Chapter 117 (Anton)

“Fuckin’ hell!” Chester yelled, when the first bomb went off.  Within the confines of their relatively compact vehicle, the sudden outburst set Anton’s nerves on edge.  “It supposed to be that loud, then?”

With great effort, Anton kept himself from rolling his eyes.  “Yes, it is supposed to be that loud.  It is a distraction.”

“And you’re sure you didn’t mess it up?  That fire isn’t going to start spreading?”

“No, it is not going to start spreading,” Anton said, sighing as he did so.  He could have explained that none of the bombs placed by Chester’s men produced any noticeable quantity of flame, leaning instead towards noise and smoke, but there wasn’t any point.

His earbud popped twice, saving him from any further consideration on the matter, and Sarah cleared her throat into the comms.  “That was a little earlier than we expected,” she said.

“I told you that it was not a perfect estimate,” Anton replied.  “Is it close enough for what you have planned?”

She thought about her answer in silence for about five seconds.  “We can make it work.  Worst case, we have to escalate the timetable when we reach the back half of things.”

“You messed up the timing?” Chester sneered.  “Some expert you turned out to be.”

Anton inhaled and exhaled slowly, taking great care to keep his eyes fixed firmly on a point in the distance.  Chester wasn’t the first person to denigrate Anton’s skills.  In fact, being attacked for his professionalism was a welcome change from the usual target of jeers and insults he received while working.  The benefit of a near-lifetime of ridicule, Anton decided, was thick enough skin to ignore anything he didn’t feel like dealing with.

Sarah either didn’t feel that he could handle the insult, though, or she was just reaching the end of her patience with Chester’s constant antagonism.  “Trust Anton,” she snapped.  “He knows what he’s doing.  If he didn’t, we wouldn’t have gone with this approach.”

A surge of happiness brought a smile to Anton’s face.  He understood that Sarah didn’t trust him, so much as she trusted Devlin who trusted him.  That knowledge did nothing to diminish the warm feeling in his stomach.  He’d worked with a dozen different crews, just in the past five or six years, and none of those masterminds had ever felt the need to compliment Anton on his work.

“Alright, alright, we’re all best friends,” Devlin said, also over the comms.  “Keep your eyes peeled.  We need to know when the shells start moving, so that we can get in position.  The timing on this isn’t going to exact.  Sarah, we’re going to need Michel on this line.”

“Already on it.  Should probably link us all up for the moment, anyway.”  The earbud popped twice to signify the connection of the other participants.

Anton shifted nervously in his seat.  Only a few seconds passed before someone spoke and the Ukrainian spent all of those seconds wondering who would take the initiative and what they might say.  A hundred different disastrous possibilities played out in his mind, in the space of an eye blink.

If Michel talked, there was every possibility that the Frenchman might say something flirtatious.  It wasn’t as though Sarah and Devlin maintained any sort of decorum over the line.  And Anton had enjoyed their conversation a few days ago, while they waited to ride a borrowed train into an abandoned station.  Under the right circumstances, Michel might be someone who Anton enjoyed having even more conversations with.  Just…not now.  Certainly not with Stani on the line and the unresolved bundle of emotions that he represented.

Thankfully, the bodyguard named Mila was the first one to talk.  She spoke in a clear, authoritative tone which set the tempo for the conversation to follow.  “Sarah, how long do you think it’ll be before I’m in position?”

“If everything goes exactly the way we planned it?”  Anton could almost hear Sarah shrug.  He actually could hear the soda as she popped its top.  “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“I really hope that your guess is a lot better than mine.”

“You know what I mean.”

It wasn’t the first time that Anton had found himself amazed at Devlin and his partner in crime.  No matter how dire the situation, they seemed entirely immune to tension.  No matter what was going on, they could joke as though nothing at all was wrong.  He had tried to emulate that nonchalance before, to no avail.  His personality was too stern, too by-the-numbers, for that.  Still, he enjoyed the fact that they kept things light, even when the sky was about to fall on their collective heads.

“Stani?”  Sarah asked.  “What do you see in your position?”

“I think…movement, maybe.  It is hard to tell for certain,” Stani said, after a few seconds.

“It’s the same model as…oh, wait, you didn’t see what Michel’s driving.  Devlin, what make of car is Hill using?”

“Suzuki,” Devlin responded.  “Although I didn’t get a chance to see what Michel’s driving, either.”

“I did,” Mila said.  “It’s pretty nondescript.”

“Which is the exact point of using those vehicles,” Sarah said.  “We got very lucky that Hill was lazy enough or stupid enough to purchase these cars with his legitimate business contacts and even luckier that this information happened to be in the files that Avis already got to.  Otherwise, we’d never be able to pick out his people from the general traffic.”  She paused.  “Okay, Stani, I’m sending you a picture of the type of car you should be looking for.”

Seconds ticked away.  Then: “DaDa, this is what I see.”

“You’re positive about that?” Sarah pressed.

“There are two black…Suzukis?  Da, two black Suzukis.  One is leaving the blast zone.”

“And the other?”

“The driver is trying to look as surprised and scared as everybody else.  And…now he is leaving, too.”

“Which way is he heading?”

“North,” Stani said, with a confident note in his voice that did strange things to Anton’s insides.  He suppressed the memories threatening to resurface with an ease born of long hours of practice.

In the front seat of the car, Chester’s phone beeped.  He checked the front screen and nodded.  “I’m ‘earing similar things from my people,” he said.  “Looks like six or seven different cars from all over London, far as they can tell.”

“I’m going to refrain from too much enthusiasm,” Sarah said, “but this is all sounding good.  Chester, do you trust any of your people to fail those cars without tipping them off?”

“’course I trust them!”

Sarah sighed.  “This isn’t the time for pride and it isn’t the time for team loyalty.  If they can’t do it, I need to know.  If they figure out what we’re doing before we have everything in motion, we’re all screwed and Billy’s going to die.”

Chester chewed over that thought.  “A couple could probably handle it,” he admitted.  “So long as you don’t expect them to do much else besides keep an eye on these cars.”

“Pass along those orders, then.  Stani, you stay on the car that just left your location.”

From their parking space, Anton could see that yet another black Suzuki was easing its way into traffic.  “We have one here,” he said into the comms.  “Should we follow this one, as well?”

“Yes and no,” Sarah said.  “Depending on what path they take, either your group or Stani’s group is going to have a more hands-on job.  I just want the other cars tracked, in case they decide to go to a different location.”

“And if that happens?”

“We improvise?”  Sarah sounded distinctly unsure about their chances, should it come down to improvisation.  “I should have put trackers in the cars that your people are using, Chester, but there’s no point crying over spilled milk.”

“What does that mean?” Stani asked.

“It’s…never mind, doesn’t matter.  Stay on your marks, people.”

“Sarah?” Michel asked.  “Should I be driving somewhere?’

“Not yet.  There’s no way of telling when we’ll get the best opportunity or where that’s going to be.  For right now, stay where you are.  That should give you the best chance to make the trip in time, just as soon as we figure out exactly where that trip’s going to take you.”

Oui,” Michel said.

“Mila and I will just twiddle our thumbs,” Devlin added.  There was a tremor of nervous energy in his words that Anton recognized.  Whenever things became too difficult to plan for, Devlin always got jumpy.  It stood to reason that he’d be even more anxious than normal now, all things considered.  ‘Don’t mind us at all.”

“If you keep distracting the grown-ups,” Sarah said, “I’m seriously going to mute your line.  Shut up and sit tight.  Stani, Chester?  I’m tracking your cell phones, but you’ll have to tell me if your marks do something strange.  Other than that?  Start moving.”

Despite his trunculence and general bad attitude, Chester recognized authority when he heard it.  He started the car and pulled it out into relatively light traffic, two cars behind the black Suzuki.  James, Chester’s partner, moved a large caliber Sig Sauer out of the way so that he could buckle his seatbelt.  Anton gave the steadily growing cloud of smoke and dust an appraising eye – he could have done more, if they’d given him any sort of notice, and that frustrated him – before strapping himself in, as well.

Chester kept up with traffic, about two kilometers per hour under the speed limit.  After five minutes, he slapped his open palms against the steering wheel in frustration.  “Wish they’d bloody well figure out where they’re going and just get there,” he said, under his breath.

“Not like it’s a race,” James rumbled back.  Anton had barely heard him speak five complete sentences since getting into the car.

“Longer it takes Sarah to do whatever it is that she’s got up her sleeve,” Chester said, “the more chance there is that something goes wrong.  If Hill gets bored or angry, then…”

“It’ll be alright,” James said.  He squeezed Chester’s left shoulder with one big, meaty hand.  “We’ll get him.”

Chester grumbled something in articulate that might have been acknowledgement or might have been some swear word that Anton didn’t know.  Whatever it was, he relaxed slightly after saying it and loosened his death grip on the steering wheel.

Anton hadn’t expected to feel a sudden kinship for Chester, but he could feel one developing.  He still didn’t like the man – he suspected that very few people had the patience for someone as willfully obstinate – but he thought he might be able to understand him a little bit.

Sarah and Devlin hadn’t given many details about their target.  Anton knew that Asher was involved with this Hill, in one way or another, and that the conflict between Devlin and his former partner had spilled over to affect Devlin’s friends.  That was why they’d rescued Ally a few days ago.  Whatever reason the two had for declaring war against a sitting drug lord was something they’d elected to keep strictly within their inner circle.

As much as it galled him to be on the outside, he couldn’t very well start pointing fingers.  He knew more about what Stani and his superiors back in Moscow intended for Asher.  He’d gleaned details about the Bratva’s true goals, mostly by virtue of knowing Stani’s tells and some judiciously careful questions.  Even with what he thought he knew – which was, by any reasonable measure, more than enough to get him killed out of hand – Anton still realized that he wasn’t privy to the whole picture.

So, he didn’t tell Devlin and Sarah about what the Russians had in mind.  The Russians didn’t actually tell him what they truly wanted.  And no one told Chester, James, or any of Billy’s men scattered across London anything more than that their leader was in trouble and no one would be able to save him except for their crew of thieves.

If they had expected Anton work with so little information and under such dire straits, he knew he’d probably a little irritable, too.

Two cars ahead of them, the black Suzuki took a sudden right turn.  Chester immediately moved to follow suit, but was stopped by James.  The generally quiet man shook his head and pointed ahead.  “Shortcut up there,” he said.  “Not as obvious.”

“Do you think he knows…no, he couldn’t.  He couldn’t!”

“Boys,” Sarah said, “tell me what you’re seeing.”

Chester continued to sputter to himself, so Anton took the lead.  “The driver of the Suzuki turned suddenly.  I do not know this town, but it does not seem like he is headed where you thought he would go.”

Sarah swore to herself.  “I’m assuming that, between the three of you, someone knows how to tail a car without being spotted.”

There was a vague waspishness to her comment that put Anton’s nerves on edge.  He was saved from formulating a response by Stani, of all people.  “My mark did the same thing,” he said.  “We were forced to let it get out of sight, or else risk being seen.”

Sarah cursed again, louder.  “I would think that this might be some sort of protocol, but it doesn’t feel right.  Devlin, what do you think?”

“Without being able to see anything you people are talking about?”  Devlin grunted.  “James, you said there was a shortcut?  What else is in that area?”

James swallowed a mouthful of bottled water before answering.  “Couple of shops.  Petrol station.  Nothing important.”

“Maybe they’re just making a quick stop, then?” Devlin suggested.

Anton opened his mouth, probably to point out ridiculous that would be, when Chester took the shortcut that James had mentioned.  There, standing out from every other car because of its glossy matte black exterior, the black Suzuki was parked at a petrol station.  One man was still seated in the driver’s seat.  He blew smoke out of the window.  The other man – Anton could only assume that there was a second man – must have been inside the store itself.

“Looks like you were correct,” Anton said to Devlin.  “I think one of them might be out of cigarettes.”

“Never attribute to clever planning what could more easily be the fault of stupid, lazy employees,” Devlin said, with the intonation of a man quoting something he’d memorized a long time ago.

“That isn’t the quote,” Sarah said.

“And yet, I was correct.  I think it’s only reasonable that I get to – “

The line popped twice and Devlin’s sentence was cut off before it could reach its climax.  “Anyway,” Sarah said, “you’ve got the car back in your sights again?”

“It is stopped, yes,” Anton replied.  “If this was only a pit stop, then we should be able to follow them back without any problems.”

“Well, Stani lost his mark – no shame there, by the way, you made the right choice – so that nominates your car for the next step in the plan.”

“Oh?”  Anton perked up, despite himself.  There was something intoxicating about one of Sarah’s plans.  When they’d worked together in the past, Devlin had served as the front man for all negotiations and he’d been the only one in communication with Sarah.  The fact that he would finally get to hear the master piece, straight from its creator’s mouth, sent a shock all the way through his body.  “What is the next step, then?”

“Well.”  Sarah cleared her throat more times than could possibly have been necessary.  “This might get a little technical, and I realize that you aren’t in possession of all of the details.  You’ll just have to trust that I know what I’m doing.”

Before Chester could say anything clever in response to that, James squeezed his shoulder again and shook his head.  Chester visibly changed tracks.  “Whatever you’ve got in mind is really gonna ‘elp us get Billy back?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Then…then I’ll trust you.  For right now.  What do you need us to do?”

Anton imagined something intricate and daring.  They had blown up a subway platform to save Alex’s daughter and they’d stolen a train before that.  There was no way of knowing how extravagant the plans might become at this most critical juncture.

“Okay,” Sarah said.  “I need you to mug those men.”

Anton blinked.  He could swear he heard – actually heard – Chester and James do the same.

“You want us to what?”

“I think,” Mila said, in her perfectly calm tone of voice, “that the appropriate term is carjack.”

“Ah.  Yeah, this is usually something that Devlin handles,” Sarah said.  “But, yeah.  Carjack them.  Steal their car.  Whatever terms work for you.”

“But…why?”

“Because we don’t want them to have it, obviously,” Sarah replied, with inflection so sarcastic that Anton legitimately felt stupid for asking the question in the first place.

Chester barked out a laugh and, a moment later, James joined him.  “Now that,” Chester said, between chuckles, “sounds like something we can ‘andle.”

Chapter 116 (Sarah)

It was easy enough to find a comfortable position in the Van.  The chair, after all, had been constructed specifically for me.  But the difference between physical comfort and emotional ease had never been so starkly drawn out.  So, I fidgeted and shuffled my feet; I made the chair slide all the way down the rails and back up again; I maximized and minimized various windows on my work stations that had nothing to do with the job at hand.  None of those nervous actions made me feel any better, but they did keep me from obsessing over any of the darker thoughts my brain seemed all too happy to provide, so I considered it a zero-sum game.

“Sarah?”  Devlin’s voice.  In all of my twitching and jittering, I’d managed to keep his line isolated for my ears only.  He could make the call to switch over to a wider frequency, if necessary.  I doubted he’d do that so early in the plan.  “Sarah, are you there?”

“I’m here.  What do you need?”

“Oh nothing.”  He let an off-key whistle out, which elicited a smile from me, followed by a stern frown.  He was trying to distract me from the fearful beat just under his voice, the way his words were coming out a little too fast, the slight hitch in every other word.

“You’re scared, too?”

“I’d be lying if I said this was something I saw myself doing when I woke up last month.”

“In fairness,” I said, “you aren’t even supposed to be out of prison yet.  So, technically, anything that happens now is an improvement, right?”

A moment passed before he breathed out soft, barely audible chuckle.  “I wouldn’t go that far.  I’ve certainly got better company out here, though.”

“Happy to serve as your eye candy,” I said, suppressing a little thrill of excitement.  It was all too easy to fall back into that old rhythm.  It was simpler when we were fully engaged in the work.  Then, I had entirely too many technical things to deal with and I couldn’t afford the time for self-introspection.

Now, however, I had nothing to do but wait, and my id was all too eager to fill the dead time with questions I didn’t dare ask myself and certainly wouldn’t dare to answer.

Devlin was silent for a few seconds.  I opened my mouth, hoping that I might be able to say something to get us back on track, but he cleared his throat and saved me the trouble.  “How are things going across town?”

I sent up a silent prayer of thanks for the rescue – in the process, cheerfully ignoring my own professed atheism – and navigated to the monitor nearest the front of the Van.  I’d tasked that one to keep track of some of my mini-cameras.  Two were worn by James and Chester and four more went to Anton, Stani, and the other two Russians who I still couldn’t manage to tell apart.

