Chester smoked two cigarettes, one immediately after the other, before he returned the conference room. Judging by the look on his face, the nicotine hadn’t done much to calm him or to put him in a more receptive state of mind. James entered the room behind Chester, silent and stout, and sat back down in his seat as though he’d never left.
I decided to speak first, before Chester had an opportunity to work himself up to some burst of outrage again. “This isn’t going to work,” I said.
“You’re telling me,” Chester snapped.
“If you would allow me to finish, I was going to say that we aren’t going to be able to make this work, the way we’re trying to do it.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that you and I work in ways that are really a lot alike,” I said. “We both rely on hiding in plain sight. You and the rest of Billy’s people pull that off by operating in areas where the rich and powerful don’t bother to notice you. My team does it by getting in their face and not letting them see anything except what we want them to see. Either way, we’re all about disguise and subterfuge. With me, so far?”
Chester grumbled something incomprehensible and then, reluctantly, nodded.
I took that as a sign of progress and pressed on. “And I don’t have the slightest problem admitting when someone else has a skill that I don’t. I’m working in Billy’s territory right now, but Billy isn’t here. So that’s falling to you right now. If you want to work with me, we can come up with a way to get Billy away from Hill and save Avis. If you insist on doing things your own way, I promise you: we are all going to get killed. So…what’s it going to be?”
Chester opened his mouth to say something. His lips hadn’t yet begun to form so much as a single letter, but the tight lines around his eyes told me that his reply wasn’t going to be polite. Before he could put breath to whatever thought he planned to voice, James reached out from his seat and gripped Chester’s elbow.
“Mate,” James said, in his rumbly bass voice. “Hear ‘em out, yeah?”
Chester glared at James. James returned that glare with steady, unblinking eyes until Chester finally looked away. “You got something in mind, then?”
“Not yet,” I admitted. “But I’m getting there. And, in a way, you’re the one who kick-started the thought in the first place.”
The door clicked open. Sophie stepped out of the way, allowing Stani and his lieutenants back into the room. Anton followed a few steps behind them.
I clapped my hands together. “Just the people I wanted to see.”
“Oh?” Stani asked. “Why is that?”
“Watching the two of you go at it gave me an idea. More of a realization, really.”
Chester and Stani gave me twin looks of impatience. I couldn’t help but smile at that.
“They aren’t the only people in the room without a clue here,” Mila said drily. “I’d appreciate it if you’d stop being so impressed by your own cleverness and just tell us what you thought of.”
“They have no appreciation for showmanship,” I stage-whispered to Sarah.
She rolled her eyes. “And you have no sense of timing.”
“Fair.” I turned back to the other people in the room. “One of the hardest things about everything we’ve done here in London is that the bad guys keep working together. Hill and Asher were tag-teaming us from the beginning. That gave someone with Asher’s creativity access to Hill’s resources, and we’ve only just been able to stay a step ahead of them for weeks now.”
“And that has changed?” Stani asked.
Michel’s eyes widened, though, as he began to grasp the same thought that had only recently dawned on me. “It has changed, hasn’t it?”
A moment passed before Anton’s face also lit up. “You said that this Hill wants to hire you to be his new enforcer…but he could not have told Asher this, could he?”
“Not at all,” I replied, touching an index finger to the side of my nose. “And, if he’s keeping secrets from Asher, it stands to reason that he’s running this operation on his own. After all, as far as he’s concerned, my old pal has been nothing but a gigantic disappointment. He lost the crown, Mila burned down one of Hill’s warehouses, and we stole Avis from right under his nose. Hill’s got to pretty pissed at Asher right about now and – as the two of you so neatly demonstrated – pissed off people do not work well together.”
“Alright,” Sarah said slowly. “What does that mean to us?”
“Two things.” I held up two fingers to illustrate the point. “First thing: that means they can’t take advantage of each other’s strengths. Hill’s blaming Asher for everything that’s gone wrong. It must not have occurred to him that he’s been leaving holes for us to wriggle through.”
