Chapter 136

“You know,” Asher said, “it never ceases to amaze me how often you find yourself in police custody.  And I didn’t even have anything to do with it this time!”

“After a while, you start to miss the familiar embrace of law enforcement,” I replied.  “You should give it a try sometime.”

He laughed.  “No, I think I’ll leave that entirely up to you, old friend.  Why don’t you have a seat?  It can’t be comfortable standing up, what with those injuries you went and got for yourself.”

In truth, I’d only intended to stand up for a little bit.  My ribs were already sending up the preliminary pulses that let me know I was going to be in serious pain before too long and my head was beginning to swim.  Still, I forced myself to feign comfort and balance.  I’d be damned before I let Asher see me in a moment of weakness.

“Seems to me like you’re absolutely desperate for some of the state’s hospitality,” I said, keeping my back to Asher so that he wouldn’t be able to see my gritted teeth.  “You do realize you’re standing inside of Scotland Yard, don’t you?”

I glanced at the two-way mirror, just in time to see Asher’s shoulders drop back into place from a dismissive shrug.  “There are benefits to working with my current employers.  One of which was a clean slate, criminally speaking.  As far as these delightful alphabet agencies are concerned, I have never committed a crime in my life.  It’s actually shocking how much you can get away with, so long as you have a clean record while you’re doing it.”

“Like walking into a police station, in the middle of an interview?”

“Ah.  No.  It was a one-time pass, so that I’d be free to move across borders without raising an alarm.  The…”  He trailed off, racking his brain for some memory.  “Ah!  The Magi…that’s what you called them, right?  Well, the Magi were very clear about the terms of my contract, for lack of a better word.”

“And those terms were?”

In the mirror, Asher pulled out the seat previously occupied by the dark-skinned detective inspector and sat down at the table.  He steepled his fingers in thought momentarily before answering.  “Basically, that they had no intention of stepping in for me every time I made a mistake.  I was…let’s say that I was encouraged to be circumspect.”

“And yet,” I said, “here you are.”

“Here I am,” he agreed.

A muscle in my leg spasmed involuntarily.  It wasn’t a very large spasm, but it was enough that I relinquished my pretense of autonomy and returned to my seat, opposite Asher.  He gave me a searching look and I returned the nonverbal volley with an examination of my own.

He wasn’t dressed as richly now as he had been at the Green Light Gala, but he wasn’t bumming it either.  What he wore now seemed like a reflection of his cocky, confident demeanor: slacks in an understated reddish color, dark brown boots, and a white Oxford button up with the neck open.  The exposed skin at the base of his throat was marred with burns, similar to the ones twining up his arms.  Beneath the scars, an intricate tapestry of tattoos was barely distinguishable.

He’d told me what some of those tattoos meant, long ago when we used to be friends.  I couldn’t remember now.  I suspected that he’d probably take steps to replace the artwork at his earliest convenience; whatever their meaning, Asher had been very serious about his tattoos.

As I thought about that, a question occurred to me.  Since Asher seemed to be in a talkative mood, I asked it out loud.  “Why didn’t you ever do anything about those?”  I gestured vaguely at his arm and exposed neck.

He shrugged again.  “It barely ever hurts anymore,” he said.  That wasn’t quite an answer.  I waited a few seconds and he elaborated of his own volition.  “My employers suggested that I keep the scars, as a reminder.”

“A reminder of what, exactly?”

A shadow crossed over his expression, dimming the self-assured light in his eyes for just a moment.  I remembered the tortures I’d read about in the Lady’s file and instantly regretted the question.  Asher let out a long breath and visibly regained control of himself before answering.  “Negotiations.”

Neither of us said anything for nearly a full minute.  I wondered where the dark-skinned detective inspector had gone.  Unless the coffee shop was in Colombia, it shouldn’t have taken him anywhere near this long to retrieve two cups.

“What’re you doing here?” I asked into the silence.

“I wanted to talk,” Asher replied.

“We tried that.  If I remember correctly, you drugged and kidnapped me.”

He gave me a rueful smile.  “Seemed like a simple way to make contact.  Besides, you managed to get away after causing a staggering amount of collateral damage.  No harm, no foul?”

I wasn’t going to acknowledge that question with an answer.  “And then you tried to have us followed after the Gala.”

“You weren’t exactly going to tell me where you were going,” he said.  “And I had to find out what you knew.  Thanks for leading me to the little girl, by the way.  I had suspicions that something was going on out there, but since you’re the one who got the information from the Texan…”

“Shame you didn’t actually get the girl, though.”  He was entirely too calm, too steady.  The Asher from previous encounters didn’t seem to be present and that was who I needed to speak to.

“I didn’t want the girl,” Asher shot back.  “That was Hill.  Or Fairfax, sorry; I forget that you finally figured out what his real name is.”

That was interesting, but not immediately salient.  We’d already guessed that Asher and Hill probably had different goals, if not directly contradictory desires.  “And then you had my friend’s daughter kidnapped.  Remember that?”

“It was only a few days ago,” he said mildly.  “And that wasn’t about you.”

“Fine.  Okay.  Let’s play.  You want to talk?  You could have done that anytime you wanted.”

“Not really,” Asher said.  “Not the way I wanted to talk, at least.  There were always other people there, getting in the way.  The goons at the warehouse, all of those uptight pricks at the Gala, Alex and his weepy daughter…I just wanted a chance for the two of us to sit down.  No interruptions, no distractions.”

“And now is when you chose to do that?  In the middle of police headquarters?”

He smiled.  “I’m a sucker for a captive audience.  No pun intended.”

Since joining up with Sarah, I’d barely ever worn a watch and I didn’t have one on now.  In hindsight, it had been a mistake not to take extra precautions.  As it was, I had no idea what time it was or how much longer I’d need to stall him.

“Why’d you do it?” I asked my old friend.  “No pretense or bullshit, either.  We worked together for years and then you turned on me.  You had to know that I thought you were dead.”

“Honestly?”  Asher waited until I gave him a slight nod.  “There was a time when I thought you knew the truth.  Or…well, maybe not knew the truth, but suspected.  I spent a lot of time tracking your movements, checking in on you whenever possible, just to find the proof that you’d just discarded me.”

I shivered at the thought of Asher secretly keeping tabs on me.  I don’t know why the thought bothered me as much as it did.  The Lady was clearly capable of tracking me, no matter what steps I took to throw her off of my scent, and Asher knew me well enough to predict what he couldn’t simply ferret out.  Still, the idea was profoundly uncomfortable.

He continued his explanation.  “But then I looked into the official reports from the job.  You couldn’t have known.  There just wasn’t any way for anyone to guess that I’d been taken hostage by an international cabal of criminal overlords.”  Asher laughed ruefully.  “Hell, it happened to me and even I think it’s ridiculous.”

“So why then?  Did they make you do it?  We could have figured out a way to get you out from under their thumbs.”

Asher shook his head.  “Just because I figured out that you didn’t know the truth doesn’t mean that I forgave you.”

“Forgave me for what?  I didn’t do anything!  You were the one who changed the plan at the last minute!”

He shrugged.  “But you were the one who replaced me with Sarah.”

I blinked at that.  “What exactly did you want me to do?  Spend the rest of my life in mourning?”

“Just a little bit of time before you took on a new partner would’ve been nice!”  Asher snapped, raising his volume several levels in a heartbeat.  He slapped one palm down on the table and the impact was painfully loud in the small interrogation room.  “As far as you knew, I was barely cold in the grave before you started up with her!”

He’d brought that up before.  It didn’t make any more sense this time, but it was clearly something he believed dearly.  I didn’t understand what he meant and I realized, just before I could ask him what he meant, that it wasn’t something I was ever going to understand.

Asher must have come to the same conclusion.  He inhaled and exhaled several times and calmed himself back down.  “This isn’t what I wanted to talk about.”

“What, then?”

“Professional curiosity,” he said and tilted his head.  “One thief to another: how’d you do it?”

I pretended not to know what he was talking about.  “Do what?”

“Don’t play dumb,” Asher said.  “Hill had you dead to rights.  His mole compromised your beloved Sarah’s communications.  He installed secret cameras that even I only found out about in the last few hours.  He had more men, more weaponry, more preparation…and you somehow got the Book out of that estate, right under his nose.  So, come on.  What was the trick?”

I whistled a low note.  “You didn’t figure it out?  You, the brilliant mastermind, couldn’t guess what the missing piece was?”  It was very important that I not confirm anything, but I felt confident that the jab at his ego would be enough to galvanize him into really thinking about the problem.

Asher narrowed his eyes in thought for several seconds and assumed an expression I’d seen countless times before.  “Billy’s men were too far away to help,” he said, mostly to himself, “and Sarah was neutralized from the start.  There was the bodyguard, but Aiden kept her occupied until your Frenchman managed to pull her out of the fire at the last minute.  The little girl and her keeper couldn’t have helped you, but…”  His eyes widened as he sucked in a single, sharp breath.  “Alex?”

Instead of responding, I merely smiled.

Asher took that as an answer.  “But that would mean…oh!  Oh, that is elegant.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” Asher said.  “Hill wanted you to get onto the estate, so that he could figure out how you did it and stop anyone else from trying the same trick after he finished taking over the drug trade entirely.  So, you went in and sprang his trap, but…but you didn’t know it was a trap.  I’ve looked over the footage and he should have captured you when you were in the bedroom.  Unless…”

“Hill,” I provided helpfully, “has never met Alex.  He’s never even seen him.  But Alex happens to know several people from all walks of life.  For instance, a great deal of the people of the service industry – waiters, bartenders, butlers – are all pretty easily accessible, if you know someone who can make the right introductions.”  I added a subtle accent to the most important word in the sentence.  It was just enough that Asher would catch what I was referring to and not so much that anyone else would have been able to understand my meaning.

“And Alex would be the type of person who knows absolutely everyone.  He got himself hired, when Hill was scrambling to fortify in preparation for your intrusion, and no one bothered to look too deeply into his past because the timeline was too tight.  So he followed Hill’s orders right up until he gave the command to cut off communications to and from his bedroom.  At which point, you were safe to pass the Book off to him.  And he could get away easily, because no one would think to stop one of their own especially since Hill was already planning to send people to round up your team.”  Asher sat back and whistled in amazement.  “Did I get it right?”

I kept my face expressionless but, internally, I marveled at the way Asher’s mind worked.  I hadn’t even given him a clue, yet he’d pieced together every level of the plan on pure instinct.  The ability to navigate through labyrinthine plans so easily was as frightening as it was impressive.

