Chapter 126 (Sarah)

“Devlin?  Can you hear me, Devlin?”

No reply came through the comms.  I stared at my center screen, where a widget displayed the status of each team member’s earbud.  According to that, Devlin’s earbud should have been active and I couldn’t imagine a situation in which he wouldn’t respond.  Underneath his name, I saw that both Mila and Michel were muted on my end.  I could hear what they said, but they weren’t able to listen to anything I talked about with Devlin.

More than that, however, the miniature camera on Devlin’s lapel had gone dark.

I decided to check that system, just to make sure that the problem wasn’t purely software based.  “Mila, are you there?”

Nothing.

“Michel?  Michel, can you tell me what you see right now?”

Again, no response.

I shook my head, as if that action might fix whatever problem was keeping me from communicating with Devlin.  Then, I ran through a basic checklist of troubleshooting techniques.  I didn’t get into anything incredibly technical.  There wasn’t time for anything like that.  But the basic tricks were easy to perform and I was able to think about possible issues while I restarted the relevant programs; unplugged the relevant dongle for several seconds, then reinserted it into the appropriate slot; and, ultimately, power cycled the entire system running on the center screen.

Devlin had the Book.  I’d heard that much.  Against all odds, he’d managed to break into Hill’s safe and, in one move, finally managed to acquire the object that had caused us so much trouble in the last two or three weeks.  A fierce wave of pride swept through me at that thought.  He had done it.  He had done it.  The company that manufactured the Fortress was, by and large, viewed as the worst thing to happen to professional safecrackers since someone had invented false contact points.  But Devlin – my Devlin – had managed to break into their top of the line product, with no practice and precious little information, after two and a half years spent out of the game.  It was enough to draw a wide smile out of me.

That smile turned brittle and fell away when I finished my checklist and checked the comms again.  “Devlin?  Say something if you can hear me.  I’m starting to get worried here.”

Silence.

The invisible hairs on my arm rose slowly, reaching up to the roof of the van, as a horde of dark thoughts began to parade through my mind.  What if he’d been captured?  What if Hill had been a step ahead of us, after all?  It wouldn’t take much to catch him off guard.  Whenever Devlin allowed himself to fall into the task of safecracking, his peripheral senses dwindled away to nothing.  An elephant would be able to sneak up on him, if there was a puzzle of sufficient complexity consuming his attention.  And, if someone got the drop on him, there wouldn’t be much of a fight.  He excelled at improvisation, evasion, and obfuscation; direct conflict, however, was a glaring hole in his skillset.

In a fit of irrational, self-sacrificing, foolishly noble idealism, Devlin had sent his bodyguard away to protect Avis and her handler.  That was exactly the sort of idiocy that had drawn me to him in the first place and, at the moment, I found myself terrified that he would be killed by that same nobility.

With a conscious effort, I forced my fear back down and commanded myself to think.  There were a lot of reasons why Devlin might not be answering.  If, for instance, someone had entered the room, then Devlin might be hiding.  If that were the case, he couldn’t exactly risk speaking aloud.  Someone could hear him, after all.

But if that were the situation, then he was still alone in a room with a potentially armed guard.  He might come out on top of a conflict, if he attacked first and furiously, but the possibility that he might not win was too large to ignore.

I repeated his name into my earbud several times, only to receive the same deafening silence in reply every time.  Whatever the reason, he either couldn’t hear me or he couldn’t respond.  Ultimately, the cause for his silence didn’t matter.  What was important was that I find a way to get back into contact with him, as soon as possible.  Devlin was good in a pinch, but he wasn’t perfect.  He was as prone to making the wrong snap decision as anyone else, perhaps more so.

I activated Michel’s earbud and cleared my throat.  “Where are you at right now?”

The Frenchman must have been caught off guard by my voice.  He sputtered into the earbud for a few seconds before pausing, catching his breath, and starting over with more understandable language.  “I am outside of the estate,” he said, “where you told me to remain.  Should I be somewhere else?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose with the index and thumb of my left hand, even as my right hand flew across the keyboard to pull up a view of Michel’s body camera.  “I honestly don’t know,” I admitted.  “There’s a room on the third floor, though.  I was hoping you might be able to look into it and tell me what you see.”

“Where is this room?”

