“You want to steal a train.” Sarah’s words, precise and clipped, implied a question. Her tone, however, made her disbelief unmistakably clear.
“Of course I don’t want to steal a train,” I said. “I want to, uh…borrow a train. We’ll give it back. What would we even do with one outside of London?”
“I don’t even know what you want to do with this one.”
Sarah and I – as well as Michel, Mila, Billy, and the man he’d brought to push his wheelchair – stood outside of a squat building, in the City of Westminster, looking at the steel frame of a 1972 Stock train. The train, aged and wizened as it was, stared back at us.
Alex was conspicuous by his absence. It had taken all of the persuasiveness I possessed and a great deal of Sarah’s charm to convince Alex that forty-eight hours without sleep made him a liability. He was resting in the Brooklands, now, while we moved onto the reconnaissance phase of the job.
“Explain,” Sarah said, after a few seconds. “Slowly.”
“This track,” I said, pointing down the line, towards the dark tunnel that marked an entrance into the Underground, “runs all the way into Aldwych Station. That station is used for location filming, like King’s Cross, except that it’s an older disused platform. But, because movies sometimes need to use trains to get certain shots, someone in authority decided to keep this particular machine stabled here. The tracks are kept in workable condition.”
“So you want to take this train from here,” Sarah pointed at the stable, “and drive it down to there. You don’t think that’s the kind of thing that might tip Asher off?”
I shook my head. “Ah, but the Hostel is still underground. Any train is going to sound the same: loud, distracting, but ultimately something you’d have to learn to ignore, assuming you set up base in the area.”
“How are you going to move it?”
“If you can redirect some electricity to this third rail,” I said, “that should be enough to get a little bit of momentum. From there, Michel just has to keep it from going literally off the tracks.”
Sarah pursed her lips. “Okay. And the escape?”
“That’s the best part.” I beamed at her. “With a little bit of manual operation, it’s entirely possible to reconnect this dead track to the Piccadilly line.”
“So we use the train to get into platform five,” Sarah said.
“Disembark and find our way into platform six.”
“Figure out where Ally’s being kept and contrive some way to get her away from Asher without getting either her or ourselves killed.”
“And then sneak an entire subway train away from platform five again, by connecting it to one of the busiest lines in London so that we can use it as a distraction.”
I nodded. “Yeah, that’s about the size of it.”
A dry chuckle came from Mila. I didn’t know how she managed to produce the noise, considering that her mouth was occupied by an oversized Cadbury Egg, but she pulled it off anyway. She bisected the candy with her incisors and swallowed fully half of it in one go. “You’ve got to admit,” she said, around the other half, “it isn’t even the craziest thing he’s thought of this week.”
“And,” Billy added, “you’ve got to appreciate the artistry of it.”
Sarah gave both of them a positively baleful look. “Your commentary is greatly appreciated,” she said, in a tone which seemed to carry a great many emotions, none of which were appreciation. She turned back to me. “So, excepting the considerable number of flaws that I can’t even imagine yet, there are some obvious holes in your plan.”
“I was hoping you might be willing to help us figure out the fine points,” I said. “This is, after all, your area of expertise.”
“Train robbery – literal train robbery – isn’t anybody’s forte, but let’s not get into that right now.” She sipped from a can of Diet Coke in thought before she spoke again. “Alright. What do we do if Asher decides to move her?”
“I don’t know why he would. If he was going to keep her in motion, he would have been doing that from the start. Either you set up perfect mobile protections – redundancies, route changes, decoys, and so on – or you fortify a single location. You don’t do both.”
“Okay. And how do we find out where she is, specifically? Billy, you said the Hostel used to house immigrant workers?”
He nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I heard. Don’t know anybody who could confirm that.”
“That’s fine.” Sarah entered a few quick commands onto her tablet and pulled up a rough schematic. “I couldn’t find an actual blueprint of the area online. The best I could come up shows several different rooms on the first level and some dormitories above that.”
“The dorms would be our best bet,” I said. “He’ll probably keep his men in the other offices, to seal off any avenues of entrance, should things go wrong.”
“And when things go wrong,” Sarah said, “that’s going to be how they keep us from getting back to the train. Assuming everything goes perfectly up to that point.”
