Instead of meeting Billy at the Halfway House, it was decided that the light of day warranted a more appropriate rendezvous point. No one particularly wanted to let Billy know about the Brooklands, or to offer him even the barest chance of uncovering our current false identities, so we chose a more neutral grounds, seven miles south of the hotel. We gave him plenty of time to prepare transportation before we headed out ourselves, and we still managed to beat him to Hatchlands Park by nearly thirty minutes.
While the outdoors had never held any particular allure for me, even I was able to objectively appreciate its beauty. Over four hundred acres of green grass and deep blue water went a long way towards mitigating the otherwise brisk early winter temperatures. Flowers in a greater variety than I could begin to guess at populated the hills and the lakeshore, bursting with color in defiance of the weather. I found myself wishing that I’d worn the button camera, just so that Sarah could get a view of the spectacle. My traitorous mind, roused by that idle thought, began to plan a return visit to the park when spring had fully returned. I shut that down before it could develop beyond the barest bud of an idea.
Mila, Alex, and I used cash to purchase our tickets and walked in a wide circle around the property. On our second circuit, I recognized Billy as one of his men – a younger man, who was considerably wider than he was tall – pushed his wheelchair onto the path.
Billy raised a hand in greeting when he saw us and his man angled the wheelchair in our direction. We met, exchanged pleasantries, and then started our third circuit down the Hatchlands’ walking path.
“Well, this is a massive bloke you’ve brought with you, eh? You’ve got a lot of different mates, innit?” Billy asked. His accent was different now; he sounded like someone from Essex, which stood out in stark contrast to the myriad accents he’d used the previous night. I was beginning to suspect that he modified his mannerisms in order to make his men – wherever they happened to hail from – more comfortable. Even if I was wrong, the inflection and slang wasn’t indecipherable.
“I’m a friendly person,” I said. “People just flock to my side. It’s more of a curse, really.”
Billy threw his head back and laughed. “Don’t know that I’d go that far, bruv, but you certainly ain’t the bad sort. That job you did was a bloody sight, it was.”
“Glad to help. Did you get everything you wanted out of that? I know it didn’t really go…the way we’d planned.”
“Got everything and more,” Billy said. His eyes narrowed slightly, and the laughter went out of them. “Why?”
“Just wondering if I might be able to use some of this newfound friendship and ask you a couple of questions.”
He tilted his head to a shallow angle in thought. “You calling in a favor, then?”
“Not a favor,” I said. “But some questions I’d rather you not repeat, if possible.”
Billy considered that for several more seconds. Finally, he looked up and over his shoulder at the man pushing his wheelchair. “Go make sure the car’s fit to ride,” he said. “Might have to bomb it later.”
While that particular bit of slang did go over my head, it apparently meant something to Billy’s man. A curious expression passed over his face and, when Billy said nothing else in elaboration, he shrugged and left the wheelchair in the middle of the path. Billy’s man walked back the way he’d came and disappeared around a bend before too long.
“One of you mind helping me out?” Billy asked Mila, when his man was completely out of sight. The accent, predictably, was less intense now. Still British, but nowhere near as thick.
“You can’t do it yourself?” Mila countered.
“I can,” Billy said, shrugging, “but it’s always easier not to. Might as well ask.”
Mila gave him a steady look, her expression entirely unchanging and impassive, until Alex eventually sighed and moved behind Billy’s wheelchair. We started back down the path.
I reached into my pocket and removed what was either a very small tablet or a very large phone, then passed it over to Billy. “Take a look at that and tell me what you see?”
Before leaving the Brooklands, Sarah had neatly excised any direct mention of Alex or his daughter, as well as anything that might imply what Asher wanted. The video, therefore, was mostly a mishmash of incomplete sentiments and dangling phrases, but the situation was already too dicey to risk information leaking out before we were ready to act.
I prepared myself to accept the possibility that Billy might not have anything to offer, but was pleasantly surprised when he looked up after only a few minutes. “That’s the Hostel,” he said. “What’ve you got going on there?”
“The Hostel?” I repeated, after allowing myself a few seconds of dumbfounded confusion. “What’s the Hostel?”
“Used to be a tube station,” Billy said. “Closed years back, on account of an infrequent customer base.”
An abandoned subway station did have possibilities as a holding area. From what I knew of the London Underground, stations and landings branched off from main lines like the entire network of tunnels was some sort of living organism. Occasionally, these stations did well enough to serve as starting points for their own growing lines but it was more common for them to close after enough years of disuse.
There were some law abiding individuals who made a point of scouting out these areas and, of course, people whose interests ran closer to my side of the tracks. A sufficiently abandoned one might serve nicely to keep someone out of sight, yet within relatively easy reach.
