Chapter Eighty-Seven

It was only through an exertion of palpable self-control that I kept myself from asking Sarah not to go through with her idea.  She wouldn’t have listened, at best.  At worst, the implication that she might not be able to handle this task could cause a fight that we couldn’t afford to have.  And, I admitted to myself, she had been absolutely right in her original estimation.  Using Sarah in this way, at this moment, was simply the best option.

Adlai didn’t know that Sarah was working with me, or that she’d been instrumental to some of the greater heists I’d successfully pulled over the years.  As far as he would know, she would be Sarah Ford, scion of a particularly powerful and influential American family.  While she made a point to stay out of the news – unlike her sisters, who consumed every second of available media time like oxygen – Sarah was still a known quantity.

She’d appeared at high society functions sporadically before retiring to San Francisco following the dissolution of our partnership and marriage.  Her full name was listed on copious amounts of legal paperwork; she’d attended a prestigious college; and, during a wild two years immediately following her graduation, the tabloids had flirted with the idea of portraying Sarah as some sort of wild child.  Her public persona was flighty and unfocused, which clashed so horribly with the reality of the situation – Sarah’s ability to focus on, identify, and absolutely eradicate a problem defied logic sometimes – that I still found it hilarious to consider.

Even with the glut of negative press, however, she was still a Ford.  The family held political influence in America and, through clever trade deals and backroom arrangements, possessed connections in several overseas markets.  If Sarah made a request of local authorities, she couldn’t exactly be ignored, without facing potential career suicide.  Adlai wouldn’t necessarily care about that, but he’d follow protocol.  That was, after all, what one was supposed to do.

I thought about all of this, and more, while I drove the van back to the front of Scotland Yard.  When Sarah stood up, before she opened the door to step down from the van, I finally found something to say.  “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“I hadn’t planned to get kidnapped, start a shootout, or blow the building up,” Sarah said.  “If it’s all the same to you.”

I scowled at her.  “You know what I mean.”

Sarah’s expression softened.  “Yeah.  I know what you mean.  You understand how to work this system?”

“Press button,” I replied, in my very best ‘caveman’ voice.  “Speak loud.”

“That’s about the gist of it,” Sarah said.  I noticed, to my great delight, that she was struggling to hide a smile.  “Let me know what the system comes up with about the evidence room, as soon as it pops.  I can probably do most of the work from my tablet, I think.”

“Probably?  You think?”

Sarah shrugged.  “Stop trying to stall.”

I blinked, and then realized that I was trying to keep her from leaving.  “Alright,” I said, after a heartbeat or two.  “Get out of here, you’re cramping my style.”

Sarah started to say something.  She shook her head, dismissing the half-formed idea, and stepped down from the van without another word.  I closed the door for her.

As soon as I did that, I jumped up into her chair and spent a few seconds fiddling with the installed controls.  The joystick on the left side of the repurposed wheelchair was fairly intuitive, but it took me a few tries to master the ability to snap directly to a given monitor and stay there.  When I had that under control, I moved myself to the first monitor and clicked the icon marked ‘Ford,’ switching the camera feed away from Michel to the brooch Sarah had pinned to her lapel before leaving the Halfway House.

Where Michel had simply entered through the security checkpoint, Sarah headed directly to the front desk.  Two officers were stationed there.  One of the two gave Sarah a slow once-over.  “Yes, ma’am,” the officer said.  “How can we help you?”

I rolled my eyes and imagined Sarah doing the same.

“There is something that I would like to discuss,” she said, “with regards to an ongoing investigation.”

She was using her oldest sister’s carriage again.  I wondered idly whether that was a deliberate choice, or simply an accident of circumstance.

The second officer – the one who hadn’t immediately started to undress Sarah with his eyes – lazily began to type information into an older computer in front of him.  “And what officer is working your case?”

“That is a complicated answer.  However, if you tell one Inspector Adlai that a Miss Ford is here to see him…well, I think that will clear things up.”

The two guards took a second, blinking confusion at Sarah and each other, before they drew the appropriate connections.  The first guard immediately blushed and snatched a phone from its cradle.  He pressed two buttons, connecting the front desk to Adlai’s floor, and informed the Interpol inspector that a Ford had arrived to discuss a case.  The officer had to repeat that information several times before, finally, he hung the phone back up again.

“He’ll see you in his office,” the first officer said.  “It’s been a, uh…been a bit of mess around here, what with the renovations and all going on just ‘round back.  You understand.”

“Ah,” Sarah said.  Just the one syllable, delivered so drily that she had to be deliberately playing the character a shade over the top.

“Just, uh…just go right on through the metal detectors over there, and take the elevator straight up to the third floor.”

“Excellent,” Sarah said.

She turned and walked away.  Through the security cameras, I could see as the two officers watched her depart with slack jaws.  When she was far enough away, they felt comfortable whispering to each other like children caught by a stern teacher.

I waited until she stepped into the elevator before laughing out loud.  “Was that really necessary?” I asked.

“Probably not,” Sarah replied, “but it was fun.  Let him worry that I was offended for a little bit.  It’ll do him good.”

My chuckling continued until she reached the third floor and stepped off of the elevator into absolute bedlam.  The relative calm of Michel’s floor and the entryway had lulled me into a false sense of ease, I realized.  Here, on the floor where they were keeping Mila, was where the chaos had been sown.  It seemed like an electric wire of adrenaline had been inserted into the room and subsequently overcharged.

Sarah picked her way through the bullpen, taking great care not to accidentally disturb any of the police officers, until she found a corner of the room that the chaos seemed to have missed: Adlai’s office.

“And here we go,” she whispered to me, and then knocked twice on the door.

A large window allowed me to see as Adlai looked up from his work and, recognizing Sarah after a split second of blankness, waved absently for her to enter.

“I am busy,” he said, before she’d even had the chance to take a seat.  “What do you need, Miss Ford?  I am not aware of any case involving your family; I am not certainly not investigating anything, at least.”

“Is there someone else I can speak to, then?”  Sarah asked.  I frowned.  Adlai had already put her on the back foot.

“My superior is…unavailable, at the moment.  Perhaps you could make an appointment to see him tomorrow?  As you can see, there is a great deal happening tonight that makes it…difficult to sort through information, at the moment.”

He hadn’t looked up from his documents since Sarah had entered the room.  There weren’t any security cameras in the office and the angle wasn’t good enough to allow me a view of his work.  I considered asking Sarah to try for a better look, but I knew Adlai well enough to guess that he’d simply cover everything up if it seemed like privileged information might risk getting out into the public domain.

“That simply won’t do,” Sarah said, doubling down on the ‘idle rich’ affectation.  “This is a very important matter, and time is of the essence.”

Adlai sighed.  “What is the matter, Miss Ford?”

I tuned Sarah out temporarily and slid over to the second monitor to check on Michel’s progress.  He was nearly at the evidence room now and, so far, no one had stopped or questioned him.  One of Sarah’s computers beeped to let me know that it had found the appropriate procedural manual and the correct frequency.

I clicked the comms over to speak to Michel.  “Can you hold that ID card over your phone’s IR port?” I asked.  “I need to change your level of access.”

He removed the wallet from his pocket in a smooth gesture and slipped the ID card out.  I double clicked on the icon marked ‘RFID’ and a single window appeared on the display.

I smiled to myself.  Sarah must have written this program specifically for a luddite’s use; a blinking, bright red button in the center of the screen told me that I should ‘click to activate.’  I did exactly that and, a few moments later, a second window flashed across the screen, notifying me that I had been successful.

“That’ll do,” I said.  “When you get to the evidence room, remember; all you need to do is…well, if you can’t remove the evidence, just misfiling it will buy enough time for us to finish up in London and clear the area.”

“What about Mila?” Michel asked, under his breath.

“Sarah’s in place right now, keeping Adlai from getting any alone time with her,” I assured him.

I glanced over to the screen displaying Sarah’s viewpoint and immediately regretted my optimism.  I assumed that Sarah had given Adlai our agreed-upon cover story, but the Interpol inspector didn’t seem the least bit interested.

“One sec,” I told Michel and switched lines back over to listen to Sarah’s conversation.

“Let me see if I have this correct,” Adlai said.  At least he was looking up from the documents now, but the expression of barely concealed suspicion on his features wasn’t a great improvement from the top of his head.  “You believe that I should drop everything I am doing at this moment, in order to pursue someone who might have stolen your purse?”

“Well, you are an international police officer, aren’t you?” Sarah asked.  “I remember seeing you on the television earlier.”

“There are more important things that require my attention,” Adlai said.  “I will see to it that an officer is detailed to assist you in drawing up a sketch, but if you’ll excuse me, Miss Ford…”  He stood as if to leave.

“Wait!” A little bit of Sarah’s true anxiety bled through into her voice.  That was good; the fictionalized version of herself that she was playing would probably be feeling pretty anxious, too.  “I had very important documents in that purse…it would be disastrous if they were to fall into the wrong hands.  Are you sure you can’t help me?”

What happened next was subtle.  Michel or Sarah would have missed it, had they been in my position.  Any of the Russians almost certainly wouldn’t have caught it and I doubted that Mila would have cared much about the subtleties of micro-expressions.  It was possible that Alex might have noticed, if he’d been given forewarning and been at one hundred percent, but his specialty dealt with making friends instead of analyzing potential enemies.

I was the right person to see it, though.  I knew Adlai well enough to realize that the slight hesitation before he spoke didn’t mean he was unsure of what answer to give, so much as he was debating various options.  His eyes widened by a millimeter – maybe not even by that much – as an idea hit him, then narrowed as he looked at Sarah in a new light.  The right corner of his mouth twitched minutely up, then down.  And, in a movement that was so quick that I might only have imagined it, his gaze flickered away from Sarah’s face and down to the brooch she wore on her chest.

I opened Sarah’s line.  “Shit,” I said.  “He’s not buying it.  I think he knows you’re wearing a camera, too.”

Sarah obviously couldn’t respond with Adlai watching her so intently.  She couldn’t even touch the earbud to acknowledge that she’d heard me.  But the soft, sharp intake of breath was enough of a statement, in and of itself.

“Well,” Sarah said suddenly, rising to her feet, “I suppose if you’re simply swamped with work, I can come back another time.”

“Not at all,” Adlai said.  His eyes were still narrowed as he plastered a saccharine-sweet smile.  “I would be happy to take your statement.  If you would just give me one moment to collect the proper forms, we can begin to figure out what is going on…was going on, I mean.”  The smile grew sharper.  “With your purse, that is.”

“Ah…yes, that will be very good,” Sarah replied.  Reluctantly, she took her seat again.  Adlai returned all of his documents to the manila folder and tucked it underneath his arm before leaving the room.

“You’re staying?” I asked her, as soon as the door clicked shut behind him.

“Well, I can’t leave, can I?  He knows my name, Devlin!  If I try to walk away, he’ll know something’s going on.”

The corollary to that thought became apparent an instant after Sarah finished speaking.  She still had a public identity to maintain.  Whereas I could conceivably change names or go underground until the heat died down, the circumstances of Sarah’s birth made her a person that couldn’t easily disappear.  That wasn’t to say she couldn’t manage it, but doing so would necessitate a complete severing of any relationship that might be used to track her down.

“Maybe lose the brooch?” I suggested.

“And where am I going to put it?” Sarah countered.  “This isn’t the largest office, and I’m pretty sure he’ll notice that I changed as soon as he left the room.”

“Just…give me a second to think about this.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and, as the speed of my thoughts seemed to accelerate, allowed myself to consider all of the options.  Sarah was right; she couldn’t leave the room, so long as Adlai suspected something might be wrong with her cover story.  But he couldn’t have suspected that she was connected to me.  Sarah was too thorough to have left a digital trail he might be able to follow.  Besides, if he had any idea that Sarah even knew my name, he wouldn’t have risked leaving her in the room alone to begin with.

That meant it wasn’t a targeted suspicion.  Adlai was naturally paranoid and the events at the processing plant – which had, presumably, been noisy enough that he’d felt compelled to come to work on his night off – would only have put those senses on high alert.  A member of the prestigious Ford family arriving at the exact time might not normally have put him on edge, but tonight was apparently the night where he second- and triple-guessed everything.

He was looking for a connection and grasping at straws.  Sarah was, metaphorically speaking, the latest straw in his clenched fist.  I needed to think of a way to get her out of that room without elevating her perceived value in Adlai’s eyes.  I needed to…

I knew exactly what I needed to do.  “Sarah, listen.”

“Can’t really do anything else, at the moment.”

“In about three minutes, Adlai’s going to get called away from that floor.  You can use that time to make an escape – I’m sure there’s a back staircase you can find – and get back down to the van.  You’ll have to help Michel through whatever problems he runs into.”

“Why am I going to have to…wait, you aren’t serious.”

I sighed and rose from my seat.  “If I’m remembering this one episode of Law and Order I watched, I should be able to keep my phone for a bit.  No idea how long that’s going to hold up, but it’ll have to do.  I’m leaving my earbud in the car so that there’s no chance of the line being intercepted.”

“Devlin, I can figure something out.  Just give me – “

I deactivated my earbud and removed it before Sarah could say anything else.  I made a point to look away from the screen, in case she was mouthing words into her camera.  A quick check of my person told me that I wasn’t carrying anything incriminating or illegal, which was a small favor in a sea of unfairness.  After a quick instant of consideration, I kept the encrypted cell phone.

I left the keys for the van in the back, underneath Sarah’s seat, and stepped out into the street.  Moving at double speed – this whole gambit would be useless if Adlai returned to the office before I made it inside – I rushed into Scotland Yard and approached the two guards seated behind the desk.

What I needed to do, I realized, was give him exactly what he’d been looking for.  Any attention that might have fallen on Mila or Sarah would evaporate like fog on a hot day the instant Adlai thought he might be able to arrest me.

The officers frowned as I hurried towards them.

“My name’s Devlin O’Brien,” I replied, as soon as I was within earshot.  “I heard you guys might be looking for me?”