“And you’re sure about that?” Chester asked. “We thought had the best of him, too, but then he laid that trap at the plant, didn’t he?”
“Exactly. He tried to kill you, but Sarah and I were sitting across the table from him and Aiden. If Hill had any idea how much of a threat we actually were, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
“He’s right,” Sarah chimed in. “People born to wealth like that don’t even consider that problems could be their own fault. It’s so much easier to just hire and fire the help, as needed.”
“You would know, wouldn’t you?” Chester asked, with just a touch of snideness in his tone. I clenched my jaw to keep from firing some insult back. He continued speaking after a moment and he might have been a little disappointed that I’d let his bait slip by untouched. “What’s the second thing, then?”
“The second thing,” I said, “is that we can play them against each other now, too. Instead of our ragtag group going up against their combined forces, we can start playing one of my favorite games.”
It took Sarah a second to connect the dots. That was to be expected. The relevant memory went back several years, after all. “The Green Hornet?”
“I prefer to use its original name. ‘Let’s you and him fight’ just sounds more fun to me.”
She smiled. It was a genuine smile and it warmed my heart to see it on her face. “I do like that turn of phrase more.”
Mila cleared her throat. “Since this is apparently my job now,” she said, “could the two of you share with the rest of us what the hell you’re talking about?”
The warmth from Sarah’s smile was so invigorating that my own mood didn’t dampen, even in the face of Mila’s light sarcasm. “Asher knows that we can’t be underestimated, but he doesn’t have access to Hill’s resources. Hill could have us all killed at a moment’s notice but, for some reason, he doesn’t think that we’re enough of a threat to warrant that kind of action.”
“Poor planning on his part,” Sarah said, under her breath.
I heard her and elected to ignore that side comment. “The two of them working together would be…difficult to get ahead of. Not impossible, maybe, but it would certainly would not be something I’d voluntarily chose to do. But the two of them at each other’s throats? All we’d have to do is pick up the pieces when they were done taking chunks out of each other.”
“You think you can do that?” Mila asked.
“I think that Asher has done nothing in the past few years, except prove how poorly he handles even the illusion of betrayal,” I said. “So he’ll either take out Hill on his own in a fit of rage or he’ll start planning to backstab him. Either way, that’s at least one adversary we don’t have to deal with and, with these stakes, one less enemy is definitely something we could use.”
A round of silent nods went around the conference table, starting with Michel and working all the way back around to Mila. “That’s all good for you lot,” Chester said, breaking the rare moment of camaraderie, “but that still doesn’t tell us how we’re supposed to get Billy away from that bloody bastard, does it?”
“I’m…still working on that part,” I said. “If there was some way to guarantee that Asher would go after Hill, we might be able to shake him down for information. But that’s as likely to bomb as anything else right now.”
“Bomb,” Michel mused to himself. I attributed that to an English idiom he wasn’t fully familiar with and put it out of my mind.
“You said that you can track Hill’s cars?” I asked Chester.
“Right after you went outside to smoke, it occurred to me that Hill might be running a shell game. You know that is, right?”
The expression on his face darkened. “You think I was born yesterday, do you?”
I raised my hands in surrender. “Just making sure. They might have called it something else over here. Anyway, if he’s doing that, then Billy’s people might be the only way we have to keep an eye on his movements. It won’t let us figure out exactly where he’s keeping Avis, but that’s a problem we can tackle later on.”
“No,” Michel interrupted, shaking his head furiously. “No. We can use bombs!”
“We can use bombs to…what, exactly?”
Instead of speaking to me, Michel turned to face Chester. “How many safe-houses does Hill have?”
“Depends on what you mean by ‘safe-houses,’ I figure,” Chester said.
“How many places could he hide Avis, if he needed to?”
Chester counted on his fingers for a few seconds. “If he weren’t worried about her health? He could use some of the stash spots in the city proper and maybe a few more places where his men keep weapons and the like. Why?”
Michel swiveled to face me. “What if he could not use those places anymore?”
