“I’ve got the layout on my screen,” Sarah said. “I can’t tell your exact location without the cufflinks, but with the security feed and the mini-camera you’re wearing, there’s enough information to work with. Head over to the ancient history section. I’ll keep an eye out for any guards and alert you if they change their rotation.”
“Yes ma’am,” I whispered back. The smile tickled at the edge of my lips. I kept it from my face and voice by only the barest margin. I checked the lobby once more with a quick peek from around my cover before I started to creep through the darkened museum, clinging to each hiding place for a few seconds. I made it all the way across the lobby, to a long hallway, without any incident.
“It’s quiet,” I said. Then, after a lengthy moment where I tried my best not to finish the thought, “Too quiet.”
Sarah groaned. “It’s a big building, and most of the guards are on patrol around the actual art work. This crown isn’t the only traveling exhibit here.”
“So, what’re we looking at? Even spread of guards throughout the area?”
“No,” she said, and I heard the frown in her voice. “Some areas are better protected than others, some barely get visited.”
“I’m going to guess that the crown belongs to that first category.”
Sarah sighed. “You would not be wrong.”
I shook my head and shrugged. “Wouldn’t be any fun otherwise, I guess. Am I clear for this hallway?”
She didn’t answer for a moment. I listened as she searched the camera feeds, via an intricate rhythm of clicks and taps. “Clear for one and a half minutes. There’ll be a staff office on your left. Keycard lock, but I’ll open it when you get there.”
I hurried forward, into the hallway. The Museum’s exterior lights fell behind me and dimmed to tiny pinpricks of illumination. In the darkness, I strained my eyes in search of the office door; at the same time, I counted down from ninety and spared a glance up every third second in case one of the guards decided to break from tradition. I knew, academically, that Sarah would warn me if that happened, but those instincts were hardwired. At seventy-five seconds, I saw a glint of metal approaching. As I drew close enough, a red light attached to a card reader set into the wall appeared. The light turned green and a click came from the door’s locking mechanism, just as my hand touched the doorknob. I slipped inside and closed the door behind me.
“Hold there for three minutes,” Sarah said. “You didn’t see him, but there’s a guard coming up on the room now. His path takes him down to the lobby, where he’ll linger for a bit, and then he goes back up to his original post.”
I glanced down. If there was a gap between the door and its frame, it was too tiny for me to see. Experimentally, I removed the pocket flashlight. I covered it with my hand and clicked it on. “Pull up the feed from right outside this room,” I said.
I moved my hand away from the flashlight’s bulb for a second, covered it again, and then repeated the maneuver. “Did you see that?” I asked.
“See what? Was I supposed to see something?”
“No, you were not.” I relaxed minutely and let the pocket flashlight illuminate the room, as best it could. “You said three minutes, right? I think I’m going to look around, then.”
“Go for it,” Sarah said. “But don’t forget: two and a half minutes. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait out another patrol.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem.” I pivoted and let the flashlight pan across the room. It was a relatively small space, with two chairs and a low desk in the center of the room. A diploma hung on the back wall. I focused the light on the plaque for a moment, committing the name on it to memory, and then went back to the desk. Its top was cluttered and covered with a mess of folders and documents. I took three steps forward – which encompassed nearly all of the space available for movement – and plucked one of the papers off of the desk. The information on the single sheet of paper consisted of spreadsheets that detailed the arrival and departure dates for some of the museum’s traveling exhibits. I picked up another piece of paper and its contents were essentially the same, although the names changed.
I went through five more pieces of paper like that, giving each document three or four seconds of my attention before I reached for another, before Sarah stopped me. “Wait,” she said. “Pick that one up again?”
I hadn’t been paying any particular attention to the paperwork and it took me a bit to find the specific sheet she wanted. I pointed the flashlight at it so that I could read what it said. “What is it?”
“Hold it a little lower.” I complied and brought the piece of paper down so that the tie bar faced directly at it. “Well, that isn’t good,” Sarah said after a couple of seconds.
“Third line from the bottom,” she said.
My eyes traveled down the page until I reached the entry in question, third from the bottom. At first, it seemed like more of the legalese and financial jargon I’d begun to ignore. Then, I noticed what Sarah had seen at first glance; in the space marked for “sender,” someone had written the letters BMC in black pen. I read on, eager to see what our mysterious Magi had sent to the Museum, but the remainder of the information was encrypted with an arcane series of letters and numbers.
“You’re in their system,” I said to Sarah. “Can you find out what exhibit this is supposed to be?”
“I’m looking now,” she answered.
I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. “So,” I said, mostly to myself, “Asher’s supposedly working for the Magi, but he’s also planning a robbery at a museum they’ve already…I don’t know what the word is.”
