The six days that followed were, in my conservative opinion, the longest six days of my life. They were longer even than the two and a half years spent behind the walls of La Santé; longer than the years after Sarah and I parted ways in the most gut-wrenching way imaginable; longer than the years in my childhood, dragged in my mother’s wake from one temporary home to another. Before those six days, I thought I knew something about patience. While working, I’d spent weeks casing establishments and months perfecting the ideal approach to a mark. I’d learned entire personal routines, down to the very second, so that every individual aspect of a plan could proceed without the slightest hiccup. I imagined, in my own naïve way, that I understood what it meant to wait.
I was wrong.
The difference between those times in the distant past, when lives weren’t at stake and abandoning the job was always an option that could be kept in mind, and the six days that came after our conversation at the disused subway car was easy enough to identify: Alex. Alex spent every waking minute pacing from one side of our Brooklands suite to the other, when he wasn’t obsessively watching and re-watching the short video Asher had sent to us. Whenever he called home to check in with Julianna, Sarah and I sat only a room away and listened to the half-truths and misdirections he used to keep her from worrying. From what we gathered, he hadn’t told her exactly what had happened to Ally, but the version of events he laid out couldn’t possibly remove the anxiety that threaded every word that passed his lips. I couldn’t hear what Julianna said on her end of the line but, if the false tone of soothing in Alex’s voice was even the barest indication, she was as terrified for Ally’s well-being as Alex was…even if she didn’t know the true source of the threat.
The first day was spent in negotiation with Avis who, unsurprisingly, demonstrated a marked reluctance at putting herself within arm’s reach of Hill and Asher again. Neal agreed with her, as we’d expected. Sarah and I had been forced to outline the plan to both of them several times, in isolation and together, until the girl had consented to at least make an appearance. Extracting even that concession had required a personal vow of safety from Mila. I doubted that either Avis or Neal truly appreciated the lengths that Mila would go to, in order to keep the child safe, but I’d seen her truly at work before. I couldn’t fully shake the mental image of her wreathed in flames, still firing madly into an inferno to provide a cover for my own escape.
It took Anton two days to extricate himself from the watchful eye of Stani and his goons. We held a quick meeting at a café located several crucial miles away from the Brooklands and informed him of our general plan. He asked few questions, except to make sure that Asher hadn’t yet hurt Alex’s baby girl, and then promised to be at the location we named at the appropriate time. I didn’t ask him where he would get the supplies for an explosive of unknown strength and he did not offer that information. Professional courtesy provided a measure of faith in Anton’s skills and resourcefulness; a shared terror between the two of us went the rest of the way.
After that meeting, there was nothing to do but plan, evaluate, and re-plan. A dozen approaches were discarded every few hours, only to be replaced by another dozen which we all took turns picking apart until every constituent part had been reduced to shredded ideas and half-formed concepts. Alex tried to provide objective commentary at first; after three days of Mila’s banal, morbid comments, he gave up on the process and resigned himself to burning out every ounce of nervous energy he could through pointless exercise and – in what he presumed, incorrectly, to be isolation – broken crying jags. Even Mila, as detached from emotion as she always seemed to be, seemed affected by the sounds. The rest of us possessed no such defense against such pure heartbreak. By the fourth day, a running soundtrack of music provided a backdrop to our work, and offered Alex another level of sound to mask his sorrow.
Sarah and I worked together on more than just the plan. With the sporadic outbursts of tears from Alex, the mood in the suite veered sharply into depressive. Sarah and Asher had, by and large, been the only long-term partners I’d ever worked with, but I knew enough about team psychology to realize that an air of misery would make us sluggish and decrease our ability to react to any unknown obstacles…obstacles which I expected would be considerable. So, the two of us forced ourselves to keep up a light banter of chatter and pop-culture references, drawing the others – Mila, Michel, and occasionally Anton – into our conversation through sheer force of will.
Our efforts weren’t entirely successful. The notes were a little too sharp or too flat; the comic beats fell just a touch too quickly or a hair too late; the smiles and laughs were just the tiniest bit too wide. But, it was still something other than tension and anxiety and the fear that ran through each of our bodies like blood and thrummed with each beat of our heart: the fear that would not be smart enough, or quick enough, or clever enough to finagle Ally out from underneath Asher’s nose without losing a member of our team to something unforeseen.
On the sixth day, Mila and I performed another sweep of the area, riding the subway in both directions to make certain that we understood our time table. We said nothing to each other for most of the trip, except for a brief exchange of words while we waited for the subway at Piccadilly Station.
