I hit the ground, hard, just as the warehouse’s emergency lights flickered to life. In the greenish cast, I could see that Mila was already in motion, spearing through the air like a black-suited missile at the Neanderthal. She disregarded her gun entirely, opting instead to drive her fists in precise strikes against the musclebound man’s torso: the kidneys, liver, and solar plexus, in that order. She weighed half as much as the Neanderthal, easily, and he was tall enough to make her height almost childlike, but Mila apparently hadn’t gotten that memo. Her attacks drove him back – either from surprise or actual pain, I couldn’t tell – until his back was wedged into a corner. Mila spun and swept her foot in a vicious arc, ending just above the man’s prominent eyebrow. Skin split and blood started to pour.
“You’re a big boy, aren’t you?” Mila asked, with a grimace. An instant later, I amended the thought: she wasn’t grimacing. Mila was smiling.
Neanderthal returned the grin, his own blood staining his teeth, and cracked his knuckles. The machine gun pop of his joints set my nerves on edge and I realized that I was holding my breath. I started to get back to my feet, to help Mila against the giant. There were still entire volumes of information about Mila that I didn’t have, but I knew that she’d helped me out of a bad place, and I wanted to repay the favor.
I needn’t have worried. With Neanderthal’s ability to maneuver handicapped, the fight was over in seconds. I attempted to follow the exchange of blows, but Mila and the Neanderthal were too close to one another. All that I could actually be certain of was the moment when Mila planted her foot and used leverage to flip Neanderthal to the hard ground. She dipped one hand into her jacket and drew her gun with blurring speed. Then, she fired down into the man’s kneecap and ensured that he wouldn’t have the chance to come back for another round.
“Devlin?” Sarah’s voice asked, in my ear. “What’s happening? I’m blind in there.”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. The entire debacle, from the moment Mila had thrown me the earbud, had taken less than a minute. I still hadn’t been able to fully wrap my head around this new wrinkle, and Mila’s shockingly accurate portrayal of an MMA fighter wasn’t helping matters. It took me a few seconds to remember that Neanderthal hadn’t been the only guard in the room. I whipped my eyes away from Mila and Neanderthal’s quivering, moaning form and looked to the other corner, where Scarface had been positioned.
“Uh,” I said to Sarah, “it isn’t good.”
His gun was pointed at me, not Mila. That seemed profoundly unfair. Mila’s own weapon came up to point squarely at his chest. Scarface glanced over to her and spoke, without moving the barrel to the actual threat in the room. “You’re what?” He asked Mila. “The muscle?”
“Yes and no,” she replied. “It’s complicated.”
“Way I heard it, you don’t like complicated.”
Mila shrugged with one shoulder, without affecting her aim in the slightest. “I don’t, but the money’s right.”
“Might be my employer could pay better,” Scarface said, in an entirely reasonable tone. I was dumbstruck by how casual they both were, while still fully prepared to use their guns. “Whaddya say?”
Mila shook her head. “I’m under contract,” she replied. “I don’t break contract.”
Scarface grunted. “I can respect that.”
“So,” Mila said. “What’re we going to do about this?”
“My job’s to keep him from leaving.” Scarface nodded in my direction. “Got to stop anyone who tries to get him out; got to make it so that he can’t leave on his own, if it comes to that.”
“And if neither of those options works out?” Mila asked. “You kill him?”
It was Scarface’s turn to shrug. “Don’t know. Didn’t ask.” Slowly, he moved the barrel of the gun away from me and pointed it at Mila. “Nothing personal. Business is business.”
She nodded sagely at that. “It sure is.”
A silent second passed before they rushed at each other. Neither fired their weapon. Instead, they met in front of the door, underneath the currently malfunctioning camera. The fight was short, but brutal. Mila scored hits to Scarface’s kneecaps and ribs, using what appeared to be superior flexibility to hit the man at unexpected angles. Scarface, meanwhile, simply compensated by using his superior strength and bulk to keep her from retreating. Whatever Mila’s angle was, she was clearly a well-trained professional operator; her skills ranked up there with some of the best I’d ever seen in the underworld, and I’d seen quite a few.
When it ended, the final exchange was almost anticlimactic in its brevity. Scarface threw a straight punch; Mila ducked under the blow, switched her stance in a quick blur of movement and lashed out with a hard counter to his jaw. It was a good hit, judging from Scarface’s reaction. Mila stepped in, pivoted off of her planted foot, and drove an elbow back into his solar plexus. Air wheezed out of Scarface and, to his credit, he tried to recover, but Mila moved onto the next step of her combination. She unwound in the opposite direction, sweeping Scarface’s legs out from under him, and then drove a fist into his nose as he fell. Either the impact from her final punch or the collision with the hard floor finally did it. Scarface didn’t stand back up after he hit the ground.
Mila inhaled slowly and let the air slowly trickle out. “I needed that,” she said to herself. Then, she turned her eyes to me. “What’re you still doing here?”
