Robin tapped his foot to the rhythm of the crickets as he leaned against the wall. When the hidden gate beside him opened, letting loose only a small creak, he stuck out his hand. A small hand pressed a flash drive into his palm.
“Thank you, Marian,” he whispered, and slipped away from the wall. The drive poked into his skin the entire jog back to his apartment on Sherwood Street.
L.J. was drinking tea with the client when Robin returned. “Here it is,” Robin said and slid the flash drive across the table.
The client put down her tea and spun the flash drive between her thumb and finger. “Thank you.”
“Now, you go home and you disconnect your computer from the internet, okay?” L.J.’s deep voice rumbled through the small apartment. His cupped his hands around his mug, almost completely covering its surface. “And tape a piece of black paper over your webcam. You completely disconnect, then you restart your computer and only then do you plug this in.”
The client nodded. “I’ve got it. You’ll be in touch?”
“Of course,” L.J. said. “Mostly to make sure you aren’t expanding too quickly. We’ve got about a dozen operations running – all in separate industries.You guys shouldn’t run into each other much – and you need to grow yourselves real quietly so no one notices. In about a year, you’ll be too established for anyone to do anything about it.”
Her face was pale, but she set her mouth in a line and nodded. “I won’t let you down.”
“Don’t worry," L.J. laughed. "We’ve got as much at stake here as you. We won’t let you. Besides, you don’t want to cross us. Robin here has excellent aim, regardless of weapon.”
Robin smiled in agreement. He got plenty of practice from the wares in his sporting goods store below the apartment. “Now take your idea,” he said, nodding to the flash drive, “and go innovate.”
Innovation had been a lost art long before the computer program came around to remedy that. It took in everything that was published – newspaper stories, academic articles, anything but fiction – and evaluated what needed to be changed. Then it spit out ideas and innovations. Not much was published anymore because not much happened, so instead three analysts manually inputted economic data. Marian was one of them.
Except, like anything that serves a common good, one man grabbed it for himself: in this case, the self-styled Lord Nottingham. He did it with a little charisma, a little more political maneuvering and a lot of cash. Within a few years he basically ran the city. A few generations of Lord and Lady Nottinghams had guarded the program since. As the only source of innovation, they controlled advancements in every sector and industry. Robin hadn’t changed the products in his store in years.
But Robin was fighting back. He’d befriended Marian after discovering her discontent with Notthingham’s way, and she siphoned off a few select ideas from the dozens that the program spat out every day. Nottingham only used a few, after all. She uploaded the files onto flash drives and smuggled them out to Robin.
He was setting up a dozen or so people in separate industries with these ideas to slowly build up their own businesses separate from Nottingham’s and to surpass the others that had stagnated in recent decades.
He couldn’t bring back true, honest innovation – that died out generations ago. But he could spread the mechanic innovation around.
“She pulled in a profit this month,” L.J. said as he kicked the door shut behind them.
Robin swore. “Is she trying to get us all caught, or is she just stupid?”
“The latter, I think,” L.J. shook his head. “I’d rather deal with a plain traitor. At least then it doesn’t matter if you hurt their feelings.”
Robin set down his book – an old one, a new book hadn’t been published in years – and drummed his fingers on its cover. “You explained to her why that’s a problem?”
“Of course I did, but does she care?” L.J. twisted his voice into a mocking tone. “Oh, but it’s not that big of a deal, right? It’s not a big profit. And we’ll be noticeable soon enough anyway.”
“Not for six more months!” Robin cried. Profits, even small ones, were conspicuous. Robin had done nothing but break even during the five years he’d owned the shop, after his father died and left it to him. Until something major changed, that’s all he would ever do. “We’ll have to hide it. She needs some unexpected costs.”
“What do you have in mind?”
Robin narrowed his eyes in thought. “Property damage. Just enough to erase the black.”
The client manufactured construction materials, so Robin simply picked one of her warehouses to knock a few things around in. They didn’t warn the client, partially so her surprise could be legitimate, mostly as a subtle reminder that she answered to them. As long as this looked like an incident, the police wouldn’t investigate, and she could quietly spend her profits replacing the lost items.
