Tag Archives: Sarah

The Florence Job, Part 1 (Alex)

The wind picked up and Alex flipped up the collar of his jacket to keep his neck warm.  “Are we on schedule?”

Static popped in his ear.  He winced, and adjusted the headset, as Sarah’s voice came over the comms.  “More or less,” she said.  “There were…complications.”  He’d heard that tone too many times to miss its hidden meaning.

Sure enough, Devlin spoke next.  Just hearing his voice brought a slight smile to Alex’ face.  “Listen, love, there was a lot happening here and it was all happening at once.  I was just trying to keep things copacetic.”

Sarah sighed, but said nothing.  Alex could easily imagine her biting into her lip to keep from yelling at her husband over the comms.  The mental image widened his smile.

“Um,” a woman, not Sarah, began.  The smile was wiped, thoroughly and completely, from his face in an instant.  “Does that mean everything is okay?”

“Everything is fine, Johannah,” Alex said, soothing her with his words as much as his tone.  From where he waited, he had no line of sight to Johnannah’s location.  Still, he turned in her general direction anyway.  All that he saw were walls, buildings, and bridges in front of him.  “Do not worry, okay?”

“I…will try,” she said back, hesitantly.

Two clicks sounded through the earbuds before Sarah spoke again.  “Alex?  Remind me why this is a good idea.”

He found a clear space on his boat to sit and stayed silent.  Johnannah was frightened enough already; the last thing she needed was to hear his own doubts regarding her presence on this job.

“Oh, you’re on private comms,” Sarah said, after a few seconds passed.  “You’re just talking to me right now.”

“It is not a good idea,” he said in a soft voice.  “Not at all.”

“Then why?  Sure, she’s already got the easiest role out us all – all she’s really got to do is watch one building – but I don’t see why we’ve got her with us in the first place.”

“Johannah told me that she wanted to share everything with me,” Alex answered.  “My life, my love, and my occupation.”

Sarah was quiet for the next handful of seconds.  “And how often does that sort of thing work out for people like us?”

“It seems to work well for you and Devlin, no?”

She chuckled.  “Devlin and I are a unique situation.”

He checked his watch.  If things continued according to plan, the specific gondola they wanted would pass under the Ponte Vecchio in the next five minutes.  Sarah was using her network of appropriated cameras to follow the gondola as it moved through the waterways.  Devlin was…somewhere.  Alex wasn’t ever really sure where the roguish thief was, or what his methods were, but they produced results time and time again.  According to Sarah, Devlin was supposed to find a way onto the gondola just after it passed beneath the Ponte Vecchio.  The prevailing opinion was that he should try to fall or swim onto it, but the specific technique he chose to utilize remained up to his own discretion.

Alex had used his connections in Florence to obtain a second gondola, nearly the same size and color of their target.  Sarah’s work in the area had been too clandestine for her to form the right sort of friendships; Devlin was, more often than not, something of a bull in a china shop.  His friends would walk across molten coals for him, but there were very few people who could tolerate his impulsiveness for long.  Alex was one.  Sarah, obviously, was another.  He’d heard Devlin mention one or two other friends, scattered across the globe, but this job had only required four people and so he had only recruited Alex and Sarah.  Alex himself had, inadvertently, provided the fourth man, as well.

It had been a simple mistake; the sort of thing that he treated as a joke, when it happened to others.  Upon returning home to his wife Johannah and their relatively newborn daughter, Alex had forgotten to remove a ticket stub from the inside pocket of an old, weather-beaten coat.  When Johannah found the stub – a departure ticket from Monte Carlo, with an assortment of layovers and transfers – she’d leapt to the assumption that Alex had been unfaithful.  He’d vehemently defended himself against her accusations but, in a moment of emotional shortsightedness, he’d let a hint of the truth slip.  She’d grasped the slim clue and pulled until the whole tapestry of lies unraveled in her lap.

Now, driven to see what her husband did for work, Johannah served as their lookout.  She was positioned on a bench outside of the Uffizi.  Her job was simple and direct.  All that she needed to do was watch the entrance to the museum.  It was closed today and the next day after that; with a forty-eight hour window, the team would not have been particularly rushed if not for the presence of another crew casing the same location.  Johannah was to watch the museum entrance and, if anyone entered the building, for any reason at all, to declare “the cat’s in the cradle.”  That signal would abort the entire operation.

“Alex?”  Sarah asked.

He jolted back to the present and shook the gondola a little.  The boatman shot Alex a look and frowned.  “I am here,” he said.

“So…why are we doing this again?”

“Because,” he said, “I am tired of lying to her.”

Sarah had no answer to that.  “That makes sense, but…”  She stopped, mid-sentence.  Alex heard her fingers flying across her keyboard.  “What are you talking about, Devlin?”

No reply came into Alex’ earbud.  Sarah must have been listening to the other lines, as well.  Whatever had distracted her was enough that she forgot to add Alex back into the general conversation.  “What is it?”  He asked.

Sarah spoke, but she wasn’t responding to Alex’ question. “Devlin, tell me what you see.”  Pause.  “How many?”  Another pause, longer this time.  “Johannah, are you there?”  Alex’ palms began to sweat, and the moisture was cold on his skin.  “Shit,” Sarah said.  “Shit, shit, shit, shit!”

“Sarah!”  He snapped into the microphone, startling the boatman and drawing the curious eyes of some tourists on the Arno’s banks.  “What is happening?”

The line clicked, three times now, and Alex was overwhelmed by the sudden influx of voices.  Devlin spoke louder and his words dominated the tumult of noise.  “I can see where they’re covering her,” he said, “but it’ll take me time to get there.”

“Covering her?”  Sarah asked.  “What do you mean ‘covering her?’ She’s an unarmed civilian!”

They’re not unarmed,” Devlin said.  “I count five gunmen right now.  No telling if there’s more hiding somewhere.”

Johannah whimpered into her microphone.  She spoke, after a moment, in a barely audible whisper.   “What do I do?”

Alex spun and jabbed a finger at the boatman.  His Italian wasn’t the strongest, but simple phrases were easy to recall.  “Portami a riva!”  He punctuated the command by stamping his foot into the gondola.  The boatman began to steer the vessel towards the nearest bank.  Alex switched back to English.  “Who is armed?  Where is my wife?”

Sirens came through the comms, accompanied by the sounds of heavy, rapid footfalls.  It was Devlin who spoke, between ragged gasps for oxygen.  “The other…crew…they’ve got…guns…and…they…”

“They saw her?”  Alex asked.  The gondola drew close enough to the bank and he leapt from it before it could slow or stop.  Only one foot landed with enough purchase to support his weight.  He flailed around until he caught the front shirt of an unsuspecting tourist.  He pulled on the man’s shirt and managed to get his other foot onto solid ground.  The tourist found himself in the canal before he could react.  As soon as Alex felt his footing was secure enough, he took off running without a backwards glance at the soggy civilian.  “What are they doing?  Someone, tell me what is happening!”

Sarah answered.  She was calm, but not unconcerned.  He’d worked with her enough in the past to know when she was forcing herself to remain cold.  “Johannah was watching the Uffizi, but the other crew had their own lookout.  Best guess is they saw her talking into the comms, and figured she was part of a rival team.  So they flanked her and by the time Devlin was close enough to see her, it was too late.  She panicked and ran.”

“Where is she now?”  Alex asked.  Sarah didn’t answer immediately, and so he raised his voice and repeated himself in a near panic.  “Where is she?”

“We…”  Sarah hesitated, then continued.  “We don’t know yet.  Devlin?”

“Lost them,” Devlin said, after a long stretch of silence.  “She’s good, though.  I think she slipped them.”

“Johannah?”  Sarah prompted.

Alex’ wife didn’t respond to the question for what felt like an eternity.  “I am okay,” she said.  Alex swallowed a mouthful of air and realized, somewhat distantly, that he’d stopped breathing at some point.  “I think they do not know where I am.”

“Okay,” Sarah said.  The clatter of her fingers striking keys came from her end of the line.  “Wherever you are,” she said, “I can’t get a read on your GPS.  Are you underground?”

“Yes,” Johannah said.  “What is happening?”

“Nothing we didn’t have a plan for,” Sarah said.  Alex heard the pause, but it took him a second to realize it was her tell.  She was lying.


Two clicks in his ear, signifying that she’d isolated the two of them once more.  “What?”  Sarah asked.

“You do have an extraction plan, right?”  She didn’t answer.  “Sarah, tell me you have a plan.”

“We…didn’t expect them to flank us like this,” she admitted.

“Alex, we’re going to get her out,” Devlin said.  Alex was surprised to hear his voice on the line.  Apparently Sarah had only removed Johannah from the communications link.  He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.  “She’s somewhere safe for the moment, and we’ll evac the second we get to her.”

“She is alone,” Alex said, pushing his way through crowds as he dashed through the streets to the café Jonahannah was supposed to be.  “And she is scared.  She is not like us!”

“I’ve got the police headed to her last known location,” Sarah said.  “She’s got no record here, or anywhere, so there’s no chance she goes to jail.  And the law should clear the other team out of the area.”

Alex slowed slightly.  A police presence was normally the worst possible development but now, with his wife pinned down by an unknown number of assailants, it seemed like the only move with a chance of success.  “What are you going to do, Devlin?”

“If I can,” Devlin said, “I’m going to find the group and keep them tied up dealing with me.  That’ll give Johannah a little breathing room.”

“And I’ll keep on the police frequencies.  As soon as they find her, I’ll loop you two in,” Sarah added.  “But Alex?  We’ve got to keep her calm.  Civilians make mistakes and we can’t afford any mistakes right now.  Got it?”

He nodded.  “I understand,” he said.   “Put her back on.”

Three clicks.  “Are you still there?”  Johannah asked.  “Alex?  Devlin, Sarah?”

“I am here, engel,” Alex said.  He made his way around two more tourists, ducking beneath their camera, and came within sight of the café.  A waiter was picking Johannah’s abandoned chair from the ground and righting it at the table.  Alex’ heartbeat quickened, but he forced himself to sound calm.  “Devlin is coming to get you now, okay?”

“What is going on where you are?”

Alex looked around at his surroundings.  There was no sign at the Uffizi or at the café of the rival crew.  He saw other overturned chairs and tables.  The general destruction left a loose trail, heading off down the street, to the Palazzo Pitti.  He set off, staying as close to the trail as he possibly could.  “Everything will be fine,” he said.  “Can you tell me what your surroundings look like?”

“She can’t hear me right now,” Sarah said in his ear.  “Keep her talking, okay?  Any details she can give will help me direct the cops to her.”

“It is…dark,” Johannah said.  “Very old.  It looks like a…fortress, maybe?”

“That’s the Palazzo Pitti,” Alex said, both for his wife’s benefit and to assist Sarah.  “Can you see anything else?”

“No, I am…afraid to look outside.”

“That is fine,” Alex said quickly.  “Stay where you are.”

“Local law’s not far,” Sarah said.  “Devlin, you heard where Johannah’s at?”

“More or less,” Devlin said.  “I’m a couple minutes away from there right now.”

“Alex?”  Johannah asked.  Devlin and Sarah continued to talk, but Alex could only hear his wife’s voice.  “Alex, what is going to happen?”

“We are going to rescue you, engel,” he said.  “And then we will go home to our daughter and we will be happy.”

He heard sirens over the comms and watched as several cars rounded a corner and headed toward the Palazzo.  “I hear the police,” Johannah said.  “That is good, right?”

“It is very good,” Alex assured her.  “Whoever is out there only wanted the art.  With the police here, the job’s blown.  Their best move now is to just pull out and try again – “

He heard three very loud pops, followed by a rapid-fire staccato burst of noise.  It was audible through his comms and in the air around him.  Tourists looked in the direction of the Palazzo; the locals jerked at the sound as well.  The sirens shut off and, after a few seconds of silence, more pops sounded in the air.  Alex’ blood turned to liquid nitrogen and his heart froze in his chest.

“They’re shooting?”  Devlin’s voice was sharp and pitchy.  “What the hell?”

Alex threw himself into motion, running flat out without regard for the people he bowled over in his haste.  “Johannah!  What is happening, Johannah?”

His wife whimpered something unintelligible into her microphone.  She cleared her throat and tried a second time, in a marginally more understandable voice.  “They are shooting at each other,” she whispered.  “Outside, the police and…the people who followed me.”

Alex’ mind moved as fast as his feet.  He turned a corner, knocked an unoffending florist to the street, and ran on without stopping.  The artwork they’d come for was valuable, of course, but not so valuable that a prolonged shootout with the local police was a proportionate response.  The Italian police were armed, more often than not, and occasionally those weapons took the form of submachine guns and higher caliber weaponry.  The smart move was to disperse.  The score wasn’t worth this much trouble.  It didn’t make any sense.

Devlin spoke, dawning horror in his every syllable.  “This isn’t about the painting,” he said.  “This is personal.  They’re not here for the job; they’re here for us.”

Alex stopped.  “What?”

“How else would they have known to look for a spotter?”  Devlin asked.  “Why would they bring guns to rob an empty museum?  And why would anyone start a fight with the police, instead of going to ground?”

It made sense.  Alex knew it was perfectly logical, if he considered the situation impersonally.  Devlin had made enemies in the past.  Sarah remained detached from most jobs, but there was always the possibility that she had offended some other hacker’s sensibilities in the past.  And Alex, despite his best efforts to remain in good standing with the criminal community, had been forced to protect himself from recklessly dangerous thieves before.  A chance to eliminate three prominent threats would be difficult to ignore.  And, in pursuit of that target, a single civilian casualty would be an acceptable loss.

Except, that single civilian casualty was his wife.  Alex didn’t know when he started to run again; he felt the soles of his feet pounding into the pavement as he ran toward the gunfight, wind whipping tears from his eyes.  “Johannah!”  His voice echoed back from the buildings around him.

“Alex,” Sarah said, “I’m directing backup to the Palazzo now.  Devlin, where are you at?”

“I’m three minutes out,” Devlin said.  He was out of breath.  Alex could hear him choking down as much oxygen as he could.  “How long until the backup?”

“I don’t know,” Sarah said.  Then, after a single beat of silence, Alex heard a loud crash.  “Damn it!  The police are holding position, but…”

“But what?”  Devlin asked.

“They’ve only got eyes on three shooters.  The others are…”

Johannah sobbed into the line.  The sound of her fear galvanized Alex and he forced more speed from his body, left more destruction in his wake.  Most of the citizens had fled the Palazzo as the gunfire increased in duration and intensity; those few that remained, paralyzed by fear, Alex swept from his path.  He saw the Palazzo approaching.  Police lights twinkled at the entrance to the courtyard.

