The Concierge

“I simply must have front row tickets, you see.  Their live performances are wonderful, almost transcendent…or so I’ve heard.  I can’t be so close to one without getting to see it in person,” the guest said.  “You understand, right?”

Sophie, who had seen the band in question on a number of occasions, did not understand, but she nodded anyway.  “Of course, ma’am.  I would be happy to assist, however I can.  Was there a particular evening that you had in mind?”

She was already typing, even as she mechanically spoke the words.  Her mind traced through a series of connections – favors owed, enticements she could offer, leverage she could use – going all the way back to the band itself.  This wasn’t the first time a guest had needed last minute tickets; it wasn’t even the first time this month.

“Well,” the lady on the other side of the desk said, “my husband and I have business in Milan tomorrow – very important business – so tonight would be the only time we’re available…”

She kept talking; Sophie tuned her out with a faint twinge of irritation.  Why did guests always try that?  Men and women alike both name-dropped celebrities and discussed ‘exotic’ locations, as if it would impress her.  She’d been working at the Brooklands for years, and her position as head concierge afforded her access to luxuries that few people even knew about.  What did the wealthy, powerful, or influential think they could offer her that she couldn’t acquire on her own?

She finished the message to the band’s manager and sent it off, just as an email appeared in her own inbox.  Not the inbox she used to coordinate her staff at the Brooklands; no, this one had come to her other account.

Received, the message read.  Ten clean passports, ten Cayman bank accounts, five network infiltration specialists, three personal security experts, one shipping container.  Payment delivered.

Sure enough, her phone beeped and Sophie didn’t have to check the display to know what it would show.  The materials and personnel she’d redirected weren’t inexpensive, and she required a commission for her work in navigating through the paperwork, connecting interested parties, and ensuring that the multiple transactions took place without incident.  She would well paid for the work she’d done.

She typed out a quick reply, without bothering to involve her brain in the process.  Happy to be of service, she wrote.

Out loud, she said, “I don’t want to make any promises, ma’am, but I should be able to pull some strings and get you and your husband into the show.  If you’d like, I can have those tickets sent up to your room as soon as they’re available.”

“Well,” the woman dragged out the syllable, then lowered her voice to a conspiratorial volume.  “My husband doesn’t exactly have to know that I’m going to the concert, does he?”

“One ticket would be easier to acquire,” Sophie said.  Which was true, but only a purely technical sense: it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to get as many tickets as she desired.  It wasn’t her money that she was spending, after all.

Another message appeared in her private inbox.  Police presence at airport is heavier than expected.  Bribe?

Apologies, she wrote.  I have a strict policy of not interfering with the efforts of law enforcement.

The reply came quickly, and the client forgot to even pretend towards civility.  Help, it said, or we’ll point the finger at you.

Unlikely, she typed.  But please, feel free to contact me again if you require any other assistance, outside of that earlier restriction.

She didn’t expect to get a response to that one.  Criminals were a lot like the nouveau riche, in a way.  Both classes of people expected to shock her into compliance or awe, as if she didn’t live her life in the presence of those things every day.  Sophie hadn’t been frightened of legal punishments since her second year as an underworld fixer.  She certainly wasn’t about to start being frightened now.

Part of that security came from fastidious attention to detail.  She almost never broke the law, technically, although she did skirt around it on a regular basis.  So long as the client didn’t tell her that, for instance, they intended to use ten pounds of plastic explosives to blow off a vault door, it wasn’t exactly her responsibility.  She couldn’t be held accountable for what a legitimate businessman did if, hypothetically, two new employees were sent to collect protection money.  A container of Sudafed might have legitimate uses in the hands of an energetic entrepreneur; Sophie didn’t know, and didn’t care, if that might be the case.

It wasn’t her job to help her clients in whatever pursuits they might imagine.  All she did was provide them with the best available equipment and personnel, using the same courtesy and alacrity that she provided when working with the latest heiress at the Brooklands.  At any given moment, she was working on two or three things at a time: clearing out a tee time at the Wentworth Club for a group of American businessmen; renting a limited edition McLaren for an Italian playboy past his prime; and arranging the purchase of twenty crates of the latest in Chinese RPGs.

“You see,” the woman said, “I might have met someone.  Nothing serious, of course, just something a little…spicy.  It was his idea to go to this concert, in the first place.”

“Oh my,” Sophie said, forming her lips into a scandalized expression.  She resisted the urge to yawn.  “So, two tickets, but you’d prefer it if your husband didn’t know.”

“Quite, quite,” the woman said.  Color crept up into her cheeks.  “This man is…something different than anyone I’ve ever met before.  So young, so vibrant.”

She continued on with the description and Sophie, paying the conversation the bare minimum of attention it required, nodded at the appropriate points.  The band’s manager was taking longer to reply than normal.  He might simply be backed up with preparations for his secret show and Sophie, understanding the amount of effort that went into that sort of thing, would normally be content to let him work at his own pace.  This woman wouldn’t stop droning on, though.  As if this was the first affair that she’d ever had.  It certainly wasn’t the first affair Sophie had been forced to hear about; it was if these women wanted someone to hear about their dalliances.

Sophie only wanted her to go somewhere else, so that she could focus on her other tasks for the day.

She sighed a moment later, considering what the rest of her work day would look like.  She would be arranging proposal photographers and dead drops with about the same frequency, but neither activity seemed particularly challenging.  She’d done so many things over the years that even the less legal aspect of her work was becoming routine.  Predictable.  Boring.

An email came into her Brooklands inbox.  She exited the illicit server, expecting to see confirmation of her request from the band, and was surprised to find an address she didn’t recognize at the top of the unread messages.  She clicked it open.

I trust, the email said, that the account I provided was sufficient for the purposes?

Sophie raised an eyebrow.  The Brooklands maintained a fairly robust spam filter, in order to keep the servers safe from any twenty-something with an internet connection and too much free time.  Apparently someone had found a way through.  She deleted the message and made a mental note to contact IT.

“You won’t believe how I met him,” the woman said.  “It was on one of those nude beaches in France, you see.”

Sophie covered her mouth, ostensibly in shock; in reality, the earlier yawn had found its way out.  “You don’t say, ma’am.”

The woman nodded in excitement.  “My husband was busy with work, just like he always is, and…”

Another email, now to the criminal server.  This was an address she recognized, so Sophie opened it.

I was pleasantly surprised at your efficiency.  We should discuss further business.

A flashing icon at the bottom of the screen told her that the client wanted to start a live chat.  She clicked the chat window open.

From BigBrother1986:  What percentage of costs do you require as payment?

Sophie puzzled over the other’s username for a few seconds, before its significance occurred to her.  George Orwell.  She smiled at that.  Someone had a sense of humor, apparently.

From Morrigan01: Five percent, payable upon completion of our business.

From BigBrother1986:  Completion being defined as…?

That gave Sophie a moment of pause.  The job assigned to this account was something new.  For one thing, the original request hadn’t included any specific details.  Instead, a list of possible aliases and a portfolio’s worth of photographs had been delivered to her, followed by a banking account number and, in place of a signature, a symbol of three interlocking triangles pointed down.

Sophie had booked the penthouse suite at her hotel in anticipation, and the couple had arrived, but they’d only stayed in the room for a few hours.  And a little bit after that, the man had called to request a cottage of all things.  Sophie handled the transactions, purchasing the land from a widower looking to travel, and furnished it with technology and supplies redirected from a few subsidiaries and former clients in the area.  After that, there had been no new requests and she had assumed that payment would be forthcoming.

From BigBrother1986: You might find the news enlightening, if you’re unsure how best to answer.

Sophie looked up, past the woman who was currently in the midst of a graphic description of what a younger man enjoyed, to one of the televisions hanging in the lobby.  The sound was off, but the closed captioning was on.

“…a sleepy lakeside village in the countryside,” the newscaster was saying, “under siege in tonight’s top story.  According to local sources, police services are now investigating reports of gunfire and car chases in…”

Sophie blinked, and then opened a new tab and navigated to the station’s website.  One of the top links contained a series of theories and speculations about the crime; each one was terribly wrong.  That was to be expected, though.  He didn’t have access to the same information as Sophie.  The “sleepy lakeside village” corresponded neatly with the address of the cottage she’d purchased, only a few days ago.

Immediately, she began the process of selling the property to another client, who had been looking for somewhere to lay low.  There was virtually no chance of someone tracing it all the way back to her, but she had never been accused of lacking the proper amount of paranoia.

In the midst of that, her phone beeped.  She glanced down at it, distracted by her work and the lady’s continued presence, and froze.  The number on the display had a lot of zeroes.

From BigBrother1986: I trust this payment is sufficient?

Some quick and dirty math – recalling how much she’d spent on the cottage and clothing, then calculating how much she should have made for the job – provided Sophie with a number that was five times smaller than the amount her accounts had just received.  The cottage hadn’t been cheap, but it also hadn’t been a mansion.  The SUV was a secondhand purchase; the clothes had been delivered to the Brooklands, already tailored to fit; and Sophie had only needed to hire a team of technicians to install the computer system that had mysteriously been sent to the Brooklands in pieces over the past week.  Nothing about what she’d done necessitated so much money.

From Morrigan01: Five percent is more than enough.

From BigBrother1986: Work well done is work worth paying for.  Your regular fee, plus an enticement.

From Morrigan01: An enticement for what?

From BigBrother1986: Your continued assistance.  I suspect your guests will require additional aid throughout their time in England.  It would be appreciated if you would continue to provide the level of service you have thus far demonstrated.

Sophie understood what that meant.

From Morrigan01: I don’t break the law when assisting my guests in whatever activities they do, or do not, conduct.

From BigBrother1986: I’ve seen to those who break the law, Sophie.  Your job would only be to provide them with the tools to do so.

Sophie’s heart leapt up into her throat.  The first email, delivered to her Brooklands address, made sudden and terrifying sense.  Someone from the underworld knew who she was.  The layers of protection Sophie used to insulate her civilian identity from her criminal one were painstakingly thorough and she added new defenses as techniques were developed or defeated.

For someone to contact her by name was unheard of.  It was horrifying, the possibilities of retribution for failure something she hadn’t really considered until that exact moment.  It was the nightmare scenario: a situation she had planned for, outlining a series of checkpoints and fake names, so that she could disappear before a dissatisfied client could find her or force her to give up her sources.

It was…intriguing.

From Morrigan01: I am unfamiliar with working under these conditions.

From BigBrother1986: Life is often unfamiliar.  Will you take the job?

Sophie mused idly at the prospect but, even as she did that, she knew she’d say yes.  The amount of money the client had transferred into her accounts simply to entice her was staggering.  Besides the money – perhaps more important than the money – Sophie was interested.  She’d worked at the behest of powerful people before.  There was an air of mystery and danger around these proceedings that she’d never encountered before.

From Morrigan01: Are there any restrictions you would care to outline?  Spending limits, equipment requisitions…anything of that sort?

From BigBrother1986: Your guests will have a better idea of their requirements than I will.  If a problem arises with the funding, simply open a line of communication and I will see to it that the problem is rectified.  Until such point, you should endeavor to provide the best service you possibly can.

A blank check, in essence.  A smile tugged at the corners of Sophie’s lips, but she kept it from her face.

From BigBrother1986: Of course, it wouldn’t due for you to attempt any sort of subterfuge.  Your skillset is impressive, Miss Morgan, but not irreplaceable.

From Morrigan01: I wouldn’t dream of it.

From BigBrother1986: Excellent.  I take that question as a tacit agreement on your part, then.  Did you have any further questions?

From Morrigan01: Would you prefer that I keep you up to date on what services and equipment I acquire for my guests?

Several seconds passed.  Three dots appeared next to BigBrother1986’s name and stayed there for so long that Sophie started to think a reply wasn’t coming.  She tuned back into the lady’s conversation.

“Of course, this isn’t the sort of thing I do,” she said.  It seemed that she hadn’t even noticed Sophie’s preoccupation.

“Of course not,” Sophie said.  “It’s simply one of those things.”

“Exactly!”  The woman clapped her hands together in excitement.  “Finally, someone who understands.  It isn’t about the sex or even that he makes for such delightful arm candy, it’s just…”

A soft ding let Sophie knew that another message had arrived.

From BigBrother1986: An asset closer to the situation would provide a clearer picture of events, yes.  Any assistance you provide will, of course, be remembered.

Sophie wasn’t able to start a response to that before BigBrother1986 logged off.  Almost immediately, five new emails appeared in her Brooklands inbox, all of them from the band’s manager.  According to the time stamps, they’d been sent within a minute of her first message.  It took her a moment to understand what had happened.

BigBrother1986 had somehow blocked her inbox from receiving new messages, presumably to make certain that Sophie’s attention was entirely on the conversation.  That was a neat trick, but wholly unnecessary.  The mystery client had claimed her attention from the start.

Sophie printed out the tickets and allowed the smile she’d hidden to appear on her lips.  Using a blank sheet of paper to conceal them, she slid both tickets across the desk to the woman, who secreted them away like nuclear launch codes.

“I would never do this,” the woman said.  “I know how much of a stereotype I am, and how silly it all is, but, it’s just that it’s…”  She trailed off.

“It’s something exciting,” Sophie said.

“Yes!  It’s something I’ve never done before and I just can’t help myself!”

Sophie’s smile turned secretive.  “Trust me, ma’am.  I understand exactly what you mean.”  

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Chapter Sixty-Three

Instead of going directly back to the Brooklands, Michel drove us on a circuitous path for the next three hours, circling our own path so many times that I lost count.  We stopped at random locations, waited for any hint of Aiden’s group on our tail, and generally turned “appropriate paranoia” into our survival mantra.  For a while, I considered ditching the SUV, just to be absolutely safe. Ultimately, we decided to park the car several blocks away from the hotel, taking back alleys and shortcuts through the woods at the edge of the Brooklands’ grounds to reach our destination.

Avis grumbled slightly at the imposition for the first hour; after that, she’d taken to reading one of her mathematics textbooks and, eventually, slumped to sleep against one of Neal’s arms.  When we left the SUV, he scooped the girl up and simply carried her for a good portion of the trip, until she roused and began to walk on her own.  The interactions between the two of them was interesting, and I watched them with a keen eye, trying to piece together a working profile on either of them.

I could see that Avis was fiercely independent, when she was conscious.  Her choice of vocabulary, her diction, and her tone matched up with some of the rougher people I’d worked with.  There was a hint of a Cockney accent mixed up in there, somewhere, but I could hear that it was being deliberately obscured.  Even the way she carried herself reminded me more of a short criminal – someone like Stanislav, for instance – than a nine year old girl who hung out with armed guards and worked at the behest of a British drug kingpin.  When she slept, however, all of those trappings fell away.  She muttered softly while she dreamed and nestled up to Neal for warmth.  The first few minutes after she woke up were much the same; it wasn’t until she’d fully returned to the land of wakefulness that her attitude reasserted itself.

