Sarah opened her mouth, presumably to explain whatever dastardly plan she’d managed to create during my alcohol-induced slumber, just as the elevator dinged. Mila’s uninjured hand darted across her torso to the handle of her concealed gun and she only relaxed the tiniest bit when Michel’s head came into view.
The Frenchman made a very deliberate effort not to move any unnecessary muscles. His eyes went from Mila’s face down to her weapon, then back again. He dipped two fingers into his front pants pocket, moving with excruciating care. When the fingers came back into sight again, he held a candy bar in a delicate grip.
“I do not think you have tried this one before,” Michel said. “Perhaps you will not like it, but…”
Mila rolled her eyes. The tension in her body lessened appreciably and she took two long steps over to the open elevator door, just to snatch the candy bar from Michel’s fingers in a motion too quick for me to follow. “Very funny,” she said.
I noticed that, despite her tone, she couldn’t quite contain the faint shadow of a smile on her lips.
“Ah!” Michel exited the elevator and walked over to the couch where I sat. “You are awake! Sarah, have you told him what you came up with yet?”
“I was just about to, actually,” Sarah said. “It’s better that you’re here, too, come to think of it. If Dev points out any flaws, it’ll be easier to come up with workarounds while we’re all in the same place, as opposed to communicating that sort of thing on the fly.”
“Is that coffee I smell?”
I nodded and passed Michel my own drained mug. “Get me some more, too?”
“On an empty stomach?” Sarah asked. “You know what that does to you.”
“I’ll order room service in a little bit. Or I’ll cook something. But I’m not awake enough yet to think clearly and we don’t really have the time for me to get there without more caffeine.”
She shrugged. “It’s your health.”
Michel vanished into the kitchen for a minute or two. He returned with two full, steaming mugs of coffee. He placed one of them in front of me and took the other with him to an empty space on the coffee table, where he sat and began to drink deeply.
“Alright,” Sarah said, after I’d had a chance to consume a little bit of my third coffee in maybe thirty minutes. “I looked a lot of different options while you were out, crunched numbers, reached out to any associates I absolutely trust.”
“I don’t imagine that you have a lot of those,” I pointed out.
“You’re not wrong. Surprisingly, hackers and criminals are not the most trustworthy sort.” Her expression darkened slightly as she spoke. I owned my technical illiteracy and Sarah’s web of friends and frenemies had always been something beyond my understanding. If I wasn’t misreading her – a valid possibility, if ever there was one – the fact that she couldn’t rely on those resources was bothering her more than she let on.
“Go on,” I prompted, both out of curiosity and a desire to change the subject before she had a chance to really start brooding.
Sarah physically shook herself out of her thoughts. “I’ll spare you the details and the ideas that just wouldn’t work because of time, personnel, and so on. Here are the problems I’ve come up with, though. Let me know if I missed anything.”
Sarah did something with her tablet so that it displayed onto the television screen, where everyone in the room could more easily follow along. Even Mila, already halfway through the candy bar Michel had brought her, left her position by the elevator so that she would have a better view.
“One,” Sarah said. The number one appeared on the television screen and letters followed after it, only slightly out of sync with Sarah’s voice. “We do not know anything about the interior of the estate, beyond what we saw when Hill invited us there in the first place.”
“Can’t you find that out?”
“Apparently, no.” The fingers on her left hand twitched – actually, only a single finger twitched – before she clenched them all into a fist. “I’m guessing that Hill went out of his way to make sure that the property doesn’t have any sort of official construction plans. Maybe he did the work with some of the people from his more…shall we say, illicit business dealings. However he did it, the point is that I can’t physically get any intelligence about he’ll have the place laid out.”
I frowned. That wasn’t a promising start. If our plan was to break into the house somehow, rescue our friends, and steal the Book without bringing down armed fury on our heads, we’d have to be quick and we’d have to be quiet. Relative silence was easy enough to manage, but we couldn’t afford to spend precious minutes or hours searching through the estate room by room. Every second inside the estate put us a second closer to disaster.
Sarah had clearly drawn the same conclusion.
“Could you do it like the manor house?” I asked. “Infiltrate his wireless network and use his own security cameras to map out where things are located?”
“Thought about that. Won’t work.” With some deft finger-work, she made a second bullet point appear on the screen, along with the words ‘cannot remotely access network.’
“Why not?” I asked.
“You want the technical answer?” Sarah shook her head before I replied. “No, of course you don’t. Okay, um…okay, I can explain this. I hack into systems wirelessly whenever possible, because it lets me stay away from the actual target. At the manor house, that wasn’t feasible, so you just co-opted their own wireless signal for me to use. Even then, you had to physically attach a clip and find your way to the security room.”
I nodded. “I’m following along.”
“There is no wireless signal coming from Hill’s house. None at all.”
“You hacked into his emails, didn’t you?”
