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?”
“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?”
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.”