Chapter Fifty-Six

I began to build a mental map of the area as soon as I entered.   A cursory count gave me six guards, each positioned at regular intervals along the walls on either side of the entrance.  My eyes flicked from one side to the other, taking in every detail and cataloging them for future use.  With the exception of my eyes, however, I exuded an aura of ease.  A difficult situation could would quickly become catastrophic if even a hint of anxiety slipped past my guard.

“I’ve got a visual on you,” Sarah said into my ear.  “Looking for Avis now, but the camera network isn’t very thorough.  Can you find out where they’re keeping her?”

I cleared my throat to draw my guide’s attention.  “The girl.  Where is she?”

He reacted to the tone before he gave the question any real thought.  “She’s in her room.”

“Her room?”  I repeated, for Sarah’s benefit.  “You aren’t moving her to a more secure area, in light of the attack you just suffered?”

“We didn’t have time to do anything else,” the guard replied.  “Should we?”

Mila interjected with a loud, dramatic sigh.  “Sir, the situation here is worse than we imagined.  These people simply aren’t capable of providing adequate protection.”

I nodded in agreement.  “It’s a good thing that we’re here to remedy that situation, then, isn’t it?  If they can’t keep our asset safe, then there really isn’t a reason to allow her to remain under their ‘watchful’ eyes.”

Insults were surprisingly useful during infiltrations.  People inherently react defensively when they feel themselves falling under scrutiny.  That was a predictable action; predictability was something I could use.

I watched as chagrin transformed into vain pride on the guard’s face.  He turned away from us and spoke to the two nearest men in loud, ringing tones.  “You two!  Bring the girl down to the banquet hall.  Pack her clothing, as well.  She should be leaving soon, but I don’t want anything to happen to her before that.”

Neither guard moved.  After a few seconds, one of them spoke up.  “Excuse me?”  His English was flawed, thick with a Baltic accent that I couldn’t immediately place.  “You do not give me orders.”

“No, I don’t, but Management does,” our guard said.  “And these people are representatives, sent to get the girl.  Now go!”

“These three?”  The Baltic man barked out a sharp laugh.  “I do not believe that Management would send any people who look so soft.”

I stepped forward, in front of our guard, and glared at the Baltic man with everything in me.  “Look again.”

He did as I said, narrowing his eyes and drawing in a deep breath.  I didn’t make any effort to appear more threatening.  Mila, however, was positioned directly behind my left shoulder.  She made a small movement and the Baltic man’s eyes traveled from me to her.  Whatever he saw in her bearing, his jaw dropped slightly and the fight left him.  He said something to the guard next to him in Russian.  The two left in a hurry, rushing down the hall until they reached a staircase that they disappeared up.

“Excellent,” I said.  “At least this operation isn’t entirely a waste.”

“You said that you are here on behalf of Management.”  Suspension tinged our guide’s voice now.  I heard it and, from their subtle reactions, some of the remaining armed personnel heard it as well.  “But they asked a good question.  How do we know you are who you say you are?”

Six weapons raised to point squarely at my spine.  The sharp siren of danger rang in my head, even as shivers began to crawl up my back.  I kept all that from my face.  “Do as my bodyguard suggested,” I said, “and check your emails.  You’ll find suitable evidence there.”

Sarah’s fingers hammered a sequence into the keyboard.  “Emails are planted,” she said in my ear.

The leading guard tried to check his phone.  It beeped, loud enough for me to hear it, and let him know that he was out of the service area.

“Try a computer,” Mila said.  “Might have better luck there.”

“Do not move,” he commanded us.  “Guards, watch them.”

Our guide walked away from us and into one of the house’s rooms.  I risked another look around and revised my estimate; there were at least fourteen gunmen in the building, all of them armed with semi-automatic rifles and a handgun strapped to their side.  We found ourselves trapped within a circle of bodies within minutes.

Mila was undisturbed by the tension growing thicker in the room.  When I looked in her direction, I saw her at her most professional: her suit was wrinkle free, the tie perfectly even, and the only hint of jewelry she wore were the same silver cufflinks as me.  She met my eyes for an instant and, in that instant, conveyed a wealth of information.  She was ready to fight – Mila was always ready to fight – but the odds were stacked severely against her.  If it came down to it, she would fight to defend me until she or I died.

I resolved, once more, not to let things reach that point.

Michel held his cover admirably, considering the circumstances.  I didn’t know how many times he’d been at the business end of a revolver or a rifle.  He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, then back again.  I recognized nervous energy at a glance but, as I tried to consider the situation from the guards’ viewpoints, I realized that Michel seemed more energetic than anything else.  The effect seemed to give the guards pause.  An energetic bodyguard with nothing to occupy his or her attention could quickly become a serious problem.  I made note of their reactions, trying already to come up with ways in which their misunderstanding could be turned to our favor.

I remained stationary, although it took a great deal of my willpower to do so.  I was playing the role of an administrator, not a body guard; my physicality wouldn’t be relevant to the situation.  I assumed a casual posture, crossing my arms and looking back at the surrounding guards with flat eyes.  I went so far as to remove my phone from my pocket, check the time, and sigh in exasperation.  “I suppose it’s good to see that you aren’t all entirely useless.  Shame that you didn’t have this sort of efficiency when it mattered.”

“Do not talk!”  One guard, positioned ahead of us, shouted at me in English.  His speech was brushed with touches of lingering Cantonese.  “Stay where you are, and do not talk.  We do not trust you.”

He didn’t trust us.  Apparently, you all were fine just letting us walk through the building until someone had the bright idea to actually test our identities.  But, as soon as your boss gets back,” I said, deliberately digging the insult in as deep as I could, “I’ll do whatever I please.  It’s for the best that you simply accept that now, and save us all some time.  It probably wouldn’t hurt you to be a little nicer, would it?”

“Silence!”

I shrugged and sighed.  “Your choice.”

Sarah laughed into the comms line.  “So, even surrounded by guns, you still can’t help but needle the hired help?  If one of these guys shoots you, I’m not even going to blame him.”

I wanted to reply, but kept quiet.  There wasn’t an easy way to know whether her communications with me were private.  It didn’t particularly matter.  The banter was familiar and personalized.  Even if Mila or Michel were listening in, they wouldn’t understand the back-and-forth like she and I did.

“Their server is…particularly well protected,” Sarah said, returning to her business mode, “but the direct terminal isn’t.  I’ve got your guy working on a mirrored workstation, with only the emails that I want visible.  He’s checking through them now…and now he’s checking the rest of the messages I planted…”

From the room holding our guide, a loud commotion rang out.  Items were dropped to the floor, heavy objects tossed aside in a rush to rejoin us in the lobby.  “Sir,” he said.  He threw me a salute, which caught me off guard for several seconds before I returned it.  The guard turned to the assembled guards.  “Back to your posts!  This man and his companions have been cleared.”

The guards hesitated, lingered for a few seconds longer than strictly necessary, and finally began to disperse back to their original positions.  I watched the Cantonese man with a wary eye until he finally moved back to his post.  The guard we’d originally met continued down the hall, ordering men to treat me and my companions with the utmost respect.  He was a good distance away, before I spoke softly into the microphone.  “What was that about?”

“You needed a cover that demanded respect,” Sarah explained.  “I didn’t know that guy, specifically, was going to have that reaction.  Maybe he’s ex-military?”

I shrugged.  “Whatever works.  Who am I?”

“Since you decided to go with a German accent, I’m running with that.  You are Captain Otto Becker, an officer who decided to break bad after the Berlin Wall fell.  Weapons trafficking, smuggling, drugs, and the occasional assassination job.  He hasn’t been overwhelmingly successful, professionally speaking, but he’s a solid middle man for operations like this.”

“That’s specific,” I murmured.  Our guide began to make his way back to us.  Every few feet, he stopped to correct one flaw or another in positioning or stance.  After each pause, he looked down the hallway at me.  I nodded encouragingly at his actions.

Mila spoke from just behind me.  “That’s because he’s a real person,” she said.  “I’ve met him.  Sarah’s read is pretty accurate, all things considered.”

“Ten points to Mila,” Sarah added.  “I found the name when I was going through their emails, so I just plucked any relevant photographs of the man out of the system.”

“Here’s hoping no one here knew this guy personally,” I said.

“They rotate guards, remember?  The emails referring to him are from six month ago, at the minimum.  I’ve got access to some personnel records, a few duty rosters, but…”

When she didn’t finish the thought, I prompted her.  “But?”

“I can see another server’s worth of information, but I can’t actually access it.”  She opened a soda on her end of the connection.  “Oh!  That’s because that specific guard can’t access it.  Remote desktop won’t work, then…hmm.”

Michel shifted position and began to play with the keys in his pocket.  “He is returning, Devlin,” he murmured.

“What does this mean to me, right now?”  I asked Sarah.  “Plain English.”

“There might be more information that we could use,” she said.  “You need to get into the physical security office.  I can walk you through the process from there.”

I smothered the urge to groan audibly and settled for turning away from the approaching guard to pinch the bridge of my nose.  “Okay,” I said finally.  “Okay, sure.  Because this isn’t complicated enough with adding additional objectives.  Where is it?”

“This security system has too many holes to say with any certainty.  You’ll have to find out on your own.”

I sighed.  Mila touched my elbow lightly and I turned back around to face our guide.  I assumed the posture and stern expression of a former officer.  He was taller than me by a few inches; with practice acquired through a lifetime of impersonations, I managed the not-inconsiderable feat of looking down my nose at him.  “Your name?”

“Neal, sir!  Benjamin Neal!”  He snapped to attention and fired off a salute.  Judging from her accent, and the salute, he was an American.  His desire to please marked him as a relatively new recruit.  It was no wonder that the other, presumably more seasoned, guards hadn’t paid him any attention at first.

“Neal.  This operation has been disastrous.  An attack, in broad daylight?  Where was your security?  Your snipers?”

“We…we were told to run a skeleton crew during daylight hours,” Neal said.  “To ensure that the locals didn’t suspect anything.  Our heavier security doesn’t take up position until nightfall, as ordered.”

“Yes, yes.”  I dismissed his answer with a wave of my hand.  Internally, I thanked a variety of gods that we’d opted for the daylight infiltration plan.  “But that is still no excuse.  If a small team is incapable of protecting a single building, what need do our superiors have of those individuals at all?”

Neal paled slightly under the verbal assault.  “Sir, the attack was repelled and the girl is still in our custody.”

I dispensed with the stick, and switched to the carrot.  “That is true.  Perhaps there is hope for you, at least.  The rest of these men are…”  I sniffed at the air and shook my head.  “Who is currently in charge of this location?”

“N-no one is, sir.”

I raised an eyebrow and waited for him to elaborate.  Sarah spoke while he worked his way closer to an acceptable answer.  “There isn’t a command structure, Devlin.  I’ve got weekly messages from a dummy Gmail account, detailing who handles what jobs and at what time.  As far as the individuals here are concerned, everyone is equal.”

Neal found his answer, just as she finished.  “Our superiors are in charge, sir, as always.  We follow their orders.”

“Excellent.”  I gave him a vaguely encouraging nod.  “After we have finished with our task, a position elsewhere might be available for someone with the appropriate attitude.”

The expression of hope on Neal’s face was heartbreakingly pure.  It threatened to draw out memories of my own callow youth, when such praise had the same effect on me.

I turned to Mila and decided, on a whim, to use an old friend’s middle name.  “Caroline, give me your assessment of the security here.”

“What are you doing?”  Sarah asked.  “Did you guys talk about this beforehand or something?  Please tell me you aren’t changing the plan.”

I obviously couldn’t answer her.  Mila gave me a look of bemusement.  Then, in a visible flash, she understood.  “Outside, the men were slow to react to danger.  We were able to get far too close before they stopped us.”

“And inside?”

“Not much better.”  She looked up at a visible camera.  “How many cameras do you have?”

Neal looked at me for confirmation.

“Answer her question,” I said.

“Six each on the first two floors,” he replied.  “Only one on the third floor, as per instructions.”

Mila laughed.  “That isn’t enough to keep an eye on a place this big.”

“We were only given –“

“What you were given is irrelevant,” Mila interrupted.  “What you need is what we’re discussing.”

I raised a hand before Mila could continue.  “Caroline.”

She subsided and stepped away from him.  “I need to see what their field of vision is like.  I might be able to find out who attacked the property, depending on where their exterior cameras are placed.”

Through the comms, Sarah whistled in appreciation.  “That’s what you were doing.  Nicely done, you two.  If you can get in there without a shadow, that’ll help a lot.  Getting all of their intelligence might take a while.”

“Where is your command center?”  I asked Neal.  “Your…security room?”

“Second floor,” he answered immediately.  His shoulders stiffened slightly as a thought hit him.  “You didn’t already know that?”

“I do not handle the specifics of individual properties,” I said, exuding even more authority than before.  “There are different units, specialized in such tasks.  I am here to evaluate the efficacy of this operation, to determine whether or not there are any people worth promoting, and to extract the girl before another attack can compromise that.  In that order.”  I paused, for effect.  “Are you going to make any of those tasks difficult for me?  If you are, then…”

Mila stepped forward again, unbidden.  She placed both hands in her pockets.  The movement drew back her coat and revealed the handles of her twin handguns.  Surrounded by men armed with fully automatic rifles, a display of relatively small caliber weaponry shouldn’t have been effective.  Mila accompanied the display with a vicious, wolfish smile and began to radiate danger.  It rolled off of her in waves so powerful that I unconsciously increased the distance between the two of us.  Neal, the target of her aggressive aura, backpedaled away immediately.

“No, sir, not at all!”

“Good.”  Mila relaxed and the danger lessened.  It didn’t go away entirely, but Neal was able to stand up a little straighter, at least.  “My associate needs to examine your security system.  You will show us there and then ready the girl for transport.”  I deliberately left no room in my declarations for debate, although I was prepared for dissent.

Neal, however, was thoroughly cowed through the dual attack of my faked authority and Mila’s legitimate bloodlust.  He snapped off another salute.  “Of course, sir.”  He turned and raised a hand to get another guard’s attention.  The nearest two were the Baltic man who’d first raised questions about our identities and the Cantonese one.  Neither seemed as impressionable as Neal.

Nein!”  I raised my voice slightly.  In the otherwise silent hallway, the single word echoed.  Neal froze, his hand level with his shoulder.  “No,” I repeated, in a more deliberate tone, “you will do it.  You respond quickly and you are efficient.  I will work with you while I am here.  Is that clear?”

He glowed slightly.  “Y-yes, sir.  Very clear.”

I let him savor the feeling for a few seconds.  Then, I cleared my throat.  “The security room.  Show us to it.”

Neal nodded eagerly and started towards the stairs.  Mila followed, then Michel, before I – after a hearty nervous swallow – brought up the rear.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Sarah said.  I knew, judging from the tone of her voice, that the words for me alone.

“So do I,” I whispered back.

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Chapter Fifty-Five

The first part of the plan was, ostensibly, the easiest: a simple infiltration, with the added wrinkle of a broad daylight approach.  I rode in the back of the Aston Martin, with Mila, while Michel drove us as close to the property as we could be without being seen in return.

“Alright, listen up.”

I could tell from the reactions in the car that Sarah was broadcasting to all of us.  Michel was still unused to her sudden voice. He jerked the most.  Mila was, of course, entirely without reaction, except for the beginnings of a wry smile.  “Devlin only needs to find the physical cable they’re pulling their connection from and attach a clip to the line,” Sarah said.  “That doesn’t take very long, but we don’t know how difficult it’s going to be to find the damn thing.”

“Which makes two of us into distractions, oui?”  Michel asked.

“I wouldn’t have said it quite so bluntly.”

Mila checked the magazine of one of at least six different weapons I’d counted, slammed it into place, and yawned.  “Call it what it is.”

Judging from the sudden pop and fizz, Sarah opened a soda on her end of the connection.  “All you two need to do is get the guards to look east, away from Devlin.  And you’ve got to do that without actually being seen by them.”

“Any restrictions?”  Mila asked.

Sarah cleared her throat.  “What?”

Mila sighed and repeated herself, slightly slowed down.  “Are there any restrictions on how we choose to cause that distraction?”

I raised a hand.  The gesture would be lost on Sarah, but Mila saw it perfectly.  “I’d like to officially request that we not kill anyone.”

“Not even the guards?”  Mila asked.  “They’re just as guilty as the Magi and Asher are.”

“Maybe, but some of them are probably just doing their jobs.  Unless I know for sure which ones are the real assholes versus the ones who are just kids in the wrong place, I’m going to err on the side of caution.  So, no killing.”

“I make no promises about the state of any arms or legs.”  Somehow, Mila managed to give off the impression of physically turning her attention away from me and back to Sarah.  It was an impressive feat considering Sarah’s location at the time.  “Any other restrictions?”

“What did you have in mind?”  Sarah asked.

“Nothing yet.”  Mila paused and amended the sentence.  “Nothing definite yet.  But nobody’s going to die, if that’s you’re worried about.  It might actually add a little bit of positive pressure; incentive to really get up and go, if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t.  Michel didn’t either; he angled his head so that he could watch Mila in the rearview mirror.  And, if the considerable delay before Sarah’s reply was any indication, she was also clueless.  “I’m listening,” she said finally.

“Well, you two don’t want the guards to know what you’re doing.  You also don’t want the little girl figuring it out before you have a chance to explain things.”  She looked at me for confirmation, and I nodded.  “In my personal experience, people stop thinking clearly when they’re under attack.”

“Didn’t I just say I didn’t want any killing?”

“First, you don’t give me orders.”  She said it casually and without any particular malice.  It was just a simple statement of objective fact, coupled with the certain knowledge that there was nothing I could do to stop Mila if she was suitably motivated.  “Second, I’m not going to kill anyone.  I’m just going to simulate an attack.”

