Chapter Seventy

I wrote a quick note to Sarah, asking her to handle Michel’s side of things for the moment, and moved from the kitchen counter over to the couch.  She passed me a tablet after a few seconds, without a word.  She had opened a document containing the information the two of us had managed to cobble together about Mila.  The file was depressingly thin.  We knew her name – or, more likely, the name she’d chosen for herself – and I could personally attest to her combat skills.  There were some speculations, written in a different font for ease, about where she might have worked in the past.  That part was new; I looked over the list of ideas, trying to draw connections to jobs I’d been a part of or heard about.

Caracas.  Barcelona.  Honshu.  Some of those locations sparked faint memories, but none came with a solid image.  All that I knew for certain was that, if Sarah’s guesses proved accurate, Mila’s professional career had taken her around the world.  Which wasn’t really surprising, if I gave it more than a few seconds of thought.  The jobs I worked didn’t typically require physical security, but I’d met more than a few crew leaders who preferred the smash-and-grab to the carefully planned heist.  They were the type of people who might find use of someone with Mila’s skillset.

Sarah tapped me on the shoulder and handed the slip of paper back to me, folded in half.  I opened it and read her words: “leaving this in your hands, for the moment.  will provide more information when i have it.”  The earbud popped twice in my ear and I thought the line had gone dead.  A heartbeat or two later, I realized what Sarah had actually done: removed Michel’s conversation from my ears, so that I could focus entirely on Mila.  That also freed me up to speak to her without worrying Michel any more than was strictly necessary.  I nodded to Sarah in appreciation, and navigated to a new page of the file.

“Mila,” I said out loud.  “What are you doing?”

“Handling something,” she said back.

“Is this something that could be handled later?  Maybe when you aren’t in the middle of an operation?”

“Obviously not, or I’d been doing it later, wouldn’t I?”

There were pictures in the file now.  Crime scene photographs, gleaned from local newspapers and some police files.  Each picture was accompanied by a tag at the bottom of the screen and those helped solidify the links I’d begun forming between Mila’s supposed previous jobs and the things I’d heard in the underworld.  To my relief, I didn’t see any murder scenes in the pictures.  I wouldn’t have necessarily been surprised if there had been, but what I did see was only marginally better.  Instead of killing the victims, Mila had gone to work on them: fracturing arms, splintering bones, and generally reducing her competition to unconscious meat.  It was the violence I’d seen at the warehouse, and again at the manor house, raised exponentially.  These files weren’t the work of a calm, dispassionate professional; the only way a person could cause the kind of damage I saw would be if they were trying to hurt their opponent.

I shivered at the thought.  “You’ve still got a contract with me,” I said, when I had my voice back under control.

“I have a contract with the Lady,” Mila corrected.  “But that’s irrelevant, because I’m not breaking it.  I’m allowed to take care of personal stuff.  Unless you’re saying you want me off the team, then…”

I blinked.  It hadn’t occurred to me that she might actively try to force me into a position where cutting her loose was the only real option.  Our conversation hadn’t gone the way she expected…or had she wanted it to go badly?  I didn’t know enough to draw a conclusion in either direction, and I resolved to take strides towards rectifying that problem.

“That’s not what I meant,” I said.  “But you agreed to this plan.  If something happens to Michel, then…”

“I’m not going for a joy ride,” she interrupted.  “Nothing’s going to happen to Michel.  Now, be quiet…I’ve got company, and I’d rather these two not know that I’ve got a little leprechaun in my ear.”

Irritation at the comment warred with amusement at its content.  I went with silence, instead, and listened.  Mila walked to one corner of the bar, next to a well-dressed man.  The angle presented by the security camera wasn’t a good one, but it was better than nothing.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Mila was saying.  Not to me, but to whoever her company was.

“We saw you at the gala,” a masculine voice responded.  The words came out a little too quick, cut shorter than they would normally be, and the rhythm was off.  Whoever the company was, he or she wasn’t a native speaker.  It almost sounded like they’d learned English, but refused to practice the language until its cadences became second nature.  What did that tell me?

“Work,” Mila said, with a little laugh.  “You know how it is.”

“Indeed,” a woman said, as she sidled around to Mila’s other side.  The accent was similar to the first in all the right ways.  A split second passed before I connected the disparate facts into a solid theory: Mila was talking to the twins we’d seen at the gala, and that I’d glimpsed in the bar.

“So,” Mila dragged out the vowel, “what brings you into town?”

“Work,” the man said.  For lack of a better name, I mentally tagged him as Thing One.

“You know how it is,” Thing Two – his sister, maybe? – added.

The Things chuckled and they did it in sync with each other.  Creepy.

“What is it that you need from us?”  Thing One asked.

Thing Two followed immediately in his wake.  “We have never been friends.”

“Only enemies,” Thing One said, agreeing with his sister.

Not enemies,” Mila said.  “We’ve worked opposing jobs, sure, but I’ve never had a problem with the two of you specifically.  And I’m guessing that you’re off assignment right now…?”

She left the question open, inviting them fill the space with an answer.  The Things’ reply took a while to come.  “Our business in the area has concluded, yes,” Thing One said.

“Did you come to hire us?”  Thing Two asked.  “That would be…”

“Interesting,” Thing One finished, for his twin.

“I’m not free to do that,” Mila said, “and I’ve never been in the market for my own muscle, anyway.”

“Then what?”

Mila cleared her throat.  “I’ve got questions.  The two of you have always been more involved in the underworld side of things, so I figure you might know more about…things than I do.”

“This information,” Thing One said, “is worth something to you?”

Silence over the earbud for a long time until Mila, eventually, nodded once in agreement.

Thing Two started speaking again.  “How much are these answers worth to you?”

“I’ve got money,” Mila said.  “If that’s what it’ll take, we can work something out.”

“Not money,” Thing One said.  “That is too…”  He paused, apparently searching for the right word.

“Transient,” Thing Two supplied, in a smooth voice.

“Yes, transient.  Perhaps favors?”

Mila considered that suggestion and made a soft, almost inaudible sound.  The earbuds were sensitive enough that I could hear it, but it had probably been too soft for the Things to catch.  “Depends on what kind of favors you’re talking about.”

“Your assistance,” Thing One said.  “There are times when we find ourselves in need of additional hands.”

Your hands would be most helpful,” Thing Two added, emphasizing the pronoun.

“I’m not going to break a contract for you,” Mila said.  “You understand that, right?”

The Things laughed in unison again.  “Of course not,” Thing One said.  “Your…honor is well-known.  We would not ask you to betray that.”

“If you did not have this thing,” Thing Two said, “we would not be having this conversation at all.”

Mila sighed. “If I’m not under contract, and you aren’t doing anything that requires I break my word, then…fine, I’ll take that deal.  One favor, in exchange for some answers.”

“What if we do not know the answers?”  Thing One asked.

On cue, his sister spoke the next sentence.  “Does this invalidate your part of the bargain?”

“No,” Mila said.  “I’ll do the favor, so long as you give me your word you’ll actually try your best to get me the answers I’m looking for.”

“So easily?”  Thing One’s voice sounded perilously close to laughter once more, but he managed to keep it restrained to a slightly elevated pitch.  “This is hardly an equitable arrangement for you.”

“I’m aware,” Mila said.  The words came out clipped.  “One favor, in exchange for some questions.”

Pause.

“Ask your questions,” Thing One said.  “We give you our word that we will do our best to give you the answers you seek.”

“Agreed,” Thing Two said.

“What do you know about Aiden?”

Both Things inhaled sharply at the name and their body language – at least, the details I could make out with such poor resolution – became less predatory and more nervous.  “Is…is he in play again?”  Thing Two asked.

“We should leave,” Thing One added.  “If Aiden is here, we should not be.  You should not be.”

“I’d be surprised if anyone wanted to get out of town more than I do,” Mila said, “but that’s not a possibility right now.  So I’ll have to settle for information I can use to avoid him until I can put a couple of continents between the two of us.”

Silence.  This stretch of wordless time somehow managed to possess an ominous quality that I could feel over the comms line.

The Things had a quick conversation with each other in Japanese.  After a minute of that, Mila coughed theatrically.  “Do you know something or not?”  She asked.

“We…know a little,” Thing One said.

“Not much,” his sister said.

“I’m trying to figure out what he’s doing in town,” Mila said.  “Who hired him, what he’s been doing, that sort of thing.  Does this ‘little’ bit of information you have skew in that direction?”

Another burst of Japanese between the twins before Thing One spoke in English again.  “Aiden has not worked much in the past months,” he said.  “After your…disagreements with him, he and his crew went to ground.  We did not even realize he was working again.”

“There’s a new member of his team,” Mila said.  “He had to get him from somewhere.  Do you know anything about that?”

“Mikhail,” Thing Two said, with obvious distaste.  “Yes, we have heard about him.”

“Carlos and I have history,” Mila said.  “What’s Mikhail do?  That might be help me to figure out what he’s after in town.”

I refrained from saying anything into the comms.  Mila knew perfectly well what Aiden wanted from his trip to London.  She also knew – or at least suspected – who had hired the mercenary.  With the exception of this latest question, everything she’d asked so far had been redundant.  I made a mental note to examine the conversation later, with Sarah’s help, for any hidden context that I might be missing.  Nothing about this felt right.  I was missing vital context; I could feel the absence of some important piece in my chest.

It wasn’t a complete waste of time, though.  While Mila’s decision to go off-mission wasn’t ideal, it did afford me an opportunity to get a better feel for the intricacies of the underworld, as it related to hired muscle.  It was much more openly antagonistic than the network of thieves and conmen I worked with, but that antagonism was moderated by a sort of professional respect.  Mila had said something along those lines in the manor house, before things went sideways, and I could hear how that respect played out.  The Things didn’t necessarily like Mila, but they did regard her well enough to comment on their feelings without any subterfuge or double-speak.  More importantly, they were willing to come to an agreement with her and share their information, in exchange for an unspecified promise of future assistance.

They worked with favors.  There had to be some way to use that.

Thing One started speaking, and I automated my train of thought, shifting most of my conscious attention back to the conversation.  “Mikhail is a…”

“Physician,” Thing Two said.

She provided the word before her brother had an opportunity to stumble over the word choice.  She had covered a gap in translation two times, in perhaps the last five minutes.  That had to mean something…I just didn’t know what and didn’t have the mental resources available to figure out an angle.  I shelved that thought for later review.

“Yes,” Thing One said, “a physician.”

“Field medicine?”  Mila asked.  “Battlefield stuff?”

“No,” Thing Two said.  “Perhaps pharmacist would be a better word.”

I tagged my previous thought with a note: Thing Two apparently had no problems with English.  Pharmacist was at least as difficult a word as ‘physician’ or ‘transient,” but she’d pulled it without the slightest hesitation.  Perhaps she’d been taught the language earlier in life, or Thing One simply wasn’t as good with different tongues.  If the latter case turned out to be true, I could hardly judge him: I’d been in a French prison for nearly three years, and I still barely spoke the language.

“A pharmacist?”  Mila asked.  The tone implied that she hadn’t directed the question to either of the Things.  “Why would he need a pharmacist?”

“Perhaps he is sick?”  Thing One suggested.

“Because drugs are tough to get when you’ve got the sort of firepower Aiden’s got?”  Mila shot back.

“We do not know why he needs the pharmacist,” Thing Two said.  Her voice displayed no signs of offense at Mila’s snappy retort.  “Only that Mikhail has a history as one.”

“A drug dealer,” Thing One said.  “Prescription medication, in addition to personal concoctions.”

“Is that disgust I’m hearing from you?”  Mila asked.  “Drug dealers are part of the business.  It isn’t like we’re exactly good people.”

“Mikhail sold to children,” Thing Two said.

“Oh.”  Pause.  “Well, fuck him, then.”

One of the numerous phones I’d begun to collect since Paris vibrated on the table in front of me.  I had become so engrossed in the conversation between Mila and the Things that, for a moment, the reality of my location had slipped my mind.  The vibration against the table’s surface shook me back out of my head.  I grabbed the phone – the one Alex had given me before I’d left him in Munich – and saw that Alex was calling.

I silenced the call and tossed the phone onto the love seat.  I could call him back later, or text; he’d understand if I missed a phone call or two while working.

Using the tablet Sarah had given me, I entered the name “Mikhail” and “drugs” into a search engine she’d helped develop.  The underworld consisted of individuals with vastly different skill sets and navigating between strata was difficult, at the very best.  I’d used the engine to find Anton, back when I’d first had need of his explosive expertise; it was how I’d learned Asher hadn’t died in St. Petersburg; and, now, I used it to double check the information that the Things had given Mila.  If there was something to find about Aiden’s newest hire, Sarah’s search engine would be able to dredge it up, and then we could all go over the details in relative safety.

The search engine began to work, digging through an unknowable amount of information contained within the deepest corners of the Dark Web, and I left it to its work.  Mila was talking again.  “Wait.  You said that Aiden hasn’t been working lately, but you kept up to date on his newest hires?  Why?”

“We make it a point,” Thing One said, “to be aware of his activities.”

“And,” Thing Two added, “we stay far, far away.  You would be wise to do the same.”

Having seen Aiden for only a few moments, I understood why these professional hitters would be cautious of him.  Judging solely from the inflections the Things were using, caution was drawing it lightly; they devoted effort to just avoiding the man.  That knowledge was chilling enough that I upgraded Aiden’s mental ranking from “scary man who frightens professional killers” to “scary man who frightens professional killers, and should be avoided at all costs.”

Even as I did that, I was absolutely certain that we hadn’t seen the last of him.  If he was working for Asher, Hill, or the Magi – and I was becoming increasingly certain that those were three distinct factions, instead of one large enemy to be dealt with – we’d have to deal with him in order to take a run at the golden book.

“Anything else?”  Mila asked.

A few moments of silence passed.  “Nothing comes to mind,” Thing One said.

“That’s more than I knew, at least.  When are you going to want to call in this favor?”

Thing Two made a sound.  It wasn’t quite a chuckle or a cough.  If pushed to label it, I would have said that she purred.  “We will let you know.”

“Assuming,” Thing One said, “that you survive your business in London.  We will be…leaving the country.  Immediately.”

“If something goes wrong,” Mila said, “it won’t end with me dead.  At least, not if Aiden gets his way.”

Thing One pushed the remainder of his drink over to Mila.  She downed it in one go.

“Let us hope, then, that he does not,” Thing Two said.  “Be safe, Mila.”

Mila didn’t say anything in reply, as they took their leave.  A solid thirty seconds passed before she spoke at all.  “I’m assuming you got all of that?”  Mila asked.  There wasn’t anyone nearby, so I assumed she was talking to me again.

“This whole conversation is backed up in a few different locations,” I said.  “What I didn’t catch, we can go over later.  You want to explain why that conversation was so important that you’d risk going off-mission when Michel needs you?”

“Not really.”  Pause.  “The twins have gone up against Aiden’s team before.  It didn’t go well for them, so I figured they might be keeping track of his movements.  So long as I’m working for the Lady, I can’t risk contacting anyone in the underworld that might be working for the Magi.”

“So you trust them?”

“Not at all,” Mila said.  “But I can tell when they’re lying and when they aren’t.  They know more than they’re saying, sure, but the tip they gave me was the truth.”

The tablet beeped to let me know that its search was finished.  A quick glance showed me a list of posts about Mikhail’s work, his back alley business dealings, and a variety of prescription medications he’d arranged to have stolen or redirected.  “Seems like it,” I said to Mila.

“I would have waited until later, but the twins never stay in town for more than a week after a job.  It was now or never.”

I let out a breath.  “Fine.  We can talk about it later.”

Mila switched her camera back on.  I could still see Michel in the corner of the camera’s field of vision.  She hadn’t gone far from where the Frenchman still sat.  “Or not,” she said.  “There’s really nothing to discuss, after all.”

I raised a hand in the air and motioned to Sarah.  She understood the vague gesture – bringing the two my index and middle fingers together slowly – correctly and, two pops of the comms later, we were all connected again.

“Michel,” I said.  “How are things going?”

Even as I spoke, I glanced up at the television screen.  There, on Michel’s camera feed, I watched as Adlai reached across the table to Michel.  His hand went straight to the button camera that Michel wore and plucked it from the Frenchman’s shirt, bringing it up to his eye.  Then, lowering it slowly, the look in his eyes sharpened to a point.

“Ah,” Adlai said softly.  “I believe there might be more to you than just a simple cab driver, hmm?”

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Chapter Sixty-Nine

“I…I don’t know,” I said, helpless and dumbfounded.

“You don’t know?”  She repeated.  “You promised he wouldn’t be at the bar.  You swore to it, in fact.”

“He shouldn’t be!”  I heard the squeak in my voice.  “I’ve been doing everything I can to keep up with him as a matter of professional safety, and he doesn’t drink; he doesn’t socialize with virtually anybody; and he absolutely would not go to any place where there are so many people crowding around him.”

“Seems like he got over that,” Sarah said.

“Maybe Lane got him to come out?”  The question was directed more to myself than to Sarah.  “Or something might have shaken things up in his personal life, I just…I don’t know why he’s there, but we’ve got to pull those two out of there now.”

I reached up to unmute the line.  Sarah stopped my hand with hers.  “Wait,” she said.  “Just…wait a second, let me think.”

“What’s there to think about?  The plan was for them to lift some identification from Lane, while he’s drunk and not paying strict attention.  Adlai’s presence obviously throws that whole idea to hell, so…”

“Does it, though?”

I paused and blinked at Sarah.  “What?”

“Does it actually change the plan?  Michel just has to keep the two of them distracted long enough for Mila to make the lift,” Sarah said.  “Those two weren’t ever going to be involved in anything physical at the Interpol office, so they don’t have covers to protect.  That’s why we sent them in the first place.”

