Over the next two days, Michel and I ran the circuit between our cottage, the mansion at the edge of town, the Rose and Thorn, and back to our cottage five different times. By the time Sarah’s code was finished, I’d amassed at least two hundred individual photographs of the property and several panoramic views we could use in conjunction with her satellite imagery to assemble a more complete idea of what the grounds looked like. She and I reviewed the photos on the third day, over two boxes of Cat’s lamb dish, while Mila and Michel made the drive a sixth time.
“Here’s the problem,” Sarah said. She gestured with a half-full soda at the mosaic of photos that coated the coffee table.
“Just the one?”
“..the problems. One: I can’t remotely access their network. If I can’t get into their security, you’d have to do the entire job completely blind.”
I swallowed a mouthful of beer. “We still don’t know exactly how many guards they’ve got on the property, either. Maybe Mila could just take a few of them out, to clear a path?”
“And if you get captured?”
“If I get captured, then… Asher will know for sure that we were after something there. It wouldn’t take him long to figure out that the key was here from that point.” I trailed off and drained my bottle. “So that idea’s out.”
Sarah finished her soda. She stood from the couch, walked into the kitchen out of my sight, and returned a moment later with another beer for me and a bottle of wine for her. I took the offered drink with a slight nod. “Whether or not Asher knows where the key is,” she finished, “it won’t matter. They aren’t going to leave Avis there for very long. If I were the leader of an international crime cabal, and my secrets were suddenly at risk of being exposed, I think I’d just have to sanitize the whole situation before anyone could come after my flank.”
“Don’t use euphemisms,” I said. I opened the beer, with the help of one of Michel’s discarded lighters, and took a drink.
Sarah raised an eyebrow and nodded. “I’d kill everyone who knew anything,” she rephrased. She passed an exhausted hand over her eyes.
“Why not kill her where she is?” I mused aloud. Sarah gave me a sharp look and I raised my hands before she could say anything. “I’m not advocating it. But why go through the trouble of moving her somewhere to kill her? I’m pretty sure the guy we saw with her could have easily handled a little girl.”
“That…is a good question.” She bit down on her bottom lip in thought. “Here’s another one: why bother keeping a hostage happy? You said her handler had books to give her?”
I nodded. “The two of them seemed…weird. Like brother and sister, if that makes sense.”
“Why would they let her form a familial attachment with her handler?”
“Not to mention,” I added, ” you don’t take a hostage out for dinner, in public, where there are witnesses.”
“You don’t take a hostage out anywhere, if you can help it.”
“Fair enough. Any suggestions?”
Sarah shook her head. “None. I could come up with some, but…I need more time.”
We stared at the pictures in silence, until the SUV pulled up to the cottage. Michel entered first, in the midst of a shared joke with Mila, who brought up the rear with two small plastic bags in one hand and two stacked to-go boxes in the other.
“Howdy,” Mila said. She dropped the to-go boxes on the dining room table and continued on into the kitchen. She removed one bottle of wine and one bottle of liquor from the plastic bags. The wine went into the fridge; the liquor, which I recognized as a particularly rough brand of Scotch, returned with her to the living room. “So, we did that drive-by. Security isn’t anything special. If I had to guess, I’d say maybe a dozen guards to keep the whole property on lockdown.”
“Only a dozen?”
“Might be more, might be less,” Mila said off-handedly. “Oh, and Michel and I ran into one of your friends, Devlin.”
I perked up. “What?”
“The clean-shaven man from the other day,” Michel clarified. “He was at the petrol station.”
“What?” Surprise sharpened my tone. “Did he recognize you?”
“No, no! Of course not.” Michel shook his head rapidly. “I saw him. He did not see me. Mila went into the store, while I waited in the car with the windows up.”
“Oh, okay. Well, that’s…a thing, I guess.”
“He was leaving town,” Mila said. Still, without any apparent interest in the subject at all. She was so casual about it that the implications didn’t sink in for nearly a full minute. “Full tank of gas, the type of snacks you buy for a long drive, and enough energy drinks to give a dead man a heart attack.”
Click. The pieces fell into place. “What did you say about Avis’ handler, just a second ago?” I asked Sarah.
She visibly weighed whether she should answer or drink more of the wine. “I said that they probably don’t want any one person getting attached to her.”
“So, if one person seems to be getting too close…” She didn’t seem to get it. “They’d have to switch them out.”
Sarah let out a long breath. I watched her expectantly and when her eyebrows lowered, my own lifted in anticipation. “They’ll need a new handler,” she said slowly. “Someone’s going to have to be there to facilitate the transfer. They have to send a new handler to escort her to wherever the Magi are shipping her off to.”
