Chapter 38

We decided to leave the Aston Martin at the station, after several minutes of tense debate.

Sarah maintained that the car was entirely too distinctive.  It was a flashy vehicle, she said, and holding onto it only increased the likelihood of a possible tail.  Also, it was apparently Mila’s personal car.  Neither Sarah nor I had the foggiest idea of her true intentions or goals, and we couldn’t rule out that the strange woman was working against us in some way.

My position centered on the fact that it was just too cool to simply abandon.

Sarah won.  “Check the trunk before you go” she said, while I mouthed silent goodbyes to the Aston.

‘Why?”

“Check it and find out for yourself.”

I found the appropriate button to open the trunk and exited the car to check its contents.  Inside the storage space – which thankfully did not trigger any phobic reactions beyond the ones I’d long since grown accustomed to – I saw one familiar item and one I’d never seen before: my suit coat from the gala and an all-black travel bag.

“When Mila picked up your earbud from the grass,” Sarah said, “I told her to the grab the coat, too.  Figured you might like to have that back.”

I pulled the garment on.  Between Asher’s successful kidnapping attempt, and unsuccessful bid to torture information out of me; Mila’s surprising and fortuitously timed intervention; and the seat-of-our-pants job that Sarah and I intended to pull on the Museum of London, my clothing choices ranked at the bottom of any reasonable list of priorities.  All those issues aside, I couldn’t deny that I felt more complete, more capable of dealing with the coming challenges, with the coat on.

“Thanks for this,” I said.  “Seriously.  And the travel bag?”

“A…variety of goodies that I managed to pull together at the last second.  I met Mila at a station along the way and gave her anything I thought might help.  I didn’t know what she’d need to get you back from Asher, so it’s sort of a grab bag, honestly.”

A collection of gear was inside the bag: an older set of obsolete lock picking tools, latex sheaths to conceal my fingerprints, a collapsible mirror, two miniature containers of pepper spray, a pocket flashlight, and an aerosol can filled with compressed air.  I shifted the contents of the bag around and found an object at the bottom of the travel bag that I didn’t recognize.  “What’s this?”  I asked, lifting the item and holding in front of the tie bar so that Sarah could see it.  The object was disc shaped, with wires wound around its surface, attached to a series of metallic bindings.  There were two buttons on its surface.

“That’s hard to explain,” she said.  “Technically speaking, it’s a localized EMP.  Press both buttons at the same time, count to five, and then let them go.  I won’t go into the technical details, but when it goes off, anything electronic within about thirty feet gets fried.”

Should fry, you mean?

“No, it works.  I built it myself.”

I considered what I held in my hand.  “What’s the downside?”

Sarah hesitated for a moment.  “The problem is that I couldn’t figure out a way to shield anything from the EMP burst, including your communication device, and I couldn’t lower the range.  A huge section of a building suddenly going dark is a fairly big signal that something untoward might be going on, so I just scrapped the whole idea.”

“When did you build this?”  I asked.  “You didn’t have anything like this when we were…”  I trailed off.  It was still too difficult to discuss the past.  What I had lost – what I had ruined– was too fresh in my thoughts.

Sarah must have felt the same, because it was a long time before she answered.  “I got bored,” Sarah said finally.  “It passed the time.”

“Well, anything that might give me an edge,” I said.  “What do I do with this thing?”

“It should fit underneath the jacket, over the sleeves of your shirt,” she replied.  “Put it on your left arm, just in case.  It shouldn’t be possible to accidentally trigger it, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

I removed the jacket so that I could fit my arm into the contraption.  “And you’re sure this works?”  I asked.  “You tested this yourself?”

“Who else could I ask?”

It was an innocent question, perhaps even a sarcastic one, but it still stung.

“It’s going to bother me if I let this pass without comment,” Sarah said suddenly.  “So just…just let me get this out, okay?”

