Chapter 127 (Emilia)

The chill in the air was no match for the frigid shards of ice that filled Mila’s veins, as she tried to meet Aiden’s steady gaze.  Behind her, the girl Avis and her companion Neal took refuge in her slight shadow.  Mila doubted that would matter.  If Aiden was here, in front of her, then his men weren’t far behind.  It wouldn’t be long until they were completely surrounded, hemmed in on all sides by Hill’s hired hands and the better trained, more psychopathic mercenaries that Aiden had trained.  When that happened, none of them would be safe, no matter where they happened to be hiding.

Their best bet – their only bet, in fact, when it came to survival – was to rush him before he had a chance to get his feet under him.  Avis wouldn’t be able to do much, of course, but Neal had been hired by hill at some point.  He’d served in the military.  He probably didn’t possess the training necessary to take Aiden in a straight fight, but he might serve as an adequate distraction if Mila could convince him to take the lead.  Best case scenario, the two of them could overwhelm Aiden and beat him down before he was able to start firing shots and dropping bodies.

Worst case, Neal might die.

Mila didn’t feel any particular way about that possible outcome.  She’d been hired to protect Devlin, not her two current charges.  The fact that she was nowhere near her primary goal was a significant deviation from the norm, already.  Saving someone else’s life, instead of Devlin or Sarah, was unthinkable.

If Neal died, Mila could imagine that Devlin and Sarah would be angry.  But, eventually, they would have to realize that she had made the only logical choice in the situation.  Neal was an accessory to one of their true goals.  The pair of thieves needed Avis, if they were ever going to decode the contents of the Book.  Devlin, specifically, needed Mila if he held even the slightest hope of survival.  Neal was…extraneous.  Sacrificing him wouldn’t derail too many plans.  It was even possible that the death of her caretaker would provide Avis with the impetus to destroy Hill, as his men would have been technically responsible for the murder.

Or, maybe not.  Maybe Avis would blame Mila and, by extension, Sarah and Devlin for the death of her only friend.  Maybe she would throw her lot back in with Hill.  Maybe she would decide to go rogue, using her talents in service of the highest bidder.  Her employer might be able to do something, if that became the case.  She certainly had enough money to recklessly throw around.

Emotions, and the confusing interplay between them, weren’t her strong point.  Her entire life had been constructed on the belief that cold logic – the hard, undeniable math of life – was easier to grasp and understand, as opposed to the shifting allegiances and loyalties that amounted to regular relationships with other humans.  Animals were easier; cats were best.  These were beings whose loyalties were perfectly clear and entirely predictable.  If fed, Sam would be loyal and lovable.  If not, he would turn angry and lash out.  There weren’t any additional layers of double-speak or obfuscation to sift through.

Whatever the possible ramifications, Mila knew that she had to move, now, before things could get any worse.  Yet, she couldn’t seem to will her muscles into action.  There was a large caliber gun hidden in a holster at the small of her back, but her hand simply refused to move in that direction.  Another handgun, smaller than the one at her back, was concealed inside of an ankle holster.  Mila found that she couldn’t make herself reach for that one either.  Even the spring-loaded Derringer in her sleeve – the one that only required a single expert flick of her wrist to summon – was beyond her ability.  She was armed to the teeth, practically bristling with weaponry, and she couldn’t bring herself to use so much as a switchblade in her own defense.

Instead, she stared everywhere, except at Aiden.  Her mentor – former mentor, she corrected aggressively – looked at her with cold, flat eyes.  His expression betrayed no emotion, no weakness, and it was too chilling for Mila to bear, even if only in passing.  She kept her eyes flickering from left to right, preparing herself mentally for the inevitable arrival of Aiden’s hirelings.

“Are you just going to stand there?”  Mila projected confidence, despite the fact that she was only barely keeping herself from trembling in terror.  “Did you want to do something, or are you just going to look threatening?”

Thorn,” Aiden replied in a seductive whisper.  The sound of his voice strummed a note on strings in her soul that Mila herself had forgotten about.  She shivered in response to the sensation before she could help herself.  “Oh, it is good to see you again.”

Mila wanted to say something clever and devastating in response to that.  Her time around Devlin and Sarah had been short, as protection assignments went, but they’d managed to infect her with the desire for banter.  Academically, she knew that the right insult at the right time might be enough to shake Aiden out of his comfort zone.  If he were out of his comfort zone, he might make a mistake.  Then, she could gain the upper hand and handle him before things got too far out of her control.

Nothing clever or devastating came to mind.  She simply glared at him, instead.

“You have done an amazing job proving your point,” Aiden continued, in that same enticing half-whisper.  “And I’ve learned my lesson, trust me.  You are nothing like the others, Thorn.  I know that know.  That’s why I’ve spent so much time trying to find you.”

“Why?” Mila’s lips moved and her lungs provided the oxygen for the question, even though she’d never given them the conscious order to do either thing.  “Why try so hard to find me?  You could just replace me with the next broken girl, couldn’t you?”

“Replace you?”  Aiden threw back his head and laughed.  “You think I’ve spent this much time and money for my own health?  You think there’s anyone in the world that could possibly replace you?”

Mila knew the man well enough to realize when he was building up to something.  She watched him and, at the same time, allowed her awareness to skip across her surroundings.  She couldn’t forget that Carlos and Mikhail were out there somewhere and, if nothing else, Carlos would have a vested interest in seeing her suffer.  Their working relationship had been fraught with tension at the best of times.  She doubted that his disposition would have changed after she’d humiliated him at the processing plant.

Aiden’s left arm jerked violently up and out.  The sudden movement caught Mila, Avis, and Neal off guard.  The little girl and her guardian cowered back, closer to the house, and Mila’s uninjured hand darted back to the handgun at the small of her back without a moment’s hesitation.  She bent her knees slightly, ready to leap either to the left or the right, depending on what Aiden’s next move was.

He made no additional move.  Instead, he gave her a mildly rueful look, rolled his shoulder, and shook his head.  “I’d hoped to keep that from you until later.”

“What’s wrong?”  Mila asked the question automatically.  As soon as the words passed her lips, she regretted them.  The lingering vestige of concern was as surprising as it was disheartening.

“A degenerative illness,” Aiden said.  He reached one hand into his pocket and removed a fistful of pills, which he dry-swallowed.  “Mikhail knows the technical name.  All I know is that it’s killing me.  Faster, lately.”  He gave her a little smile.  “That’s probably got something to do with all the exertion.”

“You’re dying,” Mila repeated, dumbly.

It didn’t seem real.  The idea that Aiden, who had been such an integral part of her formative years…Aiden, who had trained and guided her until she’d been able to harness the darkness inside of her…Aiden, who had filled the last few years of her life with terror and unreasoning apprehension…he was dying.

Of course, she’d known that he was taking medication.  She had even managed to find out the name of those pills and the likely diagnoses.  But to hear the words from his own lips, spoken so casually, was a different thing entirely.  It meant an end to the stalking, the constant fear of what lay around the next corner.

It meant the loss of yet another link to her past, her identity.

Mila’s mouth continued to work, operating on its own initiative.  “What do you want from me, then?  Shouldn’t you be convalescing somewhere, trying to get better?”

“This isn’t the kind of thing I’m going to get better from,” Aiden said.  He took a half step closer and Mila, without thinking, took a half step back.  He betrayed no offense at the movement, except for a tiny shrug with one shoulder.  “But you have to know what I want from you.”

A shiver went through her body that had nothing to do with fear.  “I’m not…”  She stopped, swallowed, started again.  “I’m not going back with you.  Not this time.”

“Isn’t that you said last time, Thorn?”  Mila sensed a movement from either Avis or Neal.  Aiden’s eyebrows went up a millimeter.  “You didn’t tell your new charges yet, did you?”

As much as Mila wanted to say something, anything, to stop him from continuing, she couldn’t seem to form coherent thoughts.  She stood, still as a gargoyle, and failed to meet Aiden’s prying gaze.

“This isn’t the first time she’s gone rogue,” Aiden continued, directing his words to the little girl and the wounded man behind Mila.  “Although it is the longest she’s ever been away.  I’d be angry about that, but I’ve got some bigger issues to deal with, at the moment.”

His body shook slightly.  One eye winked half shut and her lowered his head for a second, pressing one thumb into his temple as he did so.  Mila knew that she should use the momentary weakness to attack, or to flee, but she remained rooted to the spot.

Aiden recovered but, when he spoke, there was a roughness to his voice that hadn’t been there before.  “It doesn’t matter.  I’ve found you again, so it’s time to give up on this whole charade.  This isn’t who you are, Thorn, and we both know it.  Why don’t you just come back and – “

“No!” Mila screamed.  The word ripped out of her throat with painful force.  She staggered back another step or two, bumping into the smaller Avis as she did so.  “No, Aiden!  I’m not coming back with you!  I won’t be one of your lackies again!”

Aiden blinked twice, very deliberately.  “Is that what you think?  That because I couldn’t replace you, I want you to come work for me again?”  He laughed.  The seductive timbre was gone, replaced by a raspy sound, like shards of glass on broken gravel.  “Thorn, Thorn, Thorn.  You really don’t understand, do you?”

“What,” Mila asked again, in a bare hint of a whisper, “do you want from me?”

“I want you to replace me,” Aiden said.  “Who else would I trust to take over for me after this thing finishes with me?”

Mila’s bottom jaw dropped open.  She heard a sharp intake of breath from the two people behind her, but she couldn’t seem to care about their presence.  She knew, with her conscious mind, that this had to be nothing more than another one of Aiden’s twisted games.  It wasn’t the first one he’d played to get her back under his thumb, but it was the most original she’d encountered.  An offer to take over his mercenary crew after his death?  She couldn’t imagine the collective of hired guns working for anyone except for Aiden himself.

However…she couldn’t deny the possibilities inherent in the proposition.  She hadn’t left because the work itself had bothered her.  She’d left because she feared the person she became when Aiden was in a position to pull on her strings.  With him gone, and her as his designated replacement, she could expect some rebellion from the likes of Carlos.  That wouldn’t be a problem.  Mikhail was an unknown factor, but she supposed that he’d only been hired for his pharmaceutical skills.  So long as Mila took over possession of the finances, he would most likely stay.  Even if he didn’t, she’d built up a fearsome reputation of her own over the years.  It wouldn’t be difficult to assemble a pool of talent to handpick her own squad from.

Aiden was talking.  The new, sandpaper quality to his voice did nothing to detract from the pull it exerted on her secret yearnings and fears.  “You know it’s what you’ve always wanted,” he said.  “A chance to do things your way, instead of just following orders.  You can pick your own team, choose your own jobs.  I’ll let everyone know that you, Thorn, are my chosen successor.  You won’t be able to deal with all the offers that come your way.”

It was as though he could read her mind.  She risked a moment of eye contact and instantly wished that she hadn’t.  His gaze practically bore into hers.

“This way,” he continued, “you’ll be free to do whatever you want, whenever you want to.  No more pretending that you’re this protecting angel, swooping down to save the rich and indolent from the deaths they’ve got coming.  You can be an avenging angel, if that’s what your heart really wants.  I know you don’t have any love for the people who hired us.  I know you don’t spend your life waiting for the score.  Thorn, I know what you really want.”

He did.  Mila couldn’t find it in herself to deny that.  Aiden knew her better than anyone alive ever would.  It wasn’t that their relationship had ever progressed into anything sexual – Mila personally disdained that particular interaction and, while Aiden engaged in recreation with a few people in more than a few ports of call, he’d never made an advance – but that their relationship was mental.  It was emotional.  If she’d been religious, Mila would have called it spiritual.

She couldn’t lie to him.  She’d never really been able to fool him, except when he’d wanted to be fooled.  That had to be why he’d let her leave so many times; Aiden had known, beyond a shadow of that, that she’d come back, every time.  Not because she had run out of money or resources, but because she would want to come back.

“I’m not going to leave them,” Mila croaked out.  “I won’t let you have them.”

Aiden threw back his head and roared with laughter once more.  “I couldn’t care less about your projects,” he said.  “I won’t kill them, but I won’t protect them, either.  If they’re too weak to survive on their own, then they deserve whatever comes their way.”

Time seemed to stretch out into infinity while Mila considered that offer.  She might be able to draw Aiden away this way.  Perhaps she could bluff him into retreating and make her escape another way.  She could still use Aiden’s men to protect Devlin and his crew from afar, once the man finally succumbed to his sickness.  It wasn’t ideal, but…

Mila cut the line of thought short with a brutal shake of her head.  There wasn’t any point lying to herself.  She knew the truth, just as well as Aiden did: if she went with him now, she’d never really come back.  Not as she was, no.  Emilia would die here.

“I’ve got to admit,” Aiden said, “that I don’t even know what you see in them.  These meek lambs, cringing away from real power and bleating the whole way to slaughter.  These people could never understand anyone like us.”  Mila realized that he’d closed the distance between them, without her noticing, and now he reached out and brushed the back of his hand against her cheek.  “They could never love you.  Not like I do.”

She longed for more of his touch, his approval.  Her knees buckled slightly and a soft sound of pleasure passed her lips.  Her foot lifted from the ground of its own accord and she started to take a single, fatal step forward.

Then his words sunk in.  She looked up and saw the same hunger that growled in her belly reflected in Aiden’s eyes.  For the first time, she looked at that naked desire and didn’t recognize it.

Mila stepped back and slapped Aiden’s hand away.  “No, Aiden.  Not like you.  Never like you.  Not again.”  She extended both arms, the broken and the unbroken, so that her body shielded the two people hiding behind her.  “You don’t love me, Aiden.  You never did.  You love you, and the part of you that you see in me.  But…but I’m not you, Aiden.  I never was and I never will be.”

The change that came over Aiden’s face happened in a heartbeat and it was no less horrifying for its swiftness.  Every line of his face shifted and contorted in an expression of absolute, baleful rage and his fingers curled into claws.  He lashed out at her face and Mila barely managed to lean back, away from the attack.  She shuffled back several more feet, pushing Avis and Neal as she went, until she was almost back inside of the estate.

“You’re a liar!” Aiden said, between tightly gritted teeth.  “You’re just like me, Thorn, no matter what lies you have to tell yourself.  And you will come back with me; either you do it on your own, or you do it unconscious.  If I have to kill your little lambs with my bare hands to prove it, I will and you know it.”

Mila nodded, feeling a strange sense of calm acceptance flooding her body.  “I know.  And I’ll die before I let you.”  She paused.  “And the name’s Emilia.”

Aiden made a guttural noise that sounded painful in the back of his throat.  Spittle appeared at the corners of his mouth.  Mila started to reach for the gun at the small of her back, but it didn’t matter.  Sick or not, Aiden was as fast as he’d ever been.  The first blow caught her, just above her left temple, before she was even able to blink.

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Chapter 126 (Sarah)

“Devlin?  Can you hear me, Devlin?”

No reply came through the comms.  I stared at my center screen, where a widget displayed the status of each team member’s earbud.  According to that, Devlin’s earbud should have been active and I couldn’t imagine a situation in which he wouldn’t respond.  Underneath his name, I saw that both Mila and Michel were muted on my end.  I could hear what they said, but they weren’t able to listen to anything I talked about with Devlin.

More than that, however, the miniature camera on Devlin’s lapel had gone dark.

I decided to check that system, just to make sure that the problem wasn’t purely software based.  “Mila, are you there?”

Nothing.

“Michel?  Michel, can you tell me what you see right now?”

Again, no response.

I shook my head, as if that action might fix whatever problem was keeping me from communicating with Devlin.  Then, I ran through a basic checklist of troubleshooting techniques.  I didn’t get into anything incredibly technical.  There wasn’t time for anything like that.  But the basic tricks were easy to perform and I was able to think about possible issues while I restarted the relevant programs; unplugged the relevant dongle for several seconds, then reinserted it into the appropriate slot; and, ultimately, power cycled the entire system running on the center screen.

Devlin had the Book.  I’d heard that much.  Against all odds, he’d managed to break into Hill’s safe and, in one move, finally managed to acquire the object that had caused us so much trouble in the last two or three weeks.  A fierce wave of pride swept through me at that thought.  He had done it.  He had done it.  The company that manufactured the Fortress was, by and large, viewed as the worst thing to happen to professional safecrackers since someone had invented false contact points.  But Devlin – my Devlin – had managed to break into their top of the line product, with no practice and precious little information, after two and a half years spent out of the game.  It was enough to draw a wide smile out of me.

That smile turned brittle and fell away when I finished my checklist and checked the comms again.  “Devlin?  Say something if you can hear me.  I’m starting to get worried here.”

Silence.

The invisible hairs on my arm rose slowly, reaching up to the roof of the van, as a horde of dark thoughts began to parade through my mind.  What if he’d been captured?  What if Hill had been a step ahead of us, after all?  It wouldn’t take much to catch him off guard.  Whenever Devlin allowed himself to fall into the task of safecracking, his peripheral senses dwindled away to nothing.  An elephant would be able to sneak up on him, if there was a puzzle of sufficient complexity consuming his attention.  And, if someone got the drop on him, there wouldn’t be much of a fight.  He excelled at improvisation, evasion, and obfuscation; direct conflict, however, was a glaring hole in his skillset.

In a fit of irrational, self-sacrificing, foolishly noble idealism, Devlin had sent his bodyguard away to protect Avis and her handler.  That was exactly the sort of idiocy that had drawn me to him in the first place and, at the moment, I found myself terrified that he would be killed by that same nobility.

With a conscious effort, I forced my fear back down and commanded myself to think.  There were a lot of reasons why Devlin might not be answering.  If, for instance, someone had entered the room, then Devlin might be hiding.  If that were the case, he couldn’t exactly risk speaking aloud.  Someone could hear him, after all.

But if that were the situation, then he was still alone in a room with a potentially armed guard.  He might come out on top of a conflict, if he attacked first and furiously, but the possibility that he might not win was too large to ignore.

I repeated his name into my earbud several times, only to receive the same deafening silence in reply every time.  Whatever the reason, he either couldn’t hear me or he couldn’t respond.  Ultimately, the cause for his silence didn’t matter.  What was important was that I find a way to get back into contact with him, as soon as possible.  Devlin was good in a pinch, but he wasn’t perfect.  He was as prone to making the wrong snap decision as anyone else, perhaps more so.

I activated Michel’s earbud and cleared my throat.  “Where are you at right now?”

The Frenchman must have been caught off guard by my voice.  He sputtered into the earbud for a few seconds before pausing, catching his breath, and starting over with more understandable language.  “I am outside of the estate,” he said, “where you told me to remain.  Should I be somewhere else?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose with the index and thumb of my left hand, even as my right hand flew across the keyboard to pull up a view of Michel’s body camera.  “I honestly don’t know,” I admitted.  “There’s a room on the third floor, though.  I was hoping you might be able to look into it and tell me what you see.”