“Did I miss something?” Michel asked.
Mila filled two glasses with Scotch and handed one to the Frenchman. They clinked glasses over the center of the table. “Apparently.”
I focused my attention on Sarah. “Forget about their security for the moment. What can you do with access to their communications?”
She had it now. Sarah pushed herself up from the floor and reached for a laptop behind the sofa. “Courtesy of the Lady and the concierge – Sophie, sorry – I should be able to jam their phones for an hour or two. Since they’re using a closed network, they shouldn’t be anticipating any network intrusion…especially not one that doesn’t seem to change a thing internally.”
“But I wouldn’t have to change anything internally. All I need to do is block out any external messages from reaching them. That part would be easy. Sooner or later, the Magi are going to need to inform them on the transfer. I can catch and delete those messages before anyone inside the house has a chance to read them. Then, I could just plant a few emails of my own, maybe a couple backdated for authenticity and urgency.”
“Do you understand what they are talking about?” Michel asked Mila.
“Not a clue,” she answered. “But it seems very important.”
Sarah swept an arm across the coffee table, clearing it of papers and photographs. I remembered once more, with a hot flash of urgent desire, how it felt to watch Sarah when she was in the zone. “Now, this is something I can work with. You’re going to have to do a little bit of this blind, though. I won’t have the cameras until after you’ve done what I need you to.”
“I’ve worked without camera support before,” I said.
“Yes?” Mila had finished one glass of liquor and was in the midst of pouring herself another. She gave Sarah a beatific smile. “I thought you’d forgotten about me.”
“How professional can you look, on short notice?”
Mila placed the bottle of Scotch back on the table and sipped from the drink for a moment in thought. “I still have that pantsuit I wore to the museum gala,” she said finally.
“Where?” Sarah asked.
“It’s in the trunk of the Aston Martin right now.”
“Good, good. Presentation’s going to be key, here.”
“Sarah?” Michel asked tentatively. “Will I need to find a suit, as well? I am afraid that there is not one in my room and I did not bring one with me.”
“No,” Sarah said. “But, if and when things leave the rails, it’s always good to have a driver in your corner. Feel like driving the Aston Martin again?”
The smile that lit up his face put the room’s low lamplight to shame. “I am always willing to drive that beauty again.”
“Make sure everything’s in working order, then. Fill the tank, if you need to. Wash it, thoroughly. I need it to shine.”
“It’s beginning to sound,” I said, struggling to keep the satisfied smirk from my lips, “like you’ve got an idea.”
“I’ve got more than an idea, Dev.” Sarah looked up from the laptop. She wore that same wild smile I’d fallen in love with so many years ago. “I’ve got a plan.”
I woke just before dawn, when the first rays of sunlight were beginning to inch across the sleeping town. I stumbled blearily into the living room. Mila was there, in the middle of a yoga pose with both of her arms stretched high above her head. She nodded at me without breaking form. “Morning.”
A yawn made its way past my lips before I could reply. “Morning. You’re up early, aren’t you?”
“I don’t sleep much.” She lowered her arms and, as part of her next position, raised one foot to the opposite knee. “You?”
“Prison,” I said.
She gave a grunt, translating a wealth of information without the need for further explanation.
“Sarah’s up, too.”
My eyes narrowed fractionally. “Really?”
Mila shrugged and, somehow, managed to keep her balance. “She was in the kitchen when I got up.”
I sighed. “Computer room?”
Mila nodded again, and I left in that direction. The sound of a pen scratching against paper let me know that Sarah was, in fact, quite conscious already.
I entered quietly and closed the door behind me. “Have you been up this entire time?” I asked. “Do I need to get you some coffee? Or cocaine, I guess? Really, whichever works.”
Sarah’s computers glowed with electric light, but she wasn’t seated in front of the monitors. Instead, she was on the floor, cross-legged and surrounded by multiple layers of pictures. “I slept,” she said. “Not a lot, but some. I’m just double-checking your escape route.”
“Triple-checking, you mean? Or…I don’t know, pick a number higher than three.”
Sarah grunted and continued her work.
I stepped carefully over the prints until I stood in the clearing next to her. “It’s a good plan, Sarah. If something goes wrong, that’s up to me. You can go over every inch of it for weeks, but you just can’t plan for everything.”
“The Lady can, apparently.”
“That’s hardly a fair comparison.”