I started to shoot that idea down.  Sarah cut me off and spoke first.  “It’s got merit.  We want them on edge.  A little controlled chaos might be good.  If nothing else, it will definitely pull their attention away from the cabling.  You’re sure you won’t accidentally kill someone?”

“I’ll use low caliber, short range weapons,” Mila said.  “I mean, I can’t say for sure that a miracle won’t happen, but it’s not my goal.”

“Fine.  Do that, then.  I’ll find a suitable spot for you to set up and get that to you after you drop Devlin off.”

My personal distaste for guns was coloring my judgment.  I knew that much.  It didn’t make me more amenable to the plan.  “Controlled chaos,” I reiterated.  “If they go into full lockdown, things go sideways immediately and we’ve got to go with plan B.”

“Why, Devlin,” Mila said.  She shaped her lips into an exaggerated O and covered it with one hand.  “It’s almost like you don’t trust my ability to shake things up.”

“I’ve seen what happens when you shake things up,” I countered.

“Children,” Sarah cut in, “we’ve got a plan and we’re sticking to it.”  She was pure business now.  “Devlin, do your check.  The car’s coming up on the drop site right now.”

For the second time in a week, I was working in a suit.  It gave the job an air of class, in exchange for marked discomfort.  The extra pockets were nice, though.  “Lock picks, mace, taser, collapsible baton.”  I ran a hand over my jacket and called out each item as I touched it.  “That clip thing, a cell phone jammer, and sunglasses.”

“Sunglasses?”

I took the frames from an interior pocket and slipped them onto my face.  “Can’t let them see my face, can I?  Michel, you’ve got your very own pair in the glove box, courtesy of yours truly.  Well, our concierge, but I’m the one who ordered them.”

He reached over to retrieve them.  “Merci, Devlin.”

“Mila,” I continued, “I assume you’ve got your own?”

“Several, actually.  I was about to bring that up myself, actually.”

I mirrored her earlier gesture: round mouth, faux indignation.  I didn’t say anything, however.  Mila understood the callback just fine, and I didn’t really feel like getting called out over comms again.

“Alright,” Sarah said,  “you’re set.  Michel, pull over.”

“Already?”  I asked.

“Time flies, et cetera, et cetera.”

Michel pulled the Aston Martin to the side of the street, behind a large tree and a thick wealth of foliage.  I stepped out of the car, avoiding a suspicious mound of leaves, and removed my mace and the clip.  “See you in a little bit,” I told Michel and Mila.

Michel reached for the brim of his hat, only to realize that he wasn’t wearing one.  He turned the gesture into a half-hearted salute.

Mila reached out and grabbed my forearm.  Her reach caught me off guard which was, I suspected, the point.  “You get into any trouble,” she said in a low voice, “I’m coming down to get you out.  Regardless of how much noise it makes or the collateral damage.  Clear?”

I tried, and failed, to shake my arm loose.  “I’m not going to get into any trouble.  So long as you take care of distracting them, this should be…”

Sarah coughed, deliberately, as loud as she could into my ear.  “Don’t.”  Pause.  “Seriously,” she continued in a more measured tone, “don’t.  No jokes right now.”

Mila released me.  I pulled my arm out of her range, measured the distance, and took another long step backwards just in case.  “No jokes,” I repeated.

Mila leaned back in the seat, utterly at ease once more.  If I hadn’t seen her move, I would’ve sworn she was too far away by half.

“Michel and Mila, you guys get into position,” I said.  I began to move myself into the appropriate headspace.  “I’ll move when I get the all-clear.”

Michel saluted me once more.  Mila pulled the car door shut and the Aston Martin pulled a neat three point turn and left in a different direction than from the one we’d taken on approach.  “I’m muting you for a second,” Sarah said, “while I get them to a good spot.  Don’t do anything that…just, don’t do anything.”

The line popped twice and she was gone.  I rolled my shoulders, stretched my hamstrings, and leaned my weight against the large tree.  Three minutes passed before Sarah returned.  “Dev.  You’re on.”

At that exact moment, a sustained burst of gunfire reached me from over the hilly distance.  I pushed off of the tree, pushed my way through the dense foliage, and took off at a dead run toward the house.  My prison exercises focused on strength, not endurance, but adrenaline gave me the extra boost I needed.  As I drew closer, I could actually see guards unslinging weapons and heading to the front of the house, closer to the gunfire.  Their eyes were focused forward and so I, comparatively unarmed and running silent, managed to reach an exterior wall of the building without any conflict.  “Here,” I said between gasps for oxygen.  “What am I looking for?”

“It’ll be a large box, like a circuit breaker,” Sarah said.  “Trust me, it’ll stand out.”

I pressed myself against the wall and moved more slowly.  The gunfire continued in the distance, interspersed with sporadic pauses and occasional return fire from the house’s guards.  I didn’t see the box at first.  I stopped for ten seconds to catch my breath and force myself to focus before it finally came into vision, hidden in a recess along the wall.   I hurried over to it, still clinging to the wall like a spider.  “Got it.”

“Find the thickest cable running out of the box and attach the clip.”

I let my fingers flip through the wires until they found one thicker than the others.  I examined its length and picked a spot close to the box itself.  The clip was concealed by the nest of other cords and wires.  “Now?”

Sarah was quiet for thirty seconds.  “I’m in!  Cameras, interpersonal communications, and email.”  Another burst of gunfire rattled in the distance, longer this time than before, and then it fell silent.  The guards returned fire two more times and their guns went quiet as well.  “Meet back at the foliage, Dev.  Michel and Mila are on their way now.”

I stuffed the mace back into my pants pocket and ran.  A part of me wanted to look back, to see how close the guards were, if they were even returning.  I squelched that idea and poured it into my legs instead.  At that speed, I nearly crashed into the foliage, but caught myself at the last instant.  I went around the bush and crouched in the leaves.  It wasn’t long before Michel and Mila pulled up near me.

“You never get tired of that,” Mila said, as she opened the door and ushered me inside.  She was smiling wide now, like a wolf or tiger.  A shiver ran through me at that smile.  When I was seated, she left through her door and re-entered in the front passenger seat.  “You know, you should come shooting with me sometime, Devlin.”

“Rain check.  Sarah, what’ve you got?”

The keystrokes from her end of the connection sounded less like fingers and more like rapid machine gun fire.  “Sending the backdated messages now.  I’ll probably have to freeze the system for a bit to force a restart, but that…is…done.”

“What about the cameras?  You said you had them.”

“I can’t check them while the system’s rebooting,” she said.  “But I erased your little jaunt up there and I pulled the archives.  It looks like…looks like you were right, Dev.”

“About?”

“The girl.  Avis.  She definitely has free reign inside the building.  No guards, just a handler.  Might be the guy you and Michel were talking about.”

Michel pulled the car out of concealment and started toward the building.  Sarah talked over him and I realized, after a moment, that he wasn’t hearing her words.

“Devlin, I don’t think she’s a prisoner.  Like, at all.  From the way this looks, she’s here of her own free will.”

I couldn’t reply verbally.  Sarah had isolated our communications for a reason.  Even though I didn’t know what reason that might be, I could at least follow her lead.  I tapped the earbud twice: our universal sign for “I’m listening.”

“What the hell is happening here?”  Sarah asked, rhetorically.  “These cameras don’t zoom in far enough for me to see any of the information, but just the quantity of physical documents here is absurd.  You know how we thought this was bigger than anything we’ve dealt with before?  I think it’s even bigger than we were imagining.”

I tapped the earbud two more times.

“Are you ready?”  Michel asked, out loud.  I pulled my mind away from Sarah and back into the car.  “We are close.”

The plan came back to me, possibly more important now than before.  “Mila, you’re the bodyguard.  Michel, you’re going to have to play the same part.  I know it’s out of your wheelhouse, but I don’t want to risk leaving you alone if things go wrong.”

“I gave him a gun,” Mila said.  “It should help sell the role, so long as he doesn’t say anything to give him away.  If someone starts asking questions, pull back your suit coat and let them see the gun.  That works just fine on most people.”

“And the rest?”  Michel asked.

“I’ll handle the rest,” she replied, and flashed another of her predatory smiles.

The line popped to let me know that Sarah had connected the various channels into one.  “I can give you visual support now.  I’ll erase the footage after we’re done, so there won’t be a record of your faces.  If they communicate with the Magi after you’re gone, so much the better; that’ll give me at least one of their addresses.  It probably won’t lead anywhere, but it’s still better than nothing.”

Michel slammed on the brakes.  I was prepared for it, but the sudden deceleration still slammed me into the back of Mila’s seat.  “I’ll keep that in mind,”I said. “Can’t talk right now, though.” One of the guards approached, a trail of smoke still climbing from his weapon’s barrel into the morning sky.

Mila leapt out of the car first, a .45 caliber handgun in each hand.  She faced the guard for a frozen moment, then turned in the opposite direction and pointed her guns at some invisible point in the distance.  “What’s going on?”  She demanded, without turning.

The guard was taken aback.  “What is…I…”  He spoke English, in reply to Mila’s usage.

“What.  Is.  Happening?”  Mila repeated.

“We were attacked,” the guard said.  In the face of an authoritative figure, he acted as most people did: he assumed that Mila knew more about what was going on than him.  “No knowledge as to who attacked, but we’re searching the town now.”

“Good!”  Mila nodded once, forcefully and emphatically.  “Very good.  We can’t let him get hurt.”

“Him?”

“Did none of you think to check your messages?” Mila demanded.  The poor guard, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, wilted under the attention.  “There are things going on, and the girl has got to go.  This area is no longer safe.  The attack just a few moments ago is proof of that.  She needs to come with us, immediately.”

“With you?”  He narrowed his eyes slightly.  “Who are you?”

That was my cue.  I opened the door slowly, dramatically, and stepped out of it with my face angled specifically to reflect the rising sun into the man’s eye.  The effect was cheap and easily produced, but no less effective.  “I was sent here by your superiors.”  I elected to use the German accent.  The organization was multinational and my German radiated authority like no other accent I could comfortably use.

The guard blinked and thought my statement over.  When he finally understood the implication, his eyes widened and his mouth fell open.  “You…you…”

I waved an impatient hand in the air, and he stopped.  “Hill sent me to retrieve the girl.  She has information that must be kept under control.  We intend to retrieve that information and then dispose of the program.”

“Devlin,” Sarah said into my ear.  Her businesslike demeanor was gone; in its place, I heard emotion, raw and unconcealed.  “Be safe.  Don’t be a hero, okay?”

While the guard busied himself with communications, consulting with various higher-ups about the validity of our arrival, I let my fingers rest against the side of my neck.  The guard turned toward the house, facing away from me and I tapped the earbud once.  I paused, feeling the situation’s dire stakes once more in a deep part of my chest, before I tapped it a second time.

Chapter Fifty-Four

Over the next two days, Michel and I ran the circuit between our cottage, the mansion at the edge of town, the Rose and Thorn, and back to our cottage five different times.  By the time Sarah’s code was finished, I’d amassed at least two hundred individual photographs of the property and several panoramic views we could use in conjunction with her satellite imagery to assemble a more complete idea of what the grounds looked like.  She and I reviewed the photos on the third day, over two boxes of Cat’s lamb dish, while Mila and Michel made the drive a sixth time.

“Here’s the problem,” Sarah said.  She gestured with a half-full soda at the mosaic of photos that coated the coffee table.

“Just the one?”

“..the problems.  One: I can’t remotely access their network.  If I can’t get into their security, you’d have to do the entire job completely blind.”

I swallowed a mouthful of beer.  “We still don’t know exactly how many guards they’ve got on the property, either.  Maybe Mila could just take a few of them out, to clear a path?”

“And if you get captured?”

“If I get captured, then… Asher will know for sure that we were after something there.  It wouldn’t take him long to figure out that the key was here from that point.”  I trailed off and drained my bottle.  “So that idea’s out.”

Sarah finished her soda.  She stood from the couch, walked into the kitchen out of my sight, and returned a moment later with another beer for me and a bottle of wine for her.  I took the offered drink with a slight nod.  “Whether or not Asher knows where the key is,” she finished, “it won’t matter.  They aren’t going to leave Avis there for very long.  If I were the leader of an international crime cabal, and my secrets were suddenly at risk of being exposed, I think I’d just have to sanitize the whole situation before anyone could come after my flank.”

“Don’t use euphemisms,” I said.  I opened the beer, with the help of one of Michel’s discarded lighters, and took a drink.

Sarah raised an eyebrow and nodded.  “I’d kill everyone who knew anything,” she rephrased.  She passed an exhausted hand over her eyes.

“Why not kill her where she is?”  I mused aloud.  Sarah gave me a sharp look and I raised my hands before she could say anything.  “I’m not advocating it.  But why go through the trouble of moving her somewhere to kill her?  I’m pretty sure the guy we saw with her could have easily handled a little girl.”

“That…is a good question.”  She bit down on her bottom lip in thought.  “Here’s another one: why bother keeping a hostage happy?  You said her handler had books to give her?”

I nodded.  “The two of them seemed…weird.  Like brother and sister, if that makes sense.”

“Why would they let her form a familial attachment with her handler?”

“Not to mention,” I added, ” you don’t take a hostage out for dinner, in public, where there are witnesses.”

“You don’t take a hostage out anywhere, if you can help it.”

“Fair enough.  Any suggestions?”

Sarah shook her head.  “None.  I could come up with some, but…I need more time.”

We stared at the pictures in silence, until the SUV pulled up to the cottage.  Michel entered first, in the midst of a shared joke with Mila, who brought up the rear with two small plastic bags in one hand and two stacked to-go boxes in the other.

“Howdy,” Mila said.  She dropped the to-go boxes on the dining room table and continued on into the kitchen.  She removed one bottle of wine and one bottle of liquor from the plastic bags.  The wine went into the fridge; the liquor, which I recognized as a particularly rough brand of Scotch, returned with her to the living room.  “So, we did that drive-by.  Security isn’t anything special.  If I had to guess, I’d say maybe a dozen guards to keep the whole property on lockdown.”

“Only a dozen?”

“Might be more, might be less,” Mila said off-handedly.  “Oh, and Michel and I ran into one of your friends, Devlin.”

I perked up.  “What?”

“The clean-shaven man from the other day,” Michel clarified.  “He was at the petrol station.”

“What?” Surprise sharpened my tone.  “Did he recognize you?”

“No, no!  Of course not.”  Michel shook his head rapidly.  “I saw him.  He did not see me.  Mila went into the store, while I waited in the car with the windows up.”

“Oh, okay.  Well, that’s…a thing, I guess.”

“He was leaving town,” Mila said.  Still, without any apparent interest in the subject at all.  She was so casual about it that the implications didn’t sink in for nearly a full minute.  “Full tank of gas, the type of snacks you buy for a long drive, and enough energy drinks to give a dead man a heart attack.”

Click.  The pieces fell into place.  “What did you say about Avis’ handler, just a second ago?”  I asked Sarah.

She visibly weighed whether she should answer or drink more of the wine.  “I said that they probably don’t want any one person getting attached to her.”

“So, if one person seems to be getting too close…”  She didn’t seem to get it.  “They’d have to switch them out.”

Sarah let out a long breath.  I watched her expectantly and when her eyebrows lowered, my own lifted in anticipation.  “They’ll need a new handler,” she said slowly.  “Someone’s going to have to be there to facilitate the transfer.  They have to send a new handler to escort her to wherever the Magi are shipping her off to.”

“Did I miss something?”  Michel asked.

Mila filled two glasses with Scotch and handed one to the Frenchman.  They clinked glasses over the center of the table.  “Apparently.”

I focused my attention on Sarah.  “Forget about their security for the moment.  What can you do with access to their communications?”

She had it now.  Sarah pushed herself up from the floor and reached for a laptop behind the sofa.  “Courtesy of the Lady and the concierge – Sophie, sorry – I should be able to jam their phones for an hour or two.  Since they’re using a closed network, they shouldn’t be anticipating any network intrusion…especially not one that doesn’t seem to change a thing internally.”

“But…?”

“But I wouldn’t have to change anything internally.  All I need to do is block out any external messages from reaching them.  That part would be easy.  Sooner or later, the Magi are going to need to inform them on the transfer.  I can catch and delete those messages before anyone inside the house has a chance to read them.  Then, I could just plant a few emails of my own, maybe a couple backdated for authenticity and urgency.”

“Do you understand what they are talking about?”  Michel asked Mila.

“Not a clue,” she answered.  “But it seems very important.”

Sarah swept an arm across the coffee table, clearing it of papers and photographs.  I remembered once more, with a hot flash of urgent desire, how it felt to watch Sarah when she was in the zone. “Now, this is something I can work with.  You’re going to have to do a little bit of this blind, though.  I won’t have the cameras until after you’ve done what I need you to.”

“I’ve worked without camera support before,” I said.

“Mila?”

“Yes?”  Mila had finished one glass of liquor and was in the midst of pouring herself another.  She gave Sarah a beatific smile.  “I thought you’d forgotten about me.”

“How professional can you look, on short notice?”

Mila placed the bottle of Scotch back on the table and sipped from the drink for a moment in thought. “I still have that pantsuit I wore to the museum gala,” she said finally.

“Where?”  Sarah asked.

“It’s in the trunk of the Aston Martin right now.”

“Good, good.  Presentation’s going to be key, here.”

“Sarah?”  Michel asked tentatively.  “Will I need to find a suit, as well?  I am afraid that there is not one in my room and I did not bring one with me.”

“No,” Sarah said.  “But, if and when things leave the rails, it’s always good to have a driver in your corner.  Feel like driving the Aston Martin again?”

The smile that lit up his face put the room’s low lamplight to shame.  “I am always willing to drive that beauty again.”

