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.
“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 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?”