“We sent them because you convinced me to take a small risk, not because we wanted to have them serve themselves up on a platter to the very agent who’s trying to arrest me now.  I’m not going to let them put themselves in that much danger, just to make things easier on me.”

“You won’t let them?”  Sarah’s voice hadn’t changed much on the surface, but the temperature around her seemed to have dropped suddenly.  “Easier on you?”

I squeezed my eyes shut and pinched the bridge of my nose for thirty seconds.  I tried to put my thoughts in order, to frame some argument that would convince Sarah that I was right without leading to an argument.  “We can find another way to do this,” I said, finally.  “There’s too much of a possibility that something’s going to go wrong, and that’s only going to put us in worse position later.”

“The thing is,” Sarah said, “I actually believe you mean that.”

I knew her well enough to recognize when she was planting verbal bait.  “But?”

“But that isn’t why you want to pull them out,” she finished.  “And it isn’t why you didn’t like this plan in the first place.”

“Oh?  And what insight have you suddenly had into the inner workings of my own mind?”

“You’re scared, Devlin.”

I rolled my eyes.  “You think?”

“Not of Asher,” Sarah said, with a lethally sharp undertone of sarcasm.  “Not of Hill, or the Magi, or even the Lady.  You’re scared something’s going to happen to one of us, and that it’ll be your fault.”

I opened my mouth to reply.  I closed it again when I realized that I had no clever response available.

She pressed on.  “It’s an absolutely honorable thing to do, and it’s just like you.  It also happens to be one of the most arrogant and stupid parts of your personality.”

“Arrogant?  Wanting you guys to be safe is arrogant, now?”

“It’s arrogant,” Sarah said, “because you assume that you’re somehow such a compelling and charming human being that people would willingly walk in front of the firing squad just because you asked us to.  I’m here because I want to be here.  I made that choice, not you.  And Michel?  He could’ve walked away at any point – hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been trying to get him to leave – and he’s still here.  A complete newbie to this whole thing, in deeper than I’ve personally ever been, and he practically volunteered to help.  His choice, Devlin.  Not yours.”

“And Mila?”

Sarah lifted an eyebrow.  “I’m not going to dignify that with a response.  The point is this: the reason those two are out there and the reason I’m here are because we want to be here.”  She paused.  “It’s because we want to help with…all of this.  You think I wouldn’t have just disappeared if Asher was the only thing I was worried about?”

“You didn’t even know about Asher,” I said.

Her lips parted slightly and there was a single moment where it seemed like she was about to say something.  She blinked, coughed a little, and the moment passed.  “I know now,” Sarah said instead, “and I’m choosing to be here.  And whether or not Michel and Mila decide to roll the dice on this is their choice.  You don’t get to take all of this on your own shoulders.”

As much as it pained me to admit, even just to myself, Sarah was right.  She gave me a look, subtly different from any she’d thrown at me since San Francisco, and I could see that she knew she’d won the discussion.

“We’ll let them decide, then,” I said, and unmuted the comms line.  Sarah made no move to stop me this time.  “Guys.  We’ve got a problem.”

Mila turned her back to Adlai and Lane.  “Imagine that.”

“What is the problem?”  Michel asked.

“Lane is at the bar,” I said, “but he isn’t alone.”

“I noticed that,” Mila said.  “Who’s his friend?”

I sighed before I answered.  “It’s Adlai.  Apparently, Lane talked him into coming out for a night on the town, or…I don’t know, or cats started living in harmony with dogs, but he’s there now and that’s really all that matters.”

Several long seconds of silence passed on both ends of the connection.  Mila cleared her throat first, breaking the frozen instant.  “Speaking of cats,” she said, “can you make sure that Sam gets fed?  Just in case this takes longer than expected.”

I gave the screen a long, confused look before I tapped lightly at the earbud.  Not hard enough to mute it again, but with enough force that I was certain it was actually in place.  “Did you hear what I said?”

“I did,” Mila said.  “Did you hear what I said?  Because Sam gets catty when he’s hungry.”

Sarah snickered.  “Catty?  Really?”

At any other time, I would’ve been happy to engage in a little bit of meaningless banter.  At that moment, however, I could hardly believe that Mila and Sarah were actually joking.  “Adlai is in the building,” I repeated.  “If you want to walk away, we can come up with another plan.”

“If you could come up with another plan,” Mila said, “you would’ve done it already.  Adlai being here doesn’t actually change what we have to do, does it Michel?”

“No,” he answered, after a stretch of silent consideration.  “No, it does not.  I only have to keep this Lane from noticing Mila, no?”

“Which shouldn’t be too hard,” Mila said.  “He’s doing some serious damage to those pints.”

I could feel Sarah’s smug eyes on me, so I elected to keep my eyes focused on the television screen.  “You two aren’t worried about getting caught?”

“I’m always a little concerned about getting caught,” Mila replied.  “But I feel pretty confident that neither Adlai or Hill has much of a chance at keeping me, if I decide I want to go.”

“I am concerned,” Michel added, “but I knew that there were risks when I came.  I can do this.”  He paused.  “Unless you think I cannot?”

I could have answered in the negative.  He’d left me an opening.  If I told him that I was concerned about his abilities, that tiny kernel of doubt would have been enough reason to call the operation off.  We could spend more time analyzing the problem, seeking an angle where Sarah, Michel, and Mila weren’t in so much danger.  It would have been so easy, too.  Even an indirect answer might be enough.  Nothing explicit; just something vague enough that it got into his head and Sarah was forced to pull the plug.

But I also knew that tiny seed of doubt would never go away.  Michel had talent and he’d been interested in the underworld so far.  Those were two traits I didn’t encounter often.  It was likely that he’d find his way back into thievery at one point or another, whether it was with us or not, but that speck of doubt would grow to define him.  It might keep him out of danger, on this one job, but it would also fester into hesitation.  A single moment of hesitation at a key moment – while an alarm system was going off and he couldn’t be sure which path led to the police, versus the one leading to freedom – would be damning.

Sarah was watching me.  I could feel the pressure of her thoughts, like a weight against my skin.  “No,” I said to Michel.  “No, I think you can do it.  I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were walking into.”

He sighed, either in relief or appreciation.  “Okay,” he said.  “What do I do first?”

“This is just going to be a standard approach,” I said, taking care to remove any doubt or ambivalence from my voice.  I started the process of shifting my thought processes into pure problem-solving mode.  “You’re a fellow expat, looking for someone to have a drink with. “

“I can do that,” Michel said.  “I think.”

“Mila,” I added, “just circle around the bar until either Sarah or I call for you.  Try to keep your camera pointed in his general direction, so that we can watch the interactions between him, Lane, and Adlai.  The security cameras don’t give us a lot of detail.”

Sarah cleared her throat.  “And stay close, on the off-chance that something else goes wrong.”

I restrained the urge to groan.  By phrasing her instructions like that, Sarah all but guaranteed that the roof would choose the worst possible moment to cave in, or that a resurgence of the Black Plague would strike down our team members and only our team members, or that Mila would suffer from a sudden bout of spontaneous combustion.  A quick glance in her direction made it clear that she understood what she’d done, immediately, but there wasn’t anything to do about it now.

Sarah had to cross the room and move Sam away from his perch in front of the screen so that the two of us could devote our full attention to Michel’s camera feed.  It wasn’t a long walk from where he stood with Mila to where Lane sat with Adlai, but the bar was jam packed with patrons vying for the attention of bartenders, servers, and a limited supply of attractive women.  Michel picked his way through the crowd with as much delicacy as I would expect from a neophyte, until he was only two tables away from Lane and Adlai.  There, he paused for a moment.

Sarah looked at me, expectantly.  I cleared my throat and shifted mental tracks.  There was a time for second guessing, but that time was over.  “Michel, I’ll walk you through this approach,” I said.  “Sarah’s right here with me, and she’ll be able to pull up information as necessary to make sure your cover ID stands up to any scrutiny.  All you’ve got to do is stay calm and stay in character.  Adlai’s not a social person, so he shouldn’t really involve himself in the conversation.”

Sarah scribbled something on a scrap of paper and pushed it across the counter to me.  I glanced down at the words: “shouldn’t = key word.”  I scowled at her as I crumpled the slip of paper into a tiny ball and threw it at her head.

“How do I approach him?”  Michel asked.

I watched the security cameras for a moment, drawing up a quick and dirty outline for how I’d quickly befriend Lane, if it were me in the bar instead of Michel.  “Unless he’s already drunk, he’s going to notice you before you get a chance to make an actual introduction.  That’s going to come with suspicion.  Counter that by being entirely open and forthcoming.  Eye contact and wide smile, okay?  Start off by letting him know you’re not British, so that he feels a connection with you over that.  He’s going to take the initiative, and that’s fine for right now, but you’ll have to get it back as soon as possible.”

“Why would I do that?  Wouldn’t it be better to let him do all of the talking?”

“Right up until he asks you a question you hesitate on, sure,” I said.  “As long as you’re steering the conversation, I can tell you what to say to keep him away from any problem areas.”

That wasn’t the whole truth.  If it were a one-on-one interaction, sure, the team could work together to ensure that Michel never strayed too close to dangerous topics of conversation.  But Adlai’s presence was a wrench in the delicate mechanics of our plan.  At any given moment, he could say or do something that ruined whatever groove Michel managed to establish with Lane, and there was no way to really keep him in check.

I wouldn’t tell Michel that, of course.  “Remember,” I said, “all we need is for him to be fully invested in you, so that Mila can make the lift, copy the RFID frequency, and beat a hasty retreat.”

“I’ll be right here, too,” Sarah added.  “And you already know where Mila’s at.  Just remember that you aren’t alone out there.”

I watched Mila’s feed as Michel nodded to himself.  He started the approach without any further prompting on my part or questions on his.  Sarah entered a command into her laptop and the zoom on Mila’s feed tripled.  The images were nearly as crisp as if I were there in person.

Just as I’d predicted, Adlai looked up from his smartphone as Michel drew closer.  The camera Michel wore wasn’t quite state of the art, but it didn’t need a lot of resolution to see that Lane was wavering from one side to the other in his seat, while Adlai’s eyes were alert and focused on Michel.

Pardon,” Michel said, before Adlai or Lane could get a word out.  “Excusez-moi, mais parlez-vous francais?”

Adlai frowned at the question.  For a moment, it seemed like he would ignore Michel, but I’d taken the measure of his personality a long time ago.  “Oui,” he said shortly.  “But I am better at English.”

“Oh!  Bon!”  Michel clapped his hands together in faked excitement.  “I know that English is easier to use while I am here, but I miss my own language.  You understand, no?”

“I have been speaking English for many years,” Adlai said.  “I don’t think of it as someone else’s language, anymore.”

The forced cheer in Michel’s voice dimmed slightly.  Not a lot, but enough that it was audible when he spoke again.  “Oh.  I did not mean anything offensive, I just…”

“Don’t do that,” I whispered into the earbud.  The decrease in volume was automatic and unreasonable.  I could scream into the connection and neither of the agents would hear a single syllable I said.  “That’s how Adlai is.  Move onto Lane.”

“And you?”  Michel asked, turning to the Scottish agent.  “Where are you from, if you do not mind me asking?”

“Scotland here.”  Lane’s answer was brutally short.

I entertained a moment of concern at the brusqueness of Lane’s response.  If our intelligence was wrong and Lane wasn’t a friendly person, this whole exercise would turn out to be nothing more than a waste of time we didn’t have and couldn’t afford to waste.  The moment passed when I realized that his attention was focused on two things in equal measure, judging from the changing angles of his chin: the beer in front of him, and the soccer game playing out on one of the televisions hanging behind the bar.

I motioned for Sarah to pass me a full, clean sheet of paper.  We’d have to communicate through written notes while Michel was in the middle of distracting both agents; it wasn’t the first time we’d been forced to do that.  I used our personal shorthand to write out a message: “top players, coaches, etc.?”

She performed a search for some information, jotted down some notes for herself, and then wrote out a response in the same shorthand: “try Fletcher.”  It took me a moment to piece together the symbols and abbreviations Sarah had chosen for the name.  She took the time to add another window to the feeds on the television screen, allowing us to watch the game, in real time.

I relayed that information to Michel, and it immediately became relevant: the same Scottish striker from earlier ducked around a defender, used a fancy heel maneuver to launch the ball up to about waist height, and then roundhouse kicked it past the goalie and into the net.  The crowd exploded, both in the bar and at the game itself.  “Michel?”  I prompted.

“Fletcher!  Bon, c’est trés bon! Excellente!”  I repressed the urge to laugh out loud.  Michel had elected to pour his Frenchness on layers, complete with the most stereotypical accent I’d ever heard.  If Michel wasn’t actually French, it might have been a little offensive.

Adlai glanced away from the television.  “Fletcher?”  He asked.  He sounded drunk.  “What do you know about the Scots and their soccer?”

Michel responded before I had a chance to feed him an answer.  “Enough to know that the English do not stand a chance if the Army has its way,” he said.

I blinked and scribbled a loose approximation of a thumbs-up on the paper for Sarah.

“Laddie!”  Lane cried out, in an accent that was nearly impenetrable.  “You’re sounding like my kind of Frenchie!  Who’d you come with?”

“I am new to the area,” Michel said, “and I have not had a chance to make any friends, yet.”

“Well, you just did,” Lane said.  “Grab a seat.  Maybe you’ll be better company than this one.”  The inspector hooked a thumb in Adlai’s direction.

Adlai, for his part, hadn’t lowered the pressure of his stare in the slightest.  I could feel the heat and intensity of that stare, as though he were looking right through Michel at me, directly.  I shuddered at that morbid thought.  “You’re doing great,” I told Michel.  “Grab a seat, and start feeding him shots.”

“That was it?”  Mila asked.  “You made it seem like this was going to be something impossible, but that was…”

I winced as Sarah pressed a button on her laptop and filled the comms line with a burst of high pitched feedback.  Michel remained unaffected, so I assumed that she had found some way to exclude him from that noise in the few seconds since I’d been watching her.  “You were saying something, Mila?”  She asked.

“I was saying that, so far, this is pretty…”

The feedback came over the line again.  I was prepared this time and managed to keep my reaction to a slight grimace.

“Go on,” Sarah said.  “I’d hate for this equipment to stop you from saying something impossibly stupid.”

Instead of trying a third time, Mila chuckled to herself and decided to keep her thoughts to herself.

I tuned my attention back to Michel’s side of things.  “…I am only visiting for a little while,” the Frenchman was saying to Lane.  “A vacation, from the rough life of a cab driver, you see.  What brings the two of you here, though?”

“Good job,” I said, nodding at his initiative.  “People love talking about themselves.  Let him open up, but don’t let him get control of the conversation.  It’s easier than it sounds, promise.”

I scratched out a quick sentence on the paper in front of me and pushed it over to Sarah: “how long to copy RFID?”

She adjusted a setting on her laptop, raising the resolution of both Michel and Mila’s cameras, before she responded: “two minutes.  maybe three, depending.  why?”

“got a feeling,” I wrote back.

good feeling?”

I shook my head slowly.  Out loud, I said, “Start ordering shots, Michel.  Lane’s a good old scotsman, so I’m betting he’s a fan of whiskey.  Start off with…”  I tapped an index finger against my chin and considered the options.

“Bell’s,” Sarah provided.

I raised an eyebrow.  “Since when do you drink whiskey?”

“I don’t,” she replied, lifting her eyebrow as well.  “But Lane used a credit card to open his tab and I’ve got access to their system, so…”

“Bell’s it is,” I said.

Michel suggested the liquor with more casualness than I would have expected and Lane, more than a few drinks in the bag already, accepted it with so much warmth that I almost felt bad about deceiving him.  Adlai couldn’t have been good company at any social event, let alone a bar teeming with drunken football fans.  Even now, while Michel attempted to schmooze his way into Lane’s good graces, Adlai continued to glare in his general direction.  Every few seconds, he let his eyes dart around the area – tracking threats, most likely – but he returned to glaring at Michel before too long.

Still, if the only thing that Adlai did was think harsh thoughts, I could deal with that.

“I’ve got to take care of something,” Mila said, without warning.

I blinked at the sudden interruption of my thoughts and wrenched myself away from speculation and back to reality.  “What?”

“I have to take care of something,” she repeated.  “Shouldn’t take too long.”

“Is this something you can deal with later?”  Sarah asked, incredulously.  “Because we’re kind of in the middle of something.”

“No,” Mila said.  “It can’t.  Don’t worry about it.  I’ll be back before too long.”

I reached out to Mila’s feed without really thinking about it.  “Wait, what are you –“

The feed went dead as Mila switched her camera off.  Through the building’s security cameras, I saw her move away from the table and back towards the bar.

I started to write out a note for Sarah, but Michel spoke first.  His words were so low that I might have missed them, if Sarah and I hadn’t gone completely quiet.  “What do I do now?”

“Just, uh, keep doing what you’re doing,” I said.  “We’ll figure out what’s going on with Mila.”

He made a little grunting sound in his throat that I took as agreement.  A server brought over two shots of Bell’s Whiskey and Michel lifted his glass to clink against Lane’s.  He could handle this for the moment, while I got Mila back into position.  At least, I hoped he could.

On the other hand, I had absolutely no idea how I was going to do anything so many miles away, limited to a voice in an earbud, but Michel didn’t need to know that part.

Chapter Sixty-Eight

“Michel, do you know what to do?”  I asked.

Sitting at the counter in our penthouse suite while Mila and Michel were in transit felt strange.  I shifted uncomfortably while I waited for a response.

“I think so,” he eventually answered, over the comms.  I noted the uncertainty in his voice.  “And you are certain that this will not be too difficult?”

“It’ll be fine,” Sarah said.  She was seated atop a stool in the kitchen, the remnants of a late dinner on the high counter in front of her.  “For one thing, you aren’t doing anything illegal.  Nothing wrong with striking up a conversation over a few drinks.”