“Alex,” Sarah said, “I see where you are, but you’ve got to hang back.  Backup’s only a minute or two out.  You can’t go in there now.  They’re trigger happy and they’ll shoot you before you can explain yourself.”

Johannah spoke, then.  “The…the cat’s in the cradle,” she whispered in a barely audible voice.  “Someone is here.”

Alex’ heart went into overdrive.  He heard Sarah’s voice, cautioning him to keep his distance, trying to speak reason.  He ripped the headset free and threw it behind him, leapt over a low wall and landed in motion, running full speed.  Two police officers turned at the sudden movement, but he was behind another wall before they could bring their weapons to bear.  A moment later, he found an entrance into the Palazzo itself and slipped inside.  The light fell away as he went deeper into the ruins.  He forged ahead, stubbing his toes and banging his shins against hidden obstacles.  After a while, a light appeared in the gloom.  It bobbed up and down, at about average shoulder height.

“Johannah!”  Alex yelled into the darkness.  “Johannah, ich komme!”


Chapter 25

The town car came back around eleven PM that night.  I’d spent the hours since Sarah’s departure in a state of agitation.  When the call to head downstairs came, I was glad for the opportunity to act.  It wasn’t until I was comfortably seated in the back of the vehicle that I remembered how much time Sarah had promised me: one day.  There were still seven hours left before that deadline, but I couldn’t in good conscience be upset at her for cutting the time short.  She’d tolerated my intrusion back into her life better than I had expected – though, not with the happiness I’d secretly hoped for – but it made sense that she’d want to get me out of the country and away from her as quickly as possible.

The ride didn’t take long.  I felt the car stop, but couldn’t see outside through its black tinted windows.  The driver opened my door and I stepped outside into a sea of lights and sound.  San Francisco, or at least the portion that we were in, was fully alive.  I hadn’t been in America since the split.  It felt good to hear random snippets of conversation and to actually understand what was being said.

The area where we’d stopped was not, however, the airport.  It wasn’t even a bus station.  A titan of a building, countless stories of reflective surfaces and cold steel, grew from the street in front of me.  “Is this the part where you put two in my head?”  I asked the driver.  At the same time, I estimated the weight and height difference between the two of us.  It was possible that Sarah’s hireling had been co-opted by Asher and his backers; if this man moved, I wanted to be ready to intercept.

The driver turned to me and offered a confused smile.  “Pardon me, sir?”

“Nevermind.  Where are we?”

“Miss Parker asked me to pick you up from the Victorian, sir, and to bring you here.”


He shrugged.  “She didn’t say.  Would you like me to wait for you, sir?”

“You’re on the clock right now?”

Color crept into his cheeks.  “No, sir.  I am…working freelance for the evening.”

“Making money on the side, eh?”  I laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Well, nobody’ll hear it from me.  Why don’t you go blow off some steam somewhere while Miss Parker and I work this all out.  Just don’t go too far away; if one of us needs you, we’re going to need you quick.  Okay?”

I didn’t intend to, but the stress on Sarah’s pseudonym came through before my brain had a chance to clamp down it.  If the driver noticed the verbal italics, he didn’t comment on them.  “Sir?  Are you sure?”

“Go for it.  No reason you can’t have some fun while the two of us hash all this out.”

He looked for a moment as though he would speak again; then, he thought better of the idea and nodded instead.  “Miss Parker has my cell number.  Please, call whenever you’re ready.”

The driver walked down the sidewalk.  I watched him until the crush of people obscured him from view, and then turned back to face the building.  It was…impressive.  It stretched at least ten stories into the sky, composed of glass and steel, in a very utilitarian style.  International companies belonged in a structure like it, not individual citizens.

I winced, a split second after the thought passed through my mind.  I didn’t actually know that Sarah was single.  She’d received offers, even while we were still dating.  At this point, she’d spent four years single, and I struggled to believe that she hadn’t accepted one of the many propositions in the meantime.  That was my fault, though.  I had no place to get upset about it, so I steeled myself and entered the building.  Just inside, I saw a board with names listed in alphabetical order.  The first half of the nameplate was filled with corporations.  I recognized a few of the names, from looking over Sarah’s shoulder while she purchased the latest and greatest hardware for her network of state-of-the-art systems.  I ignored those and traced a finger down the names until I found “Bonnie Parker” listed on the seventh floor.  An elevator dinged nearby and I stepped inside, just as a businessman in a tailored Italian suit stepped out.

He looked at me once, without seeming to really notice my presence.  Then, as the shabby nature of my own clothing caught his eye, his look sharpened into curiosity.

I spoke before he could.  “Walk of shame.”  Not entirely untrue, from a certain arcane perspective.

He considered that for a moment, shrugged, and went on his way.  I rode the elevator up to the seventh floor and found Sarah’s room, at the end of a blind hallway.  I knocked on the door and, less than a second later, she opened it.  She still wore the same jeans, but the red top had been discarded.  Now, I could see her t-shirt: a picture of a young Michael Caine throwing a punch, with the caption “Knock ‘Em Dead.”  Her wild brown hair was pulled out of her eyes and held in place by a blue and red hair tie, although curls still spilled out of their containment with her every move.

“Uh…nice place,” I said, for lack of anything better.

She snorted.  “I want to show you something.”  Sarah walked away, leaving the door open and her invitation/command hanging in the air.

I stepped into the condo after her and used a few seconds to examine the room.  The action was purely reflexive: in any situation where I found myself on someone else’s territory, the first move was always to scope out possible exits.  Rationally, I knew that a seventh floor apartment left very few options for a quick getaway that didn’t involve the front door, and the search was over before it really had a chance to begin.  The place was a mess of haphazardly tossed clothing and scraps of paper with Sarah’s meticulous handwriting peppered every inch of available space.  A smell – burned food, perhaps – lingered in the air.  I cleared my throat.  “What’re you showing me?”

“Just come on.  Out on the balcony.”

I did as ordered, making a special effort to avoid looking down over the edge.  Instead, I kept my head and eyes level and looked out.  The city was beautiful.  From seven stories up, more of the twinkling city lights were visible, although the light pollution ruined the night sky and drowned out the stars themselves.  The night was unseasonably warm, so I removed my blazer and draped it over one hand.

“I love coming out here,” Sarah said.  “Just to get away from things.  I spend most of my time in the computer room, obviously.”

“Obviously,” I replied.  I had no idea where she was going with this line of conversation, but I was willing to give her some rope to get there.

“When I first moved out here, after…”  Sarah cleared her throat and her eyes flickered in my direction.  I turned slightly to face her, and her eyes slid away from me.  She continued her thought, as though the verbal hiccup hadn’t happened at all.  “I thought this place had the best view of the city.  Had to overpay like you wouldn’t believe, but I got it.”

I turned my eyes fully away from the city and looked at Sarah’s profile.  Her expression was wistful, her lips slightly parted.  I shifted nervously in place.  “It’s just a place,” I said.  “After I deal with the Asher situation, it’ll still be here.”

“I know that.  You think I don’t know that?  It’s not the view, Devlin; it’s the normality.  This was supposed to be my chance to start from scratch as an honest citizen, without the Ford name hanging over my head or all the underworld baggage that I got tied up in.”

I faked a cough.  “I don’t think this condo really qualifies as a normal one.”

Sarah chuckled.  The noise was sweeter for how unexpected it was.  “Fair point.  But it was a start.  It was supposed to be a start.”

“It still can be,” I said.  “This isn’t going to take forever.”

“That’s not my point, Dev.”

It felt oddly exhilarating to hear the nickname from her lips.  My heartbeat accelerated and I felt a little heat creep into my cheeks.  “What is your point, then?”

“You wouldn’t get it,” she said.

“I’m pretty good at understanding things, Sarah.”

“No, you aren’t.  Not with this.  This is one of those things you just wouldn’t get.”  She sighed and faced me.  “I got an email.  From your Puppetmaster, I think.”

The heat drained away and was replaced, in an instant, by a deep chill.  “What?  What did it say?”

“I’ll show you.”  She left the balcony.  I followed after her, through the condo and into a room at the end of a long hallway.

One of her computer set-ups was stored inside the room, clicking and beeping as it worked through some calculation.  Three monitors – Sarah’s preferred number of screens – glowed with a faint blue tinge, as she took her place in an extravagant chair.  Both the right and left screens were blank, except for the starry background she’d selected.  All available real estate on her center screen was monopolized by a page filled with numbers and letters.  She minimized it as I approached, and opened her email server, in its place.

“This,” she said, “showed up after I dropped you off at the Victorian.  Or…well, I don’t know exactly when it showed up, but it wasn’t there when I left and it was here when I got back.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a job request.”

I blinked.

“You heard me.  Somebody’s trying to hire me for a job.  I can only imagine they’re going to want to hire you, too.  The timing’s a little too suspect, otherwise.  I haven’t gotten a serious request in a year, if not longer.”   She rolled her chair out of the way, so that I could get close enough to the screen to read the message.  It was a simple email, stripped bare of frills or ostentation.  I finished and stood back.  Sarah watched my expression patiently.  “Well?”

“You can’t take it,” I said instantly.  “You definitely have to leave town now.”

The bemused look on her face sharpened into the warning signs of indignation.  “I don’t have to do anything, Dev.”

“They got into your server, Sarah.  If someone can do that, then…”

“Then they can find where I live, sure.  But, according to you, Asher already knows that.  If this was him, do you really think he’d tip his hand by sending me a message first?”

I paused and considered that.  “He might,” I said, feeling slightly petulant.  There was every chance that Asher would send a taunting message, but only if it were a part of some larger scheme.  He hadn’t revealed himself to me until he’d needed to keep me stationary while his sniper got into position.  “OK.  No, he wouldn’t.  But I still don’t know whether the Puppetmaster is on my side, or just against Asher and his handlers, whoever they are.”

“About that.”  Sarah clicked one of three attachments at the bottom of the email, and the previous spreadsheet filled with numbers appeared on the screen again.  “What does this mean to you?”

“Without any context?”  I skimmed across the information.  The numbers displayed were frighteningly large, and being moved across legitimate and illegitimate companies in alarming quantities.  Some of the names I recognized; others, I’d never seen before.  “Looks like a shell company,” I said finally.

“Looks like several shell companies,” Sarah corrected.  “I asked a…friend for help.  He couldn’t get me any answers, so I went looking on my own.”

“So?  Who’s this…”  I squinted at the top of the spreadsheet.  “…BMC?”

“They’re nobody,” Sarah said.  “At least, not that I can find.  But some of these other companies they’re ‘doing business’ with?  They have paper trails.  Nearly all of them are just shell companies.  The intricacy here is…it’s more than I’ve ever seen.”

“And you got this from whoever hacked your server?”

Sarah nodded.

There was a light that leaped into Sarah’s eyes when she got excited or intrigued.  When we’d worked together, it had been one of the many things I’d fallen in love with: that joy she felt whenever a problem piqued her interest and drew out her full potential.  She was better, even on her worst days, than most organizers, planners, and computer specialists I’d encountered.  When she was in the zone, focused and interested, Sarah left them all in the dust by a mile.

At that moment, she wore that glimmer like a cloak of diamonds.  It glittered in her eyes and she vibrated with tense, electric energy.

“What else?”  I asked.  I squelched the voice in my mind that warned me against drawing her any further into my troubles.

Sarah minimized the spreadsheet and opened a video file in its place, talking while she manipulated the windows’ positioning.  “Most of those companies are overseas, of course, in countries with some fairly severe privacy laws.  The locations I could track down are probably fake.  Every breadcrumb leads to another breadcrumb, and every one of those breadcrumbs just ends in a dead end if I follow the trail long enough.”

“Could you have done the same thing?”

“I could, but there really wouldn’t be a point.  It’s a maze of connections, just between any three names on that balance sheet.  Add in the totality of them, and it’s absurd.  And to tie all those into a single, overarching company?”

I looked back at the screen and, instantly, recognized what I saw.  “Where’d you get a copy of the bank job?”

“Came in the email.”

“What else did you get?”

“One thing at a time,” she said.  “Here, watch.”

Sarah pressed play.  The first few minutes of the video played out as I remembered: Asher and his crew subduing the people inside the bank, the explosion, the billowing smoke, and then the deaths of six Russian thugs.  I started to say something, when the image changed to a second video that I hadn’t seen.  In it, Asher held a decorated book of some kind under his arm.  He cradled it to his chest before he left the vault and, presumably, the bank.  “What was that?”

“The book or the video?”

“Both, I guess.  In that order.”

“I don’t know what the book is.  I was actually hoping you might have a clue.”

I shook my head.  “Never seen anything like it.  Did you ask any of your contacts?”

“My contacts don’t really know a lot about art,” she said.  “That’s more your area of expertise.  As to the second question, I’m assuming it’s exactly what it looks like.  I did have a relative expert check the validity of the footage.  It’s real.  Or, at least it hasn’t been altered.”

“Why didn’t the Russians show me that footage?”  I asked, and stopped, mouth open as realization hit me.  “They didn’t have it.”

Sarah clicked her teeth in agreement.  “It does make sense, doesn’t it?  But who might have had a reason to install a second, secret camera?”

We said the answer at the same time.  “The Puppetmaster.”

The two of us sat there, bathed in blue light, for a while.  Beyond her undisguised joy at a mystery to be solved, I couldn’t read anything in Sarah’s expression.  For my part, I felt the old familiar sensation creeping up on me.  My instincts told me that we were on the right track, but that we were missing a vital element of the puzzle.  Sarah moved before I did, sending the video to the taskbar and opening the third attachment: a high resolution picture of a golden crown.  I turned and raised a questioning eyebrow to her.

“It’s a crown,” she said.

“I can see that much, thanks.”

She shot me a faint, vaguely amiable, sneer.  “It’s a special crown.  Archeologists uncovered it in Wales and it’s on display at the Museum of London for the next two weeks.”

I mulled over that information.  “So, someone breaks into your server and sends you an email with a balance sheet for a mystery company, a file that shows Asher stealing a book of some sort, and a picture of a crown.  But without actually telling you what job they want to hire you for?”

“If you had to guess,” Sarah began, “what would you say the message is supposed to actually mean?”

“They’re connected, or else why send them together?  Asher’s the link between this BMC and the job in Limassol.  Stands to reason that he’d be the connection to the crown too, so…I’d guess someone’s trying to tell you that Asher is going after the crown next.”

“Five points to O’Brien,” Sarah said.  The twinkle in her eyes told me that she’d come to the same conclusion on her own.

I noticed, finally, the notepad I’d left on her seat.  It lay on her desk, just in front of the left monitor.  “Probably going to need that, if this gets any more complicated.”

“You’ve got no clue.  I had to start an entire file just to keep up with all the moving parts in this.”

