Chapter Seventy-Nine

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.

“What’s that?”

“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.”

“Meaning…?”

“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.”

Da.

“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.”

Advertisements

Chapter Seventy-Eight

Some of Billy’s men cleared away the plates and dishes, revealing the blueprints for what looked like a manufacturing plant stretched across the table.  “This,” he said, “is one of Hill’s many processing plants.”

“Processing?”  I leaned over the blueprint, ostensibly for a better look.  In reality, I wanted to give Sarah a chance to look over the information.  “You mean, production?”

“All that takes place overseas,” Billy said.

“Or in other countries,” Stani added.  One of his hands – the one with all of its fingers – was held protectively over the two missing digits on the opposite hand.  “There is a facility in Moscow that my superiors have used for many years.”

“I’m assuming you don’t know much about how this works?”  Billy asked me.

I shook my head.  “I’m aware of the trade, but I stay away from it.”

“Really?  Not even the occasional touch of the pollen?”

I didn’t recognize the slang, but I could figure out its meaning through context clues.  “If it’s stronger than whiskey, I pretty much avoid it.  I mean, to each their own, but it’s not my cup of tea.”

Billy nodded slowly.  “And you don’t have a problem with this?”

“You’re a grown man.  As long as you aren’t peddling to children or shooting up the streets in turf wars, what you sell to another grown man isn’t any of my business.”  I shrugged.  “Why?”

“Curiosity is all,” Billy said.  “You’re quite the strange man, aren’t you?”

“I pride myself on it.  Anyway, you were saying this is a processing plant?  Processing what?”

Billy turned his attention back to the blueprint.  “Couple years back, some South American blokes came up with a technique to turn cocaine into a kind of plastic.  Like what you’d see on a DVD case, yeah?  South America’s where most of the cocaine comes from, but your country’s been trying to crack down on that sort of thing, so the cartels out there have had to turn to outside sellers in order to keep making profits.  Getting cocaine across national borders can be a bit of a bear, unless you’re willing to get a little creative.”

“Cocaine,” I repeated.  I elected to focus on the topic at hand, instead of correcting Billy’s assumption about my nationality.  “Into plastic?  And that actually works?”

“It didn’t at the time,” Billy said.  “You could turn the stuff into plastic, but you couldn’t make it work perfectly the other way.  I wasn’t in the business then, but I’ve heard tales about the bad product that hit the streets before people figured out it wasn’t a good idea.”

“Alright,” I said, scratching again at my stubble in thought.  “So, really genius idea that didn’t work out quite so well.  Not the first time I’ve heard a story like that.”

Billy extended an index finger and touched it lightly to the side of his nose.  “Ah, but that was years ago.  Since then, a few interested parties working in governments that don’t care quite so much about what a man does in his spare time were able to come up with a technique that didn’t leave quite so many broken bits in the mix.”

Stani sucked in a sharp breath.  “You perfected that?  We have been trying for years to discover the trick.”

Billy coughed and looked away.  “Well, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t figure out anything.  Hill and I had been working on that problem, every now and again, while we were still partners.”

“And he figured out how to do it after he ousted you?”  I guessed.

“Seems like,” Billy said.  “Some of my fellas raided one of Hill’s facilities a few years back and found a half-finished product.  Took us a while to piece together what he’d done.”

“You were going to cut business ties with the Bratva?”  Stani’s words didn’t sound accusatory, although there was more suspicion in them now than there had been.

“Maybe,” Billy admitted.  “It hadn’t gotten to that point yet.  Guess we’ll never know, will we?”

I could feel the heat of Stani’s gaze without turning to actually see his eyes.  Instead of allowing the staring contest to continue until either the Russians or Billy’s men escalated into physical violence, I cleared my throat at a theatrical volume.  “Let’s stay focused here,” I said.  “Billy, go on with your explanation.”

“So.  This building right here is the closest plant Hill uses to turn the plastic back into product.  He operates it as a factory by day and turns it over to his thugs after hours.  If the law gets suspicious or someone starts feeling like making a name for themselves, the books are clean and there’s a full record of taxes, supplies, and the like.”

“Money laundering,” I said.  “But for cocaine.  That is a good plan.”

“Next time I see Hill,” Billy said, “I’ll be sure to pass on the compliment.”

“And you want to rob this place?”

“Even better,” Billy said, with a grin.  “I want to rob the place and embarrass him a bit.”

His amusement was infectious; I felt a fierce smile on my own lips as well.  “And how exactly did you want to go about doing that?”

Instead of answering, Billy wheeled himself away from the table and over to a workbench set against a nearby wall.  He waved off any attempt by his men to help him, choosing to move by the strength of his own arms.  It was dark in the Halfway House, but I could see bruises on his knuckles and, when he returned to the table, callouses on his fingertips.  “This,” Billy said, “is what I want to do.”

He dropped a small square of hard plastic to the table’s surface.  I picked it up and examined it for anything noteworthy.  “I don’t get it.”

“Give it a second,” Billy said.  “You seem bright enough to figure it out on your own.”

I gave him a light scowl before focusing my attention fully on the plastic in my hands.  It took me almost thirty seconds before the lightbulb went off.  “Sabotage,” I said.  “You want to give him bad product so that he loses face with his customers?”

“Close,” Billy said.  “Not quite, but bloody close.  If I just gave him terrible material, his customers – my former customers – likely wouldn’t survive the first dose or two.  I’m not trying to have their deaths on my conscience, if I can help it.”

“So, you want to…?”

“Those plastics that Hill’s importing get turned back into product through a long chemical process that I don’t even fully understand.  I do know that it involves heat, though.  And what happens when you burn regular plastic?”

“Gas,” I answered, immediately.  “Carbon monoxide, mostly.”

“Not just that, either.  A whole lot of mess gets into the air, and that’d slow down his men appreciably, I’d wager.”

“Not to mention,” Mila said from my left, “melted plastic’s a bitch to get out of anything delicate.  Especially if anyone’s dumb enough to touch it with their bare hands.”

“That’s the beauty of this,” Billy said.  “See, this plastic you see right here is specially made.  It’ll hold its shape until a certain temperature and then it goes off.  Gas, smoke, the whole nine yards.  A whole hell of a lot more than you’d think, considering its size.  That’s going to necessitate a complete evacuation of the building, unless Hill wants to risk losing his men to lung disease.”

“Something tells me that he really wouldn’t care either way,” I said.

“Probably wouldn’t,” Billy agreed, “but in the moment, panicking?  I’d bet the men at the factory take it under their own initiative.”

“Sure, until Hill orders them to go back in.”

“And how’s he going to do that?”  Billy’s smile was positively radiant.  “This is a legitimate business, remember?  That sort of chemical mistake mandates a shutdown. Nothing Hill can do about that, since he’s tied himself up by making the business official.”

I stood up from the table.  Instantly, Billy’s men reached into their shabby coats for weapons and Mila did the same.  I held up my hands to calm everyone at the table.  “Whoa there.  I’m just stretching my legs.  We’ve been sitting down for a while now and I want to think about the best way to do this.”

“Let him walk if he wants to walk,” Billy said.  “Don’t take too long thinking, though; if my sources are correct, Hill’s going to be done with this shipment tonight.  No way of knowing when he’ll be at it again.”

“I get it, I get it.  Mila, come with me?”

Mila stood, utterly ignoring the hostile looks from Billy’s men, and joined me.  The two of us walked a distance away from the table, far enough that they couldn’t hear what we said, and leaned towards each other as if in deep conversation.

“Sarah,” I whispered.  “What do you think?”

She didn’t reply immediately.  I heard the familiar pop and fizz of a soda.  “About the plan?”

“About all of it,” I said.  “Do you think what Billy’s saying is actually possible?”

There were a few seconds of silence while she considered her answer.  “I did some light Googling while he was talking,” she said, finally.  “There are a few articles from 2006 that talk about the possibility that some of the South American cartels were experimenting with new methods of smuggling.  I can’t find anything more recent, but it’s possible that someone actually figured out the technique.  But…”

“But you don’t think it was Hill,” I finished for her.

“No, I don’t.  If I had to guess, the amount of money it would take to research that sort of thing, let alone to put it into mass production would be staggering.  It’s not the kind of thing someone would even bother with, since there are so many other less expensive and experimental methods of smuggling something into the country.”

“So, the Magi.”

It wasn’t a question, but Sarah answered it anyway.  “With what we know, and what we’re guessing?  Yeah, I’d say this is their work.”

“So it is possible,” I said.  “That’s something, at least.  And the plan?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to call his idea a plan,” Sarah said.  “More like a poorly thought out excuse to get some personal revenge.”

She probably hadn’t meant for that denunciation to apply to anyone except Billy, but her words still struck a note with me.  I comforted myself with the reminder that, even if I had left Asher alone after the jailbreak, he wouldn’t have stopped with his one-sided war.  There was every possibility that he would have been able to pull off whatever he had in mind unopposed, after all.

And, of course, it wasn’t as though the Lady would’ve allowed me the opportunity to sink into relative obscurity.

“You know what I mean,” I said.

A few more seconds of dead air.  “It could be done,” Sarah said.  “I’m not a chemist, and I’m certainly not an expert in European OSHA regulations, but the theory’s sound.”

“How would we go about it?”

“Without knowing anything about the security Hill will have in place?”  Sarah sighed.  “I’ve got the blueprints – thanks for that, by the way – and an address.  I’ll see what I can do about getting into their network and I’ll draw up a quick outline of ideas while you’re going over the details with Billy.  It’s not going to be pretty.”

Mila looked over my shoulder, at the table where Billy and the others sat, engaged in a conversation.  The Russians spoke their own language, while Billy used English.  There were moments where Billy clearly had to think about what he’d heard and translate it in his head, but his grasp of the language was still a hell of a lot better than mine.

“Something tells me that it’s never pretty with the two of you,” Mila said, without moving her lips.

“Sometimes it’s downright gorgeous,” Sarah said, in response.  “Just…not so much lately.”

“It wasn’t a complaint,” Mila said.  “This is the most fun I’ve had on a job in years.”

Sarah snickered before she could help herself.  “Devlin,” she said, “go and find out what details Billy has in mind.  I should have something for you before too long.”

“You’re an angel, Sarah, and I don’t care what anybody says.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” she said, but I heard the smile in her voice.  The line beeped twice and she was gone.

Mila and I walked back over to the table, just as Billy said, “Money?  Hussars don’t take money!”

Stani roared with laughter and slammed his diminished fist against the table in delight.  Iosif remained his usual impassive self, but a touch of amusement played around the corner of Leonid’s mouth.  I took my seat and raised an eyebrow.  “What’d we miss?”

“It wouldn’t translate,” Billy said, smiling at his own joke.

“Ah…okay, I guess,” I said.

“So.  What’d you decide?”

“That depends on what these three want.”  I gestured at the Russians.  “They have their own superiors to answer to and I can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do.”

Stani gave me a look, tinged with…appreciation?  Gratitude?  I hadn’t spent anywhere near enough time with the man to read him.  “I have a certain amount of freedom to act, while I am here,” he said, directing the sentence to Billy.  “If I can recover the secret to this process, that would go a long way to easing tensions between my superiors and your own organization.”

“Organization’s a bit more than I’d call this, but alright,” Billy said.  “And you, Devlin?”

“I’m not the right person to call anybody out for wanting revenge,” I answered, picking each word with great care.  “But you can’t be sure if you’re going after this with a clear head.”

“That’s…probably a fair judgement.  What do you suggest, then?”

“We go in alone,” I said, immediately.  “I call the shots and we follow my play.”

I didn’t feel the need to add that my play would actually be Sarah’s play.  No point in confusing the issue without the possibility for additional profit.

“You aren’t going in by yourself,” Billy countered.  “But I’ll give you two of my men who’ll follow orders.  How’s that for a compromise?”

The comms beeped twice in my ear before I answered.  “I can work with that,” Sarah said.  “In fact, the plan I’m thinking of might work better with more bodies.”

I scratched behind my ear and subtly tapped the earbud twice to signal that I’d heard her.  “That’s fine,” I said, out loud.

Billy extended a hand and pointed with two fingers at the men by the door.  “James, Chester!  Come over here for a second!”

The men – James and Chester, presumably – looked at each other in confusion for a moment before they did as requested.  When they were close enough, I gave them both a quick once over.  There hadn’t been any reason to separate them by physical appearance earlier, when they’d served as door guards, but I’d need to tell them apart in the field.

One of the men was barely in his twenties, if that.  He was clean-shaven with light-brown, earnest eyes and a slight limp on his left side.  He forced himself to scowl as he approached the table, but the expression lacked commitment.  This was a man playing a role; there was no sense of danger or threat around him.

The other man was the first’s exact opposite: maybe in his late forties or early fifties, with a face like stalagmites.  A diagonal scar marked his face, just above his cheekbones on the right, and traveled down almost to his upper lip.  He did not scowl at me, but he did give me a piercing examination even as I looked him up and down.

“James,” Billy said.  “I want the two of you to go with these gents – and the lady, of course – on tonight’s raid.”

The older man nodded and I mentally tagged him with the appropriate name.

Chester, on the other hand, immediately opened his mouth in protest.  “Boss, we don’t need this lot to watch our backs.  We’ve done plenty of runs without ‘em, ain’t it?”

“And I’m not saying you haven’t,“ Billy replied, “nor am I saying that you can’t handle yourselves without supervision.  This ain’t about that.  You know as well as I do that these operations are getting harder and harder to hit without taking a risk.  Ain’t that right?”

Billy’s accent had thickened and changed slightly: more Cockney than Birmingham, now.  I wondered idly what his real accent was and the thought immediately triggered a memory of the Lady and her shifting syllables.

Chester nodded, reluctantly.

“Well, I’m not about to send you or anyone else off without any protection, if I can help it,” Billy continued.  “Now you’ll go with this lot and you’ll follow what they say like it came straight from me.  Understand?”

Chester couldn’t have made his displeasure any clearer, but he was apparently a good soldier.  He nodded his assent, radiating unhappiness in waves, and shut his mouth.

“Alright, then,” Billy said.  He clapped his hands together.  “Not that we’ve got that sorted.  What’ve you got in mind, then?”

I rolled my shoulders and tilted my head from one side to the other until the joints popped and relaxed.  The blueprint of the processing plant took up the entire table but, from this angle, Sarah would be able to see most of it.  Even if she couldn’t, I suspected that she’d taken a screenshot from before and could analyze that.

“This is how it’s going to go down,” I said, and Sarah provided the words just before I spoke them out loud.  She was right: it wasn’t the neatest plan she’d come up with.  I could only hope that it was neat enough.