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Chapter Eighty-Six

When Michel activated his camera, one of the three screens in the van switched from a static background to a dynamic view of the interior of Scotland Yard.  Judging from the camera image, Michel was moving slowly through the building…not exactly dawdling, but not in any great rush to reach the entry point where the cloned RFID would be tested.  As such, his stolid movement stood out in sharp contrast to the frenzied rush of uniformed men and women, into and out of the building.  The explosion at the processing plant must have been drawing more attention than Sarah had estimated.  Not a single soul stopped to ask Michel who he was, or where he was headed.

He made his way all the way into the building, up to the first of what may very well have been many security checkpoints.  He stopped a little bit before actually approaching the waist-high scanner.

“As long as your phone is switched on,” Sarah said, “I can broadcast the correct frequency.  All you have to do is swipe that card I gave you over the scanner and I’ll handle the rest from here.”

While we could see Michel, he could not see us.  He wasn’t in a position to see the nervous signs that Sarah was sending off like fireworks.  Her left foot tapped an irregular rhythm into the floor of the van, while she bit so fiercely into her bottom lip that I was momentarily worried that she might draw blood.

I switched my earbud off for a moment before speaking.  “Maybe…maybe we can come up with something else?  Mila doesn’t have a record here, so…”

Sarah turned away from her screens to face me.  “Even if you did mean that – and we both know that you don’t – I’m not about to back down now.”

Michel didn’t reply, so I assumed that she had disconnected her line from his.  “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Not unless you’re suddenly an expert in radio frequencies, no.”

I felt…useless.  It was an odd feeling.  I’d been the point man on more jobs than I could count, while Sarah and most of our other transient team members operated around the periphery of the operation.  If something went wrong, I could at least work under the knowledge that the only person at risk of jail was me.  Now, there were a great deal of people in motion, most of which I barely knew, while I was safe and secure in Sarah’s new operations vehicle.

It wasn’t that I wanted to be in danger.  I’d made a career out of avoiding any situation that might lead to incarceration, conflict, or fatalities…at least, I had made a point to steer clear of those problems until this latest stretch of hastily constructed assignments.  But if someone had to be in the crosshairs, it felt infinitely more fair if it was me forced to dodge bullets and talk my way out of trouble.

What was and was not fair, however, had little to do with reality.  I pulled myself out of my thoughts and focused on the screen showing Michel’s field of vision.  He walked the short distance from where he paused up to the scanner, fishing a falsified ID card from his front pocket as he moved, and swiped it over the scanner.

It beeped once…twice…three times, before the indicator light switched from red to green.  The officer seated to the right of the scanner waved a vague welcoming hand in Michel’s direction.  He didn’t even lift his eyes to see what the newcomer looked like.

Michel breathed out an audible sigh of relief.  At that, the officer standing guard finally glanced up.  “Everything all right, mate?”

“Everything’s fine,” Michel replied, in a gruff, low voice.  His natural accent was disguised by the guttural tone, though not completely hidden.

The officer narrowed his eyes at Michel for a moment, then shrugged and returned to reading a paperback novel.  Michel hurried past the man, deeper into the building, until he reached an elevator.  He pressed down the button and spoke into the comms under his breath.  “Which floor am I going to?”

In the van, Sarah pressed a button and her motorized chair slid over to a different monitor, locking into place with a loud click.  The blueprints she’d stolen took up the entire screen.  I noticed that, at some point, she had added a blinking red dot that represented Michel onto the image.  She entered a short command into the computer, which switched the view from the ground floor of the building to the second floor.  Then, again, to the third.  At the fourth floor, she nodded to herself in affirmation of some silent point, and returned to the first screen.

“There are cops on the second and third floors,” she said.  “Probably working on the paperwork Devlin and company threw their way, like the scoundrels they are.”

“Because you had a better plan?”  I shot back.

She merely smiled in response, and continued talking only to Michel.  “Fourth floor is an office level.  Clerks, tech support, that sort of thing.  You’ll want to go there to get access.”

“What about Mila?” Michel asked.

“When I’ve got access to their network, I can find out where they’re keeping her,” Sarah said.  “If I had to guess, they haven’t run her fingerprints yet.  So, she’s probably on the second or third floor.  But focus on the immediate problem; don’t get ahead of the situation.”

It was a slow elevator.  When it finally reached his floor, Michel stepped past a pair of officers grumbling about the late shift and pressed the round button marked ‘4.’  A brief burst of static came over the line and, for a moment, panic gripped me.  The moment passed a heartbeat later.

“Elevator’s blocking the signal?” I asked Sarah.

“Not exactly blocking,” she replied, “but close enough.  I could boost it if I wanted to, but the camera still works.”

I nodded.  “You’re monitoring all of the lines, right?  How are Billy and his boys doing?”

Sarah’s chair slid over to a different screen, so that she could watch Billy’s camera.  She was quiet for a second while she listened and then barked out a sharp laugh.

“What?  What’s so funny?”  I asked.

“At this exact moment,” Sarah said, failing to suppress another laugh, “Billy has gone through at least two supervisors and has several of the workers helping him up to a better position so that he can, and I quote, ‘see how badly you tossers have ruined the whole bloody work site.’  It’s very possible that he’ll get construction done sooner, if we leave him there long enough.”

“You know me,” I said.  “Always happy to help law enforcement.  Anything else I should know about?”

Sarah drummed her fingers across one of her keyboards, not heavy enough to type anything, but hard enough that her nails made a staccato sound.  “Maybe one thing, but it isn’t relevant to this job.”

“We can’t do anything until Michel gets out of the elevator, anyway.  What is it?”

Sarah shifted Billy’s camera feed to the left side of that screen, where it docked into place, and opened another window to fill the remaining half of the screen.  “I’ve been running an automatic web search for anything related to that drug name Mila got from the twins.”

“Things,” I said, immediately.  “We’re calling them the Things.”

One corner of her mouth curved up and my heartbeat quickened in response.  “The Things, then.  Anyway, when you asked me earlier, I only suspected that it might have some sort of medical use.”

“And now?”

“Now, I’m confused.”  She directed my attention to her screen.

I pushed myself up from the floor and peered at the language displayed there.  A few seconds later, I sighed and returned to a seated position.  “I missed a few semesters of med school,” I said.

“Amusingly enough, so did I,” Sarah said.  Considering her family’s connections, I wasn’t at all sure if she was carrying on with the joke or that was the simple, honest truth.  “But the gist of all this jargon is that the drug Mila’s looking for information on is the experimental stages.  It has no recreational uses that I could find, and nothing that might give a mercenary an edge.”

“So, no diazepam, no amphetamines, nothing that might cause a change in adrenaline production?”

Sarah turned fully away from the monitor to give me a stunned look.

I smirked back.  “I didn’t say I missed every semester of med school.”

In actuality, I was merely reciting some information I’d picked up in La Santé from one of Patrick’s gentlemen thieves, regarding a job he’d pulled against a corrupt member of the Royal Air Force’s private estate.  But Sarah didn’t have to know all of that.

Anyway, Doctor Quinn, you’re right.  Maybe this drug combines with something else to have some sort of effect, but I have no idea what.”

“You said it was in the experimental phases?  Experimenting for what?”

Sarah swiveled back to the screen and was silent for several, very long seconds.  “Have you ever heard of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease?”

“Surprisingly, no, I haven’t,” I said, in my very best deadpan voice.

“Alright.  How about Mad Cow Disease?”

“I’ve heard about that,” I said, “but I can’t honestly say I know all that much about what that actually means.”

Behind Sarah, on the screen displaying the feed from Michel’s camera, I saw that he’d reached the third floor.  A pair of men in cheap, ill-fitting suits got on when the elevator stopped, but they were too busy discussing architectural plans to take notice any notice of the Frenchman.

“I’ll keep this short,” Sarah said.  “Mad Cow is sort of a general name for a whole suite of diseases that all…well, the proteins in your brain basically start to eat themselves alive.”

I grimaced.  “That’s graphic.”

“I’m exaggerating, but not by much.  This is an illness to which there are no known cures and the life expectancy, from diagnosis to death, is measured in weeks.  Months, at the outside.”

“And you’re saying that Mila’s mystery drug…?”

Sarah nodded.  “It’s still in experimental stages, but my web crawler found a few reports that indicate some preliminary successes.”

“Why would Aiden be interested in something like that?” I asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine.  I’ll widen the scope of the program when I get back to the Brooklands, and I can actually focus on the task.”  Sarah’s lips parted, and then closed, as Michel finally reached Scotland Yard’s fourth floor.  “We’ll pick this up later.  You’re up.  Well…not really, but you know what I mean. I’m going to stay muted so that I don’t distract him, or you.”

I reactivated my earbud and tuned out the exterior world – Sarah, the other two monitors, every car honking in a vain effort to move through traffic a little faster – so that I could focus entirely on Michel and the small window of his vision that I could see.

The process only took me two seconds.  “Alright, Michel,” I said, when I was ready, “you’re going to want to find an unused work station.”

“If he can find one that’s already logged on,” Sarah said, “that would make things easier.  Either way’s fine, but if we’re trying to shave off every second possible…”

I gave her a nod of acknowledgement.  “Scratch that.  You want someone who’s already using their computer.”

“Okay,” he replied in an uncertain whisper.  “What should I do if I am confronted?”

“Authority is going to be key.  When you were dealing with Adlai and Lane, you wanted to seem interested, but not aggressive.  Go the other way now.  You won’t be dealing with police officers; these are techs, accountants, and clerks.”

“What does that mean for me?”

“It means that none of them are going to want to question someone who even looks like they know what they’re doing,” I said.  “Walk a little bit into the room and then do a turn, so that I can see what you’re working with.”

Michel did as I asked.  The camera jerked a little bit, and I could imagine that he would have looked awkward while turning in place, but luck was on our side: no one looked up from their computers and the rare man or woman who happened to be on their feet was too occupied with their own world to take note of the uniformed officer in their midst.

I spotted a potential mark, seated at a computer near the wall.  “There,” I said.  “White shirt, green tie.  He’s sitting right by the water fountain.  You see who I’m talking about?”

“I see him,” Michel said, after a second.

“That’s who you’re going to move,” I said.  “This is not going to be complicated.  All you need to do is convince him that he’s needed somewhere else.  If he figures out that isn’t true, that’s still okay; we only need him to leave you alone with the computer for…”  I left the sentence open.

Sarah stepped in to provide the answer.  “Thirty seconds, give or take.”

“…thirty seconds,” I finished for Michel.

“How should I convince him to go somewhere else?”

“This is more of an art form than a science,” I admitted.  “You’ll have to play it by ear, but I’ll be right here to help if you end up in a sticky spot.”

In a less clearheaded state of mind, I might have doubted my ability to extricate Michel from a problematic situation quickly, but I wasn’t in a mental place where doubt was possible.  There was the job – get Mila out of police custody and, if possible, remove any physical evidence linking me to either the theft of the crown or the shootout at the manor house – and there were complications keeping us from accomplishing that task.

Michel approached the man I’d targeted.  He was moving cautiously at first but, as he drew closer and the man took notice of the uniformed officer approaching, Michel’s pace increased and the camera angle seemed to be a little higher than before.  He was standing straighter, I realized.

“Good man,” I murmured.  “Remember, you don’t want to let him ask questions.  Keep him off-balance, so that he doesn’t have any choice but to follow where you lead him.  Sarah, I don’t know much about the system here.  What can he use?”

“Paperwork,” she answered immediately.  “They’re incredibly focused on paperwork.  A late form can make or break a case, even though the clerks are hilariously overworked.”

I relayed the information to Michel.  “Stay on offense,” I advised him.

When Michel reached the desk, the man lifted an eyebrow.  “Can I help you?”

“You can help me,” Michel said, using his not-quite British accent, “by doing your job.”

“My job?” The man asked.  He turned fully to face Michel and, conveniently, provided the camera with a view of the ID badge pinned to his chest: David Heathrow.  I entertained a brief moment of distraction, imagining the Lady’s giant, also named David, seated at a desk and plunking away at forms for law enforcement.

Sarah saw the badge, as well.  She immediately moved her seat over to a free monitor and began to search for any publicly accessible information on David Heathrow, but I doubted I’d need the assistance.

“Yes, your job,” Michel said.  “Or were you just going to ignore the memo?”

“Memo?” David Heathrow asked.  “What memo?”

“The memo requesting the latest files on the case,” Michel said immediately.

That was a risk, but such a small one that I felt a fierce surge of pride at Michel’s instincts.  If the clerks here were overworked, there was little to no chance that there wasn’t some case on their docket that required more attention than the others.  Even if that wasn’t the case, Michel had been assertive enough that David Heathrow would almost certainly choose a case to prioritize.

“The Williams case?” David Heathrow asked.  I suppressed the urge to fist-pump.  “That was just a basic smash and grab, and they’ve already got the suspect in custody.  Why would they need new paperwork on that?”

“Things have changed,” Michel said, before David Heathrow could get any further.  “Do you want the suspect to get away because of a technicality?  A technicality that you could have prevented?”

“No, but…wait, who’s asking for these forms?  I caught the lead detective on the case on the way out, and he didn’t say anything about – “ As David Heathrow spoke, his eyes traveled back to his computer screen, presumably to check for the memo that Michel had fabricated from thin air.

Michel actually snapped his fingers in the air, yanking David Heathrow’s attention away from the monitor.  “Did you hear what I said?  You do not have time to waste!”

“But, I could swear that I just saw…”

“Unless you want to spend the time when you could be helping to keep a dangerous man off of the streets searching for a memo that you missed,” Michel said, neatly cutting into whatever David Heathrow was going to say.

“Attacker?  The Williams case was a burglary.

Michel paused for less than a heartbeat.  “I told you that things had changed, no?  Now, hurry!  They will require new paperwork, or else the suspect might slip through the cracks!”

David Heathrow glanced at Michel, then back at his computer, then grabbed an armload of files from his desk.  Michel watched as he rushed over to the elevator, muttering under his breath about the ridiculous stresses placed on simple civil servants as he went.

