lines. The moaning wasn’t just coming from behind the door to my left; it was also coming through my earbud.

Fear overtook any semblance of common sense in a flash. I reached out to the door and opened it, utterly disregarding any caution or care. Michel lay inside, sprawled across the floor in a gangly heap of limbs, sweat, and blood.

I stared, stupefied, for far too long. It was Barrett, entering behind me and shutting the door, who actually took action. He dashed across the room to Michel’s side and began to examine my friend, hoping to find the primary injury and treat it in some way. I stood by the door, locked into place, until Barrett looked back up at me.

It’s not mortal,” Barrett said. He pointed to the far corner of the room, where another body lay, unmoving.

What about the blood?” I heard my voice squeak but couldn’t bring myself to care about that. “That’s…that’s a lot of blood, isn’t it?”

I followed a trail of blood with my eyes, from Michel over to the body in the corner. There, a steadily widening puddle of blood pooled beneath the man.

Most of it isn’t his,” Barret said. “He does have an injury, though. Right here, underneath his breastbone. It looks like something ripped open as a result of the struggle, not because of anything that happened during it.”

How bad is it?”

Barrett gave me a serious look. “Bad. He’ll survive, but only if he gets help.”

A million things ran through my head. There were the kidnappers, still in position to execute some sort of double cross. Devlin was talking with the lead kidnapper, trying to secure the release of Akumi’s brother, while Akumi stood near him as his “bodyguard.” If things went wrong, she wouldn’t hesitate to stab him in the back if it meant she’d get her brother back. There was Mila, still working her way through the building, clearing it. There was Max, whose help I ultimately needed if I wanted to deal with the looming threat represented by the Mouse.

And then there was Michel, bleeding on the floor in front of me, struggling to speak around whatever injury had been done to his throat.

It wasn’t even a choice.

Max,” I said. “Get me everyone. Now. We’ve got to pull out.”

Chapter 122

In my experience, it was hard for most people to speak with teammates that they couldn’t also see. Devlin had taken to the earbuds almost immediately and, after years of hard-won experience, I was more or less proficient in dividing up my attention when possible. Barrett presumably worked alone most of the time, so there’d be no need for constant communications with a team. CJ, in his capacity as the head of Virginia’s security, must have had spent more time speaking to people that no one around him could see than I would otherwise have guessed.

He understood, without needing to know why, that I had exaggerated the truth to Devlin. And he knew, instinctively, not to say anything about that lie out loud. These earbuds weren’t as sensitive as the ones I’d customized myself, which CJ couldn’t possibly know, but he was still willing to keep my secret. That was important, whether or not a soft question would even have been picked up and transmitted.

When we caught back up to the group, CJ caught my eyes and then flicked his head in Virginia’s direction. The unspoken question – Is she in danger? – came through, clear as a bell.

I shook my head and was relieved to realize that I was telling the full, literal truth. None of my family was in any greater danger than they would otherwise have been. In fact, by using my parents’ fame as a lightning rod for attention, I was arguably making them safer. The kidnappers might be willing to kill a bunch of people in an out-of-the-way dock house; it was another matter entirely to use violence when a thousand people were recording.

That fact – the only positive I could draw from an increasingly convoluted situation – was also intrinsically tied to the negatives that made my self-appointed task so difficult. There were just too many people in the Park.

They looked too much alike for me to easily differentiate between individuals. If there wasn’t an official dress code for Dallas, the people around us hadn’t gotten the memo. Most men wore outfits almost identical to Devlin’s: blue jeans, cowboy boots, button-up shirts, and cowboy hats of various size and shade. The women also wore jeans, although they tended to be accompanied with fancy designs and embroidery, along with bedazzled belts and large hairstyles. There were only a few variants to choose from, however, so the size of their hair wouldn’t be useful in identifying any standouts.

Sarah?” Devlin, in my ear. He sounded concerned; or, more accurately, he sounded as concerned as he could be while in ‘mission mode.’ “You don’t have to do this. Keeping your parents from getting in our way is enough to deal with.”

I waited until Raymond and Elizabeth paused to consult a map before I answered, in the lowest voice I could manage. “I’m here and I can help. Unless you think this isn’t something I can do?”

The next time I spoke with Doctor Bridges – an appointment I definitely needed to schedule sooner, rather than later – I hoped that she’d be able to prescribe something that might get in the way of my own mouth. I was worried about what I’d taken on; I wasn’t sure that I coud do it. Neither of those facts had stopped me from reflexively defending my nonexistent ability.

He hesitated. “It isn’t that,” he said finally. “I’m just trying to make sure that you aren’t taking on more than you’re comfortable handling right now. I don’t have any doubt in your ability to help us with this part of things.”

I would’ve said more, but the crowd in front of us parted. People had been trailing behind us for a while, snapping the occasional photograph or whispering to their friends. I noticed it peripherally and, instead of attempting to ignore them as usual, forced myself to pay attention to the drone of their conversations. I wouldn’t have been able to pick anyone out of the crowd, if my father hadn’t chosen that exact moment to check the map again, accidentally striking up a remarkable pose against the backlight of the scene.

Immediately, phones were drawn from pockets and a hundred different cell cameras clicked, almost in unison. Again, I was used to Raymond and Elizabeth being the centers of attention whenever we went out, so that wasn’t surprising. What was surprising, however, were the two people – one male, one female – standing at the edge of the gathering crowd. They weren’t looking at the Fords come to visit; their bodies were angled slightly away and north, in the direction of the community theater.

CJ tapped me on the shoulder and surreptitiously pointed at the same pair. “They’re carrying,” he asked, his voice barely audible. “Are they with you?”

I shook my head and adjusted my voice so that my parents couldn’t hear me. “I think I’ve got two,” I whispered into the comms.

Max, connect her with everyone else,” Devlin said.

There was a almost sheepish silence for a few seconds; then, the earbud clicked twice.

We’re all on the same line,” Max said.

Mila?” I asked. “Are you still dealing with whoever it was that you saw?”

Define finished,” Mila said. “I managed to take down one of the kidnappers without putting this whole place on alert, but there’s always a chance he’s going to get free and cause trouble down the line.”

Or that someone will find him,” Michel added.

Well, we didn’t really have a lot of available places to stash a grown man, did we?” Mila shot back.

Stop it,” Devlin said. He didn’t imbue the command with any special authority or presumption. He just spoke the words, cold and focused, with the absolute foreknowledge that the other two members of our team would obey.

Is there something else going on?” Mila asked.

Sarah’s spotting for us,” Devlin said. “If we have another pair of eyes looking for anything out of place, it’ll be easier for us to make sure that we don’t get blindsided during the actual exchange.”

Spotting?” Mila repeated. “I thought the whole point was that she was trying not to be seen.”

Long story short, her parents are here. She’s going to use their visibility as a cover.”

And you’re okay with that?”

Doesn’t matter if I’m okay with it,” Devlin said. “What matters is that she’s doing this and we’re going to make the most of it.”

Mila didn’t respond immediately. When she finally did speak again, her tone was more subdued but, somehow, far more forceful. “Call them out, then.”

Sarah? I know you can’t speak freely, but if you can tell us something about the two you saw, we can get someone in position to handle it.”

I nodded to myself then, carefully, tried to pick my words in a way that wouldn’t tip off my family or Barrett.

What’s the Hall of State?” I asked out loud.

Elizabeth stopped and turned to look back at me. “The what now?”

I pointed. “That building, right there,” I said. “Just off of…what street is this? Grand Avenue?”

It’ll take us a few minutes to get there,” Mila said in my ear. “Michel, I want you to go around the back, so we can try to get them between us. Sarah, let us know if they change position.”

I’ll try to get the cart in place, just to make sure we aren’t missing anyone else nearby,” Max said.

And we’ll keep doing what we’re doing,” Devlin said. “Can’t risk letting the kidnappers figure out that we’ve got our own plan going on here.”

I mentally blocked out their voices as much as I could. Outside of direct commands or critical instructions, they weren’t really conversing with each other, which made it easier. Still, I couldn’t help but cede a portion of my attention to the earbud. If something went wrong, I’d only be able to find out via the voices in my ear. I wouldn’t be able to actually do anything, but that was a problem I’d have to deal with if it came up.

Elizabeth waved a hand in front of my eyes. “Sarah? Are you still there, Sarah?”

Hmm? Oh!” I blinked hard and forced myself to focus on present company, instead of wandering through the wilderness of my own thoughts. “Sorry, I was just, uh, trying to remember. I read something about that place a day or two ago, but I can’t recall anything specific to save my life.”

Elizabeth tilted her head and gave me an odd, searching look. She was interrupted when Virginia, clearing her throat loudly and deliberately, literally stepped between us.

She’s been through a lot,” Virginia said to Elizabeth. “I think we can allow her to have a moment of daydreaming, don’t you?”

I didn’t mean that she shouldn’t,” Elizabeth protested, “but she’s just seemed to be somewhere else ever since we landed. I’m worried that she might need to see somebody about the trauma, Raymond. Don’t you think that would helpful?”

I already see Doctor Bridges,” I said automatically.

Leslie – I mean, Doctor Bridges – might not be the best specialist for you right now,” Elizabeth said.

I opened my mouth to protest, but the words dried up in my throat. In the distance, barely visible between the shifting, undulating rows of people, I caught a glimpse of Mila moving through the crowd like a shark. Her eyes were fixed unerringly on the two potential kidnappers whose eyes, in turn, didn’t turn away from the direction of the community theater. As they crossed in front of the doors leading into the Hall of State, Michel melted out of the crowd and threw himself at the pair. There wasn’t any art or grace in the attack, but it caught both man and woman by surprise. They stumbled backwards and nearly regained their balance; before that could happen, however, Mila added her mass and shoved them both through the doors.

Whatever happened next was both quick and brutal. I could only listen to the sounds of struggle through the earbuds, breath held and heart pumping pure fire through my veins. The entire conflict probably only took twenty to thirty seconds, but it felt like an eternity.

Clear,” Mila said, gasping for breath. “They could have used their guns, but they didn’t. I guess they’re trying to keep this low profile, just like we thought.” She paused. “Michel, are you alright?”

When he answered, even I could tell that he was forcing himself to sound calm and controlled. “I will be fine,” he said through what must have been gritted teeth. “Just give me a moment to recover.”

That’s not deep,” Mila said, “but it is going to hurt like a bitch. Are you sure you don’t need to -”

I am sure,” Michel insisted. He grunted into the comms before speaking again. “If you do not think this is a serious injury, then I can still help. We can take care of this later.”

Alright, then.” Mila sounded a little impressed. “Sarah? You heard that, didn’t you?”

I heard you,” I said, out loud. As soon as the words left me, I remembered that I wasn’t a mile or two away, in a position where I could speak without concern for who might overhear.

Elizabeth and Raymond both stopped and stared at me. By some unspoken agreement, my father was the one who spoke first. “I know that you heard us, sweetheart,” he said. “But you have to understand that it’s important for you to get the proper care. You know that we’re only suggesting this because we think it’s what would be best for you, don’t you?”

I hadn’t the foggiest idea what they were talking about. When Michel and Mila had gone after the two targets, I’d focused so completely on the trickle of information I got through the earbud that, consequently, I’d ignored almost everything in my vicinity. It was a minor miracle that I hadn’t walked face-first into a tourist, a tent pole, or my own parents’ backs.

If you think this is something serious,” I said, choosing my words to be as ambiguous as possible, “then I’m obviously willing to consider whatever options you think are best. Just…not now, okay? I don’t think it’s as bad as you’re making it out to be.”

You’re getting lost in your own thoughts all of the time,” Elizabeth said, sweetly and delicately. “You’ve been avoiding us, which isn’t all that unusual, but you’ve barely spent any time at all with your husband this entire trip.”

Or your grandmother,” Raymond added. He ignored the subtle look that Elizabeth shot his way.

She’s a young woman,” Virginia protested. “I don’t expect her to spend all of her time keeping this old lady company.”

What are you doing with your days?” Elizabeth asked. “We know you aren’t staying at the hotel.”

Barrett stepped up beside me, but he couldn’t answer that question for me. First, he didn’t actually know what I’d been up to, except in the vaguest, most general terms. Second, because he’d have to betray at least some aspect of his cover if he revealed foreknowledge of my reasons for dodging family time. And third, perhaps most importantly, if anyone was going to creatively phrase the truth with my parents, that burden could only rightly fall on my own shoulders.

I’m dealing with some things,” I said cautiously. “Personal things. It’s just some issues that I’ve needed to sort out for a while now. That’s all it is.”

We only want to help,” Raymond said. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

It was dangerous enough, as is. Virginia knew more than I would’ve wanted her to. Her personal bodyguard and lover knew even more, and the only guarantee I had that he’d stay quiet was his personal fear that involving my grandmother would put her at risk. We’d picked up a cat burglar that at least two members of my team didn’t trust, an enforcer that only one person even liked, and a father/daughter pair whose relationship I couldn’t begin to parse. I wouldn’t add my parents. I would not.

I can handle it,” I said. The irony that I’d lied, or exaggerated, to loved ones twice with almost the exact same line wasn’t lost on me. “Just give me some space to deal with this, alright? If it seems like I’m wrestling with something in my head, trust that I know what I’m doing. Can you do that for me?”

My parents turned to each other. Elizabeth looked a little skeptical, while the only emotion I could make out on Raymond’s face was pure paternal concern.

We can try,” Elizabeth said.

I hated the duplicity. Just because I hadn’t told them an outright lie didn’t change the fact that I was knowingly manipulating them. With CJ, I’d used his affection for my grandmother. With my parents, I was playing off of their faith in me. They were lies I told to protect them, I knew that much, but that knowledge didn’t assuage even an ounce of the guilt within me.

Nonetheless, I found a way to reach down deep inside of myself and put all of that guilt into a tiny box, which I mentally placed out of the way. I could make amends when the Mouse was neutralized as a threat, when the Magi were revealed and exposed to whatever the Lady had in store for them.

As if that would happen anytime soon.

Can you excuse me for a second?” I asked my parents. “I just need to get myself together and I’d rather not have you watching me while I do it.”

If there was anything that could still be counted on in the world, it was my parents’ natural aversion to outward expression of emotion. They were fine behind closed doors – for a given value of ‘fine,’ yes – but in public, they preferred to limit themselves to only the most proper displays of affection. They barely held hands where there might be cameras, except when that image would give them a better position in some negotiation.

Raymond cleared his throat gruffly. “Of course. We’ll be right up there. Just catch up whenever you’re ready.”

I’ll stay with her,” Barrett volunteered. “Just to make sure she’s alright.”

If I could have glared at him without damaging our cover, I would’ve shot holes through his chest with nothing more than the force of my eyes.

We would appreciate that,” Elizabeth said. “Maybe she’ll tell you what’s going on.”

Both of my parents pivoted on their heels and walked briskly away. Thankfully, the majority of onlookers went with them. I’d never really been a part of the celebrity billionaire culture, so Raymond and Elizabeth Ford were far more interesting and worthy of being followed than the youngest child of the family, who’d never done anything to really distinguish herself above the rest of her family.