“Can you send me that?  Figure I’m going to need that at some point.”

“I can,” Sarah said.   “You’ve got some time before our flight leaves, anyway.”

“Yeah, I can definitely use a refresher on the details, but…”  I stopped, as my mind caught up with Sarah’s last sentence.  “Our flight?”

“What, you thought I’d just send you off with my money, without making sure you don’t just run off with it?”

“Sarah, you can’t –“

She shot me a look, so packed with so much meaning that it actually took me aback.  There was that familiar glitter of interest, hardened by Sarah’s unbendable will, and something else that I couldn’t identify.  I could easily imagine how any argument would play out.  An hour or two of back-and-forth yelling – Sarah insisting that she was capable of making her own choices, me attempting to dissuade her from willingly jumping into a situation of literally incalculable danger – but she wasn’t ever going to budge.  I remembered that much about her.  It wasn’t a question of whether or not she’d take the job offer; it was a matter of exactly how much misery I wanted to earn before I eventually yielded the point.

“When…when do we leave, then?”  I asked, and tried not to feel too happy at the elation that appeared on her face and in my chest.

The Benefit Job; Seven Years Ago (Sarah)

A dozen different plans all faltered at key points in their execution, and so I found myself without any other option.  I’d have to go to the benefit in person.  No amount of effort could trump simple numerical fact: my equipment wasn’t physically powerful enough to crack the organization’s firewall in a reasonable time frame.  I couldn’t wait for another opportunity, because I didn’t know when I would have access to a connected terminal again.  And letting this particular target slip away would leave dozens of women, if not more, without the appropriate care they required for their very lives.  So, with my possible avenues of attack rapidly closing, and time slipping away, I was forced to default to the old hacker’s panacea: simply inserting the appropriate virus, via a USB drive, into the main computer itself.

That wasn’t ideal, for a lot of reasons, but it was the only option I could think of.  On the bright side, my last name opened doors and provided access to most events. It also provided a legitimate reason for my presence.  The Ford family was known for its charitable donations, after all.  It wasn’t uncommon for one of us to appear at an art gala or charity dinner, write a sufficiently large check to impress upon the other social climbers that we cared, and shake hands with the newest movers in our selective community. All I needed to do was find one of the computers the organization was using, insert my infected flash drive, and walk away. Five minutes, at most, before my program located and siphoned funds away from the international accounts, into the coffers of an LLC I’d created for this very purpose.  Five minutes where I’d be exposed to the possibility of capture.  That was all I needed. Five minutes of freedom, however, were proving more difficult to acquire at the gala than I’d expected.

I endured an hour of polite chitchat and weathered a storm of small talk before I finally managed to slip away from the horde of supplicants, in search of a computer. I found three offices, none of which had the appropriate access, and two supply closets. I walked further down the hallway, away from the main dining room, and nearly passed an open gallery without a second glance. I halted a step later and backtracked. A man stood alone in the gallery, looking up at an original Renoir. He spoke, without turning to face me. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

I checked my watch. Every guest was supposed to be in the main hall for another fifteen minutes, at least. “Yeah,” I said, scrambling mentally for an appropriate back-up plan.  I didn’t have an alibi in place because I hadn’t expected to need one. I had a reason to be at the gala; I did not, however, have a reason to be anywhere other than the main room with the rest of the idle rich.  Just the thought of creating a lie on the spot caused beads of sweat to appear on my brow and the backs of my hands.  “It’s one of my favorites.”  There.  That wasn’t a lie, at least.

“Mine too,” the man said. He still didn’t look away from the painting. “You know what something like this goes for?”

“I never thought about it, no.”

“This one, right here? At an open auction, maybe two million, easy. Three, if you get the right crowd.”

“Three million? Seriously?”  I wasn’t unused to that amount of money – I’d looked into my family’s finances, both on- and off-book – but those funds couldn’t be accessed without raising serious red flags.  I’d skipped out on the auctions my parents had tried to foist on me, though, and the thought of three million potential dollars hanging alone gave me more than a few moment’s pause.

The man turned and flashed a smile at me. “Well, that’s at a sanctioned auction. If you were just selling it…let’s say, privately, you’d be looking at about two million, at the most. Minus expenses, finder’s fee, and so on.”

“Privately? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, nothing. Just thinking out loud.” He turned back to the painting.

I approached him, cautiously. I should have left.  I should have abandoned the plan and walked away. The smart move was definitely retreat.  The smart move had nothing to do with desire, though; right now, more than I wanted to seek the cover of the masses, I wanted to know more about this strange man.  “That’s an awfully specific number,” I said.  “Where’d you get that from?”

“It’s kind of a long story,” the man said.  He took a step back from the painting and tilted his head.  It looked as though he was examining the painting’s frame and sizing it up.  “Sufficed to say, something like this could be worth a lot of money to the right people.  If they could get it out of here without raising an alarm, that is.”

My wildest estimates gave me a take of a few hundred thousand dollars from this particular charity event, minus the contracting fees I owed various contacts I’d hired from online.  Financially, the organization was decentralized enough that I couldn’t access the real financial centers from any one exterior location.  To get away with even a million dollars, let alone two or three, I would need to penetrate their headquarters’ security.  That wasn’t a possibility, and so I’d simply settled for the smaller score that I knew I could actually pull off.  But two million, right here?  In the appropriate hands, that could do a lot of good for a lot of people.  “That just makes it kind of a shame, doesn’t it?”

“What’s that?”  The man asked.

“This painting,” I said.  “It’s a work of art, sure, but that doesn’t really mean anything to anyone in the real world, does it?  Things like this are only important to the people who can afford to pass them around, like some kind of currency.  At least it’d be doing some good if some ‘private collector’ stole it.  Then the proceeds could go to actually helping people who need it.”

He didn’t say anything in reply.  Not at first.  After a few seconds of silence, I turned my attention away from the Renoir and saw that the man was scrutinizing me, eyes narrowed and head tilted sharply to one side.  “What’s your name?”

“Sarah,” I answered, without thinking.  When my brain caught up with my mouth, I remembered that my name was hardly a secret. “Sarah Ford.  And you?”

He smiled again.  “You know,” he said, “most people at these sort of things have a keen interest in avoiding serious conversations.  You almost seem like you were looking for one.”

The fact that he’d avoided giving me his name didn’t escape my attention. “I’m not like most people who attend these sorts of things, I guess.”

“You said you were a Ford, right?”

I nodded.

The man whistled.  “That’s some old money.  Your family’s been living on inherited wealth for, what?  Three generations?”

“Four.”  My jaw tightened of its own accord.  Any mention of my family’s wealth drew that reaction from me, despite hours attempting to bring the reflex under conscious control.  I struggled to relax the muscles, with only marginal success.  “What’s your point?”

“Just that the Ford family could donate huge amounts of money to whatever charity it wanted to and probably do a lot of good.”

“The Ford family does do those things,” I said.  “And I’m here, aren’t I?”

“That’s true,” the man said.  “You’re here.”  He highlighted the sentence heavily enough that I could practically hear the italics.

I raised an eyebrow and gestured for him to elaborate.

He shook his head and began to pace the room, turning precisely at the point where the painting stopped and traveling back down his line.  “You could donate specifically to homeless shelters, for instance.  Or pay the medical bills of a couple dozen sufferers, no problem.  It isn’t any particular secret that this organization keeps most of the proceeds to line its own pockets.  People like you and your friends out there just donate for the tax write-off.”

“And people like you don’t?”

“Far from it, love.”  On any other night, the pet name would have sent me into a fury.  Another man, assuming that I was just another vapid girl with no agency or motivation of my own.  Someone who thought that a little bit of charm entitled him to patronize me, when he barely knew anything about me.  In this conversation, at this moment, I let it pass.  The conversation, antagonistic as it was quickly becoming, was too good to sabotage just yet.  He continued, apparently not even aware of what he’d said.  “You said you aren’t like the rest of the people in there, dancing without a care in the world?  But you think I am?”

That inflection forced me to pay closer attention to him.  The man wore a tailored suit, as I’d come to expect from socialites and dilettantes, but the way he wore it was…different.  His hands were tanned and his knuckles, now that I was specifically examining them, were bruised and missing a fair amount of skin.  He fairly vibrated with energy, passion radiating from every subtle movement of his muscles.  I made eye contact, felt some of that heat blossom in my own chest, and looked away quickly.

He reached a point exactly at the middle of the painting and stopped.  “So, you said you wish someone would steal this?  With all this security?  How would someone even go about doing something like that?”

My brain provided the answer immediately.  I’d spent days creating and dismissing various plans for an infiltration.  The option I’d chosen, a subtle insertion of an infected flash drive, was simply the most expedient one available for someone without any desire to get their hands dirty.  I’d wanted to discuss my thoughts with someone, anyone, and this strange man was as good a target as any.   It was child’s play to revise one of my earlier, now dismissed, options so that it stole a painting instead of financial information.  “You’d need two people, at least,” I said.  “One to handle the security system.  This museum isn’t state of the art, but they upgraded their firewall to host the event.  So the security expert would have to disable the alarms while the other person – let’s call them the infiltration team – cut this painting down and bundled it up.”

He blinked.  “And how, exactly, would you handle the guards?  They doubled the guards and tightened up the routines as soon as the foundation announced their intention to host a gala here.”

I shrugged that minor detail off.  “No routine is any better than the stupidest person who has to work it.  There’s probably a guy or two who doesn’t want anything more than a chance to sneak an extra cigarette.  Convince him to take a break, and you’d have a little leeway.  Barring that, with someone controlling the cameras, the infiltration team could just stay ahead of the patrols.  Of course, you’d have to erase any footage later on.  Getting away wouldn’t really mean much if everyone knew what you looked like.”

His lips twisted to one side.  “Social engineering, huh?  That does make sense, I guess.”

I heard his comment and elected to ignore it.  My mental wheels were spinning and I couldn’t stop just to reply to a sarcastic comment.  “You’d need a getaway driver, too.  Although the security specialist could just open an emergency exit, to start a general panic; that’d be a way out that no one would think about, and the infiltration team wouldn’t have to worry about any undue attention.  If everyone’s running out of the museum, what’s one more person?”  I snorted at an absurd idea.  “Or the infiltration team could just cut the painting down and hide it under their jacket.  I’m sure nobody would notice that.”

“People really aren’t all that observant,” he said, pulling his jacket closed and buttoning it defensively.  “And your security team would still have to cover their tracks, wouldn’t they?  Can’t delete footage if you aren’t in the room.”

I laid a hand on my purse and, by extension, my flash drive.  “Time-delayed virus would solve that.  Just wipe out any security footage from the last, oh, hour.  The guards are going to realize that the painting was stolen, no matter what happens; that way, they don’t know when or how it was stolen.  Then, someone could just fence the painting and get paid electronically.  Probably in foreign currency, routed through a few overseas banks, just to make sure it’s completely untraceable.”

I was warming quickly to the thought exercise.  I wanted to answer more questions.  I’d navigated the architecture of this particular system’s network enough times that I knew it by heart.  This hypothetical plan developed in my mind along similar routes.  First this, which leads to that, culminating in that.  I turned challenging eyes on the man, eager for another twist to solve.  He surprised me by laughing out loud, crossing the room, and extending a hand.  “Name’s Devlin,” he said.  “Devlin O’Brien.  Pleasure to meet you, Sarah Ford.”

I blinked twice, hard, before I accepted the handshake.  His palms were calloused and tough: the skin of someone who worked with his hands for a living.  His eyes, however, were like no one’s that I’d ever seen.  Every other physical laborer I’d seen carried the weight of their exhaustion on their shoulders, like Atlas with his burden.  Even the most cheerful still sported a shadow of weariness in the corners of their pupils.  This strange man – Devlin, I told myself, adding it to my memory with the simple act of repetition – didn’t have that.  He looked…young?  Or, if not exactly young, then youthful.  It was slightly off-putting; more unsettling than that, however, was the hard seriousness that I could feel in his firm shake.

“You know why I’m here,” I said, operating mostly on autopilot to give my mind a chance to catch back up.  “What about you?”

“That is…an interesting question,” Devlin said back.  He didn’t let go of my hand.  I was surprised to find that I didn’t particularly want him to.  “But it’s only fair.  You answered all of my questions, after all.”


“I like this painting.”  He released my hand and turned to face the artwork.  “And I know other people who like this painting, a lot more than I do.  But they couldn’t be here to see it in person, so…”  Devlin shrugged and trailed off.

In hindsight, it was obvious.  The well-dressed man, charming and challenging in equal measure, lurking in a corner, hidden from the prying eyes of the city’s socialites and debutantes.  I should have seen it immediately, but he’d been so engaging that I must have subconsciously pushed the realization away so that I could enjoy the conversation a little bit longer.  “You’re a thief!”

Devlin winked and actually bowed slightly to me, touching two fingers to his brow as he did so.  “I prefer ‘asset relocation specialist,’ but a rose by any other name.”

I spun and looked around for someone, but there was no one to find, of course.  “I could call security,” I said.  “One word from me and you’ll end up in handcuffs.  You know that, right?”

He straightened his back and met my eyes.  “If you were going to do that, I’d already be in handcuffs, don’t you think?”

I opened my mouth, found a complete and utter lack of clever responses available in my mind, and closed my mouth again.

“Besides,” Devlin continued, “there’s a reason you’re here, isn’t there?  All of the other vapid socialites are drinking and dancing, toasting to their generosity and patting each other on the back.  But you, a Ford of all people, come back here to get away from that.  Why is that?”

“I just…there are a lot of reasons that I might…”

“It’s okay,” he said.  “I get it.  Rich people piss me off, too.”  I raised an eyebrow.  The action happened involuntarily, the muscle twitching of its own accord, and Devlin raised both hands in surrender.  “Rich people like that,“ he amended.

He was on the right track, but he’d misread my tell.  It wasn’t an obvious conclusion to reach, I admitted privately.  There weren’t very many of my high society friends who were even vaguely aware of real suffering.  They hadn’t gone out into the streets, walked with the homeless and the downtrodden, only to return an opulent lifestyle they’d never earned in the slightest.  They hadn’t tired of being pampered and coddled.  As far as I knew, each and every one of my friends and family members was totally comfortable living off of the wealth generated by long-dead ancestors, while organizations we had the power to stop profited off of the misery of the lower class.  What sane person would look at me, Sarah Ford, second oldest child of the Ford clan, and think ‘Robin Hood?’

At the same time, what sane person would introduce themselves by name and then, without even the slightest hint of modesty, declare themselves a thief?