“Make sure everything’s in working order, then.  Fill the tank, if you need to.  Wash it, thoroughly.  I need it to shine.”

“It’s beginning to sound,” I said, struggling to keep the satisfied smirk from my lips, “like you’ve got an idea.”

“I’ve got more than an idea, Dev.”  Sarah looked up from the laptop.  She wore that same wild smile I’d fallen in love with so many years ago.   “I’ve got a plan.”

***

I woke just before dawn, when the first rays of sunlight were beginning to inch across the sleeping town.   I stumbled blearily into the living room.  Mila was there, in the middle of a yoga pose with both of her arms stretched high above her head.  She nodded at me without breaking form.  “Morning.”

A yawn made its way past my lips before I could reply.  “Morning.  You’re up early, aren’t you?”

“I don’t sleep much.”  She lowered her arms and, as part of her next position, raised one foot to the opposite knee.  “You?”

“Prison,” I said.

She gave a grunt, translating a wealth of information without the need for further explanation.

“Sarah’s up, too.”

My eyes narrowed fractionally.  “Really?”

Mila shrugged and, somehow, managed to keep her balance.  “She was in the kitchen when I got up.”

I sighed.  “Computer room?”

Mila nodded again, and I left in that direction.  The sound of a pen scratching against paper let me know that Sarah was, in fact, quite conscious already.

I entered quietly and closed the door behind me.  “Have you been up this entire time?”  I asked.  “Do I need to get you some coffee?  Or cocaine, I guess?  Really, whichever works.”

Sarah’s computers glowed with electric light, but she wasn’t seated in front of the monitors.  Instead, she was on the floor, cross-legged and surrounded by multiple layers of pictures.  “I slept,” she said.  “Not a lot, but some.  I’m just double-checking your escape route.”

“Triple-checking, you mean?  Or…I don’t know, pick a number higher than three.”

Sarah grunted and continued her work.

I stepped carefully over the prints until I stood in the clearing next to her.  “It’s a good plan, Sarah.  If something goes wrong, that’s up to me.  You can go over every inch of it for weeks, but you just can’t plan for everything.”

“The Lady can, apparently.”

“That’s hardly a fair comparison.”

Sarah pulled a piece of gadgetry from behind her back and held it up so that I could see it.  It wasn’t anything I recognized, so I waited a few seconds for her to explain.  “I asked Sophie for a jammer and she told me there was already one.  It was in the back of my closet.  Top of the line, wide spectrum shit, too.  She was that far ahead of us; the Lady knew what we were going to need even before we did.  If she can keep up with all the information at her fingertips – our locations, the Magi, whatever the hell else she knows about – I should be able to figure out this one job.”

I knew danger signs when I saw them.  She was shaking slightly.  Her fingertips twitched in rapid, minute adjustments.  Her breath was audible in the room, fast and shallow.  I knelt in the circle of clear space and took Sarah’s hands in mine.  “No one can plan for everything.  Seriously.  It just can’t be done.”

She finally looked up and locked eyes with me.  Her pupils were dilated and unfocused.  “He could, couldn’t he?”

There was no need to ask who she meant.

Sarah continued, the tempo of her words increasing with each passing second.  “Sure, we’ve got a temporary little lead right now.  But he’s got a plan for everything else, doesn’t he?  And even if we pull this off, it’s only a matter of time before we make a mistake, or he gets a lucky break, or Adlai catches our scent and starts tracking us down.  What’ll we do if –“

“Sarah!”  My voice became sharp and loud; that volume was only magnified by the nearness of the walls in the small room.  “You are not responsible for everything.  This isn’t the first time we’ve worked at a disadvantage.  And we made it out in one piece from those, didn’t we?”

Reluctantly, she nodded once.

“This one isn’t going to be any different,” I said, faking a confidence I didn’t feel. “You make the plan, I handle the wrinkles.  Stay calm, get in, get out, and go home afterwards.”

There was a pregnant pause that filled the air.  I remembered, belatedly, that our relationship was drastically different now than it had been when last we’d worked together.  ‘Home’ didn’t exist anymore.

Sarah was too distracted by her own anxieties to notice the slip.  She looked away, fiddled with two pictures near her that appeared identical, sighed, and looked back at me.  “It’s just that…”  She stopped herself, mid-sentence.  “No.  No, you’re right.  I’m overreacting.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.  I’m just saying that you have a habit of over thinking everything.  That’s a great thing when you’re drawing up plans or going over schematics.  It is distinctly less useful this close to the job.”

She sighed and bit her lip fiercely.  I stood and took long steps over the photographs to her computer desk to retrieve a half-full Diet Coke.  The can wasn’t yet room temperature.  I returned to the circle and handed her the drink.  She accepted it with a weak smile.  “Thanks.  For…well, thanks.”

“Anytime.”

“Mmhmmm.”  She took a sip from the soda, paused, and took another.  “This is probably as good as it’s going to get, then.”

Behind Sarah, as part of the encircling photographs, there was a sheet of computer paper covered in writing.  I pulled it free and scanned the plan.  When I finished, I closed my eyes to erase the image in its entirety, opened then, and read the single sheet again.  “Looks good,” I said, after my second read-through.  “This looks doable.”

“There are a lot of variables I couldn’t account for.”  Sarah plucked the plan from my fingers.

“I’ll just have to deal with whatever happens as it happens.”

“That’s…comforting.”  Sarah tapped one fingernail against the side of the can.  “Michel might be a problem, though.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He drove for the museum job,” Sarah explained, “but that was just a pick-up.  Worst case scenario, he got pulled over for speeding.  And at the Green Light gala, he just had to be himself: a Frenchman driving two people to a party.  That cover’s easy.  But now?  With what we’re asking him to do?”  She shook her head.  “The stakes might be too high for him.  Maybe we should just have Mila play driver and security?”

I considered that for several seconds before I shook my head.  “No, if he’s going to be working with us, then we need to know he can handle the stress.  I’d rather deal with it now than wait until he falls apart later.”

“With a kid’s life on the line?”  Sarah asked archly.  “This is where you want to give him a trial?”

“I don’t want to do that.  I don’t want a kid’s life to be in the balance.  But it is what it is.  Besides, I might need Mila inside and you certainly aren’t about to drive the car.  You’re not much better of a liar than Michel is.”

She begrudgingly accepted that with a noncommittal noise and a long swallow from her Diet Coke.  “Fine.  We’ll do it your way.  But you’re going to have to talk to him.”

“Is he up already?”

Sarah stood and walked over to the bank of monitors, sat, and started to mouse her way through various documents too quickly for me to read their headers.  “He’s been out back since at least four,” she said, not looking back.

I pushed myself up to my feet.  Michel’s part was integral and we couldn’t afford to have him break this close to showtime.  Before I made it out of the room, the door swung open.  Mila stood in the doorway.  In the few minutes since I’d seen her, she had stripped off her t-shirt; now, she wore a pair of sweat pants and a sports bra.  Instinctively, I looked away, but Mila didn’t seem to notice or care about her state of dress.  “Actually,” she said, “I can handle that.”

“Handle what?”  My newfound sense of propriety was foolish, but realizing how ridiculous it was did nothing to alleviate the emotion.  “Not clothing, apparently.”

Sarah snorted with amusement.

“Talking to Michel.  I get why he’s skittish.  You wouldn’t really understand, Devlin.”

“I brought him into this, though,” I said.  “He’s only involved because of me.”

“He’s involved,” Mila said, “because he chose to involve himself.  He isn’t your responsibility.”

“The irony is strong with this one,” Sarah said, to Mila.  Then, to me,  “Weren’t you just telling me that I’m not in charge of everything?”

I threw my hands up.  “I’m outvoted.  Mila, Michel is officially your responsibility.  But I do want to talk to him before we go.”

She nodded in acknowledgment.  “Fine.  What time are we leaving?”

Sarah pulled up a full screen timer on one of her monitors.  “An hour, give or take.  I want you three to be out before the town wakes up.  Go ahead and get dressed before you talk to Michel, Mila.  I’d rather not have him pass out due to blood loss.”

For the first time, Mila took notice of the alarming quantity of bare skin.  “Oh.  Right.”

“Do you walk around like that on purpose, to throw people off?”  I asked.  “Or do you just not care?”

“Yes,” Mila said.  She left the room and closed the door behind her.

Sarah and I sat there for a while before she cleared her throat delicately.  “Do you have any idea what her story is?”

“If I knew that, I would be a smarter man.”

“Hmm.”

I watched her work for another ten minutes, before the interminable lines of code began to blur together in front of my eyes. I gave my excuses to Sarah’s unresponsive back and went to my own room to change.  There was a suit in the closet, perfectly tailored with the same secret pockets in the same places.  It matched my cover flawlessly: all black, except for a crisp white Oxford shirt.  I chose a silver pair of cufflinks, equipped with Sarah’s miniaturized GPS transmitters.  A knock came at the door at the exact moment that I finished with my tie.

“Yes?”

“Devlin?”  I noticed, absently, that Michel’s accent grew thicker as he grew more stressed.  “Are you dressed?”

“Just finished,” I said.  “Come on in.”

He entered just far enough that he was technically within the room, and leaned against the wall.  His tie was a sloppy Windsor knot that I felt a powerful urge to fix.  “Mila tells me that we are doing important work today.”

“That’s one way to look at it.”  I sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on a pair of shiny black shoes.  “Whatever they’re using that girl for, it probably isn’t good.  If Asher gets a hold of her, there’s no telling what he’ll do.  And the Magi are absolutely certified Bad People.  We don’t really want them to have her, either.”

Michel nodded.  “That is what I thought.”  He hesitated.  “What…what will happen if we fail?”

“If we’re right about everything so far?”

His eyes locked onto mine and he nodded.

“They’ll kill her,” I said.

“But why would they do that?  If this the code that they have used before, would the Magi not want to keep her safe?”  Michel asked.  “Why would Asher set all of this up?  Does it not go against his own desires?”

“If Asher gets to her, and she tells him what he needs to know, he’d do the same thing as the Magi.  Whether she knows it or not, her only chance at survival is with us, for the time being.”

“I am just a driver,” he protested after he’d given the idea several very long seconds of consideration.  “I am just a driver, Devlin!”

“And I’m just an art thief.  Before this, I was a safecracker and a bookie.  Go back far enough and I was a kid, just like Avis, in over my head with people who were used to getting what they wanted.”  I hadn’t thought that much about my past in a long time.  I was pleased to find that those memories no longer carried the same sting they once had.  “This is what we’ve got to do, right now.  This is who we’ve got to be.  If we don’t, or if we do it badly, we aren’t the only ones who’ll have to pay the consequences.”

He stewed over the idea for a couple of minutes.  “If we do not do this, then she will die.  If we do this, and things do not go well, she will die.  If we do this, and things go perfectly until just after we meet her, then we will all die.  Is this correct?”

“Except for Sarah,” I pointed out.  “But, yeah.  That’s pretty much the gist of it.”

He started to pace, fiddling with his tie.  I watched him from my seat at the edge of the bed and stayed quiet.  When I finally elected to leave him the space to think in private, he raised one hand and turned to face me.  He’d redone his knot into a proper double Windsor, cinched almost to his throat.  He cracked his knuckles, one at a time.  “Well.”

“Well?”

There was still fear in his eyes.  I recognized the subtle twitches and tremors in his hands, the muscles drawing tight beneath the skin of his cheek, the lone droplet of sweat that sprang into existence on his brow and slipped down the side of his face.  Beyond that, though, there was determination now.  He clenched his fist and, for a moment, stopped them from trembling.  “Well, then we should do everything perfectly, shouldn’t we?”

Chapter Fifty-Three

Sarah was not pleased, when Michel and I returned.  She was pacing restlessly in the living room while Mila absently filed her nails from the couch.  Bravely, I entered first; Michel wasn’t responsible for my decisions, and it wouldn’t have been fair to use him as a shield.  When Sarah’s glare turned on me, baleful as the eye of Sauron, I began to regret that sense of honor.

“So, here I am,” she started upon seeing me, without allowing an opportunity for me to say anything in my defense, “working on some particularly complicated code, while the two of you were supposed to do recon.  Just recon.  Something so easy that Michel could’ve done it alone – no offense, Michel.”

He raised his hands and stepped out of the line of fire.  “None taken, Sarah.”

I shot him a look, a plea for assistance mixed with indignation that he would leave me to face her alone.  He scrupulously did not meet my eyes.

“But thirty minutes goes by, and I don’t hear anything back from you.  Then it’s forty-five.  I’m starting to get a little worried.  Because, you know, there are people trying to kill us, and that doesn’t typically make for a clever time to go radio silent without warning.  I almost pulled your GPS data and sent Mila to bring you back.”

Mila, without looking up from her fingernails, spoke up.  “I was going to come anyway,” she said, “but Sarah convinced me to give you a few more minutes.”

I saw an opportunity to break up Sarah’s momentum and I seized it desperately.  “Good thing you didn’t; if you had, you might’ve blown our cover.”

“Your cover?”  Sarah’s voice climbed a full octave and, somehow, the heat in her eyes went up an order of magnitude.  “What did you need a cover for?”

“Cover might be the wrong word…”  I hedged.  “Michel and I saw a chance to get a little more information, and we couldn’t risk letting it slip away, so…”

“Oh, no,” Michel said.  He had backed as far away from me as the small living room would allow.  Now, his back was pressed against a distant wall.  “This was not my idea, mon ami.”

“You traitor,” I shot back.  He shook his head and said nothing more.

“What idea did you have that was worth worrying me and Mila for almost two hours, Devlin?”  Sarah asked.

“Not an idea, so much as a lead, but…”  Reluctantly, I withdrew my to-go food from a plastic bag.  “I brought take out?”

Her eyes drilled into mine for several seconds before they flickered down to the to-go box.  “And that’s supposed to make me forget about how goddamned stupid you’ve been acting, ever since we got to England?”

“It’s lamb,” I said, injecting every ounce of seduction I owned into the word.  I raised the box higher, so that its aroma could reach Sarah’s nose.  She breathed a little deeper for the next handful of seconds and I sensed a fracture point in her anger.  “With leeks,” I added.

She drew herself up to her full height and glared down at me.  I held my ground for five seconds and she broke first.  “Give me that.”  She snatched the food from my hands and stalked over to the couch. “Go get me a soda,” she said.  “And then tell me all about this ‘information’ you had to get, without letting anybody know.”

I hurried away, glad for the temporary respite.  Mila grabbed my forearm with her hands, iron bands digging into the muscle.  “If you do that again,” she whispered in a voice meant for my ears alone, “I will personally break your legs, so that you can’t get yourself into trouble.  Understand?”

I tried, and failed, to free my arm from her vice grip.  “I’d almost think you liked me, with an attitude like that.”

“I’ve got a reputation,” she said, “and I’m not going to let you ruin that.  Better your legs than your neck.”

I was forced to nod my agreement before she released me.  I walked away without further comment, retrieved two Diet Cokes and a Guinness from the fully stocked fridge, and returned to the room.  Sarah was digging into the lamb; Michel had moved around the edge of the room until he was two arms’ lengths away from Mila; and Mila, finished with her nails, now sat the kitchen table, disassembling a handgun.  She glanced up from her maintenance and smiled, as sweetly as she could manage.  My arm still hurt from her fingers.

The sodas went to Sarah and I took a spot on the other side of the coffee table.  She spoke around a mouth full of food.  “Tell me what happened.”

“First,” I said, “I really am sorry about not calling.  I had to, uh…work alone for a while after you and I…yeah.  It’s a habit that I’ve got to get back into.”

She dismissed the apology with a wave of her hand.  “Whatever.  This information, though?”

“Good news: I think I know why the Texan told us that they key was here,” I said.  “Bad news: it’s probably going to be harder to steal than we expected.”

Sarah put her fork down and swallowed.  “Run that by me again?”

“This is just…kind of a wild guess, but it makes sense.”  The more I thought about my idea, the more ridiculous it seemed.  I powered through.  “I think the key isn’t a physical thing, or even a decryption key, so much as…a math formula?  Maybe?”

Sarah blinked.  “What?”

“We saw a little girl at the manor house,” I said, “reading some heavy duty mathematical stuff.  That’s why we were late getting back; Michel and I followed her to a pub in town.  There was just…I don’t know, something about the way she carried herself.  It’s like she’s valuable to them, and she knows it.”

“Them?”

I shrugged.  “Whoever’s guarding that place, I guess.”

She chewed several mouthfuls of food in silent contemplation.  “Tell me about the girl?”

“Nine, maybe ten years old,” I said.  “Smart, obviously.  Her guard or her handler or whatever he was called her Avis.”

Mila laughed from the table.  “Oh,” she said, “well, that’s probably all you’ll need to go on.”

Michel took a seat at the table with Mila.  He gave her work an interested, if a bit confused, once-over.  “It is true,” he said finally.  “Or, at least it is true in that this Avis seems very important to Hill for some reason.”

“And,” I added, “if she’s important to Hill, then she’s probably got some importance to the Magi.”

Sarah opened one of the Diet Cokes.  “Slow down, and take me through this step by step.”

I did as she asked.  By the time the retelling was complete, she’d finished one of the two sodas and Mila’s gun was in a single piece again, safely holstered underneath her arm.  “What do you think?”  I asked, when I was done.

Sarah leaned back and bit her bottom lip in thought.  “A grasp of number theory could make for an incredibly complicated algorithm,” she said slowly.  “Theoretically.  But that information would have to be insane, in terms of density.”

“Could you do it?”

She shook her head.  “I’ve got a handle on complicated algebra and base 2 programming.  But Galois fields?  I’ve never even heard of those.”

“So,” Michel asked.  “What do we do?”

“Well, no one can make anything too complicated for them to actually use,” Sarah said.  “That’d be pointless.  However deep the encryption/decryption algorithm is, they’d have to have a translation document somewhere.  At least now we know it’s mathematically based.”