I took the information Michel had given me – both the conscious and unconscious signals – and tuned the full force of my mind to the problem. Each movable piece sprang to mind, three-dimensional blocks in a puzzle that I couldn’t see the full shape of. I started to fit them into place, one at a time.
The shell game was a deceptively simple game to unravel. However, knowing that the game would be rigged wasn’t something that would help me cheat the cheater, though. There were only a few surefire ways to counteract a well-run shell game and none of those were options I could use in this situation.
What would I do, if I were confronted by a game I couldn’t beat? The answer came to me immediately: I wouldn’t play.
With that, another piece clicked into its proper place. Why play the game at all? Hill had set up the shell game on purpose, to give my team something to puzzle over while he extracted all of the information he needed from Avis and then had her disposed of, like an obsolete computer chip. Its purpose wasn’t to hide her indefinitely, but to hide her long enough. That difference was an essential facet of Hill’s plan that I’d allowed myself to overlook.
If there were some way to shake him out of the game, though…well, Hill had already proven that he didn’t take my team seriously. I strongly doubted that he would have taken the pains to establish a reliable back-up plan. Asher might have known me well enough to put several redundancies in place, but Hill wouldn’t. At least, I hoped he wouldn’t.
How to disturb his well-orchestrated machine, in such a dramatic way that he couldn’t rapidly adjust things to keep with his plan of shuttling Avis from one spot to another?
“A bomb,” I said, out loud.
“Several bombs,” Michel said, smiling widely.
“Okay,” Mila said. “This part I understand.”
I winked at her. “I thought you might.” I turned my attention to Chester, Anton, and the Russians. “How many people do you think you can mobilize in a few days, Chester?”
“Mobilize? Mobilize for what?”
“We still don’t know exactly what Asher’s going to do when we make our move,” I said. “He knows better than to take us for granted, but he’s got a weakness of his own that we can take advantage of.”
“And what’s that, then?”
“He can’t improvise very well. Sure, he can make an elaborate plan, but when things go wrong, he isn’t the best at coming up with new ideas on the fly. We’ve got a little bit more information than him. That’s great to start with. But with a little bit of creative chaos, we can throw anything he’s got in mind completely off of the rails.” I glanced at Anton. “Like the subway station, except bigger. More bombs, better timed. Less about the actual destruction and more about the sense of an explosion, if that makes sense.”
Anton nodded slowly, the gesture picking up speed as he began to grasp the idea more fully. “I could make several things like that, if I had the time and the materials.”
“What subway station?” Stani asked.
I ignored his question. “We can’t do anything about the time, but materials might not be a problem. Unless that’s over the line for you, Sophie?”
The concierge shook her head, the ghost of a smile barely visible at one corner of her lips. “Perhaps you’ve developed an interest in some sort of construction project,” she said sweetly. “Or your import business has begun trafficking in inert substances that could be used in that sort of thing. I’m certain there isn’t any sort of illegal activity you would have in mind.”
I grinned back. “Yeah, we’ll go with that. So, Chester? How many men do you think you can get on the streets? You and the rest of Billy’s people know where Hill’s places are, and we’re going to need to hit a lot of those spots at the same time if this is going to go the way I want it to.”
For the first time since meeting him, Chester seemed to consider that question without seething at my general presence. “To get Billy away from that bastard? We’ll get as many men as you need.”
“Excellent. Very excellent.”
Sarah cleared her throat. “When you’ve caused your customary explosion of bedlam and mayhem,” she asked, “what’s your next step? You’ve still got to get Avis and Billy away from him before he decides to cut his losses.”
“That was something I was hoping you’d be able to work on,” I said. “All I can do is make sure that their plan isn’t going to work, but we both know I’m not really the person to start thinking about long-term solutions.”
“At least you’re admitting it,” Sarah said, with a little smile to let me know that her rebuke was meant in good spirits. “As it turns out, I’ve got a few ideas in mind. I’ll need to look back through the information I managed to pull from his network while we were there.”