“Where is this room?”

Michel’s cell phone and, therefore, his location was still visible on my screen.  I glanced at that, then the blueprint I’d pulled up of the estate, so that I could figure out where Hill’s bedroom was, relative to where Michel was waiting.  “Directions are incoming.  It’s a very specific room, so it’s important that you know where you’re going.”

A second or two passed before the message traveled from my computer to Michel’s cell phone.  “What am I looking for?”  I didn’t hear an engine turning over, so I allowed myself to assume that Michel knew better than to drive across the grounds while it was on high alert.  His instincts were good; with Asher and Aiden on the scene, every goon’s focus had shifted from the gate to the interior of the estate.  Thus far, it had apparently not occurred to anyone that we might have snuck someone onto the premises under their noses and left him in a relatively inconspicuous position.

“I’ll tell you as soon as you get there,” I said.

Oui, oui,” he replied in a hushed voice.  He didn’t ask any further questions and, if I turned the volume on the comms to the maximum, I could just barely hear his footsteps as he moved through the well-kept grounds.

I appreciated that I didn’t have to guide Michel through the intricacies of an infiltration and that it wasn’t necessary to stress the importance of subtlety, but both of those thoughts were peripheral.  My primary concern – the overwhelming pressure that dominated my mind – was Devlin.  Where was he?  What was happening in Hill’s bedroom?  And, above all else, was he okay?

Academically, I knew that there wasn’t anything I could have done to stop him from attempting the Fortress.  Devlin was his own man, after all.  The challenge of a new model would have been too much for him to ignore on his very best, most altruistic and forward-thinking day.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel like I could have said something – anything – that would have kept him from wasting time on the safe.  If he’d been out of the bedroom, he might have been somewhere safe right now.  He might have been responding.

That train of thought was a non-starter, though.  The history between Devlin and me made it perfectly clear that he would tackle whatever challenges presented themselves to him, even if he knew better.  And I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I would allow him to do so.  Encourage him, even.  I’d done it before, unwittingly, and I’d done it again now.  I hoped that I wouldn’t live to regret that decision.

I sat in the van, isolated from my entire team except through the tiny voices coming through my earbud, while I waited for Michel to reach a vantage point of the bedroom.  Without anything else to do except for wallow in stress and self-doubt, I decided to check in on the other channels.  Chester, James, and Anton were driving in circles around the perimeter of the estate, remaining far enough away that no one was likely to notice them.  In case the situation inside the estate deteriorated into absolute mayhem, the Russians were waiting nearby, as well.  Neither I nor Devlin actually knew their capabilities, but I’d been willing to bet that they would be our best source of muscle in a general sense.

Mila had, of course, been positioned specifically to keep Devlin out of trouble.  That no longer applied.

“I think that I am here,” Michel said.  I jerked in surprise, the Frenchman’s soft voice jolting me out of my thoughts like an electric prod.  “Now, what am I looking for?”

I considered telling him to look for Devlin.  I decided against that, almost as soon as the thought occurred to me.  Devlin’s relationship with Michel had grown quickly in the short time we’d had together.  I wasn’t sure that Michel would be able to look at the situation objectively, if he thought that Devlin might be in some sort of danger.

As I thought my way through that, my fingers began to hurt.  I glanced down and saw, to my surprise, that I was gripping the edge of the desk.  I forced myself to relax, in spurts, until I wasn’t in danger of ripping some of the metal off.

“Just tell me what you see,” I said to Michel.

“It is very far away,” Michel said.  “I cannot see very much.  There is a bed, a dresser…no, two dressers…and a man.”

“A man?”  With great effort, I managed to keep myself from leaping to my feet.  “Just one man?”

Michel was silent for a few seconds that passed like geological eras.  “No,” he said finally.  “There are two men in the room.  A big man and a smaller one.  The big one is holding…something.  I cannot tell what it is, but the small man does not seem to like it.”

I blinked, confused, before the penny dropped.  If the comms weren’t working, then they were being jammed.  If we were being jammed, then Devlin had been caught.  A hole appeared in my stomach and my heart dropped straight it, down to the soles of my feet.  I tried to breathe, to say something to Michel, but the words wouldn’t come.

“Sara?” Michel asked.  “Is everything okay?”

Of course everything wasn’t okay.  Devlin was probably in mortal peril, flanked by one of Hill’s goons – or worse, what if one of Aiden’s men had gotten the drop on him – and I was too far away to help.  All I could do was listen to his words, provide advice, and try my best to clear a path for him, electronically speaking.  The last of those options had been removed by Hill’s air-gapped network, the first item wasn’t an option at the moment, and the second…well, what use for advice would Devlin have when what he really needed was someone on the ground with him?

“No,” I said, managing to find the oxygen and ability to speak the single syllable.  Then, as if that short word had broken some invisible dam inside my chest, “No, everything’s not alright.”

Two men.  Devlin and someone else.  I strained and wrestled my fear down, willing myself to think.  Planning was the only thing I could do, after all.  If there was any possible chance of saving Devlin, it would depend entirely on my ability to use my one gift to its absolute fullest.

He wasn’t dead yet.  That was something.  So long as Devlin was alive, there was still hope.  He might be able to slip away or fabricate a situation where he regained the upper hand.  He’d won fights before, with the element of surprise and a willingness to play dirty.  It wasn’t an impossibility.

At the same time, however, there were too many people inside of the estate with an interest – either personal or professional – in making sure that Devlin did not get the opportunity.  It was only a matter of time before the big man called for backup, or someone else entered the room of their own volition, or Devlin antagonized his opponent just enough that it was easier to simply kill him than to –

I squeezed my eyes shut hard enough that they hurt.  Thoughts like that weren’t helpful.  I needed to be as positive as possible.  What pieces were at my disposal and how could I use them?  I tried to think about the board like Devlin, eschewing any long-term plans in favor of a single, powerful short term goal.

Moving Anton, Chester and James into position was a possibility, but the odds of success were remote.  As soon as they stormed the front gate, every man inside in the estate would go on high alert, shooting first and asking questions never.  Devlin’s survival depended on coaxing his captor into a false sense of security.

In the same vein, I also couldn’t use the Russians.  I knew less about them than I did about Chester and James, both of whom were complete mysteries, aside from the details I’d managed to dig up on a routine search.  Moreover, they undoubtedly had their own game in mind.  I couldn’t risk putting them into play, when there was every possibility that what they wanted might not coincide with what I wanted.

Mila, though…Mila was a possibility.  Devlin had tasked her to get Avis and Neal out of the estate – exactly the type of idiotic, stupidly noble thing he was wont to do – but he’d given that order before the big man had gotten the drop on him.  Surely, he would want his personal bodyguard back in place, now that he was in trouble?

I shook my head.  No, he wouldn’t want Mila to drop her mission.  If it came down to his life or the life of a child, he’d choose the child’s life, without hesitation.  He would probably have chosen to save Neal, who he knew nothing about, rather than ask for Mila to return.  And if he thought that sacrificing himself might possibly keep me even an iota safer, then he’d do that.

I ground my teeth together.  I wanted to hate him for his foolish idealism, I wanted to yell at him for being the only thief in the world clinging to a code of honor, I wanted to beat him about the face and shoulders until he accepted that he wasn’t responsible for everyone who chose to follow him into the lion’s mouth…but I couldn’t do any of those things until he was safe again.

Fine, then.  Devlin could be as mad as he wanted to be, just as soon as he managed to get away from Hill, his goons, Asher, Aiden, and whoever else wanted to kill, capture, or torture him.  I could deal with a little righteous indignation, if it meant that I wouldn’t have to bury him later.

I moved to press two buttons, missed one in my haste, and activated Mila’s line.  At the same time, I checked her phone’s GPS and saw that, somehow, she had managed to make it to the estate’s rear exit.  “What are you doing, right now?  Where are you at?”

Mila responded instantly.  “Trying to avoid these patrols, at the moment, so I don’t really have time to talk.  Is this important?”

“Someone surprised Devlin,” I said.

Several beats of silence followed that sentence. “If I go back,” Mila said finally, “I don’t know how I’m going to get these two out of here.”

“We can worry about that later.  Devlin and I do have a plan of absolute last resort, but I can’t put that into effect if one of Hill’s thugs is in a position to just kill him out of hand.”

More silence.  I heard a sharp intake of breath, the shuffling of feet on stone, and then nothing.

“Mila?  Did you hear me?  I need you to go back and get him away from whoever’s in the room.”

Nothing.

“Mila?  This is serious, okay?  You have a job to do and I’m telling you to go do it.  I’ll give you directions.”

When Mila spoke again, her voice had lost its usual disinterested distance.  Her words were breathy, weaker than normal, and soft enough that I had to strain to hear them.

“I’ve got problems of my own,” she said.  Then, in a louder voice, “What do you want, Aiden?”

Chapter 125

“You can’t be serious,” Sarah said.

In truth, I wasn’t entirely sure whether or not I was serious.  Possibilities were unfolding my mind like blossoming flowers, a network of choices that could lead us all to either ruin or unparalleled success, and I couldn’t bring myself to commit to any one plan.

Here was the safe we’d been looking for at the start of our little incursion, safely nestled away in a fairly decent hiding spot within Hill’s bedroom.  Presumably, the Book was located inside, the information the Lady wanted sealed within its golden covers.  We’d planned on retrieving it first, before doubling down in order to retrieve Avis, Billy, and Neal, but reality had already put the screws to that idea.  Mila was secreting two of the three people away from the estate, even as I knelt and considered what to do next.  It was possible – just barely possible – that I might be able to get my hands on everything we’d wanted in one fell swoop and the thought that I might have to let this prize slip through my fingers was galling.

On the other hand, however, I was still trapped on the third floor of an estate I didn’t know very well, with a veritable army of hired guns systematically searching for me.  The blueprints for the estate were clearly falsified or, at the very least, inaccurate.  A quick glance at the tablet, with its solid red lights that gave me a bit of insight into the movements of our named adversaries, showed me that much.  I didn’t and couldn’t know whether or not there were more rooms and, as a result, it was impossible for me to estimate how much time I would actually have to work on the Fortress.  Committing myself to the task of cracking this monster of a safe would turn me into a sitting duck, without anyone to watch my back while I worked.

That might be exactly what we needed.  It might also be the last mistake I had the liberty to make.

“I’m thinking about it,” I said to Sarah, after a few seconds of tense silence.

“What is there to think about?  Even if you had all the time in the world, you still aren’t sure whether or not you can even get inside of a Fortress, Dev.  And you don’t have all the time in the world; you might not even have minutes to spare.”

“That’s definitely one of the factors I’m considering,” I said.  “But there are other things we have to keep in mind.”

She snorted, and the sound was loaded to the brim with derision and frustration in equal measure.  “Like what?  Your death wish?  Your complete inability to leave well enough alone?  Your – “

“Yes,” I said, cutting her off before she could really start to pick up steam, “all that.  But also, there’s the fact that we still don’t have a solid escape route.  I’m stuck in this room anyway, until either you or I think of some genius tactic to help me slip the noose tightening around my metaphorical neck.  If I’ve got to be here anyway…”

I expected Sarah to say something snide in response to that.  Surprisingly, she thought quietly for a moment or two before she replied at all.  “Any time you spend working on that safe is time that would be better spent trying to think of a way out of the estate.”

“And even if I did manage to come up with something, I’d still have to figure out a way to find Billy and get him out of here before Hill decides to commit fratricide, just to tie up loose ends.”

“How does breaking into that safe help anyone at all, except for you?”

I wasn’t sure whether she had lashed out from anger or concern, but the effect was the same.  A nearly physical pain lanced through my chest at the rebuke.  She couldn’t have taken a truer, more accurate shot if she’d been deliberately trying to hurt me.  “This isn’t about that, Sarah,” I said, hating the weak note I heard in my own voice.

“It’s never about that,” she retorted.  “Especially when it actually is.”

She didn’t have to go into any more depth.  I appreciated her discretion, even as I found my own thoughts leaving the present and skimming over the events in our past without any additional prompting on her part.  It had been several days since the last time I’d felt guilty about lying to her, so many years ago, and the old hurt swelled within me with an intense desire to make up for lost time.

“I don’t get anything out of this,” I said, “except for possible leverage.  Think about it.  Seriously think about it.  What does Hill want?”

“To either kill or hire you,” she replied instantly.  “I imagine that Michel, Mila, and I are incidental to whatever else he has in mind.”

“What does he want more than that?” I pressed.  “What’s the one thing we know he wants?  What started all of this in the first place?  Why did he kickstart this entire affair by using Asher to break into the bank at Limassol?  What does the Book mean to him?”

“It’s a way out from underneath the Magi,” Sarah said.  She paused, sucked in a sharp breath of realization, and then continued.  “Even if he’s willing to bargain, he’s still going to want us dead in the long run, if for no other reason than that we’re an insult to his power base.”

“If it comes to negotiation, I’ll take a stay of execution for a couple of weeks instead of guaranteed death in the moment.  If Hill’s hands are full dealing with the Magi, we might be able to find another way to take him down before he can make a move on us.  At the very least, we can pick a better battleground than his home territory.”

Sarah said nothing.

Please,” I begged, “you have to understand that I am not doing this for me.  I’m doing it for us.”

It was the second time I’d spoken almost that exact sentence in my life.  The first time I’d ended in a firestorm of hurled accusations, insult, and the departure of the love of my life.  I hoped that the second time would have better results.

When she finally spoke, her voice was soft enough that I had to strain to hear it over the comms.  “This is a stupid idea, Dev.”  I didn’t miss her use of the old nickname.  “But stupid ideas are all we’ve got right now, I guess.  Promise me that you aren’t just saying this.”

“I promise,” I said immediately.

No,” Sarah replied, “don’t just say the words.  We both know how that goes.  I want you to really think about it.  Honestly, ask yourself why you’re willing to put yourself – and you know that if something happens to you, every single one of us is going to throw ourselves into the grinder to save your idiotic life – at risk.  Then, and only then, promise me that you aren’t letting your ego or your own desires guide you.”

I fought down the urge to repeat myself and, instead, did exactly what Sarah had asked.  I’d acquired a lot of skills over the course of my criminal career and enlightened introspection wasn’t one of them.  Still, she wasn’t making an unreasonable request.  I’d put the two of us in danger before because of my desire – my need, really – to complete the job, to pull off the perfect heist.  I couldn’t deny that the ever-escalating difficulties of this job called to a part of me that had been asleep for almost three years.  But was I allowing myself to fall back into the same trap?  Was I really going to put my friends, both old and new, in danger so that I could put another feather in my cap?

“I know that you think I’m being driven by my…issues,” I said.  “And you’re not entirely wrong.  But I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t honestly believe that it gives us the best chance to get out of this alive.  All of us.  I promise.”

I realized that Sarah could very well choose not to believe me.  It wouldn’t stop her from helping me survive this mess, but it would absolutely destroy the possibility of any sort of relationship between us in the future, even a merely platonic one.  I crossed my fingers.

Sarah heaved a sigh.  “Alright.  Alright, fine, I believe you.  For the moment.  How can I help?”

A massive knot of tension unclenched itself in my stomach at her words.  “Have you been able to find out anything at all about this safe?”

“Nothing you couldn’t figure out or guess on your own,” she said.  I listened to her fingers tapping a machine gun rhythm on her keyboard.  “Six number combination lock, for starters.  Each wheel has at least two false contact points.”

“At least?”

“This monster isn’t even on the open market yet, Dev.  I’ve managed to pick up a few rumors, but I can’t risk asking my sources because we don’t know who is or isn’t working with Hill, the Magi, or Asher.”

“Okay,” I said, breathing out slowly to calm myself.  “Let’s call it two and work it from there.  Any other serious problems I should know about?”

“Nothing that I can think of.  Although, technically, I should say that this safe comes with the option of a manual connection into the owner’s home security system.”

The siren was still warbling at top volume in the background.  During our conversation, I’d managed to tune it out for the most part.  “Which is not really a problem right now.”

“Dev…if you want, I can try to reach out.  That safe had be constructed in a factory and someone in the community would have hacked it.”

“No!”  The exclamation came out louder than I’d planned.  “No,” I repeated, in a quieter voice.  “There’s no reason for you to put yourself in the line of fire, too.”

Which was true, even if it wasn’t the entire truth.  I had an idea that I knew Sarah would despise and that idea wouldn’t work if she implicated herself, even if only within her hacker’s community, any more than she already was.  If Sarah suspected that my motivations were slightly more misogynistic than she would have preferred, she kept that thought to herself.

I waited for her to say something in rebuke.  When no reply came, I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out my safecracking tools: a collapsible stethoscope, a click-pen, and a small blank notebook.  “I’m starting now.  Let me know if anyone says something I should hear about.”  Then, I started to work without waiting for her to respond.

When my fingers first touched the knob, a wave of fear washed through me.  It had been many years since the last time I’d successfully broken into any safe, let alone a Fortress.  I knew perfectly well that safe manufacturing companies spent millions in research and development, specifically to foil people like me from doing exactly what I intended to do, and I’d been out of the game for a long time.

An instant later, that fear passed.  My hands knew what to do, even if my conscious brain had forgotten.  I set to work, spinning carefully and jotting down notes to myself in the blank notebook.

Safecracking isn’t a science, so much as an art.  Of course, there were hard rules that I’d learned to follow through my career; statistical variations I’d memorized, despite my general weaknesses in math; patterns that recurred, time and time again.  But learning those had made me a mediocre thief, at best.  It was the art that spoke to me, and the art was where I excelled.

Delicate manipulations of the primary spinner, so that I didn’t miss the nearly inaudible click that signified a contact point.  The slightly deeper sound that let me know when I’d found a real point, instead of one of the fakes.  Learning to hold my breath as I inched the knob carefully to the left, because even the barest whisper of sound might cause me to miss something critical to the process.  All that, and more, were skills I’d honed over the years and cultivated.

I fell into a kind of trance, effectively switching my conscious mind off and allowing muscle memory to run the show.  The blaring siren faded into white noise as all of my focus narrowed to the tips of my fingers and my ears, strained to the breaking point to catch even the slightest noise.

Click.  I started to write down a number, then stopped.  That had been too shallow.  A false contact point, perhaps?

I spun the dial a few more digits to the right and heard another click.  To the untrained ear, there wasn’t any difference between the two sounds, and even my own hearing wasn’t superhuman.  But this one felt different.  It felt right.  I wrote down a number and calculated a standard deviation to work with later.