That thought bore further consideration. After a few moments of thought, I perked up. “What if we can pull them away from the dorms?”
“How would you do that?”
“Asher’s going to be at the exchange,” I mused aloud. “That’s almost guaranteed to happen. And he won’t want to miss the moment where I hand myself over.” With only a slight vocal hiccup, I managed to keep myself from revealing anything about Avis. I wouldn’t mind Alex knowing about her, but we would all be better off if Billy didn’t have any more details than necessary.
“So you provide enough of a distraction that he calls for backup which, ultimately, only serves to clear the path to Ally?” Sarah gave a begrudging nod. “That might work. I’m sure you could be sufficiently irritating, if it came down to it.”
“With a smile on my lips,” I agreed. “Problem, though: there’s no way to be absolutely sure he’ll be at the Hostel any other time than the exchange.”
Sarah took a second to process that and to work through the next few steps. “And if we try to move the time of the exchange, Asher’s going to realize that we’ve got something in mind. Which will probably lead to him moving the location.”
“Or killing the girl and cutting his losses,” Mila said.
Everyone turned to look at her. Michel’s expression was pure horror; Billy’s and Sarah’s faces both creased into stricken shock; and I couldn’t muster any particular emotion other than frank disbelief. Billy’s man, however, merely seemed disinterested.
Mila calmly unwrapped another Cadbury egg. This time, she tore a large part of it instead of attempting to consume it in one bite. “What? We’re all thinking it.”
“We weren’t yet,” I said, “but you do make a good point. Asher’s going to assume that we’re planning something. This idea is crazy enough that it’s not the sort of thing he’d see coming, but if he starts thinking that he might have been out-played, he’ll just change the terms of conflict. Either by changing venues or by escalating it to a point where we can’t think clearly.”
“Escalating?” Sarah asked. A heartbeat later, her eyes widened. “You mean Julianna?”
“Or Suzie, maybe. Your family has considerable personal protection, so they’re probably beyond his reach, but I want to stress probably here. If Hill’s involved, that’s a pretty decent amount of power that might be used to bribe a few guards. If he’s doing this with the Magi’s backing?” I whistled.
“And if he’s doing it on his own?”
“If he’s doing it on his own,” I said, “that just means he’ll get more creative, even if he can’t necessarily go bigger. Either way, the last thing we want to do is alter the terms, especially if we have even the slightest idea how to cheat them as they stand.”
Sarah let a vague, noncommittal sound rumble its way out of her throat. “If we can’t change the date of the exchange, we’ll have to get it absolutely perfect the first time. Any mistakes and…” Instead of finishing that thought, Sarah gestured in Mila’s direction.
“I know. But I’m not seeing any other options. Anything subtler might not make it into or out of the Hostel in time. Anything less subtle runs the very real risk of giving him enough time to counter what we’re doing.”
“Hmm.” Sarah drummed her fingers across the surface of her tablet, then used her thumb and index fingers to zoom in on a particular part of the map. “What about this wall? It isn’t connected to anything load-bearing, but it could provide a little bit of extra assurance.”
I examined the portion of the map that Sarah had highlighted. “Between the canteen and these offices? How would that help?”
“Additional distraction. Plus, we wouldn’t have to get past the guards. If we could just get into one of the offices and blow out a few walls, we’d have a clean shot to the ramp right here.” She slid her finger along the diagram until she reached a part of the map labeled ‘track level.’
“Billy, you said that the Hostel was used as a bomb shelter?” Mila asked.
“Yes mum, I did.”
“So it stands to reason that the walls are not the sort of flimsy things that can be easily destroyed?”
Mila turned to Sarah. “Do you have any particular expertise in explosives?”
Sarah shook her head.
“Do you?” Mila asked, shifting her attention over to Billy.
“Not my area, no,” Billy replied. “Possibly someone at the House, but I’d be shocked, to say the least.”
“Well, I don’t,” Mila said.
I tilted my head and lifted an eyebrow at that. “Something you aren’t an expert with?”
“My Farsi’s also a little rusty,” she replied, a touch more defensively than I would have expected. “And I couldn’t carry a tune in a barrel.” I raised my hands in the signal for ‘I surrender,’ and she sighed. “Someone else on the…team handled the explosives, when I was still working with Aiden. My skills lay in other areas.”
