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.
“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.”