“I hacked into his phone,” Sarah corrected, “where his emails are stored. He either didn’t care or didn’t know how to protect his phone better than the defaults, which is…honestly, a little concerning. Anyway. His home network, though? As far as my programs are concerned, it doesn’t exist.”
“How likely is that?”
The look Sarah gave me spoke volumes about my own ignorance. “It is not particularly likely that nobility living in the 21st Century would have an estate without any sort of computer network. It’s even less likely that a crime lord would kidnap his brother, the human equivalent of a Turing machine, and a relative innocent without some way to actually keep an eye on them.”
“Ah. Well. Okay, then. So, what does that mean, then?”
“It means that he’s using air-gapped computers,” Sarah said. She gave my blank, uncomprehending expression a dismissive wave and elaborated in Layman’s terms. “It means that his computers can’t be remotely hacked.”
“That much I understand. So. No way to know how the estate is built or where Hill’s more likely to stash Avis, Neal, Billy, or the Book. No way for you to hack into his computer system. Any other impossible obstacles I should start worrying about?”
“It isn’t impossible to get into the network,” Sarah said. “It’s impossible for me to remotely get into their network. It wouldn’t be impossible if someone were able to physically insert a flash drive into the primary computer.”
I drank the coffee in my mug down to about half its previous volume. “And when you say someone, you mean me?”
“Or me,” Mila said.
I gave her a quizzical look. “You aren’t trained in this sort of thing. You’re good in your own area, obviously, but this isn’t going to be the sort of thing that you can fight your way out of.”
“Ask me if I care about any of that,” Mila replied, in that slightly dangerous, even-handed tone. “I’ve got a job to keep you safe. I’m not going to let you go into Hill’s estate, just to get captured and killed. Besides…I hate owing people favors.”
“Favors? What are you – “ I stopped, mid-sentence. “You’re talking about the thing with the police?”
“You don’t owe any of us for that!”
“Doesn’t matter. You go in, I’m going in.”
The angle of her shoulders, the minute tightening of her jaw, the slight curling of the fingers on her uninjured hand…all that and a dozen other quirks of body language told me that nothing I said was going to change Mila’s mind. “Sarah,” I said, exasperated and irritated, “what else have you got for us?”
“Not much more.” She entered a command into the tablet with quick, darting movements. A third bullet point appeared on the television screen. “Assuming that we can’t trust anybody to actually be on the ground with us, we just don’t have the personnel for an operation like this. You can’t be in two places at once. Anton can’t be responsible for the bombs and running around all over London. Et cetera, et cetera.”
“Do you have a possible fix for that?”
She shook her head. “Not even the slightest. I’m just hoping you can figure that out, because we’ve still got…” Sarah trailed off as a fourth bullet point slid into place on the television screen. It read, in bold, stark lettering: “priorities.”
I understood what that mean, even before Sarah had to draw in breath to explain it to me. “Too many targets,” I said, “and not enough time to hit them all.”
Sarah nodded. “Pretty much. With the lack of personnel already being an issue, there just isn’t any way that I can think of to accomplish everything we want to. Unless Hill was stupid enough to put Avis, Neal, Billy, and the Book in the same unsecured room, we’re going to have to make some choices on what to prioritize.”
We made eye contact for a brief heartbeat. That wasn’t all that long in the life of things, but it felt like an eternity. In that singe frozen instant of eye contact, Sarah and I communicated a wealth of things without ever speaking a word. She knew what I would say, Asher’s betrayal be damned. And she wanted me to say it. One of us had to make the obvious suggestion, just as one of us had to find a way to bring the mountain to Mohammed, so to speak. I’d always been closer to the heart of any group we found ourselves working in. It was only reasonable that I’d have to speak in that role now.
“We save our friends,” I said. There was a slight flicker in Sarah’s expression. Gratitude, perhaps, or resignation. Certainly not disappointment or surprise.
“What about Asher? Or the Book?”
“If the Lady has a problem with how I make decisions, she should have hired someone who’d make different choices. No matter how badly I want to make Asher pay for setting me up in Paris, I’m not going to buy that revenge with the life of a child or someone who’s helped all of us.”
One corner of Sarah’s lips twitched slightly upward, in an instant so fast that even I nearly missed it. “I figured you’d say that.”
“So did I,” Mila added. She heaved a dramatic sigh, clearly not caring in the slightest about hiding her emotions. “Because it would make too much sense if you guys went after the Book, which is going to be so much easier to transport than three human beings.”
“We might have other chances at the Book,” I pointed out. “Hill’s explicitly said he’s going to kill Billy, Avis, and Neal as soon as he finishes getting what he needs decrypted.”
“None of which is your problem,” Mila said. “Or, at least, none of which has to be your problem. But I’d be lying if I said I was surprised to find out that you’re going to put yourself in a more difficult situation.”
I smirked at that. “And you’re still sure about this contract?”
