We returned to the Brooklands via a circuitous route, depositing the BMW at a parking garage along the way and sneaking out the back into the kitted-out van, and I honestly wasn’t sure if we’d been followed anymore. I was starting to get tired of being so outclassed by every single one of my adversaries and, I realized, it was starting to make me cranky. So I didn’t say anything during the ride back, or in the hotel suite while I changed into comfortable clothing, or during the elevator trip back down to the lobby and the waiting conference room. After parking the van out of sight, Michel joined us there.
In fact, I didn’t say anything at all while Anton, Stani, and Stani’s lieutenants sauntered into the conference room, their bemused expressions slightly humorous even through the foul blackness of my mood.
Alex and Ally were already there; it had been a short trip from their hotel room down to join us. They watched me silently. At first, Alex had attempted to pull some information out of me, but he’d given up after receiving a stiff look.
James and Chester arrived a full fifteen minutes after the Russians. It seemed like they’d made an effort to clean themselves up, but there could only be so many fashion options available at the Halfway House. Even if their best attire, both men looked woefully out of place.
In a surprising turn of events, Sophie elected to stay in the conference room. I didn’t mind her presence as much as I expected. It would probably be easier in the long run to have her present during the meeting, as opposed to filling her in on whatever we required later on. Besides, it was possible that Hill intended to kill her, as well. While she hadn’t been directly involved, Sophie had been instrumental to pulling off the jobs of the past few days. If she wanted a seat at the table – or by the door, whichever – then she’d done more than enough to earn it, in my opinion.
When everyone was seated – or, in Sophie’s case, positioned as comfortably as possible – I cleared my throat and pulled free of my own sulk.
“Let’s start with the obvious,” I said, by way of opening. “Stani, James, Chester; I haven’t been telling you everything.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“In fairness,” I continued, speaking directly to Stani, “nothing I’ve held back so far has really seemed important to what you wanted to do. Your people want Asher; I want Asher taken out of play. But I…I know more than I’ve been telling you about where he is, what he’s doing, what he wants.”
“And why,” Stani asked, “are you telling me this now?”
The calmness of his voice belied the subtle tightening around his eyes, the way his hand drifted out of sight beneath the table. Anton, for his part, did not look particularly surprised, though a sense of wariness sprung to life in the room.
“Because…honestly, because we’re out of our depth here,” I said honestly. “And, instead of keeping you in the dark and possibly botching this whole thing, I figured it was about time I tell you what you’ll need to know.”
He nodded. “You will tell me everything.”
“Of course I won’t tell you everything,” I said immediately. “But I’ll tell you everything I know about Asher. And then I’m going to have to ask for your help. That sound fair?”
Stani exchanged looks with Iosif and Leonid, scrupulously letting his eyes travel past Anton without slowing or stopping. Something passed between the three Russians. I remembered suddenly that Iosif and Leonid could understand English, even if they didn’t speak the language.
“We are listening,” Stani said, after a few stilted seconds.
“Don’t care about you,” Chester said. I noticed that he was trying to smooth out his accent. That might have been an affectation for Sophie’s benefit, or he might simply be reacting to the opulence of the Brooklands. “Don’t care about your friends, neither. But if that bastard’s got Billy, then I want to know how to get him back.”
James nodded silently next to his partner.
Sophie listened without comment from her place by the door.
I took a deep breath and laid out almost everything for the Russians, Anton, Alex, and his daughter. I excised any direct mention of the Lady or her personal Jolly Green Giant rom the story. We’d only met in person two times and Sarah hadn’t directly communicated with her, so much as received instructions, but I knew that the Lady was not the type of person who frequently exposed herself to the public. Or, if she did, she did so under pseudonyms and veils of secrecy, hiding her true nature with layers and layers of obfuscation. There wouldn’t be any point in wriggling out from underneath Hill’s thumb, only to find ourselves in the crosshairs of a pissed off former employer who apparently had access to Sarah’s secure files, our banking information, and had proven herself capable of tracking me down across the globe without the faintest hint of difficulty.
