A dozen different plans all faltered at key points in their execution, and so I found myself without any other option. I’d have to go to the benefit in person. No amount of effort could trump simple numerical fact: my equipment wasn’t physically powerful enough to crack the organization’s firewall in a reasonable time frame. I couldn’t wait for another opportunity, because I didn’t know when I would have access to a connected terminal again. And letting this particular target slip away would leave dozens of women, if not more, without the appropriate care they required for their very lives. So, with my possible avenues of attack rapidly closing, and time slipping away, I was forced to default to the old hacker’s panacea: simply inserting the appropriate virus, via a USB drive, into the main computer itself.
That wasn’t ideal, for a lot of reasons, but it was the only option I could think of. On the bright side, my last name opened doors and provided access to most events. It also provided a legitimate reason for my presence. The Ford family was known for its charitable donations, after all. It wasn’t uncommon for one of us to appear at an art gala or charity dinner, write a sufficiently large check to impress upon the other social climbers that we cared, and shake hands with the newest movers in our selective community. All I needed to do was find one of the computers the organization was using, insert my infected flash drive, and walk away. Five minutes, at most, before my program located and siphoned funds away from the international accounts, into the coffers of an LLC I’d created for this very purpose. Five minutes where I’d be exposed to the possibility of capture. That was all I needed. Five minutes of freedom, however, were proving more difficult to acquire at the gala than I’d expected.
I endured an hour of polite chitchat and weathered a storm of small talk before I finally managed to slip away from the horde of supplicants, in search of a computer. I found three offices, none of which had the appropriate access, and two supply closets. I walked further down the hallway, away from the main dining room, and nearly passed an open gallery without a second glance. I halted a step later and backtracked. A man stood alone in the gallery, looking up at an original Renoir. He spoke, without turning to face me. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
I checked my watch. Every guest was supposed to be in the main hall for another fifteen minutes, at least. “Yeah,” I said, scrambling mentally for an appropriate back-up plan. I didn’t have an alibi in place because I hadn’t expected to need one. I had a reason to be at the gala; I did not, however, have a reason to be anywhere other than the main room with the rest of the idle rich. Just the thought of creating a lie on the spot caused beads of sweat to appear on my brow and the backs of my hands. “It’s one of my favorites.” There. That wasn’t a lie, at least.
“Mine too,” the man said. He still didn’t look away from the painting. “You know what something like this goes for?”
“I never thought about it, no.”
“This one, right here? At an open auction, maybe two million, easy. Three, if you get the right crowd.”
“Three million? Seriously?” I wasn’t unused to that amount of money – I’d looked into my family’s finances, both on- and off-book – but those funds couldn’t be accessed without raising serious red flags. I’d skipped out on the auctions my parents had tried to foist on me, though, and the thought of three million potential dollars hanging alone gave me more than a few moment’s pause.
The man turned and flashed a smile at me. “Well, that’s at a sanctioned auction. If you were just selling it…let’s say, privately, you’d be looking at about two million, at the most. Minus expenses, finder’s fee, and so on.”
“Privately? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, nothing. Just thinking out loud.” He turned back to the painting.
I approached him, cautiously. I should have left. I should have abandoned the plan and walked away. The smart move was definitely retreat. The smart move had nothing to do with desire, though; right now, more than I wanted to seek the cover of the masses, I wanted to know more about this strange man. “That’s an awfully specific number,” I said. “Where’d you get that from?”
“It’s kind of a long story,” the man said. He took a step back from the painting and tilted his head. It looked as though he was examining the painting’s frame and sizing it up. “Sufficed to say, something like this could be worth a lot of money to the right people. If they could get it out of here without raising an alarm, that is.”
My wildest estimates gave me a take of a few hundred thousand dollars from this particular charity event, minus the contracting fees I owed various contacts I’d hired from online. Financially, the organization was decentralized enough that I couldn’t access the real financial centers from any one exterior location. To get away with even a million dollars, let alone two or three, I would need to penetrate their headquarters’ security. That wasn’t a possibility, and so I’d simply settled for the smaller score that I knew I could actually pull off. But two million, right here? In the appropriate hands, that could do a lot of good for a lot of people. “That just makes it kind of a shame, doesn’t it?”
