Chapter Eighty-Five

Scotland Yard – it had been New Scotland Yard before my prison sentence – was a monolith of a building.  Eight stories tall, not counting sub-levels or basements, constructed of steel and glass stretching into the sky at the edge of the Thames.  Billy sat in the passenger’s seat of the van, while one of his men drove slowly past the front entrance to the building.  Sarah and I sat in the back, along with the rest of our ragtag group.  Iosif had turned one of Billy’s wheelchairs into a sort of rotating seat for Sarah to work from.  She was able to move backwards and forwards, inputting commands on any of three different monitors, with relative ease and she took full advantage of the mobility.

I tried to remain as still as possible during the ride.  The pressure in my temples had subsided from a pounding roar to an uncomfortable, occasional throbbing reminder but I didn’t want to risk exacerbating that injury with any sudden movement.  Billy’s man kept the van from rattling too much, although the occasional pothole along the way did cause the pain to spike a few times before we finally rolled to a soft stop.

“Scotland Yard,” Billy said, in a grandiose, tour guide’s voice.  “Only recently moved back to its original home, here at the Green Building…where it belongs, if you ask me.  If you look to the left, you’ll see a bit of the London Eye; to your right, you can see the building where our fair city’s noble policemen keep the city of London safe from scoundrels and the like.”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” I asked him.

“If you can’t enjoy your work,” Billy replied, “you ought to get into a new line of business, don’t ya think?”

I couldn’t really disagree with that sentiment.

God,” Sarah said, using her motorized chair to slide back to a monitor in the center of the van’s right wall.  “I’ve got to deal with two of you now?”

I raised both of my hands in mock surrender. “What did I say?”

She looked away from her work, probably preparing some suitably scathing response, but stopped as a thought occurred to her.  “Wait.  You said they just moved here, Billy?”

“A year or two ago, yeah,” Billy confirmed.  “From what the papers said, the old building was too expensive to renovate, so they decided to come back here.  Doesn’t make much sense to me, but I’m not a paper-pusher, so…”

“Well,” Sarah said, interrupting Billy as if he wasn’t still talking, “that might make this a lot easier.”  She slid over to the farthest monitor from the back of the van and began fervently searching through Google pages.  A moment later, the display changed from the recognizable search engine to a black screen with green text.  I didn’t know what that meant, in the technical sense of things, but I recognized it as the screen Sarah did most of her hacking from.

“Care to explain for the class?” I asked a minute later, when I realized that she had no intention of elaborating.

Sarah answered without looking away from the monitor.  “I remember reading that they were going to move back to the old building, but I didn’t look into the timeline.  Honestly, I figured they were finished with renovations, because the old building sold almost a year ago.  But if they’re still constructing – and that would explain the traffic in the area, considering the time of night – then that means there might be a simpler way of getting our recon done.”

“Simpler than just asking someone for information?” Billy asked.

I arched an eyebrow.  “That was your plan?  Just ask someone to tell you everything we need to know?”

He shrugged.  “Nobody thinks twice about the bloke in a wheelchair.”

From his words, and the slightly jocular tone, it would have been easy to miss the way his eyes darkened or how his fist clenched a little tighter for an instant.  I decided not to pursue that point.  “You’re thinking about the construction crews?” I asked Sarah, instead.

She nodded.  “And, if one of Billy’s men can get close enough to one of the architects, I might be able to access that network and pull the building plans.  It won’t be perfect, because there’s no way of knowing which parts of the station are already occupied and in use, but it’ll give me a layout to work with.  When Michel gets us into Scotland Yard’s computers, and I’ve got access to their cameras, I can lay one over the other, and I ought to be able to compile a real time view of who’s in the building and where they are.”

Billy’s fist clenched once more.  I might have been the only one in the van in a position to see the movement.  “So, nothing for me to do, then?” He asked.

Sarah glanced away from the computer and gave Billy a brief, dazzling smile.  “Of course there’s something for you to do.  Any ‘good’ crew of workers needs someone to actually keep them on task.  How good of a foreman can you play?”