A few moments of pregnant silence passed without comment from any corner, until I cleared my throat. “Well, I know someone who might be able to help.”
Sarah drew the appropriate connections within a heartbeat. “Anton? You’re sure you want to get him involved?”
“He’s trustworthy,” I replied. “And he already knows that Alex has a kid. He isn’t about to be invited to their house for Christmas dinner, but he’s close enough to Alex that he’d want to help.”
“If you pull him into this, though…how sure are you that you aren’t going to get the other Russians – Stani and the other two – involved, too?”
I hesitated before replying. “I’m not sure. But you think the explosives are a good idea?”
Sarah took a few moments before responding with a single, sharp nod of her head. “Yeah. Yeah, I really think they are. If we’re doing this, then we can’t risk wasting time dealing with anyone that we don’t absolutely have to deal with.”
Internally, I noted the change in her tone. She was onboard with the idea, if she’d already moved onto the process of strengthening the general outline.
“Then we’re going to need an expert.” My thoughts travelled back to St. Petersburg: to fire, and screams, and many long nights of shallow sleep. “This isn’t the kind of thing we want to wing.”
Sarah considered that for a second or two before she gave her assent. “Alright. Do you have some way to get in contact with him that isn’t necessarily going to alert the Russians?”
“There’s an email address, I think, but I don’t remember it.”
She waggled her tablet at me. “Pretty sure I can find it from this. Give me a second.”
Sarah set to work digging through the vast network of email addresses and fake dot-coms she’d built over the years. While she did that, the rest of us stood around awkwardly. “So,” Billy said, shifting his weight so that he faced Mila. “I put out some feelers about this ‘flurpitine’ thing you’re looking into.”
She immediately perked up, a third Cadbury egg slipping free from her fingers as she whirled on Billy. “What? What’d you find out?”
“Nothing for certain, you see. It’s hard to get anything concrete when all I’ve got is a name, without the faintest bit of bloody context.” He waited, hoping that someone would take that blatant conversational bait. When we all let it dangle there, untouched, he gave Mila a slight smile and continued. “Seems a man with some distinctive burn scars has been pushing some of the local dealers to get into the pharmaceutical game.”
“Asher’s getting the drugs?” I asked. “Why would the Things have known about that?”
“I don’t know anything about Asher, except for what you told me,” Billy said, “but I did start wondering why the sudden increase in activity in that market. Now, back when I was working side-by-side with Hill, there’d be some high rollers who had their particular choice of drug. Usually something high-end or designer that wasn’t normally available, so we’d have to work a little harder to get our hands on it, see?”
“I’m following,” Mila said.
“Now, no one had any interest in flurpitine before a couple days ago, maybe a week. All of a sudden, everyone’s being put on high alert to horde any of it they can get their hands on.”
“What changed?” I wondered aloud. Then, an instant later, “Aiden changed.”
“Aiden?” Billy’s lips twisted into an off-center pout. “That the guy who came after you lot at the processing plant?”
“Uh…yes and no. Let’s settle on ‘involved in the processing plant,’ and leave it at that for right now. The story gets complicated.”
Billy shrugged. “Fine by me. Anyway, I let my curiosity get the better of me. I don’t have a lot of contacts left outside of the city – Hill made a point to take care of the ones he knew about when we ‘parted ways’ – but there’s still a few who like me enough to take a call. And they said there’s been a string of business like that, all across Asia and Europe. Sudden interest in flurpitine, then it dies off.”
“Is he moving?” Michel asked. “Aiden, I mean.”
“He is a mercenary,” I said. “It would make sense. Wherever he goes, there’s got to be a specific supply of that particular drug. But why?”
While there had been other things on my mind at the time, I vaguely recalled what Sarah had told me outside of Scotland Yard the previous night. In addition to its uses as a pain reliever, there had been some early clinical trials that suggested it might have some ability to combat the symptoms of Mad Cow Disease. My knowledge on the specifics of that particular illness was vanishingly small, but it certainly sounded like something no one – least of all of a mercenary whose life often depended on the ability to make split second decisions and on their martial prowess – could afford to leave untreated. The idea, however, that Aiden was suffering from a chronic illness, the likes of which could trigger a national panic by its mere mention, was absurd.