Taken together, I was willing to guess that the commanding air was something Avis consciously portrayed, rather than a natural disposition.  That answer only gave me more questions, though.  Where had she come from?  How had she become involved with Hill and the Magi?  And, perhaps most importantly, what service did she provide that warranted the protection/surveillance that she’d been living under?  She was important, somehow, and she obviously knew it.

Neal was as much of a mystery as his charge.  I was operating under the profile offered by Mila, until something happened that necessitated a change, and it seemed like she’d nailed a lot of the particulars.  He moved like a soldier; responded to orders with immediate, almost unconscious obedience; and, as I’d seen in the firefight at the manor house, he knew how to handle a weapon.  That was something I could possibly use, if we found ourselves in a situation like that again, but I didn’t anticipate needing a second bodyguard.  His interactions with Avis seemed more like an older brother than a bodyguard or handler.

I composed a mental note to ask Sarah for a complete background on Benjamin Neal: his family, background, service record, any possible criminal history.  Any information she could uncover could easily prove instrumental in the future.

I pulled myself out of my thoughts as we approached the edge of the treeline, and used one of my burner phones to dial Sophie’s number.  She answered after the second ring.  “Yes, Mister O’Brien?  Is there something I can assist you with?”

“Good news, bad news,” I said, ignoring Sarah’s quiet groan behind me.  “We’ve finished up with our time in the country.  I assume you’ll want to…I don’t know, repurpose that cottage for some other ‘guest?’”

Silence for a few seconds, followed by a rapid series of keystrokes.  “If you have no further use for that particular location, I would be happy to send a team of cleaners.  It would be a shame to have left something of importance where it could be found and misused.”

Translation: “fingerprints, hair follicles, and DNA samples.”  “I’d appreciate that,” I said into the phone.  “Here’s the bad news, though.  We need another room at the Brooklands.”

There was a pause that lasted for less than a millisecond before Sophie cleared her throat deliberately.  “I assume you would like easy access to that room?”

“If possible, sure,” I said.  “Think you could arrange that?”

I hadn’t meant the question as a challenge, but the small huff that made its way through the line told me that Sophie thought otherwise.  She didn’t anything at all for a few moments and the sound of her fingers rapidly flying across the keys was the only sound, except for my groups’ footsteps through the dead pine needles on the ground.  “Of course,” Sophie said, finally.  “How many guests will you be arriving with?”

“Just two,” I said.  “Thanks, Sophie.”

“I am happy to help,” Sophie said, and disconnected the line.

I slipped the phone back into my pocket and turned to Sarah.  “Any word on the mess we just left behind us?”

She walked without looking up from her smartphone.  She’d learned that skill at some point in her life and, despite a not-insignificant amount of effort, I had never learned how to mimic it without walking into a wall or pillar.  “Local law enforcement called for support when they found the manor house riddled with bullets.  No arrests have been made, though, and it looks like the entire property was cleared out before any uniforms made it.”

I cursed softly.  “That would have been too good to hope for, I guess.”

“Hope for whatever you’d like,” Sarah said.  “But you aren’t lucky enough to get a break like that.”  She glanced up from her phone for an instant, smirked, and returned to reading.

I smiled back at the top of her head.  “Have you had any luck with the other thing?”

Sarah sighed in response and the smirk faded away.  “I transferred the files I was able to pull onto one of my servers,” she said, “and I’ve got a program sorting through them for any mention of a key.  It hasn’t found anything yet.”

Neal and Avis were traveling a little behind us, far enough away that they couldn’t hear our conversation.  I lowered my voice, anyway.  “I’ve got a room for those two at the hotel,” I said, “but I don’t know what we should do with them.  Ideas?”

Sarah shrugged.  “Let them lay low for a day or two, just until the heat dies down.  I’ll set up a couple of identities that’ll get them out of the country.  After that…”

“Asher is going to find out that we were at the manor house.  I don’t want to cut them loose, only for them to get picked up again in a day or two,” I said.  “But his focus will be on us and the decryption key.”

“Maybe not in that order,” Sarah said.

I nodded.  “If he can’t get Neal and Avis back without disrupting whatever he’s got in the works, he’s likely to just shelve that problem until later.”

“You want to make yourself into the bait, just so that these two can get a clean break?”  Sarah asked.

“I’m already the bait,” I said.  “I just think we might as well get some use out of that.”

Michel stepped up, past Avis and Neal, to join on my left side.  “Is everything okay?”  He asked.

“Things are as good as can be expected,” I non-answered.  “How are you holding up?”

The Frenchman flexed his fingers, opening and closing them a few times, before he answered.  “I am a little shaky,” he said.  “And I think I could use something to eat.  Perhaps a drink, as well.”

“That’s the adrenaline leaving you,” I said.  “If you stick with us long enough, you’ll get used to it.  At the rate things are going, you’ll probably build up a tolerance a lot faster than most people.”

“Is it always like that?”  Michel asked.

“Like what?”

“Guns and mercenaries and…”  His sentence withered away to nonsense syllables, but I understood his meaning.

“And excitement?”  I asked.  “Exhilaration?”

Michel looked sheepish as he nodded once.

“Yeah,” I said, smiling wistfully.  “Yeah, it can be like that.  Normally, there’s fewer guns involved – well, there are fewer guns on our side – but it’s basically the same.”

“And this is what you do?”  He pressed.  “Did you miss this when you were in prison?”

“I’ll be honest here,” I said.  “I miss the rush, pretty much every time I’m not chasing after it.”

Michel considered that sentiment for a dozen steps before he nodded, a light of dim understanding flickering to life behind his eyes as he did so.

Something moved in the underbrush to my right and I jerked my eyes in that direction, instantly.  A squirrel darted away at top speed.  I adjusted my head slightly, so that Sarah could share in my moment of anxiety, and found an expression on her face that I didn’t recognize.  Her eyes had slid away from the screen of her smartphone, down to her feet; her lips were slightly parted, as though she wanted to say something, but didn’t have the courage; and, as I watched, she took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly.  She glanced up at me, licked her lips, and then looked away without saying anything aloud.

“Don’t get too hooked on that,” Mila said, suddenly right behind me.

I jumped ­– actually jumped – a good four inches from the ground in shock.  When I landed, I spun on her, wide-eyed.  “Do you have to do that?”

“Do what?”  She held Sam on one side of her body, carefully secured in such a way that her arm didn’t restrict the cat’s breathing.

“Your…you know, the thing when you…”  I threw my hands up in surrender, turned, and started forward again.  “Anyway.”

“Anyway,” she agreed.  “Yeah, I wouldn’t suggest getting too addicted to that rush, Michel.”

“Why is that?”  He asked.

“Does things to you,” Mila answered, simply.  “Changes the way you look at things.”  She shrugged one shoulder.

With the enigmas presented by Avis and Neal dominating my unconscious mind, I hadn’t been able to turn any attention to Mila.  The way she’d broken down at the manor house bothered me, more deeply than I would’ve admitted to anyone.  While I didn’t know anything about her, personally, I did know a few people who worked as muscle for hire.  To a person, each of those had fit into a very narrow personality type: dangerously violent men and women, almost to the point of instability, who drank heavily when they weren’t on the job.  Sometimes, even when they were.  None of them had shown any real empathy towards their charges or, really, anything at all besides the fight.

What little I’d seen of Mila in action didn’t align with that profile, though.  She enjoyed violence, of course.  That much was obvious.  She was capable of restraint, however, and she followed orders to the letter.  I wasn’t even the person actually paying her bills, but some sense of integrity kept her from doing whatever she pleased in pursuit of ‘keeping me safe.’

That would be odd enough.  But, she had a cat.  And, by all appearances, it was a cat she actually cared about.  I didn’t have any idea what to make of that, but it did serve as a sign of humanity.  I could work with humanity; people had skills, talents, abilities that could be aimed and capitalized on.

Humanity also came with flaws, and those were what had gnawed at me.  Aiden had done more than spook her; she had been terrified of him, and that terror nearly rendered her catatonic.  I knew the universe better than to think we’d seen the last of the mercenary and, if Mila couldn’t face or even be in the same building as him, I needed to know why.  My life – Sarah’s life – could easily depend on an instant or two of frozen indecision.

I didn’t speak any of those thoughts to her.  That was a conversation we could have a later time, when it was just the two of us.  The last thing I wanted was to put Mila on the defensive, at the moment.  “Well,” I said, “we’ll just have to hope this doesn’t run on long enough for that to happen.”

“If wishes were fishes,” Sarah muttered.

I scowled over at her, but her eyes didn’t leave the smartphone in her hand.  “Do you have any idea when that thing’ll be done with…whatever it’s doing?”

“It is done,” she said, heated and angry.  She clenched her fingers around the smartphone.

“That doesn’t sound good,” I said.  “What’s wrong?”

“Out of every file I managed to download, there are only two types: encrypted files and decrypted files.  But there isn’t a key in here, at all.”

“Wait.”  I stopped and held out a hand, palm facing Sarah.  “You’re saying we got nothing?”

“Oh, we got a lot of information,” she said.  “It’s just that we can’t use any of it.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and pinched the bridge of my nose until it hurt.  “Do you think you can brute force it?  Use one of your programs to try every possible combination until you hit on something that does the trick?”

“I’ve been trying to do that,” Sarah said.  “And I’m going to keep trying, but…I don’t know.  Whatever this is, it’s heavy duty.  This encryption is stronger than anything I’ve ever seen.  It’s almost like there isn’t a pattern, but that would be…”

Avis, bent over one of her books, hadn’t noticed when we stopped walking.  Neal was busy helping the girl over a fallen branch, and so he didn’t see us either.  The two bumped into Sarah and me, but they weren’t moving that fast.  I stumbled forward a step and the book I’d taken from the manor, pinched to my side, slipped free and fell to the ground.  It landed in the underbrush near Neal’s feet.

I knelt to pick it up, but Avis caught my wrist.  The shock of her tiny fingers wrapped around my wrist actually caused me to freeze in surprise for a moment  “Excuse me,” she said.  “That’s private.”

“What?”  I asked.

“That’s my diary,” Avis clarified.  “Why would you steal my diary?”

I blinked.  “I didn’t…I wasn’t trying to get your diary, I just…”

Sarah had gone very still, her mouth gaping open.  She licked her lips and spoke.  “That’s yours?”

“Of course, it’s mine!”  Avis snapped.  “Who else would write a diary?  Neal?”

Sarah leaned over, careful not to reach out for the fallen notebook.  I looked down, following her reach, and saw that the page was filled with an alphanumeric jumble, interspersed with occasional grammatical symbols for flavor.  An insane idea bubbled up from the recesses of my mind.  Something to do with the way Aiden had pursued us, but hadn’t simply shot out the SUV’s tires.  Something related to the nature of the manor house: not a prison, but a cage.

“Avis,” I said slowly, “why would those men encrypt your diary?”

They didn’t do that,” the girl snapped.  “I did.  How else could I keep anything secret?”

“You can read this?”  Sarah asked.

“I wrote it,” Avis said.  “Of course I can read it.”

Sarah’s mouth snapped shut.  We made eye contact, and I saw understanding there.  Sarah opened something on her tablet and, very cautiously, shifted her weight so Avis could see the screen.  “Can you read this?”  She asked the girl.

Avis rolled her eyes and planted her tiny fists on her hips.  “It’s only a memo about some shipments from last year.  Why would you care about that?”

The absurdity of my life was, for a moment, simply too much.  I threw my head back and laughed.

“What is so funny?”  Michel asked.  He didn’t get it, yet.

“You didn’t create the key,” Sarah said to Avis, in dumbfounded realization.  “You are the key.”

“I should have asked Sophie to get these two some clothes,” I said, between peals of hysterical laughter.  “I’m thinking they’re going to be with us a little longer than anyone expected.”

Chapter Sixty-Two

Of the five of us – Michel, Mila, Neal, the girl Avis, and myself – I was, by far, the slowest person to react to Sarah’s sudden arrival.  Mila took the lead, ushering Neal and Avis into the backseat of the car.  Michel’s jaw dropped open for a second, before his lips curled up into a smile.  “It is always a pleasure to see you,” he said, “and never more than right now.”

“Try being charming inside the car,” Sarah retorted. Deep concern warred with impish delight in her eyes.

Oui, mademoiselle.”  Michel inclined his head politely.  The warm expression didn’t budge an inch from his face. Sarah stepped out of the car, allowing him to take the driver’s seat.  Neal settled into place beside Avis and removed a heavy book on complicated mathematics from her backpack.  He bent over the textbook with her, tracing sentences with an index finger, while her lips moved without sound.

I wasn’t capable of much more than disconnected sounds and half-formed syllables until the only three people outside of the car were Mila, Sarah, and myself.  Mila squinted her eyes off in the direction of the manor house.  “What are you doing here?”  I asked Sarah, when I regained the gift of logical communication.

“You needed a ride,” she said.  “I had a car.  If their system is down, there isn’t much I can do to help from there, so…”  She shrugged.

That logic was straightforward and without any obvious flaws.  She was, of course, the best candidate to serve as a temporary wheelman.  We didn’t need a dedicated driver – Michel fit that role perfectly well – but we had needed a car for him to drive.  Sarah’s dramatic arrival had neatly solved that problem.  In hindsight, that solution should have occurred to me immediately.

“But you…this isn’t…”

“But I what?”  Sarah’s chin came up fractionally and her eyes grew a little more steely.  “This isn’t what?”

A burst of uncharacteristic foresight hit me like a train.  I realized where I stood, metaphorically speaking: ankle deep in a wide pit, a well-worn shovel prepared to clear away another load of dirt.  I snapped my jaw shut and counted to five.  “Nevermind,” I said.  “Good to see you.”

“He should be here by now,” Mila said.  I followed the trajectory of her eyes and saw nothing approaching on the street.  “Why isn’t he here?  What’s he playing at?”

“Oh.  That.”  Sarah turned back to the car and motioned for Michel to hand her a tablet from the passenger seat.  When she held it in her hands again, she opened an app and checked a readout.  “Aiden’s car uses keyless entry,” she said.  “Push-button start, the whole nine.  Very useful if you’re in a hurry and can’t be bothered to look for keys.  But…”

She trailed off and I picked up the thread.  “But it’s useless if the car can’t read the signal from the key fob.   You can do that?”

