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.”

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