Chapter 101

After returning the train to its stable, we changed vehicles three different times and took a circuitous route around the greater London area until we were absolutely sure that Asher had not somehow managed to follow us.  Then, and only then, did we allow ourselves to exhale a collective sigh of relief and return to our base of operations in the Brooklands.

Alex clung to Ally with all of the not-inconsiderable force in his arms, thrilled beyond words to have her safely back and terrified that something might manage to steal her away again.  Ally allowed her burly father to embrace her with only a modicum of complaint, still clinging to some semblance of dignity in the face of the ordeal she’d just escaped.  I expected that mask to crumble as soon as she was away from so many strangers.  That would only be natural.

When we reached the hotel, Sophie greeted us with the formality and civility that I’d come to associate with the concierge.  The only emotion she allowed to reach her face was a barely raised eyebrow when Ally stepped out of the car.

“Shall I arrange for medical treatment, then?” Sophie asked smoothly.  Even as she spoke the words, her eyes flitted down to her tablet, while her fingers began to type.

“I’d appreciate that,” I said, smiling.  Sophie did not return the expression, but I hadn’t really expected her to.  “And you’ve got someone to pick up those cars?”

“Of course.  I believe those particular vehicles were scheduled for a deep cleaning today, as it happens.”

Translation: any evidence of our presence in those cars we’d abandoned would be eradicated.  As far as I knew, Sophie’s cars weren’t linked to any crimes, and we hadn’t technically done anything that would attract the attention of the law again.  Still, leaving as small of a footprint as possible was just good tradecraft.

“I think you might be right about that,” I said, out loud.  “Our friends are going to be staying here, by the way.”

“Ah.  And how long will they require accommodations?”

“A day or two,” Sarah said, before I could answer.  I gave her a look, which she blithely ignored.

Sophie started the process of acquiring a room for Alex and his daughter.

Ally shifted her weight from one foot to the other in the temporary silence that followed.  I watched her visibly struggling with another question, before she plunged forward and spoke.  “You knew him?” She asked her father.  “The man who took me…both of you knew him?”

Alex and I shared a look, then nodded.  “A long time ago,” I said, “yeah.  I knew him.”

“What did he want with me?  I heard him say something about a girl, but…”

“It’s…complicated,” I said.  “Let’s just say that he wanted to get to me, and you were the only way he was able to do that on short notice.”

“And this is…about what you used to do?”  Ally’s question was directed at her father.

Alex sighed.  “Unfortunately.  That is why I left that life behind.  It is too dangerous for a man with children and a…a wife.”

The slight hiccup might as well have signaled a fog horn to me.  I knew the story Alex was tiptoeing around.  I did not, however, know whether or not he had gotten around to telling Ally the truth about her mother’s death.  I certainly didn’t want to be the one who broached that topic, so I kept my mouth shut.

Sarah stepped into the conversational gap before things could grow too awkward.  “Let’s talk about this upstairs.  Devlin’s right; I think a celebratory meal is in order.”

“And, after that?” Alex asked.

“After that,” Sarah said, “you get your daughter on a plane, I’ll arrange for Julianna to meet you in some as-yet undisclosed country, and the three of you can lay low until we get a chance to finish things here.”

Alex’s jaw dropped open.  It worked up and down in silence for a few seconds before he regained the power of speech.  “He stole my daughter!  And you want me to let him get away with it?”

“You just said that it’s too dangerous to bring your loved ones into this game,” Sarah said.  “As far as Asher knew, you weren’t active and he still came after Ally.  We both know he’s going after Jules next.  The best you can do is get somewhere out of sight so that he can’t use you or your family as leverage again.”

Alex stammered out an incoherent response.

I raised my hands, drawing eyes back to me.  “We can discuss all of this over food,” I said.  “And out of sight, preferably.”

“I second that,” Mila said.  “Sam needs to be fed, anyway.”

“Sam?”  Ally asked.  “Is he another one of your old friends, papa?”

I laughed again.  This time, Mila allowed herself to crack the barest smile as well.  “No,” I said, “not a friend.  Come on.  You’ll understand when you see him.”

Upstairs, the feline Sam was overjoyed at Mila’s return…or, more accurately, as overjoyed as a lethargic furball could be.  He jumped off of the couch and sauntered over to his owner, rubbing his bulk against her leg and purring like a jackhammer.  Mila picked him up and stroked between his ears.

“This,” she said, “is Sam.”

“Can I…can I pet him?” Ally asked, hesitating a little bit with each word.

Mila nodded, so Ally approached Sam and held out a tentative hand.  The cat sniffed her fingers, seemed to give the matter deep contemplation, before ultimately tilting his head slightly with an air of deep sufferance.  Ally found an acceptable spot behind one ear for her fingers to work and Sam started up his jet engine impersonation once more.