Those six people were in charge of the first wing of our operation.  If things went badly for them or if Hill proved more resourceful than we’d assumed, we were all still in positions where evacuation might remain a possibility.  It would probably still end in violent death and agony, but there was at least a chance of escape, so long as we took it then.

After the first stage, success or failure, we were locked in.

“Give me a second,” I told Devlin and did some quick work with my fingers to connect Anton, Stani, and Chester with my own line.

From what I could see, Stani and Chester were in the same vehicle, while Anton rode with the two Russians.  I remembered Devlin saying something about their past relationship and wondered, idly, whether the seating arrangements might have been influenced by that.  Then, realizing that my earlier flirtation with Devlin was causing me to focus on the wrong things, I gave myself a quick mental chastisement and focused.

“Anton,” I said, without warning.  His camera didn’t jump or shake, meaning that he hadn’t physically reacted to the unexpected voice.  Stani and Chester, however, jerked in surprise.

“Sarah?”  Anton replied.

“Do you have a timeline on when things are going to kick off?”

He was silent for a second and I could see that he was counting off on his fingers.  “If everything is where it should be,” he answered, when he’d with his calculations, “perhaps five minutes.”

“Perhaps?”

Watching through the camera on one of the interchangeable Russians’ lapels, I could see that Anton shrugged.  “It is not exact science,” he said.  “Something could go wrong.  Not bad, but sooner than expected.  Or later.  If I had used a detonator, this would not be a problem, but…”

“No, no…you’re right.  We’ll have to make due with whatever we get.”

Anton didn’t ask why we’d forbidden the detonator and I appreciated his blind faith in my insane plan.  He didn’t know me very well, of course.  With the exception of the charity where I’d met Devlin and a few very rare instances since then, I made a point to stay out of the field.  That worked best, considering my preferred style of ‘combat,’ and it allowed Devlin to attract all of the attention.

However, I had technically worked with Anton before, even if Devlin had handled all of the face to face communication.  I knew that he was good at his job and he knew…well, he didn’t know exactly how talented I had once been, but he trusted Devlin.  That was good enough for the Ukrainian and, surprisingly, that transitive faith was good enough for me, as well.

Still, I did feel a little pang of guilt.  I couldn’t tell Anton everything.  I couldn’t tell anyone everything.  Devlin’s fear that someone from Billy’s crew might be doubling as a mole rang a little too true for me to entirely ignore.  My own paranoia, unbound by Devlin’s boundless faith in human beings, went even further.  Of the people in our team, I’d worked with exactly one before, and that had been at a distance.  If Alex had been involved, perhaps I would have felt more secure, but we’d gone to great pains to keep him sidelined.  So, as it was, I was surrounded by unknown individuals with unknown motivations and unknown skeletons in their closets.

I didn’t even feel comfortable that some of these people knew my first name.  I certainly wasn’t about to divulge the sensitive details of our plan before it had a chance to come to fruition.

“Chester, Stani?”  I took a sip of soda before I continued.  “Updates, please.”

It was a little shocking that Stani was the first to speak.  “The packages are in position on the east side of the target area,” he said crisply.  He betrayed no hint of misogyny in his voice or his tone.  I’d heard about his very specific brand of homophobia from Devlin and it only took a few heartbeats of pondering to draw conclusions about why that might be.  “The timers that…the timers are counting down.”

He couldn’t even say Anton’s name?  Whatever had passed between the two of them must have been much more than a simple affair or experimentation?  Hell, even Devlin didn’t have problems saying –

I cut myself off, mid-thought.  Not the place to think about what had once been and certainly not the time.  “Chester?  Your area was smaller, but there were more targets.  Were you able to get to all of them?”

“Yeah, we got to ‘em,” Chester grumbled.  “Knocked all that out about an ‘our ago.  You want to tell me what the ‘ell all this is for, then?”

“Not really,” I said.  It wasn’t a great difficulty to let some of my very real irritation seep into my voice, although I did take care to keep my tone from becoming caustic.  “Unless you plan on telling me who sent my friends into that trap, out at the plant?”

Chester said nothing.

“I didn’t think so.  All three of you, park your cars somewhere safe and wait for further instructions.  We’ll need you to cover a lot of ground and I can’t coordinate with Billy’s people from here.”

“Guess she does need us, ‘after all,” Chester said, presumably to James.

James turned – or, more accurately, his camera turned – to face Chester.  A large hand came from out of frame and slapped Chester, right across the temple.  “Shut up, mate,” James rumbled.  “She can ‘ear you.”

“I’ve heard worse things from people I like more, James,” I said, “but I appreciate the sentiment.  Remember, stay out of sight, but be ready to move.”

“Got it,” James said.

Chester mumbled something that might have been assent.  Whatever it was, I took it as agreement and returned the lines to their previous state.

“You still there?” I asked.

Devlin’s reply was a hair too quick.  “I’m still here.  Judging from the lack of panic in your voice, I assume that things are going swimmingly outside?”

“About as well as can be expected,” I said.  “Chester’s being an ass, which is nothing new.  I think you’re right about Stani and Anton, by the way.”

“I told you so.  What gave it away to you?”

“They’re riding in different cars.  Which doesn’t make any sense, when you consider that I’m the only other person in this channel who speaks Russian.”

“Ah.”  Devlin’s camera was off, but I could imagine him stroking at an invisible goatee.  “Wise deductions, those were.”

“I will leave you alone,” I threatened.  “I won’t even lose that much sleep over it.”

“Ha ha ha,” Devlin said, forcing the laughs out without even the barest bones of actual amusement.  Then, a few seconds later: “You’re kidding, right?  You aren’t going to cut the line?”

“I’m not going to cut the line,” I confirmed.  “I’m even going to keep you on while I check in with Mila and Michel, because I’m such a kind and generous soul.”

“However will I repay this gift?”

“Try shutting up for a change.  Let’s give that a whirl.”  I connected the requisite lines, so that everyone on the channel could hear each other.

“If it pops twice,” Mila said, almost instantly, “that means the line is active, yeah?  So someone’s listening to me right now?”

“Several someones,” I corrected.  “I’m here, as well as Devlin and Michel.”

“Are the two of you okay?” Michel asked.  I was in relative safety, so I assumed he was asking the other two people on the line.

“I’m fine,” Mila said.  “Little cramped. Kinda wish I’d packed a snack.”

That’s your biggest concern right now?” Devlin asked.  “The contents of your stomach?”

“It’s one of the only things I can control,” Mila replied.  I’d known her almost as long as Devlin, give or take a benefit gala, and even I could hear the subtle shift in her voice that accompanied the serious pronouncements.  I couldn’t imagine that Devlin would have missed it.  “Things get crazy – and they always get crazy when…he’s involved – and you there’s no way to know what’s going to happen next.  Guns jam, engines backfire…hell, I’ve seen trained fighters slip on a wet spot and break their necks before.”

“That happens outside of cartoons?”  Devlin asked.

Mila chuckled and I could literally hear the smile on her lips.  “Point is, you can always make sure you’ve gotten something to eat.”

Oh.  That made much more sense about our odd bodyguard.  And if it made sense to me, then…

“I get that,” Devlin said.  “Trust me.  And that’s why you’ll find a little surprise I left for you, if you’re willing to look for it.”

A lot of noise came from Mila’s line in a very short period of time – metal clanking against metal, shuffling, the sound of a heavy weight touching fabric – before she let out an exultant cry.  “Is this a Duvalin?”

“Indeed it is,” Devlin said, with no small amount of pride in his voice.  “Those are not easy to get ahold of.  At least, I think they aren’t.  I only asked Sophie, but she seemed very put out by the request.”

“I’m not sure,” Mila said, around a mouthful of what I guessed was some sort of candy, “whether I’m supposed to hug you or punch you in the face, until you shut up.”

“It tends to be about a fifty-fifty split,” Devlin said.  “Ask Sarah, she can attest.”

“Seventy-thirty, most days,” I added.  “In favor of the punching.”

My heart wasn’t really in the light joking.  Neither was my head.  Both of those organs were occupied with the thought that I’d only just figured out a piece of Mila’s history, while Devlin had come to similar conclusions with enough time to arrange for a surprise.  A surprise that, contrary to everything I’d managed to figure out from limited exposure to our stoic bodyguard, actually managed to pull genuine delight from the woman.  And he’d done it incidentally.  He probably hadn’t thought twice about it.

That was one of the traits that made it so damned hard to remain angry at him.  He was short-sighted, frequently childish, and incapable of planning anything past the next big distraction.  But he was also caring, warm, and genuinely wanted the best for those he considered his friends.  Our own breakup had been…unpleasantly public and there was no doubt that he’d deserved it, but it was becoming more and more difficult to summon the same level of apathy about Devlin.

I blinked and remembered what my psychologist had told me multiple times: ‘it’s never good to lie to yourself.’  With that in mind, I mentally backspaced and admitted that I’d never felt apathy towards Devlin, no matter how much I might have longed for that disconnect in the moment.

Devlin was talking.  I stopped wasting time reminiscing about the past – at least, for the moment, since my id showed no signs of halting the constant siege for my attention – and started paying attention to him.  “…was Michel’s idea, honestly.  I only came up with the specific suggestion.”

“Well,” Mila said.  “Um.  Thanks.  This is…it’s really nice of you.  Both of you.”

“No problem,” Devlin said.  “If you can keep me alive for the next few hours, I might even be willing to call it even.”

Mila finished her candy and began sucking at her fingertips.  “I can probably handle that.  Guess we’ll see, won’t we?”

“And on that ominous note…”  Devlin cleared his throat.  “Sarah, how much longer until things get started?”

My eyes flickered over to the left monitor, just as my fingers touched the miniature joystick so that I could move over to that screen.  A sound like a giant clearing his throat sent a tremor through the Van before I could do anything, though, and I could see plumes of smoke beginning to rise from a spot far into the distance, through one of the Van’s windows.  A second later, the lone trail of smoke was joined by two others, and then four more.  Before long, a dozen – two dozen – individual clouds of smoke stretched from the ground up to the clouds.

“Did you hear that?”  I asked.  All thoughts of our relationship were, blessedly, wiped away in an instant.

“Sure did,” Devlin said, his voice perfectly serious again.  “Sounded like a starter’s pistol to me.”

Part 5: Recap

When Asher Knight – Devlin O’Brien’s former partner, ex-friend, and the brains behind all of our hero’s most recent difficulties – kidnaps Alexander Jaeger’s daughter, the team of thieves and criminals find themselves pushed to a new breaking point.  Prisoner exchange terms are offered, rules are dictated, and a seven-day long timer is set into place.  Within a week, Devlin, Sarah, and their team must come up with a way to spirit the young Ally away from her captors or face terrible consequences for their failure.

They are joined in their planning by Alex himself, frantic after a red-eye flight across Europe in pursuit of his daughter.  Joining forces with Devlin and company, the entire group decides to ask their newest ally Billy for his insight on the situation.  Where their knowledge of London is fairly limited, Devlin hopes that a native Londoner might be able to provide a clue as to where Ally is being held.  That hope pays off when Billy instantly recognizes subtle details in Asher’s “proof of life” video and is able to identify where the video was made: an abandoned Tube station turned bomb shelter, far enough away from prying eyes that secrecy is a given.

Starting with that tidbit of information, the team is able to cobble together a plan that relies more on luck than foresight – involving the Ukrainian bomb-maker Anton, a thorough grasp of the train schedule, and a stolen subway engine – just in time to meet Asher’s deadline.

At the abandoned train station, Devlin and Asher face off with each other.  Barbs are exchanged, insults are offered, and the tension rises to a dangerous level when Asher reveals his remote controlled device, specifically to kill Ally if he doesn’t get what he wants.  Sarah, anticipating such a move, activates a signal jammer to block Asher’s move and Devlin ends up in a position where he can hold Asher hostage against his will.

Still, Devlin can’t bring himself to kill his old friend, no matter how much that move would help him, his cause, and the people working beside him.  Instead of pulling the trigger, Devlin and his team use an expertly timed explosion to drop through the floor of the train station and down to a waiting subway engine, “borrowed” from a station a ways out of London proper.  Alex and his daughter are reunited, the veritable horde of hired goons are temporarily neutralized, and yet another of Asher’s power plays has been intercepted before it was able to grow any worse.

It isn’t until the team returns to their penthouse suite at the Brooklands that they find the young theoretical mathematician and her Man Friday – the girl, Avis, and her friend Neal – have been stolen from underneath their noses.  In addition, Billy – the proprietor of the Halfway house and a thorn in Hill’s side – has also been taken

Using some of the information left in the wake of Avis’ kidnapping, Sarah points the team towards one of Hill’s primary supporters and a possible link in the chain leading to their friends.  With that scant clue in mind, Devlin, Sarah, Michel, and Mila all head to a tense dinner with Lord Charles Fairfax, who has repeatedly appeared in their lives since first setting foot on English soil.

Things at Hill’s palatial estate go well enough.  Devlin, under the false identity of a German business magnate, engages in a verbal sparring match with Hill regarding their different philosophies and Sarah, using her own name and all of the prestige that it comes with, provides a counterpoint.  However, things take a decidedly sinister turn when Fairfax reveals a surprise guest: Billy, beaten and held captive by the psychopathic mercenary Aiden, with whom Mila shares a dark past.

Things begin to fall into place for Devlin rapidly.  Fairfax – the arrogant nobleman, the foppish ladies man, the ever-present irritant – is none other than the mysterious “Hill” himself.

Fairfax – or Hill – informs the team that he has taken steps to consolidate his power, in preparation for a move away from the stranglehold of the Magi.  To that end, he has used Asher to facilitate matters on a ground level, but Devlin and company’s impressive record against him in the past few weeks has caused him to reconsider things.  Instead of using Asher for as long as possible before eventually discarding him, Hill offers Devlin an opportunity: if the Irishman will work for Hill, then Hill will deliver his nemesis to him on a silver platter.  If the team chooses to work against Hill’s designs, he will simply have them exterminated at his earliest convenience.

Hill gives the team one week to consider his terms.  It takes them only a few minutes to agree that working for Hill is a non-starter.  He is a mad dog, hungry for more power, and heedless of the cost that pursuit might take upon the innocent.

Back at the Brooklands, Devlin, Sarah, and the rest of their group finally bring in every person potentially affected by Hill’s final move – not just Billy’s men, Chester and James; but also Anton, Stani, and the Russian pair Leonid and Iosif – so that, together, they can come up with a plan to dethrone London’s reigning drug kingpin at the height of his power, before his plans can come to fruition.

They are thieves, getaway drivers, and hackers.  Taking on a madman fully capable of murder is well beyond anything they have ever done.  But Devlin and Sarah know that no one else is in a position to do anything to stop Hill – except for the mysterious Lady, who has chosen not to involve herself directly – which means that the mantle of responsibility falls to them.  If they have the skills to potentially stop the death of an innocent child, then they owe it to Avis to give their all.

Noblesse oblige: those with the power to help have the responsibility to do so.  It’s apparent that the power-mad Lord Fairfax, in his guise as the kingpin Hill, has forgotten this simple principle.  Whether or not Devlin, Sarah, and the crew of international misfits will be able to remind him of that fact remains to be seen.

Generativity vs. Stagnation

It took them years before they were any good at the trade; then, it only took them months to edge out all other competition.

Lord Fairfax, Sr. died of chronic liver failure two years before their control over the drug trade was absolute.  Charles became the new Lord Fairfax, Baron of Berkeley, instead of Billy.  In private, Charles had expressed outrage that the eldest son had been passed over.  Billy, for his part, showed no concern for the slight at all.

“You’re his son,” Billy had said.  “His legitimate son, I mean.  If you ask me, it was always yours.  Besides, I never wanted to be nobility.”

Charles had forced himself to express more indignation and issued several empty promises of ‘making things right,’ knowing full well that he had no intention of doing any such thing.  It was his birthright, after all.  He had been the one to survive under the tender ministrations of the Lady Fairfax…he had endured years of benign neglect from their father.

Billy had received love, affection, and understanding from the late Lord Fairfax.  It seemed perfectly equitable that Charles should receive the title.

(He repeated that thought to himself, night after night, and it never felt equal to him.)

