I began to build a mental map of the area as soon as I entered. A cursory count gave me six guards, each positioned at regular intervals along the walls on either side of the entrance. My eyes flicked from one side to the other, taking in every detail and cataloging them for future use. With the exception of my eyes, however, I exuded an aura of ease. A difficult situation could would quickly become catastrophic if even a hint of anxiety slipped past my guard.
“I’ve got a visual on you,” Sarah said into my ear. “Looking for Avis now, but the camera network isn’t very thorough. Can you find out where they’re keeping her?”
I cleared my throat to draw my guide’s attention. “The girl. Where is she?”
He reacted to the tone before he gave the question any real thought. “She’s in her room.”
“Her room?” I repeated, for Sarah’s benefit. “You aren’t moving her to a more secure area, in light of the attack you just suffered?”
“We didn’t have time to do anything else,” the guard replied. “Should we?”
Mila interjected with a loud, dramatic sigh. “Sir, the situation here is worse than we imagined. These people simply aren’t capable of providing adequate protection.”
I nodded in agreement. “It’s a good thing that we’re here to remedy that situation, then, isn’t it? If they can’t keep our asset safe, then there really isn’t a reason to allow her to remain under their ‘watchful’ eyes.”
Insults were surprisingly useful during infiltrations. People inherently react defensively when they feel themselves falling under scrutiny. That was a predictable action; predictability was something I could use.
I watched as chagrin transformed into vain pride on the guard’s face. He turned away from us and spoke to the two nearest men in loud, ringing tones. “You two! Bring the girl down to the banquet hall. Pack her clothing, as well. She should be leaving soon, but I don’t want anything to happen to her before that.”
Neither guard moved. After a few seconds, one of them spoke up. “Excuse me?” His English was flawed, thick with a Baltic accent that I couldn’t immediately place. “You do not give me orders.”
“No, I don’t, but Management does,” our guard said. “And these people are representatives, sent to get the girl. Now go!”
“These three?” The Baltic man barked out a sharp laugh. “I do not believe that Management would send any people who look so soft.”
I stepped forward, in front of our guard, and glared at the Baltic man with everything in me. “Look again.”
He did as I said, narrowing his eyes and drawing in a deep breath. I didn’t make any effort to appear more threatening. Mila, however, was positioned directly behind my left shoulder. She made a small movement and the Baltic man’s eyes traveled from me to her. Whatever he saw in her bearing, his jaw dropped slightly and the fight left him. He said something to the guard next to him in Russian. The two left in a hurry, rushing down the hall until they reached a staircase that they disappeared up.
“Excellent,” I said. “At least this operation isn’t entirely a waste.”
“You said that you are here on behalf of Management.” Suspension tinged our guide’s voice now. I heard it and, from their subtle reactions, some of the remaining armed personnel heard it as well. “But they asked a good question. How do we know you are who you say you are?”
Six weapons raised to point squarely at my spine. The sharp siren of danger rang in my head, even as shivers began to crawl up my back. I kept all that from my face. “Do as my bodyguard suggested,” I said, “and check your emails. You’ll find suitable evidence there.”
Sarah’s fingers hammered a sequence into the keyboard. “Emails are planted,” she said in my ear.
The leading guard tried to check his phone. It beeped, loud enough for me to hear it, and let him know that he was out of the service area.
“Try a computer,” Mila said. “Might have better luck there.”
“Do not move,” he commanded us. “Guards, watch them.”
Our guide walked away from us and into one of the house’s rooms. I risked another look around and revised my estimate; there were at least fourteen gunmen in the building, all of them armed with semi-automatic rifles and a handgun strapped to their side. We found ourselves trapped within a circle of bodies within minutes.
Mila was undisturbed by the tension growing thicker in the room. When I looked in her direction, I saw her at her most professional: her suit was wrinkle free, the tie perfectly even, and the only hint of jewelry she wore were the same silver cufflinks as me. She met my eyes for an instant and, in that instant, conveyed a wealth of information. She was ready to fight – Mila was always ready to fight – but the odds were stacked severely against her. If it came down to it, she would fight to defend me until she or I died.
I resolved, once more, not to let things reach that point.
Michel held his cover admirably, considering the circumstances. I didn’t know how many times he’d been at the business end of a revolver or a rifle. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, then back again. I recognized nervous energy at a glance but, as I tried to consider the situation from the guards’ viewpoints, I realized that Michel seemed more energetic than anything else. The effect seemed to give the guards pause. An energetic bodyguard with nothing to occupy his or her attention could quickly become a serious problem. I made note of their reactions, trying already to come up with ways in which their misunderstanding could be turned to our favor.
I remained stationary, although it took a great deal of my willpower to do so. I was playing the role of an administrator, not a body guard; my physicality wouldn’t be relevant to the situation. I assumed a casual posture, crossing my arms and looking back at the surrounding guards with flat eyes. I went so far as to remove my phone from my pocket, check the time, and sigh in exasperation. “I suppose it’s good to see that you aren’t all entirely useless. Shame that you didn’t have this sort of efficiency when it mattered.”