Of course, he hadn’t gotten everything right.  I appreciated that he was willing to give Sarah and me the credit for every single angle, but the reality was far simpler.  Alex hadn’t told anyone about his intentions to infiltrate the estate before us.  I hadn’t really had an opportunity to talk to him since he’d surprised me in Hill’s bedroom.  The conversation we’d had in the room, during the short period of time when all communications and cameras had been temporarily blocked, focused more on the immediate details that we needed to know.

One: Someone had betrayed the team and, with that mole’s help, Hill was able to listen in on our communications.

Two: Coleman, who had learned his trade under someone who owed Alex a favor, was working with the police.  He had been collecting evidence for months, carefully copying bits and pieces at a time so that Hill wouldn’t have any idea what was going on.  Our arrival, and the subsequent upheaval we’d caused in Hill’s business, had provided him with the cover he needed to start going after the more incriminating evidence.  When Hill moved into the final phase of his plans, he’d been forced to include Coleman and kidnapped his family to ensure his compliance.

Three: Hill had prepared multiple layers of redundancy, specifically designed to ensure that I couldn’t possibly leave the house with the Book.  Moreover, there were men in place to capture or kill my entire team, whenever Hill gave the order.

The last point was something I’d figured out on my own, but Alex’s confirmation forced me to become creative.  In the moment, I’d cobbled together a workable outline and Alex had agreed.  While I took the briefcase out of the room, going out of my way to be as visible as possible to any cameras along the way, Alex secreted the Book itself off of the estate and made it to Sarah.  The idea had been for her to hear the news in person, as opposed to over the compromised channel.  Judging from the way the police had arrived, armed and ready for combat, I could only assume that he’d impressed upon her the direness of the situation.  As soon as she was aware of the hidden cameras, she would have been able to pinpoint their network and take them over.

After that, the police showed up and swiftly detained Hill’s entire force of hired goons.  Without the use of his cameras, he’d been blind to the events happening outside of the estate.  My presence in front of him, so obviously protecting the briefcase that he thought contained the Book, was additional distraction to keep him figuring out the truth before it was too late.

The strategy had relied more on dumb luck and divine intervention than brilliant intuition, but I wasn’t going to disillusion Asher.  Besides, it was important that he think he’d figured it all out, but for him to not think too far ahead.  If he followed that train of thought to its conclusion, it was possible that he’d figure out the final twist before he made that last, fatal mistake.

So, out loud, I said, “That’s a great story.  It’d be amazing if someone actually pulled that off.”

“I remember the days when I was the clever one,” Asher said.  He stubbed out the remains of his cigarette and lit another one.  “I guess you really did learn something in prison, didn’t you?”

The reminder of my time in La Santé struck a nerve.  My hands balled up into fists under the table and I willed myself to stay calm.  Patience was key.  “Thanks again for that.  Really appreciated my time in Crime Academy.”

Asher chuckled to himself, as if he hadn’t heard a word I’d said.  “Alex, though.  I cannot believe I took my eye off of him.  Not that I would’ve stepped in, even if I had figured it out beforehand.  Hill was planning to cut me off, literally, as soon as he got what he wanted.  But you already know that.”

I wondered how much information Asher had managed to ferret away from Hill before we’d assaulted the estate, but I kept my mouth shut.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Asher asked suddenly.  He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial volume.  “Sometimes, I think killing Alex’s wife is the worst mistake I ever made.  He was just too useful in the field, but…ah well.  Mistakes were made, I guess.”

All of the moisture in my mouth dried up.  My heart skipped and stuttered several times.  “What was that?” I asked, in a dangerously low voice.

Asher blinked and mild confusion spread across his face.  “What?  That I killed Alex’s wife?  I mean, I didn’t do it – I just hired the men and sent them to Florence – but I think that’s kind of a moot point.”

The relevant memory came flooding back.  The job in Florence and the mysterious crew of gunmen who’d appeared out of nowhere.  That crew’s odd behavior: ignoring the prize and focusing their attention entirely on a group of thieves who hadn’t done anything to garner that type of violent reaction.  The death of Jules, Alex’s first love and the mother of his child.

“That was you?”  I swallowed several times, so that my next question would be perfectly clear.  “Why?  Alex never did anything to you.”

“It wasn’t about him,” Asher said.  “It was about you.  Or Sarah, really, but what was the difference at that point?  I’d just gotten control of my first hit team – the Magi were keen to get my feet wet with some sort of operation – and I wanted to see how good they were.  Apparently, they worked just fine, but I didn’t have the information network that I have now.  No one told me that you were bringing another woman along and I didn’t give clear enough orders.”

“You sent a team of hitmen to kill Sarah?  My wife?”  The red haze of fury began to seep in around the edges of my vision.

Asher seemed to not notice as the atmosphere in the interrogation room changed.  “Would’ve been nice, if it’d worked out.  After everything went down, and I used my second team to get rid of the other guys before they could talk, I decided to go with a more elegant route.  Something you wouldn’t see coming and couldn’t just run away from.”

It took every ounce of willpower not to throw myself across the table and strangle Asher where he sat.  He’d killed my friend’s wife, he’d kidnapped her daughter, and he’d tried to kill Sarah.  And he sat across a metal table, smirking to himself as though it was just a pleasant memory for him.

What kept me from committing murder on the spot and consigning myself to a lifetime behind bars was a single thought: Gotcha.

“Why are you telling me this?”  I asked coldly.  Then, I shook my head before he could answer.  “So that I’ll have something to think about while Hill’s torturing me to death?”

“Oh, Hill’s not going to get out of prison anytime soon,” Asher said.  “I’m sure his lawyer’s already been to see you.  Probably told you that Hill was going to walk away from everything, due to some ethereal connections, right?”

I gave him a short nod.

“As it turns out, Hill was so distracted dealing with you that he forgot all about me,” Asher said.  “The blackmail he was going to use on the Chief Inspector seems to have mysteriously changed hands in the interim.  I don’t even have to threaten to publicly expose his nasty cocaine habit.  He is more than willing to corrupt himself even further, if it means sticking it to Hill.”

If the Chief Inspector had been in Hill’s pocket, Coleman’s one-man undercover act had been doomed from the beginning.  Hill had probably known about his butler’s activities the entire time.  That explained why he’d gone for the more aggressive route of threatening Coleman’s family, instead of simply buying him off.

“So you’re giving me something extra to chew over while I go back to prison?” I asked.

Asher shook his head.  “Been there, done that.  I’ll have to keep you here for a couple of days, while I go and take care of your crew before they can get their feet under them.  I’ll take special time with Sarah, of course.  But, after that, I think the charges against you will disappear too.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“Because you are so much fun,” Asher said, in a voice that reminded me of grandmothers and pinched cheeks.  “It’d be easy to beat you now, when you’re already captured, but that isn’t really giving you a sporting chance, is it?”

He stood up and walked across the room to the door.  Just before he touched the doorknob, I cleared my throat.  “You know what your problem is?” I asked.

Asher stopped and turned back around.  “I figured we’d have plenty of opportunities to talk, after I finish getting rid of any obstacles, but…sure, why not?  What’s on your mind?  What’s my problem?”

I took in a deep breath.  It was difficult to put all of my anger away, but I managed it.  “Let me see if I’ve got all this right.  You were captured by the Magi after the job in St. Petersburg and they convinced you to start working for them.  You were their enforcer, right?  The hammer they used whenever someone in their organization got out of line?”

The cocky look on his face dimmed slightly.  “I wouldn’t call what they did convincing.”

I acknowledged that point with a small incline of my head.  “Fair.  Didn’t mean to diminish whatever they did to you.  But, my point is that you were being used by the Magi when you came here.  They must have gotten wind of Hill’s impending betrayal, so they sent you down here to sort everything out.”

“There were rumors,” Asher said.  “I was supposed to figure out exactly what was going on.  I didn’t realize exactly how far along he was until I saw how much power he’d managed to consolidate.”

“That’s when you decided to play both sides, wasn’t it?”  I asked.  “If Hill pulls off his coup, you’re in a good position to backstab him later.  If things go sideways, you could deliver the last blow and rise a little bit in the eyes of your handlers.”

Asher winked at me.  “And then you showed up.  That was a stroke of pure luck.”

“You didn’t ever want to beat me, did you?  As soon as I came into town, you were just stringing us along, hoping that we’d be able to cripple Hill for you.  Right?”

“You’re a force of pure, unfiltered chaos,” Asher replied.  “With someone to draw out the flowchart, you are inexhaustible.  I knew that you’d throw yourself at Hill like a living torpedo until either you or he went downAnd I was personally betting on you.”

I ignored that ‘compliment.’  “So, what now?  You’re going to take over the drug business, now that Hill’s out of the way?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Asher lied, “but I’m sure my employers are going to give me some kind of a promotion.  I did orchestrate the downfall of a broken cog in their machine, even if I had to use you like a pawn to do it.”

“This was all a setup,” I said.  “Ever since you figured out we were here, we’ve just been following your marching orders.”

“Don’t feel bad about it.  I’m just better at this than you.  You had to know you could never beat me.”

I nodded.  “You’re right.  I never could beat you.  You were always better at seeing the angles, predicting what someone would do.  Like…oh, knowing that someone wouldn’t be able to resist gloating after pulling off a trick like this?”

The question hung in the air for a few seconds.  “What’re you saying?” Asher asked, after a long silence.  “That you expected me to come here?”

I circled back around to an earlier point in the conversation.  “You just admitted to murder,” I said, “and you’re sitting in a police station.  What makes you think you’re just going to walk out of here?”

“Weren’t you listening?  With the blackmail I stole from Hill, to say nothing of the dirty cops that are absolutely infesting this building, I’m untouchable.  If I get arrested…if I so much as get a traffic ticket, every single corrupt pig in this place is going down with me.”

“Doesn’t sound like a terrible loss,” I countered.  “You just gave a confession, Ash.  Did you not notice that while you were enjoying your ego trip?”

“Who’s going to take the word of a thief?” Asher asked.  “I’ll see to it that you don’t go to jail for this – I’ve got my own plans – but that’s as far as it goes.  There’s no one in the room but me and I own the overwhelming majority of the police outside this door.  The ones I don’t have dirt on report to people who I’ve got dirt on.  I’m bulletproof, Dev and it’s all thanks to you.  So thanks.  I don’t think anyone could’ve taken Hill down like this, except for you.”

“And no one,” I said, “could have beaten you but you.”

The door opened.  Asher pulled his hand back from the knob in surprise.  The dark-skinned detective, who I was irrationally pleased to see, cut an imposing figure in his tweed suit coat and dark pants.  “Where do you think you’re going?”

