Chapter 111

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.”

“How’s that?”

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.

He nodded.

“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?

I smiled.

“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?”

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Chapter 110

We returned to the Brooklands via a circuitous route, depositing the BMW at a parking garage along the way and sneaking out the back into the kitted-out van, and I honestly wasn’t sure if we’d been followed anymore.  I was starting to get tired of being so outclassed by every single one of my adversaries and, I realized, it was starting to make me cranky.  So I didn’t say anything during the ride back, or in the hotel suite while I changed into comfortable clothing, or during the elevator trip back down to the lobby and the waiting conference room.  After parking the van out of sight, Michel joined us there.

In fact, I didn’t say anything at all while Anton, Stani, and Stani’s lieutenants sauntered into the conference room, their bemused expressions slightly humorous even through the foul blackness of my mood.

Alex and Ally were already there; it had been a short trip from their hotel room down to join us.  They watched me silently.  At first, Alex had attempted to pull some information out of me, but he’d given up after receiving a stiff look.

James and Chester arrived a full fifteen minutes after the Russians.  It seemed like they’d made an effort to clean themselves up, but there could only be so many fashion options available at the Halfway House.  Even if their best attire, both men looked woefully out of place.

In a surprising turn of events, Sophie elected to stay in the conference room.  I didn’t mind her presence as much as I expected.  It would probably be easier in the long run to have her present during the meeting, as opposed to filling her in on whatever we required later on.  Besides, it was possible that Hill intended to kill her, as well.  While she hadn’t been directly involved, Sophie had been instrumental to pulling off the jobs of the past few days.  If she wanted a seat at the table – or by the door, whichever – then she’d done more than enough to earn it, in my opinion.

When everyone was seated – or, in Sophie’s case, positioned as comfortably as possible –  I cleared my throat and pulled free of my own sulk.

“Let’s start with the obvious,” I said, by way of opening.  “Stani, James, Chester; I haven’t been telling you everything.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“In fairness,” I continued, speaking directly to Stani, “nothing I’ve held back so far has really seemed important to what you wanted to do.  Your people want Asher; I want Asher taken out of play.  But I…I know more than I’ve been telling you about where he is, what he’s doing, what he wants.”

“And why,” Stani asked, “are you telling me this now?”

The calmness of his voice belied the subtle tightening around his eyes, the way his hand drifted out of sight beneath the table.  Anton, for his part, did not look particularly surprised, though a sense of wariness sprung to life in the room.

“Because…honestly, because we’re out of our depth here,” I said honestly.  “And, instead of keeping you in the dark and possibly botching this whole thing, I figured it was about time I tell you what you’ll need to know.”

He nodded.  “You will tell me everything.”

“Of course I won’t tell you everything,” I said immediately.  “But I’ll tell you everything I know about Asher.  And then I’m going to have to ask for your help.  That sound fair?”

Stani exchanged looks with Iosif and Leonid, scrupulously letting his eyes travel past Anton without slowing or stopping.  Something passed between the three Russians.  I remembered suddenly that Iosif and Leonid could understand English, even if they didn’t speak the language.

“We are listening,” Stani said, after a few stilted seconds.

“Don’t care about you,” Chester said.  I noticed that he was trying to smooth out his accent.  That might have been an affectation for Sophie’s benefit, or he might simply be reacting to the opulence of the Brooklands.  “Don’t care about your friends, neither.  But if that bastard’s got Billy, then I want to know how to get him back.”

James nodded silently next to his partner.

Sophie listened without comment from her place by the door.

I took a deep breath and laid out almost everything for the Russians, Anton, Alex, and his daughter.  I excised any direct mention of the Lady or her personal Jolly Green Giant rom the story.  We’d only met in person two times and Sarah hadn’t directly communicated with her, so much as received instructions, but I knew that the Lady was not the type of person who frequently exposed herself to the public.  Or, if she did, she did so under pseudonyms and veils of secrecy, hiding her true nature with layers and layers of obfuscation.  There wouldn’t be any point in wriggling out from underneath Hill’s thumb, only to find ourselves in the crosshairs of a pissed off former employer who apparently had access to Sarah’s secure files, our banking information, and had proven herself capable of tracking me down across the globe without the faintest hint of difficulty.

Everything else, however, was fair game.  I told them about the true nature of the golden book, without mentioning how I’d come into possession of that information; I told them all about the girl Avis, her unusual abilities, and the plans had in mind for her when he finished treating her as a tool; I told them about Billy and his relationship with Fairfax.  I laid out what we’d done so far, working against Hill and Asher, and detailed our current situation: the standing threat from Hill; the things that we stood to lose and how badly we’d misread the situation; the thin timeline we had available in which to plot, plan, and somehow overcome.

Sarah provided commentary at some points along the way, clarifying what she’d done on her side of things when my explanation failed to properly encapsulate the things we’d done.  Ally, it seemed, understood some of Sarah’s techno-babble.  Mila spoke infrequently, as well; she talked about the warehouse where I’d been taken, after Asher drugged me at the gala.  Haltingly, unwilling to go into great detail, she told them about Aiden: his capabilities, his strengths, and his weaknesses.  I didn’t want to put her in a headspace where she started to ask herself why exactly she’d left him before.  Just the brief time they’d been in each other’s presences already had me feeling uncomfortable.  Mila, thankfully, showed no particular interest in delving any farther into the past than strictly necessary.

When the three of us finished, silence fell over the room again.  A minute passed, and then another, while everyone in the room thought about the story we’d just laid at their feet.  Alex coughed and spoke first.

“Well,” he said, “this…is not good.”

I rolled my eyes.  “That’s kind of an understatement, don’t you think?”

He nodded.  “I am merely trying to make light of it.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

It was Mila who answered.  “Because,” she said, “that’s just how you work.  Anybody else would have given up days ago.  But you just joke your way through everything and it works.  I don’t know how, but it does.”

“Your faith in me notwithstanding,” I said, “I think all of this might require a little more serious consideration.”

“They aren’t wrong, Devlin,” Sarah said.

We all turned to look at her.

“It’s just how you work,” Sarah continued.  “You’re right, we are in some deep shit right now.  But you can’t let Hill push you out of your comfort zone or we’re all screwed.”

I considered that for a few seconds, then nodded.  “Anyway, first thing: Stani, are you okay with all of this?  I know I kept things from you but it wasn’t like I had any reason to think things would get to this point.”

Stani chewed on his bottom lip.  He touched two fingers to the stumps on his diminished hand, glanced involuntarily over to Anton, then found something interesting to examine on the table itself.  “I knew that you were keeping things from me,” he said, finally.  “I know that you are still keeping things from me.  But I believe that you are working to stop Asher before he can succeed in his plans.”

I preferred his calmness to an outburst, but the serene expression on his face was distinctly unsettling.  “Good enough,” I said.  “Chester, James?  You’ll have to serve as stand-ins for Billy’s gang, since he’s a bit out of reach at the moment.”

Chester was grinding his teeth together so fiercely that my own jaw began to hurt.  “You telling me that this all your fault, then?”

“What?  How did you get that from anything I just said?”

“If you hadn’t been pokin’ at ‘em,” Chester said, “Hill might have just left Billy alone, yeah?  He didn’t pay us no mind before you got in town, that’s for bloody sure.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose and tried to wrestle down the irrational surge of anger that rose within my belly.  “There were other factors,” I managed to say, through clenched teeth of my own, “and we didn’t have a lot of choice here.  Besides, you can’t think that Hill would have let Billy take shots at him indefinitely.”

Chester had nothing to say to that, so he glared at me instead.  I put him out of my mind and focused on the more civilized individuals around the conference table.

“How have you – how did you put it? – stay ahead of Asher and this Hill for so long?” Alex asked.

“Luck,” Sarah and I answered, at the exact same time.

I didn’t have to turn my head.  I could practically feel Mila’s smirk against the side of my face.

I cleared my throat.  “Luck,” I repeated, “and the fact that we had resources that neither of them knew about.  Mila was in place to rescue me from the warehouse; Neal was already going to sneak Avis out of the house and no one expected Sarah to drive up and save the day like Racer X; we happened to have a better plan at the processing plant than they did; and…”  I trailed off, unwilling to say anything more about the Lady’s involvement at Scotland Yard.  “…and we got enough of a lead on law enforcement that they couldn’t really do anything to me, even when I was sitting in their interrogation room.”

Sarah lifted an eyebrow.  “Racer X?”

“I couldn’t think of anyone else,” I admitted.  “But it fits, right?”

She rolled her eyes.

“You have also,” Sophie said, in a soft voice that somehow carried throughout the room, “had the benefit of my assistance, thus far.”

“Thus far?” I asked.

“I realize that your…experience with my services are new,” Sophie said and I almost missed the slight hiccup in her voice.  She’d been about to point out that we hadn’t been the ones to hire her, but she must have felt the same unspoken prohibition against mentioning the Lady in front of anyone who she hadn’t personally vetted.  That, or she was simply following my lead.  Either way, I was glad that she’d exercised discretion.  “But I make a point not to involve myself in anything explicitly illegal.  It is how I have managed to stay in business thus far and I do my best not to cross that very clear line.”

“Okay,” I said slowly, “but you’re fine with only technically breaking the law?”

“How am I supposed to know why you require so many different vehicles, picked up in so many different locations with a maximum of secrecy?” Sophie asked.  She assumed an expression of angelic innocence.  “The sum total of my job as your concierge is to ensure that you have access to those things you require, so long as those things do not jeopardize my position within the Brooklands or my standing in the eyes of the local constabulary.”

“But you know…no, you know what? Nevermind.  Are you saying that you’re willing to help us, as long as we can give you some plausible deniability?”

“What would I have to deny?” Sophie asked.  “Surely you do not intend to do anything that would break the law, after all.”

“Of course,” I said, barely keeping myself from rolling my eyes up into my skull.  “We’ll keep that in mind.”

“Could we not do that?” Ally asked.

“Do what?”

“Call the police,” she clarified.  “He has kidnapped a little girl.  Surely that is something that the police can’t ignore.  There must be someone looking for her.”

I paused, mid-thought, and realized that I hadn’t asked Avis a single question about her family.  I hadn’t even thought to question Neal about it.  That realization made me feel a little sick inside.  Sure, she had only been with us for a day or two before Ally’s kidnapping consumed our attention.  And, sure, she’d been occupied with decryption for most of the time.  But I couldn’t treat my team members as important beyond all reasonable measure and also use Avis like she was nothing more than a tool.

That was how Hill had treated her.  It was how the Magi has used her, too.

“I don’t know if there’s someone out there looking for her or not,” I said, swallowing a little bit of bile that climbed into my mouth.  “If Avis has been working with the Magi and with Hill for long enough to encrypt that entire golden book, it’s a safe bet that her parents aren’t in the picture anymore.  We certainly can’t wait for the police to get involved, either way.”

“Besides,” Sarah said, “Hill told us, pretty much straight up, that he’s got the police in his pocket.  Or at least he’s got a few key policemen on his personal payroll.  If we’re going to get her out of there before Hill gets what he needs from her, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

Michel tilted his head.  I gestured for him to share his thoughts with the rest of us.  “Inspector Lane said that there someone undercover in Hill’s operation, no?”

I thought back.  The night when Michel had encountered Adlai and Lane had been rife with excitement and terror, in equal measure, so the details of the conversation at the sports pub had slipped my mind.  “I think so.  Isn’t that the only reason Adlai bought your story about being a police officer?”

Michel nodded.  “Is that something we could use?”

I weighed the possibilities while I used a neat little device on the table to order several pitchers of water, a bucket of beers, and some vodka for the Russians.  As an afterthought, I added six Diet Cokes to the order and a bottle of wine.  I didn’t know what kind of mood Sarah was in, but it would be easier to return something she didn’t want, instead of ordering the wrong thing to begin with.

With that finished, I turned my attention back to Michel.  “Probably not,” I said.  “If he’s got his fingers into the police department, it stands to reason that he already knows about whatever undercover agents the law managed to place in his operation.  Hell, he was probably involved in hand-picking the guy they sent.  That’s a no-go.”

“And killing him is out of the question?” Stani asked.

I raised a hand before Mila could chime in with support for that idea, but not before Chester pushed back from the table and jumped to his feet.  “My boss is being held by that maniac, mate, and I’ll be buggered if you think you can just sacrifice him for your own business, got that?”

“It is hardly our fault your boss was captured,” Stani said.  “But Asher is a bigger threat, as well as this Hill, if I am not mistaken.  The smart thing would be to kill him, before he can get his hands on the information in the book.”

“And if you hadn’t brought your fight into our city, maybe things could have kept on as they were, eh?  You think about that?”  Chester was getting more and more heated by the second.

Stani seemed perfectly calm in the face of that explosion.  Iosif and Leonid, however, reacted like someone had electrified their seats.  Hands vanished into their jackets and dull metal glinted in the fluorescent lighting of the conference room.  Mila moved closer to me, Sarah rolled her chair back from the table, and Michel gaped openly at the spectacle.  Anton started to reach out with both hands, palms facing both sides of the approaching conflict, while Alex took his daughters into his arms and turned his back slightly to the melee.

“Stop that!” I snapped and was surprised when all parties involved actually did as commanded.  “This is exactly what Hill’s hoping for, my God.  Are you seriously going to spend this entire week at each other’s throats?”

“I didn’t want to work with you,” Chester spat, “and I sure as hell don’t want to work with them.  If it comes down to it, I can get the fellas together and we’ll break Billy out of there on our own.”

“You really think that’s how it would play out?” I asked.  “Hill has trained mercenaries working for him.  You remember what Mila did at the processing plant?”

The look Chester gave me was answer enough.

“Yeah,” I pressed, “like her.  What exactly do you think you’re going to be able to do if you run off without a plan other than possibly piss Hill off badly enough that he kills Billy just to save himself the trouble?”

“Sure, he’s got resources,” Chester said, after a few seconds, “but he doesn’t have all the information.  You think he’s the only with eyes and ears out there.  You have any idea how much our people can watch, if no one’s even looking for them, do ya?”

I blinked.  “Information?  Like what?”

“We know where his safe-houses are, know what his cars look like.  We can figure out where he’s keeping Billy and get him out of there before Hill has a chance to do anything.  You didn’t think about that, did you?”

“Hill specifically said that’s he’s keeping Billy close to him.”  A headache began to press against the inside of my skull.  I pushed back, burying it somewhere where it couldn’t bother me for the moment.  “Although…you can watch his men’s movements?”

“He’s trying to hide what he’s doing,” Chester continued, oblivious to the first part of what I’d said.  “But doesn’t matter how many cars he’s got moving around, we’ll figure out what he’s hiding.  If we can’t get Billy, we’ll just take something that he wants just as much.”

James looked less than convinced, but he didn’t speak up to contradict Chester.  I respected that, as much as it irritated the nonsense out of me.

“And you’d let the girl die?” I asked Chester.  “Because she’s just something you’d be willing to let go, so long as you can save Billy?  He asked me not to give Hill anything, even if it meant dying, and here you are ready to give Hill everything he wanted.  You’d hand him your entire operation if you went after him like that!”

Chester slammed his fists against the table.  The sound made most of us in the room jump in surprise.  “I need a fag,” he announced.  “C’mon, James.”

Instead of pushing past Sophie, Chester and James used the alternate entrance.  I thought they might be leaving, until I glimpsed a cloud of smoke drift past one of the windows.

“And I,” Stani said, “will go check on that vodka.  I think it will be good to stretch my legs.  Iosif, Leonid?”