Life became nothing more than work, from that night.  Occasional interlopers attempted to muscle in on their business.  Billy identified the newcomers and Charles destroyed them, either through the force of law or through force of arms.  They turned the drug trade from something that thrived only in the criminal underground into a business that turned over record profits, year after year.  They used that money to hire or coerce others from overseas into streamlining the process, minimizing their operating costs, and flying in the best help that money could be.

Decades after they had started, the two brothers found themselves at the head of one of the profitable criminal enterprises in living memory.  Their business included the production and sale of various illegal substances, shrouded in the auspices of otherwise legitimate industries.  They worked with major gangs in Russia and South America, doing their best to stay on the cutting edge of the business.  When difficulties arose, they dealt with them as a team, moving with synchronized efficiency to maintain their grip on their employees and the beast they had built.

Life was good.  To Charles, however, a good life wasn’t enough.

On the night of his thirty-eighth birthday, Charles started the same argument that he’d been having with his brother for five years.

“We can do more,” Charles said.  He kept his voice at an appropriate volume, even though there wasn’t anybody else in their private suite.  “You know I’m right.”

“It isn’t as though we’re hurting for money or influence.”

“We don’t need the Russians, for one.  The amount of money we pay them to handle the smuggling side of operations isn’t exactly insignificant.”

“Sure, we lose a chunk of profits to them.  But allow me to present a couple of reasons why we don’t want to cut them out of things.  One: they’re the best at this sort of thing.  They’ve been doing it for years, and the Bratva are very proud of that.”

Charles downed the remainder of his Scotch in a single swallow and refilled the glass from a crystal decanter.  “They’re the best now.  What about that new technology from Brazil?”

“Untested and, therefore, unreliable.  But let’s assume for the moment that the Brazilians got their act together and perfected the process.  We’ve still got point number two: they are insane over there, Charles.  Seriously.  I’m not even talking about the stories I’ve heard, just the people I’ve actually spoken to.  London is too profitable for them to let the entire city go without putting up a fight.”

A headache began building behind Charles’ temples.  He took a deep breath before continuing.  “What if I want a fight?”

“Then you’re an idiot,” Billy said and shrugged.  “The Russians are…the Russians.  We’ve been at this for a couple of decades.  They’ve been elbow deep in crime since the Berlin Wall came down.  We aren’t the first people who thought we might be able to wiggle out from underneath them and, after they’re finished burying our mutilated corpses, we won’t be the last.”

“And if I know someone who’d be willing to intercede on our behalf?  Maybe they’d supplement our men with a little more firepower, in case the Russians decide to disagree with our business choices.”

Even that slight tentacle of conjecture was enough to jolt Billy out of his indolent, casual demeanor.  He sat up straight and locked eyes with Charles.  “What do you mean?”

“Let’s call them…possibilities.”

“And have you spoken to these possibilities?”

Charles said nothing.

Billy put his drink – a bottle of some Welsh beer that Charles couldn’t be bothered to remember the name of – down onto the table and leaned both elbows onto his knees.  “I just want to make sure I understand what you’re talking about here.  You want to cut ties with the fucking Russians, of all people, in favor of someone crazy enough to back that sort of play?  Did you think that these ‘other parties’ aren’t going to be just as bad, if not even worse?”

“Of course I’ve thought about that,” Charles snapped.  “But we’re never going to get any bigger than we are now, so long as we’re stuck to the Russians.”

“We won’t get any bigger if we’re killed, either.  And why do we need to get bigger?  We own London.”

“Because this is nothing compared to what’s out there.  Think about what we could do with our influence, if we could actually put it to use, Billy.”

“And these ‘possibilities?’  You think they aren’t going to have their own restrictions to deal with?”

Charles shrugged, faking a bit more nonchalance than he actually felt.  “We can deal with that problem when we come to it.  First the Russians.”

“I have thought about expanding,” Billy said, after a long, thoughtful pause.  “And that would only be signing up for more trouble than we need.  We got into this so that we could have money for medical treatments, Charles.  Maybe a little bit extra spending money, I’m not going to lie.  But we never planned on getting this big.  I don’t even know what we’re going to do with all this when we’re gone, but I’m certainly not about to work on giving us both even more work to deal with.”

“Let the next guy concern himself with what comes after us.”  Charles heard his volume increasing and couldn’t summon the concern to modulate his voice.  “I’m bigger than this.”

Billy leaned back and looked at Charles for a long minute.  He sighed, finally, and reached out for his beer.  “That’s what this is really about, isn’t it?”

Charles blinked.  “What?  What are you talking about?”

“Being better than this,” Billy clarified.  “Not that we’re better, though.  That you’re better.”

“Billy, I don’t know what – “

“At least you can be honest with me!” Billy snapped, summoning palpable heat and willpower in the blink of an eye.  Before he could help himself, Charles found himself recoiling into his own chair.  “We’ve known each other for most of our lives, Charles; do you really think I can’t figure out when you’re hiding something from me?”

Charles took several seconds to think about what he should say next; those seconds proved to be too much for Billy to suffer through.  The older man stood up, bumping one knee into a bucket filled with chilled champagne bottles, and began stalking out of the room.

“Wait!”  Charles extended a hand and managed to make contact with Billy’s arm, before it was jerked out of his reach.  “Wait, can we talk about this?”

Billy whirled around.  “What exactly do you want to talk about, brother?  Because you clearly don’t have any intention of telling me what this is really about.”

“I just…I just want to build something on my…on our own.  I don’t know what’s wrong with that, and I don’t know what’s got you acting like this.”

“You just said it,” Billy replied.  “Just now.  You probably didn’t even hear it, did you?  You want to build something on your own.  Not together.  Not the way we built this whole operation with our bare hands, starting from nothing except for our childish hopes and dreams.  It doesn’t matter to you, unless you did it without me.”

“I don’t…I don’t even…”

“You don’t even know what to say?  Yeah.  I figured you’d say something like that.”  Billy dug into his pocket and fished out a cell phone.  He entered the necessary codes and threw it across the room, where it landed onto the couch cushion just to Charles’ right.  “One of your lackies didn’t realize that we apparently aren’t working together anymore.  Sent an email to the joint account instead of to whatever private account you have set up.”

The temperature of Charles’ blood dropped about a dozen degrees in a heartbeat.  “Whatever you read, Billy, it isn’t…”

“It isn’t true?  You’re really going to sit there, look me in my eyes, and lie to me?  I’d rather you just shut up and not waste both of our times trying to dig your way out of this.”

As much as he wanted to find some way to defuse the situation, Charles wasn’t foolish enough to disregard good advice.  If Billy had somehow intercepted any of the private messages that Charles had been sending, there really wasn’t any point in denying their contents.  At the same time, nothing he’d sent recently had been of critical importance.  The occasional disparaging comment, certainly; more than a few phrases he would have preferred his older brother not be aware of, absolutely; but nothing about the possible benefactors or the decision Charles had been forced to make in the past few days.

“Okay,” Charles said, while his thoughts continued to race.  He couldn’t risk any more pauses.  Not if he wanted a chance to talk Billy off of the ledge…or to cancel the plans that had already been set into motion.  “Okay, I can explain.”

“I thought I understood you,” Billy said.  “I thought we were brothers.”

“We are!”

“We obviously are not.”  The intensity of Billy’s glare forced Charles a little deeper into his couch and a little farther away from his older brother.  “Unless the definition has changed in the past few years, I don’t believe brothers would say the sort of things I read about one another.”

“It isn’t…it isn’t what you think it is,” Charles sputtered.  “The men have certain ideas about things and it’s easier to just go along with them than to correct them.”

“Oh?  That’s why you told them that you wished I hadn’t ever come to live with you and Father?  That was their idea, was it?”

Charles winced.   He’d written that particular message to one of his closer confidants – as close as he allowed the hired help to get, anyway – during a fit of irritation.  “You…it wasn’t about you, Billy, it was about Father.”

“Please, enlighten me.  What did Father have to do with any of the things you wrote?”

Thinking about what he’d written – recalling the exact state of mind he’d been in while he’d typed out the email – brought those feelings back to the forefront of his thoughts.  He felt cornered by his older brother’s anger and that trapped feeling only amplified the anger that never simmered too far from the surface.  “Because he forgot about me as soon as you got there, Billy.  Or didn’t you notice that?”

It was Billy’s turn to blink.  The heat of his glare died away, replaced by a puzzled expression.  “He did not – “

Long buried heat bubbled up from some private room in Charles’ heart.  He stood up and slashed a hand through the air like a knife, cutting his older brother off before Billy could begin to focus his own thoughts.  “No, you wouldn’t have noticed it.  Because you didn’t even think about it.  As soon as you moved in, you just carried on, being whoever you wanted to be and it worked.  You weren’t expected to conform or to change who you were friends with so that the family name wouldn’t be weakened.”

“I didn’t even have the family name!”  Billy regained a measure of control and put it to work immediately.  “You and Father agreed with me on that.”

“That isn’t the point, Billy!”  For a single ludicrous moment, Charles wanted to sweep an arm across the table and scatter their bottles to the floor.  That bone-deep sense of etiquette and proper decorum kept him from venting his frustration in a manner so loud and public.  He loaded all of that frustration and vitriol into his voice, instead, and spoke without really thinking.  “The point is that you’ve never understood what it’s like to be a Fairfax, because you weren’t one.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, Charles knew he’d gone too far.  Still, he was all too aware that he couldn’t take back what he’d said.  The only thing worse than uttering those particular words would be cheapening them with a false apology.

Billy’s mouth dropped open and stayed there for five or six seconds before, slowly, he brought his teeth together with an audible click.  Moving with excruciating care, he removed his wallet and peeled off several large notes.  “If you want to do this so badly,” Billy said, “you go right ahead.  But you do it without me.  Since this apparently isn’t a family business anymore, it shouldn’t be a problem if I go off and do things on my own.  Maybe I’ll do some traveling.”

“Billy, I…”  Charles began, but no other words came out.

Billy nodded, as if that silence was confirmation of some question he hadn’t quite asked.  “Be seeing you.”  He let the notes fall from his hands, so that they fluttered down to the table.  By the time the last piece of paper reached the table’s surface, Billy was gone.

Charles sat in the private room, still and silent, for one full minute.  On the sixtieth second, he sighed and reached out for the nearest open container: Billy’s Welsh beer.  He drank deeply from the bottle and decided, eventually, that it wasn’t entirely terrible.

When he’d finished with the beer and another glass of his preferred Scotch, Charles had managed to wrestle his emotions back down to a simmering rage.  He used his phone to dial a number.  He’d memorized the digits and, according to instructions, burned the paper they’d been written on.

Mister Hill,” the robotic voice answered on the second ring.  “We assume this is good news.”

Charles thought about what to say next.  He knew that his words could, ultimately, decide the trajectory of the rest of his life.  On the one hand, there was Billy.  Infuriatingly charming, infallible Billy.  On the other hand…

“Why should I do this?”

Respect,” the voice said, as if it were the counterpoint to his own interior monologue.  “Power.  Wealth.  All this and more.  Everything that you deserve.  Do we have a deal?”

Charles tapped a finger against the rim of his glass.  They couldn’t have built the business without his contacts or his father’s money.  As Lord Fairfax, he’d been able to open doors that illegitimate Billy hadn’t even known about.  It was only right that he be able to decide where things went now that they’d reached the extent of his own web of influence.

“My business partner isn’t on board,” Charles said slowly into the phone.  He hated to reveal even that much information, but the mysterious party had proven that they could find out whatever they wanted, should they be motivated to do so.  “What will happen to him?”

Removed from the field,” the voice said.  “Anything else would leave a potential loose end.

Ten seconds passed.  “We have a deal,” Charles finally said, “under one condition.”

The robotic voice chuckled.  “And that is?

“Don’t kill him,” Charles blurted out.  He felt ridiculous making demands at this late hour.  It wasn’t as though he could really stop his unknown benefactors if they decided to ignore him.

And why should we not eliminate potential complications?”

“Because…”  Charles swallowed.  “…because he’s my brother.”

Silence, stretching out for so long that Charles thought the voice at the other end of the line might have disconnected.  Then, finally: “We have a deal.”

The line went dead.

Charles let the phone drop from his fingers to the couch, every drop of anger evaporated in that final perilous instant.  Suddenly, what he’d chosen seemed monstrous.  Billy was his last living family and Charles had just abandoned him.

He realized that it might not be too late.  No matter how powerful the mysterious party was, they weren’t omnipotent.  They couldn’t have made a move against Billy yet.  Charles could still call him and…and what?  Fight against them?  Die together?  What purpose would that serve?

“Billy made this choice,” Charles muttered out loud.  “He did this to himself.  Besides, it isn’t personal.  It’s just business.”

Instead of reaching for the phone, Charles took the crystal decanter half-filled with Scotch and began to drink straight from the bottle.  He did that until his mind was numb, his limbs uncoordinated, and his guilt submerged so deeply that he could barely find it anymore.  By then, he almost believed the mantra he kept repeating to himself.

“It’s nothing personal.  It’s just business.  It’s nothing personal.  It’s just business.  Just…it’s just business.”

 

Intimacy vs. Isolation

These days, Charles often wondered why he continued to be surprised.

Of course Billy had gotten into an argument with some of the elitist idiots who matriculated at their university.  And of course the disagreement had escalated from words – barbed, nasty words, designed specifically to devastate and humiliate – into harsher vitriol and, ultimately, into naked violence.  And of course Charles himself had been compelled to join in on his brother’s behalf, punching and kicking to ensure, if nothing else, that Billy wouldn’t be swarmed by more than two of the six larger boys.

His knuckles were sore and skinned, now.  There was blood drying on his cheek, just beneath a shallow cut that from the corner of an eye to the top of his cheekbone.  He was winded and muscles ached in places that he hadn’t known existed.  Charles closed his eyes, allowing the pain to wash over him, and thought about the dozen other ways the two could have avoided conflict and the myriad punishments that the headmaster could levy against them for causing such a public disturbance.

It wouldn’t matter that Billy had been provoked.  No, that would have been too much like fairness.  The boys weren’t nobility like Charles, but their families had managed to accrue vast amounts of wealth through various means.  The Fairfax name didn’t carry the same weight anymore.  His father’s poor financial decisions, coupled with his open acknowledgment of his bastard son, had robbed their family of much-needed political capital.  Charles and Billy were treated, for the most part, as something to be tolerated at best and insulted at worst.

“Hell of a fight, wasn’t it?” Billy asked.

Charles opened one eye and looked to his left.  Billy sat next to him, pressing a cold compress to a bruise that promised to turn an impressive shade of purple before too long.  He kept one arm pressed to his rib, but he was breathing easily enough that Charles doubted anything serious had been broken or fractured.

“We lost,” Charles pointed out.  “Badly.”

Billy wiped a spot of blood away from one corner of his lips and smirked.  “Bet they’ll think twice before they start up with that shit again, though.”

Charles struggled valiantly to keep a reciprocal smile from appearing on his face.  He failed.  As the smile began to stretch his lips, he shook his head and sighed.  “I’m certain that lot learned their lesson,” he said.  “Next time they want to corner you, they’ll bring ten instead of six.  Just to make certain you don’t bleed too much on their shoes.”

“They’d better bring twelve.”  Billy’s smile thinned, then vanished.  He straightened his back and turned to look Charles fully in the face.  “Been dealing with shit like that for too long, as is.  Be damned if I’m going to let anyone start up with that here.”

Charles nodded and said nothing.  This was a familiar back-and-forth with Billy.  Ever since their first meeting, Charles’ brother had carried a Big Ben sized chip on his shoulder and, almost since their first joint appearance in public, other nobles and rich children had been all too happy to taunt him.  The exact nature of the mockery varied from person to person.  Some people went after the circumstances of his birth.  Others attacked his accent…or, at least, they’d done that until Billy learned to hide the lower-class consonants and vowels in casual conversation.  Some even went so far as to imply certain things about Billy’s mother, and the nature of her employment.

That last group learned quickly to choose other targets.  Billy and Charles were very thorough about conveying the exact cost of that particular slander.

“What’d they say this time?” Charles asked.

Billy picked at his teeth.  “Wasn’t anything new.”

“Do you know what made them start in on you?”

“Other than the fact that they’re a pack of bloody berks?”

“Yes.  Other than that.”

Billy shrugged.  “Think their leader’s girl might have fancied a bit of rough.  At least, that’s what she told me.”

