“We’re gonna hack her.”
“Are you kidding me?” Cleo blurted, and Wendy hushed them, then quietly apologized. They rolled their eyes. “I know to be quiet.”
“Shh.” Eyana hushed them now, but with a little smirk. What an asshole. Granted they were on semi-sacred ground: she’d been recruited by Astor, the first of the gang, just outside the building. She could never recall if she was standing next to Patience or Fortitude, now covered for restoration, but just outside the library her life had been changed forever. When all this started, when that bodega got knocked over by their new acquaintance, Cleo had wondered if Eyana was going rogue, if she’d tired of loyalty when there was so much more to the world. Now they didn’t necessarily regret the harsh thought, but maybe that would’ve been easier.
“I’ve explained this before.” Cleo whispered despite the emptiness of the room. They’d gone way back into the stacks seldom used for anyone but researchers or students with particularly obscure majors — Astor was pretending to skim through a book that appeared to be about worms in case a librarian poked their head in. “Our system is unhackable. I ensured no one could remotely get into my computer or Tate’s, not even me, not without time and tools that have burnt to a crisp.”
“Exactly.” Astor said. “That’s why we’re not actually going to hack her.”
“But she’ll think so.” Wendy caught on, then caught on again. “Ooh, I like this. I really like this.”
“I already don’t.” Eyana frowned, and Brienne gave the boss an encouraging look.
“Tate knows how smart you are. She’ll think you can do it, even if you claim otherwise. So we’ll make her think you are with Wendy’s help.” Astor explained, her eyes bright with a fiery determination.
“Wendy can pose somewhere disguised as me.” Cleo figured. “I guess she can pull it off, but what’s the point? To make Tate feel threatened? We can’t actually hack her.”
“But how does Tate react to a threat?”
“She swoops.” Brienne answered softly. “But Astor, if you really think—”
“I know.” She cut in. “It’s crazy. But she will.”
“Then it’s too big a risk.” Brienne said, and looked nervously Wendy’s way.
“Maybe we can have this convo with more than two people.” Eyana suggested, and Brienne sighed in a way Cleo knew meant no good.
“Tate wants to weaken us. She knows Cleo is the strongest link. Why not remove that link?” Astor asked, though not without a wince. “I’m not talking murder. A kidnapping wouldn’t cause us any pain but the garden emotional variety.”
“Pretending for one crazy second that Tate would go so far, and pretending that you aren’t bringing this up like it’s the weather, don’t you think you oughta ask our new consultant if she’s alright with getting kidnapped?” Eyana asked, her brows raised high. Wendy was already nodding enthusiastically. “Why’d I even ask?”
“Think about it before you automatically say yes.” Astor warned. “It won’t be some walk in the park, you could actually be in danger.”
“You absolutely will be.” Cleo said bluntly. “We can back you up to a point but we can’t guarantee your safety. You’re a stranger to her, she won’t pull punches like she might with us.”
“She could hold you hostage, too.” Brienne said, her brow creased. “Who knows what’ll happen.”
“I have faith she’ll be alright.” Astor said, and with that bright rage burning behind her eyes Cleo could barely spot the doubt. “We can leverage her out of there with whatever we learn when we hack her computer.”
“We can’t hack her.” Cleo repeated, and resisted the urge to bang their head against the desk.
“Not remotely.” Astor countered. “Ya think Tate’s gonna leave this kidnapping to her goons? She’ll oversee and be pulled from her headquarters. We can get in there easily.”
“A diversion. I really can access her stuff then, find out why she’s acting so fishy.” Cleo beamed. “This is actually a decent plan.”
“It’s almost decent.” Eyana frowned once more. “The only thing is we don’t need Wendy playing Cleo. She can play anyone, she just needs to instigate shit with the big boss. You look more like Brienne.”
“No.” Astor and Brienne spoke at once, too quickly, and the other two stared at them. Brienne went red and Astor cleared her throat.
“The whole point is to make Tate think she’s in real trouble. She’ll play Cleo.” Astor said with a tone of finality. “Both of you should go back to the car. Wendy, you’ll need your supplies. Cleo, get her something from your wardrobe.”
Cleo nodded and took Wendy to the car without protest. That sudden, hard ‘no’ felt off somehow, but it was hard to concentrate on why when Wendy was bouncing down the sidewalk, having not taken the cue that something was funky. She was clearly excited to get into character again, as she thoroughly explained in her bubbly, breathless way for the next twenty minutes while changing and applying makeup in a library restroom. The rest of them changed into fresh clothes as well, a massive relief for Cleo — they’d been wearing a suit for two days straight, and it was a relief to hand it off to Wendy in exchange for paper bag pants and an old striped turtleneck simple enough for no one to know it was Old Navy. She had to don a chunky pair of heels that caused a wobble and didn’t quite give her Cleo’s height, and the tablet they gave her to fake Tate out was cracked and broken (it had some important stuff on it, but Cleo was still working out how to fix it without seeking out a third party), but it was passable.