“Hell of a thing,” Mila had said. For once, she had not been holding any sort of candy or food.
“Yeah,” I had replied.
“I want to kill him.”
There hadn’t been any need to ask her who ‘he’ was. “Yeah.”
“Think you’ll stop me?”
After almost two full minutes of thought and consideration, I had decided not to answer. The reconnaissance mission had proceeded without any additional comment from that point.
On the seventh day, we all rose early and prepared ourselves in different ways. For my part, I put on the bulletproof vest from Suzie and loaded each of my pockets with as much gear as I could carry without jangling. Sarah copied several essential programs onto her tablet and passed out earbuds and encrypted smartphones to each member of the team who might find themselves confronted by one of Asher’s goons. Michel, who had been practicing both his train-handling skills and some advanced driving techniques, put on the outfit he’d worn when I’d first met him.
Mila removed the sling she’d been using to hold her cast in place and secreted at least six different handguns in various locations on her person. While I’d made an effort to keep my extra baggage concealed, she had given the process only the faintest hint of care. At the time, that had made perfect sense. She was a known element to Asher and it would have been stranger if she hadn’t been armed.
It did not occur to me until later that, if Asher intended for me to disappear into some dark hole, the presence of a bodyguard at all would seem unusual.
Then, girded for war in our own particular ways, we all spent a silent moment in thought and prayer, hoping against all reason that we might be able to pull off this exchange with a minimum of bloodshed…or, if bloodshed was inevitable, that we might ensure that only deserving blood was spilled.
There had been no way to know the future, no trick of intuition or insight, that might have shown us the drastic error in our thinking. The questions we had not asked – in fact, the questions we had not even thought to ask – remained hidden behind a wall of our fears and doubts.
So, when we left to execute our plan on the seventh day, it turned out that we could have used at least another twenty-four hours. In hindsight, that might have made all the difference.
At precisely eight-thirty on the seventh day, Sarah received an email from Asher detailing his location and the terms of the prisoner exchange.
“Wherever it is that you’re holed up, you’ve got an hour to make it over to 171 Strand,” the email read. “Bring the girl and make certain that you’re also there, Devlin. I’ll meet you out front and show you in. Can’t wait to catch up.”
The message had been ‘signed’ with an emoji, adding just a touch more absurdity to the situation.
Of course, we had already figured out his hiding place and were already in position, but there wasn’t any reason to let him know that. Keeping him in the dark about what we did and did not know was an essential part of the plan; it allowed us a decent cushion of time when we could move without any concern that he might already be moving complications into position, to separate or otherwise inconvenience us.
Therefore, Sarah, Mila, Alex, and I left the Brooklands nearly an hour and a half before that email arrived. We took a car, provided by Sophie, and made the trip through fairly miserable traffic with almost thirty minutes to spare. Then, we’d taken up position across the street from the street-level entrance to the unused Aldwych station and waited. We had only been there a few minutes before Billy met us there.
Michel and Anton had left even earlier, and traveled across the city to the stabled train, until Sarah was in a position to activate their third rail. She’d offered some technical mumbo jumbo that involved the “metropolitan intranet” and “penetrating their firewall” before I’d given her the widely understood signal for my waning interest: dramatically loud snoring. She’d worked in silence on some program after that.
While Michel and Anton were on comms – by mutual unspoken agreement, it had been decided that every member of the team should be equipped with the means to call for assistance, if necessary – Sarah had kept their lines muted from the rest of us. Occasionally, a shadow of a smile touched her lips at something either the Frenchman or the Ukrainian said. The third time she smirked, I raised an eyebrow at her.
“They’re getting along,” she said. When my eyebrow did not decrease its elevation in the slightest, she elaborated. “They’re really getting along.”
I blinked. “Oh. Well, good for them, I guess? Stani’s probably not going to be thrilled about that development.”
“Well, I don’t think they’re planning on taking out a full page ad, if and when they decide to see each other outside of…this.” She gestured vaguely at our surroundings.
“That…is probably a very good point, actually.”
We sat on benches facing the entrance to Aldwych Station – according to additional research, the specific name for the building I looked at was the Strand – in silent thought for a few more seconds.
After enough time that my own imagination threatened to become a hated enemy, I cleared my throat and asked, “How are Neal and Avis doing?”
“Riding the rails, just like we discussed,” Sarah said. “Avis wanted to finish working on one of the documents I stole from the manor house, so she looked at the layout before she left to time everything perfectly.”
“The layout? What layout?”