Charles sat forward, as well.  “You didn’t.”

“Not this time, no,” Billy said.  He laughed.  “Not that she didn’t try to change my mind.  Might have managed it, if her bloke hadn’t decided to make an appearance today.  Although…well, now I think he might have made up my mind for me.”

“You never learn, do you?” Charles asked, expecting no answer except for the self-satisfied smirk that Billy wore on a near-constant basis.  “Did you at least chat with this one first, or did she just throw herself in your path?”

Despite his birth…despite his accent…despite how little Billy fit into proper high society, nothing seemed to stick to him.  For as many enemies as he made by simply existing, Billy made twice as many friends.  It didn’t matter what he wore or how he acted; women still flocked to him.  It made him an insufferable friend.  What escalated him into a superlative brother – at least, in Charles’ limited experience – was his complete lack of self-awareness.

“You’re one to talk,” Billy said.  “What’s your lady’s name?  Chelsea?  Danielle?  You go through them so fast that I can’t keep up.”

“That’s not the same thing, and you know it.”  Charles paused.  “And her name is Laurel, by the way.”

“Seems like the same thing to me,” Billy said.

Charles considered debating the point.  He decided against it within short order.  It wasn’t something that Billy would be able to understand.  Their father had claimed Billy as a son, but Billy himself had refused to change his last name.  That marked him as an outsider more than most things, but it also insulated him from the worst part of a noble heritage.

Everyone who liked Billy did so because they liked Billy.  He had nothing to offer them: no money, no lands, no honorable name.  He was simply himself and that was all he needed to attract men and women to his side.  There were days when Charles felt certain that everyone in his life – except for his father and for Billy – only cared about what benefits a relationship with him might yield.

Not that he had those days very often anymore.  Even those sycophants and opportunists had trickled to nothing, in light of his family’s declining fortunes.

Charles started to say something – he had no idea what – when the door to Lord Fairfax’s personal study opened and their father exited.  Circles so dark that they were the next best thing to black ringed his eyes and there were thunderclouds in his expression.

“I hope the two of you understand,” Lord Fairfax began, “that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated.  Not now, not so long as you live on this property, and not as long as you live.  There are expectations and decorum and those are requirements that will be met!”

At the crescendo of his opening salvo, Lord Fairfax slapped an open hand against a conveniently placed nightstand.  Glasswear and candlesticks fell to the carpet, accompanied by soft thumps as each item made contact with the floor.

In all of his years, Charles had never grown fully accustomed to his father when he was in a mood.  It wasn’t that Lord Fairfax had ever hit him.  That had always been the purview of his late mother, God rest her damned soul.  What set his nerves on edge was the complete shift from father to nobleman, the change in demeanor and bearing that signified that Lord Fairfax had entered the room and would brook no further argument.

The Lord came out less and less these days.  That didn’t diminish the effect when some misadventure pushed him into that transition, though.

Charles cringed away from his father’s outburst, instinctively trying to make himself somehow smaller.  Billy did no such thing.  Instead he jumped out of his chair and took two long steps forward to meet Lord Fairfax’s blazing glare.

“I’ll be happy to keep my mouth shut, just as soon as these pricks get it through their heads,” he snapped back, every line of his body as imperious and commanding as Lord Fairfax at his best.  His accent came back in full force, adding a healthy dose of seasoning to each word.  “Anytime they want to start something with me, they’re free to try.  So long as they’ve got the balls to do it proper, instead of taking shots at you, or Charles, or my mum.”

“William, you – “

“It ain’t William, and you know it!”  Billy took another step forward.  He was almost nose-to-nose with their father now.  “If you got a problem with that, or you think I ought to just shut up and play the role of a charity project so that you don’t have to explain me to your rich friends, I can leave anytime.  Got that?”

Lord Fairfax and Billy stared at each other while Charles stared at Billy.  No one spoke to Lord Fairfax like that…at least, not to his face.  But to confront the man in his own home was unheard of.  Charles found himself both thrilled that Coleman wasn’t present to behold the scene and, oddly, upset that there weren’t any other witnesses to confirm what he was watching.

The tension in the room grew to unbearable thickness.  Charles could feel the battle of wills between his brother and his father, could almost see it like thin blue lines of arcing electricity that danced between their locked eyes.  He prepared himself emotionally for the moment when one or the other snapped and lashed out.

The moment never came.

Instead, Lord Fairfax drew in a deep breath, held it for a second or two, and then released it slowly.  As he exhaled, he seemed to deflate.  His body language shifted and slid into a more casual, conciliatory posture; his eyes softened; and, when he spoke, it was clear that the nobleman had left the room.  “Billy,” he said, in a softer voice, “you have to understand the pressures that our family is under.”

“Bad business deals, bad partners,” Billy said.  “I’m not an idiot; I know you’re losing money.”

We’re losing money,” Lord Fairfax corrected gently.  “You’re a part of this family, too.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t my money.”  He gestured at their surroundings.  “If these bills are too much to handle, why don’t you sell some of this?”

Charles blinked, stunned.  He had grown more accustomed to Billy’s nonchalant dismissal of material wealth, but…but they couldn’t get rid of the trappings of prosperity.  Some of the things on the estate – some of the things in that very room – were over a hundred years old.  It was one thing to bleed money on the stock market.  It was something else entirely to sell off your very history.

As if Billy had read his mind, the older boy turned and faced Charles.  “And before you say anything about it, it isn’t my history.  You’re my brother, he’s my father, but the rest of these people?  They don’t have anything to do with me.”

“That’s not the point,” Lord Fairfax said.  He opened his mouth to continue but a wracking cough interrupted him.  He doubled over for five seconds…then those five seconds stretched out into ten.  When he finally regained control of himself, nearly fifteen seconds of scratchy, choking sounds that were awful to hear had passed.

“Look,” Billy said, placing one hand on Lord Fairfax’s back and stroking.  “Look, I’m sorry I got into the fight.  You’re right; I have to consider what it looks like for you.  I can’t keep going back to who I was every time somebody says the wrong thing to me.”

Charles noted the lower-class accent was gone now, replaced by the approximation of high society that Billy deigned to use.  He was capable of mimicking even their father flawlessly, but he chose this halfway point as an homage to both sides of his parentage.  Or, at least that was what he made a point to tell Charles, every time the conversation came up.

Lord Fairfax looked as though he might say something else for a second or two, before removing a handkerchief and wiping at the corners of his mouth.  “We’ll talk about this later,” he said to Billy.  His eyes traveled from his oldest son to his youngest and that tight, controlled authority crept back into his voice.  “Both of you.”

He pivoted on his heel and walked away, in the direction of the bathroom instead of his personal study.  Both boys watched him go.

“See?” Billy asked, when their father was out of sight.  He collapsed back onto his chair, smiling broadly and easily.  “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Charles shot Billy a dark look.  “It wasn’t so bad for you.  I don’t even know what he would have done if I’d been the one to get in a fight at university.”

“What’s the worst he could do?  You’re bigger than him.  We both are.  It’s not like he could hit us or anything like that.”

That hadn’t stopped Charles’ mother, but he kept that memory to himself.  He cheerfully shared almost everything with his brother; there were some things, however, that he preferred to keep close to his own chest.

“You don’t know what he was like before you got here,” Charles said.  “It was…”

“What, was he one of those men who goes around proclaiming his superiority to everyone who would listen?”  Billy interrupted, barely making an effort to hide how absurd that proposition was.

And Charles privately admitted to himself that it was an absurd thought.  Lord Fairfax hadn’t ever been overtly domineering.  He’ d been good to Charles, just…it was ‘good’ in a very impersonal sense.  They shared nothing with each other, except for the mutual loss of a woman that neither had particularly cared for.

Lord Fairfax shared something more personal than that with Billy, though.  It wasn’t just the loss itself, so much as the raw wound that the death of Billy’s mother had left in both of them.  Charles had never met the woman and, in fact, knew very little about her.  Neither Billy nor their father wanted to talk about it and so he found himself on the outside of that very private pain.

He was jealous of that, for no reason he could name.

“Would you really have done it?” Charles asked, instead of the dozen other questions he longed to speak.

“Done what?”

Charles swallowed.  “Would you have left?”

Billy tilted his head from one side to the other and shrugged.  “Probably not.”  Then, suddenly hearing the plaintive tone of Charles’ voice, he looked sharply over at his brother.  “I wouldn’t have left you.  You’re family.  But other than that?  It’s possible that I might have tried to make a go of things on my own.”

“How?  Do you have money saved up or something?”

Billy gave Charles a secretive smile.  “Not at the moment, no.  But…well, let’s just say that I know a few people who might be looking to hire some extra hands.”

Charles puzzled over that for a few seconds.  Billy had lived on the estate since his mother’s death and that lifestyle came with so many privileges that it seemed unlikely he’d found himself in need of part time employment.

“What’d you mean by that?” Charles asked.

Billy peered at the door that their father had exited through before lowering his voice to a conspiratorial volume.  “Well, just because dear old Dad is running low on funds, that doesn’t mean we can’t find other ways to make use of our illustrious peers.”

Charles lifted an eyebrow.

Billy sighed and broke his thought process down even further.  “I’ve got friends on both sides of the Thames, if you catch my meaning.  I got people like these entitled pricks up at Uni who all want to pretend to be rougher than they really are…and I still know a few people who never made it up out of the slums.  Figure there might be a way we could make a little money, if we’re willing to run messages from one of those groups to the other.”

It still took Charles a few moments to connect the dots.  “Drugs?”  The word came out in a harsh whisper, a little louder than he’d intended.

Billy rolled his eyes.  “I’ve been thinking about this for a while.  Maybe we could come up with just enough to hold things over until the business side of things smooths over.  Or…well, you’ve seen how bad Father’s health has been, lately.  If we’re out of money, what’re we going to do if something…happens?”

The slight hiccup in Billy’s speech, the momentary hesitation, spoke entire volumes to Charles.  He doubted that anyone else would really have been able to pick up on it.

Charles considered what his next words should be.  Billy had offered him something and, despite how casually he’d mentioned it, there wasn’t any doubt that it was a serious proposition.  Years ago, before their father had revealed his infidelity, Charles would never have considered doing anything illegal.  The risks were too great, the possible repercussions too massive to allow.

Now, though?  Now, he had an older brother who seemed incapable of failure.  Someone who had survived the loss of a mother who had loved him, who had managed to carve out a place for himself in the notoriously unwelcoming high society of London nobility.

Someone who their father loved and who honestly didn’t appear able to do wrong.

As much as that thought galled him, it also provided him with an unusual impetus to act.  He could see the possibilities unfolding in front of him.  He knew that his “friends” at Uni partook of drugs, whenever they thought they could get away with it and he was on better terms with most of them than Billy.  With the two of them working together…they might be able to turn more than just a decent profit.

The two of them might be able to do something for their father.  Something that all three of them would share, then, instead of just Lord Fairfax and his eldest illegitimate son.

“How…”  Charles swallowed nervously, started over.  “How would we do it?”

Competence versus Inferiority

“I have a brother?”

“You’ve had a brother,” Lord Fairfax said.  “He’s older than you.”

“Why didn’t Mother tell me about him?  Why haven’t I met him before?”

The older man pinched the bridge of his nose and was silent for a long time.

Charles Fairfax shuffled his feet and picked at the heavy fabric of his school uniform’s coat while he waited.

Until he’d seen his father waiting nervously at the front entrance to the estate, Charles’ day had been typical to the point of banality.  The lessons in school weren’t necessarily difficult, when he could be bothered to pay attention to them, but they provided just enough of a challenge that he had been forced to work at it.  It seemed to come easier to his school friends – if the atmosphere of near-constant backstabbing and treachery could truly foster anything like friendship – and that absolutely galled Charles.  He wasn’t stupid, but it made him feel stupid to watch as the other boys answered questions immediately that took him a few more seconds to grasp.

The end result of a day filled with dozens of little irritants had ultimately pushed Charles into a particularly foul mood.  He didn’t live in eleventh-century England.  Why should he care about who won the Battle of Hastings, or why?  He had no aspirations towards becoming any sort of mathematician; in fact, he doubted he would ever have to work at all, considering his father’s noble station and the privilege that bestowed upon Charles himself.  So what possible reason could there be for him to sit through yet another hour of intricate geometrical problems or to learn all about how Euclid proved his own version of math as valid as any other?

If he could have extracted himself without upsetting his father, Charles would have been happy to break something or yell at some undeserving soul.  He could not do that, however, and so he forced himself to wait a little longer for his father to find the right words.

All told, it didn’t take more than a minute before Lord Fairfax cleared his throat and spoke again.  “Your mother didn’t know about him,” he said slowly, as if he feared Charles wouldn’t be able to read between the lines.

The specific details of childbirth still eluded Charles, but he knew enough about the general shape of things to figure out what his father meant.  “He has a different mother.”

Bright red blossomed in his father’s cheeks and he looked away from Charles.  “Yes.  That is…”  He sighed.  “Yes, he had a different mother.”

Charles thought about his next question.  “Why are you telling me now?”

“Your brother,” Lord Fairfax said, “was…hmm.  What would be the best way to explain this?”

Your brother.  Charles turned that phrase around in his mind, examined it from different directions.  A brother.  A brother. He’d grown up surrounded by various servants and, at the same time, absolutely alone on the estate.  His school friends occasionally came over to visit, at about the same frequency as he went to visit with them, but there was always an impassable distance between them.

He tuned back into what his father was saying, although he’d missed the first few words.  “ – bit of trouble.  You understand that we have an obligation to help others, yes?”

Charles nodded.  “As noblemen and individuals with real power to affect change, it is our responsibility to do what we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves.”

He repeated the words he’d learned at the age of six, recited them like a chant.  After only five years, the words themselves had lost any meaning to him.  They were simply a series of syllables, repeated at a specific pattern and with a certain cadence.  He could’ve defined the concept of noblesse oblige while asleep.

“Precisely that,” Lord Fairfax said.  “And, as I have a…shall we say, a special obligation to your brother, I thought it would best to bring him here.”

“For a visit?”

“No, son.”  Lord Fairfax reached out a hand and touched the slick black sheen of Charles’ hair with two fingers.  He didn’t apply enough pressure for the grease to come off of his fingertips or to disrupt the perfectly arranged coif.  The contact was light enough that Charles could feel it, but not heavy enough that he would mistake it for anything resembling true affection.

“Then what?”

“Your brother is coming here to live with us,” Lord Fairfax said.

Charles blinked.  He opened his mouth to say something and, after allowing a second for his jaw to hang slackly open, closed it again.  He blinked a second time.  “To live with us?” He repeated, finally.

“Indeed.”  Lord Fairfax moved away from his son, across the cavernous space that served as their sitting room, until he stood near a window with its heavy curtains drawn back.  “You were listening to what I said about his mother, yes?”

“Of course,” Charles lied.

Either Lord Fairfax didn’t believe him or he didn’t care.  “She was always ill,” he said to his son, without turning away from the window.  “And it was only a matter of time before she caught something fatal.  It would be unconscionable to turn him away.”

Charles started to reply but realized, a second before he could put breath to the words on his tongue, that Lord Fairfax was speaking to himself.

“I should have done more for her,” Lord Fairfax continued in that same soft undertone.  “I knew she wasn’t doing well, but I thought…I just thought that…”

Charles cleared his throat.  “Sir?”

Lord Fairfax shook his head and refocused his attention on his son.  “Ah.  Yes.  Well, your brother needs our help.  And, as we have the capacity to provide that assistance…”

A sound came from the parlor, closer to the estate’s entrance.  Lord Fairfax let his sentence dwindle and die, turning to look in that direction.  Charles mirrored his father’s actions without really thinking about it.

Their butler, Coleman, came up the stairs holding the hand of a dirty, disheveled boy.  The boy’s eyes darted up, down, left, and right at fervent speeds, taking in everything he saw while making an effort to appear completely uninterested.  Tear tracks, pale and drying like streaks of white paint, ran from his eyes and down his cheeks.  As Coleman and the boy came closer, Charles saw that the boy’s eyes were bloodshot and puffy.

Coleman stopped, just outside of the reading room.  The boy glanced up at Charles, then Lord Fairfax, and then turned his gaze to the floor beneath his feet.

“Ah, yes,” Lord Fairfax said.  “Coleman, come in.  Charles, I’d like to introduce you to someone.”