“Very nicely done, Michel,” I said.  “Now, just plug the flash drive in and let Sarah do her thing.”

Michel pulled the flash drive out of his pocket and slid it into its proper place.  Immediately, a notification appeared on one of Sarah’s monitors.  It stayed there, alternating between blue and black, for twenty seconds before settling into a static color.

“Got it,” Sarah said.  “And we’re in luck!  Mister Heathrow isn’t quite an administrator, but he is connected to one via instant messenger.  One quick message, and…oh Lord, it’s like no one cares about network security anymore.  He actually clicked that link?”

“Uh, Sarah?”

“Sorry, sorry.  The connection inside Scotland Yard is incredibly fast…good for them, better for me.  I’ll have access…in…now!”

Thus far, Sarah had limited her work to two screens.  The third one came to life now and miniature squares of videos tiled across the display.

It took only a few seconds before we found the image we’d been looking for.  Mila sat in a windowless interrogation room, staring resolutely at the featureless wall opposite her.  Her left arm was concealed within a thick plaster cast; her right hand was connected to an odd belt she wore around her waist, and handcuffed into place.  For the moment, she was alone.  I didn’t know how long we had until that situation changed.

Through a different camera, I watched as Adlai walked out of one office, clutching a folder overflowing with documents, and grabbed a seat at a desk to discuss some matter with another officer.  It didn’t surprise me that somehow he’d drawn a connection between the explosion at the processing plant and his own ongoing investigation; the world simply wasn’t good to be kind enough to keep him entirely out of hair.  I signaled to Sarah and she took note of Adlai’s presence, as well.

“Michel,” Sarah said, “we found her.  I’m going to send you a map of the building, highlighting the areas where there’s the most activity; that should lead you to the evidence room.  I still don’t know what security protocols they have in place yet, but I’ll keep receiving automated updates as these files are parsed and decrypted.”

“What will you do?”

Sarah sighed heavily and pressed a button that slid her chair as close to the van’s rear door as possible, before pivoting outwards so that she could stand.  “The whole point of this to keep everyone in motion, so that no one can get pinned down.  Distraction, constantly shifting the battle lines, so to speak.  Never let the law get their feet under them.”

“What does that mean?”

Sarah sighed.  “It’s my turn in the hot seat.  I guess it’s time for the good Inspector to have a sit down with the local representative of the Ford family.”  She turned and gave me a half-smile.  “Mother always did want me to go into law.”

Chapter Eighty-Five

Scotland Yard – it had been New Scotland Yard before my prison sentence – was a monolith of a building.  Eight stories tall, not counting sub-levels or basements, constructed of steel and glass stretching into the sky at the edge of the Thames.  Billy sat in the passenger’s seat of the van, while one of his men drove slowly past the front entrance to the building.  Sarah and I sat in the back, along with the rest of our ragtag group.  Iosif had turned one of Billy’s wheelchairs into a sort of rotating seat for Sarah to work from.  She was able to move backwards and forwards, inputting commands on any of three different monitors, with relative ease and she took full advantage of the mobility.

I tried to remain as still as possible during the ride.  The pressure in my temples had subsided from a pounding roar to an uncomfortable, occasional throbbing reminder but I didn’t want to risk exacerbating that injury with any sudden movement.  Billy’s man kept the van from rattling too much, although the occasional pothole along the way did cause the pain to spike a few times before we finally rolled to a soft stop.

“Scotland Yard,” Billy said, in a grandiose, tour guide’s voice.  “Only recently moved back to its original home, here at the Green Building…where it belongs, if you ask me.  If you look to the left, you’ll see a bit of the London Eye; to your right, you can see the building where our fair city’s noble policemen keep the city of London safe from scoundrels and the like.”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” I asked him.

“If you can’t enjoy your work,” Billy replied, “you ought to get into a new line of business, don’t ya think?”

I couldn’t really disagree with that sentiment.

God,” Sarah said, using her motorized chair to slide back to a monitor in the center of the van’s right wall.  “I’ve got to deal with two of you now?”

I raised both of my hands in mock surrender. “What did I say?”

She looked away from her work, probably preparing some suitably scathing response, but stopped as a thought occurred to her.  “Wait.  You said they just moved here, Billy?”

“A year or two ago, yeah,” Billy confirmed.  “From what the papers said, the old building was too expensive to renovate, so they decided to come back here.  Doesn’t make much sense to me, but I’m not a paper-pusher, so…”

“Well,” Sarah said, interrupting Billy as if he wasn’t still talking, “that might make this a lot easier.”  She slid over to the farthest monitor from the back of the van and began fervently searching through Google pages.  A moment later, the display changed from the recognizable search engine to a black screen with green text.  I didn’t know what that meant, in the technical sense of things, but I recognized it as the screen Sarah did most of her hacking from.

“Care to explain for the class?” I asked a minute later, when I realized that she had no intention of elaborating.

Sarah answered without looking away from the monitor.  “I remember reading that they were going to move back to the old building, but I didn’t look into the timeline.  Honestly, I figured they were finished with renovations, because the old building sold almost a year ago.  But if they’re still constructing – and that would explain the traffic in the area, considering the time of night – then that means there might be a simpler way of getting our recon done.”

“Simpler than just asking someone for information?” Billy asked.

I arched an eyebrow.  “That was your plan?  Just ask someone to tell you everything we need to know?”

He shrugged.  “Nobody thinks twice about the bloke in a wheelchair.”

From his words, and the slightly jocular tone, it would have been easy to miss the way his eyes darkened or how his fist clenched a little tighter for an instant.  I decided not to pursue that point.  “You’re thinking about the construction crews?” I asked Sarah, instead.

She nodded.  “And, if one of Billy’s men can get close enough to one of the architects, I might be able to access that network and pull the building plans.  It won’t be perfect, because there’s no way of knowing which parts of the station are already occupied and in use, but it’ll give me a layout to work with.  When Michel gets us into Scotland Yard’s computers, and I’ve got access to their cameras, I can lay one over the other, and I ought to be able to compile a real time view of who’s in the building and where they are.”

Billy’s fist clenched once more.  I might have been the only one in the van in a position to see the movement.  “So, nothing for me to do, then?” He asked.

Sarah glanced away from the computer and gave Billy a brief, dazzling smile.  “Of course there’s something for you to do.  Any ‘good’ crew of workers needs someone to actually keep them on task.  How good of a foreman can you play?”

Billy was momentarily taken aback, both by the offer and the genuine warmth Sarah displayed.  It wasn’t hard to combine his reaction now to the aggression he’d shown earlier.  I didn’t know if Sarah had somehow guessed at his sensitivities, or if she’d picked up on other clues while I was sleeping.

“I can do that,” Billy said.  “So long as no one asks too many questions, I don’t see why that’ll be a problem.”

“Are you kidding?  I want people to ask questions,” Sarah said.  “That would be the best possible scenario.  With everything going on out by the Halfway House, can you imagine how much attention a disabled foreman could draw if someone had the idiocy to actually say something about it?”

I expected Billy’s fist to clench once more, or for his voice to tighten.

Sarah turned back to her work and spoke while she worked.  “I’m not just throwing you a bone here.  Getting attention away from Michel is one of the key parts of the job, and you’re the best person for it.  So, if you’re going to be touchy about it, let me know now, and I’ll come up with something else.”

“Touchy?” Billy’s smile widened.  “Why, I’d say that plan’s definitely got some legs to it.”

I groaned and, a moment later, everyone in the van did the same.

“What did I do in a past life,” Sarah mused, “to deserve such devastatingly witty team members?”

Billy gave her a sage look.  “Must have been your excellent karma up to this point.”

Sarah responded with a silence that somehow managed to be more pointed than any verbal reply I could imagine.  After a few frigid seconds of that, she spoke to Michel.  “We’re going to let you out here.  Do you remember what you’re supposed to do when you get inside?”

The Frenchman nodded.  “Find a computer as soon as possible and put this into one of the USB ports.”  He fished a flash drive out of his coat pocket and held it up.

“The program I put on there will self-execute,” Sarah said, “and it’s a very small file.  You’ll only need a minute, if that, before you can take the drive out.  I’ll start working on a way to get Mila out of custody and you can start looking for the evidence room.”

“What am I to do when I get there?”

“Wait?”  Sarah’s intonation made the statement into a question.  “I don’t know what security they already have in place to protect that particular area, but I’ll have a better idea about how to bypass it once I’m past their firewall.”

She did not say anything past that point, but I could hear the unspoken thoughts that followed as clearly as if she’d said the words.  There were so many possible points that could go horribly wrong before Sarah had the cameras.  Much of the early part of the plan rested squarely on Michel’s ability to improvise his way past any obstacles or complications.  Things would become simpler for him once we had greater access, but until then…

“I understand,” Michel said.  I squeezed his shoulder in silent support as he moved past me and opened the back door of the van.  There weren’t any officers nearby to question why a uniformed cop was exiting what was obviously a civilian van, thank God.

“Keep your earbud on and your camera pointed forward,” Sarah advised.  “We’ll give you the signal to make your approach, as soon as we’ve got a distraction going on around the back.  That should keep anyone from asking too many questions.”

The unspoken ‘hopefully’ was so loud in my head that I averted my eyes for a moment.

Michel nodded once more and closed the door to the van.  Sarah drew in her breath and let it out slowly.  “Take us to the back of the place,” she said.  “That’s where the construction crews should be working.”

While Billy’ s man drove us around, I slipped my own earbud in and activated it.  The double pop let me know that I was connected.  In a short break between fervent typing, Sarah passed earbuds out to everyone in the van, and they followed suit.

“She’s going to keep us muted from each other, for the moment,” I explained, as Billy and his guys switched the earbuds on.  “By and large, Sarah will be the only one with full access to the comms, but we’ll link you in, as needed.”

“Not exactly true,” Sarah said.  I raised an eyebrow.  “Remember, I’m going in this time.  You’ll have to man the communications system while I’m out.”

A brief examination of the monitors arrayed against the opposite wall of the van was intimidating enough that blood began to recede from my cheeks.  “That’s…probably not the best plan.  Are you sure you can’t just…you know…”

“What?  Carry a laptop into Scotland Yard and just hope that no one asks why I’m constantly talking to myself?”  Sarah shook her head.  “The communications system isn’t complicated.  I’ll give you a quick overview before I go in, but it’s mostly point and click.  All you’ll need to do is keep an eye on the cameras – I’ll put those on this monitor right here – and connect the lines if someone needs to share quick information.  Honestly, you could just keep all the lines disconnected and handle the crosstalk by yourself, if it’s really that much of a problem.”

“No, no, I can handle it.”  The external confidence I displayed was a good deal larger than the internal confidence I actually felt, but I locked my doubts away.  If Michel could grift his way into the headquarters of police operations here in London; if Sarah could go into the field, for the first time since we’d met at that benefit so many years ago; if Billy and his guys could risk appearing in public, on the off chance that they might be able to help someone they barely even knew…well, then learning a little bit about computers was the least I could contribute.

“There’s a dumbed down version of the same program on that smartphone,” Sarah said.  “Again, just in case things go sideways and you have to get out of the van.”

“Dumbed down?  How dumbed down are we talking?”

“It’s got two options: complete mute or completely active.  Either no one hears anything or everyone hears everything.”

I drummed a quick beat into the floor of the van.  “What are the pros and cons to that?”

Sarah shrugged.   “In case something like the processing plant happens again, I figured it’d be useful if we could quickly connect all the lines without having to waste time doing it manually.  Especially since you’ll be the one who has to link everyone up, and you’re hardly an expert.  No offense.”

I shrugged back.  “None taken.”

“Be careful, though,” Sarah said.  “If you leave the van, that means you’ll be the only one with remote control over the communications system.  Basically, if you link us all up for some reason, you’re the only one who can separate the lines again.  So getting back to the van as soon as possible should be the priority.  Got it?”

I nodded my understanding back at her.

The occupants of the van sat in silence for the next minute or so, while Billy’s guy picked his way through traffic until we reached the rear of the Curtis Green building.  We could no longer see the Thames or the London Eye; instead, in place of the spectacular view, we were now confronted by the skeleton of a great building in progress.  Men in hard hats and bright orange vests milled aimlessly from one pile of rubble to the next.  Sledgehammers, huge wrenches, and other assorted tools were scattered across the ground and a persistent cloud of thick gray dust floated in the air.

I was a little surprised to see anyone still working – the sun was hours away from rising – but no one seemed to pay much attention as we pulled into an open space and parked.   “This should be close enough,” Sarah said.  “I can see their network, even if I can’t log onto their wireless yet.”

“So, just making sure,” Billy said, smirking slightly.  “You want me to make a show of things?”

“Keep everyone guessing as to exactly who you are,” I advised.  “People really don’t want to ask questions, and they’re perfectly content to assume someone else knows more about what’s going on than they do.  If anyone challenges you about your credentials, challenge them back or just imply that you’ll go over their head.”

“To who?”

I shook my head.  “No clue.  Doesn’t really matter, though.  Everybody’s got a boss.”

“And that’s who we want you to meet,” Sarah said.  She pointed at Billy’s phone on the dashboard and he handed it back to her.  She plugged a USB cord into the charging port and input some commands while she spoke.  “The higher up we can get, the more likely it is that we’ll find someone with access to the building’s blueprints.  As soon as we have that, assuming that people continue to be lazy about security, I’ll be able to give Michel specific directions through the station.”

“And what if I run into someone who is not stupid about security?”

Sarah scoffed in answer to that.  “You mean, what if pigs start to fly?”  She handed the phone back.  “Just get close enough and I’ll handle the rest.”

Normally, I would have pointed out the danger of invoking fate with that attitude, but she was right.  While the intricacies of Sarah’s digital work remained an enigma to me, I couldn’t deny that every job I’d pulled had taught me a single, inalienable fact: marks are always stupider than they think they are.  That wasn’t to say that I was necessarily smarter, but people react typically to similar stimulus.  Anyone working on the site of a major renovation job would want access to the plans and they wouldn’t want to go through a complicated login procedure every single time he or she needed to double-check something.