“We think it’s mathematically based,” I corrected.  “Better to keep our options open.”

“But what about the girl?”  Michel asked.  “What is her part in all this?”

“I don’t know,” Sarah said.  “Maybe she isn’t connected.  Or maybe she is, but we don’t know how yet.”

“Or,” Mila said casually, “she’s the one who created the code, in the first place.”

Sarah laughed.  “Child genius creates impossibly complicated code for a drug kingpin?  That’s like something out of a book.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “My ex-partner is a pathologically driven mastermind, hell-bent on seizing control of an international criminal syndicate with more power than anything we’ve ever encountered and using that massive beast to ruin my life, specifically.  Our friend Mila, here  – and I use the term with special deference, by the way – was hired, by an equally mysterious Lady with a vested interest in finding the translation key to a literal golden book, to protect us from said ex-partner and his minions.”

“Not just from Asher,” Mila chimed in.  “It’s really more of a general order of protection.”

I accepted her clarification with a nod.  “And we’ve been getting around in a variety of vehicles, provided by our personal concierge and driven by a French cab driver who I’ve known for all of a week.  But this is where your suspension of disbelief breaks?”

Sarah looked evenly at me for a long time.  Then, with deliberate care, she popped the top on the second soda.  “You make a fair point.”

“Appreciated.”

“You forgot something, though.”  She took a delicate sip of her Coke and crossed her legs at the ankle.  I recognized the tell – she’d never made any effort to hide it and, in fact, seemed to enjoy the effect it had on me – but I hoped against reason that I was misreading it.  I wasn’t.  “Anton’s coming to London,” she said.  “Also Stanislav and his buddies.  So add the Russian mafia into the mix, while you’re cataloging the latest insanities.”

Her words had the same effect on me that mine had on her.  She smiled like a cat as I stood, took a few steps to the left, returned to my earlier position, and sat once more.  “Why?”  I asked finally.

“He called again, while you were out.  Stanislav almost hung up, but Anton recognized me from the canal business a couple years ago.  He vouched for me.  Stanislav didn’t seem to really like listening to Anton, although he did eventually give up the ghost and tell me, more or less, what he was going to tell you.  What’s the deal with them?”

“It isn’t important,” I said.  “They didn’t let their issues, whatever they are, get in the way in Kiev.  Why are they coming here, though?”

“I’m getting there.  You aren’t the only one with a flair for the dramatic, you know.”  She took a long drink from Coke, savoring both the taste and my impatience, before she continued.  “That sniper they were…interrogating gave up the name of whoever put him in contact with Asher in the first place.  That chain of connections went on for a little bit, until it eventually traced back to Hill, here in London.  Apparently, his drug business already ousted the Russians, and now he’s trying to expand into smuggling with Asher’s assistance.”

“That is the sort of thing that would require an immediate response,” I said.  “What do they know about the Magi?”

“Nothing.  And I didn’t tell them anything.  I trust Anton, to a very limited extent, but Stanislav’s an unknown factor.  Not to mention his two personal henchmen.”  Sarah grimaced.  “I don’t think they know I can speak Russian, and Anton didn’t point it out.  Those two are…vile, honestly.”

“They seemed alright to me,” I said, “but I don’t speak the language, so that could be entirely wrong.”

“Anyway.  I didn’t give them access to what little we’ve managed to dig up, but I did subtly hint that Hill’s not the only player.  I think the Bratva was preparing for full scale war in the streets; after I talked to Stanislav and he talked to his superiors, they decided to just send the three of them as ambassadors.  Try to smooth things over with Hill and find neutral territory that’s profitable for both organizations.  Failing that, I imagine they’ll have to…eliminate the problem.”

“That’s all well and good, but Asher isn’t going to go for that.  Even if he didn’t have his own plan in the works, he’s still an integral part of Hill’s move to break free of the Magi.  They can’t be planning to let him get away with the attack in Limassol.”

Sarah shook her head.  “I have no idea what they’re planning to do about him.  Obviously, I’m not the only one capable of keeping my metaphorical cards close to my chest.”

We sat quietly, each working our way through the problem in our own way.  At the table, Mila took her gun apart again and showed Michel how the pieces fit together.  I blocked them out and focused on the dilemma at hand.  “What are our assets right now?”

“Whatever resources the Lady’s put at our disposal,” Sarah said.  “And a great deal of personal funds, but I’m reluctant to use those.”

I tilted my head questioningly.

“She knows where we are,” Sarah explained.  “I don’t know how technically capable she is, but I’d rather not give her a glimpse into any more of my banking information than I absolutely have to.  And your info is tied to mine.  So, for the moment, let’s assume that we can’t use our own money.”

“Sounds fair.  What else?”

“Seems like this Avis is, probably, important to the organization somehow.   Asher, for whatever reason, doesn’t.”

“Yet,” I said.  “I’ve got no doubt that he’s going to figure it out sooner or later.”

“That doesn’t really matter, though.  The Magi just transferred ownership of the property to Hill three days ago.”  She paused, blinked, and realized what she had said.  “Three days ago.”

“After the museum job?”  That wasn’t right.  I was looking at the problem in the wrong order.  “After the Texan found out its – her, I mean – location?”

We drew the same conclusion and said the words at the same time: “They’re moving her.”

Michel looked up from the disassembled bits of metal and machinery in front of him.  “Why would they do that?”

“The Magi are not going to leave a vulnerable part of their organization exposed where any sufficiently motivated party could take a shot at her,”  I said.  “They’re going to move her back to where they can keep an eye on her.”

“What do we do about that?”

“We’ll have to get to the girl before they finish whatever preparations they’ve made for transport,” Mila said in a dry tone.

I followed that train of thought to its logical conclusion internally.  After ensuring that the code hadn’t been broken – or, even if it had – the girl would die.  It was the safest, most expedient way of removing all vulnerabilities.  I didn’t say that out loud, though; I didn’t see any possible reason to agitate the room’s occupants into hasty action.

I met Sarah’s eyes and knew, instantly, that she understood the problem, as well.  I shook my head subtly.  “If the move we make is too abrupt, Asher will figure out where we are.  Adlai might come down on us, too.  But, if they’re going to move Avis, then we can’t wait indefinitely.”

“How long do you think it’ll take for that virus you’re writing?”  I asked.

“If I work through the night?  A day to finish it, a few hours after that to run a test.”

I nodded.  “Michel, we’re going to do another recon run tomorrow of the house where they’re keeping Avis.  I want accurate guard numbers, the locations of every front facing camera, and exit strategies before tomorrow night.”

“Okay, Devlin.  What time?”

“First thing?”  I checked with Sarah and she gave the idea approval.

“If you can find an exterior, exposed cable of some sort,” she said, “that would be great, too.  The virus just shuts a whole system down.  If the concierge –“

“Sophie,” I provided, immediately.

“ – if Sophie can get me some specialized equipment, I should be able to pull even more information out of their network.  Assuming they’ve got one, but everyone does, so.”

“Make a list of what you need.  I don’t think it’ll be a problem, but we need to get this handled before Stani, Anton, and their crew of merry men get here.  They don’t strike me as the kid friendly types.”

“Neither am I,” Mila chimed in, “but no one asks my opinion.  What do you need me to do?”

I hesitated.  “Weapons,” I said finally.  “If things go horribly, horribly wrong, then we’ll need you to come in after me.  I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that, but..”

Mila sat upright and fire began to smolder in her eyes.  “Any limitations?”

I shook my head.  “I trust your judgment,” I said.  I added, after a moment recalling Mila’s predilections, “And your discretion.  But I’m asking for efficiency over secrecy.  If you’ve got to blow down the front door, you have my explicit permission to blow down the front door.”

“Well, then.”  The smile that appeared on her face was all teeth, more feral than human in appearance.  “That makes things more interesting, doesn’t it?”

Michel took in the expression on Mila’s face and, wisely, looked away.  “Pardon me for asking,” he said as cautiously as a person could be, “but is this the sort of thing you do normally?  I mean, you do have experience in this?”

I considered lying.  Sarah’s presence, combined with the thought, made me physically ill.  Instead, I chose my words carefully.  “Theft is theft,” I said.  “The particulars change, sure, but the underlying actions are pretty much always the same.”

He accepted that answer, begrudgingly.

“And when you say we are stealing something…?”

“Whatever information we can get from their internal network,” Sarah said.  “I’ve got some tricks I’ve wanted to try that might be useful.”

“And the girl?”

I averted my eyes.

“Devlin,” Michel said, a little more forcefully, “you cannot leave that girl with them.  Can you?”

I sighed and looked up to meet Michel’s gaze.  “No.  No, I can’t.  Sarah?”

She was already engrossed in something on her tablet, but she did respond.  “I’m working on some ideas.”

“A little breaking and entering?” Mila asked.  She gently moved Sam away from the table and placed another weapon – some sort of semi-automatic machine gun – in his place.  “Some light kidnapping?  You guys take me to the nicest places.”

Chapter Fifty-Two

“You don’t mind if I sit in the front, do you?”  I asked Michel.

He found the key to the SUV, underneath the driver’s seat, and shook his head.  “It is strange,” he said as the car came to life beneath us.  “I am used to seeing people in the backseat.  Does that make sense?”

It did, in a weird way.  There were habits I’d acquired after years in my profession that I struggled to shake.  “If you’d be more comfortable with me in the back…”

“No, no.  It is fine.”  He chuckled to himself.  “I still cannot believe the amount of money Sarah showed me two days ago.  With that much, I suppose I will not have to drive a taxi again, will I?”

“Not unless you want to,” I said.  “Which I can’t imagine, but to each their own.”

The mansion was two miles away, as the crow flies.  In reality, the road wound through the small countryside town like a serpent.  That was fine by me.  Knowing the layout of the mansion was only a small part of the overall job.  I’d need to know the fastest way to beat an escape, if the need arose; the location of the nearest police station; and, perhaps most importantly, a particularly good pub where I could drink away the stress that accompanied any haphazardly planned heist.

Michel didn’t seem to mind, either, although there was a slight frown at one corner of his mouth for the first few minutes.  “Devlin?”  He asked finally, hesitantly.  “You do not mind if I ask you a question, do you?”

“Go for it.  We’ve got a little bit of a drive before we get to the property, anyway.”

He nodded.  “Mila?  Is she…uh, how do you say?  Available?”

I laughed.  I couldn’t help myself.  “Honestly?  I’ve got absolutely no idea what her dating situation is like.”

“Are you interested in her?”

I shook my head.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t noticed Mila’s physique, so much as an inability to think about any sort of relationship with everything that was happening.

Well…almost any sort of relationship.  “I haven’t really had time to think about anything like that since, uh…”

“Since Sarah?”

I decided not to dodge the question.  “Pretty much, yeah.”

We rode in silence for a few minutes and entered the town proper.  There were a few people on the streets, dressed in heavy overcoats and hats.  At a glance, I couldn’t tell the men from the women; the layers were so thick that any revealing shapes were concealed beneath fabric and patterns.  One butcher’s shop, two dry cleaners, a handful of restaurants and a sleepy pub appeared and disappeared out of the window.  I added their locations to my growing mental map of the area.

“I was married once,” Michel said, without warning.

My attention whipped away from the scenery and back to him.  “What?”

“I was married,” he repeated.  “We met in the same way that you and I did.  Just someone leaving Paris who happened to pick my taxi.  It was…immediate.  Do you understand?”

“Love at first sight?”

Oui.  Love at first sight.”  He sighed.  “That is such a perfect phrase.  At any rate, we met, we dated, and we married.  It was a quiet ceremony.  My family, except for my uncle Francoise, did not come, but that…was to be expected.”

“Why?”  I asked.  “Were you and your family on bad terms?”

Michel considered the question, even as he navigated a turnabout with familiar ease.  “You could say that.  They did not approve of my relationships.  My father, especially…”  He broke off the conversational track.  “At any rate.  We were married for a year before the problems became apparent.”

“Problems?”

“We lived different lives,” Michel said.  “And that became a point of argument.  My job kept me out late, and I became friendly with many people.”

I was missing something.  I felt it, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  I recalled the information that the Lady’s bodyguard/second/personal Lurch had recited on our first meeting.  “Did you…uh, cheat?”

“No!  No, of course not.”  Michel asked.  “When am I in a relationship, I am faithful.  But there were fears that I would cheat.  After a year, the stress became too much.”

“What was her name?”

He looked over at me and raised a quizzical eyebrow.  “Her?”

A piece fell into place.  “I mean, you said you were married, so I just assumed…”

His name was Marc,” Michel said.  “His concern – the concern of many that I date – is that I will simply fly away to the next pretty thing.  If I am not in a relationship, perhaps.  But otherwise, I would never do such a thing.  I have no desire to be that sort of person.”

“Weren’t you just asking whether or not Mila was single?”

“I was.”  His voice dropped an octave and took on a pre-emptively offended tone.  “I am bisexual.  Is that a problem?”

“I thought you were…you know, straight when you said you were interested in Mila.  And then you said you were married to a guy, so I assumed that you were…”  I felt rational sentences slipping away from me and chose that moment to stop talking.

“It is a common mistake,” Michel said, after I’d had a chance to stew in embarrassment.  “Men think that I am only attracted to men; women think that I am only attracted to women.  When they find out the truth, many find that they cannot deal with that reality.  There is a…fear that I am incapable of commitment, I think?  But that is not true.  I cannot be anyone except for who I am, and many people do not like who I am.”

“As long as you can drive,” I said, “I don’t care who you go home with.  Although I think Mila might be a little unreachable.”

A smile touched Michel’s lips.  “That is good to hear, Devlin.  Not that Mila is…unreachable?  Hmm.  That is a strange word.”  He shrugged.  “But that you do not judge me for my preferences.  I have not met many people who were not bothered by it, in some way.  First my husband, and then many of my friends; both male and female find it…unusual.”

“Well, I don’t, for whatever that’s worth.  Is…is that why your family didn’t come to the wedding?”

Michel nodded.  “After the divorce, I would not return to my father’s house.  Oh, what he would have said to see me crawl back to him.  It would have been too much.  I did not know what I would do, when Patrick took pity on me.”

“That’s how you two met?”

“No.  My father would, occasionally, drive people like you and Patrick away from places in exchange for some of the money.  I don’t think there is a word for it in French, but…”

“Getaway driver?”  I suggested.  “Wheelman?”

“That first one sounds closest.  Getaway driver.”  He seemed to taste the word and nodded approvingly.  “Yes, that is it.  My father was a ‘getaway driver,’ and that brought him into contact with Patrick on a few occasions.  That is how I met him.”  He chuckled.

“What?”

“It is funny that he met Patrick, in the same way that you met me.  Irony, yes?”

I wasn’t sure if that was the technically correct usage of the word, but I wasn’t about to split hairs.  “Ironic, yeah.  So, you and Patrick were friends, even though you and your father weren’t the closest?”

“Oh no,” Michel said quickly.  “Not friends.  He and I were not close when Marc and I divorced.  I had barely spoken to him.  One day, while I was looking for any work that I could do, I ran into him at a café.  He saw that I was in trouble and offered to help.”

That seemed exactly like the kindly Frenchman I’d met behind bars.  I smiled in remembrance.  “So, when he called you and said that he needed a favor…?”

“I rushed to help, of course,” Michel said.  “Although I think that the current situation is more than he had in mind.”  He turned slightly and grinned at me.

The winding road through town turned sharply to the right; at the same time, the mounted GPS beeped and said in a polite, insistent voice, “Your destination will be on the left.  Your destination will be on the left.”  I dismissed all extraneous thoughts from my mind immediately.  Michel met my eyes for an instant before he tightened his grip on the steering wheel.

I removed the camera from its bag, reclined the chair so that only the lens was visible from a distance, and started to take pictures.  I caught glimpses of the viewfinder screen from my awkward angle.  There were guards, obviously.  Cameras were mounted at two different points along each corner, in addition to a single camera positioned in the middle of the wall.

There were no obvious exterior lights, which I found strange, but their absence left an approach from darkness as a viable option.  Michel drove past the house once, turned around a distance away, and returned slowly, while I clicked photograph after photograph.  Sarah could sort through the data when I got back to the cottage, deciding what was and was not important; my job, at the moment, was to acquire as much information as humanly possible.

Michel gripped the steering wheel with bone-white knuckles as we made our second pass.  Sweat beaded on his forehead.  I reminded myself that he was not a seasoned operator yet.  For all intents and purposes, this was the first job he’d been a part of.  I remembered my first assignment, so many decades ago; in comparison, Michel was doing splendidly.

“Keep going,” I said in a low voice, designed to keep Michel calm and steady.  “You’re doing a great job.  I need you to tell me what you see, okay?  Is there any reaction from the guards?”

“Nothing noteworthy,” Michel replied.  “Two of the nearest guards do not seem happy with our presence, but they are not moving to stop or question us.”

“How many guards do you see?”

“That is why you brought the camera, no?”

“I brought the camera for the layout of the grounds.  But it never hurts to double check your numbers.  How many guards?”

Michel swallowed a knot of anxiety.  “I have seen six different people on this side of the building,” he said.  “I should assume that there are at least six on every side?”

“Maybe.  Maybe not.  This place is surrounded by forest on three sides.  No one’s going to sneak through a forest, so the guards might be lighter there.  Let’s be safe and assume twelve guards.  Split the difference, okay?”

“Okay.”

“That’s the number I got, then.  So we both know that we’re not wrong.  What else do you see?”

Michel was quiet.  “Three people are coming out of the house.  There is…a girl with them.”

“The Lady?”  I asked immediately.

“No, Devlin; not a lady.  They have a girl with them.  She cannot be older than eight or nine.”