“Do not talk!” One guard, positioned ahead of us, shouted at me in English. His speech was brushed with touches of lingering Cantonese. “Stay where you are, and do not talk. We do not trust you.”
“He didn’t trust us. Apparently, you all were fine just letting us walk through the building until someone had the bright idea to actually test our identities. But, as soon as your boss gets back,” I said, deliberately digging the insult in as deep as I could, “I’ll do whatever I please. It’s for the best that you simply accept that now, and save us all some time. It probably wouldn’t hurt you to be a little nicer, would it?”
I shrugged and sighed. “Your choice.”
Sarah laughed into the comms line. “So, even surrounded by guns, you still can’t help but needle the hired help? If one of these guys shoots you, I’m not even going to blame him.”
I wanted to reply, but kept quiet. There wasn’t an easy way to know whether her communications with me were private. It didn’t particularly matter. The banter was familiar and personalized. Even if Mila or Michel were listening in, they wouldn’t understand the back-and-forth like she and I did.
“Their server is…particularly well protected,” Sarah said, returning to her business mode, “but the direct terminal isn’t. I’ve got your guy working on a mirrored workstation, with only the emails that I want visible. He’s checking through them now…and now he’s checking the rest of the messages I planted…”
From the room holding our guide, a loud commotion rang out. Items were dropped to the floor, heavy objects tossed aside in a rush to rejoin us in the lobby. “Sir,” he said. He threw me a salute, which caught me off guard for several seconds before I returned it. The guard turned to the assembled guards. “Back to your posts! This man and his companions have been cleared.”
The guards hesitated, lingered for a few seconds longer than strictly necessary, and finally began to disperse back to their original positions. I watched the Cantonese man with a wary eye until he finally moved back to his post. The guard we’d originally met continued down the hall, ordering men to treat me and my companions with the utmost respect. He was a good distance away, before I spoke softly into the microphone. “What was that about?”
“You needed a cover that demanded respect,” Sarah explained. “I didn’t know that guy, specifically, was going to have that reaction. Maybe he’s ex-military?”
I shrugged. “Whatever works. Who am I?”
“Since you decided to go with a German accent, I’m running with that. You are Captain Otto Becker, an officer who decided to break bad after the Berlin Wall fell. Weapons trafficking, smuggling, drugs, and the occasional assassination job. He hasn’t been overwhelmingly successful, professionally speaking, but he’s a solid middle man for operations like this.”
“That’s specific,” I murmured. Our guide began to make his way back to us. Every few feet, he stopped to correct one flaw or another in positioning or stance. After each pause, he looked down the hallway at me. I nodded encouragingly at his actions.
Mila spoke from just behind me. “That’s because he’s a real person,” she said. “I’ve met him. Sarah’s read is pretty accurate, all things considered.”
“Ten points to Mila,” Sarah added. “I found the name when I was going through their emails, so I just plucked any relevant photographs of the man out of the system.”
“Here’s hoping no one here knew this guy personally,” I said.
“They rotate guards, remember? The emails referring to him are from six month ago, at the minimum. I’ve got access to some personnel records, a few duty rosters, but…”
When she didn’t finish the thought, I prompted her. “But?”
“I can see another server’s worth of information, but I can’t actually access it.” She opened a soda on her end of the connection. “Oh! That’s because that specific guard can’t access it. Remote desktop won’t work, then…hmm.”
Michel shifted position and began to play with the keys in his pocket. “He is returning, Devlin,” he murmured.
“What does this mean to me, right now?” I asked Sarah. “Plain English.”
“There might be more information that we could use,” she said. “You need to get into the physical security office. I can walk you through the process from there.”
I smothered the urge to groan audibly and settled for turning away from the approaching guard to pinch the bridge of my nose. “Okay,” I said finally. “Okay, sure. Because this isn’t complicated enough with adding additional objectives. Where is it?”
“This security system has too many holes to say with any certainty. You’ll have to find out on your own.”
I sighed. Mila touched my elbow lightly and I turned back around to face our guide. I assumed the posture and stern expression of a former officer. He was taller than me by a few inches; with practice acquired through a lifetime of impersonations, I managed the not-inconsiderable feat of looking down my nose at him. “Your name?”
“Neal, sir! Benjamin Neal!” He snapped to attention and fired off a salute. Judging from her accent, and the salute, he was an American. His desire to please marked him as a relatively new recruit. It was no wonder that the other, presumably more seasoned, guards hadn’t paid him any attention at first.
“Neal. This operation has been disastrous. An attack, in broad daylight? Where was your security? Your snipers?”
“We…we were told to run a skeleton crew during daylight hours,” Neal said. “To ensure that the locals didn’t suspect anything. Our heavier security doesn’t take up position until nightfall, as ordered.”