Etiquette, drilled into Charles from as far back as he could remember, propelled him forward where curiosity might have given him a moment of pause.  He took several long steps across the reading room until he was less than foot away from the boy and held out a hand.

The boy didn’t move.  Charles, bewildered by the lack of response, continued to hold his hand out until the muscles in his upper arm began to hurt.  He lowered his hand and cleared his throat.

“What’s your name?” Charles asked, hoping that a different tactic might yield better results.

The boy cleared his throat and shuffled his feet.  Twin streaks of darkest brown mud were left on the carpet.  He mumbled something.

“What was that?”

“Speak up, boy,” Lord Fairfax said to the boy.  “This is your brother.  Coleman should have told you about him, already.  You did talk to the boy, didn’t you, Coleman?”

“Of course sir,” Coleman replied, bowing his head.

“M’name’s Billy,” the boy repeated, this time at an audible volume.

“William?” Charles repeated.

The boy shook his head with a bit more force than necessary.  “Billy,” he said.  “S’what my mum called me.”  He sniffled and rubbed one filthy hand under his nose.

“Alright, then,” Charles said, faking an ease that he didn’t feel in the slightest.  “Billy, then.  It’s, uh…good to meet you.”

Billy said nothing in reply.  After a few seconds, Charles took a half step back and pivoted to face Lord Fairfax again.

“As I’ve said, Billy’s mother has…passed on,” Lord Fairfax said.

“I’m very sorry to hear that, sir,” Charles said.

It occurred to him, for the first time, that he didn’t feel the slightest bit of surprise at learning about his father’s illegitimate son.  His own mother had died years before and he should have been offended on her behalf.  He searched himself and didn’t find any trace of that emotion.

“You, of course, understand the trauma that sort of loss can cause,” Lord Fairfax said.

Charles hadn’t particularly cared for his mother.  She’d been a shrew of a woman, constantly obsessed with decorum and proper behavior; worse, she had been a hypocrite of the highest order.  While she had insisted on enrolling Charles into the most prestigious academy that their considerable wealth could afford, the woman preferred to spend her nights crawling deep within whatever bottle of alcohol she could lay hands on.  She had been the one who, on more than one occasion, had actually struck Charles when he spoke out of turn or failed to adhere to the strict rules of protocol.

He missed her, as he felt all boys would miss their mother, but he hadn’t loved her.  And, he suspected that she hadn’t loved him, either.

“Yes, sir,” Charles said out loud.

“Well.”  Lord Fairfax cleared his throat.  “Since the two of you will be living together, I thought it best that you meet and get to know each other.”

Charles turned back to Billy.  Except for the nervous shuffling feet and the furtive, almost frightened glances, he hadn’t moved.  “Did you hear that?  We’re going to be living together.”

“I heard,” Billy said.  Charles had to strain his ears to make out the words.

“And we’re going to be…”  The word stuck in his throat.  Charles swallowed, picked another word, and tried again.  “…we’re going to be friends.”

Still, nothing.

“I’d like that very much,” Charles said.  He felt his practiced poise beginning to slip.  None of his classmates would ever act this way.  Even if they didn’t mean a thing they said, the boys at his private school were fastidious about maintaining an attitude of civility.

No reply.  Charles heard his father approach from behind him.  “Give him a moment to adjust,” Lord Fairfax said.  “This must be quite a shock to the poor boy.”

The news of his father’s extramarital relationship and the child it had spawned was also quite a shock to Charles, but his father clearly hadn’t taken that into consideration.  He stayed quiet, though.

Lord Fairfax placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “William,” he began, then stopped.  “Billy.  I know that you have suffered a terrible loss.  I knew your mother well and we were…very close.  If I’d been a different person or if she had…well, it doesn’t matter.”

“She talked about you,” Billy muttered.

“Did she?  What did she say about me?”

“Told me all about my father.  Said he was a good man, but that he couldn’t live with us because it’d look bad.”

Lord Fairfax cleared his throat several times.  Charles glanced away from Billy and up at his father.  He was surprised to see that there were drops of moisture pooling at the corners of the man’s eyes.

“Did she…did she say anything else?” Lord Fairfax asked.

Billy raised his head and locked eyes with Lord Fairfax.  “Said she loved you.  Said you must not have loved her.”

Silence followed that sentence.  Charles made a conscious effort to look anywhere in the room except at his father.  Even then, he could still hear the choked sounds in his father’s throat.  They sounded like sobs.  It was more emotion than Charles had ever seen from his father, up to and including the eulogy he’d delivered at his wife, and Charles’ mother’s, funeral.

It was a great deal more emotion than Lord Fairfax had ever shown to his own son…although Billy was also one of his father’s children.

“I…I loved your mother very much,” Lord Fairfax finally managed to say.  “What happened to her was…was a tragedy.”

“You didn’t want to be with her, though,” Billy said.  His accent – something culled, no doubt, from a lifetime in the poorest parts of the city – rounded the edges off of his letters and gave the entire sentence a truculent tone.  “Why was that?”

“I had…obligations.”  Lord Fairfax looked away from the dirty boy and wiped at his eyes.  When he faced Billy again, his eyes were red but they were at least dry.  “There were things I needed to do and promises that needed to be kept.  Your mother understood that.”

“That’s why you brought me here, then?” Billy asked.  “Because you’ve got…whatever it was you called ‘em?”

Charles, who remembered exactly what words his father had used to describe the situation, kept those thoughts to himself.

There was a shift in demeanor, a subtle change in the atmosphere of the room.  Charles had been in his father’s presence often enough to identify the cause.  He could almost feel Lord Fairfax building up a wall of protocol and etiquette to separate himself from emotion, so that he could say what needed to be said without allowing his own emotions to get in the way.

“You are an obligation, yes,” Lord Fairfax said.  His words were crisp now, although there was still a thickness to his voice.  “You are my son and I have not served you in that capacity.  I intend to remedy that.  That’s why I’ve invited you to live here, with me and with your brother.”

Billy thought silently for a few seconds, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.  “What’s your name?”

It took Charles a moment to realize that Billy was speaking to him now, instead of to his father.  “Charles Fairfax,” he said and stepped forward.  He didn’t raise his hand again.  His pride still stung from that first rejection.

“Like him?”  Billy lifted his chin to indicate Lord Fairfax.  “You both got the same name?  Shouldn’t you be Charles the second or something, then?”

“Our middle names are different.  My…”  Charles trailed off, changed tracks, and started over.  “We don’t share the same middle name.  Who were you named after?”

“My uncle,” Billy said.  “He helped us out, when he could get the work.”

“Where’s your uncle now?”

“Dead.”  There wasn’t any emotion attached to the answer.  Billy said it plainly and simply.  The starkness of the words sent a wave of chills down Charles’ spine.

“Oh.  Well.”  Nothing else came to mind, so Charles lapsed back into silence.

That stretched out over fifteen seconds, with the two boys and their father all standing awkwardly in the reading room.  Coleman was there, as well, but the butler had cultivated the ability to remove his presence from any room.  Most times, Charles took that skill for granted.  Now, he found himself wishing that he could do the same thing.

“Never had a brother,” Billy said.

Charles looked up.

Billy raised a hand in slow, jerky movements and held it out in front of him.  Charles extended his own hand automatically and shook.

Brother.  The word still sounded weird in Charles’ head but, perhaps, it felt a little less strange than it had before.  Either way, it felt right in a way that nothing so far had.

He could feel his father looking down at the top of his head – their heads – and he cleared his throat.  “Brothers,” he repeated.  He tasted the word on his tongue and decided that he liked the way it felt.

Chapter 115

Compared to the excruciating days spent terrified about Ally, the three days it took for us to get everything into position went by surprisingly quickly.  There were no marked difficulties to speak of; no insane hurdles to clear or intractable individuals to bribe; no last minute complications, save for a little bit of legal red tape that Sophie alluded to.  Things went as smoothly as they possibly could have gone, all things considered.

While Sarah worked up a dozen different back-up plans, and Mila practiced her aim using her off hand, I spent my time trying – with varying degrees of success – to charm open a Maximus safe.  The Fortress would be far more difficult, with redundancies that I still knew nothing about, but I intended to tackle that problem with something resembling my former expertise in safe-cracking.  By the time Anton called to let me know that he, the Russians, and Billy’s people were ready to go, I had made it to about seventy percent of my previous skill.  I could have waited longer, practiced more.  In fact, I should have.  But there was no guarantee that Hill wouldn’t move up the timetable or, perhaps, simply grow tired with waiting for an answer.  And, of course, we had to move before Asher caught wind of Hill’s intended betrayal, lest my former partner throw our carefully timed flowchart into disarray by moving toward whatever goals he had in mind prematurely.

So, when I got that call, I told the satellite members of my team to wait for my signal, but to expect kick-off the following day.  Anton relayed the message and we ended the conversation.

Sarah happened to be working in the living room.  She glanced up from her screen as I tossed the phone onto the unoccupied loveseat.  “Anton?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s already got everything set up?”

“Sounds like it.”  I pinched the bridge of my nose, feeling a sudden weariness that I hadn’t expected.

“So.”  Sarah closed her laptop.  “We’re really doing this?”

“Sounds like it,” I repeated.  “Unless you’ve got another way for us to get out of this with our lives?”

“We could run,” Sarah suggested.  Her tone was light, but there was an undercurrent of force that belied her outwardly casual demeanor.

I blinked.  “We?”

“I mean…all of us.  Mila knows people we could hire for protection, if we needed to.  I can probably get most of the money out of my accounts, even the payment we got for the crown, and start up entirely new places to stash it.”

“And just leave Billy, Avis, and Neal to Hill’s tender ministrations?”  I shook my head.  “You aren’t serious.”

Sarah sighed.  “No.  No, I’m not serious.  I just…this whole thing can go wrong so easily.  It almost certainly will go wrong.  Nothing ever goes the way we plan.  And even if everything magically decides to unfold in exactly the way we think it will…”

“If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.”  I stretched until I felt a series of pops travel down my spine and crossed the short distance over to Sarah.  “I’m obviously not going to promise you that everything will be fine.  But I will say that I’m not going to let anything happen to our friends, if there’s something I might be able to do to stop it.”

She barked out a sharp laugh.  “That’s exactly what I thought you’d say.”

“I’m nothing, if not predictable.”

One of Sarah’s eyebrows arched upward.  “Then you must be nothing.  Your whole thing is random, wanton chaos.”

“Would you really want it any other way?”

She didn’t answer.  After a few seconds, she patted the cushion next to her.  Cautiously, I took that as an invitation and sat down beside her.

Sarah cleared her throat and spoke, her voice hitching a little bit at every third word.  “Did you ever think we’d end up here?  All of our history, all the jobs we pulled…do you think you still would have wanted to work with me, back at the charity job, if you knew it was all going to end up here?”

“In a heartbeat,” I answered immediately.  I didn’t even consciously form the words.  They simply sprang, unbidden and wholly formed, from my lips.  “If God himself had descended from the heavens and told me that it was going to lead to this circus, I still wouldn’t have hesitated for a second.”

Sarah put one arm up, around my shoulders, and then pulled me into a hug.  I froze for an instant.  It was the most intimate contact we’d had since that final, devastating argument, and the warmth of her body against mine sent my brain into a temporary state of stupefaction.  I recovered quickly, though, and returned the hug with just as much force.

The elevator dinged.  We broke away from each other, but we weren’t quite fast enough to reach opposite ends of the couch before Mila and Michel entered the suite.  I noticed that Michel was carrying a small caliber handgun now.  It looked like one of Mila’s, but I couldn’t really be sure.  Mila’s uninjured hand held about half of an unwrapped KitKat bar.

“Are we interrupting something?” Mila asked.  Her lips twitched slightly, not quite becoming a smirk.  Michel, at least, had the good grace to seem embarrassed.

“We were just talking about our collective insanity,” Sarah replied smoothly.  “Seeing as every one of us has decided to leap cheerfully off a cliff tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”  The not-quite smirk fell away from Mila’s face.  “Everything’s in position?”

“As much as it’s going to be,” I said.  “Michel, the vehicles you needed aren’t going to get placed until later, after I let Sophie know to set that up.”

The Frenchman nodded.  “I have worked on the route these last few days.  I know it, backwards and forwards.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“What about your friends?” Mila asked.

“Alex and his daughter are going to stay here at the start of it,” I said.  “When we’ve got Hill suitably distracted, that’ll be the best time for them to get out of the country.  There’s a train that’ll get them out of the immediate area and then he can use some of his friends to handle the rest of the trip back to Germany.”

“And you’re sure he’s going to use that train?”

“About as sure as I am about anything else that’s been going on lately.”

“So.”  Mila shifted her weight and started to scratch idly at the bit of exposed skin just above her cast.  “This is it.”

“One way or another, yeah.”

“I feel…”  She hesitated.  “I feel like you should…I don’t know, like you should say something.”

The absurdity of that sentiment, coming from Mila of all people, sent a wave of chuckles through all of us in the room.  Even Mila smiled a little and shook her head.

“I didn’t really have a rousing speech planned,” I said.  “We’ve been up against insane odds for a couple of weeks and we’ve come out ahead.  At least now we know who we’re up against and we know what we’re after.”

“This is easily the craziest job I’ve ever tackled,” Sarah said.  She moved closer to Mila and Michel, which had the side-effect of bringing her nearer to me.  Our fingers nearly touched on the couch.  “But I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever worked with who could have pulled off the things we did.”

I nodded.  “Sarah’s right.  Basically, what I’m trying to say is this: if I ever find myself up against a psychotic ex-partner who’s out for my blood and a fratricidal drug kingpin, while also struggling to fulfill the whims of a mysterious woman and her pet giant, you guys are the team I’d want for the job.”

“That is…very specific,” Michel said, his smile widening.

“I thought you’d like that.  Mila, is that enough, or should I start in on the Braveheart?”

She finished off her KitKat bar and crumpled the wrapper in one fist.  “I guess that’s what I should’ve expected.  It’ll do.”

“Fantastic.”  I cracked my knuckles.  “Everybody, finish up with whatever preparations you need, and then get some sleep.  Kick-off is tomorrow, 3:30 PM.”

A round of nods went around the room and then, with nothing else that needed to be said between us, we all went our separate ways.  I returned to my own bedroom, where the Maximus waited to taunt my inabilities.  Both invigorated and terrified by the knowledge that there was no more time for practice, planning, or second-guessing, I attacked the safe for another two hours before I finally slumped against the door and slept.

I awoke to bustle and fuss outside of my room.  The safe hadn’t been a comfortable bed, as my back was happy to declare, but I pushed through the discomfort.  A quick trip to the shower helped to clear away the lingering traces of mental fog and then I found myself back in my bedroom, staring into my closet.  The Lady had accommodated any possible sartorial requirements I might have, so long as I was infiltrating high society.  She had not been so efficient or fastidious when it came to more covert options.  Sophie could probably have arranged for something in black with only a few moments of notice, but…

Moving quickly, I dressed myself in the same suit I’d worn to the museum gala, so many nights ago; the one that Sophie had created, specifically for me.  The fit was impeccable and the surprisingly breathable vest provided an additional layer of safety.  What led me to choose that suit over something more practical, however, wasn’t its cut or its stylings.  Sophie was, in a way, a part of the entire London affair.  Bringing her work along with me felt right.

Besides, it wasn’t as though I planned to do very much sneaking.  If I were seen, at any point, it wouldn’t exactly matter what I was wearing.  No quantity of all black turtlenecks would do a thing to keep me concealed in broad daylight.

When that was finished, I slipped all of my usual toys and gadgets into their appropriate places and stepped out into the hallway.  Sarah left her own room at the same time and nearly bumped into me.

“Oh!”  She stepped back quickly, performing a quick dance to keep any of the electronics in her arms from falling to the ground.  “I was just about to get you.  Is that…is that what you’re wearing?”

“There’s a distinct lack of options,” I said.  “And I figured there was something to be said for the dramatic effect.”

Her lips puckered and twisted up for a second, then eased back into a subtle smile.  “I like it.”

A smile appeared on my own face.  “Everybody else is ready?”

Mila stepped into view from just out of sight, blocking the entrance to the hallway.  She wore a tight shirt and jeans, with holsters around one thigh; crisscrossed between her shoulder blades, so that guns hung to either side of her in easy reach; and at the small of her back.  A duffle bag was slung over her shoulder.  “I’m good to go, if you are.”

