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.”