“A job,” I repeated. “You want to hire me?”
“Think about it,” Hill said. “In your efforts to undermine and expose your former partner, you and your team have done amazing work in London, thus far. Granted, that work has caused me no small amount of discomfort…but nothing you have done cannot be undone with the information the girl will provide me. Consider what you would be able to accomplish if you were my ally, instead of my adversary. Imagine the heights you would be able to scale with the financial backing of someone in my position.”
That detached part of my brain – the one that continued chugging away at problems, even when my emotions were otherwise overloaded and endangering even the hope of clear thoughts – noted that Hill must not know about the Lady. The sum total of her assistance amounted to a particularly savvy concierge and a last-minute assist at Scotland Yard, sure, but Hill obviously thought that everything we’d done in London so far, we had done on our own.
“You already pointed out a particularly large problem with that,” I said. “Asher works with you and I’m not going to start working with him, just to find a knife between my shoulder blades at his earliest convenience.”
“Asher works for me,” Hill corrected, in a terse tone, “and I find his service lackluster, as of late. If it were not for his ridiculous vendetta against you, perhaps he would have been able to bring the issue of your continued interference to a satisfactory conclusion. Instead, we now find ourselves here.”
“And what exactly would you want me to do for you? If I accepted your offer, which I am by no means doing.”
“Troubleshooting, to begin with. I do not imagine that the individual cogs in the machine will cheerfully fall in line without difficulties. Acquiring their names and financial information from the book will go far in securing their loyalty – or, failing that, their respect – but as soon as I make my move, others will doubtless be inspired to do the same. It would hardly be worth my trouble if the entire machine broke down as soon as I laid claim to it.”
“Not to mention,” I added, “that whoever’s pulling your strings now probably isn’t going to take your little insurrection lying down.”
Hill leaned back in his chair and his eyebrows shot up. “You are particularly clever, aren’t you? Asher informed me of such on multiple occasions, but I wasn’t quite sure that your successes weren’t attributable to considerable luck. Tell me: how did you learn about my…employers?”
I gave Hill an even look and said nothing at all.
After several seconds of stony silence, Hill shook his head and went back to his roast. “No matter. In reply to that concern, you are correct. Agents will be sent to bring me under heel once more or, perhaps, to simply kill me out of hand. An object lesson in obedience might very well serve them more than any individual with a known penchant for ambition.”
“And that’s what you want me to sign up for? To throw myself directly into the line of fire, so that you can continue choking the life out of London with your drugs and your guns? Pardon me if I don’t break my legs running for the sign-up sheet.”
“Sarcasm,” Hill said, “is the weakest form of humor.”
“I thought that was puns.”
“At any rate,” Hill said, and I was irrationally pleased to have gotten under his skin, “your work for me would not be without its benefits. For instance, if you agree to take the position, I would have no further use for your former partner. He is not aware that we are having this conversation, of course.”
“As you well know, he has made many enemies over the last few years; some of which at my request, others due to his charming personality. Yet, you would be the one who actually caught him. Kill him, torture him, sell him to other interested parties in exchange for cash or considerations. The options are limitless.”
I went very still, so as not to reveal anything at all by virtue of an uncontrolled micro-expression, before I answered. “What else?”
“Protection,” Hill said. “Unless you are actively engaged in operations against my enemies and rivals, you would enjoy the same protection that has so stymied you in the case of your former partner. I have operated in this city for quite some time. There are very few police officers who I do not own or cannot threaten. You and your team would be able to work without fear of the local constabulary and this city could serve as a sort of safe haven. You cannot truly tell me that you don’t find that possibility the slightest bit intriguing.”
He wasn’t wrong. The possibility of safety was something I’d never really considered, but I was considering it now. Not for me, but…I looked over at Sarah. She sat there, as still as a statue, watching the conversation between Hill and me. I wondered what she was thinking but, for once, her poker face was absolutely flawless. I had a better chance of reading Tarot cards than analyzing Sarah’s secret thoughts at the moment.
I turned back to Hill. “And if I say no?”
“Why would you do that? If there’s something else that you would require, the terms are up for negotiations.”
“No terms,” I said, “and no negotiation. You’re a drug dealer, which I’m fine with. But you peddle to the poor and the indigent, to children and to the sick. You’re a killer and you work with killers.”
“And you truly believe that your friend Stanislav has not taken life before? That your own bodyguard has hands completely clean of blood?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. But they don’t enjoy it the way you do. You couldn’t wait to trot out your own brother, just for effect. I don’t know what you’ve been doing to him since you took him out of the subway, but something tells me it wasn’t all Candyland and catching up on old times.”
Hill stared at me, without comment.
I kept going. “Besides, my team doesn’t follow my orders. I don’t own their choices. But I can tell you right now that at least one of the people at this table isn’t going to work with anyone who deals in misery and someone else would probably rather die than go into your service.” I paused for effect. “And I’d rather die than ask her to.”
“Is that all?” Hill asked, stiffly.
“No,” I said. “There’s also Avis.”