“Not directly, no.  I’d have to know exactly which car I was targeting and the specific frequency that the key fob used to synchronize.”

“But?”

Sarah entered a short command into her tablet and handed it back to Michel.  “But there’s nothing stopping me from transmitting a total blackout signal that hits every frequency.  They blew the system, but left that clip you installed alone.  Anything that isn’t plugged into a wall over there isn’t going to work until they find the source of the signal and shut that down.”

Pride swelled in my chest, and I heard it in my voice when I spoke again.  “How long should that take?”

“It won’t take long,” Sarah said.  “I didn’t really have a lot of time to disguise the signal, what with me speeding across town to save you from near-certain death.”  Her words were slightly sharper than necessary.

“Anytime you just earned us is better than the time we had.”

“Oh.  Well.”

A loud siren emitted from the tablet: two long tones, followed by two short ones.  “Does that mean what I think it does?”  I asked.

Sarah nodded.  “Signal just got cancelled.”

“We need to go, then,” Mila said.  She reached out for my arm.  I stepped back, out of instinct, before I’d consciously thought about it.  “I will knock you out if I have to, throw you into the backseat, and sit on you if I have to, Devlin.”

“Whoa there.”  I raised my hands in surrender.  “We’ve got a few seconds and I’d rather not find myself driven into a corner because I didn’t think things through first.”

Every muscle in Mila’s body radiated tension, like a too-tight guitar string.  She clenched her fists before she answered.  “What do you need from me?”

A thousand questions immediately leapt to the forefront of my mind.  Who was Aiden?  Where had she met him, and why did he seem so fixated on reclaiming her, as opposed to simply killing her?  What connection did he have to Mila’s deeply mysterious past?  I let them bounce around my skull for a fraction of a second, and then dismissed them.  They weren’t immediately important and anything that wasn’t currently vital was relegated to a distant second place.  “Asher’s a chessmaster,” I said.  “Anything other than a completely unexpected move is probably going to play directly into his hands.  Is Aiden like that?  Do we need to worry about traps down the way?”

She shook her head.  “He’s…if Asher plays chess, Aiden plays…” Mila stopped, considered her words.  “Aiden plays tag.  He’ll close off routes of escape, make sure you can’t get too far ahead of him, but he doesn’t lay traps.  He doesn’t think it’s fair.”

For some reason, the final syllable in Mila’s answer sent a fresh wave of gooseflesh down my spine.

“He didn’t know I was here, though,” she continued.  “Or, at least he didn’t until he was already here.  I know his tricks about as well as anyone, so he’ll have to adjust his plan to account for that.”

“How many men does he have?”

She blinked.  “How many…what?”

“He was sent to pick up Avis, or so we’re assuming,” I said.  “How many men does he normally run with?”

“You saw them,” Mila said.  “It’s just Aiden and those two guys.  Unless he’s decided to change things up – and he doesn’t do that – one of them should be Carlos.”

I added Carlos to the mental file labeled ‘Aiden.’  “What’s Carlos bring to the table?”

“First class driver,” she said.  “He’s raced Grand Prix, Rally, Motocross…if it’s got wheels and an engine, he can handle it.  Adrenaline junkie, addicted more to the thrill of the job than any financial benefit.”

I did not point out the similarities and, instead, picked a more informative and useful question.  “And the other guy?”

“No idea,” she said.  “Aiden picks his people based on criteria that only he knows, and it’s always to fill some hole he feels that he’s got.  Whatever this new guy can do, it’s probably not good for us.”

I opened my mouth to ask for clarification about Aiden’s previous hires – hoping, perhaps, to gain a little more insight into his relationship with Mila – but stopped as an engine revved into the red zone off in the distance.  Judging from the volume, the approaching vehicle was possibly just out of sight.  “Michel, how good are you feeling today?”  I asked.

He leaned out of the still-open driver’s side door and activated his brightest, most dazzlingly French smile.  For the first time since he’d come to London, he glowed as if from an inner light and there wasn’t a single iota of doubt in his eyes.  “I am good enough,” he said.  “Whoever this Carlos is, he will not catch up to me.”

Sarah and Mila slipped into the backseat.  I entered on the passenger’s side, careful not to sit on the feline who’d kept my seat warm.  Sam leapt down into the well, near my feet, without any prompting on my part.  “No better time to find out than now, right?”

“There are plenty of reasons why shouldn’t find this out while we’re –“  Sarah began.  She never made it past that point.  Michel’s foot found the accelerator and he pressed down.  With the car still running, and an open stretch of road in front, the car reached staggeringly high speed within seconds.  Mila didn’t react to the increase in pressure, but every other person within the cab found themselves pressed into their seats.

“I didn’t even know these could get this fast,” Mila murmured.

“Neither did I!”  Michel sounded electrified, as if a live wire of  enjoyment was pumping tens of thousands of volts into every cell of his body.”  “This should be…”

“Don’t say it!”  When Michel risked a glance across the car to me, I tried my best to shrug.  The effort was minimally successful.  “Luck, man.  Gotta keep that in mind.”

“I was going to say,” Michel continued, “that this is going to be fun.”

Approaching fast from the direction of the manor house, I could hear the throaty growl of an extremely powerful engine.  Its sound forced me to give our own modest mode of transportation a skeptical look.  I’d seen Aiden’s car briefly; nothing about the man, either what I’d personally witnessed or how Mila described him, led me to think that his choice of car would be anything other than exotic.  “You’re sure you can handle this?”  I asked Michel.

He nodded, still baring his teeth in a fierce smile.  “I am sure.”

Michel shifted the car into a higher gear and it responded with power, sending up a spray of stones and twigs in every direction.  The SUV fishtailed briefly as it struggled to find traction.  Michel spun the wheel, calm as only an expert could be, and got the car back under control.

“This man, Aiden?”  Michel spoke without taking his eyes from the narrow, winding road.  “Can you tell me what he is driving, Sarah?”

Sarah’s tablet emitted several sounds as she checked her information.  “A registration check on the license plate has it as an Audi R8 Spyder.  Either the V8 or the V10, I’m guessing.”

Michel let out a low whistle.  “Do you know how fast it can go?  Is there a chance that we could outside of this town before they can catch up to us?”

More sounds from the backseat.  I turned, just in time to see Sarah’s eyebrows rise up to her hairline.  She looked and locked eyes with me.  Then, she shook her head imperceptibly.  “No,” she said.  “We won’t.”

Angled so that I could face Sarah, I had a perfect view through the back window. So, I was the first to see the Audi, slick and gleaming, shoot up over a hill like a silver bullet.  “I’d step on it,” I said, and was surprised by the steadiness of my own voice.

My heartbeat tripled as Aiden’s car chewed up the distance with astonishing speed.  It was too close and too fast.  The idea that we might have managed a relatively clean getaway was thoroughly scotched.  We needed a new plan.  A handful of tense moments passed before an idea presented itself.

“Sarah, do you still have one of the burner phones on you?”

“Yes, but why?”

“Call the cops.”

Her mouth dropped open.  “What?”

“The cops,” I repeated.  “Interpol, the FBI, NSA, the KGB…whoever can get to town quickly and in large numbers.”

“How is that going to help us now?”

“Aiden was the first to get his car going, but he isn’t going to be the last one.  A police presence at the manor house would go a long way towards keeping those armed jerks from coming after us, too.”

Neal had been busy speaking in calming tones to Avis.  He looked up from that momentarily.  “There’s a battery operated police scanner,” he said.  “If a call goes out to the local authorities, everyone’s under strict orders to find somewhere to torch everything that might be used as evidence and to hide.”

“That’s perfect,” I said.  “Make the call, please?”

Sarah pulled a burner phone free and dialed out.  I tuned out her words and focused on Mila.  “Aiden’s man, the driver.”

She jerked at my voice and then nodded.  “What about him?”

“He’s a professional racer?  Grand Prix, motocross, and so on, right?”

She nodded again.  “If he’s not the best, he’s close.”

“How does he do in traffic?”

Mila opened her mouth, blinked, and closed it again.  A slow smile appeared on her lips and crept up her cheeks until her teeth showed.

My knowledge of cars was limited to basic information: ignition switch, gas pedal, and brakes.  Sometimes, I could even find the windshield wiper in an unfamiliar car, without assistance.  But even with my considerable naiveté, it was clear that Aiden was going to catch us.  The Audi was near enough now that I could see three silhouettes in the vehicle.  The one in the passenger seat had his teeth bared; not in a grin, but more like a hungry animal.  Outrunning them wasn’t an option.  It wasn’t even a possibility.  They couldn’t shoot into the car, for fear of hitting Avis, but there was nothing stopping them from simply following us until our car ran out of gas or we reached the Brooklands hotel again.  Either outcome didn’t bode well for my team.

If we were going to be run down, one way or the other, I preferred to force the confrontation on my terms.

“Michel, head for the nearest freeway.  Drive like…”  I considered my word choice.  “Drive like a cabbie,” I said finally.

He took an upcoming right turn at near-full speed, drifting within a foot of the local tavern, and fully ignoring the stop sign.  Aiden’s R8 followed on our heels.  There was a straight length of road ahead of us and Michel cut his eyes towards me for a split second.  “You are sure?”

I nodded.  “I’m sure.  And if you can, try to nudge them a little bit.  He’s got to be concerned about what happens to us, and he won’t push this chase if he thinks it’s going to hurt the girl.”

“She’s got a name,” Neal snapped.  “And aren’t we worried about what happens to us?”

“Incredibly so.”  I shifted my weight in the seat.  “But he doesn’t have to know that, does he?”

Sarah paused, her fingers millimeters away from the tablet, and looked up at me sharply.  “What do you mean?”

I started to speak, making connections as quickly as the words tumbled out of my mouth.  “There isn’t any way of figuring out what information we got from their network, is there?”

Sarah looked distinctly offended.  “Of course not.  Even if they hadn’t physically destroyed the damn thing, I made sure to cover my tracks.”

I nodded.  “So, maybe we went into the manor house for other reasons?  Was there anything else in the files that might have been worth stealing?”

She shrugged.  “How would I know, Devlin?  It’s all encrypted!”

I decided to drop the conversation.  Firstly, because Sarah’s irritation had reached a peak and any further discussion would only dissolve into pointless arguments and sniping.  That would provide exactly zero benefits.  Secondly, and much more importantly, because Aiden’s R8 roared up next to us and pushed the rear passenger tire of our car.

We started to tilt and turn sideways.  “What was that about him not wanting to hurt the girl?”  Sarah howled, as Michel spun the steering wheel to compensate.  Our car was slower, but heavier than the Audi.  The Frenchman managed to get the car back under his control, and then he returned the favor.

Aiden’s driver, Carlos, anticipated the tactic and slammed on his car’s brakes.  Michel swung wide, blocking the Audi and forcing it to try another time to get around us.  I gripped my seatbelt in both hands, for no reason I could actually name, and glanced back behind us.  Sarah’s hands clenched tightly around her tablet; Mila was turned fully around to stare at the approaching Audi, a single gun held in the ready position; while Neal and his charge were huddled together.  The guard spoke to her in gentle, reassuring tones.  The girl seemed unconcerned with the chase, although she did allow Neal to “comfort” her.

The chase carried on like that through the sleepy countryside town.  Carlos would approach on one side or another, Michel would adjust to the attack, and force Aiden’s driver to retreat slightly.  In the narrow roads, twisting and twining past pubs and homes, the R8 wasn’t able to reach its full speed, but it was never very far behind.  That continued until we reached the highway.  Michel hit the on ramp at full speed – which was modest, in comparison to the ravening beast that was Aiden’s car – and swerved into the flow of traffic without missing a beat.

“Uh, are you absolutely sure this is safe?”  I asked Michel.

He ignored me.  I could see the focus in the tense lines around his eyes, the way his lips worked without making noise.  There were enough cars on their daily commute that Aiden wasn’t able to get close enough to attack our tires again, but not enough that I held out any hope of him losing our trail.  I watched as Carlos wove in and out of traffic, growing closer in fits and spurts.  I made a snap judgment call.

“Mila?”  Her eyes flickered from the rear window to me.  “Take out the tires.”

She nodded and aimed her weapon through the rear window.  At the same time, Sarah gave me a look of sharp surprise and concern.  “There are innocent people out there!”

“I won’t miss,” Mila said.  Michel slowed slightly and Carlos, sensing blood in the water, drew closer.  Mila waited until I felt anxiety tighten in my chest, until the Audi was so close that it could have hit the car one more time.  The road ahead opened up, and the approaching car accelerated until it was next to us.  It did not, however, take another swipe.  Instead, the driver’s side window rolled down.  I saw a dark skinned man behind the wheel, his eyes fixed forward.  Beside him, I saw Aiden: tanned, hair neatly cropped, eyes alight with intelligence and amusement.  His gaze swept right past me and Michel and traveled to the backseat.  Neal and Avis crouched low, when Mila lowered her window too.

“Just like old times, eh?”  Aiden called out.  His voice was scarcely audible over the roar of the wind and the engines.  “You know you can’t get away, Thorn!”

I saw the emotions shift and change on her face.  First, fear; then, a shadow of the paralysis that had struck her in the manor house; then, finally, anger.

“Not again,” she whispered.  I could barely hear it myself.  The sound of her gunshot was considerably louder.  One of the Audi’s tires exploded, but Carlos, the dark-skinned wheelman, never lost his cool.  His car swung wildly from right to left, losing speed with each second, and I followed him with my eyes as he managed to pull the Audi off of the highway without hitting anything else.  I looked into the rearview mirror, just in time to see Aiden step out of the passenger side and actually wave goodbye as we pulled into another knot of traffic.

No one in the car said anything for a solid five minutes.  Michel wove through the thickening morning rush, pulled off of the road, and parked near a gas station in the middle of nowhere.  “What do we do now?”  He asked.

I looked at Neal, Avis, and Mila.  Sarah cleared her throat and drew my attention to her.  She was still holding onto her tablet in a death grip.  “Answers?”

I nodded.  “Answers.”

Chapter Sixty-One

Our short trip from the sitting room to the cellar was, in military terms, a fighting retreat.  The guards, spurred on by Aiden and his men, didn’t risk firing openly into our tight cluster.  Any stray shot had a chance of wounding, perhaps even killing, Avis.  Instead, they drew closer in twos and threes, hoping to incapacitate either Mila or Neal in close quarters combat.

Neal clearly possessed some basic self-defense skills and a more than functional knowledge of firearms.  He met his attackers with a ferocity that surprised me, striking with the butt of his handgun and, when his targets were far enough away, expertly placed shots.  After every brief confrontation, he checked back over his shoulder on Avis and then returned his eyes forward, scanning for an opening door or the slightest sign of a new combatant.

