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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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.