By the time we reached the processing plant, the moon and the stars were completely covered by thick, lumpy clouds. We were forced to use flashlights to navigate through the back alleys until we finally made it close enough to the plant that we could see by the lights still on within the building. I held up a hand to signal a momentary pause. Mila, the Russians, James, and Chester all crouched into the shadows behind me and waited.
“I want to make sure we’re clear on this,” I said in a low voice. There were easily a few dozen yards between where I knelt and the plant, but years of practice rebelled at the idea of speaking at a full volume. “There’s no way of knowing exactly what we’re going to walk into, but if we stick to the plan, we should be able to adapt to whatever surprises Hill throws at us.”
“I understand,” James said. It was the first time that the older, scarred man had spoken. He’d followed my gestures and suggestions without comment and it was only now that I was able to hear his strong Scottish accent. More than that, his voice was rough and gravelly, like sandpaper sliding over broken glass. I suspected the scar on his face might have done more damage than was readily visible; it might also have something to do with his decision to remain mostly silent.
“Sure,” Chester added. He still sounded upset at Billy’s decision to give command of the raid to me, but I doubted he’d do anything more than sulk about it. “Sure, I got it. But what are you gonna do if things go sideways, eh? You ain’t even carrying no piece.”
“If something goes so horribly wrong that I need to have a gun,” I said, “trust me: we’re already screwed beyond belief. Besides, Mila here can handle any of the physical stuff, should it absolutely become necessary.”
Chester gave Mila a disbelieving look. “This little girl is supposed to protect us?”
Mila replied with a saccharine, predatory smile. “I’m supposed to protect him,” she replied. “If something happens to you, that’d just be an absolute shame.”
It seemed that Chester might have said more, possibly fracturing my tenuous grasp on this group of wildly conflicting personalities, so I cut him off. “Everybody’s a badass,” I said, “so let’s move on. Stani, do you and your guys think you can handle your side of things?”
Stani consulted with Iosif in a quick burst of Russian before turning to me and nodding. “If you can get us into this building, yes; what you ask will not be a problem.”
I checked the time on my phone and saw that, somehow, I’d missed a phone call. Or, more accurately, I’d been out of the service area and, instead of notifying me as to who had called, I’d simply received a voicemail. I shelved any questions about the voicemail until later and focused entirely on the job at hand.
“Okay,” I said, “we’re going to stick to small teams for this one. Stani, you know your men better than I do, so you’ll obviously be in charge of them. James and Chester? I’m assuming you two can work well together?”
Chester opened his mouth, probably to say something he considered clever, but James nudged him before the words could come out. “Yeah,” James said, instead. “We can work well together.”
“Fantastic. I want you two at the north end. We’ll send you a signal whenever it’s safe to come in.”
“And what sort of signal is that gonna be?” Chester asked.
I consulted my phone for the time again. “That depends on the situation inside,” I admitted. “Don’t worry; you’ll know what it is.”
James laid a heavy hand on Chester’s shoulder and squeezed. The younger man looked back at his partner and then nodded once.
“One more thing,” I said. I dug into my pockets, past the lock picks I rarely left home without, and found two more earbuds. I gave one to Stani and one to Chester. “This should help us keep in contact, just in case things get crazy.”
I did not add that, considering prior experiences, I had every reason to expect a fair amount of insanity.
“You just carry stuff like this around with you?” Chester asked. He fit the earbud into its proper place.
“I was a boy scout once,” I replied, casually.
“Nevermind, you wouldn’t get it. Stani?”
The short Russian struggled to put the earbud in for a moment, before he switched to his undiminished hand. He had much less difficulty inserting the earbud after that. “This is strange,” he said. “Like having one ear missing.”
“You get used to it,” I assured him. “Now, we’re all linked up, but I’m the one with the plan and so I’m calling the shots. If I need a team to move, don’t worry about whether or not it makes sense, just go. Got it?”
Both Stani and, after another reluctant few seconds, Chester gave grunts of assent.
“Alright. Get into position, then. Mila and I will get things started.”
They took that as the starter’s pistol that it was. Chester and James went to the north side of the building. Stani’s group headed to the eastern side. That left Mila and I crouched alone, in the darkness.
“Sarah?” I asked, when I was sure that the other men weren’t going to overhear.
The line popped twice. “I’ve got them cut out of our communications,” she said, without prompting. “If you want to say something that they can hear, you’ll have to let me know specifically. Otherwise, it’s only going to me, you, and Mila.”
“Do you have any good news for me?”
