What happened next could most charitably be described as a circus’ worth of activity, contained within the storm wall of a particularly chaotic whirlwind. The two officers at the front desk first blinked at me, then at each other, before realization dawned on them. From that point, it took only a single phone call and two words – my name – to bring several burly men rushing into the lobby, both by elevator and the stairs.
There were benefits to my hasty decision, I realized, as men in uniforms began ushering me upstairs, to the nearest interrogation room. Primarily, I’d turned myself in, rather than waiting for the law to locate me on their own. I was only listed as a person of interest, in connection to the museum robbery and the shootout at the manor house. Just because the owners of the Rose and Thorn had described me well enough to produce a passable sketch, the police still didn’t have enough hard evidence to actually place me under arrest. Of course, it would still be preferable to remove or otherwise impugn even that sketch, but any port in a storm would have to do.
Another unexpected positive angle occurred to me a moment later, when we reached the second floor and I was ‘escorted’ into a featureless room, marked by a wall mounted camera and double-sided mirror. I was in England, and the police in England didn’t carry weapons typically. That wasn’t an immediate benefit – I doubted anyone would try to shoot a surrendering suspect, just because – but it was still something worth keeping in mind. It wasn’t as though I could defend myself, so it was comforting to at least be able to minimize the amount of threats I had to concern myself with.
When I was comfortably seated in the interrogation room, the officers left me seated there in isolation. The space itself reminded me of the room where Asher had stashed me, back at the warehouse, before he’d been able to enact whatever dastardly tortures he’d intended. The double sided mirror was a change. While I’d only been forced to endure one prison sentence of any appreciable length, I’d spent more than my fair share of time seated in rooms exactly like that one, so I waved casually to whoever was watching from the other side of the glass. A table was also bolted to the floor in front of me, with a little divot and bar combination designed to restrain anyone in handcuffs. I was not cuffed – at least, not yet – but my wrists began to ache in anticipation of that inevitable conclusion.
Other than the minor benefits and environmental changes that I’d noted, nothing particularly heartening came to mind. I had absolute faith that Sarah, once she was able to leave the building without bringing legal attention to herself or the Ford family at large, would be able to erase any digital footprint that might exist. As I was in the process of deliberately leaving very large physical footprints, however, I didn’t hold out much hope for my own situation.
One minute into my lonely considerations, the encrypted cell phone I’d taken from the car began to play the opening chords from ‘Cruel Summer.’ My eyebrows crinkled together for a few seconds before I understood the joke. Before answering, I looked up at the camera, mounted high on the wall opposite me, so that it was nestled into a corner. The indicator light was dark, but that didn’t mean anything.
I leaned back in my chair, waved once more to the invisible watchers on the other side of the double sided glass, and pressed the ‘Answer Call’ button on the phone. “Hello?”
“Devlin, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Sarah hissed at me. “You think we went through all this trouble, just so that you could turn yourself in the first chance you get?”
“Glad to hear you made it home safe,” I said. I couldn’t assume that the police weren’t recording everything that went on the interrogation room while they left me alone to stew over my own thoughts. Sarah would understand any slight dissemblance I chose to use. “It was touch and go for a little bit there, wasn’t it?”
“That’s not the point,” Sarah said. “I could have figured something out. Even if not, there’s nothing Adlai could have done to me, other than decide to treat me with more suspicion the next time we encountered each other. And I wasn’t exactly planning on there being a next time.”
“How’s the family?” I asked. “You haven’t talked to them in a while, yeah, but you know what they say. Blood is thicker than water and all that.”
Sarah was quiet for a few seconds. When she spoke again, the razor’s edge of anger wasn’t quite gone from her voice, but it was least blunted by audible concern. “Fine. I’ll acknowledge that. But do you have any plan, at all, to get out of there? Or were you just going to hand yourself to Adlai with a bow, hoping that Hill and Asher don’t have people in the prison system specifically to deal with loose ends?”
It was my turn to think in silence. The beginnings of a plan were beginning to crystallize in my mind, but I couldn’t exactly convey the steps to Sarah while someone might be watching or listening to every word I spoke. “It’s kind of a long story,” I said, finally. “I’m clearing up a misunderstanding right now.”
I didn’t speak for a few seconds, as if Sarah were asking me some question.
“It’s complicated,” I said, after an appropriate amount of time had passed. “But I’m pretty sure it’ll go away as soon as they figure out they’ve got bad information.”
Sarah sucked in a sharp breath. “You want to me to erase the files, while you’re there?”
“I’m about to talk to whoever’s in charge now,” I said. “No telling how long it’ll take, but it’s not like I’ve got anything better to do.”
“I can get Michel into the evidence room. The ongoing construction, coupled with the amount of officers moving in and out of the building tonight, is going to make that easier than expected. You want all of the digital information gone too?”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.”