“And,” I added, “you aren’t the one doing the actual lift.”

“That’s my job,” Mila said, also over comms.

The two had left the hotel an hour earlier, using a very common vehicle that Sophie made available for our purposes.  Sarah stayed behind with me, ostensibly to protect her cover for when she made the actual approach.  Personally, I suspected that it had less to do with that and more to do with keeping me away from her sensitive equipment, but I didn’t mind.  Her presence was comforting and, even though it wasn’t quite the same as it had been during our marriage, I still enjoyed her company.

“Out of all the bars in the area,” she said, “only one of them is showing the Scottish football league playing tonight.  Stands to reason that Lane’s going to pick that one.  All you’ve got to do, Michel, is get as many drinks as possible into him.  The more he has, the easier the lift’s going to be.”

“But he will not notice that his ID is gone?”

“Not if you keep him distracted,” I said.  “It won’t even be gone for that long.  As soon as Mila pulls it, Sarah’s going to copy the RFID frequency and then we’ll make one of our own when we need to.”

“How is she going to do that?”

I started to explain the intricacies of Sarah’s custom app, and stopped almost immediately when I realized that I didn’t have the foggiest idea of exactly how it worked.  I shot Sarah a helpless look and she rolled her eyes back at me.

“It’s technical,” she said, to Michel.  “Sufficed to say, we only need a minute or two with the card before Mila can give it back.  This should…well, it isn’t the hardest thing we’ve done in the past week.”

What she had been about to say would have been damning: if everything went perfectly, the approach, engagement, the lift, and the blow off should only take thirty minutes.  But nothing about my time since the Lady arranged for my breakout from prison – or even since Asher’s betrayal – led me to think that the world would allow any plan to proceed without complications.

“What place are we looking for?”  Mila asked.

“Rob Roy’s,” Sarah said.

“Then we’re here.”

“Mila,” I said, slowly.  “You’re just going to stay at the bar until Michel signals you, okay?  Nothing violent, unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

“Do I get to define when it’s necessary?”

“I’m going to go with a no on that one.  Turn on the cameras, please?”

Mila sighed before she did as I’d asked.  The mini-cameras that Sarah had pinned to their lapels came to life and their outputs were transferred, via an extremely long cable that snaked through the hotel room, to the oversized television screen in the living room.  The display was split in two: one for Michel and one for Mila.

As I watched, Michel found a garage and parked the car.  He and Mila made their way out of the garage, back down to street level, and approached Rob Roy’s.  While they moved, I muted my earbud and turned to Sarah.  “How’d you know which bar was showing the game?”

“You mean, aside from using my powers of observation and my devastating intellect?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Besides that.”

“Every other pub in a five-mile radius had sudden, inexplicable problems with their satellite reception tonight,” Sarah said, and a tight smile stretched across her lips.  “Which is just a shame for business.  I’ll upgrade their service packages for free after we finish, just to make up for the trouble.”

“Isn’t that going to make Rob Roy’s incredibly busy?”

Sarah’s eyes flickered over to me, a trifle too defensively for my tastes.  “The level of access I’ve got into Interpol’s databases wasn’t high enough for psych profiles.  It was either this, or we spend half the night guessing where Lane is most likely to go.”

Which was, of course, a much worse situation than the one we’d engineered.  Michel probably wouldn’t see it that way – more people equaled more chances to be seen and identified at a future point – but a crowded environment would help Mila make the lift without attracting too much attention.  “You did great,” I said.  “A lot better than I could’ve done under the same circumstances.”

“These are exactly the circumstances you work best under,” Sarah replied.  A beat passed and she bit down lightly on her bottom lip.  “But thanks.”

We locked eyes and held that contact for three or four seconds before turning, at the same time, back to the television.  There, we could see what looked like nothing so much as a thriving horde teeming outside of Rob Roy’s entrance.

“I might have underestimated how busy this would make the bar,” Sarah admitted.

“You think?”  I unmuted the microphone.  “Okay, Michel, Mila.  You’re headed for the front door.  There are two bouncers there, and they’re going to try to keep you out.”

“What do we do?”  Michel asked.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Stick to the plan and use the IDs Sarah gave you.”

“Try not to overuse them,” Sarah added.  “Those things aren’t easy to make, and they might be useful later.”

Oui,” Michel said.  “I will do my best.”

“That’s all we can ask for,” I said.  Then, muting my microphone, I turned to Sarah.  “How much effort did you put into his paperwork?”

“Not much,” she admitted.  “I didn’t really have enough time to do a proper job on them.”

“Let’s not tell him that,” I said.

“You think?”

We watched on the television as Michel and Mila made their approach, threading their way through the crowds of people pushing for entry into the pub.  When they reached the entrance, Mila took point and stepped in front of a bouncer before he could put a hand on Michel’s chest.

“I think you’re expecting us,” she said.

The bouncer arched an eyebrow and grumbled something that the microphone didn’t pick up.

Mila chuckled.  “Go check with your bosses,” she said.  “I’m pretty sure they’ll want us in there.”

The bouncer examined Mila and Michel both with a skeptical eye before he motioned for his partner to head into the pub.  He stepped back to the door, just barely far enough away that he couldn’t possibly hear anything Mila or Michel said, so long as they were quiet.

“What now?”  Michel asked.

Sarah pushed aside her uneaten food and began to hammer commands into one of her laptops.  “Now that you’re within range of their wireless network,” she said, “I can get into their systems and…there we go.  I’ve got the security cameras and the email servers.”

“And what does that mean?”

“It means that there won’t be any physical record of your faces,” Sarah explained, “And the manager of this establishment just received a strongly worded email from the owner, describing how he’s going to treat the two of you with the utmost respect, but not to make it obvious that you’re being treated differently.  If that makes sense.”

“How did you do that?”  Michel asked.

I drummed an irregular rhythm into the countertop with my fingertips.  “College buddies?”  I guessed.

“Family friend,” Sarah corrected.  “Easier to pull that off, seeing as I don’t actually know anything about who the owners are.”

I considered that.  It wasn’t the option I would’ve gone with, but it would still work.  Probably.  “You could have gone with a mistress,” I said.  “People will do almost anything to get out of that conversation.”

“I could also have made Mila or Michel into a long-lost child,” Sarah shot back.  “But someone’s inevitably going to recognize them after that.  I do know what I’m doing.”

I do not know what you are doing,” Michel said, softly.

Mila chuckled.  “I’m starting to think that’s the point.”

Anyway,” I said, stressing the syllables to the breaking point, “the punchline is that you’ve got a way in.”

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before one of the bouncers hurried back and whispered to his partner.  The man who’d eyed Mila went from suspicious to solicitous in approximately zero seconds.  He held the door open so that our bodyguard and our driver could enter Rob Roy’s without any further incident.

The interior of the pub was, somehow, even more chaotic than its exterior had been.  Several large television screens hung at regular intervals from the ceiling, each one playing a different game.  Rowdy groups of men and women, dressed in wildly clashing colors and wearing sports paraphernalia in at least three different languages, clustered around each screen.  They yelled at each other, they yelled at the rival teams, and they yelled at the screens themselves.  Servers did their best to manage the hordes, carrying two or three pitchers at a time to this table or that one; retrieving emptied plates and trays; or generally keeping the tumult and roar of the soccer fans from boiling over into a riot.

Judging from the cameras placed throughout the building, Michel went statue-still as soon as he entered the main area.  Mila, of course, remained calm and professional.  She turned in a slow, tight circle, so that Sarah and I could see her full field of vision.  “I don’t see Lane,” she murmured.

I shook my head, even though Mila couldn’t actually see that gesture.  “Neither do I.  Sarah?”

She played back the feed from Mila’s camera on her own laptop, at half speed, and propped up her tablet with a photograph of Superintendent Lane on the screen.  “I’ve got nothing.”

“Michel,” I said, “go with Mila up to the bar.  Try not to attract too much attention, obviously, and…I don’t know, try not to look suspicious.”

He took in a deep breath, faced one of the bar’s security cameras, and nodded decisively.  “Okay, I am ready.”

They made their way over to the bar, picking paths that wound separately through the crowd, but still staying close enough that Mila could react to anyone who tried to attack Michel.  No attack ever came.  There were enough people that the trip to the bar took more than a few minutes.  “Sarah?” I asked.  “You want something from the fridge?”

Sarah shook her can of Diet Coke thoughtfully.  “Is it too early for wine?”

I answered that question by walking into the kitchen, retrieving a beer and an entire bottle of wine, and then depositing the latter onto the counter by her discarded food.  “It’s five o ‘clock somewhere,” I said, as I returned to the kitchen for a wine glass.

Sarah gave me a smile, warm enough to raise the temperature in the room by a few degrees.  “Thanks for dinner, by the way.”

I shrugged that off.  “Can’t work on an empty stomach.”

“Sophie was able to arrange for a cottage in the countryside, several cars, and forged papers on extremely short notice,” Sarah said.  The lines around her eyes crinkled slightly.  “Something tells me she could arrange for dinner.”

“I just like cooking,” I said defensively.  “Keeps me calm.”

“And I was just thanking you for doing it,” Sarah said.  “That’s still okay, isn’t it?”

It was a simple enough question.  For some reason, the answer seemed far more important than that question implied.  There was a sudden tension in the air as Sarah watched and waited for a response, her left hand crossing unconsciously over the right underneath the counter where she thought I couldn’t see it.  “That’s still okay,” I said slowly.

She nodded, just as slowly as I’d spoken, as if she wasn’t quite sure how to take it.  I started to say something else – I had no idea exactly what  – but Mila saved me from stumbling over my words.  “We’re getting drinks now,” she said into my earbud.  “What do you want us to do if he isn’t here?”

Sarah pivoted back to the television screen.  There were three feeds displayed there now: one for Michel, one for Mila, and a third window that changed every couple of seconds to one of the six or seven security cameras installed inside the pub.  My ability to multitask was limited to last-minute, emergency planning; Sarah’s, apparently, allowed her to track each of the feeds without difficulty.

“He’ll be there,” Sarah said.  “There are more than a few citations on record about his drinking, and this game isn’t one he’d want to miss.”

Mila sighed.  I watched her portion of the screen as a burly bartender handed her a mug of beer.  “Okay, sure.  But, humor me.  What if he isn’t?”

“If he isn’t there, then…”  Sarah stopped, tapped an index finger against her bottom lip, and then filled her glass with wine.  “Then we’ll figure out something else.  There’s still time to come up with a way into Interpol.”

Time, of course, was both our greatest asset and our largest problem.  The longer we took to come up with a solution, the more likely it was that Adlai would find a lead that would put him on our doorstep.  Asher hadn’t stopped being a threat, either.  I doubted that he would take our assault on the manor house without formulating a response.  And, topping off the soufflé of misfortune that the bad guys were serving us, Aiden was a still unknown quantity.  Mila remained tight-lipped about the mercenary, her relationship with him, and anything that Sarah or I could have used to plan against the man.  All she had told us was that Aiden would be coming for her, and us, at some point in the near future.

We couldn’t afford to wait for long.  I shot Sarah a look and saw, in the way her eyes narrowed by a millimeter, that she had come to the same conclusion.  She just wasn’t saying it out loud.

“Wait,” Mila said.  “I think I see someone.”

“Michel,” I said, “turn so that I can see what Mila’s seeing.  I don’t want her to make eye contact, if possible.”

Michel did as asked.  He didn’t turn smoothly; the movement was jerky and stilted, which I attributed to his complete lack of experience.  One of the Scottish strikers pulled off a particularly impressive goal, however, so no one was looking at the Frenchman turning like a broken robot.  The field of vision presented by his mini camera panned across the pub stopping to focus on the bartender; then, on a pair of Japanese twins that I recognized from the Green Light gala; then, on a tight knot of inebriated Englishmen, yelling at each other in an accent so thick that I could barely understand it; and, finally, passing over a big man with a fierce, flame-red beer who was yelling something unintelligible at the television screen nearest him.

“Stop!”  Sarah said sharply, and Michel stopped.  “That’s him.  The guy who looks like the Quicker Picker Upper mascot.”

“Who?”

“The man with the beard,” I translated.  “That’s Lane.”

“What do I do?”

“Just approach him casually,” I said.  “Try to build a rapport.  Offer to buy him a drink and we’ll play it by ear from there.”

“Speaking of ears,” Sarah chimed in, “you won’t be able to talk to us after you go over there.  Devlin will walk you through the conversation, and I’ll provide him with intelligence, but you’ve got to act like it’s all you.  Can you do that?”

“I, uh…I can do that,” he said.

The determination I’d seen from him the previous night was gone, replaced by uncertainty and doubt.  That was to be expected from anyone working themselves up to their first cold approach; considering the stakes of our current predicament, I could hardly blame Michel for being afraid.

“It’s just a conversation,” I reminded him.  “Mila’s going to move into position near you, and she’ll be there to pull you out if anything goes wrong.”

As if summoned by my poorly chosen words, that was when I saw him.  I almost didn’t notice him at first, but the glass of water stood out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of mugs and steins, liquor drinks and shots.  He picked his way across the crowded floor and the way he carried himself – stern, upright, and focused beyond reason – had a physical effect on the people around him.  They didn’t consciously melt away from him, but a buffer formed around him, and he was able to move to Lane’s table without incident or interruption.

The earbud clicked twice.  I hadn’t muted it, so I turned away from the screen and found myself staring into Sarah’s wide, worried eyes.  “Devlin,” she said.  For a single word, she managed to convey a thesaurus’ worth of meaning.  “What the hell is Adlai doing there?”

Chapter Sixty-Seven

“So, let’s split this up into smaller bites,” Sarah said the following morning, midway through the hypocritical act of shoveling a heaping forkful of eggs into her mouth.  “What all are we going to need to pull this off?”

I motioned for Michel to pass a carafe of orange juice in my direction before I answered.  “A miracle?”

Sarah glowered at me over her plate.

I raised one hand in surrender.  “A serious distraction,” I said.  “Something big enough that the police and agents in the local office are too busy to look too closely at anyone coming into the building.”

“I thought I’d be the bait?”

“You will be,” I replied, “but that’s only for Adlai.  We need his entire attention devoted on you, so that Michel and Mila don’t have to worry about him.  That doesn’t mean one of the other civilians won’t start asking questions that we really don’t want to answer.”

Sarah nodded.  She tried to make the expression seem sage and worldly, but the effect was spoiled by the mouthful of food.

I looked at Mila.  “Do we need to have a conversation about civilians?”

Instead of sitting at the table with the rest of us, Mila stood in the corner.  She ate mechanically, moving the food to her mouth without any apparent enjoyment.  She shook her head at my question.  “If they don’t put hands on me,” she said, “I won’t put hands on them.  These are just people doing a job.”

“Technically,” I pointed out, “you’re just doing a job.”

“Fair.  But I know what I signed up for.  They wouldn’t.”

That was at least one thing I didn’t have to worry about.  Despite my chosen profession, I bore the police no ill will.  If, in the commission of some crime, the law managed to catch me, I deserved to be caught.  I wouldn’t start hurting men or women who were only trying to stop a criminal.  Of course, I also wasn’t planning to give them a chance to throw me back in jail.  It was a…philosophically difficult position to inhabit.

“What else?”  Sarah asked.

“Some of Hill’s local product,” I said.  “There might be some specific signature he uses, and we want to leave as clear of a trail as possible.”

“Any idea where we can find some of that?”

I shrugged.  “Something tells me it won’t be too difficult to find a drug dealer.  If we happen to run into one that isn’t working for Hill, he can point us to another.”

Sarah’s eyebrows came together.  “Why would a dealer help us find someone else?”

I flicked my eyes in Mila’s direction.  “Our sincere and winning personalities, perhaps?”

“Ah.  Next?”

“After we’ve managed to steal or purchase drugs and created a distraction of sufficient size to keep an international police force from noticing two untrained infiltratrators?”

“Yeah,” Sarah said.  “After that.”

“Some sort of identification that gets these two past the front desk, I’d guess.”

Michel, who had been content to eat the morning’s offerings without comment thus far, cleared his throat.  “What do you mean?”

“We aren’t about to send you out there without cover,” I said.

Sarah nodded.  “With the access I’ve already got, I can figure out something.  Special visitor or consultant badges, maybe.  Nothing that would authorize you to access the evidence room, but certainly something authentic enough that you can walk around the bullpen without arousing suspicion.”

“This evidence room?  Why could you not get us passes into it, directly?”  Michel asked.

“Those are some of the most secure rooms in any police station,” I said.  “Specifically to stop people like us from doing what we’re planning.  Sign in sheets, twenty-four hour camera feeds, only accessible with direct authorization from a superior.”

“I can fake some of that,” Sarah said, “but not without more access.  And I can’t fake everything, even with all the access in the worldThat’s where you’ll have to get creative.”

Michel swallowed nervously.

“I’ll be watching,” I said.  “Just do what I tell you to, and you’ll get through this fine.”

“That’s dangerously close to jinxing us, isn’t it?”  Sarah asked.

“I didn’t say it’ll be easy,” I protested.  “Just that it isn’t impossible.”

“About that,” Mila said.  She finished her food and set the plate down on the counter as she walked across the room.  “This jinxing thing.  I’ve been meaning to ask.”

Sarah motioned for me to explain.  That was fair, since I’d been the one to start the tradition, in the first place.

“You know how, sometimes, everything just seems to be going your way?”  I asked Mila.  “You catch every green light, it stops raining as soon as you lose an umbrella, and you’ve got exact change for the vending machine?”

It said something about Mila that she only perked up at that last option.  I didn’t know what it said, but it certainly meant something.  “Alright.  Your point?”

“Well, that’s when the universe has forgotten about you.  And the last thing you want to do is remind the Mysterious Powers That Be about you.  If you do that, everything’s got to get balanced again.  Meaning all that good luck is going to turn bad in a hurry.”