“Alright, then,” Sarah said, when we were all seated around the dining room table.  There wasn’t any food on the table, but several of the alcoholic drinks we’d purchased over the last week found their way into glasses and cups.  Anton deigned to drink something other than vodka and even Ally had a short glass filled with a dark lager.  “It’s five o clock somewhere, isn’t it?”

“It might as well be five o’clock here, if you’re asking me,” I said.  “Here’s to cheating failure yet again.”

We all raised our glasses in salute and drank a toast.

“I cannot believe that worked,” Michel said, lowering his glass back to the table.

“Neither can I,” I admitted.  “I wouldn’t have thought to do the thing with the explosives, Anton.”

The Ukrainian shrugged.  “It is not the sort of thing that people think about,” he said.  “But what can destroy a wall can also destroy a floor.  It would not have worked so well if you had not been able to tell me exactly where to put the detonators.”

I pointed my glass at Sarah.  “That one wasn’t me.  She was the one who marked the area.”

Sarah inclined her head, in acceptance of my praise.  “True.  But you’re the one that actually got us all into one area.  How did you know Asher would keep talking to you?”

“I didn’t.  But I didn’t have a whole lot of other options, so I figured…might as well go with what works.”

“Keep talking until whoever your victim happens to be decides to give up and let you have your way?” Sarah asked, with a slight smile on her face.

“If it ain’t broke.”  I swallowed another mouthful of beer and Ally, seated across from me, did the same.  Alex gave her an odd look, too fleeting for me to read the subtext.

“But the gun…what if you had guessed wrong with the gun?” Ally asked.

In a flash of sudden understanding, I decided not to tell Ally about exactly how much guesswork had gone into the operation to rescue her.  It wouldn’t do her any good to know exactly how close to gruesome death we’d all been, and it certainly wouldn’t help Alex to possess even the slightest knowledge about the assumptions we’d made.  A single mistake would have been sufficient to derail everything.  If I had missed a cue by five or ten seconds; if Anton had not been able to come up with an explosive compound that pierced the rock floor without destroying it entirely; if Asher had been willing to lose his life, so long as he got ours in exchange…

“Sarah knew what she was doing,” I said, out loud.

Sarah didn’t need to look at me to understand my thought process.  “Asher has tried that trick on other people before,” she lied.  The smoothness of that deception surprised me; historically, her ability to prevaricate had always been subpar, before we’d split ways.  “Besides, we had a few other options in mind, just in case he decided to get creative.”

“I…I would be dead if you hadn’t saved me,” Ally said.  I noticed, after a moment, that she’d directed that sentiment entirely to me.

“Your father is a friend,” I said.  “And there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for a friend.  Besides, you and I have history now.”

She blinked in confusion.

“If not for you,” I continued, “I might not have gotten my passport out of that beer hall.  Without that, I wouldn’t have made it to Ukraine and…well, no need to think about what have happened.  Let’s just say that you might have saved your own life.”

That logic was circuitous, but it couldn’t hurt to bolster the girl’s self-esteem.  A light dusting of positive deception would do her good.

“But that would not have worked without all of you,” Alex rumbled, pulling our eyes away from each other with the intonation.  “And it would not have happened at all, if not for Asher.”  He spoke the name like it was the foulest sort of curse.

Sarah placed her half-empty drink down on the table.  “You can’t do this,” she said, discarding all flowery language in favor of the blunt truth.  “You want it too bad, Alex.”

“Of course I want to make him pay.”  Alex’s voice, deep at the best of times, dropped into a barely indecipherable growl.

“And you don’t think that’s what he’d want?” Sarah asked.  Alex hesitated at that.  “Every time we’ve beat him so far, we did it by going after his target in a way he couldn’t anticipate.  Devlin hit the museum while Asher was dealing with a fire; we managed to get away from the manor house with Avis and Neal through sheer audacity; and to get your daughter back, we stole a train, and then dropped through the floor itself to get away before he could react.  But if you’re angry?  You’ll run straight at him, and he’ll pick you apart.  What’s more: you know I’m telling the truth.”

Alex stared at Sarah over the lip of his glass and said nothing for a long time.  When he finally spoke, there was an unmistakable note of resignation in his voice.  “Perhaps.”

“There is no perhaps,” Sarah said.  “Devlin, would you please tell him that I’m right?”

“Wait.  What’d you say a second ago, Sarah?” I asked.

“When?”

“When you were telling Alex how we keep beating Asher.”

One of Sarah’s eyebrows twitched upward.  From their seats, Mila and Michel leaned closer as well.  “Did you think of something?” Michel asked me.

I let my thoughts travel back a few seconds, running over Sarah’s words.  We had beaten Asher on multiple occasions: we’d gotten to the crown first, extracted Avis from the manor house, escaped Interpol’s noose, and dealt a serious blow to Hill’s operations.  Except…none of those actions had actually damaged Asher at all, had they?

“We got distracted,” I muttered.

“Say again?” Sarah asked.

“I said that we got distracted.”  My palm came up and slapped against my forehead.  “Damn it, we’ve been on defense this whole time.”