“No.” Cleo knocked the beret off Wendy’s head as soon as she donned it and Brienne, in a new rust-colored sweater and jeans, looked scandalized but didn’t intervene. “We’ll do a head wrap. I don’t fucking wear berets.”
“You wore one in the hotel.” Eyana pointed out, and Cleo scowled. “Chill. She was spot on with everything else.”
Cleo decided grumbling was their best option as Eyana helped Wendy tie up a silk scarf — they weren’t really in the mood to be an asshole. The new girl had gotten to them.
“C’mon, we’ll do it in the car.” Astor said, now in a different pair of mom jeans (Cleo was convinced she bought multiples years ago) and a new (old, very old) sweatshirt. “I’ll park by Macy’s and we’ll schlep over.”
Cleo groaned, their head bent back and feet dragging, and Wendy watched them a moment and mimicked the motion. They somehow couldn’t bring themself to dislike her, even if she may have gotten them into the mess they were in right now. Brienne suppressed some laughter and they all departed the library, found Wendy’s car, and hit the road. The midday traffic kept them at a standstill, and even if Astor tried to wear her visage of righteous anger Cleo could see her leg bouncing from the backseat. They were all playing like this was just another mission, but they could sense even stronger than the rest of them that this was about to be the big one. They were the one who’d find whatever dirt Tate could be hiding on her computer, and with the shit they’d seen before they could sense this was going to be a very, very bad time for all of them.
“Where is Tate’s office anyway?” Wendy asked from the passenger seat as she took in the skyline — her suburban roots were noticeable in that. “One of these big corporate sky scrapers? Do you have an office, Astor? Not that I think that’s really your style, but—”
“I do not.” Astor responded, more calm than Cleo thought she’d be in stakes these high. But that was overlooking that heart of gold she concealed with screaming, and if Cleo thought about it they knew Astor must have willed up some rare patience to talk to the girl. “Tate has an unconventional workspace. Have you ever looked up in an arena and spotted a private viewing lounge?”
Brienne snorted and Cleo felt a wave of bitter nostalgia roll through the car as Wendy’s eyes went wide as saucers.
“Wow! So we’re going—” Astor nodded at the unfinished question. “Are you going to barricade the room or something?”
“I don’t think she’ll pull you into her office, no.” Astor answered as the group neared Herald Square. “She’ll drag you into the dungeon, honestly.”
“What’s the dungeon?” Wendy asked as Astor pulled up to the sidewalk.
“Oh, there ain’t no way we allowed to park here.” Eyana said as Astor parked fully on the public patio, where people swore at them from the nearby bistro tables. One man practically dove out of the way, dropping his Macy’s bag in the process.
“I’m walking here!” He yelled as Astor parked the car and turned off the ignition. Eyana laughed and Wendy looked startled.
“The dungeon is an unused back room in a nearby Taco Bell.” Brienne answered, and Wendy visibly eased at the less-than-threatening destination as Astor flipped the bird at the man retrieving his bag. Cleo got out of the car as some swearing was exchanged and the girls followed, Brienne bright red with an embarrassment Cleo had seen on her before: Astor causing a scene was not untypical, though she wasn’t exactly abnormal for New York.
“Hey! You can’t park here!” Cleo heard a man yell, and turned to see an officer headed their way. With a gaze to Astor they caught a moment’s uncertainty before she stood tall and puffed out her chest.
“I’m Astor Belladini and I can park wherever the fuck I want, thank you.” She declared, and the officer stopped suddenly, nodded swiftly, and walked away. So Tate’s protections for them still held, even if there was a moment of hesitation on Astor’s part that her old friend had done such decency during their quarreling. Maybe one could see it as a good thing, but Cleo may have been a cynic and only considered it exactly what Tate should have been doing.
“Astor.” Wendy said like it brought a thrill she had to fight off. “How will you get in? Won’t your boss — or, uh, your friend? Or — won’t Tate have you guys barred?”
“No.” Astor answered so immediately and confidently that Cleo knew it to be true. “Because Tate wouldn’t expose weakness by hinting to any outsiders that we’re at odds right now. The majority of that staff doesn’t belong to her.”
“And besides,” Cleo grimaced, “it’s her home base. We’re at a disadvantage there.”
The group trudged down the block, Cleo adjusting Wendy’s head wrap as they went. It seemed everyone was trying to fight some anxiety, though with all the silence and stiff expressions they doubted there was much success.
