“In twenty words or less,” I said, blowing through the computer room’s door, “tell me exactly how screwed we are.”
Sarah spun her chair around to face me. Her eyes were slightly wide and the breaths came short and quick from her mouth. “Someone you met in the countryside remembered what you look like. Adlai got the sketch and connected some dots.”
I blinked. That explanation was short enough for me. “You only used nineteen words,” I pointed out, after a moment.
Sarah narrowed her eyes. “I know,” she said. “Idiot.”
Mila stepped into the doorway. A brief instant of eye contact passed between us – long enough for her to acknowledge that I had some unanswered questions about her past – before she spoke. “Michel should be back shortly.” Sam slinked past his owner, vocally expressing his pleasure at the brief moment of contact, and found a corner of the room, closer to Sarah, to curl up in. “I think he likes you, Sarah.”
“Yay for me,” Sarah deadpanned. She turned back to me. “Adlai makes for one hell of an obstacle, Devlin. I’m open to ideas, here.”
I frowned and started to pace from one side of the room to the other. “That makes two of us. Or three, I guess, unless you’ve got a suggestion, Mila.”
“I’m not even sure what the problem is,” she said. ‘You’ve got a record. This inspector knows about it. If you get caught, you’re going back to jail, whether he’s the one putting the handcuffs on or not. How does a photo make that any worse?”
“The photo isn’t the part we’re worried about,” Sarah said. She sounded calmer than I would have expected, but it wasn’t her face on the evening news. “Although that’s a part of it, sure.”
“Then what? Worried about someone recognizing Devlin on the street?”
I scoffed at that idea, almost immediately. “Because people actually watch the news?”
“What he means,” Sarah interjected, “is that people aren’t actually looking to run into criminals on the street. Adlai even knows that; this isn’t about raising an army that might catch Devlin while he’s out getting coffee or whatever.”
“One second,” Mila said, holding up a finger. “I’ll be right back.
She slipped out of the door frame. When she was gone, I lowered my voice slightly. “Honestly, Sarah, how bad is this?”
“Not as bad it could be,” she hedged. “But it is pretty terrible. He doesn’t know our cover names, or he’d already be here. Our connection to the museum job is too thin for him to use against us, but there’s more than enough from the absolute disaster we just left to pin you to the wall for breaking and entering, kidnapping, and assault.”
“So, on a scale from one to ten?”
Sarah pursed her lips for a moment. “A ten being…?”
She whistled. “Seven, then. Seven and a half, maybe.”
There was some small comfort in knowing that our situation could still get worse. The knowledge that they almost certainly would devolve further reduced that comfort considerably.
Mila walked back into the room, carrying an open bag of Skittles. “Alright,” she said, squatting down near Sam and scratching idly between his ears. “If it’s not the citizens, what is it about?”
“Two things,” Sarah said. “First: control. By doing it the way he did, Adlai just put the entire London underworld on notice that Devlin is radioactive. No one’s going to risk helping us while we’re in Adlai’s crosshairs. Theoretically, that cuts off a lot of our options.”
“Theoretically, maybe,” Mila said. “But you can’t trust any of the local talent anyway. Cutting off support that you weren’t using doesn’t seem too bad.”
Sarah gave her a reluctant nod. “By itself, it isn’t. And we’d be fine, if it weren’t for the second reason.”
I walked to the edge of Sarah’s desk and leaned against it, facing Mila. “It’s a declaration of war.”
“Oh,” Mila said. A moment passed and I could almost see the wheels turning in her head as she considered what resources a fully motivated and obsessed Interpol inspector could bring to bear against our ragtag team. When the realization hit her, she let out a breath. “Oh.”
The three of us sat in the room in silence for nearly five minutes, with nothing but the clicks and beeps of Sarah’s system as background noise, until Michel joined us. In that time, I managed to dial my panic down to reasonable concern, but I still hadn’t managed to generate any brilliant ideas.
“What is the matter?” The Frenchman asked, as he entered the room.
“Devlin’s screwed,” Mila said, before either Sarah or I had a chance. “On the plus side, he isn’t in any more physical danger than he was. Might be safer, actually.”
“Adlai’s tried to kill me before,” I pointed out.
“He wasn’t trying to kill you,” Sarah said. “He was trying to stop you.”
“Well, Sarah, I don’t think the bullet he shot at me would’ve been overly concerned with his exact intentions.”
“Uh. Pardon?” Michel raised his hand in the air until Sarah and I stopped bickering. “What?”
“That Interpol agent I told you about, after the museum job? He just put my face on the evening news,” I said.
“And that’s bad?”
Mila rose from her spot near Sam. “Apparently,” she said, popping a handful of Skittles into her mouth.
To his credit, Michel didn’t ask for details. Instead, he calmly closed the door and bowed his head for a few seconds. “What do we do now?”