“I already agreed to the terms.” Mila rolled one shoulder, then the other. “And your old friend has pissed me off a little bit too much. I think a little bit of controlled destruction is past due, honestly. I’d probably want to ruin his day, even if I weren’t being paid exorbitant amounts to keep you safe.”
Mila and I shared that sentiment in common.
“Sarah,” I said, “is that the last problem on your list?”
“That’s the last one I was able to come up with,” she replied. “Of course, I’m expecting a million other things to go wrong between now and whenever we set things into motion, but that’s going to be up to you to figure out.”
I nodded. “Well, I figure that’s the most impossible list of restrictions and requirements we’ve been up against since we came to London, but we haven’t let any of that stop us yet, have we? You said you had a plan?”
“I have a plan to get you into the estate,” Sarah said. While she spoke, her fingers busily worked across the tablet’s surface, changing the display on the television screen from the list of problems to a flowchart. “Or the two of you, whatever. But I don’t have any idea what you’ll have to do while you’re in there and I have no idea how to get you out again.”
“Thirty-three percent of a plan is still better than zero percent,” I pointed out. “What’ve you got in mind?”
Using the television screen as a prop, Sarah outlined her idea. I listened with growing astonishment, confusion, and frank surprise as she walked me through every twist and turn of the infiltration. The image on the screen changed several times, normally when she reached some point that required visual representation. When she was done, I stared at her for nearly a full minute.
Sarah broke the silence before I did. “Well? What do you think?”
I blinked and swallowed hard, picking my words with exquisite care. “I thought that I was supposed to be the crazy one.”
She responded to that by throwing a pillow at me. Either because of the coffee or because of a genuine lack of intent on her part, I easily dodged the projectile. “I’m serious here. This is more your speed, but Asher and Hill have been ahead of us every step of the way with my plans. Even when we thought we were winning, we might only have been helping one side or the other get closer to their goals.”
“So you figured you’d change things up?” I gave her an approving nod. “That’s probably what we needed. Like Mila said: a little bit of controlled destruction might do us all some good. And, if nothing else, we can at least put a serious dent in anything Hill’s trying to do in the region.”
“Right before we all die horrible, fiery deaths,” Mila said.
We all looked at her. It was Michel who spoke first. “With that attitude,” he said, “it is a wonder that everyone does not come to you for your cheery disposition.”
Mila seemed as though she might have taken offense at that for a few seconds, before she relaxed and allowed a genuine smile to spread across her face. “This is me being cheery,” she said. “You don’t want to see what I’m like when I’m actually pessimistic.”
Michel shook his head with slow, mock sadness. “It is a shame. She does not understand the meaning of sarcasm at all.”
“Is this what dealing with me feels like?” I asked Sarah.
“Pretty much. Except Michel’s got the accent, so that’s working for him.”
A number of reprisals leapt to mind, but I sidelined them before they made it past their infancies. Another thought followed on their heels, which crystallized into solidity almost instantly. I turned it around in my mind, examined it from every possible angle, before deciding that it had a less than zero percent chance of working. In this situation, with all of the odds stacked against us, that was a higher percentage than any of us had any right to expect.
“You can get me in,” I said, “and I think I might have an idea to get me back out again. But you definitely aren’t going to like it.” I turned to Mila. “Neither of you are.”
“Let me be the judge of that,” Sarah said. “Maybe there’s some way we can mitigate whatever difficulties you’re planning to set up for yourself.”
I told her my idea. It took considerably less time than she had used on her own explanation and required none of the props.
“You’ve lost your mind,” Sarah said, immediately after I finished speaking. “Seriously, you have absolutely lost your mind.”
“Think about it,” I said. “We both know there isn’t any other way I can get out of the estate. Even using your plan to get in, I’d just be trapped inside with however many men Hill’s employed. And some of your tricks are only going to work the one time.”
Mila took two steps forward. “You weren’t kidding when you said I wasn’t going to like it. Not that it matters either way, because I’m not going to let you do it.”
“Yes it does matter, and yes you will let me go through with it. Because the alternatives aren’t any better, and almost all of them involve one or both of us dying those fiery deaths you mentioned earlier. We have limited resources to bring to bear here, so we’ve got to make use of everything we have. Even if it’s not something we’d typically prefer to get involved.”
Mila grumbled something under her breath, but she didn’t move any closer.
“Michel?” I shifted my attention over to the Frenchman. “What do you think?”
He gave his answer deep thought. “I think,” he said, finally, “that you are crazy.”
“Crazy like a fox or crazy like…well, like Asher?”
“Neither,” Michel replied. “Or both. But maybe…maybe you are crazy enough that this thing will work.”
I decided that, in spite of my own second-guesses and the general air of disbelief in the room, I would have to take Michel’s faint praise as endorsement enough. Besides, if my idea didn’t work, I strongly doubted that anyone would be in any mood to tell me that they’d been right all along.