CJ stayed, without needing to be asked or ordered to do so. He watched my parents leave and, when they were far enough away, nodded decisively to himself. He was steeling himself for something.

Is she safer when she isn’t near you?” CJ asked, finally.

I blinked. “In the short term,” I agreed, “but if this gets out of control, none of us are going to be safe. The best thing is to work with us until we can resolve everything.”

Barrett made sure no one was near enough to hear him before he spoke. “Does that mean you’re finally going to tell me what the hell is actually going on here?”

This isn’t your problem,” I said.

It wasn’t my problem,” Barrett corrected. “But I just saw your driver and bodyguard ambush two people in broad daylight. You didn’t seem awfully surprised by that, which means you knew this was going to happen. Your grandmother’s bodyguard is taking steps to keep his client as far away from you as possible. And, unless you’ve suddenly decided to become a lot more bloodthirsty than I first thought, the only reason I can think of why either of you would be okay with that level of violence is because you’re worried those people would be capable of worse.”

It was a combination of cold-reading and intuition that I’d seen Devlin use before, although Devlin tended to be less blunt about his summations. Reading the tiny frowns, barely noticeable eye twitches, and the rhythm of my breathing as clues, Barrett was picking the truth out of a thousand infinitesimal clues. If he was that skilled, there wasn’t any point in lying to him.

The people who orchestrated the attack at the dock house are here,” I hissed into his ear. “In the Park, right now. They’ve got someone hostage who we need to get back.”

Barrett opened his mouth, then closed it. Three seconds passed before he opened it again. “They picked this location?”

Not this location,” I said, “but the Park in general, yes.”

How can I help?”

The earbuds had been quiet since Mila and Michel’s joint attack. I had assumed that, during the conversation with my parents, Max had taken the initiative to cut me out of the line again. I was proven wrong when someone audibly coughed and cleared their throat. I held up a hand to Barrett and focused my attention on the earbud.

I hear you were looking for me,” Devlin said, in a broadly exaggerated Texas accent. It wasn’t an exact match for the actual Texan, but it was certainly close enough to fool anyone that didn’t know the man personally.

Yes,” a cold, measured voice responded. I had to strain to hear it, due mostly to the subpar equipment we were using. “Our employer wanted to get your attention.”

Well,” Devlin said, “you’ve got it.”

Had Devlin already gone inside? The kidnappers must have reached out to Akumi at some point; maybe I’d missed the signal from the rest of the time. Maybe they hadn’t even bothered filling me in. They knew I had a lot on my plate, what with my parents and Barrett here to deal with. Tackling the exchange on their own might have seemed like the best decision. Not even seemed; in all honesty, it probably was the best choice, from their perspective.

I squinted, but I obviously couldn’t see through the walls, into the innards of the community theater. From where I was, I could barely even see the building. There were a few bodies that seemed to be lingering in the general area, but I couldn’t be sure from my position. Were those additional kidnappers that the others hadn’t noticed? Were they planning to ambush everyone immediately, long before any counter plan could be put into motion? Or were they just tourists, admiring a local building before moving onto something more interesting and dynamic?

We’re coming in through the side door,” Mila said, via the earbud. “Max, we’re going to want to focus. Can you isolate the channels so that we don’t get distracted?”

Got it,” Max said.

A moment later, my earbud went dead. I moved forward until I could see Michel and Mila slip into the theater. When they were gone, I was left standing alone in the street, staring fruitlessly at the impassive walls of the theater.

I needed information. That was the only way I could do my job, the only way I could assist my team with whatever difficulties they would meet inside the theater. But out here, kept safe and removed from the real action? I couldn’t do anything other than worry.

And I was sick of worrying.

I lowered my hand and locked eyes with Barrett. “You want to help? Get me into that theater.”

Chapter 121

Elizabeth spotted me before I could duck away and hide my face. “Sarah? What are you doing here?”

I swallowed a string of curse words before I answered. “I was hoping to surprise you, mom!”

Mom?” Devlin asked in my ear. “Your parents are here?”

Mila swore, and she felt no need to censor herself. “You’re not serious.”

Parents?” Akumi asked. “What are you talking about?”

I didn’t ignore the tumult I’d caused, so much as I rapidly adjusted my priorities. “Max, you need to be somewhere else,” I muttered. “I’ll stay in contact as much as possible but you can’t be here.”

She hesitated. “Are you sure?”

Instead of responding, I just walked away from her. Time spent explaining what I needed from her was time wasted. As long as my parents were in the Park, I couldn’t be anywhere near Max, the cart, or any member of my team. If my parents positively identified any of them, the entire operation would be at risk.

I crossed the distance; shot Virginia a brief, significant look; and then wrapped one arm around Barrett’s waist before plastering a huge, fake smile on my face. “Why didn’t you tell me that you were bringing them so early?”

I didn’t know where exactly you’d be,” Barrett replied. “I thought that we’d have a little time if we started on this side of the Park, sweetheart.”

Credit where credit was due, he had an amazing poker face. To an outside observer, I doubted the gears spinning in his head were noticeable. He smiled easily, body language as relaxed as ever, while his brain frantically tried to catch up to the situation. Virginia’s face froze into a rictus of horror for just an instant, before it gradually returned to the mask of a well-meaning grandmother. When CJ materialized out of a nearby bathroom, he didn’t bother to hide his emotions; instead, he transformed them into a general sort of unease that manifested in fervent glances all around us. The act fit nicely with his job as Virginia’s head bodyguard, to the point where I doubted anyone would think twice about him.

I wasn’t as good at pretending, but I tried my best anyway. At the same time, my brain produced several questions in need of immediate answers.

First question: why were my parents at the Park? First answer: because Barrett had brought them.

He’d known about the operation, but we’d deliberately kept him out of the loop. As a location, the Park was nominally too wide-open to serve as a good place for a rendition. We’d only just figured out that the community theater was the likely site and we were all working on more information than Barrett was. Odds were that he’d simply picked a place where my parents might be occupied and, therefore, less likely to ask about me.

Second question: now that they were here, what could I do to dodge them? Second answer: probably not much.

Until they were out of the Park, I’d have to be wary about my parents’ presence. Through no fault of their own, they could easily stumble into a compromising situation. If they followed me to the theater, for instance. Or if something happened with the cart that Max lacked the experience to deal with, requiring me to speak my thoughts more clearly into the earbud or – heaven forbid – drop everything to resolve some physical breakdown. Or if the kidnappers got impatient and decided to just grab everyone who might be involved, civilian or not.

The only viable solution was to convince them to leave. I couldn’t do that without attaching myself to their group, at least for a little while.

I could feel Max’ eyes on my back as I strolled away with my parents. Then, Devlin spoke into the comms. “Will someone please tell me what’s going on?”

Uh,” Max began. She swallowed, tried again. “Sarah’s parents are here. I think that’s her grandmother and some guy she keeps looking at, when she thinks no one’s paying attention. And the guy that was with them when they forced my caravan off of the road.”

Barrett,” Devlin said. Or, more accurately, growled.

Mila cut in before Devlin could work himself up. “Can you keep eyes on her?”

I’m trying to stay far enough behind her that I don’t tip anyone off,” Max said.

Good. Listen, Sarah; do you want us to come up with a distraction for you?”

I considered that offer. We had enough people in the field to cause a pretty significant scene, but the ramifications of that weren’t predictable. The kidnappers might pull up stakes and attempt to move the exchange somewhere less crowded. Or they could decide to cut their losses by murdering Kira, covering their tracks, and disappearing into the wind.

There was too much at stake. I shook my head and, behind my back, ticked my finger from one side to the other. Barrett watched me in his peripheral vision, turned, and almost immediately focused on Max trailing behind us.

She says no,” Max said, over the comms.

Of course she does,” Mila said, sighing. “Devlin? Does this change anything?”

A few seconds passed before he responded. “No,” he said. “We’ll just have to make sure that her parents don’t see us.”

I nodded and, still behind my back and therefore out of my parent’s line of sight, gave Max a thumb’s up.

Let’s not distract her,” Devlin continued. “Max, can you make sure that her earbud isn’t picking up everything we’re saying to each other? You can loop her back in later, if necessary.”

It felt like he was cutting me out of the group. That was irrational – obviously, I wouldn’t be very good at steering my family away from our illicit activities if I was forced to split my attention between so many unseen speakers – but the ease with which he’d made that call, coupled with the chilly reception I’d been enduring for the better part of a week, made it far too easy to take his decision personally.

Mercifully, Max followed the order before my momentary pique got the better of me. I pouted for another second or two before I tuned into the conversation between Barrett and, at the moment, Elizabeth.

Have you ever been to the State Fair?” Elizabeth asked him.

Here, in Dallas?” Barrett shook his head. “No, I haven’t had the opportunity. Too busy with other business elsewhere in the world, honestly. Have you?”

Elizabeth chuckled. “I’ve never been here either,” she said. “But I was doing some research – well, my assistant was – and it came up online.”

Speaking of your assistant,” I interjected, “where is she? Or the rest of your whole support staff, for that matter?”

Raymond had been discussing something with Virginia. Judging from their body language, he was currently operating as the head of the company, instead of as a son. It took him a visible moment to assume the proper role, in relation to me.

We…didn’t want to attract attention,” he said. “Primarily because we were coming to check on you, of course.”

And I’m sure that the business you mentioned doesn’t have anything to do with it?”

He shrugged. “I won’t pretend it didn’t play a factor. If we give the press a simple story – especially one that happens to be true – then it stops them from looking any deeper.”

There just wasn’t much to get upset about in that answer. Raymond was a practical man. It didn’t mean that he hadn’t flown to Texas out of concern; he’d simply found a way to get a secondary benefit to the trip. It was the kind of thing he’d taught my sister and I to do, whenever possible, and I was oddly pleased to see that he was the same man I’d grown up with.

We lingered around a food stall so that Elizabeth could contemplate whether or not her diet could sustain a cheat day. The candied treats on display did look appetizing, and I almost snatched up for myself, but my hand froze in place as my eyes looked past Raymond. Mila and Michel passed behind him, close enough that he could’ve pivoted and hit them. The two of them kept moving with only the briefest hesitation, so that Mila could nod in my direction.

Except, no, she hadn’t nodded at me. I pretended to yawn and stretch, so that I could twist my body enough to look behind me. A good bit away from us, I barely caught a glimpse of Devlin’s ostentatious cowboy hat. Akumi trailed behind him.

Barrett pulled me in for another hug. “If you don’t tell me what’s going on,” he whispered, “I can’t stay out of the way.”

Keep them occupied,” I hissed back. Then, louder, “So, what did you all have planned for today?”

I read online that they have an aquarium,” Elizabeth said excitedly. “I do love aquariums, even if they aren’t…well, particularly well appointed.”

She was such a snob, but came by it so honestly, that I couldn’t keep a little smile from my lips.

I pulled up a mental map of the grounds. If my memory was accurate, the aquarium was effectively opposite the community theater. Taking my mother on a day trip would remove her entirely from the field of operations, which was good. On the other hand, it would put me well out of communications range. If anything went wrong – when something wrong – I wouldn’t be able to help. Hell, I probably wouldn’t even know until it was too late to do anything at all.

You’ve still got a few more days here, don’t you?” I smiled broadly at her. “Why don’t we save that for later in the week? It’s such a beautiful day and I think I just want to walk around for a little bit.”

I have been looking forward to stretching my legs,” Barrett chimed in.

Elizabeth pouted for a second or two. “If the two of us insist,” she said finally. “Did you want to walk anywhere in particular? Or were you just going to wander around in this ridiculous heat?”

At first, I didn’t. Then, a bolt of inspiration struck. We needed to identify the kidnappers among the tourists and locals. The frequency scanner I’d built with Max would help with that, but it could still be made easier. I knew at least one way that might narrow down our list of suspects.

I hear the pavilion has some of the best food,” I said, selecting a spot just behind the community theater from my mental map of the area. “And if we’re going to cheat on our diets, I think we should go all-in, don’t you?”

Virginia had been quietly watching the conversation. Without first hand knowledge of our plan, she couldn’t know what to say or not say that wouldn’t put all of us at more risk. When she realized that I wanted my parents to go in a specific direction for some unknown reason, though, she decided to take a risk.

They’ve got this alcohol infused ice cream that I’ve been meaning to try,” Virginia said. She pitched her voice so that it sounded more like an idle thought, instead of carefully chosen bait.”

Elizabeth perked up. “That does sound like a good idea. Raymond, you don’t mind, do you?”

If that’s what you want to do,” Raymond said, “by all means. Lead the way, Sarah.”

Actually, if you don’t mind, I needed to make a quick stop at the lady’s room. Just to fix my makeup.”

Barrett couldn’t know the play, but he stepped in flawlessly to support me. “I know where it is,” he said. “We can let Sarah take care of her business and she’ll join us later on.”

CJ,” Virginia said, “can you stay with them? Just to make sure that nothing happens when they’re out of my sight.”

CJ nodded once, a little sharper than necessary, and moved to join us without a word. Virginia’s mask of cool disinterest cracked slightly, but she recovered before either Raymond or Elizabeth noticed.

As soon as I was out of earshot, I quickly tapped my earbud until it popped twice and reconnected.

Devlin spoke, almost as soon as the line was open. “Is something wrong?” Underneath the cool professionalism, there was a note of genuine concern.

I waited for someone else to chime in – probably Mila, the most likely candidate for ‘individual capable of raising holy hell in a troubled situation – but no one else came on the line.

Is it just you on the line?” I asked.

Michel thought he saw one of the kidnappers stashing something in the men’s room,” Devlin answered “He and Mila are dealing with that, right now. Max says that she can’t listen to us talk and monitor the frequencies at the same time. Why, did you need someone else?”

I wasn’t sure if he sounded a little wounded, or if that was merely my imagination.

No, nothing like that. And nothing’s wrong, per se. It’s just, uh…” I hesitated before, for no reason I could consciously identify, I lied. “My mother wants to go the food pavilion, which is right around the community theater.”

CJ raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

Devlin muttered something inaudible under his breath. “Can you change her mind?”

Tried, but she’s got fried everything on her mind.” I drew in a deep breath. “But I know how we might be able to turn this into an advantage.”

How?”

We’re famous, Devlin,” I said. “Well, they’re famous. Especially in the States, my family tends to draw attention. Maybe people aren’t tripping over themselves trying to get autographs, but they do notice.”

Meaning?”

Meaning,” I continued, “that people will look at us. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but they are going to look. But you know who won’t allow themselves to be distracted?”

The kidnappers,” Devlin breathed. He lowered his voice before he continued. “But aren’t we trying to make sure that you aren’t identified by anyone who might be looking at us? Isn’t that why we came here in the first place?”

He couldn’t speak plainly around Akumi because, while she knew about the Magi, she was completely unaware of my dual online identity or the Mouse’s looming threat. Only Max knew about that, in addition to my team.

