“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.”
“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.”
“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.