Everything else, however, was fair game. I told them about the true nature of the golden book, without mentioning how I’d come into possession of that information; I told them all about the girl Avis, her unusual abilities, and the plans had in mind for her when he finished treating her as a tool; I told them about Billy and his relationship with Fairfax. I laid out what we’d done so far, working against Hill and Asher, and detailed our current situation: the standing threat from Hill; the things that we stood to lose and how badly we’d misread the situation; the thin timeline we had available in which to plot, plan, and somehow overcome.
Sarah provided commentary at some points along the way, clarifying what she’d done on her side of things when my explanation failed to properly encapsulate the things we’d done. Ally, it seemed, understood some of Sarah’s techno-babble. Mila spoke infrequently, as well; she talked about the warehouse where I’d been taken, after Asher drugged me at the gala. Haltingly, unwilling to go into great detail, she told them about Aiden: his capabilities, his strengths, and his weaknesses. I didn’t want to put her in a headspace where she started to ask herself why exactly she’d left him before. Just the brief time they’d been in each other’s presences already had me feeling uncomfortable. Mila, thankfully, showed no particular interest in delving any farther into the past than strictly necessary.
When the three of us finished, silence fell over the room again. A minute passed, and then another, while everyone in the room thought about the story we’d just laid at their feet. Alex coughed and spoke first.
“Well,” he said, “this…is not good.”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s kind of an understatement, don’t you think?”
He nodded. “I am merely trying to make light of it.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
It was Mila who answered. “Because,” she said, “that’s just how you work. Anybody else would have given up days ago. But you just joke your way through everything and it works. I don’t know how, but it does.”
“Your faith in me notwithstanding,” I said, “I think all of this might require a little more serious consideration.”
“They aren’t wrong, Devlin,” Sarah said.
We all turned to look at her.
“It’s just how you work,” Sarah continued. “You’re right, we are in some deep shit right now. But you can’t let Hill push you out of your comfort zone or we’re all screwed.”
I considered that for a few seconds, then nodded. “Anyway, first thing: Stani, are you okay with all of this? I know I kept things from you but it wasn’t like I had any reason to think things would get to this point.”
Stani chewed on his bottom lip. He touched two fingers to the stumps on his diminished hand, glanced involuntarily over to Anton, then found something interesting to examine on the table itself. “I knew that you were keeping things from me,” he said, finally. “I know that you are still keeping things from me. But I believe that you are working to stop Asher before he can succeed in his plans.”
I preferred his calmness to an outburst, but the serene expression on his face was distinctly unsettling. “Good enough,” I said. “Chester, James? You’ll have to serve as stand-ins for Billy’s gang, since he’s a bit out of reach at the moment.”
Chester was grinding his teeth together so fiercely that my own jaw began to hurt. “You telling me that this all your fault, then?”
“What? How did you get that from anything I just said?”
“If you hadn’t been pokin’ at ‘em,” Chester said, “Hill might have just left Billy alone, yeah? He didn’t pay us no mind before you got in town, that’s for bloody sure.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose and tried to wrestle down the irrational surge of anger that rose within my belly. “There were other factors,” I managed to say, through clenched teeth of my own, “and we didn’t have a lot of choice here. Besides, you can’t think that Hill would have let Billy take shots at him indefinitely.”
Chester had nothing to say to that, so he glared at me instead. I put him out of my mind and focused on the more civilized individuals around the conference table.
“How have you – how did you put it? – stay ahead of Asher and this Hill for so long?” Alex asked.
“Luck,” Sarah and I answered, at the exact same time.
I didn’t have to turn my head. I could practically feel Mila’s smirk against the side of my face.
I cleared my throat. “Luck,” I repeated, “and the fact that we had resources that neither of them knew about. Mila was in place to rescue me from the warehouse; Neal was already going to sneak Avis out of the house and no one expected Sarah to drive up and save the day like Racer X; we happened to have a better plan at the processing plant than they did; and…” I trailed off, unwilling to say anything more about the Lady’s involvement at Scotland Yard. “…and we got enough of a lead on law enforcement that they couldn’t really do anything to me, even when I was sitting in their interrogation room.”
Sarah lifted an eyebrow. “Racer X?”
“I couldn’t think of anyone else,” I admitted. “But it fits, right?”
She rolled her eyes.
“You have also,” Sophie said, in a soft voice that somehow carried throughout the room, “had the benefit of my assistance, thus far.”
“Thus far?” I asked.