To Marian, who taught herself code to interpret the innovation program’s output, hacking the security system at the warehouse was almost juvenile. She, Robin and L.J. stood in front of the door for a minute, letting their eyes adjust to the near-darkness. Half a dozen lights, spread out over the warehouse, offered the only illumination. Dozens of rows spread out from the door, offering a mix of brown and gray and darkness.
They walked to the center of the warehouse, where L.J. pulled out a wrench and knelt beside one of the shelves. “If we create enough of a mess,” he said. “They won’t be able to figure out exactly what happened.”
Robin pulled out his own wrench and knelt beside L.J. “We’re going to have to run once this starts giving.”
“It wouldn’t be a rebellion without some action, right?” L.J. said. They pulled out the screws near the bottom of one shelving unit. The shelf didn’t budge.
Robin and L.J. stood and started on the next pair, leaving the ones at the bottom for the last. They removed four sets of screws above the bottom before kneeling again and starting on the bottom. Now they could hear the shelf starting to groan.
“Marian,” Robin called, “get ready to open the door.”
She nodded and trotted back to the entrance, tensing herself on the handle of the roll-up door. L.J. pulled out his screw slowly. The shelf groaned some more and wobbled.
“Get over to Marian,” Robin said. “I’ll catch up.”
He waited until L.J. was a good distance away then, legs tensed, pulled out the screw and ran. The shelf let out a great groan, but Robin was three rows away before he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He ran faster, nearly skidding into L.J. as Marian pulled up the door, and they stepped outside. The rumble of the door rolling shut was barely audible over the cacophony now rising from inside the warehouse, as the weakened shelf fell into others and knocked them down as well.
“I think that worked,” Robin grinned. “Now let’s get out of here.” The noise had not yet settled as they left.
They weren’t three blocks away when a police car pulled up beside them. “What brings you three out here so late at night?” he called through the window.
“Oh, you know,” Robin shrugged. “Just a stroll.”
The cop smiled. “I’m sure. What’s that in your hand?”
Robin looked down and uncurled his hand from around the screw from the warehouse. It had dug circular ridges into his palm.
“I thought so,” the cop said. “Why don’t you get in back? After all, I promised Nottingham I’d keep an eye on Marian.”
Marian glanced at Robin. He shrugged and gestured for her to get in. Acting suspiciously would only decrease their chances of talking their way out of this. Robin and L.J. were careful not to look at each other as they ducked into the backseat beside Marian. This wasn’t just a precaution.
But they soon realized they were not heading to the police station and certainly not to Robin and L.J.’s apartment on Sherwood Street either. Marian recognized the route: to Nottingham’s mansion.
Half a dozen security guards escorted them inside to a reception room. Neutral pink and soft brown couches and chairs dotted the room in an almost random pattern. The room extended up into the floor above, and a balcony surrounded the room. Nottingham was sitting in an overstuffed armchair, one leg crossed over the other, his hands balancing on the arms. He was wearing a robe over satin pajama pants.
Marian, Robin and L.J. found themselves on a couch together opposite Nottingham. The security guards hovered nearby.
“Hello, Marian,” Nottingham said, leaning forward. Robin had never seen him in person before; he was surprised by how normal his voice was. No trace of slime or corruption. “I didn’t expect to see you at this hour.”
“Neither did I.” Marian crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. “Why, exactly, are we here?”
Nottingham sighed. “I think you all know. I’ve suspected something was going on for a while. You hid it well, but there are more eyes in this house than you realize. I gave you a tail. There were the noise complaints at that warehouse, and they picked you up. That business is one of your projects, isn’t it?”
Robin rubbed the ridges still on his palm, though the screw was now in his pocket. He’d been trying to protect the client, but instead he exposed her.
Marian knew they were cornered. “Do you have any proof?”
Nottingham narrowed his eyes. “I’m going to get it. I’m a forgiving man, you know. Enough that I’m going to give you an opportunity to prove your innocence – if you are indeed innocent.” He nodded to the security guards, and two grabbed L.J.’s upper arms. “I’m going to borrow your friend here. Then, Marian, you and this outlaw will have access to the output computer. I’ve programmed it with some information about the house. It’ll give you some ways to get out. Utilize those quickly, as you will have thirty minutes to rescue your friend.”
“And if we can’t rescue him in time?” Robin challenged.
“The door will be locked from the outside, so you’ll have to get out. And I will slowly fill the room with carbon monoxide. We’ll see how well that motivates you.”