I had no idea what I had said or done, but I nodded anyway.  “Uh…okay, sure.  Go for it.”  I crossed the parking lot, travel bag over my shoulder, and headed to the train platform.  The train back to the heart of London waited; men and women were boarding and I couldn’t afford to wait for the next one.

“What you said before,” Sarah said, “about me needing to prove myself?  I don’t think you really understand what it’s like being me.  And I’m not about to get into all of that tonight.  Let’s just say that ‘proving myself’ is just a part of who I am.  The idea of you thinking that you have to protect me is…uncomfortable.”

None of this was new information.  The block on Sarah’s shoulders made her volatile and irritable on bad days; on good days, it drove her to become an inescapable force of nature.

She wasn’t finished, though.  “If we’re going to do this – if we’re going after Asher – then we have to be partners.  Like we used to be, before…you know, before.  I’ll try not to get upset when you go off-script, but you can’t decide to cut ties and go it alone again.  Not like you did tonight.  Asher was going to kill you.  How do you think it makes me feel, knowing that you’d rather go through that alone instead of asking for help?”

It was a rhetorical question.  At least, I was reasonably sure that it was rhetorical.  Even if it wasn’t, I didn’t have an answer available, and so I let silence spread into the gap after Sarah’s words.

After a minute, Sarah spoke again.  “We’ll handle this museum job, first.  But if you can’t figure out a way to work with me again, instead of going it alone at every opportunity, then I’m going to have to go.  I can’t…I won’t watch you kill yourself.  Do you understand?”

Every word she spoke pulled at my heart.  I’d heard those words, or something similar, over three years ago at our last conversation.  They didn’t hurt any less now than they had that evening.

She was right, of course.  I knew that much.  It wasn’t fair of me to ask for help, but cut her out when things got dangerous.  Protecting her from the fallout of my own actions was one thing; excluding her when things got dangerous relegated her to a satellite position.  From there, it was only reasonable that her ire would rise and rise until she eventually burst from impotent frustration.

If I had only sent a letter, or an email, or a message via Alex.  If I hadn’t shown up in San Francisco, there was a chance that she might have simply ignored the mysterious email that persuaded her to come to London.  She could’ve moved to some quiet country town where Asher couldn’t find her.  She could have lived out the rest of her life without my meddling presence, without being dragged back into the muck of the underworld she’d left behind.

The solution to the conundrum was obvious: I had to cut her loose.  After the crown was in my possession, I’d have the advantage over Asher.  He would have to come to me and, while he was fixated on my movements, Sarah would be able to slip away, using his distraction as a smokescreen.  There had to be identities she hadn’t used yet.  There were probably accounts I’d never heard about.  Sarah could have a chance to live.  This whole situation with Asher was my mess.  I could clean it up without involving her any further.

“Okay,” I said, after an eternity of silent contemplation.  “Okay.”

I boarded the train and rode until I reached the station nearest to the Museum of London.  No one gave my passing a second glance, but my nerves were on high alert.  I couldn’t help but to carefully examine every person I encountered, for fear that Asher was still somehow keeping an eye on me.  No attack came, which was nice.

When Sarah finally spoke again, the shock of her voice jolted me out of my seat.  “Got it!”  She paused.  “I think.”

Several pairs of eyes were on me.  I settled back into my seat, waving an apologetic hand above my head as I did so.  When I felt that no one was tracking me anymore, I spoke.  “Got what?”

“Access to the museum’s network,” she replied.  “And…there goes their firewall; I’m in.”

“How’d you get in?  And keep the explanation layman friendly, please?”

“Heaven forbid I use words too big for you,” Sarah said.  I smiled at the gentle shot.  “I got help.  Without getting too technical, their firewall was heavy duty.  I put out a job request to some of the online community and an old associate tasked a few dozen of their zombie computers to just brute force the damn thing.”

I tired, and failed, to decipher her meaning.  “I know that, technically, zombie isn’t a big word, but…”

Sarah chuckled.  “Systems they’ve already compromised.  The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s kind of like a flash mob.  Difficult to trace where the attack came from, when there are so many people doing the same thing.  The signal actually came from…”  I heard several rapid clicks.  “…one HelenOfTroy.  And, before you ask, he or she is probably not actually working from Greece.”

