Rewind. Twenty minutes ago.
We’re in the sub-basement of the giant Edmonds Building, our footsteps muffled by thick carpet. The lighting in the corridor is surprisingly low down here, almost cosy, which doesn’t matter much because Annie is seriously fucking with my groove.
I like to listen to music on our ops, OK? It calms me down, helps me focus. A little late-90s rap – some Blackstar, some Jurassic 5, some Outkast. Nothing too aggressive or even all that loud. I’m just reaching the good part of “So Fresh, So Clean” when Annie taps me on the shoulder. “Yo, take that shit out. We working.”
Ugh. I was sure I’d hidden my earbud, threading the cord up underneath the starchy blue rent- a- cop shirt and tucking it under my hair.
I hunt for the volume switch on my phone, still not looking at Annie. She responds by reaching back and jerking the earbud out.
“I said, fucking quit it.”
“What, not an OutKast fan? Or do you only like their early stuff?” I hold up an earbud. “I don’t mind sharing. You want the left or the right?”
“Cute. Put it away.”
We turn the corner, heading for a big set of double doors at the far end. My collar’s too tight. I pull at it, wincing, but it barely moves. Annie and I are dressed identically: blue shirts, black clip-on ties, black pants and puffer jackets in a very cheap shade of navy. Huge belts, leather, with thick metal buckles.
Paul picked up the uniforms for us. I tried to tell him that while Annie might be able to pass as a security guard, nobody was going to believe that the Edmonds Building would employ a short, not-very-fit woman with spiky black hair and a face that still gets her ID’d at the liquor store. Even though I’ve been able to buy my own drinks like a big girl for a whole year now.
I couldn’t be more different to Annie. You know how some club bouncers have huge muscles and a shit- ton of tattoos and piercings? You know how people still fuck with them, starting fights and smashing bottles? Annie is like that one bouncer with zero tattoos, standing in the corner with her arms folded and a scowl that could sour milk. The bouncer no one fucks with because the last person who did ended up scattered over a six-mile radius. We might not see eye to eye on music – or on anything, because she’s taller than me – but I’m still very glad she’s on my side.
My earpiece chirps – my other one, the black number in my right ear. “Annie, Teagan,” says Paul. “Come in. Over.”
“We’re almost at the server room,” Annie says. She sends another disgusted look at my dangling earbud.
Silence. No response.
“You there?” Annie says.
“Sorry, was waiting for you to say over. Thought you hadn’t finished. Over.”
“Seriously?” I say. “We’re still using your radio slang?”
“It’s not slang. It’s protocol. Just wanted to give you a heads-up – Reggie’s activated the alarm on the second floor. Basement should be clear of personnel.” A pause. “Over.”
“Yeah, copy.” Annie says. She’s a lot more patient with Paul than I am, which I genuinely don’t understand. The double doors are like the fire doors you see in apartment buildings. The one on the right has a big sign on it, white lettering on a black background: AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY. And on the wall next to it, a biometric lock.
Annie looks over at me. “You’re up.”
My tax form says that I work for a company called China Shop Movers. That’s the name on the paperwork, anyway. What we actually do is work for the government – specifically, for a high-level spook named Tanner.
For some jobs, you need a black-ops team and a fleet of Apache choppers with heat-seeking missiles. For others, you need a psychokinetic with a music-hating support team who can make a lot less noise and get things done in a fraction of the time. You need a completely deniable group of civilians who can do stuff that even a special forces soldier would struggle with. That’s us. We are fast, quiet, effective and deadly.
Go ahead: make the fart joke. Tanner didn’t laugh when I made it either.
The people we take down are threats to national security. Drug lords, terrorist cells, human traffickers. We don’t bust in with guns blazing. We don’t need to – not with my ability. I’ve planted a tracking device on a limo at LAX, waving hello to the thick-necked goon standing alongside the car while I zipped the tiny black box up behind his back and onto the chassis. I’ve kept the bad guys’ safeties on at a hostage exchange – good thing too, because they tried to start shooting the second they had the money and got one hell of a surprise when their guns didn’t work. And I’ve been on plenty of break-ins. Windows? Cars? Big old metal safes? Not a problem. When you can move things with your mind, there’s not a lot the world can do to keep you out.