It was refreshing, in an odd sort of way, to work with Michel’s simple, earnest desire to help. He hadn’t known what he was signing up for. Hell, I hadn’t known what a complete shitstorm we were sowing. Michel had been thrown into the deep waters only a few days ago, and we’d expected him to function while the world he knew steadily fell to pieces around him. And, so far, he’d still managed to keep his head above the rising waters. More impressive: he actually had the temerity to stand in a room of professionals and ask for more.
My opinion of the man went up several notches. “Right now, there’s really nothing we can do,” I said. “I need a better idea of where we’re standing before I make any judgment calls. Sarah?”
She entered a series of commands into the computer and documents began tiling themselves across her monitors. “These are the scans I’ve managed to upload and some of the files I pulled from their network before Aiden blew up the line.”
It looked like gibberish to me. “They’re encrypted?”
“I’ll answer that with a metaphor,” Sarah said. “These files are encrypted in the same way that the sun is, on occasion, slightly warm.”
“So, that’s a yes.”
“But Avis can break the code?”
Sarah leaned back in her chair and pinched the bridge of her nose. “So it seems.”
“How can she do that?” I asked. “I thought you said the encryption was impossible to figure out.”
“I was also wondering about that,” Michel said.
“Me three,” Mila added.
All of us turned to regard the woman with surprise and blank confusion.
“I do know things,” Mila said, a trifle defensively. “It isn’t all fighting and guns.”
She very carefully did not look at me and I, in turn, very carefully did not look at her. There were depths to her. Aiden had known her. The relationship between a master and his student was not something I wanted to undervalue.
Thus far, Mila’s contract had proven solid enough, but I couldn’t help but question her state of mind now. If Aiden returned, I wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t leave us in the lurch. Worse: there was every possibility that she might join his side, instead of ours.
Sarah’s knowledge about my concerns was minimal, though, so she missed the moment of non-interaction. “I’ll keep this basic,” she said. “The encryption is mathematically impossible to decipher. Even if I had unlimited time and unlimited resources, there just isn’t any possible way to brute force it.”
“Why can Avis do it, then?” I asked.
“She can’t,” Sarah said. “Not technically. What she does isn’t breaking the code; she’s translating it. She knows the algorithms by heart. All of them.”
I blinked, considered that information, and blinked again. “Wait. You’re saying that she memorized dozens of formulas that your computer can’t decipher?”
Sarah shook her head. “Not dozens; hundreds. And she isn’t memorizing them. If I’m right, Avis is making them up on the fly.”
The four of us chewed on that tidbit for a few moments.
“Where is she now?” I asked.
“Like I said, she’s with Neal,” Mila answered. “Why?”
“Because if Avis is anywhere near as important as Sarah thinks, we are in very serious trouble. Think about it. The tiny amount of information we managed to steal is nothing compared to the only person on the planet who can actually understand any of it.”
“I was thinking that, too,” Sarah said. “Without her, Hill can’t decrypt the book. That’s reason enough for him to rain hell down on us. But he also can’t decipher any files he had her encrypt: shipping manifests, balance sheets, personnel numbers…anything he thought was important enough to hide is as good as gone now.”
Bead of sweat sprang to life on my forehead as I thought more about what we’d done. “We just kidnapped the living equivalent of nuclear launch codes and we can’t even use them.”
“We could give her back,” Mila suggested mildly. “Follow whoever they send for the retrieval back to Hill’s place and grab the book.”
“They will kill her!” Michel cried out, stepping forward in protest. “You cannot be serious!”
“My job is to protect Devlin and Sarah,” Mila said. “And you, I guess. If keeping the girl makes that harder, then…” She trailed off and shrugged one shoulder, instead of actually finishing the thought.
“Can we just put that to bed, once and for all?” I knew my nerves were approaching the fraying point. By any reasonable standard, they should have already snapped. It was remarkable that I could keep myself from screaming, but I couldn’t keep the frustration from my voice. “Even if you magically found another way to decrypt this information…even if I could convince Asher and Hill and the Magi to swear a blood oath to never touch a hair on her head…even if the Lady herself orders me to do it, I will not give a child back to a known drug dealer!”
“Because the four of us are better choices?” Mila didn’t have to yell. The intense aura around her simply ratcheted up. The hairs on my arm stood upright and my skin broke out in goosebumps, while Mila never moved an inch from where she stood. “Thieves, hackers, getaway drivers, and…and killers?”
The hiccupping pause stood like a beacon in the night sky. “We aren’t the best choices,” I said, “but we’re damn sure better than the ones who just sent a fucking wet squad to kill her!”
“Is that what happened?” A small voice asked, from the doorway. “Is that they were there?”
I hadn’t heard the door open. I whirled and found myself staring down into Avis’ wide, dark brown eyes. Michel was openly gaping and Mila even looked a little shocked at the girl’s presence. Neal leaned against the wall behind Avis, slightly out of breath. “That isn’t…” I stammered. “I mean, there’s more to it than that.”
“Tell me the truth, then,” Avis said. “I can handle it. And if you lie to me, I’ll never trust another word you say.”
