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.
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.”
“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.