I glanced out of the window and saw that the workers nearest our van had moved over to an area closer to the building itself.  They had left behind a small pile of gear: hats, vests, and a tool-belt brimming with hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers, and the like.  “Alright, gentlemen,” I said.  “You’re up. You get the same advice as Michel; keep your earbud in.  I’ll call any audibles as I see them.  And don’t forget to turn on your cameras.”

Billy directed his men to help him into one of his wheelchairs and, with a little assistance from me, we lowered him to the ground.  Sarah handed me a clipboard with some generic plans clipped in place, and I passed that back to them, as well.  The men quickly slipped into the discarded safety gear, without any interference from the actual construction workers, and started to traverse the ground toward the building proper.

Billy was too far away for me to hear with my own unaided, but I could still see him as he approached a group of men taking what seemed to be a very late, or very early, lunch break.  Judging from the wild gesticulation coming from Billy, and the way the men scrambled to their feet, he must have opened up by calling them lazy.  These were third shift workers; I had little to no doubt that they’d want to move his complaint up the ladder as quickly as possible.

Within five minutes, I was proven correct.  A suited man in a hardhat approached Billy, his men, and the hapless construction workers.  He pointed at a clipboard in his hands; Billy responded by doing the same, except much more forcefully.

“What are they saying?”  I asked Sarah.

She switched the comms from her personal earbud to the van’s speaker system.

“You mean to tell me that no one gave you the updated plans?”  Billy was asking.

The suited man flinched slightly away from Billy.  “I think I’d know if they had – “

“If they had what?” Billy interrupted.  “They’d call down to tell you if there was a problem with the money?  Really?”

Several seconds of stunned silence.  I imagined the face of the suited man – stunned, confused, insulted –  so clearly that I felt I could almost see it.

“I’ve been in constant communication with the bosses,” the suited man said, “and I haven’t heard a thing about any changes.  In fact, I haven’t heard anything about you.  What did you say your name was?”

“And that,” Sarah said into the earbud, for Billy’s benefit, “is all I needed.  Your friend there is a foreman, but not one of the higher positioned ones, if his work ID is any indication.”

“How’d you get that?” I asked.

“The firm that handles the construction is moving to a more digital system,” she said.  “This guy would scan his phone to get access to anything inside of the building.”

“But…?”

“But,” Sarah continued, “if he isn’t physically at the offices, he just logs into the network remotely.  But that’s such a pain, so he went ahead and told his phone to just save the information.”

“People,” I said sagely, “continue to be stupid.”

“Imagine my surprise.”  Sarah grinned.  “Billy, I’ve got what I need.  He won’t be able to check your story unless I let him.  Keep him there, and start a distraction.”

Straining my eyes, I could see as Billy nodded his assent.  “So, what are you saying, exactly?” He asked the suited man.  “That someone in a wheelchair couldn’t possibly be a foreman on a construction site?”

“What?  That…that isn’t what I said,” the suited man replied.

“It sure sounded like that’s what you were saying,” Billy shot back.  “Go get your superior; I think I’d like to go over this with him.”

“I, uh…”

“Now!”

The suited man rushed off.  Billy maneuvered his wheelchair to face the group of men he’d accosted in the first place – he made the process considerably more difficult than it had to be, I noticed – and yelled at them to get back to work.

A noise drew my attention back to the monitor Sarah was working on.  The black screen and green text had been replaced by a blue screen with white lines drawn across it: the architectural plans for Scotland Yard’s renovation.

Sarah activated Michel’s line.  “Distraction is underway,” she said, “and I’ve got the blueprints.  You should make your approach now, and I’ll walk you through the layout.”

There was a stretch of tangible silence from Michel’s end of the line, before he cleared his throat.  “Roger that,” he said.

I leaned carefully against the inside wall of the van, and massaged my temples with the thumb and index fingers of my unbandaged hand.  The headache there was still manageable but I knew – knew it as an absolute certainty, like gravity, death, or taxes – that it would be far worse before everything was said and done.

Chapter Eighty-Four

I blinked at both Sarah and Michel.  “What?”

“She’s one of ours,” Sarah said.  “Nothing would have happened to her if she hadn’t been doing her job, keeping you safe.  I’ll be damned if I’m about to start abandoning people to the mercies of the criminal justice system now.  Especially considering what started all this, by which I mean Asher’s…flexible definition of loyalty.”

“This is what you wanted to do, no?” Michel added.  He scratched uncomfortably at the collar of his policeman’s uniform.

“I mean…yeah,” I said, “but I didn’t expect…I mean, I just figured that…”

Sarah dismissed my stuttering with a lazy hand.  “You’ve had this information for about five minutes.  I’ve been tracking her since I got on site, and I’ve been using that time to come up with some vague outline that might be good enough to get us into the building.”

“And from there?”

She shrugged.  “I’m starting to realize that there’s really no point in planning beyond the immediate next step.  The best laid plans, et cetera, et cetera.”

I glanced at the outline on Sarah’s screen.  While I understood the individual words written in the bubbles displayed there, the sum total of their meaning escaped me.  I blamed my mental fog on the head trauma.  “How are we going to do this, then?  Shouldn’t you get back to your command center in the Brooklands?”

Sarah shook her head.  “I tried to get into Scotland Yard’s network a while ago, when you first showed up at the black market.  Either they’ve changed protocols or they hired someone with half an idea about how to secure a system; the punchline is that I can’t get into their system unless I’m actually logged into their wireless.”

I gave her a blank look, which was only partly an affectation.  “In small words, for those of us recovering from serious head injuries?”

She rolled her eyes and responded in a forced, obnoxiously slow voice.  “I have to be within a few dozen yards of Interpol,” Sarah said.  “Maybe closer, maybe farther.  I’ll know more when I’m actually there.”

“How are you going to get a full setup close enough for that?  Is Sophie going to…I don’t know, rent out a nearby apartment building?”

Sarah opened her mouth, paused, and tilted her head.  “I…had not considered that.  But, no…even if she could pull that off – and I’m not sure she couldn’t – that’s a little too high profile for what I’ve got in mind.  Billy here volunteered his assistance and one of his personal vehicles.”

Now, I turned disbelieving eyes at the man in the wheelchair.  Billy spread his hands wide and pointed his palms at the ceiling.  “I’m a man of my word,” he said.  “You pulled off the job I sent you on, despite considerable complications.  More than that, you saw to it that my boys Chester and James got back here safe.”

“A kingpin with a conscience?”  Again, my thoughts travelled back to the elegant Lady and her personal giant.

Billy winced.  “Please, mate; I’m a businessman, and these are my associates and employees.  I look out for them, and they do the same for me.  You put yourself on the line for me and mine; throwing in a little aid to get your mate out of custody is the least I can do.”  He smiled wistfully.  “Besides, it’s been a while since I got to do anything in the field.  I’m actually looking forward to it.”

“You worked in the field?”

“Not as a thief,” Billy said.  He wheeled himself to the other side of the bed, closer to Sarah’s laptop.  “But I used to run for the previous king of this little hill.  Haven’t done anything since this happened, but I think I’ve still got what it takes.”

Sarah met my eyes, reading the unasked question contained within them, and nodded.  “We need people.  Stani went back to report to his superiors about the incident at the processing plant.”

“What about Iosif and Leonid?”

“He’s loaning them to us for the duration of this particular operation,” Sarah said.  “His words, exactly.  They aren’t exactly happy about the arrangement, but they’ve been following my orders so far.”

I didn’t understand what talents the bulky Russians might be able to provide.  Of course, I’d only seen them in situations where my life had been immediate danger so far, and they’d proven useful enough in Kiev and at the plant.

Sarah must have read confusion in my expression because she chuckled softly to herself.  “I’m not bringing them with us.  But the right-handed one is surprisingly good with electronics.”

“Iosif,” I said.

“You can tell them apart?”

“Oh, sure,” I replied.  “Iosif’s just a regular bundle of laughs.  Leonid’s more of the strong, silent type.”

Sarah searched my face for several seconds before realizing that I was kidding.  “Well, whatever.  I did use Sophie to transport some of the more sensitive components of my setup at the hotel out here, and the Russians are wiring it to the power supply in Billy’s van.”

In all the years we’d worked together, it had never occurred to me to convert Sarah’s setups from the stationary battle rooms she preferred to a more mobile setup.  Now that she’d thought of it on her own, it made sense as a permanent solution.  Ever since we’d landed in London, a good portion of our time had been spent transferring files from one system to another, or ensuring that the Lady hadn’t bugged our latest computer purchase.

“Your vans have special wiring?”  I asked Billy.

“Well, as you may have noticed, I have somewhat special requirements for transportation,” Billy said.  A part of my thoughts noticed that he rarely referred directly to his legs, or the resultant handicap.  Another question, perhaps, for a time when there were fewer immediate problems that required my attention.  “As it turns out, I had a model that your lovely lady here was able to repurpose.”

Sarah shot Billy a malevolent look.  “Are we going to have another talk about my name, and the consequences if you continue to not use it?”

He raised his hands in surrender.  “Sorry, sorry.  Force of habit, you understand.”

Sarah turned up her nose at Billy before returning her attention to me.  “I’ve got the general outline for the approach figured out.  We can probably use the same plan we talked about before; everyone’s on high alert, but Interpol and the local police department are all over the place dealing with the explosion at the plant.  As soon as the Russians finish setting up my station in the van, we’ll head over to the area and start fine-tuning from there.”

Michel had been very quiet since entering the room.  I directed my next question at him.  “And why, exactly, are you wearing a policeman’s uniform?”

“It is not exactly the uniform these police wear,” Michel said.  “But it is a close approximation.”

I sat back down on the bed and waited for an actual answer.

“When Michel stole the ID in the bar, I went ahead and cloned the cop’s cell phone,” Sarah said.  “He kept drinking for another few hours, judging from the security feeds, and I’ve traced his phone to an apartment almost thirty minutes away on a good night.”

“Meaning…?”

“Meaning,” Sarah said, “that Michel’s already got a cover we can use.”

I wanted desperately to protest to that idea, but it had too much merit to dismiss outright.  No one was going to be checking IDs in the middle of a possible crisis.  Properly attired and clearly in possession of the proper RFID codes to allow him access into the building to begin with, there was every possibility that no one would look twice at Michel.  If he could get inside the building, he might be able to use one of Sarah’s USB drives into a connected station.  Even if Michel couldn’t get close enough to a computer to do that, it still gave us a pair of eyes on the inside.

Of course, that was the best case scenario.  At worst, he might be discovered and charged with impersonation of a police officer.  Even worse: the officers might decide that he had some connection to the explosion.  From there, I didn’t want to imagine what charges they could levy against him.

“You came up with this idea?” I asked Sarah.

“No,” Michel answered.  “I did.”

“Well…alright,” I said, instead of a dozen other ideas that quickly came to mind.  “Sarah, walk me through our respective parts here.”

Sarah moved the computer screen so that it faced her once again and scanned through the flow chart.  “Recon’s going to be mostly Billy and some of his men.  We can’t risk being seen before we infiltrate.”

“Which men?” I asked.

“James follows orders,” Billy said.  “Chester had a bit of a problem with following your calls, or so I hear; I’m giving him a bit of a time out, and bringing along two of the younger boys I use for runs.”

“Okay.  I can probably work with that.”

“Glad to hear it,” Sarah said.  “Although, if you couldn’t, I don’t really know what else we would have done.  Anyway, after the recon, I should hopefully have access to their network.  All I really need is someone to forget to turn their phone’s Bluetooth off.  From there, I can get started on their internal security system.  I’ll have screens set up inside of the van; those’ll let me keep a watch on the people inside the station.”

I could wrap my head around the shape of the plan so far, even if the details were beyond my ability to understand.  I nodded to signal that I was following along.

Sarah returned the gesture and continued speaking.  “Michel can use faked credentials and the RFID card to get inside the building.  I’m not hoping to use him to actually get Mila out of custody; all I need is for him to finish the job of getting me past their network security.  After that’s finished, I’ll have to automate most of the work and hand the rest off to you and Billy.”

“Hand it off to…you’re keeping me on the bench?”

“You’re injured,” Sarah said, flatly.  “You won’t be able to move as quickly and you’ve mentioned your own head injuries in this very conversation.  If I put you in the field, that’d be another liability that we’d have to account for.”

I felt my face shifting into a childish pout.

“Think about it this way,” Sarah said.  “If it were one of us in the same condition, what would you tell him or her to do?”

Instead of answering that, I allowed my expression to darken by a noticeable degree.  “What if I have to get involved?  Just to keep someone from disrupting the plan, if nothing else?  I can’t watch the screens if I’m anywhere other than inside the van.”

Sarah sighed and bent over to dig inside of her purse.  A moment later, she found the object of her search and held up a smartphone that was almost entirely composed of a glossy screen.

“Another burner?” I asked.

“Yes and no,” Sarah replied.  “This whole experience has made me realize that we need to be better able to communicate when we aren’t standing right next to each other.  There’s an app on that phone that’ll allow you to connect to any active cameras, one at a time, so you can keep up with what we’re each doing.  I’m going to give one of these to everyone on the team eventually, but I only had time to work up a prototype of the program while you were, uh…recovering.”

I accepted the phone and tested its weight in my hand.  It was light enough that I legitimately feared I might break it on accident, but the quality of its construction let me know that Sarah had acquired a top of the line model.  I doubted I’d be able to do any serious damage to it without extreme negligence or incredibly poor luck.

“Also,” Sarah added, “I’m getting tired of buying burner phones.  That one’s encrypted above and beyond anything that someone should be able to crack.”  Pause.  “Ideally.”

“Well, as long as that’s figured out.”  I shifted my weight slightly so that I could slip the phone into my pocket.  It bumped against the phone I’d been using – Alex’ phone, borrowed from him back in Munich – so I removed the older model and placed it on the bedside table.  “What do we do after you and Michel get inside the building, assuming everything doesn’t turn to shit before we get that far?”