“Seriously?  You’re superstitious?”

“Baseball players have lucky socks,” I said.  “And the worst thing that happens if they lose a game is a bad player record and low sales on their baseball cards.  If I make a mistake, I go to jail or I get shot.  At best.  Give me a break here.”

Anyway,” Sarah said, adding so much stress on the word that I thought it might break, “that’s three things: distraction, drugs, and identification.  What else?”

I had a few ideas.  Erasing my criminal history had seemed like a great idea on more than one occasion, but that had been nothing more than a fantasy.  Lots of thieves tried similar things, though their methods varied.  Bribing an official was the preferred method.  The more unsavory types trended towards murder.  Some of the wilder criminals I knew – the ones who would rather destroy a priceless work of art than come back for it another night – might go as far as starting a fire or planting a bomb.  Stealing the evidence, however, was…

I stopped and rewound through what I’d been thinking.  “Oh no,” I said out loud.

“What?”  Sarah asked.  “Think of something new?”

“More like, I remembered something.”

As if on cue, one of my phones beeped and vibrated from its resting place on the coffee table.  It wasn’t the burner that Sarah had purchased; the message came in on the device I’d lifted from the unconscious body of the sniper, back in Kiev.  I didn’t need to check the phone, but I did so anyway.  The text was short to the point of brusqueness.

“Do you want to share with the class?”  Sarah asked.

“Anton and company,” I said.  “They’re coming to London to run down Asher.  With everything that happened at the manor house, it just sort of…slipped my mind.”

Sarah searched her memory for a few seconds before her eyes widened slightly.  “Oh.  Well.  Hmm.”

“What does this change?”  Michel asked.

“I don’t know,” I answered, honestly.  “I’ve worked jobs with Anton before, but nothing like what’s going on with Hill.  Certainly not anything like the idea we’re working on now.”

“And his friends?”

“Friends is something of a stretch.”  Or, depending on what I’d been told about them, friends wasn’t quite far enough.  “The people he’s arriving with, however, are even larger variables.”

Sarah sighed.  She finished her coffee and refilled it to the halfway point.  Then, she added four cubes of sugar and a generous helping of cream.  “You know how I love variables, Devlin.”

“Well,” I said, “then you are going to love these guys.  A Mafia lieutenant and two of his pals.  I don’t know what they think about me.  I’m not sure what I think of them, honestly.”

“Didn’t they save your life?”

“We saved each other,” I said.  “That means something to me, sure, but I don’t know what it means to them.  Let’s not forget: the only reason they’re coming to town is so that they can crush Hill, inflict righteous retribution upon Asher’s person, and maintain their smuggling side business.  Plus, Stani and his goons have bosses.  I can work something out with Anton, but Stani can’t agree to anything without checking in with his superiors.”

“And we can?”  Sarah asked.  “We aren’t exactly working without oversight.”

“Except we kind of are.  The Lady gave us a job.  I don’t think she’s real particular about how we get it done.  Stani’s got to report to some real nasty characters, though, and I don’t think they’re the type that’ll accept failure.”

“Sounds like I’d like him,” Mila said.

Michel choked on his food behind her.

“Sounds like I’d like to work with him,” Mila clarified.  “I can respect getting the job done, no matter what.”

“In this case, getting the job done might very well require killing Hill, Asher, and anyone who might be able to tie the Russian mafia to the crime,” I said.  “So I’d really prefer it if we handled things in a less ‘Crazy Harry’ sort of way.”

Sarah narrowed her eyes in thought for a moment.  “The Muppet?”  She asked.

“Yep.”

Nice reference,” she said, nodding approvingly.

I inclined my head graciously.  “One does what one can.”

“So, are the two of you going to have sex or what?”  Mila asked.  She was so casual about it that I almost didn’t track what she’d said, until Sarah dropped her fork to the floor in surprise.

“What?”  Sarah managed to ask, after a couple of false starts.

“No?”  Mila shrugged.  “I’m not interested in him or anything.  Just figured it’d be better to knock that out sooner, rather than later.”

Sarah continued to sputter incoherently, while my own brain failed to even turn over.  Michel, bless his French heart, saved the both of us.  “What are you going to do about Stanislav and Anton?  And…who were the other two?”

“Leonid and Iosif,” I said.  I tried to convey appreciation for the interruption, using only my eyes.  “And the answer to your question is that I have no idea what I’m going to do.  I think we’ve just got to be proactive about it.  Give them a plan to follow before one of the Russians gets ideas of their own.  Besides, as far as Stani’s superiors know, I’m a chosen agent of the Lady, with special power to dispense favors or inflict punishments.  That might still have some pull.”

“It has the added benefit of truth,” Sarah said.  Her voice was still a little harsh from the aborted attempts at speech and she was trying her best to look anywhere, except at Mila.  “At least, it’s sort of true.”

“I’m in no hurry to find out the limits of what we can or cannot do, using the Lady’s name.”  That thought triggered another.  “What about the Texan?  Is there any way we can use that?”

“I considered that,” Sarah said, “but no, probably not.  We already know what information Adlai has; we just need to delete or destroy it.  Besides, what do we have to offer him in trade?”

“Would money not be enough?”  Michel asked.

“Information brokers don’t work like that,” Sarah replied.  “Cash is good, of course, but they’re professional social climbers.  Everything they do is calculated and any broker worth his decoder ring wouldn’t give up a secret without getting two in return.”

I wanted to congratulate her on the ‘decoder ring’ line, but Mila’s presence and the steady way she watched Sarah and me kept me from voicing that sentiment out loud.

Michel stopped pushing his food around for a second.   “He told you where we could find Avis, no?”

“He did,” Sarah said, nodding.  “But I’m pretty sure the Lady cut some other deal behind the scenes to make that happen.  He said something about the security system and other clients, didn’t he, Devlin?”

I drained my glass and refilled it with the last of the carafe’s orange juice.  “Something like that.  So, we can’t use or, more accurately, don’t need to use the Texan.  Are there any other assets we’re forgetting about?”

“None that I can think of,” Sarah said, just a fraction of a second late.

Even looking specifically for it, there was no way that either Mila or Michel caught the hesitation.  I would’ve missed it myself, if I wasn’t already privy to the information Sarah was concealing: Alex.  We hadn’t talked about him in front of anyone since before the museum gala.  There was no way to know where the two of us could safely communicate, and it was easier to just keep his name from our lips.  He, however, was an incredible asset that we were choosing not to tap.

Alex’s network of contacts was mind-bogglingly extensive.  He could almost certainly pull a string to get a member of my team into the local office; there was every possibility that he could call in a favor and have the evidence destroyed outright.  Moreover, he would leap at the opportunity to help.  But that would make him an active player and, almost inevitably, a target.  After what I’d led his wife into, I couldn’t bring myself to make that phone call.  That mistake haunted me even more than that final fight with Sarah.

I’d never discussed my feelings about the botched Venice Job with Sarah, after the time we spent searching for the perpetrators.  For the most part, I was fairly certain they were self-evident.  Judging from the flicker of emotion in one corner of Sarah’s eyes, I could see now that she felt the same as me.  We were in silent agreement: Alex was out, and he got to stay out.

“Mila?”  I asked out loud.  “Can you think of anything?”

“I get to be a part of the planning now?”  She faked open-mouthed surprise.  “You’re too kind.”

“Whatever we decide on,” I said, “you’ll have to provide security.  If Sarah’s the bait, you and Michel are going to have to be the infiltration team.  You’re okay with keeping him safe?”

“That’s not my job.”

“I’m well aware of what your job is,” I said carefully.  I didn’t want to beat her over the head about her Aiden-induced catatonia; just remind her of it enough that she remembered she and I still needed to finish our conversation.  “I’ll be as safe as possible, barricaded in here.  Sarah can wire some sort of panic button for me, in case things absolutely go to shit, but otherwise, it’s more important that we clear one of the numerous threats off of the board.”

Mila raised an eyebrow.

Figuratively speaking,” I clarified.  “Basically, the best way to keep me safe is to get those files.”

She sucked at her teeth.  “Alright.  It’ll be something new, so there’s that.”

“Variety is the spice of life,” I said.  “But there’s some prep work we’ve got to take care of first.”

Sarah finished with her meal and crouched so that she could dig into a bag on the floor.  After a few moments, she emerged with a tablet in hand.  A quick series of commands switched on the television and another adept movement of her fingers brought up a blank word document.  She typed as she spoke.  “Step one: acquire identification.”

“What’re you thinking?”  I asked.

“According to these documents,” Sarah said, as she tiled information across the screen, “Adlai’s direct superior is one Superintendent Lane.  Scottish guy who’s been responsible for some major breaks in cases in Japan, New Zealand, and a major gun-running operation out of Beijing.”

“Why’s he in charge?”

Sarah shrugged.  “Your guess is good as mine.  Whatever it is, Lane sent specific requests for Adlai’s assistance.  A lot of specific requests.  In triplicate.”

“That’s possibly good news,” I said carefully.

“Why is that?”  Michel asked.

“Adlai was in town way too fast after the museum,” I explained.  “Sarah and I were thinking that he must have already been in London for some reason.  Since we hadn’t done anything illegal before then, it stands to reason that he was probably called here for a different case.”

“Can we use that?”  Sarah wondered aloud.

“With more intelligence, maybe,” I said.  “But first, we need to get more access, don’t we?”

Sarah nodded, already a little distracted by possible angles to play.  Information appeared and disappeared from the television too quickly for me to follow.  “Seems like Lane is not very popular around the office,” she said.  “Lot of disciplinary reviews and water room gossip, memos and the like.  Despite that, he’s a pretty typical Scot.”

“Hard drinking, superstitious type?”  I wasn’t on a first name basis with any Scots, but the ones I’d worked with previously enjoyed celebrating a successful heist almost as much as the job itself.

“Straight down to his toes,” Sarah confirmed.  “And guess what tonight is?”

I blinked.  I actually hadn’t bothered checking a calendar in…a very long time.  In La Santé, the month or day of the week hadn’t mattered much; since I’d left, there’d been entirely too much going on.  I checked one of my two phones and saw that it was November 30th.

“Well, thank God for small favors,” I said.  Then, seeing Michel’s blank look, I launched into an unasked for explanation.  “Saint Andrew’s Day is…well, it’s basically the holiday for expats.  And if Lane is like his countrymen and countrywomen, he’s going to want to find somewhere to drink tonight.”

“Except the poor guy doesn’t have anyone to drink with,” Sarah said.  I chuckled at her adopted tone and ignored the subsequent eyebrow lift from Mila’s corner of the room.  “It’d be a shame to let him spend the evening by himself, wouldn’t it?”

Chapter Sixty-Six

“I need Adlai off my back,” I said, “so that I can take on Hill and Asher.  I’m listening to any bright ideas, here.”

“Well,” Sarah said,” It isn’t looking good.  Just from checking in on his progress, Adlai has more information about than he released. If he’d wanted to, he could have easily put out an actual picture instead of an artist’s sketch.”

“Why didn’t he?”

“Some twisted sense of fair play?”  Sarah shrugged and then opened another soda.  “Our fake account doesn’t have full access to his files, so I don’t know for sure.”

“I’m thrilled to hear about that,” I said.  “Just thrilled.”

Sarah turned her chair around to face me.  She didn’t say a word out loud, but the expression she wore spoke for her.

“Sorry, sorry.”  I waved my hands in front of my face.  “I’m a little taxed right now.”

“I get that,” Sarah said.  “But don’t take it out on me.”

I nodded and, after a few seconds of fruitless thought, began to pace again.  “So, Adlai knows we’re in town.  He can probably figure out the connection between the museum job and what happened out at the manor house, even if he can’t prove it.  And there isn’t anything I can do from dropping the whole of Interpol on our heads at his earliest opportunity.  That about sum it up?”

“Not nothing,” Michel murmured.

Sarah and I both jerked our heads in his direction.  I spoke before she could.  “What do you mean by that?”

Pinned to the spot, the Frenchman began to shift nervously from one foot to the next.  “You only need this inspector to look somewhere else, yes?  Could you not simply explain what is happening to him?”

I barked out a sharp laugh.  “The day that Adlai listens to a word from my lips is the same day we both retire.”

Sarah’s eyes widened.  “Wait.  Say that again.”

“Say what?  The bit about Adlai hating the very ground I walk on?”

“The ground that you walk on,” Sarah said.  “But he doesn’t know anything about me.  Or Michel and Mila, for that matter.”

“Or Avis or Neal, sure.  What’s your point?”

An instant after I finished speaking, my mind took an intuitive leap and I understood where Sarah’s thoughts were headed.  The idea wasn’t an inelegant one and, in a danger-free environment, there was every possibility that it might actually be worth a shot.  Of course, we weren’t living in that fictional world: reality set the rules here, and those rules were for keeps.

Sarah must have seen the light flicker to life behind my eyes.  She started defending her position before I’d even had a chance to voice my disagreement.  “He won’t be looking for us, Dev,” she said.  “And Michel’s right: all we really need is for him to look somewhere else.  If not us, why not give Hill and Asher a little bit of trouble for a change?”

“You want reasons?”  I asked.  “Let’s start with reason number one: not a single one of you has any idea how to infiltrate a building.”  Pause.  “No offense, Mila.”

She shrugged my apology off.  “None taken.  I mean, you aren’t wrong.”

Sarah wasn’t deterred.  “This isn’t like the manor house,” she said.  “We wouldn’t be in mortal peril.  Worst case, he catches us and we get slaps on the wrists for trespassing.”

“And that ‘slap on the wrist’ leads to you having a record.  You’d be in their system.  Is that what you want?”

“No, Devlin, that isn’t what I want.”  Sarah spiked my name with a cocktail of painfully raw emotion.  “What I want is to be in my own apartment, doing something boring and safe.  Seeing as that isn’t an option, though, I suppose I’ll just have to settle for something that doesn’t end up with you in jail or a body bag!”

Silence.  Sarah’s eyes flickered to meet mine, then away.  That was good, at least.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to see what was in her gaze.  I absolutely didn’t want her to see what was in mine.

“That isn’t…that isn’t what I meant,” Sarah said, after an eternity.

I shook my head before she could get any further.  “You’re right, though.  If it weren’t for me, you’d be free of all this.  That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?”

Sarah did not answer.

Mila cleared her throat and spoke into the silence.  “As much fun as it is to watch the two of you work out your issues, some of us have jobs to do.  If Devlin gets arrested, he becomes a sitting target for Asher.  So, whatever has to happen to stop that, let’s figure it out and get on with it.”

I glared at Mila.  She met my eyes without the slightest hint of concern and, after a few seconds of that, I gave up the ghost.  “Sarah, are you serious about this?”  I asked, in a softer voice than before.  “You’ve spent a lot of effort staying off of Adlai’s radar.  We both know what this could mean for you.”

There wasn’t any need to speak my thoughts out loud.  My family line had, for all intents and purposes, ended with the death of my mother.  Wherever my father was, he hadn’t done anything noteworthy since leaving us in Ireland so many years ago, and I was entirely unimportant in the world of legality.  As a member of the Ford clan, however, Sarah had a widely known public identity.  She was a member in good standing on a variety of corporate boards and charities; her real name appeared on public documents in at least four different countries; and, perhaps most importantly, she had loved ones who could be squeezed if things went south.

Essentially, if I went down, I was the only person in danger.  If Adlai got even the slightest whiff of the idea that Sarah was involved with my crimes, an entire lineage could be painted black with one stroke of his pen.

Sarah closed her eyes and sat in her chair, quiet and still.  Fifteen seconds later, she opened them again.  “We’ll do this the right way,” she said.  “Planning, surveillance, personnel identification.”

“And if things go wrong?”  I asked.  “When things go wrong?”

“You can do what you normally do,” she replied.  “Figure it out from there.”

As much as I hated this idea, there wasn’t anything I could say to dissuade Sarah.  She had that look in her eyes.  I decided to try another tack.  “Michel?  Are you okay with this?”

“If you had not taken the time to save Avis, could you have stolen the documents from the manor house without this much trouble?”

I shrugged one shoulder.  “Maybe.  We would’ve had more time to plan things.  But Sarah still wouldn’t have had any way to actually decipher what we found.”

He shook his head.  “But you did not know that, at the time.  You put yourself at risk, so that you could rescue a little girl?”

“I…guess, sure.  Why’s that matter?”

Michel rolled his shoulders, one at a time.  “You are in this position because you did a good thing,” he said.  “If I can help to get you out of trouble, I am happy to do so.”

I sighed.

“Before you ask me,” Mila chimed in, “I’m down for whatever.  Just in case you were wondering.”

“Something told me that you wouldn’t have an issue,” I said.  “Fine.  Fine.  What are you thinking, Sarah?”

Instead of answering, she turned back to her computer and entered a flurry of rapid-fire commands.  A satellite image of a building appeared on her primary monitor.  “This is the local Interpol office,” she said.  “This is where Adlai’s doing most of his work.”

“He could be playing things close to the vest,” Mila pointed out.  “Working out of his hotel room, like you are.”

“No,” I said, “that isn’t how he is.  If he’s working on an open investigation, Adlai’s going to keep everything as far above board as possible.  That means paperwork, oversight, chain of evidence…the whole works.  Whatever he’s got on me, he’ll be keeping it there.”

“Exactly my point,” Sarah said.  “Now, Michel said it: we can’t get him to go away while there are open cases on his desk, but we can get him to go after someone else.”

“By politely explaining the situation to him?”  I couldn’t keep a small, hysterical chuckle from passing my lips.  “You want to just walk into the office and tell him that, yes, we are still thieves and, yes, we are breaking the law on a staggering scale, but we’d really appreciate it if he went after the local drug kingpin?”