Sarah didn’t say anything for a second or two. “I could do that, but that’s only going to let Adlai know for sure that you’re working with a hacker.”
“Say that again?” I asked. “I didn’t understand that.”
“I said…oh, you know what I said. What I mean is that I can corrupt the files, instead. Same difference, but at least there’s the outside possibility that it was something that happened naturally. You think that’ll work?”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding at the camera and the double sided mirror in turn. “Yeah, that sounds like it could work. When do you think you’ll get here?”
“I don’t have complete access yet, but…no, nevermind. Listen, I’ll get in. I don’t know how I’ll let you know, but I can do it.” She paused. “You’re going to have to keep Adlai from pulling up the files, though. I can’t change anything if the files are open. His entire focus has to be in the room, with the two of you.”
At that, the door to the interrogation room swung open with such force that it bounced off of the wall and came to rest at a forty-five degree angle. I turned in my seat to see Adlai storming into the room, flanked by a dark-skinned man in a travel-worn tweed jacket and thin red tie.
“I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” I said to Sarah. “I’ll have to call you back, though.”
I hung up before she could respond and assumed a posture of absolute innocence. Adlai took up position in one corner of the room, under the presumably inactive camera, while the dark-skinned man turned the chair opposite me around so that he could lean his weight across the back. He was a big man, and the chair wasn’t meant to be used like that, but he made it work. Barely. He placed a thin, tan folder on the table between us, as well as a steaming cup of what smelled like cheap coffee, and locked eyes with me.
“Mister O’Brien,” the dark-skinned man said in a rich baritone. “We’ve been looking for you.”
“I just saw that on the news,” I replied, widening my eyes to convey a suitably confused wariness. “I was out of the area on, uh, business. I came down as soon as I heard.”
“And what sort of business are you involved in, Mister O’Brien?”
“Could you un-complicate it for me, then?” The dark-skinned man scratched at a thick layer of stubble and gave me a rueful sort of smile. I imagined that smile had lulled any number of criminals into a false sense of security before. It might very well have eased a little of my own tension, if Adlai hadn’t been perched in the corner, watching me like a hawk sizing up the best angle to pounce on its next meal.
“Acquisitions,” I said, honestly enough.
Adlai barked out a sharp laugh at that. When the dark-skinned man turned slightly, Adlai raised both of his hands and signaled that he didn’t have anything to say.
The dark-skinned man returned his attention to me. “Ah,” he said calmly, loading the single syllable with a surprising amount of subtext.
“What’s this about?” I asked.
“Well, there’s been more than a few spots of trouble in London, these last few days,” the British detective said. “And my associate here seems to think that you might know a bit about that. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that trouble, would you?”
“I don’t even know what trouble you’re talking about,” I protested.
The dark-skinned detective opened his folder and removed several photographs. Carefully, as though the pictures might be damaged by his large hands, he spread them out across the table so that I could see each one. When that was done, he pointed at the picture farthest to my left. “A couple of days ago, we got an anonymous tip to examine this area outside of town. Do you know what we found?”
I recognized the landscape in the picture, but there was nothing else there except for the smoky ruins of a building. It looked considerably different in the full light of day.
The dark-skinned detective continued, taking my silence as an answer. “Right around here, you can see the foundation of what looks like a very large building. But you don’t see the building itself because it was burned to the ground. I personally went through some records and there’s no mention anywhere of a building out there. Of course, if someone wanted to build anything that far out of town, there really wouldn’t be any way to know, would there?”
He pointed to the next picture in line, and I was more familiar with that than the landscape. “Isn’t this that crown that was on display at Museum of London?”
“Indeed it is,” the dark-skinned detective said. “Or, it might be more precise to say that it was the crown. It was stolen from the museum.”
I wasn’t quite playing a character, but I still modified my reactions to fit with a hypothetically innocent person. To my estimation, most people wouldn’t particularly care about the theft of artwork or jewelry, so long as it didn’t affect them personally, so I only gave the picture a skeptical look and shrugged with one shoulder. “When did that happen?”
“To the best of our forensic estimation,” the dark-skinned detective said, “it seems like the theft took place around the same time as this building – whatever it was – burned to the ground.”
“What does any of this have to do with me?”
Instead of immediately answering, the dark-skinned detective took a long drink from his tiny Styrofoam cup of coffee. “Good behavior,” he said, finally.
The quizzical expression that came to my features wasn’t faked in the slightest. “What?”
“Good behavior,” the dark-skinned detective repeated. “You were paroled early in France, for good behavior. Is that right?”