About fifteen digits later, I heard another soft click.  This one felt like the first, and I knew that my guess had been correct.  “Two false points,” I murmured to myself.  It might have been three points – hell, there could be as many false points on each wheel as there were wheels in total, but I didn’t allow myself to think about that.  Three false points, instead of two, would render my efforts pointless.

Using the numerical range as contact area as a base, I spun the knob through all of its numbers six times and heard a satisfying click on every rotation.  I hurried to reset all of the wheels and, when that was finished, repeated my earlier actions, listening even more carefully so that I could narrow down the numerical possibilities.  As I worked, I wrote down numbers, reducing the field of numbers with each pass.  In complete defiance of common decency, this Fortress’ dial went from zero to two hundred, instead of the more common one hundred.  One of those design decisions that wouldn’t keep me from breaking into the safe – every safe was crackable, with sufficient time and equipment – but would keep the average thief in place long enough for an alarm system to get him or her caught.

I sent up a silent curse to everyone who built safes this complicated.

Under normal circumstances, I took great care not to rush the process.  It was all too easy to get one number wrong, which would only lead me down a long path to nowhere, but Sarah was right: time was not on my side.  Time was never on my side.  So, it only took me fifteen minutes of hasty math before I came up with six numbers, between one and two hundred, that might have constituted the lock’s combination: ninety, ninety-two, one hundred and ninety-five, one hundred and eighty-four, one hundred and seventy-one, and thirty-nine.

“Sarah.”

“Yes?”  Her reply came immediately.

For her sake, I pretended not to hear the anxiety flooding her voice.  “I’ve got some digits here.  Can you see if they correspond to anything in the information you’ve got about Hill?”

I read the numbers out to her.  She worked for a few seconds, the steady clicking of her fingers across the keys filling the comms, until she sighed.  “No, I can’t find anything that ties them all together.  If I had more time, maybe, but as it is…”

“Trial and error, then,’ I said.  “An oldie but a goodie.”

I let myself fall back into that trance.  The brute force approach to safecracking wasn’t my favorite, but there was a reason that so many people used it around the world: when every other option failed, there was something inescapably effective about simply exhausting your options through simple persistence.

First, I ruled out the two combination of numbers that were in ascending and descending order.  Then, playing on a hunch, I removed every combination that began or ended with the highest or lowest numbers.  There wasn’t any logic or reason to that decision, except for a vague feeling that Hill wouldn’t do that.  I didn’t know him well enough to socially engineer the password and, even if I’d had the opportunity to look into his personal life and observe how he behaved as a nobleman, there were layers to the man that I couldn’t begin to guess at.

Carefully, I started at the top of my diminished list.  92, click.  90, click.  195…nothing.

I reset the wheels and tried another combination, replacing 195 with 184.  The wheel clicked into place.  I spun the knob to 195 in the fourth slot, instead of the fifth, and was rewarded by a soft noise as the wheel fell into place.  171 was also correct.  When I tried to enter 171, however, I heard nothing at all.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” I said aloud.  I reset the wheels and spun them until I’d entered all of the numbers again and reversed the order of the numbers 39 and 171.  Both numbers clicked into place.  I smiled to myself, suppressing the urge to pump my fist in glee, and pulled on the door.

Nothing happened.   I blinked and exerted more muscle.  The door didn’t move and the steel handles stubbornly refused to budge.

Had I gotten it wrong?  Was the Fortress more difficult than I’d been assuming?  Had I misread the false contact points?  If so, I didn’t have the time to start from scratch.  As it was, I was already risking my life and the lives of my team on a slim hunch.

No.  No, I knew my trade, and I hadn’t made a mistake earlier.  But, I recalled, this wasn’t the Fortress.  This was a new model, not yet available on the market.  And, if there was one thing I understood about businesses and thieves alike, it was that misinformation was often worth its weight in gold.

I spun the wheel all the way back to 92 and heard, to my immense gratification, another click.  That was followed by a slight shift in the way the handles felt in my hands.  I spun those, instead of the knob, and they moved.  The safe door opened three seconds later.

Contained within, I saw a thick stack of passports and several bundles of money, in various currencies.  I moved those aside.  In the very back of the safe, a small silver attache case rested.  I pulled it free and opened it on the bedroom floor.  There, shimmering in the light cast by an interior bulb, sat the Book.

I closed the attache case and it snapped shut with a tiny click.  “Sarah,” I said, “I’ve got the Book.  Time to get out of here.”

The earbuds popped twice and went absolutely silent.

“Sarah?”  I stood up and eased the safe’s door shut.  “Are you there?”

Still, nothing.

I started to turn towards the door when a massive shadow fell over me.  I froze in place, at the exact instant that I heard a noise.  Before, the sound had been longed for, something to pursue and celebrate.  Now, it made my knees quiver and sent my heartbeat skyrocketing into unhealthily high numbers.

Click.

Chapter 124

When I stepped outside of the room, the sound of activity reached me from downstairs.  While we’d been in the tunnel leading up, I’d lost track of distance.  Cautiously, I crept over to a railing and looked down.  I stood on the third floor, staring down into a mass of armed men.  Asher was in positioned in the center of the amorphous horde, ordering people in a ringing voice.

“You two,” he said, indicating two of his goons.  My eyes weren’t good enough to make out their faces and, honestly, it didn’t particularly matter to me.  “East side, up until the fourth or fifth room.  You two, start at the sixth and finish out.  You and…you, go to the west side.  Stay in constant communication with each other.  If something goes wrong, you don’t tell me, and you live to see tomorrow…well, you won’t live to see the day after that.”

The hired muscle rushed to follow his commands.  All things being equal, none of them probably cared too much about who gave the orders, so long as someone deposited money into their accounts.  I continued to badly misjudge Hill, but I clung to the hope that my profile hadn’t been entirely wrong.  He wasn’t the type of person to manage the help in any sort of hands-on fashion; that would mean Asher was the face they saw more often not, the voice they heard when things needed to be done, and the person who they would be predisposed towards following if a conflict of interest became apparent.

Hill couldn’t have wrapped up his own forces any neater if he’d been trying to.  For a kingpin actively courting Asher’s replacement, Hill clearly hadn’t though what might happen if his muscle only knew one man as their direct superior.

That wasn’t important right now, though.  I ducked back, away from the railing, and found some comparatively dark shadows to hide in.  “Sarah,” I whispered, “I need to know where to go.”

Someone just sent his physical protection away,” she said in reply, “so going through the opposition isn’t an option.”

“It wasn’t ever going to be an option and we both know that.  Are we going to have to activate our other plan?”

Silence for three seconds.  Then, “If we do that, everything we’ve done far will have been useless.”

“Not useless,” I countered.  “Avis and Neal could still get away and go into hiding somewhere.  That’s not nothing.”

“It’s not enough,” Sarah pressed.  “Billy’s still being held somewhere.  You’ve got to find him, even if you’re actually willing to give up on the Book and let the Gruesome Twosome win.”

“I’m seeing a distinct lack of options, Sarah.  So if there’s something else you’ve got in mind, I am more than willing to take suggestions right now.”

Her fingers clicked and clacked across her keyboards.  “For right now, we’ve got to get you somewhere they won’t think to look.  They have the entire first and second floors to deal with.  Bright side with that: they’re not going to be where you are anytime in the near future.”

“And the downside,” I said, “is that I don’t have any way to get past them.  They could take days to reach me, but they’re still going to do it eventually.”

“Probably,” Sarah agreed.  “Why don’t we try to make it a little more difficult for them, just on principle?”

The grin on my face turned fiercer.  “What are you thinking?”

“If you can get me access to a terminal, I might be able to pull some information out of his internal network,” Sarah said.  “But for me to get access, you’ll have to find a physical node to access.”

I blinked.  “Sure.  Okay.  Whatever you said.”

“What I mean,” Sarah said, sighing heavily, “is that you need to find a computer.  Any computer, doesn’t matter.  If you can get me access to anything on his intranet, I can escalate myself to a position where I’ve actually got privileges.”

“Find a computer, check.”  I thought about that for a second.  “What about his bedroom?  It’s not going to be as heavily monitored as his security center – assuming that he even has one – and I doubt any of his men are going to be a hurry to check into his personal space.”

“I should’ve thought of that.”  Click, click, click.  “Incoming information.  I’ve marked the room most likely to be his bedroom.”

“How’d you figure out which one it was?”

“I looked at the floor plans,” Sarah said, “and chose the one with the largest measurements.  Rich people aren’t exactly subtle when they want to make their wealth known.  And Hill, in addition to his illicit nightly occupation, is a playboy, remember?  He’s definitely the type of guy who’d need to impress anyone he brought home.”

It was a wild guess and we both knew it.  Intuition was, by and large, my territory; Sarah typically preferred to operate from the realm of facts and figures.  Her last wild guess, though, had led me to the basement and, ultimately, to where Neal had been chained up.  From Neal, we’d found Avis.  I was willing to give her wild guesses a fair amount of latitude at the moment.

So, I glanced at my phone long enough to commit the series of turns and hallways to short-term memory and began moving in the indicated direction as fast as caution would allow.  The noises from downstairs – men jostling for positioning, arguing with each other, Asher’s voice over all of them giving out sharp orders – motivated me to move faster still, but I wrestled down that instinct.

It occurred to me, about halfway to my destination, that Hill could very well be in the house.  He could have been here the entire time.  Nothing we’d done so far would have necessitated his direct intervention.  At least, nothing we’d done yet.  He could very well have taken refuge in some sort of panic room to wait out the entire debacle.

“Sarah?” I asked.  “I know we’re expecting Hill to make an appearance before we’re through here, but did we bother to make sure he wasn’t here already?”

She scoffed at the question.  “Of course I checked.  When I hacked his phone, I made sure to pay special attention his calendar.  At the moment, he has an appointment with another handful of nobles at some sort of self-congratulatory luncheon.”

The image of Hill and a group of entitled high-born lords and ladies patting themselves on the back for their own wealth and magnanimity was as ridiculous as it was entirely within the character of the nobles that I’d met in other countries on other jobs.

I covered the remaining distance at double speed, occasionally ducking into cover in case there was a rogue guard already on the third floor.  Aside from the constant warbling of the alarm that Asher had triggered, things didn’t get any louder or more dangerous for me.  When I reached Hill’s bedroom, I tried the doorknob and found, to my eternal gratitude, that he didn’t bother keeping the room locked.  I slipped inside, closed the door behind me, and locked it myself, just to make sure.  With that finished, I allowed myself to let out a small sigh of relief before I turned to look at the room itself.

As these things went, it was a fairly modest space.  There was still a fair amount of splendor – the bed, for instance, was of the four poster variety with an actual canopy – but it lacked the grandeur that I’d been expecting.  Two dressers of exquisite construction, both made from some sort of dark wood, sat flush against the wall on opposite sides of the room.  A piece of furniture that was longer than a loveseat but smaller than the couch, was drawn close to a glass coffee table.  At the wall farthest away from me, there was a fireplace and, on the mantle above that, an extravagant portrait of a man who looked more like Billy than Hill.

“Okay,” Sarah said into my ear.  “I can see where that might give someone a complex.”

“You think?”  I took a few steps closer to the painting, angling my body so that Sarah could get a view of the portrait as well.  When I’d first entered the estate, the finer points of Hill’s family life hadn’t really registered on my list of ‘important things to remember.’  Now, with the knowledge that his issues were directly or indirectly responsible for a great deal of the misery I’d endured over the past month or so, I found myself filled with a powerful curiosity.

The original Lord Fairfax – at least, the one in the portrait – was a well-built man with a strong jawline and stern eyes.  He didn’t appear cruel, so much as focused.  That sense of focus hadn’t done him well in the business world, judging from the business his sons found themselves so deeply involved in, but that part wasn’t all that surprising.  “Sarah, did you have a chance to look up any information on Hill’s father?  Why they’re broke now, what deals went badly, anything like that?”

Her answer came in the form of several seconds of high-speed typing, before she actually spoke a word out loud.  “Thankfully, there are public records for all of this.  It looks like…it looks like he went into business with a few other Lords, when he realized that his inherited wealth wasn’t going to last forever.  Things would go well for a while – just long enough for Lord Fairfax to start feeling confident to increase his initial investment – and then the whole business would fall apart.”

“How many times did that happen?”

“More times than could possibly be coincidence,” Sarah said.  “You want my personal opinion?”

“Not your professional one?”

“We both know that I don’t have a particularly financial mind.  Personally, though?  It looks like he made friends that weren’t really friends, if you understand what I’m saying.”

Ah, betrayal.  The great equalizer between criminals and cops, lords and ladies alike.  No matter where you were, or how you’d gotten there, there would always be someone clamoring to stab you between the shoulder blades and take your place.

“There’s more,” Sarah said.

“I’m listening.”

“There were four major players who left digital fingerprints all over the former Lord Fairfax’s finances.  They made a killing off of his failures and, all things considered, were four of the most powerful people in London as a result of their financial successes.”

I scowled.  “Would’ve been nice to know that Hill had family rivals before we got to this point in the game,” I said.  “Allies who know the area with plausible motives would’ve given us a little bit of cover.”

“No,” Sarah said, “they wouldn’t.  That was past tense, Dev.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that their businesses were absolutely wiped out seven years ago, practically overnight.  All four rivals, obliterated down to the last Euro.”

I blinked and swallowed hard.  The timeline synchronized a little too closely with our suppositions for it to be pure coincidence.  “You think that’s what the Magi gave him, in exchange for his…I don’t know if ‘service’ or ‘fealty’ is the right word.”

Sarah made an unreadable sound in her throat.  “There were two things that destroyed Hill’s family.  First, the arrival of an unexpected older brother, from one of his father’s indiscretions.  No matter how he felt about that, Billy’s arrival is definitely the sort of thing that would throw someone’s life into disarray.”

“And we’ve seen firsthand what he did to his own family.”

“Exactly.  And now I’m seeing that there were four people, above all others, who had an active hand in nearly bankrupting his father?  The stress of which could very well have exacerbated the illness that ended up killing the man in the end?”  Sarah sighed.  “Yeah, I think some targeted devastation might be something the Magi would have offered him.”

The barest twinkle of an idea glimmered at the back of my thoughts.  I gave it some leash to run.  “Billy is older, isn’t he?”

“Considerably so,” Sarah replied, in the tone of a patient mother tolerating one her child’s mental wanderings.  “Why?”

“Well, we can’t rule out simple inferiority as a motivator, can we?  For why he turned on Billy to begin with, I mean.”

Sarah mulled over that for a few seconds.  “Okay, I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’m going to need you to walk me through the thought process.”

“In a few words, because time isn’t exactly something we’re swimming in, Fairfax picked Billy.  He was stuck with Hill.  Even if Billy was dropped on his doorstep as a baby, there are orphanages that will take children without asking any questions.”  I swallowed hard against the lump that rose in my throat.  There had been more than a few nights where I’d feared that same fate.  “But, instead of doing that, Fairfax takes in the kid.  Maybe he’s hoping Billy gets himself killed, maybe not – and I’m starting to think that I was wrong about that guess – but the point remains.”

“It’s…possible,” Sarah allowed.  She hesitated before continuing and I remembered that Sarah’s sisterly relationship wasn’t exactly sterling.  I hoped that I hadn’t accidentally hit some emotional button.  “What does that do for us now?”

“Nothing at all.  But it could be useful.”  I walked over to the desk and began rifling through its drawers.  It wasn’t long before I found a tablet in one of the bottom drawers, underneath some legal documents and something marked with a seal in the shape of a shield.  I removed the tablet and held it up in front of my mini-camera so that Sarah could see it.  “Can you do anything with this?”

“Is it locked?”

I pressed the power button and was immediately told my fingerprint wasn’t a match.  “I’m guessing so.”

“I can still use it,” Sarah said.  “But I’m going to lose all of the data on that particular tablet in the process.”

“Acceptable losses.  I need access to whatever camera system he’s got running in this mansion, if I’m going to get out of here in one piece.”

“Plug in that flash drive I gave you before I left and then put the tablet down.  It’s going to get uncomfortably hot while it’s doing its thing and you’re probably going to want your hands as uninjured as possible.”

I fished out the flash drive, inserted it into the appropriate slot at the bottom of the tablet, and retreated a safe distance.  It wasn’t that I doubted Sarah’s ability, so much as I’d begun developing a healthy paranoia lately.  Just because I was paranoid, after all, didn’t mean that Hill or Asher hadn’t left an exploding tablet as yet another way of playing my tendency to underestimate one or the other.

In addition to that, I couldn’t deny that a creeping chill was working its way through my stomach and chest.  It was a chill I vaguely recognized: not because it was something I’d felt before, but because it was related to a sensation I knew well.  On other jobs, I’d felt anxiety and tension at the tipping point.  Now, that invigorating sense of anxiety had escalated into nearly blind, physical terror.  I was alone, armed with a weapon I barely knew how to use, and surrounded by men who were likely being paid a large amount of money to stop me, specifically.

Sending Mila away with Neal and Avis had been the right choice.  I knew that, for a fact.  But accepting that fact didn’t do a thing to assuage my worries.  If something went wrong – when something went wrong – all of my tricks and techniques wouldn’t be enough to save my life.  It would come to a matter of raw martial skill and pure, dumb luck.

I crossed my fingers and hoped as hard as I could for the latter.

The tablet’s screen turned bright blue and white letters began to fill the display, filling in from left to right.  The letters made it about halfway down the display before they stopped.  The screen went black again for about three seconds, then switched itself back on.

“And I’m in.  I managed to keep the credentials for this particular tablet, even if I lost all of the files.”

“Layman’s terms, Sarah.”

“As far as the system is concerned,” she said, “the tablet is still authorized to access the intranet.  I can’t broadcast it, and the tablet never had clearance to actively monitor video feeds, but you can use it to monitor the locations of specific individuals.  Hill made certain to mark his key players so that he could keep an eye on them.”

“But the rest of the goons downstairs?”

“I did what I can,” Sarah said.  Admitting that must have pained her; I could hear the strain in her voice.

“It’s better than what I had before,” I said hurriedly.  The tablet finished booting up.  This time, when I touched the power button, the lock screen disappeared and was replaced with a blueprint of the estate grounds. There were four red dots on the screen and each dot was marked with a letter: two A’s, one C, and one M.  One of the A’s moved with the C and M, while the other A traveled in the opposite direction.

“That’ll be Asher,” I said, pointing at the screen.

“And the other group is the mercenaries: Aiden, Carlos, and…what was his name again?”

“The pharmacist?  Mikhail, I think.”  I paused.  “Is Mila anywhere near them?”

Sarah checked something on her computer.  “Not right now, no, but…”

“But what?”