Mila’s technique wasn’t any less perfect than it had been in the warehouse, but there was an animal rage to her movements now.  She used her assault rifle to scatter the oncoming guards before she picked them off one at a time with kicks and punches.  Not a single one came close to harming her.  I caught a glimpse of her eyes and saw there what I’d both expected and feared: fierce, furious fire burning from somewhere within her chest, reflected in her pupils.  It wasn’t difficult to understand where the anger came from.  Aiden’s presence had disrupted the perfect focus I’d come to associate with her.  She’d been frightened – perhaps was still frightened – and she’d allowed herself to reveal a weakness.

Now that she was marginally in possession of her faculties once more, she threw herself with suicidal abandon into proving her strength to herself.  I resolved to discuss the matter in greater depth with her, once we’d left the manor house and its seemingly endless horde of guards behind.  For the moment, her violence was an asset and I didn’t want to risk draining any of that anger, when it could more useful in use.

Neal reached the end of the hallway and threw the door open without pause.  He leaned into the opening, checked left and right, and motioned at me.  “In here, quick!”

Michel and I struggled to push Avis past Neal and into the open doorway.  The girl put up a shocking amount of resistance for someone her size.  Neal aimed and fired three sharp shots over our heads into a low-hanging chandelier.  The fixture itself didn’t fall, but the bullets did break free a shower of glass that fell to the ground in a musical shower.  I hazarded a glance backwards. Three guards had fled from the rain of broken glass, leaving only a single man to face Mila.  The outcome of that fight was essentially a given, so I turned back to see Neal, kneeling slightly and cooing something to Avis.  Whatever he said, worked.  She entered the doorway of her own volition, followed by Michel and I.  The sounds of another brief exchange of blows, followed by the unmistakable crack of shattered bone, followed before Neal and, finally, Mila came in.  She slammed the door shut behind her.

We stood in a narrow staircase.  The door we’d entered through was equipped with a deadbolt.  I rammed that into place and threw the latch, as well.

“That won’t hold them for long,” Mila said.

“I’m aware,” I replied, “but it’ll hold them for a little bit, and that’s better than nothing.”

She didn’t say anything, but the slight downturn at the corners of her mouth told me her thoughts, as clearly as if she’d yelled them into my ear.  “We’re not here to depopulate their men, Mila.  We got the girl, Sarah’s got the information, and now we get to get the hell away from here.”

“It’s right down here,” Neal said, drawing all eyes away from Mila as he spoke.  “There’s a second door down there with a keycard scanner.”

“For a cellar?”  I left Avis to Neal’s care and took the stairs down, two at a time.  “You’re sure they don’t know about this tunnel?”

“It’s a wine cellar,” he explained.  “I guess Management didn’t want anyone accessing their supply.”

“Did they ever come to check this facility out, personally?”

Neal shook his head.

That wasn’t surprising.  Any group that worked to protect their secrecy, anywhere near on par with the Lady and her giant of a bodyguard, wouldn’t be foolish enough to visit one of their facilities in person.  “It doesn’t matter, anyway,” I said.  “If they didn’t know about the tunnel before, they’re certainly going to know about it now.”

Sarah interrupted, speaking in quick, curt sentences.  “Devlin, I found a geological survey of the area.  I know where the tunnel’s going to end, pretty much exactly.  But if I found it…”

“Then they can find it, too,” I finished.  We reached the bottom of the staircase and Neal dug into his pockets for the appropriate keycard.   “Can you hide that survey, somehow?”

“It’s public information,” she said. “With their network bombed, Aiden and his goons can’t look it up at the moment, but there’s no way of knowing whether he figured it out before he even got here.”

“He did,” Mila said.  “He wouldn’t come into a building without knowing every entrance and exit.”

At the mention of Aiden, her pupils dilated enough that I could tell in the low light and her voice quivered.

“Can you tell me anything about him, now?”  I asked her.

“Nothing you want to know,” she said.  “He’s thorough and he’s dedicated.  Those men he came with?  They aren’t any better.  The only chance we’ve got is to get the hell away from this place, as soon as possible.”

The door into the cellar proper opened with a high pitched beep.  “You’re right,” I said to Mila.  “I didn’t want to know that.”

We piled into the cellar, just as the door at the top of the staircase exploded inward.  There, leading the pack with a submachine gun held aloft, stood Aiden.  His eyes swept past me, past Michel and Neal and Avis, and locked firmly onto Mila.  A predatory smile, similar to the ones I’d seen on Mila’s face but far darker, spread across his lips.  I slammed the door shut before Aiden could speak and Michel, moving forward without any instruction, smashed the reader on our side of the door to pieces.

“Are you okay?”  I asked Mila.

She took a deep, shuddering breath.  “I’m fine.  We just…we need to go.  Now.”

“He knows who you are, does he not?”  Michel asked.  He hadn’t spoken since before our mad flight through the embattled hallways.

“Yes,” she replied.  There was a lot of meaning behind the one word.  “We can sort out what to do about that when we’re safe but, sufficed to say, my name isn’t something he’s going to have to look up.  Besides…he doesn’t want to kill me.”

I raised an eyebrow at that revelation.  “Fine,” I said.  “Neal?”

Neal hurried to a blank wall on the other side of the room with Avis more or less attached to his side.  He began to feel around until his fingers paused on a particular stone.  Neal threw his weight against the stone.  Nothing happened for several long seconds, while I listened to Aiden giving orders to bring more explosives from his vehicle.  Just when I felt myself beginning to despair, the stone moved minutely.  Michel joined Neal and pushed against the stone, as well.  Gradually, inch by grating inch, it vanished into the wall.  Something clicked into place and the entire wall, from corner to corner, swung open.

“That is impressive,” I said.  Despite the tension of the moment, I couldn’t help but marvel at the ingenuity on display.

Sarah’s eyes in the manor house were gone, and so she didn’t suffer from similar awe or amazement.  “Really?” She asked.  “You’re choosing to be impressed, now?”

“I wasn’t…nevermind.  Neal, is this wall reinforced?”

He shrugged.  “Probably, but I wouldn’t want to risk it.  If he’s got more breaching charges, then…”

“Let’s assume he’s got more charges,” I said.  “Come on, people, let’s go!”

Neal picked up Avis once more and all of us entered the tunnel at a dead run.  The path sloped down, almost imperceptibly.  Thirty seconds into our escape, Mila stopped and turned back.  “What are you doing?”  Michel asked.

Mila didn’t answer with words.  She aimed carefully at a wooden spar and fired a grenade from the underslung launcher of her borrowed assault rifle.  The explosion was considerable, but with the distance we’d gained, not overpowering.  A second ticked by and then, with a slowness that dragged like nails across my heightened senses, rocks tumbled free from the ceiling.  Then, with increasing speed, more fragments fell, until the wide opening into the tunnel was mostly concealed by debris, dust, and grit.

I coughed to clear my throat and gave Mila a weak smile.  “Good thinking.”

“Just doing my job,” she said.

Sarah’s voice came over the comms, in between bursts of static and white noise.  I tried to piece together her words.  “Dev, I…signal.  Can’t…anything you’re saying…I’ll handle the…”  Then, nothing.

“We all heard that?”  I asked Michel and Mila.  They both nodded.  Neal and his charge stood to the side without moving.  I could barely see them in the dim light cast from the wall-mounted lamps.  “Anybody have the foggiest idea what she was trying to say?”

Mila lowered her assault rifle to her side.  “Does it really matter right now?”  She gave the cave-in a significant look.  Through the thin gap at the top of the rubble, Aiden’s commands were still audible.

“Not really,” I agreed.  “We can go in the same formation as before until we get out of here.  I’ll coordinate with Sarah as soon as we’re out of here.  Neal, how long of a walk are we talking about?”

“Ten minutes, if we hurry.  The tunnel opens out into a hidden entrance about a mile away from the manor house.”

Avis tugged at his shirt. “Twelve minutes,” she corrected, “at a normal pace, and the exit is three quarters of a mile away.”  The girl still looked more confused than frightened, but at least she wasn’t actively resisting us.

“How does she know that?”  Michel asked.

Neal shrugged.  “She knows numbers: distances, times, every kind of figure you can think of.  I learned a while ago to just go with it.”

“Speaking of going?”  Mila prompted.

“She’s right,” I said.  “Come on, let’s get moving.”

We took our positions, Mila in front with her purloined weapon braced against her shoulder, and moved through the tunnel at double speed.  The passage was wide enough that my claustrophobia was manageable, although my heart still beat at roughly triple its normal speed.  No one said a word for ten minutes, almost exactly, until we saw a pinprick of daylight in the distance.

“Mila,” I said, not taking my eyes away from the exit for an instant, “what should we be expecting?”

“Aiden would have positioned someone to wait at the exits, before he even came into the manor house,” Mila answered.  “If he was caught off guard and didn’t know about these tunnels before now, he’ll have them on the way.  One way or the other, it isn’t going to be pretty.”

I expected her to chamber a round, purely for effect.  When she didn’t, I realized that her semi-automatic weapon didn’t actually require that and was slightly, insanely, disappointed.

“Well, shit,” I said.  Every set of eyes in the tunnel swiveled to face me. “We need to deal with whatever’s waiting for us outside, we need a car, and we need to make a clean getaway.”

“There’s a way to accomplish all of that,” Mila said.  She didn’t elaborate but, at the same time, she didn’t really need to.

If the first carload of guards could incapacitated, that would give us a vehicle and it wouldn’t leave anyone behind who could clearly identify us.  Fatalities were usually poor form on a sufficiently planned heist, but this job had already spiraled so far out of control that I wasn’t sure the regular rules applied anymore.

Neal’s presence, however, served as a reminder that the guards were still people: some of them were likely misguided or confused or simply desperate.  I wasn’t sure if their failure to realize that they were working for the bad guys qualified them for death.  Worse: I was even less sure that I was on the right side.  Sarah and I were criminals, by any objective definition of the word.  Michel was one, too.  Mila’s occupation kept her squarely in the grey areas between white and black hats, and Neal had voluntarily thrown his lot in with an organization whose reach I still hadn’t accurately gauged.  Whatever the Magi’s game was, it involved drugs, arms dealing, and general misery on a scale that boggled the mind.  “Good guy,” as a designation, didn’t really apply anymore.

“As a last resort,” I said, after several terse seconds of thought.  “If there’s another way, we take that.”

Neal cleared his throat.  I thought that he might object to my decision, and I wouldn’t have blamed him for doing so.  He surprised me by nodding instead.  “Some of those guys,” he began, unprompted, “are just monsters.  Better to put them down.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying,” Mila said.

I narrowed my eyes at her, glad that the growing light made my disapproval visible.  “We aren’t saints, either,” I said.  “We’re trying to get away, not to leave a trail for the Magi to follow.”

“And Aiden?”  Mila’s voice had carried some of the playfulness I’d grown used to, but all of that vanished now.  I couldn’t see her eyes, but I felt frost emanating from her entire being like a cold front.  “If he’s the first on scene, what should I do?”

I didn’t know the man.  In nearly two decades deeply entwined within the thriving international underground, I’d never even heard of him.  My only encounter had been with his voice and with the effect his words had on Mila.  Anyone capable of causing that much terror in her measured in previously unimaginable levels of terrifying.  “Kill him,” I said.  I was shocked to hear a complete lack of hesitation in my own voice.  “Do whatever you’ve got to do.”

Now, Mila provided the appropriate dramatic sounds.  She released the magazine from her rifle, checked its contents, and rammed it back into place.  “Roger that.”

“What should I do?”  Michel asked, in a small voice.

My personal tolerance for violence was astoundingly low, considering the amount of time I’d spent around hitmen and bodyguards, to say nothing of my time in La Santé.  Michel’s, then, must have been nearly nothing.  “I’m staying out of whatever happens,” I said.  “You should do the same.”

He nodded his assent.

We walked for another minute until the pinprick of light became a gaping mouth of blinding daytime.  Mila exited the tunnel first, checked left and right, and motioned for us to join her outside.  Michel and I kept Avis sandwiched between us, while Neal formed our rear guard.  We were surrounded on all sides by greenery, moist with dew that hadn’t yet evaporated in the morning sunlight.  A side road ran a few yards away from where we were.  I couldn’t trace it back to its beginning or end and didn’t really see the need to try.

“Transportation,” I reminded Mila.  “We get that, and we get out.”

She nodded without comment.

It didn’t take long before we heard an approaching vehicle.  The engine sounded strained, pushed up to and slightly beyond its limits.  I grabbed Michel’s shoulder and pulled him down, until he and I were the same height as Avis.  “Be ready to go,” I said.

Mila aimed her rifle in the direction of the as-yet unseen car.  Neal assumed a shooter’s stance with his comparatively small handgun.  I tensed in anticipation and nearly jumped out of my skin when Sarah spoke into my ear suddenly.  “It’s me!”  She yelled.  “Don’t shoot, it’s me!”

I leapt up, towards Mila’s weapon.  My limbs moved before conscious thought could command them; the sound of Sarah’s voice, and the sight of Mila’s gun aimed in her general direction, galvanized me into action by pure instinct.  “No!”

Mila lowered her gun before I reached it.  “I heard her, Devlin,” she said, tapping at her ear.

I froze, one hand extended.  “Well…yeah.  Just, um…making sure.”

She raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

“Sarah,” I asked, “what are you doing here?”

She didn’t answer through the comms.  The approaching car rounded a blind corner and I saw that it was the same one that we’d left in favor of the Aston Martin.  It swerved wildly, threatened to take out several small bushes on the side of the road, and screeched to a halt a dozen feet ahead of us.  The driver’s side door flew out, as if kicked, and Sarah leaned out of the car.  Her normally cacophonous hair was somehow wilder than usual, and her eyes were alight with mischievous energy.  “Someone called for a ride?”

Chapter Sixty

Michel helped me through the window, into the other room.  Mila stood beside him, eyes still wide and unfocused.  Avis had found her way out of Neal’s arms once more; she was at his side, now, hiding slightly behind one of his legs and clinging to him with one hand.

“Sarah?” I asked.  “Are they still trying to get into the other room?”

“Looks like,” she said.  “Mila’s friend brought a few party supplies with him.  They’re coming up with breaching charges right now.”

“Breaching charges?  Why?”

Neal took a small step forward.  He couldn’t hear Sarah, but he’d apparently adjusted to the presence of a fourth, unseen partner fairly quickly.  “That door is reinforced.  You wouldn’t know it just by looking, but Avis’s room was specifically blast-proofed before we even got here.  The one that leads into the security room is the same, and a few other places scattered throughout the manor house.”

