“The doctor, Sophie,” I snapped. “Get the doctor.”
Her mouth opened and closed several times, producing nothing except for dead air.
Sophie blinked, visibly pulling herself back together, and then gave me a sharp nod. “Of course. Brandon, help this gentleman into the suite. I will be right back.” She frantically pressed a button on the elevator’s interior console until the doors slid shut.
The bellhop – Brandon, apparently – did as he was ordered and managed to get Billy’s man out of the hallway and into the suite. With effort, Brandon dumped the wounded man onto one of the couches. Sharp gasps of surprise and horror came from the table where my team sat. The wounded man groaned and listed from a seated position into a slump across the length of cushions.
“What’s your name?” I asked the man on the couch. For the moment, I ignored the half-dozen questions coming from the table, focusing instead on the man in front of me.
The man coughed, sending flecks of crimson blood onto the otherwise pristine furniture in the process. “Name’s Peter,” he said, between racking gasps for breath.
“Alright, Peter,” I said, “I need you tell me what happened. Exactly what happened. Can you do that?”
Peter didn’t say anything for several seconds. He spent that time gathering his thoughts and struggling to regain some measure of composure. The blood seeping through his shirt into the fabric of the couch made it difficult to even look at the man, but I forced myself to stay calm and focused. The terror I felt flooding into my veins could be dealt with later, when there wasn’t a man on death’s door seated on my couch.
“Was an ambush,” Peter said finally. “Went to the tube to keep an eye on that girl, but…” He coughed. “…they was waiting for us. Not at first, but a few stops down the line. Happened too quick for me to do nothing about it. Just…came out of nowhere, yeah? Four men with clubs, rushed us as soon as we stopped.”
“They took ‘em,” Peter said. “Two of them grabbed him straight out of his chair and dragged him off. One of them worked on me, and the other took the man who was with the girl.”
“Neal?” Sarah asked. She had recovered enough from her shock to form questions, moving from the table over to the loveseat nearest the couch where Peter half-sat, half-lay. “You’re talking about Neal?”
Peter made a non-committal noise. “Don’t know his name,” he said. “Never asked. But they knocked him out while the girl was screaming, then took the whole lot of ‘em somewhere else.”
The brittle calm I’d been holding on to shattered under this new information and a torrent of increasingly vile swear words poured out of me before I could help it. In my peripheral vision, I noticed Ally blanching slightly at my choice of language, but I couldn’t spare the attention to worry about her delicate sensibilities.
For the moment, Sarah was more in control of herself than I was. She took the lead in questioning Peter without needing to be asked to do so. “How did you get here?”
“They wasn’t worried about me,” Peter said. “Wasn’t worried about leaving any evidence behind, neither. Billy dropped his phone when they took him and I got this address out of it.”
Sarah’s eyebrows drew closer together. “This address? How did Billy know where we were?”
Peter shrugged. A fit of coughs robbed him of speech for the next six or seven seconds.
Somehow, I managed to haul my thoughts away from vitriol and back into the land of the thinking. “He would have had us followed,” I said. “But we wouldn’t have noticed his people.”
Sarah considered that before nodding slowly. “Who looks at the people on the side of the road?” It was a rhetorical question, and I didn’t have any desire to answer one of those at the moment. “Jesus, we’ve been off of our game this entire time.”
“We can’t worry about that right now,” I said. “Peter, is there anything else you can tell us? Anything at all?”
“I don’t…don’t know what’s going on here,” Peter replied. “Head’s all full of bloody fog, yeah?” Then, he groaned again and lapsed into silence, slumping even further down.
It didn’t take a medical professional to realize that Peter was in bad shape. “Mila,” I said, “are you still with us, over there?’
As I spoke, I took my eyes away from Peter’s supine form and cast them in Mila’s direction. The bodyguard sat at the table, one hand still on the hidden weapon at the small of her back. Her eyes flitted all across the room, taking in everything they beheld with the cold professionalism of a trained killer. “This could be a trap,” she said in a cold voice.
“If it was a trap,” I countered, “we’d already be in trouble. Asher hasn’t been following us. Either he wanted us to get away, in which case he wouldn’t risk blowing his cover…or he doesn’t want us to get away, and we’d have gotten an RPG through the balcony by now.”
Both Alex and his daughter edged slightly away from the balcony at that. Michel stayed where he was, mouth hanging open at the scene in front of him. Mila gave me a slight, grudging nod. “What about Hill?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I do know that this man might be the only lead we’ve got right now. Did you learn anything about field medicine while you were…uh…”
She saved me from continuing by jumping from her chair and rushing over to Peter’s side. “Alex, keep an eye on the elevator. Sarah, I need you to get bedsheets for me. And duct tape, if you can find some.”
“Duct tape?” Sarah repeated. “Why would I have duct tape?”
“Find something!” Mila shouted back. “Until your concierge gets back with a doctor, it’s entirely possible that this man’s going to pass out from blood loss. If that happens, you aren’t getting anything out of him.”
Sarah sucked in a sharp breath, but she hurried away to find the sheets and duct tape. Anton joined her after a moment.