Asher gave the man a skeptical look.  “I’m leaving,” he said, “and I think your boss will agree with that.”

The dark-skinned detective stepped aside.  Neetipal Adlai, Interpol’s most dogged and incorruptible agent, stood in the man’s shadow.  He raised an eyebrow and, lifting one hand from out of sight, dangled a pair of handcuffs that gleamed in the light.  “I do not think you will be going anywhere.  Premeditated murder is a very serious crime in Italy and, considering your confession, I think it will be a long time before you go anywhere.”

“Life in prison,” I added helpfully.  “No chance of parole.  Just in case you were thinking about gaming the board.  And, unless I’m mistaken, Hill didn’t have any contacts in Italy, right?”

Asher stared at the two men in silence before turning back to face me.  I met his eyes for a moment, then flicked my gaze in the direction of the two-way mirror.  Asher followed my gaze, sighed, and covered his face with his palm. “Of course,” he said.  He was speaking out loud, but I felt confident that he wasn’t actually talking to anyone in the room.  “No one who works in London would dare to arrest me.  But a confession where an Interpol agent could hear me?”

I leaned back and smiled.  He hadn’t been talking to me, but I felt like answering anyway.  “That’s your problem,” I said.  “You stopped thinking like a thief, Asher, and you started thinking like a mark.  And a mark…well, I can always beat a mark.”

Chapter 135

The next couple of hours passed by a slideshow of disconnected memories.

I remembered the police officers calling an ambulance for me.  Two people – I think it was a man and a woman, although I couldn’t be absolutely certain – helped me to my feet and into a stretcher.  From there, they rushed me into the back of the ambulance and began treating my injuries.  They were speaking to each other in serious, though not panicked, voices so I assumed things weren’t bad enough to warrant critical care.  Even if they had been, I found it impossible to muster a corresponding level of worry.  I’d been hurt, I might be losing a lot of blood, but those concerns seemed distant.

I remembered bits and pieces of a hospital, an unknown amount of time later.  Any recollection of my time in the ambulance was lost in a fog of confusion and disorientation.  The people at the hospital treated me with a quick, professional grace and placed me in an otherwise empty room when they were finished.  The room had no phone, no television, and no window.  One of my arms was handcuffed to the bedside rail.

When I reached my free hand up to my ear, I found that my earbud was gone.  Either it had fallen out at the estate or, more likely, they had located it during my treatment.  Again, that thought would probably have troubled me in a clearer state of mind.  As it was, I could only hope that Sarah had taken steps to ensure that the police wouldn’t be able to use the communications device to track her whereabouts.

At the same time, however, the only people who had the vaguest inkling of Sarah’s involvement were Hill, Asher, and myself.  I certainly wasn’t going to tell on her, Asher would have disappeared into the wind as soon as he realized things were going sideways, and Hill…well, Hill was a wild card.  He could tell the police that Sarah Ford had been involved in the incident, but he had no proof.

I remembered speaking to the police.  More accurately, I remembered not speaking to the police. They had dozen of very salient questions to ask me.  What was my name and where was I from; what was my business in London; why had I been at Hill’s estate, in the center of such a catastrophic series of events; and, most importantly, why had the Baron of Berkeley been caught with his hands wrapped around my throat?

They got nothing but a stony silence from me.  Part of that came from long hours training myself to stonewall the police at every opportunity.  The rest of my mute impersonation came from the lingering daze that I couldn’t quite seem to shake.  The fact that both factors allowed me to frustrate the law was a happy coincidence.

There were other scenes I could recall, but none of them seemed very important at the time.  Nurses and doctors came into the room, taking great care to stand out of arm’s reach.  Police tried various tactics to draw some information out of me – good cop, bad cop, understanding cop – and received nothing they could use.  On at least one occasion, someone asked if I wanted a lawyer and I told them no, in a firm voice.  The last phase would only work if I was alone, if it was going to work at all.  I knew that much for a certainty.

My first clear memory came later, when my internal clock told me that the sun should be setting outside of my windowless room.  Even though I’d specifically given instructions for no legal representation, a man in a dark suit entered my hospital room.

I craned my neck so that I could examine the man.  He wore expensive clothing, but nothing so pricy that a well-paid – by which I meant ‘corrupt’ – attorney would be unable to afford.  His hair was slicked back with an unhealthy amount of grease and the slim smile he wore made my skin crawl.

He stepped into the room, turned, and closed the door behind him so that he stood with his back an inch or two away from the door’s surface.

“Who are you supposed to be?” I asked, when it became clear that the man wasn’t going to speak first.

“Legal representation,” he replied.  His voice sounded as slimy as his expression looked.

“I didn’t want a lawyer.”

“As far as the officer outside of this room knows, you have changed your mind.  But, please, do not think that your wishes have been countermanded: I am not here to represent you,” the man said.  “I am Lord Fairfax’s representation.”  He emphasized Hill’s title.  That told me a lot about the man.

“I’m not fully versed on the law, all things considered,” I said, “but I’m pretty sure you aren’t supposed to be talking to me.  Or is that only in civil suits?”

“That law only applies to barristers and only in the case of a trial.”

“Call me crazy, but I think that your boss is going to be spending a little bit of time in a courtroom.”  I shifted my weight, trying to make my arm slightly more comfortable. The effort proved only moderately successful.

The man’s smile became even thinner.  “It is my professional opinion that there will be no trial.  Why would that happen, when no law has been broken?”

I raised an eyebrow and said nothing.  The message was clear, without any further clarification.  Hill was going to use whatever leverage he’d managed to acquire over the years to make this entire thing disappear.  Personally, I wasn’t sure there was a rug big enough to sweep everything under, but Hill must have been confident if he’d sent his hireling to taunt me.

This time, the man broke the silence.  “I am here merely to inform you that Lord Fairfax wishes you to understand the consequences of your actions.”

“Is that a threat?”

The man shook his head.  “A quote.  He has explained to me that he sought you as an employee and you chose to…take another option.  He merely wishes me to express his dissatisfaction with that choice.  Although I am certain he will want to speak with you about it, whenever you find yourself in better health.”

And that was a threat.  Not only was Hill going to use his power to make his own charges go away, he was going to do the same for me.  It wasn’t difficult to imagine why he might do that sort of thing: he wanted to take his revenge on me, personally.  He couldn’t do that if I was in police custody.  Therefore, the easiest thing to do would be to make it seem like nothing had happened at his estate.  I would be freed, the police would stop watching me, and he would be able to snatch me off of the street at his leisure.

If he intended to walk away from his crimes unstained, it stood to reason that he’d want to deal with me in his own way.  I wondered idly how long it would take me to leave the country and decided, after only a few seconds of consideration, that I probably couldn’t skip town fast enough.  If I’d been Hill, and I had enough juice to arrange this level of legerdemain, it wouldn’t be out of the question to have someone waiting at the airport for just such an escape attempt.

I had no intention of leaving, though.  “Is that all?” I asked the man in the dark suit.

“From Lord Fairfax, yes.  But I wish to add a personal comment, from me.”

I waited a few seconds.  “And that would be?”

It wouldn’t be appropriate to refer to what the man did next as a smile, but he did show me his teeth in an approximation of that expression.  “Good luck,” he said.  Then, he turned, opened the door, and left without allowing me an opportunity for a witty repartee.

When he was gone, I settled my weight back onto my pillow and allowed myself a little smile of my own.  I pressed the call button and, less than a minute later, a nurse appeared in the doorway.

He took in the sight of me, relaxing casually in the hospital bed, before he spoke.  “Is everything alright?”

“Considering the extent of my injuries,” I began, “is there any reason for me to stay here?”

The doctor pursed his lips.  “You suffered a slight concussion and your shoulder was dislocated.  The bullet wound in your thigh missed any of the major arteries or veins and passed completely through.  A night or two under supervision would – “

I cut him off.  “So is that a yes or a no?”

He sighed.  “No, there is no medical reason for me to stay here.  The police, however, wish to speak with you and I am under strict orders not to release you until they have had that opportunity.”

I would’ve clapped my hands, had I been able to do so.  “That works out wonderfully, then.  I’m ready to talk to them.  No reason to stay in bed any longer than I have to.”

The doctor gave me long-suffering look.  I couldn’t imagine that he’d had many patients eager to leave the hospital after a gunshot wound, but the expression on his face made me think it was a more common occurrence than I thought.  “I will go get them immediately, then,” he said and started to leave.

“Hold on there,” I said before he could leave.  He turned back around.  “I don’t want to talk to them here.”

“Is there another room you would prefer?”

I tried to suppress my smile and only managed to wrestle it down to a tiny grin.  “Of course.  I’d like to talk to them in Scotland Yard, if possible.”


It must have been late in the evening by the time everyone got on the same page, regarding my strange request.  The medical staff insisted that I should stay under their care for at least another night.  The police, who must have sensed the possibility of a trick, only managed to get their way by repeatedly asking if another night was a medical necessity.  Ultimately, I was allowed into the back of another ambulance and transported to Scotland Yard with a stern notice to demand to see a doctor, should anything go wrong with any of my injuries.

A police officer rode with me in the back of the ambulance, presumably to make sure that I wasn’t going to throw myself from the back of a moving car.  He wasn’t carrying a gun – that wasn’t the way of things in England, thank God – but the nightstick at his side would have served as sufficient discouragement, even if the asphalt outside had been a more acceptable landing surface.  He tried to wheedle any tidbit of information out of me and I met each question with my most banal smile, followed by an unyielding refusal to speak with anyone before I was safely inside Police Headquarters.

He eventually gave up and we rode the rest of the way in silence.  That silence continued, even after he helped me out of the ambulance and into the building.  Using a pair of unfamiliar crutches, the two of us made our way through the lobby and onto an elevator that terminated its ride before too long and another officer joined with the first to help me into an interrogation room.

Seated inside was the dark-skinned detective I’d spoken with on my first sojourn into the mouth of the beast.  He was drinking from a Styrofoam cup of coffee and looked a little worse for wear.

“You again,” he said, by way of greeting.

“Me again.”

“I was hoping we’d get the chance to chat again,” the detective said.  “There’s a lot of mystery floating around, regarding you.  Couple of blokes in the station got bets on whether or not I could catch you.”

“If this counts, then I think you stand to make some money, then.”

He shook his head.  “Not so much.  I bet you’d be on the next plane out of here after our last talk.”  He shrugged.

“You know,” I replied, “I almost like you.  Obviously, we’re not ever going to be the best of friends, but there’s just something about you.”