“How do you know about it?” I asked.
Billy squeezed his eyes shut for a few moments, clearly digging around in his own memory for an answer. “I had a business associate who lived out in Piccadilly,” he said, finally. “This was before that station shut down, but I used to take the tube on platform five out to handle the business.”
“And that’s the Hostel?”
Billy opened his eyes and shook his head. “No, platform five was a different thing. The Metro authority kept that up to date, far as I could tell. At least, until they shut it down, I mean. Platform six on the other hand…that’s what we used to call the Hostel, yeah.”
“Why’d you call it that?”
He hesitated. “This wasn’t my business,” he said carefully, “but there were some less savory individuals who used to put up workers there.”
“The kind that might not be properly documented,” Billy clarified.
Immigrant workers, then. The Hostel, as Billy called it, would have served as some sort of boarding house for the poor and penniless immigrants smuggled into the country by one criminal interest or another. That elevated its likelihood as Asher’s current base of operations several notches. Any area can be used as a hideout, but an area with previously proven value was more difficult to easily locate.
“Okay,” I said slowly. With only a barely noticeable missed step, I pulled my encrypted cell phone out of my pocket and sent a text to Sarah with those two words – “the Hostel” – and then turned my attention back to Billy. “Can you tell me anything else about it?”
“That depends on why you want to know,” he said. “You seem like a nice enough fella, but I’m not about to get in bed with anyone who works that far in the dark, if you catch my drift.”
“What?” I blinked, sputtered, and blinked again.
“I’ve been a lot of things in my time but nothing like that.” Billy’s eyes were hard. “So I’m going to have to ask about the, uh…nature of your interest in that particular area.”
I couldn’t risk glancing at Alex, but Michel – who had remained silent so far – did not possess my same self-control. As soon as the question passed Billy’s lips, Michel flinched and looked directly over Billy’s shoulder. When Billy turned to follow Michel’s gaze, Alex tried gamely, but he couldn’t succeed in hiding the stricken and pained lines in his face.
“It’s got to do with this one?” Billy asked.
Alex saved me from dissembling – either through a direct lie or some other form of misdirection – by clearing his throat. “Devlin,” he said, in his booming baritone. “Can we trust him?”
“Trust is a little strong,” I replied. “But I think we’re working towards the same goals, at least.”
Alex nodded. “My daughter,” he said to Billy, without any fanfare. “He has my daughter.”
It was Billy’s turn to sit, stunned into muteness, for several seconds. We turned a corner and found ourselves facing an idyllic pond. It was cold, but not quite cold enough for frost to cover the surface of the water. We stopped and looked out at the scene.
“Hill?” Billy asked finally, quiet and without any of his customary impishness or his earlier suspicion.
“No,” I said. “But it might as well be Hill. The guy that I’m after took her.”
“Why?” Before I could answer, Billy shook his head and waved me back into silence. “No, that’s a silly question. He did it to lure you in, didn’t he? Take the girl, so you’ve got to go wherever he wants, whenever he wants you to. That about the size of things?”
There wasn’t any conceivable way that Billy might deduce the existence of Avis from the scant clues he had to work with. My rudimentary understanding of her abilities was enough that I knew anyone would literally kill to have her services for their own. I made the call on the spot.
“That’s about the size of it, yeah.”
“So the video was cut to hell because…?”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said, “but your organization doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation with me right now. Someone leaked you bad intelligence and nearly got me and my team killed. We made a decision to keep things as close to our figurative vests as possible.”
“No offense taken,” Billy said. “You’re right and it’s probably the same thing I would have done, in the circumstances.”
“Do you have children?” Alex asked.
Billy gave a weak shrug, followed by an almost imperceptible shake of his head. “Not anymore.”
Neither man said anything else for a long time and all of us – Mila, Michel, Alex, Bily, and myself – stared out over the pond in contemplative silence.
“They do some filming on platform five,” Billy said, after what felt like an eternity. His voice was rougher now than I’d heard it before. He swallowed before he continued. “I can have one of my men…no, I can bring you anything else I come up with. How long do you have before your man escalates the matter?”
The question was directed at me. “A week,” I said. “I’m not planning on giving him the opportunity to dictate how this goes, though.”
“You think that’s a good idea? Antagonizing him might make things worse.”
“I have it on good authority that things are going to get worse, either way. If that’s unavoidable, I’d prefer to get as many innocents out of the way as possible beforehand.”
Another stretch of silence.
“Anything you need, just ask. If Hill’s involved with this – hell, even if he isn’t – I want to help fix this. You understand?”
I nodded. “We’ll keep that in mind. But for right now, all we need is information. Figuring out how to play this comes later.”