Take the lock on AUTHORISED PERSONNEL, for instance.
You’re supposed to put your finger on the little reader, let it scan your fingerprint, and you’re in. If you’re breaking in, you either need to hack off a finger (messy), take someone hostage (messy, annoying), hack it locally (time- consuming and boring), or blow it off (fun, but kind of noisy).
My psychokinesia – PK – means I can feel every object around me: its texture, its weight, its relation to other objects. It’s a constant flood of stimuli. When I was little, Mom and Dad made me run through exercises, getting me to really focus in on a single object at a time – a glass, a toy car, a pencil. They made me move them around, describe them in excruciating detail. It took a long time, but I managed to deal with it. Now I can sense the objects around me in the same way you sense the clothes you’re wearing. You know they’re there, you’re aware of them, but you don’t think about them.
If I focus on an object, like the lock – the wires, the latch assembly, the emergency battery, the individual screws on the latch and strike panels – it’s as if I send out a part of myself to wrap around it, like you’d wrap your hand around a glass. And then, if I’m locked on, I can move it. I don’t have to jerk my head or hold out my hand or screw up my face like in the movies, either. I tried it once, for fun, and felt like an idiot.
It takes me about three seconds to find the latch and slide it back. The mechanism won’t move unless it receives the correct signal from the fingerprint reader – or unless someone reaches inside and moves it with her mind. It’s actually a pretty solid security system. I’ve definitely seen worse. But whoever built it obviously didn’t take into account the existence of a psychokinetic, so I guess he’s totally fired now.
“And we’re good.” I hop to my feet, using my PK to pull the handle down. I haven’t even touched the door.
“Hm.” Annie tilts her head. “Nice work.”
“Was that a compliment? Annie, are you dying? Has the cancer spread to your brain?”
“Let’s just get this over with.”
We’re on this operation because of a clothing tycoon named Steven Chase. He runs a chain of high- end sportswear stores called Ultra, which just means they’re Foot Locker stores without the referee jerseys. If that was all he was doing, he’d never have appeared on China Shop’s radar, but it appears Mr Chase has been a very naughty boy.
Tanner got a tip that he was embezzling money from his company. Again, not something we’d normally give a shit about, but he’s not exactly using it to buy a third Ferrari. He’s funnelling it to ome very shady people in the Ukraine and Saudi Arabia, which is when government types like Tanner start to get mighty twitchy.
Now, the US government could get a wiretap to confirm the tip. But even if you go through a secret court, there’ll be some kind of paper trail. Better a discreet call gets made to the offices of a certain moving company in Los Angeles, who can look into the matter without anything being written down.
And before you start telling me I’m on the wrong side, that I’m doing the work of the government, who are the real bad guys here, and violating a dozen laws and generally being a pawn of the state, just know that I’ve seen evidence of what people like Chase do. I have no problem messing with their shit.
We’re not actually going anywhere near Steven Chase’s office. Reggie could hack his computer directly, but it would require a brute- force attack or getting him to click on a link in an email. People don’t do that any more, unless you promise fulfilment of their very specific sexual fantasies. The research on that is more trouble than it’s worth, and you’ll have nightmares for months.
Chase is in town tonight. He flew in for a dinner or an awards show or whatever rich people do for fun, and it’s his habit to come back to the office afterwards. He should be there now, up on the 30th floor. He’ll work until two or three, catch a couple hours of sleep, then grab a red- eye back to New York. Which works just fine for us.
If you can access the fibre network itself – which you can do in the server room, obviously – you can clamp a special coupler right on to the cable and just siphon off the data as it passes by. Of course, actually doing this is messy and complicated and requires a lot of elements to line up just right . . . unless you have me.
The cables from every floor in the building run down to this room. The plan is to identify Chase’s cable, attach a coupler to it, then read all the traffic while sipping mai tais on our back porch. Or in my case scarfing Thai food and drinking many, many beers in my tiny apartment, but whatever.
Chase might encrypt his email, of course, but encryption targets the body of the email, not the sender or subject line. If he emails anyone in the Ukraine or Saudi, we’ll know about it. It’ll be enough for Tanner to send in the big guns.
