The first part of the plan was, ostensibly, the easiest: a simple infiltration, with the added wrinkle of a broad daylight approach. I rode in the back of the Aston Martin, with Mila, while Michel drove us as close to the property as we could be without being seen in return.
“Alright, listen up.”
I could tell from the reactions in the car that Sarah was broadcasting to all of us. Michel was still unused to her sudden voice. He jerked the most. Mila was, of course, entirely without reaction, except for the beginnings of a wry smile. “Devlin only needs to find the physical cable they’re pulling their connection from and attach a clip to the line,” Sarah said. “That doesn’t take very long, but we don’t know how difficult it’s going to be to find the damn thing.”
“Which makes two of us into distractions, oui?” Michel asked.
“I wouldn’t have said it quite so bluntly.”
Mila checked the magazine of one of at least six different weapons I’d counted, slammed it into place, and yawned. “Call it what it is.”
Judging from the sudden pop and fizz, Sarah opened a soda on her end of the connection. “All you two need to do is get the guards to look east, away from Devlin. And you’ve got to do that without actually being seen by them.”
“Any restrictions?” Mila asked.
Sarah cleared her throat. “What?”
Mila sighed and repeated herself, slightly slowed down. “Are there any restrictions on how we choose to cause that distraction?”
I raised a hand. The gesture would be lost on Sarah, but Mila saw it perfectly. “I’d like to officially request that we not kill anyone.”
“Not even the guards?” Mila asked. “They’re just as guilty as the Magi and Asher are.”
“Maybe, but some of them are probably just doing their jobs. Unless I know for sure which ones are the real assholes versus the ones who are just kids in the wrong place, I’m going to err on the side of caution. So, no killing.”
“I make no promises about the state of any arms or legs.” Somehow, Mila managed to give off the impression of physically turning her attention away from me and back to Sarah. It was an impressive feat considering Sarah’s location at the time. “Any other restrictions?”
“What did you have in mind?” Sarah asked.
“Nothing yet.” Mila paused and amended the sentence. “Nothing definite yet. But nobody’s going to die, if that’s you’re worried about. It might actually add a little bit of positive pressure; incentive to really get up and go, if you know what I mean.”
I didn’t. Michel didn’t either; he angled his head so that he could watch Mila in the rearview mirror. And, if the considerable delay before Sarah’s reply was any indication, she was also clueless. “I’m listening,” she said finally.
“Well, you two don’t want the guards to know what you’re doing. You also don’t want the little girl figuring it out before you have a chance to explain things.” She looked at me for confirmation, and I nodded. “In my personal experience, people stop thinking clearly when they’re under attack.”
“Didn’t I just say I didn’t want any killing?”
“First, you don’t give me orders.” She said it casually and without any particular malice. It was just a simple statement of objective fact, coupled with the certain knowledge that there was nothing I could do to stop Mila if she was suitably motivated. “Second, I’m not going to kill anyone. I’m just going to simulate an attack.”
I started to shoot that idea down. Sarah cut me off and spoke first. “It’s got merit. We want them on edge. A little controlled chaos might be good. If nothing else, it will definitely pull their attention away from the cabling. You’re sure you won’t accidentally kill someone?”
“I’ll use low caliber, short range weapons,” Mila said. “I mean, I can’t say for sure that a miracle won’t happen, but it’s not my goal.”
“Fine. Do that, then. I’ll find a suitable spot for you to set up and get that to you after you drop Devlin off.”
My personal distaste for guns was coloring my judgment. I knew that much. It didn’t make me more amenable to the plan. “Controlled chaos,” I reiterated. “If they go into full lockdown, things go sideways immediately and we’ve got to go with plan B.”
“Why, Devlin,” Mila said. She shaped her lips into an exaggerated O and covered it with one hand. “It’s almost like you don’t trust my ability to shake things up.”
“I’ve seen what happens when you shake things up,” I countered.
“Children,” Sarah cut in, “we’ve got a plan and we’re sticking to it.” She was pure business now. “Devlin, do your check. The car’s coming up on the drop site right now.”
For the second time in a week, I was working in a suit. It gave the job an air of class, in exchange for marked discomfort. The extra pockets were nice, though. “Lock picks, mace, taser, collapsible baton.” I ran a hand over my jacket and called out each item as I touched it. “That clip thing, a cell phone jammer, and sunglasses.”
I took the frames from an interior pocket and slipped them onto my face. “Can’t let them see my face, can I? Michel, you’ve got your very own pair in the glove box, courtesy of yours truly. Well, our concierge, but I’m the one who ordered them.”