Devlin had a point. The more often I was spotted and identified in the general vicinity of the team’s various jobs, the more likely it became that someone would connect the dots. After all, there were countless valid reasons for me to visit London or China or even Morocco. But to go to all three of those locations, within days or weeks of a catastrophic upheaval in the local underworld?

The Lady customarily worked her magic to make sure that I didn’t appear in any official documents and I’d grown fairly good at ducking away from pictures. Besides, within my family, I was by far the least recognizable. Elizabeth and Raymond made a point to do magazine covers every couple of months, just to make sure that they were fresh in investors’ minds. When my sister wasn’t wrist deep in some experimental surgery, she was announcing breakthroughs and new treatments for illnesses whose name I could scarcely pronounce. Even Virginia had spent a considerable amount of time taking interviews about the struggles of being an older, black working woman.

At first, I hadn’t gone out of my way to avoid the spotlight. I’d just been the unremarkable member of a remarkable lineage, notable only in that I didn’t stand out. When the think pieces about my wasted potential had been written to death, the media had been content to basically ignore me. When my interests turned towards the criminal lifestyle, press coverage took on a decidedly more dangerous tone and I’d taken steps to minimize my exposure. Working overseas helped; few Europeans cared about the lifestyles of the American idle rich. On the off chance that I was spotted and recognized, it wasn’t like I’d been blatantly robbing Girl Scouts on the street. A few sightings every year kept the paparazzi from spinning wild conspiracy theories that might end up drawing more attention onto me in the long run.

Not so much, now. Every sighting was a potential risk; every time someone recognized me from an old issue of some lifestyles magazine was a hazard. Walking around the grounds with my family was dangerous enough. Actively inserting all of us into an ongoing operation, complete with kidnappers demonstrably capable of mass murder, wasn’t just risky. It was potentially life-threatening.

If you can identify the targets before the meeting,” I said, “or even if you can just get an idea of how many people we’re dealing with, it’s worth the risk.”

You’re sure about this?” Devlin asked. “This is really what you want to do?”

My heartbeat accelerated in my chest, beating so loud that the sound echoed in my ears. Just thinking about the next few minutes was enough to send a trickle, then a flood, of adrenaline rushing through my veins.

Devlin couldn’t see me, so I felt comfortable smiling to myself. I could do this.

Maybe.

I’m sure,” I said.

Chapter 120

So, guys.”

I drummed my fingers on the metal sides of the cart as I pushed it deeper into the Park. Max kept pace while looking down at her phone, only occasionally glancing up to make sure that she didn’t crash into anything. While the Park was filling up with all manner of patron, almost everyone got out of our way with only a cursory glance away from their own friends or families.

What’s up?” Mila asked, through the comms. Her voice had a tinny characteristic to it: too much treble, not enough bass. Without my full equipment available, there wasn’t any easy way to adjust her vocal levels, so I simply accepted the slightly off quality and tried to ignore it. “Anything happening?”

No, nothing like that,” I said. “Just, uh…trying to make sure we stay in communication. When things go wrong, it might take one of us too long to figure it out, you know?”

I think the screams would probably a tip-off,” Mila said drily.

Max seized on a different part of what I’d said and entirely ignored Mila. “When things go wrong?”

Oh yeah,” Mila said. “We’ve got a decent plan, as these things go, but it’s never going to play out like we’re expecting.”

Then why do we have a plan at all?”

It makes us all feel better about this,” Michel said. There was just enough sarcasm in his voice for me to recognize that he was joking. The joke in question, however, was dark enough that I started to wonder if he might be better served spending less time around our sarcastic sociopath.

Are they serious?” Max asked me.

They’re not not serious,” I admitted. “But they are being a little bit dramatic about it. We have a good idea of what could happen and we’ve taken steps to mitigate the potential disruption.”

And if that isn’t enough?”

I shrugged. “We wing it, I guess.”

Relax,” Mila added. “We’re really very good at this.”

Everything about Max’ posture made it clear that she was not relaxing. The excursion into the Park, complete with a potential prisoner exchange, was such a new world for her that I could practically see steam rolling out of her ears. A week or so ago, she’d been an incredibly skilled hacker whose primary sphere of operation was dozens or hundreds of miles away from anyone who might want to hurt her. Now, she was helping me guide a homebrew system in the broad light of day so that someone she didn’t know could pick off the people responsible for kidnapping someone she also didn’t know, but who had been tasked to protect her father.

It was a lot to take in, and I was better suited to do so.

Tell me about the Park,” I said, hoping to distract her from Mila and Michel’s gallows comedy hour. “Where do you think the kidnappers will want to meet?”

Max swallowed down her nervousness before she answered. “They probably won’t want to do anything like this while we’re outside,” she said. “Too many witnesses, right?”

That makes sense,” Akumi said. She’d been quiet through the banter, I noted, but immediately chimed in when the conversation swung back towards the matter of her brother. “It is how I would do it.”

That leaves a few of the buildings and permanent exhibits in the area. Museums, gardens, an aquarium, cultural centers…that sort of thing.”

What even is a cultural center?” Mila asked.

I’ve only been once,” Max said, “when I was a kid. Somewhere for the local youth to stay busy painting or making music or putting on plays.”

Plays?” Devlin asked.

It was his first contribution to the conversation, as well. An irrational part of me had wondered if he’d stay silent through the entire operation, just to avoid speaking to me. Apparently, he was just going to cut me out of the conversation and speak when necessary. Which was…the best possible outcome, perhaps? I didn’t know and I certainly couldn’t spare the mental bandwidth to consider the question.

It’s community theatre,” Max said. “A group of kids who can’t remember their lines putting on the Lion King for their parents or guardians. It’s nothing special.”

They’ve got a stage, then?” Devlin pressed. “Lighting booth, sound control, all of that?”

I mean…I guess they’d have to, yeah. Why?”

Do you know if they have any performances scheduled today?”

Irritated as I was by Devlin’s mood, I wasn’t going to ignore a good question out of pique. Max’ phone was synchronized with the communications cart, both managing our team and keeping an eye out for any other signals that might represent one of the kidnappers, so I used my own to perform a quick Google search.

No,” I said, after quickly scanning the official website. “Nothing that’s listed online, at least.”

That’s where it’s going to be, then,” Devlin said. “Somewhere out of the way enough that they can spring an ambush without inciting a general riot.”

Makes sense so far,” Mila said. “What are we going to do about it? If the kidnappers are already in place, I can try to deal with them, but it’s going to be a lot harder than if I have the element of surprise.”

There was a children’s dance recital last night,” I said, pulling up the relevant information as fast as my fingers would allow. “Do you know if they lock up this place after hours, Max?”

The Park, as a whole?” She shook her head. “Not that I know of, but they certainly keep the buildings locked.”

Would that keep someone like you from breaking in, Akumi?” I asked.

She considered the question. “It would reveal my intentions,” she said finally. “It would be smarter to wait and leave no clues until the right moment.”

Seconded,” Mila said. “If it were me, I wouldn’t want anything to tip you off as to the location until the last possible moment. So, if the doors were locked overnight, I’d just wait until the next morning and start getting my people into place as soon as possible.”

We were guessing, trying to narrow down where the real work would take place. The kidnappers could pick any of the buildings at the Park for the exchange. Or they could change the location entirely with a last minute phone call or text message. We might have to rush back to our vans and drive across town to some abandoned warehouse that we hadn’t been able to sufficiently map out. There were too many ways this could play out and, no mater how skilled we were at improvisation, there wasn’t a realistic way to account for all possibilities.

That was probably by design. Just because the kidnappers hadn’t displayed an excess of subtle thinking, that didn’t mean they hadn’t been hired by someone capable of forward thinking. If the person or persons behind Kira’s kidnapping and the massacre at the dock wanted to keep us off balance, they could easily do so. All that we could do was try to stay ahead of our enemies.

For the moment,” I said, “let’s assume that they’re going to go with the theater. Mila, Akumi; tell me how you’d set up the ambush.”

It depends on how many people I’ve got available for the job,” Mila said. “With a larger crew, I’d set up a perimeter around the building. No one gets within…oh, fifty feet without being identified. That way, I have a heads up when a target is approaching, at which point I can redirect people into more sensitive areas.”

When it is just the two of us,” Akumi added, “we prefer to work closely. A small group of people would likely do the same. It would make it easier for them to defend themselves if all of their people are in one room.”

Also easier to take them out,” Mila pointed out.

If that is what my opponents wanted to do,” Akumi said. “But they have my brother and they believe that I am here to make a trade. We do not want to kill them, as far as they know; these kidnappers have no reason to think that they will be attacked at all.”

Mila made an uncertain noise, amplified and warped by the imperfect audio quality. “You’ve got a point.”

So,” I said, “if I’m understanding you two correctly, we’re probably looking at a spread out formation? Individuals positioned at key locations around the Community Center, watching for Devlin and Akumi to make an approach?”

I think that is most likely,” Akumi said.

Since we were in the field, I waited for Devlin to make the call. My increased presence outside of a command center didn’t imbue with his natural instincts and situational awareness. While I’d taken a larger role in this tactical conversation than was typical, I was still painfully cognizant of how little I understood about field operations.

It took him a long time before he came to a decision. “We’ll approach the Community Center from the south, circling around the stadium,” Devlin said. “Everyone else, stay a good distance back until you either hear one of us acknowledging that we picked the right building or you see people moving in to surround us.”

Roger that,” Mila said.

Max,” Devlin continued, “if we’re right, then we’ll need you to coordinate with Mila as much as possible. We don’t know how many people the kidnappers will bring, but we need to make sure that as few of them as possible actually make it inside the building. We’ll still have to deal with whoever they kept nearby as a personal guard, but that’s just life.”

I can do that,” Max said. “I think.”

Don’t think. Know that you can do it and then actually commit. Once they spot us, it’s game on. If they’re in an enclosed space, it means that they are free to use lethal force to deal with us.”

I can also use lethal force,” Mila pointed out.

If necessary, sure. I’d rather not get the cops involved in a local murderer, though, so try to limit yourself to breaking arms and kneecaps.”

Mila sighed, but didn’t disagree.

What do you want me to do?” Michel asked.

You’ve been working with Mila for long enough that you’re probably picked up some things,” Devlin said. “I don’t want you to go off on your own, unless Mila thinks you’re ready, but I’m pretty sure that you can run interference. Help identify her targets, take one out by yourself if possible, generally make yourself…I don’t want to say ‘visible,’ but ‘distracting.’ We want them looking at you while she’s moving into place from their blind spot.”

Alright,” Michel said. “I can do that.”

Akumi,” Devlin said after a heavy moment of silence, “I need you to wait until we have confirmation of your brother before you do anything. And even then, we can stall and give Mila a chance to reduce their numbers.”

If it was your brother,” Akumi said softly, “would you wait?”

Devlin picked his words carefully. “I don’t have a brother. But if it was my team? And the price of acting prematurely could mean that we all went to jail or worse? It wouldn’t be easy, but yes. I could wait.”

The line went completely silent for a long time. I could imagine Akumi staring at Devlin, looking for some sign of dissemblance or deception in his eyes, but finding none. In her current headspace – cold, focused on the mission, pragmatic – I could easily see him making that exact call. It might even be the right thing to do, if we were solely focused on optimizing our chances for success. I was just glad that I didn’t have to make those sorts of decisions. The second-guessing would eat me alive, no matter what I ended up doing.

I will not wait for your command,” Akumi said. “But I will think before I act. That is all I can offer.”

Then, I’ll take it,” Devlin said.

Occasionally, I thought of Devlin as a sort of military field commander. It wasn’t that he was incapable of seeing the big picture, so much as a lack of concern with the big picture. He focused so completely on the moment that it consumed his attention span. He would, in a way, be willing to win a single battle without considering the war, at large.

But when he was in his element? It was electrifying to watch him work. People were willing to trust his calls implicitly, even when they didn’t make immediate sense. I’d seen him organize a ragtag group of local hires into a competent force within a few minutes of concentrated effort. In London, he hadn’t just beaten Asher and Hill at their own game, by utilizing their own best efforts. He’d been essential to forging the four of us into a formidable force. If he wasn’t exaggerating, he’d even been able to convince Adlai, of all people, to turn a blind eye to the chaos he’d wreaked in the city over just a few days.

And he was doing it again, as I listened. Akumi and Max were newcomers with their own lives, their own motivations and goals. Yet in the space of a single conversation, he’d assumed a position of authority in their eyes. Max was willing to follow his orders without complaint and even Akumi wasn’t quite capable of disregarding his instructions. In all the years we’d worked together, I’d never quite been able to figure out how he was able to do that.

Alright,” Devlin said. “We all know what we’ve got to do. If you’ve got any questions, don’t hesitate to ask them. I’m sure we’d all rather risk some temporary embarrassment instead of long-term imprisonment.”

One by one, everyone agreed to voice their concerns in real time, except for me. He knew that I wasn’t shy about pointing out my weak points. The request had been for Max and Akumi, only phrased to include everyone so that neither woman felt singled out. Once more, it was a subtle thing that would likely do wonders for everyone’s morale.

What do you want us to do while we’re getting into position?” I asked.

A moment of silence passed over the line before he answered. “Keep your eyes open,” Devlin said. “If you see anything that even hints at a different set of events than what we’re planning around, call it out immediately. Other than that?”

So, the same thing we always do,” I said. As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized that I’d loaded them with sass. “Alright. Got it.”

He didn’t say anything. The delay was long enough that I began to feel physically uncomfortable. No one else spoke, either. For Akumi, that was probably within character. And it wasn’t difficult to figure out why Mila and Michel were also staying quiet.

‘I’m going to clear the line,” I said after an impossibly long handful of seconds. “Max and I will monitor everyone and reconnect when necessary.”

I gestured to Max and she cut the lines. My earbud clicked off. The sudden absence of ambient sound disoriented me for an instant. She lifted her thumb from her phone’s screen slowly, almost as if she’d done something to be ashamed of.

Max raised an eyebrow. “What was that about?”

It’s complicated,” I said. “You wouldn’t get it, so don’t worry about it.”

Surprisingly, Max didn’t appear to be offended by my brusque response. “I’m pretty sure we can all understand ex-boyfriends,” she said. “But if you don’t want to talk about it…”

I let out a long breath that I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. “Trust me,” I said. “It isn’t as easy as you think it is.”

Try me.”

I considered whether or not I should go into our complicated relationship with Max, before I realized that the entire conversation was a pretense. She’d bugged my phone some time ago. While I couldn’t remember every conversation I’d had in the last few days, I’d almost certainly had my phone on me while I’d discussed the situation with Devlin. Remotely activating the microphone was exactly the sort of thing Max would do, just to make sure that she wasn’t being betrayed or set up.

The fact that she was willing to feign ignorance was, weirdly, exactly the motivation I needed to take her offer to hear me out seriously. If she was only interested in collecting information, she already had it. And she had no motivation whatsoever to pretend that she didn’t.

