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.”

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