That was shocking enough that I sat up completely, just to see what he was talking about.  Sure enough, three men in identical black suits were ushering a little girl into the backseat of an American minivan.  After the girl was buckled in, one of the three men entered the driver’s side and started the car.

“Michel!”  I snapped.  “Get us out of sight!”

The Frenchman did as asked, to the best of his ability.  A nearby overgrowth of foliage provided just enough cover that the minivan’s driver didn’t look in our direction as he passed.  I used the camera’s zoom function to snap a quick picture as they drove away.

The little girl sat in the backseat of the car, deeply engrossed with a heavy book that lay across her knees.  The spine of the book was just barely high enough for my keen eyes to catch the title: “Modular Elliptic Curves and Fermat’s Last Theorem.”

Michel and I waited until the minivan was barely visible before we pulled back out onto the road.  “What should we do?”  He asked.  “You have your pictures; that is what Sarah wanted us to get, oui?”

“That was the assignment, yeah.  We get the pictures while she works on her virus.”  I paused.  “But she probably isn’t done with that, yet.  I mean, that’s the kind of the thing that would take hours for her to complete.  And I’m wondering about that girl.”

“So…?”

“Follow them,” I said.  “There’s something rotten in the state of…wherever this is.”

“Yorkshire,” he supplied, after a quick glance at the GPS.  “Or somewhere very close to Yorkshire.”

“That works, sure.”  I returned the camera to its bag and the chair to its upright position.  “There’s something rotten in the state of Yorkshire, Michel; I think it’s time we got a little closer to figuring out what exactly that might be.”

We followed the minivan back through town, to the small pub we’d passed earlier.  I instructed Michel to drive a bit farther down the street before he parked.  “This is strictly recon,” I told him as we walked back to the pub.

“What do you need me to do?”

“Just follow my lead.”

He nodded.  “I can do that.”

It wasn’t a long walk to the pub, and we took it at a good pace.  Michel was slightly out of breath by the time we reached the front door.  An older couple, both on the portly side of average, greeted us from a nearby table.  “Hey there, lads!”  The male called out.  “And how are you this fine day?”

His accent was distinctly Welsh.  I mirrored it without meaning to.  “Doing fine, doing fine.  And you?”

“We can’t complain, can we, Cat?”

A full belly laugh came from his wife.  “No, sir, we can’t!”  She stood from her chair and bustled over to us.  “Welcome to the Rose and Thorn, lads.  This is me husband Evan and, as he just told you, I’m Cat.  And who would you be?”

“Nathan Bennett.”  I paused, weighed my options, and decided to err on the side of simplicity.  “And this is my mate Michel, fresh from overseas.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Nathan!  Michel!”  Cat shook both of our hands vigorously.  “So, what brings you this far out of the way?  It’s been a goodly few years since we’ve met anyone else from Wales out here in No Man’s Land.”

“Business,” I said and sighed.  “Wouldn’t be in England for any other reason, would we?”

Evan guffawed from his seat.  “There’s a man after me own heart!”

Past him, I could see into the Rose and Thorn.  As pubs went, it was smaller than most, but still large enough that two waitresses worked the floor with a bartender handling alcohol from behind the bar.  At the table farthest from the door, nestled into a dark corner, I saw them: the clean-shaven man working over a plate heaped with food and the little girl, fully consumed by the book she’d been reading earlier.

“So, which part of Wales are you from?”  Cat asked innocently.  “Might be that we’ve got friends in common or family.”

I started to answer and stopped immediately.  It wasn’t that I didn’t know the names of Welsh cities.  It was that I could not, for the life of me, pronounce them.  “Here and there, Cat, here and there,” I non-answered.  Before either Cat or Evan could ask another question, I took a gamble.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a decent bite to eat and a pint.”

It worked.  Cat reacted immediately, shifting into ‘mother mode.’  “Of course!  Why didn’t you say so?  Evan, help these two lads inside, you daft sod!”

“Alright, Cat, alright!”  He laboriously got to his own feet, grumbling good naturedly about his wife.

Between the two of them, Michel and I were shuffled into the Rose and Thorn.  The nearest available seating was just barely close enough that I could overhear anything the man or the girl said.  I picked the chair which afforded me a view of the corner table.

“Now,” Cat said, when we were settled.  “What’ll it be to start?”

I leaned back in the chair and caught a glimpse of the taps.  “Two pints of Welsh Black to start, if you don’t mind.”

“Two pints, Welsh Black, coming right up!”  She hustled away in a flurry of fabric and hair.  The other two waitresses working the room moved out of her way and smiled at her passing.

“That was…sudden,” Michel said.

“Yeah,” I said, easing back in my chair and watching the man and the child, without appearing to.  “Suzie’s like that, too.  Seeing someone hungry is almost physically painful for her.”

He let out a breath.  “Suzie is…she was the seamstress that you visited before the museum, no?”

“The same.  Except for the part where I pay her exorbitant amounts of money every couple of months, she’s the closest thing I’ve got to a mother.”

“What about your actual mother?”

Every drop of moisture in my mouth turned to dust in an instant.  When Cat returned with two pint glasses, I took a long drink from mine before letting it touch the table.  “Well, someone really was thirsty, I see!”

“A bit, yeah,” I said, and took another drink.  It wasn’t bad, as beers go.

“Now, Evan and I are going to make something special for the two of you.  A little taste of home in a strange land.  You just rest your bones.  If you need anything, one of my girls will be along to help you out, alright?”

She was gone before I could answer.  Michel waited until she was in the kitchen before he pushed the beer away from him and closer to me with two fingers.  “Not a fan?”  I asked.

“I have never been a beer drinker,” he said.  His lip actually curled up at the sight of the Welsh Black in front of him.

I sipped at a leisurely pace from my beer and, when after I’d emptied my glass, attacked the one that Michel had abandoned until something happened at the corner table.  The little girl reached the end of her massive textbook, closed it, and dropped it on the table with a painfully audible thud.  She looked at the walls around as if noticing them for the first time.

“Where are we?”  She asked in a clear, ringing English accent.  Her clothes, now that I was close enough to notice them, were shabby and clearly secondhand.  She spoke like royalty, though.  The effect was jarring.

The clean-shaven man looked up from his food.  “We’re in town,” he said slowly.

She shot him a withering look.  “Where are we in town?”

He blinked.  “The Rose and Thorn.  You wanted to get some fresh air, remember?  And you’ve got to eat something.”

The girl switched tracks.  “I’m bored.”

“Why don’t you read your book?  You only got that one last night, didn’t you?”

“I finished it.  I want another one.”

The clean-shaven man put down his fork and sighed.  “Avis, you can’t be done with that book.  That’s a book that grown-ups read when they…when they want to look smart, I guess.”

That was precisely the wrong thing to say.  The girl, Avis, sat up straight and glared at the clean-shaven man with unfiltered malevolent fury.  “An elliptic curve over Q is said to be modular,” she said, with the tones of recitation, “if it has a finite covering of a modular curve of the form X sub zero.”

Her dining partner froze and then reached across the table for the book.  He flipped a couple of pages.  “What are…”  He struggled with the word.  “…Galois representations?”

Avis didn’t hesitate.  “Let p be an odd prime.  Let sigma be a finite set of primes including p and…”

He cut her off with a raised hand and flipped to a point halfway through the book.  “Lemma 2.5.”

“If the value of q not being equal to p is a prime and r is greater than or equal to one, then the sequence of abelian varieties..”

“Jesus,” the man breathed.  “I guess you weren’t kidding.”  He reached under the table and removed another book from a bag.  The spine on this one read ‘A Course of Pure Mathematics.’  At least, I understood that name.

Avis took it from the man, opened it, and proceeded to disappear into its pages without a word.  After a few seconds, though, she looked up.  “Thank you,” she said.

The man inclined his head in acknowledgment.

Michel cleared his throat.  “Nathan?”

I caught the cover name and turned, just in time, to see Cat approaching the table with two plates balanced on her forearms.  “Here you go, for starters,” she said and deposited the plates in front of us.  “Something to keep you going strong so long as you’re stuck here in England, with their terrible food.”

A steaming pile of meat and vegetables released a long tendril of aroma that twined up from the plate and directly into my nostrils.  I hadn’t been hungry before but now, with that delicious smell filling the air around me, I was absolutely ravenous.  “Oh, you’re a saint, you are,” I said,  “and don’t let nobody tell you differently, Cat.”

She blushed.  “If you keep talking to me like that, Marc, I might have to bring back a little laverbread for you to take with you.  But, go on now!  Eat!  I’ll have someone bring over another two pints for you, alright?”

Michel raised his hand tentatively.  “I am fine,” he said, “but thank you for your hospitality.”

Cat whistled.  “A Frenchie?  Why didn’t you say so earlier?  I spent six months in Paris when I was at university, I did.  You’ve got such a beautiful country.  Some of the best cheese I’ve ever had was in Paris, it was.”

Michel nodded graciously, as though he’d personally been responsible for the cheese.

“Look at me, chattering about and keeping you from your food.  Evan always says that I talk too much, but I tell him…”  She continued talking to herself, even as she walked away from the table.

I loaded a fork with as much food as I could manage and took a bite.  The food was heavenly, as expected: lamb, with a side of vegetable medley emphasizing leeks.  “Classic Welsh,” I moaned and savored the feeling.  Michel lifted a smaller fork to his mouth.  His reaction was similarly positive.

We ate in silence for a bit, while I kept an eye on Avis and her handler.  The two didn’t interact any further; he ate his food and drank gingerly from a pint of a lighter beer, while she read through her mathematics textbook.  “You heard what they were saying?”  I asked Michel, in a low voice.

He nodded and swallowed a mouthful of food.  “I did not understand much of it.”

“Math’s not my strong suit,” I said.  “But I’m guessing that girl’s named Avis and math is her area of expertise.”  I closed my eyes and replayed the scene.  The clean-shaven man had flipped through the book and asked her non sequitur questions.  She’d provided answers immediately, which typically spoke to understanding, but the context was off.  It didn’t feel like she was answering in her own words; it felt like she was reciting information.

“What are you thinking?”

“Photographic memory?”  I asked myself out loud, barely cognizant that Michel had spoken.  “But why would she need a guard…?”

“Maybe she is related to Hill, in some way?  That might explain why the man guards her, but…but it does not explain why the Texan sent us here for the key.”  His eyes darkened briefly and then lit up once more.  “Or she knows where the key is, perhaps?  I cannot see her; is she wearing any jewelry?”

“It’s simpler than that,” I said.  “I’m just missing something.”

The man finished his meal and beer.  “Avis, let’s go.”

She stood without looking up and held out a hand.  The clean-shaven man peeled off two bills from a money clip and dropped it on the table before he took the offered appendage.  She balanced the book in her other hand.  They walked past us, still not taking notice of our presence.

“Should we go after them?”  Michel asked, once they were out of earshot.

“No,” I said.  “This was risky enough.  Worthwhile, I think, but still risky.”  I took a bite of lamb and thought about our next move.  My musing was interrupted by an insistent vibration in my pocket.  I dug out the burner cell phone.  There was a single new text message, from Sarah.

The message read: “Where are you?”

I let my thumb travel down the keypad and started to reply, when a second text came in:  “Heard back from Anton.”

That piqued my interest.  Anton’s involvement was yet another factor that Asher wasn’t taking into account.  If there was a way to attack this problem on two fronts, it gave Sarah and me an advantage; as a rule, I take every advantage I possibly can.  I relayed both messages to Michel and a quick, dirty breakdown of Anton’s involvement in the whole ongoing situation. “Finally,” I exhaled.

“Finally, what?”  He asked.

“Finally, a glimpse of something that might be an end to this damn tunnel,” I said.  I finished the remainder of the meal quickly.

“So, we are leaving?”  He started to stand, reaching into his pocket for money.

“Almost.”  I switched back to the Welsh accent and raised my voice slightly.  “Cat?”

I didn’t turn, but I heard the kitchen door open.  “Oh, what do you need, dearie?”

“Could I get another plate of this delightful lamb, to go?  It’s just too good for me to have only one serving, it is!”

“Of course, dearie; no man is ever going to leave a table of mine hungry!”

Michel lifted his eyebrow.  I shrugged a response to him.  “What?  It’s good food,” I explained.  “You can’t just let that sort of an opportunity go to waste.”

Chapter Fifty-One

It was a quaint cottage, built atop a low hill with a carpet of lush grass and an unobstructed view of the town two miles away.  As promised, there was a dark blue SUV parked in front of the building.  Michel drove the Aston Martin as close to the cottage as he could, directly next to the SUV, and switched the car off.  “Now what do we do?”  He asked.

Mila moved first.  “I’ll check the place out,” she said.

I desperately wanted to stretch my legs, but Mila’s concern gave me pause.  “You think it might be booby-trapped?”

“No.  That doesn’t mean I’m not about to check anyway, though.”

I couldn’t fault her for professionalism, especially when three other lives depended on her circumspection.  She slipped out of the car and headed toward the cottage.  Sam, who had managed to twine himself around Mila’s feet in the wheel well, hopped up into the seat and started meowing softly at the window.

Sarah cleared her throat and, when she saw that she had my attention, deliberately returned her tablet to her messenger bag.  “I thought this was a gift from your Lady?”

“I don’t know that I’d call it a gift,” I said, “so much as an operational expense.  But, sure.  What’s your point?”

“You think she’d arrange for us to have a base, just to kill us when we get here?”

I shook my head.  “That doesn’t mean that Hill or Asher didn’t somehow find out where we were going and set up a trap of their own.  Especially Asher.  That would be exactly his style.”

“What would?”

“To get a little bit of information that no one thinks he has, and use that as an advantage at a critical moment,” I said.  “In this case, finding out that the Lady arranged for us to have a local base.  Then, he’d just plant a bomb or hire a sniper,” a shudder ran through me as I remembered Kiev, “and pick us off at his leisure.”

Mila returned to the car.  “It’s clear,” she said.

“That was fast,” Sarah said.

Mila shrugged.  “Not really enough space inside to hide anything dangerous.  Of course, I’ll check the car for any explosive devices and I’d recommend installing your own security system.”

“Obviously,” Sarah replied.  She threw the strap of her messenger bag across her chest and stalked out of the car, into the cottage.

I watched her go without comment.  When the door to the cottage closed behind her, I turned to Mila.  “You’re a woman.  Do you have any idea what that was about?”

She gave me a flat look.  “Not my area.  Besides, she’s your ex-wife.”

Michel coughed violently.

“What?”  I asked.

“Nothing,” he said.  “It is nothing at all.”

“If you’ve got something to offer, by all means.”

“Well, I do not know Sarah very well,” Michel began, “but what I do know of her is that she enjoys being in control of the situation.”

I snorted.  “That’s kind of an understatement.  What’s your point, though?”

“She was ‘retired’ before you went back to America, no?”  He continued before I could answer.  “It seems as though she returned to this life, because of a desire to help you, Devlin.  And to help herself, of course.  But now, you are relying on this Lady so much, instead of her.”

I stared at the cottage.  “You…might have a point,” I said finally.

“Sounds reasonable to me,” Mila said.  She didn’t sound at all interested in the conversation.  “So, what are you going to do about it?”

I gestured for Mila to step back and allow me enough room to step out of the car.  The grass was plusher than I’d expected.  “Same thing as always: figure it out as I go along, I guess,” I said.  “Where’d you say that computer was?”

“It’s more like a computer room,” Mila said, “but if you head straight back, past the bedrooms, you can’t miss it.”

I walked away from the car, up the hill, and into the tiny cottage.  The interior leaned slightly towards cluttered, instead of cozy.  Whatever Sophie – wielding the considerable authority the Lady clearly possessed – had done, it must have been rushed.  Jeans, sweaters, and jackets had been folded and placed on several living room chairs.  With four people working, it wouldn’t have taken too much effort to place everything in its proper place, but I didn’t expect to stay in this countryside for very long.  I continued past the living room, through the hallway, and eventually reached a closed door.  The familiar hum of a high-powered computer fan reached me from the other side of the door.

“Sarah?”  I knocked on the door.  “You busy?”

The response came thirty seconds later.  “It’s not locked.”

I took that as an invitation and opened the door.  The computer room looked nearly identical to a dozen command stations I’d seen her set up before.  Placed directly in the center of the back wall, an elaborate system, complete with multiple monitors and scrolling news feeds, glowed with electric energy.  Sarah’s body was little more than a silhouette.  “So,” I said, “think we could get Netflix on this rig?”

She turned slightly.  Not far enough that I could see her face, but enough that I got the impression of a supremely scathing side-eye.  “Some of this equipment isn’t even legal in America,” she said, turning back to her work.  “It’s barely legal here.  Military grade technology, designed for industrial espionage and cyber warfare.  If I’d had something even half as good as this, back when we…back before we split up, there’s no telling what we could have accomplished.”

“That’s a good thing, right?”

“It’s amazing,” she said in a voice that sounded anything but amazed.  “And your new friend Sophie managed to pull strings to get this system delivered to this out of the way cottage – a cottage! – in, what?  An hour?  Maybe two?”

It had been almost exactly one hour and forty-two minutes since I’d spoken with Sophie, but I decided that information was better left unsaid.  “It isn’t a competition, Sarah…”  I began.

She whirled on me and I froze in the face of her sudden anger.  “You think I’m jealous?”  She laughed bitterly.  “Seriously, that’s what you think this is about?  Me, jealous of Sophie or this oh-so-mysterious Lady?  Have we met before?”

I opened my mouth, realized that I had no earthly idea what to say, and closed it again.

“I’ve got two jobs,” Sarah continued, raising a finger.  “One: handle the operations and planning side of things.  I apparently can’t do that, because Asher’s like a goddamn bloodhound who won’t give me enough room to do anything other than react.  That leaves everything up to your ability to just wing it.”