He chuckled and finished the remainder of his coffee.  “I get that a lot, actually.  Heard you wanted to talk to someone about this whole mess out at the Fairfax estate?”

I tilted my head.  “From what I understand, Lord Fairfax doesn’t have an estate out there.  Isn’t it in someone else’s name?”

“Sure,” the detective replied, “but we aren’t blind to the possibility of tax shelters.  The cops do know some things.  Anyway, you left the hospital against doctor’s orders to be here.  What’s on your mind?”

“Would you believe me if I said I was just tired of the hospital’s décor?”

“Not really, no.”

I hadn’t been lying.  The dark-skinned man did seem particularly likeable and astute.  If we weren’t on opposite sides of the law, maybe we could’ve…well, not been friends, but not enemies.

I couldn’t trust him, though.  Hill’s influence surely ran deep within Scotland Yard and anyone could be one of his plants.  “Well, you’re right,” I said.  “And you’re wrong.  I needed to stretch my legs.”

The dark-skinned man rolled his eyes and I got a sense of exhaustion from him, rather than irritation or anger.  “I’m going to get another coffee,” he said.  “You want one?”

“With sugar?” I asked hopefully.  “It’s been kind of a long day.”

“Sure.  I’ll make it a double.”  He stood up and left the room.

I wasn’t handcuffed to anything, which I appreciated.  My wrists were still burning where the metal bracelets had been fastened.  I grit my teeth and used the crutches to help me to my feet to stretch.  The ride in the ambulance hadn’t been good for my circulation and my extremities were beginning to feel sore.  My thigh – the one where I’d been shot – hurt even worse, despite the low level pain medication I’d received in the hospital.

There was a camera in the upper corner of the room.  I wasn’t in the same interrogation room, but I’d noticed a similar one upstairs.

“Sarah,” I said into the empty air, “I really wish you could hear me right now.”

Of course, there wasn’t any response.  My phone was off and probably in some sort of shielded room by now.  I wasn’t wearing my earbud.  The miniature camera I’d worn into Hill’s estate was gone, as well, lost at some point in the scuffle before the police showed up.

Still, talking to her felt natural.  “I know you weren’t really a big fan of this…well, you weren’t a fan of the part I told you about,” I continued, “but I don’t really consider this lying.  I imagine our friend has made it perfectly clear why I had to keep you in the dark.”

The camera did not reply.

“I’m just hoping that, when all this is over, that you’ll give me a chance to explain any, uh…details that might have gotten lost in translation.”

The red light on the camera – the one that let me know I was being recorded – switched off.  Behind me, the door opened with a soft click and closed again with the same noise.

I let out a long, slow breath and centered myself.  “Hello, Asher,” I said.

Something clicked behind me and I smelt the sharp smell of fire, followed by the familiar scent of a lit cigarette.  “Hello, Devlin,” Asher said back.

Chapter 134

The look on Hill’s face was worth every injury and injustice that I’d suffered since arriving in London.  Since our first meeting, when I had been more than willing to disregard him as an ineffectual, puffed up noble with more money than common sense, he had radiated a sense of entitlement that raised the hackles on my neck.  When we had learned that the same Fairfax who spent his days cavorting around with one debutante or another was the same man who operated as London’s premier drug lord, that had elevated his threat level in my eyes, sure.  It hadn’t done anything to make me think better of the man and it certainly hadn’t made me respect him.

Everything he had, he’d acquired from someone else.  His name and the associated relevance came from his father.  The business that had caused us all so much money had come from Billy’s hard work, as much – if not more than – Hill’s.  And his only aspiration for greater glory had been to steal the Magi’s distributors and suppliers, instead of forging new connections and building something on his own that might rival the elusive international financiers’ organization.

None of that was possible now, though.  Without the Book, he had no way of acquiring the information he’d sought for so long and I knew enough about his personality to assume that he wouldn’t see this as an impetus to build something for himself.  He’d been deadlocked, stalled, even checkmated…and the best part, for me, was being in a position where I could watch as each successive realization hit him with the force of a hundred blows.  It was like a fast forwarded slide show of the stages of grief.

First, Denial.

Hill began to pace, taking only a few steps in one direction before whirling back around to the other.  “This can’t be,” he said to himself.  I thought he might actually have forgotten about me.  “The case was still locked and there’s no way that you got my fingerprints.  It’s…impossible!”

“And yet, here we are,” I said casually.  The pain was beginning to recede a little bit.  I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad, but it was certainly preferable to the sea of agony I’d previously been swimming in.  “All dressed up and nothing to read.”

“No.  No!  It has to be on your somewhere.  You…you must have hidden it somewhere on your way down here!”

“If you have cameras watching my friend, you certainly had cameras watching me.  Did you see me stash a giant golden book on my way downstairs?”

Hill actually narrowed his eyes in thought, searching his memory.  “What did you do to it, then?  And how?”

“Wouldn’t you just love to know what I did to your precious book?” I asked.  I planted my very best cocky smirk on my face and turned the intensity up to eleven.  “But you’ll just have to wonder a little bit longer, won’t you?”

Anger rushed in, pushing Denial away in the blink of an eye.  Hill’s gaze turned from confused to malevolent and he pointed the Ruger at me.  “Tell me where the Book is or I’ll kill you where you lay.”

“That’s not much of an incentive,” I said, still pumping casual disregard into the air like some sort of weaponized aura.  “Because you’re probably going to kill me, whether I tell you or not.  At least this way, I can make sure you don’t get what you want.”

“You’re right,” Hill said.  “And besides, I don’t need you to tell me.  Wherever your precious ex-wife is, you’re certain to have told her what you intended to do.”

“If that’s what helps you sleep at night, sure.”

“I am tired of your incessant back-talk!” Hill snapped.  A vein sprang prominently into visibility on his forehead and his entire face was rapidly turning tomato-red.  He was younger than Billy, which was not quite the same thing as being young, in an objective sense.  I hoped he wouldn’t give himself a stroke.  That wouldn’t do, at all.

“Join the club, Chuck,” I said.  “I’ve pissed off people I liked a lot better than you.”

Hill’s nostrils flared like a bull’s in the few seconds before the fatal charge.  “Go to hell, knowing that you have condemned your lover to an unimaginable amount of pain and suffering,” he pronounced and pulled the trigger.

A click came from the weapon as it attempted to fire its empty clip.  Other than that, the room was completely silent.

Both Hill and Billy stared at the gun in blank bewilderment.  The laughter bubbling up from my gut was beginning to hurt more than it was worth and I lapsed into a wide, Cheshire smile when Hill squeezed the trigger two more times.

“Works better with bullets,” I offered helpfully.

“You…what is this?  What was the point of all this?  You don’t my Book; you don’t even have a gun!”

“I thought about carrying,” I said, “but I knew you were just cocky enough to gloat when you should take action.  And I couldn’t exactly run the risk of you getting a chance to shoot me in the back before things had a chance to play out, could I?”

If it had been possible, I was positive that steam would be curling out of Hill’s nostrils.  He tightened his grip on the Ruger until he knuckles turned bone white and then hurled it at me.  In his anger, he didn’t take the time to aim the projectile.  If he had, I wouldn’t have been able to dodge it in my weakened state.  As it was, I was just barely able to roll to one side and the Ruger bounced six inches away from my head.

“No matter,” Hill said.  “Just because you only came prepared to play games doesn’t mean that I did the same.  Coleman, kill him.”

Coleman took a step away from Hill.  “He’s defenseless, sir,” he said.  “Surely there isn’t a need to –“

“Did I start paying you for your opinion?” Hill asked, cutting Coleman’s complaints off with an insulting air of presumption.  “You know what I expect of you.  Now, finish this, or else your family will feel the consequences for your ineptitude.”

Cautiously, Coleman raised the hand-cannon that I’d managed to knock out of Hill’s hands and pointed it in my direction.  His arm wavered and the look in his eyes was anything but certain.  He was almost pleading with me silently.  Out loud, he said, “I…I am sorry, but…”

I watched him from my position on the floor.  I’d guessed that something like this would happen sooner or later.  The problem was, I hadn’t come up with a foolproof method of dealing with it.  There were options in place, wheels already set in motion that might provide dividends, if only I could stall for a little more time.

“You aren’t this kind of man,” I said.  “And you can’t let Hill make you into this kind of man, either.”

“He will kill them,” Coleman replied.  “If it is not you, then me and the ones I love!”

“All of you were dead the moment Hill decided to bring you into his business.  Maybe you’re lucky enough that you don’t die for a couple of months, maybe a year, but you’ll know too much about his business by then to be anything less than a vulnerability.  Think about it, Coleman.  How many who know who he really is are in a position to talk about it?”

Coleman’s eyes flickered over to Billy.  The immobile man raised his head from the floor and shook it gravely.

“This is not a discussion,” Hill said in that strident, commanding tone.  “You will do it or they will die miserably, wondering why you would let something like me happen to them.  Are you truly ready to save this man’s life instead of people you care about?”

Coleman was wavering.  I knew I didn’t have long before he made a fatal decision.  Physically, I wasn’t in a position to fight back and I only had a single card to play.  I just needed it to fall into place now, but I couldn’t…

The earbud I’d silenced before entering the room vibrated.  Not once, not twice, but four times.  The rhythm of the beeps was familiar.  I tapped it out with one hand, carefully keeping eye contact with Coleman as I did so.

His eyes widened slightly and he didn’t move at first.  Then, cautiously, he tapped the corresponding answer to my own rhythm: two knocks, with a slight pause between, finishing the most familiar notes of ‘Shave and a Haircut.’

Hill’s impatience only allowed him to wait for a second before an angry rush of words burst out of him again.  He spun back around to face his butler.  “What are you waiting for, you idiot?  Kill him!

Coleman blinked and I thought I saw a tear gathering at the corner of one eye.  He straightened his shoulders and steeled himself.

Then, he turned the gun to point directly at Hill’s chest.

There weren’t any clocks in the room, but I swear I could literally hear seconds ticking away as a single heartbeat stretched into ten.  I tore my eyes away from the tableau just long enough to check Billy’s expression.  Where he had been frightened before, now every line of his face screamed astonishment.

“What are you doing?” Hill asked, in a squeaky voice completely different from the command he’d spoken with earlier.  “Have you lost your mind?”

Coleman swallowed nervously and his arm started to tremble.  But he didn’t move the gun.

“Maybe you need to be reminded what’s at stake,” Hill said.  “Your brand new friend didn’t have a chance to search through the entire sub-basement.  I’m virtually certain he didn’t have a chance to find my other guests.”  His hand dipped back into his pocket and he pressed whatever button he had concealed there.

