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.

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