“Well,” Sarah said, “it seems like Hill decided to run his cover business with exactly the same amount of network security as a real business would have used.”
“The firewall they’re using is honestly about as effective as a wet paper towel.”
“What are we looking at, in terms of physical security?”
She was silent for a few seconds as she worked through some problem on her end of the connection. “It looks like a closed circuit television. There’s no internet connection to work with, so I can’t do anything about that remotely. You’d have to physically infiltrate the security center and deactivate the system.”
“How hard is that going to be?”
“I have no idea how hard it’ll be for you to get there,” Sarah said, “but it’s only a few keystrokes to turn the whole thing off.”
I blew some air out of my nostrils, while I formulated my next question. “Can you at least tell me what’s going to show up on the CCTV?”
“I most certainly can,” Sarah replied. “And since the two of you have the GPS on your phones active, I can try to keep you away from any patrols. It won’t be perfect, though.”
“It never is. Anything else I should know about before I get the ball rolling on this?”
“I’ve got access to some doors – the ones with electronic seals – but I can’t do anything about a physical lock.”
I patted one hand to the lock picks in my pocket. “I’ve got that handled.”
“Well, then, you’re good to go. I’ll call any trouble out if I see it; otherwise, I’m going to keep working up escape options.”
“Roger that.” I tapped the earbud twice out of habit, and then motioned to Mila. “Let’s go.”
The two of us crept closer to the southern door, staying low and moving slowly enough that any casual observer from higher up would probably have skipped over us without even realizing it. The moonless night turned out to be a benefit; with shadows stretching all across the clearing, we had plenty of space to maneuver and only found ourselves exposed to the light once or twice before we reached the door.
I spoke a soft word into the earbud and Sarah, using her technical wizardry, unlocked the door and allowed us access. The interior of the factory was, of course, even darker than the grounds; it was dark enough, unfortunately, that I was forced to turn the flashlight back on. Mila freed a handgun and attached a silencer to it. I prepared to shoot her a warning look, but paused when I noticed that she had one eye closed against the light.
“What are you doing?”
“Night vision,” she said, as though it were answer enough.
I pushed the follow-up question back down and started to move through the darkened factory without another word. My memory of the blueprint wasn’t bad, but Sarah had the benefit of digital backups, as well as a field of vision that encompassed the entire building. I let her tell us when to move and when to hide, while Mila took point of her own accord.
“Stop,” Sarah whispered, five minutes into the infiltration. Dutifully, Mila and I stopped.
I strained my ears but couldn’t hear the sound of footsteps, either approaching or departing. Hazarding a small question seemed like an appropriate risk. “What is it?” I asked, in a voice closer to sub-vocalization than a simple whisper.
“Nothing to do with you,” Sarah said. “It’s the two guys outside. Billy’s men, uh…”
“James and Chester?”
“Yeah, those two. Chester’s trying to work up the nerve to act on his own, but James is holding him back. So far.”
I didn’t want to peek my head past my cover. “How long until we’ve got another patrol to worry about?”
Sarah was quiet for two seconds, while she searched through the camera feeds. “Moving at their pace, you’re clear for four minutes. Maybe less.”
“Connect my line to theirs,” I said. “Make sure to keep yourself muted, though.”
She didn’t answer with words; two beeps were the only notification I had before Chester’s voice came through my earbud, loud and clear. “We been doing this a long time, James; don’t tell me you think we can’t handle it without some posh git telling us what to do now!”
James replied in his rocky, Scottish voice. “It ain’t about that,” he said. “You heard what Billy said, same as me.”
“Sure I did, and I ain’t never done nothing he didn’t want me to do before, have I? But this is a bit much, innit?”
James didn’t respond out loud. There was a stretch of silence, so I assumed he must have replied with some sort of physical gesture.
“That’s what I’m saying!” Chester cried out. “Now, think about how it’ll be feel to be the two blokes what brought back the score of a lifetime, eh? Probably have to get a promotion, we will.”
I’d heard enough to get the general gist of Chester’s argument and to craft a reply that would, hopefully, stop him from doing anything stupid. “You won’t get anything if Hill captures you,” I said.
The shocked silence was almost palpable from Chester’s end of the line. “You never said you’d be listening in on us,” he said, finally, in a voice so much like an accusing child that I almost laughed.
“And you never said you’d be an idiot,” I countered. “But here we are.”
“What’d you just call me?” Chester’s voice became more high pitched as he grew increasingly irritated. A detached part of my thoughts hoped, for his sake, that he learned to keep that under control in the future.
