Chapter 124

When I stepped outside of the room, the sound of activity reached me from downstairs.  While we’d been in the tunnel leading up, I’d lost track of distance.  Cautiously, I crept over to a railing and looked down.  I stood on the third floor, staring down into a mass of armed men.  Asher was in positioned in the center of the amorphous horde, ordering people in a ringing voice.

“You two,” he said, indicating two of his goons.  My eyes weren’t good enough to make out their faces and, honestly, it didn’t particularly matter to me.  “East side, up until the fourth or fifth room.  You two, start at the sixth and finish out.  You and…you, go to the west side.  Stay in constant communication with each other.  If something goes wrong, you don’t tell me, and you live to see tomorrow…well, you won’t live to see the day after that.”

The hired muscle rushed to follow his commands.  All things being equal, none of them probably cared too much about who gave the orders, so long as someone deposited money into their accounts.  I continued to badly misjudge Hill, but I clung to the hope that my profile hadn’t been entirely wrong.  He wasn’t the type of person to manage the help in any sort of hands-on fashion; that would mean Asher was the face they saw more often not, the voice they heard when things needed to be done, and the person who they would be predisposed towards following if a conflict of interest became apparent.

Hill couldn’t have wrapped up his own forces any neater if he’d been trying to.  For a kingpin actively courting Asher’s replacement, Hill clearly hadn’t though what might happen if his muscle only knew one man as their direct superior.

That wasn’t important right now, though.  I ducked back, away from the railing, and found some comparatively dark shadows to hide in.  “Sarah,” I whispered, “I need to know where to go.”

Someone just sent his physical protection away,” she said in reply, “so going through the opposition isn’t an option.”

“It wasn’t ever going to be an option and we both know that.  Are we going to have to activate our other plan?”

Silence for three seconds.  Then, “If we do that, everything we’ve done far will have been useless.”

“Not useless,” I countered.  “Avis and Neal could still get away and go into hiding somewhere.  That’s not nothing.”

“It’s not enough,” Sarah pressed.  “Billy’s still being held somewhere.  You’ve got to find him, even if you’re actually willing to give up on the Book and let the Gruesome Twosome win.”

“I’m seeing a distinct lack of options, Sarah.  So if there’s something else you’ve got in mind, I am more than willing to take suggestions right now.”

Her fingers clicked and clacked across her keyboards.  “For right now, we’ve got to get you somewhere they won’t think to look.  They have the entire first and second floors to deal with.  Bright side with that: they’re not going to be where you are anytime in the near future.”

“And the downside,” I said, “is that I don’t have any way to get past them.  They could take days to reach me, but they’re still going to do it eventually.”

“Probably,” Sarah agreed.  “Why don’t we try to make it a little more difficult for them, just on principle?”

The grin on my face turned fiercer.  “What are you thinking?”

“If you can get me access to a terminal, I might be able to pull some information out of his internal network,” Sarah said.  “But for me to get access, you’ll have to find a physical node to access.”

I blinked.  “Sure.  Okay.  Whatever you said.”

“What I mean,” Sarah said, sighing heavily, “is that you need to find a computer.  Any computer, doesn’t matter.  If you can get me access to anything on his intranet, I can escalate myself to a position where I’ve actually got privileges.”

“Find a computer, check.”  I thought about that for a second.  “What about his bedroom?  It’s not going to be as heavily monitored as his security center – assuming that he even has one – and I doubt any of his men are going to be a hurry to check into his personal space.”

“I should’ve thought of that.”  Click, click, click.  “Incoming information.  I’ve marked the room most likely to be his bedroom.”

“How’d you figure out which one it was?”

“I looked at the floor plans,” Sarah said, “and chose the one with the largest measurements.  Rich people aren’t exactly subtle when they want to make their wealth known.  And Hill, in addition to his illicit nightly occupation, is a playboy, remember?  He’s definitely the type of guy who’d need to impress anyone he brought home.”

It was a wild guess and we both knew it.  Intuition was, by and large, my territory; Sarah typically preferred to operate from the realm of facts and figures.  Her last wild guess, though, had led me to the basement and, ultimately, to where Neal had been chained up.  From Neal, we’d found Avis.  I was willing to give her wild guesses a fair amount of latitude at the moment.

