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.”
“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 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.”