Chapter Seventy-Seven

Two of Billy’s people brought over a small platter of food and some glasses of water from the cafeteria region of the building – which I had begun to think of as the Halfway House – and set them up on the table in front of us.  He waited patiently until they withdrew, nibbled around the edges of some burnt toast, and took a sip of water before he spoke.  “What do you want to know?”

“It’s that simple?”  I considered the food on the table before breaking off a small piece of toast for myself.  “You’ll just tell me whatever I want to know?  Just like that?”

Billy extended an index finger and ticked it back and forth like a metronome.  “Now, I didn’t say any of that, did I?  I’m only asking what you want to know.  Never said nothing about actually telling you.”

I’d spent a long time in the underworlds of one city or another, but this black market and the Halfway House were new territories.  Judging from the deferential treatment that Billy received, he was in some sort of leadership position here.  I didn’t see anyone else giving orders or even hinting at commands, so it was very possible that he was the authority in the area.

My nose wrinkled of its own accord as I chewed over that thought.  Billy hadn’t actually given any orders since my team had entered the Halfway House.  Sure, he’d gestured and implied his desires, but he hadn’t needed to explicitly command anyone to do anything.  It wasn’t fear, then, that motivated his followers and the black market that swelled just outside of the Halfway House made it clear that they didn’t wait on him out due to any particular sense of greed.

In fact, at the farthest edges of my peripheral vision, I could see that some of the individuals at the cafeteria tables were sharing with others.  No one pushed or jostled for a better place in line; there were no fights or arguments that I could see; and, most surprising of all, some of the homeless or indigent men and women were smiling.

Whatever the story was, it promised to be an interesting one.  “Alright,” I said to Billy.  “Tell me what you want, and we’ll see if we can work something out.”

“I want the same thing you do,” Billy said.

“And that is?”

“Answers.”  Billy dipped his toast into a small lake of baked beans and took a bite.  “Way I see it, you four are out of your element and you’d need one hell of a fantastic reason to come all the way out to my corner of creation this late at night.  So you answer my questions, and I’ll answer yours.”

“Within reason,” I said immediately.  Just as I’d been unwilling to volunteer the names of my companions, I had no intention of agreeing to a blanket honesty pact.  Some things I intended to keep secret for my own protection; other things simply weren’t my stories to tell.

“Within reason,” Billy agreed, grinning slightly as he spoke.  “Of course.  Now, seeing as I’m the host, seems only right that I should let you have the first go at this.  Ask your question.”

I thought for almost a full minute about which question to lead with.  Each answer I received would allow me to better focus the questions that followed, so this first question was perhaps the most important one.

The rest of my party seemed content to let me take the lead.  Mila seemed content to relax in her chair, sipping occasionally from her water, and somehow watching everyone in the room and no one in particular at the same time.  Stani looked nervously at his surroundings; Iosif and Leonid seemed equally uncomfortable, but they masked that discomfort by shooting stern looks in every direction at regular intervals.

As I was rapidly coming to realize, this interaction was entirely on my shoulders.

“Whatever you ask,” Sarah said in my ear, “I can help you with any follow-ups.”

Her voice came as a shock, and I kept myself from actually jerking through force of will.  She’d been silent for so long that I had, for a single moment, forgotten that Sarah was involved in this meeting, inasmuch as any of the Russians or Mila was.  That thought comforted me and, with my nerves put slightly at ease, I was able to come up with a first question.

“What’s your relationship to Hill?”

Billy finished off a piece of toast and then reached for another.  None of my group followed suit, although I did notice Iosif giving the bacon a soulful, longing look.  “That’s complicated,” Billy said, after several very long seconds.

“I’ve got time.”

“Figured you might,” Billy said, smiling ruefully.  “Let’s call him a…former business partner, then.”

I gave Billy my best ‘patient, but still waiting’ expression.

He sighed, drained half of his remaining water, and then started to talk again.  “Hill and I started out as low level dealers, pushing product to the good men and women of our fair city,” he said.  “Time went by and we eventually got enough backing to make a move on the throne.”

“The throne?”  I lifted an eyebrow.  “Who was in charge before you and Hill?”

“You only get one question,” Billy said, in a close approximation of a schoolteacher’s voice.  “And don’t interrupt.  Anyway, we made our move and managed to get the local dealers and pushers under our control before too long.  Hill wanted to stay out of the spotlight, so I stepped up to be the personality, while he handled the, uh, back of house business.”

Stani cleared his throat.  Billy and I both turned to look at the Russian, who had thus far managed to remain completely silent.  I hadn’t heard his voice since before we’d entered the Halfway House.  “That was when you were working with my superiors?”

“You mean, when I was making business deals with the Bratva?”  Billy shrugged.  “I don’t remember the exact year.  If my recollections are accurate, then the previous kingpin was in talks to do something similar.  More product smuggled into the country equals more product that can be sold equals more money.  Our operation here didn’t have the scope to start streamlining production yet, you see?”

I nodded, and motioned for him to continue.  Through the earbud, I listened to Sarah as her fingers drummed an allegro beat into the keyboard.  I wasn’t sure what information she hoped to uncover, but I trusted to her ability to ferret out something, eventually.

“Anyway,” Billy said.  “Like I said, Hill never had the proper disposition for making deals, so we agreed that I’d be the face of our little conglomerate.  I handled all the negotiations with foreign powers, while he took care of the industrial side of things back home.  Situation worked out lovely that way, for a good time.”  His expression darkened, as his thoughts traveled back through his memories.

“But then he got greedy,” I supplied, after a few moments.

“That’s a bit of an understatement, considering,” Billy said, gesturing weakly at his legs.  “Long story short, he made a play for power and I didn’t see it coming.  I ended up on the business end of a baseball bat before everything was finished with, and Hill got the power he was after.”

“Why didn’t he kill you?”  I asked.

“You did hear me when I said you only get one question?”  Billy countered.

I settled back into my chair and drank some water.  “What’s your question, then?”

“I know what I’ve got against the bastard,” Billy said, “but you’re something new.  He doesn’t even let that fake name get out of his organization, if he can help it.  But three Russians coming into my establishment along with the two of you?  What’ve you got against him?  Did he screw you over, too?”

I took a few seconds to choose exactly the right words.  I liked Billy, but I didn’t trust him.  There was every possibility that he might betray my motivations to Hill, or to Asher, or – heaven forbid – to the Magi themselves.  Attempting to dethrone the local drug lord had already proven itself to be an undertaking of unimaginable difficulty; if the Magi decided to involve themselves or their considerable financial base directly, “difficult” would quickly become “impossible.”

“We don’t have a specific problem with Hill,” I said, carefully.  “But he’s got someone on the payroll that we do have issues with.  So long as Hill’s providing cover for this person…”

Mila cleared her throat, drawing all of our eyes to where she sat.  She had somehow managed to locate a large chocolate bar and was nibbling around one corner absently.  “I don’t have a problem with him,” she said, between bites.  “Well…I don’t like him, but the problem is yours, not mine.”

“Thanks for that,” I said to her.  “Good to know that you’re in my corner.”

“I am who I am,” Mila said, without the faintest trace of shame.

Billy’s eyes narrowed minutely as he examined Mila and me with a slowly dawning shrewdness.  I realized, with more than a small amount of chagrin, that I’d been taken in by Billy’s accent.  He spoke like someone from the working class and the general décor of the Halfway House served to reinforce that delusion.  The reality, however, was that the circumstances of his birth had absolutely nothing to do with his intelligence.  If his story was to be believed, this was a man who had forged a stable organization within the chaotic underworld and maintained his power until he’d been betrayed.

“Ah,” Billy said.  “Got it.”

I didn’t know exactly what it was that he suddenly ‘got,’ but I suspected that it was information I wouldn’t have wanted him to have.  “My turn.  Why didn’t Hill kill you?”

“Because he’s an utter bastard, is why,” Billy said.  “After the, uh, incident with the baseball bat, Hill made sure to get me the proper medical care.  Obviously, there wasn’t nothing they could do about my legs, but he didn’t spare any expense.”

“Sentimentality?”  Mila asked.  She didn’t quite scoff, but I could hear it in the tone of her voice.

“Dominance,” Billy corrected.

I could draw connections between those dots without Billy explicitly outlining what must have happened.  “He keeps you alive as an example,” I said.  “Someone he trots out whenever one of his employees starts getting the idea that maybe he could run the business better.”

“Not quite,” Billy said.  “But close enough.  He goes out of his way to keep his men in the dark, and he hires stupid, so he probably isn’t concerned with that aspect of it.  Personally, I think he did it just because he wanted to see me suffer.”

Hill was connected, ambitious, and vindictive, apparently.  Those were three traits that I suspected Billy might be downplaying.  It wasn’t encouraging, but any information was useful information.

As if on cue, Sarah spoke into my ear.  “I’m looking into records for assaults in the area, but the data pool is too large.  If I know who Billy is, maybe I can find out who Hill is, too.  I’ll let you know when I’ve got something to go on.”

I scratched at the stubble on my chin and tapped my index finger against the earbud in acknowledgement, at an angle that should have concealed the action from Billy.

“My turn again, isn’t it?”  Billy asked.  He continued, without waiting for a reply.  “This person you’re after; what’d he do to you?”

“Each of us has our own problems with the man,” I said.  “That’s a lot of questions you’re asking.”

“I didn’t ask about what he did to these four, did I?”  David wheeled himself slightly backwards so that he could settle both elbows on the table and use the cup of his palms to support his chin.  “What’d he do to you?”

“We used to work together.  Had a job trying to, uh, acquire some artwork.  He…betrayed me,” I said.  Frost practically wafted into the air with each word, and my blood ran a little colder.  “Set me up and then hit me with a Taser when I wasn’t paying attention.”

“I assume that this acquisition wasn’t the legal sort?”

“I spent almost three years in prison because of that bastard,” I said.  “Tried, charged, and convicted of robbery, and spent all that time in La Santé.”

Billy winced.  “I’ve heard stories.  It’s as bad as they say?”

“I don’t know what they say, but it was pretty damn bad if you ask me.”

“Ah,” Billy said.  “Liberating, isn’t it?”

“What is?”

Billy smiled, and there was a hint of genuine warmth in the expression.  Not a lot of warmth, but enough.  “Knowing what it is that you’re after,” he said.  “Most of us just go through life bouncing from one day to the next, lying as we tell ourselves that we know what we’re doing in life.  But when you’ve got something like you and I have?”

He laughed and, suddenly, I began to understand how Billy had been able to forge a coalition between the drug dealers in London’s underworld.  He wasn’t just pretending to be affable; this was a man who might actually be a nice guy.

The fact that he was nice, however, didn’t mean that he wouldn’t order his men to start shooting if I crossed a line in my questioning.  He might just feel bad, afterwards.

“It doesn’t feel like something to be happy about.  I’d just as soon take care of my business in town and leave,” I said, mindful once more of the Magi’s many listening ears.  “The longer I’m here, the more time Hill has to mobilize some sort of counter to our plans.”

“Plans you haven’t quite figured out yet, I take it?”

I shrugged and smiled back at Billy.  “Not your turn.”

Billy leaned back in his wheelchair and twirled two fingers lazily in the air, the universally understood sign for ‘go on, then.’

My mind was trying to form connections between the information I had and the information I needed.  There were too many gaps to do much more than make wild guesses, unfortunately, and the stakes were too high for sheer guesswork.  A wrong move could result in jail time for any of my team, at best; at worst, Hill and Asher and any other agents of the Magi might decide to implement a more lethal form of punishment.  What I needed, even more than answers, was some sort of angle I could play.

Sarah provided the next question.  “Billy’s got this area pretty much under his control,” she said in my ear.  “Why? How?”

“Billy,” I said, scratching at my stubble as though the idea had come to me on its own, “how’d you get this whole area to follow your orders?”

“That’s pouring it on a bit thick,” Billy said.  “I don’t give orders around here, see.”

His point was difficult to believe at that exact moment.  A small child, who couldn’t have been much older than Avis, hurried over to the table and replaced Billy’s empty glass of water with a full one.  He tousled her hair with one hand, eliciting a brief giggle, before she retreated again.  I raised an inquisitive eyebrow at her back and then turned the expression back to Billy.

“It’s a bit complicated,” Billy said, after a couple of seconds.  “See, these lovely people don’t have access to the sort of basic necessities that other people just take for granted.  After Hill and I had our falling-out, I used a few of my connections to find a little place to call my own.  And, so long as I’m here, I figure I might as well help out as much as I can.”

“How exactly do you help out?”

Billy shrugged.  “Food, for the most part.  A couple of warm beds, and a roof for when it’s raining.”

“When isn’t it raining?”  Mila asked.

Billy laughed.  “Fair point, that.”

“How can you afford all of this?”  I cut in, before Mila could distract Billy from his answer.  He was providing more than I’d asked for.  I wasn’t sure if that was deliberate or if he was simply warming to the topic, but I wanted to ride that swell as long as possible.

“Connections, of course,” Billy said.  “Just because I’m not in business with Hill anymore doesn’t mean I suddenly lost all of the professional relationships what got me this far in the first place.”

“You’re still dealing?”

Facilitating,” Billy said, carefully applying stress to the word.  “I figure that people are always going to want drugs; if I can make the process a little more streamlined and a little less dangerous, what’s the harm?”

“And Hill just lets you run a black market under his nose?”

“He doesn’t let me do anything,” Billy said, “so much as he doesn’t care enough to get directly involved.”

“How do you get your product?”

Billy started to answer and then stopped, as if suddenly realizing how much intelligence he was giving away for free.  “Got me on gabbing on for a bit,” he said slowly.  “Haven’t really been able to talk about this with anyone for a while.  This lot doesn’t care how the product gets here, just that it’s here.  But you owe me a couple of questions…tell you what, though.  How about I narrow it down to just one, and we call it even?”

My ears perked up.  “One question for the four I just asked you?”

“It’s kind of an important question,” Billy said.

“Go for it.”  I kept my voice level but, internally, I sensed that Billy might be close to tipping his hand.  The angle I’d been looking for might not be so hard to uncover, after all.

“My supply line’s been stretched a bit thin as of late,” Billy said.  “Hill’s been muscling into the smuggling trade, putting his people in charge of shipments instead of relying on the Russians like we’d been doing before he ousted me.”

Stani grunted.  It was the first sound I’d heard from him in a while.  “There is one mystery solved,” he said in an undertone.  At first, I thought he hadn’t meant for anyone to hear him, but I realized after a moment that he’d spoken in English.  He looked up from the table and made eye contact with Billy.

“Vertical consolidation.”  Billy nodded to himself.  “Cut back on the amount of money going out to other parties, and use that to corner the market.  Basic economic principles at work.”  He gave me a small, rueful smile.

“Makes sense,” I admitted.  Hill wasn’t the first person who had tried to use legitimate business practices in conjunction with underworld ruthlessness.  He was, I had to admit, much more successful than most.

