Neal led us past several more groups of armed men, clearly riding high on his elevation beyond his fellow guards. I let him preen without comment; my attention was elsewhere. My eyes were frenzied with motion, darting from one surface to the next in a mad hunt for information. Any scrap of intelligence gained now might turn out to be the critical difference between freedom and incarceration later; a twinkling of information could stand between life and slow, tortuous death at Asher’s hands. There wasn’t much to see, however. The second floor was as undecorated as its first floor. I searched in vain for a slip of paper, a single document that might give me a trail to follow, but those hopes were gradually dashed.
The only interesting thing that I did see dealt more with the guards than their employers. Every guard was partnered with another, and one member of each team carried an old school walkie talkie on his hip. Neal noticed my focus after the fourth pair. “Redundancies are critical,” he said. “Two men can watch more ground than just one, and it keeps any single person from being blindsided.”
“And the walkie talkies?”
“Security, sir. Cellular communication can be blocked or tapped. Walkies are low tech enough that they can’t easily be remotely spied on.”
Sarah’s machine gun keystrokes came through the earbud. “That’s one mystery solved,” she said. “I’ve been wondering why I couldn’t get into their internal communications. If I had all of my regular gear with me, and enough time, I could find the frequency and listen in.”
I caught Neal with a stern glare. “How many of these walkie talkies do you have?”
“Right now?” He blinked, confused by the abrupt question. I intensified the glare until he answered in a rush. “At last count, we had fifteen walkie talkies available. They break or are broken occasionally, but that’s the number we were originally sent.” He paused. “At least, that’s what the documentation says.”
Thirty guards. Even Mila couldn’t deal with thirty armed men without considerable assistance or, perhaps, heavier weaponry than she could carry on her person.
Neal was still talking. “We’ve had several guards finish up their rotations, though, and their replacements haven’t arrived yet. So there are…nine walkies out right now, not counting this one.” He touched one of the devices at his own side.
“Dev, that’s way more than we were expecting to deal with. We should call this off,” Sarah said. She hesitated and audibly reconsidered. “Except we can’t just leave. There’s no way to know how long until the Magi send their guys to actually pick up the girl.”
I tapped the earbud twice. “You have more than that one there?” I asked Neal, pointing out the walkie in his hand.
“In storage, but they’re not –“
“Give me that one, then.” I extended my hand and curled my fingers inward. “If I am here, then I will keep my ear on the communications personally. So that there are no more mistakes.”
Neal hesitated for a second before he unhooked the walkie talkie and passed it over to me. His hand trembled slightly as I reached out to accept his offering. For a moment, I felt legitimately guilty for deceiving the kid.
Sarah spoke into my ear. “You’ll have to listen in manually, and keep me informed about anything they say. This chatter that I’m seeing on their workstation…it seems like something big is going on. Bigger than this property changing hands recently; might even be bigger than the girl.”
The hired help wasn’t likely to know any of the more important details. Even their own computers were blockaded to keep them in the dark about anything beyond their immediate tasks. There was no way to communicate that to Sarah, though, so I turned the walkie talkie’s volume to its maximum and clipped it to my belt. Neal waited until it settled into place before he started forward again. I gave him a little bit of room.
Mila was directly behind me, without warning. I hadn’t heard her move or felt her presence until the last instant. She spoke in a feather-soft whisper, millimeters from my unobstructed ear. “With some cover,” she said, “I can handle eighteen guards.”
Thankfully, Neal’s back was turned. He didn’t see me openly gape at Mila’s statement. I replied with the minimum of lip movement. “You can do what?”
“You heard me. I’ve got several clips and the element of surprise. Eighteen isn’t impossible.”
“We’re here to infiltrate,” I whispered back. “We get out without confrontation. Anything else puts me at risk.”
She sucked her teeth. “Fine. Just keep it in mind.”
I shivered and chose not to respond. Our group reached a door at the far end of the second floor before too long. “Here, sir,” Neal said, gesturing.
“The, uh, technician is inside. He can help you to find any footage that you’re looking for.”
“Did I not say that we would do our own security assessment?” I swallowed a mouthful of air and puffed my chest further out. “My associates and I do not require your technician.”
“But, he’s…I mean, protocol says that…” I hit him with yet another look, brimming with superiority, and he caved. “Of course, sir. Right away.” He keyed a four digit code into a panel to the right of the door – 6174 – and slipped inside.
I turned to Michel and Mila and spoke quickly, as low as I could manage without being entirely inaudible. “We’re dropping Sarah’s virus into the computer, wiping the camera feeds, and getting the hell out of here with the girl, okay?”
“I thought that Sarah was already in their computer?” Michel asked.
The line popped twice as Sarah reconnected the lines. “I’ve got some systems, but not all of them. It gets technical; I can explain it to you later, if you’re really interested.”
I shook my head. “Punchline is: this is a quick stop, fast in and fast out. Michel, you’re doing great. Just keeping looking imposing and hope no one decides to call your bluff. Mila, you are…”
“I know, you don’t have to keep reminding me.” She yawned. “If you want to make things more difficult, that’s up to you. It would just be easier if I killed them all.”