“What’s that?” The man asked.
“This painting,” I said. “It’s a work of art, sure, but that doesn’t really mean anything to anyone in the real world, does it? Things like this are only important to the people who can afford to pass them around, like some kind of currency. At least it’d be doing some good if some ‘private collector’ stole it. Then the proceeds could go to actually helping people who need it.”
He didn’t say anything in reply. Not at first. After a few seconds of silence, I turned my attention away from the Renoir and saw that the man was scrutinizing me, eyes narrowed and head tilted sharply to one side. “What’s your name?”
“Sarah,” I answered, without thinking. When my brain caught up with my mouth, I remembered that my name was hardly a secret. “Sarah Ford. And you?”
He smiled again. “You know,” he said, “most people at these sort of things have a keen interest in avoiding serious conversations. You almost seem like you were looking for one.”
The fact that he’d avoided giving me his name didn’t escape my attention. “I’m not like most people who attend these sorts of things, I guess.”
“You said you were a Ford, right?”
The man whistled. “That’s some old money. Your family’s been living on inherited wealth for, what? Three generations?”
“Four.” My jaw tightened of its own accord. Any mention of my family’s wealth drew that reaction from me, despite hours attempting to bring the reflex under conscious control. I struggled to relax the muscles, with only marginal success. “What’s your point?”
“Just that the Ford family could donate huge amounts of money to whatever charity it wanted to and probably do a lot of good.”
“The Ford family does do those things,” I said. “And I’m here, aren’t I?”
“That’s true,” the man said. “You’re here.” He highlighted the sentence heavily enough that I could practically hear the italics.
I raised an eyebrow and gestured for him to elaborate.
He shook his head and began to pace the room, turning precisely at the point where the painting stopped and traveling back down his line. “You could donate specifically to homeless shelters, for instance. Or pay the medical bills of a couple dozen sufferers, no problem. It isn’t any particular secret that this organization keeps most of the proceeds to line its own pockets. People like you and your friends out there just donate for the tax write-off.”
“And people like you don’t?”
“Far from it, love.” On any other night, the pet name would have sent me into a fury. Another man, assuming that I was just another vapid girl with no agency or motivation of my own. Someone who thought that a little bit of charm entitled him to patronize me, when he barely knew anything about me. In this conversation, at this moment, I let it pass. The conversation, antagonistic as it was quickly becoming, was too good to sabotage just yet. He continued, apparently not even aware of what he’d said. “You said you aren’t like the rest of the people in there, dancing without a care in the world? But you think I am?”
That inflection forced me to pay closer attention to him. The man wore a tailored suit, as I’d come to expect from socialites and dilettantes, but the way he wore it was…different. His hands were tanned and his knuckles, now that I was specifically examining them, were bruised and missing a fair amount of skin. He fairly vibrated with energy, passion radiating from every subtle movement of his muscles. I made eye contact, felt some of that heat blossom in my own chest, and looked away quickly.
He reached a point exactly at the middle of the painting and stopped. “So, you said you wish someone would steal this? With all this security? How would someone even go about doing something like that?”
My brain provided the answer immediately. I’d spent days creating and dismissing various plans for an infiltration. The option I’d chosen, a subtle insertion of an infected flash drive, was simply the most expedient one available for someone without any desire to get their hands dirty. I’d wanted to discuss my thoughts with someone, anyone, and this strange man was as good a target as any. It was child’s play to revise one of my earlier, now dismissed, options so that it stole a painting instead of financial information. “You’d need two people, at least,” I said. “One to handle the security system. This museum isn’t state of the art, but they upgraded their firewall to host the event. So the security expert would have to disable the alarms while the other person – let’s call them the infiltration team – cut this painting down and bundled it up.”
He blinked. “And how, exactly, would you handle the guards? They doubled the guards and tightened up the routines as soon as the foundation announced their intention to host a gala here.”
