Chapter 25

The town car came back around eleven PM that night.  I’d spent the hours since Sarah’s departure in a state of agitation.  When the call to head downstairs came, I was glad for the opportunity to act.  It wasn’t until I was comfortably seated in the back of the vehicle that I remembered how much time Sarah had promised me: one day.  There were still seven hours left before that deadline, but I couldn’t in good conscience be upset at her for cutting the time short.  She’d tolerated my intrusion back into her life better than I had expected – though, not with the happiness I’d secretly hoped for – but it made sense that she’d want to get me out of the country and away from her as quickly as possible.

The ride didn’t take long.  I felt the car stop, but couldn’t see outside through its black tinted windows.  The driver opened my door and I stepped outside into a sea of lights and sound.  San Francisco, or at least the portion that we were in, was fully alive.  I hadn’t been in America since the split.  It felt good to hear random snippets of conversation and to actually understand what was being said.

The area where we’d stopped was not, however, the airport.  It wasn’t even a bus station.  A titan of a building, countless stories of reflective surfaces and cold steel, grew from the street in front of me.  “Is this the part where you put two in my head?”  I asked the driver.  At the same time, I estimated the weight and height difference between the two of us.  It was possible that Sarah’s hireling had been co-opted by Asher and his backers; if this man moved, I wanted to be ready to intercept.

The driver turned to me and offered a confused smile.  “Pardon me, sir?”

“Nevermind.  Where are we?”

“Miss Parker asked me to pick you up from the Victorian, sir, and to bring you here.”

“Why?”

He shrugged.  “She didn’t say.  Would you like me to wait for you, sir?”

“You’re on the clock right now?”

Color crept into his cheeks.  “No, sir.  I am…working freelance for the evening.”

“Making money on the side, eh?”  I laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Well, nobody’ll hear it from me.  Why don’t you go blow off some steam somewhere while Miss Parker and I work this all out.  Just don’t go too far away; if one of us needs you, we’re going to need you quick.  Okay?”

I didn’t intend to, but the stress on Sarah’s pseudonym came through before my brain had a chance to clamp down it.  If the driver noticed the verbal italics, he didn’t comment on them.  “Sir?  Are you sure?”

“Go for it.  No reason you can’t have some fun while the two of us hash all this out.”

He looked for a moment as though he would speak again; then, he thought better of the idea and nodded instead.  “Miss Parker has my cell number.  Please, call whenever you’re ready.”

The driver walked down the sidewalk.  I watched him until the crush of people obscured him from view, and then turned back to face the building.  It was…impressive.  It stretched at least ten stories into the sky, composed of glass and steel, in a very utilitarian style.  International companies belonged in a structure like it, not individual citizens.

I winced, a split second after the thought passed through my mind.  I didn’t actually know that Sarah was single.  She’d received offers, even while we were still dating.  At this point, she’d spent four years single, and I struggled to believe that she hadn’t accepted one of the many propositions in the meantime.  That was my fault, though.  I had no place to get upset about it, so I steeled myself and entered the building.  Just inside, I saw a board with names listed in alphabetical order.  The first half of the nameplate was filled with corporations.  I recognized a few of the names, from looking over Sarah’s shoulder while she purchased the latest and greatest hardware for her network of state-of-the-art systems.  I ignored those and traced a finger down the names until I found “Bonnie Parker” listed on the seventh floor.  An elevator dinged nearby and I stepped inside, just as a businessman in a tailored Italian suit stepped out.

He looked at me once, without seeming to really notice my presence.  Then, as the shabby nature of my own clothing caught his eye, his look sharpened into curiosity.

I spoke before he could.  “Walk of shame.”  Not entirely untrue, from a certain arcane perspective.

He considered that for a moment, shrugged, and went on his way.  I rode the elevator up to the seventh floor and found Sarah’s room, at the end of a blind hallway.  I knocked on the door and, less than a second later, she opened it.  She still wore the same jeans, but the red top had been discarded.  Now, I could see her t-shirt: a picture of a young Michael Caine throwing a punch, with the caption “Knock ‘Em Dead.”  Her wild brown hair was pulled out of her eyes and held in place by a blue and red hair tie, although curls still spilled out of their containment with her every move.

“Uh…nice place,” I said, for lack of anything better.

She snorted.  “I want to show you something.”  Sarah walked away, leaving the door open and her invitation/command hanging in the air.

I stepped into the condo after her and used a few seconds to examine the room.  The action was purely reflexive: in any situation where I found myself on someone else’s territory, the first move was always to scope out possible exits.  Rationally, I knew that a seventh floor apartment left very few options for a quick getaway that didn’t involve the front door, and the search was over before it really had a chance to begin.  The place was a mess of haphazardly tossed clothing and scraps of paper with Sarah’s meticulous handwriting peppered every inch of available space.  A smell – burned food, perhaps – lingered in the air.  I cleared my throat.  “What’re you showing me?”

“Just come on.  Out on the balcony.”