“I do not understand,” Michel said.

Sarah’s lips worked without sound, as she ran through our actions in London.  I had faith that she would eventually come to the same conclusion, so I turned my attention to Michel and Mila, instead.  “Everything we’ve done has only hurt Hill, so far.  Asher hasn’t had any skin in this game.  Sure, he’s been pulling strings to keep putting obstacles in our way, but why would he care if Hill loses a storage warehouse or a processing plant?  It isn’t his business, after all.”

“That’s what the Lady wanted you to do,” Mila said.  “Take down Hill so that you can get a clear run at your former friend.”

“Yes, but that still doesn’t explain why Asher took Ally.”  I stressed the words to make their importance unmistakably clear.  “That doesn’t fit with everything else that’s been going on.  He’s harried us, kept us on our heels, but he hadn’t done anything aggressive before this.  Not directly.”

“He did try to kill us in Kiev,” Anton pointed out.

“No.  He tried to kill you, Stani, and his gruesome twosome.  Since then he’s been strictly hands off.”

Sarah looked up.  “Maybe we’re damaging his plan somehow?  Whatever he’s got in the works that involves Hill might be in danger of falling apart.  That’s a possibility, right?’

“It is, but…that still doesn’t make sense.  Why would he bother making us the offer?”  Another thought dropped into place.  “He could have just given the order to shoot us after we dropped through the floor, but he didn’t.  Why?”  The answer occurred to me a moment later.

When the moment of realization hit her, Sarah’s eyes grew wide.  “He’s been drawing us out, hasn’t he?”

I bit back a swear, in deference to Alex’s daughter.  “How the hell didn’t I see this?”

“I still don’t see it,” Mila said.

Alex had been quiet during the exchange of ideas.  Now, he cleared his throat.  “I can only make guesses, of course, but think about this.  If he had not drugged Devlin at the museum, would you have exposed yourself so soon?”

Mila shook her head.

“And you,” Alex continued, shifting his gaze over to Michel, “would not have gotten involved at all if the crown had not been equipped with the secondary alarm system.”

“I…”  Michel started, then stopped.  “I do not know.”

“Anton, you and your comrades would still be overseas, following Asher’s trail, if Devlin had not discovered him here in London.  I would still be in Germany, as would my daughter.”

“And I’d still be in San Francisco,” Sarah breathed.  “My God, this…this must have been his plan.”

With that, I began to see the full shape of things.  Asher’s taunting, the deliberately inflammatory move of hiring Mila’s worst nightmare as a hitter, the way that every difficulty seemed to involve yet another member of my multi-national team.  We were all here, in one place, and all that we’d accomplished was a systematic disruption of business for the local drug kingpin.  Nothing that would inconvenience Asher personally.  But, still…

“Still,” I said out loud, “I don’t understand why he’d want us all here.  What would he have to gain by doing that?  And since he didn’t get it, why would he just let us get away?”

“He wanted the girl, didn’t he?” Mila asked, but she didn’t sound entirely certain.  “Trade you and Avis for the girl.  He needs her to decrypt that book.  I saw his eyes; that part wasn’t a lie.  Whatever’s in there is something that he needs.”

A deep sense of unease and dread dropped over my thoughts like a thick blanket.  “Okay,” I said slowly.  “But does anyone know where Avis and Neal are?”

Dead silence filled the room.

“They should be back by now,” I said.  “Sarah, call Billy?”

She retrieved her phone with shaking fingers and dialed a number.  She held the phone to her ear for several seconds before taking it away and staring at me.  “No answer.”

“Try Neal.”

She started to do that, but stopped when a clear ding came from the elevator.  Tense as we were, every person in the room practically jumped out of their seats at the sudden noise.  Mila’s uninjured hand slipped to the small of her back, where the handle of a small handgun was barely visible.

I stood up and waved everyone, except Mila, back into positions of readiness before walking across the room on soundless feet.

“Sir?”  Sophie’s voice, a little strained and breathless.  I relaxed fractionally.

“We’re a little busy, Soph,” I said.

“I understand that, but…”

I rounded the corner so that I could see into the elevator.  There, I saw Sophie and a male bellhop, carrying what looked like nothing so much as a bloodied pile of rags.

I blinked twice before the reality set in.  It was not a bloody pile of rags; the bellhop supported the weight of a person.  Even as that thought rocked me, the man managed to raise his head and I recognized him: Billy’s man, the one who had pushed his wheelchair off, so that there would be a third party keeping eyes on Avis and Neal.  There was no Billy in sight.

“Sophie, what the hell?”

The concierge seemed, for the first time, entirely unable to articulate a perfectly poised response.  Some of the man’s blood had gotten onto her otherwise spotless suit and a violent tremor ran from the tips of her fingers all the way up to the top of her scalp.

Billy’s man swallowed with an obvious effort before he spoke.  “They found us,” he managed to croak out.  “Don’t know how, but…they found us.”

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