“Of the Underground. The entire London Underground.” Sarah rolled her eyes and shook her head at the same time. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but she figured out exactly what trains to ride and at what time to get into position exactly when we need her there in, like, a second.”
I let out a low whistle. “How exactly did she do that?”
“According to her, it’s just a pattern. One pattern’s as good as any other. From there, just a quick glance at the official schedule and…” Sarah shrugged and gave Billy a sidelong glance. “Anyway, that’s a thing. They’ll be in motion as long as we need them.”
“And Billy? What will you be doing?”
The wheelchair-bound man laid a hand on his chest and winked at Sarah before answering. “l’ll stay one train behind them, just in case things go badly. Don’t want to get too close, on account of the possibility that one of Hill’s men might spook. That’s bloody unlikely, though.”
“Better safe than sorry,” I said.
Sarah nodded. “What he said.”
“Alright, alright.” Billy raised both hands in surrender, then gestured with two fingers at the man he’d chosen for today’s excursions. “Let’s get to it, then. See you lot on the other side, eh?”
Billy’s man wheeled him off down the sidewalk and I followed him with my eyes.
Mila, silent by her own decision through the last minute review, shifted her weight and rolled her good shoulder. “Incoming,” she said, in an absolutely bland voice.
Her tone was so casual that I almost didn’t pay any attention to her words. The part of my brain that hadn’t quite left ‘high alert’ mode, however, prodded the greater part of my thoughts. “Incoming? What? Who?”
Mila tapped me on the arm and directed my attention to my left, approaching from the opposite direction from the one Billy had left by. A man in resplendent finery who I did not immediately recognize was heading straight for us. I blinked, racking my memory for a name that matched the face.
Sarah, surprisingly, made the connection first. “What is Lord Fairfax doing here?”
Lord Fairfax….it took me another few seconds to dredge the appropriate memory from storage. The low level nobleman I’d met at the gala, just before I’d been drugged by Asher and hauled away. I stood up from the bench, carefully reconstructing the false identity of Hubert von Ackerman as I did so, and was ready to face him exactly as he reached us.
Although I didn’t plan on using this identity past London, simple professionalism rebelled at the thought of offering up a possible name stuck in my throat. I decided to take the offense and get rid of Fairfax before Asher came out of the Strand to greet us.
“Lord Fairfax,” I said, affecting the accent of a native German forced to use a language he didn’t particularly care for. “How good to see you again.”
For someone who had seemingly been walking straight toward us, the expression on Fairfax’s face read as pure surprise. He took a few seconds to compose himself, looking past us momentarily, before he spoke. “Ah. Von Ackerman, was it? After your abrupt departure from the museum gala, I assumed that some manner of business had demanded your attention. I had not expected you to even be in the city any longer.”
“Unfortunately,” I said, drawing myself up to my full height – which, unfortunately, was still a few inches shorter than Fairfax – and trying to look down my nose at the man, “a prior entanglement did require a bit of a personal touch.”
“One hopes that everything has been successfully resolved?”
“Not quite. I have high hopes that we will reach a satisfactory conclusion to this particular dilemma in the near future, however.”
Fairfax sniffed at the air, as if something foul had reached his nostrils. “And your companions?”
It was only with great self-control and the constant reminder of the upcoming operation that I kept myself from swinging at Fairfax. The way he looked at Sarah was equal parts condescension and undisguised lust. I had no right to get upset about that – she was free to be ogled by whomever she desired – but that didn’t stop the fire from flooding into my veins.
“Sarah Ford,” she said, standing and offering her hand. “A business associate of Hubert, you might say.”
“Ah, yes,” Fairfax said. “You did look rather familiar. I believe I read something of your family in a tabloid the other day. Scandalous, I dare say.”
The smile on Sarah’s face was brittle enough that a stray breeze might have cracked into a thousand pieces. “My family does enjoy a great deal of press coverage. One of the reasons I have chosen to work in other markets, for the time being.”
“And how is the import business doing?”
I blinked twice before I remembered the rest of the cover story. “Halcyon performs as well as it ever has,” I said.
“What is it that you Americans say? Smooth sailing, yes?”
It took a second before I realized that he was talking to Sarah, and not to me. She fielded the question with a barely noticeable twitch at one corner of her mouth. “Smoother, perhaps, than it has ever been. What is it that you do, Lord Fairfax?”
“A bit of this, a bit of that,” he replied with an airy wave of his hand. “The family business requires most of my attention these days. Constant interruptions in the supply chain, difficulties securing supply…nothing unusual. Or, at least nothing I expect will continue to be problems for very long.”