The two Russians gave their assent without speaking a word.  The three of them stood up and walked out of the room.  A moment later, Anton sheepishly got out of his seat and joined them.

I turned to Sarah.  “Multiple cars,” I said. “Are you thinking what I am?”

She nodded.  “It’s a shell game.”

“What is a shell game?” Ally asked.  She wriggled out from her father’s protective grasp.

“Generic term,” I said.  “As long as he keeps the target in motion, it’s impossible to figure out exactly which car to follow.   And even if we get it right once, he can always just switch cars at one of the safe-houses, where we can’t follow.  It’s a damn good strategy.  Almost impossible to crack if the opposition is doing it right.”

“Only ‘almost,’ though?” Michel asked.

“With time,” Sarah said, “we could figure out the pattern, if there is one.  But that’s the one thing we don’t have.  As it is, we’ll have to be spend most of our effort keeping Chester from barking at everyone who looks at him the wrong way.”

“And Stani,” Alex added, “does not seem like the type of person who works well with others.  Are you certain you can trust him to follow whatever plan you come up with?”

Until that moment – literally, until Alex asked the exact question – I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to take down Hill, eliminate the threat Asher posed, and rescue Billy, Avis, and Neal from the clutches of the enemy.  But as Alex finished speaking, I could almost sense a shape beginning to appear from the misty confusion of my mind.  Unfocused, undefined, but still…it was an outline.

An outline was something that I could work with.

“Can’t get these personalities to work together,” I mused aloud.  “Well.”

“Well, what?” Sarah asked.

“Well,” I repeated, “there might be something we can use there.”

Chapter 109

“A job,” I repeated.  “You want to hire me?”

“Think about it,” Hill said.  “In your efforts to undermine and expose your former partner, you and your team have done amazing work in London, thus far.  Granted, that work has caused me no small amount of discomfort…but nothing you have done cannot be undone with the information the girl will provide me.  Consider what you would be able to accomplish if you were my ally, instead of my adversary.  Imagine the heights you would be able to scale with the financial backing of someone in my position.”

That detached part of my brain – the one that continued chugging away at problems, even when my emotions were otherwise overloaded and endangering even the hope of clear thoughts – noted that Hill must not know about the Lady.  The sum total of her assistance amounted to a particularly savvy concierge and a last-minute assist at Scotland Yard, sure, but Hill obviously thought that everything we’d done in London so far, we had done on our own.

“You already pointed out a particularly large problem with that,” I said.  “Asher works with you and I’m not going to start working with him, just to find a knife between my shoulder blades at his earliest convenience.”

“Asher works for me,” Hill corrected, in a terse tone, “and I find his service lackluster, as of late.  If it were not for his ridiculous vendetta against you, perhaps he would have been able to bring the issue of your continued interference to a satisfactory conclusion.  Instead, we now find ourselves here.”

“And what exactly would you want me to do for you?  If I accepted your offer, which I am by no means doing.”

“Troubleshooting, to begin with.  I do not imagine that the individual cogs in the machine will cheerfully fall in line without difficulties.  Acquiring their names and financial information from the book will go far in securing their loyalty – or, failing that, their respect – but as soon as I make my move, others will doubtless be inspired to do the same.  It would hardly be worth my trouble if the entire machine broke down as soon as I laid claim to it.”

“Not to mention,” I added, “that whoever’s pulling your strings now probably isn’t going to take your little insurrection lying down.”

Hill leaned back in his chair and his eyebrows shot up.  “You are particularly clever, aren’t you?  Asher informed me of such on multiple occasions, but I wasn’t quite sure that your successes weren’t attributable to considerable luck.  Tell me: how did you learn about my…employers?”

I gave Hill an even look and said nothing at all.

After several seconds of stony silence, Hill shook his head and went back to his roast.  “No matter.  In reply to that concern, you are correct.  Agents will be sent to bring me under heel once more or, perhaps, to simply kill me out of hand.  An object lesson in obedience might very well serve them more than any individual with a known penchant for ambition.”

“And that’s what you want me to sign up for?  To throw myself directly into the line of fire, so that you can continue choking the life out of London with your drugs and your guns?  Pardon me if I don’t break my legs running for the sign-up sheet.”

“Sarcasm,” Hill said, “is the weakest form of humor.”

“I thought that was puns.”

At any rate,” Hill said, and I was irrationally pleased to have gotten under his skin, “your work for me would not be without its benefits.  For instance, if you agree to take the position, I would have no further use for your former partner.  He is not aware that we are having this conversation, of course.”

“Of course.”

“As you well know, he has made many enemies over the last few years; some of which at my request, others due to his charming personality.  Yet, you would be the one who actually caught him.  Kill him, torture him, sell him to other interested parties in exchange for cash or considerations.  The options are limitless.”

I went very still, so as not to reveal anything at all by virtue of an uncontrolled micro-expression, before I answered.  “What else?”

“Protection,” Hill said.  “Unless you are actively engaged in operations against my enemies and rivals, you would enjoy the same protection that has so stymied you in the case of your former partner.  I have operated in this city for quite some time.  There are very few police officers who I do not own or cannot threaten.  You and your team would be able to work without fear of the local constabulary and this city could serve as a sort of safe haven.  You cannot truly tell me that you don’t find that possibility the slightest bit intriguing.”

He wasn’t wrong.  The possibility of safety was something I’d never really considered, but I was considering it now.  Not for me, but…I looked over at Sarah.  She sat there, as still as a statue, watching the conversation between Hill and me.  I wondered what she was thinking but, for once, her poker face was absolutely flawless.  I had a better chance of reading Tarot cards than analyzing Sarah’s secret thoughts at the moment.

I turned back to Hill.  “And if I say no?”

“Why would you do that?  If there’s something else that you would require, the terms are up for negotiations.”

“No terms,” I said, “and no negotiation.  You’re a drug dealer, which I’m fine with.  But you peddle to the poor and the indigent, to children and to the sick.  You’re a killer and you work with killers.”

“And you truly believe that your friend Stanislav has not taken life before?  That your own bodyguard has hands completely clean of blood?”

I shrugged.  “Maybe.  But they don’t enjoy it the way you do.  You couldn’t wait to trot out your own brother, just for effect.  I don’t know what you’ve been doing to him since you took him out of the subway, but something tells me it wasn’t all Candyland and catching up on old times.”

Hill stared at me, without comment.

I kept going.  “Besides, my team doesn’t follow my orders.   I don’t own their choices.  But I can tell you right now that at least one of the people at this table isn’t going to work with anyone who deals in misery and someone else would probably rather die than go into your service.”  I paused for effect.  “And I’d rather die than ask her to.”

“Is that all?” Hill asked, stiffly.

“No,” I said.  “There’s also Avis.”

Hill quirked one eyebrow up in a quizzical gesture.

“And that, right there, is what I mean.  She isn’t a tool or a machine that you can use and discard whenever you see fit.  Avis is a child and you have every intention of murdering her as soon as you’ve finished exploiting what she can do.  Even if you don’t have to do that, you’d rather kill a child than risk a loose end.”

Hill considered what I’d said and then nodded one time.  “I had hoped to convince you to see my side of things with a carrot, so to speak.  But, if you must insist on clinging to these tiresome morality, I suppose I will have to use the stick, instead.”

He didn’t give any command to Aiden.  He didn’t say a word, or make a gesture, or even look in his direction.  Aiden moved without receiving even the slightest visual cue from Hill.  The mercenary pulled an obscenely long, serrated knife from a holster that I couldn’t see and placed it against Billy’s throat.  Billy immediately stiffened and took considerable care not to move a muscle.

“You wouldn’t,” I said, with none of the false confidence I’d been managing to exude earlier.

I wouldn’t,” Hill replied.  He took another bite of roast, chewing it with careful, deliberate slowness.  “But Aiden might.  I gave William an opportunity to fade into obscurity; I even allowed him to operate his little shelter in the dregs of the city, without bringing down the hammer of my own operation against him; and yet, he continued to hassle me for years.  It appears that I must overcome my reluctance towards killing a family member, if I’m ever to have any peace at all.”

Billy and I made eye contact, across the table.  He didn’t dare speak, nod, or even draw a particularly deep breath.  Instead, he filled his gaze with a thousand unnamed emotions and thoughts and willed them to me.  The message was clear: he would rather have his throat slit than to help Hill succeed in his plans, and he wanted me to make that same decision.

“Now,” Hill said, “I am not a man unused to diplomacy, even if that diplomacy must take place at knifepoint.”

“Diplomacy,” I scoffed.  “You’re a thug and a thief, just like the rest of us.  You’ve just got better toys and more money to throw at your problems.”

“If that’s what you wish to believe.  But, Mister O’Brien, let me tell you what will happen in the coming days.  Perhaps a more thorough understanding of events will…give you a different perspective on what choice you should make.”

I glared at him in silence, while he finished off the roast on his plate and then carefully selected a piece of the herb-encrusted bread and began to nibble at the edges.

“The girl – Avis, if you must – will finish decrypting all of the relevant information from the book,” Hill said, between bites of food.  “After that, I will dispose of her and the traitor who helped her escape the manor house, to begin with.  Even you, despite the considerable prowess you’ve displayed thus far, will not be able to find her in sufficient time to stop this much from happening.”

“Oh?”

“Indeed,” Hill said agreeably.  “Individual strongholds have, thus far, proven entirely useless against your talent at finding the tiniest possible openings to wriggle through.  So, I am no longer relying on the fortress approach to protection.”

He was keeping her mobile.  Damn, Hill intended to keep Avis on the move until he finished with her.  I kept my face smooth – or at least, as smooth as I could manage – while I began to rage internally.  Given enough time, I had no doubt that Sarah and I could come up with a plan to infiltrate almost any building.  But if he was moving her from one place to another, the task became infinitely more difficult.  A hundred new variables introduced and discarded at a moment’s notice; numerous guard rotations and camera placements to memorize; and a schedule that could change at a moment’s notice were only some of the problems.

“Now,” Hill was saying, “as I said, I’m willing to negotiate.  The death of the girl and the traitor are foregone conclusions, but I could perhaps be persuaded to give William a position in the organization I intend to build in the coming days.  You could work directly with him.  The two of you are clearly capable of devastating levels of success; why not allow you to work with one another, in my service?”  Hill paused, finished off a piece of bread, and then took a long swallow from a waiting wine glass.  “But if you cannot see fit to change your mind, then I will have no choice to but to finish the job I began so many years ago.”

“I won’t do it,” Mila muttered.  I wasn’t sure if she’d spoken loud enough for anyone but me to hear her.  “I won’t.”

Hill certainly gave no indication of having caught her words.  “Your former partner will continue to possess the privilege of my protection, as well; I require a problem-solver capable of operating on the ground level, so to speak.  My…employers trained him exceptionally well in that regard and it is their misfortune that he sought to turn those skills against them, as I do.  If he remains in that position, though…”

He took another drink of wine.  I waited for him to continue and, when he didn’t, finally prompted him with two fingers.  “Then what, Hill?”

“Then I cannot allow known problems to continue operating in my territory.  Nothing about your personality leads me to believe that you will leave him alone, so I will be forced to simply eliminate you, out of hand.  You, your ex-wife, your teammates and partners…root and branch, every associate who has been involved in your operations here in London will come to an abrupt, violent end.”

Hill delivered that threat with all of the passion of a man talking to a landscaper.  There was no heat to the words, no passion, and not even the barest sliver of personal anger.  I understood a great deal about him in that instant.  He was a man who legitimately saw people like myself, like Asher, even someone with international name recognition like Sarah as disposable pawns in a greater game.

“And if we do what you want?”  Sarah asked.  “Then what?”

“Then we can come to a harmonious arrangement,” Hill said.  “Which I believe will work better for all of us, instead of the messy business I will be forced to enact otherwise.”

Mila moved slightly.  As movements went, it wasn’t a major one.  She didn’t pull a gun or leap to her feet.  All she did was shift her weight slightly, which brought one of her arms closer to my own.  I almost jumped in surprise.  The bare skin of her hand was on fire; the heat of blood rushing through her body, powered by vast wells of adrenaline, rose from her like convection from an active volcano.  I wondered, in that idle and detached way, how she was keeping herself from attacking everyone on the other side of the table out of sheer survival instinct.

I swallowed and placed a warning hand on her burning skin.  “We need to talk about this,” I said to Hill.  “There are a lot of things we’re going to need to discuss before we can really come to the bargaining table.”

Understand me, I thought, hoping that Mila would be able to feel the sentiment in some way.  Trust me.

Hill nodded.  Again, without any visible signal, pulled the knife an inch away from Billy’s throat and he let out a long, shaky breath.  “That seems reasonable,” Hill said.  “But business waits for no man, woman, or child.”

“How long?”

Hill thought about the question.  “A week,” he said, finally.  “One week to weigh the pros and cons of what I’m offering.  If you prefer, you can treat it as a week in which you can get your affairs in order.  You can even use the time to make arrangements, to hide yourselves away from me.  It doesn’t particularly matter to me.  But, in one week, I will be finished with the girl.  If you have not seen the light by then, you will leave me no choice but to move against you.”

I didn’t doubt that he meant every word of that.  Our exploits in London notwithstanding, a week was hardly enough time to begin casing a single building.  Any sort of mobile protection would take weeks or even months, depending on how many safe-houses Hill had at his disposal.  And establishing preliminary surveillance was only the first step of many.  Sarah and I were good, but we weren’t that good.

“I believe I will keep William here, under the careful watch of my own men,” Hill continued.  “He has proven himself capable of a great deal of mischief, if left unchecked.  And, if you ultimately decide to resist what’s coming, it will make it much easier to begin the purge.”  His lips turned up in a shallow approximation of a smile.

“But what about us?” I asked.

“You can leave,” Hill said.  “After you’ve eaten, of course.  I will not have it be said that I am an inconsiderate host.”

“Somehow,” I said, “I think we’ve lost our appetite.  Sarah?”

“I agree.”  She stood up, but made no move to walk away from the table.  “You expect us to believe that you’re just going to let us walk away?  No strings attached, no gun to our heads?”

“The ‘gun,’ so to speak,” Hill said, “has already been positioned and its presence is no secret.   I have nothing to fear from you and your options have been severely castrated.  If talking amongst yourselves is what you require to come to the obvious conclusion, I have no problem allowing you to do exactly that.”  Pause.  “Although, it would do you well to keep in mind that your friend William will be here, with me, for the foreseeable future.”

“Don’t you worry about me,” Billy said suddenly.  “This bastard doesn’t have the balls to – “

He stopped talking, as Aiden returned the knife edge to just above his Adam’s Apple.

“As I was saying,” Hill said.  “If you do find yourselves possessed of an unavoidable urge to act against me, do so with the knowledge that it could quite easily result in the death of a man.”

I pushed my chair back and stood up, as well.  Mila, after a moment, did the same.  I could still feel the smoldering intensity of the gaze she turned to Aiden beside me.  Aiden returned the look with an expression of sanguine calm.

“One week,” Hill repeated.  He rose from the table, dabbing a napkin at an invisible spot of food at the corner of his lips.  “Seven days.  I hope to hear from you before then.  Otherwise…well, otherwise, I expect that you’ll be hearing from me, in one form or another.”

He walked out of the room without allowing me an opportunity to deliver a parting shot of my own.  Aiden kept the knife to Billy’s throat so that he couldn’t speak, winked at Mila, then used his free hand to push Billy out of the room in Hill’s wake.  That left Sarah, Mila, and me standing alone in the extravagantly oversized dining room.