Sarah’s fingernails tapped out an irregular rhythm against her desk.  “Well, no.  Even if he doesn’t know anything about three of us, specifically, there’s still no reason for him to believe anything we say.  My name could probably get me into a room with him, but he’s still going to do his research.”

“Is there anything you have found that ties Hill to the manor house?”  Michel asked.

“The deed of sale,” Sarah said, “but I can’t find anything about a Richard Hill.  Even if I could – even if that wasn’t a fake name, which it almost certainly is – that would only show that he was the owner of the property you guys just shot up.”

We didn’t shoot up anywhere,” I said.

Mila raised her hand.  “That was me.  In fairness.”

Sarah ignored the banter.  “If there was only something we could show him that would change his target,” she mused.

“Honestly,” I said, “I’m not even sure that would work. Pointing out that Hill’s the real problem – if we could get him to believe you, in the first place – wouldn’t shake him off of my trail.”

“Which brings us back to my point,” Mila said.  “You say this Adlai’s been after you for years.  What’s different now?”

“He has evidence,” I said.  Then, I froze.  “He has evidence.  Without anything that links me to an active crime, Adlai will have to move on.  He doesn’t like me, but he won’t break the law to bring me in.”

“Okay,” Sarah said slowly.  “So, he’s got something concrete on you.  How does that…help…us…”  She trailed off as my meaning gradually sank in.

“Would that work?”  I asked her.  “I mean, could you do it?”

Sarah pursed her lips.  “I can definitely come up with something that will steer him in the right direction,” she said.  “Whether or not he takes the bait is a whole different matter.  Plus, the Interpol network is notoriously difficult to hack into.  The fake account I made barely has enough access to let me monitor his movements.  I’d need an entirely new one to actually change anything.”

“What was it you said at the manor house?  Something about a physical intrusion?”

She gave me a long look.  “I thought you didn’t want any of us in danger.”

“I don’t,” I said.  “But if you’re going to do it anyway, then we might as well do it right.”

“You’ve known them longer,” Mila said to Michel.  “Is this a thing that happens a lot?”

“I am beginning to think so,” Michel said, nodding like an old sage.

“What Devlin is talking about,” Sarah said, turning slightly to include the two in her field of vision, “is…not the worst plan he’s come up with in the past week or so.”

I picked up the thread.  “We don’t have any hard evidence on Hill or Asher.  But Sarah can fake some for us.  And, if we can come up with a plan that gets one of you close enough to the evidence room…”

Mila laughed.  “You want to frame Hill?”

“For crimes he has actually committed,” I said quickly.  “And, perhaps, one or two that either he or Asher was involved in.  That makes it okay, right?”

“I break people’s arms for a living,” Mila said.  “Doesn’t really make me the right person to come to with moral dilemmas.”

A light came on behind Michel’s eyes as he grasped the concept and went further with it.  “And, if this inspector’s evidence on you were to disappear, he would have no choice but to pursue the leads available to him.  Is that right?”

“That’s the dream,” I said.  “Sarah?”

“With the paper trail I’m about to create?”  She targeted a fierce grin at me.  “I could make him think that his own mother was responsible for every drug deal that’s taken place in London for the past decade.  We’d still have to actually plant the files, though.  And some physical evidence would definitely help to sell the story.”

“Physical evidence?”  Michel asked.

“Drugs,” Mila answered.  “You don’t have the crown anymore, and Devlin obviously isn’t about to hand Avis over to the law.  She means that we need to plant drugs in the actual evidence room.”

“Oh.”

“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” I said.  “Because of a problem that I caused, you want to break into the local Interpol office so that we can frame a drug kingpin and his psychotic…whatever the hell Asher is for stealing a crown, breaking into a manor house – that said drug kingpin actually owns – and moving insane amounts of drugs.  To do that, we’ve got to actually get some of his local product so that we can plant drugs into a government building.  And, while I’m there, just go ahead and steal or destroy evidence from an active investigation, being led by an inspector who’s been holding a grudge for the better part of a decade.”

“That’s…almost right,” Sarah said.

“Whatever could I have missed?”

“Adlai knows your face,” she said.  “And anyone working on the investigation – probably the entire local force – is going to know it, too.  You can’t be the one who goes into the building.  You can’t even be near the building.”

“That means…you’d have to be the bait, Sarah.”

She nodded.  “I made that leap, myself.”

I’d suspected as much.  Sarah’s covert skills had somehow improved over the last three years, but she was still a planner above all else.  Just as my place was in the field, hers was behind a computer…ideally, a computer several dozen miles away from any active crimes.  If she left that position of relative safety, she wouldn’t be able to surveil the area.  Her talents with computers, networks, and overall shot-calling wouldn’t just be limited; they’d be crippled.

To say nothing of the fact that it left me in the position of mastermind: a job I was distinctly not suited for.

There was still that fierceness in her eyes, though.  A part of me glowed at the idea that Sarah would still be willing to go to such lengths, in my name.  I hadn’t thought my nascent feelings for her could press any harder against the barriers I’d erected, but that was proving to a faulty assumption.  The greater portion of my mind refused to get past the inherent danger.  Adlai wouldn’t hurt her, but he could ruin her.  That, in turn, would ruin me.

Sarah had said it first, and she’d said it best.  There was time to think.  We could plan everything, down to the last detail.  Since the Lady had arranged for my jailbreak, I hadn’t been able to take my time.  Sarah hadn’t been able to do much more than react, and she didn’t possess the temperament for that.  This was where she could shine.    This was where she had to shine, if we wanted to have any chance at taking out Asher before he could gear up for a focused, concentrated attack on us.

So, instead of voicing my disapproval again, I walked across the room to the open door.  When I reached the hallway, I paused and spoke over my shoulder.  “Well.  Anyone else need a drink?”

A moment of still silence passed before Michel rose to join me.  Mila bent to scoop up her cat and pushed past me to the kitchen.  Michel followed after her, leaving only Sarah and me in the soft light of her computer monitor.

“We can pull this off, can’t we?”  She asked.

I didn’t want to lie her, so I took a moment to consider the odds.  “Come on,” I said, after I’d drawn multiple conclusions.  None of them were particularly promising.  “Let’s get something a little stronger than Diet Coke in us before we start talking about details.”

I knew that I’d need something a lot stronger before I could approach this proposition with anything less than mounting terror, but I left that unsaid.  If the look in Sarah’s eyes as she stood up was any indication, she decided to keep that secret to herself, as well.

Chapter Sixty-Five

“In twenty words or less,” I said, blowing through the computer room’s door, “tell me exactly how screwed we are.”

Sarah spun her chair around to face me.  Her eyes were slightly wide and the breaths came short and quick from her mouth.  “Someone you met in the countryside remembered what you look like.  Adlai got the sketch and connected some dots.”

I blinked.  That explanation was short enough for me.  “You only used nineteen words,” I pointed out, after a moment.

Sarah narrowed her eyes.  “I know,” she said.  “Idiot.”

Mila stepped into the doorway.  A brief instant of eye contact passed between us – long enough for her to acknowledge that I had some unanswered questions about her past – before she spoke.  “Michel should be back shortly.”   Sam slinked past his owner, vocally expressing his pleasure at the brief moment of contact, and found a corner of the room, closer to Sarah, to curl up in.  “I think he likes you, Sarah.”

Yay for me,” Sarah deadpanned.  She turned back to me.  “Adlai makes for one hell of an obstacle, Devlin.  I’m open to ideas, here.”

I frowned and started to pace from one side of the room to the other.  “That makes two of us.  Or three, I guess, unless you’ve got a suggestion, Mila.”

“I’m not even sure what the problem is,” she said.  ‘You’ve got a record.  This inspector knows about it.  If you get caught, you’re going back to jail, whether he’s the one putting the handcuffs on or not.  How does a photo make that any worse?”

“The photo isn’t the part we’re worried about,” Sarah said.  She sounded calmer than I would have expected, but it wasn’t her face on the evening news.  “Although that’s a part of it, sure.”

“Then what?  Worried about someone recognizing Devlin on the street?”

I scoffed at that idea, almost immediately.  “Because people actually watch the news?”

“What he means,” Sarah interjected, “is that people aren’t actually looking to run into criminals on the street.  Adlai even knows that; this isn’t about raising an army that might catch Devlin while he’s out getting coffee or whatever.”

“One second,” Mila said, holding up a finger.  “I’ll be right back.

She slipped out of the door frame.  When she was gone, I lowered my voice slightly.  “Honestly, Sarah, how bad is this?”

“Not as bad it could be,” she hedged.  “But it is pretty terrible.  He doesn’t know our cover names, or he’d already be here.  Our connection to the museum job is too thin for him to use against us, but there’s more than enough from the absolute disaster we just left to pin you to the wall for breaking and entering, kidnapping, and assault.”

“So, on a scale from one to ten?”

Sarah pursed her lips for a moment.  “A ten being…?”

“Remember Rio?”

She whistled.  “Seven, then.  Seven and a half, maybe.”

There was some small comfort in knowing that our situation could still get worse.  The knowledge that they almost certainly would devolve further reduced that comfort considerably.

Mila walked back into the room, carrying an open bag of Skittles.  “Alright,” she said, squatting down near Sam and scratching idly between his ears.  “If it’s not the citizens, what is it about?”

“Two things,” Sarah said.  “First: control.  By doing it the way he did, Adlai just put the entire London underworld on notice that Devlin is radioactive.  No one’s going to risk helping us while we’re in Adlai’s crosshairs.  Theoretically, that cuts off a lot of our options.”

“Theoretically, maybe,” Mila said.  “But you can’t trust any of the local talent anyway.  Cutting off support that you weren’t using doesn’t seem too bad.”

Sarah gave her a reluctant nod.  “By itself, it isn’t.  And we’d be fine, if it weren’t for the second reason.”

“Which is?”

I walked to the edge of Sarah’s desk and leaned against it, facing Mila.  “It’s a declaration of war.”

“Oh,” Mila said.  A moment passed and I could almost see the wheels turning in her head as she considered what resources a fully motivated and obsessed Interpol inspector could bring to bear against our ragtag team.  When the realization hit her, she let out a breath.  “Oh.

The three of us sat in the room in silence for nearly five minutes, with nothing but the clicks and beeps of Sarah’s system as background noise, until Michel joined us.  In that time, I managed to dial my panic down to reasonable concern, but I still hadn’t managed to generate any brilliant ideas.

“What is the matter?”  The Frenchman asked, as he entered the room.

“Devlin’s screwed,” Mila said, before either Sarah or I had a chance.  “On the plus side, he isn’t in any more physical danger than he was.  Might be safer, actually.”

“Adlai’s tried to kill me before,” I pointed out.

“He wasn’t trying to kill you,” Sarah said.  “He was trying to stop you.”

“Well, Sarah, I don’t think the bullet he shot at me would’ve been overly concerned with his exact intentions.”

“Uh.  Pardon?”  Michel raised his hand in the air until Sarah and I stopped bickering.  “What?”

“That Interpol agent I told you about, after the museum job?  He just put my face on the evening news,” I said.

“And that’s bad?”

Mila rose from her spot near Sam.  “Apparently,” she said, popping a handful of Skittles into her mouth.

To his credit, Michel didn’t ask for details.  Instead, he calmly closed the door and bowed his head for a few seconds.  “What do we do now?”

It was refreshing, in an odd sort of way, to work with Michel’s simple, earnest desire to help.  He hadn’t known what he was signing up for.  Hell, I hadn’t known what a complete shitstorm we were sowing.  Michel had been thrown into the deep waters only a few days ago, and we’d expected him to function while the world he knew steadily fell to pieces around him.  And, so far, he’d still managed to keep his head above the rising waters.  More impressive: he actually had the temerity to stand in a room of professionals and ask for more.

My opinion of the man went up several notches.  “Right now, there’s really nothing we can do,” I said.  “I need a better idea of where we’re standing before I make any judgment calls.  Sarah?”

She entered a series of commands into the computer and documents began tiling themselves across her monitors.  “These are the scans I’ve managed to upload and some of the files I pulled from their network before Aiden blew up the line.”

It looked like gibberish to me.  “They’re encrypted?”

“I’ll answer that with a metaphor,” Sarah said.  “These files are encrypted in the same way that the sun is, on occasion, slightly warm.”

“So, that’s a yes.”

“Quite.”

“But Avis can break the code?”

Sarah leaned back in her chair and pinched the bridge of her nose.  “So it seems.”

“How can she do that?”  I asked.  “I thought you said the encryption was impossible to figure out.”

“I was also wondering about that,” Michel said.

“Me three,” Mila added.

All of us turned to regard the woman with surprise and blank confusion.

“I do know things,” Mila said, a trifle defensively.  “It isn’t all fighting and guns.”

She very carefully did not look at me and I, in turn, very carefully did not look at her.  There were depths to her.  Aiden had known her.  The relationship between a master and his student was not something I wanted to undervalue.

Thus far, Mila’s contract had proven solid enough, but I couldn’t help but question her state of mind now.  If Aiden returned, I wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t leave us in the lurch.  Worse: there was every possibility that she might join his side, instead of ours.

Sarah’s knowledge about my concerns was minimal, though, so she missed the moment of non-interaction.  “I’ll keep this basic,” she said.  “The encryption is mathematically impossible to decipher.  Even if I had unlimited time and unlimited resources, there just isn’t any possible way to brute force it.”

“Why can Avis do it, then?”  I asked.

“She can’t,” Sarah said.  “Not technically.  What she does isn’t breaking the code; she’s translating it.  She knows the algorithms by heart.  All of them.”

I blinked, considered that information, and blinked again.  “Wait.  You’re saying that she memorized dozens of formulas that your computer can’t decipher?”

Sarah shook her head.  “Not dozens; hundreds.  And she isn’t memorizing them.  If I’m right, Avis is making them up on the fly.”

The four of us chewed on that tidbit for a few moments.

“Where is she now?”  I asked.

“Like I said, she’s with Neal,” Mila answered.  “Why?”

“Because if Avis is anywhere near as important as Sarah thinks, we are in very serious trouble.  Think about it.  The tiny amount of information we managed to steal is nothing compared to the only person on the planet who can actually understand any of it.”

“I was thinking that, too,” Sarah said.  “Without her, Hill can’t decrypt the book.  That’s reason enough for him to rain hell down on us.  But he also can’t decipher any files he had her encrypt: shipping manifests, balance sheets, personnel numbers…anything he thought was important enough to hide is as good as gone now.”

Bead of sweat sprang to life on my forehead as I thought more about what we’d done.  “We just kidnapped the living equivalent of nuclear launch codes and we can’t even use them.”

“We could give her back,” Mila suggested mildly.  “Follow whoever they send for the retrieval back to Hill’s place and grab the book.”

“They will kill her!”  Michel cried out, stepping forward in protest.  “You cannot be serious!”

“My job is to protect Devlin and Sarah,” Mila said.  “And you, I guess.  If keeping the girl makes that harder, then…”  She trailed off and shrugged one shoulder, instead of actually finishing the thought.

“Can we just put that to bed, once and for all?”  I knew my nerves were approaching the fraying point.  By any reasonable standard, they should have already snapped.  It was remarkable that I could keep myself from screaming, but I couldn’t keep the frustration from my voice.  “Even if you magically found another way to decrypt this information…even if I could convince Asher and Hill and the Magi to swear a blood oath to never touch a hair on her head…even if the Lady herself orders me to do it, I will not give a child back to a known drug dealer!”

“Because the four of us are better choices?”  Mila didn’t have to yell.  The intense aura around her simply ratcheted up.  The hairs on my arm stood upright and my skin broke out in goosebumps, while Mila never moved an inch from where she stood.  “Thieves, hackers, getaway drivers, and…and killers?”

The hiccupping pause stood like a beacon in the night sky.  “We aren’t the best choices,” I said, “but we’re damn sure better than the ones who just sent a fucking wet squad to kill her!”

“Is that what happened?”  A small voice asked, from the doorway.  “Is that they were there?”

I hadn’t heard the door open.  I whirled and found myself staring down into Avis’ wide, dark brown eyes.  Michel was openly gaping and Mila even looked a little shocked at the girl’s presence.  Neal leaned against the wall behind Avis, slightly out of breath.  “That isn’t…” I stammered.  “I mean, there’s more to it than that.”

“Tell me the truth, then,” Avis said.  “I can handle it.  And if you lie to me, I’ll never trust another word you say.”

She looked…serious.  There was something in her eyes that I’d once seen in Sarah’s, so many years ago.  The girl’s body shivered in the low temperature, and what looked like tears glistened in the corners of her eyes, but her back was straight and controlled.  It was a disconcertingly adult expression on such a cute face.

“Devlin,” Sarah began, “you can’t –“

I waved her into silence.  “No.  She deserves the truth.  This is her life we’re talking about, isn’t it?”

Avis nodded once.  “I’m listening.”

I couldn’t risk lying to the girl, so I went back and started from the beginning.  Excising the parts that didn’t really have anything to do with her – my difficulties in Munich, the nature of the strained relationship between Sarah and me, and the mystery of Mila’s past – it didn’t very long to hit the high points.

By the time I’d finished, Avis had taken Mila’s place by the cat.  “So,” she said softly.  “You weren’t there to save me, from these…these Magi?  You just want to use me?”

That wasn’t an unfair read of the situation, but it wasn’t a complete one.  “Everybody uses everyone else,” I replied.  “Doesn’t matter how old you are.  Yes, we want to use to you.  I want to use you.  That isn’t the only thing I want, though.  And it’s not all I’m offering.”

“They paid me for what I did,” Avis said.  “Fed me, bought me toys and books, protected me.  Can you do those things?”

“Probably.”

“Probably?”  She repeated and laughed.  “Why would I accept a ‘probably,’ when what I can would get me top dollar anywhere else in the world?”