“But you’ve got to remember that I can’t monitor the rest of the people in the mansion right now,” Sarah said.  “I’ll keep her on comms and I’ll try to warn her whenever she’s getting too close to him.”

That would have to do.  I knew that asking Sarah for anything more wouldn’t be helpful; if anything, the additional stress would probably have detrimental effects on everything else that she was juggling.  Mila had trusted me to survive without her; now, I had to allow myself to really trust that she could emerge victorious from a fight with her own demons, if it came to that.

“Alright,” I said slowly.  Then, once more and with greater confidence, “Alright.”

“Devlin?”  Sarah asked.

“What’s up?”

“Those dressers.  Does something look off about them to you?”

“They look like dressers,” I said.  “But something’s obviously bothering you.  What is it?”

“That wood…it doesn’t look like wood.”  Sarah sighed, as if she’d realized how ridiculous that sentence was.  “I don’t know how to explain it.  But trust me, Dev: something is definitely off about those dressers.”

If anyone else had commented on whether or not the wood was correct, I would have dismissed them out of hand.  Two things forced me to take Sarah more seriously, though.

First, Sarah had never been the type of person who let her judgement be overly affected by the stress of a given situation.  Our current struggle was obviously leagues more difficult than any we had tackled before and the stakes were proportionately higher, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe that she would abandon that core of brute practicality that I’d always admired in her.

Second, the Ford family had begun their climb to financial superiority as, among other things, a lumber company.  They either ran or owned shares in companies in a menagerie of other businesses now, but it was the lumber company that had contributed the most to their enduring prosperity.  Sarah and I had never really discussed her childhood, but a forced lesson in botany when she was too young to refuse wasn’t exactly out of the question.  It would be exactly the sort of thing I’d come to expect from the rich and elite, with regards to their offspring.

So, I examined the two identical dressers again.  They’d barely received the minimum amount of attention possible on my initial visual sweep, but I gave them a closer inspection now.  It took less than five seconds before I realized that they weren’t identical.  One of them, in fact, wasn’t even made out of wood.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered as I walked over to the non-wooden dresser and pulled on it.  At first, nothing happened.  As I exerted more strength however, the dresser groaned and began to swing out from the wall.  I leaned my weight into the task and pushed the dresser all of the way out.

There was a wall behind the dresser.  I was relieved to see that there wasn’t another secret passage.  What surprised me, though, was the intricate network of clockwork gears and combination locks built into the back of the dresser itself.

It wasn’t a dresser.  The entire construction was an elaborate false face to hide the safe in plain sight.  I’d nearly missed it, too.

“Huh,” I said.  “Well.  This changes things, doesn’t it?”

Chapter 123

The feeling of panic inside the room sharpened to a point.  Our collective concern, fear, and anxiety prickled against my skin like the touch of a hundred phantom spiders, raising hairs on both of my arms and up my back.  Still, when I spoke, I managed to keep the majority of those emotions from leaking into my voice.

“Alright,” I said.  “New plan.”

New plan?” Mila asked.  I could tell that was clinging desperately to her normal dispassion, but the façade was cracking around the edges.  Her eyes were a little too wild and the grip on her handgun was a bit too tight.  “I never knew what the old plan was.  Outside of getting us into the estate, to begin with.”

“We knew that Asher was going to come back eventually,” I said.  “And we all knew that Aiden was going to be a factor in this, no matter how it shook out.  He doesn’t care about the money and I strongly doubt he cares who comes out on top of this, so much as he’s obsessed with…well, with one thing.”

“With me.”  Mila swallowed a lump of emotions.  “He’s obsessed with me.  He’s not going to stop.  He’ll never stop and –“

“Mila!”  I took a long step closer and clapped my hands about three inches in front of her face.  The sound was sharp enough to sting my ears and, judging from the winces of sympathetic pain from Avis and Neal, everyone else in the room.  Mila’s eyes focused first at the point of impact, then on me.  “I need you to stay with me, okay?  I absolutely can not do this if you fall apart.  Do you understand me?”

She nodded slowly at first, but with gradually escalating speed.  “You said there’s a new plan?”

I gave her an encouraging smile, summoning the last dredges of positive thoughts from my soul.  “Right.  Yes.  That.  New plan.”

“You do have a plan, don’t you?”

“Of course I’ve got a plan!”  I lied, thinking furiously while I prevaricated.  “First, we’ve got to take stock of our problems.  I’ll go first; we’re trapped on the upper floors of an estate, surrounded by a countless number of armed thugs who, for the most part, already know what we look like.”

“Could we sneak out?” Avis asked.  “Like you did at the manor house?”

I shook my head.  “That was always going to be a trick that only worked once.  Hill knows all about the secret passages in his own house.  Even if he didn’t before we stole you, we can be damn certain he made a point to learn about them afterwards.  He’ll have men positioned at any possible exits and I’m not even sure if there are any of those that wouldn’t still leave us trapped on his grounds.”

“Fight through?” Neal asked, through cracked and bleeding lips.

“I don’t know how many people he brought,” Mila said.

“And I still don’t have access to his security system,” Sarah added, speaking direct to us from her position of relative safety in her mobile command center.  “So I can’t count them.”

“If I don’t know what I’m fighting or where they are, it’d only be a delaying tactic,” Mila finished.  “Besides, you aren’t in any condition to be fighting anything at all.  You’d only be a liability.”

“If you can’t figure out a way to get us out of here,” Avis said, jabbing a tiny finger in my direction, “anything we do is just going to be a delaying tactic.”

I did have a method of exfiltration in mind, but it wouldn’t work with so many people.  Worse, it was just like our escape at the manor house; the trick would only work one time, when it was too insane to be considered by any rational thinkers.  Hell, I hadn’t even told Sarah about my idea yet, and she might prove instrumental to timing everything perfectly.  Even saying it out loud before everyone was in position might be enough to scuttle the entire thing.

If I couldn’t use that method, though, I was drawing a blank.  I could admit that Asher was categorically more intelligent than me.  He might have been as smart as Sarah, maybe even smarter in certain areas, but it wasn’t his brute intelligence that made him dangerous right now.  No, what had everyone scared was that he knew me, and he knew how I thought.  Trapped within the estate, he could take his time clearing room by room until he found me.  I couldn’t fight back.  I couldn’t run away.  He’d be able to patiently savor the possibility of revenge against me, ignoring the reality that I hadn’t actually done anything to him.

I blinked.  “Asher.  He’s focused on me.”

“Yes,” Mila said, “we all know that.  What’s your point?”

“I mean, he’s entirely focused on me.  He’s potentially ruined perfectly good plans before, just to take a shot at me.  And the only two people that these goons actually follow orders from are Asher and Hill.”   An idea began to crystallize in my thoughts and a plan began forming around that lone crystal.

Mila scowled at me.  “That’s exactly the problem.  He will not stop until he gets his hands on you.  So what are you trying to say here?”

Another piece fell into place.  It wasn’t a plan, so much as a general outline of events that I could only hope unfolded in the way I wanted them to, but it was better than nothing.  “I’m saying that we have to split up.”

Mila gave me a blank, uncomprehending look.  That expression was mirrored on Avis’s face and, if I could see his features through the mask of blood obscuring them, I suspected that I’d see a very similar expression on Neal.  “Split up,” Mila repeated.

“I’m with her,” Sarah said, through the earbud.  “Why would you split up?  How would that help anything?”

“We’ve got to accept that we can’t get the Book right now,” I said.  “Avis, you have a good memory, don’t you?”

“Photographic,” she replied, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.

“Then that’ll have to do.  That’s the first thing.  We switch tracks from finishing the job to getting out of here in one piece.  We don’t know how many people are in this estate and we don’t know how many are coming, but we do know that Asher will redirect every single of them to capture me, if it comes down to it.”

“You want to make yourself bait?” Sarah asked, incredulously.

“Not going to happen,” Mila said, at the exact same time.

“If the two of you would both listen for a second,” I snapped, “you’d know that this is the only way we’re going to get out of this alive.”  I focused on Mila.  “On my best day, I can barely keep up with Asher and I’ve got no problem admitting that.  I’ve still got some things up my sleeve, and those might catch him off guard, but I can promise you one thing, right now: I have no chance of beating Aiden.”

Her jaw tightened, but she didn’t say anything.

I decided to press the point a little harder.  “You’ve said it yourself: he has a one-track mind and it’s currently leading him straight to you.  He can’t be tricked or misled or played against anyone else.  That’s the absolute worst case scenario for someone like me.  If he’s in this, we’re all screwed.  Point blank.”

“So you…what, exactly?  You want me to draw him away from you?”  Mila asked.  “You want me to make myself bait?”

I rolled my eyes and seriously considered shaking some sense into Mila.  “It isn’t about bait!  Why are both of you so fixated on that idea?  This is about creating matchups that we each have a possibility of winning, as opposed to playing it the way they want, with the terms they want, and losing everything in the long run.  Can you seriously not understand that?”

Silence.  Avis clung to Neal’s outstretched, bloody hand like a life preserver.  Mila’s dark eyes narrowed into slits as she thought about my idea.  And Sarah…Sarah was quiet.  I didn’t hear the sound of her fingers flying across one of her keyboards and her shallow breaths were still audible over the line, so I knew she hadn’t muted us.  Everyone was just…waiting.

“Devlin, I don’t think I can beat him,” Mila said, finally, in a soft voice that sounded so unlike her that it brought my thoughts to a screeching halt.

“You absolutely can,” I insisted, “and I don’t believe for a second that you’re going to let this be the end of things.  You’ve still got a job to do, don’t you?”

“And I’m not going to be doing that job if I’m somewhere else, dealing with my own personal demons, am I?”

“That depends on how you choose to look at it,” I said.  “I can play Asher and Hill against each other, maybe start a miniature civil war amongst the thugs loyal to Hill and the ones that Asher managed to buy.  That should buy me time.  Maybe even enough time for me to get out of here on my own.  But I absolutely will not be able to do that against Aiden and his crew.  Getting them to look somewhere else could very well be exactly what saves my life in the long run.”

“And that just happens to leave you facing the entirety of Hill’s hired army all by yourself, without your bodyguard.”  Mila and I made eye contact for the briefest of moments.  There was more in her eyes than I could read in the brief glance, but I did manage to make out a twinkle of fear before it was drowned it by a flood of resolution.  “This is a bad idea.  You know it’s a bad idea.”

“You’re the one that jinxed us,” I said.  “I’m just trying to salvage everything.”  I flashed her a quick smile to let her know that I was joking.

She didn’t answer me out loud.  Instead, she reached into her jacket and removed a second clip of bullets.  She tossed them to me without a word and I snatched them out of the air.

When those bullets were secured into one of my concealed pockets, I turned my attention to Neal and Avis.  “You two are going to go with her.  Most of the attention’s going to be on me until Hill shows up to assert control, and there’s no way to know when that’s going to happen.  It’s better to get you off of the estate before things get that bad.”

“How are we going to do that?” Avis asked.

“Michel – he’s the Frenchman who drove us away from the manor house – is waiting outside.  If Asher’s bringing most of the men inside to find me, there might be an opening at the gate.  Or, if nothing else, a skeleton shift that he can just drive past before they really have a chance to react.  Either way, the odds are better out there.”

“I’ll let him know what you’re planning,” Sarah said.  She didn’t have to express her displeasure overtly; I could feel it in every syllable of her speech.  The line popped twice and she was gone before I could think of anything I might say to soothe her.

Avis nodded.  “You saved us,” she said, “and you didn’t have to.  You could’ve left, like…like everyone else always leaves.”  She paused, looked up at Neal, then amended her thought.  “Almost everyone.”

“He’s an idiot like that,” Mila said.  I glanced back at her and saw that she’d gathered up some of the papers from Avis’ tiny desk and stuffed them into various pockets on her person.  “It’s one of those things you’ve just got to get used to.”

“I…I think I would not mind that,” Avis said.  She squeezed Neal’s hand fractionally harder – I suspected that even the small girl might be strong enough to hurt him, in his current condition – and moved closer to him.

Mila walked over to me.  “You aren’t going to be the first job I fail.  You get that?”

I nodded.  “Trust me, no plans to die today.  If worse comes to worst, I can always activate Plan C.”

“And what’s what Plan C?”

“That would be Plan ‘Cry Until Mila Comes To Save Me.’  It’s a new one in the repertoire.  Haven’t really had a chance to put it through its paces yet, but I think it’s got potential.”

At first, she scowled at me, but the expression cracked and shattered into a wide, genuine smile.  Then, with only a slight hesitation, Mila reached out and wrapped me in a one-armed hug.  When we separated, it was possible that she’d been as surprised by the sudden outburst of emotion as I was.

“Don’t die,” she said, gruffly.

I blinked.  “Right.  Check.  Won’t die.”  I blinked a second time and recovered more of my faculties.  “Make sure they get out of here safe.  One way or another, you’ll know how this all works out in the end.”

Mila opened her mouth and closed it, a moment later, without uttering a single sound.  Her phone beeped instead.  She motioned for Avis to take it from her pocket.  “It’s a map,” the little girl said.  “From Sarah.  There’s a location marked where Michel is supposed to be.”

“Does your memory work with anything other than numbers?” Mila asked.

Avis responded with an arch, scathing look.

“Glad to hear it.  You’re going to be our navigator, then.  Stand behind me and say where to turn, and when to do it.  Got it?”

“I understand,” Avis said.  She moved into position.  Neal had to nearly bend in half to stay concealed behind Mila’s short frame, but he managed it.

Mila turned around one more time.  I could tell that she wanted to say something, but had no idea how exactly she was supposed to say it.  I took a shot in the dark, hoping to save her a little bit of awkwardness.  “Tell Aiden he’s an asshole for me, okay?  I want to hear all about how he took it when we’re back at the hotel.”

The lines around her eyes grew tighter, more resolved, and she nodded.  Then, without another word, she slipped out of the room with Avis and Neal trailing behind her.

I stood there for a few seconds without moving.  Eventually, I checked the chamber on my borrowed handgun for what felt like the hundredth time and let out a long sigh.  “Well,” I said to myself, “I started this whole thing alone anyway.  Figures that’s how I should end it.”

The earbud popped twice.  “Not alone,” Sarah said.  “You should know better than that.”

A lot of embarrassing things had happened over the course of our combined careers, and Sarah had seen most of them courtesy of miniature cameras or security cameras strategically positioned to give her a view of my actions.  I’d grown so used to their presence that I almost didn’t think about them anymore.  The only thing she couldn’t typically see were my own facial expressions, unless I made a point to describe them to her, which I hardly ever did.

In all the years we’d worked together, I had never once been so disappointed in that difficulty.  Because there weren’t any words I could possibly have used to describe the wide, radiant grin that spread across my face when Sarah spoke into my ear.  The English language simply failed to encompass the wealth of emotions.

So, instead of trying, I cleared my throat twice and faked a cough.  “No,” I managed to say.  “No, I guess I’m not.”

Chapter 122

Neal led us in a half-shuffle, half-walk to a second sealed staircase down the hallway, in the opposite direction from where we’d entered.  Relief flooded into me when I saw that this door had a simple lever, as opposed to an internal keypad.  There was every possibility that Hill would have been stupid enough to use the same passcode on multiple doors, but he’d already snowed us with the shell game.   I wasn’t in the mood to try my luck.

I pulled the lever myself, so that Mila could keep her uninjured hand free to draw, aim, and shoot, if necessary.  Neal didn’t provide much assistance aside from infrequent coughing outbursts and the occasional mumbled, incoherent sentence.

When the door began to grind open, I turned to him.  “Are you sure this is the right way?”

He lifted his head and let it fall once.  “Made a point to…pay attention,” he said.  It hurt me to see how badly coherent speech hurt him.  “Staircase leads up, and…”

“Stop talking,” Mila said, cutting him off before he could put himself through any more misery.  “Tell us where to go, when it’s necessary.  Point if you can.”  She looked over to me.  “Try to keep the questions to a minimum.  I said that he shouldn’t be in any lethal danger, but I’m not a doctor.  These are definitely the kind of injuries designed to keep someone off of their feet.”

“I can do that.”  The dark mouth of the staircase/tunnel beckoned us onward.  I swallowed hard.  “Come on.”

This set of stairs went farther up than the first set and we could only travel at the fastest speed that Neal was capable of.  The effect of those combined factors was that I spent far longer surrounded by darkness and the feeling of pressure than before.  I kept my will focused on suppressing any claustrophobic thoughts, to some small degree of success.  Mila helped Neal as much as she could, but neither of them was at one hundred percent.  I found myself wishing that there’d been a place for Alex on this job.  He could’ve helped Neal up the stairs at a faster pace – hell, Alex could probably have just carried him, if necessary – which would have freed up Mila’s attention, as well as reduced the strain on her already bruised and broken body.

In my heart, and in the part of my brain that rarely surfaced to make intelligent decisions, I knew that Alex would have been a larger liability than an asset.  He would have been fine now, while we were rescuing people who had helped up in the past.  As soon as Asher showed up, though, he would have abandoned any scrap of the plan still remaining in order to run straight at the man who’d kidnapped his daughter.

I couldn’t blame him for that.  I just couldn’t allow it to happen.  Already, I didn’t know how I was going to steer things back onto track for our planned grand finale.  The addition of a furious freight train of a protective German father would not have been helpful.

“People are starting to show up outside,” Sarah said, over comms.  Her voice helped to pull me out of my own musings.  I focused on it, instead of the oppressive darkness.  “Not a lot yet, but it’s building.”

“How many?” I asked.

She was silent for a moment.  “I don’t know.  Michel can’t get into a position where I can see them all without putting himself at risk.”

“If you had to guess?”

“A lot,” she said immediately.  “Too many.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

The stunned silence from her end of the line made me smile, despite the situation.  “In what world is that a good thing?” She asked.

“This way,” I said, “we don’t have to worry about them blindsiding us.  If everyone has the good graces to stand right in front of the estate, then – “

“Devlin,” Mila interrupted.  “Top of the stairs.”

I blinked and realized that, during our short conversation, my surroundings had gradually been growing lighter and more visible.  At some point, we must have reached the top of the underground staircase.  I had been so focused on Sarah that I’d managed to miss the transition, or the fact that we’d stopped moving while the door opened, entirely.

“Neal, which way do we go now?”

He opened his mouth to reply, in blatant defiance of Mila’s orders, but couldn’t seem to make any actual sound in his condition.  He pointed diagonally forward and to the left, instead.

“Are there any other secret doors we should know about?”

He shook his head.

I exited the tunnel and looked around at the room.  The books lining the wall gave it away as some sort of miniature library or study.  A desk made of dark wood tipped the scale in favor of ‘study.’  The décor was tastefully understated, as I would have expected from British nobility; demur enough that it didn’t scream for attention and rich enough that no one would possibly mistake its owner for anything other than old money.  On a normal day, I might have searched for some valuable knickknack.  On this day, however, I was only interested in one thing.