We had been played, I realized.  A critical lack of knowledge had forced our hands into revealing each member of our team to the enemy without even realizing what we were doing.  And now, that fundamental error had led us here: all avenues closed off, any chance of escape dead on arrival.  I didn’t think, even for a minute, that Hill would allow us to work for him indefinitely.  As he was betraying Asher, he would almost certainly betray us, as well.

And, even if I heard a promise from the mouth of God himself, I wasn’t going to work with anyone who would threaten a child or hurt his family like that.  Hill, despite his trappings of elegance and wealth, was scum.  And scum could not be allowed to win.  It simply would not stand.

“Sarah,” I said, “let Michel know that we’re ready for pick-up.”

She nodded.  “Okay.  But, after that?”

I turned and looked at her.  Somehow, she read my expression at a glance and nodded.  Mila, who had known me for far less time and lacked a similar gift at discerning unspoken intentions, took a step closer to me.  “How are you going to beat him?”

“I’m also going to need you to call Sophie,” I said, still to Sarah.  “Have her arrange for a conference room.  And then call everyone.”

“Everyone?”

I nodded.  “Everyone.  I think it’s about time we all started working off of the same page, don’t you?”

Chapter 108

I blinked, and the pieces finally started to fall into place.

A thousand disparate clues, half-formed ideas, and discarded thoughts coalesced into a single cohesive whole in a single frozen instant.  Questions that I’d asked myself before, only to disregard because of a more immediate need for mental horsepower; details I’d noticed, but lacked the proper context for; things I’d heard or thought I’d heard, suddenly given the correct frame of reference for me to finally understand.

Billy, the drug lord in exile, confined to a wheelchair because of the ambition of his former partner.  Why not kill him?  Why leave a potential rival alive and in a position to cause you trouble in the future?

With all of the opportunities I’d given Asher, by accident or on purpose, why hadn’t he simply killed me by now?  Why was Hill allowing me to operate without bringing the force of his criminal empire to bear against my ragtag team before we managed to deal his business irreparable harm?  Why had Fairfax consented to a meeting with von Ackerman, a man who he didn’t even seem to like?

Why would the Lady, possessed of unknowable information as she almost certainly was, not have stepped in to stop me from antagonizing a local nobleman?  Surely, there was something to be said for delicacy, especially when dealing with someone capable of making my life markedly more difficult with a single phone call.  My personal difficulties with the rich and powerful shouldn’t have let me get too invested in needling Fairfax, and I knew that, but the Lady had said nothing at all about it.  Of course, she knew.  She knew everything or so it seemed.  So, why not stop this?

I blinked again.  A heartbeat hadn’t even passed yet.  Beside me, I heard Mila draw in a sharp breath.  Sarah did the same and I noticed, in a detached sort of way, that her lips were trembling with sudden terror and comprehension.

Brothers.  They were brothers.  Billy – who had offered no last name – and Lord Charles Fairfax were brothers.  How could they be related?  Sarah was nothing, if not thorough.  Any mention of living family members would surely have…and then that penny dropped as well.

Not full brothers, but half brothers.  Perhaps Fairfax, Sr. had a taste for a bit of rough.  It wasn’t unheard of in these types of communities.  A nobleman decides to dabble in some flavor from the lower class and finds that he has impregnated someone of a station too low to even be considered.  Most times, a quiet abortion would handle the problem.  But Fairfax, Sr. might have been something of a romantic, perhaps?  Maybe he’d been pro-life or, maybe, the pregnancy hadn’t been noticed until too late.

What would he have done then?  Supported the child, if only to keep the mother from raising too much of a fuss.  He might even have gone so far as to introduce the bastard son – because it was a son, wasn’t it? – to his own legitimate offspring, in hopes of keeping the child from going to the authorities.  A nobleman with financial difficulties and debtors knocking down his door could scarcely afford to pay child support for a by-blow, born due to a drunken indiscretion.

And the child, himself?  Someone raised by a mother who dallied once with a nobleman and then clung to the man for dear life?  That could very well be the type of man who grew to resent the nobility, who threw himself into the seedier side of life as a sort of rebellion.  The mother wouldn’t be in a position to stop him and the father…well, the father wouldn’t particularly care, so long as it stayed out of the papers.  I could almost hear Fairfax, Sr.’s voice in my head, as I imagined what he might have said.

“As long as he stays out of sight, why should I care what he does?  Maybe he’ll get himself killed and save all of us a great deal of trouble in the long run.”

But that child wouldn’t have died.  Maybe he survived, despite the odds.  Maybe he forged a stronger connection with his half-brother than expected and the two of them decided to dip a toe into the underworld community.  After all, the bastard would already have connections, wouldn’t he?  Connections that would be well-served by the money the legitimate child might be able to offer.

I blinked a third time.  Mila was beginning to stand, one hand diving into the interior of her suit jacket.  Sarah opened her mouth – To protest?  To complain?  To encourage? – and her jaw dropped in inky slow-motion.

What would the legitimate son have done?  Faced with the debts of his father and the tattered remnants of a legacy that should have been unbesmirched, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that the legitimate son might have a chip on his shoulder.  Not just against the nobility that would surely shun him if they knew they truth…oh, no.  No, that chip would’ve encompassed everyone who’d reached a better station than him, either by virtue of their birth of their skills.  And, after clawing his way up to a position he felt he deserved…well, the legitimate son might very well decide to dispose of his only legitimate competition.  It only made sense.

Except for the family connection.  One couldn’t simply dispose of family.  It simply wasn’t done.

Asher had done the same thing, back in Paris.  While I’d been at his mercy, he’d been unable to simply end my life.  In his own twisted way, I realized, he’d actually intended me to be safe behind bars in La Santé.  If he’d been planning all of this since his time in St. Petersburg, I could easily believe that he’d warped his own mindset to the point that prison seemed like the safest place to him.  I wasn’t going to be in harm’s way, there.  He could dispose of Sarah at his leisure and wait until I eventually came around.

The legitimate son wouldn’t have done that, though.  People might have seen them together.  A life in the spotlight afforded one certain privileges – alibis, for one thing – but it also came with certain disadvantages.  If a close friend suddenly went to prison, there would be questions, interviews, cameras.  No, it would be much easier to make them disappear entirely.  But how to do that?

An injury would suffice.  Something suitably horrific that it would account for a retreat from the public eye; some wound so terrible that even the paparazzi would feel like slime for asking about.  And, I noted, it would also have the delicious effect of providing an object lesson in what would happen if anybody in the underworld crossed you again.

Yes, that would make sense.  It made entirely too much sense, and I didn’t know how I’d let myself miss it before.

I blinked for a fourth time and, at the same time, held out a hand in Mila’s direction.  It brushed against her hip and she looked at out of the corner of one eye, confusion winning out over raw fear and anger in her expression.

“Hill,” I said.  I abandoned the German accent and yet, the voice I spoke in sounded nothing like my own.  It was far too cold, too distant. “You’re Hill, aren’t you?”

Fairfax – Hill – sighed and speared another forkful of roast meat.  “A childhood nickname,” he said casually.  “You see, I had a bit of tendency to exaggerate problems into things that were far greater and more difficult to handle.  I would make a mountain out of a molehill, yes?”

I stared at him in silence.

Billy, pushed by Aiden, was wheeled from the door over to a spot near his brother.  As he drew closer, I could see the purple and red marks that accompanied bruises in-the-making on his face.  He didn’t make eye contact with me as Aiden eased him into place and he said nothing when Hill – I couldn’t think of him as Fairfax, anymore – sliced off several pieces of meat and dropped them onto a plate.

“Eat, brother,” Hill said.  “You’ve been slumming it down in that wretched hive for so long, I wouldn’t be surprised if you caught something.  It’s important that you keep your strength up; at least that’s what the doctors said, isn’t it?”

At that, Billy’s head snapped up.  The force of his glare wasn’t even directed in my general direction, but I could feel the heat rising off of it, as though Billy’s eyes were shooting a laser directly into Hill’s brain.  “You would know, wouldn’t you?  Seeing as you’re the reason I needed a doctor in the first place.”

“I could have done much worse,” Hill said.  “I gave specific orders that you were to be left alive.  And I’ve looked the other way while your illicit operation has continued in the bowels of our city, haven’t I?  Is it not through my largesse that you’re even here to partake of this meal?”

Billy scowled and lapsed back into silence.

“Ah,” Hill said.  “That’s what I thought.”

I swallowed a mouthful of saliva and, without looking to Sarah or Mila, spoke.  “You couldn’t have killed him.”

“Oh?”

“He’s family,” I said, stressing the word to its breaking point.  “And you’re better than that aren’t you?”

Hill considered that before giving me a small nod.  He took one of the herb-encrusted slices of bread from the platter in front of me and chewed pensively on it for a few seconds before replying.  “I suppose you’re right.  It would hardly be civil of me to kill my only surviving relative, would it?”

“But crippling him was okay?” I asked.  “Having your men beat him until he needed a wheelchair was somehow not as bad as ordering them to just shoot him?”

“A dead man can teach no lessons, Mister O’Brien,” Hill said.  A spike of anxiety ran through me when I realized that he knew my real name, but it subsided quickly.  Of course he knew my name.  Asher was working with him, after all.  “I needed to ensure that my business would be left alone until such time as I was able to secure its foundations on my own terms.  To that end, some…sacrifices had to be made.”

“And those ‘sacrifices’ happened to be your brother’s legs.”  I scoffed and pushed aside the plate of baked bread, leaning forward onto the table so that I could get as close to Hill’s face as possible.  “You really think that paralyzing someone is the best way to deal with a problem?  Did you even consider asking him to step aside?”

“And why would he have done that?”  Noticing that Billy hadn’t touched the food in front of him, Hill took one of the roast slices and started chewing around its edges on his own.  “Would you have voluntarily relinquished your interest in our business, William?”

Billy glared at his half-brother and, somehow, captured a wealth of vile words and baleful condemnations in that look.

“That’s what I thought,” Hill said.  “And so, Mister O’Brien, I did what I felt necessary to secure my position.  Unless I’m mistaken, isn’t your sole reason for being in London to bring down your own former partner?  After his betrayal, could you simply forgive him and move on with your joint opportunities?”

He gave Sarah a thin smile.  I restrained the urge to look at her, to give her some sort of unspoken signal so that she would know to pass the message along to Michel.  I was stopped by the certainty that Michel wouldn’t be able to reach the estate in time.  Aiden was there; presumably, that meant his men were in the wings, weapons held at the ready.

“And him?” I asked, gesturing at Aiden.  “Why’d you bring him here?”

“Aiden and I have to an arrangement,” Hill said.  “Vastly different from the one he’s reached with your former partner, Mister Asher.”

“And that deal is?”

“He works for me,” Hill said, “and takes my orders, as necessary.  There will be plenty of insurrection in the coming days, as some of my higher-placed associates attempt to muscle in on the territory I hope to free from their control.”

The way he said ‘their´ immediately made me think of the Magi.

Hill continued speaking.  “Of course, he’ll continue to receive his medication – I believe you already know about that? – and his men will be paid exorbitantly for their time.”

“What else did you promise him?” I asked.

“Why, your bodyguard, of course,” Hill replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Like hell you did,” Mila growled.  I extended my arm to stop her from reaching for a gun without even consciously realizing that I’d done it.

I cleared my throat and was forced to take a sip of water to wash down the dryness.  “Why,” I asked, “do you want us then?  You didn’t have to agree to this dinner.  If you knew our names and our faces, you could’ve set up a trap and taken care of us all right off of the bat.”

Hill smirked.  “My intentions should be obvious at this point, shouldn’t they?  I wanted to make your position perfectly clear to both you and to the inestimable Missus Ford.  Or is it Miss, now?”  He gave Sarah a withering, insulting little look.  “I find it so very difficult to keep up with these mundane relationships.  So quick to come; just as quick to disappear again.”

I was surprised to find my fingers clenching themselves into a tight, painful fist.  With great effort, I forced myself to relax and to think.

Hill was here.  He hadn’t made any sort of aggressive move towards us, yet.  In fact, with the exception of Aiden’s simple presence, Hill hadn’t made any overt gestures of strength.  Obviously, I’d read him badly at first meet, but even this revelation only served to strengthen other areas of the mental profile I’d drawn of the man.

“You wanted to brag,” I said.

“If you must be so absolutely boorish about it,” Hill replied, “then yes.  I wanted to lay out certain inescapable facts for your consideration.”

“And you brought him because?”  I gestured at Billy.

“Because, Mister O’Brien, I couldn’t be certain of what your reaction would be.  You’ve only been in London for…how long has it been?  A week, perhaps?  And so far you have already been directly responsible for a staggering amount of property damage and a not-inconsiderable setback to my business operations.  Besides, Aiden has informed me that your bodyguard has something of a violent streak.”  He turned that mocking smile from Sarah to me.  “You can hardly blame me for taking steps to protect myself.”

Mila growled beside me.  Literally growled.  I caught a flash of pearly white as she bared her teeth at Aiden.  “I should fucking kill you,” she hissed.

“You could fucking try,” Aiden replied evenly.  He was cultured, now, as opposed to the raving lunatic I’d heard at the manor house while we’d been making our mistake.  If he was in any way offended or upset by Mila’s proclamation, he didn’t allow any of that offense or anger to reach his expression.  “You might even be successful, but I doubt it.  Remember: I taught you everything you know.”

“You taught me everything you know,” Mila countered.  “Why don’t you come over and I’ll show what new tricks I’ve picked in the meantime?”

It seemed for a moment that Aiden might take her up on that threat.  Tension ratcheted up in the room, raising the temperature by several degrees by simple virtue of Mila and Aiden’s clashing wills.  Then, the moment passed.  Aiden looked away – not out of shame or fear, but more resigned sadness – and shook his head.  “I think not,” he said.  “And I don’t think you’ll do anything either.  That’s your new M.O., isn’t it?  Stick to the contract and only kill when your client allows you to?

Mila recoiled from his words like he’d stretched an arm across the table and slapped her in the face.

Aiden continued, his voice smooth and persuasive.  “Wouldn’t it be something to go back to the way you used to be, though?  Why, the Mila I know…no, I’m sorry.”  He waved a hand in the air, smiling slightly to himself.  “I just can’t call you that.  The Thorn that I knew…now she would’ve already been in motion, wouldn’t she?  This table wouldn’t have stopped her.  This hostage wouldn’t have slowed her down.  And those two?”  Now, he pointed deliberately at me, then at Sarah.  “Well, those two wouldn’t have been able to do any more to get in her way than a screen door against a hurricane.  But you aren’t the same person anymore.  Unless…unless you want to be that person again.  Do you?”

I tried, and failed, to keep my eyes from traveling over to Mila.  The expression on her face hurt to behold.  Terror, excitement, rage, lust – all of those emotions, and a dozen others that I couldn’t immediately name, raced each other across her face.  In that moment, I became aware that, without Mila, Sarah and I had inadvertently walked ourselves directly into the lair of our enemy.  If Hill gave the word and Mila didn’t step in to stop him, there was little to no chance that either Sarah or I would make it out of the estate alive.

Even if Mila lost control and managed to turn that anger against Aiden and Hill, it wouldn’t particularly matter.  She would have lost against Aiden, as surely as if he’d killed her himself.  Taking his life would justify his worldview, validate his beliefs about who Mila truly was in her heart of hearts, and we’d lose her, then.  Sure, we could claim it as a victory with regards to our job from the Lady, but I’d grown close enough to Mila over the last few days that I counted her as a friend.