“Honestly?”

I gave her a vague gesture of acknowledgement.

“I’ve got no idea,” Sarah said.  “Without a clear visual of the interior, I can’t really come up with a solid chain of events.  We’ll be flying completely blind.”

“As opposed to partially blind,” I said, sighing and leaning back slightly.  “Which has been our MO for the last couple of days.”

“At least we know going in that we’re going to have figure things out on the fly,” Sarah offered, in a slightly sarcastic, slightly hopeful tone.

“Billy,” I said, shifting my eyes over to the man in the wheelchair.  He faked surprise at the attention.  “We’re going to need to borrow some of that product we got out of the plant.”

“It’s not my place to judge what a man does in his free time,” Billy said, “but I don’t know that this is really the right time to partake of any pharmaceutical products.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Not for me to use.  Sarah and I have other plans for it.  We don’t need a lot; just enough to make sure that the law enforcement starts paying attention to the quality of the product getting into the country.”

He was quiet for a few seconds as he worked through the implications of that sentence.  I recognized the look on his face; I’d seen it in mirrors on more than one occasion, in the midst of one job or another throughout the years.  When he reached the proper conclusion, his eyes lit up.  “You want to turn the police against Hill?”

I nodded.

“That’s a bit of risky business, isn’t it?”  Billy smiled, broad and sincere.  “And you’ll still be doing a good bit of work to support my side of things while you’re at it, too.  I don’t know what the police will do about it – Hill’s got his fingers in quite a few dirty pockets – but being the focus of an investigation, right after losing two major parts of his operation can’t be good for his business.”

Billy couldn’t know why we actually wanted the product and I was in no mood to correct his assumption.  “Sure.  I’m nothing, if not thorough.”

“I’ll have the boys bring a bit of the goods and load it into the van right now,” Billy said.  “When do you want to get moving?”

“I don’t know how long it’ll take before they get around to processing her,” Sarah said.  “Could be an hour, could be a couple of hours.  The sooner we get her out of there, the better it’ll be for all of us.  Dev, how soon do you think you’ll be able to move?”

As if in answer to that question, Iosif opened the door and searched the area until he found Sarah.  He spoke a couple of words in Russian; she replied in the same language, and he left as quickly as he’d arrived.  “He says it’s done,” Sarah translated.

“There’s your answer, Billy,” I said.  “We get started right now.”

Chapter Eighty-Three

I was aware of two things, even before my eyes opened.  One: some sort of weight pressing against my upper chest.  The weight moved slightly as I stirred, beginning the long climb out of sweet unconscious bliss.  Two: four distinct tracks of warmth in my clenched fist, and a complimentary fifth line across the back of my hand.

A third realization came to me, gradually.  I was in a bed or cot.  My internal sense of balance told me that I was lying horizontal, but the surface beneath me was too uniform to be simple earth or a floor.  From that, I guessed that Iosif had managed to get us away from the destruction at the processing plant.  My current location was still a mystery.  The fog of sleep, mixed with a haze that could very well have been caused by a concussion, made it difficult for me to think much further than that immediate fact.

I didn’t want to wake up – every inch of my body had begun to call out for my attention, as if the nerves themselves had waited until I came back to reality – but awareness came anyway.  I blinked once, twice, and then looked around to take stock of my situation.  The lack of a shirt caused me to have a moment of severe modesty-induced panic, until I felt the fabric of my pants brush against my leg.  Bandages were wrapped around my torso, tight enough that I had difficulties drawing in complete breaths.  I still had a headache, but it was a bearable one.

I was in a bed.  Not the luxurious one I had at the Brooklands, but any port in a storm was better than none.  The mattress was bare enough in some places that I felt springs poking into my back.  Any attempt to move myself away from those minor discomforts only put me into contact with new springs, inflicting new pains to my already battered torso.  I groaned, put one hand under me, and pushed into a more upright position.

The weight on my chest – Sam, apparently – meowed quizzically at me as I sat up in bed.  He jumped down from the bed in a smooth movement, landing on the floor without making a single sound, and prowled a short distance across the floor until eventually collapsing into a white heap at the foot of a chair.  Seated in the chair, asleep but still holding tightly to my hand, was Sarah.

She looked so peaceful when she was asleep.  It had been years ­– practically a lifetime – since I’d had the opportunity to see her like that.  That thought brought a surge of emotion that threatened to drown me; hastily, I reconstructed my mental walls and pushed those feelings away.  Still, despite a burning desire for a status update, I couldn’t bring myself to wake her.

Billy had no such compunctions.  “Gave us a bit of scare, didn’t ya?”

In my peripheral vision, Billy was in the process of wheeling himself over to my bedside.  At the sound of his voice, Sarah sleep-snorted and then rejoined me in the land of the conscious.  Her transition to wakefulness was slower than mine by a good margin.  At first, she looked blankly at me, her mind slowly beginning to work again; then, after fifteen or twenty seconds, her eyes widened and she squeezed my hand hard enough to hurt.  “You’re up!”

“Of course he’s up,” Billy said.  “Your fancy doctor said he’d be alright, didn’t he?

I swallowed a mouthful of saliva to moisten my throat.  Of all the injuries I’d incurred in the night’s catastrophe, the rawness of my throat seemed the most immediately uncomfortable.  “Doctor?” I managed to croak out.

“I figured I might as well use the resources we had,” Sarah said.  “As soon as Stani and his guys got you back here, I dragged Michel out of bed and Sophie arranged to have a private doctor sent over to have you looked at.”

“Avis?  Neal?”

“She was up, working through some of the files; Neal was asleep.  I didn’t bring them, because we don’t really know them and this is kind of a personal thing.”

I nodded silently.  Distracting Avis from her decryption would do more harm than good, and it wasn’t as though either she or Neal possessed any skills that might be useful.

“You…you weren’t waking up,” Sarah said, “and there was so much blood that I…I almost thought…”

I tightened my grip on hers.  “I’m fine,” I rasped.  “Although I could do with some water.”

Sarah started to stand up, but stopped as Billy produced a water bottle and set it gently on a table to my left.  “Your doctor’s been taking care of the rest of you boys,” he said.  “Patching up cuts and scrapes, mostly, though one of those Russians is going to have a nasty scar on his arm, I’d wager.  You think I ought to have him come check you out, now that you’re staying on this side of the Pearly Gates?”

I unscrewed the top of the water bottle and swallowed several mouthfuls of the liquid before replying.  It didn’t make the pain there any weaker, but I found that I could at least communicate without sounding like a crypt keeper.  “Maybe in a little bit,” I said.  “What’d I miss?”

“You mean, aside from widespread property damage and general mayhem?”  Billy smiled at me and I thought the gesture might have been a genuine one.  I did like him.

“Yeah.  Aside from that.”

“Your Russians managed to get a good distance away from the plant on two flat tires before they ditched the van,” Billy said.  “After that, they took turns carrying you for a while until this divine specimen of a woman and the Frenchie arrived to bring all of you the rest of the way here.”

“Here?”  As soon as the words left my mouth, I looked through the doorway and saw two children taking a seat at a cafeteria style table.  “Nevermind, the Halfway House.”

The corners of Billy’s eyes scrunched together.  “Is that what you call it?”

“Ignore him,” Sarah said.  She untangled her fingers from mine and walked across the room.  “Doctor!  He’s awake now.”

I waited until she was sitting before I asked my next question.  “Did James and Chester tell you what happened before that, Billy?”

“You mean, about the trap?”  The smile faded from his lips.  “They got back a good while before the rest of you, so they had plenty of time to walk me through the raid.”

“Hill leaked you bad information,” I said.

“Apparently so.”

“Do you have any idea who might have been the mole?”

Billy was quiet for a few seconds.  “Could be that someone just made an honest mistake,” he said, finally.  “Wouldn’t be the first time a bloke’s used misinformation to get his way of things.”

“Could be that,” I agreed.  “Do you think that’s really how it went down, though?”

He shook his head slowly.  “No.  No, I don’t.  There’s a mole in my house somewhere.  I’ll have to figure out who that is at a later date.”

I let my posture slip and took another drink from the bottled water.  “You needed that, uh…product to keep this place up and running, didn’t you?  What’re you going to do now that you can’t be sure what information to trust?  You can’t go another raid.”

Billy blinked.  “What are you…oh!  That’s right, you just woke up.  Nobody told you that part yet, I suppose.”

“That part?  What part?”

“As it turns out, the van you guys stole was loaded with the real stuff,” Billy said.  “More of it than we’ve ever gotten on a raid before.  Purest product I’ve ever seen.  With that load, I can do a lot of business with a lot of people.  This…what’d you call it?”

“The Halfway House.”

“Well, the Halfway House is in no danger of closing its doors anytime soon.  Might even be able to do something about cleaning up that Black Market outside.”

I scratched at my scalp with my free hand, noting absently that my palm was covered in a thick, white lotion.  “Hill kept actual product in the building that he knew you were going to attack?”

Sarah cleared her throat and gestured for Billy to toss her one of the bottled waters.  “He’s cocky,” she said, after draining a third of the bottle in a single pull.

“Cocky doesn’t equal stupid,” I countered.  “Just because he had a plan in place doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have taken precautions just in case something went wrong.”

“This is the same man who attends an annual or semiannual party specifically designed to allow rich people to show off their rich things,” Sarah pointed out.  “He thought he was smarter than Billy, and he didn’t want to waste an opportunity to turn a little more profit.  Hill is hardly the only person to start believing their own press.”

“Fair enough,” I guess.

Sophie’s doctor came into the room and the three of us lapsed into silence while he checked me over.  The process took maybe twelve minutes, during which Sarah left the room to attend to some matter or another and Billy gave orders to some of his men to catalogue the haul from the processing plant.  When it was finished, the doctor gave me a bottle of lotion and informed me that I was lucky to have only gotten away with first degree burns after touching metal of an indeterminate temperature.  I didn’t have a concussion and the vest I’d worn under my clothing had managed to keep my insides, more or less, inside of me.  There were two fractured ribs, however, and a laundry list of other more minor injuries that would need to be monitored.

I listened patiently to his recitation of symptoms, treatments, and damages while the majority of my mind disengaged and thought about the larger issues.  If Billy had consented to allow us to use the Halfway House for the moment – and if the tone of his voice, or the jocularity of his comments, were any indication – it stood to reason that he considered the job completed.  If not ideally, at least to his satisfaction.  The damage we’d caused to Hill’s processing plant went well beyond ‘sabotaged.’  The size of the last fireball I’d seen, just before I’d lost consciousness, was large enough that it alone would have thoroughly set back any attempts to work out of the plant in the future.  To say nothing of the structural damage a dust explosion would have caused or the lingering toxic cloud that probably permeated the atmosphere.  He wouldn’t be using that building for a long time.

We had dealt Hill’s organization a significant blow.  Without information about how many plants he operated, there wasn’t any way to tell exactly how much damage we’d caused, but it was emblematic.  Three times, my time had managed to get ahead of him and escape.  We’d taken the crown and, with it, his reputation.  We’d taken Avis and, with it, the key to his organization’s encrypted data.  Now, we’d utterly devastated one of his legitimate fronts.  With that move, we had managed…something.  I didn’t know exactly what, but it was something.

The moment of delight was short-lived.  Sam leapt from the floor, up into Sarah’s empty chair, and tilted his head at me.  The question in the cat’s demeanor was obvious.  It wasn’t that he disliked Sarah and me – in fact, Sam seemed rather fond of Sarah, despite the latter’s clear distaste for any animal that might possibly shed – so much as the fact that the cat knew who his owner was, and wanted to see her again.

I thought back to the image I now associated with Mila: brilliant and defiant, standing out against a field of fire with guns in both hands.  She could have gotten into the van with us.  Carlos’ aim was, in all likelihood, a bit impacted by the flames and destruction all around him.  We might have all gotten away together.  Instead, Mila had chosen to stay and draw his attention, despite knowing that Aiden and Mikhail were probably nearby.

She had done her job.

When the doctor finished, Sarah returned with a laptop bag slung over her shoulder and thanked him for his assistance.  He replied that he was happy to be of help and left Billy, Sarah, and I alone in the room again.

“That is one professional bloke,” Billy said, when the doctor was gone.

“According to Sophie,” Sarah said, “he’s worked with people who…operate in less than legal channels.  I’d guess that we don’t have to worry about his discretion.  Anyone operating on our side of things knows better than to make enemies and certainly knows better than to go to the police.”

“Besides,” I added, “he didn’t do anything illegal.  As far as he knows, I got these burns from a toaster-related accident.  Or at least, that’s what he can say if he gets questioned by the police.”

“I know all that,” Billy said.  “I just mean that he didn’t laugh at a single one of my jokes, and that simply doesn’t happen.”

I gave him a flat look for three seconds before a chuckle made its way past my lips.  “Ha.  Ha.”  I pronounced each syllable carefully and deliberately.

The three of us sat in silence for another thirty seconds before I finally worked up the nerve to ask the question I’d been dreading.  “What happened to her?”

There was no need to clarify who I meant.  “What was the last thing you saw?”  Sarah asked.

“She was keeping Carlos’ attention,” I said.  “Something tore itself out of the wall and hit her in the chest.  After that, I…”

Sarah opened her laptop and checked the screen.  “That sounds accurate, then.”

“What’re you looking at?”

She hesitated for a heartbeat.  “I’ve got good news,” she said.  “And I’ve got bad news.  Good news is that Mila didn’t die.  I think.”

I would have leapt to my feet in surprise if the simple thought didn’t cause waves of vertigo to ripple through my head.  “What?  Where is she?  How is she?”

“Severe damage to the sternum,” Sarah replied.  The intonation of her voice was odd.  She wasn’t speaking, but reading.  The information I’d asked for her was on her computer.  “One broken left arm, two bruised or cracked ribs.  Head trauma.”

“Where are you getting all that from?”

She looked up from the computer screen.  “That’s the bad news.  She didn’t get away from the plant.  That last explosion and the pipe you saw hit her must have thrown her a good distance away from the building and knocked her out.”