The server room is even more dimly lit than the corridor. The server banks stand like monoliths in an old tomb, giving off a subsonic hum that rumbles under the frigid air conditioning. Annie tilts her chin up even further, as if sniffing the air. She points to one side of the door. “Wait there.”
“Yes, sir, O mighty boss lady.”
She ignores me, eyes scanning the server stacks. I don’t really know how she’s going to find the correct one – that was the part of the planning session where they lost me. All I know is that when she does, she’s going to trace it back to where it vanishes into the floor or wall. We’ll open up a panel, and I’ll use my PK to float the coupler inside, attaching it to the cable. It can siphon data, away from the eyes of the building’s technicians, who would almost certainly recognise it on sight.
As Annie steps behind one of the servers, I slip my earbud back in. May as well listen to some music while—
“Shit,” Annie says.
It’s a quiet curse, but I catch it just fine. I make my way over to find her staring at a clusterfuck of tangled cables spilling out of one of the servers. The floor is a scattered mess of tools and loose connections. A half-eaten sandwich, dribbling a slice of tomato, sits propped on a closed laptop.
“Is it supposed to look like that?” I ask.
Annie ignores me. “Paul, we’ve got a problem. Over.”
“What is it? Over.”
“Techs have been in. It wasn’t like this this morning; Jerian would have told me.”
Jerian – one of Annie’s Army. Her anonymous network of janitors, cleaners, cashiers, security guards, drug dealers, nail artists, Uber drivers, cooks, receptionists and IT guys. Annie Cruz may not appreciate good hip- hop, but she has a very deep network of connects stretching all the way across LA.
“Copy, Annie. Can you still attach the coupler? Over.”
Annie frowns at the mess of cables. “Yeah. But it’ll take a while. Over.”
“Understood,” Paul says. “But we can only run interference for so long on our end. You’d better move. Over.”
Annie scowls, crouching down to look at the cables. She takes one between thumb and forefinger, like it’s something nasty she has to dispose of. Then she stands up, marching back towards the server-room doors.
“Um. Hi? Annie?” I jog after her, earbud bouncing against my shoulder. “Cables are back there.”
“Change of plan.” She keys her earpiece. “Paul? Tell Reggie to switch over the cameras on the 30th floor. Over”
“Say again? Over.”
“We’re going up.”
I don’t catch Paul’s response. Instead, I sprint to catch up with Annie, getting to her just she pushes through the doors. “Are you gonna tell me why we’ve suddenly abandoned the plan, or—”
“We can’t hide the coupler if they got people poking around the cables.” She reaches the elevator, thumbing the up button. “We need to go to the source.”
“I thought the whole point was not to go near this guy. Aren’t we supposed to be super-secret and stealthy and shit?”
“We’re not going to his office, genius. We’re going to the fibre hub on his floor.”
“The what now?”
“The fibre hub. Every floor has one. It’s where the cables from each office go. We’ll be able to find the right one a lot faster from there.”
The interior of the elevator is clean and new, with a touchscreen interface to select your floor. A taped sign next to it says that floors 50–80 are currently off limits while refurbishment and additional construction is completed, thank you for your patience, management. I remember seeing that when we rolled up: a big chunk of the building covered in scaffolding, with temporary elevators attached to the outside, and a giant crane in a vacant lot across the street.
When the elevator opens on the 30th floor, there’s someone standing in front of it. There’s a horrible moment where I think it’s Steven Chase himself. But I’ve seen pictures of Chase, who looks like an actor in an ad for haemorrhoid cream – running on the beach, tanned and glowing, stoked that his rectum is finally itch- free. This guy is . . . not that. He has lawyer written all over him: two-tone shirt, two-tone hair, one-tone orange skin. Tie knot as big as my fist. Probably a few haemorrhoid issues of his own.
He eyes us. “Going down?”
“We’re stepping off here, sir,” Annie says, doing just that. He moves into the elevator, mouth twisted in a disapproving frown as his eyes pass over me. Probably not used to seeing someone my age working security in a building like this. I have to resist the urge to wink at him.