“Infiltrated?” Sarah suggested. “Compromised?”
“Either one works,” I answered absently. My thoughts had begun to test connections at high speed, firing through possibilities in a split second. None seemed to fit the information I’d managed to gather over the last few days. Even the small section of my brain that I’d specifically tasked to think like Asher failed to provide a suitable answer. “It doesn’t matter, though.”
“If he wants it, then I want to get it first. If that’s all we know, that’s enough for me right now. Anything that helps him to get even the tiniest bit more power is something that I really do not want him to get his hands on.” I paused. “What, do you think we should stop?”
“No!” Her answer caught me off guard with its sharp immediacy. I blinked and she tried again, calmer. “No, I don’t. You’re right. If it’s something he thinks is going to help him in whatever he’s got planned, then I don’t want him to get it, either. It’s just…”
I finished for her. “It’s just that you can’t figure it out. There’s a puzzle to unravel, and you hate not being able to understand what’s going on.”
“There’s so much going on here that we don’t understand, Dev,” Sarah said. “Russian bank jobs. Assassins. The drug trade. There aren’t a lot of things that worry me, and even fewer that scare me. But these Magi…they’re scary, Dev. Really scary.”
Privately, I agreed with her assessment. Asher’s planning made him a serious threat, even without the added benefit of a veritable army of hired goons. The addition of a considerable amount of wealth only raised that danger alert to a fever pitch. I didn’t say any of that out loud, though. I’d already resolved to get Sarah away from me, as fast as possible, to save her from whatever hell Asher was now capable of raining down.
So, out loud, I said, “It’s one job. We pull this off, he comes to us, and then we can wash our hands of the whole thing.”
“If you say so.” Sarah’s voice quivered slightly. I’d never heard anything like this from her before. I didn’t like it, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it from here, in an office inside of the Museum of London. “Damn, you missed the window. You’ve got another four minutes before you’ll get another chance.”
“I’m not in a rush, am I?”
“No.” She checked something on her computer. “No rush. They wrote up a duty roster, and put it into the network. They don’t change their rotations for the rest of the night.”
I nodded. “Infested, by the way.”
“We were trying to find the right word for what the Magi are doing?” I reminded her. “Infested. A museum they’ve already infested.”
“That’s a…sobering thought.”
That line prompted several seconds of awkward silence. I cleared my throat after the tension grew too thick for me to bear. “Any luck on tracking down the exhibit that the Magi sent here?”
She cursed softly. “No. Well, not really. I can track down the manifest easily enough. That leads me to a database where each item here is catalogued and tagged with an ID number. The identification number, however, leads to a dead end. Basically, according to their shipping records, there is nothing in their warehouse that matches the ID number. Even though you’ve got the paperwork right in front of you.”
“That makes sense,” I said.
“How, exactly, does that make sense?”
“If you were a part of some shadowy criminal organization, would you want to leave your information in a computer system where any suitably skilled and motivated individual could peek at your activities?”
“They can’t have expected this to happen,” Sarah said.
“Of course they didn’t,” I replied. “But this isn’t necessarily the kind of thing you have to start practicing all of a sudden. If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s a standing policy against storing too much detail electronically. There’s got to be a paper trail; just the one warehouse probably handles enough money that the logistics are a nightmare. But there doesn’t have to be a digital paper trail. It’s easier to protect a single file cabinet than an entire network, right?”
“Then why would that document just be out in the open? Shouldn’t it be behind lock and key somewhere?”
“If it’s important, you’re right. It should be.” I mused over that in silence for a few seconds. “No system is any stronger than its weakest link, though. The best security in the world is useless if you hired an idiot who just leaves the information in plain view.”
Sarah coughed in surprise. “I told you that, back in Brussels. You actually remembered that?” She asked.
“I do pick up information every now and again, you know.”
“Well, imagine my surprised face.”
I smiled to myself in the darkness.
“Alright,” Sarah said, quickly returning to her professional role and voice. “Five seconds and then the hall’s clear.”
I clicked off the tiny flashlight and stood with my hand lightly touching on the office’s doorknob. “Call it.”
“Three. Two. One.” Silence for two more seconds. “Alright, go now. You’re heading straight down until the wall, then right. You’ll see the crown’s exhibit.”
I opened the door with as much delicacy as I could manage, stepped into the hallway, and pulled the door shut behind me. The soft click as the lock re-engaged was, in the comparatively silent hallway, like a gunshot. I tensed, prepared to run at the first word from Sarah. She said nothing and, after five incredibly tense seconds, I fast-walked to the end of the hallway.