“Why not every door?”

“Budget?”

“Money’s not a problem for these people,” Sarah said.  “More likely, they just didn’t want anyone to know which rooms were the most important ones.  See guards clustered around one room in particular, and you’re going to attract attention.”

“But Aiden knew it was reinforced before he got here.  He didn’t even try to force the lock; just went straight to charges,” I said.  “That’s a lot of force for someone who’s supposed to be extracting the girl alive, doesn’t it?”

“Maybe he’s a little higher placed than their average hired help?”  Sarah suggested.

“It’s because he doesn’t care,” Mila whispered.

Every set of eyes in the room swiveled to her.  Michel spoke first.  “What do you mean?”

“Aiden wouldn’t care about Avis, or the Magi, or whatever else.  He’s only here because it means he gets to kill.”  There was a flicker of emotion, barely noticeable, but I caught it.  There was another reason Aiden was there, something that I could have used to distract him.  I knew it, Mila knew it, and she knew I knew it.

That was chilling.  “So, can we…I don’t know, point him in a different direction?  I’m not suggesting that we sick him on the general populace, but there are plenty of people around him right now that he could kill.”

Mila shook her head.

I discarded a burgeoning idea and turned my attention to the immediate future.  “Neal, the staircase?”

He hurried across the room to a stately, ceiling-height bookcase with Avis in tow.  When he reached the shelves, he examined the visible spines intently.  “I could swear it was around here…”  He pulled several books free, but the bookshelf remained in place.

“You don’t remember which book it was?”

“This is a lot of books!”  He pulled two more free and let them fall to the floor.  “I’ll remember, just give me a second…”

Avis detached herself from him and rolled her eyes.  “It’s right here,” she said and reached out, aiming specifically for a non-descript book with lettering on its spine written in a non-Arabic alphabet.  When she pulled at this one, a distinct click came from behind the bookshelf and a large portion of the shelf began to slowly, excruciatingly, swing open.

“Oh!  Thanks, Avis.”

The girl shrugged.

“They’ve got the charges in place, Dev,” Sarah said.  “Maybe one more minute, maybe two before they figure out that you’re on the move.”

“Can this thing open any faster?”  I asked Neal.

“I haven’t used it since I found it,” he replied.  “And this is an old house; I’m surprised it still works, to be honest.”

I blinked.  “You weren’t sure that your escape route would work, but you still thought it was a great idea to move away from the room with the reinforced door in case the staircase was still an option?”

“I didn’t hear you offering any better ideas!”

Several deep breaths, while we waited for the door to swing open wide enough to allow entry, were all that kept me from venting my stress explosively.  When the shelf was finally wide enough, I took a long look into the mouth of the nearly pitch black staircase.  I felt the lack of light like a physical pressure on my chest; darkness spilling out like hot breath that threatened to suffocate me.  I squeezed my eyes shut and repeated the calming exercises I’d learned from Patrick.

“Devlin?”  Michel placed a hand on my shoulder.  “Are you okay?”

“Not a big fan of tight spaces,” I said, “but I’m fine.  I’ll be fine.”  I inhaled, exhaled, and repeated the entire process again.  “I can handle a staircase.”

Neal actually raised a hand and waited until my eyes were squarely on him before he spoke.  “For what it’s worth, the tunnels are actually pretty wide.  Whoever built it must have been expecting a lot of people to use it.”

“Or, more likely, they were accustomed to a certain amount of luxury.”  I opened my eyes, just in time for a muted explosion from a few rooms away.  The sound galvanized me into action.  “Come on.  Sarah, you’re our eyes.”

“Of course.”

Neal took the lead again.  I watched as he entered the darkness and noted that he used his free left hand to trace the spiraling nature of the staircase.  Michel followed suit, gently pulling Mila behind of him.  I came up behind her and corrected her descent at occasional intervals, using my free hand in the same way as Neal.  Halfway down the staircase, the bookshelf creaked and began to return to its original position.  “Uh, Neal?”

“This is normal,” he said.  I traced his voice to a general silhouette in the absolute darkness.  It was easier to track him when he moved.  “At least, this is what happened last time.  In another minute, the exit will open automatically.  It’s only sixty seconds of this.”

The comms line popped twice.  “Dev, are you okay?”

“Like I told Michel, I’m fine,” I said, under my breath.

I’m not Michel,” Sarah countered.  “And I know exactly how much you ‘don’t like’ tight spaces.  You can’t say anything right now, I get that.  But just…if you need to talk to someone, to help keep you calm, you know how to reach me.”

I tapped the earbud twice with an index finger.  Then, seeing that the general sense of movement was continuing down the staircase, I found the wall and continued forward, deeper into the darkness, stepping carefully so that I didn’t lose my balance.  The task was harder than I’d expected, since my eyes were squeezed tightly shut for exactly one minute; after that, when the exit door opened and scant streams of light began streaming up into the staircase from below, I felt comfortable enough to look around again.

The secret staircase ended on the first floor, in what seemed to be a drawing room.  The shelves in this room were bare.  I raised an eyebrow at Neal.

“Avis likes to read,” he said, by way of explanation.

I opened my mouth, prepared to ask a question.  Sarah’s voice cut in and interrupted me before I could form the words.  “They know,” she said.  “He went straight from Avis’s room to the one with the staircase.  He’s got men coming downstairs right now, and…what are they doing with that charge?”

“What are you talking about?  How did he know that?”  I turned to Mila.  “Please tell me that you’ve got some insight we can use here.”

She shook her head twice.  I assumed that non-verbal response was the only answer I was going to get but, when she raised her face, I saw that her pupils were beginning to focus again.  “He does his research.  If there are ways into and out of his kill zone, Aiden’s going to know about them.  There had to be a physical record of secret passages somewhere.”

“There was an architectural history book,” Neal said, “but there’s no way he could have read it before he got here.”

“Well, your bosses absolutely knew about it.  That’s probably why they picked this place.”  I pinched the bridge of my nose.  “If he knows about the secret staircase, then he probably knows about the tunnels.  The one in the cellar only leads to a specific place?”

“There are a couple of branches that lead to a few different exits.  I only mentioned the farthest one.”

“Sarah, are there any exterior cameras you can use to track their movements outside?  Just so that we can tell which exits they’re moving to cover?”

“Not many, but I can probably figure something – “ Another explosion, smaller and much farther away now, reached my ears from upstairs.  Sarah swore, loud enough that I winced at the sudden increase in volume.

“What’s wrong?  What happened?”

“His men?  They used one of their charges on their own security system,” Sarah spat out.  “Blew the physical computer to pieces.  They didn’t find the clip, but they don’t really need one if there’s no more network to hack.”

“So, I’m running blind?  Again?”

“Yeah, but it gets even worse.  That virus I planted requires an activation signal. I can’t send it, if the system isn’t connected to any network.”  She let that sink in.  My heart dropped into my abdomen as the implications became apparent, and then she dropped the blow for Michel and Mila.  “I cleared out the footage of your entrance, but I can’t do anything about the footage of your escape. They’ll know your faces.”

Michel didn’t react to that information nearly as severely as I’d expected; I realized, belatedly, that his criminal record was reasonably clear and he was a new player.  Mila’s presence as physical security was already common knowledge and her line of business required a certain measure of brand recognition.  My face, however, was an integral part of my work.  If the Magi knew that, it wouldn’t be long before they found my name.  And, from there, it was only a short skip to figuring out Sarah’s identity.

“Can we do anything about that?” I asked.

“Not unless you want to go back upstairs and retrieve the computer’s hard drives, no,” she said.  “The guards here can just collect the pieces and send it off to anywhere in the world to extract the data.  I can’t trace every shipment that it could possibly be on.”

It was a dire problem, of course.  It simply wasn’t the most immediate dire problem that needed a solution.  “Maybe the Lady – or Sophie, whichever, it doesn’t matter – can help.  We can deal with that later, though.  We need to get into the tunnels and out of here.  Were we clear, last time you looked?”

“You were, but – “

She was interrupted again as the door into the drawing room burst open, spraying chips of wood and splinters across the furniture.  Three men, two with handguns and one with an assault rifle complete with mounted grenade launcher, rushed into the room.  Their weapons were pointed to the ground, but their fingers were millimeters away from triggers.  I let adrenaline fill my limbs with desperate energy and charged at the one with the assault rifle.  I poured all of my fear and tension and stress into my legs, pushed off with as much force as I could muster, preparing to spear my own body into one man’s abdomen like a living torpedo.

Mila, somehow, was still faster.

I felt movement behind me and to the right, heard Michel’s sharp intake of breath, and then she was there, spearing past me like a streak of jet-black ink aimed straight at the man with the assault rifle.  Her first punch sank into his gut, and she followed that up with a sharp uppercut and a knife hand delivered directly to his wrist.  Bone snapped at the instant of impact.  His grip on the rifle weakened and Mila, without missing a beat, grabbed the barrel and stock, spun so that her body was shielded from one of the other two gunmen and squeezed the trigger.  In the confines of the room, the gunshot was deafening.  Mila’s target fell to the ground, bleeding profusely from a spot an inch or two above his right elbow.

I switched direction as I hit the ground, rolled, and changed targets.  The third man gaped at the shocking violence Mila had visited on his associates and that moment of frozen horror gave me the necessary advantage.  My attack was nowhere near as elegant or precise as Mila’s, but a flurry of punches and elbow strikes sufficed to incapacitate him by the time Mila finished ripping the rifle away from her primary victim and bludgeoning him with it until he slumped to the ground in a mess of bone and blood.

“What’s going on?”  Sarah asked.  “Was that a gunshot?”

Mila seemed to be considering whether or not to kick any of the already downed men.  I wasn’t sure whether or not that was strictly necessary; at the same time, I was absolutely not sure whether or not I could do anything to stop her, if she decided to go down that route.  She raised her eyes and I caught the fire, not as bright as normal, but brighter now that it had been upstairs.  “If they didn’t know where we were before,” she said, “they will now.”  She knelt and retrieved the handguns from the floor and began to field strip them.

I nodded.  “How far to the cellar, Neal?”

“It’s…uh…”

I knew what he was feeling.  The first time that I’d seen Mila really go to work had been equal parts shocking and exhilarating.  This wasn’t an opportune moment for him to be debilitated by awe.  I snapped my fingers in his direction and he focused.  “Not far,” Neal said, as he detached Avis from his leg.  She’d clung to him during the melee, apparently.

A clatter of metal drew my eyes back to Mila.  Both handguns were disassembled into their constituent pieces and scattered across the room.  The assault rifle, however, was still in her hands.  She shrugged at my confused look.

“What the hell is going on?”  Sarah repeated.

“We ran into some guards,” I said.  “Mila…took care of it, but she had to shoot one of them.  There’ll be company here before too long.  And you can’t keep watch on them anymore, so we’ve got to get out of here fast.”

“Damn it!  I don’t…I can’t do anything from here!”

“You got us in,” I said, trying to soothe her panic with nothing but my words.  “Sarah, it was always going to be my job to get us out.”

She didn’t reply.  She didn’t have to.  The deep silence that came from her end of the comms was clear enough.

Voices, from as far away as the second floor, reached me.  They were too faint to distinguish individual words, but their tone – angry and aggressive – was unmistakable.   I checked the light in Mila’s eyes and, pleased that she hadn’t withdrawn back into herself again, moved closer to the door.  When the three guards burst through, they’d caused serious damage to the lock.  I pushed it shut, more for temporary peace of mind than any real hope that it would stop an encroaching force.  The weight of a handgun rested heavy in my jacket pocket and I decided to leave it there.

Neal, however, drew his own weapon.  “Are you ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” I said.  “Neal, you take point.  Michel, Avis, and I will stay in the middle while Mila covers the rear.  So long as we’re moving away from the guards, that’s where most of the fighting will take place.”  I chose not to point out that, while she was our best asset in a confrontation, I still had reservations.  If Aiden chose to spearhead the attack, Mila’s reliability was uncertain.

Something in her face – a tightening of her jaw, the way her eyebrows drew minutely closer together – told me that she’d drawn similar conclusions, even without me verbalizing them.  She nodded after a moment.  “I’ll keep them off of you.”

“Perfect.  Sarah?  We’ll need that traffic jam, as soon as we’re out.”

“You’ll have it,” she said.  “But…”

“But what?  Please don’t tell me there’s something else we’ve got to worry about.”

“It’s just the comms,” Sarah said.  “I don’t know how far underground these tunnels are, but anything more than a couple of feet of solid rock are going to cause serious interference.  While you’re down there, we probably won’t be able to communicate.”

That was less than ideal, but it wasn’t an impossible handicap.  “It’s a straight shot.  If we make it to the other side, I’ll call for the traffic jam.  We’ll have to figure out the actual vehicle situation if we get to the other side, but at least we’ll have a little bit of breathing room.”

Pause.  “When you make it to the other side, you mean.”

“Of course I meant when.”  I smiled, for my own benefit and for Sarah’s.  Even though she couldn’t see the expression, I knew that she would hear it in my voice.  That I was faking it was neither here nor there.  “Just keep your finger on the button.  And see if there’s anything you can do that might slow them down.  I don’t know what exactly could do that, but…”

“I’ll find something,” she said.

I couldn’t think of a suitable reply, and so I opted for silence instead.  The quiet moment didn’t last for very long.  Heavy boots clambered down a not-too-distant staircase, accompanied by loud, angry men’s voices.  Neal stepped in front of me, his gun held low at his side and checked my face.  I nodded twice, two sharp motions like a marionette on strings, and he burst out into the hallway.  The firing started a second later.

Chapter Fifty-Nine

I struggled to move an oversized dresser from one corner of the room to block the door, alone, while everyone else stood around in varying states of surprise and shellshock.  Michel recovered first and managed to rouse Mila from her stupor enough to help.  With three of us working in unison, we pushed and pulled the dresser into a makeshift barricade.

With that finished, I turned back to Neal.  He still hadn’t moved fully into or out of the room.  “Stay with me here,” I said, “because we don’t really have a ton of time to work through this.  You were taking the girl away from the Magi, weren’t you?”

He blinked.  “Who?”

“The Magi, Management…whatever you call them.  You were taking Avis away from them?”

Neal nodded mutely.

“Why?  What were you going to do with her?”

Neal swallowed and, reluctantly, threw his other leg back into the building.  Instead of approaching me, he walked slowly to Avis’s hiding place.  “She’s…she’s not a machine,” he said.  “She doesn’t…she isn’t going with you.  She isn’t!”

“She reminds you of someone, doesn’t she?”  I took a shot in the dark, based in part on Mila’s assessment and my own native instincts.  “Little sister, right?  Someone back home that you’re taking care of?”