I wasn’t in the habit of sacrificing friends to further my own goals…not even if that sacrifice was to themselves.

So, before Mila could say or do anything at all, I cleared my throat with such deliberate force that my throat began to hurt.  “This is what you wanted, then?  To call us here, just so that you can goad one of my team into making a mistake that we’re all going to regret?”  I directed that to Hill.

Hill took another forkful of roast and the smug smile slid from his face.  “As I said, I wanted to make things perfectly clear between us.”

“I’m listening.”

“I have the girl,” Hill said.  “I have the book.  And, since you were gracious enough to reveal the burgeoning friendship between her and my former employee, I have leverage to force her to decrypt what I wish for her to decrypt.  It is only a matter of time before I have all of the information I require, at which point I will be free to eliminate any loose ends which might prove problematic in the future.”

Former employee…Hill was talking about Neal.  Of course, that made sense now.  He wouldn’t have allowed Avis to be taken without putting up a fight and she, in her odd manner, cared about him, as well.  If Hill and his men threatened to torture Neal, it was absolutely reasonable that the small child might give Hill what he wanted, in hopes of saving her friend.

“Despite your efforts,” Hill continued, “I have everything in my possession that I have sought after for so many months.  And, despite the repeated failures of your former friend, I am closer now to claiming my rightful position over the miscreants and addicts of my city.  Although…I must admit, I was rather impressed by your creativity and the way you continued to elude my every effort to simply stamp you out.”

“And now we’re here,” I said, somehow managing to project a great deal more confidence than I actually felt.  “So, is this the part where you have us dragged away?  Because I don’t think ‘my bodyguard’ is going to let that happen without a fight, and you’re looking awfully unprotected there in your new suit.”

For the first time since we’d entered the building, Hill seemed slightly taken aback.  “Kill you?  Why would I do that?”  He set down the fork and leaned all of his weight onto the tabletop separating the two of us.  “Mister O’Brien, I don’t want to hurt you.  I want to offer you a job.”

Chapter 107

Where the manor house had been large, Fairfax’s estate was grand, in a way that words simply failed to encapsulate.  Acres upon acres of land greeted us, just inside the pass-coded gates that sat at the edge of Fairfax’s land.  Once inside, I saw that the property consisted of wide swaths of emerald grass, dotted at even intervals with flowers in colors like bubblegum pink, plum purple, and azure blue.  As Michel drove the BMW up the driveway – that term seemed woefully inadequate to describe the wide road leading up to Fairfax’s front door, but no better ones came to mind – I could see at least a dozen men and women tending to the health of the flowers on the grounds.  For a few months, my mother had worked as a gardener for a particularly vile business magnate in Maine.  I’d picked up a little bit of knowledge in that field, so it wasn’t surprising to learn that Fairfax required so many people just to make sure that the plants looked fresh and crisp, every hour of the day, in case a visitor showed up.  I was fairly sure that some of the plants on display weren’t even in season, but that wasn’t something I felt like wasting time to research.

The house itself seemed to burst out of the ground itself at the end of the driveway/road.  In fact, to call it a house would more properly require capitalization on the word; what I saw through the front window of the BMW was a House, in the same size and proportions of one I expected to find on Pennsylvania Avenue or, perhaps, Downing Street.  According to all of the information Sarah had been able to dig up about Fairfax, he was an unmarried man without children or close relatives with whom he had anything resembling a good relationship.  The fact that he’d spent time and money acquiring an estate like this, when he could easily have purchased a lovely flat in the city center for far less trouble, told me a lot about the man he was.

Pompous.  Arrogant.  Overly concerned with his own self-worth.  I’d guessed that much about Fairfax on our first meeting; seeing where he chose to spend his time only served to validate those earlier thoughts.

Having drawn conclusions about my surroundings, I set part of my mind to draw up possible ways to manipulate Fairfax and separated the rest of my thoughts from that particular problem.  An answer would present itself, as soon as one was ready, and I couldn’t afford to spend conscious time working through possible conversations that might never happen.  I’d have to let Fairfax lead the conversation at first until Sarah was able to penetrate his email accounts.  After that, I could turn the tables and lay him out.  It was a matter, then, of keeping my cool in the face of such wasted splendor.

I’d done it before, with people I liked even less.  I strongly doubted that Fairfax could possibly be such an unpleasant person to be around that my abilities would shrivel up.  Nearly three years in prison hadn’t dulled most of the useful talents; I’d be damned if I was going to let some trumped up nobleman throw me off of my game.

“The van’s providing my wireless right now,” Sarah said.  “So it’s good that it’s working correctly.  As long as it’s on, I can use it as a connection point.  I don’t know what kind of security Fairfax has sprung for, but I’d rather not tie everything back to his house while we’re having dinner.”

“What does that mean for me?  In Layman terms, of course.”

“I won’t be using his connection,” Sarah said.  “Even if he’s got someone watching for strange packets or unusual traffic, they won’t find any trace of what I’m doing.  Also, the computers are in the van are considerably stronger than anything I could carry on my person.”

I nodded dumbly.  Some of those were words I knew.  Some had even been used in a configuration that I might have been able to piece together.

Michel drove the BMW up a lengthy stretch of road, bounded by rows of carnations, lilies, and roses on either side.  As we drew closer to the mansion itself, the flowers gave way to larger trees, standing tall and firm like arboreal sentinels casting deep shadows across the driveway they stood watch over.  Inside of the car, it seemed as though we were literally driving into darkness as we passed beneath the trees; I found that thematically fitting, in an odd way.

A man dressed in black pants, a white shirt, and a black tailed coat stood outside of the mansion’s front door with his hands held neatly behind his back.  He inclined his head slightly as Michel eased the BMW to a stop, then reached out – with white gloved hands – to open the back door.

Herr Ackerman,” he said, and I couldn’t help but notice how artificially crisp his Northern London accent was.  Immediately, I formed a rough profile of the man: someone who’d worked his way up from an ignoble birth and who prided himself on the ability to walk amongst the nobility and higher class with his head held high.  It was probably all an act, but I couldn’t help but feel a certain kinship with the butler.

“Indeed,” I said, lowering the register of my voice and slipping into Ackerman’s German accent.  “I had hoped that Lord Fairfax would be here to meet me in person?”

“He means no offense by his absence,” the butler said, “but other matters called for his direct involvement.  He will, of course, be away for only a short time.”

I pouted…well, I did whatever the rich business magnate’s version of a pout would be.  I didn’t mind waiting.  It might even give Sarah more time to penetrate what network security Fairfax had in place.  But Ackerman would mind considerably, and I had to play that role to the hilt right now.

“Perhaps,” I said, “he does not consider my time important.  Frau Ford, what do you think?”

Sarah tapped an index finger against her bottom lip.  “We drove all the way out here,” she said, after a suitably long stretch of silence.  “It would be a shame to leave already.  Perhaps we could get a tour of the property?”  She directed that question at the butler.

He seemed slightly uneasy with that but he recovered quickly.  “It would be my pleasure, Miss Ford.  It is the least I can do to accommodate you, until such time as Lord Fairfax returns from his obligations.  If you would be so kind?”

I exchanged a look with Sarah.  She gave a slight, almost imperceptible nod.  We stepped out of the car and, a second later, Mila opened her door as well.  The butler raised an eyebrow.

“Personal security,” I said in a droll voice.  “One can never be too safe.  There are always criminals running around, stealing property and threatening lives these days.”

“Ah,” the butler replied, “I was not informed that there would be another guest.  I, uh…”

Mila cleared her throat and stopped him from saying anything else.  “I go where they go,” she said.  “Whether you’re going to make that difficult is your call.”

The butler struggled with that for a second, then nodded.  “Very well.  If you would follow me?”

He started off toward the mansion, taking long strides that made the tails of his coat flutter slightly, as if caught by an evening breeze.  I turned slightly and, under my breath, said, “Michel, park by the van.  Wait for the pickup signal.”

“And if something goes wrong?”

I hesitated.  “There’ll be a signal for that, too.  Get out of here.”

I watched him nod out of the corner of my eye.  He started the BMW again, drove around the circle of cleared land in front of the mansion, and then left via the road leading off of Fairfax’s property.

Sarah touched my elbow with two fingers, then put those same two fingers to her earlobe in a quick gesture.  Michel was still connected and able to communicate, albeit with a slight delay, through Sarah.  There was every possibility, however, that the few seconds after I gave Sarah the ‘emergency’ signal, but before Michel received it, could end being crucial.

I put that thought out of my mind before I could begin to worry about it.  The butler was standing in front of the building, one gloved hand on the handle of a massive door, cut from a wood so dark that it was nearly black.  He was well-trained enough that his subtle tells of impatience and irritation took me a bit to notice.

The three of us walked over to the door.  Sarah strode with the purpose of self-assurance of someone who knows that their presence is in high demand and I matched my gait to hers.  Mila walked just behind me, to my right, and each of her steps was solid and deliberate.  Mental images of military men and women came to mind with each rhythmic, sharp step she took.  Something in her shoes must have been metallic.  Or something on her shoes.

Inside the mansion, the butler turned and gestured magnanimously at a portrait on the wall, just a few feet away from the entrance.  The man pictured there looked familiar: the eyes, perhaps, or the length of his nose reminded me of Fairfax.  But there was also something about his forehead and the way his lips were only barely curled up into a smile for the painter that seemed odd.

“This was Lord Reginald Fairfax,” the butle said, his voice swelling with something resembling pride.  “The current Lord Fairfax’s esteemed great-grandfather.  It was his savvy with business and social skills that allowed the Fairfax family to rise to their current place of prominence.”

I suppressed a snicker.  Through Sarah, I’d come into possession of a more than a few documents outlining the various debts that our Fairfax owed to creditors, both national and international.  ‘Prominence’ was painting it a little heavy, but it wasn’t as though the butler could outright tell us that his master was in trouble.  In fact, it was largely possible that the poor man didn’t even know.

“And his father?” Sarah asked politely, as if she didn’t already know the answer.

The butler sighed, caught himself, and turned the exhalation into a cough.  “Charles Fairfax, Sr.  He was…an ambitious man, with grand dreams and grander aspirations.”

That wasn’t an answer.  Of course, Sarah hadn’t really asked a question.

“I must say,” I said, in Ackerman’s voice, “that I find the prospect of a tour less and less enjoyable with each passing second.  It has nothing to do with you, sir, but…”  I trailed off, let the silence hang in the air for a second, and then continued.  “Perhaps another time.  If I find myself in London on business again and Fairfax can deign to tear himself away from his business opportunities.  Of course, I will have to tell all of my associates to beware working with Lord Fairfax in the future.  He is such a busy man, of course.”

Blood fled from the butler’s face.  He sputtered something incoherent.  When he regained control of himself, he cleared his throat.  “I am sure that Lord Fairfax will not be away for very long.  If you could only wait just a little bit longer…”

“Calm yourself, Coleman,” a resonant voice said from upstairs, in the direction of an extravagant staircase.  Sarah and I looked up at the same time; Mila’s weight shifted slightly and I could almost feel the gathering of tension around her.

“My apologies,” Fairfax said.  He strolled into view, utterly at ease, and took the stairs at a leisurely, almost insulting pace.  “I would have scheduled this dinner for later if I had known something would arise that required my personal attention.”

“Your man…what was it?  Ah, Coleman,” I said, “was kind enough to inform us that your business was suffering some difficulties.”

“Nothing beyond my ability to handle.  But the nature of the delay was personal in nature, not professional.”  Fairfax reached the bottom of the stairs and paused.  The angle of his body was reminiscent of a pose and, I had to admit to myself, the effect worked.  He was wearing a crisp dark blue suit, cut to his precise measurements, and looked like nothing so much as a fashion model.  The thin wisps of graying hair at his temples only highlighted his attractiveness, instead of taking anything away from the visual.

“Personal?  I hope that everything is well.”

He heaved a dramatic sigh.  Something felt wrong about that sigh, but I couldn’t quite my finger on what bothered me.  “Family,” Fairfax said.  “A member of my family in a similar line of business as myself requested a chair at this dinner.”

“Oh?”  We hadn’t planned on conning more than one person.  Still, as long as the façade held up long enough, we might be able to make an exit and return to blackmail Fairfax into submission later.

“Quite.  The possibility of opening new lines of communication with our German counterparts was something that neither he nor I could pass up.  Now, our dinner awaits.  My insistent family member will have to show himself in, whenever he arrives.  Coleman, you can see that, yes?”

It wasn’t really a question.  The butler, Coleman, nodded twice, seemingly pleased to be given a valid reason to leave our company.  I couldn’t blame him.  Fairfax was such a deliberately over-the-top figure that it seemed he sucked up all the oxygen from a room just by entering.  I couldn’t imagine working around the man on a daily basis, being required to rush from place to the other in deference to whatever whim moved him.  Just thinking about it made me a little exhausted.

I resolved to find some way to supplement Coleman’s income…presumably through whatever payment we received from the Lady after taking down Hill.  That thought cheered me slightly.

Fairfax led us through the mansion, occasionally pointing out a portrait or knickknack, until we reached a large door cut from the same wood as the front door.  He pushed it open and gestured for Sarah, Mila, and me to enter the room in front of him.  We did so and found ourselves confronted with a majestic table with enough room for at least ten people to sit and eat comfortably.  Platters and trays were already set out on the table, stretching from one end to the other, tendrils of delicious-smelling smoke drifting up into the air from each.

“I must confess,” Fairfax said, taking no notice of the scents in the air, “that I am not a particular fan of this arrangement.  I prefer more intimate settings, no matter what the occasion.  There’s little that can’t be solved with a one-on-one conversation, in close quarters.”

“Ah,” I replied, “but would it not be preferable to have as many witnesses as possible to any handshake deals you make?”

Fairfax gave me a slight, anemic smile.  “Of course not.  People will make all sorts of concessions when they feel that no one else is looking.  The trick is to lure them into a sense of safety and then to force them to accept your terms.”

I couldn’t help but grin at that.  “I suppose I could not agree more.”

Surprisingly, Fairfax did not take a seat at the head of the table.  Instead, he chose a chair a few spaces down and motioned for us to sit opposite him.  When we were comfortable, he removed the lid off of the platter directly in front of him – revealing some type of roast, judging by the shape, size, and scent – and cut a large piece of meat free.

“Help yourself,” he said, when the slice of roast was safely on his plate.  “Unless you’d prefer I called the servants in to assist you?”

That same feeling of wrongness intensified.  Everything I knew about Fairfax – both from our conversations and the information Sarah had dug up about him – told me that he was the sort of person who would delight in using servants to display his wealth.  As it was, we’d only seen Coleman since entering the house itself.  The landscapers outside might not even work for Fairfax directly; it would be fairly easy to hire those sort of people on an as-needed basis.  It would make more sense, as well.

A tray on my right was populated by a freshly baked loaf of bread, cut into thin slices and topped with a healthy smattering of herbs.  I took a few of those and then ladled out some soup into a bowl.  Fairfax raised an eyebrow.  “I would feel better waiting for your family member,” I said, by way of explanation.  The truth – that my stomach wouldn’t settle down while that gnawing feeling of missing something continued to work at it – wasn’t something I felt like sharing.

“All the same,” Fairfax said.  “And you, Miss Ford?”