Each camera I passed drew a nervous glance from me. While their lens still turned in synchronized rhythm, occasionally pointing directly at me, no alarm went up and no guards rushed to my position. “Can you do something about that?” I asked Sarah. “Make them…I don’t know, point somewhere else?”
There was another camera less than two yards away from me. It swiveled suddenly, fixing me in its gaze. I froze. The camera’s lens stared at me for two seconds, before it turned to the left and then to the right. I realized, after a panicked second, that the camera was shaking its lens, providing a silent no to my request. Over the comms, Sarah began to giggle.
“Really?” My heart was still pounding in my chest. “Because this is a good time for practical jokes?”
She tried to answer, but her laughter kept her from forming words. I stayed angry at her poor comic timing until I reached the end of the hallway and turned. By then, I’d relaxed and privately started to chuckle as well. Sarah’s practical jokes were simply an outlet for nerves. If she was anxious enough to play with the cameras for a quick laugh, then it was absolutely for the best that she release that energy before she made a mistake.
It also reminded me once more of the old days, but I banished that wistful recollection the instant it reared its head. I could reminisce later, after the crown was safely out of Asher’s reach and Sarah was free to wait out the remainder of his war in safety.
I saw the exhibit for the crown before I was close enough to actually see the crown itself. I walked up to the gate cautiously. “Time?” I asked.
“Four minutes, thirty-two seconds and counting,” Sarah said.
The gate was kept shut with a slightly modified tumbler lock. If I’d had more time to plan this job, or greater liquid resources, I would typically have just bought a copy of the key from an underpaid security guard. As it was, I spent one minute fiddling with the lock before it popped open. Privately, I gave myself a pat on the back for not breaking yet another lockpick. “Anything special I should know about?”
“According to their own network, no. Three minutes, thirty seconds.”
There was nowhere in the exhibit room to hide. I could see that much at a glance. A small alcove across the hall offered the smallest measure of concealment, though. Moving quickly, I could grab the crown and retreat to the safety of the alcove until the guards patrolled away and gave me an open path to freedom. I slipped through the barely opened gate and took long steps to reach the crown. It was surrounded by paintings, cave drawings, and various other artifacts of a bygone age. I ignored all of them.
The crown was only five long strides into the exhibit room. Just inches away from the dais, I took a second to examine the object I was about to steal. It wasn’t remarkable in any way that I could see. There were no jewels encrusted into its surface and, from what I could remember, nothing noteworthy about the time period historically. It wasn’t exactly worthless, but it wasn’t something that Asher would have looked twice at. Obviously, there was more to the crown than what it appeared to be.
There was no point considering its true value at that moment, though. I hesitated for a second and then plucked the crown from its dais with two fingers, holding my breath as I did so. Nothing happened.
I waited ten more seconds before I turned to go. “Huh,” I said. “That was…”
“Devlin!” Sarah snapped. “Don’t. Move.”
My muscles locked where they were. “What? What is it?”
She didn’t answer, at first. The normally frantic pace of her typing accelerated so much that it sounded like machine gun fire. When she finally spoke, I recognized the distance in her voice; that of someone speaking to themselves aloud. “Nothing from their personal network,” she mumbled. “Their system is under my control, and every exterior port should be jammed from Helen’s DDOS. Cameras are clean, guards are on regular rotation.”
“Sarah,” I said, injecting as much calm into my voice as I could muster. The crown hovered an inch off of the dais, but I wasn’t sure if replacing it would help matters. “What is going on?”
“There was an electrical surge, as soon as you picked it up. I just can’t figure out what it was from. That amount of wattage normally accompanies very large energy expenditures suddenly coming online all at once, but I can’t figure out where it came from.” She slammed her hands down on her desk in anger or frustration. The sound nearly made me jump in surprise.
“I’ve…got an idea,” I said carefully. Using my free hand, I dug into one of the jacket’s secret pockets until my fingers found the aerosol spray can. I pulled it free with two fingers and, when it was firmly in my grasp, turned the nozzle away from me.
“What are you…” Sarah trailed off.
I pressed the nozzle down with my index finger. The mist from the spray can drifted delicately to the ground. Three inches away from the floor, the white fog revealed an angry, ethereal red line. As I watched, the red line moved away from me, out of the revealing mist. Sarah inhaled sharply over the comms while I turned in a tight circle, my finger forcing more and more of the aerosol spray into the room. When I’d turned three hundred and sixty degrees, my situation was clear. A moving laser grid had sprung up all around me, visible only through the light dusting of mist from the tiny can. I tried to find a pattern for five seconds before I realized that I simply wasn’t capable of parsing that much information. Fear mixed with adrenaline and nerves was a poor booster for analytical thought.
“Shit,” I said. “Just…shit.”
“Shit,” Sarah agreed.