“You were still working on that?” I blinked. The reveal that Fairfax and Hill were, in fact, the same person had dominated my thoughts since leaving his estate. It hadn’t occurred to me that Sarah’s original plan – to infiltrate his network and retrieve potential blackmail – would have continued, regardless of any other factors.
“The program was automated,” she said. “I stopped monitoring it as soon as I read an email that talked about the manor house. Why else did you think I was buzzing your earbud?”
“I figured you just felt something was wrong, too.”
“I knew something was wrong. At any rate, if that was something that his men were keeping in the loop about, it’s possible they were telling him other information. I’ll go through it tonight and see what I can dig out of those files.”
“Alright, then.” I spread my arms wide, gesturing for anyone with a thought or suggestion. “Anyone got anything else to add?”
Alex, who had been silent for the past few minutes, looked at Ally. She looked back at him and he shrugged with one shoulder. “I will continue to work with my friends inside his estate,” he said, facing me.
“You’ve got friends…what am I saying, you’ve got friends everywhere. Do you think you’ll be able to get anything out of them?”
“I will not know unless I try.”
“Fine. Ally, you’re not a part of this, so – “
She shook her head and cut me off. “I know that I am not someone who can do the things you do, but I am not going to sit here and do nothing.”
“These are very dangerous people,” Alex protested immediately. “You have already been through too much. When you have had some time to think about it, you will understand. Perhaps Sophie can find you something to do here that will not require you to – “
“Father, I am an adult now,” Ally said, her words cutting neatly through whatever Alex had been about to say. “You would not let people who had helped you face trouble alone. Why would you ask me to do the same thing?”
I went through a few quick ideas – ways to convince her to stand down or to shuttle her off somewhere safe – but discarded them all before any could grow past the larval stage. Devoting any time to that task would divert our attention away from the things we needed to do in the next few days.
“You can help Sarah go through the files she got from Hill’s place, then,” I said.
Ally’s cheeks reddened and a light came on behind her eyes. She flicked her gaze away from her father and over to me. “Of course, Devlin! If you think that will help, of course.”
Alex caught my eyes, from an angle that Ally couldn’t see, and gave me a miniscule nod of acknowledgement. I nodded back at Alex. He understood my intentions and, even if he wasn’t thrilled about his daughter’s decision, he trusted mine.
Sarah would be in the safest possible position, as far away from the action as we could manage. If Ally insisted on contributing, it made sense to keep her in the back, behind the rest of us who would be busily juggling a half dozen things and trying our level best not to die tragically.
“If that’s it, then?” I asked.
Mila coughed and sat up straighter in her chair. “Stani,” she said, “how are you guys getting your weapons?”
The Russian had been trying to mouth silent questions to Anton – the words ‘subway station’ seemed to be repeated quite a lot – but he looked at Mila when she spoke to him. “We have our own ways,” he said cautiously.
“Hill’s trying to muscle the Russians out of the smuggling operation here,” Mila said. “I don’t want to ask Sophie here to arrange for anything, no matter how good she is at rationalization, and tipping him off to anything we purchase seems like a bad idea. If I get you a list of things I’m going to need in the next couple of days, you think you could use your ways to make that sort of thing happen?”
Stani gave her a sharp, perfunctory nod. “So long as you are able to pay for whatever you request.”
“I’m good for it.” She smiled, showing a few too many teeth in the process. “If not, feel free to come and take them back when I’m done.”
“I…will simply trust your credit,” Stani said.
I tapped Mila on the shoulder. She turned to me, the vulpine smile fading into her usual mask of passionless focus. “You’ve got your ideas,” she said, “and that’s fine. I’ve seen you pull things off that I wouldn’t have thought anyone could do with so little planning. But I’ve still got a job to do here, and I can’t do that unarmed.”
“You’re absolutely right,” I said.
Mila blinked. “What’d you want, then?”
“I was going to ask if you know what gun might good for me to start carrying,” I said. That sentence brought an eerie, still calm to the entire room. I cleared my throat and spoke into the silence. “One way or another, Asher’s not going to take this lying down. I’ve got to be ready for anything, right?”