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?”

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