As he spoke, he took his phone from his jacket pocket and typed out a quick message without taking his eyes away from either Sarah or me.
“And your companion from the other night? If I may, where might she be this morning?”
Fairfax rolled his eyes. “Long term partnerships are such a hassle. I prefer to remain flexible, instead of tying myself to a single prospect, even when that prospect has proven itself to be an…unsuitable match.”
I checked my watch and concluded that I didn’t have the time to fence words here. Of course, I couldn’t leave the area, but there was nothing stopping me from offending Fairfax enough that he left of his own volition.
He surprised me, however, when he returned his phone to a pocket and dipped his head slightly. “If you’ll excuse me, yet another complication has arisen. I fear I must take care of this personally. Good help is so terribly difficult to find.”
“I wouldn’t say that. A solid team is often the foundation to any successful business deal, in my opinion.”
“Hmm. Well, to each their own. One hopes I might be able to call upon you at some point, Herr Ackerman. Perhaps a discussion of our different philosophies could prove…enlightening.”
I nodded, more to hurry him along than out of any real curiosity for a peek into his mind. “Of course. I will be in contact when my current situation is in hand.”
“I look forward to it.”
He left, without ever saying a single word to Mila. That was understandable, though. My false identity was a person of importance and Sarah’s last name alone guaranteed her a seat at virtually any table she desired. As far as Fairfax was concerned, Mila might as well have been invisible. She would rank so low in his eyes that he would barely register her as a being worthy of even the barest sliver of his attention.
“I really hate that man,” I said, when Fairfax was too far away to overhear.
“He is kind of an ass,” Sarah agreed. “But it isn’t like you haven’t dealt with snootier people before.”
“True. But usually they’re paying me.” I shrugged and dismissed Fairfax from my thoughts. Maybe when we finished with Asher, I might spend some time coming up with a way to deflate the Lord’s overinflated ego, but every square millimeter of mental real estate needed to stay on the task at hand.
Asher left the Strand ten minutes before the appointed time. He noticed us immediately, but made no move to walk across the street. Instead, he smoked two cigarettes down to the filter before sauntering across the street.
He came close enough that I could have punched the smug expression off of his face and into the gutter. To keep myself from doing that – and blowing the operation before it even had a chance to begin – I dug my fingernails into my palm. Blood welled up there and dripped down the street.
“Well,” he said, by way of greeting. “You’re early.”
“I’m motivated,” I said through gritted teeth.
Asher smiled, showing too many teeth, and extended both of his arms in a welcoming gesture. “No hug for your old pal?”
“Let Ally go and I’ll be happy to show you exactly how I feel about you.”
“So butch,” Asher said. He mimed a heart breaking. “Prison must have done a number of you, eh?”
I glared at him.
He turned his attention to Sarah. “I don’t know if I got a chance to tell you this,” he said, “but you looked absolutely ravishing in that dress. You know, the one you wore the Green Light gala? Where did you manage to find something so magnificent on such short notice?”
“I have friends,” Sarah said. “Something you find yourself in very short supply of, I’d imagine.”
“Friendship is a lie,” Asher said. The mask of good humor cracked and I caught a glimpse of burning rage beneath the surface. “Who needs friends when you can have money and power, instead?”
Sarah bared her teeth at him. The expression was closer to a feral growl than any indication of warmth. “I’ve had money and power. Those aren’t hard to get, if you’re patient or you’re lucky. But friendship? That requires loyalty. You do remember what loyalty is, don’t you?”
“You,” Asher said, waving an extended index finger in Sarah’s direction, “are not the person who gets to talk to me about loyalty. First, you entice poor Devlin here away from his partner, his compadre, his friend. And then you leave him high and dry at the first little argument the two of you have? Over what? A lie.” He barked out a laugh.
“Enough, Asher.” I was surprised at the firmness in my own voice. “You want to do this?”
“Fair enough. Where’s the girl?”
“Safe. And she’s going to stay safe until I’m sure you aren’t just fucking with us.”
He shrugged. “Fine, fine. Let’s get this over with, then. Follow me.”
Asher turned on his heel and walked back across the street. I let him get a few feet ahead of me before turning to Sarah. She answered before I could even phrase the question in my mind. “Yeah. Everything’s in place.”
I nodded and reached a hand into my pocket. I didn’t need to withdraw the phone in order to activate the stopwatch I’d set before leaving the Brooklands. The slight vibration let me know that the countdown had started. Then, with precious seconds literally ticking away out of sight, I led Sarah and Mila into the Strand, down the stairs, and into the heart of Asher’s power.