Devlin started talking again.  “I’ve got to admit.  Your plan’s got a lot to recommend it.  Elegant, smooth, just the right amount of romance in the details.  Mine was a bit rougher, but you make do with what you’ve got?  No one to write a virus like that on the fly for me, unfortunately, but I will have to look into finding someone like that in the future.  Thanks for the tip.”

He turned to leave.  Devlin obviously didn’t think I would share his identity with anyone else and, I had to admit, he was right.  I could have let him go.  Simply kept my mouth shut and let him carry on with his theft, using the distraction to siphon money from the charity’s bank accounts.  When the painting’s theft was discovered, the authorities would likely assume that it had all been a part of the same job and no one would consider that the hacker who’d hit several major organizations in the last few months had attended the gala in a five thousand dollar gown.

“Wait!”  Devlin turned back around, surprise evident on his features.  I could feel surprise on my own face.  Why hadn’t I let him walk away?  “You’d need a virus, you said?”  The words spilled out of me.

“It wouldn’t hurt,” Devlin said, slowly.  “Why?  Know someone?”

“And this painting is worth how much to you?”

His eyebrows drew closer together.  “Hypothetically?  One, maybe one and a half million.”

The number was still daunting.  “Half of that goes to a charity of my choosing,” I said.

It was Devlin’s turn to blink.  “And why would I do that?  I don’t even have the money, yet.”

“Because I can guarantee you a clean exit.”  My fingers dipped into my purse and removed the small flash drive with my siphoning program.  “And I can help you get away with money you won’t have to bargain for.”

His eyes went wide for a moment before a long, bubbling laugh erupted out of him.  He doubled over in amusement and laughter.  “You’re a thief, too!”  He said, after he ran out of breath and the elation wound down.  “I should’ve known it!”

“I’m not a thief,” I snapped.  “But there are people who need this money and you can help me get it for them.  So you can either help me, or I start calling for security.”

You’re here to steal something, too,” Devlin pointed out.  “The cops don’t look kindly on that, no matter how good you look in a dress.”

I shook my head and smiled.  I’d already gone this far, despite having every possible reason to simply shut the hell up.  Might as well go all the way.  “I’m a Ford,” I said.  “I feel pretty confident that they’d believe my story over yours.”

His lips turned down and the laughter died away.  The light in his eyes stayed where it was.  He tilted his head from left to right, considering my offer.  “Thirty percent goes to your charity,” he said finally.

“Forty percent,” I countered, “and I’ll arrange to have your expenses covered.”

“Thirty five percent,” Devlin said.  He shook his head as soon as the words left his mouth, and I knew I had him.

I gave him a flat look and said nothing.

Fine,” he said, as dramatically as possible.  I could tell he wasn’t actually upset.  If anything, my negotiation had brought more of that fire into his eyes.  “Forty percent, and you cover expenses.  Partners, then?”

I gave him a slow once-over.  It was only one job and I could give more money to those in need working with Devlin, than following through on my own plan.  If worse came to worst, the art theft would be easier to track than anything purely electronic.  I could cut him loose and the authorities would follow after him.  I wouldn’t have to see him again.  This was a one-time thing, a situation derived from a dozen unlikely factors all falling into place at this one time.  I repeated that to myself several times before I gave Devlin a decisive nod.  “Partners.”

“So?”  Devlin asked.  “When do we leave?”

Chapter 24 (Sarah)

Hairs rose on my arms and the back of my neck.  D’Artagnan didn’t scare easy.  If this BMC, whatever or whoever it was, possessed enough clout to send him scurrying away, then things were well past my weight class.  I shuddered.  If these were the people who who were sponsoring Asher in his revenge plans, it was nothing short of miraculous that Devlin hadn’t found himself kidnapped right off of the street by now.  He had always been good, even spectacular, under pressure, but this situation was developing into a game of chess, taking places on layers miles above my own head.

For the first time since I’d listened to Devlin’s warning, I strongly considered cutting my losses and moving to a sparsely populated island in the South Caribbean.  Barring that, the Ford family kept a fairly sizable security force on hand.  They wouldn’t be enough to stop a suitably determined assailant, but a trip back to the estate could buy me the time I’d need to make more permanent arrangements.

Two things stopped me.  The first was simple, stark reality.  Someone had already cracked my email server.  If a given party was able to locate which server, of the countless anonymous ones that existed in the world, belonged to me, then that same party was likely capable of tracing my access.  And they would have known that I would know that.  It stood to reason, then, that the email’s sender didn’t wish me harm.  If that had been his or her intention, a sniper positioned on a nearby rooftop would have worked with a minimum amount of fuss.  A bomb would have a higher success rate, with a lower cost and commensurately higher collateral damage.  Neither of those things had happened yet, and so I chose to believe that the email’s sender was trying to do exactly what their message said: hire my services in pursuit of some nebulous goal.  Smart money pointed to BMC as the target, although I still had no idea who the client was.

The second reason, though I dug deep and tried to ignore the tiny voice within my mind, was Devlin.  He was in trouble.  That was nothing new.  He was always in one form of trouble or another.  But in only a few days, he had somehow found himself in so deep that he’d resorted to a redeye flight, straight from Kiev back to San Francisco on the off-chance that I might be able and willing to help him.  Asher was hellbent on avenging himself for the events in St. Petersburg, whatever those happened to be.  The madman had betrayed Devlin once and it was unlikely that he would call it even after a few short years in prison.  That was overshadowed by the sudden access and reach of Asher’s network, which only served to make the target on Devlin’s back even larger.  I knew it, he knew it, and a rare flash of intuition told me that the email’s sender knew it as well.

I turned my eyes back to the notepad and added the words “dangerous,” “mystery,” and “finances” beneath BMC’s header.  The list was growing too complex, crisscrossed with lines connecting names and nicknames.  With Darknet closed, the center screen was available to display information.  I opened a word processing program and entered the information there.  My fingers moved on autopilot, freeing my mind to consider other aspects of the problem.  When I finished, however, I’d drawn no new conclusions.  I saved the file under “conspiracy01” and closed the program.  If I needed to check the diagram again, or if something came up that necessitated an addition or subtraction, it would be available on any system I’d connected to the network.

My stomach rumbled, reminding me that I’d only barely eaten.  I went back to the kitchen and retrieved two more sandwiches, as well as a large cup of coffee, filled to the brim with creamer and sugar.  The Diet Coke simply wasn’t going to provide enough caffeine for the work that stretched out ahead of me.  I returned to the room and sat down.  Questions whirled through my mind at high speed, whipping into focus just long enough for me to dismiss them as either “unimportant” or “unanswerable.”  I sighed and lowered my face into my palms.

There was still a third file in the email.  I opened my eyes and clicked on it, hoping against reason that it contained a wealth of information that would help me unravel this growing mystery.  Instead, I found a single high quality jpeg.  It displayed a golden crown, dotted with large rubies and sapphires at equidistant settings along its exterior surface.  Underneath the picture, there was a watermark that read “Museum of London, 2015.”

I looked at the crown for several minutes, but it didn’t seem familiar to me.  Then, I maximized the email again and scrutinized each word, hoping that I’d simply missed an illuminating clue.  I found none at all.

“Okay,” I said.  “So we’ve got a company that apparently doesn’t exist, even though all evidence says otherwise; Asher stealing what looks like a book from a secured bank and killing six Russian Mafia guys to keep it secret from them; and, now, some crown from the Museum of London.  What is the connection?  What are you trying to tell me?”

The email remained the same as it had been.  The words did not change into an answer as I watched.

“Alright then.  Guess I’m on my own, then.”

There was a connection.  I was sure of that much.  I simply needed to figure out what it was.  The company, BMC, was an unbreakable enigma for the moment.  All I knew about them was that they were deeply involved in the criminal underworld in America, possibly overseas.  Their stock name had appeared on my ticker, which meant that BMC was doing well enough that an investment in their company had yielded returns.

I directed the stock market program to print out a list of returns from BMC for the last three years.  When the work was done, I leaned over the files and examined them with a fine toothed comb.  My program only sold stock in BMC whenever one of the overseas corporations I invested in went through some sort of trouble that affected their financial health.  Otherwise, the company continued to grow at an inhumanely steady pace, inching forward a few percentage points every twelve months.  That told me something.

“You’re based overseas, aren’t you?”  I asked the computer, staring straight at BMC on the screen.  “That’s why your business goes downhill whenever there’s a situation that you can’t control.  But where are you?  Exactly?”

There was no way to tell.  I had no email address or website to tag, so back-tracing the connection for an IP address wasn’t an option.  According to D’Artagnan, asking for help from the community of electronic junkies was out, as well.  I could set up a general conditional trigger.  If BMC ever started a website or sent an official email, a small web crawler could be programmed to tag the event and deliver a notification to me.  I didn’t expect that to yield any results, though.  According to my records, BMC had existed as a company for at least three years, and they hadn’t left so much as a digital footprint in the sand in all that time.  There was very little chance that, suddenly, the organization would grow sloppy enough to appear and make themselves traceable.  I decided, after a round of back and forth, to set the program up anyway.  Any information it could uncover would be better than no information at all.

I also knew that Asher had been involved in the heist at the Limassol bank.  That intel wasn’t unique to me; Devlin knew it, and he’d gotten it from Stanislav who had, presumably, been informed of the heist by his superiors.  What I did have that none of the other parties seemed to possess was a separate camera feed that showed Asher inside of the vault, liberating a golden book from a safety deposit box.  The book itself remained an unknown, as did Asher’s reasons for stealing it and only it when a wealth of other secrets laid exposed to his prying fingers.

According to Devlin, Asher had always been a master planner.  There was no way he’d rob a bank and leave the security camera on inside of the vault, unless he’d been showboating.  I stopped, thought, and then revised the thought.  There was no way at all he wouldn’t erase the camera footage, unless he didn’t know that camera footage existed at all.

It made sense, so long as I went with Devlin’s theory about two rival organizations.  One had installed security cameras inside the vault, to keep an eye on whoever came and went.  The other organization, instead of coming to the bank in person, had arranged for Asher to break into the vaults instead and steal the book.  That would keep their identities a secret, in the event of an aforementioned hidden camera.  Killing the Russians on site would have given Asher an extra buffer of a few days, while the Bratva attempted to work out the details of his double cross, and it would provide something of a smokescreen.  So long as I considered the situation from an entirely ruthless perspective – and, by all available accounts, ruthlessness was not a trait Asher lacked – the whole thing made a twisted sort of sense.  Except, of course, for the book.  Its contents were likely the key to uncovering Asher’s entire plan.

That left only the third file, the jpeg of a golden crown.  I’d never really concerned myself with jewelry, either to wear or to steal.  My specialized search engine was still open, though, blinking at me from the taskbar, so I navigated my way to the Museum of London’s website and did some reading.  According to the page, it was a recently uncovered relic belonging to a barbarian king from some forgotten land.  Financially, its worth ranked around where I would have expected for a jewel-encrusted item; historically, however, its value was incalculable.

“What does this have to do with anything?”  I asked myself aloud.  I clicked on a link, which led me to a page with greater detail on the barbarian crown.  It had arrived in London two days ago, and was scheduled to remain on exhibition for exactly two weeks.  After that, it would be whisked away to another museum.  Its next location wasn’t listed.  I considered making a serious attempt at breaking into the private communications of museum employees – specifically the curator and security consultants – but decided that it wouldn’t be worth the effort.

I sat at my desk, shutting my eyes to the soft blue backlights, and connected the dots.  Three disparate pieces of information that, on the surface, were entirely unrelated.  There had to be a link between them; if there wasn’t, I couldn’t begin to imagine what job the mysterious sender had intended to hire me for.  The mystery gnawed at me.  The company, BMC, that didn’t exist on any official record I could locate; Asher’s betrayal of a squad of Russian thugs, all so that he could steal a book of some sort from a safety deposit box; and the barbarian crown, located at the Museum of London for only a handful of weeks before it disappeared back into the ether.

When I made the correct leap, my eyes widened.   “BMC hired Asher to steal the book from the bank.  Then, they’re moving him over to London to steal the crown.”  It didn’t sound any less absurd out loud, but it fit the framework I was quickly building in my head.

If BMC, as an organization, was funding Asher in his revenge against Devlin and contracting his services to extract trinkets from various locations, then that made the entire company a very specific and powerful enemy.  My resources were nothing to scoff at.  Years of low- and high-level jobs, coupled with a very intelligent program designed to grow my wealth, had given me a healthy amount of capital to throw at problems.  To say nothing of the political and financial muscle I could summon simply through virtue of my status as a Ford.  A quick glance at the left screen showed me that, in comparison, BMC positively dwarfed me.

There were other questions, though.  I still didn’t know why BMC would bother targeting Devlin.  Despite his successes and his peerless instincts, he’d never been a corporate or political player.  I didn’t know what was in the book that warranted the murder of six gangsters, and I didn’t know why the crown was important to them.

I sighed, opened the conspiracy file again, and deleted the word “Trinity.”  In its place, I wrote BMC.  Another thought occurred to me, as I typed.  My childhood had been spent in the most orthodox of manners; even though my parents weren’t believers, it was important that we be seen as such.  So, I’d attended countless Sunday school classes and, with nothing else to occupy my thoughts, most of that information had sunk in on a subconscious level.  The name Balthazar sounded familiar, somehow.  A moment later, I snapped my fingers.  Balthazar was, according to apocryphal accounts over the centuries, the name of one of the three Biblical Magi.

I’d known Balthazar was a fake name immediately.  If my guess was correct, then I could guess at what the other two letters in BMC stood for: Melchior and Caspar, the two other Magi.  I wasn’t sure if that knowledge would turn out to be useful; at the same time, I’d yet to encounter information that wasn’t at least a little beneficial.  I deleted BMC and typed out “Magi.”  It seemed to fit.

If the Magi were the ones pointing Asher at targets like some sort of psychotically motivated gun, then that left one other party in play: the one that Devlin had nicknamed the Puppetmaster.  There was little doubt now that the email had been sent by the Puppetmaster.  I couldn’t begin to imagine how he or she or they had cracked into my server, but any group with the financial resources to go after a corporation like BMC had access to more than I could dream of.

A few questions had been answered but, in their place, a dozen more sprang up.  One thing was certain: if Asher was working with or for the Magi, there was little chance that he couldn’t hire a hitman to take me out on some inconspicuous night.  There was every possibility, in fact, that he’d already made arrangements.  Devlin was right; I had to leave San Francisco, at the earliest opportunity.  I did not, however, know where I would go.

I sighed again.  Of course, I knew where I would go.  Since the email had arrived – even before that, if I was going to be honest with myself – a part of me had emerged that I’d thought long buried.  In just a few hours of searching, I’d felt more alive than at any other point in the past four years.   It wasn’t Devlin, and it wasn’t the barbarian crown; it was the chase, the thrill of pursuing information that someone powerful wanted to keep hidden.  Although helping Devlin to stay alive a few more days was a bonus good deed I could add to my running karma total.