The video changed.  Sarah’s van disappeared and, in its place, a static image of a room appeared.  Just like the briefcase and the Ruger, the room was completely empty.

Hill’s jaw actually dropped open.  “I…but…”

I shifted my weight so that I could use my uninjured arm to touch my earbud with two fingers.  It came to life under the slight pressure.  “Hey, Sarah?  You still listening?”

Her voice came back, clear and strong, amplified by the speakers that Hill had so courteously installed in the room.  “I’m here and I’m listening.”

“I don’t think Hill’s going to figure it out on his own,” I said.

“Oh?  Well, I’d be happy to explain.”

She typed something into her computer.  The video on the screen rewound at her command, reached a predetermined point, and began to play again.  There wasn’t much to see.  Hill had installed the camera so that it looked into the room, but not at the door itself.  I saw a middle-aged woman and a small boy, huddled in the corner.  Something happened out of frame that drew their attention and then, cautiously, they both stood up and walked in the direction of the camera.  They passed under it as they left the room.

“Seems like someone’s all out of leverage,” I commented.

“I’ve noticed that too,” Sarah said.

“Seems like someone made a few too many assumptions.”  I groaned and settled my weight back against the floor.  It didn’t feel great, but it did put less pressure on my injuries.

“But I…I…”  Hill was struggling to form sentences now.

“You still don’t get it, do you?” I asked.  Without exerting too much effort, I managed to position myself in such a way that I could look him in his eyes.  “Plan B?  I was bait, you arrogant ass.”

“I was listening to your communications,” Hill said, dazed.  It seemed like he wasn’t even seeing Coleman’s gun pointed at him.  “I was watching you.  How did…”

“You just said the magic words,” I interrupted.  “You were watching me and trusting in your men to handle everything else.”

“There are dozens of them outside,” Hill said.  “Dozens.  Your team isn’t big enough to…”

“Sarah?  Show him.”

The image flickered and changed.  We were looking at the Beatles memorabilia shop again, except Sarah’s van was gone now.  The display flickered a second time to show Hill’s front gate blown inward.  There was no sign of his men.

“See,” I said, “you were so sure that you had everything under control that you didn’t think about the one weakness you kept right next to you the whole time.”

A dim flash of understanding appeared in his eyes.  “Coleman?  You did this?”

“You threatened my family,” Coleman said.  As he spoke, his voice became surer and steadier.  “You are not the boy I knew, Lord Fairfax and I…I couldn’t allow you to hurt them.”

Hill’s eyes narrowed in thought for a moment.  “Then I won’t hurt them,” he said.  “We could be partners.  I realize that I made a mistake in not trusting you.  But this doesn’t have to end badly for all of us.  Just for him.”  He jabbed a finger in my direction.  “He knows where the Book is.  You can help me find it, to get that information out of him, and then we can go our separate ways.  I can make it worth your while.”

Ah, Bargaining: the preferred tool of scumbags around the world.

Hill hadn’t grasped everything yet.  If the images Sarah had shown weren’t exaggerated, then our plan had almost come to fruition.  But I still needed a little more time and I needed to make Hill just a little angrier.  If he figured out everything, there was just enough of a window for him to ruin everything.

“You think he just figured out what you were up to?” I asked, loading my words with as much derision and scorn as I could muster.  “Seriously?  You’ve been running your business out of your estate for years.  Sure, you’ve been careful to keep everything directly connected to you above board, but only where the outside world was concerned.  Inside your house, though?  From the one person who’s known you since your childhood and would know about anything you were doing here?”

I left the idea dangling and waited for Hill to finish it for himself.  Surprisingly, it took him less time to reach the obvious conclusion than I would have expected.  His eyes became round and some of the red flush of anger drained away from his cheeks, replaced by the paler shade of someone who has just come to a horrible realization.

“You…”  Hill shook his head, as if he couldn’t quite believe what all of the evidence was pointing towards.  “How long?”

“A year,” Coleman admitted.  “The police came to me and I…I decided to help them.”

“When?  Why?

“When you started to bring in guns and that little girl came back from wherever you sent her.  I couldn’t just stand by and watch it anymore.”

I perked up at that.  We hadn’t known that Avis had been elsewhere.  We’d thought that she’d been used primarily to control information about Hill’s drug operation.  If she’d been moved, though…

Coleman was still speaking.  “Look at what you did to your brother,” he said, gesturing at Billy.  “I should have done something then, but…but I lied to myself.  I told myself that it was not what it seemed to be.  I should have acted before now.”

Of all the things Hill had predicted or arranged, this was apparently one step too far.  It wasn’t going to be much longer before the tension reached a climax and I needed to push him a little bit farther.

“Do you know where you went wrong?” I asked Hill.  “Because I can tell you, if you’re curious.  I figure it’s the sort of thing you really ought to know, considering just how badly you played this.”

Hill’s mouth was still opening and closing without making a sound.  I took that as a sign to continue.

“I’ll admit, I didn’t expect the inside man,” I said.

Hill jerked in surprise at the casual revelation.  “You knew?”

Sarah answered before I could.  Her voice came over the room’s hidden speakers in surround sound, which only magnified her deliberately snide tone.  “Not at first,” she admitted.  “Listening in on my comms should be just about impossible, unless you somehow managed to get in touch with one of the three or four people on the planet who know the protocols.  Or you could just copy the protocols wholesale, without understanding them at all, if you got your hands on one of my earbuds.  After we figured out that you were listening in, it was pretty easy to guess how you were doing it.”

“And it was almost enough to derail everything,” I said.  “Except that you didn’t count on one thing: that we might have an inside man of our own.  Which is just abysmal form, old chap.  If a trick’s good enough to use on your target, it’s good enough to be used on you in return.  All this time you’ve been employing Coleman, it never once occurred to you that he might be working undercover?  The only person adjacent to your whole organization who you weren’t blackmailing or extorting, the only one who might have some pangs of conscience about the whole ‘international purveyor of drugs and guns’ thing?”

The next step on Hill’s progression would have been Depression.  We didn’t need that.  I needed him aggressive, out of position, and off-balance.  Stunned and stupefied wasn’t going to get it done and it was easy to see that he had been so blindslided by this series of reveals that he was lapsing into indolent stupidity.

So, I cleared my throat and dropped my final blow in a clear voice.

“Billy,” I said, “would have figured it out long ago.”

Hill skipped past Depression and Acceptance, rocketing back into Anger at full speed.  He blinked once.  When his eyes opened, they were focused on me with a murderous intensity.  I would have stepped away, if I’d been on my feet.  Instead, I merely began dragging myself backward.

“Even if I don’t have the Book, I can still make sure that you don’t leave here alive,” he snarled.

“You’ve never killed anyone in your life,” I said.  “Neither have I, in fairness, but I’m not the one pretending to be a hardened fighter.  Hell, you were so sure that Billy could’ve kicked your ass that you practically chained him into a wheelchair.”

Hill’s nostrils were flaring again.  Just the tiniest bit more.

“Why don’t you come over here and show me what you’ve got, Charles?”  Painstakingly, clenching my teeth against the waves of pain that threatened to drown me, I forced myself back up onto my feet.  The gunshot wound in my upper thigh wasn’t bleeding all that much, although it still hurt like hell.  I couldn’t possibly fight Hill.

He didn’t seem to realize that.  Lowering his head, he charged at me.  Coleman had a clean shot and he raised his gun in jerky movements.  I waved him away.  Shooting Hill would have been too clean for what we had in mind.

When Hill’s shoulder connected with my chest, I let myself fall backward with the force.  My body had pretty much reached the limits of its ability to register pain.  Then, in a fit of blind rage, he wrapped his hands around my throat.  That I hadn’t expected.

I struggled to pry his fingers from around my throat but, in his anger, Hill seemed to possess a certain brand of insane strength.  I wasn’t in top condition and, even if I hadn’t been on the receiving end of a few strong hits and at least one bullet, I would have laid even odds on me finding the strength to push Hill off of me.

But I had been hit and I had been shot and now I found myself sprawled on the ground with Hill trying desperately to kill me with his bare hands.

“Devlin!”  Sarah’s voice, in my ear and in the air around me.  “Get away from him, you son of a bitch!”

Billy was clawing at the ground for purchase, trying to reach me, but he’d fallen too far away.  Coleman couldn’t fire the gun now, without putting me in as much danger as Hill.  Sarah was miles away by now, as per our pre-arranged agreement.  Mila, Michel, Avis, and Neal would be with her.

I was alone now, exactly as planned…although Sarah hadn’t been in on that part of the planning.  From the preliminary phases of our brainstorming, I’d come to the only obvious conclusion and Sarah had somehow managed to avoid seeing it: there simply wasn’t a way to get everyone out of the estate.  One of us was always going to have to stay behind.  Since I was the one who’d started this whole affair, it only seemed reasonable for me to fill that role.

I was fine with the sacrifice play.  I just wasn’t fine with it now.

Through some miraculous exertion of muscles and leverage, I managed to steal a few breaths before Hill tightened his grip around my throat again.  Blackness began to creep in around the edges of my vision, followed shortly by a red haze.

A loud noise, like something exploding open, came from somewhere out of my vision.

“SO19!”  That came from an entire chorus of voices.  “Raise your hands into the air and surrender or we will shoot!”

Hill’s grip went slack.  I slid out of his grip and succeeded in using my arms to cushion the fall.  In my peripheral vision, I could see two men in black body armor rushing over to Coleman.  The man crumped to his knees and allowed them to relieve him of the Ruger.

That was a shame.  I was starting to like that gun.

Two more men approached Hill.  They displayed a slightly humorous reluctance to actually touch a member of the nobility, but the fight had gone out of him.  He’d been caught in the act of trying to murder someone.  That, coupled with the evidence that Coleman must have been able to pull, would be pretty damning.  Getting into a fist fight with armed men wasn’t likely to be high on his list of priorities.

I giggled at the image and, just as soon as the sound passed my lips, realized that I was getting loopy.  One of the men in body armor walked over and examined me.  From my position, it looked as though he were dangling from the ceiling.  I giggled at that again.

Metal glinted on the man’s chest and my mouth moved silently as I worked through the words: ‘London Metropolitan Police.’

“The cavalry,” I said in a stupid, weak voice.  “Took you long enough.”

Then, mercifully, I passed out from either blood loss or exhaustion.  More likely, it was a combination of the two.

Chapter 133

The instant after Hill made that pronouncement, something changed in the room.  I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what, at the moment.  It was just a feeling of intense intuition, centered mainly at a spot just an inch or two below the base of my skull.  I reacted to that feeling without stopping to question it, throwing myself to one side and bring up the metallic briefcase to protect my vulnerable skull.