“I still don’t know exactly where he’s getting the capital from,” Billy continued, “but that’s neither here nor there.  As you can see, my mobility has been a bit hampered since my last encounter with Hill and, while I don’t think this lot’s the sort to betray me, they don’t really have the skills I need to get my little business back on its feet.”

“And what skills are those?”

“I’m thinking that your skills might be what I’m looking for, actually.  A thief might be just the sort of person we’ve been waiting for.”

I leaned forward, placing my elbows on the table.  “You’ve got my attention.  What’s your question?”

“Hill’s got an operation running, not far from here.  His shipments get processed and trucked off to other distribution centers, so that he can keep the city in his chokehold.  I was thinking that maybe some of that product might be better served in the hands of a legitimate man of the people, such as myself.  And I was wondering if maybe you’d be up for a bit of light thievery tonight, before Hill’s men have a chance to get that product out onto the street.”  He gestured at the map stretched across the table.  “He’s already on the back foot after something happened to one of his other warehouses, and I’m thinking the loss of product here might be worse for his credibility than anything else.”

“Devlin,” Sarah said in my ear.  “We do need to get some of Hill’s drugs, if we’re going to implicate him to Adlai and the rest of Interpol.  This isn’t the way I’d want to do it, but we’d have to find another way to run down a pure stash otherwise.”

With Billy and the Russians seated around me, I couldn’t exactly answer her.  I couldn’t even ask for advice.  Instead, I met Mila’s eyes for a moment, before turning to Billy.  “I’ve got questions of my own,” she said.  “If he decides to help with your situation…”

Billy raised one hand into the air and placed another over his heart.  “Swear on me mother’s eyes,” he said, thickening the accent for effect, “I’ll answer whatever questions you’ve got.  I suspect there were other reasons for your late night slumming expedition, after all.”

Mila didn’t look away from Billy but I saw one shoulder climb minutely in the barest possible shrug.  “Let me answer your question,” I said to Billy, “with another question.”

“Alright then.  What is it?”

I allowed a slow, fox-like smile to creep across my lips.  There were so many metaphorical birds in the air and here I was, presented with a single stone that could very well bring them all tumbling down.  “When do we get started?”

Chapter Seventy-Six

“I’d like to see them try,” Mila said.  Her voice was mild, almost disinterested, but I recognized it for the warning sign that it really was.

I put my hands up, palms facing the man in the wheelchair.  “Whoa there.  How about we slow down on the threats for a second here?  Is this the welcome you put out for everyone, or are we just special?”

“With the clothes you’re wearing and the way you talk?”  He settled his forearms on the armrests of his wheelchair as he examined us.  “Don’t look hungry or desperate enough to be in this part of town.  Stands to reason, then, that you’re here looking for something.  Might be that you found it, mate.”

I didn’t know enough about the man and this makeshift cafeteria/mall.  From the street outside, I’d expected difficulties but not outright hostility.  My mind scrambled to make connections, to draw some conclusion from the miniscule amount of information available to me, and I realized exactly how it must feel to be on the receiving end of a sudden verbal attack.

Stani and his goons were visible to my left, barely in my peripheral vision.  They didn’t seem threatened by the men holding them but, at the same time, they weren’t taking any action.  Presumably, they realized that any violence now would ruin our chances of getting answers.  Since Iosif’s and Leonid’s skillsets were both limited to conflict, and Stani’s talents skewed more towards intimidation than conversation, that left this part of the interaction up to me.

I could only hope that Mila had drawn the same conclusion.

“I’m not a man without principle, though,” the man in the wheelchair said, before I could formulate an angle of attack.  “Used to be that men judged me on sight, thinking themselves twice the man I was.  I wouldn’t want to do that to no one that didn’t deserve it, you understand?”

I gave the man a flat look.

After a moment, he snickered.  “Twice the man, eh?  You get it?  ‘cause of this whole situation?”  He gestured at his legs, concealed beneath a gray, threadbare blanket.  “Come on, you got to admit that was a good one, yeah?”

He chuckled to himself for a good fifteen seconds before I cleared my throat and spoke.  “I don’t know if I’m supposed to laugh or…?”

“Laughing at life’s about the only way to keep sane, innit?”  He lifted one hand from the armrests and waved it dismissively at the men holding us.  They let go immediately and stepped back into their hidden positions beside the door.

“I’m guessing that was the right answer?”  I asked, massaging the spot on my upper arm where the steel grip had been.

“Wasn’t looking for a particular answer,” the man said.  “Wanted to see what you’d do.  ‘course I noticed those pieces your friends got hidden under their coats.  Couldn’t miss the ones they got in their hands.  If they wanted to make a thing out of it, would’ve gotten right messy, but you kept the lady and the gentlemen from getting into any mischief right at the start.”

“I didn’t exactly keep her from anything,” I said quickly.  There wasn’t any point in flicking Mila’s metaphorical nose, if possible.  “She just decided to let me handle the talking.”

“Same deal with these three?”  The man tilted his head and gave Stani’s group a quick onceover.  “Don’t look like the type to hold back without a damn good reason.  They’re Russian, if I’m not mistaken?”

Iosif was closest to the man in the wheelchair.  Instead of answering, he turned his head to Stani.  The short Russian took the signal as a request for assistance and answered immediately, taking two steps forward so that he was nearly next to me.  “Da, I am Russian.  What is it to you?”

“Years back, I used to work with some Russians,” the man in the wheelchair said.  “Tough blokes to get along with, but bloody fantastic when it came to smuggling.  Now, you wouldn’t happen to know any of them, would ya?”

“If you aren’t just blowing smoke,” I said, “we actually might have found what we were looking for.  My…uh…friends and I heard from a little bird that we might be able to find someone who knows a little something about the trade in these parts.  That wouldn’t happen to be you, would it?”

“If there’s someone else,” the man said, “I haven’t met him.  What’s your interest?”  His eyes narrowed slightly as he asked the question and, for the first time, I felt a shrewd wariness practically coming off of the man in tightly controlled waves.

I elected to use the truth, rather than a lie that might fall apart and cost me what little goodwill I’d somehow managed to earn.  “We’ve each got our own issues with someone in the area, but we can’t do anything about him while he’s being protected.”

“Protected?  By who?”

“I don’t know his real name,” I said, “but we’re calling him Hill for right now.  Does that ring a bell?”

The wariness sharpened into anger, as sudden as a storm cloud.  It passed an instant later, quick enough that I almost wasn’t sure I’d seen it in the first place.  “There’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time,” he muttered, more to himself than to me.

“So you know him?”

“Oh, I know him alright.  Bastard’s the reason…”  He trailed off, then shook his head violently, as if he could physically shake the thoughts away.  “Nevermind.  Boys, stand down.  Me and the fellas – and the lady, of course – are going to talk for a bit.”

The men behind us didn’t move back to their waiting positons by the entrance.  I opened my mouth to point that out when I saw movement against the far wall, by the cafeteria section.  One of the shabbier looking men, clad only in the remants of what must once have been a coat and jeans, shuffled back toward the food.  His shuffling escape wasn’t quick enough to keep me from noticing the glint of metal in his waistband.

A visual sweep from one side of the room to the other revealed several more seemingly homeless, destitute men and women concealing weapons.  Some had handguns, while others held what looked like hunting rifles and knives.  We were outnumbered in here by a factor of three or four, easily, and the man in the wheelchair had successfully kept me from noticing how bad our position actually was.  And he’d done it by making a joke.

He noticed my eyes widening and allowed himself a miniscule smile.  It was a mere shadow of what I’d seen before, when he’d been laughing entirely to himself, but it still appeared genuine.  “Like I said.  Could’ve gotten messy.  Now, pick up the pace; I’ve got strategy to discuss tonight.”

“We can wait,” I said, trying to be courteous.  Of course I couldn’t actually afford to wait, but an hour in either direction probably wouldn’t hurt things too much.

“The strategizing can wait.”  He spun the wheelchair around to face in the opposite direction and started wheeling away.

I chanced a look at Mila and at Stani’s crew.  Four sets of blank, confused eyes met my own.  I started to follow the wheelchair and the man it carried deeper into the…whatever the building actually was.  My first guess – that it would be a crack house of some sort, or perhaps a whorehouse – was clearly wrong.  I could have described it as a base of operations, but even that seemed lacking.  The closest word that came to mind was…some sort of halfway house?

But that didn’t make any sense.  I shelved the thought, for later consideration when there was more information available, and followed after the man in the wheelchair.

Two beeps, and then Sarah was speaking softly into my ear.  Mila’s head tilted slightly and I assumed that she was in on the communications, as well.  “Are you thinking that this guy’s on the level?”

Stani, Iosif, and Leonid were trailing behind us to watch the homeless individuals lurking in darkened corners.  I didn’t think we had anything to worry about, but their distance allowed me to answer Sarah’s question without having to whisper.  “I think he knows more about what’s going on in this city than we do,” I said.  “Maybe he’s just playing it up for effect, but it’s still a lead.”

“Why would Stani want you to come here for this?”  Sarah mused, as much to herself as to me.  “If the Russians already have a connection with the previous powers, bringing on a new player wouldn’t serve any purpose.”

“Assuming that it was me he wanted to bring along,” I said.

“Hmm?”

“Don’t forget: Stani thinks that I have the Lady’s backing.  Maybe he’s trying to orchestrate a power play and he needed someone with a little more oomph.”

“A little more than the Russian mob?”

Mila shook her head, and then visibly realized that Sarah couldn’t see the gesture.  I allowed myself a smile at that action, remembering how many jobs it had taken me to adapt.  “If Hill’s as entrenched as you two think,” she said, “the Bratva can’t make an open move against him.”

“Why’s that?”  I asked.

“I forget that neither of you really deal with the underworld any more than you have to.”  Mila sighed.  “You were at the Green Light gala.  Any type of overt move is going to bring a corresponding level of force.  Maybe the Bratva win, maybe they lose.  Either way, business is going to come to a crawl while that’s going on, and nobody wants that to happen.”

“Makes sense,” Sarah said.  “In the legitimate world, corporations try to keep the power plays under wraps because it shows weakness to any potential predators.”

“You make it sound like the Wild West,” I said.

“Not the Wild West,” Sarah replied.  “More like the jungle.  Kill or be kill, eat or be eaten.”

“Glad to see one of you understands,” Mila said in a sarcastic whisper.

“You realize,” I said, “that the microphone picks up and amplifies everything you say?”

“Oh?  I hadn’t realized.”

The man in the wheelchair reached the table and gestured lazily at the people congregated around it.  They dispersed reluctantly, shooting suspicious looks in our direction as they withdrew to one of the long cafeteria-style tables set against the wall.  They were far enough away that they wouldn’t be able to overhear any conversation, but no so far that they couldn’t take action if the Russians or Mila decided to make an aggressive move.

Mila, specifically, wasn’t a concern.  Assuming that she kept to her word – despite the matter of withholding information earlier, she’d done nothing to imply that she would outright lie – she would only fight if either she or I was threatened.  The man in the wheelchair had very carefully avoided making any intimations toward violence.  The Russians, however, were a different matter.  Their endgame was ostensibly capturing Asher, but I doubted strongly that the powers in charge of the Bratva would be so involved in the pursuit of a traitor, without other possible angles to play.  There were more pieces in play and it would be foolish to believe that I could see the whole field, yet.  Stani’s goals were almost certainly different than my own; it was even possible that they were directly antithetical.

“Go on, then,” the man in the wheelchair said, “have a sit.”  He waved a hand expansively at the now abandoned chairs.  “Way I see it, you’ll be wanting some answers, eh?”

I took a seat opposite the man in the wheelchair and, very deliberately, placed both of my hands on the table in plain view.  Until I knew more, I intended to do everything possible to minimize the possibility of seeming like a threat.  “That’s about the gist of it,” I said.

Mila took a seat to my left and the Russians filled in at other spots along the table’s perimeter.  “So,” the man in the wheelchair said, “you’re in charge of this ragtag bunch?”

“I wouldn’t say that.  How about we just stick with ‘spokesman’ for the moment?”

“Fair enough,” the man in the wheelchair said.  “Wouldn’t want to accidentally offend the lady, now would we?”

“The lady,” Mila interjected, “is perfectly comfortable with whatever terminology he chooses.  You, however, should probably just stick with using my name.”

I shot her a look and Mila didn’t even have the decency to shrug her indifference back at me.

The man in the wheelchair barked out a laugh, however, and raised his hands in surrender.  “I didn’t mean nothing by it, trust me!  And I would use your name, just as soon as you’d tell me what it is.”  He left the thought open.

“You show me yours,” I said, after a moment.  “Maybe I’ll show you mine.”

He laughed again.  “Careful and diplomatic?  I think I could get to like you.”

I waited.

The man in the wheelchair let out a long, dramatic breath.  “Well, then, allow me to introduce myself.”  His voice grew louder, each word more carefully enunciated, and the accent softened until it was almost imperceptible.  He was playing for the audience, I realized.  “Name’s William but, round here, most just call me Billy.”

“Billy?”  I repeated.

“A simple name for a simple man,” Billy said.  “And yours?”

My first name wasn’t necessarily common to the area, but it wasn’t uncommon.  Giving it to this man wouldn’t cost me too much position and I wasn’t certain that Stani or the other Russians wouldn’t accidentally let it slip at a later point in the conversation.  I was using my real name an uncomfortable amount, as of late, but there wasn’t really anything I could do about that.  “Devlin,” I said.

“And your friends?”

That was more than I was willing to offer.  Let Mila and the Russians make up their own minds as to whether or not they wanted that information floating around the London underworld.

After twenty seconds of stilted silence, Mila stepped forward.  “Emilia,” she said.  “Call me Mila.  Everyone else does.”

“Ah, Mila,” Billy said.  He seemed to be savoring the sound of the name.  “Pleasure to meet you.  Is that another gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

Mila gave him a thin smile.  “Can’t it be both?”

“Oh, I do like the lot of you,” Billy said.  He clapped his hands together and leaned back in the wheelchair.  “Been quite a while since I met anyone who caught me off guard.  This lot’s pretty predictable, all said.”

“This lot?”  I turned so that I could look once more at the building’s interior.  Most of the people who had been sitting outside of my direct field of vision had found other things to occupy their attention: food, mostly, although more than a few were not engaged in fervent conversation.  There were still some who watched my group with wary eyes, but their hands weren’t hidden within folds of cloth or openly displaying weapons.  “I would imagine they aren’t particularly surprising.”

“Not a wit,” Billy said.  “But they’re the ones what took me in, so it is what it is.”

“Took you in?”  I made eye contact with Billy over the table, and he held the contact with a surprising amount of force.  “I’m guessing Hill had something to do with that?”