My joke thwarted, I shifted tracks.  “Did Helen break in with a Trojan Horse?”

Sarah groaned.

“Alright,” I said, after sparing a moment to bask in the glory of my terrible pun, “show time.  What can you do with that access?”

The train came to a stop.  I pushed my way through the sparse groups of people riding the train at that hour.  The Museum was within easy walking distance of the stop and I set off a quick pace.
“I’m working on administrator privileges, right now,” Sarah said.  “I should have those within a couple of minutes.  Until then, I can track camera feeds, but I can’t alter or erase them.”

“At least I won’t be going in completely blind.  What else?”

“Well, for the low price of my personalized stockbroker program, Helen agreed to provide a little cover for my intrusion.  As soon as I can get admin rights and a remote desktop to work with, Helen’s going to slam the server with information requests.  That’ll keep anyone from coming into the system in my wake.  Unless someone awfully skilled comes looking, the whole attack will just seem like some thrill seekers trashed a network for the amusement factor.”  She went quiet for a second.  I assumed she’d just now heard her own words.  “I’m still going to cover my tracks, of course.  Just in case.”

“Right,” I agreed, “Just in case.”

“If the guards use a method of communication that requires the internal network, I can track it,” Sarah said, changing the subject from her verbal faux pas, “but I can’t do a thing about landlines or walkie talkies.  If you run into someone, they can still call for help.  At that point, all I could do is put the place on lockdown.”

“After I get out of the building, I hope,” I said.

“I was on the fence about that, actually,” Sarah shot back.  “Let’s see how things play out.”

I laughed out loud, still walking down the sidewalk to the Museum.  “Ha ha.”  I over-enunciated the syllables for effect.  “Very funny.”

“I thought so.”  Sarah cleared her throat and I felt the change in the timbre of the conversation.  “What kind of an approach are you thinking about?”

There was a closed café across the street from the Museum.  I reached an empty table, leaned against it, and closed my eyes.  The street the sound of passing cars faded first to background noise and then, eventually, to silence.  In my mind’s eye, the layout of the museum – at least what I’d been able to see before Mila’s distraction – stretched out in front of me.

It took a moment to get into the right headspace.  It had been nearly three years since I’d needed to access that particular part of my brain.  When the sensation of arrival hit, it was like a physical rush: sweet as sugar and twice as addictive.  Even my guilt about Sarah’s involvement disappeared.  With my eyes squeezed shut, there were only two things that mattered in the world: my team and the job.  A shark-life smile crept, involuntarily, across my lips.

“I counted eight guards at the gala,” I said.  Even my voice sounded different to my own ears: clipped, more assertive, focused.  “How many do you see on the feeds?”

There was a brief pause, punctuated by the staccato rhythm of Sarah’s fingers flying across her keys.  “Difficult to get a solid count, but it looks like at least sixteen.  Only eight of them are anywhere near the crown on a regular basis.”

I heard the change in her voice, too.  We were professionals again.  At least, for a little while.  “That’s a lot for a night shift,” I said.

“Their network security was a lot for a museum,” Sarah replied, with the equivalent of an audible shrug.

I acknowledged that with a slight nod – one that she obviously couldn’t see but that I knew she’d simply understand – and moved onto the next point.  “Where did they actually put the crown, after they were done showing it of?”

More clicking.  “Museum staff moved a lot of the other artifacts from around the same time period, as well as the crown itself, to its own gallery.”

“Can you open the door?”

“The electronic one, I can handle.  There’s a gate, too, but it’s a basic tumbler lock.  You shouldn’t have any problem getting past that.”

Finally, the tiniest bit of luck.  “Anything else?”

“Two cameras, on complimentary schedules.  I’m creating a loop of about fifteen seconds right now and I’ll switch the feed over to them as soon as I have the rights.”

