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.

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