“Not at all,” Billy replied.  He bared his teeth in an approximation of a smile.  It reminded me more of a rictus than anything.  “He’s the reason I lost my business, my home, and my legs.  But, he didn’t have nothing to do with these kind people taking me in as one of their own.  That was all on my own.”

I leaned forward, more attentive now than I had been before.  This had the sense of betrayal about it, and that was a feeling I now had an intimate understanding of.  “I think you ought to tell me that story from the beginning.  Something tells me we might be able to help each other out.”

Chapter Seventy-Five

“Devlin,” Mila said in a quiet, intense voice.  Somehow, she seemed to be watching both of the Russians with equal focus.  “I repeat: what are you doing here?  Why aren’t you in the hotel?”

“My associates here requested a meeting,” I replied, stressing the word to the breaking point.

“And you decided that tonight would be the best time for that?  Considering everyone who’s currently doing their level best to put neat little holes in you?”

“I didn’t decide anything,” I snapped.  “And I wouldn’t be out here, unprotected, if someone answered their phone.”

From my angle, I could only see the back of her head, but I could have sworn that Mila twitched slightly at that.

“What are you doing here?” I asked her again.

“Business,” she answered.  “Personal business.  I assumed that you would be smart enough to stay somewhere safe until I got back.”

My eyes went from the nape of Mila’s neck, over her shoulders, to the three Russians: Iosif and Leonid, the aim of their weapons changing from Mila to me and back again, in a protective stance around Stanislav.  For his part, the shorter man watched my conversation through narrowed eyes.  He didn’t give the order for his men to fire but, at the same time, he also didn’t tell them to stand down.

“I didn’t expect this to be a dangerous meeting.  I thought that we were all working toward the same goal, here.”  I deliberately raised my voice so that Stani could hear.

“How’s that working out for you?”  Mila asked.

“Not well,” I admitted.

The five of us stood there, locked into position, while the destitute and impoverished flowed around us, giving the conflict a wide berth.  The tension was almost unbearable but I knew that simply acting wasn’t an option.  Making the wrong move would easily send this détente spiraling into open gunfire.  I didn’t want that and, unless I’d badly misread Stani so far, he didn’t want it either.

“So?”  I asked the Russian.  “Can we talk about this like professionals?  Or are you going to let this end in bloodshed, when Asher is so close?”

“You were supposed to come alone,” Stani repeated.

“And you weren’t supposed to be an idiot,” I countered.  “I’m willing to start over if you are.”

A few more seconds stretched by.  Finally, an eternity later, Stani lifted two fingers and then let them fall.  Iosif and Leonid reluctantly lowered their guns but did not holster them.  Mila assumed the same posture.

I carefully stepped around Mila, so that I could look Stani in the eyes.  “Alright.  Now, did you actually have something or was this all just part of your plan to get me alone?”

Stani scowled back at me.  Clearly, he wasn’t fully convinced that I wasn’t playing some long game.  In fairness, I wasn’t convinced that the Lady hadn’t somehow maneuvered me into a position where I’d have to betray the Russians, but I certainly wasn’t going to let him know that.

“Who is this?”  Stani asked, pointing with his diminished hand at Mila.

“A friend,” I said.  Then, turning to face her fully, I added, “I think.”

There was no mistaking Mila’s guilty twitch this time.

“And she can be trusted?”

“She’s under contract,” I said, as if that explanation alone was sufficient.  “Mila isn’t going to start any trouble unless someone else starts it first.  Case in point.”

Stani considered that silently and, while he thought, the tide of bodies drew tighter around us.  The men and women who hadn’t moved far since the brief standoff still gave us almost a yard of space and the others – the ones who had been in other areas of the black market or who had been asleep, drugged, or otherwise insensate – followed that cue.

“Come,” Stani said, finally.

He turned on his heel and moved deeper into the market.  Iosif turned immediately, while Leonid continued to face me for a few tense seconds before he followed suit.

I waited until he was three yards ahead before I started to walk in that direction.  I felt Mila’s presence beside me, and I spoke to her under my breath as we went.  “Personal business?”  I asked.  “Now?”

“I’m allowed personal time,” she said.

“I’m not saying that you aren’t,” I said. “We cleared that up already.  But it isn’t that you wanted to take some time to clear your head.  It’s that you lied about where you were going.  What if something had happened at the hotel?”

“I spoke to Sophie before I left.  I’m not so far away that I couldn’t have gotten back, and that suite’s got a private elevator.  I’m not saying nobody could get in; I’m just saying that nobody could have gotten in before I got there to stop them.”

That may very well have been true.  I hadn’t really thought about the security measures the Brooklands might provide, but it stood to reason that the Lady wouldn’t go through the trouble of hiring a bodyguard, only to put us in the equivalent of the Holiday Inn, with regards to protection.  “This is about the Things, isn’t it?”  I asked.

“The…”  Mila was quiet for a second, connecting the reference to reality.  “You mean the twins.”

“Yeah, them.  That’s the business that pulled you out in the middle of the night?”

Mila sighed.  “Here.  Look at this.”

She passed a folded slip of paper over my shoulder.  I missed a step, shuffled to keep upright, and then opened the note.  A long word that I didn’t recognize was printed there in neat block letters, along with the date and a specific time.

“Flurpitine,” I said the word out loud.  It didn’t sound like any language I’d ever heard.  In fact, it sounded like a drug.  “Are you really out here getting high?”

Mila barked out two sharp laughs from behind me.  “The twins gave me that, at the bar.”

That explained why she’d turned off her camera before approaching them.  The solution to that mystery only brought another question to mind: what other information was she withholding?

Was there even anything I could do to ferret out those secrets, if Mila was intent on keeping them to herself?

Two pops in my earbud forced me to shelve those concerns.  Through the line, I listened as Sarah settled back into place.  “Sorry, I had to…”

I turned slightly, so that my button camera and, by extension, Sarah could see Mila.

Sarah’s words faltered.  “Um,” she said.  “What’s Mila doing there?”

“Funny you should ask that.”  I fished around in my pocket for a spare earbud.  When I found one, I floated it back to Mila.  “We were just getting to that part, I think.”

“I step up away for one second, I swear,” Sarah muttered, mostly to herself.  “Can someone fill me in on what I missed?  From the beginning, please.”

My side of the story only included the past few minutes, most of which had been spent talking Stani and his men down from the metaphorical edge.  Mila’s tale was far more interesting.

After leaving the hotel, she had apparently disassembled her phone to confound any effort to track her before she’d set off to run down the strange word and whatever connection it might have with Aiden, her own personal bogeyman.  That path had led her to the houses of a few former clients with more substantial connections to the local underworld.  According to Mila, she hadn’t needed to employ anything beyond implied threats to get those answers.  The freshly skinned knuckles on her right hand made that hard to believe.  Regardless, each name had her to another until she had, ultimately, found herself in this neighborhood’s black market.

“And here we are,” Mila finished.  “One big happy family.”

“Sarah?”  I asked.

“I’ll look into it,” she said.  “I’m guessing it isn’t recreational, but I’m still looking at a a long search.  If I had more to go on, maybe…”

Mila interrupted Sarah’s train of thought with a single word.  “Aiden.”

“What about him?”

“The twins said that his newest hire – Mikhail, right? – was more than just a drug dealer.”

I followed that thread back to the relevant memory.  “Thing One called him a pharmacist,” I said.  “Or Thing Two.  Whichever one was female?”

Mila gave me a tight, thin-lipped smile.  “Exactly.  So, maybe that drug’s something pharmaceutical, then?”

Sarah heaved out a sigh, even as the familiar sound of her fingers accelerated to their machine gun pace.  “This is still going to take some time.  I’ll have to sift through research journals, generic names, et cetera, et cetera.”

“But you can find it?”  I asked.

“If it exists,” Sarah answered, “I can find it.”

“Glad to hear it,” Mila said.  She took an extra-long step so that she stood slightly in front of me and then stopped.  “I think Devlin’s pal might have something to show us.”

She was right.  Stani, Iosif, and Leonid had stopped pushing their way through the crowd.  Now, they stood in front of a…shack wasn’t quite the right word, even if it had the right feeling.  The building was made of jet black stone, scarred with pockmarks and missing the occasional chunk from its surface.  A cloud of smoke hung around the entrance and I noticed, almost absently, that every second or third person that passed in front of the building shot a jealous glance in its direction.  Some people went in, and some people came out, but everyone found a reason to look.

In this black market, the building was probably the equivalent of a luxury residence.  Assuming, of course, that it was someone’s home.  As I took a few seconds to consider the traffic, I discarded that idea.  This was a business, just like every other ramshackle stall and corner, but the difference between this building and the ones that populated the square was painfully stark.

“Stani almost shot me just for running into Mila,” I said to Sarah.

“He almost tried, you mean,” Mila added, casually, and shrugged.

I ignored that.  “Point is, he probably won’t take too kindly to knowing there’s a third party involved in this, even if you aren’t technically here.”

“What about Anton?”  Sarah asked.  “He knows about me; he might be able to smooth things over if it gets heated, right?”

“Anton doesn’t know you’re involved,” I said.  “I trust him, as much as that sort of thing goes, but not the people he’s working with.  Besides, he wasn’t even with them earlier.”

Sarah digested that in thoughtful silence for a few seconds.  “You think he’s alright?”  She asked, finally.

That worry had crossed my mind; I had just banished it to the back of my thoughts immediately.  Sarah’s question brought that fear back, in full force.  “I hope he is,” I said.  “But I can’t get distracted by that right now.  Whatever it is that Stani wants to show me required weapons, and he was nervous enough about it that he almost ordered his goons to shoot me.”

“You need to stay focused,” Sarah said.  It wasn’t a directive on her part; just a confirmation.  “I’ll stay quiet, but I’m not going anywhere.  If something goes wrong…”

I’m here,” Mila said.  She sounded offended at the implication that a situation might arise that she couldn’t handle.  “I got a good read on those Russians.  The caliber of their guns is probably higher than their IQ; Devlin’s in good hands.”

“Glad to hear it,” Sarah said.  “Going silent, then, while I try to run down this drug.”

Two pops, and she was gone.

I rolled my neck until I felt the muscles there loosen appreciably.  “Alright.  Let’s see what’s behind door number one.”

I covered the distance between where we stood and where Stani waited, without waiting for a response from Mila.  She fell in step, less than a foot behind me.

“This,” Stani said when we drew close enough to hear him, “is what we are here for.”

“Are you going to tell me what this is?”  I asked.

“I only know what my superiors saw fit to tell me.”  Stani looked nervously around, even though no one was paying noticeable attention to our small group.  In fact, after the brief standoff from only a few minutes ago, people were actively trying not to look at us.  “Many years ago, before the Bratva established themselves in this country, there was a man who was…an associate.  We provided the product and he sold it to others.  Eventually, that arrangement became unnecessary and the Bratva moved into a position of partnership, instead of simply being the supplier.”

“Many years ago?  How long ago are we talking about?”

Stani shrugged his answer back at me.

“Okay,” I asked, “what happened to shake things up?”

“We do not know,” Stani said.  “One day, the man we worked with simply stopped replying to our messages and messengers.  Eventually, another man – this Hill, I suppose – assumed the same role, and we resumed operations from that point.”

I nodded in understanding.  There were benefits to the life I’d chosen, but those benefits came with steep tradeoffs.  It wasn’t uncommon for an underling to start feeling ambitious before making a play for greater power, and that power couldn’t be acquired so long as their previous employer continued to draw breath.  If Stani’s story was true – I didn’t think he was lying, although I did have my doubts about whether or not he was simply wrong – the transfer of power had been so smooth that the Bratva hadn’t noticed.  That part was surprising.

“The history lesson is appreciated,” I said, “but what’s that got to do with us, right now?”

“Some of our local soldiers heard a rumor in the streets about a man operating a small business from this black market.  Nothing large enough to warrant an official response, but still substantial enough to be noticed.  With a little more effort, and the assistance of the sniper you so kindly provided for questioning, the truth came to light.”

“It’s the guy?”  I asked.  “The guy your superiors used to work with?”

Stani nodded.

“Wait, wait, wait.”  I held up both hands in front of me, palms facing the small Russian.  “Let me see if I’ve got this straight.  There was a guy who ran this town before Hill, but he’s still alive?”

Mila sniffed at the air and I turned, reflexively, at the sound.  “Seems like poor planning,” she said.  “Why leave a possible competitor alive, if you can help it?  Especially one who’s just going to start up the same business, right under your nose?”

“We do not know,” Stani said.  “I do not know.  That is why we are.  If there is anyone who knows what this Hill is doing or how it relates to Asher, it would be this man.”  He gestured at the building.

I looked at Mila.  She answered my unspoken question with an even gaze and, instead of replying verbally, checked the slide of her still-unholstered weapon.  Stani nodded approvingly at this action and then walked inside.  I allowed my imagination a moment of frozen anxiety, picturing all of the ways this situation could spiral further out of control, before I steeled myself and entered the building, as well. On

Judging from the building’s exterior, and the general state of disrepair evidenced by the sprawling black market, I’d expected more of the same inside.  Perhaps nothing more than people drugged to gills, sprawled across the floor like morbidly animate carpets.  Or a more condensed version of the shops I’d seen outside, with higher quality wares for sale…for a commensurately higher price tag.  Maybe even a whorehouse, for those whose need so drastically outweighed their means that no other options remained.

I saw none of those.

The building’s interior was still dirty, of course.  The desperation inherent to places like this seeped into the very soil and affected everything it touched.  But it was less dirty, less miserable than I’d expected.  To one side, several long tables were populated by shabby men and women who rested, spoke to each other in low voices, or huddled over steaming bowls of some sort of stew.  Across from that, a makeshift bar had been cobbled together from several shipping pallets, where a jauntily dressed man in clearly secondhand clothes filled dirty glasses, mugs, and thermoses with liquor and booze.  A banner hung across the back of the room, but it was so tattered that the symbol it had once borne was indecipherable.

Underneath that banner, an older man, hair graying and thinning at his temples, hunched over a table.  A group of other people clustered around him, some standing while others sat a little higher than the graying man, pointing at what looked like a map stretched out before them.  I couldn’t make out what they said from this distance, but their body language made it clear: this was an important thing.  Presumably, then, the graying man was the person Stani had come here looking for.  Even if he wasn’t, it stood to reason that he might know more details that could prove useful.

I took a step forward to say something and realized, even before the first hand gripped my shoulder like a steel vice grip, that I had forgotten to check for security.  I froze, anticipating an attack of some sort, but none came.  The hand on my shoulder was firm, but not unkind.  A quick glance behind me showed that Mila, Stani, Iosif, and Leonid were restrained by similar men in similar postures.

The graying man at the table looked up and noticed us.  He gestured easily for his crowd to disperse and then slid back from the table and came over to us.  He didn’t walk across the distance.  I hadn’t noticed before, but I could see now that he hadn’t sat lower; he was in a wheelchair.