Hill quirked one eyebrow up in a quizzical gesture.
“And that, right there, is what I mean. She isn’t a tool or a machine that you can use and discard whenever you see fit. Avis is a child and you have every intention of murdering her as soon as you’ve finished exploiting what she can do. Even if you don’t have to do that, you’d rather kill a child than risk a loose end.”
Hill considered what I’d said and then nodded one time. “I had hoped to convince you to see my side of things with a carrot, so to speak. But, if you must insist on clinging to these tiresome morality, I suppose I will have to use the stick, instead.”
He didn’t give any command to Aiden. He didn’t say a word, or make a gesture, or even look in his direction. Aiden moved without receiving even the slightest visual cue from Hill. The mercenary pulled an obscenely long, serrated knife from a holster that I couldn’t see and placed it against Billy’s throat. Billy immediately stiffened and took considerable care not to move a muscle.
“You wouldn’t,” I said, with none of the false confidence I’d been managing to exude earlier.
“I wouldn’t,” Hill replied. He took another bite of roast, chewing it with careful, deliberate slowness. “But Aiden might. I gave William an opportunity to fade into obscurity; I even allowed him to operate his little shelter in the dregs of the city, without bringing down the hammer of my own operation against him; and yet, he continued to hassle me for years. It appears that I must overcome my reluctance towards killing a family member, if I’m ever to have any peace at all.”
Billy and I made eye contact, across the table. He didn’t dare speak, nod, or even draw a particularly deep breath. Instead, he filled his gaze with a thousand unnamed emotions and thoughts and willed them to me. The message was clear: he would rather have his throat slit than to help Hill succeed in his plans, and he wanted me to make that same decision.
“Now,” Hill said, “I am not a man unused to diplomacy, even if that diplomacy must take place at knifepoint.”
“Diplomacy,” I scoffed. “You’re a thug and a thief, just like the rest of us. You’ve just got better toys and more money to throw at your problems.”
“If that’s what you wish to believe. But, Mister O’Brien, let me tell you what will happen in the coming days. Perhaps a more thorough understanding of events will…give you a different perspective on what choice you should make.”
I glared at him in silence, while he finished off the roast on his plate and then carefully selected a piece of the herb-encrusted bread and began to nibble at the edges.
“The girl – Avis, if you must – will finish decrypting all of the relevant information from the book,” Hill said, between bites of food. “After that, I will dispose of her and the traitor who helped her escape the manor house, to begin with. Even you, despite the considerable prowess you’ve displayed thus far, will not be able to find her in sufficient time to stop this much from happening.”
“Indeed,” Hill said agreeably. “Individual strongholds have, thus far, proven entirely useless against your talent at finding the tiniest possible openings to wriggle through. So, I am no longer relying on the fortress approach to protection.”
He was keeping her mobile. Damn, Hill intended to keep Avis on the move until he finished with her. I kept my face smooth – or at least, as smooth as I could manage – while I began to rage internally. Given enough time, I had no doubt that Sarah and I could come up with a plan to infiltrate almost any building. But if he was moving her from one place to another, the task became infinitely more difficult. A hundred new variables introduced and discarded at a moment’s notice; numerous guard rotations and camera placements to memorize; and a schedule that could change at a moment’s notice were only some of the problems.
“Now,” Hill was saying, “as I said, I’m willing to negotiate. The death of the girl and the traitor are foregone conclusions, but I could perhaps be persuaded to give William a position in the organization I intend to build in the coming days. You could work directly with him. The two of you are clearly capable of devastating levels of success; why not allow you to work with one another, in my service?” Hill paused, finished off a piece of bread, and then took a long swallow from a waiting wine glass. “But if you cannot see fit to change your mind, then I will have no choice to but to finish the job I began so many years ago.”
“I won’t do it,” Mila muttered. I wasn’t sure if she’d spoken loud enough for anyone but me to hear her. “I won’t.”
Hill certainly gave no indication of having caught her words. “Your former partner will continue to possess the privilege of my protection, as well; I require a problem-solver capable of operating on the ground level, so to speak. My…employers trained him exceptionally well in that regard and it is their misfortune that he sought to turn those skills against them, as I do. If he remains in that position, though…”
He took another drink of wine. I waited for him to continue and, when he didn’t, finally prompted him with two fingers. “Then what, Hill?”
“Then I cannot allow known problems to continue operating in my territory. Nothing about your personality leads me to believe that you will leave him alone, so I will be forced to simply eliminate you, out of hand. You, your ex-wife, your teammates and partners…root and branch, every associate who has been involved in your operations here in London will come to an abrupt, violent end.”
Hill delivered that threat with all of the passion of a man talking to a landscaper. There was no heat to the words, no passion, and not even the barest sliver of personal anger. I understood a great deal about him in that instant. He was a man who legitimately saw people like myself, like Asher, even someone with international name recognition like Sarah as disposable pawns in a greater game.
“And if we do what you want?” Sarah asked. “Then what?”