A jet black baton whistled through the air where my head had been.  The bludgeon missed me by less than inches; it was so close that I could almost smell the hard plastic coating its surface.  In the next few split seconds, my brain took in the face of Hill’s loyal butler, Coleman.  He had crept close enough to attack, moving on cat’s feet so soft that even my finely tuned awareness hadn’t noticed him until almost too late.  Then, before I could feel more than a sharp stab of shame that I could be caught off guard twice during a single heist, I hit the ground, shoulder first.

Thankfully, my momentum carried me forward more than down, and I skidded across the floor instead of crashing into it.  That saved me from serious injury, but did nothing to lessen the exploding stars of pain.  Gritting my teeth, I forced myself to think clearly and reoriented myself so that I turned the uncontrolled slide into something at least resembling a roll.  With my feet under me, I was able to leap back in time to avoid a follow-up swing from Coleman.  This one also missed me, but I was off-balance.  The third swing managed to get me high on my arm.  The nerves flared to life then, a breath later, went dead.  My fingers turned numb and the briefcase slipped from their suddenly weak grasp and fell to the floor.

Coleman and I looked at each other, then at the briefcase.  Panicked, I kicked the briefcase away from both of us, lest he manage to surprise me with a burst of speed.  As my foot connected with the briefcase, Coleman moved, and I saw that I’d made that right choice; he was faster than I would have expected.  Uninjured, I was probably faster and Mila was certainly quicker, considering the blurring exchanges I’d seen her partake in since we’d joined forces, but he covered the distance between where he stood and where the briefcase had been with enough speed that he probably would’ve gotten his hands on it.  As it was, his fingers clutched at nothing but empty air.

Now, he was out of stance and I was in a better position.  The tables had turned, momentarily, but I held no illusions about winning a fight if Coleman were allowed to center himself again.  While he was still trying to pull back his hand, I drove a swift kick up into his midsection.  The air came out of his lungs in an explosive rush and, when he hit the ground, he was already doubled over.  I tried to repeat my performance but, again, Coleman proved faster than I would have thought.  I missed and he managed to get back to his feet.

For the first time, I looked into Coleman’s eyes.  What met my gaze was not the steady expression of someone accustomed to violence, but the wide-eyed fear that only came when one was acting under duress.  In a flash, I understood the truth of the matter.  Before the events of the last few days – maybe even before the events of the last few hours – Coleman hadn’t known about Hill’s more profitable business venture.  He had been a patsy or, more likely, an unwitting assistant.  I wondered what euphemisms Hill used to describe his activities, whenever Coleman got involved.

Whatever the lie, and however Hill had told it, now Coleman was into the business up to his neck.  I could imagine the conversation Hill would have had with his employee, the threats he would have leveraged to ensure compliance, the incentives he would have offered to invoke commitment.  There wouldn’t really have been enough time for subtlety.  Coleman had probably been hit over the head with the true nature of Hill’s business and pressganged into this final ambush.

I legitimately felt bad for the man.

“You don’t have to do this,” I said, gasping for breath.  I kept a part of my peripheral attention focused on Hill, even though he showed no intention of getting directly involved in the fight.  “Do you even understand who he is?  What he is?”

Coleman began to circle warily around me and I matched the movement.  Feeling was starting to return to my arm in tingling fits.  I flexed my fingers experimentally as I moved to block Coleman from having a clear line of sight to the briefcase.  “What I know,” he said, “is that I have a family.  And I cannot…I will not put their lives at risk.”

So it had been threats, then.  No carrot for poor Coleman, only the stick.  I felt a sickening anger rise up in my throat like bile and felt as much hate for Hill as I felt pity for Coleman.  “We can protect them.  If you just help me take him down, he won’t be able to do anything!”

“Like you protected the girl?  Like you protected him?”  Coleman gestured in Billy’s direction without looking away from and, tellingly, didn’t use the man’s name.  “You can’t even protect yourself!”

I couldn’t really refute that point.  “Are you sure this is how you want this to happen?” I asked.  “Putting everything on the line for someone who you clearly didn’t even know?”

“I will do whatever I have to,” Coleman said, “to protect my family.”

I didn’t have a counter to that, either.  I knew how far I’d go to protect Sarah.  It wouldn’t be fair to ask Coleman to do anything less.

In the first exchange of blows, the Ruger had been knocked free and things had been too hectic in the next few seconds for me to really think about that problem.  Now, I spared a second to search for it and saw that, luckily, the weapon had fallen within a foot of the briefcase. I could go for one or the other, but not both.

Coleman looked past me and seemed to reach the same conclusion.  Our eyes met again, electric tension traveling through the air between us in practically visible lines of intensity, and then we both moved in sync.

I was closer and, motivated by desperation, faster.  My fingers closed around the briefcase’s handle and I pulled it close, hugging it to my chest.  Coleman abandoned his baton and grasped the Ruger.  He swept it in my direction without missing a beat.

Just as quickly, I raised the briefcase so that it was in front of my face.  I could hear Hill’s gasp of surprise mingled with shock.  “Don’t shoot!  Do not bloody shoot that briefcase!”

Mentally, I pumped my fist in celebration.  I wasn’t sure what Hill’s briefcase was actually made of, but I doubted it was bulletproof.  If that were the case, then, its contents would be as vulnerable to gunfire as anyone using the briefcase for cover.  To Hill, the item inside of the briefcase was worth far more to him intact than I was worth to him dead.

That realization aside, there was only going to be a slim period of time before Hill decided to use his own weapon to even the odds.  I angled the briefcase and charged in Coleman’s general direction.  The metal of the briefcase made it impossible for me to see exactly where I was.  I only made it a few steps before I impacted something fleshy.  The person I’d hit gave way under the assault and went down.  Without my sight, I fell as well and was forced to use the briefcase as an impromptu cushion for my fall.

My head swam and one of my shoulders was screaming with pain.  Still, I started striking out with my fists and feet wildly, unaware of exactly what I was hitting or where.  Coleman returned the favor with equal vigor.  After a few seconds of fisticuffs that felt like minutes or longer, both of us extricated ourselves from the tangle of limbs and skittered back to our feet.

“This isn’t what I wanted!” Coleman yelled.  He’d lost the gun somehow and the baton was similarly out of reach.  He lowered his head and ran at me like a bull.

I didn’t want to use the briefcase to defend myself against the attack.  Coleman wasn’t a bad person, so much as someone bent over a metaphorical barrel, and the kind of damage a head-to-metal impact could do wasn’t anything to scoff at.  Instead, I waited until he had almost reached me before I pivoted and stuck out one foot to trip up Coleman as he went past me.  He stumbled, nearly caught himself, and then went down in a heap, gasping greedily for air.

There wasn’t any time to savor that slim victory.  I turned back and began moving in a wide circle.  This time, I kept up the briefcase up high enough that I could just barely see under its bottom edge.  In the thin widow of visibility, I saw that Hill had removed the gun from Billy’s temple and was finally pointing it directly at me.

I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing.  I certainly had no intention of lingering in any one place long enough for Hill to decide the matter for me.

The distance between Hill and I was short enough that I could see the fury filling in his eyes and the red flush of rage flooding his cheeks.  Billy’s eyes were wide and bloodshot.  I didn’t know what I looked like, but I could imagine: equally fearful and brave, madly rushing to attack someone who could end my life in a moment, if only he took the time to think clearly through the haze of emotion my resistance had caused in him.

Then, perhaps a yard or two away from Hill, I watched as his eyes narrowed and I knew he’d taken the requisite time to actually think about his problem.  He lowered his aim from my face, protected by the briefcase, and pointed his gun at my torso instead.  I started to lower my shield, fully aware that I wasn’t going to be fast enough to protect myself.

Just before Hill’s finger squeezed around the trigger, Billy brought his elbow back in a vicious arc and the swing terminated with literal bone-cracking force into his younger brother’s ribs.  Hill let out a roar of pain and did two things in pure instinct.

One: he kicked at Billy’s wheelchair reflexively.  The wheels were locked and the chair couldn’t go anywhere.  Instead, Billy flew from the wheelchair and landed in a sprawled heap on the floor.

Two: he finished squeezing the trigger on his gun and fired it at me.

Billy’s attack and the resulting injury was sufficient to derail Hill’s aim, but it was not enough to make him completely miss.  Instead of catching me in the gut, the bullet sunk into the fleshy part of my upper thigh.  The pain was mind-erasing and that, coupled with the sudden obstacle of Billy’s immobile torso, caused me to lose my balance entirely.

Hill gritted his teeth and prepared to fire again.  Using my last few dredges of strength I had to focus through the agony, I pushed off from my uninjured leg and launched myself towards Hill, leading with the briefcase.  I didn’t mind if he ended up permanently injured.

The tackle was well aimed, but there wasn’t any real power behind it.  I managed to connect with Hill’s body, and he sucked in a sharp breath as the sharp edges of the briefcase found soft parts of his torso, but it didn’t knock him down.  He moved so that I continued past him and landed painfully on my shoulder again.  At this point, the joint didn’t even bother to send up any further alarm bells.

Enough!” Hill screamed.  Every ounce of control was gone from his voice.  He wasn’t bothering to play the part of a nobleman anymore.  The drug lord, in all of his ruthlessness, was fully here.

He stalked over to where I lay and pressed down on my wounded leg with all of his weight.  I nearly passed out as the pain, which had already reached levels I hadn’t known existed, found new heights.  I couldn’t even manage to yell.  Only a low moan escaped my lips.

“You have been beaten,” he snarled as he kicked me.  “All of this has been for nothing!”

Weakly, I rolled away from his attack.  “Not…not going to let you…”

“You aren’t going to let me what?”  Hill asked.  He didn’t press the assault, which I appreciated.  At the same time, it wasn’t like he really needed to.  Billy couldn’t move from where he was and I seriously doubted that any part of my body would listen to a thing I told it to do.  “All that you have accomplished is wasting my time.”

The collision with the floor must have shaken Billy’s gag loose, because it was his voice that I heard next.  “Charles,” he said.  “Charles, it’s over.  You have what you want.  Just…let him go.  He doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

“No!  I offered this man a chance to join my side, just as I offered you one.  And what did I get in return for my generosity?  My business has been impacted, my reputation impugned, and even now you attack me when all I have ever done is try to claim that which is mine!”  He walked over to Billy, stopped just out of the sprawling man’s reach, and dropped his voice into a dangerously low register.  “I want you to know this.  We could have been amazing, you and I.  If you had only been willing to follow my lead, instead of stubbornly insisting on doing things your own way, we could have been legends.”