“Mila, put him on that couch,” I said, pointing at the furniture in question.  “We can come back and get him after we retrieve Avis.”

She moved to comply without question or complaint.  When Neal was slumping gradually into a horizontal position, she raised an eyebrow.  “You still haven’t told me how you plan on getting out of here,” she said.  There wasn’t any accusation in her voice, nor was there the faintest trace of anger.  It sounded more like idle curiosity than anything else.

“That’s because you have a terrible habit of deliberately jinxing things,” I said, “and I really don’t think my escape route is going to need any more bad luck thrown its way.  Don’t worry about it, though.  We need to get the girl and rework the timeline.”

“From what to what?”

“We wanted to get the Book secured before tackling this.  Apparently that’s not going to be the way it works out.  We’ll need to figure out a way to at least locate the Book before Hill gives the order to move in and secure his prize translator.”

“That’s not a new plan,” Mila said.

“Huh.  And here I thought it was a well-thought out series of predictable events that would absolutely never go wrong.  I guess I’ve learned something new today.”

The sarcasm was such a natural reaction to stress, that it slipped out before I was even aware that I’d started to speak.  I was pleasantly surprised when Mila took no offense at the tone and, instead, smiled one of her hungry smiles back at me.  “Well, what are we waiting for, then?”

She moved forward and eased the study’s door open before I could say anything for or against any action.  The slight smile on my face, still there from Sarah’s confusion earlier, deepened as I followed after her.  Ahead of the room, and to the left, I saw a thin sliver of light from a door that wasn’t quite closed.  Mila noticed it, as well, and the two of us made crouch-walked over to it as fast as we could manage without making any unnecessary noise.

“Guards?” She whispered.

“Maybe,” I whispered back.

“What do you want me to do about them?”

Considering the stakes of our current game, the lives and livelihoods literally at stake, and the fact that a child might have been in very real danger…I might have given that question more than thought than it really deserved.  Not everyone who worked for Hill was a scumbag.  I broke the law on a regular basis, after all, and I considered myself a fairly moral personal.  Sarah probably found herself in outlaw territory more often than me – at least, in the past, before she’d gone straight – and she was one of the best people I knew.  It wouldn’t be fair for me to start judging men or women based solely on who they chose as an employer.

But…at the same time, I couldn’t go easy on them, either.  They were working for a known drug dealer, which wasn’t so much a problem as the drug dealer they’d chosen to work for.  More than that, whoever Hill had chosen to keep Avis under guard would have to know that they were holding a child hostage and exploiting her natural talents.  Presumably, this hypothetical guard would have orders to shoot her if she put up too much of a fight or argued too aggressively.  Nothing that would kill her, of course.  Just something that would hurt.

I decided that I could live with myself if something bad happened to anyone willing or able to hurt a child.  “Take care of them,” I said to Mila, lacing my response with as many shades of meaning as possible.

With her stated difficulties understanding people, I doubted that she understood every hidden message I tried to send.  The whisper-soft click as she checked her weapon’s chambered round told me that she’d understood enough.

She only had one hand and it was occupied with her handgun.  I took the initiative and held up three fingers, lowering them one at a time.  When the third finger was down and my hand had become a fist, she threw her shoulder into the door, blasted it open, and rolled into the room.  The move seemed a little too dramatic for practical use, but she managed to come up with her gun held straight and true.  Her eyes flickered across the room, searching out anyone who might be hiding in wait.

Except for the small dark-skinned girl furiously scribbling into a composition notebook at a far table, there wasn’t a single soul in the room.

I breathed a sigh of relief at the realization that Mila wouldn’t have to kill anyone right now.  At least, not on my orders.

“Avis,” I said, coming into the room as Mila stood up and pushed the door closed behind me.  “Avis, we’re here to get you away from Hill.”

“Again?” Avis asked, without looking up.

“Uh…yes,” I said.  “Again, I guess.”

“It didn’t work the first time,” Avis said.  “Why should I think it’ll work this time?”

“We made a mistake.  We didn’t have enough information and that cost us.  We do know what’s going on now and that’s why we’re here to get you out of the state and somewhere safe.”

A bitter laugh came from the little girl.  There was too much weariness in that sound for a girl her size and age.  “Nowhere’s safe,” she said.

I couldn’t think of any way to reply to that.  Mila saved me by stepping up, taking my place in the conversation.  “You’re right,” Mila said.  “There aren’t any real safe places.  But your place with us is safer than it is with Hill.”

My mind caught Mila’s usage of “us,” even if this wasn’t the perfect time to draw attention to that subtle verbal reveal.

“He’s got the men with guns,” Avis said.  “Your team has a woman with a broken arm who’s barely holding on right now and a thief who’s convinced himself that he’s a good guy.  I think Hill’s the safer option.”

“You know he’s going to kill you, right?” Mila asked.

Avis shrugged.

“As soon as you finish decrypting the Book, he’s going to have you and Neal executed,” I confirmed.  “He straight up said that to my face a few days ago.”

“I’ve…I’ve got to die someday,” Avis said, but there was a quaver in her voice now.  She didn’t have any concern for her own welfare.  She only worried when a specific someone else was in danger.  And that had been why Hill hadn’t outright killed Neal when he’d kidnapped Avis in the first place.

Hill had her psych profile.  He knew that she wouldn’t fight back so long as Neal was in danger.   Torturing him downstairs hadn’t been an opportunity; it had been the intention.

“We’ve already saved him,” I said, lowering my voice to conspiratorial volumes.  “He’s out of that room now.”

Avis, finally, looked up sharply from her work.  Her eyes were wide and the pupils had become tiny pinpricks of black in a field of white.  “You’re lying.”

Before I could say anything to persuade her, the door to room opened.  Mila spun with blurring speed and brought her gun up before I could anything more than suck in a sharp breath of surprise.

Neal stood in the doorway.  It might have been more accurate to say that Neal leaned against the doorway, actually.  He was weezing, gasping for oxygen, and blood was pouring from numerous wounds.  “Avis,” he croaked out.

The girl was out of her chair in a flash.  She rushed across the room so quickly that the papers on her tiny desk were whipped away in her passing and she barely stopped herself before she bowled Neal over with her tiny body.  “Neal!”

“We’ve got…to…”

“We’ve got to get you two out of here,” Mila finished for him.  “Or get you somewhere relatively safe.  Things are about to get a lot worse if we have to keep up with the two of you.”

Avis slowly turned away from Neal, back to Mila and me.  “Hill said he’d kill him if I did anything wrong,” she said.  “He’d bring him up here every couple of hours, just to show me what he could do.”

Confirmation of my suspicions didn’t make me feel any better.  In fact, I felt bile beginning to rise in my throat.

“I knew he wasn’t going to let us go, but…I didn’t want them to hurt him anymore,” Avis said.  “I thought that…I didn’t think anyone was coming.”

“We said we’re your friends, didn’t we?” I asked.  “That we’d take care of you, as best we could, right?”

Avis’s head moved up and down in jerky movements.  Without looking, she raised one hand behind her back and Neal somehow found it with his own.  “I didn’t think…I just thought you were…”

“We weren’t,” I said.   “Now, here’s the deal.  We need to get you guys somewhere safe for the moment and then get the Book away from Hill.  Do you know where it is?”

Avis shook her head.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Hill brought me pictures and I decrypted them.  What Book are you talking about?”

I bit down on the inside of my lip, hard enough that it hurt.  That would’ve been too much to ask for.  So long as Hill had the Book in his possession, he didn’t need to actually show it to anyone. After all, the Book itself wasn’t worth anywhere near as much as its contents.

“We’ll have to find it, then.  We’re running low on time, but – “

“Devlin,” Sarah cut in.  “You aren’t running low on time.  You’re out of it.”

“What do you mean by that?”

She spent a few seconds typing.  “Okay, I know what room all of you are in.  Look out of the window.”

I found the only window in the room and walked over, drew back its curtains, and looked outside.  At first, I saw nothing except for the green of Hill’s estate grounds.  I changed the angle of my gaze and saw a cluster of black Suzukis.  The backdoor on the passenger’s side of one of the cars opened and a figure stepped out.

From this distance, it would have been difficult for anyone except me to recognize the figure.  But I knew the subtle quirks like I knew my own name.  I could see, if I strained my eyes to their absolute limit, the mottled and warped skin that extensive burns left in their wake.

“Asher’s here,” I said in the smallest voice possible.

There was more, though.  The other three doors on the Suzuki opened as well and three more men stepped out of the car.

“Oh no,” Mila said, from right beside me.  It was a testament to my own growing horror that her sudden presence didn’t give me a heart attack.  “Oh no.”

“Michel’s close enough that I might be able to use his camera and some lip-reading software to figure out what they’re saying,” Sarah said.  “One second, and…”

The line popped twice as she connected Michel’s line to ours.  I could hear the Frenchman breathing frantically into his own microphone, but he stayed silent.  Instead, the digitized voices of Aiden, Asher, Carlos, and Mikhail came through the earbud.  From this angle, I could see their lips move, so I was able to connect the speaker to their oddly robotic voices.

“…must have figured it out,” Asher was saying.  “Or at least he took a shot in the dark.  What other reason would he have for the distraction at the stashes?”

Aiden began to pace.  Everything about his body language was different now than it had been at our dinner with Hill.  There, he’d been calm, controlled, and menacing like a patient tiger might be.  Now?  I wasn’t close enough to see his face and I counted that as a mercy.  He seemed…ravenous?  Untamed?  I couldn’t think of the exact right words, except that he appeared raw in a way that promised violence, hot and bloody.

“She’s with him,” Aiden said.  “She has to be.  He wouldn’t come in without her, and she wouldn’t let him.  Oh, she’s here, and she knew I’d be here.”

Asher took a long step back, away from Aiden.  “Whatever you say.  Our deal still stands.  Leave him to me, and you can do whatever you want with everybody else.”

With so much distance, I didn’t think it would be possible for me to see a specific expression cross Aiden’s face.  I was wrong.  He turned and looked up the building and I swear, he looked straight through me.

“Oh,” Asher said.  “Will someone sound an alarm, please?”

A second later, one of the guards on the ground floor followed the command.  A shrill, angry sound like a thousand bees being fed into a blender came from hidden speakers all throughout the estate.

“Oh, Devlin,” Asher said, in a sing-song voice made even eerier by its synthesized nature, “don’t you think it’s time to come out and play?”

Chapter 121

“You realize,” I said, a nervous beat of false cheer in my voice, “that we’ve been spending an awful lot of time underground.  The manor house, the subway station, and now these secret tunnels…I’m starting to think it might be a pattern.”

Mila paused ahead of me for an instant, then shook her head and continued down into the darkness.  “Probably not.  Just bad luck, I’d guess.”

“Well, you say that, but it’s not as though Asher isn’t fully aware of my, uh…dislike for enclosed spaces.”

Mila snorted.  “That’s putting it lightly.”

“I don’t think that I’m really being all that ridiculous, especially when you think about exactly how many tons of earth might fall on our heads.”

“I’m trying this new thing,” Mila said.  “Picked it up from you and Sarah.”

“And that is?”

“Pretending to be optimistic until things go sideways.  You’re sort of making that difficult right now.”

I shut my mouth.  Not because of her shot, but because the dark stairway leading down into the Earth was gradually becoming more well-lit.  We reached the bottom of the staircase a moment later.  There, I saw that the secret passage opened up into a wide room with shiny, metal walls.  To my left, a long hallway of gleaming metal with lights built into the walls at regular intervals extended into the distance.

Again, there weren’t any guards in sight.  I checked the room’s upper corners for a camera and found nothing.  That didn’t mean we weren’t being watched, of course; it only meant that, if someone was keeping an eye on our movements, they had devised a way to do that without tipping their hand.

“Sarah,” I said, “if you had to guess, how large could this underground area be?”

“I’m not an architect,” Sarah snapped.

“You’re the closest thing we’ve got to one, though.  And I have the utmost faith in your ability to rise to the challenge.”

She mumbled a string of words that sounded very dirty in a vaguely Slavic language.  “Hill’s mansion is a little north of 11,000 square feet.  I don’t think it’d be possible to hollow out the entire foundation without causing some serious structural damage, so let’s say…I don’t know, half that?  A quarter?  This isn’t something I can just pull out of thin air, Devlin.”

“Large enough that we won’t be able to explore the entire thing without raising some kind of an alarm,” I summarized.  “Unless we’re holding onto the hope that Hill decided to put all of his eggs into a single basket and leave his underground hidey-hole completely undefended.”

Neither Mila nor Sarah deigned to dignify my idea with a verbal response.  Mila rolled her eyes with a great deal of force, though.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Neither am I.   Well.  Let’s get this over with.”

Mila headed down the hallway first and I followed two steps behind her.  It wasn’t long before the staircase was so far behind us that I needed to squint to make it out.  Still, we continued forward.

“Something this large has to predate our arrival,” Sarah said.  “There’s no way he had this constructed in the past couple of weeks.”

“With enough money and suitable motivation, though?” I asked.

“Not even then.  It isn’t a matter of convincing someone to do the work.  Hill would have to be able to lay hands on the materials and find people he could trust to do the actual construction.’

“Wouldn’t have to trust them,” Mila said.  We reached a corner in the hallway.  She melted to the wall and risked a peek around the corner.  I held my breath until she gave me a slight nod and took the corner in two decisive steps.

“He couldn’t have people who knew about his secret underground…oh.”  Sarah was quiet for a second.  “That is very disturbing.  You do know that, right?”

“That’s what I’ve been saying,” I said, “but no one wants to listen to me.”

“Quiet!”  Mila didn’t raise her voice, but the single word was fierce enough that I froze in place before consciously deciding to do so.

Mila didn’t move a muscle, but she also didn’t say anything to clarify her order.  I waited a handful of seconds before clearing my throat and speaking in the softest whisper I could manage.  “What is it?  What did you hear?”

“I didn’t hear anything,” Mila said.  She pointed at a dried red spot on the floor which I hadn’t seen.  “That’s blood.”

I stopped myself from asking the question that immediately came to mind – “Are you sure?” – and trusted my bodyguard’s expertise in the matter.  “Hill wouldn’t have killed them,” I said, even though I wasn’t sure about that fact at all.  I’d been misreading Hill since our first meeting and, now, I could only hope that our plan hadn’t pushed him into taking violent action.  “Not yet.  He can’t have guessed what we were doing…could he?”

The earbud popped twice.  Thirty seconds went by before it popped two more times.  “According to everyone else, things are…well, not fine, but it doesn’t look like Hill’s men are changing their reactions.  Everyone’s still coming to the mansion and taking up places to guard the house from attack.  I think they think that Billy’s men are staging an assault, so they’re getting ready for a siege.”

I knelt and took a closer look at the bloodstain.  Mila did the same and then got even closer so that her nose was an inch away from the floor.  For a moment, I was almost convinced that she was actually going to stick out her tongue and I was relieved when she only sniffed at the stain.

“Smells sweet,” she said.  “This is old.  Couple hours, maybe, but it might be older.”

If this particular bloodstain was hours old, that meant it couldn’t have been spilled as a reaction to our bombing spree.  There was still the possibility that something else had caused Hill to use violence, but I couldn’t think about that.  I wouldn’t think about that.

“I’m trying to monitor what everyone’s doing, outside of the estate,” Sarah said, “but it’s difficult.”

“Can you hack into their transmissions?” I asked.

“Not really.  It’s mostly short-wave stuff.  I’ve got a program running through the frequencies, just in case, but if I land on the one they’re using at a point when they aren’t using it…most of this depends on luck, Dev.”

We had been lucky so far.  I didn’t believe we’d continue that streak.  “We’ll keep looking, just in case.  If something went wrong, we’ll have to deal with it when it comes up.”

Mila stood up and rolled her shoulders, one at a time.  She favored her broken arm slightly, keeping it tight against her chest.  “Alright.  But I just want to make sure we’re clear on this.  If I see trouble coming, I’m shooting first and never stopping to ask questions.  Is that going to be a problem?”

I didn’t believe for an instant that my opinion on Mila’s actions would stop her.  Still, I spent a few seconds wondering about what the best course of action would be.  “Take the shot,” I said finally.  “You won’t hear any complaints from me.”

She nodded.  “There’s a door down there.  Might be a good place to start, if we’re looking for clues.”

I squinted down the hallway, in the direction that she’d indicated.  Sure enough, a slight protrusion from the otherwise uniform expanse of metal marked a doorknob.  “After you,” I said.

Mila began to walk forward again, faster than before.  It wouldn’t have been difficult to match her speed.  Deciding not to do that wasn’t a very difficult choice.  If there were something dangerous inside that room, I wanted her to be in a position to deal with it without worrying about whether or not I was going to get in her way.  A stubborn part of my personality – stupid masculine ego, most likely – rebelled at the idea of using a girl as a shield.  The more rational side of my brain pointed out that Mila was trained to deal with exactly this type of situation.

When she opened the door, weapon held at the ready, and was not greeted by a hail of bullets, I couldn’t help but let out a long sigh of relief.  Both warring sides of my brain could deal with that outcome.  I opened my mouth to say something to that effect, but stopped short when I drew close enough to read the expression on her face.

Shock.  Confusion.  Horror.

“What?”

“It’s…it’s…”  She stuttered into silence.

I’d seen her go up against overwhelming odds without flinching.  At the processing plant, she had thrown herself into danger’s path with practically suicidal abandon.  Even with a broken arm and whatever other wounds she’d suffered, Mila had insisted on acting as the vanguard of our break-in.  And she had done all those things – and probably countless others that I didn’t even know about – without blinking.

I’d only seen her react to a new difficulty like this, when that ‘new difficulty’ had been Aiden.  I heard no taunting voice and saw no gunfire, so I ruled that out as a possibility.  Cautiously, I covered the rest of the distance between where I was and where she stood, until I could look into the room as well.  As soon as my eyes fell upon the image within the room, I felt my own facial features sliding into positions identical to the ones Mila wore.  I heard Sarah gasp and assumed that her own expressions mirrored mine.

Neal lay on a table inside of the room, strapped down with wide leather cuffs around his wrists and ankles.  Someone had ripped away his shirt, leaving his chest bare to the air.  The lack of a shirt allowed me to see a network of thin red cuts and colorful bruises on his chest, ribs, and abdomen.  His face was a mask of blood, both dried and still congealing, and I could barely make out his face beneath the gore.