“How did you…”  He stopped, tried to regain his composure, and shook his head.  “Not a sister, no.”

Light from outside streamed through the window and fell on his left hand.  There wasn’t a telltale glint of metal but, as my mind accelerated to take in as many details as possible,  I spotted a distinctive pale band around his left ring finger.  “Daughter,” I guessed.  “She reminds you of your daughter?”

Avis peeked out of her hiding place.  “Neal, what are they talking about?”

He reached out and smoothed her hair with one hand.  “She isn’t going anywhere with you.  You can’t hurt her anymore.”

“Devlin.”  Sarah’s voice cut in and pulled my attention away from Neal and his charge.  “I’ve got the traffic virus ready.  Do you have a way out yet?”

“Not yet,” I said into the comms.  I gave Neal a significant look.  “But I might have an idea.  You’ve still got eyes on this building’s interior?”

“The guards are clearing the first floor now.  They’re going room by room, so you’ve got a little bit of time before they make it through the first and second floors.  That’s assuming they don’t skip directly to the girl’s room; she’s the most important part of this operation, after all.”

“He’ll figure it out.”  Mila spoke into the room, but she clearly wasn’t speaking to anyone in particular.  “He’ll know.  If they sent him, he won’t bother with the second floor.  Not as long as we’re trapped up here.”

“And who is he, Mila?”  I asked.  “We can’t deal with the threat, if we don’t know anything about what we’re up against.”

She and I made eye contact.  Her pupils were almost fully dilated.  “You can’t deal with the threat.  That’s what I’ve been saying.”

“Well, that’s uplifting.  I’m going to keep thinking about solutions, though, if that’s okay with you.  Feel free to join in, whenever you can.”  I touched a finger to my earbud, focusing on Sarah.  “Keep me informed on what he’s doing.  If Mila’s right, we’ll have to figure something out a lot faster than I’d like.”

“Will do.”

Michel cleared his throat.  “Uh, Devlin?”

“Yes?”

“I think that our new friend is not dealing well with what is happening.”

I glanced up and saw that Michel was pointing towards the window.  My eyes followed his extended arm to Neal.  The guard was pointing a gun in my general direction, but it wasn’t a steady aim.  “Who are you?”

“Short story?”  I crossed the room in long strides, stopping just out of arm’s reach.  I had no desire to frighten him into accidentally shooting me.  “You’re trying to get the girl away from Management, aren’t you?  That’s what we’re here to do.”  I left out the rest of our goals; overloading him with information wouldn’t be good for anyone.

“If someone doesn’t tell me what’s going on,” Avis said, “I am going to scream.”

“It’s…complicated,” Neal said to the girl.  He turned back to me.  “But you…you were sent by them, weren’t you?”

“It does look a lot like that, doesn’t it?  There’s too much to get into right now, but let’s just say that we have a vested interest in making sure the Magi don’t kill her.”

“They’re going to kill her?”  His cheeks turned a shade paler.

Kill me?”  Avis parroted.  “Management would never do that!  I’m far too valuable.”

“She’s right,” Neal said.  “This whole operation is designed specifically to keep her safe.  If they wanted her…”  He couldn’t finish the sentence.

“Well,” I said, “the rules have changed.”  I noticed an open book on the floor and picked it up without actually thinking.  There were only nonsensical scribbles written within the book, crawling up and down on the page and from margin to margin.  I pocketed it, in case.  “She knows too much now and there are some men downstairs – the ones the Magi actually sent – who are here to kidnap and kill her.”

“As opposed to your plan?”  Avis asked.

“Well…at least we weren’t planning to kill you.”

Neal narrowed his eyes.  “What were you planning?  You wouldn’t risk breaking into here, just to do a good deed.”

I smothered the impulse to lie, and creatively worded the truth instead.  “Whatever’s going on is over my head.  I don’t have any particular interest in what she knows, but there are people that do.  That’s not really all that important right now, though, is it?”

He seemed suspicious, still, but his the tightness around his eyes lessened slightly.  “Who were you talking to earlier?”

“Another member of my team,” I said.  “She’s keeping an eye on what’s happening downstairs.”

“What’s going on?”

“The Magi’s real extraction team is here.  If we hadn’t come today, Avis would be in a trunk by now.”

That got him to shut his mouth.  Avis didn’t seem particularly disturbed by that idea, just irritated that we still hadn’t given a full explanation of…well, anything.  I was already noting the interactions between them, devising ways to use it to my advantage.  Despite her size, Avis was far more self-possessed than a child had any right to be.  Her carriage formed an unusual counterbalance to Neal’s earnestness and confusion.  Neither wanted the other to die, though.  That much was easy to read.

I seized on the brief lull of conversation.  “Sarah, what’s happening?”

Silence for a moment.  “Mila wasn’t wrong.  The tattooed guy sent one of his own men and two of the local guards to secure the second floor security room.  Looks like he’s setting up a perimeter at the bottom of the third floor staircase right now.”

I relayed that information to Neal.  “Decision time,” I said, as soon as I finished, before he had a chance to actually process what was going on.  “Either you help us get out of here, somehow, or we all die in a blaze of glory.  Followed shortly by Avis dying.  That isn’t what you want, right?”

He shook his head.  “How do I know this isn’t some elaborate scheme?  Some test the Magi are pulling to see if I’m actually loyal?”

“If it was,” I said, “how much trouble would you already be in now?  We weren’t the ones trying to sneak out of the building with a girl under our arms.”  Michel coughed.  “OK, we were, but we aren’t the ones doing it at the moment.”

Neal started to reply.  He was cut off by a voice, deep and distinctly accented.  “Come out, come out, wherever you are…”

At the sound of the voice, Mila went down to her knees and wrapped her arms around her chest.  “No, no, no, no…”

“See, I’ve been paying attention to what everyone’s been saying down here,” the voice continued.  “There’s one person in particular that the men are talking about.  Tough, scary, eyes like steel.  I wonder who fits that description.”

Mila’s chanting grew louder.  “No, no, no, no; he won’t catch me, I won’t let him catch me…not again, no, no, no…”

“And the guy who hired me in the first place mentioned something about a tough chick, messing up his operations.  I’ve got plenty of time to search, though, don’t I?  I’ve been looking for such a long time.  But now, there are only so many places for a person to hide in a country this small.  I’ll be here until we get everything all squared away.  Isn’t that right?”  The voice paused.  I realized, almost distantly, that I was holding my breath.  “Emilia.”

“No!”  Mila spun around and yelled at the sealed door.  Her voice filled the room, shrill and broken.  “Not again, Aiden!  Not again!

Aiden, the voice’s owner, laughed in a rich baritone.  It didn’t feel like a taunt; in fact, he sounded genuinely amused.  “Ah, there you are, Thorn!  I was wondering where you’d gotten to.”

I whirled away from the door.  I didn’t know anything about Aiden, but Mila’s panic was infectious.  “Neal!  What’s it going to be?”

He hesitated for another few seconds and then nodded decisively.  “We need to get out of this room.”

“And how are we going to do that?”

“There’s a basement,” he said.  “And a tunnel that leads almost a mile away from the manor house.”

I pressed the heel of my palm to my forehead.  “That’s great and all, but he’s outside the door.  So, I don’t know how we’re going to get all the way to the basement, seeing as every entrance is covered.”  I paused.  “Wait, a secret tunnel?  And you were going out of the window, so…?”

“One of the bookshelves, two rooms away.”  Neal gathered Avis into his arms and picked her up once more.  “It’s got a hidden staircase that leads down to the first floor and, from there, we’d only have to get to the basement.  I was hoping that you – well, the people you were pretending to be – would draw most of the attention to the third floor so that I’d have a clean getaway.”

“Sarah! What’s the first floor looking like?”

Her chair creaked through the comms line.  I could imagine her spinning to face a different monitor.  “Skeleton guard, maybe five men.  Why?”

Mila could handle five guards, easily.  Even without her assistance, the combination of Neal, Michel, and I had a good chance of winning any altercation, if a fight broke out.  “You can reach the other room – the one with the secret staircase – through the exterior?”  I asked Neal.

He nodded.  “That was the plan, but…”

“But it would only work if nobody was looking for you?”  I finished for him.  His expression served as both answer and confirmation.  “We need them to look here and not anywhere else on the floor.  Then we can move around the outside, until we reach the bookcase and follow it from there.”

“How are you going to do that?”

A good question.  At this moment, perhaps the most important question.  Mila, my trump card and physical heavyweight, was incapacitated by Aiden’s simple presence.  “Sarah, what can you do for us?”

“Not much,” she said.  “The electricity to the manor house isn’t connected to the same grid as the rest of town.  I don’t think it’s even connected to any sort of main network.  Unless you can physically cut cords, all I’ve got is access to cameras and control of their documents.  And if you do that, the download stops dead.”

I winced at the word choice.  “Nothing that’s going to help me right now.”  My foot tapped its irregular rhythm into the floorboards of its own accord.  “What do I have, what do I need, and how can I get it?”

A gunshot, deafening and shocking in its abruptness, rang out.  Neal and I flinched immediately; Avis, from her place in the guard’s embrace, covered her ears and howled; and Mila, still on the verge of catatonia, reacted with a speed developed over years of practice.  She knelt, spun, drew her sidearm, and pointed it directly at the weapon’s shooter: Michel.

A trail of smoke floated from his handgun’s barrel.  He seemed as surprised to find himself holding a gun as the rest of us did.  “It will get their attention, no?”

I started to say something – probably something devastatingly clever or witty – but Aiden’s commanding baritone from the other side of the door boomed out.  “Take positions!  You two, move back to the stairs; the four of you, body armor and breeching charges!  Now!”

I strode across the room, pushing down Mila’s weapon as I passed her, until Michel was in arm’s reach.  His eyes widened in concern.  I threw out my arms and pulled him into an embrace, then pulled down his head and planted a kiss on his forehead.  “You brilliant, brilliant man, you.”

He blushed slightly at the praise.  “It was nothing.  I just thought that, if it worked as a distraction, it should also work to draw attention here.”

I kissed his forehead one more time and released him, before I turned back to face Neal.  “There you go.  How far away is this secret staircase?”

“It’s…it’s not far.  Five minutes, if it were just me and Avis.”

“Which it isn’t.  So, let’s assume ten minutes, and get started immediately.  We’ll have to keep it down, so that the goons outside don’t figure out what’s going on.  Michel?  How are you with heights?”

His cheeks turned even redder and he averted his eyes.  “They are not my favorite.”

“Give me the gun, then, and you can help Mila get to the other room.  She’ll give you something to focus on, and I’ll keep their attention focused squarely here.”  I held out a hand and accepted the handgun from him.  “Hurry up, go!”

Neal moved first.  He adjusted Avis’s weight on his hip so that he could more easily navigate and stepped out onto the thin balcony.  His movements were far more nimble than I’d expected, and he disappeared from view without a stumble or slip.  Mila required more effort.  Michel struggled to get her into motion.  When he finally did succeed, she moved on wooden legs to the window.  He helped her outside and locked eyes with me for a moment.  Then, he held tight to her and the two of them vanished, as well.

I fired the gun at random intervals, pausing once to reload.  I aimed my shots at a spot twelve inches to the right of the door knob and was pleased to discover that more shots nailed the general zone than missed.  It didn’t matter where the bullets went, though; what I needed was the sound and the ensuing panic that it caused in the men waiting outside of the door.  Without any knowledge of Avis’s safety, they couldn’t risk firing into the room.  I could fire off as many shots as I wanted, on the random chance that one of them might injure a guard and remove him from play.  The feeling of impunity was unfamiliar, but not unwelcome.

“Come on, Thorn.”  Aiden’s voice was smooth and soft, almost like an entirely different person speaking.  “Why are we pretending?  You know what’s going to happen; we both know.  That’s why you spent so long trying to hide from me, isn’t it?  Trying to hide from yourself.”

I said nothing.  Aiden was interested in Mila and that interest, as well as Mila’s presumed presence, kept his eyes pointed exactly where I wanted them.  At the same time, my ears did perk up.

“Not going to say anything?”  Aiden laughed.  “I can do all the talking for the both of us, then.  That’s how we met, after all, isn’t it?  You were just a poor, scared little kid who didn’t how to deal with the hunger.  But I showed you, didn’t I?  And I know you’re dying to feed that beast again.  You know what you really want.”

Ten minutes, and my second clip was nearly empty.  I walked over to the window and stepped out onto the balcony, and squeezed off two of my remaining three rounds.

Aiden continued speaking, utterly unfazed by the gunshots.  “You want to kill again, don’t you?”

I froze.  I knew that Mila had killed, in the past.  She made no secret of it.  Something in the way he said the word, though, gave me pause and a fresh set of goosebumps.

“Well, there’s always a place for you with me, Thorn,” Aiden said.  “You needed a little break and I let you have it.  But you didn’t think you’d gotten away from me, did you?”  He laughed again.

He spoke with conviction and I heard truth in his words.  He was a hunter and Mila, for whatever unknown reason, was his target.  That made her a vulnerability for me.  By any reading of her contract with the Lady, Mila’s presence resulted in greater danger from Aiden.  If I mentioned it to her, she would do what the job required: run as far away as possible, hoping to draw Aiden and as many of his men away as she could.  That might not keep me safe, but it would buy me time.  The smart move was obvious.

I looked down the side of the building and saw Michel, leaning out of a window several rooms away, and motioning towards me.

“Let us in, Mila,” Aiden said, his voice lowering even further into hypnotic volumes, “and this could all be over.  You could be part of a team again.”

I made my decision.  “She is,” I whispered.  I shot my final bullet into the center of the cluster to the right of the doorknob and hurried to meet up with Michel and the rest.

Chapter Fifty-Eight

Michel gathered several months’ worth of footage and distributed it between various pockets on his person; at the same time, Sarah remotely wiped any trace of our presence from the system and any cloud storage.  They finished their tasks at roughly the same time.  Mila peeked through a crack between the door and its frame.  “Looks like we’re clear for right now.  Our regularly scheduled operator is going to come back eventually, though.  He did not look pleased.”

I straightened my knees and tilted my head, left then right, until something popped there.  “What else do you need, Sarah?”

“Nothing on my end.  I’ll start sorting the information that I can actually read now.  The encryption on the rest of it is unreal.  My computer’s having fits just looking too hard at it.  We’ll need to find the decryption key in the middle of all this.”

“It’s really that bad?”

“Unless you have a supercomputer handy that you’ve been keeping secret, yeah,” she said.  “Maybe the Lady could arrange access to one?”

The knowledge that she was snapping due to stress, rather than a conscious desire to start a fight, kept me from replying in kind.  Barely.