So, I glanced at my phone long enough to commit the series of turns and hallways to short-term memory and began moving in the indicated direction as fast as caution would allow.  The noises from downstairs – men jostling for positioning, arguing with each other, Asher’s voice over all of them giving out sharp orders – motivated me to move faster still, but I wrestled down that instinct.

It occurred to me, about halfway to my destination, that Hill could very well be in the house.  He could have been here the entire time.  Nothing we’d done so far would have necessitated his direct intervention.  At least, nothing we’d done yet.  He could very well have taken refuge in some sort of panic room to wait out the entire debacle.

“Sarah?” I asked.  “I know we’re expecting Hill to make an appearance before we’re through here, but did we bother to make sure he wasn’t here already?”

She scoffed at the question.  “Of course I checked.  When I hacked his phone, I made sure to pay special attention his calendar.  At the moment, he has an appointment with another handful of nobles at some sort of self-congratulatory luncheon.”

The image of Hill and a group of entitled high-born lords and ladies patting themselves on the back for their own wealth and magnanimity was as ridiculous as it was entirely within the character of the nobles that I’d met in other countries on other jobs.

I covered the remaining distance at double speed, occasionally ducking into cover in case there was a rogue guard already on the third floor.  Aside from the constant warbling of the alarm that Asher had triggered, things didn’t get any louder or more dangerous for me.  When I reached Hill’s bedroom, I tried the doorknob and found, to my eternal gratitude, that he didn’t bother keeping the room locked.  I slipped inside, closed the door behind me, and locked it myself, just to make sure.  With that finished, I allowed myself to let out a small sigh of relief before I turned to look at the room itself.

As these things went, it was a fairly modest space.  There was still a fair amount of splendor – the bed, for instance, was of the four poster variety with an actual canopy – but it lacked the grandeur that I’d been expecting.  Two dressers of exquisite construction, both made from some sort of dark wood, sat flush against the wall on opposite sides of the room.  A piece of furniture that was longer than a loveseat but smaller than the couch, was drawn close to a glass coffee table.  At the wall farthest away from me, there was a fireplace and, on the mantle above that, an extravagant portrait of a man who looked more like Billy than Hill.

“Okay,” Sarah said into my ear.  “I can see where that might give someone a complex.”

“You think?”  I took a few steps closer to the painting, angling my body so that Sarah could get a view of the portrait as well.  When I’d first entered the estate, the finer points of Hill’s family life hadn’t really registered on my list of ‘important things to remember.’  Now, with the knowledge that his issues were directly or indirectly responsible for a great deal of the misery I’d endured over the past month or so, I found myself filled with a powerful curiosity.

The original Lord Fairfax – at least, the one in the portrait – was a well-built man with a strong jawline and stern eyes.  He didn’t appear cruel, so much as focused.  That sense of focus hadn’t done him well in the business world, judging from the business his sons found themselves so deeply involved in, but that part wasn’t all that surprising.  “Sarah, did you have a chance to look up any information on Hill’s father?  Why they’re broke now, what deals went badly, anything like that?”

Her answer came in the form of several seconds of high-speed typing, before she actually spoke a word out loud.  “Thankfully, there are public records for all of this.  It looks like…it looks like he went into business with a few other Lords, when he realized that his inherited wealth wasn’t going to last forever.  Things would go well for a while – just long enough for Lord Fairfax to start feeling confident to increase his initial investment – and then the whole business would fall apart.”

“How many times did that happen?”

“More times than could possibly be coincidence,” Sarah said.  “You want my personal opinion?”

“Not your professional one?”

“We both know that I don’t have a particularly financial mind.  Personally, though?  It looks like he made friends that weren’t really friends, if you understand what I’m saying.”

Ah, betrayal.  The great equalizer between criminals and cops, lords and ladies alike.  No matter where you were, or how you’d gotten there, there would always be someone clamoring to stab you between the shoulder blades and take your place.

“There’s more,” Sarah said.

“I’m listening.”

“There were four major players who left digital fingerprints all over the former Lord Fairfax’s finances.  They made a killing off of his failures and, all things considered, were four of the most powerful people in London as a result of their financial successes.”

I scowled.  “Would’ve been nice to know that Hill had family rivals before we got to this point in the game,” I said.  “Allies who know the area with plausible motives would’ve given us a little bit of cover.”