Without thinking, I rushed into the room and started to pull against the leather cuffs.  The idea that this might have been a trap occurred to me, after I’d started using all of my weight in an effort to rip the cuffs free from the table, but I dismissed it.  If this scene had only been theatre, then we were already in trouble.  If it wasn’t theatre, then I’d be damned before allowing anyone I’d met and liked to suffer through another second of the indignity.

Mila had other thoughts.  When she recovered from her surprise, she took the time to check the upper corners of the room for any visible surveillance.  Finding none, she looked up and down the corridor, then closed the door behind her.

“Move,” she said.  She crossed the room and produced a butterfly knife with some trick of her fingers.  “You’ll never get him out like that.”

I stepped back and allowed her room to work.  At first, Mila used her knife to saw at the leather binding one of Neal’s feet.  When it began to give, she changed her grip and aimed at the more delicate and vulnerable strands until, gradually, the leather cracked, separated, and gave up.

“Use that foot to push against the table,” she said to Neal.  “I need these as taut as possible.”

Neal turned his blood-covered face towards her.  I doubted that he could actually see Mila, but it was good to know that he was at least capable of identifying her voice.

“Using her.”  The words barely made it past Neal’s chapped, bleeding lips.  He coughed.  “They’re…using her.”

“We know that,” I said.  “Now, listen to Mila.  Start using your strength to get these ropes tight enough for her!”

I wasn’t sure what they’d done to him.  Beatings, obviously, but my brief foray into torture – courtesy of the Lady’s detailed information – led me to believe that he’d only received the minimum amount of pain to coerce him into compliance.  There were no broken bones, no cuts large enough to be life threatening, nothing that made me think his death had ever been the goal.

Neal dug within himself, hauling secret reserves of strength to the forefront, and used the one freed leg to push himself up off of the table.  The leather cuffs bit deep into his skin as he did so, but only until Mila was able to use her butterfly knife to hack through the remaining three cuffs.

With that done, Neal collapsed back onto the table and groaned.  I looked around the room and, after only a moment, found a small bucket filled with water.  A deep ladle was propped against the bucket, which I used to transfer loads of water onto Neal’s face.  It took more than a ladles before the dried blood there began to thin and pour down his cheeks.

He spluttered and spat up the water that found its way into his mouth, but they were the actions of a weak man.  “Mila, is he going to be alright?”

“He’ll be fine,” she replied, after giving his torso a sweeping, cursory examination.  “Doesn’t look like anything fatal.  I doubt whoever did this was even trying to kill him.”

“Why wouldn’t they…”  My voice failed me as realization set in.  “Bait?”

“Not…not bait,” Neal whispered.  He spat out a mouthful of some substance that was far too red for my comfort.

Mila shook her head, as well.  “Wouldn’t be bait.  No way that Hill could’ve known when we’d be here or even that we’d be here.  This was simpler than that.”

“He’s incentive,” I said, mostly to myself.  The thought was horrifying but, even as I couldn’t begin to understand the mindset that would volunteer torture as a viable option, I couldn’t deny how effective it would be.  As far as I’d seen in our limited time together, Neal was possibly the only person Avis cared about as more than a temporary provider of food and shelter.  He’d betrayed Hill in order to save her from…well, not from Hill’s men or the Magi’s goons, but he’d thought that my team had been in their employ, and he’d risked it all without hesitation.

She was a little too odd for me to easily read and I was generally bad at children, anyway.  So, I couldn’t know exactly how Avis would have reacted when she’d been thrown in front of Hill.  Had she ever met him?  Would she understand who he was and what he was capable of?

Probably not.  But she would have figured it out very quickly when Hill gave orders to hurt her only friend.  Nothing fatal, of course.  She would have needed motivation to work.  Killing Neal, even by accident, obliterated any possibility of salvaging this entire debacle.  An occasional beating over the last few days, just to make certain that Avis wasn’t providing misinformation, would be more than enough.  And, after the Book was fully decrypted…

I shook my head fiercely to clear away that thought before it could reach its natural conclusion.  “He can’t walk,” I said to Mila.  “I’ll have to carry him.”

“I’ve only got the one usable hand anyway,” she said.  “This is going to be slow going, though.  You’ve still got to find your Book and get into position before the rest of Hill’s goons get back to the estate.”  She came very close to concealing her shudder when she thought about who might be included in that group of “goons.”

“If Hill was using Neal to keep Avis working, he’d have to have her close enough to actually know he hadn’t died.”

“They could have used a video feed,” Sarah suggested.  “Wouldn’t be too difficult to set up.”

“She’s smart enough that she wouldn’t take anything like a video feed that could be easily spoofed,” I said.

Mila helped Neal stagger to his feet and supported the bulk of his weight across her own considerably narrower shoulders.  “She’d have to be able to see him, you mean,” she said, with only the faintest tremor in her voice to denote the strain that Neal’s bulk must have been.

I nodded.  “Neal’s right here.  So, where do you think Avis is?”

“She’s here,” Neal said.  “In…in the building.  I can…”  His voice failed him, so he gestured vaguely to convey his meaning.

She opened her mouth to say something, then stopped.  Understanding fell on her like a physical weight and her mouth dropped open.  “What about the black cars?  The whole shell game?”

“Have you ever played one of those?” I asked, instead of answering directly.

She shook her head.

“The trick to finding the ball under the shell is to realize that the ball isn’t under any shell.  The whole game is just a distraction.”  A fierce longing to curse bubbled up from inside my gut.  I wrestled it down with no small amount of effort.  Swearing wouldn’t help.  We were here, in Hill’s estate, and we needed to get out.  I could spend a few hours inventing curses after we were all free.  “Hill must have learned a few more things from Asher than we’d planned.”

“Or your old friend is more involved with this than you thought,” Mila pointed out.

“I’m choosing to think positively.  If there isn’t a fracture between Asher and Hill, this whole thing has been a waste of time.”

“And if it has been?”  Mila asked.  She muscled past me, back into the hallway and started to shuffle in the direction indicated by Neal.

“Then I’ll have to make one,” I said, with as much confidence as I could muster.  Betraying my own doubts right now to the team was the last thing anyone needed.

Least of all, me.

Chapter 120

Sarah was, unquestionably, amazing at what she did.  In a million years, I doubted I would have been able to put together her plan.  All things considered, I wouldn’t have been able to conceive of it.  With the barest possible amount of information, she had correctly guessed that most of Hill’s security – those men not already tasked with the shell game taking place across the greater London area – would be focused on keeping people away from the estate.  Once we’d made it past that initial obstacle, it seemed that no one bothered to make sure that we aren’t already in the house.

The odds that we’d be able to operate with impunity were vanishingly low.  Things never worked out that neatly.  Eventually, someone with intelligence would put two and two together; realize that the bombs were all smoke and no fire; and deduce our true intentions.  I could only hope to be out of the house by then.  Or, barring that, at least in a defensible position.

It was better, by far, than any other option available.  But, no matter how many positive points Sarah had managed to check off, I still wanted to curse at her for the simple fact that she had volunteered me for a prolonged ride in the trunk of a car.  A spacious trunk, certainly, but a trunk nonetheless.

As if I’d spoken my thoughts out loud, she spoke softly into the earbud.  From her inflection, I assumed that she was only speaking to me.  “I really am sorry about how you had to get in,” she said in an intimate whisper.  The hair on my arms stood straight up at that voice.  “If there’d been another way…”

“There wasn’t,” I said, both to forestall any further apologies and to stop her from continuing in that voice.  Things would get very awkward if I had to explain away the physical reaction Sarah’s whispers were likely to cause.  “And it’s already over.  No harm, no foul.”

She hesitated for an instant.  I knew I’d been unnecessarily brusque with her and already regretted it.  An apology, though, would only trigger her snap reaction of ‘I can handle harsh language,’ so I kept quiet until she spoke again.  “It took some doing but I managed to finesse some original blueprints to this mansion,” she said.

All business, then.  I could work with that.  “I figure we should go for the Book first.  We don’t know where Avis, Neal, or Billy are right now.  If we get one of our targets squared away, that should put us in a better position to tackle the other three.”

“I was thinking the same thing.  There’s a problem with that, though.”

“And that is?”

“I don’t know where Hill would’ve hidden it.”

An involuntary growl came from my throat.  “No obvious locations for a safe?  We already know how big the damn thing is.”

“There are too many obvious locations,” Sarah said.  A sound came from her that sounded eerily similar from the growl I had just produced.  “Imagine the manor house, then make the whole thing about five times larger.  Oh, and make the owner on record into a paranoid drug lord, intent on furthering his power, no matter the cost.”

“Wrong,” Mila said.  We were crouched next to each other in a small guest room.  I could see her in my peripheral vision, by the grace of a little ambient light.  Without that, I would have mistaken her for another shadow.  She barely moved, except to turn her head in my direction.

“What do you mean by that?” Sarah asked.

“Hill’s not paranoid,” Mila clarified.  “Asher is.  Hill’s cocky.  I’ve seen the type before.  Never been in a real fight but he’s probably convinced he’d come out on top.  No matter what happens to him or how badly he fails, it was always somebody else’s fault.  Blah, blah, blah.”

I nodded.  In her own effortless way, she’d pierced through the fog of misdirection and managed to keep up on mission.  Again.  Our intentions were to play Asher against Hill, or vice versa, but it was still perilously easy to conflate one with the other.  After all, our entire time in London had been spent in competition with the two as a team…or, if not as a team, at least as cooperating rivals.

“Can we use that?” I asked Mila.

I barely caught the subtle lifting of a single shoulder.  “Don’t know.  That’s more your thing.  I’m just pointing out that Hill isn’t the type of person to look over his shoulder, even if he knows for a fact you’re coming.”

He didn’t know that we’d jump the deadline by two days and attack him directly, thank God, but I understood her point.  “Sarah,” I said, “let’s start with the most obvious locations and work our way down from there.”

“Alright.  I’m marking up a map and sending it to you…now.”

My phone vibrated to announce the map’s arrival.  I checked the screen, committed a large portion of the plans to my short term memory, and then passed it to Mila so that she could do the same.  It took her less time and, I suspected, she’d managed to memorize more of the map than me.

It was difficult being surrounded by people who excelled in their fields.  I wouldn’t have wanted to work with anybody but the best, obviously, but the gnawing sense of inferiority was a non-zero factor.

Mila returned the phone and, in a smooth movement, drew out one of her handguns to check its chamber and clip.  Both checks gave her satisfactory results.  She grunted in approval.  “Don’t know what’s going to be on the other side of this door,” she said.  “I’ll protect you, as long as it’s possible, but…”

“But we don’t know how many people work for Hill,” I finished.  “And we don’t know how much security he could hire on short notice.  I get it.”  I reached around and touched the handgun at the small of my back with two fingers.  Cold metal sent shivers up my back, which I managed to conceal with a little shrug.  “I don’t hear anything, though.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Mila said.

I blinked at her, jaw dropping slightly open at how blatantly she’d just spat in the face of tradition and superstition.

She gave me a fierce, wolfish smile in reply.  “Just figured we could get that out of the way now.  Less for you to worry about later.”

“One of these days,” I said, raising a fist in her general direction, “right to the moon, Mila.”

Her grin grew wider.  “Stay behind me.”

Mila’s shadow moved forward and opened the guest room’s door.  There were no guards, armed or otherwise, in sight.  “It’s quiet,” I said.

Sarah made a disgusted sound over the comms.  “Don’t.  Just…don’t.”

Wisely, I followed behind Mila, walking with as much grace and silence as I could manage, instead of completing the thought.

The floors of the mansion were polished hardwood.  Under normal circumstances, I would have worn sneakers or even a pair of simple flats.  A distinct lack of soles that might click against the floor often outweighed the sartorial downsides.  In this case, I wore the dress shoes that Suzie had given me.  They were custom designed to provide maximum grip without sacrificing anything in the way of subterfuge.

Plus, they completed my ensemble.  It was a vain consideration, but it was a consideration nonetheless.

We crept through the mansion and I strained my ears to pick up any sign of an approaching guard.  I heard nothing at all.  Neither Sarah nor Mila spoke a word, either.  The lack of stimulus, coupled with the electric rush of anxiety that thundered through my veins with every heartbeat, caused the five minutes from the guest room to the appropriate staircase to stretch out into what felt like hours.  I used that time to think.

We’d made it into the mansion, through good luck and a well-orchestrated plan.  Hill still didn’t know about our infiltration and his guards would have their attention focused at the gates, just as soon as all of the ‘shells’ started clamoring for entry into the estate grounds.  Panic was a wonderful tool for those in my business.  No matter how thoroughly a given target protects him or herself; no matter what contingencies he or she puts into place; no matter how much time, money, or influence he or she might have, panic is always the great equalizer.

When panic set in, people reverted to their primary instincts: fight or flight.  The bombing attacks at Hill’s stash spots had been designed and timed to remove even the possibility of retaliation.  There had been too many near-simultaneous attacks, from too many vectors, to mount a retaliatory action.  Billy’s men had conducted sporadic raids before, but nothing like this.  We had stolen nothing and caused no real damage to the infrastructure; that was the kind of thing that made people wonder about what came next.

The coordination alone would have been enough to send any but the best trained men scurrying for cover.  Those people who worked at the street level – pushers and runners, mostly – would go to the ground, hoping to wait out whatever storm was on the horizon.  I didn’t have anything against them, specifically, although I also wasn’t too upset about putting a little fear into Hill’s men.

But the people who Hill had tasked with the shell game?  Their reactions would be different, informed by the jobs they’d been given.  At least one driver would have to know what he was carrying.  More likely, all of them had been told that they carried precious cargo, while keeping the specific knowledge of that cargo from the drivers.  That way, each and every man would have a vested interest in keeping himself safe and out of police custody.  When an attack of the scale we’d planned hit a dozen different stops along their collective routes, they’d do what any basic human would do when struck with panic: they would choose flight, and flee back to safety.  In this case, the estate.

Mila reached the staircase.  She peered down into the darkness with narrowed eyes.  After a moment, she nodded.  “Clear so far,” she said.

“Why don’t you sound happy about that?”

“Because,” she said, “the bullet that kills you is the one you don’t see coming.”

I swallowed.  “Do you have to put it like that?”

“Is there some other way you’d prefer that I warn you?”

“…nevermind.”  I checked my phone.  “First location’s down there.  We can check out that safe and work our way up.”

“Is that the best plan?”

“It’s the only plan,” I said.

“And if we get stuck on one of the higher floors?  Because we both know that your little trick isn’t going to keep everyone away from the estate.”

Another chill went through me.  She didn’t have to say Aiden’s name to summon his specter.  “We got out of that trap once,” I said.

Mila’s expression spoke volumes about her belief in a second miracle, even though she didn’t say a single word out loud.

“Sarah, are we going to lose signal when we go down there?” I asked, instead of facing the bleak look on Mila’s face.  “That’s what happened at the manor house.”

“And because it happened at the manor house,” Sarah replied, “I went to great trouble to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.  Signal’s boosted as high as it can go.”

Mila’s eyes gleamed with an emotion I couldn’t – or, more accurately, didn’t want to – name.  She pointed at herself, then at me, then at the stairs.  I pieced together her meaning from context clues.

She took point once more, heading into the darkness with her handgun held at the ready.  Before I took a step forward, I inhaled deeply and drew my own gun.  Its weight felt strange in my hand.  I’d held guns before.  I’d even used them…as distractions or as a bluff.  But in all of my years as a professional thief, I’d never actually fired a bullet at someone.  The way I saw it, if I found myself in a situation where gun violence was necessary, I had drastically miscalculated at an earlier point.

That particular reservation no longer applied.

A few steps into the basement, Mila used her free hand to retrieve and activate a small, powerful flashlight.  The beam of solid light that it sent forward was almost a palpable thing.  It banished the gloom in an instant and laid bare the contents of the basement.  The space, as I saw it in the illumination from Mila’s handheld lighthouse, was completely unadorned.  No paintings hung from the stone walls and there were no rugs under which a trap door might be hidden.

That was not to say that the room was empty.  I felt around as I descended until my fingers found a light switch.  When the bulb switched on, I was able to take in more of the room’s details.  It appeared to be nothing more complicated than a storage space.  There was a pool table flush against the back wall, with two different sticks laying unused atop it.  Several boxes of silverware and fine china were stacked at the bottom of the staircase, just to the left so that they wouldn’t get into anyone’s way when they came downstairs.  A painting of a woman was sandwiched between two crates in a particular dark corner of the basement.

I walked over and pulled the surprisingly heavy painting free for a closer examination.  The woman wasn’t exactly beautiful, so much as striking.  She had stern eyes, so dark that I felt they could charitably be called black, and hair to match.  Whoever had actually completed the portrait – there was no name at the bottom of the painting – had done an impressive job capturing the angles and giving the woman the best possible effect of chiaroscuro and shading.  Still, the painter couldn’t have drawn blood from a stone; no matter how flawless his work, he couldn’t make an unhappy woman into a happy one.  Nothing I saw in this picture – the flat eyes; the slight downturn at both corners of her lips; the way her eyebrows drew close enough to touch, at the center of her brow – told me that she had ever been a woman accused of smiling too much.

She did, however, bear a striking resemblance to a painting I’d seen upstairs, when Hill had invited us over for dinner and a job offer.

Mila had the same thought, at about the same time.  “Is that his mother?”

“Looks like it.”  I held the picture out at arm’s length, directly in front of the mini-camera on my lapel.  “Sarah, can you confirm that for us?”

Rapid-fire clicks came from her end of the connection for several seconds before she replied.  “That is his mother,” she said.  “That painting appears on a registry of noble houses.”

“Is she still alive?”

“No.  She died decades ago.  Hill was just a kid when it happened.”

I pursed my lips in thought.  “So he kept the painting, but hid it away?  Why would he do that?”

“Maybe he didn’t like her,” Mila said.

My own familial past made it difficult for me to look at other peoples’ relationships objectively.  Where my mother had been terrible at parenting, she’d tried her best.  I didn’t have any paintings of her – no one lined up to create works of art about struggling Irish immigrants – and, if one existed, I would have made sure to keep it in a place of honor.

“Why not just get rid of it then?” I asked.

Mila’s expression went even flatter as she carefully assumed a mask of practiced disinterest.  “Family can be complicated,” she said.

I waited for her to elaborate.  She didn’t.

“Either way,” Sarah said, “it doesn’t look like the safe’s in this room.  The next possibility is upstairs, just to the left of the dining room.”

Mila started to walk back up the stairs.  I reached out and stopped her, without consciously knowing why I’d moved at all.  She raised an eyebrow at my touch.  “Wait,” I said.  “Something’s not right about this room.”

“What do you see?”

