It was a quaint cottage, built atop a low hill with a carpet of lush grass and an unobstructed view of the town two miles away. As promised, there was a dark blue SUV parked in front of the building. Michel drove the Aston Martin as close to the cottage as he could, directly next to the SUV, and switched the car off. “Now what do we do?” He asked.
Mila moved first. “I’ll check the place out,” she said.
I desperately wanted to stretch my legs, but Mila’s concern gave me pause. “You think it might be booby-trapped?”
“No. That doesn’t mean I’m not about to check anyway, though.”
I couldn’t fault her for professionalism, especially when three other lives depended on her circumspection. She slipped out of the car and headed toward the cottage. Sam, who had managed to twine himself around Mila’s feet in the wheel well, hopped up into the seat and started meowing softly at the window.
Sarah cleared her throat and, when she saw that she had my attention, deliberately returned her tablet to her messenger bag. “I thought this was a gift from your Lady?”
“I don’t know that I’d call it a gift,” I said, “so much as an operational expense. But, sure. What’s your point?”
“You think she’d arrange for us to have a base, just to kill us when we get here?”
I shook my head. “That doesn’t mean that Hill or Asher didn’t somehow find out where we were going and set up a trap of their own. Especially Asher. That would be exactly his style.”
“To get a little bit of information that no one thinks he has, and use that as an advantage at a critical moment,” I said. “In this case, finding out that the Lady arranged for us to have a local base. Then, he’d just plant a bomb or hire a sniper,” a shudder ran through me as I remembered Kiev, “and pick us off at his leisure.”
Mila returned to the car. “It’s clear,” she said.
“That was fast,” Sarah said.
Mila shrugged. “Not really enough space inside to hide anything dangerous. Of course, I’ll check the car for any explosive devices and I’d recommend installing your own security system.”
“Obviously,” Sarah replied. She threw the strap of her messenger bag across her chest and stalked out of the car, into the cottage.
I watched her go without comment. When the door to the cottage closed behind her, I turned to Mila. “You’re a woman. Do you have any idea what that was about?”
She gave me a flat look. “Not my area. Besides, she’s your ex-wife.”
Michel coughed violently.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “It is nothing at all.”
“If you’ve got something to offer, by all means.”
“Well, I do not know Sarah very well,” Michel began, “but what I do know of her is that she enjoys being in control of the situation.”
I snorted. “That’s kind of an understatement. What’s your point, though?”
“She was ‘retired’ before you went back to America, no?” He continued before I could answer. “It seems as though she returned to this life, because of a desire to help you, Devlin. And to help herself, of course. But now, you are relying on this Lady so much, instead of her.”
I stared at the cottage. “You…might have a point,” I said finally.
“Sounds reasonable to me,” Mila said. She didn’t sound at all interested in the conversation. “So, what are you going to do about it?”
I gestured for Mila to step back and allow me enough room to step out of the car. The grass was plusher than I’d expected. “Same thing as always: figure it out as I go along, I guess,” I said. “Where’d you say that computer was?”
“It’s more like a computer room,” Mila said, “but if you head straight back, past the bedrooms, you can’t miss it.”
I walked away from the car, up the hill, and into the tiny cottage. The interior leaned slightly towards cluttered, instead of cozy. Whatever Sophie – wielding the considerable authority the Lady clearly possessed – had done, it must have been rushed. Jeans, sweaters, and jackets had been folded and placed on several living room chairs. With four people working, it wouldn’t have taken too much effort to place everything in its proper place, but I didn’t expect to stay in this countryside for very long. I continued past the living room, through the hallway, and eventually reached a closed door. The familiar hum of a high-powered computer fan reached me from the other side of the door.
“Sarah?” I knocked on the door. “You busy?”
The response came thirty seconds later. “It’s not locked.”
I took that as an invitation and opened the door. The computer room looked nearly identical to a dozen command stations I’d seen her set up before. Placed directly in the center of the back wall, an elaborate system, complete with multiple monitors and scrolling news feeds, glowed with electric energy. Sarah’s body was little more than a silhouette. “So,” I said, “think we could get Netflix on this rig?”
She turned slightly. Not far enough that I could see her face, but enough that I got the impression of a supremely scathing side-eye. “Some of this equipment isn’t even legal in America,” she said, turning back to her work. “It’s barely legal here. Military grade technology, designed for industrial espionage and cyber warfare. If I’d had something even half as good as this, back when we…back before we split up, there’s no telling what we could have accomplished.”
“That’s a good thing, right?”
“It’s amazing,” she said in a voice that sounded anything but amazed. “And your new friend Sophie managed to pull strings to get this system delivered to this out of the way cottage – a cottage! – in, what? An hour? Maybe two?”