I blinked several times, contemplating how to answer. It said a lot about the last few days that I wasn’t terribly shocked to discover the Lady’s ability to manipulate events extended to changing public record. Adlai would almost certainly have been keeping tabs on my prison sentence, so erasing me from the system entirely would have set off red flags. By adjusting the date of my release, however, the Lady had done just enough that I could move around Europe without setting off alarms at every airport or checkpoint.
“I made a mistake,” I said, picking my words carefully. “And I paid for that mistake.”
“And what mistake was that?”
My not-quite character assumed a more aggressive posture and tone. “You’ve got my record. You tell me.”
The dark-skinned detective raised his hands, palms facing me, in the universal sign of surrender. “No need to get hostile,” he said. “Just trying to understand everything. What can you tell me about this?” He pointed at the third picture: the manor house, swarming with police officers, techs, and forensic analysts.
“A post-modern take on Downton Abbey?” I asked. “I’m here on business, yeah, but none of that business requires me to spend any time with lords or ladies.”
“Just…what was it? Two days ago? Three? Anyway, a few days ago, there was a major incident at this location.” The detective tapped an index finger against the photograph. “Guns and everything. Unlike Americans, we take guns very seriously here in England.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not American.”
The detective raised an eyebrow. “Sure about that?”
“Both my mother and father are Irish,” I explained, “and that’s where I was born. I grew up in America, which isn’t the same thing.”
The detective jotted down some notes on that and I instantly rejected the clarification. It wasn’t likely to amount to anything – my mother had been buried a long time ago and the whereabouts of my father remained a mystery I couldn’t bring myself to care about – but it was the principle of the thing.
“My apologies about that,” the detective said, when he finished writing. “Now, you say you didn’t have any business to be up in this area? Can you explain this, then?”
He pointed at the third picture, which was not a photograph at all. It was the sketch I’d seen on the news. I pretended to examine it for several seconds before I shrugged again. “It’s someone who looks like me, I guess? What’s your point?”
“We’ve got a witness – two, actually – who can put you in town right around when this shootout was happening,” the detective said.
“If you have two witnesses who can do that, I’ll be impressed,” I countered, “seeing as I wasn’t there. And even if I was, and you could prove it, all that would do is prove…what, exactly? That I was traveling somewhere? That’s not illegal, is it?”
“Not unless you’re carrying weapons,” the detective said. “You aren’t carrying weapons, are you?”
“I was searched before they brought me up here, so you already know I’m not. Look, do I need to call a lawyer? Or a barrister, or whatever you call them over here?”
The detective tilted his head at me. “I don’t know. Do you?”
“If you don’t get to the point soon, I think I very well might have to.”
“I’m getting to that. Now, can you tell me what you see here?” The detective pointed at the final picture in the lineup. “Just a couple of hours ago, this factory went up in smoke. And I suppose you wouldn’t happen to know anything about this?”
“Who do you think I am?” I asked. “I mean, seriously; what do you think I do? I’m in acquisitions. Why would I blow up a factory?”
“That’s a very good question,” the detective replied. “Now, I’m just getting up to speed on this case, but my friend here is convinced that you know more about what’s going on than you’re letting on. And I’ve got to tell you; from all appearances, this is a very smart man.”
“Well,” I said, directing my voice to Adlai. He still hadn’t spoken, but it was important that I keep his attention inside of the room. It wouldn’t take much before he decided to check on my files and, in doing so, make it impossible for Sarah to finish with her work. “Do you talk for yourself?”
Adlai’s eyes narrowed.
“Because if you did,” I continued, “I’d ask you why you’re letting this fine detective do all the interrogation himself? If you’ve got questions, ask them with your own lips.”
“If I was involved with any of the things you’re showing me,” I said, “why in God’s name would I turn myself in? Why wouldn’t I just hide until this all blew over?”
For several seconds, Adlai continued to watch me silently and I repeated my last question in the vaults of my own mind. Hiding would have been a fantastic plan, if Asher’s presence wasn’t forcing my team and me to take increasingly reckless actions. Then, jarring me from my ruminations, Adlai spoke.
“Detective Inspector,” Adlai said, in his soft and lightly accented voice. “If you could leave the two of us alone.”
“You sure?” The dark-skinned detective gave me a dubious look.
Adlai didn’t take his eyes from me for a heartbeat. “I am positive.”
The detective – detective inspector, actually – pushed away from the table. He took his cup of coffee, but left the photos spread across the table. “Good luck, mate,” he said to me and then stepped out of the room. The door closed behind him with a loud, ominous click.
Adlai walked from his corner to the chair where the detective had sat. He turned the chair back to its proper orientation, sat, and neatly stacked all of the pictures up before returning them to the thin, tan folder. He placed the folder to his right with its edge flush with the edge of the table. Adlai steepled his fingers and then wove them together in a penitent fashion, watching me over his knuckles with hunter’s eyes.
“So,” he said, finally. “Here we are.”