I shook my head.  I couldn’t put my finger on the exact nature of my intuition, but it was screaming in my head.  Carefully, I walled up the thoughts about my mother and focused on the basement.

No paintings, no rugs.  Nothing that could, at first glance, conceal a safe.  It was just a storage space, for relics that Hill couldn’t or wouldn’t throw away.  Except…

“It’s dirty down here,” I mused aloud.

“So?”

I barely heard Mila’s question.  “You wouldn’t spend the time to clean a basement like this,” I continued.  “Wouldn’t make sense.  No one’s going to come down here.”

“Okay,” Mila said, dragging out the syllable for effect.  “What’s your point?”

“Then why is that wall spotless?” I asked, pointing.

Mila’s eyes went to the wall in question.  Her eyes narrowed for an instant, then widened as she noticed it too.  Unconsciously, I’d noted that the walls weren’t perfectly similar.  Three of the four were covered in the sheen of dust that I would expect from any basement.  The fourth, however, practically gleamed where the light touched it.

I returned the painting to its place and walked over to give the wall a closer examination, running my fingers over it while I thought.  At first, the stone wall felt exactly the way a stone wall should feel.  Then, suddenly, my fingertips caught against a slightly raised section of stone.  I leaned my weight against the stone and, with a soft click and a hum, the false stone pushed back, opening to reveal a shallow drawer.  Inside the drawer, there was a tablet of some sort.

“Well,” I said.  “This is a thing.”

“What is that supposed to do?” Sarah asked.

“How should I know?”  I pressed the power button.  The screen came to life, with a numeric lock screen.  “Can you tell me anything about this?”

A few seconds went by before Sarah responded.  “That model of tablet can either be locked by fingerprint or with a four digit pass code.  If it were locked in the first way, you’d already be looking at a warning message.”

“Anything useful suggestions about the lock code?”

“There are, literally, ten thousand different possibilities,” Sarah said.  “And getting the code by brute force isn’t an option.  Three wrong guesses and it both wipes and locks itself, permanently.”

I cursed under my breath.  “This has got to lead to something,” I said.  “But we’re going to stonewalled because of this?”

“I…I can make guesses,” Sarah said, cautiously.

“Anything’s better than nothing.  What’ve you got?”

“Remember,” Mila said, “not a paranoid person.  He won’t be using anything too complicated.”

“Sure,” I said, “but he hid this tablet for a reason.”

“Try 1961,” Sarah suggested.  “That’s when he was born.”

I entered the numbers.  The screen flashed red, before displaying ‘Password Not Accepted’ in large block letters.  “One down,” I said.  “Hmm.  What’s his social security number?”

“British citizens don’t have social security numbers,” Sarah replied, a little waspishly.  “They do have National Identification Numbers, though.  One sec…okay.  That’s going to be 5742.”

Another attempt yielded the exact same screen as before, except that the tablet now informed me that I only had one more chance.

“Shit,” I muttered.  “Shit.  I just know this is important.  But we don’t have enough intelligence to figure it out.”

Mila cleared her throat.  “His mother,” she said, after a moment.  “When did she die, Sarah?  Exactly.”

Sarah’s answer came immediately.  One of her three screens must have been dedicated to Hill’s biography.  “1971,” she said.  Then, several slow heartbeats later, “Oh.  You don’t think that’s it, do you?”

“Better than the lack of guesses we have, otherwise,” Mila said.  “Devlin?”

I nodded and, with suddenly trembling fingers, entered ‘1971’ into the tablet.  The screen flashed once more, elevating my heart rate into subsonic speeds, and then changed to display ‘password accepted.’  At the same time, a piercing red light came to life on the wall itself.  The tablet slid back into place.  Mila raised her gun and, a second later, I did the same.  We both stepped back and pointed our weapons in the direction of the wall, as if an armed squad might materialize through the stone.

What happened instead was just as surprising, although far less lethal.  With a painful grinding sound, the wall began to slide into a recess that I hadn’t noticed.  “Another secret passage,” I said.  “Hill is a big fan of the classics, I see.”

“Locked with the date of his mother’s death, though?” Sarah asked.  “That is seriously morbid.”

“This is the same man who crippled his half-brother because he wanted more power,” I pointed out.  “I think morbid’s relative at this point.”

“You know,” Mila said, “this explains where everyone’s at.”

I exhaled, long and slow.  “Probably through that secret wall.”

“And the Book’s going to be down there, too.”

“Most likely.”

“I don’t have a blue print for down there,” Sarah said.  “Obviously.  You’ll be blind, unless you can find some kind of computer network for me to break into.  And I can’t even be sure that will work.”

The wall, finally, clicked into place and the red light began to blink.  Every three seconds, the speed of the blink accelerated.  A countdown of sorts, then. Perhaps until the wall sealed itself shut again?  I knew the passcode, now, so I could open it again without difficulties.

“The sooner we get the Book secured,” I said, “the sooner we can get into position to figure out how to deal with Avis, Billy, and Neal.”  As soon as I gave breath to the words, I realized that I was trying to convince myself more than anyone else in the room.

“Right,” Mila said.  “But it’s not going to be as easy, moving forward.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea that things had been easy, so far.  The sound of my own laugh shattered my paralysis.  I took a step forward, then another.  Mila mirrored my movements.  “We’ve got to earn our money somehow, don’t we?”

We stepped through the wall, just as the blinking red light became solid once more.  The sliding wall began to close behind us as we went deeper into unknown territory, in search of the Book and courting whatever disasters awaited us down into the darkness.

Chapter 119 (Michel)

There was always something unmistakably pleasurable about driving a new car, Michel decided, even if that car wasn’t customized or souped up.  He’d spent the majority of his adult life behind the wheel of one cab or another until purchasing his own vehicle with the pennies he’d managed to save up.  After that, he had assumed that he would continue life driving people from one place to the next, trapped within the routine purgatory that was professional taxi driving.

All of that changed when Devlin climbed into his cab, back in Paris.

Although, if he was going to be honest with himself, Michel knew that things had changed before that.  It had been Patrick’s phone call, asking if he could pick up a bedraggled American from the city’s best ice cream shop…yes, that had been the moment when his life had veered sharply to an unexpected trajectory.

In just the past weeks working with Devlin and Sarah, Michel had driven more exotic cars than he would ever have imagined.  The balance in his bank account had commas now, which was a new feeling.  And, most importantly, he was enjoying himself.  The tension and fear of their situation took its toll on his mood, but even those stressors combined weren’t enough to steal away his exhilaration at being useful and actually accomplishing things.

Devlin coughed and Michel heard it through the earbud.  “It’s not that I don’t appreciate your company,” he said, “but I’m really starting to wonder how long Sarah’s going to keep me isolated to just your line.”

“You had it coming,” Michel said.  He checked his phone’s GPS for the tenth time.  The address there hadn’t changed and the suggested route was identical to the one he’d practiced.

“I thought you were on my side, man.”

“I am not on anybody’s side.  But, if I had to pick, I would choose the person who is control of the money.”

Devlin laughed.  “Traitor.”

Michel waited patiently for a break in traffic before he pulled his own black Suzuki out of its concealment and into the stream of cars.  Timing his entrance into the line of cars was more difficult than it had a right to be.  If he drove too slowly, he ran the risk of reaching his destination too late.  However, if he went too quickly, the panic wouldn’t have been able to properly spread.  It would only take one question or even a single, careful examination to ruin the whole ploy.  Arriving exactly at the climax of confusion and disarray was the only real way to pull this off.

But, he knew that he couldn’t account for those details.  No matter how much Devlin commented on Michel’s apparent talents, the Frenchman knew that he wasn’t a thief.  Not really, at least.  He could talk his way past a drunk Scotsman, sure.  And his nerves were, to his own surprise, stronger than anyone could reasonably have expected.  Neither of those positive traits led him to equate himself with Sarah or Devlin, when it come to their areas of expertise.

Sarah knew more about computers than Michel had ever learned.  That had become readily apparent in their first interactions, after the true nature of their business in London had been revealed, that is.  Even now, while Michel drove his newest car through the streets of an unfamiliar city toward almost certain disaster, she was working in her mobile command station to organize everyone – the Russians; both of Billy’s men, who brought with them the entirety of that man’s underground operation; Devlin, inasmuch as he could be managed; and Anton – into a cohesive unit.  Michel knew that, if they somehow managed to navigate through the insane web of coincidences and blind luck that they were banking on, the lion’s share of praise would fall squarely at Sarah’s feet.

Although, there was also Devlin.  It would be his job to handle the job, on a person-to-person basis and Michel had no idea how he was going to do that.  Subterfuge wasn’t an option.  Neither was subtlety.  Hill knew who they were, what they looked like, and what they were after.  As soon as word reached him of the bombings at his stash houses, the kingpin would likely realize that the attacks were a distraction.  From that point, it was only a matter of time before the figurative noose began tightening around their collective necks.

“You are sure that you can do this?” Michel asked.  Speaking out loud to an empty car had never bothered him.  It wasn’t much different than carrying on a conversation with an unresponsive passenger.

“If you ask me that again,” Devlin replied, “I’m going to start thinking that you don’t believe in me.”

“It is not that, but…”

“I’m kidding, Michel.  Listen.  I’ll be honest here: no, I’m not sure.  I am rarely sure about a lot of the things we do.  This is just the best option we’ve got.”

Michel nodded to himself.  “And you are sure there is not more that I can do to help?”

“Not unless you’ve developed skills that we don’t know about,” Devlin said.  “For right now, what you’re doing is the most important part of the plan.  If I need you in another place later, you’ll have the earbud.”

“Besides,” a second voice added.  Mila’s voice.  “If things get crazy in there, you’re probably going to want to get as far away as possible.”

Michel’s mouth went dry.  He tried to say something clever, anything, but nothing came to mind.  Mila was an enigma wrapped in a mystery.  Every time he thought he’d figured out some aspect of her personality, another facet emerged that stymied his efforts.  She was intelligent, yet went out of her way to feign unenlightened disinterest.  She was a bodyguard but, according to her former employer – had their relationship only been professional? – Aiden, she’d worked as a mercenary and a hitman.  She showed little to no affection for most of the humans that comprised their crew, but treated her cat Sam like a lifelong friend.

She was a ball of oxymorons, wrapped in the body of an extremely attractive woman.  That intrigued him.  He hadn’t been intrigued by anyone since his last marriage.

He’d been with people, of course; he wasn’t a monk.  But those encounters had been casual and his interest in his occasional sex partners waned with the passage of time.  Since he’d first met Mila, he’d been fascinated by her.  Flirting with Anton had been a fun way to pass the time, and he suspected that either Devlin or Sarah saw possibilities for something beyond that.  For his part, Michel had no interest in pursuing a man in a relationship with another man, even if that ‘other man’ vehemently refused to admit his own feelings in the matter.  The closet could be strong, indeed.

The attraction to Mila went beyond the physical, though.  Which was good.  Sex was often fun in its own rights, but it could also serve as a distraction from more meaningful connections.  Relationships were often complicated things, at best.  Without knowing anything about her past, there was no way of knowing how a sexual advance might be met.  If she were amenable to that, it might reduce everything to simple mechanical actions.  If she wasn’t okay with the suggestion…he’d seen her take men twice her size apart in seconds.  Michel had no illusions about his own chances.

It wasn’t all bad news.  She’d shown no signs of having any physical interest in him, but she hadn’t displayed interest in anyone else either, male or female.  And their interactions had become slightly warmer, lately.  He figured that her walls might be weakening.  And Michel was a patient man.  Keeping things purely intellectual was probably the best plan, if he wanted to forge a long lasting relationship with Mila, even if that relationship only turned out to platonic.

“I am not going anywhere with the two of you,” Michel said.  “So let us hope that things do not get crazy in there.”

Mila didn’t say anything for a few seconds.  Then, she forcefully cleared her throat and muttered, “Whatever.”

“Michel,” Devlin said, “can you ask Sarah what’s going on with Anton and the others?”

The earbud popped twice.  “I can still hear you,” Sarah said.  “I just muted you so that you’d stop distracting them while they were hijacking the other Suzuki.”

“I don’t want to correct you and find myself completely silenced,” Devlin began, in a cautious tone, “but I’m pretty sure you don’t hijack a car.”

“Carjack, then?”

“That works better.  I’m pretty sure you only hijack big things.  Like planes.  Or ships.  We might have hijacked that train, come to think of it.”

“We gave that back.”

“Somehow, I doubt that the good people of the Metro Authority would see it that way.”

“Did you want me to cut your line again?”

Michel smiled.  For all of his careful consideration about the ramifications of sex, he couldn’t think of any two people who needed to stop talking and just be together more than Devlin and Sarah.  Not for the first time, he wondered what had ended their marriage in the first place.  From what he could see, their mutual antagonism, coupled with the way they synchronized on the job, made them ideal matches.  He resolved to ask Devlin about it later.

“How far away are you from the target?” Mila asked, cutting through the banter.  “More importantly: how long do I have before I should be ready for things to go wrong?”

That sentiment sobered Michel’s expression in a hurry and he amended his previous thought.  He would have to ask Devlin about Sarah if there was a later.

He looked down at the GPS, even though he knew exactly where he was.  “Five minutes,” he said.  “Perhaps more.”

“Have you seen any other cars?”

He knew what she meant.  “None.  But that does not mean they are not already there or on the way, does it?”

“Hell if I know,” Mila said.

“Let’s hope for the best.”  Devlin was forcing good will into his voice, with only a marginal degree of success.  Since Michel knew he could be a much more convincing liar, he took that as proof that the accomplished art thief was struggling with thoughts beyond the immediate future.  At the moment, he and Mila had the easiest jobs out of the entire crew.

He suspected that would change in the next five minutes, one way or another.

Sarah typed something into her computer.  “I have Anton, Chester, and James dropping off the car they stole,” she put subtle emphasis on the word, “and depositing the drivers at Scotland Yard, as discussed.  We hadn’t planned on a pair, but it doesn’t throw anything off.”

“And we’re sure they’ll be out of commission for the duration of this?” Devlin asked.

“I would be very surprised if your good friend Adlai lets known criminals with a connection to Hill slip through the system.”  Sarah laughed bitterly.  “If only everything was as reliable as he is.”

“One less thing to worry about, I guess,” Devlin said.  “Michel?”

Oui?”

“You’re doing great.  Seriously.”

Michel swelled a little at the praise.  “This is…”  He stopped himself before finishing the thought.  Devlin’s ridiculous superstition must have worked its way into his subconscious.  “This is not the most difficult thing I will do today,” he finished, carefully.

“You can say that again.”

Michel entered into a busy roundabout, which ate two additional minutes, and then followed the road straight through.  He passed by the Beatles memorabilia shop and continued forward, fingers tightening around the steering wheel with each mile, until Hill’s palatial estate came into view.

He had noticed the massive gates on their first visit.  Then, they’d been unattended and open.  Now, they were sealed shut and two men with very large assault rifles stood at either side.  The man on the right held up a hand and Michel slowed the car to a complete stop.

The man on the left approached the car.  He took up position a few feet away from the door and gestured for Michel to roll down the window.  “You got any business here?”

Michel swallowed nervously, while trying very hard not to look nervous at all, and assumed the British accent he’d used in the bar.  “Trying to get off the streets right now,” he said.  “Someone’s setting off bombs in the city.”

The guard did not appear moved by this plight.  “Other places you could go, if you’re just looking to get a bit of shelter.”

Michel wasn’t sure what the guard wanted him to do, so he gave the man a weak smile and hoped that would suffice.  “Figured the boss would want us somewhere safe, in case someone’s making a play.”

The guard’s eyes narrowed.  “The boss?  What’re you on about?”

Behind him, the second guard noticed a change in his partner’s body language.  He took a half step forward and raised the barrel of his gun about six inches.

“Easy,” Devlin advised through the earbud, his voice a soft whisper that Michel could almost feel.  “Don’t push things.  Let them figure it out on their own.”

Michel thought about that.  He’d arrived too early, apparently.  After him, the guards would be more willing to allow similar vehicles onto the estate grounds, but the brunt of convincing the man lay squarely with him.  There might have been code words that he needed to speak or, perhaps, the guards might simply have recognized one of the other drivers.  There wasn’t any real way to know for certain.

He considered the stakes and decided, ludicrously, to take a risk.  He gave the guard a frank look and lowered his voice.  “You know what I’m supposed to be carrying, don’t you?”

The guard blinked, but he did not answer.

Michel pressed the advantage.  “You don’t know why the boss has cars traveling all across London.  You never even thought to ask?  Think about it!”

The guard’s eyes went down for several seconds and, when he raised them again, Michel could see that the man had an idea.  “You got, uh…supplies?”

“More important than that,” Michel snapped.  He could feel himself genuinely getting into the role and wondered if Devlin felt like this whenever he stepped into another alias.  “Those bombs are going off in the boss’ stashes.  And if he didn’t think he’d need extra security right now, we both know you wouldn’t be here.  So what I am trying to do is get my very important cargo somewhere safe before I get caught and questioned by the police.  Understand?”

“Don’t know about that,” the guard said, dubiously.  “Orders were to keep people out.”

Other people.  Do you want the coppers to get their hands on what I’ve got?”

The guard looked through the window at the empty backseat.  “Doesn’t look like you’ve got much of anything.  First car had a little girl in the back.”

Michel allowed his very sincere frustration out in an explosive sigh.  “You’re right.  I should’ve put my cargo right there, in plain view of everyone.  Listen, if you don’t know what it is, then the boss didn’t want you to know.  So you can either let me in or you can explain to him why someone managed to grab me off the street.”  He paused for effect.  “Or maybe you’d just have to explain it to the new guy and his muscle.”

The last sentence did it.  The guard struggled with the concept for a second or two, but Michel knew when he’d won.  Before too long, the guard turned and gestured to his partner by the gates.  “Let ‘em in.”

It took a great deal of self-control, but Michel managed not to whoop in delight.  He kept his expression stern and intimidating while the guard nearest to the gates pressed a button and the twin gilded barriers swung open on automated hinges.

He drove through without wasting any more words on the guards.  Michel didn’t see the need to risk ruining a good thing.  Devlin didn’t say anything at all for a good two minutes, until the gates were closing in the Suzuki’s rearview mirror.  “I can admit when I’m wrong,” he said.  “Well played.  I wish we could have found a way to get onto the estate without paving the way for the other cars, but…”

“I’m on that, actually,” Sarah cut in.  “I’ll have the Russians move into place and conveniently get into a car accident at that roundabout.  It won’t stop anyone from taking an alternate route, but it should at least give you a little bit of extra time.”

“I’ll take whatever you can give me,” Devlin replied.