“So?” I asked.  “Where is she at?”

“The cops picked her up, Devlin,” Sarah said.  “They took her to the closest hospital as a Jane Doe, but the weapons she was carrying on her person…well, those and the fact that she appears to be a US citizen…”

“Sarah, stop beating around the bush.  Where is Mila?”

She sighed.  “Scotland Yard.”

I sat there, thunderstruck, for nearly a full minute before I made up my mind.  Ignoring the waves of dizziness that threatened to send me crashing to the floor, I forced myself out of bed and onto my feet.  “How long has she been there?  How long was I out?”

“She’s been out of the hospital for…maybe thirty minutes.  I can’t tell how long she’s actually been at the station.  Normally, they’d have already run her fingerprints, but the chaos at the processing plant is taking up a lot of resources.”

“So there’s still a chance?” I asked.  “They don’t have her on file yet?”

“You know I can’t access their system like that,” Sarah said, “but no, I don’t think they do.  It’s low priority, compare to a suspected terrorist attack.”

“We’ve got to go get her,” I said.  Sarah opened her mouth to say something, but I waved her off.  “I know it’s stupid, and I know we haven’t had any time to plan.  But she risked her life for us, and leaving her at Interpol is just not an option.  Not to mention, if Aiden finds out where she is, there’s every chance he’ll shoot the place up and she’ll have no way to defend herself.”

“I know that,” she began, “but…”

I interrupted her.  “No buts.  It’s dangerous, sure, but this is the right thing to do.  It’s what she would have done, right?”

Sarah sighed again, but her eyes flicked away from me to the door.  I turned to follow her gaze.  Michel stood in the doorway, wearing an all-black policeman’s uniform, complete with hat.  “I do not think this fits well, but…”  He stopped, realizing that I was staring at him in blank confusion.  “You are awake!  Bon, bon!  Sarah, did you tell him what we are doing yet?”

“I was going to,” Sarah replied, “but he decided to give a little speech first.”

“Wait.  Wait.  What’s happening?”

Sarah turned her laptop around and showed me a flow chart she’d written out, detailing various steps and possible paths of divergence.  “Of course, we’re going to get her out,” she said.  “We were only waiting for you to wake up before getting started.”

Chapter Eighty-Two

I noted, in a detached sort of way, that there were fewer flames than I would have expected.  The heat crawling out of the HVAC center wasn’t my greatest concern; it was pressure that attempted to keep me pressed against the wall.  A violent cough ripped itself out of my throat as I pushed myself back to my feet, shaking my head in an effort to think clearly again.  “What?”  I asked.

“Hill wasn’t keeping up with the proper precautions,” Sarah said, in a terse voice.  “It’s technical, but the details don’t matter.  You have to get out of that factory right now.”

I heard truth in those words and, using the adrenaline I’d been tapping for fifteen minutes, managed to stand up again.  Mila was slumped against the opposite wall.  A steady trickle of blood came from a wound on the back of her head, but she was awake.  Her eyes tracked me as I lurched forward and grabbed her wrist in both of my hands.  She used one of her hands to push off of the wall while I pulled.  We were both on our feet and rushing back down the hallway at top speed within a few seconds.

The toxic fumes from Billy’s fake plastic shards continued to spread through the building, expanding at a ridiculous speed to fill every cubic inch of space.  I hadn’t asked Sarah what the side effects of inhalation might be, but I suspected that I wouldn’t like them.  It didn’t matter, though; I still needed to breathe, both to speak and to power my bruised body through the twists and turns of the processing plant.  “I need an out, Sarah!”

“I’m looking!”

While she worked, I turned my attention to Mila.  With effort, she was keeping pace with me.  “What happened to Carlos?”

“I don’t know!”  Mila yelled back.  “He’s probably making his own escape!”

I started to reply, but another explosion shook the building at that exact moment. The sudden bloom of fire ripped the oxygen away from me and any words I planned to speak died on my lips.  Another wave of overwhelming pressure hit us from behind and I barely managed to grab onto one of the machines to my left.  Almost immediately, I realized that not all heat necessarily came with a visible indication; the metallic surface of the machine was hot enough that I could practically smell my palms burning.  I jerked my hands away and kept my balance through sheer force of will.

In addition to the original explosion, fires had begun to spread through the factory.  Tongues of flames leapt from one machine to the other, crawled along the ceiling in parallel lines, and dripped to the ground like raindrops.  The path ahead of us came to life in an instant.  Mila and I backed away from the fires, intending to turn back, but that way was blocked as well.

“Sarah?”  My words were surprisingly calm, considering our situation.  A miniscule part of my mind congratulated myself for that.

“Uh…take a left from where you’re at,” she said.  “I don’t know how long that path’s going to stay clear, so you have to hurry.”

Neither Mila or I wasted even a single split-second.  She was a little faster than me, but I was less than inch behind her as we hooked a left and dashed down the aisle.  At the end of that path, Sarah provided more directions and we followed those like our lives quite literally depended on it.

While we ran, I found myself analyzing our situation and drawing conclusions.  The reduction in breathable air, caused by the fire, was intense enough that I legitimately feared asphyxiation.  At the same time, it was possible that the vacuum was responsible for my continued good health.  Without an in-depth understanding of the chemical reaction I’d started, I couldn’t know what concentration of fumes I could safely inhale.  Since I could barely breath at all, my concern shifted from possibly toxic gases to a general breathlessness.  I wasn’t sure if that was better, but it was at least a familiar problem.

“Devlin?”  A voice asked, from less than a few feet away.  I pulled myself out of my thoughts and noticed the Russians standing at an intersection ahead of me.  Stani gave me a look that was something between astonishment and bewilderment.  “What has happened?”

Gradually, I came to a stop and bent in half, gasping greedily at the scant amount of oxygen available.  “Complications,” I managed to say.

“I don’t know how long you’ve got until the entire building comes down around you,” Sarah said.  “The route I had in mind is…not an option, anymore, but I think Carlos and whoever else came with him are leaving.”

A cough shook my entire body before I could respond.  “You think?”

“There’s kind of a lot going on,” Sarah shot back.  “We can figure out the next step after I get you out of this death trap.”

“No complaints here,” I croaked out.  “Where…what do you…”

I coughed again.  In the haze of smoke and the general chaos of the fire, I couldn’t be sure if there was blood mixed into the drops that flew from my mouth.  My breaths, which had been difficult before, became impossible.  I felt my temples pounding and could not, for the life of me, remember exactly why that pain was there.

Mila held out an impatient hand, gesturing wildly at Stani to pass over his coat, which he did after a moment.  She balled the garment up and pressed it to the back of her head.  “Devlin’s not doing well,” she said.  “Sarah, where do we go from here?”

I listened to Sarah’s answer, as if it dealt with someone other than me.  She sounded…panicked?  Concerned?  There was a nervous beat of emotion in her words that I had difficulty placing.  “The loading bay,” Sarah said.  “Get to the loading bay, I can open the door and let you guys out.  But if the network goes…”

She didn’t finish the sentence.  She didn’t have to.  Mila and Stani helped me to my feet and, with their help and the assistance of Iosif and Leonid, we began to pull ourselves through the aisles.  Sarah didn’t need to provide directions; the Russians had just left the loading area, and they apparently remembered the way.

At some point along the way, I succeeded in pushing the mental fog away long enough to form a few valid thoughts.  “James?”  I asked, without prelude or preamble.  “Chester?”

“They should have gotten away by now,” Sarah answered.  “Stani’s group got caught by the fire, but Billy’s guys had a clear path out of the building.”

“How far until the – “

I cut myself off as a man stumbled into the path in front of us.  It wasn’t difficult to see that he was in bad shape.  His chest should have been ventilated, judging from the holes peppering his shirt, but it seemed most of the shrapnel and debris had been stopped by some type of concealed body armor.  The occasional shard had found flesh, on his shoulders, his legs, and his face.  Each breath seemed to cause him pain and a mixture of blood and spit came from his lips with each exhale.  One of his arms was bent at the wrong angle, a flash of white bone standing out amidst the field of scarlet blood; the other hand held a gun, pointed in our direction.

It wasn’t a handgun.  It was too long to be a handgun.

Carlos’s eyes widened as he saw us.  Instead of making any attempt at convincing Mila to join him, however, he opened fire with the assault rifle an instant after he recognized our group, pouring bullets into the aisle like he held a firehose instead of a firearm.  Using the split second of notice my adrenaline soaked senses provided, I tugged at Mila and Stani and pulled them out of the aisle, so that they collapsed onto me in an undignified heap.  Iosif and Leonid took cover in the shadow of a machine across the aisle from us.

Carlos was yelling something in Spanish, but I couldn’t make out the syllables over the roar of the fire and the steady pops from his gun.

“The security system is completely down,” Sarah yelled into the comms.  “I can’t see anything that’s happening inside.  I need you to tell me what’s going on!”

Whatever effects the toxic cloud was supposed to cause, I had begun to feel them enough that I could feel my ability to rationalize slipping away.  The Russians covered their mouths with shirt sleeves and tried to breathe sparingly, but it was too late for me to do anything like that.  I’d been at ground zero, when both explosions caused the plan to quite literally blow up in my face.  The tiny portion of my mind that had, so far, continued to note details with a clinical detachment drew the logical conclusion: if I didn’t escape, and soon, there wouldn’t be any need to worry about permanent side effects.

A chunk of cement broke free of the ceiling overhead and dropped to the ground between us and Carlos with a momentarily deafening thud.  I struggled to force my limbs to cooperate, hoping to take advantage of the brief break in gunfire, but my numb legs refused to do much more than twitch.  The beginnings of a headache pressed against the inside of my temples.

“Sarah, we need an exit!”  Mila, helping me to my feet and supporting the majority of my weight with her much smaller body.  I don’t know how she managed it, but she carried me forward and covered the path in front of us with her weapon held in the other hand.

“I’m looking for one, but I can’t…there isn’t any way to make sure that you aren’t going to get caught by the fire!”

“Figure it out, then, and figure it out fast!”

“Uh…according to the blueprints, there’s an exit just two turns ahead.  Maybe a few dozen yards, if something else doesn’t go wrong along the way.”

Mila grunted inarticulately in response.  She moved, as if to redistribute my weight across her shoulder, but stopped when Iosif and Leonid both stepped up and took me from her.  The two Russians were, collectively, strong enough to simply lift me from my feet and carry me, at double speed, towards the exit.  The plant continued to fall apart around us, in chunks of increasing size.  At one point, we were forced to navigate around boulder of rebar and cement that fell within mere feet of our group.

Eventually, we saw open air and the moonless night ahead of us, through an open loading bay door.  With most of the fire behind us, Iosif and Leonid stopped for a quick handful of seconds to catch their breath.  Stani’s eyes were growing watery, but he gave me a quick examination anyway.  When his hand touched the small of my back, his expression turned stony.  His hand, when he withdrew it, came away wet and red.

Something was wrong.  I knew that much, even if I couldn’t seem to figure out exactly what was amiss.  It wasn’t Carlos’ appearance; while surprising, we could have dealt with that.  It wasn’t the fire of the secondary explosion.  Those had been a shock, but why would my smoke-choked mind be wasting processing power on facts I already knew?

There had been an original timeline.  A concern that Sarah and I both shared, dealing with our group’s ability to infiltrate the processing plant before…

The cops.  I dug deep within myself for focus, felt something shift in my chest that most certainly was not supposed to move, and forced words out.  “How long…until…the cops?”

Sarah gave an answer, but it was lost as Carlos picked his way through the rubble and opened fire on us once again.  Except for the vans, there was no cover available and the Russians practically dragged me behind one of the vehicles while Mila returned fire in short, controlled bursts.

The sound of sirens reached my ears, providing an answer to my question, during a brief lull in the gunfire.  A simple break-in, as we’d planned, might only have brought a token police force to investigate.  A full-scale explosion at an industrial plant, however?  That would bring police, ambulances, fire trucks…there was no chance of making a clean escape from the factory now.  Too many eyes would be on the scene and too many questions would be asked.

“Local law will be on the scene in maybe two minutes,” Sarah said.  “You’ve got to get moving!”

Of course, that wasn’t a possibility.  Whatever damage the initial explosion had done to my body, it had been enough to ensure that I wasn’t going to move very far or very fast anytime in the near future.  Sarah couldn’t see the grave expressions the Russians wore – I must have lost the camera at some point during the mad dash to freedom – but I could, and I knew what those faces meant.  We had lost.  The game was up.

A surprising depth of anger swelled from deep inside of me, complimented by the pounding inside my skull.  We had made it so far and accomplished so much.  The idea of losing here, because Hill’s fake corporation hadn’t kept up with safety protocols, was infuriating.  I slammed my fist into the side of the van, ignoring the brief flash of pain when my knuckles connected with the metal.

And then I stopped, the pain of my wounds, my dizziness, and my confusion disappearing for a single instant.  I hit the van again, this time with my palm, and an answer crystallized as if from thin air.  I kicked weakly at Stani until he focused his eyes on mine, then I flicked my vision to the van’s driver side door.  It took two repetitions of that before he understood what I intended.

He gave quick orders to his goons in Russian.  Iosif opened the door just wide enough that he could slip inside and started to hotwire the vehicle; Leonid half-pulled, half-carried me to the vehicle’s back doors.  I used some of the last dredges of strength I possessed to help him get me into the back of the van.  I struggled into an upright position against a tiny wall of white baking powder.  Stani leapt in next to me a moment later, and spat out a few more words that I couldn’t understand.

The car sputtered and came to life around us.  From my position, I couldn’t see anything other than the open air, but I could still hear.

“You’ve got to get in there,” Sarah said.  Not to me, but to Mila.

“So that he can perforate that van as soon as they start to leave?”  Mila replied.  “Not a chance.  I’ve got a job to do here.”

“You have to leave,” Sarah insisted.

There was a brief exchange of gunfire that drowned out any sentence either Mila or Sarah might have spoken.  Then, “Get him out of here!”