He reached over to retrieve them. “Merci, Devlin.”
“Mila,” I continued, “I assume you’ve got your own?”
“Several, actually. I was about to bring that up myself, actually.”
I mirrored her earlier gesture: round mouth, faux indignation. I didn’t say anything, however. Mila understood the callback just fine, and I didn’t really feel like getting called out over comms again.
“Alright,” Sarah said, “you’re set. Michel, pull over.”
“Already?” I asked.
“Time flies, et cetera, et cetera.”
Michel pulled the Aston Martin to the side of the street, behind a large tree and a thick wealth of foliage. I stepped out of the car, avoiding a suspicious mound of leaves, and removed my mace and the clip. “See you in a little bit,” I told Michel and Mila.
Michel reached for the brim of his hat, only to realize that he wasn’t wearing one. He turned the gesture into a half-hearted salute.
Mila reached out and grabbed my forearm. Her reach caught me off guard which was, I suspected, the point. “You get into any trouble,” she said in a low voice, “I’m coming down to get you out. Regardless of how much noise it makes or the collateral damage. Clear?”
I tried, and failed, to shake my arm loose. “I’m not going to get into any trouble. So long as you take care of distracting them, this should be…”
Sarah coughed, deliberately, as loud as she could into my ear. “Don’t.” Pause. “Seriously,” she continued in a more measured tone, “don’t. No jokes right now.”
Mila released me. I pulled my arm out of her range, measured the distance, and took another long step backwards just in case. “No jokes,” I repeated.
Mila leaned back in the seat, utterly at ease once more. If I hadn’t seen her move, I would’ve sworn she was too far away by half.
“Michel and Mila, you guys get into position,” I said. I began to move myself into the appropriate headspace. “I’ll move when I get the all-clear.”
Michel saluted me once more. Mila pulled the car door shut and the Aston Martin pulled a neat three point turn and left in a different direction than from the one we’d taken on approach. “I’m muting you for a second,” Sarah said, “while I get them to a good spot. Don’t do anything that…just, don’t do anything.”
The line popped twice and she was gone. I rolled my shoulders, stretched my hamstrings, and leaned my weight against the large tree. Three minutes passed before Sarah returned. “Dev. You’re on.”
At that exact moment, a sustained burst of gunfire reached me from over the hilly distance. I pushed off of the tree, pushed my way through the dense foliage, and took off at a dead run toward the house. My prison exercises focused on strength, not endurance, but adrenaline gave me the extra boost I needed. As I drew closer, I could actually see guards unslinging weapons and heading to the front of the house, closer to the gunfire. Their eyes were focused forward and so I, comparatively unarmed and running silent, managed to reach an exterior wall of the building without any conflict. “Here,” I said between gasps for oxygen. “What am I looking for?”
“It’ll be a large box, like a circuit breaker,” Sarah said. “Trust me, it’ll stand out.”
I pressed myself against the wall and moved more slowly. The gunfire continued in the distance, interspersed with sporadic pauses and occasional return fire from the house’s guards. I didn’t see the box at first. I stopped for ten seconds to catch my breath and force myself to focus before it finally came into vision, hidden in a recess along the wall. I hurried over to it, still clinging to the wall like a spider. “Got it.”
“Find the thickest cable running out of the box and attach the clip.”
I let my fingers flip through the wires until they found one thicker than the others. I examined its length and picked a spot close to the box itself. The clip was concealed by the nest of other cords and wires. “Now?”
Sarah was quiet for thirty seconds. “I’m in! Cameras, interpersonal communications, and email.” Another burst of gunfire rattled in the distance, longer this time than before, and then it fell silent. The guards returned fire two more times and their guns went quiet as well. “Meet back at the foliage, Dev. Michel and Mila are on their way now.”
I stuffed the mace back into my pants pocket and ran. A part of me wanted to look back, to see how close the guards were, if they were even returning. I squelched that idea and poured it into my legs instead. At that speed, I nearly crashed into the foliage, but caught myself at the last instant. I went around the bush and crouched in the leaves. It wasn’t long before Michel and Mila pulled up near me.
“You never get tired of that,” Mila said, as she opened the door and ushered me inside. She was smiling wide now, like a wolf or tiger. A shiver ran through me at that smile. When I was seated, she left through her door and re-entered in the front passenger seat. “You know, you should come shooting with me sometime, Devlin.”
“Rain check. Sarah, what’ve you got?”