I did as ordered, making a special effort to avoid looking down over the edge.  Instead, I kept my head and eyes level and looked out.  The city was beautiful.  From seven stories up, more of the twinkling city lights were visible, although the light pollution ruined the night sky and drowned out the stars themselves.  The night was unseasonably warm, so I removed my blazer and draped it over one hand.

“I love coming out here,” Sarah said.  “Just to get away from things.  I spend most of my time in the computer room, obviously.”

“Obviously,” I replied.  I had no idea where she was going with this line of conversation, but I was willing to give her some rope to get there.

“When I first moved out here, after…”  Sarah cleared her throat and her eyes flickered in my direction.  I turned slightly to face her, and her eyes slid away from me.  She continued her thought, as though the verbal hiccup hadn’t happened at all.  “I thought this place had the best view of the city.  Had to overpay like you wouldn’t believe, but I got it.”

I turned my eyes fully away from the city and looked at Sarah’s profile.  Her expression was wistful, her lips slightly parted.  I shifted nervously in place.  “It’s just a place,” I said.  “After I deal with the Asher situation, it’ll still be here.”

“I know that.  You think I don’t know that?  It’s not the view, Devlin; it’s the normality.  This was supposed to be my chance to start from scratch as an honest citizen, without the Ford name hanging over my head or all the underworld baggage that I got tied up in.”

I faked a cough.  “I don’t think this condo really qualifies as a normal one.”

Sarah chuckled.  The noise was sweeter for how unexpected it was.  “Fair point.  But it was a start.  It was supposed to be a start.”

“It still can be,” I said.  “This isn’t going to take forever.”

“That’s not my point, Dev.”

It felt oddly exhilarating to hear the nickname from her lips.  My heartbeat accelerated and I felt a little heat creep into my cheeks.  “What is your point, then?”

“You wouldn’t get it,” she said.

“I’m pretty good at understanding things, Sarah.”

“No, you aren’t.  Not with this.  This is one of those things you just wouldn’t get.”  She sighed and faced me.  “I got an email.  From your Puppetmaster, I think.”

The heat drained away and was replaced, in an instant, by a deep chill.  “What?  What did it say?”

“I’ll show you.”  She left the balcony.  I followed after her, through the condo and into a room at the end of a long hallway.

One of her computer set-ups was stored inside the room, clicking and beeping as it worked through some calculation.  Three monitors – Sarah’s preferred number of screens – glowed with a faint blue tinge, as she took her place in an extravagant chair.  Both the right and left screens were blank, except for the starry background she’d selected.  All available real estate on her center screen was monopolized by a page filled with numbers and letters.  She minimized it as I approached, and opened her email server, in its place.

“This,” she said, “showed up after I dropped you off at the Victorian.  Or…well, I don’t know exactly when it showed up, but it wasn’t there when I left and it was here when I got back.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a job request.”

I blinked.

“You heard me.  Somebody’s trying to hire me for a job.  I can only imagine they’re going to want to hire you, too.  The timing’s a little too suspect, otherwise.  I haven’t gotten a serious request in a year, if not longer.”   She rolled her chair out of the way, so that I could get close enough to the screen to read the message.  It was a simple email, stripped bare of frills or ostentation.  I finished and stood back.  Sarah watched my expression patiently.  “Well?”

“You can’t take it,” I said instantly.  “You definitely have to leave town now.”

The bemused look on her face sharpened into the warning signs of indignation.  “I don’t have to do anything, Dev.”

“They got into your server, Sarah.  If someone can do that, then…”

“Then they can find where I live, sure.  But, according to you, Asher already knows that.  If this was him, do you really think he’d tip his hand by sending me a message first?”

I paused and considered that.  “He might,” I said, feeling slightly petulant.  There was every chance that Asher would send a taunting message, but only if it were a part of some larger scheme.  He hadn’t revealed himself to me until he’d needed to keep me stationary while his sniper got into position.  “OK.  No, he wouldn’t.  But I still don’t know whether the Puppetmaster is on my side, or just against Asher and his handlers, whoever they are.”

“About that.”  Sarah clicked one of three attachments at the bottom of the email, and the previous spreadsheet filled with numbers appeared on the screen again.  “What does this mean to you?”

“Without any context?”  I skimmed across the information.  The numbers displayed were frighteningly large, and being moved across legitimate and illegitimate companies in alarming quantities.  Some of the names I recognized; others, I’d never seen before.  “Looks like a shell company,” I said finally.

“Looks like several shell companies,” Sarah corrected.  “I asked a…friend for help.  He couldn’t get me any answers, so I went looking on my own.”

“So?  Who’s this…”  I squinted at the top of the spreadsheet.  “…BMC?”

“They’re nobody,” Sarah said.  “At least, not that I can find.  But some of these other companies they’re ‘doing business’ with?  They have paper trails.  Nearly all of them are just shell companies.  The intricacy here is…it’s more than I’ve ever seen.”

“And you got this from whoever hacked your server?”

Sarah nodded.