It had been almost exactly one hour and forty-two minutes since I’d spoken with Sophie, but I decided that information was better left unsaid. “It isn’t a competition, Sarah…” I began.
She whirled on me and I froze in the face of her sudden anger. “You think I’m jealous?” She laughed bitterly. “Seriously, that’s what you think this is about? Me, jealous of Sophie or this oh-so-mysterious Lady? Have we met before?”
I opened my mouth, realized that I had no earthly idea what to say, and closed it again.
“I’ve got two jobs,” Sarah continued, raising a finger. “One: handle the operations and planning side of things. I apparently can’t do that, because Asher’s like a goddamn bloodhound who won’t give me enough room to do anything other than react. That leaves everything up to your ability to just wing it.”
“I can’t do anything about that, but -”
“Number two.” She raised another finger, cutting me off. “Information collection, by whatever means I’ve got access to. And I can’t do that properly because Asher’s bosses or partners or whatever-the-hell-they-are have connections so deep that even my hacker contacts are terrified to risk showing up on their radars. That just leaves me, making a frankly insane choice every time I don’t just cut the cord and disconnect. Which I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do, even if I wanted to, because the Lady knows as much as God, apparently.”
“She said you can leave whenever,” I said immediately.
“And you believe her? Really?”
I considered the question for a second. “Yes,” I said, “I do. I don’t think she wants anyone on this job that doesn’t want to be here. You remember what happened when we talked Destiny into the thing in Milan?”
Sarah closed her eyes. “Okay, so there’s no point in bringing a reluctant criminal with you. I get that. But that still isn’t the point.”
“Then what is the problem?”
She sighed and sagged into her chair. “Maybe I am a little jealous. Not for the reasons you think, but still. Mila’s at the top of her game; Sophie’s apparently got the connections and pull necessary to pull off something like an entire building in virtually no time at all; and the Lady is just…well, you met her. How would you describe her?”
I tried, and failed, to think of a single word to summarize the Lady’s sheer presence. I lifted my shoulders and turned my hands palm up, instead.
Sarah seemed to understand the gesture. “Exactly. It’s only been a couple days, and I’m already feeling the pinch. If I’m just dragging you down, then the best thing would be for you to do this without me. I don’t want you to get caught by Asher, because you were trying to protect me.”
Behind Sarah, one of the computer’s speakers emitted a high pitched beep. Both she and I shifted our attention to the monitors as the image of a large mansion appeared on the central screen, and several scrolling pages of text began to populate monitors on the left and right. I was reluctant to switch conversational tracks – this had the feeling of a Talk that needed to happen, sooner rather than later – but she sighed and returned to her work.
“We’ll finish this later,” she said. It sounded more like a promise than a simple declaration.
“Okay. What do we know about the address?”
She scanned the screens, tracing the lines of text with a fingertip. “Well. Two things to start with. Bad news or worse news?”
I groaned. “Bad news, of course.”
Sarah rolled her chair to the side and I took a spot next to her, close enough that I could see the mansion displayed on the screen. “So, the program I’m using to get visual intelligence piggybacks off of a few different satellites. There’s a pretty healthy delay, which makes it less than ideal for actual jobs, but it’s typically pretty good at finding out what an area looks like.”
“It’s a satellite, so it can only display things as seen from the sky. And, as you can see…”
I leaned closer to the central monitor. I could see shapes positioned at opposite corners of the mansion’s roof, as well as at least six other black forms placed at seemingly random locations around the grounds. “Guards,” I said. “Probably armed, if our luck holds up.”
“I’d be willing to bet there are more inside, too. From this angle, I can’t get a look at any physical security that might be on the building’s front or sides.”
“Still, it’s better than nothing. And when you’ve got access to their network, you can just disable any electronic countermeasures.”
Sarah winced slightly.
“You can disable any electronic countermeasures, can’t you?”
“That’s the worse news. The explanation gets a bit technical, but the punchline is that I can’t seem to find any network for that building. Without an online connection, there’s no way for me to access their security.”
“That is…bad,” I understated. “We’re ahead of Asher, though. That gives us a little bit of time to figure out a workaround.”
“I already know the workaround,” she said. “It’s just not one I’m thrilled about.”
I raised an eyebrow and waited for her to elaborate.
“If there isn’t an external port that I can use to gain access,” she said, “then any communications or cameras they’re using would have to run on an internal system.”
“And that means?”
Sarah sighed. “Basically, it’s impossible to remotely hack in. On the bright side, that limits all communications to strictly in-house.”
“No calling for back-up?”
She shook her head. “Not electronically, no. Phones would still work, of course, but jamming equipment is relatively easy to come by, compared to what your Lady already set up here.”