Billy was momentarily taken aback, both by the offer and the genuine warmth Sarah displayed.  It wasn’t hard to combine his reaction now to the aggression he’d shown earlier.  I didn’t know if Sarah had somehow guessed at his sensitivities, or if she’d picked up on other clues while I was sleeping.

“I can do that,” Billy said.  “So long as no one asks too many questions, I don’t see why that’ll be a problem.”

“Are you kidding?  I want people to ask questions,” Sarah said.  “That would be the best possible scenario.  With everything going on out by the Halfway House, can you imagine how much attention a disabled foreman could draw if someone had the idiocy to actually say something about it?”

I expected Billy’s fist to clench once more, or for his voice to tighten.

Sarah turned back to her work and spoke while she worked.  “I’m not just throwing you a bone here.  Getting attention away from Michel is one of the key parts of the job, and you’re the best person for it.  So, if you’re going to be touchy about it, let me know now, and I’ll come up with something else.”

“Touchy?” Billy’s smile widened.  “Why, I’d say that plan’s definitely got some legs to it.”

I groaned and, a moment later, everyone in the van did the same.

“What did I do in a past life,” Sarah mused, “to deserve such devastatingly witty team members?”

Billy gave her a sage look.  “Must have been your excellent karma up to this point.”

Sarah responded with a silence that somehow managed to be more pointed than any verbal reply I could imagine.  After a few frigid seconds of that, she spoke to Michel.  “We’re going to let you out here.  Do you remember what you’re supposed to do when you get inside?”

The Frenchman nodded.  “Find a computer as soon as possible and put this into one of the USB ports.”  He fished a flash drive out of his coat pocket and held it up.

“The program I put on there will self-execute,” Sarah said, “and it’s a very small file.  You’ll only need a minute, if that, before you can take the drive out.  I’ll start working on a way to get Mila out of custody and you can start looking for the evidence room.”

“What am I to do when I get there?”

“Wait?”  Sarah’s intonation made the statement into a question.  “I don’t know what security they already have in place to protect that particular area, but I’ll have a better idea about how to bypass it once I’m past their firewall.”

She did not say anything past that point, but I could hear the unspoken thoughts that followed as clearly as if she’d said the words.  There were so many possible points that could go horribly wrong before Sarah had the cameras.  Much of the early part of the plan rested squarely on Michel’s ability to improvise his way past any obstacles or complications.  Things would become simpler for him once we had greater access, but until then…

“I understand,” Michel said.  I squeezed his shoulder in silent support as he moved past me and opened the back door of the van.  There weren’t any officers nearby to question why a uniformed cop was exiting what was obviously a civilian van, thank God.

“Keep your earbud on and your camera pointed forward,” Sarah advised.  “We’ll give you the signal to make your approach, as soon as we’ve got a distraction going on around the back.  That should keep anyone from asking too many questions.”

The unspoken ‘hopefully’ was so loud in my head that I averted my eyes for a moment.

Michel nodded once more and closed the door to the van.  Sarah drew in her breath and let it out slowly.  “Take us to the back of the place,” she said.  “That’s where the construction crews should be working.”

While Billy’ s man drove us around, I slipped my own earbud in and activated it.  The double pop let me know that I was connected.  In a short break between fervent typing, Sarah passed earbuds out to everyone in the van, and they followed suit.

“She’s going to keep us muted from each other, for the moment,” I explained, as Billy and his guys switched the earbuds on.  “By and large, Sarah will be the only one with full access to the comms, but we’ll link you in, as needed.”

“Not exactly true,” Sarah said.  I raised an eyebrow.  “Remember, I’m going in this time.  You’ll have to man the communications system while I’m out.”