If I answer your question and just your question,” I said, “will you drop this? Neither of us can really afford the distraction right now.”

Okay,” Max replied. A little too quickly, in my estimation.

Seriously. And stop eavesdropping on my conversations. I didn’t ask any of my team to follow you around town or bug you the old fashioned way; try and extend me the same courtesy.”

Max froze momentarily, betraying her lack of experience once more. It must not have occurred to her that no amount of encryption talent would get in the way of a regular, garden variety recording device. I wondered what conversations she’d been having and, for an instant, regretted not taking steps to listen in on her private talks.

Fine,” she said slowly. “I can agree to that.”

He’s not an ex-boyfriend,” I said, passing a weary hand in front of my eyes. “He’s my ex-husband.”

Max’ eyes widened. “Oh. Oh.”

Exactly. So, as you can imagine, this is kind of a difficult situation to work through, even when I can devote my full attention to the problem.”

When she didn’t answer immediately, I lowered my hand and slit my eyes in her direction. Max was standing still, looking into the middle distance.

You alright?” I prompted.

I’m just confused,” she said.

I sighed and stopped walking as well, turning entirely around to face her.

It’s a tale as old as time, Max,” I said. “Boy meets girl. Boy and girl steal valuable artwork together. They get married. Boy betrays girl’s trust, and they get divorced. Then another girl – well, a Lady – forces the boy and girl to start working together again.”

She stared at me.

Well,” I admitted, “maybe it’s not that old. You know what I’m saying, though.”

That’s not what I’m confused about,” Max said. “Although, yes, that is also confusing. But if Devlin is your ex-husband, then who is he?”

I knew, even before I looked where Max was pointing, who I’d see there. The bottom dropped straight out of my stomach, through the soles of my feet, and down into the core of the planet.

Reconnect the lines,” I said. “And try not to look suspicious.”

Max quickly got everyone back on the line. I went completely still, afraid that any movement might be all that it took to draw attention to me.

We’ve got a problem,” I said, when I was certain everyone could hear me.

Already?” Mila asked. She didn’t sound particularly surprised.

You know it was going to happen eventually,” I said.

How bad?” Devlin asked. There was an unmistakable note of concern, not entirely professional, that he couldn’t quite disguise beneath the frigid and focused mask he wore. I felt a little better hearing that, even though we were hardly in an appropriate situation.

I don’t want to say it’s a catastrophe,” I said, “but it’s pretty bad.”

What is it?”

I sighed and turned around. Raymond and Elizabeth were each working on their own personal ice cream sundaes, moving slowly so as not to spill anything on their clothing. Virginia was trying on a pair of sunglasses at a nearby booth. And Barrett was just returning his phone to his pocket. He noticed me first. Our eyes met, he stiffened, and then we both looked in unison at my parents.

I’m cursed,” I said into the comms. “Really, that’s the only possible excuse.”

Chapter 119

We rode to the Fair Park in silence, with the sole exception of Mila’s crunchy treats. I couldn’t bring myself to discuss Devlin’s mood in front of Mila and Michel; the two of them apparently had no intentions of addressing the tension in the van; and Devlin’s bearing made it perfectly clear that he preferred to brood.

Some faint glimmer in the depths of my mind told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was nearing either a breaking or a boiling point. If it was the former, then I risked pushing him into an emotional shutdown that we couldn’t afford so close to the exchange. And, if it was the latter, saying the wrong thing might provoke him into uncharacteristic anger. Either way, it would alter his state of mind in a way that would jeopardize us all in the field.

Brooding anger, barely frosted over by the cold mask he wore when he needed to shut out his own thoughts, was preferable. I only hoped that whatever damage Devlin was privately accumulating wasn’t going to be irreversible whenever we had the time to hash things out.

As we drew nearer to our location, Devlin went through a gradual check of his equipment. I recognized his lockpicks, one of Mila’s tasers, and a canister of pepper spray. In addition to those, he removed and examined a set of brass knuckles; checked out, then concealed, a six inch switchblade; and stared speculatively at a nondescript clicker for a long time before he returned it to his front shirt pocket.

What’s that?” I asked.

Devlin appeared surprised that I’d spoken. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Just a lucky charm I’ve been working on in my spare time.”

You don’t believe in lucky charms, though.”

I didn’t,” Devlin said. “But with the stakes being what they are, I thought it might be time to reconsider my position on the Fates and their involvement in our lives.”

Seems like a good idea.”

The conversation lapsed into a silence so pervasive that I felt it crawling over my skin. From the front of the van, Mila and Michel exchanged another look. The specifics of their unspoken message was lost to me, but the sentiment was clear as day: What the hell is going on with the two of them?

How’s your hand?” I asked. Immediately, I wished that I’d gone with literally anything else, but the question was already out there. Withdrawing it, only to ask a different one, would just be embarrassing.

Broken,” Devlin said. After an incredibly tense moment, he audibly sighed. “Stiff. It hurts worse if I try to flex; as long as I’m not doing that, it’s tolerable.”

You shouldn’t be trying to flex it,” Mila said, without turning around to look at us.

And you shouldn’t be eating, like, a thousand calories of sugar every day,” Devlin shot back. “Here we are, though.”

Mila bit down especially hard on her candy, so that it produced a louder crunch than normal.

That’s what I thought,” Devlin said. Then, to me, “How are you doing?”

I’m fine,” I said immediately. “You’re the one who’s got an injury.”

He dismissed that with a wave of his broken hand. “Not physically. Your parents, your grandmother…I know you’ve got a difficult relationship with all of them.”

My first instinct was to respond flippantly, to make a joke out of the situation in order to avoid any tender spots in my psyche. I couldn’t expect him to ever open up, though, if I also insisted on ducking out of difficult conversations.

It certainly isn’t easy,” I said. “Mom and Dad are a lot to deal with, at the best of times. With all of this other stuff going on, they can be impossible. It isn’t like I don’t want to spend time with them, but I can’t afford to spend time with them right now.”

I’d forgotten to check the timer before leaving the hotel, but I guessed that I had maybe two weeks before the Mouse gained access to my private files. When that happened, the entire game would be over. With access to my emails and bank accounts, it would be trivial for him to learn all of our fake identities, to shut down our revenue streams, and to force us into a position he chose. When the Magi gained that same information, it would only be a matter of time before we were hunted down and made into an example.

I could easily imagine the spectacle they’d make of us, and the unmistakable message the Magi would have to send, if they wanted to regain control of their myriad businesses: This is what happens to anyone who crosses us. The potential horror of that outcome was more than enough to keep me focused on the mission.

I get that,” Devlin said. “And I’ve never met them, but I can’t help but think that they’re going to be distracting, no matter what you’re hoping for.”

If he’d hoped to hide the bitterness in his voice by disguising it in an innocuous sentence, then he’d been wrong. When he mentioned my parents, and the fact that they’d never met him as my ex-husband or as my partner, there had been enough sarcasm in his voice to drown a small army. He was also right.

I can deal,” I said. ‘For right now, at least. If we can get out of this state in the next day or so, that would go a long way towards my mental health.”

Devlin grunted in response. It opened his mouth, hesitated, and then pointed out of the front windshield. “Looks like they beat us here.”

I knew that he’d been on the verge of saying something else. But, once more, he had a point. Akumi and Max were standing near a van nearly as large as ours. In complete defiance of the temperature, Akumi wore a full suit, buttoned almost to her neck. Max, leaning against our communications cart, wore exactly the sort of clothes one would expect from a tourist visiting the Fair Park.

Akumi greeted Devlin’s clothing choices with a sharply raised eyebrow and a frank look of disbelief. “Are you serious?”

He shrugged. “Whatever helps sell the lie. Your boss isn’t exactly a subtle character, so I don’t see any point in trying to play this subtly.”

Max gave Devlin’s outfit a once over, shook her head, and then sighed. “I didn’t realize how stupid that looks until I saw it on someone else.”

Devlin placed a hand over his heart. “Your fashion criticism wounds me. I’ll be sure to bring you along the next time I go shopping.”

So, he could still banter. Just not with me. That was…not exactly good to know, but definitely informative.

I put those thoughts aside for the moment. “Max?” I asked. “Did you get to finish those earbuds?”

She fished around inside the cart before ultimately emerging with a fistful of earbuds. “Just barely,” she said. “Your specifications weren’t the easiest instructions to follow.”

I gave you the least complicated version I had available,” I said. Then, to Mila, Michel, and Devlin, “You’re going to be tempted to think of these as the earbuds we usually use, but they absolutely are not the same.”

What is the difference?” Michel asked.

Range, for one thing.” I put my earbud into place, wiggling it a little bit to alleviate some pressure. “You’re all being run through the equipment in the cart, so if you get too far away, then your signal will drop.”

How far are we talking about?” Mila asked.

Somewhere between three and four hundred feet,” I said. “I’ll be honest here. This is something new that we’re trying out live, so there’s really no way to be absolutely sure what our range limit is until we go too far.”

Mila rolled her eyes. “Well, that’s encouraging.”

Desperate times, necessity is the mother of invention, blah blah blah.”

She sighed. “Alright. What else?”

Without getting too technical, the technology we’re using isn’t the customized version we’ve had available in the past. So, it’s less secure.”

Actually,” Max interrupted, “When I was setting up the cart last night, I realized that there’s really no reason we shouldn’t be using our own audio encryption.”

I blinked. “You can do that in something mobile?”

Can and did,” Max said. She preened a little. “So, as long as your people are in range of the cart, the kidnappers would need their own supercomputer to hack into the communication lines.”

Since I’d actually met and kidnapped/rescued a living supercomputer less than a year prior, I was less assured by her confidence. I kept those those doubts to myself, though. She and I had been working well together for the last few days, excepting the occasional technical argument. An understanding of the stakes must have set in at some point.

Well, alright then. Good work.” I turned back to Mila. “That’s about it for me. Did you have anything you needed to go over, last minute?”

She shook her head. “Akumi? Did you get what I asked for?”

She didn’t provide any context, but the ex-Yakuza apparently didn’t need any. She reached into her inside jacket pocket and withdrew a laminated card, which she passed to Mila. Mila then went back into the car for a moment and, when she emerged once more, she was in the process of pulling a light jacket on over a shoulder holster.

Concealed carry,” she said, in response to my questioning look. “The Texan pulled some strings to make us legal carriers. At least, for the next twenty-four hours, before someone eventually realizes all of the problems with the applications.”

With kids around?” I asked.

Mila rolled her shoulders, one at a time. “If we can be armed, the kidnappers can also be armed. In which case, I would imagine we’d all feel a lot safer if I at least have the capability of responding in kind.”

But you aren’t planning on actually using that, right?”

She gave me a flat look and I held up my hands in surrender. It never hurt to make sure that Mila wasn’t planning on going rogue, but I trusted her this time. My line of questioning had been directed more at Akumi, who was almost certainly carrying a gun or two secreted away in her outfit. I could only hope that she understood my message and that she would choose to listen.

It took a minute or two to connect everyone’s earbuds into the same encrypted channel, and another minute for us to check everything. The system worked exactly the way I’d hoped…better, even, considering the improvements that Max had taken upon herself to implement. Locals and tourists were beginning to arrive, though, filing towards one of the oversized entry ways in steadily thickening streams of humanity.

Devlin adjusted his hat and, somehow, managed to convey a message to everyone present, myself included. Final adjustments were made, holsters were carefully hidden, and cords were quickly tied out of the way.

He dipped his head in Akumi’s direction and gestured with his broken hand toward the nearest entryway. “After you?”

You do not want a gun?” Akumi asked. She moved toward the van, as if to retrieve one.

Devlin stopped her with a raised hand. “Not my style. Either we don’t need to shoot anyone or we do, in which case something has gone terribly wrong.”

She accepted that with a slight shrug and a minuscule frown. Akumi did not, however, attempt to change his mind. The two of them walked in through the nearest entryway without another word, Devlin following slightly behind her to the right. He didn’t even say anything witty before stepping onto the field, so to speak.

Dealing with his atypical behavior would have been galling in front of Mila and Michel; with Max present, it was outright impossible.

You two go in next,” I said to my two remaining teammates. “Max and I will come in last when people are less likely to be paying attention. The last thing we want is for someone to prematurely link our three groups together.

Got it.” Mila gave Max a serious look, just short of an actual glower. When she spoke, she didn’t look away from the young woman, even though the sentence was directed to me. “We won’t be far. If you need help, either Michel or I can get there.”

I know. Like Devlin said, though, if I need to call you for help, I’m pretty sure we’ll all know things went pear-shaped.”

Mila maintained the eye contact with Max for a second or two longer before she nodded. Her and Michel left together, headed towards a different entryway than the one Devlin and Akumi had entered through. They’d meander throughout the Park until the kidnappers gave us a specific location, at which point Mila and Michel could begin picking off the kidnappers without raising an alarm.

Have you ever done anything like this?” Max asked, when it was just the two of us. It took me a moment to realize that she’d deliberately waited until there weren’t any witnesses.

I’ve never been to Texas,” I said.

Not this specifically, but…you know. All of this covert stuff. You’ve been neck deep int his kind of thing the whole time you were in the Community?”

Not the entire time,” I said. “And not anything specifically this complicated. But operations that were as sensitive or as dangerous? Definitely. More so in the last six months, but a fair amount before that too.”

Why?” Max asked.

I blinked. “What do you mean, why?”

You don’t have to. I mean, you’re a Ford. You certainly don’t need the money. And it just seems like the kind of thing that’s only going to make your life more difficult in the long run.”

I…I, uh…” I took a deep breath. “I do it to help people. Most of what we steal gets funneled to real organizations that actually work for the people who need assistance.”

She barked out a laugh. “And you couldn’t do that exact thing by starting a charity of your own?”

No response came to mind. It wasn’t that the question was particularly complicated. I’d simply never really thought about it. Max had a point. Even if every charity and foundation I knew about was corrupt, there was nothing stopping me from creating one of my own. As a Ford, I probably had the influence to audit organizations or to demand better transparency. Really, just using my name to bring attention to causes could do wonders.

Instead, I’d become an illegal hacker. Why?

This isn’t really the time for introspection,” I said, out loud. “You ready to start spy hunting?”

Max frowned. “I thought they were kidnappers.”

They are,” I said, “but spy hunting sounded cooler.”

I hoped for a full grin, something to break the tension. She didn’t even give him a tiny smirk and, after a pregnant moment, I adjusted my expectations.

Max inhaled deeply. “Well.”

Yep.” Weirdly, I felt like I could draw stability from Max’ insecurity. As she became more obviously nervous and unsettled, my own quavering nerves settled and calmed.

You’re sure that we can do this?” Max asked.

I’m sure.” I was fairly sure I was just exaggerating my confidence, instead of outright lying. Time would tell. “Are you ready?”

She shook her head. “No.” Then, after a moment, she visibly steeled herself. “But I guess we don’t have much of a choice, do we?”

