“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: “Da. Da, 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.”
“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.”