Michel’s cell phone and, therefore, his location was still visible on my screen.  I glanced at that, then the blueprint I’d pulled up of the estate, so that I could figure out where Hill’s bedroom was, relative to where Michel was waiting.  “Directions are incoming.  It’s a very specific room, so it’s important that you know where you’re going.”

A second or two passed before the message traveled from my computer to Michel’s cell phone.  “What am I looking for?”  I didn’t hear an engine turning over, so I allowed myself to assume that Michel knew better than to drive across the grounds while it was on high alert.  His instincts were good; with Asher and Aiden on the scene, every goon’s focus had shifted from the gate to the interior of the estate.  Thus far, it had apparently not occurred to anyone that we might have snuck someone onto the premises under their noses and left him in a relatively inconspicuous position.

“I’ll tell you as soon as you get there,” I said.

Oui, oui,” he replied in a hushed voice.  He didn’t ask any further questions and, if I turned the volume on the comms to the maximum, I could just barely hear his footsteps as he moved through the well-kept grounds.

I appreciated that I didn’t have to guide Michel through the intricacies of an infiltration and that it wasn’t necessary to stress the importance of subtlety, but both of those thoughts were peripheral.  My primary concern – the overwhelming pressure that dominated my mind – was Devlin.  Where was he?  What was happening in Hill’s bedroom?  And, above all else, was he okay?

Academically, I knew that there wasn’t anything I could have done to stop him from attempting the Fortress.  Devlin was his own man, after all.  The challenge of a new model would have been too much for him to ignore on his very best, most altruistic and forward-thinking day.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel like I could have said something – anything – that would have kept him from wasting time on the safe.  If he’d been out of the bedroom, he might have been somewhere safe right now.  He might have been responding.

That train of thought was a non-starter, though.  The history between Devlin and me made it perfectly clear that he would tackle whatever challenges presented themselves to him, even if he knew better.  And I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I would allow him to do so.  Encourage him, even.  I’d done it before, unwittingly, and I’d done it again now.  I hoped that I wouldn’t live to regret that decision.

I sat in the van, isolated from my entire team except through the tiny voices coming through my earbud, while I waited for Michel to reach a vantage point of the bedroom.  Without anything else to do except for wallow in stress and self-doubt, I decided to check in on the other channels.  Chester, James, and Anton were driving in circles around the perimeter of the estate, remaining far enough away that no one was likely to notice them.  In case the situation inside the estate deteriorated into absolute mayhem, the Russians were waiting nearby, as well.  Neither I nor Devlin actually knew their capabilities, but I’d been willing to bet that they would be our best source of muscle in a general sense.

Mila had, of course, been positioned specifically to keep Devlin out of trouble.  That no longer applied.

“I think that I am here,” Michel said.  I jerked in surprise, the Frenchman’s soft voice jolting me out of my thoughts like an electric prod.  “Now, what am I looking for?”

I considered telling him to look for Devlin.  I decided against that, almost as soon as the thought occurred to me.  Devlin’s relationship with Michel had grown quickly in the short time we’d had together.  I wasn’t sure that Michel would be able to look at the situation objectively, if he thought that Devlin might be in some sort of danger.

As I thought my way through that, my fingers began to hurt.  I glanced down and saw, to my surprise, that I was gripping the edge of the desk.  I forced myself to relax, in spurts, until I wasn’t in danger of ripping some of the metal off.

“Just tell me what you see,” I said to Michel.

“It is very far away,” Michel said.  “I cannot see very much.  There is a bed, a dresser…no, two dressers…and a man.”

“A man?”  With great effort, I managed to keep myself from leaping to my feet.  “Just one man?”

Michel was silent for a few seconds that passed like geological eras.  “No,” he said finally.  “There are two men in the room.  A big man and a smaller one.  The big one is holding…something.  I cannot tell what it is, but the small man does not seem to like it.”

I blinked, confused, before the penny dropped.  If the comms weren’t working, then they were being jammed.  If we were being jammed, then Devlin had been caught.  A hole appeared in my stomach and my heart dropped straight it, down to the soles of my feet.  I tried to breathe, to say something to Michel, but the words wouldn’t come.

“Sara?” Michel asked.  “Is everything okay?”

Of course everything wasn’t okay.  Devlin was probably in mortal peril, flanked by one of Hill’s goons – or worse, what if one of Aiden’s men had gotten the drop on him – and I was too far away to help.  All I could do was listen to his words, provide advice, and try my best to clear a path for him, electronically speaking.  The last of those options had been removed by Hill’s air-gapped network, the first item wasn’t an option at the moment, and the second…well, what use for advice would Devlin have when what he really needed was someone on the ground with him?