“I’ve already eaten,” Sarah replied.  There was a slight hitch in her voice, a millisecond of hesitation.  I didn’t need to look at her to know that I would see a slight puzzled expression on her face.  Whatever was wrong, she felt it, too.

“Ah.  I’m certain that our guest will arrive shortly, von Ackerman, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long.”

“You said that you do not prefer this sort of room?” I asked, more to fill the time than out of any real curiosity.  Sarah had said to keep Fairfax in this room, where we could keep an eye on him, and I intended to do just that.

“Not particularly, no.”

“Then why do you not change it?  Surely you can afford to redecorate?”

Fairfax froze, the roast speared on his fork and halfway to his mouth.  Slowly, he lowered the utensil.  “I am currently living on the largesse of a…shall we call him a friend?  He is graciously allowing me the use of his estate while he’s away on business.”

“And you have been here long enough to hang your own paintings?”

Fairfax shrugged.  “The business my friend is engaged is in the sort that will likely require much of his attention for the foreseeable future.  Of course, I would be more than happy to leave if I were asked to, but I doubt he will have many problems with my decorative choices.”

The earbud I wore vibrated twice.  The line didn’t activate.  I read the signal as something Sarah had deliberately done, wordlessly sending me a message.  The problem with that is that I couldn’t understand the message meant, in this context.  Had she already broken Fairfax’s security?  Or was she telling me that she’d require more time and to continue needling him, pushing him so that he felt compelled to engage in a battle of quips?  Was something wrong with Michel?

I tapped my fingernail against the table twice, as subtly as I could manage, hoping that she could grasp my confusion.  A second later, the earbud vibrated two more times, more intensely than before.

I almost turned to look at Sarah, thinking that I might be able to divine her intention with a moment of eye contact.  I was stopped by a delighted noise from Fairfax.  He set his fork down on the plate with an audible clink and smiled widely.

“Ah,” he said, “and here is our unexpected guest.  It’s good to see you again, brother.”

I turned, almost involuntarily, to face the newcomer.  Entering through the same door that we’d come through, I saw a man with tribal tattoos and a face like cut granite.  In front of him, a man in a wheelchair.

Aiden.  Billy.

“It has been such a long time, hasn’t it?” Fairfax asked behind me.  “We have so many things to catch up on, don’t we?”

Chapter 106

By the time I was fully suited – I chose a light cream suit with a crimson tie to match with Sarah’s color scheme, just in case – Sarah, Mila, and Michel were standing impatiently by the elevator door.

“Nice suit,” Mila said drily.

“The Lady does have impeccable taste,” I replied.  “One would almost think she picked clothing that would specifically match with each other.”

“That makes sense,” Sarah said.  “I mean, it doesn’t make sense that she’d go through all of that trouble, but we’re about a million miles past that.  Still, if she wanted you to dress the part, there’s nothing quite like a unified color scheme to match.”

“That’s more or less what I figured.”  I tugged my suit jacket down slightly.  The black, bulletproof vest would have clashed with the colors, so I wore it under my shirt.  I’d grown somewhat fond of the vest over the past few days and I much preferred the possibility of a little sweat to the chance that a bullet might find its way into my unprotected torso.

“Speaking of effect…”  Sarah reached into a small black clutch and removed something, held in a closed fist.  “I didn’t realize I still had these.  It doesn’t go with the cover, but…”

She held out the items in her hand.  I blinked when I saw what she held.  “These were my father’s,” I breathed out.  “You held onto these?”

She shrugged.  “They’re yours.  If you want them, that is.  I know the two of you didn’t have the best relationship, but still…I thought it might be something you’d like to have back.”

I took the cufflinks reverently.  Sarah’s abbreviated summary of my paternal relationship was hilariously inadequate.  Before my mother had dragged me out of Ireland and started to wander across America, from town to town and city to city, my father had been a difficult figure to love.  When he hadn’t been drinking, he’d been involved in some messy bits of business.  The fact that he’d made a living as a criminal was obviously not something that bothered me, but the things he’d undertaken turned my stomach.  Where I made a point to only steal from people who could afford the loss – or, failing that, legitimate assholes who deserved some humbling – my father made no such distinction.  In fact, as far as I’d been able to piece together, he had gone out of his way to pick on those incapable of defending themselves: local shopkeepers, the elderly, and the like.

The stories I’d collected over the years told me that he was good at his chosen profession, even if he was a bastard to do the things he did to the people he did them to.  Then, out of nowhere, he’d simply vanished.  One night, after a violent drinking binge that I still didn’t really understand, he had hurled insults at my mother and, alternately, broken down into intense crying jags.  The next morning…nothing.  No trace of his presence could be found in the house I’d called home for the formative years of my childhood; no whisper of his name, or his whereabouts, could be found in the community around us.  My mother tried for months to dig up even the vaguest clue and, failing that, she’d fled the country entirely to avoid being chased by the memories the two of them shared.  Even in his departure, my father had managed to worm his way so deeply into her heart that she was never the same again.

The cufflinks I held were the only link I still had to him.  When he had originally brought them home, there had been a fight of previously unheard of proportions about the foolishness of buying jewelry when bills weren’t being paid.  He had insisted on ‘looking the part’ and my mother, as always had eventually given in.  She’d slipped them to me on her deathbed; one final gift, hoping to inspire me to forgive the man who’d shattered her and abandoned me.  For no reason I could name, I’d kept the damned things until, apparently, leaving them with Sarah when our relationship imploded.

I stared down at the cufflinks for several seconds.  Then, without a word, I replaced the silver cufflinks I wore with my father’s.  The monogrammed letters stood out against the smooth cream of my suit.  “Thanks,” I said to Sarah.  My throat was suddenly thick with emotion and I cleared it several times.  “Michel, you have the address, right?”

The Frenchman nodded.  His eyes drifted down to the cufflinks for an instant before he lifted them.  “It will take us about an hour.”

Sarah checked her phone.  “We should leave now, then.  Dinner isn’t supposed to start until later, but I don’t want you to give him any reason to dismiss you.  It’s important that you keep him where you can watch him.  We don’t want him to step away long enough to tip off Hill, if it comes to that.”

“Sounds like a good idea.  Mila?”

She’d removed the sling, although the plaster cast was still visible just inside one of her sleeves.  I had only seen her put two weapons into holsters, but the table was now clean of any disassembled gun parts, so I assumed she’d found concealed places on her person for the menagerie of weapons.  “As I’ll ever be.  Honestly: do you think things are going to get dangerous?”

I shook my head, but Sarah coughed and drew attention to her.  “Not in the way you’re thinking,” she said.  “But I know people like Fairfax.  With the way he’s already been posturing towards von Ackerman, there’s no telling what he’ll do to put Devlin’s uppity German in his place.”

“You really think it’s possible he’ll call Hill?”

“Not if you don’t give him a chance to,” Sarah said.  “But if he feels like he’s losing face badly enough?  I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a little discreet help rough you up later.  It would be completely out of his control, of course.  On the way home, maybe, or when you’re out around town.”

“I’m not going to be around town,” I pointed out.  “And I’m damn sure not about to let him tail me back here.”

Sarah shrugged.  “I’m just saying.  Somebody like Fairfax – born to money and privilege, but in danger of losing it all because of someone else’s mistakes – is going to be unstable to begin with.  Add that to the fact that we know he’s involved with Hill in some way and…well, better safe than sorry.”

Mila touched her uninjured hand to the small of her back and nodded.  “Got it.”

“Well,” I said,” if we’re all ready to get on the road, we should probably get out of here.  Can’t afford to be late, after all.”

A round of nods and murmured grunts of approval greeted that statement.

We left the hotel room, nodding to Sophie as we passed her position at the Brooklands’ front desk, and got into the waiting BMW just outside of the front door.  The keys were already in the ignition.  Michel slipped behind the driver’s wheel and Mila entered on the front passenger side.  I climbed into the backseat.

“I’ll drive the van up to a waiting position,” Sarah said.  “I’ll meet you a little bit away from the estate.  Michel, I’ll send you the location so that you can pick me up.”

“Of course,” he said through the rolled-down window.  “We will see each other there.”

Sarah gave him a grim nod, her lips pulled tight into a thin line, and then walked away from the car.  I watched her leave and realized, with no small amount of embarrassment, that I was staring at the way her hips flexed beneath the fabric of her crimson dress.

Mila cleared her throat, deliberately louder than strictly necessary.  “Eyes front,” she said.

I turned my vision back to the front of the car, as my cheeks began to warm.  “Michel?”

He looked up at my refelction in the rearview mirror and smiled.  “Oui, we are leaving.”

The trip to Fairfax’s estate took about an hour and a half.  An accident along the way slowed our progress, even with Michel’s abilities as a cabdriver assisting us through the thick knot of traffic.  Sarah’s suggestion that leaving early might be advantageous was a good one, apparently.

As he drove us to the meeting place, my fingers found the raised lettering on my father’s cufflinks.  After so long without them, the tiny bits of metal felt strange to my hand.  The weight was familiar, as was the sensation of touching history every time I felt myself tracing out my father’s initials with my fingertips.  I would never have admitted it out loud, but the thought of having lost these tiny morsels of memory had filled me with an unreasonable amount of pain.

It wasn’t because of my father, of course.  That pain came from the thought that one of my mother’s final gifts to me had been lost, consigned to the pit where things went to disappear forever.

“That’s not true,” I muttered to myself.

“What’s that?” Mila asked.

“Nothing.”

The truth was as simple as it was unpleasant: I missed him.  The drinking, the less-than-legal lifestyle, the pain he’d caused to both me and my mother…none of it meant anything, compared to the stark reality of his absence.  No matter how much I wanted it to be otherwise, I wanted to know what had happened to him.  He had been a figure of some prominence in the Dublin Underworld.  There was evidence that he’d existed, none of which was particularly difficult to uncover.  These people had taken on a job with him when I’d been only six; those thugs had taken assignments as hired muscle to break into a certain building; this barkeep had trusted my father – really trusted him – for six months, only to find out that the entire time spent together had been nothing so much as a long con.

In contrast to the wealth of information about what he’d done before leaving, there was a hole with regards to where had gone.  No one seemed to know.  None of his former associates had heard a single word from him since that fateful night.  There was no trail to follow and I knew that for a fact; I’d certainly spent more than enough time trying to find one.  He was gone…but his cufflinks – well, my cufflinks – remained.

“How do you two feel about your fathers?” I asked.  The fact that I’d spoken the question out loud was surprising, but not so much that I felt I should take it back.

Mila looked out of her window for a few seconds.  When she answered, she did it without moving her gaze.  “Biological father or adopted?”

“Either or,” I said.  “Or both, in that order.”

“Never knew my biological father,” Mila said.  “He and my mom weren’t an item.  They hooked up, he left, and here I am.”

“And your, uh…adopted?”  I couldn’t remember exactly what she’d said about her familiar relationships before, but I knew that something must have happened to make her easy pickings for Aiden’s crew.  Still, tiptoeing around the topic would only draw attention to any questions I scrupulously tried not to ask.  It was better to leap directly into it and deal with any awkwardness as it arose.

“He tried to touch me,” Mila said, in a pure matter-of-fact voice.  “Tried to touch my little sister, too.  That’s when I put him in the hospital.”

I blinked.  “How old were you?”

“Ten?  Twelve?”  She shrugged.  “The details didn’t really stick with me.”

I digested that before prodding her into a more direct answer.  “So, how do you feel about him?  Either one.”

“If I had to guess?”  She stared out of the window for several long seconds before answering.  “Everything I’ve heard about my biological father makes me think he was a good guy. Except for that whole ‘leaving my mother when she was pregnant’ thing.  Probably wouldn’t be thrilled about me getting involved with your unsavory types.”

The complete lack of change in her expression, coupled with her the lack of effect in her voice, concealed the joke for a few seconds.  When I realized that she was kidding, a tight grin spread across my lips.

Mila shrugged.  “I don’t think about my adopted father much.  I’ve met a lot of really evil people, doing this job.  Him?  I just think of him as weak and I refuse to let him take up any space in my head.”

The smile on my face vanished.  Mila was acting as steadfast and resolute as ever, but I thought I could sense a twinkling of some deeper emotion peeking its head out as she discussed her adoptive father.  Some smoldering nugget of anger that she kept secreted away in her heart, stoking its flames only when she needed to unleash some aggression against a deserved target, perhaps?  Or the thing that pushed her to acts of self-sacrifice, in order to honor whatever her contract was.

I didn’t know.  And, as I thought about it more, I decided that it wasn’t my place to ask.  She’d answered my questions and I hadn’t really had a right to ask those, either.  Out of every criminal I’d met in the business, no one had a particularly healthy childhood.  Sarah came closest, but the relationship between her and her sister was filled with more than enough dysfunction to account for a slightly flexible view on morality.  I knew next to nothing about her parents, save for the information anyone with my technical weaknesses could find on the internet: the Ford family was wealthy beyond any reasonable measure, involved in industries ranging from international shipping to information technology.  In my experience, wealth like that didn’t typically come packaged with an excess of familial warmth, but that was one of the things we’d decided, by unspoken agreement, never to discuss.

Other things on that list included my father.  I’d never asked her to look up my father’s whereabouts and Sarah, mercifully, had never intruded on that private hurt.

I blinked, shaking myself out of my own thoughts.  It was rare that I found myself thinking about my father, yet he had emerged from my suppressed thoughts several times in the last two hours.  Thankfully, those memories weren’t the sort to disrupt my focus at a critical moment, but they were still things I preferred to not think about.  I decided, after a second, that my sudden increase in thoughts about my childhood was connected to Sarah’s unexpected gift.  I tried the best that I could to banish them to the darkened corners of my mind, with marginal success.

Michel was speaking.  I’d missed the first part of his sentence, but I tuned in to the rest.  “…not interested in a relationship,” he said.  “At least, not as long as I insist on being who I am.”

“That doesn’t bother you?” Mila asked.

Michel shook his head, sighed, seemed to reconsider, and then shrugged.  “I will not lie and say that I am happy about his decision,” he said.  “But I am who I am, and he is who he is.  My mother, perhaps, would feel differently, but she is not around to change his mind anymore.”

Mila seemed to be struggling with something.  I watched as she stretched her right hand across her body, hesitatingly, and then placed it on the stick shift atop Michel’s own hand.  He turned his head slightly and gave her a curious look.  She quickly removed her hand.

Several blocks away from the address provided by Fairfax, Michel parked the BMW in the parking lot of a Beatles memorabilia store, after a small roundabout.  The traffic from the freeway didn’t extend this far off of it, so we had relative peace and quiet there.  We waited there for a few minutes, each of us dealing with the emotions I’d accidentally stirred up with my thoughtless question.  I considered apologizing for bringing up the topic at all, but that would only have made things more awkward for everyone, Mila especially.

Sarah parked her kitted-out van a minute or two before the silence might have grown unbearable.  She stepped out of the van and pressed something on her tablet that killed the engine.

“What was that?” I asked her, as I slid over and allowed her to get into the back of the BMW with me. As she did so, I made a great effort to look out of the other window.

There was a slight pause before she answered.  “I turned the engine off, while keeping the battery running,” she said.  Her voice was…strained, maybe?  Perturbed?  I didn’t want to guess, but I suspected she’d noticed my eyes on her and wasn’t thrilled about that presumption on my part.  “It lets the equipment keep running, activates the car alarm, but won’t attract any attention from anyone who doesn’t know exactly what to look for.”

“You aren’t worried someone’s going to steal it?”