I gave her equipment a skeptical look.  “Planning on starting an international incident today?”

She didn’t smile at the little joke.  “You know who’s going to be there,” she said.  “I’d rather have something I don’t use, then need something I left at home.”

“Good point.  Did you find one for me?”

She knelt, unzipped the duffle bag, and dug around inside of it for a few seconds.  She emerged before too long and held out a weapon, in its own holster.  “This is a Ruger,” she said.  “Easy enough for beginners, which you clearly are.  If you pull this, be prepared to use it.”

I took the gun and examined it.  “Looks like something Bond would use.”

Mila ignored that.  “There’s a key for the safety,” she said, as she located and passed that to me, as well.  “Make absolutely sure the safety is off, if you end up needing the gun.”

“Got it.”  It took me a few tries to position the holster just right beneath my suit jacket and the added weight at my side still felt odd when I finished.

“Michel’s downstairs.  Car’s already running.”

Sarah, Mila, and I rode the elevator down and exited the Brooklands through the lobby.  Not only did I see the car that we’d arranged through Sophie, but the concierge herself stood a few feet away from the idling vehicle.  She shifted her weight from one foot to the other until she saw us, at which point her posture became immaculate and stiff.

“Soph?” I asked.  “Everything okay?”

“Everything is fine, Mister O’Brien,” Sophie said.  She took a deep breath before continuing.  “I simply wanted to take this opportunity to, uh…wish you the best of luck in your activities today.  Your stay here at the Brooklands was an…interesting experience.  If you ever find yourself in London again, I would be happy to provide suitable service.  Assuming, of course, that you, uh…”

I rescued her from any more stuttering with a vague gesture.  “That almost sounds like you like us,” I said, “and that’s what I’m going to take it to mean.”

“Ah.”  She sighed and deflated slightly.  “Yes.  Well.  If you require anything else, you only have to contact me.”

“I don’t think we’ll need you anymore today,” I said.

“Still.”  She seemed to consider something and then stepped forward to take one of my hands into both of hers.  “Anything at all I can do to help, don’t hesitate to ask.”

It was, perhaps, the most genuine emotion I’d seen from Sophie in our time at the Brooklands.  I shook her hand.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Very good, then,” Sophie said, as we separated.  The expression on her face told me that she had something else to say, but she shook her head and left without speaking her thoughts aloud.

The three of us piled into Michel’s car and he pulled away without wasting a single second.  We’d been on the road for ten or fifteen minutes before he said anything.  “Do the others know what you plan to do?”

“You mean Anton, the Russians, and Billy’s gang?”  I shook my head.  “No reason to tell them.  They aren’t involved in any of the sensitive bits, beyond the stuff with the bombs.  As long as they can keep to the schedule, their part will go perfectly.”

“And if you find yourself needing their assistance?”

“If I need their assistance, it’ll be too late.”

Michel accepted that answer with a grim tightening around his lips and a soft grunt of displeasure.

The rest of the trip passed in complete silence, save for the steady click of Sarah’s keyboard as she worked.  I considered several conversation starters and dismissed each and every one of them.  There simply wasn’t anything left to say.  The time for words had ended; now, it was the time for frenzied, panicked action.

Michel eased the car to a complete stop when we reached the staging area.  Sarah’s specialty van waited in a parking spot nearby.  She put the finishing touches on one of her programs and closed her laptop.  “This is my stop,” she said and opened the door to step outside.

I reached out and put a hand on her elbow.  She went still.  “See you on the other side,” I said softly.

“Yeah.  See you on the other side.”

She exited Michel’s car and walked across the parking lot until she reached her van, then disappeared inside.  A moment later, my earbud popped twice and came to life.

She cleared her throat before speaking.  “Can everybody hear me?”

Oui.

“Yeah.”

Those answers came from Michel and Mila.

“Same as ever.”

That one came from me.

Da,” Stani’s voice said over the comms.  “You are in position?”

“They’d better be,” Chester’s voice said in reply.  “Put every man I could ahold of on this.  If they ain’t even where they’re supposed to be, then – “

“We’re all in position,” Sarah said, neatly cutting Chester off before he could work up a head of steam.  “We all know what we’re supposed to do.  That’s my part, handled.  Devlin?”

I inhaled and exhaled several times, willing my heartbeat to steady itself.  The effort proved unsuccessful, so I just accepted the wild variance and focused on stilling my thoughts instead.  That went better.

Mila and Michel looked at me from the front of the car.  They were waiting, too, although what they were waiting for could not have been any more different.

I let the still air over the comms hang there for a few more seconds.  When I spoke again, things would get insane, unpredictable, and dangerous.  No matter how thoroughly we had checked and double-checked every aspect of the plan, Sarah and I both knew better than to assume we’d stick to every detail…or, honestly, any detail beyond the vaguest beginning steps.

I thought of Avis and Neal, of Billy, of Asher.  I thought about my old friend and his vendetta against me.  I thought about the Lady with her ice-chip eyes.

Then I cleared my throat.  “Sarah,” I said.  “Start the clock.”

Chapter 114

Sarah opened her mouth, presumably to explain whatever dastardly plan she’d managed to create during my alcohol-induced slumber, just as the elevator dinged.  Mila’s uninjured hand darted across her torso to the handle of her concealed gun and she only relaxed the tiniest bit when Michel’s head came into view.

The Frenchman made a very deliberate effort not to move any unnecessary muscles.  His eyes went from Mila’s face down to her weapon, then back again.  He dipped two fingers into his front pants pocket, moving with excruciating care.  When the fingers came back into sight again, he held a candy bar in a delicate grip.

“I do not think you have tried this one before,” Michel said.  “Perhaps you will not like it, but…”

Mila rolled her eyes.  The tension in her body lessened appreciably and she took two long steps over to the open elevator door, just to snatch the candy bar from Michel’s fingers in a motion too quick for me to follow.  “Very funny,” she said.

I noticed that, despite her tone, she couldn’t quite contain the faint shadow of a smile on her lips.

“Ah!”  Michel exited the elevator and walked over to the couch where I sat.  “You are awake!  Sarah, have you told him what you came up with yet?”

“I was just about to, actually,” Sarah said.  “It’s better that you’re here, too, come to think of it.  If Dev points out any flaws, it’ll be easier to come up with workarounds while we’re all in the same place, as opposed to communicating that sort of thing on the fly.”

“Is that coffee I smell?”

I nodded and passed Michel my own drained mug.  “Get me some more, too?”

“On an empty stomach?” Sarah asked.  “You know what that does to you.”

“I’ll order room service in a little bit.  Or I’ll cook something.  But I’m not awake enough yet to think clearly and we don’t really have the time for me to get there without more caffeine.”

She shrugged.  “It’s your health.”

Michel vanished into the kitchen for a minute or two.  He returned with two full, steaming mugs of coffee.  He placed one of them in front of me and took the other with him to an empty space on the coffee table, where he sat and began to drink deeply.

“Alright,” Sarah said, after I’d had a chance to consume a little bit of my third coffee in maybe thirty minutes.  “I looked a lot of different options while you were out, crunched numbers, reached out to any associates I absolutely trust.”

“I don’t imagine that you have a lot of those,” I pointed out.

“You’re not wrong.  Surprisingly, hackers and criminals are not the most trustworthy sort.”  Her expression darkened slightly as she spoke.  I owned my technical illiteracy and Sarah’s web of friends and frenemies had always been something beyond my understanding.  If I wasn’t misreading her – a valid possibility, if ever there was one – the fact that she couldn’t rely on those resources was bothering her more than she let on.

“Go on,” I prompted, both out of curiosity and a desire to change the subject before she had a chance to really start brooding.

Sarah physically shook herself out of her thoughts.  “I’ll spare you the details and the ideas that just wouldn’t work because of time, personnel, and so on.  Here are the problems I’ve come up with, though.  Let me know if I missed anything.”

“I’m listening.”

Sarah did something with her tablet so that it displayed onto the television screen, where everyone in the room could more easily follow along.  Even Mila, already halfway through the candy bar Michel had brought her, left her position by the elevator so that she would have a better view.

“One,” Sarah said.  The number one appeared on the television screen and letters followed after it, only slightly out of sync with Sarah’s voice.  “We do not know anything about the interior of the estate, beyond what we saw when Hill invited us there in the first place.”

“Can’t you find that out?”

“Apparently, no.”  The fingers on her left hand twitched – actually, only a single finger twitched – before she clenched them all into a fist.  “I’m guessing that Hill went out of his way to make sure that the property doesn’t have any sort of official construction plans.  Maybe he did the work with some of the people from his more…shall we say, illicit business dealings.  However he did it, the point is that I can’t physically get any intelligence about he’ll have the place laid out.”

I frowned.  That wasn’t a promising start.  If our plan was to break into the house somehow, rescue our friends, and steal the Book without bringing down armed fury on our heads, we’d have to be quick and we’d have to be quiet.  Relative silence was easy enough to manage, but we couldn’t afford to spend precious minutes or hours searching through the estate room by room.  Every second inside the estate put us a second closer to disaster.

Sarah had clearly drawn the same conclusion.

“Could you do it like the manor house?” I asked.  “Infiltrate his wireless network and use his own security cameras to map out where things are located?”

“Thought about that.  Won’t work.”  With some deft finger-work, she made a second bullet point appear on the screen, along with the words ‘cannot remotely access network.’

“Why not?” I asked.

“You want the technical answer?”  Sarah shook her head before I replied.  “No, of course you don’t.  Okay, um…okay, I can explain this.  I hack into systems wirelessly whenever possible, because it lets me stay away from the actual target.  At the manor house, that wasn’t feasible, so you just co-opted their own wireless signal for me to use.  Even then, you had to physically attach a clip and find your way to the security room.”

I nodded.  “I’m following along.”

“There is no wireless signal coming from Hill’s house.  None at all.”

“You hacked into his emails, didn’t you?”

“I hacked into his phone,” Sarah corrected, “where his emails are stored.  He either didn’t care or didn’t know how to protect his phone better than the defaults, which is…honestly, a little concerning.  Anyway.  His home network, though?  As far as my programs are concerned, it doesn’t exist.”

“How likely is that?”

The look Sarah gave me spoke volumes about my own ignorance.  “It is not particularly likely that nobility living in the 21st Century would have an estate without any sort of computer network.  It’s even less likely that a crime lord would kidnap his brother, the human equivalent of a Turing machine, and a relative innocent without some way to actually keep an eye on them.”

“Ah.  Well.  Okay, then.  So, what does that mean, then?”

“It means that he’s using air-gapped computers,” Sarah said.  She gave my blank, uncomprehending expression a dismissive wave and elaborated in Layman’s terms.  “It means that his computers can’t be remotely hacked.”

“That much I understand.  So.  No way to know how the estate is built or where Hill’s more likely to stash Avis, Neal, Billy, or the Book.  No way for you to hack into his computer system.  Any other impossible obstacles I should start worrying about?”

“It isn’t impossible to get into the network,” Sarah said.  “It’s impossible for me to remotely get into their network.  It wouldn’t be impossible if someone were able to physically insert a flash drive into the primary computer.”

I drank the coffee in my mug down to about half its previous volume.  “And when you say someone, you mean me?”

“Or me,” Mila said.

I gave her a quizzical look.  “You aren’t trained in this sort of thing.  You’re good in your own area, obviously, but this isn’t going to be the sort of thing that you can fight your way out of.”

“Ask me if I care about any of that,” Mila replied, in that slightly dangerous, even-handed tone.  “I’ve got a job to keep you safe.  I’m not going to let you go into Hill’s estate, just to get captured and killed.  Besides…I hate owing people favors.”

“Favors?  What are you – “ I stopped, mid-sentence.  “You’re talking about the thing with the police?”

Mila nodded.

“You don’t owe any of us for that!”

“Doesn’t matter.  You go in, I’m going in.”

The angle of her shoulders, the minute tightening of her jaw, the slight curling of the fingers on her uninjured hand…all that and a dozen other quirks of body language told me that nothing I said was going to change Mila’s mind.  “Sarah,” I said, exasperated and irritated, “what else have you got for us?”

“Not much more.”  She entered a command into the tablet with quick, darting movements.  A third bullet point appeared on the television screen.  “Assuming that we can’t trust anybody to actually be on the ground with us, we just don’t have the personnel for an operation like this.  You can’t be in two places at once.  Anton can’t be responsible for the bombs and running around all over London.  Et cetera, et cetera.”

“Do you have a possible fix for that?”

She shook her head.  “Not even the slightest.  I’m just hoping you can figure that out, because we’ve still got…”  Sarah trailed off as a fourth bullet point slid into place on the television screen.  It read, in bold, stark lettering: “priorities.”

I understood what that mean, even before Sarah had to draw in breath to explain it to me.  “Too many targets,” I said, “and not enough time to hit them all.”

Sarah nodded.  “Pretty much.  With the lack of personnel already being an issue, there just isn’t any way that I can think of to accomplish everything we want to.  Unless Hill was stupid enough to put Avis, Neal, Billy, and the Book in the same unsecured room, we’re going to have to make some choices on what to prioritize.”

We made eye contact for a brief heartbeat.  That wasn’t all that long in the life of things, but it felt like an eternity.  In that singe frozen instant of eye contact, Sarah and I communicated a wealth of things without ever speaking a word.  She knew what I would say, Asher’s betrayal be damned.  And she wanted me to say it.  One of us had to make the obvious suggestion, just as one of us had to find a way to bring the mountain to Mohammed, so to speak.  I’d always been closer to the heart of any group we found ourselves working in.  It was only reasonable that I’d have to speak in that role now.

“We save our friends,” I said.  There was a slight flicker in Sarah’s expression.  Gratitude, perhaps, or resignation.  Certainly not disappointment or surprise.

“What about Asher?  Or the Book?”

“If the Lady has a problem with how I make decisions, she should have hired someone who’d make different choices.  No matter how badly I want to make Asher pay for setting me up in Paris, I’m not going to buy that revenge with the life of a child or someone who’s helped all of us.”

One corner of Sarah’s lips twitched slightly upward, in an instant so fast that even I nearly missed it.  “I figured you’d say that.”

“So did I,” Mila added.  She heaved a dramatic sigh, clearly not caring in the slightest about hiding her emotions.  “Because it would make too much sense if you guys went after the Book, which is going to be so much easier to transport than three human beings.”

“We might have other chances at the Book,” I pointed out.  “Hill’s explicitly said he’s going to kill Billy, Avis, and Neal as soon as he finishes getting what he needs decrypted.”

“None of which is your problem,” Mila said.  “Or, at least, none of which has to be your problem.  But I’d be lying if I said I was surprised to find out that you’re going to put yourself in a more difficult situation.”

I smirked at that.  “And you’re still sure about this contract?”

“I already agreed to the terms.”  Mila rolled one shoulder, then the other.  “And your old friend has pissed me off a little bit too much.  I think a little bit of controlled destruction is past due, honestly.  I’d probably want to ruin his day, even if I weren’t being paid exorbitant amounts to keep you safe.”

Mila and I shared that sentiment in common.

“Sarah,” I said, “is that the last problem on your list?”

“That’s the last one I was able to come up with,” she replied.  “Of course, I’m expecting a million other things to go wrong between now and whenever we set things into motion, but that’s going to be up to you to figure out.”

I nodded.  “Well, I figure that’s the most impossible list of restrictions and requirements we’ve been up against since we came to London, but we haven’t let any of that stop us yet, have we?  You said you had a plan?”

“I have a plan to get you into the estate,” Sarah said.  While she spoke, her fingers busily worked across the tablet’s surface, changing the display on the television screen from the list of problems to a flowchart.  “Or the two of you, whatever.  But I don’t have any idea what you’ll have to do while you’re in there and I have no idea how to get you out again.”

“Thirty-three percent of a plan is still better than zero percent,” I pointed out.  “What’ve you got in mind?”

Using the television screen as a prop, Sarah outlined her idea.  I listened with growing astonishment, confusion, and frank surprise as she walked me through every twist and turn of the infiltration.  The image on the screen changed several times, normally when she reached some point that required visual representation.  When she was done, I stared at her for nearly a full minute.

Sarah broke the silence before I did.  “Well?  What do you think?”

I blinked and swallowed hard, picking my words with exquisite care.  “I thought that I was supposed to be the crazy one.”