A brief examination of the monitors arrayed against the opposite wall of the van was intimidating enough that blood began to recede from my cheeks.  “That’s…probably not the best plan.  Are you sure you can’t just…you know…”

“What?  Carry a laptop into Scotland Yard and just hope that no one asks why I’m constantly talking to myself?”  Sarah shook her head.  “The communications system isn’t complicated.  I’ll give you a quick overview before I go in, but it’s mostly point and click.  All you’ll need to do is keep an eye on the cameras – I’ll put those on this monitor right here – and connect the lines if someone needs to share quick information.  Honestly, you could just keep all the lines disconnected and handle the crosstalk by yourself, if it’s really that much of a problem.”

“No, no, I can handle it.”  The external confidence I displayed was a good deal larger than the internal confidence I actually felt, but I locked my doubts away.  If Michel could grift his way into the headquarters of police operations here in London; if Sarah could go into the field, for the first time since we’d met at that benefit so many years ago; if Billy and his guys could risk appearing in public, on the off chance that they might be able to help someone they barely even knew…well, then learning a little bit about computers was the least I could contribute.

“There’s a dumbed down version of the same program on that smartphone,” Sarah said.  “Again, just in case things go sideways and you have to get out of the van.”

“Dumbed down?  How dumbed down are we talking?”

“It’s got two options: complete mute or completely active.  Either no one hears anything or everyone hears everything.”

I drummed a quick beat into the floor of the van.  “What are the pros and cons to that?”

Sarah shrugged.   “In case something like the processing plant happens again, I figured it’d be useful if we could quickly connect all the lines without having to waste time doing it manually.  Especially since you’ll be the one who has to link everyone up, and you’re hardly an expert.  No offense.”

I shrugged back.  “None taken.”

“Be careful, though,” Sarah said.  “If you leave the van, that means you’ll be the only one with remote control over the communications system.  Basically, if you link us all up for some reason, you’re the only one who can separate the lines again.  So getting back to the van as soon as possible should be the priority.  Got it?”

I nodded my understanding back at her.

The occupants of the van sat in silence for the next minute or so, while Billy’s guy picked his way through traffic until we reached the rear of the Curtis Green building.  We could no longer see the Thames or the London Eye; instead, in place of the spectacular view, we were now confronted by the skeleton of a great building in progress.  Men in hard hats and bright orange vests milled aimlessly from one pile of rubble to the next.  Sledgehammers, huge wrenches, and other assorted tools were scattered across the ground and a persistent cloud of thick gray dust floated in the air.

I was a little surprised to see anyone still working – the sun was hours away from rising – but no one seemed to pay much attention as we pulled into an open space and parked.   “This should be close enough,” Sarah said.  “I can see their network, even if I can’t log onto their wireless yet.”

“So, just making sure,” Billy said, smirking slightly.  “You want me to make a show of things?”

“Keep everyone guessing as to exactly who you are,” I advised.  “People really don’t want to ask questions, and they’re perfectly content to assume someone else knows more about what’s going on than they do.  If anyone challenges you about your credentials, challenge them back or just imply that you’ll go over their head.”

“To who?”

I shook my head.  “No clue.  Doesn’t really matter, though.  Everybody’s got a boss.”

“And that’s who we want you to meet,” Sarah said.  She pointed at Billy’s phone on the dashboard and he handed it back to her.  She plugged a USB cord into the charging port and input some commands while she spoke.  “The higher up we can get, the more likely it is that we’ll find someone with access to the building’s blueprints.  As soon as we have that, assuming that people continue to be lazy about security, I’ll be able to give Michel specific directions through the station.”

“And what if I run into someone who is not stupid about security?”

Sarah scoffed in answer to that.  “You mean, what if pigs start to fly?”  She handed the phone back.  “Just get close enough and I’ll handle the rest.”

Normally, I would have pointed out the danger of invoking fate with that attitude, but she was right.  While the intricacies of Sarah’s digital work remained an enigma to me, I couldn’t deny that every job I’d pulled had taught me a single, inalienable fact: marks are always stupider than they think they are.  That wasn’t to say that I was necessarily smarter, but people react typically to similar stimulus.  Anyone working on the site of a major renovation job would want access to the plans and they wouldn’t want to go through a complicated login procedure every single time he or she needed to double-check something.

