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.”
Michel cleared his throat. “Uh, Devlin?”
“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.