Mila sighed. She took several quick, deliberate strides over to me and bodily pulled me up off the floor by my shirt. “You. Need. To. Go.” She released me and I landed hard, jarring my knees with the impact. “Here.”
She threw something at me, which I snatched from the air on instinct. I looked down to find myself holding a set of car keys. “I don’t even know where I am,” I managed to say.
“A little over five miles out of the Oakwood station,” Mila said.
Sarah provided the answer. “I know where it is. If you can get outside, I can tell you where to go.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“You’re still wearing your camera, idiot,” Sarah snapped. “It isn’t perfect, but it’ll have to work.”
I started to protest, but looked down and caught the glint of metal from the tie bar on my chest. “You saw all that?”
“Yes, Devlin, I saw all of that. But because someone decided to be a hero, I didn’t actually have a way of tracking you down.”
Mila cleared her throat. “I’m sure this conversation would be thrilling, if I could hear both sides, but the guards in this building aren’t going to just wait until you finish chatting. You figure out what you’re doing?”
I nodded slowly. “I…think so, yeah.”
I started toward the door, but stopped just before I turned the knob. “What about you? How’re you going to get out of here?”
Mila flashed a toothy, feral grin at me. “Let me worry about that.”
I shivered like captured prey for a long second. Then, I mentally shook myself back to my senses and left the room, going into the warehouse proper. In the glow of the emergency lights, the stacked crates seemed utterly alien. Sarah spoke before I had a chance to feel appropriately overwhelmed. “Mila plugged me into the security system here, while she was upstairs,” she said. “Your decision to try and fight your way out actually gave her the opening. I’ve got the building schematics up on my screen now; go up three rows, then take a right.”
I started forward at a speed just below a full sprint. It wouldn’t do me any good to run headlong into one of the armed guards, unprepared. “How do you know her?” I asked.
“Mila?” Sarah hesitated before continuing. “I don’t. I mean, I didn’t. After you got grabbed at the gala, I guess she found the earbud. From what she said, she knew I needed her help to get you away from Asher. She’s the one who knew that he took you to…whatever this is.”
“You don’t know?”
“I can see that it’s a warehouse,” Sarah said. “But I didn’t have audio. Why, did Asher say?”
“It’s a distribution center,” I said. “If I had to guess, I’d say maybe for cocaine or heroin.”
“Oh. Take this left, and then head straight.” Sarah’s voice caught and I could almost hear as her mind mentally rewound over what I’d said. “Wait, what? Drugs?”
“That’s what he said to Mila, yeah.”
She typed something into her computer. “I’m looking at the shipment manifest for this place,” she said, “and this can’t be drugs. Not on this scale. There’s at least a couple thousand kilograms of product, if my math is right. Maybe more.”
I reached the end of a long stack of containers, peeked around the corner to ensure that I wasn’t going to walk into a trap, and then continued forward. “I heard it with my own ears. I don’t anything about how many containers there are here, or how much product is in it, but he said that he’s here to audit the warehouse. Maybe that’s what he’s here to find out?”
“Maybe he was lying?” Sarah suggested. “Trying to impress Mila?”
“He is a gloater. It’s possible, I guess, but he wouldn’t lie about something like this.” I slowed for a moment and re-ordered my thoughts. “Mila just volunteered to help you? Threw herself into danger, trying rescue someone she didn’t know for someone she hadn’t even met?”
“It makes about as much sense to me,” Sarah said.
“But…what was in it for her?”
I’d meant the question rhetorically, but Sarah answered anyway. “I don’t know,” Sarah said. “But she volunteered to help and that’s what she did. What else was I supposed to do? Turn down her assistance because it might be suspect?”
“You did perfectly,” I assured her, “but I thought you would…you know…”
“Take the opportunity to run?” There was an unmistakable note of danger in her voice. “Is that really what you thought I’d do?”
“It’s what I thought you should do,” I said.
“Well, I didn’t. We’re a team on this, aren’t we?”
There were probably times when it was appropriate to be overcome with emotion. Fleeing a drug warehouse filled with armed guards, under the direction of my psychopathic ex-partner, was probably not one of those times. That didn’t stop me from getting a little choked up, anyway. “Sarah, I…listen…”
I’d let my emotions distract me and my vigilance, dulled by the minutes I’d spent running through the featureless warehouse, had lapsed. I was almost at the warehouse’s oversized opened doors but, standing in front of them with their weapons raised and pointed directly at me, two guards stood watch. I didn’t recognize one of them, a man with shockingly white hair and dark eyes, but the Kid was a memorable figure. He held his gun with one hand and kept the palm of the other hand pressed to the base of his jaw.
My chest, and therefore the tie bar, pointed directly at them. “Devlin…” Sarah began. Concern and the beginning chords of panic threaded through her voice.
I didn’t reply to her. Instead, I raised both hands slowly and made eye contact with the Kid. “No reason for this to get violent,” I said. “Honestly, this isn’t even my fault. I’m just as surprised at all this as you are.”