As he wheeled himself toward us, men and women alike parted to allow him passage.  They did this, not with fear, but with a semblance of…was that respect?

“Well now,” the graying man said when he drew close enough to see us.  He peered at our attire, eyes flickering over the guns some of my party held in clenched hands, and nodded once in affirmation of some unspoken thought.  “Seems like this is something new in my little part of paradise.  Care to explain before my men have to ask questions the hard way?”

Chapter Seventy-Four

“Still no word from Mila?”  I asked.

“Not yet,” Sarah said.  There was a pregnant pause over the line before she spoke again.  “I wish you’d waited until I could have found her.”

“No time.”  I felt a brief, ludicrous moment of amusement as I realized how often I’d said the same thing in the past weeks.  The thought amused me more than it should have.  “You know about Anton, but these other Russians?  Not the type to wait peacefully.  If I leave them alone in London, there’s every possibility that they start shooting now and escalate this whole situation.”

Sarah made a noise that I couldn’t immediately translate.  It was somewhere between grudging acceptance, frustration, and disappointment.  “At least you agreed to wear the vest,” she said, finally.

I ran my fingers across the surface of Suzie’s handiwork.  It would have been incredibly pretentious to wear the full suit to a meeting with three men I’d already met before, but Sarah had insisted on the extra protection provided by the carbon fiber.  While I’d resisted on general principle, her argument had won out in the end.

Of course I wouldn’t ever admit it, but I was rapidly coming to appreciate the vest’s presence.  The area where Stanislav had indicated resembled a war-torn country more than a first world nation.  Through the window of my car, I watched the scenery transition from urban civilization to devastation.  The stately buildings transformed into dilapidated slums; the fashion choices shifted from colorful finery into thin, drab attire that couldn’t possibly manage to keep the cold away; and, most important of all, the aura of my surroundings changed.  A lifetime spent in the underworld had honed my instincts to a razor’s sharpness and every nerve in my body was sending up alarm sirens now.

This was not a good place.  I wouldn’t have wanted to be here in the full light of day, and I certainly didn’t want to be here in the dead of night.  But, the Russian hadn’t really left me a choice.

“Mmmhmm,” I said to Sarah.

She didn’t reply, but I could practically feel smug satisfaction through the earbud.

Sophie’s driver, an older man with a thick Liverpool accent, kept his eyes forward as we rode.  Except for a few words at the Brooklands, he hadn’t said anything and he hadn’t asked a single question.  While a part of me appreciated that silence – there was enough on my mind, without having to add some lie that explained my midnight travels – a larger part, surprisingly, wished that Michel had been able to accompany me.  The Frenchman’s general demeanor, somehow, would have been able to lighten the mood.

He was unconscious and drunk, though.  Even if he could have been sobered, there was no telling how Stanislav and his muscle would react if I brought another person to the meeting.  Mila would, perhaps, have been an acceptable substitute.  Even if not, there was very little chance that any of the Russians would actually have been able to do anything to stop her from being there.  Michel was a different matter.  While I would’ve preferred him to the stoic, professional driver, leaving him at the Brooklands was the right move.

Knowing that didn’t make me feel any better.

The driver, finally, came to a stop and unlocked my door.  “Sir,” he said, “we have arrived.  Will you be needing me to wait here for your return?”

I touched one finger to the earbud, just to let Sarah know that I wasn’t speaking to her anymore.  “No idea how long I’ll be gone,” I said.

“My services were purchased for the entire evening.  If you have a need, I can make myself available into the morning, if necessary.”

I considered that for a second and then shook my head.  “No, I should be fine.  I can call Sophie when I’m ready to be picked up.  Take the night off, enjoy the paid vacation.”

“Very good, sir.”

He made no move to exit the car and open my door for me.  I took a mental note about that, exited on my own, and surveyed my surroundings.

I stood at the mouth of an alleyway, stretching between two oversized apartments.  Clotheslines hung between the two buildings and articles of clothing – shirts, jeans, at least two pairs of unmentionables – dangled in the slight breeze that whipped through the alley.  I turned slightly so that my coat could stop the wind and saw a small, but growing crowd of late teens and early twenty-somethings glaring openly in my direction.  Some of these would likely be legitimately disenfranchised men and women, parents who struggled to put food on the table for their children; others were probably pickpockets and muggers.

I responded to the crowd with a subtle shift in my posture.  It wasn’t a stance that provoked or challenged the onlookers.  Despite my experiences in prison, I really couldn’t win any fight if it didn’t start as an ambush.  Instead, my shoulders straightened and I imagined a metal rod running down my spine.

I’m not prey, that stance said.  Find someone else.

After a few seconds, the crowd began to disperse.  More than a few eyes flickered in my direction as they moved on.  I kept up the act until I was alone, then relaxed slightly.  “Well,” I said, “this promises to be a fun night.”

“How bad is it?”  Sarah asked softly.

“I wouldn’t buy real estate in the area,” I said

There was a brief moment of hesitation.  “Because you’d buy real estate anywhere?”

A grim, brief smile stretched across my lips.  Gallows humor at its finest never failed to break the tension.  “Anyway.  I’m at the drop point.  I guess I’ll move around on foot until I find Anton and company?”

“No need to go searching,” Sarah said.  “I’m sending directions to your phone; just follow the tiny electronic voice’s directions.  Turn the camera on, too, while I’m thinking about it.  And, Devlin?  Take care of yourself.”

“Like I haven’t been doing that for the past – “  I cut myself off before the sentence could reach its natural conclusion and simply switched the button camera on.  The past few years of my life had spent in prison; before that, working with a variety of lesser talents in the wake of Sarah’s departure.

When she’d left, Sarah had made certain I would have no choice but to take care of myself.  I wasn’t quick enough to completely stop the surge of emotions that threatened to rise within me – some always slipped through – but I kept the majority of the feelings under control.

Sarah must have realized what had happened.  She didn’t finish the thought, though, and I appreciated that more than I could have articulated.  Again, not that I would ever speak that sentiment out loud.

A soft beep let me know that the promised instructions had arrived and I set off to follow them without another word on the matter.  The path led me through the alleyway I’d stopped in front of, winding around another tenement, and down the street a good ways until I entered into a clearing.  There weren’t any roads there, but that didn’t mean the area was isolated.  Instead of cars and mopeds, the way was populated with a teeming throng of people: men and women, their ages varying all the way up to their eighties and down to no more than fourteen, vying for attention.  From the scant protections afforded by ramshackle stalls, they hawked goods of dubious quality to any passers-by and even to other sellers.  I saw one man offering a fistful of food stamps in exchange for a heavier coat, a pair of children huddled together under a worn blanket behind him; another couple, rendered nearly senseless through drug use, reached out with shaking hands for any change someone might be willing and able to spare; a woman who couldn’t have reached the upper end of nineteen, smiling invitingly and beckoning to the men and, on occasion, the women as well.

“A black market,” I whispered to myself.  “This is…”

Sarah, watching through the tiny camera I wore in place of a coat button, choked back her thoughts.  I knew what she would have said, anyway.

This was her issue.  I had gotten involved in crime due to a rough childhood, a lack of options, and a surprising aptitude for the work.  Michel’s father had apparently initiated him, deliberately or not, and I’d merely finished the job.  Mila…Mila was a mystery.  I couldn’t imagine that a comfortable, happy life could give birth to anyone so shockingly proficient in violence.  And, if what she’d told me about Aiden was true, something in her past had damaged her to the point that the part time cult leader, part time mercenary had been able to worm his way into her mind.

That wasn’t Sarah’s story.  She’d grown up the scion of a rich, powerful family; been afforded every opportunity and privilege; and, truth be told, could have easily lived a life of luxury by doing nothing more than not screwing up too terribly.  That was the life her sisters had chosen.  It was the life her parents had wanted for her, and the ones they thought she was living.  It was how she herself had been, until her first encounter with truly stark poverty.

She’d changed, then.  It had been subtle, at first, but inexorable.  Before a few years had passed, she was siphoning funds away from corrupt charities and funneling it into the accounts of foundations that really tried to make a difference.  When that had failed to be enough, she’d started creating her own foundations, under a variety of pseudonyms.  It was like emptying the ocean with a thimble, but she still tried.  That’s what I’d liked about her when we’d first met.

It was one of the reasons I’d fallen in love with her in the first place.

This wasn’t the time for that, though.  I hardened myself to the abject suffering and assumed the assertive body language again.  “We can’t help these people right now,” I said, pushing through the hands that grasped at my coat.

“I’m aware,” she said in a tight voice.  “Not right now, at least.”

“What do you think we’ll be able to do?”

“I don’t know.  Something.  Anything, if it’ll make this better.”

I heard two things in her voice: hope and resignation, in that order.  “Taking Hill down will help,” I offered.

That wasn’t quite a lie, but it was an incredibly optimistic interpretation of the truth.  Eliminating the local drug kingpin would slow the flow of product into the impoverished portions of London, for a time, but it would never eliminate it.  Addicts would find drugs, one way or another.  These areas – the black markets that inevitably sprouted from the city, given time to propagate – would always exist.

Sarah knew that.  She still took the exaggeration for what it was: an admonition to stay on task.  “You’re coming up on the exact target,” she said.  Something in her voice told me that she wasn’t done with this particular black market, yet.

“Sarah…”

“I’ve got to step away for a second,” she said, cutting me off neatly.  “You can handle this, right?”

I heard the signature two pops in my ear before I could form a reply.  Unable to talk her down, I simply sighed instead and continued forward.

I walked to the center of the black market, navigating around and through knots of customers and sellers.  The center of the market was worse than its fringes: fewer people trying to sell things, and more beggars.  I carefully kept my camera pointed away from those wretches and swept my vision around the area until I spotted a familiar figure, shorter than most.

I approached Stanislav, keeping my hands out of my pockets.  He noticed me before I was within arm’s reach and took a small step back.  Iosif and Leonid melted out of the crowd and took up flanking positions around him.

“Stani,” I said, stopping a few steps short.

“Devlin.”

“Where’s Anton?”

A wave of emotions flashed over Stani’s face: far too many for me to identify in the split second before he returned to the impassive mask.  “Not here, for now,” he said.  “But my superiors insisted on bringing him with us here, to London.  His experience with Asher might prove useful.”

“You’re still running him down?”  I asked.

“There is a trail,” Stani said.  “Or there was one.  We have not been able to find him, and there is no evidence that he has left.  And then, there is the fact that you are here.  That is an odd coincidence, no?”

Tension sprang into existence, hot and vibrating with potential energy.  The meeting spot made a little more sense now.  Stani didn’t know about Sarah, of course.  To his reckoning, I was isolated at this black market.  He and his men could dispose of me without much protest from the impoverished and criminally disinterested people around us.

Extreme practice kept the sudden anxiety from showing on my expression.  “I had my own leads to follow,” I said.  “Good ones, apparently, since we all ended up here.”

Stani’s lips drew into a tight line for a few seconds.  “According to Anton,” he said slowly, the accent thickening with each word, “you and Asher were once very good friends.”

“We were.  The prison sentence sort of strained that relationship.”

“It is not impossible that the two of you are working together,” Stani said.  “That your efforts are only a…what is the word? Ah: a smokescreen.  People will do many things for money.  Working with a former enemy is not much of a stretch.”

The urge to laugh at that absurdity warred with my anger at the very concept.  “You must not have talked to Anton much about me, then.  Money’s not going to motivate me to do anything, least of all start working with a known betrayer.  Besides, you were with me when Asher tried to have us all killed.”

“Perhaps that was merely part of the lie?”  Stani scratched at his stubble.  “Or perhaps you changed your mind after that.  Money is not the only way a man can be purchased.”

Defense wasn’t working.  Something had gotten under his skin since last we’d seen each other, and he was now convinced that I was working against him.  With more time, or less of a buzz, I could have tried to ferret out the truth.  Neither of those things were in great abundance, as of late.

Offense it was, then.

“If you think I’m suddenly the enemy,” I said, taking a step closer to Stani, “you should probably do something about it already.  You’ve got me outnumbered and outgunned.  If this is really how your superiors want to play it, take your shot.”

Stani didn’t move, but Iosif did.  The larger Russian’s hand dipped lower, toward his waistband, but Stani gestured lazily and Iosif froze.

“You realize what my men would do to you?”  Stani asked.  “For an opportunity to bring Asher back to my superiors, there is no end to the amount of pain we would inflict on you.”

“For the opportunity to bring Asher down, I’d be willing to see how serious you really are.”  I paused for effect.  “I’m sure my employer would find it interesting, too.”

Stani blinked.  “Is that a threat?”

“I came here in good faith,” I said.  “We’re both after the same person.  For different reasons, sure, but that fact is what it is.  If you want to make this a competitive relationship, we can do that.  So long as you’re sure that your bosses are going to have your back…and that my employer wouldn’t be able to deal with them after she finishes up with the person who betrayed a functional working relationship on a hunch.”

Iosif’s eyes flickered up, away from me, and over to his partner.  Leonid didn’t turn his head, but I could sense, more than actually see, the way his shoulders tightened.  Apprehension was good.  Fear was better.  Anything that gave them a moment of a hesitation bought me another second to spin more stories.  Already I’d banked heavily on my relationship with the Lady and I was a long way from sure that she’d do anything to help me if I died here.  My continued activity was important to her long term plan – whatever that was – but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t simply replace me, if I overstepped my own abilities.

The fact that she’d hired a bodyguard for me and my team was already –

It was my turn to blink in shocked surprise.  Stani noticed the change in my posture and, caught off guard by the abrupt shift, lapsed into a sort of confused concern.  “What?  Why are you looking at me like that?”

I wasn’t looking at him.  My field of vision, while it did include the diminutive Russian, was focused over his shoulder.  The target of my interest turned, drinking from a bottled water, and noticed my attentions.

“Mila?”

“Devlin?”  The bottled water lingered near her lips and trembled slightly.  “What are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here?”  I countered.  “We’ve been trying to find you for over an hour!”

“I, uh…”

The moment of uncommon uncertainty interested me, but Stani and his team were already moving.  Iosif and Leonid pulled large caliber handguns from their jackets, while Stani produced a long knife as he stepped into the protective shadow of the two.  Around us, the black market patrons peeled back and left a wide circle of empty space.  There was a marked lack of fear in their movements; a calm part of my mind rationalized that they were used to violence in these places.

“You said that you would come alone!”  Stani roared at me.

“I did come alone!”

Mila, a millisecond after Iosif twitched in the wrong direction, was on the move, as well.  She took quick steps and stepped in front of me.  Twin guns appeared in her hands, one trained on each of the large Russians.

“Okay,” I said, raising my hands in a placating gesture.  “I…I can explain this.”