Sarah pulled a piece of gadgetry from behind her back and held it up so that I could see it. It wasn’t anything I recognized, so I waited a few seconds for her to explain. “I asked Sophie for a jammer and she told me there was already one. It was in the back of my closet. Top of the line, wide spectrum shit, too. She was that far ahead of us; the Lady knew what we were going to need even before we did. If she can keep up with all the information at her fingertips – our locations, the Magi, whatever the hell else she knows about – I should be able to figure out this one job.”
I knew danger signs when I saw them. She was shaking slightly. Her fingertips twitched in rapid, minute adjustments. Her breath was audible in the room, fast and shallow. I knelt in the circle of clear space and took Sarah’s hands in mine. “No one can plan for everything. Seriously. It just can’t be done.”
She finally looked up and locked eyes with me. Her pupils were dilated and unfocused. “He could, couldn’t he?”
There was no need to ask who she meant.
Sarah continued, the tempo of her words increasing with each passing second. “Sure, we’ve got a temporary little lead right now. But he’s got a plan for everything else, doesn’t he? And even if we pull this off, it’s only a matter of time before we make a mistake, or he gets a lucky break, or Adlai catches our scent and starts tracking us down. What’ll we do if –“
“Sarah!” My voice became sharp and loud; that volume was only magnified by the nearness of the walls in the small room. “You are not responsible for everything. This isn’t the first time we’ve worked at a disadvantage. And we made it out in one piece from those, didn’t we?”
Reluctantly, she nodded once.
“This one isn’t going to be any different,” I said, faking a confidence I didn’t feel. “You make the plan, I handle the wrinkles. Stay calm, get in, get out, and go home afterwards.”
There was a pregnant pause that filled the air. I remembered, belatedly, that our relationship was drastically different now than it had been when last we’d worked together. ‘Home’ didn’t exist anymore.
Sarah was too distracted by her own anxieties to notice the slip. She looked away, fiddled with two pictures near her that appeared identical, sighed, and looked back at me. “It’s just that…” She stopped herself, mid-sentence. “No. No, you’re right. I’m overreacting.”
“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying that you have a habit of over thinking everything. That’s a great thing when you’re drawing up plans or going over schematics. It is distinctly less useful this close to the job.”
She sighed and bit her lip fiercely. I stood and took long steps over the photographs to her computer desk to retrieve a half-full Diet Coke. The can wasn’t yet room temperature. I returned to the circle and handed her the drink. She accepted it with a weak smile. “Thanks. For…well, thanks.”
“Mmhmmm.” She took a sip from the soda, paused, and took another. “This is probably as good as it’s going to get, then.”
Behind Sarah, as part of the encircling photographs, there was a sheet of computer paper covered in writing. I pulled it free and scanned the plan. When I finished, I closed my eyes to erase the image in its entirety, opened then, and read the single sheet again. “Looks good,” I said, after my second read-through. “This looks doable.”
“There are a lot of variables I couldn’t account for.” Sarah plucked the plan from my fingers.
“I’ll just have to deal with whatever happens as it happens.”
“That’s…comforting.” Sarah tapped one fingernail against the side of the can. “Michel might be a problem, though.”
“Why do you say that?”
“He drove for the museum job,” Sarah explained, “but that was just a pick-up. Worst case scenario, he got pulled over for speeding. And at the Green Light gala, he just had to be himself: a Frenchman driving two people to a party. That cover’s easy. But now? With what we’re asking him to do?” She shook her head. “The stakes might be too high for him. Maybe we should just have Mila play driver and security?”
I considered that for several seconds before I shook my head. “No, if he’s going to be working with us, then we need to know he can handle the stress. I’d rather deal with it now than wait until he falls apart later.”
“With a kid’s life on the line?” Sarah asked archly. “This is where you want to give him a trial?”
“I don’t want to do that. I don’t want a kid’s life to be in the balance. But it is what it is. Besides, I might need Mila inside and you certainly aren’t about to drive the car. You’re not much better of a liar than Michel is.”
She begrudgingly accepted that with a noncommittal noise and a long swallow from her Diet Coke. “Fine. We’ll do it your way. But you’re going to have to talk to him.”
“Is he up already?”
Sarah stood and walked over to the bank of monitors, sat, and started to mouse her way through various documents too quickly for me to read their headers. “He’s been out back since at least four,” she said, not looking back.
I pushed myself up to my feet. Michel’s part was integral and we couldn’t afford to have him break this close to showtime. Before I made it out of the room, the door swung open. Mila stood in the doorway. In the few minutes since I’d seen her, she had stripped off her t-shirt; now, she wore a pair of sweat pants and a sports bra. Instinctively, I looked away, but Mila didn’t seem to notice or care about her state of dress. “Actually,” she said, “I can handle that.”