I pressed a button and minimized everything on all three screens, including the stock market program.  Most important files were already stored on a variety of encoded servers, including versions of D’Artagnan’s Darknet program backed up on safehouse systems around the globe.  I opened a browser and booked a flight, for two, to London.  It took me a little while to pick a pair of identities to use: names that would open the right lines of communication with the London underworld, but not ones that carried an unnecessary amount of baggage.  When I was done, I leaned back in the chair and sat, stone still, for five solid minutes.

Then, I reopened all of the programs and went back through each bit of information, one document at a time, until a second email arrived in my inbox.  Its contents weren’t unexpected.  In a long-forgotten part of my heart, it was even desired.

Chapter 23 (Sarah)

While my various anti-virus programs scanned the attachments for any malware, I pivoted towards the center screen and opened a cloud server.  This particular one served as a sort of portable hard drive for music files, accumulated and curated over years.  I considered the wall of file names for a few seconds before made a snap decision and searched for Fleet Foxes.  Music, piped through several speakers placed in the upper corners of the room, filled the room in an instant.  I turned back to the right screen and saw that the scans were finished.

“Alright, what’ve you got for me?”  A current of electric trepidation ran through my body, even as I leaned closer to the monitor in excitement.  Someone had co-opted my email server, and they’d done so without setting off any alarms or electronic traps.  That same someone had only sent a job offer with the access he or she had acquired, but they could have done more.  That possibly was as exhilarating as it was frightening.  It had been too long since I’d been challenged, in any significant way.  Not since Devlin and I split ways, and I gave up the game in favor of a more secure, within-the-legal-lines lifestyle.

The first file opened and stretched to fit the entire screen.  At first glance, it looked like nothing more than a default balance sheet.  Numbers and company abbreviations ran down the page in neatly organized columns.  At the top of the page, a header read “Financial Report for BMC, Inc.;” at the bottom, my first name and the number one, a slash mark, and the number 50.  The first of fifty pages, of…what, exactly?

“Why would you send me this?”  I asked myself out loud, and then I froze.  Slowly, I turned to look at the left screen – the one that operated, more or less, automatically and handled the buying and selling that constituted my income these days.  The figures shifted and changed as I watched, rising and falling in some financial dance that I had no desire to understand.  I found the information I was looking for in fairly short order.  That same abbreviation – BMC, Inc. – appeared on my screen as my automated program purchased stocks, waited for some unseen signal, and then sold them again at a profit.

I’d set up my stock market manipulator to display information on any company, whenever I clicked on a given name.  It was important to remain legitimate, and that legitimacy required that I occasionally have the slightest idea what I’m talking about.  I clicked on BMC, and a browser window opened and migrated to the center screen.  The search engine appeared, considered my request for a moment, and then returned an answer: “No information available.”

I tilted my head and took a long swig of Diet Coke.  “Alright,” I said to the computer, “let’s try this another way.”  Manually, I entered the abbreviation into a separate search engine of my own design that trolled more than just the top level of the internet and hit enter.  The same process happened again: my computer sent the question out into the electronic ether, the dark gods of technology weighed my request, and then decided that there was simply no information to give me.  Which never happened.

I leaned back in the chair and shut my eyes for a few seconds.  There were two more files attached to the mysterious email.  I could turn my attention to either of those and perhaps uncover something about BMC, whatever that was.  An unanswered question – any unanswered question, really – bothered me, though.  I decided, after opening my eyes and finishing off one of the Cokes, to split the difference.  I created a new throwaway email account through a virtual desktop to mask my footprints and sent a message to dartagnan3m@gmail.com.

From adleri@gmail.com: Hey, stranger.  Got a question, if you’ve got the time.

I hit send.  D’Artagnan and I had remained in contact, after the split, but not for very long.  He – I assumed it was a he, and there’d be no indication or complaints about that assumption – harbored a desire to meet in person and, perhaps, to form a relationship beyond our digital one.  I’d had no desire to find myself in another romantic partnership, especially not so soon after the disastrous collapse of my marriage with Devlin, and so I’d delicately distanced myself from D’Artagnan.  It had been six months since our last communication.

The reply came a minute later.  A bubble for a live chat appeared on the screen.  I retrieved a fresh Diet Coke and opened the chat.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Who is this?

From adleri@gmail.com: Irene.

As far as I knew, D’Artagnan didn’t know my real name; even if he had ferreted that information, I wasn’t going to use it and confirm suspicions.  Irene referred to the identity I defaulted to in my online interactions: Irene Adler, the only woman Sherlock Holmes had ever…well, not quite loved, but concerned himself with.  Devlin had picked it for me in our first days, before our relationship turned personal, and I’d grown attached to it.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Prove it.

I paused and considered.  His request wasn’t unreasonable.  In point of fact, some third party had taken over my server and it made sense that he would want proof of my identity.  I simply wasn’t sure how best to communicate that information.  My smile widened as a solution presented itself.

From adleri@gmail.com: Good fortune is the best of all mistresses.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Source?

From adleri@gmail.com: The Three Mouseketeers.

D’Artagnan had once confided in me that his user name derived from a childhood fascination with Mickey Mouse.  As an adult, he’d discovered the Alexandre Dumas novel and been incapable of properly pronouncing Musketeers, due to some fight-related injury he’d incurred during a bar brawl.  Instead, he’d used the word he did know and steadfastly called them the Mouseketeers for years, forgetting that he was using a childhood appropriation, until a client corrected him on a job.  The nickname stuck and, after a couple years fighting it, he’d discovered that he didn’t mind being known as the Mouseketeer all that much.

He didn’t send a reply for several minutes.  I spent that time, staring in consternation at the search engine and its “No results available” message.  As I did that, my automated stock market continued to buy and sell shares for a company that, according to the internet and my own personal search engine, didn’t exist.  When D’Artagnan did send a reply, the notification sound came as a relief from my own musings.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Where’d you go, Irene?

From adleri@gmail.com: Just got busy. I need to ask a favor.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: You didn’t burn your system out again, did you?  I can’t get you another CPU for at least six months. 

From adleri@gmail.com: No, of course not.  Just a name I need some information on.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: What’s the name?

From adleri@gmail.com: BMC, Inc.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Corporation or individual?

From adleri@gmail.com: I’m not sure.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: What’s your interest, then?

From adleri@gmail.com: Curiosity.  Can you check with your contacts, see what you can find out?

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: …fine.  It’ll cost you, though.

From adleri@gmail.com: Let’s see what you can find out.  We can discuss price later.

D’Artagnan didn’t respond.  Ten seconds later, he disconnected from the chat.  I shrugged and turned back to the email.  I closed the balance sheet, satisfied that the problem was under investigation – albeit, indirectly – and opened the second attachment, a large video file titled “Limassol15.”

The Limassol file turned out to be the data from security camera feed.  Smoke obscured the lens for the first few seconds of footage but, eventually, it cleared away to reveal a bank full of captive, quivering hostages.  Six men stood guard over them holding a mixed assortment of handguns and assault rifles.  They shuffled in place, speaking to each other, but the file had no sound.  As I watched, something pierced a persistent cloud of smoke around one side of the bank, and one of the men fell to the ground.  The rest followed in short order.  It wasn’t my first time seeing violence, but I gasped at the abruptness all the same.  Devlin had told me about the heist, when Asher had betrayed the Bratva for some unknown aim, but it was still difficult to actually watch the murders play out.

Then, the camera angle shifted.  Instead of the lobby, this second feed looked directly into the vault.  Asher stood there.  He held an assault rifle, braced against his arm, in one hand.  Smoke still trailed from the barrel up to the ceiling.  In the other, he held what looked like a very large, ornately decorated book.  He looked around the vault, smiled to himself, and then left the room.  The screen went dark as the video ended.

“Okay…”  I stretched my arms over my head and cracked the knuckles of my fingers individually.  “That’s new information.”

From what Devlin had told me, Asher had turned on the Russians, but he hadn’t finished the planned robbery on his own.  Instead, he’d removed the contents of a single safe deposit box, under the name of an “M. Balthazar,” and left the rest.  If this video was to be believed, his true objective had been a book.  I tapped an index finger against my bottom lip.  “But why a book?”  I asked out loud.

I rewound the video and watched it two more times, paying special attention to any details that I could glean from what was shown.  There was something in the file that I’d missed.  There had to be.  Otherwise, there was no reason for a third party to send it to me in the first place.  This newest clue, Asher’s book, was the key to this particular mystery.  That hadn’t been a part of the information Stani had shown Devlin, over in Kiev.  Either the Russians were keeping that tidbit to themselves – which was incredibly likely, now that I considered it – or they simply didn’t know.  Both possibilities were…intriguing.

I started the file up a third time and paused it when I had a decent angle of Asher.  The book was large and ostentatious.  The camera had abysmal resolution but, from what I could make out, the book was also golden.  Asher carried it as though it were a baby or a nuclear device: with extreme, delicate caution.  He made no attempt to check its contents.  I found myself learning even closer, my nose almost touching the computer, hoping for a glimpse of something that might help me to identify book.  There was nothing.

I sighed and, finally, took a large bite of my sandwich.  Since I’d entered the room, the tomato-and-mozzarella concoction had sat ignored on the desk.  Temperature and time had made the bread a little soggier than I would have liked, but it was better than nothing.  I ate the sandwich mechanically, paying little attention to the taste.  My mind was occupied with theories and possibilities.  I got up from the computer and walked back into the living room.  There, underneath my discarded clutch, I found Devlin’s notebook and a pen, which I carried back into the computer room.  I turned to a blank page and began to take my own notes.

To begin with, I copied over the general structure of what Devlin had written, only in more legible handwriting.  Then, I wrote “Limassol” and circled it.  I wasn’t sure which of Devlin’s organizations were involved with the bank job in Limassol, but I was absolutely certain that at least one had a stake in Asher’s golden book.  I leaned back and drank deeply from my soda.

“What else?”  I asked myself.  My eyes wandered back to the left screen.  The mysterious BMC didn’t appear in the scrolling list of companies and assets again while I watched.  I bit down on my pen’s cap in thought.

I blew out an explosive puff of air as I realized the trajectory of my thoughts.  “What the hell are you doing, Sarah?  Do you really want to go back to the way things were?”

I didn’t know the answer to that.  There was a thrill to being a thief and nothing I’d encountered since held the same allure.  I considered the question and then, privately, admitted to myself that I was bored with life in San Francisco.  My days passed in a series of routine activities.  I’d wake in the early morning hours, check my email for messages that never came, survey the stock program, and then wander throughout the city until it was time to eat.  I’d made few friends which was, at least in part, a learned survival trait.  My parents had tried to keep in touch, but they couldn’t begin to understand why I’d disappeared for so many years after college, and that hidden stretch of time drove a wedge between us.  My older sister wouldn’t deign to concern with what I did, beyond the bare minimum required by familial decorum.  I was safe in my palatial condo; at the same time, I had long since decided that safety was no longer a priority in my life.

A soft ping brought my attention back to the computer.  On the right screen, there was a new message from D’Artagnan.  I opened it and started to read.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Couldn’t find anything.  No charge.

From adleri@gmail.com: Nothing?  It exists; hell, I’ve got stock in the company or whatever it is. 

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Nothing to find.  Forget about it.

I paused.  The D’Artagnan I’d known six months ago would have treated a mysterious company, with no discernible digital presence, as an enigma that demanded a solution.  It wasn’t just out of character for him to take a situation at face value; it was downright disturbing.

From adleri@gmail.com: Forget about it?  Since when do you want me to forget about anything?

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: LEAVE IT ALONE.

I stared at the screen in shock.  I started to reply, but another message appeared before I managed to finish my thought.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Darknet.

He disconnected.  I tilted my head, confused, for a single long minute before I closed the email server and opened instead one of the programs D’Artagnan had written: a specialized means of communication that routed our conversation through dozens of overseas servers, encrypting and decrypting it along the way.  He’d created Darknet as an overt homage to the underside of the internet, but had never actually used it for its intended purpose.  It was composed with redundant layers of paranoid security, even for thieves and hackers.  I’d always suspected that he’d taken its creation as an intellectual challenge; one that, after completion, he lost interest in.

Darknet was a beast of a program.  It took an absurd amount of time for the program to load, as it connected to servers and systems across the world.  While it worked, I tabbed back to the video and went through the heist frame by frame.  When Asher was on screen, cradling his prize like a newborn, I stopped and saved the image as a jpeg.  I’d look back over it again, after I discovered what secret D’Artagnan had uncovered that necessitated absolute secrecy.

Finally, a simple login prompt appeared on the right screen.  I moved it to the center, shunting the video to the toolbar in the process, and entered my information.  The system accepted my password, lagged for a full thirty seconds, and then allowed me into the chat room.  D’Artagnan, under his general name as the Mouseketeer, waited there for me.

Irene Adler: What is it?

Mouseketeer: BMC is bad news.  Dangerous.  Repeat: dangerous.

Irene Adler: It’s a publically traded company.  How dangerous could it be?  What did you find out?

Mouseketeer: Nothing.  Seriously, nothing.  Asked a few friends.  No one knows who BMC is, but everyone knows what they do.

Irene Adler: And that is?

Mouseketeer: Correction: what don’t they do?  Hiring out hitmen, hackers, bombmakers in large numbers for years.  Widespread influence.  National, possibly global.

Irene Adler:  That doesn’t make any sense.

Mouseketeer:  Right.  Searched them on my own.  Got what you got: nothing available.  Company that can move that much money, with no digital history?

It was possible, perhaps, for a very new company to find themselves without an online footprint, but the odds were vanishingly low.  Those numbers dropped even lower for any company capable of moving around enough money to hire the services of the underworld in the numbers D’Artagnan implied.  I started to wonder if I was being led down a rabbit hole, but a quick glance at my far left monitor showed the initials BMC appear once more in the scrolling feed of purchases and sales.  There was something to the business.

Irene Adler:  That can’t be all there is.  Thanks for the info; I’ll follow up, on my own.

Mouseketeer: NO.  Irene, just leave this alone.

Irene Adler: What are you so scared of?

Mouseketeer: Couldn’t get anyone to talk about BMC, at first.  Rumor is asking the wrong questions gets you disappeared.  Asking the right questions…

Irene Adler:  I’ve never backed down from a challenge before.  Not about to start now.  I’ve got some leads to follow, I think.

Mouseketeer: DO NOT TELL ME.  I like you, but this is…it’s something else.  I’ve got to look out for myself.

I hadn’t expected his help, but it was still surprising to see D’Artagnan categorically refuse to offer it.