“I realize that your…experience with my services are new,” Sophie said and I almost missed the slight hiccup in her voice. She’d been about to point out that we hadn’t been the ones to hire her, but she must have felt the same unspoken prohibition against mentioning the Lady in front of anyone who she hadn’t personally vetted. That, or she was simply following my lead. Either way, I was glad that she’d exercised discretion. “But I make a point not to involve myself in anything explicitly illegal. It is how I have managed to stay in business thus far and I do my best not to cross that very clear line.”
“Okay,” I said slowly, “but you’re fine with only technically breaking the law?”
“How am I supposed to know why you require so many different vehicles, picked up in so many different locations with a maximum of secrecy?” Sophie asked. She assumed an expression of angelic innocence. “The sum total of my job as your concierge is to ensure that you have access to those things you require, so long as those things do not jeopardize my position within the Brooklands or my standing in the eyes of the local constabulary.”
“But you know…no, you know what? Nevermind. Are you saying that you’re willing to help us, as long as we can give you some plausible deniability?”
“What would I have to deny?” Sophie asked. “Surely you do not intend to do anything that would break the law, after all.”
“Of course,” I said, barely keeping myself from rolling my eyes up into my skull. “We’ll keep that in mind.”
“Could we not do that?” Ally asked.
“Call the police,” she clarified. “He has kidnapped a little girl. Surely that is something that the police can’t ignore. There must be someone looking for her.”
I paused, mid-thought, and realized that I hadn’t asked Avis a single question about her family. I hadn’t even thought to question Neal about it. That realization made me feel a little sick inside. Sure, she had only been with us for a day or two before Ally’s kidnapping consumed our attention. And, sure, she’d been occupied with decryption for most of the time. But I couldn’t treat my team members as important beyond all reasonable measure and also use Avis like she was nothing more than a tool.
That was how Hill had treated her. It was how the Magi has used her, too.
“I don’t know if there’s someone out there looking for her or not,” I said, swallowing a little bit of bile that climbed into my mouth. “If Avis has been working with the Magi and with Hill for long enough to encrypt that entire golden book, it’s a safe bet that her parents aren’t in the picture anymore. We certainly can’t wait for the police to get involved, either way.”
“Besides,” Sarah said, “Hill told us, pretty much straight up, that he’s got the police in his pocket. Or at least he’s got a few key policemen on his personal payroll. If we’re going to get her out of there before Hill gets what he needs from her, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”
Michel tilted his head. I gestured for him to share his thoughts with the rest of us. “Inspector Lane said that there someone undercover in Hill’s operation, no?”
I thought back. The night when Michel had encountered Adlai and Lane had been rife with excitement and terror, in equal measure, so the details of the conversation at the sports pub had slipped my mind. “I think so. Isn’t that the only reason Adlai bought your story about being a police officer?”
Michel nodded. “Is that something we could use?”
I weighed the possibilities while I used a neat little device on the table to order several pitchers of water, a bucket of beers, and some vodka for the Russians. As an afterthought, I added six Diet Cokes to the order and a bottle of wine. I didn’t know what kind of mood Sarah was in, but it would be easier to return something she didn’t want, instead of ordering the wrong thing to begin with.
With that finished, I turned my attention back to Michel. “Probably not,” I said. “If he’s got his fingers into the police department, it stands to reason that he already knows about whatever undercover agents the law managed to place in his operation. Hell, he was probably involved in hand-picking the guy they sent. That’s a no-go.”
“And killing him is out of the question?” Stani asked.
I raised a hand before Mila could chime in with support for that idea, but not before Chester pushed back from the table and jumped to his feet. “My boss is being held by that maniac, mate, and I’ll be buggered if you think you can just sacrifice him for your own business, got that?”
“It is hardly our fault your boss was captured,” Stani said. “But Asher is a bigger threat, as well as this Hill, if I am not mistaken. The smart thing would be to kill him, before he can get his hands on the information in the book.”
“And if you hadn’t brought your fight into our city, maybe things could have kept on as they were, eh? You think about that?” Chester was getting more and more heated by the second.