Sarah scoffed at that.  The door clicked shut and I allowed myself to look back at her.  “In this neighborhood, the worst I’d be concerned about is someone removing the van because it’s an eyesore.  Besides, that car alarm is not something to be ignored.  If some industrious car thief gets ambitious, we’ll be able to track him down and retrieve our property.”

“You’re sure?”

“Sure as I am about anything,” Sarah said.  “Now, did you want to quiz me about my new toy or did you want to go to dinner?”

“To dinner we shall go,” I said, injecting a note of grandiose magnanimousness into my voice.  It brought a little smile to Sarah’s lips and drew a chuckle from her.  I felt my cheeks warming in response.  “Michel?  If you’d be so kind?”

He touched two fingers to his forehead and gave Sarah and me a tiny, sarcastic bow.  He did the same in Mila’s direction.  She responded with a soft, inarticulate grunt.

“Maybe this’ll be fun,” Sarah said.  “When was the last time we got to meet with nobility?”

“That Danish baron,” I answered immediately.  “When was that?  2009?”

“2010,” she corrected.  “And I don’t know if that counts anymore.  He isn’t nobility after that horrible business with his tax shelter and the political fallout.”

“He was a baron before we got through with him.  I think that counts.”

“If the two of you don’t stop,” Mila said, “I am going to quit my job right now, just so you’ll stop being so damn chipper about everything.”

Sarah and I fell quiet.  But she touched my elbow with two of her fingers and that touch burned away any thought except for the memories.  I stayed there, lost in thoughts of what we’d once had, until Michel cleared his throat and eased us through the gates, into Lord Fairfax’s estate.

Chapter 105

Hours later, after the team had created and discarded no less than dozen different versions of the basic approach, I found myself sitting at the kitchen island with half of a shepherd’s pie cooling in front of me.  Sarah had exiled herself to the computer room, where she could work on the virus in relative peace and quiet.  Ally, exhausted from the day’s excitement, had left for the room downstairs, accompanied by her protective father.  After a little prodding from Michel, Anton had headed out to feed Stani, Iosif, and Leonid a story that would keep them from involving themselves in any activities that might compromise our efforts to retrieve Avis from Hill’s clutches.

So, after the various departures and relocations, the only people still in the main room with me were Michel and Mila.  And Sam, of course, but the cat was fast asleep on top of the television stand, so I hardly thought he counted as a contributing member.

Next to the shepherd’s pie, my encrypted phone lit up and vibrated.  I glanced down at it and smiled.

“What is it?”  Mila asked, looking up from the coffee table where a buffet of gun parts took up nearly all of the available space.  She continued to clean one particular widget with an oiled rag while she spoke.  “Was that him?”

I nodded.  “His secretary just informed me that Lord Fairfax is available for dinner tonight,” I said.  “He is, of course, thrilled at the opportunity to meet with Herr Ackerman and to discuss any potential business opportunities that may exist between the two of us.”

Mila rolled her eyes.  “What does that mean, translated out of ‘pompous ass?’”

“Basically, that he’s looking forward to showing me how much wealthier and well-bred he is.”  I shrugged.  “Basic operating procedure with these kinds of people, according to Sarah.”

“How did that even happen?”

I paused, my fingers frozen in the air over my phone.  After a moment, I set the device down.  Lord Fairfax could wait a few minutes for me to accept his invitation.  It might even provide the cover identity with a little bit of extra validity.  Ever since their first meeting, von Ackerman and Fairfax hadn’t been exactly civil to each other.  “How did what happen?” I asked.

“You and Sarah,” Mila said.  “She’s your ex-wife, right?”

I nodded.

“The two of you aren’t anything alike, though,” she said.  “She’s a Ford and you’re…”

I let her words drift off into silence.  With anyone else, I might have been tempted to let that silence stretch out until she felt uncomfortable, but I’d been around Mila long enough to know that she would be content to clean her weapon and stare at me until I eventually broke.  It was just easier to speak up now, rather than endure the awkwardness for no reason.

“I’m not a Ford,” I said.  “I get that.”

“So?”

When I didn’t answer immediately, Michel cleared his throat.  The Frenchman was sprawled on the couch, using one of Sarah’s tablets to flip through a slideshow of high-powered vehicles.  With Sophie’s services at our disposal, it had been decided that a fast car might be good for Ackerman’s cover and in case of a sudden, abrupt need for departure.  Michel’s skills with the unassuming sedan, during our flight from the manor house, was certainly impressive; every one of us universally agreed, however, that something with a few more horsepower would be useful for any future engagements.

“I must admit,” he said, sitting up and looking over the couch at me, “that I am also curious.”

“Is this really the time for this?” I asked.

Mila and Michel exchanged a look.  “If you do not want to talk about it,” Michel said finally, “that would be understandable.  I did not mean to pry into your personal life.”

The expression on Mila’s face told me that she couldn’t care less about any claims to privacy that I might have made.  Still, I sighed.  I unlocked my phone, typed out a quick response to Fairfax, sent the message, and then picked at the remainder of my dinner.

“It isn’t, like, a secret,” I eventually said.  “We met on a job.  Well…I was working a job.  She was on a different one.  We happened to cross paths.”

“And you started working together after that?” Mila asked.  “Just that simple?”

“Not even kind of,” I said.  “Sarah wasn’t interested in working with a long-term partner and I was just coming off of what happened in St. Petersburg…or, I guess, what I thought happened in St. Petersburg.  So, she’d get in contact every now and again when she needed someone to work the ground level stuff.  Breaking, entering, safecracking, and so on.  Or, if I’d come up with a plan but needed someone who could finesse computers, I put out feelers until she got in contact.”

“So she was the one who controlled things,” Mila said.

“Pretty much.”  I ran one hand through my hair, smiling ruefully as the memories bubbled up from where I normally kept them contained.  “That’s how things were for a few months before we started thinking about jobs to tackle together.  Then we started spending time together, and…”  I made a vague gesture with one hand that, to my mind, encompassed the entirety of the courtship between Sarah and me.

There simply wasn’t any way for me to explain that burgeoning relationship in terms that either Mila or Michel would understand.  To do that, I would have needed some way to summarize the complexities of Sarah’s personality – the ticks, the subtle tells that I found irresistible, the fierce intelligence, and crusader’s spirit – into words, when I knew immediately that no such words existed.

Mila opened her mouth to ask something – perhaps some clarifying question – but Michel, mercifully, understood the gesture for what it truly meant.  “Ah,” he said.  “I understand what you are saying.”

“You do?” Mila asked him.

Michel nodded.  “It is love,” he said, without a trace of sarcasm or humor in his voice.  He said the words like a divine pronouncement: straightforward, simple, inarguable.  “What else is there that he could say?”

Mila looked completely baffled by that statement.  She took a few seconds to consider it, probably turning it around to examine the sentence from every possible angle, before she sighed and shook her head.  “Sure,” she said.  “Let’s just say that you’re making sense right now.  I was just curious.”

“And I was just answering,” I said.

“So you’re going over to Fairfax’s place tonight?” Mila asked.  I could feel the shift in conversational direction.  She had told me upfront that people weren’t something she understood.  It wasn’t unreasonable to assume that a discussion about the nature of love was something that she wouldn’t be comfortable engaging in.  Although, I wondered why she would even have brought up the topic in the first place.

I shook my head, dismissing that question.  The number of things I didn’t understand about Mila eclipsed the scant bits of information I’d managed to piece together or overhear.  This was probably something else to add to the pile of ‘why is she the way she is’ and I couldn’t afford to mental horsepower it would take to chew through the questions any further examination might call up.

“That’s the plan,” I said, out loud.  “Sarah should be done with the virus by then, so it’s just going to be a matter of staying close to him until she can pull out something we can use to pressure him.”

“Should I be asking Sophie for something to wear?”

“We’re going to have to play the part,” I added.  “The important thing is keeping him from thinking too much about what we really want and why we’re really there.  Wearing the right clothes is a part of that.”

Mila sucked at her teeth and stood up from the coffee table.  “I guess I’ll have to put this together later,” she said.

“I can do that for you,” Michel offered.

Mila gave him a searching look.  “You’re sure about that?”

“Anything I do not know, I can look up,” he said, a touch of eagerness slipping into his voice.  “Unless you would rather I not do anything without you standing over my shoulder?”

“No,” Mila said.  “No, might be better to let you get your feet wet now, as opposed to waiting until I have to let you do it without supervision.  Put this together, then, and I’ll look over it when I get finished.  Deal?”

Michel showed no trace of embarrassment or shame as he nodded.  “Deal.”

Mila nodded and then walked over to the elevator.  She pressed the button, waited patiently for the carriage to arrive, and stepped on board without another word on the matter.

When she was gone, I picked up the plate of shepherd’s pie and took it over to the trash.  “I hate throwing food away, but…”  The leftovers went into the trashcan, located inside of a cupboard beneath the kitchen sink.  Nearly a half pan’s worth of food remained on the stove. I trusted that Sarah would pack that up when she emerged from her computer room.  For someone born to wealth and luxury, she was surprisingly dragon-like when it came to food.

“So,” I said, when I’d deposited the plate into the sink, “what’s the deal with Anton?  And Mila, for that matter?”

Michel gave me a blank, uncomprehending look.  “What are you talking about?”

“Sarah told me that you and Anton hit it off, while you were waiting for us to activate the train,” I said.  “But you’re over here flirting with Mila, so…I’m just curious who you’re attracted to, is all.”

The Frenchman tilted his head and locked eyes with me for a few seconds.  Then, he crossed the room and sat down in the spot where Mila had sat previously.  He started to put together the scattered gun parts with reluctance at first, escalating eventually into the comfortable pace of someone who knows what he’s doing in general terms, but still lacks the specific knowledge for the action to become instinctive.

It reminded me of the first times I’d watched Sarah attempt to pick a lock.  Even in practice, she’d been overly zealous, prone to snapping the lock-picks in a rush to get inside.  If the comparison between her and Michel was accurate in any way, though, it wouldn’t be long before he was able to disassemble and assemble a weapon like the handgun Mila had splayed across the coffee table.

“Anton is not available,” Michel said, as he worked.  His fingers slowed down when he was speaking; another testament, then, to his relative rookie status at the task.

“He’s not dating anybody that I know of,” I said.  “Of course, he and I don’t really talk all that much, and I’ve been out of touch for a couple of years, but…”

“His heart is with another,” Michel interrupted.  “He is an attractive man, but I am not interested in pursuing someone who wishes to be with someone else.”

“What?  Who?”  I blinked and a name dropped into my mind.  “Stani?  Seriously?  According to Asher, they broke up years ago.”

“Stani…who is this Stani?”

“Anton’s ex-boyfriend, I think.  I haven’t had a chance to get confirmation on Asher’s story from either of them, but it seems to fit.”

“Ah.”  Michel nodded.  “Yes, that would explain things.  He was very uncomfortable on the train whenever I flirted with him.  If he is still in love with his ex, however…well, at least it is not something that I did wrong.”

“You’re being awfully cavalier about this,” I said.

“It happens,” he said, shrugging.  “It is not something I enjoy, but it is something I have grown used to.  Not everyone is ready for a relationship.  Or even interested in one with…well, with me.”  He used a free hand to gesture at his torso.  I understood the implication: not interested in dating another man.

“Anton’s out of the closet, though,” I said.  “At least, he’s as out as you can be, working out of a country where homosexuality is about as well-received as cattle sacrifice.”

Mila walked back into the room.  She’d changed out of her t-shirt and jeans and was now wearing a black pantsuit.  Her shirt was unbuttoned to the navel, revealing a black bra and the top of some sort of tattoo on her sternum.  “It is possible,” she said with an air of absolute casualness, “to remain attracted to someone you’ve broken up with.  It isn’t the kind of thing I’m particularly interested in, but I have heard stories.”

I glanced away while she finished buttoning the shirt and picked up a reassembled weapon from the coffee table.  “Yeah, but…I don’t any of the details, but I think the Bratva did something to Stani’s hand because of that whole thing.”  Of course, I’d been entirely too busy or too diplomatic to ask about the missing fingers, but my instincts told me that Stani’s sexuality and the way he seemed to pay more attention to the nubs whenever Anton came up in conversation had something to do with each other.

Mila shrugged.  “Love hurts, doesn’t it?”  A soft click as she slid one gun into a shoulder holster punctuated the thought.

I opened my mouth and then, slowly, closed it again.

“It is not something that bothers me,” Michel said, into the silence.  “He is still an interesting man.  And who knows?  Maybe he will be available in the future.  We will see, I suppose.”

It occurred to me that Michel was treating this tangential conversation with an exceeding amount of grace.  I’d found myself working under the gun – sometimes literally under the gun – before, and my ability to maintain casual conversation in dire circumstances was a skill I felt ridiculously proud of.  It didn’t surprise me at all to learn that Mila’s demeanor barely changed, regardless of the stakes.  For Michel, though…

“You’re awfully calm right now, aren’t you?” I asked him.

“What do you mean?”

“This hasn’t exactly been the easiest two days,” I said.  “I don’t doubt your ability to hang in there when it matters, but…I don’t know, it seems like this is the kind of thing you should seem a little more worried about.”

“I have faith,” he replied.

“In?”

“You, of course.  Just because things do not look good does not mean you and Sarah will not come up with some way to make it all work out.  It did not take me long to figure that much out.”

The old reflexive urge to shoot down anything that might serve as a jinx bucked inside of me.  I wrestled it down before responding.  “That’s, uh…optimistic of you.”

“Before all of this,” Michel said, waving his hand in a gesture meant to indicate our surroundings, “I was a very optimistic person.”

“Well, hold onto that,” I said.  “Although, maybe keep the positive thoughts to yourself.  No need to bring down the wrath of whoever’s out there watching over those of us on the dark side of the law.”

“You realize that Fairfax is also breaking the law?” Mila asked.  “So, if there’s something interested in protecting thieves, he’s going to get the same protection?”

“I try not to think about details like that.  You’d be surprised how often that works.”

She laughed.  It was loud enough and genuine enough that Sam stirred in his sleep.  The cat blinked wide, sleepy eyes at his owner and sneezed in my general direction.

Michel smiled at both of us, swiping through the available cars on the tablet.  He paused at one, the index finger of his right hand a millimeter or two away from the screen.  “I think this is the one,” he said, passing the device over to me.

At first, I thought the car pictured was a Rolls-Royce.  I knew very little about cars, compared to people like Michel who made that sort of thing into their livelihood, but I recognized the general body shape from an old Audrey Hepburn movie.  When I looked closer, however, I saw the telltale helicopter blade insignia of BMW on the hood of the car.  I tapped my finger against the image and additional information flooded onto the screen, blocking out the picture itself with lines of text.

“Nice touch,” I said, while perusing the displayed information.

“You said that your cover is a German, so I thought it would add a little bit of…”  He struggled for the right word for a moment.  “…validity?”

“And you were probably right to think it.”  I gave him back the tablet.  As I did so, the door to Sarah’s room opened.

She entered the hall and walked into the living room, wearing a dress that just south of scandalous.  We had, of course, discussed where she should be during the dinner: next to me, so that our cover as business partners remained intact.  The fact that she’d dressed herself in such mind-numbing splendor was something I would have had questions about…if I hadn’t found myself suddenly incapable of forming sentences, words, or coherent thoughts.

“Got a little dressed up, didn’t you?” Mila asked, saving me from the embarrassment of terminal mush-mouth.

Sarah lifted a single bare shoulder.  “Appearances,” she said, as if the single word explained everything.