Three seconds ticked away before Sarah sighed.  “Sorry, that was uncalled for.  But the encryption is honestly complicated enough that the Magi trusted it for their valuable data.  That should tell you something.”

“I get it.  So, we need the girl.  We’re thinking she’s the one who helped create it, right?”

“Mmmhmm.”

“Well, that was already part of the plan.”

“Bringing the other guy along for the ride’s new, though,” Mila added.  I glared across the room at her and she shrugged it off.  “What?  I’m just saying.”

“Thank you for that much needed clarification,” I said, with all the sarcasm in my body.

Michel elected to sidestep the drama.  “Do you know how you will convince him to come with us?”  He asked.

“If Mila’s read on him was accurate, and it probably was, then his loyalty might be for sale.  With the resources the Lady’s been throwing at us, I’m pretty sure we can make him a better offer.”

“And if we cannot?”

I opened my mouth to answer, even though I had no real idea what to say.  Mila interrupted that with a series of loud, staccato pops as she cracked each of her knuckles in turn.  She didn’t actually say anything out loud; she didn’t really need to.

“Just so that I know,” I said, “exactly how loosely are you planning to read that contract?”

“It’s a very loosely written contract to begin with,” Mila replied. “According to the language, I can use my own judgment to see to your safety.  If, for instance, your life can be saved by injuring you myself, I’m allowed to do that.  Basically, in order to keep you from dying, I can pretty much do whatever I want.”

I tried not to let the thought of an unfettered Mila rattle me.  My efforts weren’t entirely successful.

Mila took another peek through the slim line of light.  “The tech’s coming back.  What should I call him?  The operator?  The technician?  The Hispanic?”  She looked down at her dark brown skin.  “That one feels a little too on-the-nose.”

“Technician, operator…pick your poison.”  A beat, as I realized what I’d said.  “Not literally, but you know what I mean.”

“Technician, it is, then.  What are we doing about him?”

“Follow my lead,” I said.  “And don’t kill anyone, for God’s sake.”

“I make no promises.”  She didn’t have the decency to appear even a little ashamed.

Mila was, without a doubt, an incredibly vital asset in the field…so long as her stated predilections toward violence could be reined in.  That contract would require a thorough reading after we finished the job.  There wasn’t enough time to do more than make that resolution, however, before two sharp knocks came from the other side of the door.

“Eyes on me,” I said.  I relaxed my own personality and allowed the German captain, posture and all, to reassert itself.  It came with a sense of false supremacy and security; I clung to those as I threw the door open and glared down at the diminutive Hispanic man.  “What do you want?”

The technician blinked, hard.  “This is not…”

Acceptable,” I finished for him.  In the small room, my elevated volume had a stunning effect.  “Incompetent guard rotations, inefficient placement of available troops, and pitiful security.  It is a wonder that the girl has remained secure here for as long she has.”

From his expression, I gathered that he hadn’t expected an immediate verbal assault.  Few people did.  It took him a few precious seconds to switch tracks from attack to defense.  “We followed our orders, to the letter.”

“The orders you received,” I said, without the slightest clue what those orders might have been, “were written under the assumption that the men were not entirely incompetent.  You have never heard of improvising?  Making do, as the Americans say?”

Mila stepped into the conversational opening before the technician had a chance to form any sort of reply, without any urging on my part.  “Half as many men could cover as much ground, if they were well trained.”  Even my limited knowledge of tactics told me that she was blatantly lying.  The technician, however, did not seem to catch the lie.  “Either it’s general failure on your part – in which case, you all start looking for new jobs – or it’s deliberate.  Is it deliberate?  Do you and I need to have a conversation about loyalty?”

The technician’s skin paled.

I adjusted my tone.  If Mila was playing bad cop, I would fill the opposite role.  “We will take whatever liberties we require, until we discover the truth.  If you, personally, have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to fear.”

Did you do something wrong?”  Mila tried to step forward and I stopped her with an outstretched forearm.  The brief moment of contact only served to remind that, if she really wanted to go through me, I could do little to stop her.

“Stop.”  One word, aimed specifically to convey the pecking order in our little group.  Mila almost literally bowed away.  I directed my attention back to the technician, trying his best to grow smaller with every breath.  “If you get in our way, then we will have to deal with that problem, before the rest of our task can be completed.  You do not want that, no?  I would not want that.”

I wasn’t sure, but a sound suspiciously similar to a growl came from Mila’s direction.  From anyone else, the play-acting would have been ridiculous.  Somehow, she made it work.  The technician nodded mutely and stepped aside.

Michel went first, walking slowly so that his concealed cargo couldn’t rattle.  I followed after him, nose pointed haughtily at a spot six inches above the technician’s head.  I made it less than a yard away from the door before Sarah spoke.  “Uh…we might have a problem.  Another one, I mean.”

At the same instant, the walkie talkies crackled to life.  “Incoming vehicle,” a voice said.  “International plates, hold for verification according to protocol.”

“There was a protocol?”  Sarah sounded incredulous.  “Of course, they were too distracted by the gunfire to think about that when you showed up.  I’m running those plates right now, and it’s going through a series of shell companies.  It looks like that they’re registered to – “

“Registration matches the list Management gave us,” the voice continued, cutting Sarah off.  “Wait…there’s already an extraction team here for the girl, isn’t there?”

“That’s a positive,” another voice responded.

“Who’s got eyes on them now?”

The technician looked at me, then, to Michel.  The Frenchman was literally trembling with fear.  He may as well have been wearing a sign that read “imposters.”

The tech reached for his walkie-talkie; Mila, technically still inside the room and much closer to him than anyone else, moved first.

I couldn’t follow everything that happened in the next few seconds.  After an initial exchange of blows, Mila quickly asserted her dominance with a sharp knee kick and, when the tech bent over in pain, a brutal elbow to the base of his spine.  She covered his mouth with one hand and pulled her handgun free with the other.  The glint of metal startled me into action.

“No!”

Mila looked at me, utterly confused.  “What?  Our cover’s already blown.”

“You shoot him, then everyone who hears the gunshot knows exactly where we are.”  Which was true, though it wasn’t the reason I’d stopped her.

She considered that.  “Fair enough.”  She returned the weapon to its holster.  Then, she changed her grip and prepared to break the technician’s neck.

“He’s not a threat, Mila!  If you kill him, it’s not because of your contract, and it’s not to protect me.  You’ll just be a murderer.”

I let that hang in the air between us.  Michel laid a hand on my shoulder from behind, after a handful of seconds.  I couldn’t see his face, and didn’t want to break the tense eye-contact between Mila and I, but there must have been something she saw in his face.  Her eyes softened slightly, then she looked away.  “He’ll talk, first chance he gets.”

His walkie talkie lay on the floor, where it had fallen during the quick scuffle.  I crushed it to pieces with two quick stomps.  “Not for a while, he won’t.  And he can’t tell them anything they either don’t already know after Sarah’s finished trashing their system.”

She sighed.  “Nothing personal,” Mila said to the technician.  She pushed him slightly away, shifted stances, and reduced him to unconsciousness with a right cross.  He crumpled like wet paper.  “Here.  Give me a hand with him.”

With my assistance, Mila stuffed the tech back into the room and broke the keypad to lock him inside.  Sarah filled us in while we worked.  “It looks like the real extraction team picked today, of all days, to come.”

“Our luck is nothing if not predictable,” I said.  “How many people in the team?”

“Three in the car, counting the one in charge.”

“Anyone we know?”

“Not anyone I know,” she said.  “These looks like international heavyweights, though.  Everyone’s giving them about a foot of room.  Even the boss is, like, six and a half feet of muscles and tribal tattoos.”

Mila looked up quickly.  “Their leader; does he have any scars?”

“The usual assortment, I guess.  Why?”

“Do you know who it is, Mila?”  I asked.

Mila had faced down Asher’s thugs, the idle rich at the Green Light gala, and the heavily armed guards here with only two basic emotions: bored indifference and legitimately frightening bloodlust.  Now, her feelings were so stark that it hurt to see them: Mila was terrified.

“Devlin.”  She gripped my arm with fingers that felt like steel bands.  “We have to go.  Now.”

“What?  Mila, what’re you talking about?  We can’t leave right now.  That guy’s downstairs; we’d have to go through him.  Plus, we’ve still got to get the girl out of here.”

“Sarah,” Mila said, “find a way out of here.  Whatever you’ve got to do.  I can’t be here.  Not if he’s here.”

“I’m looking, but…it’s not like you’re in prime real estate right now.  A rooftop escape is impossible and none of you, except Dev, know how to rappel.  Even if you did, your getaway driver is upstairs with you.  I can see them covering the Aston already.”

“Shit…shit, shit, shit.”  Mila began to pace, drumming her fingers against her thigh.

I watched the melt down proceed with morbid curiosity and a growing sense of deep unease.  This was more emotion that I’d ever seen from her.  That it came now, when we were all trapped on the second floor of an unfamiliar property, detracted greatly from the spectacle.  “Who is he?”  I asked.

“It’s complicated.”  She didn’t stop pacing.  “It’s too much…too much to explain.  Not enough time, but…damn it, why is he here?”

Mila was talking at me, not to me.  I turned to Michel while she muttered.  “How long to get from here to the town limits?”

He gawked at me, then Mila, and decided that answering my question took higher priority than Mila’s breakdown.  “Forty-five minutes, with traffic.  Perhaps less.”

“Sarah?”

“I can’t get the traffic lights,” she said “but I can kill the whole grid.  That should keep some people off of the roads, assuming they aren’t already out on the way to work.  Worst case, you could end up with a lot of obstacles, though.”

“If it’s an obstacle for the getaway, it’s an obstacle for the pursuit, too.”   My toes tapped out an irregular rhythm on the floor.  “I’ll take it.  How long to set up something like that?”

She typed fervently on her end of the connection.  “Ten minutes, maybe fifteen.  Still won’t solve the escape problem, though.  Let’s say you make it to the girl and you get her to come with you.  How are you planning on making back downstairs, through the rapidly growing lynch mob, and get into the Aston in the first place?”

I grabbed Mila’s wrist and yanked.  Even distracted by her own issues, she reflexively pulled back.  I motioned to Michel and the two of us managed to push her into forward momentum.

“Devlin?”  Sarah prompted.  “Please tell me you have something up your sleeves.”

“As soon as I figure something out, you’ll be the first to know,” I said.

“But-“

“Can’t really deal with this right now.”  An expression of dazed blankness was gradually spreading across Mila’s face.  As the light dimmed in her eyes, concern grew in Michel’s.  “Do whatever you need to, Sarah, so that we can have that power outage when we need it.  I’ll call the plays for now.”

“Dev, you-“ She cut herself off and took a long breath.  “Okay.  Call if you need anything and stay safe.”

We reached the staircase leading up to the third floor without incident.  Apparently, the guards from the second floor went downstairs, in response to the extraction team’s arrival.  I could hear them all distantly, massing and milling about, as the newly arrived leader took command of the operation.  “Mila, I need information on this guy.  What are we dealing with here?”

She looked at me with eyes like dinner plates.  I snapped my fingers an inch in front of her nose and her pupils focused at the sound.  “What?”

“Information, Mila!”  Stress bubbled up from deep within me and mixed with rising fear.  I could taste it like acid in my throat.  “You’ve got to stay with me, here.”

“He’s…he’s bad.  Professional killer, working at the highest echelons of the profession.  When he gets his target, it’s…I’ve seen what it looks like.”

“Okay.  Can he be bought?  Or waited out?”

“No, it’s…he doesn’t do it for the money.  He gets paid, but he does it for…he does it because he likes it.”

I made a note of the similarities between Mila and this new mysterious player.  “Can you take him?  If it comes down to a fight, can you win?”

Her eyes were already beginning to unfocus again.  I reached the top of the stairs and paused in front of Avis’s door until Mila shook her head.

“Well, alright then.  We avoid the scary man.  Check and check.”  I couldn’t come up with anything more inspirational to say.  I felt my brain shift into overdrive, catalyzed by straight shots of adrenaline, but there were no concepts to grasp and no elements to manipulate.  My bodyguard was nearly catatonic; my driver was inexperienced and probably as frightened of a painful death as I was; and my operations manager was out of practice, out of range, and rapidly running out of time.

In place of thought, I acted.  I threw the door to the room open, prepared to bully, threaten, or bribe Neal into accompanying us out of the building.  At that moment, however, he held Avis against his hip.  A travel bag was slung across the opposite shoulder.  The window was open and Neal was balanced precariously between two worlds, half in and half out of the room.

He froze when his eyes met mine.  “T-this isn’t…I mean, there’s an explanation…”

I took in the scene in an instant, drew conclusions from all available information, and decided on a course of action before Michel had a chance to close the door behind me.  “You’re taking her somewhere else?  Somewhere safe?”

“I…what happened to your accent?”  Neal asked.

Avis struggled against his grip.  She managed to slip free and dashed away to safety behind a four-poster bed.  “Who are you?”  She asked, in her strident, commanding accent.

“The good guys, I think.  Definitely the better guys.”  Downstairs, the new leader established control and his men headed up the stairs.  I heard their heavy footsteps against the wood and carpeting.  “Help us barricade this door.”

Neal looked absolutely thunderstruck.  From outside of the room, a gruff voice called out, “Marco!”  There was a childlike glee to the words and that, more than anything else, turned my skin to gooseflesh.

I impaled Neal with an imperious glare, backed by a wealth of growing terror, and poured some of that ice into my voice.  “Now, please?”

Chapter Fifty-Seven

Neal led us past several more groups of armed men, clearly riding high on his elevation beyond his fellow guards.  I let him preen without comment; my attention was elsewhere.  My eyes were frenzied with motion, darting from one surface to the next in a mad hunt for information.  Any scrap of intelligence gained now might turn out to be the critical difference between freedom and incarceration later; a twinkling of information could stand between life and slow, tortuous death at Asher’s hands.  There wasn’t much to see, however.  The second floor was as undecorated as its first floor.  I searched in vain for a slip of paper, a single document that might give me a trail to follow, but those hopes were gradually dashed.

The only interesting thing that I did see dealt more with the guards than their employers.  Every guard was partnered with another, and one member of each team carried an old school walkie talkie on his hip.  Neal noticed my focus after the fourth pair.  “Redundancies are critical,” he said.  “Two men can watch more ground than just one, and it keeps any single person from being blindsided.”

“And the walkie talkies?”

“Security, sir.  Cellular communication can be blocked or tapped.  Walkies are low tech enough that they can’t easily be remotely spied on.”