I glanced out of the window and saw that the workers nearest our van had moved over to an area closer to the building itself.  They had left behind a small pile of gear: hats, vests, and a tool-belt brimming with hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers, and the like.  “Alright, gentlemen,” I said.  “You’re up. You get the same advice as Michel; keep your earbud in.  I’ll call any audibles as I see them.  And don’t forget to turn on your cameras.”

Billy directed his men to help him into one of his wheelchairs and, with a little assistance from me, we lowered him to the ground.  Sarah handed me a clipboard with some generic plans clipped in place, and I passed that back to them, as well.  The men quickly slipped into the discarded safety gear, without any interference from the actual construction workers, and started to traverse the ground toward the building proper.

Billy was too far away for me to hear with my own unaided, but I could still see him as he approached a group of men taking what seemed to be a very late, or very early, lunch break.  Judging from the wild gesticulation coming from Billy, and the way the men scrambled to their feet, he must have opened up by calling them lazy.  These were third shift workers; I had little to no doubt that they’d want to move his complaint up the ladder as quickly as possible.

Within five minutes, I was proven correct.  A suited man in a hardhat approached Billy, his men, and the hapless construction workers.  He pointed at a clipboard in his hands; Billy responded by doing the same, except much more forcefully.

“What are they saying?”  I asked Sarah.

She switched the comms from her personal earbud to the van’s speaker system.

“You mean to tell me that no one gave you the updated plans?”  Billy was asking.

The suited man flinched slightly away from Billy.  “I think I’d know if they had – “

“If they had what?” Billy interrupted.  “They’d call down to tell you if there was a problem with the money?  Really?”

Several seconds of stunned silence.  I imagined the face of the suited man – stunned, confused, insulted –  so clearly that I felt I could almost see it.

“I’ve been in constant communication with the bosses,” the suited man said, “and I haven’t heard a thing about any changes.  In fact, I haven’t heard anything about you.  What did you say your name was?”

“And that,” Sarah said into the earbud, for Billy’s benefit, “is all I needed.  Your friend there is a foreman, but not one of the higher positioned ones, if his work ID is any indication.”

“How’d you get that?” I asked.

“The firm that handles the construction is moving to a more digital system,” she said.  “This guy would scan his phone to get access to anything inside of the building.”

“But…?”

“But,” Sarah continued, “if he isn’t physically at the offices, he just logs into the network remotely.  But that’s such a pain, so he went ahead and told his phone to just save the information.”

“People,” I said sagely, “continue to be stupid.”

“Imagine my surprise.”  Sarah grinned.  “Billy, I’ve got what I need.  He won’t be able to check your story unless I let him.  Keep him there, and start a distraction.”

Straining my eyes, I could see as Billy nodded his assent.  “So, what are you saying, exactly?” He asked the suited man.  “That someone in a wheelchair couldn’t possibly be a foreman on a construction site?”

“What?  That…that isn’t what I said,” the suited man replied.

“It sure sounded like that’s what you were saying,” Billy shot back.  “Go get your superior; I think I’d like to go over this with him.”

“I, uh…”

“Now!”

The suited man rushed off.  Billy maneuvered his wheelchair to face the group of men he’d accosted in the first place – he made the process considerably more difficult than it had to be, I noticed – and yelled at them to get back to work.

A noise drew my attention back to the monitor Sarah was working on.  The black screen and green text had been replaced by a blue screen with white lines drawn across it: the architectural plans for Scotland Yard’s renovation.

Sarah activated Michel’s line.  “Distraction is underway,” she said, “and I’ve got the blueprints.  You should make your approach now, and I’ll walk you through the layout.”

There was a stretch of tangible silence from Michel’s end of the line, before he cleared his throat.  “Roger that,” he said.

I leaned carefully against the inside wall of the van, and massaged my temples with the thumb and index fingers of my unbandaged hand.  The headache there was still manageable but I knew – knew it as an absolute certainty, like gravity, death, or taxes – that it would be far worse before everything was said and done.

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