“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.
“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.