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.”

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