“Because you’ll just end up a prisoner again,” I said.  Avis’ eyebrows jumped, but I continued before she could interrupt.  “As soon as anyone figures out how valuable you are, they’ll just put you in a golden cage.  Sure, you’ll get anything you could ever ask for, but you won’t ever be free again.

Avis weighed that.  “And with you?”

“Freedom.”  I remembered that first sight of the sky after so many years in prison.  I poured that feeling into my voice.  “With us, you get to choose how your life goes from here.”

The girl had been stroking Sam’s ears.  She stopped and the cat meowed in protest.  After several seconds, Avis sighed and resumed petting.  “I don’t trust you,” she said.  “You’re thieves and liars.  People always promise me things they won’t deliver.”

“I’m not other people,” I said.

“That’s what they all say.”  She looked out of the room, at Neal, who was still standing awkwardly in the doorway.  “What about him?  Can you keep him safe, too?”

“If he’s with you,” I said, “then he’s with us.”

“Fine,” Avis said.  “I don’t trust you, but I don’t think you’re lying.”

It was easy to read between the lines.  I wanted to reinforce my offer, to swear that she wouldn’t ever end up as someone’s pet again.  But I just couldn’t make that promise in good conscience.  Even if I managed to unseat Hill and take Asher down, there was no guarantee that the Lady wouldn’t find some use for the girl as her own personal cryptographer.

What I said instead threaded the line between realism and optimism.  “Help us bring Hill down and I will do everything in my power to keep you safe.  Both of you.”

Sarah and Michel nodded vigorously; after a moment, Mila followed as well, with much less enthusiasm.

“Fine,” Avis said again.  She stuck out her bottom lip as she did it.  It was such a typically childish expression – especially contrasted with the very grown up posture from only seconds before – that I nearly laughed out loud.  “What do you want me to do?”

Sarah pulled up a document on her primary monitor.  “You understand these?”

Avis rose and crossed the room to examine the screen.  “This one is just a product manifest,” she said after a second.  “This is all you want?”

“You did that in your…” Sarah stopped, swallowed, and started over.  “Do you think could translate any more of these?”

“I made all of these,” Avis said.  “That doesn’t answer my question.  What are you looking for?”

I cleared my throat, deliberately louder than necessary.  “Honestly?  We don’t know what information we might need yet.”

Avis pointed at one of Sarah’s discarded tablets.  “Can I use that?”

Sarah nodded.

“It’s going to take me a while,” Avis said, “especially if you want direct transcripts.  They didn’t show me anything with context, but maybe you’ll be able to piece it together.”

“Are you going to get started on that now?”  I asked.

Avis gave me a flat look for several very long seconds.  “I’m nine,” she said finally.  “I’m going back to bed.”

My mouth opened and then, slowly, closed.  There really wasn’t a comeback for that.

“Neal?” Avis asked.  “Are you ready?”

Neal jerked upright at his name.  “You’re ready to go already?”

“I’m tired,” Avis said.  “You can stay if you want, but I…uh…”

He smiled down at her.  “Can’t reach the elevator button?”

“No!  That isn’t it!  It’s just…I’d feel better if someone rode down with me.”

“Ah,” Neal said.  “Fair enough.  Well, I’m ready when you are.”  He looked directly at me.  “I’d like to talk to you later.  Figure out exactly what we’re involved in.”

I wasn’t concerned about the kid, but that was still not a conversation I was looking forward to.  “I’ll let you know when we’re free,” I said.

Neal nodded and held out a hand for Avis.  She took it after a few moments of hesitation and the pair left us alone with only our thoughts.

“Well,” I said after the silence had stretched out long enough.  “That’s one problem…not solved, but being worked on.”

“What’s next?”  Michel asked.

Sarah and I responded at the same time: “Adlai.”

Chapter Sixty-Four

Sophie greeted us in front of the hotel, holding two key cards between the fingers of one hand and a tablet in the crook of her opposite arm.  One of her eyebrows elevated when she saw Avis but, when she spoke, she didn’t sound confused by the young girl’s presence.  “Your guests, I presume?”

“In a manner of speaking,” I said.  “Those keys are for them?”

Sophie nodded.  “Quite.  I took the liberty of placing their quarters as close to your personal suite as possible, available space permitting.  If you’d like to give me some time, I’m certain that I could – ”

“Close enough is fine.”  I looked at the newest additions to our ragtag group.  Avis was standing on her own now, but her eyelids drooped; Neal didn’t look much better, although he managed to keep his back straight.  “They’re going to need some sleep, I think.”

“Of course.”  Sophie pressed a button on her tablet and, a moment later, a porter appeared at her side.  She handed the key cards to him.  “If you could show the gentleman and the child to their rooms,” she said.

The porter nodded.

I held up a hand before Neal and Avis could move to follow him.  “Avis,” I said carefully, “Sarah and I are going to have to talk to you about…what you told us earlier, okay?”

The girl scowled a very un-childlike scowl.

“What you know – what you can do – is very important to us, Avis.”  I spoke slowly, picked my words carefully, and made sure to keep my body language as inviting as possible.  I’d read in a book somewhere that those were all useful skills when communicating with a child.  “Do you think you’d be able to tell us more about how to translate those numbers, after you get a chance to rest?”

The expression on Avis’ face darkened.  She took a step forward, one fist balled up at her side, and positively glared up at me.  “If I could explain how to do what I do,” she said, “I’d have a lot less value, wouldn’t I?”

I blinked.

She continued, stepping around the porter and reaching up to jab a finger into my chest.  “I know I’m a child, but please don’t talk to me like I’m one.”

Neal intervened before she could say anything else.  He reached out and gently pushed her arm back down.  “What she means,” he said to me, “is that she doesn’t like being patronized.  If you’re going to talk to her, you should do it as though she’s just another adult.”

“A very tiny adult,” Mila commented.  When I shot her a look of my own, she shrugged and found something interesting in the tree line to study.

“Okay, Avis,” Sarah said.  “I can deal with that.  Devlin can, too.  You get some rest and, when you’re feeling up to it, come up to the suite.  I’ve got some questions I’d like to ask.  Does that sound fair?”

Instead of answering Sarah, she turned to Neal.  “Let’s go,” she said and pulled on his arm.

Neal allowed himself to be tugged toward the Brooklands, following after the porter.  “I’ll make sure she comes to see you,” he called out.  Then, he was inside the hotel lobby and, a moment later, out of sight.

“May I ask what happened to the vehicle I acquired for you?”  Sophie asked.

“It’s…”  I trailed off, suddenly aware that we’d abandoned a perfectly good vehicle because of paranoia.  There was, of course, very good reason to be paranoid, but it still seemed rude.  “Michel was, uh, going to ask if you could send someone with him to go retrieve it.”

“Retrieve it?”  Sophie echoed.  “Where, exactly, is it now?”

Michel saved me this time.  “If there is a valet that you can spare,” he said, “I would be happy to show him where we parked the car.  It is not far from here.”

Sophie’s lips twitched slightly, as if she was about to say something, but nothing but a soft sigh came out.  “Very well.  If you could wait by the track, I’ll see to it that someone is sent over to assist you.”

Michel tilted his head at me, and I nodded back.  “You know where we’ll be,” I said.  “Don’t take too long, alright?  There’s a lot we’ve got to go over now, and I’d rather get into that sooner than later.”

Oui, oui.  I will not be long.”  He hurried from where we stood, in the direction of the track.

“Is there anything else?”  Sophie asked.  I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like something about her professionalism was…off.  Not wrong, per se, but different than it had been before we’d gone to the countryside.

“Nothing that I can think of,” Sarah said.  “Devlin?”

I shook my head absently, distracted by my efforts to get a read on Sophie.

“Excellent.”  Sophie entered a command into the tablet.  “I’ll arrange for a menu to be sent up to the penthouse, immediately.  I would imagine that whatever difficulties you might have encountered during your trip left you with little time for meals.”

My stomach grumbled at the mention of food and I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything since the previous day.  That, coupled with the adrenaline high I was still coming down from, served to derail any train of thought I had about Sophie’s change in demeanor.  I needed to eat and I needed to sleep, if only to tackle this newest problem at anything near one hundred percent.

Sarah, bless her heart, apparently had the same idea.  “That sounds fantastic.”  Pause.  “Sophie?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“There might be some people looking for us,” Sarah said, carefully.  “It would be…preferable if they weren’t able to get in contact with us.”

Sophie nodded, entirely unfazed.  “Of course, your privacy is of paramount importance here.  If you’d like to check over the documentation yourself, however…”

“If it wouldn’t be too much of an issue,” Sarah said.  “I’m sure that you’re very good at your job; those people that might be looking for us are extremely good at theirs.”

Sophie’s nostrils widened minutely, for a fraction of a second.  “Think nothing of it.  I’ll have the files delivered to your room immediately.”

Mila yawned, a little too loud for the action to have been genuine.  “I’ve got to pick some things up,” she said.  “Sophie, don’t worry about arranging for a ride; I need to clear my head a bit, anyway.”

“What have you got to pick up?”  Sarah asked.  Suspicion colored her words.

Mila looked at me and, on the surface, the expression was exactly as flat and disinterested as it had always been.  Except, I knew better, now.  I understood, in a vague sense, why Mila needed to be alone.  She covered it well, but I’d seen the way that the mercenary’s presence had utterly wrecked her.   Michel wouldn’t push the issue and Sarah had only heard the conversations.  I’d looked into her eyes, witnessed as fear crippled her, and now she needed some time to center herself again.

Begrudging her that opportunity wouldn’t just be cruel; it would be actively damaging.  A bodyguard who was too afraid to do their job was not the person you wanted at your back when things went sideways.  “Go for it,” I said.  “Sarah and I should be alright for a few hours.”

“Sounds good.”  She knelt and put down Sam, scratching a spot between his ears.  “These guys are going to get you up to the room, alright?”

Sam meowed at her, tilting his head in the way that only cats can really pull off.

“I’ll be back,” Mila said.  “Just need to get some things together.”

I watched the odd one-sided conversation play out, struggling to fit this image of Mila with the other two I’d personally seen.  In my peripheral vision, I saw Sophie stop another porter with an empty luggage trolley.  “The feline needs to go with these guests,” she said.

Mila loaded Sam onto the trolley without any prompting.  “See you later,” she said to Sarah and I.  She walked away from the hotel without any further conversation.

Sarah and I looked at each other, and I recognized the familiar signs of grudging acceptance in the angle of her eyebrow, the slight downturn at the corner of her lips.  “I’ll explain later,” I said.

“Oh?”

“Sure.  As soon as I know what’s going on, you’ll be the first to know.”

She nodded at that: not pleased with the answer, but willing to give me a little bit of rope to figure things out.   “Let’s get some sleep, then.”

We went up to the penthouse and, after wolfing down a grilled cheese sandwich and a banana parfait, I passed out on the couch.  The time slipped away as I slumbered, suspended in a dreamless black expanse of sleep.  While I slept, occasional snatches of conversation and fractured images floated through my mind, disconnected from any context.  Aiden’s words to Mila; the nickname he’d used that had triggered her episode; Avis’ attitude, and how comfortable she seemed around admitted criminals and kidnappers; Asher’s threats; the Magi; and, like a musical refrain, the image of the Lady, legs crossed as she watched me like a lion watches a prospective meal.

When I woke, the living room was dark and the sun was much lower in the sky than it had been before.  Mila was seated across from me, finishing off a vending machine bag of potato chips, watching something on television.  It was a testament to my sleep-fogged brain that I barely jerked in surprise.

“Morning,” she said.  She looked out of the patio window.  “Well, evening, but you know what I mean.”

I groaned and forced myself to sit up.  “How long was I out?”

“Couple hours, off and on.  I came back about thirty minutes ago.  Had a late lunch, took care of some equipment orders with Sophie.”  She pointed at a glass of water on the table in front of me.  “Thirsty?”

I took the glass and drank half of it in one go.  “Anything happen that I should know about?”

“Nothing that I can think of, no.”  Mila considered her own glass of water, nearly empty, for a couple of seconds.  “Think it’s too early for a beer?”

“It’s probably too early for me,” I said, “but go for it, if you want.”

She stood, walked into the kitchen, and returned a moment later with a beer for her and one for me.  “You might want this.”

“I just said that -”

“Aiden,” she said.  Just the one word, like a proclamation.  “You’ve got questions.”

I moved the water to one side, sat up a little straighter, and opened the beer.  “Where’s Sarah?”

Mila gave me a little smirk.  “I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count.”

Now that I was listening for it, I caught the familiar sounds of Sarah’s keyboard from the back room.  “Already?”

“According to her,” Mila said, “someone had to keep an eye on the radio traffic.  She thinks there might be something they turn up that could be helpful.”

“Fair enough.  And Michel?”

“I sent him on a little errand,” she said.  “You’re the one who’s…well, not in charge, but close enough.  This seems like something you and I should talk about.  Then you can make up your own mind on what to do.”

“About Aiden?”  I asked.  Mila nodded once.  “Alright.  Questions.  Who is he?”

“He’s a mercenary,” she answered, opening her beer.  “Cult leader might be a little closer to the truth, though.  He takes in broken kids, mentors them, turns them into disposable weapons for his amusement.”  One side of her lips curled up in a snarl as she spoke.

“Broken kids,” I repeated.  “Like Carlos, the driver.  Or the other guy.  The one you didn’t know anything about.”

“Like Carlos, like the other guy,” Mila confirmed.  “Like me.”

It wasn’t surprising that she’d had a rough childhood.  I had assumed as much, from the moment she’d flown into the guards at the warehouse like a whirlwind of fists and feet.  That sort of rage didn’t come from happy memories.  It was surprising, however, that she was being so forthright about it.  “You worked with him?”  I asked.

“For a couple of years.”  She swallowed a mouthful of beer.  “Longer than I should have.  Shorter than he wanted.”

“How’d you get away?”

Mila looked out of the patio window for a long time before she said anything.  “He trusted me to do something for him.  Just a stupid errand that he could easily have done on his own, but he wanted me to take care of it instead.  When his back was turned, I jumped him and…”  She trailed off and shrugged.

“That isn’t what I meant,” I said.

She raised an eyebrow.

“You said he takes in broken kids?”  I asked.  “Becomes something like a father figure?  I get that.  But that doesn’t explain why you didn’t fall under the same spell.”

Another long stretch of silence.  “Who says I didn’t?”

“What…what did you do for him?”

“You’ve seen firsthand what I can do,” she said.  “Use your imagination.”

I’d already been using my imagination but those words, like unsolicited permission, allowed an assortment of images to pop into my head with startling clarity.  Many of those images involved a disturbing amount of blood.  “You’re past that, though,” I said.  “Whatever you did when you were younger doesn’t define who you are now.”

“Doesn’t it, though?”  There was a distance in her eyes, as she turned them back to me.  “I don’t mean just metaphorically, or whatever.  Aiden’s been trying to get me back ever since I left him.  This isn’t the first time he’s been close; it is the closest he’s been, yet.”

“You want to go?”  I asked.

She jerked back at that.  “What?”

“Do you want to go?”  I repeated.  “Sarah and I are here, and we’ve got Avis.  Hill and Asher will be focusing their attention on us, so if you want to slip away while no one’s looking…”

“I took a contract,” Mila said, as if that answer closed the matter entirely.

I downed another swallow of beer.  “Then what’d you mean, when you said that I could figure out what to do with you?”

“I’m a threat to your safety right now,” she said.  “Aiden couldn’t care less about Hill’s drug business, Asher’s power plays, or whatever it is that Avis can do.  Now that he knows I’m here, he’s going to come after me.  Hard.  That puts you in the crosshairs of a fight you didn’t sign up for.  If I go, he’ll follow me.  It won’t help you with Asher and Hill, but at least you won’t have a paramilitary group gunning for you at every turn.”

“So…what, exactly?  You’d make yourself into bait?”

“And I’d put the Lady in contact with some other options as bodyguards, yeah,” Mila said.  “Having me around is bad for your health.  That’s what I’m saying.”

I nodded thoughtfully.  “I understand what you mean.  And the answer is no.”

Mila blinked wide, confused eyes at me.  “No?”

“No, I don’t want you to go somewhere else,” I clarified.

“Aiden isn’t a thief, Devlin.  He’s a professional killer with a vendetta.  I’m a killer.  You really don’t know what you’re getting into here.”

“I really don’t,” I agreed.  “But that’s not the point.  You know one of the first rules I learned in prison? ”

Mila shook her head.  “Unless it involves field stripping a light machine gun, I don’t really see how it’s relevant.”

“No machine guns in prison, thank God,” I said.  “But, no, seriously.  A guy I met on my first day had a whole group of friends who’d been arrested with him.  They’d serve their sentences, get released on parole, end up back in the system inside of a year.  But whenever one of them went down, they all went down.  No one bailed, no one cut ties to get a few extra seconds of head start.”

“And this matters because?”

“I asked why he didn’t get a better team,” I said to Mila.  “And he told me that your team is your team, for better or worse.”

Mila opened her mouth to say something, probably something sarcastic, but stopped as my words set in.

“You’re part of a team now,” I said.  “This team.  As long as that’s what you want, I mean.”

“Devlin, I…”

Her voice withered and fell away.  Something on the television had her attention.  I moved on the couch so that I could see the screen and felt, in excruciating detail, as every drop of blood in my body turned to chips of liquid nitrogen.  I fumbled around for the remote controller and unmuted the television.

“Local authorities, in conjunction with Interpol agents, are releasing this composite sketch of an individual they believe to be connected to the outbreak of violence earlier today in…”

The sketch wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough that I could easily recognize it as my own visage.

“Devlin,” Mila said, and her voice had changed.  The rare moment of sensitivity was gone and the bodyguard was back.  “I’m not a thief or anything, but that’s not a good thing, is it?”