Chapter 118

I was up early on the morning of the prisoner exchange, dressed and ready to meet the day’s challenges. There hadn’t been an opportunity to corner Devlin after the meeting at Max’ hideout and, rather than stake out his room in hopes of forcing a conversation, I’d decided to get some rest.

Now, with an impossibly complicated operation ahead of us, I found myself wishing that we’d cleared the air. Devlin was able to cordon off his emotions, at the cost of presenting like some kind of robot, but I wasn’t. Besides, even if I was capable of walling myself off, I couldn’t imagine tackling something like this without Devlin’s easy humor to diffuse tension. We had hours to go before we were supposed to meet the kidnappers and my nerves were already electrified. It would only get worse as the time drew closer to showtime.

Mila and Michel were in the restaurant downstairs, working over the remnants of breakfast. He hadn’t slept in our room the previous night, as usual. As much as I wanted to ask whether he was spending his evenings with Mila, I kept the question to myself. Either she or he would tell me about their situation, whenever she or he felt comfortable doing so. I had enough relationship drama on my plate without actively looking for more.

Devlin’s upstairs,” Mila said, after I’d taken my seat and ordered some food for myself. “The Texan sent over some clothes for him to wear to the exchange and he’s changing into those.”

I didn’t ask where he was,” I said.

No, but you were wondering.”

The only thing worse than a blunt Mila was a Mila who was learning how to read emotions, but still hadn’t picked up tact. I frowned at her and didn’t respond.

Have you decided on an escape route?” I asked Michel.

He nodded. “There are three possibilities, depending on how many of the kidnappers are there and which way they approach from.”

And your disguise?”

I will be a tourist,” he said.

Simple, easy to pull off, and no one will think twice about you.” I gave him an approving nod. “Good choice.”

Michel shrugged. “I thought so, as well.”

What are you driving? We can’t stand out too much or the kidnappers will be onto us before things even get started.”

Adel and my mechanic friend loaned us one of their special van,” Mila said. “Armored paneling for each of the doors, run-flat tires, deceptively high horsepower, and enough space for your custom cart.”

I raised an eyebrow. “After what we did to her motorcycles, Adel’s still willing to do us favors?”

Apparently,” Mila said, “she was thrilled about the ‘field test’ we did. She’d been planning on running those bikes until they fell apart anyway; all we did was accelerate that timeline. I think she would’ve forced us to take the van if I hadn’t agreed.”

I wasn’t going to complain about free assistance. Adel’s bikes had been essential in catching up with Max’ automated caravan of trucks. Without access to my usual bank accounts, it was hard to get our hands on the sort of equipment we customarily needed for jobs. Home-brew, hand-built, or even cobbled together from spare parts…I’d take whatever we could get and figure out a way to make it work for us later.

Max and the Texan?” I asked.

Mila’s lips turned minutely down for an instant at Max’ name. The frown was gone a microsecond later. “Akumi and Max collectively talked the Texan into keeping his head down until we’re done with this. Akumi and I worked out a few contingency plans to get him out of the area if things go badly.”

About that…” I began.

Mila cut me off. “Devlin’s right, in that we have to be ready to get as far away from the Park the moment the kidnappers realize what we’re doing. But he’s dead wrong if he thinks I’m going to let him get taken away in exchange for Kira.”

A relieved sigh made it past my lips before I could do anything to stop it. “And Devlin knows that?”

What would the point be?” Mila used her fork to push a piece of French toast around on her plate. “He won’t be happy unless we accept that he’s more willing to sacrifice himself than the rest of us. So I’ll let him think that for right now. If I need to knock him out and drag him out of the Park later, that’s what I’ll do. His complaints about the decision aren’t going to keep me up at night.”

Anything else that I should know about?”

Mila started to answer, but something behind me caught her attention. Her eyes flicked away from mine, then over my shoulder. She sighed and cursed softly under her breath in Spanish.

Before I could turn to see who was approaching, I heard a familiar voice. “Your parents,” Barrett said, “are inexhaustible. You know that?”

He took a seat across from me without checking with Mila or Michel and raised a hand to summon a waiter. In unison, the two of them subtly moved their chairs until they were able to see both Barrett and myself. Mila even went so far as to drop one hand under the table, where we couldn’t see what she was doing. Personal experience told me that she was readying a weapon, in case it became necessary.

I pretended not to notice their flanking maneuver, even as I was privately impressed with how quickly they’d moved into position. They’d been spending time together, between Mila’s exhaustive practice sessions and Michel’s test drives throughout town, and it showed. Mila’s steady confidence didn’t radiate from him quite as strongly, but it was still noticeable. He’d come a long way from the nervous driver we’d sort-of conscripted, sort-of recruited back in London so many months ago.

I guess this is your last minute strategy session?” Barrett asked. He lounged in the chair, taking up as much space as he could with both his physical presence and his ego. “And I wasn’t invited. You guys are really going to hurt my feelings one of these days.”

Mila coolly appraised him for a long second before responding. “You already know what you’re supposed to do.”

Keep Raymond and Elizabeth busy,” Barrett said dismissively. “Yes, I remember your very simple, very emphatic directions. But don’t you think you might need more hands on deck while you’re attempting to steal a human being?”

Mila smirked. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Actually,” Michel added, “the first time, we did it with much less of a head start.”

Barrett recoiled slightly. He looked somewhat impressed by their casual boasting. “Still,” he said, after he took a moment to recover his poise, “another set of eyes can’t possibly hurt, can it?”

I cleared my throat loud enough to cut off anything else from him. “We’ve all got our roles to play,” I said. “You agreed to follow the plays as we – as I – call them. That was the deal we struck. Unless you’re going back on your word?”

It looked like he was going to say something else, but he relented instead. “Fine, fine. I can play babysitter.”

I dipped my head in appreciation. “What about Virginia?”

Your grandmother?” Barrett’s food arrived. He took his sweet time sampling the offered goods before he finished his thought. “Honestly, her attention’s been pretty split between keeping an eye on me and sneaking away with that bodyguard of hers.”

You noticed that?” I asked, before I could help myself.

Barrett snorted. “Everyone noticed that, except for Raymond and Elizabeth. And honestly? I’m pretty sure they did pick up on it, but they’re both doing their level best to ignore it. Not to mention they’ve got you and your sister to worry about.”

A shot of anxiety, unrelated to the day’s coming activities, went through like an electric current. “What did they have to say about my sister?”

Nothing remarkable.” Barrett shrugged, sipped from his coffee, and ate another forkful of eggs and bacon. “She’s got some kind of surprise in store that even they don’t know about.”

Did they say when she’s coming?”

I didn’t ask for a specific date,” Barrett said. “Why, should I have?”

I shook my head. There was a time to get caught up in sibling politics. Ideally, that time would fall on either the day before or the day after I dealt with a gang of murderous kidnappers holding one half of a Yakuza hit squad hostage. Even if the looming problem of her arrival was certain to disrupt the carefully constructed house of cards that I’d managed to erect, I needed to stay focused on this mess. Things would fall apart when things fell apart; I’d deal with the wreckage then.

If it comes up,” I said, “try and get information out of them, but don’t go out of your way. I’d rather they not start wondering about your curiosity.”

Roger that.” Barrett even snapped off a faux salute. He lowered his hand and looked around at the table’s occupants. “Where’s the other guy?”

Even an oblique reference to Devlin, especially from Barrett, set my nerves on end. I hid my displeasure as best as I could. Mila, probably sensing my discomfort with her newfound awareness of my emotional state, spoke up to fill the air and draw attention away from me.

He’s getting ready,” she said.

Ready?” Barrett paused, fork halfway to his mouth, and raised an eyebrow. “For what?”

Before Mila could answer, Michel tapped her lightly on the shoulder and pointed behind me. I turned to look in the indicated direction, just as Devlin rounded the corner and came fully into view.

My first instinct was to laugh. My second thought, after I allowed myself a moment to indulge in how incongruous he appeared as a cowboy, was to admire the way he somehow managed to wear the outfit like a local. What wouldn’t work on anyone else looked…if not natural, then not unnatural on Devlin’s body. I knew that he’d grilled the Texan for hours about the specifics of local fashion and, presumably, spent even more hours aggressively researching the minute details on his own. All of that work was made manifest in the outfit he wore now.

Every line was in perfect order, every stitch perfectly placed to accentuate his strengths and minimize his flaws. Devlin’s long hours in the gym, slaving away under Mila’s relentless instruction, had yielded visible results in the way his shirt stretched over muscular shoulders and forearms. His string tie only drew attention to the triangle of bare skin just above the second button on his shirt. When he entered the room proper, he took great care to step in a careful rhythm – heel to pointed toe, heel to pointed toe. Each step produced a satisfying click against the floor.

Devlin sauntered into the room, one thumb thrust through a belt loop, and he managed to pull off the Texan’s cocky swagger with ease. He winked at Mila – who, shockingly, actually smiled at the gentle flirtation – and cocked a finger gun in Michel’s direction. Then, his gaze fell on me. I expected him to look away a moment later, as he’d been doing since the previous night. Instead, he puffed up his shoulders slightly and stood a little straighter. He parted his lips to say something.

Then, behind me, something moved and Devlin’s gaze flickered up, only to land on Barrett.

I could actually see him deflate. He covered the reaction almost instantly, settling a wide-brimmed Stetson onto his head with a dramatic flourish and hiding his eyes in the hat’s shadow. When he looked up again, the mask was in place.

Well now,” Devlin drawled, in an exaggerated impersonation of the Texan’s accent, “it must be about time to get this show on the road.”

Nice,” Mila said. “A little heavy-handed on the word choice, but otherwise…”

Whoever these kidnappers are,” Devlin said, “they won’t actually know who I am or who the Texan is. If they focus on the accent and forget to pay attention to the detials I can’t do anything about, so much the better.”

Is that outfit even comfortable?”

Devlin shook his head. “Not in the slightest. But the boots do have just enough room for me to stash a few goodies out of sight.” He settled into a seat, partway between me and Mila, and tapped his fingers against the side of his right boot.

You know you won’t be able to get to anything you’ve got hidden in there in the heat of the moment, don’t you?” Mila asked.

If I wasn’t able to figure that out on my own, I’m sure the drills we ran would have forcibly implanted the idea in my head by now.” Devlin sighed. There was a carafe of coffee on the table and one remaining cup. He filled it to halfway mark, then drank deeply without bothering to add cream or sugar. “Anything I manage to sneak into the meet is a last resort kind of thing.”

Mila nodded. Then, as if she couldn’t allow the opportunity to pass without reinforcing her lessons, she leaned her weight on the table and locked eyes with Devlin. “Last resort,” she said. “If things go sideways, you are to get away from the kidnappers – hell, away from Akumi – as fast as you possibly can. We won’t be too far away to help, assuming you can avoid getting captured for a minute or two.”

Since I have no desire whatsoever to learn about waterboarding in any great detail, don’t worry; I’ll get out of the way as soon as they allow me to.”

Left unsaid was his reasoning from the night before. Devlin would flee from the kidnappers if, and only if, his escape didn’t put the rest of us in danger. Whether that threat manifested in the body of a pissed off Akumi or an emboldened, desperate group of kidnappers, there was ultimately no meaningful difference.

Barrett took a swig of orange juice and chuckled to himself.

What?” Devlin asked. There was an unfamiliar edge in his voice: brittle, perhaps even cracked, but still sharp enough to draw blood. “What’s so funny?”

Nothing, nothing.” Barrett waved away Devlin’s concern and obvious ire with the air of the supremely self-assured. “I was just wondering if we were all supposed to be playing dress-up or if you’re the only one who gets to.”

Devlin’s free hand clenched into a tight fist. The cast encasing his other hand shook with barely suppressed tension. He narrowed his eyes to thin slits and, for a moment, I thought he might actually lunge across the table and smash Barrett in the face. Even the tight grip he kept on his cold mask didn’t seem to be enough.

I wasn’t the only one who felt it. Mila sat up straight, subtly pushing aside the remnants of her breakfast. Michel, from across the table, wasn’t in a position to interpose himself between Devlin and Barrett, but he still looked willing to try. The only person who didn’t react to the electric lines of tension running between Devlin and Barrett was Barrett himself. He didn’t put down his half-finished glass of orange juice, didn’t plant his feet in case of a sudden attack, didn’t even allow the slight grin on his face to waver.

I forced myself to cough and fake-stumbled into Devlin. He was so focused on Barrett that he didn’t react in time to avoid contact, although he was quick enough to balance himself enough that we both avoided hitting the floor.

Let it go,” I hissed at him under my breath. “We don’t have time for this.”

I’d hoped that by manufacturing a situation where I could send him a message without challenging him in public was the best possible solution on a list of terrible ones. I might have miscalculated the point, judging from the wounded, betrayed look that appeared on his face only moments after I finished speaking.

Devlin inhaled and exhaled slowly, gradually allowing the dispassionate mask to return to his expression. It went deeper than before now, perhaps deeper than I’d ever seen it.

Michel, get the car ready. Mila, pack up whatever supplies you think you’ll be able to sneak into the Park. Bring extra if you think I can fit in somewhere on me without drawing suspicion.”

Devlin wasn’t asking them questions or suggesting possible strategies. He was giving them orders. Shockingly, they both responded by pushing away from the table and leaving the restaurant to follow the commands. They didn’t say anything to him, didn’t question his authority, or attempt to draw him into shallow banter. Both our bodyguard and our driver simultaneously agreed that, at least for the moment, the best possible decision was for them to be busy elsewhere instead of seated around a potential ground zero.

I followed their lead. Allowing Devlin to unilaterally dictate what we did, where we went, or when we left wasn’t going to be sustainable, but the other two were probably right. Right now, it was more important to portray the illusion of solidarity in front of Barrett than to protest against the tone in his voice.

Plus, I wasn’t quite sure what part I’d played in putting the steel into Devlin’s tone and I didn’t want to accidentally make things worse.

As I stood, I unlocked my phone and sent Max a quick text, letting her know that we were on the move. I didn’t expect a reply from her and, after five minutes, my instincts remained valid. She would be responsible for making sure that Akumi didn’t change the plan at the last second, just as she’d taken it upon herself to ensure that her father didn’t get any crazy ideas. As long as she handled things on her end, then, the preliminary phases of the prisoner exchange were over.

Soon, we’d be at the Fair Park, sneaking around the edges of a shifting crowd of strangers, hoping to pick off as many of the kidnappers as possible before everything devolved into a multi-part melee. It wasn’t the hardest thing we’d ever done, but the addition of new and unknown assets would complicate the matter. Exactly how those complications would manifest had yet to be discovered.

Keep them busy,” I said to Barrett. “I really don’t need them calling me while we’re trying to work.”

I’ll make sure they’re suitably charmed,” he said. “I suppose the three of you are off to do…whatever it is that you’re off to do today?”

I nodded and, without meaning to, looked in the direction of the exit. Michel and Mila were already gone, but Devlin stood frozen in the entrance, looking back at Barrett and me. When he noticed me looking in his direction, he quickly averted his eyes and hurried out.