I haven’t seen inside any of the offices yet, but whoever built this place obviously didn’t have any budget leftover for the hallways. There’s a foot-high strip of what looks like marble-textured plastic running along at chest height. There are buzzing fluorescent lights in the ceiling, and the floor is covered with that weird, flat, fuzzy carpet which always has little lint balls dotted over it. “Jesus, who picked out the paint?” The wall above the plastic marble is a shade of purple that’s probably called something like Executive Mojo.
“Who cares?” Annie says. “Damn building shouldn’t even be here.”
I sigh. This again.
She taps the fake marble. “You know they displaced a bunch of historical buildings for this? They just moved in and forced a purchase.”
I sigh. Annie’s always had a real hard-on for the city’s history. “Yeah, I know. You told me before.”
“And you saw that notice in the elevator. They just built this place. They already having to fix it up again. And the spots they bought out – mom-and-pop places. Historical buildings. City didn’t give a fuck.”
“I’m just saying. It’s messed up, man.”
“Can we get this done before the heat death of the universe? Please?”
It doesn’t take us long to find the right office. Paul helps, using the blueprints he’s pulled up to guide us along, occasionally telling Annie that this isn’t a good idea and that she needs to hurry. I pop the lock, just like before – it’s even easier this time – and we step inside.
There’s no Executive Mojo here. It’s a basic space, with a desk and terminal for a technician and a big, clearly marked access panel on the wall. By the desk, someone has left a toolbox full of computer paraphernalia, overflowing with wires and connectors. Maybe the same dickhead who left the half-eaten sandwich in the server room. I should leave a note telling him to clean up his shit.
The access panel is off to one side, slightly raised from the surface of the wall. Annie pops it, revealing a nest of thin cables. She attaches the coupler, which looks like a bulldog clip from the future, then checks her phone, reading the data that comes off it. With a grunt, she moves the coupler to the second cable. We have to get the correct one, and the only way to do that is to identify Chase from his traffic.
There are floor-to-ceiling windows on my left, and the view over the glittering city takes my breath away. We’re only on the 30th floor, not even close to the top of the building, but I can still see a hell of long way. A police helicopter hovers in the distance, too far for us to hear, its blinking tail lights just visible. The view looks north, out towards Burbank and Glendale, and on the horizon, there’s the telltale orange glow of wildfires.
The sight pulls up some bad memories. Of all the cities Tanner had to put me, it had to be the one where things burn.
It’s bad this year. Usually, it’s some kid with fireworks or a tourist dropping a cigarette that starts it up, but this time the grass was so dry that it caught on its own. Every TV in the last couple of days has had big breaking news alerts flashing on them. The ones tuned to Fox News – you get a few, even in California – have given it a nickname. hellstorm. Because of course they have.
This year’s fire has been creeping towards Burbank and Glendale, chewing through Wildwood Canyon and the Verdugo Hills. The flames have made LA even smoggier than usual. A fire chief on one of the TVs – a guy who managed to look both calm and mightily pissed off at the same time – said that they didn’t think the fires would reach the city.
“You got your voodoo, right?” She nods to the coupler. “Float it up into the wall.”
“Oh. Yeah. Good idea.”
The panel is wide enough for me to lean in, craning my head back. The space is dusty, a small shower of fine grit nearly making me sneeze. Annie shines a torch, but I don’t need it. She’s got the correct cable pinched between thumb and forefinger. It’s the work of a few seconds for me to find it with my voodoo and pull it slightly outwards from its buddies, float the coupler across and clamp it on. Annie flicks the torch off, and the coupler is swallowed by the shadows.
What can I say? I’m handy.
“Aight,” Annie says, snapping the panel shut. “Paul? We’re good. Over.”
“Copy that. We’re getting traffic already. Skedaddle on out of there. Over.”
Skedaddle? I mouth the word at Annie, who ignores me. She replaces the panel, slotting it back into place, then turns to go.
As we step out of the tech’s office, a voice reaches us from the other end of the hallway: “Hey.”
Two security guards. No, three. Real ones. Walking in close formation, heading right for us. The one in the centre is a big white guy with a huge chest- length beard, peak pulled down over his eyes. He’s scary, but it’s the other two I’m worried about. They’re young, with wide eyes and hands already on their holsters, fingers twitching.