“Handle what?” My newfound sense of propriety was foolish, but realizing how ridiculous it was did nothing to alleviate the emotion. “Not clothing, apparently.”
Sarah snorted with amusement.
“Talking to Michel. I get why he’s skittish. You wouldn’t really understand, Devlin.”
“I brought him into this, though,” I said. “He’s only involved because of me.”
“He’s involved,” Mila said, “because he chose to involve himself. He isn’t your responsibility.”
“The irony is strong with this one,” Sarah said, to Mila. Then, to me, “Weren’t you just telling me that I’m not in charge of everything?”
I threw my hands up. “I’m outvoted. Mila, Michel is officially your responsibility. But I do want to talk to him before we go.”
She nodded in acknowledgment. “Fine. What time are we leaving?”
Sarah pulled up a full screen timer on one of her monitors. “An hour, give or take. I want you three to be out before the town wakes up. Go ahead and get dressed before you talk to Michel, Mila. I’d rather not have him pass out due to blood loss.”
For the first time, Mila took notice of the alarming quantity of bare skin. “Oh. Right.”
“Do you walk around like that on purpose, to throw people off?” I asked. “Or do you just not care?”
“Yes,” Mila said. She left the room and closed the door behind her.
Sarah and I sat there for a while before she cleared her throat delicately. “Do you have any idea what her story is?”
“If I knew that, I would be a smarter man.”
I watched her work for another ten minutes, before the interminable lines of code began to blur together in front of my eyes. I gave my excuses to Sarah’s unresponsive back and went to my own room to change. There was a suit in the closet, perfectly tailored with the same secret pockets in the same places. It matched my cover flawlessly: all black, except for a crisp white Oxford shirt. I chose a silver pair of cufflinks, equipped with Sarah’s miniaturized GPS transmitters. A knock came at the door at the exact moment that I finished with my tie.
“Devlin?” I noticed, absently, that Michel’s accent grew thicker as he grew more stressed. “Are you dressed?”
“Just finished,” I said. “Come on in.”
He entered just far enough that he was technically within the room, and leaned against the wall. His tie was a sloppy Windsor knot that I felt a powerful urge to fix. “Mila tells me that we are doing important work today.”
“That’s one way to look at it.” I sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on a pair of shiny black shoes. “Whatever they’re using that girl for, it probably isn’t good. If Asher gets a hold of her, there’s no telling what he’ll do. And the Magi are absolutely certified Bad People. We don’t really want them to have her, either.”
Michel nodded. “That is what I thought.” He hesitated. “What…what will happen if we fail?”
“If we’re right about everything so far?”
His eyes locked onto mine and he nodded.
“They’ll kill her,” I said.
“But why would they do that? If this the code that they have used before, would the Magi not want to keep her safe?” Michel asked. “Why would Asher set all of this up? Does it not go against his own desires?”
“If Asher gets to her, and she tells him what he needs to know, he’d do the same thing as the Magi. Whether she knows it or not, her only chance at survival is with us, for the time being.”
“I am just a driver,” he protested after he’d given the idea several very long seconds of consideration. “I am just a driver, Devlin!”
“And I’m just an art thief. Before this, I was a safecracker and a bookie. Go back far enough and I was a kid, just like Avis, in over my head with people who were used to getting what they wanted.” I hadn’t thought that much about my past in a long time. I was pleased to find that those memories no longer carried the same sting they once had. “This is what we’ve got to do, right now. This is who we’ve got to be. If we don’t, or if we do it badly, we aren’t the only ones who’ll have to pay the consequences.”
He stewed over the idea for a couple of minutes. “If we do not do this, then she will die. If we do this, and things do not go well, she will die. If we do this, and things go perfectly until just after we meet her, then we will all die. Is this correct?”
“Except for Sarah,” I pointed out. “But, yeah. That’s pretty much the gist of it.”
He started to pace, fiddling with his tie. I watched him from my seat at the edge of the bed and stayed quiet. When I finally elected to leave him the space to think in private, he raised one hand and turned to face me. He’d redone his knot into a proper double Windsor, cinched almost to his throat. He cracked his knuckles, one at a time. “Well.”
There was still fear in his eyes. I recognized the subtle twitches and tremors in his hands, the muscles drawing tight beneath the skin of his cheek, the lone droplet of sweat that sprang into existence on his brow and slipped down the side of his face. Beyond that, though, there was determination now. He clenched his fist and, for a moment, stopped them from trembling. “Well, then we should do everything perfectly, shouldn’t we?”