Irene Adler: Fine.  Thanks for what you’ve done already.  You said no payment?

Mouseketeer:  Not for a warning.  Don’t want there to be any trail between us, anyway, if you insist on running this down.  But, Irene?

Irene Adler: Yes?

Mouseketeer: Be careful.

He broke his connection before I could reply and left me alone in the Darknet chat room.  After a minute, I did the same.

Chapter 22 (Sarah)

I rode back to my building in a daze.  Devlin’s notepad – the one with names and organizations haphazardly connected by sloppy lines – sat on the seat, where he’d forgotten it.  I’d noticed the pad just before the driver closed my door, and I’d wanted to call out to Devlin, but some emotion got stuck in my throat and kept me silent.  My voice returned a few minutes after we’d pulled away from the Victorian but, by then, it was too late.  I let my fingers play across the paper as I thought.

Seeing him again had been difficult.  I’d expected residual emotions, maybe even a little of that old attraction.  What I hadn’t anticipated was the magnitude of the tidal wave of memories.  They’d hit me with explosive force, the instant my eyes fell on him.   For the first five minutes, I’d barely been able to speak or move.  Devlin looked the same as he ever had: a little untamed, lit from within by some unnameable vitality, and roguishly charming in his casual wear.  Even his outbursts reminded me of his passion and his spirit.  I’d pushed him hard, hitting where I knew it hurt, and he’d pushed back.

Despite the surging feelings that lingered in dark, unexplored corners of my heart, I couldn’t forget our last job together, when he’d betrayed my trust on a fundamental level.  No matter what I said, Devlin’s sin had been worse – had cut deeper – than any insult I could hurl.  He’d known that, too.  I saw that much in his caution, how he’d avoided my eyes during the car ride.  His apology for that crime, spoken just before the town car’s opaque window blocked him from my vision had been like a balm to my injuries.

“You’re better than this,” I told myself.  Hearing my voice aloud gave my words a legitimacy that thoughts alone lacked.  “You’re past this.  You’ve got a life now, and it’s one he could never give you.”

But I wasn’t sure that I was past it all.  My emotions churned within me, shifting from one moment to the next and I realized that they were too complicated to sort out on the short ride back home.  I placed my face in my palms and tried instead, with limited success, to think about nothing at all.  I didn’t look up again until I felt the car ease to a stop.

The partition slid down.  “Miss Parker?  We’ve arrived.”

Distracted as I was, I almost didn’t respond.  The name was a pseudonym, of course; the matched identity to Devlin’s “Barrow” persona.  The very moment he’d booked a flight using that name, an automated program that I’d forgotten about automatically reactivated my own “Bonnie Parker,” creating four years’ worth of digital history in an instant for both names.  I’d been asleep at the time but, during my morning routine, I’d discovered that he was heading back to the States.  According to my research, Devlin’s prison sentence wasn’t supposed to be over for another six months.  I’d set up a clock on every one of my connected systems, with the express purpose of keeping me informed of that date and time.   My program, however, didn’t lie; someone using the Barrow passport was active and headed my way.  A quick search told me that he was en route from Athens, by the time I’d seen the notification.  I’d needed less than an hour to arrange for the town car, dress myself, and head for the door.

“Miss Parker?”  The driver sounded politely concerned, but distant.  Professional courtesy, without anything personal attached to it.  “Would you like to go somewhere else?”

“No, I…I’d just like to sit for a moment, if that’s okay.”

“Of course, ma’am.  Take as much time as you need.”

I wasn’t sure if limousine drivers were paid hourly or by assignment, but I resolved to leave this driver an inordinately large tip.  Part of that desire came from appreciation for his civility; the vast majority, however, was motivated by a personal desire for his continued discretion.  Bonnie and Clyde weren’t exactly rare names in America.  If this driver hadn’t figured out that I was using a fake name yet, he would undoubtedly do so in the near future.  It was better to purchase his silence before people started to ask him questions and he realized exactly how much that information was worth.

“Thanks,” I said.  I sat in the car for ten more minutes, tamping down my stray thoughts and wayward emotions at every turn until I felt calm and rational again.  Then, I reached into my clutch and found a hundred dollar bill.  “The company is being paid via company card, but this is for you.”

He turned so that he could see the bill in my mind.  His eyes widened.  “That isn’t necessary, Miss Parker.”

“I know.  I still want to do it, though.  Unless you don’t want it?”  I made to return the hundred to my clutch.

“No!”  He seemed shocked at his own outburst.  He stopped, smoothed his jacket of an invisible wrinkle, and plastered the vacant customer-service smile on his face again.  “I mean, if that’s what you would like to do, then that will be fine.”

“I’d hate to not reward such effective service, after all.”  He took the bill from my fingers.  I hesitated before I continued.  “Mind if I ask you a question?”

“Not at all, Miss Parker.  What would you like to know?”

“It’s kind of a personal one.”

He looked at me patiently in the rear view mirror.

“What do you think about love?”  I asked.

The driver blinked.  “What…exactly do you mean, ma’am?”

“I mean…” I struggled with the wording, suddenly unsure exactly what it was that I did mean.  “Have you ever been in love?”

He was silent for so long that I thought he wasn’t going to answer.  I’d just begun to move toward the door when he finally cleared his throat.  “I think so, ma’am.”

“Tell me about her?”  A beat passed, before I realized my mistake.  “Or him, whatever.”

“She was beautiful,” he said.  “Not like anyone else I’d ever met before or anyone I’ve met since.  She was so alive.”

“What happened?”

“She…I…we weren’t compatible, I think.”  He’d revised the sentence twice.  Worse for him, it had been obvious enough that the driver had to know I’d caught his mistake.  After a few seconds, he sighed.  “She cheated on me,” he said.  “I wasn’t quite enough for her.”

I chewed on that.  “I’m sorry to hear that.  What would you do, if you saw her again?”

“I still love her,” he said immediately.  “I don’t think that will ever change.  Two years of my life were defined by her.  Those two years will never go away, no matter how much I hate her or how much I claim to hate her.  But…”

“But what?”

“If I saw her again,” the driver said, “I think I’d want to make sure that she was doing okay, first of all.  After that?”  He shrugged.  I couldn’t see his expression, except for small glances when the light struck his rearview mirror at just the right angle.  “After that, I’d probably want to get back with her.  I actually did, once, maybe six months after we’d broken up.  It didn’t work out.  There were reasons we’d broken up, after all, and nostalgia hadn’t taken those away.  She didn’t want to change, and I needed her to.  But, I’d like to think I’d be smart enough to just walk away.”

I nodded and spoke without thinking.  “I don’t know that I am smart enough to just walk away.”

“That gentleman, ma’am?”

I blinked and cursed furiously at myself for the slip-up.  “What?  Him?  No, of course not.”

The driver turned fully in his seat so that I could see his eyes.  Nothing in them led me to believe that he’d bought my hasty backpedal.  I resolved, for the millionth time, to work on my poker face.  “Of course not, ma’am.  But if, hypothetically, that gentleman is the person you’re referring to?  I think you should try to remember exactly why you broke up in the first place.”

I considered lying again, but decided against it.  I knew my strengths and lying wasn’t one of them.  Moreover, there wasn’t any real reason to deceive this particular limo driver.  Either he believed me, or he didn’t.  Whether he did or didn’t wasn’t likely to influence my life in any meaningful way.  He didn’t even know my real name.  “Oh, I remember.  I’m just sure that it’s…I don’t know, it’s complicated.  I know a lot of people say that, but with him?  It is seriously complicated.”

“Would you like to talk about it, ma’am?”

I shook my head.  “No, but thank you for asking.”  I took another hundred dollar bill from my clutch and offered it to him.

The driver shook his head.  “Advice is free, ma’am.  One of the services your average limousine driver is happy to provide.”  He smiled at me and I smiled back.

“Well, thank you, then.  I don’t know that I have a better idea of what to do – or what not to do – but it’s still good to hear someone else’s thoughts on the matter.”  I opened the door and stepped outside.  The Madrone rose from the ground in front of me, the glass and steel monolith reaching up to the clouds from where I stood.

The driver rolled down the front passenger window, so that I could hear him speak.  “Miss Parker?”


“There was also a reason that you two ended up together.  I think you should take both into account before you make a decision.”

Any fitting response eluded me in the moment, so I turned and went into my building.  The driver’s words, innocent and unknowing, stayed with me as I rode the elevator up to my floor and entered my condo.

Familiar surroundings gave me a sense of comfort, if not emotional stability.  I threw my clutch onto a nearby empty chair and went into the kitchen for a Diet Coke.  It was barely seven-thirty AM.  I’d read all of the literature on the effects aspartame had on the average person, and I’d told myself that morning – like every other morning for the past year – that I’d cut down in the future.  Today, however, I needed the caffeine.  The first chilled sip was like manna from the heavens.  I savored it for several seconds before I eventually swallowed the mouthful of soda.  I considered removing a second can, to save myself the hassle of another trip later on, but decided against that option.

An aborted attempt at an omelet sat, ignored and abandoned, in a small pan on the stove.  Next to that, an abandoned tablet’s screen was frozen on a YouTube video: “Cooking for Dummies.”  I wasn’t sure, but tendrils of smoke seemed to have lingered over the burnt eggs, stretching up to the ceiling.

“Score one for Sarah the chef,” I muttered.  During our marriage, Devlin had prepared the meals.  According to him, his kitchen skills were the result of years when his mother wasn’t emotionally capable of caring for him or even for herself.  Before him, I’d typically dined out or relied on the family chef to take care of breakfast, lunch, and inner.

I could easily afford to hire a chef of my own, even if my family chose not to provide the money.  Several qualified individuals, likely pointed in my direction by an overly involved relative, had offered their services for the position.  I was resolved, however, to better myself.  Just not this morning.  I removed a prepackaged sandwich from the fridge.  Then, I upended the skillet over the trash can with a silent promise to at least keep the eggs from burning on my next attempt.

I kicked off my shoes on the way to the second of my two bedrooms.  I’d finished a third of the soda by the time I reached the door.  “Of course,” I said. “Because it’s just that type of day.”  I sipped delicately from the soda and pushed the door open.

Computers were like extensions of my limbs.  I’d grown up around them, taught myself to speak their language, and devised countless ways of manipulating the flow of information in ways that benefited me.  Of all the systems I’d assembled, the one in front me was by far the most advanced and sophisticated.  Even using my illicit connections, the cost to import and smuggle the components all the way to San Francisco had been staggering.  Three monitors, each covered in various forms of data, looked back at me.   I approached them like an eager child.  There were more alerts scattered across the center monitor than I could count.  I took my seat, cleared away the nonessential notifications, and set the rest to reappear when I rebooted the system.

The right monitor showed, at that exact moment, a slowly rotating 3D model of the Earth.  For detailed locations, the program was useless, but it worked wonders when it came to general locations.  A tab showed my real name – Sarah Ford – over the San Francisco area; next to that, there was another small tab that showed Devlin’s full name.  The system wouldn’t be able to tell me if he left the Victorian.  It wouldn’t update me to his whereabouts at all, unless he used one of the identities I’d programmed in as pseudonyms to book a flight or buy a ticket.  There were other ways to leave the city – in fact, there were several ways that came immediately to mind that would let someone slip my net and even leave the country – but any use of a connected account would update the program with a new location.  I reminded myself that Devlin had chosen to use a name I was familiar with, specifically for the purpose of getting my attention.  Leaving now wouldn’t make any sense.

The left monitor was devoted entirely to the international market.  Stocks rose and fell, almost at random.  I paid them the same attention I typically did: virtually none at all.  The algorithms I’d “borrowed” from various Wall Street firms worked perfectly without any input from me.  I’d spent a week customizing the investment parameters to fit a certain threshold, and to alert me if any of the stocks I owned fluctuated beyond the norm.  Beyond that, I had no desire to deal with the minutiae of the trading.  Money meant little to me, except for the adventures it could make available.  I’d spent most of my life with an excess of one and now found myself with a distinct lack of the other.

I typed in a short command, relegating the right monitor’s globe to a side-mounted widget bar.  From there, I opened two tabs.  The first was an email server, designed to collect messages sent to any of my dummy accounts and organize them based on importance.  Certain words elevated the emails higher in the ranking.  “Job,” for instance.  “Security,” “electronics,” “computer,” and “services” worked in much the same way.  Since the divorce, I hadn’t worked a single job.  The offers had poured in like a sundered dam in that first year, mixed in with offers for partnership and more than a few vulgar passes.  The romantic overtures dried up quickly and, as time passed, the job offers withered away as well.  Now, the account served as more of a museum piece.

I checked the server each morning anyway, out of habit.  I expected to find the same screen, populated with the same unread emails.  So, I was surprised to find that the server was entirely blank, with the exception of a single unread email, marked as important by the automated custodian.  My heartbeat dropped away for a moment; when it returned, I felt its beat accelerating with each passing second.  The message had been written, as though from my own account.  That had a certain elegance to it that I could admire; there was no email address to trace, since the system treated it as a draft of something I’d written myself.  It also meant that someone had worked their way past my security programs and taken control of the account, for at least as long as it took to the write the message. I found myself guiding the cursor over to the email without even really thinking about it; even after I realized what I was doing, I opened the message anyway.

To Miss Parker:

Your services are required.  Examine attached documents, before accepting offer.  Manner and size of payment, open to discussion.

There was no farewell at the bottom of the email; there was, however, an attached document.  It looked like a Zip file, named, unhelpfully, “information.zip.”  The attachment was a fairly large Zip file, as those things went, which meant that the unzipped contents were likely massive.

“I don’t think I’ll be falling for that today,” I said, and clicked the trashcan icon in the top right of the screen.  The email was sucked away from the main window and vanished.

I swiveled the chair over to face the financial monitor.  The numbers scrolled by and I made no effort to make sense of them.  It was just comforting to not think for a moment.  I took a drink from my Diet Coke and was disappointed when a quick sip was all that remained.  Sighing, I stood and went back into the kitchen.  This time, I removed the entire twelve pack and carried it back to the computer room.  I put the sodas on the floor, next to the right monitor.  My eyes caught something and, without considering it, I looked up.  My jaw dropped.

The email had returned.  I clicked it open, and saw that its contents and its attached file were exactly the same.  “What are you all about?”  I deleted it a second time but, instead of turning away to remain lost in thought, I stared intently at the right monitor.  Thirty seconds passed before the email returned a third time.  I leaned back in the chair and whistled.

If my system was compromised, the smart thing to do was to cut all outside connections and thoroughly scrub the entire registry.  There wasn’t anything I needed on the actual hard drives, after all; almost all of my truly sensitive information was either memorized or stored on a series of cloud servers.  Something tickled at the edges of my thoughts, though – something that told me Devlin’s mystery might be more connected to my life than I’d first thought.

