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?”
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?”
“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.
“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.”
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!”