Stani touched two fingers on his whole hand to the earbud and I was reminded that he was also listening to the conversation.  He searched my expression for some sign of what to do; finding nothing there except what must have been blank, rapidly spreading confusion, he made up his mind.

He said two words to Iosif before lowering his voice and speaking directly to me.  “Hold on to something.”

The back of the van was remarkably devoid of any hand holds, so I grabbed onto Leonid’s arm as Iosif whipped the van into motion.  It was a not a vehicle designed to take corners well, but he managed to pull it out of a momentary fishtail and point it in the proper direction.  This had the effect of allowing me a brief view through the van’s swinging back doors.

Mila stood, facing into the fire and chaos of the processing plant, firing both of her guns into the flames.  Every line of her body stood in clear, sharp defiance.  She threw caution to the wind and sent rounds flying in Carlos’ direction, without bothering to take cover.  He fired back at her, but his aim lacked any precision.  At least one bullet pierced the wall above my head and another managed to find its way into Stani’s arm.

“You…don’t have…do this…” I managed to cough out.

Mila turned from her tableau of fire and devastation for an instant and actually smiled at me.  “Feed the cat, will you?”

Something ruptured within the factory and the explosion that came from its depth made the first two seem like firecrackers in comparison.  Everything tilted.  I watched as a pipe ripped its way free from the wall and swung with awesome force into Mila’s midsection.  She was lifted into the air, just as a fireball of biblical proportions issued forward.

The ensuing tremor caused Iosif to lose control of the van once more.  My grip on Leonid’s arm had been too weak to do much more than provide comfort; as soon as the rear of the van swung wide, I lost hold and flew the short distance through empty air until my skull connected with the opposite wall.

Fire trucks and ambulances were pulling up to the plastics plant in large numbers.  I saw as the police took up the perimeter, securing a zone we had somehow managed to escape.  I saw as the plant grew smaller and smaller.  I made it for a few more seconds, perhaps half a minute, before my injuries, the smoke inhalation, and my own bone-deep exhaustion became too much to bear.  I closed my eyes, and slipped into unconsciousness where I saw nothing at all.

Chapter Eighty-One

It was a testament to the seriousness of the situation that Stani limited himself to only a few choice Russian swear words.  He couldn’t have been pleased to discover yet another member of my team inserted into this job, after his explicit instructions, but he was apparently a professional.  There wasn’t time to start an argument about his terms or my flexible adherence to them.  Instead, he spoke a few sharp words to Iosif and Leonid before speaking directly to me.  “A trap?  What do you mean?”

“Hill couldn’t have known that we were going to be here.”  I wasn’t exactly answering the question.  There were so many disparate puzzle pieces to fit into place and my mind sped up until those shards started to fall together.  “That wouldn’t make sense.  The fact that I’m here is dumb luck.”

“What?  I do not understand what you are saying.”

Sarah spoke next, providing the counterpoint to my own thoughts.  “Hill must have leaked information to someone in Billy’s organization,” she said.  “Something that made the prospect of a raid tonight too attractive to pass up.”

“So we’re just trapped in the net, on accident?”  I barked out a sharp, humorless laugh.  “Of course.  That’s just our luck.”

“What do you want to do?”  Sarah asked.  “Aiden is only a couple minutes out.  He’ll beat the cops here by a good margin.”

I squeezed my eyes shut, calculating variables at high speed.  “Link us all up.  I need to redirect Chester and James, if we’re going to get out of this in one piece.”

The comms beeped twice.  “Devlin,” Sarah said, “the lines are all live now.”

“What’s this?”  Chester asked.  “Who’s that on the line?”

“Operations,” I said.  “Listen, we don’t have time to go over the details of this right now.”

“You had another man in the wings?”

“I had another teammate, yes, but that’s really not the point right now, Chester.”

“All this time you was pretending to know more than you really did, and you was really hiding another person out there somewhere.”  Chester clearly had no intentions of letting the point drop.  I hadn’t expected to find myself appreciating Stani’s adherence to protocol, but the situation provoked an appreciative feeling in my stomach.  “What else are you hiding, eh?”

“Oh.  My.  God.”  Sarah enunciated each syllable with precise, deliberate care.  “There are trained mercenaries on the way to the processing plant, armed to teeth and more than willing to kill, and you’re going to get hung up on the fact that the new guy didn’t tell you every single thing he had up his sleeve?”

Chester sputtered something incoherent over the line.  For my part, I decided that silence was the best option.  While Sarah took on Chester’s ego, I might be able to form some sort of haphazard plan to get us all through the next few minutes without any additional bullet holes.

“Every single one of you has secrets,” Sarah continued.  “You’ve got medical debt up to your eyeballs, Chester, and if it wasn’t for Billy’s help, there’s no chance you’d be doing anything other than rotting in the modern day equivalent of debtor’s prison.  But you don’t hear me calling you out for not fully disclosing your entire financial situation, do you?”

I took in her words with a small sliver of my conscious attention and wondered idly when she’d found the time to research Chester.  The rest of my thoughts were occupied with reconstructing the factory’s blueprints, adjusting timelines, and allowing for the very real possibility that I was, finally, too far over my head.

If this was indeed a trap with Aiden positioned to capture anyone attempting to raid the facility, the guards we’d forced out of position weren’t going to return.  Fewer bodies roaming the halls of the factory, gunning for our heads was a good thing, sure; but, Aiden’s men were trained and disciplined.  I wouldn’t have complained about some dissension and chaos in the ranks that I could manipulate.

“You don’t know nothing about me,” Chester was saying.  “And don’t pretend like you do, love.”

“Here’s what I know,” Sarah said.  “I know that your sister is suffering from a cocktail of diseases that are going to require at least three more surgeries and I-don’t-even-know-how-much treatment.  I know that you only got into this business a few months ago.  And I absolutely know that you do not have the experience to deal with the absolutely staggering shit-storm that is coming your way.  So you can either get with the program and follow whatever play Devlin calls, or you can continue to throw tantrums every single time that things don’t go exactly your way.  Your choice.”

Silence.  The miniscule fraction of attention I’d tasked to pay attention to Sarah’s diatribe practically cheered.  The rest of me was in the final steps of discarding unfeasible options and adjusting the few choices that remained until they had the highest possibility of success.  Those percentages weren’t high, by my reckoning, but there were considerably better than our chances if Mila and I stayed trapped within the lab.

“It’s game time, Chester,” I said.  “Pick your side.  Things are about to go very bad, very quickly, and I need to know where you’re going to come down on all of this.”

Precious seconds ticked away.  “Fine,” he said, finally.  “What do you got in mind?”

Chester’s ability to follow orders was far from a definite quantity, but there really wasn’t time to negotiate for a more enthusiastic response.  Mentally, I tagged him as ‘unreliable,’ and reworked the plan in my head to have a little more wiggle room.  “If Aiden was on call to deal with a break-in, then I’m assuming he took steps to close off any other avenues of escape.  That’s what he’d do, right, Mila?”

She nodded mutely.  The death grip she maintained on her weapon seemed to be tightening, and her knuckles stood out beneath taut skin.  Mila was making an effort to hold it together.  Whether or not that effort would be successful was another variable I couldn’t calculate around.

“What’re you thinking?” Sarah asked.

“I’m thinking…I’m thinking that we need some breathing room,” I said.  Then, barely an instant after the words passed my lips, a solution finally presented itself.  “Breathing room.  That’s how we can get out of this mess?”

“What are you…”  Sarah trailed off, as she worked through the disparate clues and reached the same conclusion.  “You really think you can pull that off in time?”

“Not in the slightest,” I replied.  “But I’m not seeing a lot of other options right now.  If Anton was here, that would make things easier to pinpoint.”

“You’re standing in the middle of a laboratory,” Sarah pointed out.  “Give me a second, I’ll find something that’ll work.”

The line beeped twice as she muted herself; my connection with the other two groups was still live, though.  I could hear Stani fervently muttering to his companions and, while Chester was silent for the moment, his breaths were ragged and loud.

“I need to know you’re going to be okay here,” I said to Mila.  “This is going to be close enough, and I absolutely cannot have you freeze.”

She did not reply.

I almost reached out to jostle her shoulder, but thought better of it at the last minute.  There was no telling how Mila might react to unexpected physical contact, especially when Aiden’s impending presence already had her on edge.  “Mila!”

She blinked twice, hard, and then focused on me.  “I’ll be okay,” she said in a small voice.

Sarah unmuted herself.  “Alright, I need you to look around the room for me.”

Without questioning, I began to turn in a slow circle, allowing the camera I wore to survey the room.  The beakers and containers were each marked with a different, unpronounceable Latin name; those meant nothing to me, so I refused to spend any mental processing power on them.  “There!  The, uh…magnesium phosphide.  Black bottle, on the second shelf to the left.”

“Got it.”  I hurried over and pulled the black bottle off of the shelf.  “What else?”

“Red phosphorous,” Sarah said.  “I didn’t see it already, but…”

“I’ve got that one,” Mila cut in.  She extended a shaky hand and pulled down a clear bag of what looked like red sand.

“You need to move.  I’ll give you directions.  The HVAC center isn’t far, but you’re going to have to time this perfectly.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said, moving to the door.  Mila was just a touch slower getting into motion and I felt my concern for her grow a proportionate amount.

“What do you need us to do?”  Stani asked.

“For right now, I’d suggest stalling, but that’s the sort of thing that’s liable to end up fatal to someone.  Probably you.”

Stani did not disagree, which raised my estimation of him another notch or two.  This was a man willing to deal with unexpected complications in the heat of the moment and someone capable of accepting an outside assessment without any unnecessary ego.  “Then what?”

“Assuming Aiden has secured the perimeter in ways we didn’t expect and can’t see,” I said, “the only way out is through him.  The alarm went off at the southern entrance, but you guys got into a fight at the loading bays.”

“He’ll pick one,” Mila said, “and cover the other area before he starts his sweep.”

“Good to know.  Sarah can tell us how he decides to enter.  Stani, I need you and Billy’s guys to rendezvous inside the building.  Mila and I can draw Aiden deeper into the plant before we drop off the plastic.”

“You are still planning on this sabotage?”

In a less serious situation, Stani’s absolute bewilderment would have made me smile.  As it was, I only bared my teeth in a fierce, feral grin.  “Billy’s got answers that we all need.  Pulling this off is the sort of thing that gets us deep in his favor.  Besides…Hill is really starting to piss me off.”

“You’re damn right,” Sarah added, from her end of the line.

“I…okay,” Stani said.  “How will we know where to go?”

I paused at that.  Sarah couldn’t relay directions to me and direct both of the other groups, at the same time.  That hesitation lingered for a few more critical seconds before I made the call.  “Sarah, which way is the HVAC center?  Generally speaking.”

“From where you are?”  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  “Two lefts and a right.”

“Alright, I can remember that.  Can you coordinate the two others, so we can make our escape at the same time?”

Sarah weighed her answer for a moment before responding.  “I assume you don’t want me distracting you?”

“It would be nice not to split my attention, yes.”

She sighed.  “Hurry up, then.  I can only watch so many things at once, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for yourself.”

“Roger that.”  The comms went silent and I motioned to Mila.  “Come on.”

We rushed out of the room at top speed, careening to our left without bothering to slow down, and my right shoulder collided with one of the industrial machines.  I used the brief flash of pain as motivation and pushed myself down the aisle with Mila less than a step behind me.

Left, down another path populated on both sides by machines like the ones I’d seen earlier.  Another left, and the scenery changed from machinery to what seemed to be a line of offices.  At the end of that aisle, we took the right and entered into a hallway that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an office building, but was an odd juxtaposition against the backdrop of industrial chic.

It took less than two minutes to cover the distance, and we slowed in the hallway to examine the title plates bolted in place beside the sporadic doors.  Mila spotted the correct nameplate first, on the left side of the hallway a few yards away.

The earbud beeped twice.  “Devlin!  They’re coming your way!  Three mercs, split up so that they can cover more ground.  You’re about to run into-”

Before I could do much more than process Sarah’s words, a door at the far end of the hallway flew open, practically tearing itself from its hinges.  I hurled myself to the right, on pure impulse, a split second before a loud report issued through the enclosed space.  Mila took cover as well and squeezed off three rounds.

“Dev!  There aren’t any cameras in that hallway; I can’t see what’s going on!”

I couldn’t spare the breath to answer Sarah’s plaintive cries.  Instead, I looked across the hallway at Mila, crouched behind a protrusion in the wall.  She met my eyes and I was struck by how wide her pupils were.  The terror in every quivering inch of body language woke a similar fear in me.  I tried to push that fear down, to wrestle it back into submission with the years of training and the ice-cold focus I typically clung to while on the job, and was only partially successful.

“He wouldn’t want me to kill you!” A voice called out, and my panicked mind catalogued and identified the accent without any conscious decision to do so.  South American – Brazillian, maybe? – male, perhaps in his late twenties.  It wasn’t Aiden at the end of the hallway, then; this was Carlos, the driver.

Carlos kept talking.  “You know how much he misses you, Thorn,” he said.  “Just come out, and the two of you can talk this out.  Don’t you want to talk this out?”

Mila didn’t respond, but I could practically see the words hovering at the edge of her lips.  She extended her gun an inch or two into the hallway and fired off another three bullets.

I risked a glance out at the same time.  Carlos ducked out of the doorway as the rounds struck the frame and wall, but he didn’t fire back.  The first salvo must have been pure instinct, then.  If Aiden wanted Mila alive, then Carlos couldn’t risk firing blindly into the hallway.  That was something I might be able to use.

When I looked back at Mila, I saw that her mind had followed a similar track.  She fired the last three rounds without any effort to aim and, with her other hand, gestured at me.

“Sarah,” I whispered, “open every door in the place.”

I dashed across the hallway without waiting for a reply, scooping up the magnesium phosphide and red phosphorous on the floor by Mila as I passed, and slammed a shoulder into the door marked ‘HVAC.’  Mercifully, it was an electronic lock, and Sarah opened it as my body collided into the metal.  I stumbled into the room, lost my balance, and nearly cracked the container of magnesium phosphide as I fell.  The air smelled…not stale, precisely.  Heavy, in some way I couldn’t quite identify.  My mind tracked that information, filed it away, and refocused on the task at hand.

