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?”

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