She responded to that by throwing a pillow at me.  Either because of the coffee or because of a genuine lack of intent on her part, I easily dodged the projectile.  “I’m serious here.  This is more your speed, but Asher and Hill have been ahead of us every step of the way with my plans.  Even when we thought we were winning, we might only have been helping one side or the other get closer to their goals.”

“So you figured you’d change things up?”  I gave her an approving nod.  “That’s probably what we needed.  Like Mila said: a little bit of controlled destruction might do us all some good.  And, if nothing else, we can at least put a serious dent in anything Hill’s trying to do in the region.”

“Right before we all die horrible, fiery deaths,” Mila said.

We all looked at her.  It was Michel who spoke first.  “With that attitude,” he said, “it is a wonder that everyone does not come to you for your cheery disposition.”

Mila seemed as though she might have taken offense at that for a few seconds, before she relaxed and allowed a genuine smile to spread across her face.  “This is me being cheery,” she said.  “You don’t want to see what I’m like when I’m actually pessimistic.”

Michel shook his head with slow, mock sadness.  “It is a shame.  She does not understand the meaning of sarcasm at all.”

“Is this what dealing with me feels like?” I asked Sarah.

“Pretty much.  Except Michel’s got the accent, so that’s working for him.”

A number of reprisals leapt to mind, but I sidelined them before they made it past their infancies.  Another thought followed on their heels, which crystallized into solidity almost instantly.  I turned it around in my mind, examined it from every possible angle, before deciding that it had a less than zero percent chance of working.  In this situation, with all of the odds stacked against us, that was a higher percentage than any of us had any right to expect.

“You can get me in,” I said, “and I think I might have an idea to get me back out again.  But you definitely aren’t going to like it.”  I turned to Mila.  “Neither of you are.”

“Let me be the judge of that,” Sarah said.  “Maybe there’s some way we can mitigate whatever difficulties you’re planning to set up for yourself.”

“Doubt it.”

I told her my idea.  It took considerably less time than she had used on her own explanation and required none of the props.

“You’ve lost your mind,” Sarah said, immediately after I finished speaking.  “Seriously, you have absolutely lost your mind.”

“Think about it,” I said.  “We both know there isn’t any other way I can get out of the estate.  Even using your plan to get in, I’d just be trapped inside with however many men Hill’s employed.  And some of your tricks are only going to work the one time.”

Mila took two steps forward.  “You weren’t kidding when you said I wasn’t going to like it.  Not that it matters either way, because I’m not going to let you do it.”

“Yes it does matter, and yes you will let me go through with it.  Because the alternatives aren’t any better, and almost all of them involve one or both of us dying those fiery deaths you mentioned earlier.  We have limited resources to bring to bear here, so we’ve got to make use of everything we have.  Even if it’s not something we’d typically prefer to get involved.”

Mila grumbled something under her breath, but she didn’t move any closer.

“Michel?” I shifted my attention over to the Frenchman.  “What do you think?”

He gave his answer deep thought.  “I think,” he said, finally, “that you are crazy.”

“Crazy like a fox or crazy like…well, like Asher?”

“Neither,” Michel replied.  “Or both.  But maybe…maybe you are crazy enough that this thing will work.”

I decided that, in spite of my own second-guesses and the general air of disbelief in the room, I would have to take Michel’s faint praise as endorsement enough.  Besides, if my idea didn’t work, I strongly doubted that anyone would be in any mood to tell me that they’d been right all along.

Chapter 113

When I awoke, it was completely dark inside the hotel suite.  Bleary-eyed, I fumbled around on the nightstand until my fingers found the edges of the encrypted phone.  A quick check, followed by some curiously difficult math, told me that I’d only slept for a few hours.  Considering the time, I nearly expected everyone else to be fast asleep, but the sounds of life and activity reached me from the main area, outside my door and down the hallway.

Cursing softly for no reason I could think of, I stumbled out of bed, into a pair of loose flannel pajama pants, and made my way out of the bedroom.  Immediately, I shielded my eyes against the light.  Sharp, stabbing shafts of light poured out of Sarah’s computer room and that was compounded by every light in the hallway, all the way down to the main area.  It took a second or two before my eyes had adjusted enough that I dared risk walking forward at all and I still managed to stub my toe against the wall.

“What,” I asked, when I finally reached the living room, “is everyone doing up?  And why is it so damn bright in here?”

“That’s what people usually do when they need to read,” Sarah said.  I couldn’t see her through the cracks in my fingers, but the self-satisfied tone of voice came through loud and clear.

I turned so that I was facing in her general direction before replying.  “Your sarcasm is not appreciated.”

She drew in a fake gasp of horror.  “However will I live with myself?  I’ll have you know that some people find my sarcasm quite charming.”

“Did those people have the luxury of sleeping before encountering your biting wit?”

“I don’t know.  I never asked.”

“You know, he really does not respond well when he hasn’t gotten enough sleep,” Mila said.  Judging from her voice, she was standing in the corner of the room.  Probably in the nook just to the side of the elevator, where she normally took up residence.  It gave her a vantage point of the room and a clean shot at any uninvited guests, after all.

I faced what I thought was the corner and glared at Mila.  The effect was probably spoiled by the fact that I literally couldn’t manage to open my eyes wider than a slit, but it made me feel better, anyway.  “I work perfectly fine without sleep,” I said, affecting a huffier tone than strictly necessary.

“It’s true,” Sarah said.  “It’s the vodka that does it to him.  Dev, there’s coffee in the kitchen, whenever you feel like being a person again.”

I grumbled several vile things – well, they weren’t actually words, but the sentiment was far from polite – and went into the kitchen.  While my vision cleared and adjusted, I managed to unearth a gargantuan coffee mug and filled it almost to the brim.  Another few seconds of searching yielded some liquid creamer.  I drank the mixture down in two or three large gulps, refilled it, and finished half of that as well.

With all that done, I walked back into the living room.  “Alright,” I said.  There was still sleep clinging to every other syllable and I felt a terrible case of cotton-mouth building up, but at least I could look around without wincing in pain.  “What’re we doing?”

“Taking stock of our assets,” Sarah replied.  “Figuring out what we might need to get from Sophie and how useful it’ll be.”

“To know any of that stuff, wouldn’t we need some vague idea of exactly how we’re going to get Billy, Avis, and the Book away from Hill and company?”

“That is…another part of what we’re doing,” Sarah admitted.  I took a seat across from her and she passed the tablet in her hands over to me.  “Here, take a look.”

I rubbed some gunk from the corner of my eyes and did as ordered.  The tablet displayed a ledger list of purchases, all attributed to one Lord Charles Fairfax.  Much of what I saw there was renovation-related – new doors, tables, and furniture; rugs and carpets of various shapes and sizes; reinforced window panes – so I clicked an icon at the top of the screen, so that I could skim through those items without being distracted by anything else there.

Sarah spoke to me while I read.  “I didn’t think he’d purchase any of the serious stuff using his own public identity, but it seems like Hill’s a good bit stupider than you’d think.  Everything you’re looking at now has a totally legitimate purpose, on the surface.  Taken in aggregate with everything we know, though…”

“He’s fortifying,” I said.  “How far back do these purchases go?”

“I’ve only been able to find a few months.”  Sarah paused.  “Well, okay.  Ally was able to find a few months’ worth of purchases.  I think I might have been giving Hill too much credit or…or, I don’t know, maybe I was just tired, but I would’ve missed it if she hadn’t been here to point it out.”

I shrugged one shoulder and took another long drink of coffee.  “Girl’s got talent, I guess.  She managed to figure out that Alex used to be a thief and you know how hard we worked to keep that under wraps.”

“Fair enough.”  Sarah still seemed a little upset at missing the trail, but she continued after a deep breath.  “This is what I’m thinking: Hill arranged for Asher to steal the book from the bank at Limassol.  Asher decided to use his contacts in the Bratva to provide a little extra muscle, fully expecting to betray them as soon as he got what he wanted.  As soon as the book had been safely extricated from the country, Hill put it somewhere in his house and started preparing the estate for a siege.”

“From who?”  A moment passed and then I answered, before Sarah could.  “The Magi.  He’s getting ready in case they find out what he’s doing before everything’s in place.”

Sarah nodded.  “Pretty much.”

“But why did Asher decide to betray the Magi, in favor of Hill?” I asked.  “If all he wants is power – and I can tell you for a fact that he’s very interested in power and always has been – wouldn’t it make more sense to stay with the heavyweight champions of the criminal world?”

“Maybe he wants it on his own terms?”

Mila cleared her throat.  I glanced at her and discovered, to no great surprise, that she had produced a Turkish Delight out of thin air.  She unwrapped the candy while she talked.  “Or he had a grudge against the Magi.  I know a thing or two about wanting to get even.  It isn’t the sort of thing that typically lends itself to clear thinking.”

That wasn’t directed at me, and I knew it, but I still reflexively looked away from Mila.  It wasn’t that I’d forgotten my ultimate goal of avenging Asher’s betrayal – after all, that had been the impetus for this whole, sordid affair – but so many things had happened that I’d lost sight of the target.  There were new friends that I felt personally responsible for; enemies I hadn’t anticipated making; mysteries and mysterious people behind the scenes; and a throng of other complications that made it impossible for me to stay focused on any one thing.  Even now, while I wanted nothing more than to take Asher and Hill down for the offences they’d committed against me and my friends, it wasn’t coming from a place of personal anger.

Or was it?  Was it possible that I would have found another way to deal with everything if I hadn’t wanted, deep down, to make Asher pay for my prison sentence?  Was there any way to really know?

I shook my head to clear it, failed, and decided to simply shift my thoughts to a different track for the moment, instead.  That tactic was only marginally more successful than the first.  “We’ll have to add that to the list of things we still don’t know,” I said.

“That one keeps getting longer and longer,” Sarah said.  “Every time we think we’re getting ahead, it turns out that we’ve only been giving someone a minor inconvenience.”

“I don’t think we need to worry about that, anymore.”

Sarah raised an eyebrow.

I finished the rest of my coffee.  I thought about getting a third cup.  My empty stomach answered the question for me.  A third cup without taking time to eat would only make me sick and jittery; two things I couldn’t afford to be, at the moment.  “Just like Asher was playing all of his cards when he kidnapped Ally, Hill is going all in with this move.  Either we take his job offer and become his enforcers when various Underworld elements refuse to fall in line, or he kills us and wipes his hands of the entire affair.  He can’t be holding anything back now.”

“Or so you think.”

“Or so I think,” I repeated.  “But if I have to choose between thinking the wrong thing now or second-guessing everything, I’ll go with the first choice.”

Sarah sighed.  “That is the sort of thing you’d do, isn’t it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nevermind.”  Sarah shook her own head several times.  “Look at the rest of that list and tell me what you see.”

I spent a few heartbeats puzzling over Sarah’s oddities before turning my attention back to the tablet.  My fingers tapped the appropriate buttons to switch over the ledger to a full accounting for all of Hill’s purchases.  I scrolled and found nothing of note.  I scrolled some more and, still, saw nothing particularly unusual for someone preparing for siege.  I scrolled down again, froze, blinked, and then whispered a single curse word.

“Yeah,” Sarah said.  “That.”

“Yeah,” Mila asked, “what?  Sarah saw something on that list and she had the same reaction as you, Devlin.”

“It’s a safe,” I said.

“Well, if he wanted to keep the book safe, Hill would have to have a safe.  What’s so surprising about that?”

“It isn’t a safe.”  I looked at the coffee cup and, suddenly, found myself wishing that it had been filled with something stronger than mere caffeine.  “It’s the safe: the Döttling.”

“Judging from your expression, I’m going to assume that the Döttling is heavy-duty?”

“Let me put it this way.”  I set the tablet down on the couch beside me, taking great care not to disturb Sam where he slept, and steepled my fingers in front of my face for a few moments.  “You’re armed, right?”

Mila lifted an eyebrow in my direction before lifting her broken arm slightly to reveal the black leather of her shoulder holster.

“And you’re carrying a…what, a Glock?”

“Sig Sauer, actually.  Easier to get ahold of in the UK.”

“Alright.  Now, I’m just guessing, but you’re probably pretty damn good with that thing.  Accurate and all that, right?”

Mila responded by arching her eyebrow even more and, somehow, conveying a great wealth of wounded pride in the simple gesture.

“I’m just asking.  It’s important that you really understand what we’re talking about here.  So, imagine a Sig Sauer.  Hold that in your head.  Now, imagine that someone had the idea to take everything about that gun and make it better.  Needlessly better.  Higher capacity, less recoil, more range.  Turn each dial on that gun up to eleven.”

Mila took a bite from her Turkish Delight.  “Like something from TrackingPoint,” she said, finally.

“TrackingPoint?”

“They make guns that…it’s hard to explain, but let’s just say you can’t miss with a gun like that unless you’re really trying to.  They’re damned expensive.”

I nodded.  “Alright, I can work with that.  So, you’ve got a perfectly serviceable weapon, and then you’ve got something like this TrackingPoint gun.  Except the difference between the Döttling and the next best safe on the market is about two or three times as wide.”

Mila looked from me to Sarah.  Sarah gave her a short nod.  Mila looked back at me, swallowed her mouthful of candy, and allowed the tiniest bit of stunned shock to reach her otherwise placid expression.  “Seriously?”

“Seriously.”  I drummed my fingers against the side of my mug.  “So, he’s got a Fortress in there?”

“Not a Fortress.  A Fortress Maximus,” Sarah said.  “The new and improved model.  I’m not even sure that these things are publically available yet.”

“How did he – wait, no, never mind.  It doesn’t matter how, just that he does.  Can you find any of the specs online?”

Sarah shook her head.  “I’ve only been looking for a little while, so there’s always a possibility, but…no, I don’t think I’ll be able to.”

Another string of curses threatened to make their way past my lips.  I bit them back and forced myself to think instead.  “Maybe Alex knows someone.  Those are German made, after all.”

“Hmm.  Maybe.  I’ll send this over to him whenever he wakes up.  Someone decided to drink half a bottle of vodka with him, so he’s a little out of commission at the moment.”

It only took the briefest mention of that particular cursed alcohol to remind my headache that I’d been enjoying several peaceful moments.  It returned with just enough strength that I had to press my thumbs into my temples.  “I’m going to cut off your Diet Coke supply,” I said, “just to see how you handle it.”

Sarah faked a gasp.  I noticed that, even though she was dramatizing her shock, she made certain to tighten her grip on the soda can in front of her.  “You go right ahead and try that.  We’ll see how it works out for you.”

I grumbled something between a challenge and an acknowledgment.  “I assume you’ve got tabs on everyone else?”

“The ones that didn’t turn their earbuds off as soon as they left the hotel, sure.”  Sarah motioned for me to hand her the tablet.  When it was in her hands again, she closed out the window of Hill’s purchases and navigated over to a map with a few deft movements of her fingers.  “Stani switched off his earbud the first chance he got.”

“Probably trying to make sure we don’t figure out where he’s hiding out,” Mila said.  “Makes sense.  You’re still working for someone who may or may not have the Bratva’s best interests in mind.”

“Fair enough,” Sarah said, “but he should probably have made sure that Anton turned off his earbud, as well.  I’ve got his location right here.”

Virtually all of my time in London, so far – in fact, almost every waking minute since being broken out of prison – had proceeded in a fairly regular fashion.  Receive clue, pursue clue, walk into trap, manage to survive by the skin of my teeth.  Lack of knowledge had been our greatest enemy; second to that, my team had fallen victim to a not inconsiderable amount of overconfidence.

I cleared my throat to draw attention back to me.  “For right now, let’s assume that Anton and Stani aren’t in the same place.  If we had more time – and if we knew who we could and couldn’t trust – I’d suggest getting someone over there to check out the place, but we’ll just have to be extra careful about making assumptions for the moment.”

Sarah blinked.  She sipped from her Diet Coke in quiet thought and then blinked again.  “That’s an awful lot of caution from you, Dev.”

“I’ve got more people than normal to think about,” I replied, “and I’m tired of getting out played because I didn’t think any further than the immediate future.”

“I’m not going to lie.”  Sarah finished the remainder of her soda and immediately popped the top on a fresh can.  “It’s a little weird hearing this much reasonable thought coming from you.”

I considered several responses before ultimately settling on a classic: I stuck my tongue out at her.

She returned the gesture, with gusto.