“I can’t do anything about that, but -”

“Number two.”  She raised another finger, cutting me off.  “Information collection, by whatever means I’ve got access to.  And I can’t do that properly because Asher’s bosses or partners or whatever-the-hell-they-are have connections so deep that even my hacker contacts are terrified to risk showing up on their radars.  That just leaves me, making a frankly insane choice every time I don’t just cut the cord and disconnect.  Which I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do, even if I wanted to, because the Lady knows as much as God, apparently.”

“She said you can leave whenever,” I said immediately.

“And you believe her?  Really?”

I considered the question for a second.  “Yes,” I said, “I do.  I don’t think she wants anyone on this job that doesn’t want to be here.  You remember what happened when we talked Destiny into the thing in Milan?”

Sarah closed her eyes.  “Okay, so there’s no point in bringing a reluctant criminal with you.  I get that.  But that still isn’t the point.”

“Then what is the problem?”

She sighed and sagged into her chair.  “Maybe I am a little jealous.  Not for the reasons you think, but still.  Mila’s at the top of her game; Sophie’s apparently got the connections and pull necessary to pull off something like an entire building in virtually no time at all; and the Lady is just…well, you met her.  How would you describe her?”

I tried, and failed, to think of a single word to summarize the Lady’s sheer presence.  I lifted my shoulders and turned my hands palm up, instead.

Sarah seemed to understand the gesture.  “Exactly.  It’s only been a couple days, and I’m already feeling the pinch.  If I’m just dragging you down, then the best thing would be for you to do this without me.  I don’t want you to get caught by Asher, because you were trying to protect me.”

Behind Sarah, one of the computer’s speakers emitted a high pitched beep.  Both she and I shifted our attention to the monitors as the image of a large mansion appeared on the central screen, and several scrolling pages of text began to populate monitors on the left and right.  I was reluctant to switch conversational tracks – this had the feeling of a Talk that needed to happen, sooner rather than later – but she sighed and returned to her work.

“We’ll finish this later,” she said.  It sounded more like a promise than a simple declaration.

“Okay.  What do we know about the address?”

She scanned the screens, tracing the lines of text with a fingertip.  “Well.  Two things to start with.  Bad news or worse news?”

I groaned.  “Bad news, of course.”

Sarah rolled her chair to the side and I took a spot next to her, close enough that I could see the mansion displayed on the screen.  “So, the program I’m using to get visual intelligence piggybacks off of a few different satellites.  There’s a pretty healthy delay, which makes it less than ideal for actual jobs, but it’s typically pretty good at finding out what an area looks like.”

“Typically?”

“It’s a satellite, so it can only display things as seen from the sky.  And, as you can see…”

I leaned closer to the central monitor.  I could see shapes positioned at opposite corners of the mansion’s roof, as well as at least six other black forms placed at seemingly random locations around the grounds.  “Guards,” I said.  “Probably armed, if our luck holds up.”

“I’d be willing to bet there are more inside, too.  From this angle, I can’t get a look at any physical security that might be on the building’s front or sides.”

“Still, it’s better than nothing.  And when you’ve got access to their network, you can just disable any electronic countermeasures.”

Sarah winced slightly.

“You can disable any electronic countermeasures, can’t you?”

“That’s the worse news.  The explanation gets a bit technical, but the punchline is that I can’t seem to find any network for that building.  Without an online connection, there’s no way for me to access their security.”

“That is…bad,” I understated.  “We’re ahead of Asher, though.  That gives us a little bit of time to figure out a workaround.”

“I already know the workaround,” she said.  “It’s just not one I’m thrilled about.”

I raised an eyebrow and waited for her to elaborate.

“If there isn’t an external port that I can use to gain access,” she said, “then any communications or cameras they’re using would have to run on an internal system.”

“And that means?”

Sarah sighed.  “Basically, it’s impossible to remotely hack in.  On the bright side, that limits all communications to strictly in-house.”

“No calling for back-up?”

She shook her head.  “Not electronically, no.  Phones would still work, of course, but jamming equipment is relatively easy to come by, compared to what your Lady already set up here.”

“She’s not my Lady,” I countered immediately.

Anyway.  I could shut down their internal network entirely, but that would require a physical intrusion.”

I blinked.  “I know what at least two of those words mean.”

“I’ll give you a flash drive,” Sarah said slowly, “and you will plug it into one of the computers, inside the building.  You’ll have to make it past however many guards they’ve got, avoid any cameras like the plague, and find a computer first, but after that…”  She shrugged.

“Could you just pretend there’s good news, here?”  I asked.  “Because I could use some good news.”

“There is a public bill of sale for the property,” Sarah offered.  “Several bills, actually.  The current owner is one Richard Weatherby Hill.”

I perked up slightly.  “Names are good.  I like names.”

“I thought you might,” Sarah said.  “I’ll get started on a full background for our Mr. Hill soon.  It’s probably fake, but still.  Also, on a whim, I had a program trace back through the ownership.  There were the usual dummy corporations and shell companies, some of which I’ve actually seen on previous financial reports.  Guess who was at the end of that Yellow Brick Road, Dev?”

“The Lollipop Guild?”  I asked, without much hope.  “The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz?”

Sarah reached for a can of Diet Coke that I’d somehow missed and popped it open with a loud fizz.  “Try wizards, plural.”  She hit a series of keys and data ceased its unrelenting scroll on the right monitor.  I followed her finger with my eye until I saw the three letters I’d expected and dreaded in equal measure: BMC, Corp.  “It looks like the Magi have had this property for years and they’ve only recently deeded it over to Hill.”

Something about that bothered me.  “The Texan said that the key’s supposed to be in that mansion.  Hill and Asher want the key.  Why would the Magi put something that valuable in a building that’s practically in Hill’s backyard?”

“Maybe they trusted him?”  Sarah suggested.  “Or they still do?”

“Possible,” I allowed, “but unlikely.”

“So, what then?”  Sarah swiveled in her chair to face me.

“I…don’t know.  But there’s something there.  I don’t know what yet, but I feel it.”

“Let me know when you figure it out.  Until then, however, we’ve got work to do. I’m going to need a more in-depth search of this cottage from Mila.  I’m sure the Lady installed surveillance here, although I’m not sure exactly how much she could have done with so little notice.”

“Feeling the need for privacy?”

She scowled at me.  “Not at all.  I can deal with the fact that she’s keeping an eye on us, seeing as we’re technically working at her behest right now.”

“Then why waste the time?”

Sarah winked at me.  “A girl’s got to have her secrets.”

I understood an instant later.  Thus far, I had managed to avoid revealing any information to the Lady that she didn’t already know and had kept up that façade in the hotel suite and the Aston Martin.  Sarah intended to keep her plans secret, so long as there was a possibility – a surety, really – that the walls in the tiny cottage had eyes.

“Alright,” I said, “play coy.  What else do we need?”

“Without knowing exactly what OS they might be using in that mansion, I’ll have to write something particularly destructive that would work on any system.  If I felt comfortable logging into the community on this system, I’m sure I could find something that somebody’s already created.  But I’m not about to lay a trail of breadcrumbs, so I’ll have to do it myself.  That’s going to take time.”

“How long?”

She took a long drink from her soda.  “Depends.  There should be one I’ve used in the past on one of my servers.  Revising it might take a couple of hours; might take a couple of days.  I wasn’t keeping up with security updates and backdoors in San Francisco, after all.”

I had no intention of asking her to elaborate on what she had been doing, so I simply nodded.

“Michel needs to do a drive-by of the property, too.  There was a camera in the living room that I saw.  If he can get pictures of the security, from as close as he can get without raising alarm, that’ll help immensely with any job we end up having to pull.”

“I can go with him,” I said.  “Michel’s still new to all this, and he wouldn’t really know what to look for, anyway.  Besides, this will give me some time to get a better idea of who he is.”

Sarah considered the merits of that before she nodded.  “Sounds like a plan.  It’s only a couple of miles away.  If you get into any trouble, Mila won’t be far.  Take one of the GPS trackers with you, just in case something happens.  And don’t throw it away, out of some misguided idea of chivalry.  Asher should still be casting around for clues as to where we are, but I’m not going to bet on that.”

“Probably for the best,” I said.  “I’ve never seen anyone underestimate him without paying for it in some way or another before too long.”

Sarah minimized the information on three of the screens, while data continued to tick by and scroll past on the top monitors.  “I was serious,” she said, without turning.  “We are going to finish this conversation later.”

“Sarah, I…”  I trailed off, as her fingers began to fly across the keyboard at a rate of speed closer to machine gun fire than human movement.  Instead of pushing the point, I backed out of the room – pausing momentarily to fish one of the GPS cufflinks from a bag near the door – and shut the door behind me, leaving Sarah to her vital work.

Chapter Fifty

Mila insisted that we stop at the Brooklands to collect Sam before we started our trip proper.  From there, the Texan’s address led us away from London and into the English countryside.  The drive was scheduled to take four hours, at minimum.  Driving at or slightly under the speed limit, with occasional stops to make sure that we weren’t being followed, I estimated the journey would take at least five hours, if not more.

I gave Sarah a brief rundown of the conversation with Asher, highlighting the areas where his information lacked critical details and very carefully mentioning nothing at all about Munich.  The Aston Martin, a luxurious vehicle in its own right, was a gift from the Lady, by way of Mila.  Just because we hadn’t found any listening devices didn’t mean that there weren’t some buried in the frame or wired directly into the engine.  I hoped that Sarah would be able to grasp what information I was leaving out and why.

After that was finished, I slept for two hours.  It wasn’t a good sleep, but a full day of exhausting fruitless research coupled with the tension of an unexpected face-to-face with my self-declared enemy was draining.  Any rest, however fitful, was better than no rest at all.  When I woke, the car had stopped at a rural gas station.  Michel stood outside of the window, filling the tank and toying with an unlit cigarette.  Sarah sat beside me, scrolling idly through a document on her tablet.  Sam had moved into the front seat of the Aston, while Mila was nowhere to be seen.

“You’re up,” Sarah noted drily.  “Welcome back to the land of the living.”

“We aren’t all robots,” I said.  “Sleep’s a necessity.”

She shrugged.  “I got an hour earlier, while you were already knocked out.  That should be good enough, until we find somewhere to stay in this town.”

“What’d I miss?”  The thickness of slumber slurred my words slightly.  I cleared my throat and worked my jaw up and down to shake the delay free.  “Where’s Mila?”

“You haven’t missed anything,” she answered, without looking up.  “This is the third stop since you went to sleep.  Mila ran into the shop for snacks, I guess.  Michel, as you can see, is refilling the tank.  Apparently, these things are not very gas – petrol, I should say – efficient.”  A small, adorable cough passed her lips.  She covered it the back of one hand.  “No sign of anyone following us, so there’s that.”

“Well, I appreciate you not saying anything more positive than that.”  I sat fully upright and blinked into the rising sun.

“I’m a natural pessimist.”  Sarah finished reading and switched the tablet into sleep mode with a series of quick finger movements.  “Makes it easy to avoid unwarranted optimism, unlike some others I could mention.”

“I did not jinx the museum job.”

“That’s not the way I remember it,” she said.  “Although I do have the audio records, so we could always play it back, just to remove doubt.”

I rolled my eyes but wisely decided not to push the point.  There was every chance that she was right, anyway.  “I assume you’ve been researching the address?”

“As much as I can,” she answered, “but I’m not getting very good service here and there isn’t any local Wi-Fi, as you can imagine.”  Sarah gestured at her window.  I looked past her, at an endless field of dark brown, dying plants.

I closed my eyes and sighed heavily.  “At this point, anything is better than the heaping mess of nothing we’ve got on our plate.”

She sighed.  “I’ve got a little information, but not enough.  Not anywhere near enough.”

“Hit me with what you’ve got.”

“It’s a private residence, as opposed to another museum or something like the hangar.  There are records of the property changing hands a couple times over the past few decades.  With a better connection, I could run down the histories of the buyers and sellers.”

“I mean, do that when you can,” I said, “but I’ve got a feeling it won’t matter.  If this ‘key’ is hidden there, those names are probably all fakes.”

“Smoke, mirrors, et cetera.”  Sarah began to drum her fingernails on the tablet’s back.

“Building plans?”  I asked.  “General layout of the place?”

“It’ll take me a while to get any architectural stuff,” Sarah said.  “Google Earth didn’t have any photos of the area.  As it turns out, they don’t have a full three blocks in any direction of the address.  Street view just skips right over the missing land.”

I whistled, but the sound lacked the force of true surprise.

“That wasn’t too surprising,” Sarah continued, mirroring my dull lack of shock, “so I went back to the other search engine to pull up the information that way.”

“Any luck?”

Sarah shook her head.  “Linking up with that program uses an absolute ton of bandwidth, which I don’t have out here and can’t get.  It’s been working for the last thirty minutes to find a connection strong for what I want to do.  If I had a landline, that would speed things up immensely, but I don’t know where I’m going to find one of those out here.”  Idly, she twisted a stray strand of hair around a finger.  “We could break into someone’s house, I guess, but that runs the risk of bringing the law down on us.”

“And, as soon as we leave fingerprints somewhere, Adlai will know we’re in town,” I pointed out.  “It’s a short leap from knowing that we’re in London to figuring out our involvement in the museum job.”

Your involvement,” Sarah said.

“What?”

“Adlai doesn’t even know that I exist,” she pointed out.  “And my fingerprints aren’t in any system.”

“Well, gee, thanks for the reassurance.”

Sarah smiled to let me know she wasn’t serious. “Anyway, until I know more about whatever it is that we’ll have to do, we should probably not get the cops involved.”

“Reasonable.”  I considered the problem and, unconsciously, began to weave the card between my fingers.  “We don’t have any safe houses out here?”

“Even if we did, it wouldn’t be upgraded enough for these purposes.  But we don’t, so that’s kind of moot.”

“Hotels?”

“Maybe a bed and breakfast,” she allowed.  “Do you think that would give us the sort of privacy we’d need?”

I blew a lungful of air from my lungs in an explosive rush.  “We’d be one forgotten door knock before the whole local constabulary mobilizes.”

“The set-up at the Brooklands was perfect,” Sarah mused.  “If we could get Michel to drop us off somewhere, maybe he could drive back with some of my gear?”

The business card was made of hard stock.  My dexterous fingers made a mistake and, instead of spinning the card around my fingers like a miniature flag, I nearly gave my left index finger a severe paper cut.  I looked down at the card for several seconds, replaying the hotel employee’s offer of assistance, coupled with how utterly unsurprised she seemed by the arrivals of Mila and Michel.  When an utterly wild thought occurred to me, I froze.  “Hold on a second,” I said.  “I might have an idea.”

The burner phone was in my pants pocket.  I fished it free and dialed the digits on the business card.  It rang twice before a polite, efficient voice answered.  “Yes sir,” said a familiar, female voice.

Sarah shot me a quizzical look, which I ignored.  “You said that if we needed anything,” I asked, “we only had to ask?  Is that offer still good?”

“That’s correct.  Would I be correct in assuming that you require additional service in your endeavors?”

“Sort of.  Another question, first, though: are there any limits to what you’re authorized to offer us?”  It was an awkwardly worded question, with a fair amount of room for miscommunication, but I couldn’t risk tipping my hand to an employee who was simply doing her job.

“So long as you are a guest of the Brooklands or any of its subsidiaries across the world,” the woman said, “I have been given explicit authority to assist you in whatever areas you may require.  So far as that assistance does not require that I take a physical role or that I betray the nature of my employer.  Does that answer your question?”

It did.  The Lady had done more than provide us a base of operations that couldn’t conceivably be tied to any identity or account that Sarah and I possessed.  She’d also placed the equivalent of a criminal concierge at our fingertips.  A tangible electric thrill ran through me at the idea.  Sarah and I had money, but it wasn’t the sort of money we could easily spend without raising alarms.  The Lady, however, possessed no such baggage.  “Is there a limit on the cost of our requirements?”

“None that I’m aware of,” she answered, “although I would hazard against frivolous expenditures for the sheer principle.”

“Can we do away with the pretense?”  I asked.

“What pretense, sir?  I only wish to ensure that your stay at the Brooklands is handled professionally and politely.”

I sighed, gave up any effort to draw her out of the cover, and started to phrase my request in my head.  “I assume you’ve been listening to our conversations?”

Our concierge cleared her throat.  “I have not, no, but my employer may have installed additional security devices into your vehicle.”

I ignored the doublespeak.  “We’re headed into the countryside for the foreseeable future.  My partner has certain electronic needs, so that she can handle her work.  Something as close to the set-up in the Brooklands suite, if possible.  I’m also going to need a place to work, without attracting any unnecessary attention, and a set of the usual tools.”

The phone was silent for two full minutes.  “Sir, we have a small cottage available in a town less than two miles away from your destination.”  I blinked.  I hadn’t given her any address at all.  “The needs you’ve mentioned will be in place before your arrival.  I’ve also taken the liberty of acquiring a less conspicuous car while your work requires that you remain in this particular area.  Assuming, of course, that this arrangement is acceptable to you.  Would that meet your requests adequately?”

Two minutes.  In one hundred and twenty seconds, the Lady’s agent had been capable of organizing a cottage in a countryside village with enough bandwidth that Sarah could do her research as well as privacy and tools for me.  “Was that transaction traceable?  There are a lot of people looking for me, as of late.”

“Discretion,” the lady said, “is one of the precepts by which we here at the Brooklands prove our loyalty.”  She offered no further answer.

And she’d done it, presumably, without raising any flags.  The amount of influence gave me pause once more.  “That…will be acceptable,” I said.

“Excellent.  All necessary information will be emailed to Miss Bennett immediately.  I should mention: there are two additional rooms for your driver and bodyguard.  One Missus Mila Rodriguez and a Monsieur Michel St. Laurents.  Is that correct?”