Yeah,” I said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Good luck!” Barrett said cheerfully. “Here’s hoping you get through this in one piece.”

With everything else on my mind, I couldn’t even be bothered to rebuke the well wishes.

Chapter 117

It took us a day to acquire the necessary parts for Max’ mad idea and another twelve hours of intensive labor to put everything together. Everyone else had essentially finished their tasks by that point, except for Barrett, so the two of us had a willing audience for a demonstration in the back of Max’ used computer hideout.

So.” The Texan looked at me, then at Max. “What exactly was it that you two had to keep secret?”

It wasn’t a secret,” Max said. “We just weren’t sure if it was even going to work.”

Keeping the project to ourselves seemed like the best idea,” I added. “At least until we had some idea whether or not it was even viable.”

And this project?” The Texan sounded genuinely interested, instead of anxious or worried. I attributed his relaxed faith to Max’ presence, moreso than to the efficacy of my own work. “What exactly is it?”

One of the issues with the Fair Park is that there are too many people in the area to easily track,” I said. “And there isn’t a camera system that we can use to keep an eye on things either.”

That is a good thing, no?” Michel asked.

Yes and no. Anything we can do to keep people from getting their hands on pictures of us is definitely something we should aspire to. But, at the same time, we’re also trying to identify the kidnappers before they have a chance to start picking us off. So it’s not ideal.”

And this cart?” Devlin gestured with his uninjured hand at the device wed cobbled together. “How does this help with the problem?”

On the surface, there wasn’t anything wrong with his question or with the way he’d worded it. But, lurking just beneath the obvious outer layer of polite curiosity, something dark was brewing inside of Devlin. I’d never experienced anything like that during our time together, but some instinct within me recognized the roiling emotions as negative. He was keeping a lid on it, but just barely.

I was momentarily taken aback by the depth of concealed emotion in Devlin’s sparse words. Max, seemingly unaware of the tension, spoke into the conversational gap. “We needed some kind of central hub to monitor communications for everyone,” she said. “This does that.”

Max slapped the side of the aluminum sided ice cream cart for emphasis. There was obvious pride in her voice and eyes. As far as I knew, the cart we’d assembled was the first practical project she’d ever undertaken for any purpose other than idle curiosity. My team and I had used something similar in the past, albeit on a larger scale, so the sense of wonder and awe was somewhat muted.

Is that all?” Mila asked.

What, that isn’t impressive enough for you?” Max shot back.

I spoke up before she had an opportunity to form any biting comebacks. “That’s for starters. It’s portable, which is good because we don’t have anything in place that would allow for longer range communication. But, in addition to providing a method of communication for us, it also allows us to keep an eye on any other shortwave transmissions taking place in the same area.”

The Texan perked up. “You can spy on the kidnappers?”

I shook my head. “Not quite. But I can trace, generally speaking, where radio signals are coming from.”

So you won’t know what they’re saying,” the Texan mused, “but you’ll know who’s saying something?”

It’s not quite that simple,” I said, “but, effectively, yes.”

Mila popped a candied pecan into her mouth, then spoke around the treat. “What’s the range?”

I tapped the metal bar of the carts antenna. “Theoretically, we’re looking at thirty, maybe forty feet.”

Theoretically?”

We’ve tested it ourselves and those are the numbers we’re consistently looking at, but…” I sighed. “But there’s not really any way to know what the effect will be when we’re surrounded by so many other people. It could be farther, could be shorter.”

The kidnappers,” Michel said. “What if they are using similar technology?”

We built this ourselves,” I responded. “It’s not impossible that they got their hands on something that approximates the same purpose, but it’s damned unlikely.”

Even considering…?”

He left the question dangling, presumably so that I could decide how to answer it while among mixed company. The Mouse’s skills were unmatched, online. In the real world, however, I’d beaten him once by escaping his hired goons in Atlanta. He, like Max, lacked experience in dealing with threats that couldn’t simply be hacked from a distance. Even if he’d personally hired the kidnappers and sicced them on the Texan, I couldn’t imagine a world in which he would deign to get personally involved in the construction of something like our DIY command station.

Even considering,” I said to Michel. “I’m sure enough that I’m willing to bet on it.”

Devlin began to crack his knuckles, one-handed. “Sounds good. Next question: how does this affect the rest of the plan?”

I tried to conceal it, but I was sure that some small measure of hurt found its way to my face. Again, he hadn’t actually said anything wrong. It was important to stay focused on the mission. His attitude still felt like a targeted attack, though.

When I looked away from him for a moment, I noticed a puzzled expression on Mila’s face. Michel wore a similar one. Both of them looked at each other before scrupulously going out of their way to look anywhere except at Devlin and me.

It makes the rest of the plan doable,” Max said. “Otherwise, your bodyguard would have to pick her targets at random. Now, at least we’ve got a chance to identify the right people in the crowd before it’s too late.”

And you’ll be the one keeping an eye on this cart?” Mila asked.

I shot Devlin a covert look that he either ignored or didn’t notice. Probably the former. “We’ll both be on cart duty. I’ll handle communications, as usual; Max will keep an eye on the tracker. We’ll have to stay in motion throughout the exchange and neither one of us can do our job if we’re very far from the cart.”

The Texan tugged at the brim of his hat. “You ladies think that’s really safe?”

It’s about as safe as we’re likely to get.”

He looked at Max and she stiffened her shoulders in response to the attention. An unspoken dialogue passed between the two of them in an instant, entirely composed of nonverbal body language that only they understood.

The Texan sighed, relenting in the battle of wills. “Well, if everything’s all settled, only one question left to figure out: where do ya’ll want me to be?”

Here,” Akumi said instantly. “Hiding, with the door locked and the lights turned off, preferably.”

You want me to what?”

I want you to hide,” she repeated. Akumi was perfectly calm and unruffled; the neutral expression on her face belied the deep well of forcefulness behind her words. “The kidnappers originally wanted you. That is why you hired my brother and me to protect you.”

She’s right,” Mila added. “Even if Devlin’s pretending to be you, we can’t be sure that you’ll be safe, if you’re on the field. Keeping you as far away from the kidnappers is the only plan that makes sense.”

I’m a lot of things,” the Texan said, “but I’m not a damn coward.”

Might want to start thinking about becoming one, then,” Devlin said. He rapped his knuckles against the table in front of him, forcing the Texan to look at him. “If things go badly, and the kidnappers end up getting their hands on me, getting you out of the state becomes the single most important thing, bar none.”

The Texan met Devlin’s eyes for several seconds and then turned his gaze to me. “You agree with this?”

I think you should stay out of sight,” I said, “but I do not agree with Devlin’s sense of priorities.”

Got some problems with that line of thought, too,” Mila said.

Devlin looked at the two of us in turn, then at Michel, and sighed. “The kidnappers don’t care about us. Until they get me in front of their boss, whoever that is, no one’s going to realize that they got the wrong guy. And when they do figure it out, what do you think they’re going to do?”

After the torture?” Mila asked dryly.

Before the torture,” Devlin said. “Maybe during, but that’s not the point.”

They’ll still want to find you,” Max said to her father.

Devlin gave her a sarcastic thumbs up. “Two points for Max,” he said. “They were sent her to find the Texan. Kira was kidnapped to use as a bargaining chip. Take him away, even if you have to trade me to do it, and they’re still not going to do anything permanent. Can’t risk harming the merchandise.”

We’re not using you as bait,” I objected.

That’s explicitly what we’re doing,” Devlin countered. He met my eyes for the first time since the meeting began. “I’m just pointing out that, if I’m going to be a distraction, we should commit to the ruse and get the actual target as far away from the kidnappers as possible, before they get their hands on all of us.”

The cruel calculus made perfect sense. If the kidnappers answered to the Mouse, he might not immediately recognize the importance of Devlin as a potential source of information. If they answered directly to the Magi, then…well, they’d probably torture him just out of idle curiosity, but there was still a chance they wouldn’t put everything together immediately. No matter who got their hands on him, Devlin would be a valuable link in the chain leading back to the real target – me, the Texan, or even the Lady – and no one would be willing to discard of a link that valuable.

Of course, that still meant we’d have to be willing to walk away in the first place from a deal gone wrong. I personally wasn’t willing to commit to that.

Mila spoke for both of us. “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”

Believe me,” Devlin said, “I’m hoping that it doesn’t. But the safest thing for the team, as a whole, is to let me go, if it looks like I can’t get away on my own. Regroup, plan, come back and get me later. You know that a pitched battle in the middle of a crowded thoroughfare isn’t going to work out in our favor; if it comes to that, the odds are high that everyone goes down and there’s no one waiting on the outside to help.”

Mila frowned severely. But she didn’t refute his logic.

Max,” the Texan said, “are you sure you’ve got to be there in person? There’s no way for you to monitor it remotely?”

She took a deep breath before answering. “I can’t do my job as well if I’m not there,” she said.

So my girl is going to be in danger, but you people think I ought to keep my head down while she’s out there risking her life?”

That’s a little heavy-handed,” Mila interjected.

Max nodded in agreement with Mila. “Sarah and I will be on the edge of the exchange and we’re not going to get involved physically, if we don’t absolutely have to.”

Akumi?”

If I do not get my brother back,” Akumi said, “then I will want you somewhere I can find you.”

Subtext: So that I can go through with the exchange as planned, without involving these other people.

The Texan understood her meaning. He swallowed nervously and said nothing.

But,” Akumi added belatedly, “they are correct on every other point.”

Michel raised a hand, like a nervous schoolboy. “Akumi,” he began, “I have a question.”

She gestured for him to continue.

If the kidnappers do not have your brother with them, or if…uh…” Michel trailed off, hoping that implication would get his meaning across. “What will you do?”

Everything they have done to Kira, I will do to them,” Akumi said. “All of it, to all of them.”

I could swear the temperature dropped a few degrees around her. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that she was both willing and capable of carrying out that threat.

Well,” Michel said. “That is, uh…good to know.”

Devlin hit the table again to get everyone’s attention. “Alright, the cart solves our last lingering problem. Or, at least the last problem we know about. Anything else we’ll have to deal with tomorrow. Unless someone else has something to bring up?”

If his brutal pragmatism regarding his own potential torture wasn’t enough of a tip-off, the fact that Devlin was serving as the taskmaster of the meeting would have been like a flare in the night sky. It wasn’t that he was acting out of character; in fact, Devlin was behaving exactly as I’d seen him behave before. But he only descended into that clinical persona during a job, when things were on the verge of exploding. I’d never seen him shut down his emotions when it wasn’t absolutely critical before.

No one else had anything to add. The Texan and Max retired to a side room, ostensibly to argue over whether or not she had any business joining us in the field. I’d check in with her about that later, but the fact of the matter was that I simply didn’t understood her encryption protocols. While I’d done most of the physical construction and wiring necessary for our contraption, it was her monitoring and spying technology that made it possible to identify which frequencies were in use without opening ourselves up to someone using the same technology against us. She claimed that this was the sort of thing she customarily deployed in the guise of a van, complete with six-foot tall antenna, but that she had no experience miniaturizing the technology. I had my doubts about that, but those doubts weren’t relevant to the situation.

Akumi removed a pack of cigarettes from her pants pocket and began packing them in a series of sharp taps to her wrist. When she finished, she flicked out a cigarette and prepared to light it. Michel stopped her with a subtle, though deliberate, cough.

Are you serious?” Akumi asked.

Michel shrugged in response.

Akumi sighed, but she got up to leave the store through its back exit. Before she stepped outside, Devlin hopped up and hurried over to her.

I’ve still got some things I need to go over with you,” he said.

She paused. “Right now?”

Tomorrow’s going to be too late,” Devlin said. His head twitched minutely back towards us. He didn’t fully turn around, and the split second of indecision was barely noticeable, but I was looking right at him when it happened. “Unless you’d rather be alone?”

Akumi shrugged and opened the door for him. She followed after him and the back door closed with a soft, definite click.

Mila, Michel, and I sat in silence for a long time before one of us finally spoke. To my surprise, it was Mila.

Anything you want to tell us?”

I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

Sarah.” Mila crumpled up her empty bag of candied nuts and tossed the bag into the nearest trash can. “If I’m noticing that something’s off, think about how bad things have to actually be.”

She had a point. I tried to keep a facade of neutrality, but it crumbled within a handful of seconds. “I have no idea,” I said. “Honestly, I was hoping that one of you might be able to shine some light on this. He’s been acting weird since…”

Since I’d forced a conversation about our holding pattern, nearly a week ago. Surely, that hadn’t caused him to retreat so far into himself.

We’ve been a little busy,” Mila said. “I only noticed it tonight. Michel, you’ve been spending more time with him than the rest of us.”

He has been a little withdrawn,” Michel admitted. “But nothing like tonight. He just seems so…”

Detached,” I offered. “Distant, but at the same time, focused.”

Yes, it is exactly that.” Michel paused and tapped at his bottom lip.

What?” I prompted. “What did you just think of?”

He said that the two of you had an argument,” Michel mused. From his tone, I understood that he was striving to recall Devlin’s exact words. “I told him that he should talk to you about whatever was on his mind. I assumed that he did that, because he never brought it up afterwards. Did you speak to him?”

When was this supposed to be?”

A week ago?” Michel said. He shrugged. “The night you went to dinner with your parents, I think. Why? Did you not see him?”

The night Devlin and I had argued was also the night I’d slipped away to have a late drink with Barrett. If Devlin had come back to my room to apologize or to actually work through things, he would have found an empty room. Lord only knew what conclusions he’d leapt to upon seeing that.

Probably the sort of conclusions I’d nearly agreed to.

I stood up, intending to speak to Devlin immediately and put a stop to whatever flights of fancy were going on his head. The door swung open, instead, just before I reached it. Devlin and I made eye contact and, in that instant, I glimpsed a vast amount of some shifting emotion in his gaze. As I watched, he locked it down behind a wall of icy self-control until his expression was perfectly impassive.

I’m going to get something to eat and call it an early night.” He aimed his voice so that it took in all of us, instead of just me. “See you all at the Fair Park tomorrow.”

Before I could say anything – before anyone could say anything, in fact – Devlin walked past us, out of the back room entirely, and was out of the used computer store.

Well,” Mila said. She produced another pack of candied nuts from some concealed pocket. “That’s not good.”

You think?”

Chapter 116

For the next five days, my team and our brand new auxiliary members worked over the problem of Fair Park a dozen – two dozen – different ways. Every angle was examined and re-examined, each member of the team attempting to make sense of things with their own specialties. Devlin spent time with the Texan when possible, perfecting the mannerisms and habits of the man he was going to play during the hostage exchange. Michel spent hours poring over road maps, learning traffic patterns, and constructing different ways to approach and get away from the area in a hurry, if that became necessary. Mila and Akumi started sparring drills early in the morning and kept up the strenuous workouts until late in the afternoon; after a brief break to recuperate, they returned to the gym and stayed there until just before midnight.