My phone vibrated. I took it out and checked the display. Sarah had replied to my text with a picture of railway lines and her own message – “Does he mean this?” – underneath the image. I showed the screen to Billy.
“That’d be where to find the Hostel,” he said. “See, this part right here?”
He pointed at one of four lines. There wasn’t any discernible difference to me, but I trusted to his experience in the matter.
“This is the Piccadilly line now,” Billy continued. “The lower level takes you south down the line and this one – the landing’s a floor up, see? – takes you north.”
“Which was in platform five?”
“None of them. See, those two lines are still running today.” He moved his finger to the end of one line. “This is where platform five would be. That was the, uh…I think it was the Aldwych platform? Would’ve served the shuttle between Holborn and Aldwych. Might have been the Holborn platform, come to think of it.”
I twirled my finger in a loose circle, giving Billy the universal sign for ‘keep going.’
“Let’s call it Aldwych,” he said. “Anyway, that closed up in ’94 and the place got boarded up. I think they used it as storage. And this,” Billy moved his finger once again, “is platform six.”
“When was that closed?”
“Officially?” He lifted his shoulders, then let them fall. “I know the military used it to ride out some of the Blitz. Beyond that, no clue. Your lady friend might be able to find some information on that. All I know is that it’s been abandoned for a long time; last I saw, the whole platform might as well have been from a century ago.”
I let this new information bounce around in my head, seeking connections wherever they may be found. Nothing particularly inspiring came back. If the Hostel had been used as shelter during World War II, there was little chance of drilling or bombing our way in, even if we had the resources or the time to make that approach anything more than a fanciful dream. Sarah might have better luck pinpointing accurate blueprints for the platform, especially since it was now just another abandoned station in the veins of the London Underground’s convoluted transport system, but I didn’t want to start holding out hope for a miracle.
“They filmed movies there?” Michel asked.
“Not at the Hostel,” Billy said, patiently, “but on platform five. I think you can see it in a lot of films, actually.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Platform five is pretty, but nothing’s running down there anymore. So you don’t have to worry about getting permits to shut down the tube for a few hours.”
Mila kicked a rock into the pond with both considerable force and admirable accuracy. It skipped four times across the surface of the water before it finally sank. “Anything I would have seen?” she asked, without looking up.
Billy looked at her if she had asked the stupidest question imaginable. “I don’t know,” he eventually said. “Superman, I think? That zombie movie? I don’t have a lot of opportunity to go the movies. Is this really important right now?”
I opened my mouth to voice a similar sentiment. My jaw continued to hang open as an idea went from the fetal stage into something resembling a solid, workable concept. “Wait. Superman? Which Superman?”
“The bad one?”
I closed my eyes. I’d seen that movie. Billy was right; it was, by far, the worst of the lot, but its relative quality wasn’t what my mind had caught onto. “They filmed some of that here? That movie had barely any budget. They couldn’t have…”
My fingers began to fly across my phone, sending a quick question to Sarah. Mila watched me work for a moment before turning a smug look to Billy. “That’s why I asked,” she said. “He’s got a weird talent for pulling useful information out of completely random facts.”
“What did you think of?” Alex asked me.
I shook my head. “I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Maybe something. It’s just an idea, right now. I’d rather not talk about it until it turns out that I’ve actually got something to share.”
He accepted that with a grudging nod. Michel had barely spoken since we’d left the Brooklands, according to the plan we’d discussed before leaving. Mila, of course, appeared perfectly at ease, despite the stakes. Billy, who had known me only for the barest possible time, opened his mouth to ask for more clarification and I silenced him with a single raised finger.
“I’ve seen both of those movies,” I said. “Neither of which had the budget to set up a lot of complicated machinery for camerawork. I know that Asher isn’t a huge moviegoer, so I doubt he’d even think about the significance of the place, but it’s something I could swear I’ve heard about.”
My phone informed me of Sarah’s response. I looked at the screen and smiled.
“What?” Alex asked. “What is it?”
“I think there might be a way in. Or at least, a way to get close enough to figure out the next step.”
“What is it?” Alex’s excitement was contagious and I felt the smile on my face stretch even wider.
“I should know better by now,” Mila said, “but even I’m kind of curious what I said that triggered your Eureka moment. And, you know, what the moment actually means for the rest of us? I’m not looking forward to breaking another rib.” She gestured vaguely with her cast and sling. “Or an arm.”
“No worries about that. You aren’t the key part of this,” I said. I turned to Michel. “You are.”
“Me?” He blinked several times. “What do you need me to do?”
I checked the phone again as Sarah sent me another text, providing additional details that might prove critical later. “That depends,” I said. “Do you think you can drive a train?”