“Makes sense.”  Mila accepted a weapon from Michel, checked it for any obvious flaws, and then dropped it into a tiny holster at the small of her back with a slight nod of acknowledgment for the Frenchman.  He preened at the tiny gesture.

“Devlin?” Sarah asked.

I blinked several times and forced my mind back into action.  “Yes?”

“I was watching the emails,” Sarah said.  “Shouldn’t you be dressed already?  I don’t want you show up late, just in case it makes Fairfax think that something beyond the obvious might be going on?”

“I, uh…yeah, you’re right.”  I stood up from the couch and started off to my room.  As I passed Sarah, I couldn’t help but to look at her again: a vision in crimson and pearl, hair perfectly coiffed – when had she found the time for that? – and with a necklace that perfectly offset the smooth coffee color of her skin.

She noticed my gaze and turned slightly away, suddenly self-conscious.  “What?”

“Nothing!”  Then, after I’d had a moment to pull myself together, I repeated, “Nothing,” in a more controlled voice.

Sarah’s eyes met mine then flickered down to the floor.

I cleared my throat.  “Michel, can you let Sophie know what car you’re going to need?  I’m going to go ahead and get dressed now.  Shouldn’t take me long.”

“Of course,” the Frenchman said.

“And Mila, you’ll be ready to go?”

“I’m ready now.  Just waiting on you.”

I nodded.  “I’ll be back in a little bit, and then we can get started.”

I hurried off to my room, quite deliberately not saying anything to Sarah.  I doubted that she’d take that slight as something personal, although I also doubted that she would understand why I’d fled her presence.  As I dressed myself and slipped the necessary accoutrements of my trade into various hidden pockets, I tried to push thoughts of her out of my mind.

I wasn’t terribly successful.

Chapter 104

“Alright,” I said, strolling into the living room and taking a seat on the couch opposite Sarah.  She was sitting on the loveseat, with her laptop positioned on the coffee table.  Mila strode past her, into the kitchen, where she began rummaging through cabinets for something.  “What do we know?”

Sarah broke off her conversation with Anton about some sort of explosive compound and replied to me without missing a beat.  “Lord Fairfax is nothing if not typical,” she said.  “Blueblooded English nobility, with more money than intelligence or motivation.  He inherited the title from his father, who inherited it from his mother, and on and on through the generations.”

I nodded.  That agreed with my own personal read of the man.  “Where does he live?”

“He has a few residences that are publicly listed,” Sarah said.  Her fingers worked across the keyboard for a moment.  “I’ve got addresses in Surrey, Sussex, and Somerset, according to the official websites.”

“Where’s the family estate?”

“Berkeley, of course.”  Sarah’s lips twisted up into a slight smile.  “About eighty-five percent of that estate is open to the public.  Apparently, Fairfax inherited more than just a title.  His father wasn’t good at picking winning businesses, so the family name is in a considerable amount of debt.”

“That explains why he got into bed with Hill,” I said.  “We know he’s in London, though.  I don’t think he’s been sticking around the area for no reason.  Does he have any residences in the area?”

She checked the laptop again.  “Well, if I look into the unofficial registers, it seems that there are a few hidden assets.  He owns a house an estate in Central London, under the name of a family friend.  Well…it’s a few family friends deep, but you get my drift.”

“Alright.  That’s something we can keep in mind, if we need to put some pressure on him.  Can you absolutely prove that he’s the real owner of the property?”

Sarah gave me a shocked look that I read as slightly exaggerated for effect.  “Your lack of faith wounds me, Devlin.  Of course I can prove it.”

“Just making sure, Sarah.  Can’t be too sure about anything right now.”  I pursed my lips for a few seconds.  “How long would it take you to get into his emails?”

“Without knowing what his email address even is?” She asked back.  “And without any idea how many addresses he maintains, or with what security measure he protects what is surely riveting interpersonal drama between him and the heads of other houses?”

“That’s what I’m asking, yeah.  How long?”

She shrugged.  “If you can get close enough to his phone, I can write something that will transmit wirelessly and give me access.  It’s similar to something I’ve used before, so if I pull the basic malware off of my cloud server, I can have something ready in a few hours.”

“That long?”

“Like you said: can’t be sure about anything right now.  I’d rather take my time and get it right, as opposed to rushing things and finding out that I made a mistake somewhere.”

“And what,” Alex said from the table in his rumbling baritone, “are we to do?”

I’d forgotten momentarily that anyone else was in the room except for Sarah.  Forcing a cough that I hoped would cover a little bit of the awkwardness, I turned around and leaned against the back of the couch so that I faced the table.  Alex, Ally, and Michel sat there, watching me.

“We already talked about this,” I said.  “You and your daughter are getting on the first flight that Sarah can arrange without some sort of trail, and you’re getting the hell out of dodge.”

“If you had not come to rescue me,” Ally said, “this girl – what was her name? – would still be safe, no?”

The earnestness in her eyes made it difficult to lie or dissemble.  “Maybe,” I admitted, begrudgingly.  “Maybe not.  It’s possible that Asher would have found some other way to put us out of position.  That’s not the point, though.”

“What is the point?”  Ally persisted.  “I was not a burden in Munich, was I?  When you needed to get out of that concert without drawing any additional information, you said that I was good at this sort of work.”

Blithely, I ignored the sharp look Alex directed my way, and responded directly to his daughter.  “That’s not what I meant.  And taking something out of a beer hall – something that belonged to me, by the way – is about as different from what’s going on here as it could possibly be.  This is life and death, Ally.  You already got kidnapped and that was before Asher thought you were involved in what’s going on.  You think it’s going to get better from here?”

Her mouth opened, like she was going to respond, and then slowly closed.

“Alex, think about this,” I said, shifting my attention.  “I mean, seriously think about this.  You’re the only one of us who isn’t tied into this situation.  If Asher finishes whatever he’s planning, he’s going to come right after Sarah and me.  Michel might get away, but – “

The cabdriver cut me off.  “I am not going anywhere.”

“-but he’s not going anywhere,” I repeated and gave Michel an appreciative look.  “Mila’s sticking around until the end of her contract, no matter what.  But you have a chance to get away!  What’s more: you have something to get back to.  Staying in London to help with this is only going to make your life infinitely worse.”

The stone expression on his face – brute, obstinate stubbornness – wavered slightly.

Mila cleared her throat and dropped the finishing blow without blinking an eye or changing her body language in any noticeable way.  “And you’re a liability,” she said.  “Asher knows he can manipulate you by going after your daughter.  As long as you’re here, that makes you our liability, too.”  She strode out of the kitchen with a small container of cake icing and a spoon, found a spot beside the television and leaned against the wall there.  Sam prowled from his hiding place and nestled up next to her shin.

Alex tried to remain steadfast and unreadable, but I knew him better than most.  I knew the exact instant he realized that we were all telling him unavoidable truths.  “I do not like this,” he said, finally.

“None of us do,” I said.  “But it is what it is.  Sarah?”

She’d been working on her computer for the duration of the little side conversation and looked up when I said her name.  “Assuming that Asher or Hill has someone watching the major international airports, it’s going to take me a bit to finagle some financial wizardry.  If I use any of the regular dummy accounts, I risk revealing them to the very people we’re trying to avoid.”

“How long is a bit?”

“If I’m working on the other thing?”  She tapped an index finger to her bottom lip.  The unconscious action was ridiculously distracting, so I found something interesting outside of the balcony past her head to look at.  “A day.  Maybe longer, depending.”

“On?”

“When you’re making your approach,” she said.  “You’re going to need support…support that I won’t be able to provide if I’m splitting my attention.  Not everyone can do the multitasking thing.”

A wealth of anecdotal experience watching as Sarah worked on two or three different monitors without missing a single development told a different story.  I decided not to point that out to her.  “There you go, Alex.  A day or two and then you’re getting out of town.  Agreed?”

His lips drew into a tight line.  Ally, clearly her father’s daughter, did the exact same thing.  I wondered if they realized how similar they looked at that moment.  “Fine,” Alex spat out, eventually.  “But I can still help.  As long as I am here, I might be able to provide a different viewpoint on things.  You are not going to deny me that much, are you?”

“Of course not.  I was hoping you’d do that, actually,” I said.  “We’ve got a lot of different minds in the room right now.  Asher knows how I think.  He might even have an idea how Sarah works.  The only way we’re going to get ahead of him is if we hit this from an angle he wouldn’t expect.”

“Agreed,” Sarah said.  “So, this is what I’m thinking.  Devlin already has a cover identity he can use to get close to Fairfax.  It’s pretty solid, as these things go, although it isn’t exactly bulletproof.”

“Neither am I,” I pointed out.  The attempt was meant to inject a small amount of levity into the room and I was rewarded by a short laugh from Sarah before she composed herself again.

Anyway,” she said, struggling to keep a small smile from her face, “Devlin ran into Fairfax outside of the Strand, just before we went in to get Ally out of there.  Whether he intended to or not, he invited Devlin to a personal meeting, so that they can discuss their ‘differing ideals of business’ or whatever bull he spouted.”

I picked up the thread.  “That’s an invite I think I’m going to accept.  Aggressively, if necessary.”

Sarah nodded.  “When he goes to dinner with Fairfax, I’ll be working to penetrate his email servers.  His name is in the files that Avis dropped, so we know he’s involved with Hill somehow.  If I can get specific details, Devlin can use that to pressure him into making a mistake.  Maybe he’ll reveal some bit of information that leads us to where they’re keeping Avis, Neal, and Billy.”

“Maybe not,” I said.  “But it’s still a lead we can pursue and it’s the only lead we have.”

“So?”  Sarah asked.  “Any questions?”

Everyone stared at us with varying degrees of surprise and confusion.  Finally, Michel raised a hand.  “I have a question.”

“What’s on your mind?” I asked.  “Anything, no matter how silly it seems, could be the deciding point.”

“When,” Michel said, speaking slowly, “did the two of you have any time to come up with that plan?”

I blinked.  Sarah did the same.

Michel continued.  “You went to the room to shower,” he said, pointing at me, “almost as soon as we found out anything about this Fairfax.  And you did not go into the room to talk to him.”  He moved his finger from me to Sarah.  “Did you talk about this before?  Is this something you do often?”

Both Sarah and I started to answer, at the exact same time.  We stopped, paused, and then I gestured for her to speak first.  “No one, uh…no one does anything like this,” she said.  “But the specifics…I mean, the general outline isn’t particularly special.”

“Exactly,” I said.  “There’s only so much we could do to get close to Fairfax, and if we’ve got to do it under a time limit, then –“

“ – then we don’t want to pick now to start getting creative,” Sarah said, finishing my sentence.  She didn’t seem to realize what she’d done until Mila snickered.  The bodyguard didn’t even have the good grace to hide her laughter, either.  Sarah’s eyes flickered to meet mine, then down to her computer where she started to work furiously on something.

I cleared my throat with a bit more force than strictly necessary.  “Does anybody have any other questions?  About the job?”

The silence that fell over the room was less curious, now, and more thoughtful.  Alex spoke first.  “This Fairfax is a nobleman, yes?”

“A Baron, yeah.”

“If he was born to money,” Alex said, “he probably does not have much concern for the people that work for him.”

I snorted.  “I’ve had two whole conversations with him and I can promise you that he isn’t the kind of person who worries about the people who clean his house.”

“So, maybe there is someone in the household who would be willing to provide information in exchange for some, uh…financial incentives?”

I tilted my head, considering that.  “It’s got merit,” I said, finally.  “But how are we going to find out who’s on his staff, possibly close enough to tell us anything other than how he likes his eggs in the morning?”

“Over easy,” Sarah said.

I looked at her, silent confusion evident on my face.

“Credit card receipts,” she said, without looking up from the computer.  I didn’t have the foggiest idea how she’d uncovered that nugget of information and, I decided after less than a heartbeat of thought, I didn’t particularly want to know.

“Point still stands,” I said.  “If we’re going to turn one of his employees to our side of things, I’d want to make absolutely sure that we’re not wasting time we can’t afford to be wasting.  Know what I mean?”

Alex grunted.  “I understand.  But…”

“But what?” I prompted.

“I could ask some of my associates in the area,” Alex said.  “There are still people in London who owe me favors.  It would not be something that exposed me to unnecessary risk, but it could prove useful.”

I glared at him.  Alex’s expression remained as innocent as an angel’s, though, and I eventually felt ridiculous maintaining such an aggressive expression in the face of such sanguine grace.  “You’re not going to leave this to us, are you?”

“I have to stay here until Sarah can get me out of the country without attracting attention,” Alex said.  “So long as I am here, if I am able to help…why would I do anything less than that?”

A growl of irritation found its way up my throat and out my mouth, but I gave Alex a short nod.  “Nothing that ties directly to you,” I said.  “None of us went through all of the trouble getting your daughter away from Asher just so that the two of could throw yourselves to the wolves in Avis’s place.”

“Of course.  I will be very discreet.”

As much as Alex’s insistence on involving himself galled me, I couldn’t deny that the man had skills I lacked.  In all the years we’d worked together, and all the years since his retirement, Alex kept up with an ever-widening circle of criminals in a menagerie of professions.  Forgers, safe-crackers, and basic brutes were all within easy reach of the German, if he was of a mind to tap their skills.  If anyone would be able to ferret out the weak links within Fairfax’s household, it was Alex.

“Can I help?” Ally asked.

I shook my head, in unison with both Sarah and Alex.  “You’ve done enough.  If you come up with something that we should know, feel free to tell Sarah.  She’ll relay it to me and the two of us can figure out what to do.  Otherwise, you don’t leave your room downstairs until it’s time for you to get on a plane.  Understand?”

Ally pouted for several seconds before she gave me a single, sharp nod.

“Is this something that I should tell Stani about?” Anton asked.  “If you think that Fairfax will lead you to Hill, and that Hill will lead you to Asher, I should inform him about what we are doing.  Already, he wonders why I have been with you for so long.”

I considered the possibilities in that.  Stani, Iosif, and Leonid were gangsters, not thieves.  If they got involved in I had in mind, it was more than possible that they would only serve to escalate things into a fevered clash of combatants.  That had been useful during the infiltration and eventual destruction of Hill’s processing plant; causing a similar disturbance at the private estate of a Baron would probably be less useful.

“No,” I said, dragging out the syllable.  “No, don’t let them know what’s going on for right now.”

The look on Anton’s face was a mixture of chagrin, wounded pride, and a dash of trepidation.

I took a wild guess as to the concerns on his mind and waved them away with a lazy hand.  “If we start zeroing in on Asher, I’ll let them know.  Believe me, I don’t want to deal with him and his army of hired goons without anything less than a trained group of my own.  You know Stani better than I do; do you really think this is the sort of operation he’s best suited for?”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized that there might have been an unintended subtext to the implication that Anton and Stani were closer than simply forced business associates.  The flash of nervousness that crossed Anton’s face told me that I’d hit the mark, but he smoothed his face back into a mask of neutrality before anyone else could notice.  “No,” he said.  “You are correct.  I will…find something to tell him, so that he does not blunder into your plans.”

“That could be worth more than almost anything else you could possibly do,” I said.  “The last thing I need is a last minute surprise, throwing everything into chaos while I’m still trying to tease information out of Fairfax.”

Mila cleared her throat.  The small container of cake icing was empty, judging from the hollow sound as she dropped the spoon and container down onto the nearest shelf. “I’d ask where you want me to be,” she said, yawning, “but I already know.”

“Oh?” I asked.  “Where is that?”