“Just in case you can’t fix him,” I said to Mila, “what can we do to get information out of him right now?”
Mila thought about that for a few seconds. Then, with an absolutely placid expression, she slapped Peter across the face with an open hand. The sound reverberated through the room and Peter’s eyes snapped open.
“That works,” I said. “Peter, I need you tell me more about what happened. Details are important, okay? Anything you remember might be the difference between finding Billy alive or dead.”
“But,” Peter began in a dazed voice, “they didn’t want him dead. Couldn’t have…barely even touched him, except for when they pulled him out of the chair.”
Peter began to drift away again. Mila raised a hand, as if to slap him back into awareness once more, and I waved her down.
“They didn’t hurt him?” I asked. “Did they say anything when they came?”
“Didn’t say nothing,” Peter said. A second passed before he shook his head, clearing away some of the fog that had to be clogging his brain like ethereal spiderwebs. “No, wait…that ain’t right. Said he knew why they were there. Told him that, uh….”
“What did they tell him?” I pressed.
“Said someone wanted to see him again,” Peter said. “Said it was past due. Why’d they say that, though?”
I was about to try a different tactic, when Sarah and Anton returned with sheets and a tube of superglue. “I couldn’t find any duct tape,” Sarah said, offering both items to Mila. “Will this work?”
Mila grimaced. “He won’t be happy about it in the morning,” she said, then shrugged with one shoulder.
She set to work without another word, tearing the sheets into shreds and directing each of us where each strip should be placed and how tightly the knots should be tied. Mila handled the work of applying super glue to cuts and gouges on Peter’s body. She pressed the sides of each wound together with a steady hand and drizzled the adhesive over the skin, then pressed them together until each injury stayed shut. Blood continued to leak out of Peter but there wasn’t anything we could about that. In stunned silence, all of us – Mila, Anton, Michel, Sarah, and I – worked to keep Peter was bleeding out in front of us.
The work continued with Mila calling out tasks at sporadic intervals until Sophie returned with a doctor in tow. The dark-skinned woman took one look at the tableau in front of her – Peter sprawled on the couch, five novices administrating triage, while Alex and Ally watched in shock from their table – before he briskly ordered all of us away. With her bag of tricks, the doctor began treating the most serious of Peter’s wounds, undoing what we’d done to keep him alive and conscious as she went.
While the doctor did her job, all of us retreated to the table. “What the hell do you think is going on here?” I asked the table, in a lowered voice.
“Asher…he must have known,” Alex said. “This thing with Ally…it must have only been a diversion. Something to keep you away from the little girl while his men moved in to take her.”
That had been the first idea in my head but, hearing it spoken aloud by Alex, I found myself shaking my head in disagreement. “No. No, that can’t be it. If he knew where Ally was, he wouldn’t have needed the trap in the first place. He could have just arranged to have our attention somewhere else. Besides, he’d have to know where we’re hiding out, wouldn’t he?”
Alex considered that for several seconds before offering me a reluctant nod. “Perhaps.”
“You said that he has been leading us around?” Michel asked.
“That’s what it looks like,” I said. “Hell, that’s what it feels like.”
“Kidnapping Ally was a bold move, then,” Michel said.
“If he knew that you would come, and he knew that you would find a way to get away, why would he do it? That would only make sense if he wanted you to figure out what he was doing.”
I blinked. Something might have been lost in translation there, but the general thrust of Michel’s thought made it through. Assuming that Asher had been guiding us through the process of attacking Hill at strategic points, there still wasn’t any satisfactory explanation for kidnapping Ally. There was even less of a reason for a sudden attack on Billy. If we were right, Asher didn’t even care about Neal and Avis. His goal was something else, something that we hadn’t yet deciphered.
“And,” I said out loud, “even if he really did want Avis, what reason would he have to leave Billy alive?”
“Leverage?” Mila offered.
“Leverage for what?” I shot back. “Billy’s sphere of influence isn’t all that considerable, even in the areas where he’s strongest. Asher deciding to bet on Hill makes more sense.”
“What about the Lady?” Sarah asked.
That thought warranted a few more seconds. The idea that the Lady had been playing us from the beginning had occurred to me on more than one occasion. And, after the requisite seconds had passed, I reached the same conclusion as I had a half dozen times before. “Doesn’t make sense, either. She’s had too many opportunities to take us out and she hasn’t taken any of them. When I was in Scotland Yard, she wouldn’t even have had to do anything except leave me alone, but she went through the trouble of exposing David, just to get me out.”
“We still don’t know what she really wants,” Sarah said.
“True. But whatever it is, I’m confident it’s something that she needs us to get for her.” Sarah gave me a questioning look. “Trust me. You’d understand if you met her. If she was trying to lead us into temptation, we wouldn’t even have begun to see her plan. What’s happening here positively reeks of Asher.”
She hesitated. “I’d agree with you,” she said, slowly, “but he’s been running circles around you this whole time. All of us. How do we know this isn’t more subterfuge on his part?”