Barrett assigned himself to family duty. He kept my parents from crowding me too much by taking them to galleries and events whenever time permitted. Both Raymond and Elizabeth took to him immediately and were only too happy to spend time with their supposed son-in-law. Occasionally, Virginia tagged along with them, at my request. She was supposed to keep him from tying me up with into anymore lies or half-truths but, early on, I began to suspect that she was also starting to fall for his charms.

I could hardly blame her. The offer to follow him back to his hotel room played on repeat in my head every time he managed to catch my eyes. He’d never brought it up in conversation – I had, in fact, gone out of my way to make sure that he was never in a position to do so – but I could see it in his eyes, feel it in the way he looked at me. It was distracting in a way that I couldn’t afford to be distracted.

It went without saying that Max and I were tasked with communication and surveillance. With the greater part of my network inaccessible, I was forced to rely on the infrastructure already at Max’ disposal. Unfortunately, said infrastructure was woefully lacking.

This is where you live, isn’t it?” I asked, following yet another negative answer from her. “Like, everyday?”

Excuse me for not installing a backdoor into the city’s traffic cameras,” Max said. “I suppose that you’ve got that sort of thing already in place?”

Of course I don’t. I don’t even live here. But if I did, you can bet I’d take some reasonable steps for security’s sake.”

And that’s supposed to be a reasonable step? You know the kind of attention I’d get if I tried to pull off something like that?”

There weren’t many differences between Max’ online persona and the woman across the table, but those few differences were stark. Both were paranoid – perhaps, all things considered, properly paranoid – but the real life Max seemed completely unwilling to take steps to protect herself from the boogeymen she feared. No one would be able to spy on her communications without extensive effort, and her computer system would be effectively unreadable without a litany of encryption and decryption keys that only she knew…but practically anyone could just grab her off of the street and circumvent all of her privacy protocols with impunity.

I decided not to press her any harder, but it was more difficult to suppress the urge than it had been before. My emotions were out of whack, threatening to break free of my internal restraints, and I couldn’t seem to regain control over them. When my thoughts drifted or my control lapsed, my mind kept summoning up alternating, conflicting images of Devlin and Barrett.

What kept me from lashing out was a firm reminder of the stakes. We needed her skills. Alienating her wouldn’t do anything except to ultimately put all of us into even greater danger.

Is there any good news at all?” I asked.

There isn’t really any sort of armed security,” Max said. “Some rent-a-cops, more for appearances than anything substantial, but it’s mostly kept safe by threat of the cops getting involved.”

Are there a lot of disturbances that call for that type of response?”

Max shook her head. “Records show that the cops get called out there every now and again, usually when someone’s had too much to drink or if a fight breaks out.”

Response time?”

She blinked. “What?”

I stared at her for several seconds, then repeated myself more slowly. “What is the police response time? If someone calls them because things fall apart, how long do we have before there are uniformed officers on site?”

I…couldn’t find that out.”

You’ve had days.” I took a moment to tighten my grip over the cauldron of stewing emotions. “Days to figure this out. You said you could handle it. Promised me, in fact. And now, two days out, you’re telling me that you didn’t finish getting the only information you were responsible for?”

Shame, anger, and then shame again flashed across Max’ face.

I took a deep breath. “Fine. We’ve got time to work around this. I’ll get Devlin and Michel to check out the area tomorrow, so that we have some idea what we’re going to have to deal with.”

Michel would know where the nearest police station was. If I pulled up traffic reports for the area, extrapolated data based on historical precedent, it wouldn’t be too difficult to give ourselves some sort of framework to work within. We’d done something similar when dealing with Hill, so it wasn’t exactly unfamiliar territory.

You think this is so easy, don’t you?” Max asked bitterly.

I was so taken aback by the sudden venom in her voice that I was temporarily shaken out of my thoughts. “What?”

All of…this.” She waved a hand at the air around us. “You think you’re so good at this. What did you get done?”

The hold I was barely maintaining on my anger snapped.

Since waylaying her automated fleet of eighteen wheelers, I’d tried my level best to be understanding. I’d ignored her veiled sleights, allowed her to take shots at me without retaliation, and generally bent over backwards to ensure that she and I didn’t come to an open war of words. But there was too much on my mind that wasn’t about the job for me to let even that tepid, covert insinuation pass.

Average number of visitors, separated out by demographic and preferred areas of interest. Building plans for several of the permanent fixtures plus the original design for the Park and proposed renovations. Make, model, and administrator codes for the security cameras currently in use within at least three of those buildings, possibly more. I haven’t had a chance to look into the rest, but it’s on my agenda for tonight.”

While I listed off my accomplishments, I highlighted and sent the relevant files over to her own system.

Devlin and I have created three different exfiltration plans,” I continued, “dependent on what happens with Mila and Michel. And your father and I spent about four hours last night trying to collate all of the information we can get our hands on, in the vain hope that it gives us some sort of advantage. Is that enough, or did you need more?”

Max gaped at me for a few seconds before her eyes narrowed to thin slits. “Surprised you were able to get all of that done with your nighttime escapades,” she muttered under her breath.

My jaw dropped open. For several seconds, I couldn’t find the words; for several more after that, I couldn’t find the breath to speak out loud.

What are you talking about?” I finally managed to stammer out.

You know what I’m talking about.”

I closed my eyes and thought. It didn’t take long before I realized what must have happened. “You’re still monitoring my phone, aren’t you?”

I don’t trust you,” Max said, a touch petulantly. “Why wouldn’t I keep an eye on where you’re going?”

Because I’m helping you?” I suggested. “Because, since we first met in person, I’ve done nothing but throw myself and my team in between you and whoever sent the kidnappers after you and your dad? Because, at no point, have I ever done anything to earn all of this…this…whatever this is?”

While I kept the volume of my voice under strict control, the frustration and anger that I felt worked its way into every syllable. Max opened her mouth to defend herself, but I cut her off with a waved hand and a glare that Mila would’ve been proud of.

Save it,” I snapped. “Whatever you’re about to say, whatever snide little comment you’re about to make, keep it to yourself. Go ahead and spend the little bit of time we have available working out to back stab and undermine the only people willing to help you and your father out of the mess you got yourselves into. I’m going to focus on getting everybody out of this alive.”

Before she could form a response, I sent the rest of the files I’d been working on to her system, closed my laptop, and stalked out of the coffee shop with as much dignity as I could muster. Max said something in a half-hearted voice, but I was too angry to make sense of it.

I kept walking, laptop under my arm, for at least ten minutes before the anger inside me began to cool. I stopped briefly to buy an ice cream cone from a local, probably illegal, vendor and moved on in a slightly clearer state of mind. My outburst at the coffee shop was out of character for me. I was glad that no one else had been there to see it; even the thought that someone else might have witnessed me losing my cool was deeply embarrassing. Max was just capable of grinding y last nerve to dust, by virtue of nothing else except her presence.

That wasn’t true, though. It wasn’t that I wasn’t furious with Max for her continued invasion of my privacy. I was angry about that, and rightfully so, but she was just being the same person I’d always known her to be. When giving a scorpion a ride, it seemed only appropriate to invest in antivenom. I wasn’t taking the proper precautions despite knowing she’d bugged me once before. In her mind, that was probably tantamount to inviting her digital eavesdropping.

What galled me was my own shortsightedness, more than anything else. If I hadn’t been distracted, I would have remembered about her program and taken steps to deal with it. But I was allowing myself to worry about men, instead of keeping my head in the game. It was my own fault, in all the ways that mattered.

At some point, I’d crossed the street and walked directly into a nearby park. Due to some combination of the time of day and dumb luck, I easily found an unoccupied nook, complete with power outlets. I took advantage, plugged in my equipment, and tried to drown out my thoughts with work.

The problem with the Park, as the site of a prisoner exchange, was paradoxically our greatest asset. The complex stretched out for over 250 acres and the kidnappers could pick anywhere within that space to stage the exchange. There was just no feasible way to monitor that much space, even if there were some sort of pre-existing network of cameras to suborn. While that meant we wouldn’t be able to monitor the kidnapper’s movements and that we wouldn’t be able to set up any sort of surveillance to keep an eye on how they left, it also meant that we were protected from any similar tactics.

Good news and bad news, there.

If it came to an open conflict, the kidnappers would easily outnumber us and they’d already demonstrated a flagrant lack of concern for innocents or bystanders. They could, quite simply, shoot first and ask questions to whoever was still standing. My team and I were thieves and criminals, sure, but collateral damage wasn’t something we could accept. If they started going after the civilians just out at the Park for a good time, all of us – with the possible exception of Akumi – would give ourselves up. We hadn’t even needed to talk about that.

But there wouldn’t necessarily be an open conflict. And, if we were all interested in keeping things as covert as possible, the small size of the team was actually preferable. The kidnappers wouldn’t be able to move large groups without shifting the pattern of foot traffic noticeably. We could move through the crowd with far greater ease.

Ultimately, things were likely to come down to a simple equation: could Mila identify and neutralize enough of the kidnappers to give us a fighting chance? Or would they catch on to our play and move to counter us when we weren’t in a position to resist? As of that moment, I wasn’t any more confident in our chances than I’d been right after we’d agreed to deliberately spring their trap.

I ran my hands through my hair, frowning at the resistance between my fingers, and found myself wishing for Devlin’s presence. Either as a sounding board or a silent, comforting presence, he always knew how to keep my ruminations from spiraling too far afield. He and I hadn’t really spoken since our awkward interaction, nearly a full week prior. A part of me wanted to lay the blame for our difficulty communicating at his feet, but the greater part knew better. There was enough fault for the both of us to share equally.

Shoes scuffed against the sidewalk behind me. I became fully aware of my surroundings in an instant. My mind clawed frantically for the self-defense lessons Mila had attempted to drill into my head. At the same time, I fumbled around in my bag for something I could use to strike any potential attacker.

When I saw that it was only Max, some of the tension left me, but not much.

You followed me?” I asked.

She shrugged. Max seemed visibly uncomfortable – shoulders hunched, eyes downcast – which was atypical for her, in my experience.

Your phone,” she said.

I rolled my eyes. As soon as I returned to the hotel, I was going to dismantle every line of code in this phone and figure out exactly what program she’d inserted. When I knew how to counteract her virus, I’d make it a point to neutralize any similar bugs she might have planted in Devlin’s, Michel’s, or Mila’s phones, as well. We still had some secrets and I intended to keep it that way.

Listen, Max, I’ve got a lot on my plate right now. If it’s all the same to you, could you just continue hating me for no reason somewhere else?”

It isn’t…” She stopped, steeled herself, and started over. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, it’s just…”

It’s just what?”

I don’t know how to do this,” Max spit out, like the admission actually burned on the way past her lips. “It used to just be theories, you know? Games we used to play online and now it’s just so serious. You were good at them and I’m just used to dealing with competition like that, so…”

Just theories? What are you -” I cut myself off. “Wait. Are you telling me that you never actually did anything with your code?”

Not like what you were out there doing.”

I knew that I was more involved in the ground level crime than most members of the Community, but it had never occurred to me that someone might be a relative innocent. It did explain a lot about the inconsistencies I’d noticed in both Max and the Texan. Combined, their skillsets skewed heavily towards information collection and dissemination, but there’d been a marked lack of situational awareness that presented itself with every new revelation. The more I found about the pair, the more I found myself wondering how they’d ever been able to avoid being kidnapped for so long.

I wish you’d told me about that a week ago,” I said.

And then what would you have done?” Max shot back. “Benched me while you were trying to find my father? No. I can do things and I wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines while you and your team fixed my mistake.”

And now?”

Max took in a deep breath. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. I don’t know who to trust.”

You trust your father, don’t you?”

Max nodded.

Well,” I said, “he trusts us. Or, at least he trusts us enough to work on this. Any other problems you’ve got with me, he’s expecting you to put them aside long enough to rescue Akumi’s brother. If you can’t do that, you’ll honestly be doing more harm than good.”

She nodded again.

I breathed out slowly. She hadn’t really apologized and I hadn’t really forgiven her. But, I needed to take my own advice. The irritation bubbling in me had as much to do with her continuing behavior as with the roiling pit of uncertainty in my stomach. But, the people who were willing to risk exposure and death to protect my real identity were expecting me to put together a miracle. I wasn’t going to let them down.

Alright then,” I said. I gestured for Max to sit across from me. “Fine. Two days to go and we still have no idea how to make sure we aren’t just followed or ambushed after the fact.”

Actually,” Max said. She turned to look at the ice cream vendor I’d visited earlier, then gave me a sly little smile. “I think I’ve got an idea about that.”

Chapter 115

There was a palpable tension in the air. While I’d spent time around Barrett before, there had always been other people around. If not Devlin, then Mila; if not Mila, then Virginia or my parents. It was just the two of us now, though, seated across from each other with a half-full bottle of bourbon as a chaperone.

He sensed it, just as much as I did. He was probably contributing to the vibe through force of will. Barrett was watching me, with a directness that I found equally disturbing and alluring. His gaze never drifted from my face, even though I could almost feel his attention on my body. Casually, he licked his lips before taking a sip from his drink.

What are you going to do after all of this?” I asked. The answer didn’t particularly matter to me, but the silence was quickly growing unbearable.

While he thought, I topped off my glass and glanced at the wall clock, just so that I was looking away from Barrett’s dark eyes. Some basic research had shown me that most bars in Texas closed around midnight. This particular dive, then, must have been one of the rare establishments open until two.

After drinks?” Barrett winked and affected a scandalized expression. “Why, Sarah, you should know I’m not that kind of a gentleman.”

I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean.”

Sure, but a man can always hope, can’t he?”

I pointed at the bottle of bourbon. “If you aren’t going to answer, then…”

Just trying to pick my words carefully.” He stirred his drink idly for a few more seconds before speaking again. “It depends. I’d been hoping to trade what I stole from the Sovereign for information, but that’s apparently a nonstarter. But obviously there’s someone in Dallas who wants to take a shot at me. After I find out who that is…I don’t know what I’ll do, actually.”

What do you want to do?”

Find my old partner,” Barrett said immediately. “Put an end to all this cloak and dagger stuff.”

Seems like that’s going to be kind of difficult, considering your line of work.”

I steal things,” Barrett said. “Ideally, under the cover of night and with a certain amount of flair. I leave calling cards to taunt the police and to establish my brand, so to speak. What I don’t do is dodge bullets or try to survive hit-and-runs in broad daylight.”

He couldn’t possibly know much I related to that. Before the Lady’s intervention into our lives – back when we’d still been working together, at least – Devlin and I had specialized in a very victimless type of theft. We targeted overblown, fraudulent charities; idly rich trust fund babies with more wealth than taste; and, rarely, poorly guarded museums when the price was right. There’d only been one casualty and that hadn’t been a result of our jobs, but of Asher’s goons in Venice deciding to shoot first and ask questions never. Law enforcement, with the exception of Adlai, was aware of our activities, but we weren’t ever a priority. No one was hurt, no one was killed, and it was better for all parties to give each other wide berths.