Although, my life had been nothing but absurd since the Lady had deigned to lay her hands on it.
“He might be sick,” I said. “Sarah was looking into it earlier. Aiden might be suffering from something…chronic. If he is, there’s a chance that he’s taking the drugs on a regular basis to stave off the other effects.”
“You think he is self-medicating?” Michel asked.
“He might have been doing that before he decided to recruit Mikhail,” I said, then remembered that Michel hadn’t been on comms during the original meeting with Billy at the Halfway House in the middle of a black market. “Sorry, that’s the guy Mila didn’t recognize, back at the manor house. Who, as it turns out, might be…I don’t know, his doctor?”
Mila turned and impaled me with the force of her gaze. “What does he have?”
“This is just an idea. I’m not even sure if it’s possible –“
“What,” she repeated, “does he have?”
I sighed. “Mad Cow. I think. Maybe.”
A dozen emotions flickered across her face, too fast and too varied for me to do more than track every third change. Tension melted into fury into satisfaction into, paradoxically, grief.
The calm, emotionless mask settled back into place, however. “Oh,” she said. “What are the symptoms of that?”
“She would know more than me,” I said, hooking a thumb in Sarah’s direction. “Ask her to give you a rundown when we’re back at the hotel.”
Mila nodded, without saying another word, and Sarah chose that moment to raise her voice. “Alright, well…alright.”
I gave our bodyguard another few seconds of consideration before I turned to Sarah. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Stani wasn’t lying when he said that Anton was busy,” she said. “He was collecting supplies, in case he needed to make something go boom. When you met up with Stani and his crew, he just sort of waited for other orders.”
She shrugged. “It’s hard to get tone out of email, especially when you’re talking to a non-native speaker, but I get the impression that he’s working with Stani. Like, as a partner.”
The word choice there threatened to bring a ghostly smile to my lips, but I smothered it.
“Anyway,” Sarah continued, “as soon as I told him what happened, he said that he’s in. The problem, though…”
“Problem? Another problem? Imagine that.”
She gave me a withering, fake smile. “The problem is the lack of blueprints. I can’t find any information online about how strong the walls are, what they’re made of, which ones are load-bearing and which ones aren’t. And, if I can’t find them, then I can’t tell them to Anton.”
“He’s in,” Sarah said, “but he’s got to come with us. He can use the train to store whatever tricks of the trade he’s going to need to blow a hole into the wall without dropping the entire damn train system on our heads, I guess.”
“And Stani won’t miss him?”
She shrugged. “We’ve got a couple of days to figure out to sneak a train into a disused train station, steal our friend’s only daughter back, and then get out without starting a mass panic. Whether or not Stani’s feelings get hurt because we borrowed his bomb-maker ranks very low on my ‘concern’ scale.”
“That is…a very valid point.”
“He’s going to be there,” Mila said.
That pronouncement brought another blanket of silence over all of us. There wasn’t any need to ask who ‘he’ was.
She kept speaking. “If this is part of Asher’s plan, and he’s expecting you to try something, then you’ve got to know he’s going to take special precautions. Aiden is…a very special precaution. And I…” She trailed off there.
“I’m not going to lie and say that I’m not worried about,” I said, “but I don’t doubt that we can figure something out. You don’t even have to come; if someone starts shooting, we’re probably all screwed anyway.”
Mila’s eyes came to life, blazing with pure vitality. “If you’re going in, I’m going in. That’s my job.”
I raised my hands to placate her. “Alright, then. So that makes…what? Me, you, Sarah, Michel, and Anton?”
Billy and his men moved slightly away from us. “Glad to see you aren’t including me too, mate,” he said. “I’ve got other things to take care of and early suicide isn’t on the to-do list, is it?”
“Fine. The five of us, and we’ve got one week to get the timing on this down to an absolute science.”
Somewhere far away from us, carried to our ears by the wind and favorable acoustics, the sound of a train leaving its station came wafting over the landscape. Its timing seemed both poetic and prophetic.
“Now leaving for Crazy Town,” I said in a soft voice, more to myself than to my comrades. “All aboard.”