“Charles, I – “

Hill ignored his brother and walked back to me.  Coleman, who had recovered his footing at some point, limped over so that he stood just behind Hill.  He picked up the weapon that his employer had been carrying and the Ruger that I’d lost, as well.  He handed my gun to Hill.

“And you,” Hill said.  “This is what I want you to know.  You have doomed your friends.  You have doomed your lover.  Everything you know and love will suffer because of your misplaced sense of nobility.  As if someone like you could possibly understand what is necessary to win.”

“You…can’t,” I gasped out.  “Don’t have…the pull…”

“Not yet, I don’t,” Hill replied.  He kicked the briefcase free from my weak grip and knelt to retrieve it.  When it was in his hand, he brandished it at me like some sort of totem.  “But this will give me what I want.  And no one – not you, not William, not the Magi themselves – will be able to get in my way.”

The briefcase wasn’t locked with a combination or a key.  Hill pressed his thumb to a well-disguised reader on the briefcase’s side and it responded with a soft click as it unlocked.  He opened it with a flick of his wrist, intending to show me his trophy as one last insult.

There was nothing inside.

It took Hill a second to realize that he held a very expensive, very empty briefcase.  A look of confusion came over his face, replacing the exultant expression from a few heartbeats before.  “What?  But…what?”

I was beaten, bruised, wounded, and weak.  I couldn’t have stood up without assistance and I knew it was only a matter of time before I lost consciousness.  Still, digging deeper within myself for strength than I had ever dug before, I found one last nugget of willpower.  I used that to roll onto my back and laughed at the top of my lungs.

“Didn’t see that coming, did you?” I said, between wracking gasps and full-body laughs.  “Gotcha, you sanctimonious bastard.”

Chapter 132

“You,” Hill said in a strained voice, “have proven yourself to be remarkably resourceful.”

“I aim to impress.”  I muted my earbud with a subtle gesture, taking great care not to let the hand holding the gun waver in the slightest.  A distraction now could be fatal for me, Billy, and possibly everyone who’d chosen to throw their lot in with mine.

“In fact,” he continued, “your resourcefulness is nearly equal to how irritatingly smug you seem to be at every available opportunity.”

I tilted my head slightly, not breaking eye contact for a single moment.  “I’m flattered to hear that, considering you’re in the running for the ‘most arrogant son of a bitch on the continent’ award.  Really, it means a lot to me.”

The frosty mask of control on Hill’s face faltered for an instant.  Cool, calm dispassion flickered away, as he pulled his lips back from his teeth and he practically growled at me.  He pressed the gun to Billy’s temple even harder and my new wheelchair-bound friend moved his head to compensate.  Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the expression of naked anger vanished and was replaced again with dispassion and mild irritation.

“Your friend was absolutely certain that close quarters combat was not your strong suit,” Hill said.  He stressed the word friend to the breaking point, making absolutely certain that I heard the derision and sarcasm.  “That assessment was a primary factor in my decision to dispatch only a single person to interrupt you earlier.  I suppose that is another area in which Mister Knight’s abilities have failed me.”

“He wasn’t wrong,” I replied.  “Not exactly.  But after you find yourself on the wrong end of a fight a couple of times, you start to pick up a few tricks.  Why don’t you put that gun down and I’ll show you some of them?”

Hill threw his head back and laughed.  “This, at least, he predicted accurately.”

“Asher predicted that I was going to kick your ass in your own house?”  I made my mouth into a little ‘o’ of amazement.  “That’s even more impressive than my smugness.”

Color began rising up into Hill’s cheeks.  His glare turned harder and I could immediately tell that it was harder for him to maintain the air of control.  “This is merely bravado, Mister O’Brien.  A show, designed to distract and obfuscate.  After Mister Knight so thoroughly failed to eliminate you as an adversary at one of my warehouses, I decided to do my own research into you.”

“What’d you find out?” I asked, half out of a desire to stall for time and half out of a genuine curiosity.

“While no one who’s worked with you in the past had anything bad to say about you – Mister Knight excluded, of course – it appears that you’re somewhat small-time.  This current affair is well above your…what’s the vernacular?  Ah!  This current affair is well above your weight class.”

I kept my face placid, while I found myself internally agreeing with that assessment.  Still, it wouldn’t do to let the mark know when he had me on the ropes.  The longer I kept him talking, the longer Plan B had to work.  If Hill decided to use that weapon on me or Billy before things were in position, everything we’d done would amount to exactly nothing.

“Well, as I always say, what is a life lived without a little bit of challenge?”

Longer,” Hill pronounced and a chill responded to that note of finality in his voice.

I swallowed hard against the lump in my throat before speaking again.  “Let’s look at it this way,” I said.  “We’re in your house with all of your men and your personal pet team of mercenaries.  But I’m the one who made it past all of your guards, into your bedroom, and now I’m the one with the Book.”  I held up the briefcase, to illustrate my point.  “The way I see it, I’m in a much better position than you are.  You’re playing your last card right now, Hill.  It’s all in or bust.”

Billy’s mouth was restricted by the gag but his eyes and ears were not.  Something I’d said set him off.  He furrowed his brow and stared at me for several seconds, then flicked his gaze in Hill’s direction, and back again.  Between each rotation of that odd pantomime, he shook his head in the most infinitesimal of movements.

Hill didn’t seem to notice what his half-brother was doing.  “You say all of this as though you have already succeeded,” he said.  “Yet we found ourselves here, at an impasse.  You have the Book, yes, but you cannot leave with it.  Even if you somehow find a way past me, you cannot possibly hope to evade me and my forces for very long.  I know your voice.  I know your name.  And I will be highly motivated to recover my property and to extract sufficient recompense for the trouble.”

“So, what then?”

“I exposed myself to you, in the hopes that we would be able to form a mutually beneficial working relationship,” Hill said.  “You and your team were the ones who decided that open conflict was preferable to diplomatically working our way to a solution that would have been advantageous for both of us.”

“You want to make a deal?”

He shrugged.  “In a manner of speaking, yes.”

“The Book for Billy?  Is that it?”  I scoffed.  “Even if I were willing to compromise on my principles, what possibly reason would I have to believe that you wouldn’t just come after us later on, just for giggles?”

“Two points,” Hill said.  He raised his index and middle finger, then lowered the middle one.  “First, I would have no reason to expend resources.  You have proven yourself capable when circumstances require it.  I would hope that you would also possess the ability to realize when the game has been lost, to cut your losses and retreat.”

“And allow you to solidify your control over the Underground here?  Possibly extend some tendrils into the neighboring countries, until you’re spreading your personal brand of misery and subjugation all over the place like some kind of bloated parasite?”  I shook my head.  “No dice.”

Hill nodded, as though he’d been expecting that answer.  Billy’s eyes were traveling between Hill and me faster than before, almost frantically.  “Second,” he said, lowering the corresponding finger, “I have no interest in making an exchange for Billy’s sake.  My brother has made his position perfectly clear and, at any rate, there are other plans in the works for him.”

I shuddered at that, but forced myself to smile broadly at Hill.  “The Book for my life, then?  I’m going to go with a solid ‘no’ on that, too.”

Hill raised an eyebrow.

I continued after a moment, when it became clear that he didn’t have anything to say.  “You can’t pull that trigger before I pull mine.  We’ll both go down, and neither one of us can be sure that we’ll actually hit anything vital.  Pretty sure that Billy isn’t going to just sit there and let you kill me, either.”

“Nothing about your behavior since your arrival in London has led me to believe that you are an individual overly concerned with your own self-interest,” Hill said.  He shifted his weight and relieved some of the pressure on Billy’s temple.  “Threatening to kill you has, thus far, proven woefully inadequate.”

“So, what then?  You offered me money and power.  You aren’t going to threaten to kill me, when I’ve got you dead to rights?  What’s your play now?”

“The trade I’m offering,” Hill said, “is one that I’m certain you’ll wish to partake in: the Book for Miss Ford’s life.”

I’d taken in a breath to say something else biting and sarcastic, hoping to needle Hill into an emotional reaction and out of the calm center of his power.  Now, taking in what he’d said so casually, that breath caught in my throat.  “You already made that threat,” I managed to say.  “Didn’t stop me before.”

“Previously, I was hoping that you would make the smart decision and join forces with the clearly superior party.  Since you have instead chosen the path of the noble fool, I no longer feel any obligation to pull my metaphorical punches.”

I blinked.  “What are you saying?”

“Judging from the expression on your face,” Hill said, “I believe you understood me perfectly.  If you do not surrender the book to me, then I will give the order to eliminate every member of your team.  That much is a foregone conclusion; they have done entirely too much and would serve as too much of an embarrassment to continue living.  After that, I will have my men take your precious ex-wife hostage.  At that point, I will no longer see the necessity of further negotiation.  You will have lost the only opportunity you could have had to keep her safe and you will have done so for absolutely no reason.  It is inevitable, Mister O’Brien; I will have what I want, one way or the other.”

“Sarah left the country.”  The words came out automatically, completely devoid of emotional investment.  I could only hope they sounded convincing.  “She did it right after we had dinner.  You can’t get to her unless you’re willing to go to war with a legitimate financial and political powerhouse of a family.”

“I am more than aware of Miss Ford’s familial relations and, moreover, I have taken steps to ensure that her sudden disappearance would be accounted for in a variety of believable ways.  But come now, Mister O’Brien; surely, we have reached the point where further deception is no longer necessary.”

“No deception,” I said.  “You really think she would stay anywhere near here, knowing what I planned to do?”

“I don’t merely think it,” Hill replied, “I know it, for a fact.”

He dipped his free hand into his pocket and pressed some button.  I didn’t quite know what to expect, so I tightened my grip on the Ruger and took extra care to keep my arm steady.  After a moment, an oversized projector screen descended from the ceiling, behind Hill and located in such a way that I had a perfect view.  When the screen reached the end of its track, a projector came to life to me and broadcast an image onto the screen.

At first, I thought it was a static image, but I realized a moment later that it was actually a video…albeit, a video where very little seemed to be moving.  There weren’t any people in frame and nothing was moving.  I see a leaf inch across the ground, at the very bottom of the video, propelled by a barely-there breeze.  In the background, there was a prominent Beatles memorabilia sign.

I saw all of those details subconsciously, but didn’t pay any active attention to them.  All of my focus was on the centerpiece of the video: Sarah’s van, specially made and parked well outside of Hill’s estate where we had thought she would be safe.