Chapter Seventy-Three

We celebrated our small victory a little too much that night.  Sophie acquired several bottles of wine for Sarah, a full case of Guinness for Mila and me, and some French liquor I couldn’t pronounce for Michel.  Even Sam got in on the action: his owner had stopped on the way back from the bar to pick up treats for the enormous feline.

As we drank into the night, I savored the sense of relief that came from a job well done.  The difficulties and surprises of the evening notwithstanding, we had managed to come together as a cohesive unit and pulled off a fairly difficult con on an incredibly difficult mark.

Adlai would likely follow up on every single thing that Michel had told him.  That was good.  Sarah could hide anything that outright contradicted Michel’s story and, through some arcane script I made no effort to understand, push her own falsified information higher on the lists of search results.  That way, we could prime the pump, so to speak.  Adlai would already be on edge, his ears perked up for any mention of Hill; when we eventually planted direct evidence that linked the drug kingpin to the shootout, the museum job, and the unrest in the underworld…that might be the spark that set the whole operation ablaze.  I’d suffered through Adlai’s attentions firsthand, and the man was not someone who was easily ignored.

As such, Michel was forced to endure a barrage of congratulatory backslaps, steadily increasing in force as we became more and more inebriated.  He pretended to be upset at the attention, but there was a tangible glow to his skin.  He was overjoyed to have been useful, if I was reading him correctly.  And why shouldn’t he be?  His performance would have been spectacular, under the circumstances, if he’d been a trained infiltrator.  For a neophyte?  It was just shy of miraculous.

“That look in Adlai’s eyes?”  I said, widening my arms too quickly.  Some beer spilled over the lip of my glass and Sam greedily rushed to lick the carpet clean in that area.  “I wish I’d thought of faking an undercover identity before now!”

“You have not done this?”  Michel asked.  “Why not?  It…well, it was not easy, but if you had more time to plan?”

I shook my head.  “Wouldn’t have worked.  I don’t have the bearing for it.  I’m the least cop-like person you’re ever going to meet.”

“It’s true,” Sarah said.  She sipped at her wine in an approximation of class.  The empty bottle behind her on the counter made it more difficult to take the act seriously.  “I’ve seen him try before, just trying to trick rival crews into going after other targets.  It’s hilarious. Besides, this isn’t really the sort of thing people do.”

“Normally,” I said, “you try to stay as far from the law as possible.  This is kind of a unique situation.”

Mila scoffed from the couch.  “Unique, he says.”  She held out a treat between two fingers until Sam finished with the carpet and made his way up to sit beside her on the couch.  “That’s not an understatement at all.”

“It’s a gift of mine,” I said.  “Anyway, the point is that we pulled it off.  Really, Michel pulled it off.”

Sarah and I raised our glasses to him and, after a feigned sigh, Mila did the same.  Michel coughed, bowed his head, and followed suit.

“It was nothing special,” he said.  “You and Sarah did most of the work.”

Sarah scoffed.  “I’ve only known a couple of people who could do what you did, with as little planning, and all of them had years of experience as grifters.  You’ve got a real talent.”

I retrieved another beer from the dwindling supply and moved to the love seat, across from Mila.  “There are a couple of tricks you ought to know,” I said.  “In case you want me to show you some things later, I’m more than willing to.  I mean, there’s really no telling when we’ll need you to be the face again.”

Michel tried, and failed, to conceal his enthusiasm at the prospect.  “Of course,” he said, nodding eagerly.  “Whenever you think would be a good time, I am more than willing to learn.”

“It isn’t going to be now,” I said, as I unsealed the beer and took a long pull at it.  “I’m not planning on doing anything other than relaxing and savoring the glow tonight.  We can deal with whatever comes next after a good night’s sleep.  Sound fair?”

Michel answered by refilling his own glass of liquor.

Mila yawned, stretching both arms over her head, and stood from the couch.  The steady stream of catnip treats had reduced Sam to a puddle of his former self; he could only manage a weak mewl as his owner gently moved him to another cushion.  “I’m going to check on Neal and Avis,” she said.  “Make sure that they haven’t had any problems, so far.”

“Really?”  I asked.  “This late?”

“If they’re asleep, then I’ll just drop by again tomorrow morning.  But if you’re going to insist on tying your safety to theirs, I’m for damn sure going to make sure that they aren’t being followed.”

“According to Sophie, they haven’t even left their suite!”

Mila shrugged.  “Call me paranoid.”

I would have, if I hadn’t consumed the better part of a twelve pack already.  As it was, I managed a vague wave in her direction.  “Fine,” I said, in a decent rendition of a bored royal.  “If you have to.”

Sarah dug into a bag on the counter for one of her burner phones, but Mila waved her away.  “I’ve got my own.  I’ll just charge it in their room and you can call me on it.  You do have my number, don’t you?”

“Courtesy of the Lady,” Sarah said.  I noticed with no small amount of amusement that she slurred the words.

“Well, alright, then,” Mila said.  “I might take a walk afterwards.  Clear my head and all that.”  She moved to the door and left before we could respond to that.

Michel and I went through another drink each, while Sarah nursed the remainder of her bottle of wine.  Eventually, the Frenchman’s eyes began to droop and he took himself downstairs to the room Sophie had provided for him.  That left Sarah and I, both incredibly drunk, alone in our suite.

“So,” I said.

There was another bottle of wine on the counter.  Sarah gave it a long, silent look.  “So.”

The moment hung in the air between us, thick with possibilities.  What those possibilities actually were eluded me, but I could still feel them.  Thousands of unspoken words teetered on my lips: things I could say or could have said, before that final sundering of our relationship.  I considered them for a half second and then, mentally, looked away.

“What do you think about all of this?”  I asked, instead.

Sarah’s eyebrows drew a millimeter closer and she blew air out through her nostrils.  “You really want to talk about our situation right now?”

“Because we’ve had a lot of opportunities so far?”  I swallowed a mouthful of beer.  “When we aren’t running like hell from one threat or another, we’re explaining the basics to a group of relative rookies.  I’d prefer to just relax, sure, but that’s not really in the cards right now.”

Her lips parted to reply before she hesitated for a moment.  She shook her head, clearing away whatever half-formed thought she’d been on the verge of speaking, and then met my eyes.  “I think we’re screwed,” she said.

“That’s…optimistic,” I replied.

“I’m serious here,” Sarah said.  “Think about it.  We’ve got the Lady on one side.  The Magi on the other.  Asher and Hill working towards whatever the hell it is they’re after, just floating around in the middle.  Aiden and his team coming after Mila like she stole something from them.  And, now, you’ve managed to get Adlai involved in this whole mess.”

I fought back the urge to defend myself and nodded once, instead.  “Your point?”

“My point,” Sarah said, “is that this isn’t what we do.  This isn’t how we play things.  Give me the time to set up surveillance, collect some intelligence, make a plan and I’m good at this.  I’m good, Devlin.  But playing everything by the seat of our pants, just guessing at what we should do next?”

She didn’t provide the answer to her own question, so I spoke into the silence that followed.  “What you’ve pulled off so far is amazing,” I said.  “And I couldn’t have asked you to do any better.  I know this isn’t what you want to do, so if you – “

“And then there’s that!”  The increase in her volume caught me off-guard.  If the stunned expression that appeared on Sarah’s face was any indication, she was as surprised by the outburst as I was.  “And then there’s that,” she repeated in a quieter voice.

“And then there’s what?”

“You know what,” Sarah slurred.  Earlier, I hadn’t noticed how the alcohol was affecting her diction.  Now, it came through loud and clear.  “I just…I just can’t deal with you being like that.  Like you are.”

I blinked twice, unable to parse what that was supposed to mean.

Sarah waved a hand in the air, dismissing her previous sentence and wafting the trails of the thought into vapor.  “Nevermind, nevermind.  What I’m saying is that we’re out of our depth here and, since walking away isn’t much of an option, we’ve got to stick around and untangle everything ourselves.”

“Ergo,” I said thoughtfully, “we’re screwed.”

“Exactly.”

We sat silent for a minute, each contemplating the reality of our position in the privacy of our own minds.  “You think this is the best plan?”  I asked, finally.

Sarah was quiet for another handful of seconds.  “I think it’s the best we can do right now,” she said.  “Without knowing more, I can’t really come up with a way to get us out from under the proverbial gun.”

“Metaphorical,” I corrected, without thinking about it.

Really?”

I shrugged.  “I’m just saying.”

After that, we lapsed back into thought.  The expression on Sarah’s face was unreadable and, after a minute or two spent trying to decipher what the slight twitch at the corner of her lips might mean, I focused on my own considerations.

She was right, of course.  We had abandoned jobs in the past over fewer complications than we currently faced and I wasn’t optimistic enough to believe that we’d reached the end of our problems.  There were too many enemies and, in the case of Adlai, virtuous adversaries arrayed against our ragtag team at the moment.  The plan to turn Interpol’s attentions to Hill was a good one for many reasons, not least of which was the way it would turn an obstacle into an asset.  But pulling that job off would require skills (which we didn’t all possess), expertise (which we didn’t have time to instill in our team members), and exquisite planning (which we didn’t have time to do).  As it was, Sarah and I could only hope for the best and act under the assumption that the best would never come.  That was not the best state of mind to begin operating under, but it was the only thing we could do under these circumstances.

A sudden, surprising flash of anger at the Lady welled up within me.  My proximity to Sarah had weakened my emotional walls and, with the alcohol pumping through my veins, I wasn’t able to rebuild the fortifications in time to keep myself from actually sneering at the mental image that came to mind: the Lady, with her giant David, tasking my friends to throw themselves into the meat grinder.  We had financial support, and that was a godsend, but what we needed was information.  Information, I assumed, that the Lady would not be willing to give.  There were games being played that I knew nothing about and questions that required answers.  Who was the Lady?  Why did she want to unseat Hill from his position as the drug kingpin of London?  What was Asher’s ultimate goal, beyond seeing devastation visited upon my life and the lives of those I cared about?

No answers came from the darkness of my mind, where I’d set several thought processes to run more or less automatically.  I looked at Sarah and started to speak my thoughts aloud.  The phone rang before I managed to form a single word.

We looked at each other, confused and slightly stupid from the alcohol, for a long second before Sarah moved and began to search for the ringing phone.  There were two phones on the counter in front of her, just behind the recently emptied bottle of wine.  She checked those and neither turned out to be the culprit.  A cursory visual sweep around the room located the device: the phone I’d liberated from Asher’s hired gun back in Kiev, which lay on the coffee table.  I was closer, so I laboriously got to my drunken feet and lurched across the room to answer.

“Hello?”  A thick, distinctly Russian voice asked, even before the phone was against my ear.  “Hello, are you there?”

There was some shuffling from the other end of the connection, punctuated by sharp words in one of those languages I couldn’t understand.  I swallowed before I spoke.  “Yes,” I said, “I’m here.  Stani, right?”

Da.”  A second or two passed before he continued.  “You are still in London, yes?”

“Hadn’t planned on leaving,” I said.

“Good,” Stani said.  “That is good.  There is…much that we should discuss.”

I turned to mouth something to Sarah – perhaps to ask if there was some way she could silently listen into the call, in case Stani said something in Russian that might prove useful – and found that she’d taken that initiative all on her own.  She nodded at me as she slipped the earbud into place.

“We can set something up soon,” I told Stani.  “Early tomorrow, maybe.”

“No!”  The word came out sharp and hard.  I flinched away from the phone in my hand in shock and, in the corner of my eye, saw that Sarah jerked slightly, as well.  “No,” Stani repeated, that abrupt force suddenly absent from his voice.

“Not tomorrow?”  I asked.  “When?  This is sort of a time sensitive situation.”

“Tonight,” Stani said.  He said something in Russian, presumably to his goons Iosif and Leonid.  Sarah grabbed a sheet of paper from a pile of discarded printouts, flipped it to the blank side, and began scribbling down a transcription.  I’d have to read that later.

“Tonight?  Tonight’s not a good time,” I said.  “We just had a tough night of our own, Stani.”

“It is tonight,” Stani said, “or not at all.  I have uncovered something that could prove critical to what you and I are doing.”

Through the fog of inebriation, it took me a bit to decipher his meaning, but I did eventually decipher it.  “This is about Asher?”

“Perhaps.  It is important that we move quickly, however.”

“Why don’t you just handle it and fill me in later?”  I asked.  The possibility of letting potential information slip through my fingers was almost physically painful, but I wasn’t in the right headspace at the moment.  Going out in this state would only do more harm than any good I could possibly accomplish.

“I was…told not to act without you,” Stani answered, after a moment.  It seemed that the admission stung him.  There was another burst of Russian, a pause, and then an answer in a different voice.  “This is…what did you call it?”

“A time sensitive situation,” I said slowly.

Da, that.  I will send you directions.”

He hung up before I could say anything else in protest.

I stared at the phone in my hand and then lifted my eyes up to meet Sarah’s.  “That bit of Russian at the end?”  I asked.  “What was that?”

“Weapons,” Sarah said, in a voice so low that it might as well have been a whisper.  “He was talking about weapons.”

I slapped the heel of my hand against my forehead and bit back a particularly virulent swear.  “That’s exactly what I didn’t want.”  Hastily, I patted myself down: I still had the burner phone, a set of lockpicks, a wallet with one of Sarah’s false identities, and various other accoutrements.

“What are you doing?”  Sarah asked.

“What does it look like I’m doing?”  I countered.  “If Stani’s loading up for war, I’ve got to get down there and stop him before he does something drastic enough that I can’t fix it later.”

“In your state?”  Sarah lurched suddenly toward me.  I took a half step forward, ostensibly to catch her, but she righted herself.

“Adrenaline goes a long way to sobering someone up,” I said, drawing from long experience in the matter.  “Call Mila, let her know to meet me downstairs.  If something goes down, she’ll at least be able to keep me from getting in too far over my head.”

Sarah looked like she wanted to protest further but she dialed Mila’s number into her phone without a word.  She sat like that for several seconds, dismay gradually creeping its way into her features.  She lowered the phone from her ear, dialed the numbers again, and waited.

“No answer?”  I asked.

“No answer,” she confirmed.

“That’s…a problem,” I said.  The last time I’d gone out without Mila, I’d almost become a torture pet for Asher.  At the same time, I couldn’t very well start depending on the fighter to protect me every time I left the hotel.

“Let me just – “ Sarah began.

“I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time,” I said, cutting her off.  I almost continued, but I caught myself before I had a chance to speak any damning words that might bring the wrath of the universe down on my head.  “You think I should wake up Michel?”

My answer came, not from Sarah, but from the sniper’s cell phone.  It vibrated in my hand, notifying me that Stani’s directions had arrived.  I glanced at them for less than a second.  Sarah would handle the actual navigation.  What interested me was the second text message.  Instead of coordinates, this message was a short, simple directive: “Come alone.”

