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.”