“Okay, Wendy, you’re gonna walk a little further on without us.” Astor instructed as they neared the Taco Bell. “Don’t get too close to the building, don’t look obvious, just draw Tate in.”
“Of course.” Wendy said flatly, her air nonchalant — getting into character as it were.
“We’ll be waiting nearby. As soon as she’s out of the building we’ll run in and Cleo — the real Cleo — will get to work.” She said, and Cleo nodded. “And when all this is over, whatever we find. . . well, we’ll see how it goes.”
“We’ll try to protect you.” Brienne said, her voice small, and Eyana nodded, maybe uncertain but certainly safeguarding. They’d all grown to like this girl a little too quickly, and now they were as worried about her fate as their own. Wendy nodded gratefully, her eyes bright and shining, but any more than that would break character, so she turned, clutched her tablet, and walked off, seemingly calm and fluid in motion. They all watched her for a long moment.
“Let’s get some cover.” Astor finally said, and they all followed her back down the road and towards some shops. They ended up crouching behind the dumpster of a nearby Starbucks, ‘Cleo’ barely visible in the distance. With her tablet out she gave Madison Square Garden a quick, careless glance, then paced at a distance from the door, tapping at her screen like she was on a mission. It was interesting for Cleo to watch themself work, but they didn’t get to see it long: the tremendous glass doors to the amphitheater opened with a clatter and half a dozen burly security guards rushed out. When ‘Cleo’ noticed them she startled slightly, then in an inspired moment threw her tablet to the ground.
“Double broken.” Eyana muttered as Cleo grit their teeth. “You ain’t never gonna get that fixed.”
“It has everything we need to take down the governor.” Cleo whispered despairingly, but Eyana had turned back to the stadium, and quite frankly, they couldn’t blame her. These guards were professionals, definitely Tate’s and not MSG’s — it looked like a swarm around little Wendy, still not tall enough in her platforms, and in moments they had a black hood over her head and a zip tie around her wrists. They didn’t even drag her down the sidewalk — the largest man lifted her and they rushed down the pavement in an odd, muscular cluster. Within moments she was out of eyesight.
“And now we wait.” Astor said, and they didn’t wait long. Within ten minutes the doors opened once more and Tate stepped out, still in a slinky black dress and towering heels. The latest iPhone was pressed against her ear, and though they couldn’t hear her words her furrowed brow made her foul temper clear. She must have known something was coming, at least if she tracked her credit card, and Cleo knew she had to: offering it up was nice, but it was also a way to see what the gang was up to. She marched down the sidewalk in the direction Wendy had been pulled away.
“Looks like she’s moving to confirm.” Eyana stretched her legs and Cleo pulled themself into a similar starting line position. “On your mark, boss.”
Eyana took off at once, with Cleo close behind. When they turned they saw Astor and Brienne rushing along beside them, and when the group crossed the street they even spotted Tate way down the road, oblivious with her back turned. Eyana reached the massive doors first and pulled one open for the rest to run through. The setting sun glinted in the glass as they rushed in, and Cleo didn’t even need to adjust her eyes to see a group of security guards stand aside as Astor rushed in. The staff, all guides and ticket collectors, looked confused by their abrupt entrance, but Astor clearly had no intent to slow down as she hopped over a line divider meant to guide crowds to the metal detectors.
“Ms. Belladini—” A woman began cautiously as the rest of them jumped over. Astor stopped for a split second to do a headcount, then nodded brusquely her way.
“Good afternoon.” She said, then turned on her heel and ran for the elevator. The group followed and caught their breath inside.
“How fast can you get this shit done?” Eyana asked, and Cleo scoffed. “Alright, damn.”
“Keep your word on that.” Astor ordered. “We’re already almost out of time.”
The elevator doors opened and Astor practically flung herself out of it. Eyana rushed out ahead of her and Brienne and Cleo followed. They knew the path to Tate’s office perfectly, and within a minute Eyana had reached the door and wrenched it open: it wasn’t guarded, not even locked. Cleo had to guess that was more due to routine or rushing than trust.
They ran into the familiar room as Brienne ducked out of their way and rushed to the desk on one side of the room, next to dark cabinetry and a black marble counter. There was a fridge and range, microwave, and a plush couch as well, plus two rows of leather recliners in front of a viewing window through which they could see an empty ice rink. Cleo sat down at Tate’s desk and fidgeted her mouse — she had Windows 10, password protected, and that password was changed weekly per Cleo’s advice. They’d seen to it that the Security Account Manager had been beefed up, and though they once had the data needed to open it remotely and crack the password from there they would’ve been met with a nasty virus that would take down their system first. That information had been burned with the penthouse anyway.