I blinked, feeling the alcohol begin to seep its way out of my system, replaced by dawning anxiety and trepeditation.  Sarah stood up from the counter, walked over to where I sat, and plucked the phone from my hand.  When she read the words there, her expression quickly began to mirror my own.

“I guess that answers that question,” I muttered, to no one in particular.

Chapter Seventy-Two

“You are here to investigate the drug ring?”  Michel directed the question to Adlai.  Lane was at the table but, despite efforts to sober up, wasn’t really a factor at the moment.  The Indian agent was a much larger concern, so I had instructed Michel to focus his efforts on him.

“How do you know that?”  Adlai countered.

“That is what I am doing, as well,” Michel said.  Through Mila’s camera, I saw him shoot furtive glances from one side of the bar to the other.  That hadn’t been part of the instructions, but it added some reality to the act.  If Michel really was working with the Special Group, it stood to reason that he would be uncomfortable discussing the particulars of his job in such a crowded area.

Of course, the fact that he was really making sure that Mila was close enough to intervene wouldn’t occur to either of the Interpol agents.  All they would see is a nervous man with a badge, telling them a story that I could only hope they’d buy.

“I didn’t hear anything about an undercover operation,” Adlai said, after a moment or two of consideration.  “Who is your handler?”

“I can not tell you that,” Michel said.

“You mean to say that there isn’t one?”  The uptick in Adlai’s volume was easy to read.  He sensed an opening and, by going on the offensive, hoped to force Michel into making a mistake.

It had also been easy to predict.  “No,” Michel said, “I literally can’t tell you.  The person you are pursuing has many friends.  Some of those friends are in the police department.”

“We’re not part of the local police department,” Adlai said.  “Interpol isn’t corrupted by the same criminals that live here.”  On the surface, the words sounded confident, but a slight twitch at the corner of one eye betrayed Adlai’s own doubts.  He wanted to believe that his agency wasn’t compromised, but he’d worked too many cases and brought in too many corrupting influences to truly believe that anyone was above bribery, extortion, or blackmail.

Michel shrugged his reply.  We’d decided on a line that might have worked, but silence was a better option.  I privately applauded his decision and whispered as much into the comms.  “Good job,” I said to Michel.  “Let him think about that on his own.  No need to oversell it.”

It was Lane, not Adlai, who spoke next.  “Why’re you telling us this now?”  He asked.  “As far as you know, we could be working for the same drug lord you’re trying to bring down.”

If you are actually working undercover as you say you are,” Adlai added.

Mila moved closer, silent and unnoticed, and I saw Michel pinch the bridge of his nose, as if frustrated.  I took the cue.  “You’re going to want to play up Adlai’s ego,” I said.  “This is a man who believes so absolutely in a black and white idea of the world that he’d arrest his own father, if it came down to it.  He doesn’t trust anyone.  Turn that fear into our advantage.”

Michel sighed, perhaps a little longer than strictly necessary, to cover the time he needed to think.  “What would make you believe me?”  He asked, finally.

“A signed document from the local chief of police,” Adlai responded, immediately.

“No one knows where I am, except for my handler,” Michel said.  “It is safer that way.  For me and…for my family.”

That finally got a reaction other than suspicion and skepticism from Adlai.  It wasn’t a very large reaction – he only breathed in a little sharper than he had before – but it was something that we might be able to capitalize on.  “You have a family?”

From beside me, Sarah swore under her breath.  She started muttering to herself, hitting the keys on her laptop like a machine gun, and I only caught a part of what she said while she worked.  “…course, she’ll be able to create an entire identity out of thin air.  It isn’t hard to fake an entire backstory or anything, but…”

I spared the vaguest portion of my attention from Michel’s conversation and refilled her glass of wine.  It had apparently gone empty at some point during the last few crises.  Sarah shot me a look with enough heat that I felt it against the side of my face…then, she took the wine and emptied the half of it in one go, before turning back to her work.

Her part of the plan was easily the hardest.  All I had to do was create a story from whole cloth, on the fly, while Adlai tried his level best to poke holes in whatever I managed to draw out of thin air.  Michel, untrained and probably terrified beyond reason, only had to sell the lie to two trained Interpol agents in a situation we specifically done everything in our power to avoid.  Mila…well, Mila didn’t have to do anything, other than be ready for violence, in case things went even further sideways.  I suspected that her job was far easier than any of ours.

Sarah, however, had to actually support our bullshit.  Working through several official databases, filling information in as it came up, fact-checking any name we needed to use…Sarah had to do all of that, without any time for preparation or planning.  On the surface, this was the type of situation she hated having to deal with.  In the years before our split, she’d told me as much on several occasions.  Watching her work now, though…I couldn’t understand why she complained.  I multi-tasked my way through problems, sorting through and discarding plans based on their viability, in the field on a regular basis.  What she did with her computers was so far above my capabilities that I felt, irrationally, more than a little jealous.

As Michel and I spoke, Sarah pulled up the fake identity she’d created for the Frenchman and corrected the information she’d input on his false driver’s ID.  She pulled two names from a database of the most common first and last names in London, searched through his falsified tax returns, and added two children to his list of dependents.  There was an automated program she’d created years ago that handled the particulars of that.  As soon as she finished with the appropriate commands, Sarah’s program began backdating purchases for diapers, clothing, Legos, and Christmas gifts through the requisite number of years.  While that work took place, Sarah moved onto the task of Photoshopping pictures together and arranging for them to rise to the top of any web searches.

She was amazing.  I looked at her work, openmouthed, and felt something stir within my belly.  The sensation was a familiar one and I identified it after a heartbeat: this was how it had felt, in the moments before I’d proposed to her.  This was Sarah at her finest.

Her eyes flickered away from her work, finding my own gaze.  “What?”

“What?”  I blinked and looked away.  “I, uh…”

“You, uh, what?”

“Just thinking that you, uh…I was just wondering how things are going over there?”

Internally, I kicked myself for the sudden inability to form coherent, believable sentences.

“They’re fine,” Sarah said tersely.  “Michel, you’re clear.  It won’t hold up to scrutiny, so you’ll have to keep him from looking too deep into those files.”

I didn’t know how she managed to pull it off, considering the time constraints, but it worked.  On the television screen, I watched as Adlai entered Michel’s fake name into Google.  Sarah finished a few split seconds before Adlai pulled out his phone.  Judging from the slight deflation on the part of the Interpol agent, her work had been successful.

“This does not mean you are a police officer,” Adlai said, after his time searching for flaws didn’t provide any usable ones.  “You could be an opportunist.  Someone who pretends to be an officer.”

That was a weak move, on Adlai’s part.  I spoke the next words into the comms and Michel, dutifully, parroted them back at the agent.

“If I were an opportunist,” Michel said, adding a little sarcastic inflection to the words, “I would have run away as soon as you said that you worked with Interpol.  Why else would I stay and talk to you?”

“That is a very good question,” Adlai said.  “Why did you stay?”

“Because I am getting close to the truth,” Michel said.  “I needed to know if the two of you were people that I can trust.  Are you?”

That was the hook.  If Adlai took the bait, Michel’s hastily constructed cover would do more than just get him out of the room without handcuffs; it would serve as the first step towards pointing Adlai’s talents at the real bad guys.  If it didn’t work…well, Mila was circling nearer to the table, almost within arm’s reach of Lane.  Neither of the Interpol agents had noticed her yet.

Adlai considered the question for a long time.  “Tell us what you know,” he said finally.  “We will see if you have any information we can use.”

“Adlai,” Lane said.  He dragged out the vowel sound and lurched slightly forward.  The look in Adlai’s eyes told me that he attributed the unsteadiness to alcohol and not, thankfully, to the short Hispanic woman who passed by at that exact moment.  “He’s one of us!  If he needs help, we ought to find a way to do that, don’t you think?”

“Hmm,” Adlai replied.  He pulled out a chair for Michel.  “Sit.  Talk.”

Sarah let out an explosive breath and I realized that I’d been holding mine, as well.  “Do you think he really bought it?”

“It seems that way,” I said, without turning away from the screen.  “But we aren’t home free yet.  Michel, I hope you remember the story we’re using.”

Since he couldn’t say anything to me without betraying the presence of an earbud, Michel responded to the question by speaking to Adlai.  We’d managed to pull together a coherent lie in the past few minutes that conveniently contained a reasonable amount of truth.  Michel played the part of an undercover DS, tasked with infiltrating the local drug ring and identifying the man or woman at its head.  The job took him away from his family and, in order to further obscure his true identity, he’d taken on a French accent and worked as a delivery driver for the cartel.  There weren’t many stash spots that he knew about – save the warehouse that Mila had destroyed – but his work had left him in position of vital information that might prove instrumental in dismantling the entire operation.

Michel told the lie with a straight face, more or less; when his composure broke, it still fit with the aesthetic of a cop in over his head.  Occasionally, Adlai poked at one aspect of the story or another, seeking a weakness that he might be able to exploit.  Working at her computer, Sarah managed to close any hole in the story as soon as they came up.  Records were changed or hidden; information concealed or creatively reinterpreted; and some websites were outright blocked.  She did it in such a way that Adlai could not, despite his best efforts, find any solid bit of information he could use to contradict Michel’s story.

Mila retreated from the table and started the process of copying the RFID into Sarah’s app.  That task was automated so, with nothing else to do, she ordered another beer and sipped at it from a shadowed corner.  She played with the coaster while she waited, flipping it between her fingers; a habit I shared with her.  I’d developed mine after quitting smoking, but Mila didn’t strike me as the type of person who would have picked up a pack to begin with.  In another setting, at another time, I would have devoted a part of my thoughts to the mystery.  For now, I noted it absently, but didn’t think about it in any depth.

Lane listened to the first few minutes of conversation, before he excused himself to make a phone call.  Sarah followed the Superintendent’s movements through the security cameras, but Mila wasn’t close enough to hear his words or read his lips.  I watched that camera, while I listened to Michel’s words.

When Michel finished the story, Adlai leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers.  His half-empty glass of water sat forgotten in front of him.  “Tell me what you know about the manor house,” he said in that soft, lightly accented voice.

I blinked.  Michel hadn’t said anything about the manor house.  We’d deliberately excised that from the retelling, because it was one of the only connections to me in the entire case.  “Try to find out what he knows,” I told Michel.

“What are you talking about?”  The Frenchman asked Adlai.

“There was a shootout in the countryside,” Adlai said.  “Someone I have been…looking for was involved, but owning property isn’t his typical method.  It is possible that he has changed his techniques, but…no, I don’t think that is very likely.  I did some research on the area and found that the owner on record was a Mister Hill.”

Michel nodded slowly, but didn’t say anything.

Taking his silence for an invitation to continue, Adlai kept talking.  “Further research shows that this Mister Hill doesn’t exist.  It seems absurd to think that this false identity is not connected, in some way, to this drug kingpin.  I thought that it might be some sort of storage facility, but that did not make sense.  Perhaps some sort of holding area?  A person important to this mysterious Hill, who could not be allowed past his supervision?”  He sucked his teeth.  “I don’t have enough information yet.  Tell me, what have you found out about this place?”

That was the worst thing about Adlai.  It wasn’t just that he was frightfully singleminded.  It wasn’t that he treated his pursuit of me as a personal vendetta.  It was that he was so damned smart.  Courtesy of the Lady’s resources and the information provided by the Texan, we’d managed to find the manor house and divest it of its most valuable property under considerable duress.  That had taken us three days and had come perilously close to costing us our lives.

In less than a day, he’d managed to find out nearly as much we knew.  “If you lie,” I told Michel, “he’ll know.  This is a trap.  Give him just enough to think about that he has to check into it later.”

Michel didn’t say anything for a second.  I knew that he was thinking about what to say next but, to Adlai, it was likely that he would simply appear thoughtful.  “I have heard some things about a place like that,” he said slowly.  “Nothing solid, though.  They say that Hill keeps his books there, perhaps.  I have not heard anything about this shootout, but information is very regulated.  Only the people who need to know would know what really happened, and I am not high enough in the organization.”  He paused for effect.  “Yet, I mean.”

“Ah,” Adlai said.  He sounded…not satisfied, but mollified for the moment.  “If this operation is as large as we think, it would stand to reason that he keeps his records somewhere safe.  But we have men searching through the manor house now, and we haven’t found anything of record yet.”

“There was also talk of someone new,” Michel said.

I hadn’t expected him to say anything, so what he said surprised me.

“Someone new?”  Adlai repeated.

“Yes,” Michel said.  “Some sort of mercenary.  I do not know what he was supposed to do, but the other men talk about him as though he is a bad person.”

“He’s a criminal,” Adlai replied, automatically.  “Of course he is a bad person.  They all are.”

“Still,” Michel said.  “Someone worse than the others.”

I’d been so focused on shifting attention onto Hill that I hadn’t really considered the effect a police presence might have on Aiden’s movements.  I would have applauded Michel for the initiative, if he weren’t so far away.

Sarah’s laptop beeped behind me.  “Does that mean what I think it does?”  I asked.

“Sure does,” she replied.  “I’ve got the right frequency for Lane’s ID and can duplicate it later, when the time comes.  This is a trick that’s only going to work one time, though.  As soon as he figures out his card was stolen, he’ll just replace it and keep a closer eye on it in the future.”

“One time’s all we need,” I said.  “Michel?  Start the blow-off.”

“I have to go,” Michel said to Adlai, in a hushed voice.  “There are too many eyes here.  You will keep this conversation to yourself?  There are not many people in my precinct that know what I am doing.”

“I understand what undercover means,” Adlai said.  “Although I am not still convinced that you are telling me the whole truth.”

“What would you need to know?”  Michel asked.  “Ask me and I will answer, if I can.”

Adlai opened his mouth to say something.  Lane, finished with his phone call, interrupted him.  He was still obviously inebriated, but the worst effects had passed.  “I just called the Chief Superintendent,” he said to both men.  “He’s an old friend of mine, and one of the only men I’d trust not to be a part of all this.”

Shit,” I hissed.  We hadn’t expected Lane to actually know anyone personally in the force.  “Mila, we might be going to plan B in a second.”

“He wouldn’t give me details,” Lane continued, “but he confirmed that they do have someone working undercover.”

“You are sure about this?”  Adlai asked.

“Sure enough,” Lane answered.  He stumbled forward a half step as he jostled from behind, and then extended a hand to Michel.  “You’re doing good work, lad.  I’ll see to it that your information gets put to good use.”

I blinked, turned, and looked at Sarah.  She blinked back.  “You heard that too, right?”  She asked.

“I…think I did.”

Michel had to be even more nonplussed than Sarah and I were, but he rolled admirably with the surprise punch.  He shook Lane’s offered hand, but didn’t break eye contact with Adlai.  “Is that enough for you?”  He asked.