“I said that you’re being an idiot,” I repeated. “You think a couple of raids automatically make you ready for the big leagues, kid?”
Chester sputtered in indignation. “I ain’t no kid, and I don’t have to stand here while you talk to me like that!”
“Yes, you damn well do!” I couldn’t yell without possibly alerting someone inside the factory to my presence, but I could load the sentence with as much intensity as I could bear. “You are not the only one with something at stake here. If you want to start grandstanding to get attention, you can do it on your time. But right now?”
“Yeah?” I could imagine Chester puffing his chest out. “What if I decide to do my own thing right now? Billy wouldn’t ever know and when we pull the job off, he won’t be too upset about the particulars, now will he?”
I had an answer in mind, but Mila spoke before I could form the first syllable. “If you move before Devlin calls for it…if you put either of us at risk because you’ve got to prove a point…”
She left the threat hanging in the air, unfinished. The detached, coldly logical portion of my mind appreciated the artistry there. Nothing Mila could have said would have been as terrible as what Chester, young and brash as he was, could imagine.
I gave my companion an appreciative nod. Traditionally, I worked with people who trusted my ability to lead a group, but the luxury of selecting my team was apparently not something the Lady intended me to have. In lieu of that, the old standby of ‘good cop, bad cop’ worked when it came to wrangling individuals under control. I wasn’t a physical threat and I suspected that Chester was the sort of person who wouldn’t respect anyone who couldn’t beat him in an arm wrestling context, or some other clash of testosterone. Mila was a far better bad cop than I could ever hope to be.
On the heels of that thought, a question floated to the surface: if Chester was the type of person who only respected force, what the hell had Billy done to earn his loyalty?
“I’ll wait,” Chester said, over comms. “But not for much longer. If you’re such a bloody fantastic thief, I figure you’ll have all this under control before too long, won’t ya?”
“…yeah, let’s go with that.” I heard footsteps approaching, farther down the corridor in the direction of the security room, so I lowered my voice. “I can’t talk about this anymore. Wait for the signal.”
Sarah cut the line before Chester could reply. “You’ve got another minute or so before the patrol reaches you. If you cut across the aisle right now, you’ll see an empty room where you and Mila should be safe for another couple of minutes.”
Mila moved automatically, clinging to the long shadows like a natural, and I followed in her wake. We were safely within the empty room, the heavy steel door shut tight, before the footsteps and a bobbing flashlight came down the aisle, paused momentarily, and then continued on their way.
“How much farther until the control center?” I asked Sarah in a low voice.
“Not far. Five minutes, max.”
“And how many people are in the room?”
Pause. “I count five,” Sarah said, finally. “Three watching the monitors and two watching them.”
I didn’t have to ask Mila if she could handle five people, but that conflict would only serve to draw attention to the interior of the factory. If possible, we didn’t want to let Hill know that we’d actually infiltrated the building. The plan depended on him not changing anything about his operations, after all.
“You said this is closed circuit, right? Are there any taped backups?”
“Not if what I’m seeing is correct, no. Why?”
“Just splitting up duties in my head,” I said. “Connect me to Stani, please.”
The line beeped twice and I heard as either Iosif and Leonid muttered something in Russian. Stani replied in the same language and all three Russians grunted in unison.
I checked my phone for the third time. Time had once more become my greatest asset and my worst enemy. “Stani, are you three in position?”
“Da, we are ready. Are you ready to begin?”
“There are more guards than we expected, so we’re going to have to escalate the timetable,” I said.
“What do you mean by this?”
Mila checked the chamber of her semiautomatic handgun with a soft click. The earbud probably hadn’t picked that up, but I coughed anyway to provide a little extra audio coverage. “You know exactly what I mean,” I said to Stani. “I’m just making sure you’re ready for this.”
He heaved a heavy sigh and relayed my words to Iosif and Leonid, in their native language. “And you are sure that you know what you are doing?” Stani asked, when he was finished translating.
“Absolutely,” I lied. “Totally got this under control. Signal’s incoming, so get ready.”
“And Stani? Don’t kill anyone, if you can possibly avoid it.”
The stretch of silence that issued from Stani was longer and, somehow, thicker than I would have expected. “Da,” he said finally.
Sarah cut the line. “The response time to your location is only ten minutes,” she said. “Is that going to be enough time?’
“We can safely add another five, maybe even another ten. This isn’t the sort of area that the police are going to want to visit.”
“So, twenty minutes? That’s going to be long enough?”
“I guess it’ll have to be.” I rolled my shoulders again until they were loose enough and nodded once at Mila. “Sarah…hit the alarm.”