If anyone else was managing the operations side of the job, I would have doubted their ability to handle their tasks on such short notice.  This was Sarah, though, and the idea of questioning her proficiency in any way was too absurd to consider.  “Alright.  That’s all, then?”

“The guards seem to be on a weird rotation.  When you reach the gallery, you’ll have to get through the gate, grab the crown, and make yourself scarce in about five minutes.  Maybe less.”

“Still,” I said, opening my eyes, “it’s hardly the strictest timeline I’ve worked under.”

There were a few cars approaching from the right, so I waited until I couldn’t see their taillights before I hurried across the street.  A high curved wall hid me from the eyes of anyone still within the building.  When I reached the side of the street closest to the museum, I lingered for about thirty seconds, leaning against the wall with one foot propped up.  If I looked too suspicious, it would be only too easy for some concerned citizen to call the police.  It was difficult to feign casualness, with my heartbeat pounding like war drums in my head, but I pulled it off.

When I felt that I’d spent the appropriate amount of time waiting, I hazarded a peek around the wall and up the gentle incline that led up to the museum.  I could make out one camera directly over the entrance, sweeping slowly from left to right.  Its angle would give security a good view of anything more than a few yards away, but it was too high to provide a visual of anything directly underneath it.

I checked the street and sidewalk again, in both directions.  I was clear.  I walked as casually as I could manage, both eyes fixed firmly on the camera, counting the seconds as it reached one end of its path, stalled for a moment, and then began to swing in the opposite direction.  It reversed direction three times before I grasped the timing.  At the end of its fourth journey, when its lens was pointed as far away from me as it would be, I accelerated into a sprint.  The incline added an extra degree of difficulty to the run, but I made it to the museum’s entrance with a good three seconds to spare.  I flattened myself against a wall to catch my breath, and then turned to the door.

The door was locked, of course, but it was a basic lock.  Presumably, the people in charge counted on their security guards, their cameras, and their alarm system to protect them and had skimped on the door lock itself.  I knelt and used my lock picking tools to apply the right amount of pressure to the right tumblers.  The process went slower than I remembered.  I swore when one of the picks snapped.

“Seriously?”  I muttered to myself.  “Of all the skills to forget, this is the one you choose?”

I shook my head and rolled my shoulders until they loosened.  I tried again and was more successful that time.  The door’s lock opened with a barely audible click.  I took the time to survey the museum’s lobby before I actually pushed the door open.  Only a few lights were switched on, which cast the interior in an eerie mix of light and shadow.  I let my vision un-focus, sacrificing detail for a slightly enhanced ability to note movement.  There was none.

I blinked, returning my vision to normal and entered the museum.  As soon as I felt the cooler air, I cast around for something to hide behind.  There was a pillar a yard or two from my position and I threw myself at it.  In the darkness, I found a deep enough shadow to melt into easily.

I was out of practice, out of shape.  This was a museum I’d never infiltrated, and my knowledge of the architecture was sorely limited.  I only carried the bare minimum of the gear I’d painstakingly assembled over the years.  On her end, Sarah was working without a net, navigating layers of electronic security at frenzied speed.  The most stressful job I’d pulled in years had been a simple retrieval of my own property.  And, still looming behind us, was Asher; his presence added a dire weight to every decision.  My heart thundered in my chest, dumping adrenaline, fear, and anxiety into my system in one confusingly intoxicating cocktail.

I couldn’t help it.  I smiled, wide and honest, to myself in the darkness.  This felt like coming home.

“Devlin?”  Sarah’s voice only added to my smile.  “I’ve got the admin rights, finally, and the cameras are blind.  What’s your status?”

I wrestled my amusement back down.  I knew the danger of the game I was playing, and I knew the stakes.  I could self-acknowledge that laughter was an inappropriate reaction to the stress of the moment.  When I felt certain that even Sarah wouldn’t be able to hear the suppressed smile in my voice, I cleared my throat.  “I’m in.”

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