Michel took the car up the extravagant road, noting with rising concern the sheer number of armed men on the grounds.  It seemed like there were two or three for every few hundred feet, milling around with walkie talkies and automatic weapons.  He was gripped by a sudden irrational fear that, somehow, one of the men would realize that Michel was not one of their number and open fire.  Mercifully, that did not happen.

Just before reaching the house itself, he turned and drove to the side of the mansion.  The area there was covered in deep shadow, cast by a large tree that stretched until its longest bough could just barely touch one of the mansion’s upper windows. He shifted the car into park and stepped outside.

“So that worked,” Devlin said.  He sounded…impatient?  Anxious?  Michel couldn’t quite put his finger on the emotion, but he knew it when he heard it.

“Yes it did,” Sarah said.  “The rest is up to you.  I’ll help from here as best as I can, but…”

“But you don’t know what we’re going to need and so you can’t make any promises,” Devlin finished for her.  “I know how this goes.”

It was the cargo space, Michel decided.  The thought struck him out of the blue sky.  Compared to the supercars he’d been driving since hooking up with Devlin and Sarah, there had been something about the Suzuki that he’d enjoyed.  It wasn’t the horsepower.  It certainly wasn’t the flare.  No, it was the cargo space.  None of those more powerful, fancier cars would ever have been able to accomplish what the simple, unassuming Suzuki could.

He pressed a button on the trunk of the car and it popped open.  There, nestled in what truly was an impressive amount of empty space, lay Mila and Devlin.  An empty candy wrapper had been balled up and tossed away, so that it flew out of the trunk and past Michel’s face.

Both Mila and Devlin covered their eyes at the sudden light.  Devlin recovered first.  “Step one,” he said.  “Infiltrate the fortified estate of one Lord Fairfax of Berkeley.  Check.”

“Step two,” Mila said.  She extended a hand and Michel rushed to offer her assistance out of the trunk.  “Find the girl, your new friend, and this book, whatever it is.”

Michel helped Devlin out of the car as well.  No alarm went up from the estate, so he assumed they’d managed to pull off this without ruining things too badly.  “What is the third step?”

Devlin shrugged and pulled down on his clothing.  The cut was excellent and, somehow, it had resisted wrinkling during his enclosure.  “I don’t know yet,” he admitted.  “But I think step four has something to do with profiting.  Mila?”

She nodded before he could finish the thought.  “Whenever you are.”

He returned the gesture and patted Michel on his shoulder.  “Find somewhere you can lay low.  If everything goes right, we’ll need to make a quick getaway.”

“And if everything does not go right?” Michel asked.  Just voicing the concern brought back all of the worry he’d been successfully sidelining.

Devlin gave him a look, but did not reply.  After a few seconds of that, both he and Mila turned and set off for a low window, further into the shadows cast by the large tree.  Michel watched them go.  Even after they’d managed to slip inside the estate, he stayed there, staring at the area where they’d last been for a long time.

“They’ll be alright,” Sarah said into his ear.  Michel wondered how she knew what he was thinking and then remembered that his mini-camera was on and hadn’t moved for a minute or two.  “They will be.  Trust me.”

Michel believed her as much as he could believe anyone.  “Okay,” he said.  “I will be on standby.”

Then, with nothing else to do, he reached into the car and pulled out a crushed pack of cigarettes.  He’d barely been able to smoke these last few weeks.  But now, more than any other time, he found that he desperately needed the nicotine.  He lit one cigarette and smoked it down to the filter.

“Sarah,” Devlin’s voice said over the comms.  “We’re in.”

The earbud popped twice. “Sarah?”  No response came back.  She must have isolated Devlin’s line, so that she could focus entirely on the input coming from him and from Mila.

Michel wanted to smoke another cigarette.  Instead, he got back into the Suzuki and drove back to the front of the mansion.  There, he reclined his chair all the way back and hoped that none of Hill’s hirelings were smart enough to wonder about the abandoned Suzuki.  He imagined that, with all of the chaos likely to descend on the estate in the near future, that question would be at the bottom of anybody’s priority list.

And, for the first time since before meeting Patrick, Michel prayed.

Chapter 118 (Chester)

Chester hadn’t felt the need to break into a car for going on seven years now, starting from the moment when Billy had intervened and provided a more reliable source of income; he hadn’t felt the desire to do so for, perhaps, half as long.  His skills in close quarters work, as well as his exhaustive knowledge on the best ways to hotwire a variety of makes and models, weren’t the sort of thing that one forgot.  For the first three and a half years of his employment, his fingers had practically itched every time his work took him near rare or expensive cars.  The fact that he didn’t need to pinch the cars for money anymore didn’t diminish the thrill.

By the time he’d finally adjusted to his new job, with all of the odd restrictions and rules that Billy placed on all of his operatives, Chester had managed to wrestle the thirst for blatant grand theft auto down to a manageable distraction.  When these Americans – and the Frenchman, he reminded himself – had shown up, he had allowed himself a moment of wild hope.  These were thieves, by their own admission.  It wasn’t entirely unreasonable to think that Billy might finally have decided to be more aggressive when dealing with Hill’s operation.  It was also not unreasonable to hope that the tight rules might be relaxed a little bit, at least when it came to Chester and cars.

Instead, everything had gone to absolute shit in astoundingly short order.  A simple job to retrieve product from one of Hill’s legitimate fronts became a firestorm that threatened to consume a lot of the territory Billy had managed to claim for himself; from there, when the short Hispanic woman had been captured by the police, the newcomers had gone after her, breaking into Scotland Yard of all places along the way.  And now…

Now, Billy had been kidnapped.  Snatched off of the street by one of Hill’s hired hitmen, the man who had saved Chester when he’d most needed saving was now in danger of death (if he was lucky) or torture (if he was not).

So he couldn’t help but laugh that now, of all times, his particular skillset was being called upon.

“James,” Chester said, “you ever nicked a car before?”

The terminally quiet man lifted an eyebrow and shook his head.

Chester turned his attention to the Russian – he couldn’t remember if the bombmaker was Russian or not, but he certainly looked Baltic – and sent his next question in that direction.  “What about you?”

“Once or twice,” the bombmaker said.  “I was…not very good at it.”

“Guess this one’s on me, then.”  Chester touched the unfamiliar weight in his ear with an index finger.  Sarah had told him multiple times that gesture wasn’t necessary for her to hear what he said and he had decided, after several seconds of thorough consideration, to do it anyway.  It wouldn’t hurt anything to be certain.  “I can take care of that.  What do you want us to do about the blokes in the car right now, though?”

“Hmm.  I hadn’t planned on them driving in pairs,” Sarah replied.

It was weird to hear her voice in his ear, as though she were sitting right next to him, when he knew perfectly well that was somewhere across town.  He’d hated that sensation at the processing plant and he hated it now.  Odds were high that he’d always find it distinctly uncomfortable, but that was a small price to pay for real-time status updates.

She cleared her throat and continued speaking.  “The most important thing is that they don’t get a chance to report in.  So, whatever you do, neither of those guards can have an opportunity to alert Hill or the rest of the organization that something’s wrong.”

“You sayin’ what I think you’re sayin’?”  Chester asked.

“I’m not saying that, actually.  We’re trying to stay on the side of the angels here and bodies have a way of attracting questions.  To say nothing of the fact that these goons might just be the hired help.  So, something other than a fatal solution, ideally.”

Chester swallowed a lump of nervous fear and allowed himself a tiny sigh of relief.  He was a car thief, sure, and a drug runner.  He had no illusions about the legality of his occupation, any more than he had doubts about the necessity of what he did.  Without his work, his sister wouldn’t have been able to get the treatment she needed.  Even if she never spoke to him again – which was likely, considering the strained relationship between Chester and her lazy husband – that was a price worth paying.  What he was not, however, was a killer.  The worst he’d ever done was beat the nonsense out of a few roughs in Billy’s new territory that hadn’t been willing to fall in line with the new rules.  Taking things further than that might have been a line too far.

Not that he was going to admit his reticence to anyone in the car or over the earbud, though.  He had a reputation to maintain.

Fine,” he said, channeling his very real feelings of relief into what he hoped sounded like irritation.  “How long do you need them out of commission?”

Sarah’s fingers clicked rapidly across a keyboard, at her end of the connection.  “If everything goes perfectly, maybe an hour.  Let’s assume double that, just in case.”

Chester sucked at his teeth.  “Might be doable,” he said, finally.  “You don’t want us to take them right here, though.  Too many witnesses, for one.  No way of telling if someone’s going to be a hero and jump in on their behalf, either.”

“I leave the details up to you,” Sarah said.  “Car theft isn’t something I’ve ever had to worry about.”

Chester’s eyebrows drew together at that thought, but he kept any questions to himself.

“I’m muting your line for a second so that I can talk to Michel,” she continued.  “I’m still listening in, though, so just say my name when you need my attention.”

The earbud popped twice, as if Chester had just gone to a high elevation, and went dead.

“Well,” Chester said.  “First things first.  James, let’s switch.  You’ll have to drive.”

James nodded and unbuckled his seatbelt.  The Sig Sauer at his waist went into the glovebox while the two men maneuvered so that they switched places.  Chester felt unreasonably proud that they managed the transition without swerving too far out of the painted lines on the road.

Mentally, Chester began referring to the black Suzuki as “the target.”  Back in his boosting days, that little trick had helped to give him the proper perspective when casing a particular vehicle.  He was surprised that the shift happened so easily.

A second man, dressed in jeans and a long black overcoat, exited the petrol station.  His arms were full of snacks and, Chester noted, an entire carton of cigarettes.  The second man entered the vehicle on the passenger side and the driver, wearing almost identical clothing to his riding partner, pulled the car away from the station and out into traffic.  James waited at a stop sign until a few more vehicles were in place to provide them with a bit of cover before he pulled out as well.

While James drove, Chester ran through a list of his old standby approaches.  Most were unfeasible, right from the start.  He couldn’t wait for an opportune moment to steal the car when nobody was looking, obviously.  Hotwiring the car was probably also going to be unnecessary.  The keys were already in the target.

Bad news and good news, then.  He could deal with that.

“Alright,” Chester said, including both Anton and James with his body language.  “This is how it’s got to happen.  We can’t wait until no one’s looking.  Best thing we can hope for is to catch his particular target without any additional witnesses.”

“How will we do that?”  This, from the bombmaker.  Chester wasn’t sure, but he wanted to say that his name was Anton.

“We could follow them until they end up on a lonely stretch of road, but…”  A thought occurred to him.  “Sarah?  Are you still listening?”

The earbud popped twice.  “I’m here.  What do you need?”

“You said you can see where we’re at, didn’t you?”

“I can see where your phones are at, so yes.  Why?”

“Are there any blind turns coming up?  Places where the road’s too thin for too much traffic to go through at the same time?”

James grumbled from his seat.  “Could’ve asked me.”

Chester rolled his eyes, but kept the majority of his attention firmly on the little earbud and on Sarah’s voice.  “I can see a couple options.”

“Can you…I don’t bloody know.  Pick the one closest to us – that still leads to Hill’s estate – and send me the details.”  As soon as the words left his mouth, Chester realized that he was letting his anxiety affect his temper.  He wasn’t an idiot; most times, he knew when he was being an ass.  It was just that he couldn’t often muster the energy to care.  In this situation, though, with so much on the line…well, it seemed like the best plan would be to moderate his words.  So, reluctantly, he added, “Please.”

Sarah didn’t acknowledge the addition, which Chester felt was a bit rude.  “I’m on it.  One second.”  Then, the machine gun speed clicks from her keyboard.  Five or ten seconds after that, his phone beeped.  “There.  Anything else?”

“That’s all I need,” Chester said.  “What about the two of you?”

“I am good,” Anton said.

James nodded, as though Sarah could somehow tell what physical gestures he was making.  A moment passed before Chester remembered the miniature cameras on their lapels.  It was very possible that she could see what they were doing or, if necessary, at least piece it together through context clues.

“Good,” Sarah said.  “I’m forwarding that address over to Michel, so that he can pick up the same route.”

Before Chester could say anything else, the line popped and she was gone.

He sighed and picked up the thread of his conversation where he’d left it before speaking to Sarah.  “This is how we’re going to play it.  Two men in that car, probably armed.  No way of knowing how violent they’re going to be, but it is what it is.  We’re going to have to do this face-to-face.”

“You want to confront two armed men in a tight space?” Anton asked.

“I don’t want to do it,” Chester said, “but it’s the only way to get it done.  Not my preferred way of working, trust me.  Are you carrying?”

Anton visibly swallowed before he pulled back his coat to reveal a Makarov and no fewer than four hand grenades hanging on special laps built into the coat itself.

“Don’t use those,” Chester said, recoiling from the explosives on pure instinct.  “But the handgun might be something we can use.  If they get violent.”

When,” James rumbled.

“Fine.  When they get violent.  Anything we can do to keep them from escalating the situation is good.  Sarah doesn’t want these guys dead, but I’d be shocked to find out they’ve got the same limitations.”

“How should we get them to stop?”

“That one’s easy,” Chester said.  He held out the phone, with the information sent by Sarah, so that James could read the screen at a glance.  “Head to this street, put the car in park, and then run the engine until it’s about to die.”

James raised an eyebrow.  “Why?”

“Damsel in distress,” Chester replied.  “Oldest play in the book.  If that doesn’t work, we can always go with a more aggressive technique.  This one has the possibility, at least, of getting them out of that car.  Hell, the bloody thing might be armored for all we know.”

After a second, James nodded.  He accelerated their car and changed lanes so that he passed both the buffer and the target car, then took a right turn and followed the path until reaching the desired area.  Once he was there, he parked the car and placed all of his weight onto the accelerator.  The car began to purr before it switched to louder roars; those roars quickly turned into choked sounds and the engine began producing a frightening amount of thick, black smoke.

“More?” James asked.

“That oughta be enough,” Chester said.  “Shouldn’t be too long before they get here.”

The three men stepped out of the car and, with smoke billowing from underneath the hood, waited.  Sarah had picked the spot well.  This route took several sharp turns and only led to a few main thoroughfares, it seemed.  The only people likely to take this path instead of one of the faster, more accessible options were people with a vested interest in avoiding attention.  Still, a few cars did pass by them.  Mercifully, they did without stopping.  One minivan began to slow down, but Chester waved it away before it could come to a complete stop.

They didn’t have to stand by the road for very long before the target car pulled around the corner.  There weren’t any witnesses ahead of them and, to Chester’s eyes, there weren’t any coming up behind the Suzuki.  He stepped out into the road and flagged down the occupants.

“Oy!  Oy, we could use a hand ‘ere, mate!”  He doubled down on the ‘man of the people’ accent, hoping that it might lure the Suzuki’s occupants into a second or two of hesitation later.  “Mate, can I get a bloody jump?”

The Suzuki’s windows had a dark tint, but Chester could make out silhouettes.  The silhouette in the driver’s seat turned to the shadow beside it.  The second silhouette replied.

The Suzuki showed no signs of slowing and, without turning, Chester could feel the subtle tightening of nerves from the two men behind him.  He put one hand out to his side, palm facing the ground, and stepped directly into the path of the oncoming vehicle.  Only when he was squarely located in the car’s path did the car slow, then stop.

The driver rolled down his window and leaned out.  He was a thin man, with the facial hair of someone who tries very hard to look like they don’t try very hard at all.  There were bruises on his face and what looked like the remnants of a black eye fading on his features.  “Looks like you had a bit of bad luck, eh?”

“Just a bit, yeah,” Chester said.  “You mind giving me a hand? Just need to get this off the road.”

The Suzuki’s two occupants conferred with each other.  Chester could imagine their conversation.

“You think we should help him?”

“Don’t know if we can trust anybody right now.  But…but he’s in the middle of the road, anyway.”

“That’s what I’m thinking.  If one of the other cars comes this way, he could be a major problem.”

Or something similar to that.  Whatever words passed between the two men, the driver pulled his car to the opposite side of the road and stepped out of the vehicle.  Simultaneously, James moved so that he was closer to the black Suzuki.  Not so close that it would raise any alarms, but definitely close enough that he stood a good chance of reaching the car before any weapons could be drawn.

The driver of the car – Chester thought of him as the Kid, because of the facial hair and the roundness of his features – approached cautiously.  The Kid tried badly to hide the weapon at his waist.  Each step he took betrayed his intentions, as the coat he wore pulled back and revealed flashes of metal.

“What’s the problem?” The Kid asked.

“I’m not really good with cars,” Chester lied.  He’d known cars like he knew his own name since his fifteenth birthday.  Nothing about his time with Billy had diminished that particular knowledge pool.  “Maybe you’ll have better luck, though.”  He gestured toward the car.

The Kid waited until a car drove past and then crossed the street so that he was standing right next to Chester’s own vehicle.  Chester popped the hood and waved; the Kid took that as an invitation and drew even closer to the engine.

“Looks like…looks like nothing’s wrong,” the Kid said, after a few seconds of examination.  “Except you’ve been running the engine like – “

He didn’t get to finish that thought before Anton stepped forward and whipped his handgun across the Kid’s face like a baton.  The distinct, unmistakable sound of breaking bones came from the Kid’s face but, to his credit, he maintained enough presence of mind to reach for the gun at his waist.  Chester made certain that he didn’t actually reach that weapon by lashing out with a fierce roundhouse kick and an uppercut that drove the Kid’s head back into the roof of the smoking automobile.  He slumped to the ground, conscious but unthreatening.  Anton kicked at his waist until the gun dislodged itself and then pushed it away, just in case.

At the same time, James sprinted across the street at top speed.  The Suzuki’s passenger started to leap out of the car at the first sign of danger – Chester considered it a blessing that he hadn’t gone for the phone instead – but James caught him with one foot on the ground and one still inside the car.  With his full mass moving at top speed, James pulverized the passenger’s leg.  Then, before the man had a chance to do anything except howl in pain, he opened the door and pulled the man free.  James raised him above his head with one fully extended arm and then, with an odd sort of care, smashed him against the Suzuki once…twice…three times.  When the man’s body went limp, James tossed it carelessly into the back seat.

Anton and Chester both stared at the Scottish man in awe.  James, for his part, shrugged.

Chester cleared his throat twice and swallowed two more times before he spoke.  “Sarah?”

The line popped to announce her presence.  “I’m watching through the cameras,” she said immediately.  “Great work.  Get them out of sight, though.”

Chester and Anton exchanged a look.  Anton was bigger than Chester by a fair amount, so he started to drag the unconscious Kid while Chester opened the back door of their smoking vehicle.  The groaning man went into the backseat.

“Alright,” Chester said.  “Now what?”

A new voice spoke through the earbud.  It was rich, cheerful, and unmistakably French.  “Now,” Michel said, “it is my turn.”