“No,” Sarah said, “they wouldn’t.  That was past tense, Dev.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that their businesses were absolutely wiped out seven years ago, practically overnight.  All four rivals, obliterated down to the last Euro.”

I blinked and swallowed hard.  The timeline synchronized a little too closely with our suppositions for it to be pure coincidence.  “You think that’s what the Magi gave him, in exchange for his…I don’t know if ‘service’ or ‘fealty’ is the right word.”

Sarah made an unreadable sound in her throat.  “There were two things that destroyed Hill’s family.  First, the arrival of an unexpected older brother, from one of his father’s indiscretions.  No matter how he felt about that, Billy’s arrival is definitely the sort of thing that would throw someone’s life into disarray.”

“And we’ve seen firsthand what he did to his own family.”

“Exactly.  And now I’m seeing that there were four people, above all others, who had an active hand in nearly bankrupting his father?  The stress of which could very well have exacerbated the illness that ended up killing the man in the end?”  Sarah sighed.  “Yeah, I think some targeted devastation might be something the Magi would have offered him.”

The barest twinkle of an idea glimmered at the back of my thoughts.  I gave it some leash to run.  “Billy is older, isn’t he?”

“Considerably so,” Sarah replied, in the tone of a patient mother tolerating one her child’s mental wanderings.  “Why?”

“Well, we can’t rule out simple inferiority as a motivator, can we?  For why he turned on Billy to begin with, I mean.”

Sarah mulled over that for a few seconds.  “Okay, I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’m going to need you to walk me through the thought process.”

“In a few words, because time isn’t exactly something we’re swimming in, Fairfax picked Billy.  He was stuck with Hill.  Even if Billy was dropped on his doorstep as a baby, there are orphanages that will take children without asking any questions.”  I swallowed hard against the lump that rose in my throat.  There had been more than a few nights where I’d feared that same fate.  “But, instead of doing that, Fairfax takes in the kid.  Maybe he’s hoping Billy gets himself killed, maybe not – and I’m starting to think that I was wrong about that guess – but the point remains.”

“It’s…possible,” Sarah allowed.  She hesitated before continuing and I remembered that Sarah’s sisterly relationship wasn’t exactly sterling.  I hoped that I hadn’t accidentally hit some emotional button.  “What does that do for us now?”

“Nothing at all.  But it could be useful.”  I walked over to the desk and began rifling through its drawers.  It wasn’t long before I found a tablet in one of the bottom drawers, underneath some legal documents and something marked with a seal in the shape of a shield.  I removed the tablet and held it up in front of my mini-camera so that Sarah could see it.  “Can you do anything with this?”

“Is it locked?”

I pressed the power button and was immediately told my fingerprint wasn’t a match.  “I’m guessing so.”

“I can still use it,” Sarah said.  “But I’m going to lose all of the data on that particular tablet in the process.”

“Acceptable losses.  I need access to whatever camera system he’s got running in this mansion, if I’m going to get out of here in one piece.”

“Plug in that flash drive I gave you before I left and then put the tablet down.  It’s going to get uncomfortably hot while it’s doing its thing and you’re probably going to want your hands as uninjured as possible.”

I fished out the flash drive, inserted it into the appropriate slot at the bottom of the tablet, and retreated a safe distance.  It wasn’t that I doubted Sarah’s ability, so much as I’d begun developing a healthy paranoia lately.  Just because I was paranoid, after all, didn’t mean that Hill or Asher hadn’t left an exploding tablet as yet another way of playing my tendency to underestimate one or the other.

In addition to that, I couldn’t deny that a creeping chill was working its way through my stomach and chest.  It was a chill I vaguely recognized: not because it was something I’d felt before, but because it was related to a sensation I knew well.  On other jobs, I’d felt anxiety and tension at the tipping point.  Now, that invigorating sense of anxiety had escalated into nearly blind, physical terror.  I was alone, armed with a weapon I barely knew how to use, and surrounded by men who were likely being paid a large amount of money to stop me, specifically.

Sending Mila away with Neal and Avis had been the right choice.  I knew that, for a fact.  But accepting that fact didn’t do a thing to assuage my worries.  If something went wrong – when something went wrong – all of my tricks and techniques wouldn’t be enough to save my life.  It would come to a matter of raw martial skill and pure, dumb luck.