“Jesus, Mila. Are you a bodyguard or a hitman?” I asked.
Mila shrugged. “Yes.”
I opened my mouth, realized that there was literally no possible answer to her blunt assertion, and shut it again without response.
Michel lacked similar restraint. “If a fight starts,” he said, “what about the girl? She would be in danger, no?”
“Devlin’s priority is the kid,” Mila said. “My priority is him. So long as keeping him safe doesn’t interfere with my job, that’s fine. If things change, I’ll drag him out of here by his hair before I let anything happen to him and make me break a contract.”
“You’d let the girl die?” Sarah asked.
“I wasn’t hired to protect her,” Mila replied, in that same maddeningly casual manner.
My interest in the girl was professional, but it was tinged with a hint of humanity. I couldn’t, in good conscience, allow the Magi to execute a ten year old child. Even if she possessed no intrinsic value to the Lady or to me, I still wanted to rescue her. A quick glance at Mila’s expression told me that she did not feel anything similar.
Then, she surprised me. Her expression softened. “I don’t want her to die. And I’ll do what I can to keep everyone alive. But if I can’t protect her and protect you, then…” She cracked her knuckles, one at a time. “By your hair, Devlin.”
Involuntarily, I reached up to touch my hair and frowned at what I felt. It wasn’t that long. “Let’s make sure that things don’t implode on us, then. Stay on mission. Sarah, can you keep us all linked for the duration? I don’t want to have to relay information.”
She didn’t answer immediately. “Not a problem. I’ll mute myself, but I’ll jump back on if something comes up that you need to know about.”
The line popped twice and Sarah was gone. Her timing was perfect; less than five seconds after Sarah muted her line and ended our multi-part conversation, a small man with deeply tanned skin stormed out of the room. He gave the three of us a fast examination, threw his hands up, and continued away. Neal appeared in the doorway a moment later.
“What was that?” I asked.
“He doesn’t like people touching his equipment,” Neal explained. “But when he saw that you were sent directly by Management, he realized that he couldn’t exactly say no.”
“Go and get the girl ready,” I said. “We will finish our review and come for her when everything has been taken care of.”
“She’s on the third floor, first door on the left.” Neal paused, visibly considering whether or not he should say anything else. “Her name, sir….it’s Avis. The girl, I mean. She has a name.”
I raised an eyebrow.
Now that he’d started, words began to tumble out of him. “It’s just that you’ve only said ‘the girl,’ and she’s got a name. And, uh…it might be difficult to get ready to move quickly. Avis is…”
I raised a hand and he cut himself off. “Then you should get started, instead of talking more, shouldn’t you?”
“O-of course, sir!” Neal saluted again and hurried away. I tracked him all the down the hall until he turned and rushed up the third floor staircase.
That left Mila, Michel, and me without the watchful eyes of any guards. I dropped the accent and relaxed my posture. “Sarah? We’re clear.”
Two pops, and then she was back. “Looks like they dump the camera footage onto physical drives every month or two,” she said. “The rest gets kept in local storage. Get me administrator rights and I can pull the last two months from their server while I’m wiping any footage of you from their records.”
“And the older stuff?”
“It’s probably too much to take with us, without raising suspicion.”
Michel cleared his throat. “If Devlin’s character wanted to review the archives for any security breaches, would that be particularly surprising, though? I do not think it would raise too many questions, especially since he has already made it known that he is not pleased with the procedures here.”
“That…is not a bad idea,” Sarah admitted. “I was just going to recommend that you three skim over what they’ve got, but Michel’s idea is better.”
“And I can easily sell that,” I added. “Neal’s a soft mark. I don’t even know how he got himself involved with the Magi. This level is absolutely out of his depth.”
Mila stepped in front of me. “Maybe we can finish this conversation somewhere that isn’t quite as visible?”
We piled into the small room and closed the door behind us. Michel knelt and began to search through drawers and cabinets for the hard copies of the manor house’s security footage; I inserted Sarah’s flash drive into the computer and followed a series of instructions she provided. Within minutes, she had enough access to take over for me. “Copying the information to our Shanghai servers right now,” she said. “This…could take a while. The clip you installed doesn’t generate enough bandwidth for fast downloading. On the bright side, these are mostly just document files that were withheld from the local employees for whatever reason.”
“Small files,” she summarized. “As long as they don’t find the clip, I’ll be able to keep working at this until I get it all.”
“Think you can find out why these documents were kept secret from the people working here?” I asked.
“Already on it.”
I left her to that and turned to Mila. “Were you serious earlier? Could you take eighteen guards, if it came down to that?”
She had taken position near the monitors, facing the door. I couldn’t help but notice that her right hand rested on the handle of an exposed handgun. “With appropriate cover and ammunition? I could handle twice that number,” she said. She paused, tilted her head in acknowledgment of some internal point, and spoke again. “Maybe.”
“Depends on who shows up. Professionals would give me a challenge; amateurs wouldn’t be an issue.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Take that Asian guy from downstairs,” she said. “That was a professional, a real old hand at this sort of work. He’s got the scars and the bearing for it. Eighteen of him and this would get messy fast.”
“And the better alternative? There is a better alternative, I hope.”