I shrugged that minor detail off. “No routine is any better than the stupidest person who has to work it. There’s probably a guy or two who doesn’t want anything more than a chance to sneak an extra cigarette. Convince him to take a break, and you’d have a little leeway. Barring that, with someone controlling the cameras, the infiltration team could just stay ahead of the patrols. Of course, you’d have to erase any footage later on. Getting away wouldn’t really mean much if everyone knew what you looked like.”
His lips twisted to one side. “Social engineering, huh? That does make sense, I guess.”
I heard his comment and elected to ignore it. My mental wheels were spinning and I couldn’t stop just to reply to a sarcastic comment. “You’d need a getaway driver, too. Although the security specialist could just open an emergency exit, to start a general panic; that’d be a way out that no one would think about, and the infiltration team wouldn’t have to worry about any undue attention. If everyone’s running out of the museum, what’s one more person?” I snorted at an absurd idea. “Or the infiltration team could just cut the painting down and hide it under their jacket. I’m sure nobody would notice that.”
“People really aren’t all that observant,” he said, pulling his jacket closed and buttoning it defensively. “And your security team would still have to cover their tracks, wouldn’t they? Can’t delete footage if you aren’t in the room.”
I laid a hand on my purse and, by extension, my flash drive. “Time-delayed virus would solve that. Just wipe out any security footage from the last, oh, hour. The guards are going to realize that the painting was stolen, no matter what happens; that way, they don’t know when or how it was stolen. Then, someone could just fence the painting and get paid electronically. Probably in foreign currency, routed through a few overseas banks, just to make sure it’s completely untraceable.”
I was warming quickly to the thought exercise. I wanted to answer more questions. I’d navigated the architecture of this particular system’s network enough times that I knew it by heart. This hypothetical plan developed in my mind along similar routes. First this, which leads to that, culminating in that. I turned challenging eyes on the man, eager for another twist to solve. He surprised me by laughing out loud, crossing the room, and extending a hand. “Name’s Devlin,” he said. “Devlin O’Brien. Pleasure to meet you, Sarah Ford.”
I blinked twice, hard, before I accepted the handshake. His palms were calloused and tough: the skin of someone who worked with his hands for a living. His eyes, however, were like no one’s that I’d ever seen. Every other physical laborer I’d seen carried the weight of their exhaustion on their shoulders, like Atlas with his burden. Even the most cheerful still sported a shadow of weariness in the corners of their pupils. This strange man – Devlin, I told myself, adding it to my memory with the simple act of repetition – didn’t have that. He looked…young? Or, if not exactly young, then youthful. It was slightly off-putting; more unsettling than that, however, was the hard seriousness that I could feel in his firm shake.
“You know why I’m here,” I said, operating mostly on autopilot to give my mind a chance to catch back up. “What about you?”
“That is…an interesting question,” Devlin said back. He didn’t let go of my hand. I was surprised to find that I didn’t particularly want him to. “But it’s only fair. You answered all of my questions, after all.”
“I like this painting.” He released my hand and turned to face the artwork. “And I know other people who like this painting, a lot more than I do. But they couldn’t be here to see it in person, so…” Devlin shrugged and trailed off.
In hindsight, it was obvious. The well-dressed man, charming and challenging in equal measure, lurking in a corner, hidden from the prying eyes of the city’s socialites and debutantes. I should have seen it immediately, but he’d been so engaging that I must have subconsciously pushed the realization away so that I could enjoy the conversation a little bit longer. “You’re a thief!”
Devlin winked and actually bowed slightly to me, touching two fingers to his brow as he did so. “I prefer ‘asset relocation specialist,’ but a rose by any other name.”
I spun and looked around for someone, but there was no one to find, of course. “I could call security,” I said. “One word from me and you’ll end up in handcuffs. You know that, right?”
He straightened his back and met my eyes. “If you were going to do that, I’d already be in handcuffs, don’t you think?”
I opened my mouth, found a complete and utter lack of clever responses available in my mind, and closed my mouth again.
“Besides,” Devlin continued, “there’s a reason you’re here, isn’t there? All of the other vapid socialites are drinking and dancing, toasting to their generosity and patting each other on the back. But you, a Ford of all people, come back here to get away from that. Why is that?”