“What do I do?”  I practically screamed into the earbud.

The pace of Sarah’s typing had accelerated to the point where it sounded more like a single, constant hum than individual keystrokes.  “Just mix them together, and throw it anywhere.  You’ll only have a few seconds before…”

I unscrewed the top from the magnesium phosphide before she could finish that thought and dumped the red phosphorous into the jar.  Then, I dug a fistful of Billy’s plastic shards from my pocket and added those to the now-smoking concoction.

In the hallway outside of the room, someone – Mila, judging from the distinctive sound of her smaller weapon – fired several times.  I glanced in that direction without thinking, and almost missed the next Sarah said.

Shit, the precautions!  That factory hasn’t passed the regulations for – “

I did miss whatever Sarah said next.  I turned to run and, behind me, the mixture of magnesium phosphide and red phosphorous did exactly what Sarah and I had planned for it to do: it exploded, consuming the fake plastic, and creating a cloud of noxious fumes that spread through the small room as if it had a mind of its own.  On the heels of that, however, another explosion triggered in the very air around me.  The force of that second explosion picked me up off of my feet and threw me forward, out of the room, and into the opposite wall in the hallway with enough force that my bones rattled and, for a second, I lost track of my surroundings.

“-dust explosion!”  Sarah’s voice, disconnected from any sense of space or time.  “You have to get out!  You have to get out now!

Chapter Eighty

The first thing I heard was the distinctive hum as several dozen industrial lights switched on at the same time.  A moment after that, a high pitched siren began to warble through the factory.  And a few moments after that, the sound of boots reached us, even behind the protective and muffling steel door.  There were more people than I’d expected in the hallway, however.  I tried, and failed, to keep count; at a conservative estimate, there were at least a dozen guards rushing from various points to respond to the alarm, probably more.

Mila didn’t seem particularly bothered by the uproar but, in fairness, she didn’t seem particularly bothered by anything.  She held her handgun parallel to her thigh, its barrel pointed down, and kept her finger aligned with the side of the weapon.  She was ready for combat, but not actively courting it; I approved of that wary stance, even as I felt a deep unease at the sight of her crouched like some large cat.

“Remind me why this plan is supposed to work?”  Mila asked.  Her voice was pitched so that I could catch the words over the cacophony, but not so loud that anyone outside of the room would hear a thing.  “I thought we were trying to avoid letting Hill know we were here?”

“It’s complicated,” I said, at the same slightly exaggerated volume.

“Doesn’t seem that complicated,” Mila replied.  “Set off a building-wide alarm and kick a hornet’s nest full of armed guards.  Makes perfect sense to me, and I’m just the muscle for hire.”

I shot her a sidelong glance and Mila, without the faintest hint of shame, lapsed back into tense silence.

If she had actually been interested in the answer, I could have explained the process to her.  The alarm and the guards were things Sarah and I had prepared for, and we’d anticipated a certain amount of chaos as soon as the alarm went off.  Without sufficient time to case the establishment and perform the necessary due diligence – discovering guard rotations, identifying possible weak points in the social structure, preparing multiple escape routes – Sarah had elected to repurpose an old plan that had served us well on more than one occasion.

If we couldn’t stop a response to our incursion, and we couldn’t predict how severe that response might be, there was only a single viable option remaining: utter bedlam.  Panic caused people to react in predictable ways and it took an absurd amount of training to override those primal ‘fight or flight’ instincts.  My experience with Hill’s men at the manor house had taught me that, no matter how well funded these goons were, none of them were what I would charitably call ‘well-trained.’  Given an obvious target – provided courtesy of Sarah’s access to their security system – the men stationed inside the factory would rush directly to the problem area, hoping to solve the issue through brute force and a simple numerical advantage.

“Trust me,” I said to Mila.  Then, to Sarah, I added, “Tell me what you see.”

A few seconds passed while Sarah input a series of commands into her computer.  “Most of the guards are headed to secure the southern exit,” she said.  “Just like I thought they would.”

“And the rest?”

“Just a skeleton crew, split into three groups.  A couple guys stayed behind to secure the security room, but they’re in a room across the way.”

“Trying to ambush anyone who makes a move on the actual system,” I commented.  “Not a bad plan.”

“It’d be a better idea if they hadn’t chosen a room with an electronic lock,” Sarah said.

“So you can lock them in?”

“I could turn the heat up and sweat them out of their tactical gear, if I wanted to,” Sarah replied.

“Ah.”  I felt uncomfortable suddenly, but the feeling passed after only a single ridiculous moment.  “What about the other two groups?”

“Moving to secure the priority targets, of course.  I’m tracking targets moving to…looks like Loading Area B, and some are splitting off into the deeper parts of the factory.”

“Well, that lets us know where they’re actually processing the fake plastic at,” I said.  “Connect me to Stani, please and keep an eye on the traffic outside of this room.  I need to move as soon as possible.”

“Check and check,” Sarah said.

I waited for the two beeps before speaking again.  “You’re looking for Loading Dock B,” I said.  “It’s just a skeleton team guarding the area, but that’s where the processed product should be.”

Over the comms, Stani relayed my words to Iosif and Leonid in Russian.  “Okay,” he said to me, in English, when he was done speaking to his comrades.  “And you will be…?

“Getting Billy’s sabotage in place.  If you cause enough of a fuss, no one should realize we were already inside the factory.  Hit it hard and fast, get the product, and get away as quick as you can.  We’re looking at a twenty minute timetable, at the outside, before local law enforcement comes to check out the alarm.”

“It will be done,” Stani said.

The line beeped twice, and then I heard Sarah’s voice.  She wasn’t exactly calm, but the words were possessed of that same vital force and focus that I’d fallen in love with so many years ago.  “I’ll tap into the police frequencies that I know about,” she said, “but there’s no way of knowing if they started operating on something new since the last time I was here.”

“Whatever you can do will be enough,” I assured her.  “I need Chester and James now.”

It took a few more seconds for the lines to connect than before.  Sarah must be multitasking several screens’ worth of information now, if the simple task of switching connections was taking her a noticeable amount of time.  I found myself idly wondering exactly how many cameras she had displayed on her screens back at the hotel room.

The telltale beeps came over the comms, just in time for me to hear Chester swearing under his breath.  He spoke to me before I had a chance to form any thought into a coherent sentence.  “You there, mate?”

“I’m here,” I replied.  “There’s your signal.  I want the two of you to pull back a bit, and make sure that Mila and I are going to have a clean exit.”

“And trust you with the loot?”

“I don’t want the drugs, Chester.”  With great effort, I kept myself from snapping at him in pure irritation.  “Billy and I made a deal, and I intend to honor that.  Neither you nor James have the expertise required to infiltrate the base without making a fuss, and you aren’t trained.”

When subtlety and charm failed to work, I was always willing to fall back on blunt facts.  The fact that Mila herself wasn’t really a subtle presence did not escape my mind; neither did I forget that Stani and his two hangers-on were untested elements.  I just kept my realization of those facts out of my voice.

“Alright,” Chester conceded, perhaps fifteen seconds later.  “How do you expect us to keep your flank clear, if you don’t want using guns, then?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me; I’m going out of my way to make sure that you don’t have to deal with the majority of the guards, and you’re complaining because you don’t get to shoot the one or two you might have to deal with.”

“It’s not that,” Chester said, “so much as the fact that I don’t trust anyone what says they can do what you said, if I can’t see it with me own eyes.”

Which wasn’t a terrible point to make, even if the idea came from general distrust.  Without Sarah working her magic on the other end of the connection, this raid would have been over very quickly.  “Trust me, or don’t trust me,” I said, “but we don’t have the time to argue about this.”

A few more seconds passed before he grunted.  “Fine,” Chester said, “but every bit of the goods had better be there, or else..”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure you would do something very painful.  Blah blah blah.  I’m cutting you off, so that I can focus on this.”  The dull roar of repeated heavy footsteps outside of the door was thinning.  “Keep that exit clear.  I’ll call when we’re on the way out.”

Sarah severed the line for me.  “It looks like you’re clear,” she said, hesitantly.  “Might be a few more guards lurking somewhere that I can’t see, though.  The security feeds don’t provide full coverage.”

“Wouldn’t want to accidentally make a videotape of your illegal activities, after all,” I said.  “Especially not when you can’t be sure how secure your systems are.”

“I’ve been wondering about that, actually,” Sarah said.

“Wondering what?”

“Hill has to know you’re working with a hacker by now.  Between the museum job and the manor house…”

“He doesn’t know I’m involved in this raid, though,” I pointed out.

“At this point, if I were him, I’d start expecting you to pop up like the Kool Aid Man at every possible moment.  You’ve barely been in London for a week, after all, and you keep showing up to throw him off of his game.”  She paused.  “Plus, Asher knows you.  This doesn’t seem right.”

“What’re you saying?”

Sarah sighed and changed topics.  “I don’t know what I’m saying.  Nevermind, don’t worry about it now.  We can talk it out later.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure, yeah.”  Pause.  “Alright, there’s no more movement in the aisles.  I’ll lock the mobilized guards out of the building, but you’ve only got…maybe fifteen minutes to switch out the plastics.”

I nodded to myself.  “Got it.  Mila?”

Mila returned my nod and then threw the steel door open, checking left and right for any surprises.  There were none.  Following Sarah’s guidance, we navigated through the brightened aisles, weaving back and forth between the silent industrial machines.  It took less than three minutes, moving at double speed, to reach a crossroads.  Down one aisle, a sign labeled ‘Loading Dock B’ hung prominently from the ceiling.  The occasional sounds of conflict were barely audible, if I strained my hearing to the limit.  I ignored that path and turned instead to my left.

“You’ve got four guards in a room across from the lab,” Sarah said.

“Can you lock them in?”

“Done and done.  I don’t have any visuals into the lab itself, though; there’s every possibility Hill stationed someone there.”

“If he did,” Mila said, “it won’t matter for very long.”

“Take it slow,” Sarah advised.  “That’s all I’m saying.  The more noise you make, the higher the probability that Hill figures out something is wrong and starts thinking outside of the box.”

That made sense, but something about the way Sarah said the words gave me a moment of pause.  “Hill hasn’t thought outside of the box, so far,” I said slowly.

“What’s that?”  Sarah asked.

The half-formed idea retreated back into my subconscious when I tried to examine it further.  “Nothing,” I said.  “Lock the doors and walk us in.”

Keeping low, Mila and I crept down the aisle, past the room where – according to Sarah – four guards hadn’t yet realized they’d been effectively neutralized, until we reached a pair of swinging doors.  I pushed one open, while Mila handled the other, and the two of slipped inside as quiet as shadows.

Past another set of doors, we reached the lab itself.  Beakers and glasses of various sizes, and filled with concoctions in a rainbow of colors, were scattered across shelves and countertops.  I saw graduated cylinders filled to the brim with clear liquid, discarded latex gloves, and more than one abandoned machine with some inscrutable purpose.  Two computers hummed softly while their attached monitors shed a bluish light that tinted the room.  Lining the farthest wall, at least four different recycling containers were plainly visible.

I saw all that in an instant, but none of those details interested me.  It was what I didn’t see that sent alarm bells screaming through my head.

“There’s no one here,” I said.

“What?”

“I said that there’s no one here,” I repeated.  “No plastics to switch out, no technicians performing a procedure in either direction.  The lab is empty.”

Sarah was quiet for a few moments as she digested that.  “Then why would the guards come to protect an empty room?”

“I don’t know, Sarah, but…”  I stopped.  The idea from earlier returned and hit me with a staggering, awful force.  “How did Billy find out about this shipment?”

“You never asked,” Sarah said.  “Hill’s organization probably isn’t perfect, and this plant isn’t very far from Billy’s place anyway.  Why?”

A chunk of ice formed in my gut and the hairs on the nape of my neck stood straight up.  “Sarah, connect me to Stani.”

“Why would…”

“Just do it!”  I snapped at her.  I rarely raised my voice, let alone to Sarah.  Even Mila gave me a shocked look.

The line beeped twice.  “Stani, can you hear me?”

Da, I hear you very well,” the Russian replied.  “What is it?”

“Are you still at the loading bay?”

“We have sent the guards into retreat,” Stani replied, with a hint of a laugh in his voice.  “They put up barely any fight at all.  We are just about to drive the van out of this plant and back to Billy.”

“Check the back of the van,” I said.

I could almost feel the confusion coming from his end of the connection, but he relayed the order in Russian to one of his men.  There were a few seconds of tense silence, punctuated by a rattle as either Iosif or Leonid threw the van’s door open.

“It is here,” Stani said.  This time there was no mistaking the glee in his voice.  “It is all here.”

Mila tapped me on the shoulder and raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Can you, uh…check it?”  I asked Stani.  “Just to make sure.”

“We do not have much time for this,” he said, “but if you insist…”

More Russian from him.  Several seconds ticked away before someone replied to Stani.  “What?”

“What is it?”  I asked.

“Iosif says that this is not cocaine,” he replied.  “This is baking powder.”

“Shit!”  I started to pace around the empty lab, heedless of my volume.  “Shit, I should’ve seen this coming!”

“What are you talking about?”

I ignored the Russian.  “Sarah, pull up the exterior cameras and tell me what you see.”

“Who is…”

The line beeped twice as she unmuted herself.  “The regular traffic, mostly, and…”  She trailed off, and those few moments of silence were more damning than anything she could have said.  “And an Audi.”

“An Audi?”  Stani asked.  Then, a moment later, “Who is speaking?  Who is that?”

Sarah spoke directly to me, disregarding Stani’s complaints.  “The license plate matches up.  How did Aiden get here so fast?  You’ve only been in the building for a couple of minutes!”

“This isn’t a raid,” I spat out, furious with myself for missing the signs.  “This is a trap.”