I crossed my fingers and hoped as hard as I could for the latter.

The tablet’s screen turned bright blue and white letters began to fill the display, filling in from left to right.  The letters made it about halfway down the display before they stopped.  The screen went black again for about three seconds, then switched itself back on.

“And I’m in.  I managed to keep the credentials for this particular tablet, even if I lost all of the files.”

“Layman’s terms, Sarah.”

“As far as the system is concerned,” she said, “the tablet is still authorized to access the intranet.  I can’t broadcast it, and the tablet never had clearance to actively monitor video feeds, but you can use it to monitor the locations of specific individuals.  Hill made certain to mark his key players so that he could keep an eye on them.”

“But the rest of the goons downstairs?”

“I did what I can,” Sarah said.  Admitting that must have pained her; I could hear the strain in her voice.

“It’s better than what I had before,” I said hurriedly.  The tablet finished booting up.  This time, when I touched the power button, the lock screen disappeared and was replaced with a blueprint of the estate grounds. There were four red dots on the screen and each dot was marked with a letter: two A’s, one C, and one M.  One of the A’s moved with the C and M, while the other A traveled in the opposite direction.

“That’ll be Asher,” I said, pointing at the screen.

“And the other group is the mercenaries: Aiden, Carlos, and…what was his name again?”

“The pharmacist?  Mikhail, I think.”  I paused.  “Is Mila anywhere near them?”

Sarah checked something on her computer.  “Not right now, no, but…”

“But what?”

“But you’ve got to remember that I can’t monitor the rest of the people in the mansion right now,” Sarah said.  “I’ll keep her on comms and I’ll try to warn her whenever she’s getting too close to him.”

That would have to do.  I knew that asking Sarah for anything more wouldn’t be helpful; if anything, the additional stress would probably have detrimental effects on everything else that she was juggling.  Mila had trusted me to survive without her; now, I had to allow myself to really trust that she could emerge victorious from a fight with her own demons, if it came to that.

“Alright,” I said slowly.  Then, once more and with greater confidence, “Alright.”

“Devlin?”  Sarah asked.

“What’s up?”

“Those dressers.  Does something look off about them to you?”

“They look like dressers,” I said.  “But something’s obviously bothering you.  What is it?”

“That wood…it doesn’t look like wood.”  Sarah sighed, as if she’d realized how ridiculous that sentence was.  “I don’t know how to explain it.  But trust me, Dev: something is definitely off about those dressers.”

If anyone else had commented on whether or not the wood was correct, I would have dismissed them out of hand.  Two things forced me to take Sarah more seriously, though.

First, Sarah had never been the type of person who let her judgement be overly affected by the stress of a given situation.  Our current struggle was obviously leagues more difficult than any we had tackled before and the stakes were proportionately higher, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe that she would abandon that core of brute practicality that I’d always admired in her.

Second, the Ford family had begun their climb to financial superiority as, among other things, a lumber company.  They either ran or owned shares in companies in a menagerie of other businesses now, but it was the lumber company that had contributed the most to their enduring prosperity.  Sarah and I had never really discussed her childhood, but a forced lesson in botany when she was too young to refuse wasn’t exactly out of the question.  It would be exactly the sort of thing I’d come to expect from the rich and elite, with regards to their offspring.

So, I examined the two identical dressers again.  They’d barely received the minimum amount of attention possible on my initial visual sweep, but I gave them a closer inspection now.  It took less than five seconds before I realized that they weren’t identical.  One of them, in fact, wasn’t even made out of wood.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered as I walked over to the non-wooden dresser and pulled on it.  At first, nothing happened.  As I exerted more strength however, the dresser groaned and began to swing out from the wall.  I leaned my weight into the task and pushed the dresser all of the way out.

There was a wall behind the dresser.  I was relieved to see that there wasn’t another secret passage.  What surprised me, though, was the intricate network of clockwork gears and combination locks built into the back of the dresser itself.

It wasn’t a dresser.  The entire construction was an elaborate false face to hide the safe in plain sight.  I’d nearly missed it, too.

“Huh,” I said.  “Well.  This changes things, doesn’t it?”

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