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.
“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?”
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.”