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.
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.”
“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.