Adlai answered with a noncommittal grunt.

Lane withdrew a business card from his back pocket.  “In case you need to get some information to us, and you can’t get your handler on the line.  You call me, and the two of us’ll see to it that you’re taken care of.  Sound like a plan?”

“That…sounds like a plan, yes,” Michel said.  He accepted the card and slipped it into his own pocket.  “But I must go now.  I have talked to you long enough, and…”

Lane raised a hand.  “Say no more, lad.  Just know you’ve got friends looking out for you.”

“Friends are always a good thing to have,” Michel said.  He left the table with a few quick nods and headed toward the exit.

Mila, walking a little faster than necessary, overtook Michel.  From there, she took a detour by the drunken police officer in the gray hoodie, before meeting back up with the Frenchman at the pub’s exit.

“So,” I said, when they were clear of the building and headed back to the car.  “There’s already someone working undercover in Hill’s organization.”

“Yep,” Mila said.

“And we don’t know who they are, what they look like, or whether or not they’ve gone native?”  Sarah asked.

Non,” Michel said.

“To say nothing of the fact that the most tenacious Interpol agent I’ve ever had the misfortune of encountering now thinks that Michel is actually a police officer, working to destroy Hill’s criminal organization in pursuit of truth, justice, and…well, I guess the British way?”  I asked.

Sarah choked back a laugh.  “We got what we needed, though.  That’s one less thing we have to worry about tomorrow.”

“You say that like this is something normal for the two of you,” Mila said.

“It isn’t abnormal,” I said.

“Is there something you…I do not know, is there something you should say now?”  Michel asked.  “I do not know how these sort of things go, but it feels like you should say something.”

I thought about the possibilities.  Michel had just gone through the most harrowing trial by fire imaginable, and he’d done so nearly flawlessly.  If he wanted an inspirational comment, he damn well deserved one.

What ultimately came to mind wasn’t inspirational, per se, but it was exactly the sort of thing that could initiate someone into our inner circle.  “Way to go, team?”

Chapter Seventy-One

I leaped over the couch and scrambled back to the counter.  “What did I miss?”

“Nothing!”  Sarah’s voice came out in a high pitched squeak.  “Everything was going fine, Lane went to the bathroom, and then…well, you saw!”

Over the comms, I listened to Adlai speak.  “What is this?”  On the screen, Adlai squinted at the mini-camera.  “You are recording this?  Why?”

Michel made a sound in his throat, but didn’t actually say anything.

“Why?”  Adlai repeated as he leaned across the table.  Nothing he did was explicitly threatening – he didn’t even raise his voice – but it was very clear that, if Michel’s answer wasn’t satisfactory, jail was all but a foregone conclusion.

Sarah began inputting commands into her laptop, fingers clattering across the keys at top speed.  “Mila,” she said, “get ready to extract him.  I’ll come up with some sort of distraction.”

“Roger that.”  There was a hint of…something in Mila’s voice.  Regret?  Chagrin?  It was possible that she might have been able to intervene, if she hadn’t taken her eyes off of Michel for her little conversation with the Things.  Perhaps that was bothering her.

At the same time, this was a field-level problem and, therefore, my responsibility to have seen coming.  I didn’t have the time to start wallowing in blame at the moment, however.  “There’s too many people around them,” I said.  “No clean exit without getting civilians involved and there’s still no guarantee that they’ll be able to open up enough of a gap and actually get away clean.  Leaving now causes more problems than it solves.”

“Well, they can’t stay there now!”  Sarah snapped.  “You’re the one who didn’t even want him to go to the table in the first place, and now you’re saying he should stay?”

I closed my eyes for a moment.

“I can’t believe you’re so calm right now!”  Sarah said.

I couldn’t explain it to her.  There was a moment on every job when my thoughts shifted.  Of course, I was concerned about Michel’s safety.  That never went away.  But I couldn’t focus on that; if I allowed my worry to dominate my thoughts, I’d never be able to properly assess the situation.  This moment, when there wasn’t enough time to consider anything past the next few seconds, was where I excelled.  I pushed all of my concern and worry into a little box and sealed it shut.

I looked at the television screen, split into four distinct feeds: the camera Mila wore, the one Adlai held between his fingertips, the general security cameras, and the ongoing football game.  Judging from what I saw, Mila wasn’t close enough to reach Michel before Adlai had a chance to detain him.  There wasn’t any doubt that she could deal with that, but an extraction right now wasn’t the right idea.  Adlai wasn’t the sort of person who could let something like that go.  He’d pursue them immediately and that simply put two more people on his radar.

My mind created, assessed, and discarded plans in the space of seconds.  If Michel left now, that would be problematic.  But, if he didn’t leave now…if he could somehow leave later, in a way that didn’t draw Adlai into pursuit…that option had possibilities.  But how would I pull something like that off?  I needed to explain away a button camera that Sarah had purchased illicitly to the one man on the planet unlikely to accept any story that seemed even the slightest bit implausible.  I could use that suspicion, though, if only…

There was something I’d seen earlier, but not consciously paid attention to.  It floated to the top of my mind.  A plan formed around that single image.  I knew it would cause far more problems down the line, if it worked at all, but it was at least something.  Thinking about tomorrow, after all, required that we all make it there in the first place.

“This is what we’re going to do,” I said.  “Mila, how quickly can you pull off a lift?”

“The faster I do it, the rougher it’ll be.”

“That’s not going to be a problem.”  A horde of people were in the bar, surging and pressing against each other.  There was a rhythm to the madness, however, and I was able to pick out a few key details.  I spent a few seconds searching for a very particular type of person.  Some part of my mind had logged details – body language, general stance, a way of looking at everything without looking at anything in particular – and I swept my eyes across the visual presented by Mila’s camera.

I found what I was looking for a moment later.  “Things are going to get crazy in a second.  As soon as that happens, lift the wallet from the man in the gray hoodie – the one with his back almost against the wall – and slip it to Michel.”

“Crazy?”  Mila asked.  “Do I want to know what you mean by crazy?”

I ignored her and moved onto the next part of my impromptu plan.  “Sarah, watch me for the cue.”

In the throes of frenzied shot-calling, it didn’t even occur to me that I hadn’t told her what the cue would be for.  Explanation was a luxury that could follow later, after the immediate crisis had passed.  Even sticking to complete sentences was more effort than I wanted to spare, but that was necessary for Mila and Michel.

For Sarah, though?  She knew me better than anyone.  Her mind didn’t work the same way mine did – she was far more methodical, better able to think five or ten steps ahead – but our methodologies were still complementary.  She handled the far reaching plan, the general overview of what would happen on a job; I took care of the complications and the ground-level obstacles.  Even though I wasn’t technically on the ground at the moment, those dynamics hadn’t changed.  We both slipped back into the old roles with ease.  Perhaps a little too much ease, judging from the way her lips parted and the pace of her breathing slightly accelerated.

Sarah couldn’t understand the way I shelved fear in the moment, and she couldn’t make the same intuitive leaps I did, but that didn’t matter.  When she nodded, her face didn’t betray even the slightest hint of doubt.  “Got it,” she said, all ten fingers hovering over the keyboard, ready to input whatever command I called for.

The game onscreen was reaching a fever pitch, both teams tied at two points each.  The Scottish midfielders were moving their way up the field, passing around the English team’s defenders.  My knowledge of sports wasn’t terribly solid, but I could sense the flow of the game.  The ball went from a midfielder, up to their star striker who lined up a clear shot on an unprepared goalie and…

“Now!”  I snapped.  “Cut the satellite!”

Sarah hit two buttons at once on her computer and the top window of our television screen – the one showing us the game in progress – went black.  In the pub, each screen did the same.  Almost instantly, the horde of men and women reacted with drunken outrage.  They yelled at the screen and each other, pushed, and jostled as they hurled obscenities at the dead screen.  In that chaos, Mila was free to simply move people out of the way and no one thought much about the relatively short Hispanic woman moving out of the crush of bodies.  She passed by the man in the gray hoodie and, eventually, walked by Michel.

Watching through Mila’s zoomed-in camera, I saw that Adlai had grabbed Michel’s shirt, as soon as the feed went dead.  He must have feared that the Frenchman would’ve fled.  That was how Adlai thought.  That wasn’t the plan, though.

“Turn the game back on,” I said to Sarah.

She did as asked and the chaos quieted slightly.  Apparently the striker had missed the shot, but drawn a penalty in exchange.  Lane had left the bathroom during the chaos and now he made his way back over to the table.  He blinked as he saw Michel’s shirt, held tight in Adlai’s grip.

“What’s this, now?”  He asked.

“I was waiting for this man to explain why he is wearing a miniature camera,” Adlai said to Lane.  Then, to Michel, “Well?  Do you have an explanation?”

Michel looked around nervously.  “I…I…”

“Show them the wallet,” I said.  Internally, I was a long way from calm, but my voice was steady and even.

Michel retrieved the wallet that Mila had slipped him.  Adlai plucked it from his hand and opened it.  The agent’s eyes widened and his mouth gaped open.  “This is your explanation?”

Lane took the wallet from Adlai and held it up so that it faced Michel, allowing Sarah and I to see what I had really hoped would be contained within: a silver and black Detective Sergeant’s badge.  “You’re a copper?”  The Scottish man asked.  “Why didn’t you say so?”

Michel, bless his heart, understood what I’d intended.  “I am undercover,” he said in a forced whisper.  “Please, do not show that to everyone; my cover depends on it.”

“Undercover?”  Adlai asked, not bothering to make any effort to conceal his skepticism.  “That’s why you told us that you were only a cab driver?”

Michel hesitated slightly.  I gestured vaguely at Sarah, trusting in her ability to discern my intent, and fed Michel his next lines.  “Tell him that you don’t know who you can trust,” I told Michel.  “Say that you’ve got to get in touch with your handler, immediately.”

Michel repeated my words to the two Interpol agents facing him.

Lane was more than a little drunk, and it seemed like he was willing to accept the story at face value, but Adlai was still crisp and aware.  If his eyes narrowed any further, it was possible that he’d close them entirely.  “I will go with you,” he said, when Michel finished speaking.

“No!”  Michel said sharply.  His accent shifted slightly.  It wasn’t an exact match for a born Londoner, although it was probably close enough to pass in an environment like the pub.  There was too much ambient noise and chaos for anyone to really parse dialects.  Someone who was also not a native speaker had virtually no chance at all.  “I…will be right over there.”  He pointed at an abandoned table; the people who had been seated there were now on their feet, shouting at the football match.

“Let him go,” Lane slurred.  “We know what he looks like, and we’ve got his name.  If he’s making it up…”  He trailed off and shrugged with one shoulder.

Adlai considered that for a long moment and then nodded.  “Fair enough, I suppose,” he said.  “Right over there.  Do not go any farther than that.  I would like to clarify the situation.”  He handed the camera back.  As far as he knew, there wasn’t anything to be gained from holding onto it.  It wasn’t as if he had any way of knowing that I was watching the encounter and steering the conversation.

Michel took the button and walked over to the empty table.  He was only a few steps away before he hissed into the comms, keeping his voice so low that Sarah had to raise the volume on the line.  “A police officer?”  He asked.  “What am I supposed to do now?”

“You needed to stall,” I said.  “What else were you going to do?”

“A police officer?”  He repeated.

Sarah spoke before I could form a reply.  “This isn’t great,” she said, “but I might be able to work with it.  A little bit.”

Michel reached the table and went through the motions of dialing a number into his burner phone.  It was a good sign that he still maintained the presence of mind to stay in character.  “How?”

“If you’re undercover, you have a perfectly good reason for not looking like a cop,” Sarah said.  “When Adlai tries to check your credentials, and he doesn’t find anything, it will just look like a deep cover operation.”

And,” I added, “it’ll keep him from asking anyone else about you.  It won’t hold up forever, but we only need the story to survive until we can get him pointed at Hill and Asher.”

“And if he asks me questions about who I am working with?  These undercover officers have…what did you call them?  Handlers?”  Michel pressed.  “What am I supposed to do then?”

Sarah tapped me on the shoulder, drawing my attention to the screen of her laptop.  Apparently, she had understood what my vague gesture meant; displayed there, I saw a list of London’s finest, categorized by name and rank.  “Sarah’s sending a list of names to your phone right now,” I said.  “Look over them and start memorizing names.”

“Right now?”

“You wanted to do this,” I said.  “This is what it’s like.  As long as you aren’t trying to make a run for it, Adlai’s not going to pressure you for time.”  There was an unspoken maybe that hung in the air like a storm cloud.

“I…okay,” Michel said.  His phone beeped audibly as he received the file and, a moment later, he started to mutter names to himself.

“What do you want me to do?”  Mila asked.  She’d been silent since I’d put her on pause, which I appreciated.  Multitasking several conversations wasn’t the easiest thing to do, even when my thoughts weren’t already being split in six different directions.

“For right now, nothing,” I said.  “Stay in position.  Try to get closer, if you think you can do it without tipping either of them off.”

“And the badge?”

“That cop you stole it from is drunk as nonsense.  As long as we get it back to him before you two leave, he probably won’t even notice it went missing.”

Mila grunted.  “If you say so.”

I turned to Sarah and made a snipping gesture with my fingers.  She muted both of our earbuds with that familiar double clicking sound.  “How’d you get those names so fast?” I asked her.

“SQL injection,” she said.  “Went to the official website, through the HTTPS port, and…nevermind.  There’s a database and it isn’t protected very well.”

“Good job,” I said.  “I was a little worried that it might take longer than that, but this works a whole hell of a lot better than my other plan.”

“What was your other plan?”

My thoughts traveled back to Ally, and the Hofbräuhaus, and the concert.  “Let just say it wasn’t a very good one.”

She accepted that non-answer with a grunt.  “How’d you know that guy was a cop?”

“Body language,” I said.  “Legs apart, one foot back.  Even drunk, the way he stands isn’t going to change unless he’s falling over.”

Sarah tilted her head and lowered her eyelids slightly.

Fine,” I said, “it was a guess.  A very good one, though.”

Sarah pursed her lips and nodded.  “I forget exactly how good you are at this,” she admitted, after a moment.  That odd look came into her eyes again.  On anyone else, the expression would’ve been easy to read.  When Sarah wore it, I found myself too distracted by the interesting things it did to the shape of her mouth to think clearly.

Michel spoke up.  “Okay,” he said.  “What do I do now?”

Sarah reconnected the lines without needing a prompt from me.  “I can play keepaway for a little bit, as long as they’re using the pub’s wireless,” she said.  “But that’s a stalling measure.”

“We’ll just have to use the time we’ve got creatively,” I said, nodding to myself.  “Michel?  This is how we’re going to play this.”