The Kid shot a quick look to his partner and then returned his eyes to me. “I should kill you,” he managed to say. It took me a moment to piece the labored syllables together into words, and then a sentence. Wherever he was from, English was not the Kid’s native language. “Should say that you tried to escape.”
“Or you could not do that,” I suggested. I offered a weak, halfhearted smile after an instant of thought.
The Kid, and his white-haired partner, communicated something without saying a word. They both raised their guns higher. I saw the Kid’s finger begin to tense on the trigger; my own muscles clenched in response as I prepared to throw myself to one side. Sarah said nothing, at all.
A millisecond before the Kid or the white-haired man could fire their guns, I felt the oxygen in the room ripped away from me. Behind me, in the direction of Mila and the room, an explosion bubbled and erupted. I felt the flames’ heat licking at my back as a sudden conflagration burst from somewhere deep within the warehouse. I gasped for air, as did the two guards in front of me. “Devlin!” Sarah snapped in my ear. “Move now!”
I did exactly that. Both guards looked first at the fire spreading across the building behind me. With their eyes elsewhere, I had a few good seconds to act before they returned their attention to me. I took the three steps between me and the white-haired man in a single gigantic leap, skidded slightly as my feet touched ground once more, and hit him in the chin with a brutal haymaker. The impact probably hurt me as much as it hurt him, but I’d prepared myself for the pain. I followed it with another, slightly weaker, punch from my offhand and then threw a straight aimed directly for the wrong side of his elbow. The joint didn’t give way entirely, but it bent enough that the gun dropped from his hand. Powered by adrenaline, I snatched the weapon from the air as it fell, and squeezed the trigger. A bullet found its way into the white-haired man’s unguarded foot, spraying up bone shards and blood over the floor.
The Kid could have tried to shoot me. I was distracted with the white-haired man, and my back was turned. With the fire rapidly spreading to encompass the warehouse’s ceilings, and the screams of other guards as they hurried to contain the blaze, there were even odds on whether or not a blindside would have been successful. If he had chosen to pull the trigger on his semi-automatic handgun, the conflict would probably have devolved into a rolling ball of limbs and violence. He was trained and armed, but a new sort of desperation rushed through my veins and pushed me on.
He did not do that. Instead, he looked at the white-haired man. He looked at me. And then he raised his hands, his weapon dangling unused from an index finger, and fled back into the warehouse proper. I watched him go.
Sarah broke the silence first. “That was…”
“Odd,” I finished. Overhead, a beam splintered and fell free from the ceiling. The noise of its impact shook me free from the moment. “What is she thinking?”
“I don’t know what she’s thinking,” Sarah said back. “But, whatever her plan is, it probably doesn’t include you burning to death, does it?”
I exited the warehouse in a hurry, and didn’t encounter any additional guards as I searched the grounds, pressing the unlock button on Mila’s car keys. I had traveled entirely around the warehouse and was near the back when I finally heard the chirp of a car alarm switching off. Mila had arrived in an electric blue Aston Martin, complete with a push button start. I hit the button with one thumb and the car hummed to life.
“Damn,” Sarah said. “That is a nice car.” She cleared her throat and went back to ‘business mode.’ “I’ve got a basic idea of where you are, but you need to get to a sign or something so that I can get an exact location. After that, I can guide you to the Oakwood station.”
I hesitated for a moment and turned back around. The warehouse was fully on fire now. Orange and red fingers of flame crawled up the length of the walls, and lit the surrounding countryside. “What about Mila? I can’t just leave her in there.”
“What are you going to do?” Sarah asked. “Go back into the ant’s nest she stirred up and pull her from the fire by yourself? You aren’t a hero, Devlin. If anything, she is much better equipped to deal with whatever the hell is going on inside there.”
That was true. Still, I lingered at the driver’s side door.
“She went in there willingly,” Sarah pressed. “So she knew what she was doing when she decided to spring you. I don’t know what her endgame was, but I don’t think she’d do that if she didn’t have at least an idea on how to escape. Do you?”
I didn’t know a thing about Mila; in fact, I knew less now than I had before I’d met her. Any expectations or assumptions I’d made, she’d already proven grievously false. She wasn’t working for Asher, obviously; based on the absolute destruction she’d initiated at the drug warehouse, she wasn’t working for Asher’s bosses, either; but she’d alluded to a job. Was I the job? Was destroying the warehouse the job? There wasn’t any way to figure that out, with the scraps of information I had. But I was fairly certain of at least one thing: she could take care of herself.
“We’ll see her again,” I said, more to convince myself than answer Sarah’s question. “She’ll have a way out.”
“That’s what I thought. There’s nothing to you can do for her now, though, so get in the car.”
I looked once more at the fire, just as another booming explosion ripped through the warehouse. I got into the car, tossed the keys into the passenger seat, and drove away with orange flooding the rearview mirror as I did so.