“That is.  Why?”

“I assume their presence will be a continued factor?”

“For the foreseeable future,” I answered.  “You aren’t answering my question, though.  Why do you want to know all this?”

“Clothing more appropriate will be provided for them, as well.  The outfits you were provided are too flashy for reconnaissance in a town this small.  I was simply aiming to decrease your visibility.”  Definitely smugness in her voice.  In a way, her sarcasm made the odd exchange marginally more comfortable.  She was still human.  “Is there anything else you require?”

I thought about the question.  A wide variety of implausible and pointless suggestions came to mind.  I wanted to test the limits of this newfound influence, just to see exactly what I could get by simply asking a distant voice.  With great effort, I reined that impulse back into check.  “What’s your name?”  I asked, instead.

“Sir?”

“Your name,” I said again.  “What your parents call you.  Or, if you prefer, what your friends call you.  As of late, I find that there are a lot of people who I only use nicknames for, and I’d like to just be able to talk to you.  Does that make sense?”

The line was quiet for several seconds.  “Is this a matter that you will insist upon?”

“Sure,” I said, “if that makes it easier.  I find it simpler to work with people whose names I know, instead of strangers.  Blah blah blah.  Whatever I’ve got to say to get you to tell me your name, just assume I said it.”

“Sophie,” the concierge said.  “Sophie Morgan.”

“Alright, Sophie.  I’m pretty sure that we’ll be talking more in the future.”

“If I can be of assistance,” Sophie said, “you only need to call.”  She disconnected the line.

I held the phone to my ear for thirty more seconds, listening to nothing but dead air, before I lowered it.  Sarah cleared her throat.  “What was that about?”

“You know how things have been getting more and more complicated with literally everything we find out?”

She nodded.  “Your point?”

“This is one of those things,” I said.

Sarah opened her mouth to say something, when her tablet’s screen lit up.  She unlocked it and skimmed the email notification.  “The hell?”  She asked, when she finished.  “What the hell is this?  How do we suddenly have access to a different address, just outside of the one we were headed to in the first place?”  She pinched the bridge of her nose, an endearing gesture under normal circumstances and a distinctly hilarious one under the current situation’s rules.

“I don’t know if I can keep doing this,” Sarah said.  “Connected people with influence miles and miles beyond what is even slightly plausible, dueling with other people, using you and me and Michel and Mila – to an extent – as pawns?  I need answers, and I’m not getting them.  How the fuck did this happen?”

I waited until her energy wound down.  Then, I cleared my throat delicately and picked my tone for maximum effect.  I rarely had the opportunity to get one over on Sarah.  “Sophie,” I said simply.

“Who’s that?”

I explained to Sarah, in succinct terms, our concierge’s side of the conversation.  When I finished, she covered her eyes with one hand and ran the other through her hair.  “So, this is what I’m going to do,” she said, without revealing her eyes or expression.  “I’m just going to stop asking questions.  Because, so far, every answer I’ve gotten has either been utterly insane or mind-blowingly ridiculous.  If not both.”

“I’d say that it’s both more often than not,” I said.

She lowered her hand an inch so that her responding glare was fully visible, while her face remained largely concealed.

The front passenger door opened and Mila slid into the seat.  “What’s going on?”  She asked, around a mouthful of potato chips.

“Your employer,” Sarah said.  She paused, sighed, and amended the sentence.  “Our employer.  She’s too connected.  I’m not thrilled about working with someone who has that much of an advantage over me.”

“Thinking about running?”  Mila asked.  She spoke the words without a hint of concern.  I hadn’t been planning to skip out, but Mila’s cavalier question still made my muscles tense.

“Would that be a problem?”  Sarah countered.

Mila shook her head.  “Not for me.  My job isn’t to keep you on mission; I’m supposed to make sure that you’re safe, so long as you’re in England.  If you decide to go on the run, I can sleep easy knowing that I fulfilled my job and everything else was out of my control.”

“That’s good to –“

Mila interrupted with a single raised hand.  “That being said, even if the Lady decides to leave you alone, Asher won’t.  He’s already made a few pretty solid attempts on your life, Devlin.  The first one you survived because you happened to get lucky with allies in the area; the second, I showed up in time to stop him from pulling out the pliers and blowtorch.  Do you really want to try your luck in the wind, while he’s gunning for you?”

I shook my head and looked at Sarah.  “If she can find us, then Asher’ll be able to do the same, whenever he finishes whatever plan he’s working on.”

“So, what then?  We just let her point us at a target – a target that we know nothing about, by the way – and follow orders?”

I scoffed.  “Of course not.  But, so long as we’re technically her agents in the field, I say we should get the most out of her resources.  It got us Mila here,” I gestured, “and the car.  Why not see how far we can push things?  You did say you needed a better connection to use your custom program.”

Sarah visibly struggled with the concept.  I’d relied on the knowing or unknowing kindness of strangers for most of my childhood, begging for meals at the food bank or convincing the latest temp agency that my mother actually could do the job.  Sarah, however, had been born into a life of luxury. The very concept of needing help or of depending on anyone was utterly alien to her.  I could almost hear gears grinding in her head as I watched and waited.

Michel returned to the driver’s seat while Mila and I waited for Sarah’s response.  He picked up the tension in the car immediately.  “What did I miss?  Is everything okay?”

“Well?”  I asked.  “Is everything okay?”

“It’s…fine,” Sarah said finally, hesitating a little between the two words.  “We’re going to a different address, Michel.”  She navigated screens on her tablet at breakneck speed.  When she found the window she wanted, she swiped her index finger up.  Michel’s GPS beeped a moment later.  “Directions should be on your GPS now.”

“Ah, oui, there they are.”  The car hummed to life beneath us.  “But, uh…what happened?”

Sophie happened,” Sarah answered and then she turned back to her tablet, without a word, for the remainder of the trip.

Chapter Forty-Nine

Asher didn’t sit, at first.  He sauntered instead, allowing his fingers to dance across the back of a chair.  I kept myself from bolting through brute force of will.  Across the table, tension radiated from Sarah’s body like visible heat waves, although she did her level best to remain the absolute image of calm and poise.  Mila remained as she had been: imperturbable, level-headed, and focused.  In my peripheral vision, I noted that her hand was inching minutely closer to the concealing folds of her jacket pocket.

I broke the silent standoff.  “Didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Why’s that?”  Asher asked and, finally, took a seat directly opposite me.  His position led to his bodyguard facing Mila.  Something flickered in his eyes – Fear?  Respect? – and disappeared before I could identify it.

“Oh, I don’t know.  Last time I saw you, it seemed like you had your hands full.  Something about a fire, maybe…?”

His expression didn’t change for an instant.  “A little paperwork,” he said, “and a few couriers.  Little bit of product that will have to be replaced.  Business continues as usual.  You didn’t think that would be enough to really derail anything, did you?”

I had hoped as much, but I kept that disappointment to myself.  “What are you doing here?”

He beckoned with two fingers to the nearest waiter.  “Tequila,” he said, when the man drew close enough to hear him.  “Two…no, three.  Sarah, you drink tequila, don’t you?”

Instead of answering, she doubled the intensity of her glare.

“I’m going to take that as a yes,” Asher said and returned his attention to the waiter.  “Three shots of your best tequila, and a beer.  Doesn’t really matter which one.  Something in a bottle, though.”

“Of course, sir,” the waiter said.  He turned to leave.  Asher caught him by the elbow before he’d taken two steps.

“Smoking is allowed here, isn’t it?”

“I…I’m not sure, sir,” the waiter said slowly.

“I’m going to assume that it is, then,” Asher said, “and I’ll stop if someone important says something about it.”  He pulled a pack of cigarettes from a pocket and rapped it against his wrist.

“Sir, I…”

“You can leave now.”  Asher plucked an unlit cigarette from the pack and dismissed the waiter with a wave.  After a moment of hesitant consideration, he left.  The three of us sat there, staring at each other, until he returned a minute or two later with the shots and a bottled Newcastle.  As soon as they touched the table, the poor waiter scurried away and left us all with nothing except for awkward air and pregnant pauses.

“What do you want?”  Sarah asked.  Her voice was arctic.

“A lighter,” he answered and dug into his front pants pocket until he found one.  He lit the cigarette between his lips and blew a cloud of smoke that drifted to the left of my face.  “And a drink.  It’s been a busy day or two, as I’m sure you can imagine.”  The look on his face was, on the surface, innocuous.  I knew him well enough to spot the boiling rage beneath the surface, carefully contained by a façade of disinterest.

I picked up the shot glass and raised it in the air.  “To revenge,” I said.

Asher flashed a smile at me.  The expression was composed of approximately one hundred percent teeth and zero percent actual warmth.  “To revenge.”

Sarah raised her shot glass, reluctantly.

We drank and settled back into our chairs.  My eyes scanned every inch of Asher’s body for clues: a torn sleeve, a spot of powder on his collar, lipstick somewhere on his skin.  There was nothing.  He sat in what appeared to a brand new suit, from a high end designer.  He had no twitches that might reveal his agenda and, unlike Sarah and me, Asher was perfectly in his element.  The momentum was on his side and he knew it.

I decided against repeating the same question for the third time and waited for him to speak first.  It didn’t take long before he cleared his throat and threw both of his arms over the back of his chair.  “Can I be honest here?”

“For a change?”

He acknowledged the point with a slight incline of his head.  “I don’t know how you pulled it off – I mean, obviously I can draw some conclusions since Sarah’s here – but your work at the museum?  Impressive stuff, Dev.  Reminds me of the old days.”

I swallowed my nervousness and leaned even further into a persona: a version of myself, with more confidence and less outright fear.  “If the old days are so important to you,” I said, “maybe you should consider dropping this whole vendetta against me.”

“I can’t do that,” Asher said.  He paused and amended the statement a moment later.  “No, I can.  I don’t want to do that.  You only think you know what you did to me, back in St. Petersburg.  The reality is worse than you can even imagine.  You are going to pay for what you did to me.”

“What are you talking about?”  I asked.  “What did I do that would make any of this worth it?”

Asher started to answer.  Mila cut him off, speaking in firm tones that demanded our attention.  “Ma’am.  If you’d come with me, please?”

Sarah’s eyebrows came together, one raised slightly higher than the other.  “What?  I am not about to run away, as soon as things get a little dangerous.”

“Ma’am,” Mila said, more insistent now, “this situation is more than we expected.”

“And I can handle it just fine,” Sarah snapped.  “I don’t need you taking care of me.”

“I was hired for that exact reason,” Mila said.  She straightened her shoulders and rose to her full height.  Despite the fact that her full height wasn’t exactly impressive, she managed to project control.  “And I intend to fulfill that obligation.”

“You will do no such thing.”

I watched the confrontation play out with a mixture of morbid interest and blank fear.  If Asher’s presence was the only necessary component to destroy our coalition, then we were doomed already.  Asher and his bodyguard also paid strict attention to the argument as it escalated.  A ghost of a smile danced across his lips.

“Ma’am, I…”

“Fine, then!”  Sarah stood in one swift, clumsy motion.  Her chair fell to the floor and she made no effort to pick it back up.  She stalked off toward a cluster of bodyguards.  Mila looked at her leave and then looked at me.

“Go,” I said, under my breath.

“I won’t hurt him,” Asher chimed in.  “Not here, at least.  Too many eyes, and it isn’t worth the political fallout.”  He raised the index and middle fingers of his right hand.  They were burned, like the rest of his arm.  “Scout’s honor.”

Mila glared at him for a long second, but Sarah was covering the distance quickly.  Mila narrowed her eyes – first at Asher, then at me – before she followed.

I was thrilled that Sarah would have protection, if things did go south.  That left me without a bodyguard, however, and Asher’s man was looking more threatening as time passed.

Almost as if he could read my thoughts, Asher turned to his bodyguard.  “I think there was someone else who wanted to speak with you.”

“Sir?”  The bodyguard asked.  Just the one word was enough for me to guess at his nationality: Irish.  Probably an attempt on Asher’s part to needle me.  An attempt that was working.

Go away,” Asher clarified.  “I’d like to talk with Devlin alone and you just…looming makes that impossible.”

His bodyguard clearly didn’t have the same professional scruples as Mila.  As soon as he understood the nature of Asher’s suggestion, he vanished into the room like a ghost.

“It’s so hard finding good help,” I offered.

“Probably,” Asher conceded, “but money gives you a much larger hiring pool.  If I could have gotten Mila, I would have paid almost any amount of cash.  That is one hell of a woman.  How did you get her to sign up with you?”

“My natural charm,” I said, forcing a smile.

“Lucky you, then.  If you’re into that sort of thing.”  He took an extraordinarily long puff from his cigarette and held the smoke for a long time.  Just when I thought he couldn’t hold his breath for another second, Asher exploded with breath and mist, mixing and pouring out into the room’s air.  “So.  Just the two of us.  Who would’ve thought it’d end up like this?”

My earbud popped and Sarah spoke into my ear.  “Devlin.  Michael says there’s something going on out there.  That’s why Mila pulled me out.”

I couldn’t directly respond, so long as Asher sat in front of me with his slow-burning cigarette.  “What are you going to do?”  I asked slowly, picking my words with exquisite care.

“Me?”  Asher took a puff and blew a cloud of shapeless smoke into my face.  I resisted the urge to cough.  “Right now, I’m just waiting.”

His answer was important, but it wasn’t the one I’d actually wanted.

“He insists that it’s something I have to see with my own eyes,” Sarah said.  “I can go – Mila said she’ll stay with me, so Asher can’t take a shot while we’re separated – but that’s going to leave you alone with him longer.”

“Okay.”  I let the silence stretch out between Asher and me.  If Sarah moved to check in with Michel, Asher needed to be distracted.  His attention was obviously, demonstrably fixated on me; I could use that and turn myself into a lightning rod.  “Let’s do this, then.  Get it all out.  I’m not planning on having this conversation with you again.”

Sarah understood, after a second.  “I’m muting my microphone, but leaving yours active.  If he does anything, we won’t be far away.”  The line popped and went dead.

“Oh?”  Asher chuckled.  “Since when did you start making plans?”

“You pick up things behind bars,” I replied. I mirrored his relaxed posture and took a lengthy drink of my Guinness.  When I returned the glass to the table, nearly a third was gone.

An expression of exaggerated approval appeared on his face.  “Well, that explains the success of your little job at the museum.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“If you really don’t,” he said, “then you’re either stupid or blind lucky.  And we both know that neither of those things are true.”

I gave him my very best poker face.

“You don’t want to talk about it?”  He shrugged and took another drag from his cigarette.  “Fine.  I’ll do the talking.  Here’s what I know.  You escaped prison early.  Obviously, you had another identity that I didn’t know about stashed away somewhere in Paris and you used that, and some money, to get a flight to Kiev.  From there, you and Anton and whatever mobster the Russians sent to run down my trail tracked me down to the docks.”

“Which was what you wanted,” I said, out loud.

“Well, I wasn’t expecting you, no.  The Russians, on the other hand…?  I knew, sooner or later, that I’d have to deal with them.  Still do have to deal with them, actually, so thanks for helping them slip out my little trap.”  The sarcasm was thick enough that I felt it on my skin, like oil.  “After you managed to handle my sniper, you ran back home to warn Sarah that I was coming for her.  Seeing as she’s here in London, I assume she decided it was safer to go on the offensive than to play keep away.  How’s that so far?”

I was impressed, as always, by the amount of information he’d assembled in so little time.  More important, however, were the pieces of knowledge he didn’t have.  He knew that I’d gotten out of jail early, but not that I’d been sprung by agents of the Lady.  He didn’t know anything at all about Germany; that was a hole that he and the Lady shared, apparently.  “It isn’t bad,” I allowed, after a sip of beer.

“Here’s what I don’t know, though.  How’d you know to go to Kiev in the first place, Devlin?  Why go after the crown?”

“Assuming that I actually know a thing about this crown – which I don’t, of course – why in the hell would I answer your questions?”  I finished the beer and slammed the glass on the table with enough force that silverware rattled to the floor.  “You tried to kill me twice.  You threatened to kill Sarah.  If it weren’t for your jolly green giant lurking in the background, I’d strangle you to death right here.”

He sighed.  “Strictly speaking,” Asher said, “I tried to kill you once.  I tried to torture you here.  And bravado, Devlin?  Really?  Even if the rules for these things didn’t explicitly forbid violence, you and I both know you aren’t a killer.”

“Neither are you,” I pointed out.

Asher shrugged his indifference at me and stubbed out his cigarette into the tablecloth.  The fabric turned black and released a foul thread of smoke into the air.  “Not directly, no.  That’s why I hired him.”  His eyes flashed suddenly with the promise of violence.

For a second, I was absolutely sure that Asher would throw caution to the wind and order his bodyguard to kill me on the spot.  I wasn’t armed and the few martial skills I’d acquired in prison wouldn’t do me any good against a trained killer with at least fifty pounds and six inches worth of advantage.  Wherever Mila was, it would take a miracle for her to return in time.  My expression nearly broke.

I remembered, just before the fight or flight instinct took over, that Asher had spoken of a plan.  He was taunting me, yes, but he didn’t seem tangibly furious about the museum job.  Whatever he wanted, we hadn’t fully derailed it yet.  His machinations involved the Magi and their power, so far as I’d seen, had no discernable limits.  He wouldn’t risk that much influence over revenge.  I hoped.

My smile widened and I took a risk.  “Bravado, Asher?  Really?”

He met my eyes for thirty seconds.  Then, he laughed and shook his head ruefully.  “This is more fun anyway, don’t you think?  Two old friends, locked in mortal combat over a past betrayal?  The movie almost writes itself.”

“I didn’t betray you,” I said immediately, a rote response that came out before I’d even consciously considered it.