“Fuck.” Astor said suddenly, and Cleo glanced up to see her phone glowing in the dim light. “Fuck! She’s Facetiming me!”
“Answer it.” Brienne encouraged. “We don’t know what she’s doing to Wendy right now.”
She grabbed one of the large, abstract paintings on the wall and pulled it down, leaving a dark wall behind. Astor got the gist and stood in front of the generic dark wall, then answered.
“Good evening, my dearest friend.” She said, but there was an edge to her voice. Cleo had to get back to work, so they signed into the other account on the computer — the ‘support account,’ Tate liked to call it, incase she ever needed a computer whiz. Cleo had to admit they’d imagined using it to break the password before, but only because they thought Tate would forget like the rest of the gang did with their sensitive information. So now they had to import the NTLM hashes from her account.
“Evening, Astor.” Tate spoke dryly. “Are you nearby?”
“I don’t know. Where are you?” Astor asked as Cleo started a dictionary attack on Tate’s account — a way to parse through common passwords in attempt to reveal hers.
“Cut the bullshit.” Tate snapped. “I have Cleo.”
The real Cleo glanced up to their boss, whose expression remained masked as they assumed Wendy still was. Though they couldn’t see Astor’s screen it seemed that Wendy was still wearing a hood, an impersonal decision for the guards to make. Of course one of Tate’s own gang would know where she took captives, but good hired help was hard to find, so it seemed Tate was relying on goons.
“Well.” Astor spoke after a moment’s pause. “Are you two having fun?”
“I fucking gave you my credit card. I told you to stay someplace safe. I’ve offered you all the protection in the world and this is how you repay me?” Tate snapped, then sighed. “Honey. You know you can get paranoid from time to time.”
Astor went bright red and Cleo, in a rare moment of discomfort, looked back to their screen. The dictionary attack wasn’t bringing anything up, which meant they’d have to launch a brute force attack and hope that came up with something, and quick.
“Listen. We will find whoever is doing this to you. I’ve been making calls for the past hour, trying to catch anyone at work here. We are going to solve this together.” She said solemnly, believably. Astor looked understandably swayed, even if Cleo didn’t feel the same. “Why don’t you come collect Cleo and we’ll all talk about it?”
“Why don’t you just let her go?” Astor said, and in the silence that followed Cleo got the password. “Since you’re on our side. Since you’re our friend.”
“I don’t want you doing anything foul.” Tate said calmly. “I don’t think you’re acting rationally right now. You’re blaming me for an attack we’re both trying to fight, for god-sake! Come get Cleo. Everything’s fine, come get your teammate.”
“That’s not Cleo.” Astor said, and the calm in her voice was the most alarming thing Cleo had heard yet. She turned around and instantly made their location clear, especially Cleo’s in front of Tate’s computer. They could see Wendy just sitting there, so small with her head bagged and hands bound — is that how tiny Tate usually found all of them? It must have been, judging from an alarming batch of emails Cleo was looking at.
“What—” Tate turned abruptly and snatched the bag off Wendy’s head. She stared up at her with her chin held high, daring in a snake’s den. “You!”
“And you! You’re in my office?” Tate seethed. “When I get over there—”
“When you get over here we’ll have a discussion. Won’t we, Cleo?” Astor questioned, and even though she couldn’t see the monitor her gut must have given her all the answers.
“I guess we will.” They said cooly. Tate faltered as Eyana and Brienne both looked expectant. “Because there’s a lot of names I don’t recognize in your emails, and that’s pretty odd given how often I’ve had to digitize.”
“That’s what this is about? You’ve been squeezing us out of deals?” Eyana looked surprised, then furious. “I thought I traded up from that pimp.”
“Don’t — it’s not what it looks like.” Tate was the least put-together she’d ever been in her life, or at least the life Cleo knew. Astor was more familiar with the earlier one, and glowered at the screen. “Get off my account! It’s none of your business!”
“Oh you’re very, very wrong on that, honey.” Astor said, and in all these foul feelings was still able to turn and give Cleo an encouraging look. “Cleo’s looking at all our business. And all your shit.”
“I — Astor, you’re out of term here. This is insane.” Tate said, and Cleo scrolled rapidly through the emails. They wanted more than vague text, names they didn’t know. There was always something more. “You’re blowing this way out of proportion.”
“Boss.” Cleo said before she could respond, though they barely heard themself say it. “Astor.”
The whole room looked to them; Brienne timid and concerned; Eyana barely keeping the rage in; Astor furious on the surface and terrified beneath. Cleo couldn’t even guess what was in their expression, because usually they weren’t so shaken. They were cool, they were collected, they saw all. But they hadn’t seen this name coming. A name they finally recognized.
“It’s Wynn. Wynn McAfee.”