“I just…there are a lot of reasons that I might…”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I get it. Rich people piss me off, too.” I raised an eyebrow. The action happened involuntarily, the muscle twitching of its own accord, and Devlin raised both hands in surrender. “Rich people like that,“ he amended.
He was on the right track, but he’d misread my tell. It wasn’t an obvious conclusion to reach, I admitted privately. There weren’t very many of my high society friends who were even vaguely aware of real suffering. They hadn’t gone out into the streets, walked with the homeless and the downtrodden, only to return an opulent lifestyle they’d never earned in the slightest. They hadn’t tired of being pampered and coddled. As far as I knew, each and every one of my friends and family members was totally comfortable living off of the wealth generated by long-dead ancestors, while organizations we had the power to stop profited off of the misery of the lower class. What sane person would look at me, Sarah Ford, second oldest child of the Ford clan, and think ‘Robin Hood?’
At the same time, what sane person would introduce themselves by name and then, without even the slightest hint of modesty, declare themselves a thief?
Devlin started talking again. “I’ve got to admit. Your plan’s got a lot to recommend it. Elegant, smooth, just the right amount of romance in the details. Mine was a bit rougher, but you make do with what you’ve got? No one to write a virus like that on the fly for me, unfortunately, but I will have to look into finding someone like that in the future. Thanks for the tip.”
He turned to leave. Devlin obviously didn’t think I would share his identity with anyone else and, I had to admit, he was right. I could have let him go. Simply kept my mouth shut and let him carry on with his theft, using the distraction to siphon money from the charity’s bank accounts. When the painting’s theft was discovered, the authorities would likely assume that it had all been a part of the same job and no one would consider that the hacker who’d hit several major organizations in the last few months had attended the gala in a five thousand dollar gown.
“Wait!” Devlin turned back around, surprise evident on his features. I could feel surprise on my own face. Why hadn’t I let him walk away? “You’d need a virus, you said?” The words spilled out of me.
“It wouldn’t hurt,” Devlin said, slowly. “Why? Know someone?”
“And this painting is worth how much to you?”
His eyebrows drew closer together. “Hypothetically? One, maybe one and a half million.”
The number was still daunting. “Half of that goes to a charity of my choosing,” I said.
It was Devlin’s turn to blink. “And why would I do that? I don’t even have the money, yet.”
“Because I can guarantee you a clean exit.” My fingers dipped into my purse and removed the small flash drive with my siphoning program. “And I can help you get away with money you won’t have to bargain for.”
His eyes went wide for a moment before a long, bubbling laugh erupted out of him. He doubled over in amusement and laughter. “You’re a thief, too!” He said, after he ran out of breath and the elation wound down. “I should’ve known it!”
“I’m not a thief,” I snapped. “But there are people who need this money and you can help me get it for them. So you can either help me, or I start calling for security.”
“You’re here to steal something, too,” Devlin pointed out. “The cops don’t look kindly on that, no matter how good you look in a dress.”
I shook my head and smiled. I’d already gone this far, despite having every possible reason to simply shut the hell up. Might as well go all the way. “I’m a Ford,” I said. “I feel pretty confident that they’d believe my story over yours.”
His lips turned down and the laughter died away. The light in his eyes stayed where it was. He tilted his head from left to right, considering my offer. “Thirty percent goes to your charity,” he said finally.
“Forty percent,” I countered, “and I’ll arrange to have your expenses covered.”
“Thirty five percent,” Devlin said. He shook his head as soon as the words left his mouth, and I knew I had him.
I gave him a flat look and said nothing.
“Fine,” he said, as dramatically as possible. I could tell he wasn’t actually upset. If anything, my negotiation had brought more of that fire into his eyes. “Forty percent, and you cover expenses. Partners, then?”
I gave him a slow once-over. It was only one job and I could give more money to those in need working with Devlin, than following through on my own plan. If worse came to worst, the art theft would be easier to track than anything purely electronic. I could cut him loose and the authorities would follow after him. I wouldn’t have to see him again. This was a one-time thing, a situation derived from a dozen unlikely factors all falling into place at this one time. I repeated that to myself several times before I gave Devlin a decisive nod. “Partners.”
“So?” Devlin asked. “When do we leave?”