“I don’t know about that.”  He unbuttoned and pulled up his sleeve, revealing the burn scars in all their horrible glory.  “I’ve got a few sore spots that beg to differ.”

“I thought you were dead, Ash.”  Without meaning to, I slipped into the affectionate nickname.  He didn’t complain or seem discomfited by its use.  If anything, the fact that it came so easily to my lips bothered me.  “What should I have done?  Dug around in the hot coals of the building your bomb set on fire?”

“You should have HELPED!”  I flinched away at the sudden increase in volume.  Individuals at other tables took notice of our conversation and, without openly appearing to, started to pay closer attention.  Asher shook his head several times, rolled his shoulders, and slowly returned the sleeve to its intended position.  “You should have helped,” he repeated in a calmer tone.  “So, just know that what happens next?  This is on you.”

The earbud popped.  “Devlin, we need to go,” Sarah said.  “The other drivers noticed a shift in the local traffic.  It took a while for us to piece it together, but I think Asher’s planning on putting his men on every road.  According to Michel, the other drivers think so, too.  He’s trying to box us in.”

It was a neat plan, but I didn’t hope for a moment that it was the only one he had in the works.  Still, it wouldn’t do to fall into an avoidable trap.

I stood up without warning and smoothed a wrinkle from my jacket.  “This has been fun,” I said, “but I’m pretty tired and dealing with your revisionist bullshit isn’t high on my list of priorities.”

“I’ll have Michel pull the car around.  We can leave as soon as you get here,” Sarah said.

Asher sighed.  “One of your team found out about the tails, then?  I knew that it was a risk – satellites being as ubiquitous as they are nowadays – but I still had to try.”

I added another item to the list of things Asher didn’t seem to know about.

“Go ahead and run.  Just know that I’ll be seeing you,” Asher said.  “Soon.” The menace returned to his voice, magnified and intensified into pure malevolence.

“Not if I see you first,” I replied.

I left the table with Asher seated at it.  Neither he nor his bodyguard made any move to follow me.  On the way out, I caught the eye of the Texan.  He touched two fingers to his forehead at my passing.  The party’s guards allowed me to pass without comment, and I found myself outside without speaking a single word to another human being.  That allowed me to mull over the brief conversation with Asher and its implications.  I discovered, as I slid into the backseat of the Aston Martin, that I actually was tired.

“Here.”  I dug the paper the Texan had given me from my pocket and handed it to Sarah.  Another item fell to the floor of the car: the business card of the efficient young woman from the hotel.

Sarah passed the card to Michel.  “This is the address.  Time’s a factor, but we don’t want any trouble with the local law.  Especially not while Adlai’s in town.”

“Of course,” he said with a nod.  “Discretion is my middle name.”

“Dev,” Sarah asked, turning to me, “what’re you thinking?”

“I’m thinking,” I said as I picked up the business card and began to play with its edges, “that things are really about to get interesting.”

Chapter Forty-Eight

Our Nordic guide led the way through the extravagantly appointed warehouse.  Sarah and I followed, playing our role as a power couple to the hilt, while Mila trailed behind us and watched for threats.  With the exception of an increasingly severe examination directed our way by the occupants of each table that we passed, along with an uptick in attention from a menagerie of bodyguards, no one made any aggressive move in our direction.  After only a minute, I found myself wishing for some sort of overt action; the patient, searching way they weighed us left me with an unclean feeling.

Abruptly, the guide stopped and gestured to a large table.  At least a half dozen chairs dotted the perimeter, evenly spaced out and identical in presentation.  “Is this acceptable?”  He asked.

I turned, ostensibly to ask Sarah for her opinion; in reality, I scanned the tables behind us.  From here, I would have a good vantage point of the other conversations.  I could position myself at one end, with Sarah a chair or two away for additional coverage, and Mila could cover my blind spots with a short patrol.  Her movement wouldn’t raise any flags.  There were several different bodyguards performing similar short paces or, in the case of a pair of Japanese twins, walking the entire circumference of the table at a leisurely pace.  “Darling, what do you think?”  I asked.

Sarah covered her mouth with her fingertips and faked a yawn.  It was convincing enough that I felt a strong urge to yawn myself.  “I suppose,” she said.  For all the world, she sounded like a bored power broker forced into a situation out of her control.  There were imperfections in her façade, of course, but they were the sort of personal tics that nobody but me would even know to look for.  “One table is as good as any other, isn’t it?”

“True enough,” I replied, nodding sagely, “true enough.  This will do just fine, then.”

The balding man lowered his head and pulled two chairs from beneath the table.  I ignored his offerings and took two different chairs, chosen for the vantage point they offered.  Sarah took a seat in the chair I magnanimously gestured to and, when she was comfortable, I sat down as well.  Mila took position behind my left shoulder.  The Nordic man watched this happen with an expression of dawning consternation and, after the three of us were settled into our places, hurried to return his two chairs to their positions under the table.  “Of course, of course,” he said, “pick whichever seat you desire.”

I dismissed his apology with a wave of my hand.  “You mentioned others who wanted to discuss business?”

The man produced a phone from a pocket I hadn’t seen and checked its screen for information.  “Apologies, sir, but prior arrangements have called your dining partner away for the moment,” he said.  “It is requested that you extend your patience in this matter.”

That gave me more time to settle into character, which was good.  Even just a few minutes might be instrumental in gleaning the necessary information to survive this strange party from the surrounding dinner parties.  I welcomed the delay, even as I assumed an expression of supreme displeasure.  “Is this the manner with which all things are to be handled here?”

“No, sir, but…”

“But what?  I was informed by you that there would be business opportunities to discuss here.  And yet, here I am, with no such discussion awaiting me.”

Sarah reached across the empty seat between us and touched my shoulder with her long fingers.  The contact sent an electric wave through me and I shuddered, purely on instinct, before I could control myself.  She gave no indication of having noticed.  “We arrived later than expected,” she purred, “so perhaps we can afford to extend a bit of courtesy to our partner.  It is only polite, after all, and you know how our employer detests impoliteness.”

I made a show of breathing in deeply, calming myself more with each exhale.  The act was a little overblown but, judging from the fear in the man’s eyes, effective.  “Fine,” I said, after a particularly dramatic breath.  “You are right again, of course.”

Sarah accepted the compliment with a demur incline of her head.

The man released a sigh of relief.  “Excellent, sir.  Ma’am.  While you wait, would you care to peruse the menu for the evening?  Or perhaps simply some refreshment?”

I rubbed at my chin.  People were dining all around us; it stood to reason that there would actually be some form of dinner provided at an event that Mila had described as a dinner party.  My stomach hadn’t adjusted yet to life on the outside.  Any meal tastier than featureless gruel and larger than the offerings one might expect in a child’s lunchbox seemed sumptuous and decadent.  “What sort of refreshments?”

“Whatever you would like.  If your preference isn’t available,” the man said, “I am certain arrangements could be made to locate it.”

“My darling,” Sarah interjected and dragged the word out for all its worth, “will have a pint of Guinness, served just slightly below room temperature.  You do have someone who can handle that in the proper way, I assume?”

“Of course, ma’am.”  He typed the order into his tablet.  “And for you?”

She considered the question.   “Sauvignon Blanc,” I said.  I paused and then pulled a year out of thin air.  “2002 was an excellent vintage, wasn’t it, dear?”

“Quite,” Sarah answered.  She smiled drily at the waiter.  “If you don’t have that available, simply bring me the absolute driest white wine you can dig up.”

The Nordic man entered that information into his phone.  “Would you care to hear tonight’s offerings for dinner?”

I opened my mouth, but it was Sarah who spoke.  “Not at the moment.  I prefer to discuss my business while hungry.  Gives the proceedings something of an edge.”  The dry smile turned predatory as she turned it on the poor, witless man.

I joined in with a savage grin of my own.  “Oh, quite.  Now, run along, little man.  Those refreshments won’t bring themselves, now will they?”

He bowed several times, bending nearly in half by the end.  “Of course, sir.  Ma’am.  If you’ll excuse me.”  He hurried away, weaving a path through the tables at high speed and eventually disappearing behind a rich green velvet curtain hung from the ceiling.

“As it turns out,” Sarah said, in her usual voice, “2002 actually was a good year for Sauvignon Blanc.  Although I’m more of a Riesling fan, nowadays.”

“The more things change,” I replied.  “I seem to remember someone absolutely detesting any assignment that required a grift.”

She shrugged.  “A girl’s got to have some secrets, you know.  I assume that Guinness is still your preferred drink?  I noticed them in the fridge earlier.”

“After you’ve spent a few years with nothing but prison wine, your tastes become decidedly less refined.  Hell, at this point, I’d probably have taken a cold beer.”

Sarah mock-gasped in horror.  “Perish the thought, Dev.  Perish the very thought.”

I smiled, for real, and she smiled back.  Our professional relationship rarely involved the opportunity for both of us to play roles.  On assignment, Sarah had preferred to remain at a safe distance, orchestrating each individual element of the plan, while I threw myself into the thick of things.  Personally, however, we’d developed a game of assuming identities at random and seeing how well the other could keep up with any unexpected changes.  I was the reigning champion, although Sarah’s skill at improvisation had grown considerably during our time together.  If our performance thus far was any indication, she’d only improved further during the years apart.

“Are you two having fun?”  Mila asked.  It took me a second to understand her; she spoke without moving her lips.

“If you aren’t having fun at work,” I said, deliberately quoting something Patrick had said to me at La Santé, “then you aren’t doing the right job.  A wise man told me that once.”

“That does sound like something you’d ascribe to,” Sarah said, not entirely unkindly.  “Mila, what’s up?”

“Michel doesn’t have anything specific to share,” Mila said, “but something doesn’t seem right.  Most of the drivers are professionals with long histories as wheelmen.  If what he’s hearing is right, then a lot of those hardened criminals feel like something’s off.”

“Off?”  I asked.  “How so?”

“No idea, yet.  He’s asking around for names and information.  I’ll let you know if he finds out anything definite, or if he comes up with a name you can add to your search.”

I started to reply, but stopped when our waiter returned to view.  Between the fingers of one hand, he held the neck of a wine bottle and an empty glass; in the other, a nearly perfect pour of Guinness.  He made his way over to us, threading an expert path through the tables.  He stopped in his tracks when a tall, broad-shouldered man with a full head of jet black hair, hidden beneath a wide brimmed cowboy hat,  stood suddenly and blocked his path.  The two exchanged words for a bit before the waiter handed over the bottle of wine, the glass, and the beer and returned to the back of the hangar.  The man who’d intercepted the drinks turned and walked directly over to us.

When he reached us, the man placed all three items on the table and pulled a chair free with his foot.  “I hope you don’t mind if I sit,” he said in a thick Texan drawl.  “These things require so much walking that I just have to take every opportunity to rest my dogs.  You understand, right?”

“And you are?”  I asked.

Instead of answering my question, the man patted his jacket and frowned.  “One second,” he said.  He stood from the table and rushed back to his previous seat, searching for something there.

I used the temporary break to turn slightly towards Mila.  “Who’s that?”  I asked under my breath.

“I’ve seen him before,” she answered, “but I don’t know his name.”

The Texan returned a moment later.  He held a small glass half-filled with a dark brown liquor and a chewed cigar.  “As I was saying,” he continued, “apologies for not being here when ya’ll showed up.  Got a little tired of waiting and I figured I could take care of a couple different issues instead of just wasting the time.”

He leaned his chair back onto two legs and took a long drink from his liquor.  His jacket parted as he did so and I could see clearly that he wasn’t wearing a shoulder holster.  There were other places to hide a weapon, of course, but nothing in his demeanor told me that he was a physical threat.  In contrast to virtually everybody else in the hangar, a bodyguard wasn’t standing vigil over him, either.  I cleared my throat with as much authority as I possessed.  “I’ll ask again; who are you?”

“Who am I?”  He laughed.  “Why, I’m the person your waiter over there said was waiting for ya’ll to get here.  Pleasure to meet the two of you, I got to say.”

Immediately, my defenses came up.  I felt Sarah stiffen slightly and, when she spoke, her voice was slightly more controlled. “The pleasure is all ours,” Sarah said.  In reaction to the unexpected guest, she’d gone deeper into the persona.  I recognized it now for what it is: a note-perfect impersonation of her older sister.  There were worse parts to play in this situation, but Sarah’s act was based on years of personal experience and knowledge; for better or worse, she knew her sister as well as anyone could know a person.  She didn’t like her, but that was irrelevant when it came to the grift.  She gestured toward the wine bottle with two lazy fingers.

“Oh, damn, forgot all about that.”  The Texan – for lack of a better name – filled the glass with Sauvignon and passed it to Sarah, before he handed me the Guinness.  He raised his own glass into the air.  I mirrored the gesture; Sarah cast a cool eye on both of us for several seconds before she did the same.  “To business.”

“To business,” she and I repeated.  We all took a drink.

“Now,” the Texan said, rubbing his hands together, “let’s deal.”

“Just like that?”  I asked.

“Don’t see a reason why we should wait.  I got deals to make and hands to shake.  Planning to be back on a flight home before morning.  Unless you’re saying you changed your mind about that information?”

I kept myself from raising an instinctive eyebrow.  “Depends on the price,” I hedged.

“The work you people did undermining the security at the museum was worth its weight in gold to the right folk.  Plus, there’s the matter of the crown itself.  Far as I’m concerned, you met your end of the agreement.  Your employer stands to make a fair bit of change on the sale; my clients get what they want; and little old me, well…well, I get a commission and a bump in credibility.”

There was a lot of information there.  I sorted through it while I took another long drink of the Guinness.  He’d referred to “our employer,” which meant he bought the fiction of Sarah and me as agents at the Lady’s behest.  Then, however, he’d specifically said that he would make money, in the form of commissions.

“Funny thing,” the Texan drawled.  “I’ll be honest; when I put that request out, I wasn’t expecting someone to snap it up that quick.  Especially not a party I’d never heard of.  And, as you can imagine, I know a lot of the movers and shakers.  Who doesn’t need a good fence, right?”

He’d never heard of the Lady before.  I committed that information to memory and added a mental question: how could she have amassed as much power as she obviously had, if the local fence had never heard of her before?  For that matter, how could a fence – typically, the most interchangeable part of any illicit deal – rise to the point of power hinted at by our opulent surroundings?

Sarah provided the answer to the second question.  “Information broker might be a more descriptive term,” she pointed out.  “Unless you insist on representing yourself as less than you are?”

The Texan touched two fingers to his forehead in acknowledgment.  “Way I see it, so long as people are looking to sell something and people are looking to buy something, I can do my part to put the two together.  Doesn’t matter to me what they’re selling, within reason.”  He reached into his jacket pocket and removed a thin slip of paper.

“That’s for us, then?”  I asked.

He placed the paper on the table.  “Usual rules apply.  I’m not involved past this point.  All I’m doing is answering a question your employer asked.  Whatever you do with this, it’s got nothing to do with me.”  His eyes narrowed.  “Unless, that is, you’ve got something else to offer?”

I shook my head and looked pointedly at the paper until the Texan moved his hand away.  I pulled the slip over to me.  “Not at the moment, no.”

“Fair enough, I suppose.”  He finished his drink in a large swallow.  “Your employer’s got ways of contacting me, if something comes up.”

“And if we wanted to speak with you?”  Sarah asked.  I shot her a look.  The expression on her face remained placid and calm.

The corners of the Texan’s lips turned up.  He took a second item from his jacket: a black business card with a phone number and email address written on one side in a bold red font.  “You got a request or you got something to sell, send me a message at one of those.  I don’t ask what you plan to do with any of that information.  Not my business, understand?”

“It seems to me,” Sarah said, “that would be exactly your business.”

“You do understand, then,” he replied.  He smiled at me.  “One hell of a woman you got with you, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“I don’t mind at all,” I said.  “Whether or not she minds, however, is an entirely different matter.”

The Texan raised his hands in surrender.  “No offense intended.  But, if you’ll excuse me, I got other clients waiting for my presence and this drink seems to have disappeared.”  He waved the empty glass in the air. On the other side of the hangar, a waiter noticed the gesture and began to make his way over.  “Here’s hoping I hear from ya’ll in the future.”

“Quite,” I said with a polite nod.  Sarah did the same, although she didn’t speak a word at all.

He stood and left the table, headed in a different direction from where he’d come.  I waited until he was seated to turn over the slip of paper.  “What is it?”  Sarah asked.

I read the paper twice and then handed it to her.  After she finished, Sarah discreetly passed it back to Mila.  “An address?”  Mila asked after she’d had a chance to look over the information.  “To what?”

“We stole the crown,” I mused out loud, “and the Lady had us drop it off somewhere so that the Texan could pick it up for one of his clients.  Asher wanted to steal the crown, too…maybe for the same reasons?  Except that would have embarrassed Hill, so…”

Sarah leaned closer and lowered her voice.  Both Mila and I were forced to do the same to hear her.  “It’s the key,” Sarah said.  “This might be where the key’s located.”

“The Lady arranged for us to steal the payment we’d need  for information she hadn’t asked for yet?”  I pursed my lips and let a slow whistle blow over my lips.  “That’s a hell of a lot of foresight.”

“So, what now?”  Sarah asked.

“Finish our drinks,” I suggested.  “Maybe mingle with some of the other tables, but don’t make any concrete arrangements.  If we leave now, people will look and they’ll wonder.  These don’t seem like the kind of people I want wondering about who we are, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want anyone here taking an interest in my life.”

“I don’t know about all that,” a voice said.  I sat up to face the speaker and felt every drop of blood in my body instantly turn ten degrees colder.

“What are you…?”  I began.

Asher kept on speaking.  “You’re a nice enough person, if you ask me.  Little slow on the uptake, but who’s perfect?”