Sarah’s machine gun keystrokes came through the earbud.  “That’s one mystery solved,” she said.  “I’ve been wondering why I couldn’t get into their internal communications.  If I had all of my regular gear with me, and enough time, I could find the frequency and listen in.”

I caught Neal with a stern glare.  “How many of these walkie talkies do you have?”

“Right now?”  He blinked, confused by the abrupt question.  I intensified the glare until he answered in a rush.  “At last count, we had fifteen walkie talkies available.  They break or are broken occasionally, but that’s the number we were originally sent.”  He paused.  “At least, that’s what the documentation says.”

Thirty guards.  Even Mila couldn’t deal with thirty armed men without considerable assistance or, perhaps, heavier weaponry than she could carry on her person.

Neal was still talking.  “We’ve had several guards finish up their rotations, though, and their replacements haven’t arrived yet.  So there are…nine walkies out right now, not counting this one.”  He touched one of the devices at his own side.

“Dev, that’s way more than we were expecting to deal with.  We should call this off,” Sarah said.  She hesitated and audibly reconsidered.  “Except we can’t just leave.  There’s no way to know how long until the Magi send their guys to actually pick up the girl.”

I tapped the earbud twice.  “You have more than that one there?”  I asked Neal, pointing out the walkie in his hand.

“In storage, but they’re not –“

“Give me that one, then.”  I extended my hand and curled my fingers inward.  “If I am here, then I will keep my ear on the communications personally.  So that there are no more mistakes.”

Neal hesitated for a second before he unhooked the walkie talkie and passed it over to me.  His hand trembled slightly as I reached out to accept his offering.  For a moment, I felt legitimately guilty for deceiving the kid.

Sarah spoke into my ear.  “You’ll have to listen in manually, and keep me informed about anything they say.  This chatter that I’m seeing on their workstation…it seems like something big is going on.  Bigger than this property changing hands recently; might even be bigger than the girl.”

The hired help wasn’t likely to know any of the more important details.  Even their own computers were blockaded to keep them in the dark about anything beyond their immediate tasks.  There was no way to communicate that to Sarah, though, so I turned the walkie talkie’s volume to its maximum and clipped it to my belt.  Neal waited until it settled into place before he started forward again.  I gave him a little bit of room.

Mila was directly behind me, without warning.  I hadn’t heard her move or felt her presence until the last instant.  She spoke in a feather-soft whisper, millimeters from my unobstructed ear.  “With some cover,” she said, “I can handle eighteen guards.”

Thankfully, Neal’s back was turned.  He didn’t see me openly gape at Mila’s statement.  I replied with the minimum of lip movement.  “You can do what?”

“You heard me.  I’ve got several clips and the element of surprise.  Eighteen isn’t impossible.”

“We’re here to infiltrate,” I whispered back.  “We get out without confrontation.  Anything else puts me at risk.”

She sucked her teeth.  “Fine.  Just keep it in mind.”

I shivered and chose not to respond.  Our group reached a door at the far end of the second floor before too long.  “Here, sir,” Neal said, gesturing.

“Well?”

“The, uh, technician is inside.  He can help you to find any footage that you’re looking for.”

“Did I not say that we would do our own security assessment?”  I swallowed a mouthful of air and puffed my chest further out.  “My associates and I do not require your technician.”

“But, he’s…I mean, protocol says that…”  I hit him with yet another look, brimming with superiority, and he caved.  “Of course, sir.  Right away.”  He keyed a four digit code into a panel to the right of the door – 6174 – and slipped inside.

I turned to Michel and Mila and spoke quickly, as low as I could manage without being entirely inaudible.  “We’re dropping Sarah’s virus into the computer, wiping the camera feeds, and getting the hell out of here with the girl, okay?”

“I thought that Sarah was already in their computer?”  Michel asked.

The line popped twice as Sarah reconnected the lines.  “I’ve got some systems, but not all of them.  It gets technical; I can explain it to you later, if you’re really interested.”

I shook my head.  “Punchline is: this is a quick stop, fast in and fast out.  Michel, you’re doing great.  Just keeping looking imposing and hope no one decides to call your bluff.  Mila, you are…”

“I know, you don’t have to keep reminding me.”  She yawned.  “If you want to make things more difficult, that’s up to you.  It would just be easier if I killed them all.”

Jesus, Mila.  Are you a bodyguard or a hitman?”  I asked.

Mila shrugged.  “Yes.”

I opened my mouth, realized that there was literally no possible answer to her blunt assertion, and shut it again without response.

Michel lacked similar restraint.  “If a fight starts,” he said, “what about the girl?  She would be in danger, no?”

“Devlin’s priority is the kid,” Mila said.  “My priority is him.  So long as keeping him safe doesn’t interfere with my job, that’s fine.  If things change, I’ll drag him out of here by his hair before I let anything happen to him and make me break a contract.”

“You’d let the girl die?”  Sarah asked.

“I wasn’t hired to protect her,” Mila replied, in that same maddeningly casual manner.

My interest in the girl was professional, but it was tinged with a hint of humanity.  I couldn’t, in good conscience, allow the Magi to execute a ten year old child.  Even if she possessed no intrinsic value to the Lady or to me, I still wanted to rescue her.  A quick glance at Mila’s expression told me that she did not feel anything similar.

Then, she surprised me.  Her expression softened.  “I don’t want her to die.  And I’ll do what I can to keep everyone alive.  But if I can’t protect her and protect you, then…”  She cracked her knuckles, one at a time.  “By your hair, Devlin.”

Involuntarily, I reached up to touch my hair and frowned at what I felt.  It wasn’t that long.  “Let’s make sure that things don’t implode on us, then.  Stay on mission.  Sarah, can you keep us all linked for the duration?  I don’t want to have to relay information.”

She didn’t answer immediately.  “Not a problem.  I’ll mute myself, but I’ll jump back on if something comes up that you need to know about.”

The line popped twice and Sarah was gone.  Her timing was perfect; less than five seconds after Sarah muted her line and ended our multi-part conversation, a small man with deeply tanned skin stormed out of the room.  He gave the three of us a fast examination, threw his hands up, and continued away.  Neal appeared in the doorway a moment later.

“What was that?”  I asked.

“He doesn’t like people touching his equipment,” Neal explained.  “But when he saw that you were sent directly by Management, he realized that he couldn’t exactly say no.”

“Go and get the girl ready,” I said.  “We will finish our review and come for her when everything has been taken care of.”

“She’s on the third floor, first door on the left.”  Neal paused, visibly considering whether or not he should say anything else.  “Her name, sir….it’s Avis.  The girl, I mean.  She has a name.”

I raised an eyebrow.

Now that he’d started, words began to tumble out of him.  “It’s just that you’ve only said ‘the girl,’ and she’s got a name.  And, uh…it might be difficult to get ready to move quickly.  Avis is…”

I raised a hand and he cut himself off.  “Then you should get started, instead of talking more, shouldn’t you?”

“O-of course, sir!”  Neal saluted again and hurried away.  I tracked him all the down the hall until he turned and rushed up the third floor staircase.

That left Mila, Michel, and me without the watchful eyes of any guards.  I dropped the accent and relaxed my posture.  “Sarah?  We’re clear.”

Two pops, and then she was back.  “Looks like they dump the camera footage onto physical drives every month or two,” she said.  “The rest gets kept in local storage.  Get me administrator rights and I can pull the last two months from their server while I’m wiping any footage of you from their records.”

“And the older stuff?”

“It’s probably too much to take with us, without raising suspicion.”

Michel cleared his throat.  “If Devlin’s character wanted to review the archives for any security breaches, would that be particularly surprising, though?  I do not think it would raise too many questions, especially since he has already made it known that he is not pleased with the procedures here.”

“That…is not a bad idea,” Sarah admitted.  “I was just going to recommend that you three skim over what they’ve got, but Michel’s idea is better.”

“And I can easily sell that,” I added.  “Neal’s a soft mark.  I don’t even know how he got himself involved with the Magi.  This level is absolutely out of his depth.”

Mila stepped in front of me.  “Maybe we can finish this conversation somewhere that isn’t quite as visible?”

We piled into the small room and closed the door behind us.  Michel knelt and began to search through drawers and cabinets for the hard copies of the manor house’s security footage; I inserted Sarah’s flash drive into the computer and followed a series of instructions she provided.  Within minutes, she had enough access to take over for me.  “Copying the information to our Shanghai servers right now,” she said.  “This…could take a while.  The clip you installed doesn’t generate enough bandwidth for fast downloading.  On the bright side, these are mostly just document files that were withheld from the local employees for whatever reason.”

“Meaning?”

“Small files,” she summarized.  “As long as they don’t find the clip, I’ll be able to keep working at this until I get it all.”

“Think you can find out why these documents were kept secret from the people working here?”  I asked.

“Already on it.”

I left her to that and turned to Mila.  “Were you serious earlier?  Could you take eighteen guards, if it came down to that?”

She had taken position near the monitors, facing the door.  I couldn’t help but notice that her right hand rested on the handle of an exposed handgun.  “With appropriate cover and ammunition?  I could handle twice that number,” she said.  She paused, tilted her head in acknowledgment of some internal point, and spoke again.  “Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“Depends on who shows up.  Professionals would give me a challenge; amateurs wouldn’t be an issue.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Take that Asian guy from downstairs,” she said.  “That was a professional, a real old hand at this sort of work.  He’s got the scars and the bearing for it.  Eighteen of him and this would get messy fast.”

“And the better alternative?  There is a better alternative, I hope.”

“You pointed it out earlier,” Mila said.  “Say, that kid who’s just about to bow before you?  I’ve seen guys like him before: bright-eyed, optimistic, probably a little too quick to follow orders from whoever’s giving them.  I’ve figured out his backstory already, and we’ve only been around him for fifteen, twenty minutes.”

I motioned for her to elaborate.

“Neal?  Kid’s ex-military, obviously,” she began.  “Small town, maybe.  Raised to respect authority without really questioning it too hard.”

“Southern?”

“Maybe, but I don’t hear the accent.  Mid-western would fit, though.  He’s got kind of a farmer’s build.”  She shrugged.  “Anyway, I’d guess that maybe he got out of the service and found himself in a bad spot.  Needed money fast for something.  That’d make him easy pickings for any organization looking to hire someone for a little less than is average for the market.”

I could grasp the simplicity of it.  “Cheap, disposable labor.  Grunts, basically.”

“And it’s probably what the kid’s used to, honestly.  That’s how the government uses people like that.  If most of the guys stationed here are the same, or even vaguely similar, they’ll crack when the shooting starts.”

I shot her a sharp look.  “When?”

Mila responded with a thin-lipped smile.  “If the shooting starts.  I’ve seen it happen before.  The kid said that no one here’s in direct charge, and people need leaders when things get crazy.  Otherwise, everyone has their own ideas about the best thing and you get pure panic.”

My resistance to wanton violence didn’t preclude the ability to recognize common sense.  “Like, outside, with your distraction.  A little controlled chaos does have its merits, though.”  I glanced down at Michel’s back.  “Assuming we don’t freak ourselves out when things get weird.”

“I wouldn’t be too worried about that.”

“Oh?”

“People only need a leader to follow.”  She placed her left hand on the hip opposite her gun.  “And that’s what you’re here for, right?”

It wasn’t quite a taunt, but there was more bite to it than a simple declaration required.  I didn’t have time to find a response before Michel leapt up, holding aloft a portable hard drive labeled as two months old.  “Aha!  This is what I am looking for, no?”

“No cameras in there,” Sarah said, “and you aren’t wearing the lapel cam, either.  What’s he got?”

“Hard drives, dated and labeled.  It looks like…”  I ducked my head slightly so that I could see into the open cabinet.  “Might be a year’s worth of footage here.”

“Take as much as you can carry, then.  I’m almost finished copying over everything and then I’ll set up a time delay before the spike hits.  When I’m finished, their entire system is going to be an overpriced, oversized paperweight.”

“Any information so far on the girl?  Where they found her, how she ended up here in the first place?”

“Not yet,” Sarah said.  “I’m looking for a log of the girl’s work here, but it looks like they thoroughly erased every scrap of data after she finished translating it into whatever code they’re using.”

“Isn’t it almost impossible to delete information?”

“Surprised you remembered that.”  I bit back a reply and let her continue.  “But, yes, it isn’t the easiest thing.  I’m hoping that I can find a scrap of information that someone missed.  And…”  She paused and, barely audibly, cursed to herself.  “Damn.  Um…I think we’ve got a problem.”

“Another one?  Imagine that.  What’s coming now?”

“The girl,” Sarah said.  “She isn’t just difficult.  I’ve got psych evaluations here, going back twice a month for the last six.  Avis’s been diagnosed as somewhere on the spectrum.  Might be Asperger’s, might be something more severe.  The psychiatrist wasn’t particularly interested in the specifics; looks like he was just sent to make sure that she was capable of work.”

“How bad is her condition, in Layman’s terms?”

“You wouldn’t know it, if you were just talking to her,” Sarah said.  “But if I’m reading is correct, she has almost no understanding of social skills.  More accurately, she understands them; she just doesn’t care about them.”  She paused, hammering her keys to access more information.  “And she apparently draws a salary, for whatever it is she does.”

“That explains why she’s here,” I said.  “The girl’s an employee.”

“Surprisingly,” Mila drawled, “not the weirdest thing I’ve heard this week.”

“But how did they find her in the first place?”  I shook my head and changed mental tracks.  “Nevermind, we can figure that out later.  Is her condition going to make it harder to move her?”

“If you want to move her without raising absolute hell, yes.  She doesn’t like being touched, in any way, except by people she trusts.  And she doesn’t trust a lot of people.”

“Shit!”  I pressed the heel of my palm against my forehead.  “Okay, what do we have to get her to trust us?  Is there a song I have to sing or, I don’t know, a thing I have to do with my hands?”

“It looks like…”  A pause, as she double-checked her information.  “It looks like there’s already someone there who she does trust.  You want to take any guesses as to who.”

“Who?  Michel and I only saw her for a few minutes; Mila hasn’t seen her at all, and…”  I stopped as the penny dropped.  “You’re kidding me.”

“Not at all.  Looks like your new friend Neal has a way with children.  I’m watching him with her right now, and you wouldn’t know that she’s got any diagnosis at all the way she’s interacting with him.”

I doubled the pressure until my palm and my forehead both started to hurt.  Michel gave me a blank look.  Mila’s reaction, however, was the most dramatic.  She threw back her head and laughed openly.  “I have got to say, Devlin; working with you is anything but boring.”

“Oh, shut up,” I said.  I lowered my hand and opened my eyes.  “Alright.  Let’s go turn one of the Magi’s agents.”