“You pointed it out earlier,” Mila said. “Say, that kid who’s just about to bow before you? I’ve seen guys like him before: bright-eyed, optimistic, probably a little too quick to follow orders from whoever’s giving them. I’ve figured out his backstory already, and we’ve only been around him for fifteen, twenty minutes.”
I motioned for her to elaborate.
“Neal? Kid’s ex-military, obviously,” she began. “Small town, maybe. Raised to respect authority without really questioning it too hard.”
“Maybe, but I don’t hear the accent. Mid-western would fit, though. He’s got kind of a farmer’s build.” She shrugged. “Anyway, I’d guess that maybe he got out of the service and found himself in a bad spot. Needed money fast for something. That’d make him easy pickings for any organization looking to hire someone for a little less than is average for the market.”
I could grasp the simplicity of it. “Cheap, disposable labor. Grunts, basically.”
“And it’s probably what the kid’s used to, honestly. That’s how the government uses people like that. If most of the guys stationed here are the same, or even vaguely similar, they’ll crack when the shooting starts.”
I shot her a sharp look. “When?”
Mila responded with a thin-lipped smile. “If the shooting starts. I’ve seen it happen before. The kid said that no one here’s in direct charge, and people need leaders when things get crazy. Otherwise, everyone has their own ideas about the best thing and you get pure panic.”
My resistance to wanton violence didn’t preclude the ability to recognize common sense. “Like, outside, with your distraction. A little controlled chaos does have its merits, though.” I glanced down at Michel’s back. “Assuming we don’t freak ourselves out when things get weird.”
“I wouldn’t be too worried about that.”
“People only need a leader to follow.” She placed her left hand on the hip opposite her gun. “And that’s what you’re here for, right?”
It wasn’t quite a taunt, but there was more bite to it than a simple declaration required. I didn’t have time to find a response before Michel leapt up, holding aloft a portable hard drive labeled as two months old. “Aha! This is what I am looking for, no?”
“No cameras in there,” Sarah said, “and you aren’t wearing the lapel cam, either. What’s he got?”
“Hard drives, dated and labeled. It looks like…” I ducked my head slightly so that I could see into the open cabinet. “Might be a year’s worth of footage here.”
“Take as much as you can carry, then. I’m almost finished copying over everything and then I’ll set up a time delay before the spike hits. When I’m finished, their entire system is going to be an overpriced, oversized paperweight.”
“Any information so far on the girl? Where they found her, how she ended up here in the first place?”
“Not yet,” Sarah said. “I’m looking for a log of the girl’s work here, but it looks like they thoroughly erased every scrap of data after she finished translating it into whatever code they’re using.”
“Isn’t it almost impossible to delete information?”
“Surprised you remembered that.” I bit back a reply and let her continue. “But, yes, it isn’t the easiest thing. I’m hoping that I can find a scrap of information that someone missed. And…” She paused and, barely audibly, cursed to herself. “Damn. Um…I think we’ve got a problem.”
“Another one? Imagine that. What’s coming now?”
“The girl,” Sarah said. “She isn’t just difficult. I’ve got psych evaluations here, going back twice a month for the last six. Avis’s been diagnosed as somewhere on the spectrum. Might be Asperger’s, might be something more severe. The psychiatrist wasn’t particularly interested in the specifics; looks like he was just sent to make sure that she was capable of work.”
“How bad is her condition, in Layman’s terms?”
“You wouldn’t know it, if you were just talking to her,” Sarah said. “But if I’m reading is correct, she has almost no understanding of social skills. More accurately, she understands them; she just doesn’t care about them.” She paused, hammering her keys to access more information. “And she apparently draws a salary, for whatever it is she does.”
“That explains why she’s here,” I said. “The girl’s an employee.”
“Surprisingly,” Mila drawled, “not the weirdest thing I’ve heard this week.”
“But how did they find her in the first place?” I shook my head and changed mental tracks. “Nevermind, we can figure that out later. Is her condition going to make it harder to move her?”
“If you want to move her without raising absolute hell, yes. She doesn’t like being touched, in any way, except by people she trusts. And she doesn’t trust a lot of people.”
“Shit!” I pressed the heel of my palm against my forehead. “Okay, what do we have to get her to trust us? Is there a song I have to sing or, I don’t know, a thing I have to do with my hands?”
“It looks like…” A pause, as she double-checked her information. “It looks like there’s already someone there who she does trust. You want to take any guesses as to who.”
“Who? Michel and I only saw her for a few minutes; Mila hasn’t seen her at all, and…” I stopped as the penny dropped. “You’re kidding me.”
“Not at all. Looks like your new friend Neal has a way with children. I’m watching him with her right now, and you wouldn’t know that she’s got any diagnosis at all the way she’s interacting with him.”
I doubled the pressure until my palm and my forehead both started to hurt. Michel gave me a blank look. Mila’s reaction, however, was the most dramatic. She threw back her head and laughed openly. “I have got to say, Devlin; working with you is anything but boring.”
“Oh, shut up,” I said. I lowered my hand and opened my eyes. “Alright. Let’s go turn one of the Magi’s agents.”