There was a light that leaped into Sarah’s eyes when she got excited or intrigued.  When we’d worked together, it had been one of the many things I’d fallen in love with: that joy she felt whenever a problem piqued her interest and drew out her full potential.  She was better, even on her worst days, than most organizers, planners, and computer specialists I’d encountered.  When she was in the zone, focused and interested, Sarah left them all in the dust by a mile.

At that moment, she wore that glimmer like a cloak of diamonds.  It glittered in her eyes and she vibrated with tense, electric energy.

“What else?”  I asked.  I squelched the voice in my mind that warned me against drawing her any further into my troubles.

Sarah minimized the spreadsheet and opened a video file in its place, talking while she manipulated the windows’ positioning.  “Most of those companies are overseas, of course, in countries with some fairly severe privacy laws.  The locations I could track down are probably fake.  Every breadcrumb leads to another breadcrumb, and every one of those breadcrumbs just ends in a dead end if I follow the trail long enough.”

“Could you have done the same thing?”

“I could, but there really wouldn’t be a point.  It’s a maze of connections, just between any three names on that balance sheet.  Add in the totality of them, and it’s absurd.  And to tie all those into a single, overarching company?”

I looked back at the screen and, instantly, recognized what I saw.  “Where’d you get a copy of the bank job?”

“Came in the email.”

“What else did you get?”

“One thing at a time,” she said.  “Here, watch.”

Sarah pressed play.  The first few minutes of the video played out as I remembered: Asher and his crew subduing the people inside the bank, the explosion, the billowing smoke, and then the deaths of six Russian thugs.  I started to say something, when the image changed to a second video that I hadn’t seen.  In it, Asher held a decorated book of some kind under his arm.  He cradled it to his chest before he left the vault and, presumably, the bank.  “What was that?”

“The book or the video?”

“Both, I guess.  In that order.”

“I don’t know what the book is.  I was actually hoping you might have a clue.”

I shook my head.  “Never seen anything like it.  Did you ask any of your contacts?”

“My contacts don’t really know a lot about art,” she said.  “That’s more your area of expertise.  As to the second question, I’m assuming it’s exactly what it looks like.  I did have a relative expert check the validity of the footage.  It’s real.  Or, at least it hasn’t been altered.”

“Why didn’t the Russians show me that footage?”  I asked, and stopped, mouth open as realization hit me.  “They didn’t have it.”

Sarah clicked her teeth in agreement.  “It does make sense, doesn’t it?  But who might have had a reason to install a second, secret camera?”

We said the answer at the same time.  “The Puppetmaster.”

The two of us sat there, bathed in blue light, for a while.  Beyond her undisguised joy at a mystery to be solved, I couldn’t read anything in Sarah’s expression.  For my part, I felt the old familiar sensation creeping up on me.  My instincts told me that we were on the right track, but that we were missing a vital element of the puzzle.  Sarah moved before I did, sending the video to the taskbar and opening the third attachment: a high resolution picture of a golden crown.  I turned and raised a questioning eyebrow to her.

“It’s a crown,” she said.

“I can see that much, thanks.”

She shot me a faint, vaguely amiable, sneer.  “It’s a special crown.  Archeologists uncovered it in Wales and it’s on display at the Museum of London for the next two weeks.”

I mulled over that information.  “So, someone breaks into your server and sends you an email with a balance sheet for a mystery company, a file that shows Asher stealing a book of some sort, and a picture of a crown.  But without actually telling you what job they want to hire you for?”

“If you had to guess,” Sarah began, “what would you say the message is supposed to actually mean?”

“They’re connected, or else why send them together?  Asher’s the link between this BMC and the job in Limassol.  Stands to reason that he’d be the connection to the crown too, so…I’d guess someone’s trying to tell you that Asher is going after the crown next.”

“Five points to O’Brien,” Sarah said.  The twinkle in her eyes told me that she’d come to the same conclusion on her own.

I noticed, finally, the notepad I’d left on her seat.  It lay on her desk, just in front of the left monitor.  “Probably going to need that, if this gets any more complicated.”

“You’ve got no clue.  I had to start an entire file just to keep up with all the moving parts in this.”

“Can you send me that?  Figure I’m going to need that at some point.”

“I can,” Sarah said.   “You’ve got some time before our flight leaves, anyway.”

“Yeah, I can definitely use a refresher on the details, but…”  I stopped, as my mind caught up with Sarah’s last sentence.  “Our flight?”

“What, you thought I’d just send you off with my money, without making sure you don’t just run off with it?”

“Sarah, you can’t –“

She shot me a look, so packed with so much meaning that it actually took me aback.  There was that familiar glitter of interest, hardened by Sarah’s unbendable will, and something else that I couldn’t identify.  I could easily imagine how any argument would play out.  An hour or two of back-and-forth yelling – Sarah insisting that she was capable of making her own choices, me attempting to dissuade her from willingly jumping into a situation of literally incalculable danger – but she wasn’t ever going to budge.  I remembered that much about her.  It wasn’t a question of whether or not she’d take the job offer; it was a matter of exactly how much misery I wanted to earn before I eventually yielded the point.

“When…when do we leave, then?”  I asked, and tried not to feel too happy at the elation that appeared on her face and in my chest.

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