After seven years as a CIA officer, I had found my own ways of doing things. That’s why I was delivering pizzas in Barcelona just before one in the morning — that, plus the fact that if there was one thing the CIA hated more than not being able to break other people’s codes, it was other people being able to break ours.

The headquarters of InterQuan loomed ahead of me, silhouetted against the clouds reflecting the nighttime lights of the city. InterQuan was Spain’s leading competitor in the race to develop practical quantum computers, and according to a CIA source the company’s engineers had just finished a prototype chip capable of — among other nifty things — breaking the encryption used for the secure lines to U.S. embassies worldwide.

My orders were to steal that prototype.

Beyond the building’s glass doors, the security guard sat at his desk in the lobby. Since I was carrying four pizza boxes, I hit the intercom button with my elbow and said, “Pizza.” My Spanish might be lousy, but pizza was pizza.

I was working on the assumption that InterQuan, like many tech companies, fueled its operations with junk food and caffeine. If for some reason InterQuan was staffed entirely with health-food nuts, I would have to try a different approach.

The door lock buzzed, so I pushed my way into the lobby. I marched over to the guard’s desk, where I deposited the pizzas. The warm scent of melted cheese escaped from the top box. “Sesenta y dos euros,” I said.

The guard said something to me in rapid-fire Spanish.

With a shrug, I said, “No hablo bien. Americano.

“Who order pizzas?” asked the guard. His English was slightly better than my Spanish.

“I don’t know. They just give me an address, I deliver the pizzas, and I collect the money.” I held out my palm and tapped it for emphasis.

The guard — Carlos, according to his name tag — scratched the back of his neck. “I not order, I not pay.”

“Call upstairs,” I said, holding my thumb and pinkie out next to my head in the internationally recognized hand sign for making a phone call. Then, pretending to remember something, I added, “Seventh floor. Piso siete.

According to the CIA’s source, that’s where the prototype was. From outside the building, I hadn’t seen any lights on that floor, and the parking lot was mostly deserted, but someone might still be working late up there.

Carlos got on his walkie-talkie and spoke with another guard. After some back-and-forth, he said, “Nobody there.”

That made things easier. Just because witnesses won’t remember me when I’m gone doesn’t mean I want witnesses who could interfere while I’m stealing something.

Now I just had to shake Carlos. Muttering angrily to myself, I picked up the pizzas and turned as if to leave, then stopped, turned back and put the pizzas down. “¿Dónde está el baño?” I asked.

That was the most useful phrase in the world, for me at least. I could ask where the bathroom was in fifteen different languages.

Carlos pointed to a door off to one side. I went in, let the door close behind me, and started to count.


* * *


I was thirteen years old and living on the Dallas streets the first time I got caught stealing. Three weeks after I lost my mother, a store detective grabbed me as I stuffed a $300 digital camera inside my Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt. He took me back to his office to keep an eye on me while he called the police.

Until then, I had always gotten away just by running fast and turning corners. When I was out of sight for long enough, my pursuers would forget who they were chasing and why. But even after calling the cops this store detective watched me like I was his favorite TV show, and I was scared the cops would take me and lock me in a cell and then forget about me and I would starve to death.

Fear did not make me piss my pants, but it gave me a powerful urge, and I begged the detective to let me go to the bathroom. He finally relented and escorted me to the restroom, going so far as to follow me in.

I headed toward the urinal to relieve myself, but inspiration struck and I went into a stall instead.

The detective walked over and stood just outside the stall door. “No funny business,” he said.

“No, sir,” I said as I sat on the toilet seat. Then I held my breath. And despite the pressure in my bladder, I held that in, too. I sat as still as I could, not making any sound as I counted the seconds. Eventually the detective walked to a urinal, relieved himself, flushed, and walked out. Without washing his hands, I might add.

That’s how I figured out that bathrooms were my friends.


* * *


While I waited for Carlos the guard to forget me and find himself puzzled by the sudden appearance of four pizzas on his desk, I stripped off the pizza delivery uniform shirt I wore over my black long-sleeved tee and threw it in the trash. I pulled a black ski mask and gloves out of my pants pockets and put them on, checking in the mirror to make sure most of my skin was covered.

I didn’t need the stereotypical cat burglar costume to hide my identity — my talent took care of that. But just because a guard wouldn’t remember seeing me after I’d lost him didn’t mean I wanted him to see me in the first place — they could be quite a nuisance in my line of work.

Underneath my shirt I wore one of the latest CIA-issue bulletproof vests, made from a flexible nanofiber that stiffened instantly to distribute a high-speed impact. My ski mask was made of the same stuff.

Bullets didn’t forget.

I cracked the door open and peeked out. The dilemma of the magically appearing pizzas had not stumped Carlos for long — he was helping himself to a slice. I hoped he would enjoy it, as partial payment for all the trouble he would be in after I stole the prototype. Guards like him made my job easier.

After a spate of well-publicized industrial espionage cases in which companies’ own security cameras were hacked in order to steal the information, most high-tech firms had moved back to the lower tech of human security guards. But Carlos was evidence that such a strategy had its drawbacks — for the company, not for me.

Opening the door wider, I slipped out of the bathroom. Intent on his pizza, Carlos did not look my way as I walked briskly but quietly toward the elevators. I pushed the up button and then flattened myself against a wall, putting a potted plant in the line of sight from Carlos to me.

One of the elevators dinged and opened its doors. Carlos, with cheese stringing from his mouth to the slice he held, turned to stare at the empty elevator.

I waited for him to look away, but he didn’t. Instead, still staring in my general direction, he put down the slice of pizza.