I was focused on the newscast.  A man and woman – Cat and Evan, from the countryside pub – were walking up to the reporter.

You said that this was the man you encountered here,” the reporter asked.  “Only a few days before the gunfire and car chase?”

Well, he seemed like such a nice young man, but this is such a small community,” Cat answered.  “I wouldn’t want to say that the poor lad had anything to do with any of this fuss, but it does seem awfully suspicious, it does.

Evan nodded along with everything his wife said.

I stared in mute shock at the screen, incapable of pulling my thoughts into anything coherent for entirely too long.  When I was able to move again, I finished the entirety of my beer and then Mila’s.

“Sarah!”  I yelled, hopefully loud enough to be heard over her headphones.  “We’ve got problems!”

Part 3: Recap

Following the theft of a barbarian crown from the Museum of London, Devlin O’Brien heads back to his hotel room, only to be confronted by the puppeteer who has been pulling on his strings since breaking him out of La Santé: an elegant Lady, clad in splendor and secrets, flanked by the strange Mila and a silent giant of a man.  Admitting to her role in steering both Devlin and Sarah into open conflict with Asher and his backers in the United Kingdom, the Lady has come in person to offer Devlin another job.  Somewhere in the greater London area, there is a key.  That key can be used to unlock the secrets contained within the golden book, stolen by Asher from the bank in Limassol.  Devlin’s job, should he choose to accept it, is to discover the location of that key and retrieve it – as well as the book, at some point in the future – so that the Lady can use the information contained within for unknown purpose.  In addition to the promise of a hefty payday, the Lady promises that doing these things will clear away any protection Asher should possess.

To that end, Mila reveals that she has been hired as Devlin’s personal bodyguard for the coming difficult days and forcibly inserts herself into his growing team of thieves and criminals.  Operating under the assumption that Devlin will accept the offered terms, the lady provides him with two invitations to an exclusive event where the first of many clues might well be found: The Green Light Gala.

The Green Light turns out to be nothing so much as an elaborate dinner party for the criminal underworld elite; an excuse to cut deals and carve out territory, while also displaying their accumulated wealth and comparing it to the fortunes of their peers and competition.  While there, Devlin and Sarah receive a slip of paper with coordinates pointing to a small town in the English countryside and encounter Asher himself, when the traitorous man makes an appearance at the gala in person.  Hamstrung by the rules of the gala, Devlin can only exchange tense words with his former friend before beating a hasty treat.  From there, the foursome – Devlin, Sarah, Michel, and Mila – make their way toward the manor house indicated by the coordinates, where the next clue might be found.

Sophie, the concierge from the Brooklands, proves herself equal to the task of assisting Devlin and his team.  Using her connections and what must be an inexhaustible fund, she purchases a cottage in the area, arranges for subtler methods of transportation, and acquires a computer system for Sarah’s use.

Sarah immediately begins work on a virus to incapacitate whatever security there might be, Devlin and Michel physically surveil the target area and the surrounding countryside.  One stop along the way leads to them to a local pub; its owners, Cat and Evan; and one of the manor house’s guards, having sharing a meal with a small girl in possession of some very complicated mathematical textbooks in topics ranging from theoretical physics to advanced cryptography.

Sarah estimates that it will take her several days to work up a proper plan to infiltrate the manor house, retrieve the information the team seeks, and leave without making a fuss.  That timeline is scuttled when Mila, on a run for some snacks, discovers that there are plans to remove the girl from the manor house.  All four agree that the criminals in charge of the manor house, whoever that might be, are not the types to allow a possible witness – especially a small child – to leave without taking permanent steps to ensure her silence. Instead of waiting for everything to be in place, they put their plan into action on the third day after they arrive.

The plan is simple: Devlin, pretending to be an agent of the Magi, uses the illusion of authority to draw the guards’ attention to him, while Sarah – through a physically installed clip at the backbone of the manor house’s internetwork – provides validation for his stories and siphons all information contained within.  When that task is suitably automated, Devlin is to remove the girl from the manor house and take her to a safe location where time can be taken to figure out her connection to the conspiracies tangling themselves around them all.

That plan falls apart remarkably quickly when the Magi’s real agent – a tattooed, scarred man with a small team of highly trained professionals – arrives at the manor house while Devlin and company are still waiting for Sarah to finish with her digital tasks.  What’s worse: Mila, unflappable and unmoved in any situation they’d encountered thus far, is rendered near catatonic at the very sight of the new man, whom she calls Aiden.

With their tenuous grasp over the situation weakening, Devlin leads Michel and Mila up to the girl’s room, only to find that the guard named Neal – the same one who they’d seen at dinner with the girl before – is midway through an attempt to sneak her out of the manor house.  Devlin decides to add the two of them to their party on the fly, and uses a network of secret passages to escape the manor house…but not before Aiden blows up the computer itself, in an effort to terminate any possible connection that could be made to the system.  Sarah has some files, but not all, and there isn’t any time to formulate a second option.

She meets them at the exit of the tunnel, useless from an electronic standpoint, and Michel takes over as Aiden and his wheelman pursue them in a tense race through the streets of the small, sleepy town and onto the highway, until Mila finally recovers enough to put a bullet into the rear tires of Carlos’ vehicle.  Using that space and the rare moment to catch their breath, they take steps to ensure they haven’t been followed and head back to the Brooklands to recover and evaluate their new position.

Along the way, Sarah discovers that none of the information contained in the documents she managed to steal from the manor house contain the decryption key.  She is prepared to call the entire event a waste of time when a single misstep, a few pages in a diary, and an outburst from the girl Avis reveals the truth of the matter: she isn’t merely a ward of the Magi, nor is she a wunderkind who managed to create a code of sufficient strength to stymie even Sarah’s prodigious skills.  She is the code itself: a human being capable of creating complex algorithms in her head and applying them to text in the blink of an eye.

This explains her presence at the manor house and the reason for her assumed freedom.  She is an asset, yes, and a mathematical genius, but she was also a prisoner: a bird, trapped in a cage, unable to fly free.  Now that she finds herself in the company of the thieves, will she turn her skills against those who kept her hostage?  Or will she seek the comfort of familiarity…even if that means she must clip her own wings to do so?

The Mercenary

Kill her, the Passion whispered in his ear.  Hunt her down, tie her up, force her to submit.  Never let her leave you again.  Never let her HURT you again.

Aiden squeezed the bridge of his nose with two fingers and turned to look out of the window.  The Passion’s voice was getting harder to ignore, as of late.  He redoubled the strength of his mental barriers, internally reciting the words of his mother’s favorite poem, and even that didn’t have the same effect it once had.  Still, it gave him a few moments of relief from the presence and those seconds of space allowed him to think.

She was here, in London.  He’d been so close; closer than he’d been since she’d left his side, in the first place.  Only a single door had blocked his path, and she had still managed to escape.  He was as impressed by her ingenuity as he was angered by the evasion.  There was a certain allure to the chase, though.  Considering how close he was, Aiden was positive he could identify and follow any trail she left.  It was only a matter of time before he caught up to her again.  When he managed that, he knew he could talk to her, convince her that all was forgiven, demonstrate that her proper place was as a member of his team.

She abandoned you.  Abandoned everything you built for her, discarded the security you offered, and ran.  SHE RAN.

Movement might help.  It did, sometimes.  He stood, ignoring the subtle tremor in his left leg, and walked away from the window into the kitchen of his accommodations.  A slim folder lay on the counter, opened to reveal a single photograph and a note card filled with information.  The name of the target, how much money was being offered for the job, an accepted amount of collateral damage he was allowed in pursuit of his goal.  He read through it all for the fourth time since returning.   He saw nothing there that he hadn’t seen before.

On the surface, nothing about the job should have attracted her attention.  Emilia provided a very specific set of services, and nothing that took place at the manor house made sense given those skills.  In order to get past the manor house’s guards, a man had masqueraded as a German official who Aiden had personally made disappear, several months prior.  Someone had also penetrated the manor house’s security system and done serious damage to the network, even after the pretenders were barricaded within the little girl’s room.  According to the men he’d questioned after their escape, there had been at least three men, in addition to the child, who’d made their escape from the manor house during the gunfight.  One of those was, presumably, the driver of the tiny SUV who had managed to evade and exasperate Carlos’ attempts at capture.

Why had Emilia been there, with them?  She worked alone.  She always worked alone, since –

Since she cut you loose, shed you like dead skin, moved on to better things, the Passion hissed.  You should never have trusted her, never given her your faith, never let her get so close.

– since they’d parted ways.  Infiltration wasn’t her specialty.  Subterfuge wasn’t something Emilia used; it wasn’t even something she was particularly talented at.  She was a weapon, to be wielded against anyone foolish or unlucky enough to find themselves standing against the inferno of rage she kept inside her; she was an animal, to be unleashed as needed, to savage any target in her way.

She was his.

With that thought, he felt the shift.  It was familiar to him now; not exactly unpleasant, but unusual.  It was as though his consciousness shifted elsewhere and, in its place, the Passion took control.  Aiden swept out a hand, sending the folder and its contents fluttering to the ground.  That wasn’t enough destruction.  He took an empty bottle from a nearby table and hurled it against the far wall.  It shattered into shards and chunks of glass that rained down to the floor.  The rest of his actions were a blur, after that.  The Passion didn’t have any understanding about reasonable force, limitations, or control; it didn’t concern itself with self-harm or social mores.  It was only need and hatred, both directed at the same person: Thorn, Emilia, the woman who had left him after he had saved her.  The anger poured out of him, while the Passion howled vile curses and maledictions against her.  The Professional, shunted out of Aiden’s body, stood by, watching in silent disdain.

Are you done?  The Professional asked, after an unknowable period of time.  Is any of this helping?

Aiden spun and kicked a wooden panel hard enough to split it in two.  “You were mine!  You were just like me!  And you left!”

Then, the Professional said in an intent mental tone, how do we get her back?

Aiden paused, just long enough to catch his breath.  The brief cessation of outpoured rage was enough to allow the Professional control again.  The Passion coalesced into its regular form nearby: a small Maori boy, several years away from even his first tattoo.

Mine, it hissed.  The Passion’s lips moved without a sound; the words formed inside Aiden’s head without ever touching the air.  Mine.

Aiden sighed, exhausted from the outburst.  Those were becoming more frequent as the days turned into months.  If the doctors were right, the Passion would begin to hold greater sway over his actions as the illness progressed.  It was even possible that another phantom guest might appear, though Aiden personally thought that was unlikely.  The struggle between his professionalism and his passions wasn’t something new.  All the sickness really did was provide a visual representation for the parts of himself he tried to keep in check.

A knock came at the door.  Aiden jerked in that direction, reaching for his handgun as he did so.  The joints in his body ached at the sudden movement; he squashed the pinprick flare of pain with a brief effort of will.  “Sir?”  The speaker had an accent.  Aiden had never been good at identifying accents without additional information, but there were only two men who would dare to knock on Aiden’s door after an episode, and their accents were different enough that even he could easily deduce the speaker’s identity.

“Yes, Raphael?”

“It’s Carlos,” the voice said.  “Sir.”

Of course, it was Carlos.  Raphael was dead; fallen in a hail of bullets several years ago.  Aiden knew that.  It wasn’t that his memory was coming and going in unpredictable patches.  He was just tired.  The struggle for mental control had drained him and he’d misspoken.  That was all.

“Carlos, of course.  What do you need?”

“I…had a question, sir.”

Aiden swept a quick look around the room.  There was no real way of fixing the damage to the furniture, the walls, or the glassware.  He didn’t understand how he could have created so much wreckage but, at the same time, he was forced to admit to himself that he wasn’t really sure how long the Passion had been in control.  He decided, after a second spent considering the options, that it would cause more damage in the long run if he ignored Carlos or sent him away.  The image that Aiden – specifically, that the Professional – cultivated was that of a benevolent father figure.  If Carlos was struggling with doubts, it was important to control that problem before it grew into a festering sore that required more thorough solutions.  One spoiled apple, et cetera.

“Come in,” he said and stepped back, so that he stood almost in the center of the room.  That forced the ghostly image of the Passion back into a corner, but it wasn’t as though the phantom actually needed comfort.

Carlos entered, cautiously.  Aiden could see as the man’s eyes took in the devastation of torn upholstery and glass shrapnel.  It was obvious that he wanted to know what had transpired – there was almost no way the Passion had been silent during the episode – but training and conditioning kept him from breathing a word about what he saw.

“Yes?”  Aiden asked.  He was calm and controlled, each movement of his body specifically chosen to elicit the appropriate effect.  His voice, soft enough that it forced others to actually listen, was a skill he’d inherited from his father.  “How can I help?”

“It’s about…”  Carlos stopped and Aiden could practically hear the gears in the Spanish man’s mind grind to a halt, only to switch tracks and gradually work their way back up to speed.  He’d excised her name, at the last moment.  “It’s about the girl.  Our target, sir.”

“Yes?  What about her?”

“We…didn’t get her, sir.  Are we going after the people who managed to extract her before we got there?”

Find her.  The Passion was almost purring and every muscle in Aiden’s body, every fiber of his being, longed to do exactly that, in that moment.  Bring her back.  Force her to stay.  Never let her leave.

“We will,” Aiden said.  “When the time comes.”

“When do you – ?”

Aiden interrupted the man in that maddeningly soft voice.  “Do you know why we failed to retrieve the girl?”

Carlos blinked.  “Sir?”

“This was just a nine year old girl.  All of her guards were bought and paid for, even before we got on a plane.  This should have been the easiest retrieval of our lives.  So, tell me; what went wrong?”

Carlos opened his mouth, performed another of his obvious last second word swaps, and then spoke.  “Someone got there first,” he said.

“Indeed.”  Aiden stepped carefully over the ruined knickknacks scattered across the room’s floor and headed for a glass decanter of liquor that had somehow survived his rage.  He filled two glasses with the alcohol.  “Here.  Have a drink with me.”

It was a calculated gesture.  Aiden kept his teams small, on purpose; it was easier to maintain mystique and control, if your followers were kept relatively isolated.  He removed himself, even from them, by never relaxing in their presence.  It served to keep him as a figure above them.  By allowing Carlos to drink with him, Aiden was elevating the man to something like an equal, even if only for a moment.

It didn’t hurt matters that Aiden really wanted a drink himself.  He noticed, as he handed one glass over to Carlos, that his knuckles were torn and bleeding.  When had that happened?  How had he not noticed?

Kill the ones who stole her from you.  Murder them, make them suffer.  Take her.  Have her again.

Carlos accepted the offering and waited until Aiden raised his own glass in toast.  They clinked glasses softly and drained the containers in a single go.

“We failed,” Aiden said in that soft, fatherly voice, “because we didn’t know enough.  We were sent to retrieve the girl, but we didn’t know about the secret passage.  We didn’t know about the tunnels.  We didn’t know about this…other party, and their interest in the girl.”

Carlos nodded slowly, understanding the general idea.  Aiden hadn’t chosen him for his intelligence, but the man was reasonably quick at picking up concepts.  That made him an asset for the moment; it also meant that, eventually, Carlos would find himself in the unenviable position of being a liability.

Conquer, crush, kill, the Passion said.  This was an old, familiar recitation.  Dominate the weak. 

“I don’t intend to find myself in that position again,” Aiden said.  “The terms of our contract were perfectly clear.  Conveniently, there was no mention of a time constraint.”

“So, sir, you’re going to…?”

“Plan,” Aiden said.  “Use the resources at my disposal to uncover as much information as possible about the individuals in question.  Then, I will close off every avenue of escape, every hole they might choose to hide in, and close in.  The next time I see them will be the last time they are seen by anyone at all.”

One of the tricks he’d acquired over the years was nothing more or less than careful use of pronouns.  By using the plural earlier, when discussing their failure, he folded Carlos and himself into a single unit.  Doing so deflected the blame for any failures across all parties.  There were ways of exonerating himself, and those techniques would certainly be used at a later date, but it was important to make certain that Carlos understood he had a part in the failed job.

By using the singular now, Aiden isolated himself once more.  The disaster at the manor house was a shame that could be divided amongst the entire team.  The ability to succeed, the will and intelligence required to circumvent whatever obstacles cropped up in the future, the resources such an undertaking would require…all of those things, and more, belonged exclusively to Aiden.

“Even Thorn?”  Carlos’ lips turned down slightly into the beginnings of a frown as he remembered who Emilia had been, when they’d worked on the same team.

Their relationship, Aiden recalled, had always been antagonistic.  Of course, Aiden had wanted it that way; Emilia had emerged from the conflict with greater prestige and a higher place in Aiden’s eyes.  Carlos had apparently never gotten over the insult.

“Thorn poses a different dilemma,” Aiden said.  He poured two more drinks, but drank his own before Carlos had a chance to do the same.  “Her familiarity with my tactics creates a certain additional level of difficulty.  Not an unmanageable one, but still something that requires attention.”

Carlos tipped his glass and emptied it a second time.  “She was working with them, sir,” he said.  “Whoever got to the girl before us…they did it with Thorn’s help.”

Traitor, the Passion growled.  She is a traitor.

“I am aware of the work she has done since our…parting,” Aiden said.  He bared his teeth in an expression that Carlos would almost certainly read as a grin, but was closer to a grimace in reality.  The idea that she would take the skills he had painstakingly taught her and to protect with them was…disquieting.

There were plenty of opportunities for violence in that field, though.  There was something important in that tidbit.  No matter what she did, she wouldn’t ever be able to truly walk away from what they’d done together.  She’d never be able to change who she was, now.

Even her new name represented that.  Names, Aiden had found, told more about the person than most expected.  A name wasn’t just a method of identifying oneself to others; it was a way to frame one’s own self-identity.  The names he used for the warring aspects of his personality – the Professional, for the mercenary who’d inflicted violence in more than two dozen countries; and the Passion, who enjoyed the carnage for its own sake – were proof enough of that.  When Thorn had chosen her new name, she’d elected for something meaningful in her native language.  Emilia Espina Durante: the enduring thorn that protects.