“Then we can come to a harmonious arrangement,” Hill said. “Which I believe will work better for all of us, instead of the messy business I will be forced to enact otherwise.”
Mila moved slightly. As movements went, it wasn’t a major one. She didn’t pull a gun or leap to her feet. All she did was shift her weight slightly, which brought one of her arms closer to my own. I almost jumped in surprise. The bare skin of her hand was on fire; the heat of blood rushing through her body, powered by vast wells of adrenaline, rose from her like convection from an active volcano. I wondered, in that idle and detached way, how she was keeping herself from attacking everyone on the other side of the table out of sheer survival instinct.
I swallowed and placed a warning hand on her burning skin. “We need to talk about this,” I said to Hill. “There are a lot of things we’re going to need to discuss before we can really come to the bargaining table.”
Understand me, I thought, hoping that Mila would be able to feel the sentiment in some way. Trust me.
Hill nodded. Again, without any visible signal, pulled the knife an inch away from Billy’s throat and he let out a long, shaky breath. “That seems reasonable,” Hill said. “But business waits for no man, woman, or child.”
Hill thought about the question. “A week,” he said, finally. “One week to weigh the pros and cons of what I’m offering. If you prefer, you can treat it as a week in which you can get your affairs in order. You can even use the time to make arrangements, to hide yourselves away from me. It doesn’t particularly matter to me. But, in one week, I will be finished with the girl. If you have not seen the light by then, you will leave me no choice but to move against you.”
I didn’t doubt that he meant every word of that. Our exploits in London notwithstanding, a week was hardly enough time to begin casing a single building. Any sort of mobile protection would take weeks or even months, depending on how many safe-houses Hill had at his disposal. And establishing preliminary surveillance was only the first step of many. Sarah and I were good, but we weren’t that good.
“I believe I will keep William here, under the careful watch of my own men,” Hill continued. “He has proven himself capable of a great deal of mischief, if left unchecked. And, if you ultimately decide to resist what’s coming, it will make it much easier to begin the purge.” His lips turned up in a shallow approximation of a smile.
“But what about us?” I asked.
“You can leave,” Hill said. “After you’ve eaten, of course. I will not have it be said that I am an inconsiderate host.”
“Somehow,” I said, “I think we’ve lost our appetite. Sarah?”
“I agree.” She stood up, but made no move to walk away from the table. “You expect us to believe that you’re just going to let us walk away? No strings attached, no gun to our heads?”
“The ‘gun,’ so to speak,” Hill said, “has already been positioned and its presence is no secret. I have nothing to fear from you and your options have been severely castrated. If talking amongst yourselves is what you require to come to the obvious conclusion, I have no problem allowing you to do exactly that.” Pause. “Although, it would do you well to keep in mind that your friend William will be here, with me, for the foreseeable future.”
“Don’t you worry about me,” Billy said suddenly. “This bastard doesn’t have the balls to – “
He stopped talking, as Aiden returned the knife edge to just above his Adam’s Apple.
“As I was saying,” Hill said. “If you do find yourselves possessed of an unavoidable urge to act against me, do so with the knowledge that it could quite easily result in the death of a man.”
I pushed my chair back and stood up, as well. Mila, after a moment, did the same. I could still feel the smoldering intensity of the gaze she turned to Aiden beside me. Aiden returned the look with an expression of sanguine calm.
“One week,” Hill repeated. He rose from the table, dabbing a napkin at an invisible spot of food at the corner of his lips. “Seven days. I hope to hear from you before then. Otherwise…well, otherwise, I expect that you’ll be hearing from me, in one form or another.”
He walked out of the room without allowing me an opportunity to deliver a parting shot of my own. Aiden kept the knife to Billy’s throat so that he couldn’t speak, winked at Mila, then used his free hand to push Billy out of the room in Hill’s wake. That left Sarah, Mila, and me standing alone in the extravagantly oversized dining room.
We had been played, I realized. A critical lack of knowledge had forced our hands into revealing each member of our team to the enemy without even realizing what we were doing. And now, that fundamental error had led us here: all avenues closed off, any chance of escape dead on arrival. I didn’t think, even for a minute, that Hill would allow us to work for him indefinitely. As he was betraying Asher, he would almost certainly betray us, as well.
And, even if I heard a promise from the mouth of God himself, I wasn’t going to work with anyone who would threaten a child or hurt his family like that. Hill, despite his trappings of elegance and wealth, was scum. And scum could not be allowed to win. It simply would not stand.
“Sarah,” I said, “let Michel know that we’re ready for pick-up.”
She nodded. “Okay. But, after that?”
I turned and looked at her. Somehow, she read my expression at a glance and nodded. Mila, who had known me for far less time and lacked a similar gift at discerning unspoken intentions, took a step closer to me. “How are you going to beat him?”
“I’m also going to need you to call Sophie,” I said, still to Sarah. “Have her arrange for a conference room. And then call everyone.”
I nodded. “Everyone. I think it’s about time we all started working off of the same page, don’t you?”