I stood up and began to pace. There wasn’t much distance between the table and the nearest wall, so I traversed the distance twice before speaking. “We don’t,” I said. “That’s been the problem with everything we’ve done so far.”
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t know anything.” A brief flash of anger urged me to clear the table with a single violent sweep of my arm. I suppressed that. “Everyone has more information than we do. Asher’s had years to set up whatever he’s working on, and he’s working with the support of the Magi. I think. We’re in Hill’s territory. Hell, I’m almost positive the Lady has more intelligence than she’s offering, and that doesn’t make any sense at all. Why would she hire us to steal the book and Avis, then deliberately kneecap us right out of the gate?”
Everyone thought about that question in silence. While we found ourselves in isolated contemplation, Sophie’s doctor finished working on Peter. The wounded man’s eyes were open now, but they weren’t focusing on anything in particular. Without waiting to be asked, the doctor moved over and gave Ally quick examination. Her injuries were mostly cosmetic. Asher – or his men, I wasn’t sure – hadn’t done anything to the girl that required anything other than bandages and bedrest. From there, the doctor looked at Mila.
Mila gave her a steady look and then, slowly, shook her head. “I’m fine,” she said.
“You need to have that arm looked at,” the doctor said.
“I’m fine,” Mila repeated.
The doctor’s eyes narrowed. When Mila showed no sign of surrendering the point, the doctor sighed and began to pack up her supplies.
“Doc?” I asked.
She stopped, a stethoscope in one hand and a vile of some medicine in the other. “Yes?”
“How long do you think he’ll be unconscious?” I gestured to where Peter lay.
The doctor cast an appraising eye at Peter’s form. “That depends on a lot of factors,” she said, finally.
“Do you think you could get him awake right now? He can sleep for as long as he needs to later, but I still need answers now.”
The doctor placed the items in her hand into bag of tricks, then removed a fistful of tiny white packets. She tossed those to me and I caught them in the air.
“Smelling salts,” the doctor said. She stood up and started to move towards the elevator. “He’ll wake up for a little while, but you have to let him sleep. I don’t want to come back up here in a day or two, only to find out that you’ve worked him to death.”
“Will do, Doc,” I said. “Thanks.”
The doctor gave me a cursory nod and pressed the call button for the elevator. A few seconds later, she stepped inside and disappeared.
“Why not kill Peter?” I asked aloud, when I was sure that the doctor wouldn’t reappear. “If Asher’s in his endgame, he’s got no reason to leave any witnesses alive.”
“Unless he really is leading us around by the nose,” Sarah pointed out.
“Sure. But Peter didn’t tell us anything that points us in any given direction. We’re exactly where we’d be if Peter hadn’t shown up at all.” I walked over to the couch, prepared to use the smelling salts on Peter. “He’s got to know something else.”
Before I could place one of the packets underneath his nose, Peter’s eyes focused sharply on me. “I…kept this,” he said, in halting fragments. He turned over so that he was laying on his back and fished around in his shirt pocket. It took him a few tense seconds to find the object of his search. “Here.”
He handed me a small item, sheathed in hard plastic. I didn’t recognize its weight or shape at first; when I held it up to the light, I understood what I held.
Sarah, of course, knew what it was immediately. “A USB drive? What good is that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I tossed the drive to Sarah. Her eyes widened and she began fumbling with her tablet; Mila snatched the object out of the air and placed it gently on the table in front of Sarah. I pretended not to notice Sarah’s moment of blind panic. “You tell me.”
Sarah put aside the tablet and retrieved a laptop, instead. She went through a series of customary checks that involved things like “creating a virtual space” and “disconnecting from the cloud servers” before inserting the USB drive into a tiny slot on the left side of the keyboard. She waited a second and then began typing commands into the system.
The rest of us waited impatiently. After five minutes of the steady clicking of Sarah’s nails against her keyboard, I couldn’t stand the tension any longer. “What is it?”
She looked up from the screen. “These are the files Avis was working on,” she said. “Not just that…this might be everything she’s been working on since we got her out of the manor house to begin with.”
Sarah nodded. “Looks that way. I’ve got balance sheets, ledgers, some personnel records. There are even names of local suppliers and corrupt officers that can be bribed to look the other way when shipments come in.”
“Nothing that I can…” She stopped speaking.
“What is it?” She didn’t immediately answer. “Sarah, what else is there?”
“One of Hill’s associates is listed here. It looks like just a low level contact, for when Hill has to move among the elite.”
“Who? We might be able to find out something important from whoever that is. Infiltrate his circle of friends or just plain blackmail them into telling them what we need.”
Instead of answering, she turned the laptop around so that the screen faced all of us gathered around the table. The picture displayed there was immediately familiar.
Michel, Alex, and Ally lacked the appropriate context, though. “Who is it?” Ally asked and, for the moment, I forgot that the girl should be on a flight far away from London by any reasonable measure. “Do you know him?”
“Lady and gentlemen,” I said, in a profoundly resigned voice, “allow me to introduce our new target: Lord Charles Fairfax, Baron of Berekley.”