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!

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