“Yes, yes.” I dismissed his answer with a wave of my hand. Internally, I thanked a variety of gods that we’d opted for the daylight infiltration plan. “But that is still no excuse. If a small team is incapable of protecting a single building, what need do our superiors have of those individuals at all?”
Neal paled slightly under the verbal assault. “Sir, the attack was repelled and the girl is still in our custody.”
I dispensed with the stick, and switched to the carrot. “That is true. Perhaps there is hope for you, at least. The rest of these men are…” I sniffed at the air and shook my head. “Who is currently in charge of this location?”
“N-no one is, sir.”
I raised an eyebrow and waited for him to elaborate. Sarah spoke while he worked his way closer to an acceptable answer. “There isn’t a command structure, Devlin. I’ve got weekly messages from a dummy Gmail account, detailing who handles what jobs and at what time. As far as the individuals here are concerned, everyone is equal.”
Neal found his answer, just as she finished. “Our superiors are in charge, sir, as always. We follow their orders.”
“Excellent.” I gave him a vaguely encouraging nod. “After we have finished with our task, a position elsewhere might be available for someone with the appropriate attitude.”
The expression of hope on Neal’s face was heartbreakingly pure. It threatened to draw out memories of my own callow youth, when such praise had the same effect on me.
I turned to Mila and decided, on a whim, to use an old friend’s middle name. “Caroline, give me your assessment of the security here.”
“What are you doing?” Sarah asked. “Did you guys talk about this beforehand or something? Please tell me you aren’t changing the plan.”
I obviously couldn’t answer her. Mila gave me a look of bemusement. Then, in a visible flash, she understood. “Outside, the men were slow to react to danger. We were able to get far too close before they stopped us.”
“Not much better.” She looked up at a visible camera. “How many cameras do you have?”
Neal looked at me for confirmation.
“Answer her question,” I said.
“Six each on the first two floors,” he replied. “Only one on the third floor, as per instructions.”
Mila laughed. “That isn’t enough to keep an eye on a place this big.”
“We were only given –“
“What you were given is irrelevant,” Mila interrupted. “What you need is what we’re discussing.”
I raised a hand before Mila could continue. “Caroline.”
She subsided and stepped away from him. “I need to see what their field of vision is like. I might be able to find out who attacked the property, depending on where their exterior cameras are placed.”
Through the comms, Sarah whistled in appreciation. “That’s what you were doing. Nicely done, you two. If you can get in there without a shadow, that’ll help a lot. Getting all of their intelligence might take a while.”
“Where is your command center?” I asked Neal. “Your…security room?”
“Second floor,” he answered immediately. His shoulders stiffened slightly as a thought hit him. “You didn’t already know that?”
“I do not handle the specifics of individual properties,” I said, exuding even more authority than before. “There are different units, specialized in such tasks. I am here to evaluate the efficacy of this operation, to determine whether or not there are any people worth promoting, and to extract the girl before another attack can compromise that. In that order.” I paused, for effect. “Are you going to make any of those tasks difficult for me? If you are, then…”
Mila stepped forward again, unbidden. She placed both hands in her pockets. The movement drew back her coat and revealed the handles of her twin handguns. Surrounded by men armed with fully automatic rifles, a display of relatively small caliber weaponry shouldn’t have been effective. Mila accompanied the display with a vicious, wolfish smile and began to radiate danger. It rolled off of her in waves so powerful that I unconsciously increased the distance between the two of us. Neal, the target of her aggressive aura, backpedaled away immediately.
“No, sir, not at all!”
“Good.” Mila relaxed and the danger lessened. It didn’t go away entirely, but Neal was able to stand up a little straighter, at least. “My associate needs to examine your security system. You will show us there and then ready the girl for transport.” I deliberately left no room in my declarations for debate, although I was prepared for dissent.
Neal, however, was thoroughly cowed through the dual attack of my faked authority and Mila’s legitimate bloodlust. He snapped off another salute. “Of course, sir.” He turned and raised a hand to get another guard’s attention. The nearest two were the Baltic man who’d first raised questions about our identities and the Cantonese one. Neither seemed as impressionable as Neal.
“Nein!” I raised my voice slightly. In the otherwise silent hallway, the single word echoed. Neal froze, his hand level with his shoulder. “No,” I repeated, in a more deliberate tone, “you will do it. You respond quickly and you are efficient. I will work with you while I am here. Is that clear?”
He glowed slightly. “Y-yes, sir. Very clear.”
I let him savor the feeling for a few seconds. Then, I cleared my throat. “The security room. Show us to it.”
Neal nodded eagerly and started towards the stairs. Mila followed, then Michel, before I – after a hearty nervous swallow – brought up the rear.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Sarah said. I knew, judging from the tone of her voice, that the words for me alone.
“So do I,” I whispered back.