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.

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