The keystrokes from her end of the connection sounded less like fingers and more like rapid machine gun fire. “Sending the backdated messages now. I’ll probably have to freeze the system for a bit to force a restart, but that…is…done.”
“What about the cameras? You said you had them.”
“I can’t check them while the system’s rebooting,” she said. “But I erased your little jaunt up there and I pulled the archives. It looks like…looks like you were right, Dev.”
“The girl. Avis. She definitely has free reign inside the building. No guards, just a handler. Might be the guy you and Michel were talking about.”
Michel pulled the car out of concealment and started toward the building. Sarah talked over him and I realized, after a moment, that he wasn’t hearing her words.
“Devlin, I don’t think she’s a prisoner. Like, at all. From the way this looks, she’s here of her own free will.”
I couldn’t reply verbally. Sarah had isolated our communications for a reason. Even though I didn’t know what reason that might be, I could at least follow her lead. I tapped the earbud twice: our universal sign for “I’m listening.”
“What the hell is happening here?” Sarah asked, rhetorically. “These cameras don’t zoom in far enough for me to see any of the information, but just the quantity of physical documents here is absurd. You know how we thought this was bigger than anything we’ve dealt with before? I think it’s even bigger than we were imagining.”
I tapped the earbud two more times.
“Are you ready?” Michel asked, out loud. I pulled my mind away from Sarah and back into the car. “We are close.”
The plan came back to me, possibly more important now than before. “Mila, you’re the bodyguard. Michel, you’re going to have to play the same part. I know it’s out of your wheelhouse, but I don’t want to risk leaving you alone if things go wrong.”
“I gave him a gun,” Mila said. “It should help sell the role, so long as he doesn’t say anything to give him away. If someone starts asking questions, pull back your suit coat and let them see the gun. That works just fine on most people.”
“And the rest?” Michel asked.
“I’ll handle the rest,” she replied, and flashed another of her predatory smiles.
The line popped to let me know that Sarah had connected the various channels into one. “I can give you visual support now. I’ll erase the footage after we’re done, so there won’t be a record of your faces. If they communicate with the Magi after you’re gone, so much the better; that’ll give me at least one of their addresses. It probably won’t lead anywhere, but it’s still better than nothing.”
Michel slammed on the brakes. I was prepared for it, but the sudden deceleration still slammed me into the back of Mila’s seat. “I’ll keep that in mind,”I said. “Can’t talk right now, though.” One of the guards approached, a trail of smoke still climbing from his weapon’s barrel into the morning sky.
Mila leapt out of the car first, a .45 caliber handgun in each hand. She faced the guard for a frozen moment, then turned in the opposite direction and pointed her guns at some invisible point in the distance. “What’s going on?” She demanded, without turning.
The guard was taken aback. “What is…I…” He spoke English, in reply to Mila’s usage.
“What. Is. Happening?” Mila repeated.
“We were attacked,” the guard said. In the face of an authoritative figure, he acted as most people did: he assumed that Mila knew more about what was going on than him. “No knowledge as to who attacked, but we’re searching the town now.”
“Good!” Mila nodded once, forcefully and emphatically. “Very good. We can’t let him get hurt.”
“Did none of you think to check your messages?” Mila demanded. The poor guard, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, wilted under the attention. “There are things going on, and the girl has got to go. This area is no longer safe. The attack just a few moments ago is proof of that. She needs to come with us, immediately.”
“With you?” He narrowed his eyes slightly. “Who are you?”
That was my cue. I opened the door slowly, dramatically, and stepped out of it with my face angled specifically to reflect the rising sun into the man’s eye. The effect was cheap and easily produced, but no less effective. “I was sent here by your superiors.” I elected to use the German accent. The organization was multinational and my German radiated authority like no other accent I could comfortably use.
The guard blinked and thought my statement over. When he finally understood the implication, his eyes widened and his mouth fell open. “You…you…”
I waved an impatient hand in the air, and he stopped. “Hill sent me to retrieve the girl. She has information that must be kept under control. We intend to retrieve that information and then dispose of the program.”
“Devlin,” Sarah said into my ear. Her businesslike demeanor was gone; in its place, I heard emotion, raw and unconcealed. “Be safe. Don’t be a hero, okay?”
While the guard busied himself with communications, consulting with various higher-ups about the validity of our arrival, I let my fingers rest against the side of my neck. The guard turned toward the house, facing away from me and I tapped the earbud once. I paused, feeling the situation’s dire stakes once more in a deep part of my chest, before I tapped it a second time.