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.

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