“Next to you,” she said.  “You’re planning on going into the estate of someone who we know is involved with Hill.  You’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to sit this one out.”

That was, more or less, exactly what I’d expected from her.  Our conversation in the bedroom had only served to reinforce the knowledge that Mila wouldn’t be content anywhere except where the action was thickest.

“We didn’t bench you when we went after Ally,” I said.  “I’m not about to bench you now.  Besides, Fairfax has already seen you.  It won’t take a lot of fast talking to convince him that I’m wealthy enough to have my own bodyguard.”

“Glad to hear it,” Mila said.  “When are you going to make the approach?”

“First,” I said, raising my voice slightly, “does anyone else have any questions?”

No one said anything.

“Alright.  You all have earbuds,” I said, “and I want you to hold onto them.  Sarah, what’s the range on those?”

“As long as you’re on wireless, I can pick up what you’re saying,” she said, directing her answer to everyone in the room.  “As you get farther away, it might take a bit for the signal to strengthen enough for me to make sense of it, but it’ll get through.”

“Fantastic,” I said.  “Keep those earbuds on.  If you think of anything else – anything else – do not hesitate to get in touch with Sarah.  The smallest thing might be all we need to avoid a trap or wiggle out of one that we’re already stuck in.”

“And you?” Michel asked.  “What will you do?”

“Get in touch with Fairfax,” I said.  “Schedule a meeting, the sooner the better.  Have dinner and, somehow, manage to pull Hill’s location out of him without letting him know what I’m after.  Just another night in the life.”

Mila knelt to scratch between Sam’s ears.  “No, Mister Bond,” she murmured, under her breath.  It was only due to the silence in the room that I was able to hear her at all.  “I don’t expect you to dine.”

“What was that?” I asked her, even though I’d heard her perfectly well.

She glanced up from her position, her fingers still working in the fur at the top of her pet’s head.  “Goldfinger,” she said.  “Like the Bond villains Asher was talking about.  ‘No, Mr. Bond, I don’t expect you to dine.’”

“I expect you to die,” Sarah finished.

I looked at her and she looked back.  We both looked away at the same time, simultaneously deciding that the best thing to say in the moment was nothing at all.  Still, the words echoed through my head.

I expect you to die.

Well, I expected something else.  Sadly, only one of us could be right.  I could only hope that Fairfax – or Goldfinger, whoever – was a little less skilled than me or my team.  Otherwise, things would go badly, quickly, and mine wouldn’t be the only life lost at the end of the encounter.

Chapter 103

Sarah began the dual process of filling in the newest members of our group on Lord Fairfax while also digging into the man’s background, while I took a shower and changed into more comfortable clothing.  Sophie’s vest was beyond reproach when it came to protecting my body from any unscheduled bullets, but the same work that gave it its bulletproof qualities was remarkably incapable of managing the body heat generated by any sort of movement at all.  The adrenaline I’d been running off of, almost since waking up that morning, coupled with fear and anxiety had resulted in an unpleasant scent that made it difficult to focus.

After I was clean and dressed in the infinitely more reasonable outfit of loose jeans and an unbuttoned shirt, I took a seat on the edge of my bed.  My thoughts had been moving at full speed for entirely too long; to move forward into yet another leg of the marathon job I found myself locked into, I needed a little bit of time for the mental engines to wind down.

I managed to think about nothing at all for maybe thirty seconds before unwanted thoughts began to trickle in, despite my desire.  Sighing, I accepted that peace of mind was going to elude me, and focused on the various bits of information that I’d managed to piece together, intuit, or guess at in the past twenty-four hours.

Starting from Asher’s decision to kidnap Ally, I could tell that he was working under some sort of timetable.  The move had been too aggressive for him – assuming that the Magi’s torture hadn’t changed the fundamental way in which he thought – and it lacked the sort of artistry I’d grown to expect from him.  Taking my oldest friend’s daughter was the sort of thing that a brute or thug would do.  Asher, even if we’d managed to push him to that point, should have been able to find another way to force our hand, given even a modicum of time to think about the lay of the land.  The fact that he had gone with the simplest and least elegant option meant that, for some reason, he lacked the ability to wait for a better position before making his move.

At the same time…when his gambit with Ally hadn’t led to the recapture of Avis or my own imprisonment, Asher hadn’t seemed particularly concerned or upset.  Of course, now I knew that he’d still managed to get Avis – as well as Neal and Billy, adding insult to injury – without lifting a finger, but he couldn’t have known that would be the outcome of his plan.  If he’d known where to find Avis and the others, there still wouldn’t have been any need for him to go through the trouble of stealing Ally away from Germany, involving her father, and dragging my team and me into the Hostel to begin with.  He could simply have waited until we dropped our guard and stolen her then.  Done correctly, he might have managed to do it in such a way that we didn’t even realize we’d lost the girl at all.

We did know, though, and Peter had brought us information that offered a new angle of attack: Lord Fairfax, pompous ass and unwitting doorway into the inner workings of Hill’s organization.  I wasn’t sure if that was a failure on Asher’s part or another facet of his as-yet-unknown master plan, but I still intended to act on it.

Sarah and I had made Avis into our responsibility when we stole her away from the manor house, scant inches ahead of Aiden and his team of crack mercenaries; we weren’t about to let her fall back into their grasp now.  Especially not now that we knew exactly what awaited her after they finished using her services for the final time.

The door to my room opened without a sound.  I looked up at it sharply, one hand reaching for the multi-tool I tried to keep on my person, but I stopped when Mila’s face appeared in the thin crack between door and doorframe.

“You could have knocked,” I said, relaxing slightly.

She entered the room and closed the door behind her.  “Could have, yeah,” she said, with an absolutely neutral expression.

I waited for her to say something else, but Mila leaned against the wall to the left of the door without uttering another word.  Ten seconds of that passed before I sighed and broke the silence myself.  “What’d you need?”

“Sarah’s busy multi-tasking,” Mila said.  “I already know most of it, so I figured I’d take a break and try to clear my head.”

“Okay,” I said.  “This doesn’t seem like taking a break, though.”

She didn’t say anything for another handful of seconds.  “I don’t…I don’t really get people,” she said, finally.  “I mean, you already knew that.  It’s hardly a secret.”

I raised an eyebrow.  A dozen questions popped into my mind, but I decided to let her stew in silence for a change.

I was rewarded when Mila rubbed at her nose, shook her head, and then continued speaking.  “Cats…I get cats.  Simple, straight-forward.  People aren’t like that.”  She paused, then completely shifted tracks.  “This isn’t the type of job I normally take.”

“What type of job do you normally take?” I asked.

“Nuisance clients,” Mila said.  When my eyebrows drew closer together, she elaborated.  “Rich people, convinced that their business partners want them dead for one reason or another.  It’s almost never true.  Normally, it’s just someone who wants to tell themselves that they’re important enough that someone else might want to kill them, and they’re willing to pay for the delusion.”

“It’s almost never true?”

She shrugged.  “I’ve done some work in Mexico.  Kidnappings are big there.  I don’t specialize in retrieval, but…”

I straightened my back and placed both feet firmly on the floor.  Something told me that this conversation was one that required proper posture.  “What’s different about this one?  Other than the fact that we actually are in danger on a pretty regular basis?”

The corners of Mila’s lips turned up slightly.  It wasn’t quite a smile…but it was what a smile might be in in its larval stages, and that was close enough for me.  “The difference,” she said, stressing the word, “is that you guys…it’s like you actually care about each other.  Not just you and your wife, either.”

“Ex-wife,” I corrected, automatically.

The larval smile on Mila’s lips grew slightly.  “Sure.  But what about Michel?  You didn’t even know him until a week or two ago.  And the Russian?”

I blinked once before I realized what she meant.  “Anton?  He’s from Ukraine, not Russia.  Unless you mean Stani?”

She waved her good hand in front of her face.  “Whatever.  I’m not worried about the names here.  You know what I mean, though, right?”

Several seconds of thought later, I thought that I might grasp the general shape of what Mila was talking about.  The specific details, however, continued to elude me.  “Kind of,” I said, hesitantly.  “I’m not really sure.”

“When I worked with… Aiden,” Mila began.  The slight hitch in her voice, just before she said Aiden’s name, spoke volumes about her headspace.  Pointing that out was unlikely to lead to any sort of positive realization, though, so I kept my mouth shut.  “When I worked with Aiden, we weren’t a team.  Not really.  I did what I was good at, he did his thing, and everyone else just sort of worked on their own.  We took on jobs – well, Aiden took the jobs – but then we were just people working next to each other.”

I nodded without speaking.  I didn’t want my words to disrupt the rare moment of introspection.

It seemed that Mila anticipated an interruption on my part, though.  When none came, she gave a miniscule nod of appreciation.  “If something happened to one of us on a job, like…I don’t know, someone made a mistake or the target had more security than we expected…well, we didn’t go back for that person.  You understand what I mean?  We finished with what we had to do, business as usual, and whoever fell was just…”

She trailed off there.  Unlike before, I felt that this silence required some sort of acknowledgment.  I picked the least intrusive, least judgmental thought out of the storm of sentiments that raged inside my head.  “I get that.”

“But you don’t understand that, do you?” Mila asked.  She kept going before I could decide whether answering that question was a good move or not.  “You were going to let yourself be tortured, without any hope of getting away, because calling for help might have put Sarah at risk.  Hell, all you needed to do at the manor house was sneak in and steal the information, but you couldn’t leave the girl there.”

My mouth worked without checking in with me for permission.  “Even if we had gotten the information, it wouldn’t have been any good without Avis.”

“None of you knew that when you made the decision,” Mila said.  “And even if you had known, for a fact, that you didn’t need the girl…are you saying that you would have left her there so that you might have a few more seconds of a headstart?”

I didn’t need to think about that.  I shook my head, without saying a word.

“Exactly.”  Mila nodded to herself.  “That’s what I mean.  I’ve only been with you for a few days, so I don’t know, but…every time one of you could cut and run, leave the rest of your team behind, you jump back into danger.  Even when this happened,” Mila waved her cast in front of me, “you came right after me.  All of you did.  It’s my job to protect you, but there you were.  Like some kind of hero.  Like someone who actually gives a shit.”

“Are you complaining?” I asked, after a relative eternity of stilted silence.

“I don’t…I don’t understand why.”  Mila squeezed the words out as if they caused her physical pain.  “I want you tell me why.”

The question hung in the air between us.  Mila hadn’t moved from her position by the door, and nothing about her body language portrayed anything except for lazy grace, but I could feel the tension coming off of her.  The question meant more to her than she was saying – more, perhaps, than I was even capable of understanding –  so I gave it the deep thought that such an important question required.

When I finally did speak, I did so without knowing whether or not I was going to say something wrong.  There wasn’t any way for me to know what would set her off, or provide her with an answer that she would accept, or anything of the sort.  In lieu of that, I decided to simply tell her the truth.  “Because no one else cares about us,” I said in a soft voice.

“What do you mean?”

“We’re all thieves,” I said.  “Pickpockets, cat burglars, and conmen, all of us.  Everything about the way we live is constantly underneath everyone’s attention.  The only time we even matter – the only times any of us surfaces from the Underworld – is when someone with too much money and not enough common sense decides they have to show off a little too much, a little too publicly.  Even then, it’s not like we’re really anything other than tools to the haves; something to be used and discarded, if necessary.”

Mila thought about that, then gestured for me to continue.

I was warming the question now.  “In the field, though…in the field, the only thing that matters is who you’re standing next to.  Even if the rest of the world thinks that we’re somehow less than them, or that we aren’t as deserving of happiness, you’ve still got the guy standing next to you.  As soon as we start treating each other like they do, what makes us different from everybody else?  If we’re going to treat each other like we’re disposable, how can we expect anybody else to treat us differently?”

She considered her next words before speaking.  “What about Sarah?  She comes from money.  Even I’ve heard of the Ford family.  She isn’t like you and me.”

“Sarah’s a special case,” I said.  “Most people born to her station in life don’t even notice the help.  She did.  Not at first, but she learned.  And she’d tell you the same thing as me: if no one else is going to care about what happens to us, we’ve got to care about each other.  If not, then…then, what’s the point?”

Mila had an answer ready.  It sprang from her lips, almost as soon as I finished speaking.  “Money?  Power?”  She hesitated.  “Redemption?”

“None of those things mean a thing to me,” I said, “unless I earned them without changing who I am.”

We sat there – well, I sat, while Mila remained in her leaning position – in silence for almost two full minutes.  “Okay,” she said, finally.  “Okay.”

“Okay, as in you understand?” I asked.  “Or okay, as in you just realized that I’m an idiot and an idealist?”

The smile that spread across Mila’s lips was true and strong, stretching from one ear to the other.  It practically glowed with sincere amusement.  “Yes,” she said.

“Alright then.”  I stood up from the bed and rolled my shoulders, then tilted my head from one side to the other.  There was a string of knotted muscles between my shoulder blades and they resisted my efforts.  Eventually, I gave up.  “How’s everyone been taking the news about Fairfax?”

“No one seems particularly surprised that you weren’t exactly polite to him,” Mila said.

I shrugged.  “He’s exactly the type of rich bastard that I can’t stand.  Reminds me of the little kids who used to pick on me in elementary school.”

Mila raised an eyebrow, but elected not to ask any questions along that line of thought.  “Because he’s nobility, a lot of his personal information is publicly accessible.”

“And the fact that he’s a playboy means that the rest of his life won’t be difficult to piece together.  That’s good, at least.”

“What are you going to do?”

I bent over to tie the laces on a brand new pair of sneakers – in exactly my size, of course – while I answered her.  “If Hill needs Avis to translate the book, he’ll have to do it here.  There’s been way too much noise around her since the manor house.  Moving her now would only draw everyone’s attention.”

“Okay.  And that means?”

“What that means is that we’re still on the clock,” I said.  “Except now we don’t know how long we’ve got until the timer runs out.  Eventually, Hill’s going to finish using Avis to translate whatever parts of the book he needs translated.  After that, he won’t need her anymore.”

“What about Billy?” Mila asked.  “And Neal?”

“Billy…I don’t really know about him.  Hill could have killed him years ago, but limited himself to just crippling him.”

Just crippling him,” Mila repeated, with a liberal sprinkling of sarcasm.

“It’s better than death,” I said.  “Anyway.  If Hill wanted either Billy or Neal dead, he probably would’ve given orders to take care of that on the scene.”

“He didn’t kill Peter, though.”

“True, but not for lack of trying.”  I shook my head before Mila could something else.  “Sarah’s going to have more information than me.  I’m just trying to get my head in the right space.  Basically, to answer your original question, I’m going to have to get close enough to Fairfax to ferret out whatever he knows about Hill and Hill’s organization.”

Mila nodded.  “How are you going to do that?”

“No idea.”

“How are you going to get Avis, Neal, and Billy away from Hill, after you find out where he is?”

“As soon as I know that, you’ll be the second person to know.”

“What are you going to do about Asher?  You know he’s not going to let you just stroll in and undo everything he’s been working toward since you showed up.”

“Great question,” I said.  “I’ll tell you just as soon as I figure out an answer for you.”

Mila pursed her lips.  “So you don’t have any clue about how you’re going to convince a British Lord to reveal potentially life-and-death information about the whereabouts or identity of a drug kingpin, but you’re going to do it anyway?”

I offered her my very best devil-may-care smile.  “That’s about the long and short of it.  Want to come, too?”

“You kidding me?”  Mila returned the smile.  “I wouldn’t forgive myself if I missed the show.”