Not so much, anymore. Now, we overthrew the premiere drug kingpin of London, changed the shape of the Underworld in that city, and installed our own friends in position of power. We robbed the Triad and the Yakuza of millions and redistributed that wealth to the people they’d stolen it from to begin with, inviting the wrath and attention of trained enforcers and killers. We rescued children from sex traffickers and warlords, no matter who had to die to keep those same children safe.

It was still…fun seemed like the wrong word, even though it was probably the closest that I could manage. But there was a raw edge to that fun that tainted the experience. A mishandled network intrusion might have set us back a week before; now, it could get us all kidnapped, tortured, or killed. I wasn’t sure if the corresponding uptick in adrenaline was worth the added risk; worse, I didn’t know how to go about looking for that answer.

I shook my head fiercely, trying to dislodge my darker thoughts and focus on the moment instead. “Understandable,” I said. “But you still didn’t answer my question.”

I want to go back to doing what I enjoy,” Barrett said. “There are very few things I’m actually good at and I’d appreciate it if I could focus on those, instead of his on-the-ground spy training that I’m going through. Is that answer good enough?”

I’ll allow it.” We drank in silence for a few seconds before I realized that I was looking at his body once more. When he sat up straighter, rolling his shoulders back and subtly accentuating his muscular torso, I coughed violently to break the moment.

Everything alright?” Barrett asked. “You seem a little distracted by something.”

My cheeks started to grow warm, despite every one of my mental instructions. “Your turn, you know,” I said.

Part of me expected him to ignore my week attempt at putting this conversation back onts proper rails. He surprised me by nodding slowly – an act which allowed him an opportunity to near-seamlessly check out everything below my neck – before actually asking a question. “Your husband,” Barrett said. My heart skipped a beat until he continued. “Or your fake husband, I guess? What’s the deal with that?”

It’s a family thing.” I weighed how much detail was necessary and decided that, honestly, none of it was particularly sensitive. The entirety of my relationship with Michel was just a fiction anyway, designed to cover for yet another lie I’d told my family instead of the truth. “I told them that I got married a while back and no one in my family really believes in divorce.”

Like people don’t believe in Santa Claus?”

More like how people don’t believe in climate change,” I corrected, smiling despite myself. “They’re all aware that it exists, but they try their hardest to pretend that it only happens to other people. It was just easier to have my friend play the role than to tell them the truth.”

Barrett nodded thoughtfully. “And what is the truth?”

I poured a shot and downed it in one smooth movement, holding eye contact with Barrett the entire time. He whistled in appreciation.

That was my second question,” he said, “so you could always have just not answered it.”

You would only have asked it later,” I countered. “Seemed like a better idea to go ahead and get that off of the table.”

Message sent and received.”

I savored the pleasant burn of the bourbon, rising up into my face to mingle with the warmth of my cheeks, as it worked its way through my bloodstream. I didn’t want to think about what the pressure of Barrett’s constant attention promised. Nor did I want to think about what my own presence meant for my own intentions. Thinking was hard and there was a high likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to avoid anything negative. I just wanted to be here, be somewhere…just for a little while. Everything else – the Mouse, the Magi, Barrett, Devlin – could wait until the morning.

What made you want to be a cat burglar?” I asked.

Well, that’s got some layers.” Barrett drained his glass and refilled it.

Peel those layers back, then.”

If you’re asking me why I specifically climb buildings and whatnot, that’s easy: because I’m good at it.”

That’s it? It’s that simple for you?”

That’s basically it,” Barrett said. “But if you’re asking why I steal things in general, it’s a little more complicated.”

Go on.”

That’s going to count as two questions, though. That means I’ll get one and a follow-up.”

I eyed the bourbon. There was still enough in the bottle that, if he asked something I didn’t want to answer, I could just drink instead. I considered the possibility that he was trying to get me to drink, but an instinct told me that he didn’t pursue women like that. Barrett was a staggeringly attractive man with an air of mystery and an abundance of swagger. Women of all stripes found that sort of thing irresistible. Adding alcohol to the mixture as a sort of chemical assistant would, I assumed, feel like cheating to him.

Besides, it wasn’t like I had to drive home. I nodded at Barrett and signaled for him to continue.

He took a deep breath before he actually said anything. “I grew up with some…I don’t know if I’d call them bad people, but they certainly weren’t good. They got worse, if that term applies, as they got older.”

And you got worse too?”

Barrett shook his head. He started to stroke the side of his emptying glass with one long, dexterous finger. “Surprisingly, no. I fell out of touch with those people when we hit our twenties, give or take. I learned later on that they tried an assortment of get-rich quick schemes and I ended up becoming a jeweler.”

I stared at him over the lip of my glass. “You aren’t serious.”

As a heart attack,” he said, laying one hand on his chest for emphasis. I couldn’t control the way my eyes traced over the outlines of his pectorals beneath his tight shirt. “Anyway, time went by and then one one of those old friends reached out to me on social media. They knew what I did and, apparently, they needed some professional advice. They phrased it as a hypothetical but, essentially, they wanted to know how much a specific gemstone was worth. I recognized it as a piece on display at a local auction, but didn’t say anything about it.”

Barrett paused, sipped from his drink, and stared into the middle distance for a few fraught seconds. I recognized the tricks of a born storyteller, but knowledge of those techniques didn’t make me less susceptible to them. I leaned in closer to listen carefully to what he said next.

He said nothing. He continued wandering through his own memories until I finally couldn’t take the tension. “And then what?” I asked.

Barrett smirked – not too much, but just enough o display a flash of even white teeth. “I was curious, sure, but mostly I was just bored. So, I got a ticket to check out the auction. But then I started thinking. I knew how much the stone was worth; I knew the sort of people who worked at auctions, on a firsthand basis; why shouldn’t I be the one to steal it?”

You hit an auction for your first job?” I asked in a hushed voice. I’d tackled a few of those during my career, but only after considerable prep work.

Correction,” Barrett said, “I hit a hotel room. The person charged with delivering the stone was staying on the third floor of a building in that city, and it wasn’t very hard to get the room next to him. Shimmying across from my window to his was a little bit harder, but nothing too complicated. And he really wasn’t taking even the most basic security procedures. For God’s sake, the man was a smoker and he actually left his window open when he went out for drinks.”

Then what?”

Well, after I had the stone in my possession, I realized that I already knew the type of people who’d be able to turn it into money. I’d worked with some shady providers professionally, so I reached out to them and…well, the rest is history. The money was great, obviously, but you know what really got me hooked?”

The thrill,” I said.

Exactly.” Barrett’s broad smile stretched from one ear to the other. “I knew you’d understand.”

It hadn’t been the thrill for me. Not at first. I’d started out on my journey as a sort of digital Robin Hood, taking money from people who claimed to be interested in the greater good, but were really more concerned with lining their CEO’s pockets. I met most of those people at various galas and balls, organized by my parents, and I knew exactly how they worked. They weren’t very subtle about it. Some even bragged about how successful their marketing campaigns were at convincing people that their hard-earned dollars would be spent on, for instance, cancer research. It was a point of pride.

I spent months researching the network of my first target. Most of what I knew about computers, at that point, had come from elective college courses and YouTube tutorials. With that scant base of knowledge and a need to do something, I had eventually worked myself into enough of a frenzy to attempt an intrusion on the rudimentary network of a local charity. While they’d proudly proclaimed that a portion of all proceeds went towards the SPCA, the CEO and CFO neglected to mention that the ‘portion’ amounted to a little over five cents to the dollar. I adjusted that to fifty percent and, after a few fraught days waiting for the police to come knocking at my door, all the way up to one hundred percent.

By the time the executives got around to actually checking their accounts, the damage had been done. Too much of their money had gone to the actual cause they claimed to support for them to walk it back. They were forced to publicly commit themselves to the arrangement I’d created. And, for my part, I was hooked. From one small charity to another, then eventually up to larger benefits and galas, I honed my talents and began seeking out larger targets. One of those targets had been the benefit when I’d met Devlin and, after that, it was off to the races.

Alright,” I said. “You get two. I recommend making them count.”

What were you doing in the Sovereign?”

Again, I thought about taking another shot to dodge the question. My mouth moved without my permission, though, to answer him. “Looking for information,” I said.

This isn’t a follow-up, I’m just curious; what kind of information?”

I really don’t know. It was an…assignment. Someone wanted us to steal information for them, but we didn’t actually know what it was they were after.”

And that was with your…I’ve got to be honest here, I’m not really sure who does what in your team.” Barrett emptied his glass again which, for some reason, prompted me to do the same. He poured more bourbon for both of us before continuing. “Your bodyguard is obvious; she made that much perfectly clear when she threatened to break various bones in my body. And then there’s your fake husband. He’s the grifter, maybe?”

Maybe,” I said. “It’s tricky.”

Sure, I’ve picked up on that much. But then there’s the guy you were with at the Sovereign. I thought he was just someone you hired for on-site expertise, but now he’s here with you in Texas, so…”

Is that your second question?”

You know what? Yes, it is. Who exactly is he?”

A specialist.”

Barrett flicked a dismissive hand at my assertion. “Right, obviously, but what is he to your whole thing? Considering how much effort you have to put in to make sure that your real identity doesn’t end up advertised throughout the Underworld, I can’t imagine you work with the same people long enough for any of them to find out the truth.”

I took another shot. The bottle’s contents were rapidly dwindling down to the dregs.

It’s that serious?” Barrett asked.

It’s more complicated than I want to get into right now,” I said.

Right now?”

Or ever. Can we talk about something else?”

Sure. It’s your turn for a question, anyway.”

I took a moment to compose myself. Barrett didn’t know the emotional complications between Devlin and me. As far as he knew, he’d only asked a question about another man in my orbit, because that man might get in the way of his ultimate goal. It wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t done it on purpose.

But now I couldn’t stop thinking about his question, answering it in a thousand different ways in my head. Who was Devlin to me? My ex-partner, of course. He was my partner now, too, since I considered us all a team. But he and I were both old hands at thievery, while Michel and Mila were relative newbies. That cast us as the experts, the experienced leaders…the mother and father?

No, that was too much. Or was it? We flirted with each other just like we once had. The familiar rhythms were so easy to fall into. Before he’d dropped back into my life six months ago, it had been years since we’d seen each other. Yet, here we were, right back where we’d been before and it felt…right? Normal? There was too much going on in my mind to nail down any one answer.

What made the whole process even more difficult was the uncertainty. I didn’t know what I thought, let alone what ideas were going through Devlin’s mind. Was he still replaying the final, brutal conversation we’d had when I’d ended our relationship? I could still remember the moments right after I’d yelled at him, immediately regretting what I’d said but not knowing how to take it back.

Other than your ex-partner,” I asked, “is there anyone else in your life? Anyone permanent, I mean.”

Barrett shook his head. “Of course not. I’m hardly ever in the same town for more than a week, present circumstances notwithstanding.”

No family?” I pressed. “No friends?”

I’ve got contacts,” Barrett said. “But, no, nothing I’m welded to. My parents and I made a mutual decision to go our separate ways a long time ago and I’m an only child. I made the mistake of working with someone else on a long-term basis once and you can see how well that worked out.”

Doesn’t that get lonely?”

Barrett’s fingers drummed out an irregular rhythm on the tabletop, seemingly on their own. When he spoke, his voice took on an almost wistful, contemplative quality. “I don’t know that I’d call it lonely. I don’t like being tied down, that’s all. And it’s not like anyone else could even begin to understand what this life is like.”

Anyone, I thought, except for someone else in the trenches.

That was three questions,” Barrett said. His tone was back to its usual playful, cocky cadences, as if that swagger had never left. “Four, if I want to be really technical.”

Ask your three questions, then.”

Actually, I’ve only got one.” He reached out, took the bottle by the neck, and emptied in a single pull. “About fifteen minutes away, there’s a delightful little place where I happen to be staying right now. Seeing as this place is just about to close, I was thinking that we could get some bourbon to go and finish this conversation in more…comfortable surroundings.”

His accompanying wink couldn’t have been less necessary. Since laying eyes on me at the Sovereign, Barrett had been perfectly clear about his desires. Our question and answer session so far had reinforced that belief. He was a deliberately untethered man, content to drift from city to city without forming any connection. What he offered, then, wasn’t anything deeper than what it looked like on the surface: mindless, meaningless distraction.

Barrett let the unasked question linger in the air. I watched his cool, confident expression for several seconds before my eyes involuntarily traveled to the muscles of his shoulders and arms. His posture exposed just a little more of his midsection, flat and defined above the waistline of his low-slung jeans. It was an elaborately staged act, a pose designed to catch the eye, and it was working. It had been so long.

So?” Barrett finally asked, when he saw something change in my eyes. He knew what I was going to say, just like I did.

I’ve got work to do in the morning,” I said. A part of me rejoiced at making the right choice while the other assorted bits howled at my stupidity. “Can’t do that if I’m hung over.”

Barrett relaxed slightly…or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he shifted. He settled into his seat a little more, eased up on the unseen pressure he caused with his attention, and his gaze flickered momentarily towards the exit. To the untrained eye, the subtle change in readiness might have gone unnoticed. My eyes were not untrained and, for the duration of our drinks, I’d been focused on Barrett’s swagger and style.

Which he damn well knew. He wasn’t trying to be subtle; he wanted me to know that he was content to wait, even if his intentions hadn’t changed in the slightest.

Maybe we can do this again,” Barrett said.

Maybe,” I said. “Next time, don’t drink all of the bourbon yourself.”

That sounds an awful lot like a date,” he said. He kept his tone light and airy, but made no effort to disguise the very real undercurrent of heat.

Something stopped me from outright rebuking him. I got up from the table just before he did the same and allowed him to escort me outside. It only took a moment to hail a cab. When the car eased to a stop in front of the curb, Barrett stepped in front of me to open the door.

After you.”

I favored him with a polite smile. Anything more than that might have betrayed my confusion and uncertainty.

Until next time,” Barrett said. He took my hand through the window and brushed his lips lightly against it. He held my hand just a second or two longer than necessary, though, and I found that I couldn’t figure out anything to say that might stop him. He released me from his grip before I located the words, but not from his eyes. Those stayed fixed on me.

Maybe.” I knew, as he did, that I was going to see him again. I just wasn’t ready to say that out loud yet.

I gave the driver an address – not the hotel where Virginia, Devlin, and the rest of my team were staying, but somewhere close enough that I could walk the rest of the distance – and he nodded in comprehension. I waited until the taxi was entering the sparse early morning traffic before I looked back, through the rear window. Barrett just stood there, in front of the bar, with an inscrutable expression on his face. He didn’t move from that spot until we were too far away for me to see him anymore.

I slouched into the backseat and ran my hands through my hair in frustration. Or was it irritation? Confusion?

Definitely that last one. I stared down at the back of my hand, where Barrett’s lips had been, for entirely too long before I sighed and turned to stare out of the window.

Oh, Sarah,” I said to myself, “what the hell are you doing?”