Mila coughed from her corner, far louder than could possibly have been necessary.  She did it a second time, even after Sarah and I were both paying attention to her.  “Back to this safe,” she said.  “Do you have any idea at all how to break into it?”

I shook my head.  “No clue.  Even when I wasn’t out of practice, that’s the kind of safe I would have preferred to bypass entirely.”

“Bypass?  How would you do that?”

“Usually, I’d just take the whole thing out of the wall.”  I shrugged.  “It isn’t elegant and there isn’t any way to hide that a theft has taken place, but that’s preferable to getting caught trying to finesse your sixteenth tumbler.”

Mila gave me a blank look.  “I’m going to assume those are things that safecrackers would understand?”

“You know as much as I do,” Sarah said.

I allowed myself a smug smile.  “Well, now you both understand how I feel when the two of you start talking about your own areas of expertise.”

“This is what you do, then?”  Mila asked.

I nodded.  Of all the various skills I’d acquired over the years, safecracking was one of the first I’d developed and it was probably the skill I was objectively best at.  Or, it had been my best talent before La Santé.  Some things had a way of atrophying without practice and breaking into safes was definitely something that required constant practice.  Between that and the advance in safe technology, I’d need a refresher course before I felt comfortable stepping into the same room with a Fortress Maximus.  I wondered idly if Sophie could arrange for the Fortress – the Maximus’ inferior cousin, apparently – for my use.

“You didn’t ask where Michel is,” Sarah said.

I pulled myself out of my thoughts.  “What?  Oh, yeah; what’s he doing?”

“Practicing.”

“Practicing what?”

The slow smile that inched its way across Sarah’s face practically glowed with mischievous energy.  “The route, I believe.  It’s going to come down to seconds, either way.”

“What are you…wait, you have a plan?”

“I’ve got the basics of one, yeah.  You woke up just in time, actually.”

I leaned back into the couch, the pounding drumbeat in my skull temporarily forgotten.  “With everything you just told me, you’ve still got a way in?  Is this something I’m going to like?”

“You’ll like it just fine if everything goes the way I think it will,” Sarah said.  “If not, I imagine you’ll have a great many problems.  How you feel about the plan isn’t likely to be one of them.”

 

Chapter 112

Everyone went their separate ways to handle their separate tasks about an hour later.  We spent the time sipping idly at some alcoholic drinks that appeared at the door and discussing various problems as they came up.  Nothing concrete was decided but I felt that the time was still well-spent.  Most of the people on my growing team knew Sarah and me well enough to trust out judgment when it came to jobs…although those jobs hadn’t been performed under the threat of death, so much as temporary imprisonment.  I preferred to work with familiar associates, whenever possible, and to stack my team with tested talents if I couldn’t have friends.

I wasn’t being afforded that privilege this time.

Stani and the Russians took their marching orders from overseas, and he made certain that I knew where his loyalties lay.  If the higher-ups in the Bratva decided to pull the plug on his operations in London, I wasn’t sure what he’d do.  My instincts told me that he’d toe the line, pack up his equipment, and leave for Russia with Iosif and Leonid as soon as possible.  He might even go so far as to take Anton with him, whether the Ukrainian wanted to go or not.

If that was going to happen, I preferred that it happen now, as opposed to later when we were too deep into the plan to start covering unplanned-for absences.  I could adapt like few others I’d worked with, and Sarah knew me well enough to leave room in her plans for some improvisation, but if we lost two potential heavy hitters and our bomb-maker, things were going to go very badly for all of us remaining.

And then there was Chester.  I trusted that he cared about Billy.  Sarah had said something about his family a few days ago – medical bills, maybe? – but I couldn’t remember the details.  Whatever tied him to Billy was strong enough that I trusted Chester to do whatever he thought best to retrieve Billy before Hill could kill him.  Problem was, Chester’s idea of “what’s best” varied wildly from my own.  If we could have spared the time and resources, I would have asked Sarah to keep an eye on him whenever possible, just to ensure that he didn’t get impatient and decide to go off-script at a particularly vulnerable moment.  Of course, we didn’t have the time or the resources, so I was left crossing my fingers and hoping that Chester didn’t suddenly decide to handle things on his own.

So, the hour we spent drinking and talking was essential, in that it began to glue us together as a team, instead of a group of individuals with our own reasons for going after Hill and Asher.  The connection wasn’t as solid as I would have liked – I doubted that Chester had a particularly strong connection with anyone, for instance, and Stani was still too wary about even looking in Anton’s direction for too long – but it was something.  In lieu of a convenient team-building cruise for all of us to take, that little spark would have to do.

After the Russians, Anton, Chester, and James left the conference room, Sarah took Ally upstairs to start combing through the files from Hill’s estate.  Michel left, at Sophie’s direction, to retrieve the BMW from the parking garage with one of her bellboys.  Mila lingered for a few more minutes before she went upstairs as well, ostensibly to catalog her available weaponry and to find something suitable for me, a relative neophyte, to start carrying on my person.

Alex and I were alone in the room, then.  We sat in…well, it wasn’t entirely a comfortable silence, but it wasn’t unfamiliar.  He reached across the table and pulled the last two beers out of a bucket.  He opened both of them with quick, deft movements, and then offered one to me.  I accepted it and took a long pull at the bottle.  Alex did the same.

“I have known you a long time,” he said, in a solemn tone.

I nodded.  “Years.  I think you might have been one of my first partners, actually.”

Alex chuckled and downed more of the beer.  “What is it that we were trying to steal, again?”

“Some jewels, I think.  There was a Brazilian model who’d got her hands on a Harry Winston.”

“Ah!”  He leaned back in his chair, a slow smile spreading across his face.  “Yes, I remember now.  You were so young, then.”

I mirrored his posture.  “I wasn’t that young.”

“Oh, you were,” Alex said.  “But you would not think so.  You thought you knew more than anyone else on that job and you were not shy about letting people know that.  It was endearing…like watching a little puppy bark at a Great Dane.”

My pride sufficiently stung, I struggled to keep my cheeks from filling with color.  The effort was only moderately successful.  “You must be thinking of a different job, Alex.  The one I’m thinking about was about to fall apart because the mastermind didn’t take Carnival into account.”

“Oh no,” Alex said, “do not misunderstand me.  You did know more than anyone else on that team.  There were mostly older people, like me, who either did not know enough about the modern age to do our jobs or who chose not to adapt.  That is a problem with much of our…community?”

“Community works.”  It was rare for Alex to not know the right word, but I had no problem providing a little assistance if necessary.  “What do you mean, though?”

“We get stuck in our ways.  It is easier to continue doing what has always worked than it is to change with the times.  You have never had a problem with that.  It is, perhaps, one of your best traits.”

“Only one of them?”

Alex smirked for a moment, before his expression smoothed into sober seriousness again.  “You are also a little too sure of yourself and you take on more than you should.  First, this thing with Asher, even though you knew he had made powerful friends.  Then, you found yourself in bed with this Lady of yours, going after someone on his home territory, where he is all of the advantages.  You are a thief, Devlin, and yet you went into a trap to rescue my daughter.”

“I’ve known Ally since she was a kid,” I said quickly.  “I wasn’t about to let Asher use her as bait and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let her hurt her.”

“And I will owe you for that, as long as I live,” Alex said.  “But that is not my point.  What you have been doing here is impressive beyond all measure.  Without any time to plan or to even catch your breath, you have nearly hamstrung a kingpin in the center of his power.  That is nothing to be ashamed of.”

I took a small drink of beer and swished the liquid in my mouth for a few seconds before swallowing.  “What are you trying to say, Alex?”

He didn’t speak for a few seconds and I could feel him sifting through the English language for the right words.  “You are taking on too much responsibility,” he said carefully.

“It isn’t like I’m asking for this, Alex.  Most of this is being put on my shoulders for me.  I can’t just walk away from something that’s this obviously wrong.”

He nodded.  “That does not change the facts.  You are taking on too much and, so far, you have been able to find a way to pull off these impossible jobs.  But your luck will not last forever, Devlin.”

Silence.  I cleared my throat after a moment or two.  “I know that’s a possibility.”

“It is not a possibility,” Alex said, stressing the word to its breaking point.  “It will happen.  At best, you will end up back in jail again for…I do not even know how many laws you have broken or what the charges would be.  At worst, this Hill might simply kill you, Sarah, and everyone you know.  Or perhaps Asher would get his hands on you.  I cannot imagine what tortures he has in store for you.”

I could.  The files I’d received from the Lady were still fresh in my mind’s eye.  “So what do you think I should do, then?”

He threw his hands up in defeat.  “I do not know,” he admitted.  “You have always been better at that than me.”

“Well, thanks for pointing out all the various ways this could go horribly wrong, Alex.  Certainly perked me right up.”

There weren’t any more beers to partake of, but Stani had graciously left the bottle of vodka in the center of the conference room table.  Alex plucked it off of the table with two fingers and lifted an eyebrow in my direction.  I gave him a vague gesture of assent – fully aware that I’d eventually regret drinking whatever rotgut vodka the Russians preferred – and Alex filled the only remaining glass on the table with the clear liquid.

“You’re not drinking?” I asked, reaching out for the glass.

Alex scooped the glass back in his direction and replaced it with the remaining bottle of liquor.  “I am not driving anywhere tonight and neither are you.  You will have too much to do in the next few days to really relax.  I cannot help you figure out the best plan, but I can still be a friend.”

“By giving me the worst hangover known to man?” I asked, but I couldn’t hide the smile stretching across my face.  I lifted the bottle and Alex touched its side gently with his own glass.  We both took a long swig and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Stani hadn’t ordered paint thinner.  Well, it was either that or Sophie had elected to provide him with something more suitable for the Brooklands.  Either way, it felt like swallowing a soothing stream of slow-burning fire, instead of pouring broken glass down my throat.

Alex noticed the pleased expression on my face.  “Surprised?”

“We’ve both had drinks with Russians before,” I said.  “Let’s not pretend you weren’t ready for this to knock you on your ass.”

“I am a German,” Alex replied, affecting a lofty bearing and thickening his accent noticeably.  “You Americans have no tolerance at all.”

I scowled at that and took another swig of liquor.  Alex followed suit.  “How’s Ally doing?” I asked, after we’d had a moment to enjoy each other’s company.

“She is…doing better than I would have thought,” Alex replied.  He rose from the table and started to pace, sipping from his drink sporadically.  “I think that I am more unsettled by what Asher did than she is.”

“Shock, maybe?”

“Maybe.  But she is her mother’s daughter, down to the soles of her feet.  You were not there when she found out what I do…what I did, that is.”

“You never told me about how that happened, no.”  I waited until he settled back into his seat to continue.  “I figured you’d tell me about that whenever you were ready.”

“It is no great story,” Alex said.  “I made a stupid mistake and she managed to pull the whole story out of me after a few hours.  But do you know what I thought was most interesting?  She was not mad…well, she was very angry that I had lied to her, of course.  But she was not mad about what it is that I did for money.  She was worried for me, but she accepted my line of work almost too easily.”  He paused, finished his drink, and poured himself another.  “Sometimes, I wish she had not been so accepting.”

Even with my limited understanding of normal familial relationships, it wasn’t hard to see what was really scaring Alex.  He was a stalwart and steadfast friend, no doubt about that, but his greater concern was his daughter.  Ally was his last living reminder of his first wife and she was in the line of fire through no fault of her own.  The similarities to the disaster in Venice – a loved one who stumbled into our line of work and, unprepared, found themselves cut down by bullets meant for those of us who’d chosen to do the work we did – had to be terrifying for him.

A fresh swell of rage and hate rose up in me.  Of course Asher would have chosen this angle to attack me.  He must have learned about the attack that had killed Alex’s wife at some point.  It wouldn’t have been difficult information to uncover, even for someone without his enhanced resources.  The Underworld communities of a half dozen cities had been humming with the news for months afterward.  So, he must have decided that the best way to completely derail Alex would be to put him in the same state of mind, hoping that my friend would respond irrationally.

Honestly, I was more than a little impressed that Alex was holding it together as well as he was.

“And Ally seems more than a little interested in this business,” I said.  “It might just be a passing thing.  She finds it interesting because this is a very immediate in-your-face situation, but it’ll pass when she really has a chance to think about it, you know?”

“She has been digging into my past since her mother died.  I do not think this is the sort of thing that will pass.”

“Well…I don’t know, man.  Is there something I can say to her?  Something I can do to make her understand that this isn’t a life of glamour and excitement?”

“She has been kidnapped, nearly blown up, and she is now helping Sarah to find a stolen child.  If she does not understand that things can get dangerous in this field, then she never will.”

Again, I found myself with no idea what I could say.  Most people who worked in the Underworld made a point not to form any connections that could be used against us.  My relationship with Sarah – at least, the purely physical component – hadn’t been unheard of, but even that was rare.  Emotions complicated the gears of even the most finely tuned crew.  It only took one person who held a grudge and a second of delay to make up the difference between capture and escape.  It took even less time than that for a crush to endanger the entire team.  A marriage?  That was pure insanity.  We’d only survived through the years by being smarter, better prepared, and luckier than anyone else.

Alex had been married and fathered a child.  That was a level of familial involvement that simply baffled me.  After his wife’s death, I’d assumed he’d retreat entirely from the various Underworlds, but here he was, dragged back into the game.  And there now the added threat – near certainity, if I was being honest with myself – that his daughter would follow in his footsteps.

“Another?” I asked, offering to fill his half-empty glass.

Alex gave me a weak smile and nodded.

“If she’s with Sarah, she’ll be fine,” I said.  A moment passed.  “She should be safe.”

“And if she isn’t?”

“She will be,” I said, with a great deal more confidence than I actually felt.

Alex apparently knew me well enough to slice directly through that half-hearted line of BS.  “You cannot make that promise, Devlin.”

“Okay.  Fair enough.  But I promise to do everything in my power to keep her as far out of the line of fire as possible.  Can I make that promise?”

He searched my face.  I could have smoothed my expression into something stern and believable, but I elected to leave my real emotions there in plain sight.  I couldn’t know how much Alex wanted to keep his daughter safe, but I felt a keen need to protect Sarah.  Voicing that sentiment in front of her would probably result in her giving a shoulder as cold as an Ice Age, but I could privately admit that to myself.  No matter what she said and no matter what she believed, Asher’s vendetta against her was simply an extension of his anger to me.

I’d brought her into this and I’d be damned if I couldn’t get her back out of it alive.  Her, and Michel, and Mila…all of them.  Each and every single person who’d thrown their lot in me with me on this doomed job were here only because of my relationship with Asher.  It was my responsibility to fix this.  I intended to do exactly that.

Eventually, Alex nodded, satisfied with what he saw in my face.  “And I will do my best to help you.”

“From here,” I said immediately.  “Or from wherever Sarah decides to set up her mobile station.”

Alex looked back at me, his gaze even and almost serene.

“We already talked about this, Alex.  You stay out of the field.  Whatever we end up doing, Mila’s going to insist on staying with me.  That would leave Ally and Sarah undefended.  That’s what I need you to do.  Sure, help with the planning, but you have to stay physically out of this.  Agreed?”

The serenity on his face dimmed.  “I understand,” he said slowly.

“Good.  That’s at least one thing I don’t have to worry about.”

“Devlin?”

“Yes?”

Alex cleared his throat.  “If you do not finish things with Asher,” he said in a deliberate voice, “I will.  You understand that?”

I blinked.  “Have you ever…you know?”

“There is a first time for everything.”

I added another item to my growing list of impossible tasks: handle Asher, before Alex could do anything to him that would take him away from his family.  How I would handle that was a complete mystery, but if I was going to create a string of miracles in the next week, adding one more wasn’t the worst thing.

There was little else to say between Alex and me.  We sat in the conference room until we finished the bottle of vodka, the remainder of Sarah’s wine, and the last dregs of some sweet liquor that Michel had seemed to particularly enjoy.  Then, feeling tipsy and rapidly approaching drunk, we left the conference room and went to our separate suites.  Alex, I assumed, was going to pass out from exhaustion.  He’d been running on adrenaline for far too long.

I, on the other hand, laid in bed for at least another two hours, tired but unable to sleep.  Fragmented images of possible horrific ends floated into and out of focus through the miasma of inebriation.  A thousand different ways for things to go horrifically wrong occurred to me and even when I finally found sleep, the only possible way out that occurred to me still had at least one casualty.

Me.