“She’s not my Lady,” I countered immediately.
“Anyway. I could shut down their internal network entirely, but that would require a physical intrusion.”
I blinked. “I know what at least two of those words mean.”
“I’ll give you a flash drive,” Sarah said slowly, “and you will plug it into one of the computers, inside the building. You’ll have to make it past however many guards they’ve got, avoid any cameras like the plague, and find a computer first, but after that…” She shrugged.
“Could you just pretend there’s good news, here?” I asked. “Because I could use some good news.”
“There is a public bill of sale for the property,” Sarah offered. “Several bills, actually. The current owner is one Richard Weatherby Hill.”
I perked up slightly. “Names are good. I like names.”
“I thought you might,” Sarah said. “I’ll get started on a full background for our Mr. Hill soon. It’s probably fake, but still. Also, on a whim, I had a program trace back through the ownership. There were the usual dummy corporations and shell companies, some of which I’ve actually seen on previous financial reports. Guess who was at the end of that Yellow Brick Road, Dev?”
“The Lollipop Guild?” I asked, without much hope. “The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz?”
Sarah reached for a can of Diet Coke that I’d somehow missed and popped it open with a loud fizz. “Try wizards, plural.” She hit a series of keys and data ceased its unrelenting scroll on the right monitor. I followed her finger with my eye until I saw the three letters I’d expected and dreaded in equal measure: BMC, Corp. “It looks like the Magi have had this property for years and they’ve only recently deeded it over to Hill.”
Something about that bothered me. “The Texan said that the key’s supposed to be in that mansion. Hill and Asher want the key. Why would the Magi put something that valuable in a building that’s practically in Hill’s backyard?”
“Maybe they trusted him?” Sarah suggested. “Or they still do?”
“Possible,” I allowed, “but unlikely.”
“So, what then?” Sarah swiveled in her chair to face me.
“I…don’t know. But there’s something there. I don’t know what yet, but I feel it.”
“Let me know when you figure it out. Until then, however, we’ve got work to do. I’m going to need a more in-depth search of this cottage from Mila. I’m sure the Lady installed surveillance here, although I’m not sure exactly how much she could have done with so little notice.”
“Feeling the need for privacy?”
She scowled at me. “Not at all. I can deal with the fact that she’s keeping an eye on us, seeing as we’re technically working at her behest right now.”
“Then why waste the time?”
Sarah winked at me. “A girl’s got to have her secrets.”
I understood an instant later. Thus far, I had managed to avoid revealing any information to the Lady that she didn’t already know and had kept up that façade in the hotel suite and the Aston Martin. Sarah intended to keep her plans secret, so long as there was a possibility – a surety, really – that the walls in the tiny cottage had eyes.
“Alright,” I said, “play coy. What else do we need?”
“Without knowing exactly what OS they might be using in that mansion, I’ll have to write something particularly destructive that would work on any system. If I felt comfortable logging into the community on this system, I’m sure I could find something that somebody’s already created. But I’m not about to lay a trail of breadcrumbs, so I’ll have to do it myself. That’s going to take time.”
She took a long drink from her soda. “Depends. There should be one I’ve used in the past on one of my servers. Revising it might take a couple of hours; might take a couple of days. I wasn’t keeping up with security updates and backdoors in San Francisco, after all.”
I had no intention of asking her to elaborate on what she had been doing, so I simply nodded.
“Michel needs to do a drive-by of the property, too. There was a camera in the living room that I saw. If he can get pictures of the security, from as close as he can get without raising alarm, that’ll help immensely with any job we end up having to pull.”
“I can go with him,” I said. “Michel’s still new to all this, and he wouldn’t really know what to look for, anyway. Besides, this will give me some time to get a better idea of who he is.”
Sarah considered the merits of that before she nodded. “Sounds like a plan. It’s only a couple of miles away. If you get into any trouble, Mila won’t be far. Take one of the GPS trackers with you, just in case something happens. And don’t throw it away, out of some misguided idea of chivalry. Asher should still be casting around for clues as to where we are, but I’m not going to bet on that.”
“Probably for the best,” I said. “I’ve never seen anyone underestimate him without paying for it in some way or another before too long.”
Sarah minimized the information on three of the screens, while data continued to tick by and scroll past on the top monitors. “I was serious,” she said, without turning. “We are going to finish this conversation later.”
“Sarah, I…” I trailed off, as her fingers began to fly across the keyboard at a rate of speed closer to machine gun fire than human movement. Instead of pushing the point, I backed out of the room – pausing momentarily to fish one of the GPS cufflinks from a bag near the door – and shut the door behind me, leaving Sarah to her vital work.