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.”
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.”