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.”
“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.
“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.”