“You’re past this,” I said out loud.  “You don’t need this anymore.  You’ve got a life, and you don’t have to steal things anymore.”

I repeated that to myself two more times, with increasing hesitance.  Finally, I sighed, opened another Diet Coke, and clicked open the attachments.

Chapter 21

She said nothing as I took a place next to her in the backseat.  The driver entered from his door on the side of the car.  A moment later, the engine hummed to life and we pulled away from the curb.  My eyes went first to the opaque partition between the backseat and the front; then, after a moment of hesitation, to Sarah’s face.  She was stone still, a gargoyle in dark jeans and a blood-red button down shirt.  Her eyes met mine and bored into me, searching for…something.  I found a spot on the floorboard to examine instead of withstanding that examination any longer than strictly necessary.


“Hi?”  She repeated.  “That’s all you’ve got to say for yourself?”

“I, uh…thought I’d have more time to think of something clever, honestly.”

Somehow, her expression darkened further.  I imagined her eyes piercing through my torso, before Sarah flayed me alive with nothing more than her palpable disdain.  “What the hell are you doing here, Devlin?”

“That’s kind of a long story.”

“Oh?  Is it?  Well, let me tell you about why I’m here.”  She leaned forward and folded her hands together in her lap.  “Imagine what it would be like if you had built a life for yourself.  Started a business, maybe, or just made some good investments.  Maybe both.  You had things in your past that you’d rather not think about, but you were moving on.”

I winced.  I’d expected anger from her, but the reality was more painful than I’d thought possible.  Still, it was nothing less than I deserved.  “I didn’t know that you…”

“So,” she continued, ignoring my interruption, “you’re starting to make something of yourself.  And then, out of nowhere, you get an alert telling you that a name you’d forgotten existed is flying into your town.  And you just know – you know it like you know your own name – that it’s going to be trouble.  Can you imagine that, Devlin?”

“Sarah, I…”

“Because that’s what I’m going through.  So, go ahead and tell me: what the hell are you doing in my town?”

Facing up to my own emotions had never been easy for me, with the exception of anger.  That had always been second nature.  Pressed to the seat with the sheer force of Sarah’s scathing sarcasm, I defaulted to that old standby before my higher brain functions had a chance to engage.  “I’m here for you,” I said.  It took effort, but I forced myself to meet her eyes.  “I know that what we had is gone, and I know I’m probably the last person you want to see here, but I’m here to save you.”

She blinked.  “What are you talking about?”

“It’s Asher. He’s coming after you.”

Her expression transformed in an instant.  Anger turned to confusion.  “What?  Why?”

“He’s trying to hurt me,” I said, “and the best way to do that is to hurt you.”

Several seconds ticked by in silence.  I heard car horns outside, but the windows were tinted a deep, impenetrable black and I could see nothing except for the blank surface.  Finally, Sarah cleared her throat and leaned back into her seat.  “Start from the beginning.”

I did as she asked, going back to Asher’s betrayal at the Museé, on through my retrieval of our passports in Munich with Alex’s daughter.  When I finished recounting the events in Kiev, she sat immobile for a long time.  “Sarah?”

“I’m thinking,” she said.  A moment later, she sighed and lowered her face into her hands.  “Let me see if I’ve got this straight.  Someone – maybe one person, maybe a whole organization – decided that you should get out of La Santé ahead of schedule, but they didn’t tell you what they wanted in exchange?”

“Until they sent me that photograph,” I said, and then paused.  “I never said I was in La Santé?”

She raised her face.  “I knew where you were.”

“How did you know that?”

“I…keep track of things.  Anyway, that’s not really the point.”

I knew her tells, and I’d long since learned the minute signs that she was embarrassed.  I wisely decided not to press the matter.  “Okay.  But, yeah, that’s pretty much how it happened.”

“And they knew your size already?  When you got to the parking lot, I mean.”

“Not just that.”  I thought back to that first day.  “Whoever it was, they knew enough about me to know which car I’d pick.  Left the keys in the ignition and everything.”

“Or they just left keys and suits in every car,” Sarah said.  Her lips turned slightly up at the idea before she shook her head.  “That’d be insane, though.  Not that it isn’t already insane, but…so, after that, you went to Munich to get back the passports?  Our passports?”

I shrugged.  “What else could I do?  Whoever was out there, they’d already given me a name they could track.  I couldn’t keep using that without leaving a trail.”

“Fair enough.  And then, when you went to Kiev?”

“I thought I might be able to catch him off-guard, but that trap was already in place.  I just had the bad luck to set it off,” I said.  “But now he knows where you are.  He couldn’t wait to tell me that much.  That’s how I knew to come to San Francisco.”

“How could he know that?  You said he works with hired help normally, didn’t you?  Where’d he get the money to hire the kind of resources it’d take to track me down?”

“Hell if I know.  I went to jail for a few years and, when I came out, Asher had all sorts of connections, with people I’ve never even heard of.”

“That organization he was working for, when he went to Moscow?  With the three triangles?”

“The three that pointed up, yeah.”  I showed her the notepad I’d filled on the flight.  “This other symbol means…I don’t know what it means, actually.  Might be the organization that sprung me in the first place.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose.  “So, Asher is trying to make you pay for what happened in St. Petersburg and to do that, he’s working with this one shadowy organization.  The…”  She checked the notepad.  “Trinity?”  Her nose scrunched up slightly in distaste.

I shrugged.

Sarah’s eyebrows drew closer together while she considered the name before she, probably deciding that she didn’t have anything better offer, accepted the sobriquet I’d landed on.  “Okay, Trinity.  And Trinity’s got enough influence to outright threaten the Russian mafia into doing what they want.  But there’s this other group, the…Puppetmaster?  Who might be working against Trinity, maybe, or they might be an entirely different group that has nothing to do with the whole situation.”

“It’s possible,” I admitted.  “But I don’t think so.”

“Why not?  Asher’s made a lot of enemies in the past.  Just in this last year, he pissed off you, the Bratva, and presumably the organization he’s working for in the first place.  There could be a lot of people who want to catch him, and they don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.”

“I know that, but…”  I trailed off, unable to find the right words.

“But what?”

“But it doesn’t feel like that.”

Sarah bit down on her bottom lip in thought.  “Let’s say you’re right.  What’s your role in all of this, then?  Why get you out of prison just to send you after Asher if he’s got the sort of connections you’re talking about?”

“That’s what I want to know,” I said.  “But don’t worry about any of that.  It’s my problem.  This is all my fault, and you got caught up in the middle of it through no fault of your own.”

“Devlin.”  Sarah’s voice lowered slightly.  It forced me to abandon my careful examination of the black window and lean in to hear her.  “What, exactly, happened in St. Petersburg?”

I saw the fires again, as brilliant and vivid as they’d been that night.  Phantom screams echoed in my ears and I felt heat on my fingertips.  I shuddered involuntarily and pushed the memory as far away as I could.  “I…don’t want to talk about that.”

“Fine.”  It was obvious that she wasn’t pleased with my non-answer.  “Whatever happened, was it enough to justify sending Asher off on this revenge bender?”

“Apparently,” I said.  “Which is why I came here, to warn you.  He knows where you’re living and I don’t doubt for a moment that he’d send someone to kill you.  You need to get out of town and lie low somewhere.  At least until I can get ahold of him and stop all of this.”

“How are you going to do that?”

I took in Sarah’s appearance: exactly as beautiful as the last time I’d seen her, even with her bed-hair rampaging out of her control.  My answer came unbidden to my lips, and I spoke it aloud with the absolute conviction of the fanatic.  “I’ll do whatever I have to.”

Sarah sighed.  “What, you’re just going to hunt down all of them?  This Trinity, the Puppetmaster, Asher…I need a diagram to keep all this in mind.”

“If you promise to get out of town, you can have mine.”  I offered her the notepad.

She did not reach out to take it.  “I can’t just leave, Devlin.  I’ve got connections here.  People will miss me if I just disappear.”

The bottom of my stomach evaporated in an instant.  “People?  So, you’re…?”

It took her a second to understand my implication.  The temperature in the car dropped a few degrees as she turned a glacial stare in my direction.  “That isn’t really any of your business, is it?”

“No, you’re right, it isn’t,” I said, while I smothered the sudden impulses to find and hurt someone.  My time in La Santé had changed me more than I wanted to admit, even to myself.  “But if there’s…someone…you should get them and get out of town.  Can you do that for me?  Please?”

Sarah sat there for another long stretch.  “This is just like you,” she said, finally.

“This is…huh?”

“Whenever you’ve got a problem, you always bring it to my doorstep.  Now, I’ve got to pack up and leave town, just because you’ve got a problem with Asher over something that happened years ago?  Something you won’t even tell me about?”

“I didn’t bring this to your doorstep, Sarah!  Asher wants to hurt me, and he’s always wanted to hurt you, ever since we teamed up to begin with.  He sees it as…I don’t know, some kind of betrayal that I didn’t drop everything the second he showed back up.  Whether I came here or not, even if I’d stayed in prison until the end of my sentence, he was still coming for you.  You think he tracked you down in the last three days?”

“You expect me to believe that you only came here because you were worried about me?  With our past?”

That brought me up short.  I choked down another outburst and picked my words carefully.  “What I did doesn’t change how I feel about you,” I said.  “Even if it did, we were partners for a long time.  That means something to me.”

“It didn’t mean enough, though, did it?”

I grit my teeth.  “If you want to just hurl abuse at me, that’s fine.  I earned it, and I’ll take whatever you’ve got to dish out.  But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a madman with access to a disturbing amount of resources who knows where you live.  All I’m asking you to do is to get to somewhere safe.  After that, you don’t ever have to talk to me again, if you don’t want to.”

She tilted her head.  “And you’re going to do what, exactly?  You went through all that effort to slip your patron, so you’re not getting any help from that quarter.  And, without that, it’ll just be you up against Asher and whatever resources he can throw at you.”

I hesitated before I spoke again.  We had managed to reach the part of the conversation where I asked Sarah for help, in the most indirect ways imaginable.  Whether she would help or simply hang me out to dry was up in the air, still.  “I’d need access to an account.  Not a big one; just enough to get around while I’m looking for leads.”

Sarah sighed, but there was a difference in her bearing.  “Of course you do.  Any other favors you want from me?  Not that you deserve them, but still.”

“Another passport would be nice.  This one’s got…a history.  If he didn’t think to look for this identity yet, he’s going to get around to doing that, sooner or later.”

She rolled her eyes and passed a weary hand over her eyes.

“The accounts and the passports are mine too,” I pointed out.  “But as soon as I finish dealing with Asher, I’ll give control back over to you, if that’s what you want.  I’m not here for the money.”

“That all?”

“There’s a…phone, too.”  I fished the sniper’s locked cell phone out of my pocket and passed it over to her.  “The sniper in Ukraine had that on him.  I don’t know if there’s anything I could use on there, but it’s locked, so….”

She snatched the phone from my hand in a sharp movement, her long fingers catching the phone with expert ease.  I’d taught her that sleight-of-hand technique and an unreasonable surge of pride welled up within me at her practiced usage.  “You want the company card too, while you’re at it?”  She asked.  Sarcasm, cruel and biting, seethed in each syllable.

“Sarah.”  Without thinking, I reached out for her hand.  She snatched it away.  The action sent another stab of regret through my heart, but I managed to keep the agony from my face.  “As soon as I finish dealing with Asher, I’ll give control back over to you, if that’s what you want.  I’m not here for the money.”

“I know that.  You think I don’t know that?”  Her eyes narrowed to slits for an instant, and then relaxed into a look of resignation.  “But it wasn’t about me, either.”

I searched myself and found, to my dismay, that there wasn’t an answer to her unspoken accusation.  Whatever I said, she would refute and deny.  I ran the risk of irritating her beyond her limits if I pushed my own point any further.  Besides, there was an element of truth in what she said.  My mistake had been motivated by a lot of things and there was nothing I could say or do that would convince her how deeply I regretted it.

Sarah banged on the opaque partition; after a moment, it slid down and revealed the driver at the wheel.  “Take us to the Red Victorian,” she said.

“Of course, ma’am.”

The partition slid back up.  Sarah took out a smartphone out of a small clutch and began to navigate through its menus.  “I’m putting you up at a bed and breakfast for a night,” she said, without looking up.

“Why would you do that?”

“Because you need a shower,” she answered immediately.  She glanced up and her eyes softened slightly.  “And because I don’t want you under my feet while I’m working.  I’ll arrange access to one of the Cayman accounts for you and see which identities are still viable.”

“Sarah, I – “

She talked over me.  “And I’ll see what I can do about this phone.  If there’s anything on it, then I’ll print you a copy.”

“That’s great and all, but what you really need to do is get out of town.  Everything else can wait.”

“That’s easier for you to do than me,” she said.  “I’ve got a business to worry about, and that requires a little more notice than simply disappearing overnight.  Algorithms have to be written to cover my absence, I’ll need to hire a double for any appearances I need to make, and I’ve got a pet to take care of now.”  She bit down on her lip at the last item.  “And my main setup is located here.  If you want me to find out anything, this is where it’ll have to be.  After that, I’ll go to ground until this all blows over.”

I noticed that, in her listings of things to handle, Sarah had conveniently failed to mention the presence of another person.  “So, there isn’t anyone else?”  I asked, before I could stop myself.

Anyway,” she said, layering sarcasm and stress on the two syllables.  She finished with her phone and returned it to her clutch.  “This shouldn’t take more than a night, Devlin.  I appreciate you coming to warn me, I really do, but you being here is…dangerous for me.  In a lot of different ways.”

I didn’t understand what she meant by that.  Asher’s men had already tracked her down.  She wasn’t in any more danger by my presence, than she was without it.  If anything, she was considerably safer, since Asher would likely prioritize my own death and give her a little extra time to make an escape if he made his move.  Instead of sharing my thoughts, I opted for a sincere look of gratitude.  “This is so much more than I expected, but thanks, Sarah.”

“Don’t thank me,” she said.  “Listen…this doesn’t mean we’re on good terms again.  What we had is gone, understand?”

I nodded.  “I do.”


The town car slowed and then stopped.  I heard as the driver made his way around the car to my door.  When he opened it, I saw that we were now in front of a tall, cinnamon red building.  “The Red Victorian” was written across the front in large white letters.  A couple sat at a café table, only a few feet away from where we sat.


I turned. “Yes?”

“You’ve got to leave town after this,” Sarah said.

I’d thought my heart had reached the bottom of my stomach.  Something opened up in me, and my heart sank even further, past the soles of my feet and came to rest beneath my shoes.  “I know.”