Stani seemed perfectly calm in the face of that explosion. Iosif and Leonid, however, reacted like someone had electrified their seats. Hands vanished into their jackets and dull metal glinted in the fluorescent lighting of the conference room. Mila moved closer to me, Sarah rolled her chair back from the table, and Michel gaped openly at the spectacle. Anton started to reach out with both hands, palms facing both sides of the approaching conflict, while Alex took his daughters into his arms and turned his back slightly to the melee.
“Stop that!” I snapped and was surprised when all parties involved actually did as commanded. “This is exactly what Hill’s hoping for, my God. Are you seriously going to spend this entire week at each other’s throats?”
“I didn’t want to work with you,” Chester spat, “and I sure as hell don’t want to work with them. If it comes down to it, I can get the fellas together and we’ll break Billy out of there on our own.”
“You really think that’s how it would play out?” I asked. “Hill has trained mercenaries working for him. You remember what Mila did at the processing plant?”
The look Chester gave me was answer enough.
“Yeah,” I pressed, “like her. What exactly do you think you’re going to be able to do if you run off without a plan other than possibly piss Hill off badly enough that he kills Billy just to save himself the trouble?”
“Sure, he’s got resources,” Chester said, after a few seconds, “but he doesn’t have all the information. You think he’s the only with eyes and ears out there. You have any idea how much our people can watch, if no one’s even looking for them, do ya?”
I blinked. “Information? Like what?”
“We know where his safe-houses are, know what his cars look like. We can figure out where he’s keeping Billy and get him out of there before Hill has a chance to do anything. You didn’t think about that, did you?”
“Hill specifically said that’s he’s keeping Billy close to him.” A headache began to press against the inside of my skull. I pushed back, burying it somewhere where it couldn’t bother me for the moment. “Although…you can watch his men’s movements?”
“He’s trying to hide what he’s doing,” Chester continued, oblivious to the first part of what I’d said. “But doesn’t matter how many cars he’s got moving around, we’ll figure out what he’s hiding. If we can’t get Billy, we’ll just take something that he wants just as much.”
James looked less than convinced, but he didn’t speak up to contradict Chester. I respected that, as much as it irritated the nonsense out of me.
“And you’d let the girl die?” I asked Chester. “Because she’s just something you’d be willing to let go, so long as you can save Billy? He asked me not to give Hill anything, even if it meant dying, and here you are ready to give Hill everything he wanted. You’d hand him your entire operation if you went after him like that!”
Chester slammed his fists against the table. The sound made most of us in the room jump in surprise. “I need a fag,” he announced. “C’mon, James.”
Instead of pushing past Sophie, Chester and James used the alternate entrance. I thought they might be leaving, until I glimpsed a cloud of smoke drift past one of the windows.
“And I,” Stani said, “will go check on that vodka. I think it will be good to stretch my legs. Iosif, Leonid?”
The two Russians gave their assent without speaking a word. The three of them stood up and walked out of the room. A moment later, Anton sheepishly got out of his seat and joined them.
I turned to Sarah. “Multiple cars,” I said. “Are you thinking what I am?”
She nodded. “It’s a shell game.”
“What is a shell game?” Ally asked. She wriggled out from her father’s protective grasp.
“Generic term,” I said. “As long as he keeps the target in motion, it’s impossible to figure out exactly which car to follow. And even if we get it right once, he can always just switch cars at one of the safe-houses, where we can’t follow. It’s a damn good strategy. Almost impossible to crack if the opposition is doing it right.”
“Only ‘almost,’ though?” Michel asked.
“With time,” Sarah said, “we could figure out the pattern, if there is one. But that’s the one thing we don’t have. As it is, we’ll have to be spend most of our effort keeping Chester from barking at everyone who looks at him the wrong way.”
“And Stani,” Alex added, “does not seem like the type of person who works well with others. Are you certain you can trust him to follow whatever plan you come up with?”
Until that moment – literally, until Alex asked the exact question – I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to take down Hill, eliminate the threat Asher posed, and rescue Billy, Avis, and Neal from the clutches of the enemy. But as Alex finished speaking, I could almost sense a shape beginning to appear from the misty confusion of my mind. Unfocused, undefined, but still…it was an outline.
An outline was something that I could work with.
“Can’t get these personalities to work together,” I mused aloud. “Well.”
“Well, what?” Sarah asked.
“Well,” I repeated, “there might be something we can use there.”