I couldn’t afford to let him get close, or else I might have to start over from scratch. So I lunged through the elevator doors and hit the button for the seventh floor.

For a moment, Carlos looked at me wide-eyed, open mouth still full of mozzarella. Then he leapt from his chair and ran toward me. Even though I knew better, I punched the 7 button several times in rapid succession as if that would make the doors close faster.

With a ding, the doors slid shut, leaving Carlos too far away to do anything but yell at me to stop.

Elevators were also my friends.

Between the third and fourth floors, I pulled out the emergency stop knob. Waiting here for a minute would allow Carlos to forget me. Even if he had alerted the other guards about an intruder, their memories of the conversation would change to something that didn’t include me — like an invitation to share the pizza.

At the fundamental level, I didn’t understand how or why my talent worked, but over the years I had figured out most of its effects and limitations.

Solid, physical evidence of what I did always remained, like the pizzas. In the morning, the police would find the shirt I’d thrown in the garbage. And, of course, the chip prototype would be gone, ultimate proof that I had been there.

But any evidence of my presence that directly relied on electrons or photons always vanished within a minute after I was gone. That meant I disappeared from videotapes and undeveloped photographs. No computer could hold onto any information about me. And, since the neurons in the brain used electrical signals, it meant no brain could remember me.

The only way to store any information about me was to put it in permanent physical form while I was still around — like Polaroid photos or printed digital pictures, or my mother’s journals, or the special file folder my CIA handler kept in the back of his bottom desk drawer on the right.

Even then, if I wasn’t around, people’s memories of that information would disappear a minute after seeing it. Not only that, but anyone they told about me would forget me, too.

I restarted the elevator and continued to the seventh floor. No guards greeted me as the doors opened. Following the route I’d memorized, I found my way to the lab where the prototype was being tested. The sign on the door read Criptografía Cuántica — Quantum Cryptography — so it looked like the CIA’s source was right on the money.

He was right about the door lock, too: a standard numeric keypad. I wondered if the people who worked in the lab appreciated the irony of protecting a high-powered cryptography chip with a six-digit entry code.

Still, the standard set of lockpicks I had in one of the pockets of my black cargo pants would not work on a keypad, and neither would the non-standard, carbon composite spare set of lockpicks sewn into the waistband of my pants. And the source had not given us an entry code. Maybe he didn’t have one, or maybe he worried that the code could be traced back to him. I could drill the lock, but out here in the corridor the sound might attract attention. Instead, I pulled out another piece of cutting-edge CIA technology: the quantum key.

Essentially, this was a very weak, primitive version of the prototype I’d been sent to steal. A six-digit entry code presented one million possibilities. Even if there were a hundred employees with individual codes to access the lab, the chances of guessing a correct code at random would be only one in ten thousand. With a mandatory ten second delay between entry attempts, it would take more than a day to try ten thousand codes.

I removed the cover from the keypad and connected the quantum key to the wiring. According to the technogeek at Langley who had taught me how to use it, the quantum key would find a correct code as soon as I turned it on. “Imagine that the quantum key creates a million parallel universes,” he had said, “and the key tries a different combination in each one. And then all the universes cancel each other out except for one where a correct code was entered. That’s not really what the quantum key does, but it’s kind of like that. The prototype you’re going to steal does the same thing, except it creates like eighteen billion billion parallel universes.”

A moment after I slid the quantum key’s switch to on, a green LED lit up on the key. The door lock buzzed, and I entered the lab.

Despite being flush with cash from Spanish venture capitalists, InterQuan still had some of the cost-saving instincts of a startup. The wall safe at the back of the room was tough enough to keep out a junkie looking for cash — barely. It was not the kind of safe I would have used to store technology worth millions. However, weak as the safe was, it made the quantum key useless, because its lock used old-fashioned metal keys.

I got out my drill and lockpicks and set to work.


* * *


After that first time I was caught, I realized that relying on my talent alone to get me out of tough situations was stupid. So I decided to learn how to pick locks.

I couldn’t just go to lock-picking school. I couldn’t even order a locksmith training course over the internet like any civilized person, because when it came to computers, I might as well have had someone follow me around, hitting Ctrl-Z to undo whatever I had done.

So I traded some stolen jewelry for a used lockpick set at a pawn shop. And then, with the help of some library books, I taught myself to pick locks — first with the standard picks, and then with improvised tools.

The skill served me well in many ways. First, I no longer had to sleep on the street or at a homeless shelter, because I could get into nicer places while their owners were away. Second, I could steal the kind of stuff people tended to keep under lock and key. But most importantly, I had a way out in case someone locked me in a room and forgot about me.


* * *


The lock clicked, and I pulled the safe open. There were several circuit boards inside. I identified the one with the prototype chip based on a cell phone camera photo the source had taken. I put my drill and lockpicks back into their pocket and tucked the circuit board into another.

I turned toward the door and found myself looking into the barrel of a gun. The woman holding that gun was dressed all in black, including a ski mask. She must have come into the room while the noise of my drilling drowned out the buzz of the door lock.

“I suppose you’re here for the prototype,” I said. I hoped she was CIA. One of the problems with my job is that they sometimes send someone on the same assignment because they’ve forgotten they’ve assigned it to me.

“Give me prototype,” she said. Her English was heavily accented — Russian, I thought.

Staring at the unwavering gun, I winced. Just because I had a bulletproof mask didn’t mean I wanted to get shot in the face — my eyes weren’t bulletproof. And even if the bullet hit the mask, it would leave a very nasty bruise. “Can I go to the bathroom first?”

I really needed to go.

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