“No,” I said, managing to find the oxygen and ability to speak the single syllable.  Then, as if that short word had broken some invisible dam inside my chest, “No, everything’s not alright.”

Two men.  Devlin and someone else.  I strained and wrestled my fear down, willing myself to think.  Planning was the only thing I could do, after all.  If there was any possible chance of saving Devlin, it would depend entirely on my ability to use my one gift to its absolute fullest.

He wasn’t dead yet.  That was something.  So long as Devlin was alive, there was still hope.  He might be able to slip away or fabricate a situation where he regained the upper hand.  He’d won fights before, with the element of surprise and a willingness to play dirty.  It wasn’t an impossibility.

At the same time, however, there were too many people inside of the estate with an interest – either personal or professional – in making sure that Devlin did not get the opportunity.  It was only a matter of time before the big man called for backup, or someone else entered the room of their own volition, or Devlin antagonized his opponent just enough that it was easier to simply kill him than to –

I squeezed my eyes shut hard enough that they hurt.  Thoughts like that weren’t helpful.  I needed to be as positive as possible.  What pieces were at my disposal and how could I use them?  I tried to think about the board like Devlin, eschewing any long-term plans in favor of a single, powerful short term goal.

Moving Anton, Chester and James into position was a possibility, but the odds of success were remote.  As soon as they stormed the front gate, every man inside in the estate would go on high alert, shooting first and asking questions never.  Devlin’s survival depended on coaxing his captor into a false sense of security.

In the same vein, I also couldn’t use the Russians.  I knew less about them than I did about Chester and James, both of whom were complete mysteries, aside from the details I’d managed to dig up on a routine search.  Moreover, they undoubtedly had their own game in mind.  I couldn’t risk putting them into play, when there was every possibility that what they wanted might not coincide with what I wanted.

Mila, though…Mila was a possibility.  Devlin had tasked her to get Avis and Neal out of the estate – exactly the type of idiotic, stupidly noble thing he was wont to do – but he’d given that order before the big man had gotten the drop on him.  Surely, he would want his personal bodyguard back in place, now that he was in trouble?

I shook my head.  No, he wouldn’t want Mila to drop her mission.  If it came down to his life or the life of a child, he’d choose the child’s life, without hesitation.  He would probably have chosen to save Neal, who he knew nothing about, rather than ask for Mila to return.  And if he thought that sacrificing himself might possibly keep me even an iota safer, then he’d do that.

I ground my teeth together.  I wanted to hate him for his foolish idealism, I wanted to yell at him for being the only thief in the world clinging to a code of honor, I wanted to beat him about the face and shoulders until he accepted that he wasn’t responsible for everyone who chose to follow him into the lion’s mouth…but I couldn’t do any of those things until he was safe again.

Fine, then.  Devlin could be as mad as he wanted to be, just as soon as he managed to get away from Hill, his goons, Asher, Aiden, and whoever else wanted to kill, capture, or torture him.  I could deal with a little righteous indignation, if it meant that I wouldn’t have to bury him later.

I moved to press two buttons, missed one in my haste, and activated Mila’s line.  At the same time, I checked her phone’s GPS and saw that, somehow, she had managed to make it to the estate’s rear exit.  “What are you doing, right now?  Where are you at?”

Mila responded instantly.  “Trying to avoid these patrols, at the moment, so I don’t really have time to talk.  Is this important?”

“Someone surprised Devlin,” I said.

Several beats of silence followed that sentence. “If I go back,” Mila said finally, “I don’t know how I’m going to get these two out of here.”

“We can worry about that later.  Devlin and I do have a plan of absolute last resort, but I can’t put that into effect if one of Hill’s thugs is in a position to just kill him out of hand.”

More silence.  I heard a sharp intake of breath, the shuffling of feet on stone, and then nothing.

“Mila?  Did you hear me?  I need you to go back and get him away from whoever’s in the room.”

Nothing.

“Mila?  This is serious, okay?  You have a job to do and I’m telling you to go do it.  I’ll give you directions.”

When Mila spoke again, her voice had lost its usual disinterested distance.  Her words were breathy, weaker than normal, and soft enough that I had to strain to hear them.

“I’ve got problems of my own,” she said.  Then, in a louder voice, “What do you want, Aiden?”

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