“It isn’t that I…”  She stopped and shook her head.  “Nevermind.  I’ll handle this for you, but then you’ve got to skip town.  I’ve done too much just to lose it to a vendetta between you and Asher.  Even worse, between this Puppetmaster and Trinity.”

“I get that.  Really, I do.”

“Just show them your passport,” she said.  “They’ll show you where the room is from there.  I’ll have someone pick you up to take you to the airport in the morning.”

I stepped out of the car and started toward the front door.  I made it two steps before I stopped and turned back.  “Sarah, I’m…I’m sorry.”

She met my eyes for less than an instant.  My notepad, covered in scribbles and half-formed ideas, sat on the seat beside her.  Her driver closed the door and went back to the driver’s side.  He pulled the town car away from the curb and back into traffic with a brief tip of his hat to me.  I stood alone in front of the Red Victorian, doing everything in my power not to notice the happy couple eating a meal near me.  Then, defeated in every way that mattered, I pivoted on my heel and went into the building.

Chapter 20

Stani phoned his superiors and they made the necessary arrangements on their end so that I would have a business-class ticket in whatever name I desired at the international airport. I requested that they use the name I’d flown in under; the same name that Sarah and I had used at our wedding. I’d personally watched her write a program to monitor the usage of certain names – although I hadn’t understood the fine technical details, at the time – and I was certain that she’d extended the reach of that program to cover any of our previous aliases. I could only hope that she took the signal as a flag of truce and didn’t, for instance, mark the identity as a wanted terrorist, purely out of spite.

We went first to a local clothing store. So late at night, the shop was closed, but a terse phone call from Stani brought the owner, bleary eyed and stumbling, from his home. I purchased new clothes with the remainder of the money Alex had lent me. The outfit he’d given me back in Munich was far too large for me to begin with and the encounter at the docks had left the outfit soaked in my sweat. When I peeled it off of my skin in exchange for a pair of khakis and a long sleeved shirt, I breathed a small sigh of relief. Things had started out of control, and spiraled farther off into insanity over the past three days. It felt good to have a grasp on at least one thing in my life.

“What do you think?” I asked Anton.

“It is not bad,” he said, hesitantly. “But does it really matter right now?”

“It’s been a…long time since I’ve seen her. I figure the least I can do is look my best. If you had to go see the love of your life, wouldn’t you want to –?” I stopped mid-sentence.

Neither Anton nor Stani moved for a long time. Finally, Stani spoke up. “You should see a tailor, if you wish to really stand out.”

I didn’t miss the way his back stiffened or how he pointedly avoided looking in Anton’s direction. “Time’s kind of a commodity, or I would.”

He shrugged. “It will do, then.”

“I think,” Anton said suddenly, “that I will go now.”

“What? Why?” I asked.

“You will go to see your ex-wife to warn her about Asher, no? And Stani will deliver that sniper to his superiors, so that they can see what information can be…coerced from him?” Both Stani and I nodded. “Then I will help, as well. Asher must have worked with someone. He is only one man.”

I thought about that and then nodded. “No matter how much money he’s suddenly got to throw around, he’s still got to hire them from somewhere or someone. Unless he’s just pulling trained snipers off of the street, I mean.”

“Perhaps I can find out something – anything – about where his money comes from. Or, maybe who it is going to. After all,” he shrugged and offered a weak half-smile, “everybody needs a bombmaker, no?”

It was a sound idea. I couldn’t have stopped Anton from doing whatever he pleased – at least, not without a physical confrontation – but I realized with some shock that he was asking for permission. “Alright,” I said. “But keep in touch. Use that email address I gave Stani if you find out anything.”

“Of course,” Anton answered. He inclined his head to me. Then his eyes met Stani’s; they held the contact for five seconds before Anton averted his gaze and ducked out of the room.

Stani saved me from the awkwardness by simply changing the subject outright. “What will your employer think of tonight’s events?”

“I don’t know,” I said, honest as a saint for once. “But it’s my problem to deal with. Whatever happens from this point on, it’s going to be on my head to fix it.”

He scratched his thin growth of facial hair in thought and nodded in commiseration. “My superiors feel the same. It would have been very bad for me to return home without something to show for the effort.”

“That hired shooter’s got to be worth something.”

“Perhaps. We will see, I suppose.”

We went back to the car. Leonid sat in the backseat, examining the bullet wound in his partner’s shoulder. Blood soaked the upholstery, but Leonid didn’t appear worried. “Is it bad?” I asked Stani, as we got into our own seats.

Stani shook his head. “It is a flesh wound. After the airport, we will go to a local doctor and have it taken care of.”

“Are you going to wake him up like you did that shop’s owner?”

He gave me a slight smile. “This doctor is a…coworker. Our business will not be unexpected.” He started the car and began to drive.

It wasn’t a long trip back to the airport, but it passed by in the blink of an eye. Adrenaline had kept me awake, at the bar and later at the trailer, but it was rapidly draining away now and I felt hollow without it. My eyelids grew heavy and it took all of my focus to stay awake. I didn’t realize we’d parked until Stani cleared his throat.

“Already?” My own voice sounded sluggish to my ears.

“Yes. Your flight back to the States leaves in…” He checked his watch. “Fifteen minutes. You should not have trouble with security, if you move quickly.” He took several bills from his inside jacket pocket and held them out for me.

I was in no position to turn down assistance, so I took the money without a second thought. “Got it.” I forced myself out of the car, dragging my feet slightly. “I’ll keep you informed about anything I find out while I’m there.”

Stani nodded. “I will do the same.” He paused. “Devlin?”


“Be safe. When the rich fight, it is the poor that die.”

I blinked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It is a Russian saying. It means…” He thought about his words for a moment. “I am afraid that you and I – maybe even Asher – are small pieces of something larger.”

“Pawns, you mean.” Someone had sprung me from jail and pointed me at Asher, like a weapon. Someone else, probably not the same puppetmaster who’d provided me with an escape, was providing my former partner with considerable resources. It stood to reason that Asher’s proprietors had their own demands of his skills and time. “Pawns are the first pieces to go, by and large.”


Concern from the Russian was unexpected, and it took me a second to process his sincerity. “You too, Stani.”

Stani had been right: at the sight of my passport, I found myself fast-tracked through the security line and customs. As with my entry into the country, only a few hours earlier, my lack of luggage sped the process up even more. I made it the terminal with a good five minutes to spare before it took off. My seat had plenty of leg room and I was one of only five people in the cabin on that particular flight. The regular amenities were there, of course: privacy screen, flat-screen television, plenty of room for the luggage and carry-ons I didn’t have. I concerned myself with nothing beyond the electronic panel at the side of the seat, which laid my seat back until it was nearly horizontal and the additional pillows one of the attendants gracefully provided. Before the flight was ten minutes out of the international airport, I was fast asleep.

The reclined seat was the closest thing to a bed I’d had access to since La Santé. It was hard to believe that I’d barely been out of prison for three days. I hadn’t slept during the other flights and jaunts, so much as I’d closed my eyes and simply stopped thinking for a while. Rest felt like a divine gift and I fell into the black nothingness of slumber with almost greedy abandon. I woke three hours later, just long enough to leave the plane when it landed for a brief layover in Greece. I purchased a gyro at a stand, ate it mechanically, and then found two adjacent seats by my second terminal. There I slept for another two hours, uncomfortable in the metal seating, before the flight all the way to San Francisco began boarding. I dragged myself up, onto the flight, into my seat, and fell once more to sleep.

The flight from Athens to San Francisco was scheduled to take nearly eleven hours. I didn’t wake up for the first four. Even when I was awake, it took an entire hour and a half, as well as a comically large cup of coffee, before I was capable of forming coherent thoughts. I spent the last five and a half hours, considering the situation with Asher and his mysterious backing organization. Twenty minutes into building my mental map, I asked an attendant for a pen and a notepad.

There was a greater game being played. I knew that much in my bones. What I didn’t know, however, were the particulars: what was expected of me, what Asher’s goals were, or how the various players I’d encountered so far fit into the grand scheme of things. I started to draw a diagram on the notepad, beginning at the bottom. I wrote my own name, circled it, and then added a question mark.

“What do you want with me?” I asked the paper and, by extension, the mysterious puppetmaster who floated out there in the ether somewhere.

I drew lines and added additional names: Asher, Stani, and Anton. Asher’s name was written on the opposite side of the page from my own and followed by three question marks. Stani’s and Anton’s names appeared under a small header that read “Bratva.” I gave the paper several minutes of serious contemplation before I added Alex to the sheet, with a small “J” under his name. His first wife had been killed by Russians; I would never be able to forget that day, as long as I lived. I didn’t think there was a connection between Asher’s newfound affinity for the Russians, but I couldn’t afford to rule anything out. I left Ally’s name off.

There were five names on the list now. I went back and added explanatory text beneath the lines. Asher and I were connected by our previous partnership and his homicidal, obsessive desire to make me pay for the events of St. Petersburg. Alex and I were friends and had been for years. Stani worked directly for a wing of the Russian mafia, based out of Moscow, and he had some history with Anton. Asher had taunted them with the implication of a romantic relationship, and neither man had denied his claims. I closed my eyes and, unbidden, the image of Stani’s mutilated hand materialized in my mind. As far as I knew, Alex and Asher barely knew each other, and their relationship had ended long before the ambush in Italy. Stani and his Russian superiors had sent Asher to steal something from a rival organization’s banks, but his betrayal had left them holding the metaphorical bag.

I paused. “You’ve got your own men now.” I tapped my pen’s tip against Asher’s name. “So why go to the Russians for soldiers, if you’ve got your own?”

I wrote the question underneath Asher’s name, in shorthand, and went back to clarifying the connections. I’d worked with Anton a few times in the past, but not enough that Asher would specifically target the Ukrainian. At the same time, my former partner was driven now by desires I couldn’t begin to understand, and I decided not to rule out the possibility.

The names on the paper, and the lines that linked them all together, gave me nothing to work with that I hadn’t already known. I’d hoped that seeing it all in ink in front of me might trigger some realization; none came. I drew the three upright triangles that had appeared on Asher’s letter at the top of the page, went over them several times so that the ink was thick, and circled it. Inside the circle, I wrote “Trinity” and drew a line down to Asher’s name. For lack of a better title, Trinity would have to work as the name of Asher’s mysterious backers. Next to that, I drew the same symbol but inverted, circled it, and wrote “Puppetmaster.” That bubble was connected to my own name.

Between Puppetmaster and Trinity, I drew a two sided arrow and, underneath that, added seven different question marks. “What did I get myself into?” I amended the thought after a moment. “What did you get me into?” I tapped the Puppetmaster’s bubble.

I closed my eyes again. There were too many questions to ask and far too many angles to consider. I didn’t have enough information to make an intelligent decision in either direction. In virtually any other situation, I would have done the smart thing: disappear like smoke in the wind, and simply wait until one party or another decided to make a move. But if Asher was involved, and if he suddenly had access to the type of resources he’d need for an international operation, then Sarah was in danger. I hadn’t gotten her into the game, but I had connected her to Asher. If anything happened to her that I could stop, that would be my fault and I was not willing to deal with the possibility of her getting hurt on my account.

I didn’t harbor any hope that she’d be happy to see me. Our last fight had made her feelings perfectly clear. All I needed to do was to warn her. She had the skills to disappear and she certainly had access to the necessary resources. As soon as she was safely out of the crosshairs, I could return my full attention to dealing with the threat Asher constituted. With the support of the Bratva, it was entirely possible that I might even accomplish something.

At some point, I fell asleep again. I didn’t realize I’d done it until an attendant gently nudged me back awake.

“Sir?” Her voice was cautious. “We’ve landed, sir.”

I blinked sleep from my eyes and vague shapes eventually coalesced into the form of a young woman. “Already?”

“Yes, sir. Would you like some assistance to help you out of the plane, sir?”

“No, I’m fine.” I turned the notepad so that its writing was hidden against my leg. “What time is it?”

“Six AM, local time,” she said.

I groaned, but rose from my seat. “Thanks for the wake-up,” I said. “Mind if I keep the pen?”

“Of course not, sir. Are you…” She hesitated. “Are you sure you’re alright, sir? If you don’t mind me saying so, you seem a little…out of sorts?”

“Just going to see the ex-wife. I imagine she’ll have all sorts of things to say when she sees me again.”

“Oh.” She opened her mouth to add something else, decided against it, and plastered a customer service smile on her face instead.

I disembarked without another word. As soon as I entered the terminal, the doubts and questions that I’d wrestled with on the flight over vanished and were replaced, almost instantly, with a crushing anxiety. It was ridiculous that, with everything else going on, the thought of seeing Sarah again after four years dominated my thoughts, but there it was, pressing against the walls of my skull. I tapped the notepad against my leg as I walked toward the exit, passing through the requisite security checkpoints without really noticing them. Silently, I ran through a dozen different opening lines.

“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Fancy meeting you here.”

“You look…good.”

I discarded them all with a pained grimace. Years spent in the underground, navigating through precariously worded arrangements with dangerous individuals; just as much time working the field, conning CEOs and heiresses out of their money; and a full year in a hellhole of a prison where the wrong word could have earned me a shiv didn’t offer a single insight as to how I should approach the situation. She’d kicked me out; she’d made it perfectly clear that she had no desire to ever see me again, in any conceivable context; and yet, here I was, back in America looking specifically for her. I hoped, somewhat counter-productively, that my search for her would take a few days. That would give me the time I needed to find the right way to speak to her again.

I was so lost in my own nervousness that I nearly missed the driver, waiting patiently by the front of the airport. He held a sign that read “Barrow” in large, block letters. I blinked at the same time as my heart began to skip every other beat.

“Barrow?” I asked, as I approached the driver. “Clyde Barrow?”

“Yes, sir,” the driver said. He lowered the sign. “Are you…?”

“Yeah. I think that’s for me.”

“Ah. Very good, sir. If you would follow me? Your limousine is waiting outside.”

I narrowed my eyes, but followed the driver outside. If this was a trap, I had no real way to escape it. Whoever had sent the driver for me knew the name on my passport, and it was the only one I had access to. I barely had enough money to survive for a day in San Francisco, and I couldn’t leave the country again. Someone wanted to see me and there was nothing I could do, except to grant their wish.

The limousine wasn’t a limo, in the stretchy sense of the word. A Lincoln town car sat at the curb, glistening in the early morning light. The driver went to the rear passenger door. I tensed, prepared to flee at the first sun of danger. He opened the door. My jaw dropped.

“I, uh…I…” My grasp of the English language evaded any attempts to pin down actual words and I opted for disconnected syllables, instead.

“Get in the car.”

“What…but I…”

Sarah glowered at me from the backseat. “Get. In. The damn. Car.”