She was Thorn now; she would always be Thorn.

My Thorn, the Passion rumbled in agreement.  Mine.

“I am certain, however,” Aiden continued, “that she can be convinced to…forego the path she’s chosen.  When I manage to remove the influences of whatever criminals she’s take up with, there will be time enough to identify and solve whatever concerns keep her from my side.”

Relaxed slightly by the alcohol and by the intoxicating presence of his leader, Carlos forgot himself for just an instant.  “Bitch doesn’t deserve a second chance, if you ask me.”

As soon as the sentence left his mouth, he regretted what he’d said but, by then, it was too late.  The Passion was too close, still too strong, and it rushed back into Aiden’s body.  He had Carlos by the throat in an instant; an eyeblink later, the Spanish man was bent backwards over the counter, his head a millimeter away from the glass decanter.  There were broken shards all over the space, and they bit into the skin on Carlos’ cheek.  Aiden doubled the pressure until Carlos cried out.

“That is my place to decide,” he growled, through painfully gritted teeth.  “Not yours.  I am the one who assembled this team; I am the one who trained you, taught you, gave you purpose.  I am the one who rescued you.”

“Of…of course, sir!”  Carlos practically screamed the words.  Even pressed against the counter by Aiden, he was too well trained to fight back.  That was the type of sin that led to a fatal resolution.  None of Aiden’s acolytes ever dared so much.

Except for Thorn, the Professional said.  He lounged in the corner where the Passion had been, wearing the guise of Aiden’s own father.  Why did that happen?

“We will bring her back,” Aiden said.  “And you will remember your place.”

He didn’t need to finish that thought with any threat.  Carlos nodded his agreement, adding another couple of cuts to his cheek, until Aiden relented.  The hot flash of rage dimmed enough for the Professional to reassert control.

Aiden stepped back and allowed Carlos to collect himself.  “Yes, sir,” the Spanish man said after a handful of seconds.  He went to attention and snapped off a quick salute.  “If that’s what you want, sir, then we will make it happen.”

Blood trickled down from Carlos’ cheek.  There was no way he didn’t notice the warm, wet sensation on his skin.  He made no move to wipe it away.

“Dismissed, soldier,” Aiden said.  He turned away from Carlos without another word.

“Sir, yes, sir!”

Because his back was turned, Aiden couldn’t actually watch Carlos leave, but he listened as the man’s boots crunched across the broken glass on the floor.  When he estimated that Carlos was at the door, he raised his voice slightly.  “Carlos.”

“Sir?”

“Send Mikhail in,” Aiden said.

“Yes, sir!”

There were two more crunches and then Carlos was gone.

Aiden counted to thirty before he relaxed.  Two outbursts in less than twenty minutes was a new record.  The medication wasn’t working as well, anymore.  He recited two of his mother’s favorite poems in his head, but the Passion still pressed against his thoughts.

Eventually, he would need to up the dosage.  There were side effects, but Aiden didn’t have any illusions about his lifespan: he wouldn’t be around long enough for the side effects to do much more than inconvenience him.  For now, in lieu of an ability to actually quiet the Passion, he closed his eyes and allowed an actual smile to crease his lips.

“I’ll be seeing you soon, Thorn,” he said to the air.

On that, both the Professional and the Passion agreed.

The Drug Lord

The room felt dirty.  The air around him was stale and heavy with old cigarette smoke; an odor of sweat, overcooked meat, and general detritus floated like a fog around their table; and, most galling of all, a jukebox in one corner insisted on playing some low-rent cover by a band whose name he couldn’t be bothered to remember.

Without a doubt, it was the worst establishment he had been forced to endure in his entire life.  And yet, here he was.

“This is unacceptable,” he said to the man seated across from him.

“What?  Is slumming it that unpleasant?”

Slumming,” he said, accenting the word like it was something vile, “would be giving a bit too much credit to this…this…” He twirled two fingers in a vague approximation of a circle, indicating their surroundings.

“I don’t know about that,” the other man said.  “Spent a lot of my life in places just like this.  I mean, not just like this, but pretty close.”

“Imagine my surprise.”

If the man across from him took offense, he didn’t show it.  “You’re the one who wanted to meet up with me.”

“Indeed.  I assumed that you would have selected a rendezvous point with something approximating class, however.”

“So now you want me to be high profile?  Any of the places you frequent would have us on a dozen cameras before we got a table.  And that’s not even taking into account all of the people you’d have to talk to: valets, waiters, probably the cook, if your dietary choices tonight are any indication.”

The ‘dietary choice’ in question wasn’t a meal, so much as a few pieces of wilted lettuce thrown on a plate and topped with unevenly diced tomatoes.  He hadn’t touched a bite since he’d ordered it.  “I’m certain you wouldn’t understand this,” he said, “but the privacy of those locations is above reproach.”

The man across the table threw his head back and laughed.  “And I’m sure you wouldn’t understand, but those people I mentioned?  For a couple hundred extra dollars, they’d be more than happy to connect the dots between the two of us.”

“Perhaps.”

The man across the table took a long drink from his beer.  “So.  What’d you want to meet about?”

“Your latest requisition.  I have questions about the necessity.”

“I was under the impression that you wanted plausible deniability, in case our bosses get wind of what you’re planning.”

“What we’re planning.”

The other man shrugged and took another drink.  “Fine.  What we’re planning.  Anyway, I thought you didn’t want to know what I did or how I did it.”

“Not questions, then.  Concerns.”

“What’s bothering you, Hill?”

That wasn’t his real name, but it was the one he’d grown accustomed to.  He’d been using it for years, but it wasn’t usually something people said to his face.  The men and women who pushed drugs at the street level weren’t the sort he personally spoke with, after all.  “I’ve had my own sources look into the efficacy of this…Aiden?”  He deliberately left the sentence open.

“His efficacy is unblemished.  Any job he’s ever accepted, he’s accomplished.  What more could you want than a perfect success rate?”

“Less collateral damage would be ideal,” Hill said.  “When I’ve claimed this business as my own, I would prefer to leave as much infrastructure in place as possible, so that the transition of power is seamless.  A rogue element with a proven record of instability endangers that goal.”

“You aren’t wrong, but you also aren’t thinking creatively.”

“Oh?”  Hill forgot himself momentarily and took a small sip from the glass in front of him.  Regret descended on him before the liquor made it down his throat.  Whatever the bartender had poured, calling it scotch should have been classified as a criminal act.  He allowed a minute grimace to cross his face as he forced himself to swallow.  “Enlighten me as to your…creative interpretation, then.”

“Anywhere Aiden’s team goes,” the other man said, “bodies show up.  That’s going to equal police attention and general property damage, sure, but it also equals cover.  As long as the cops are looking in his direction, they aren’t paying attention to the moves you’re making in the underworld.”

Hill added the unspoken corollary in his head: the people in charge won’t be watching you as closely.  He couldn’t entirely ignore the merits of that.  Anything that bought him a few inches of extra space to maneuver into a better position was a good thing.  Whoever the people in charge were, they possessed resources that made Hill’s war chest look like a child’s piggy bank.  If they discovered his plans prematurely, death was  the best possible outcome.  Just by sending this man – Asher, he thought, with disdain even finding its way into his mental voice – the people in charge had sent a message.  It was only sheer luck that Asher’s goals had coincided with Hill’s own.

“The police aren’t going to be a problem,” Hill said, after several seconds spent in quiet consideration.  “Certain individuals in key positions are fond of the product I provide.”

“They can’t all be drug addicts,” Asher said.

“Not all,” Hill admitted.  “Some merely have loved ones that are.”

Asher whistled, leaned back in his chair, and finished off his beer.  He raised two fingers into the air to signal the bartender for another one.  “Blackmail?  That’s a little rougher than I’d expected from you, Hill.”

“One does what one must,” Hill replied.  “How much is this mercenary going to charge for his services?”

“Not as much as you’d think,” Asher said.  “His regular rate is…hefty, but I’ve got a feeling that there are some considerations in place that might lead to him working for less.”

“Considerations?”

Asher accepted a second beer from a passing server before he answered.  “Plausible deniability, remember?”

Hill considered whether or not to press Asher harder, but decided against it in short order.  There were other matters, aside from the matter of payment, that bothered him.  He reached into an attaché case and withdrew a manila folder.

“What’s that?”  Asher asked.

Hill opened the manilla folder on the table and flipped through a few pages.  “Cruzfeldt-Jacob Disease,” he read.  “This mercenary you’ve hired is dying, Asher.”

“We’re all dying,” Asher said.  “He’s just…doing it a little quicker than the rest of us.”

Hill replied with a flat, unamused look.  “I’ve had someone look into the disease, and the symptoms as it progresses.”

Asher sighed, reached out, and took the paper from Hill’s fingers.  “I’ve taken steps to make sure his performance isn’t going to be affected, in addition to other measures I’ve put in place, on the off chance that something does go terribly wrong.”

“Just as you were certain that the situation at the museum would be handled?”  Hill asked.

A flash of irritation flickered across Asher’s face. “That was…unfortunate.”

“Unfortunate?  The inroads I’ve worked to build are in ruins, now.  Your trip to the gala only served to reopen the lines of communication with the other players.  Trust needs to be reestablished.  More importantly, respect has to be earned again.”

“And as soon as you’re the sole owner of this thriving drug empire, you’ll have all the time and resources to do exactly that,” Asher said.  He leaned in and lowered his voice conspiratorially.  “These are setbacks, Hill.  You had to know it wasn’t going to be easy, or else someone else would have tried it first.”

“Others have tried.”

“Others haven’t succeeded,” Asher stressed.  “Think about it.  You’ve already got the book.  You were able to purchase what you needed from the information broker, so it’s only a matter of time before you have the key to decrypt everything.  Once that’s done, you’ll have the power.  What’s a little bit of misfortune now, considering how much you stand to gain?”

Hill knew he was being manipulated.  The idea that Asher actually considered himself capable of out-thinking Hill was laughable, but the appearance of fallibility was important.  So long as Asher considered himself ahead in their little game of words, he’d grow complacent.

Complacency had brought down better men before.

A lifetime spent as a minor nobleman, constantly looked down on by people who considered themselves his betters, had drilled that lesson into his head.  When he started in the business, running a minor operation with superlative efficiency, he’d seen other dealers fall by the wayside because they’d stopped striving, stopped pushing the limits of what they could do.  Hill didn’t have that problem.

There were heights that he’d yet to attain, and he knew that those heights were meant for him.  His was a noble line, destined for greater things than laboring as an employee of any faceless, nameless individuals.  He would take over the local operation, entirely, and then he could begin the process of infiltrating himself into other criminal enterprises.  Already, he’d managed to muscle his way into the arms smuggling trade, despite a vigorous effort by the Bratva to control their territory.  As soon as he had the names of the drug suppliers, he’d be able to grow even more.

Asher had been a lucky accident.  When he’d arrived at the behest of the people in charge, ready and willing to wield the authority they had given him, Hill had considered simply having him killed.  The criminal underworld was a dangerous place; accidents happened all of the time.  But Asher had proven that he possessed more than a small amount of talent at organization, planning, and personnel management.  It had been his plan to use the Bratva as cover, in order to steal the golden book from Limassol, and he’d actually managed to pull it off.  In fact, in an advisory capacity, Asher had helped to smooth over some of the more difficult or troublesome aspects of the drug empire.  He wasn’t what Hill would have expected from anyone with so many tattoos and scars, but people could be surprising.

“Acceptable,” Hill said, finally.

Asher nodded.  “That’s what I thought.  Now, was there anything else you needed?”

“What is your plan for locating the decryption key?”

“They’re keeping a girl at that house, “Asher said.  “Don’t know why, but it’s obviously got to be important or they wouldn’t go through the trouble, right?  I figure I’ll have Aiden go in, using an extraction of the girl as cover, and let him look around until he finds something we can use.”

“And if he finds nothing?”

Asher shrugged.  “Then we interrogate the girl.  Like I said, she’s got to know something.”

Hill sniffed slightly at the air in disdain, and immediately regretted it as the odor made its way into his nostrils.  “Interrogate?”

“Torture.”  Asher drank half of his remaining beer in one go.  “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing.”

“That doesn’t bother you?”  Hill asked.  “The idea of torturing a little girl for information that she might not even have?”

“I’m not thrilled about it, no,” Asher said.  “But I didn’t make it this far only to let a little squeamishness get in the way of achieving the goals I’ve been working towards for years.”

There was a stretch of silence, accompanied by an unspoken challenge.  Hill felt the moment in the air, but he couldn’t bring himself to rise to it.  When one corner of Asher’s lips twitched upward, Hill realized he’d lost a point.  The knowledge brought bile into his throat and he immediately went on the offense.

You didn’t make it this far,” Hill mused aloud, repeating Asher’s words.  Every conversation was essentially a duel, and he’d lost on that exchange; the fact that this uncultured man was a point up on him was galling.  “Not we.  This has been an operation planned in painstaking detail for almost a decade by me, but you’re concerned about the costs you’ve incurred?  What could you possibly have lost?  I am the one paying for the assets you’ve frankly wasted; I am the one whose business is suffering during this transitional period.  You have done nothing.”

It was Asher’s turn to sit silent.  The perpetual smirk on his lips dimmed slightly and a little heat crept into his eyes.

Sensing an opening, and eager for an opportunity to reestablish his superiority, Hill pressed harder.  “Understand this: I will be successful in this, with or without you.  I have been willing to tolerate your insubordination, your attitude, and your general lack of proper decorum because it has been tempered by success.  If you cannot find some way of dispensing with this new wrinkle, I will simply find another who can.”  Hill smiled, showing too many teeth in the process.  “Perhaps I will see if this Devlin can be hired to do what you obviously –“

He didn’t get to finish the thought.  Asher slammed both palms down on the table, and then swept his arms to one side, sending plates crashing to the floor.  His nostrils flared and the intensity of his gaze grew to a heat that made even Hill uncomfortable.  “You have no idea what I’ve paid for this,” Asher hissed, between gritted teeth.  “And you should understand this:  I am more than capable of handling Devlin.  I am the only one who can, or will, deal with that particular problem.  Am I clear?”

Nearly all of the men in the bar, save for one or two that were too drunk to be aware of their surroundings, were staring at the two of them.  Aside from the appalling music still playing on the jukebox, there was almost no sound in the place; just Asher’s heavy breathing and Hill’s own heartbeat in his ears.

The glare directed at him forced Hill to privately acknowledge that his position in life wouldn’t provide him with any cover, should Asher simply decide to attack him.  He was armed, of course, but there was no guarantee that he’d be able to draw the tiny gun he carried at his ankle before Asher reached him.  He wondered if Asher would risk everything in the moment, just to vent his anger, or if he was capable of focusing on the longer term goals.

This newest wrinkle, this…Devlin was a distraction.  There was a relationship between Asher and Devlin, and relationships rarely made for clear-headed decisions.  A private investigator, hired out of Hill’s personal funds, turned up a record of jobs the two had pulled years ago, but nothing since Devlin had gone to jail for a botched theft.

After everything was finished here, perhaps, he could ask for details.  It wouldn’t change much – he fully intended to kill Asher as soon as he’d played his part in the transition of power – but an unanswered question would nag at him, if left alone.

The tension lasted for a full minute before Asher, mercifully, looked away.  The man closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, visibly regaining his calm.  When he opened his eyes again, the smirk was back in place.  A thin trickle of blood was visible at the corner of Asher’s mouth.  “You aren’t the only one with something at stake in this,” he said.  “That’s all I’m saying.”

“Acceptable,” Hill said, hating the quiver in his voice as he spoke.  “Those were the only things we needed to discuss, unless you have some other problem that requires my intervention?”

“Nothing at the moment,” Asher said.  He raised a hand and one of the servers approached.  “Two shots, please.  Tequila, if you’ve got it.”

Hill suppressed a grimace.  “You might as well order paint thinner.”

“If you can’t handle it,” Asher said, “I’ll take both.”

Another challenge, then.  “Bring the shots,” he said to the server.  To Asher, he added, “I will pick the location next time we need to meet.”

“Fair’s fair,” Asher said.  His beer had managed to remain on the table, despite his outburst, and he finished it off in one pull.

The server hurried away and returned just as quickly with two shot glasses.  She set them both on the table and retreated.  “It’s a tradition,” Asher said, pushing one of the shots over to Hill.  “Something from…a long time ago.”

“Tradition?”  Hill echoed.  “Getting inebriated was something you planned for?”

“You take a shot now,” Asher said, ignoring the verbal barb.  “When we finish the job, we meet up and take another one.  Book ends, you see?  And it gives you something to look forward to.”

“You did this in the past?”

“More times than I can count.  It’s just a little superstition.”

Hill shrugged.  Tradition was something he understood, even if it involved something as vile as tequila.  “Is there something I should say?”

“See you on the other side,” Asher said.  He raised his glass and locked eyes with Hill.

“On the other side,” Hill repeated.  He met Asher’s gaze, cool enough now that Hill wasn’t concerned for his physical safety.  There was intelligence behind the eyes, and ambition.  Asher was planning something.  Hill would simply have to be prepared for it.

They drank the shots and Hill was pleasantly surprised to find that he did not hate the taste of the liquor as it burned its way down his throat.

“See?”  Asher asked.  “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“Not at all.”

Asher was still watching him, still weighing him.  Hill would absolutely have to arrange for some personal protection, until he was able to dispose of his ‘ally.’  He looked away from Asher’s steady stare, down to the empty shot glasses on the table.  He might purchase a bottle of tequila for the estate, he decided.  He would be drinking it alone, but that was something he’d simply have to deal with.

Tradition was tradition, after all.