She looked…serious. There was something in her eyes that I’d once seen in Sarah’s, so many years ago. The girl’s body shivered in the low temperature, and what looked like tears glistened in the corners of her eyes, but her back was straight and controlled. It was a disconcertingly adult expression on such a cute face.
“Devlin,” Sarah began, “you can’t –“
I waved her into silence. “No. She deserves the truth. This is her life we’re talking about, isn’t it?”
Avis nodded once. “I’m listening.”
I couldn’t risk lying to the girl, so I went back and started from the beginning. Excising the parts that didn’t really have anything to do with her – my difficulties in Munich, the nature of the strained relationship between Sarah and me, and the mystery of Mila’s past – it didn’t very long to hit the high points.
By the time I’d finished, Avis had taken Mila’s place by the cat. “So,” she said softly. “You weren’t there to save me, from these…these Magi? You just want to use me?”
That wasn’t an unfair read of the situation, but it wasn’t a complete one. “Everybody uses everyone else,” I replied. “Doesn’t matter how old you are. Yes, we want to use to you. I want to use you. That isn’t the only thing I want, though. And it’s not all I’m offering.”
“They paid me for what I did,” Avis said. “Fed me, bought me toys and books, protected me. Can you do those things?”
“Probably?” She repeated and laughed. “Why would I accept a ‘probably,’ when what I can would get me top dollar anywhere else in the world?”
“Because you’ll just end up a prisoner again,” I said. Avis’ eyebrows jumped, but I continued before she could interrupt. “As soon as anyone figures out how valuable you are, they’ll just put you in a golden cage. Sure, you’ll get anything you could ever ask for, but you won’t ever be free again.
Avis weighed that. “And with you?”
“Freedom.” I remembered that first sight of the sky after so many years in prison. I poured that feeling into my voice. “With us, you get to choose how your life goes from here.”
The girl had been stroking Sam’s ears. She stopped and the cat meowed in protest. After several seconds, Avis sighed and resumed petting. “I don’t trust you,” she said. “You’re thieves and liars. People always promise me things they won’t deliver.”
“I’m not other people,” I said.
“That’s what they all say.” She looked out of the room, at Neal, who was still standing awkwardly in the doorway. “What about him? Can you keep him safe, too?”
“If he’s with you,” I said, “then he’s with us.”
“Fine,” Avis said. “I don’t trust you, but I don’t think you’re lying.”
It was easy to read between the lines. I wanted to reinforce my offer, to swear that she wouldn’t ever end up as someone’s pet again. But I just couldn’t make that promise in good conscience. Even if I managed to unseat Hill and take Asher down, there was no guarantee that the Lady wouldn’t find some use for the girl as her own personal cryptographer.
What I said instead threaded the line between realism and optimism. “Help us bring Hill down and I will do everything in my power to keep you safe. Both of you.”
Sarah and Michel nodded vigorously; after a moment, Mila followed as well, with much less enthusiasm.
“Fine,” Avis said again. She stuck out her bottom lip as she did it. It was such a typically childish expression – especially contrasted with the very grown up posture from only seconds before – that I nearly laughed out loud. “What do you want me to do?”
Sarah pulled up a document on her primary monitor. “You understand these?”
Avis rose and crossed the room to examine the screen. “This one is just a product manifest,” she said after a second. “This is all you want?”
“You did that in your…” Sarah stopped, swallowed, and started over. “Do you think could translate any more of these?”
“I made all of these,” Avis said. “That doesn’t answer my question. What are you looking for?”
I cleared my throat, deliberately louder than necessary. “Honestly? We don’t know what information we might need yet.”
Avis pointed at one of Sarah’s discarded tablets. “Can I use that?”
“It’s going to take me a while,” Avis said, “especially if you want direct transcripts. They didn’t show me anything with context, but maybe you’ll be able to piece it together.”
“Are you going to get started on that now?” I asked.
Avis gave me a flat look for several very long seconds. “I’m nine,” she said finally. “I’m going back to bed.”
My mouth opened and then, slowly, closed. There really wasn’t a comeback for that.
“Neal?” Avis asked. “Are you ready?”
Neal jerked upright at his name. “You’re ready to go already?”
“I’m tired,” Avis said. “You can stay if you want, but I…uh…”
He smiled down at her. “Can’t reach the elevator button?”
“No! That isn’t it! It’s just…I’d feel better if someone rode down with me.”
“Ah,” Neal said. “Fair enough. Well, I’m ready when you are.” He looked directly at me. “I’d like to talk to you later. Figure out exactly what we’re involved in.”
I wasn’t concerned about the kid, but that was still not a conversation I was looking forward to. “I’ll let you know when we’re free,” I said.
Neal nodded and held out a hand for Avis. She took it after a few moments of hesitation and the pair left us alone with only our thoughts.
“Well,” I said after the silence had stretched out long enough. “That’s one problem…not solved, but being worked on.”
“What’s next?” Michel asked.
Sarah and I responded at the same time: “Adlai.”