Hill pressed another button and voices filled the room.  Mila and Michel.  Anton, Stani, the Russians.  Chester and James.  And, over all of them, coordinating our escape, Sarah in her clear, authoritative voice; the persona she took on whenever the situation was at its most dire.

“I cannot find a way through them!” Michel cried out.

“And I’m almost out of ammo,” Mila added.  “We need that gate open and we need it now!”

“Bloody workin’ on it, alright?” This, from Chester.  “More of his heavies out here than you thought about and it’s hard bloody work doing all this without knowing everything that’s going on!”

“This isn’t the time for a debate about the merits of full disclosure,” Sarah said.  Steady and unshaken, like the eye of a hurricane.  But I knew her well enough to hear the fear hidden behind the steadfast, level exterior.  “We’re here now and we’ve still got a job to do.  Here’s what we’re going to do.”

Hill muted the video, but did nothing about the projected image.  He allowed it to play out behind him, forcing me to look at him, then the screen, then back again.  Billy was no longer attempting to send me a message.  Now, he had slumped down into his chair, weakly resisting the pressure from Hill’s gun.  “I must admit, I am very curious how exactly she has managed quite so much in such a small vehicle.  My own command center encompasses a rather large portion of my basement and took several highly trained individuals to setup.  I believe I’ll have to have ask her how I can streamline things, when next she and I speak.”

My mouth was bone-dry.  I swallowed fearfully several times, just to work up the moisture to speak without it sounding like a death rattle.  “If I don’t get out of here, then – “

“Then what?” Hill interrupted.  “Plan B, whatever that is?  Your entire team of compatriots is pinned down by sheer force of numbers.  Even if you had some incredibly brilliant stroke of luck, it would do you no good.  There is something to be said for ingenuity and cleverness in the face of otherwise implacable odds, I freely admit.  And the tale of your plucky resistance, despite everything that your former friend has thrown at you, would certainly make for an inspirational story.  But that, Mister O’Brien, is all that it will ever be: a story.”

“I can still kill you,” I said.  A note of desperation crept into my voice before I could stop it.  “Maybe I’ll die, too, but you won’t be around to gloat about it, will you?”

“You could,” Hill allowed, “but you won’t.  I don’t quite know how you managed to get away from my man, but I’ve watched everything you have done in London since your arrival.  You have had any number of opportunities to finish things in a more permanent manner – with me, with Mister Knight – and you have taken none of them.  In fact, you have made things infinitely more difficult because of your naïve adherence to a sense of morality.  The prospect of you killing me in hot, cold, or any sort of blood is so unlikely as to be impossible.”

It was a struggle, but I still tried to keep anything from showing on my face.  “You’re certain you want to risk that?  Everything you’ve built, everything you’ve sacrificed for, on a gamble?  If you’re that sure you’ve already won, why bother making the offer at all?”

“Expediency,” Hill said.  “I have taken great pains to arrange things in such a way that my success is all but assured.  It would be poor form to stumble at this point, simply because I couldn’t be bothered to strike a deal and eliminate even the possibility of a stumbling block.”

“So you do have your doubts,” I said, a touch of triumph finding its way into my voice.  It didn’t quite drown out the fear I felt for Sarah, but it at least disguised it.

“I do not doubt that you have put things into motion that will complicate my victory,” Hill said.  “I do not doubt that some of those things will irritate or perhaps stymie me in such a way that I may be forced to expend actual effort to squash any remaining resistance.  You’ve certainly earned that much respect.  But, do not mistake my respect for trepeditation.  I have all of the power and you have none.  My men outnumber your ragtag group ten to one.  They are armed killers and you are a thief, scurrying around in the shadows of greater men, nipping at their heels.”

He was deliberately making his voice colder, I noticed.  My incessant goading must have been affecting him more than he was letting on.  That might have been good.  At the same time, I didn’t want to push him so far that he gave the order to capture Sarah, kill Billy, to drop the hammer on my team outside of the estate.  The plan depended on just a little more time.

At the same time, everything he said rang true.  I believed in myself, to an extent, and I certainly believed in Sarah, but we did have limits.  Even before we’d split up, she had been the one to acknowledge the truth: if we continued to increase the scale of our heists, a point would eventually come where we would run up against our hard limits.

Hill spoke, as if he’d read my mind.  “You mentioned a metaphor earlier.  Very well, then.  You, Miss Ford, and every lowlife hireling you’ve managed to get your hands on lost this game before it even began.  Mister O’Brien, no matter how lucky you are, no matter how committed, surely you know better than most: the house always wins.”

Chapter 131

I clutched the briefcase to my chest so tightly that it hurt and hurried through the halls of Hill’s palatial estate.  Not for the first time, I was glad that Sarah couldn’t see anything that my mini-camera couldn’t; I would have felt irrational shame if she’d been able to see my trembling hands or how fervently my eyes kept darting from one darkened corner to another.

In my business, fear was typically a healthy feeling to cultivate.  Fear kept a thief moving, kept them aware of their surroundings, kept them from falling into a false sense of security.  Fear, more often than not, provided the impetus to create a brand new scheme just before the mighty fist of the law came crashing down on top of our heads.

Right now, though, fear was an obstacle.  I couldn’t think past it or around it; I couldn’t bring myself to create or to improvise, so long as the only thing occupying my thoughts was the all-encompassing spectre of ‘things that could go wrong.’  My encounter in Hill’s bedroom had been sobering, in a way that I hadn’t expected possible.  Up to that point, I’d foolishly assumed that I’d at least considered every problem that could occur during our incursion.  I didn’t necessarily have solutions for all of those problems, but I’d at least considered them.

At least, that had been what I’d thought.

The reality had been explicitly clear, now.  No matter how thoroughly we’d planned things, Hill had been one step ahead of us.  It stood to reason, then, that Asher might very well be one step ahead of him.  And, operating at a level inconceivably higher than any of us were even aware, there was the Lady and the Magi.  Our job hadn’t just been difficult; it had been impossible, from the very beginning.  How well we played the game would never have mattered, so long as the game had been rigged from the start.

Now, my only priority was escape.  Mila, Michel, Avis, and Neal were making their way away from Hill’s estate.  With the help of Sarah, Anton, and the Russians I didn’t doubt that they could pull it off.  Asher had managed to suborn a portion of Hill’s forces and my former partner didn’t care about Hill’s plan, except where it could be used to supplement his own objectives.  If letting my team get away would bring him closer to me, Asher would give the command in a heartbeat.  Good for them, terrible for me.

That was fine.  Increasing the difficulty of my situation from ‘impossible’ to ‘fucking impossible’ couldn’t possibly throw me any more off my game.

Still, that portion of my mind that worked on its own orders kept whirring away, filing away details and observations, ordering them into shapes and outlines that I might be able to use.  As quickly as those prospective plans fell into place, my conscious mind tore them down by pointing out a flaw here or a misconception there.  Looming over the entire process like a grim shadow of death, I couldn’t let myself forget that nothing had ever been what it had seemed to be.  A perfect plan still held every possibility of falling apart under yet another revelation.

I was so lost in my thoughts that I rounded a corner and nearly ran directly into a short, fair-skinned man with a beard that reached down to his navel.  He took a reflexive step back as I appeared in front of him then blinked in confusion.  I understood the feeling.  Surprise had robbed me of initiative and thought for a few seconds, not too long ago.

Now, however, I’d accepted the inherent unpredictability of my job and I leaped into action before the bearded man could do more than inhale sharply.  I let all of my weight fall onto my back foot and whipped the briefcase around in a vicious arc.  The bearded man reached for a weapon at his side as I moved.  The briefcase found its target before the bearded man could draw his weapon and the sharp metallic edge of the case cut into his face.  Blood spurted out from a long, uneven gash from his cheek bones to his chin and he stumbled away from the attack.  I pressed the offensive, shifting my weight so that I could bring my impromptu bludgeon up at an angle.  It caught the bearded man underneath his chin and rocked his head backwards with enough force that I could actually see the moment he lost consciousness, still standing on his feet.

While he fell, I stepped around the man and continued to move.  Sarah joined the line while I was running.  “They have a clear path, more or less,” she said, without preamble.  I appreciated that about her.  Banter was all well and good when we had time to spare; when working under the gun, though, she dismissed with any pretense of joviality and became a machine focused solely on achieving our goals.  “I can’t do anything more for them right now, anyway.  Where are you?  What do you see?”

“I ran into a patrol,” I said.  “He wasn’t ready for me, so I took him out before he could raise an alarm, but…”

“But that means that Asher’s men are getting closer to your position,” Sarah finished.  “There aren’t any cameras in the building that I can use to keep track of the search.”

“I know that.  Could you maybe track my GPS signal and lock any doors leading to me, though?  I don’t know where they are, but you’ve got the plans.  You could make sure that they’ve got to work to catch up with me, couldn’t you?”

I knew that Sarah hadn’t gained control over the door’s electronic locks before we’d lost contact, but I’d had plenty of time to grow accustomed to her personality over the years.  If she was helping Mila and company escape from the estate, she wouldn’t have just taken over the network connected to the front gate.  Every door in the building that she could lay her digital hands on would be under her control by now.

She proved me right by clearing her throat and speaking into the comms.  “Done,” she said.  “But I don’t know if those doors have physical locks.  If so, there’s really nothing I can do from here to keep them from catching up to you.”

“I’ll take what I can get.”  A door’s lock clicked into place beside me.  Several more followed suit as I passed them and, all the way down the hallway, a chorus of clicks came back to me.  I didn’t linger in the area long enough to listen at each door, to see whether or not one of Asher’s goons waited on the other side of it to make a getaway.  “Let me know when they’re clear.  I don’t want to do anything that puts them in danger, if I can help it.”

“Puts them in danger?” Sarah repeated, altering my inflection so that a declarative sentence became an interrogative.  “What about putting you in danger, Dev?”

“I’m the only member of our group, Billy excepted, that is located inside the house.  Hill knows we’re here and he’s made plans specifically tailored to interrupt anything we could come up with.  There are an unknown number of armed men searching for me, all led by my psychotic and delusional ex-partner, while my only assistance is a tiny voice in my ear.”  I flattened myself against a wall and cautiously peered around the corner, hoping to avoid a repeat of my previous confrontation.  “I think I’m a little bit past being in danger.  This way, we can hope to minimize how many people in the crosshairs.”

She didn’t reply to that immediately.  She didn’t really need to.  I wasn’t foolish enough to think that I understood Sarah completely – I was certain that, if I ever reached that level of enlightenment, I would be elevated instantly to a state of Nirvana – but I could read into some of her silences as clearly as if she’d spoken her thoughts.  She wasn’t thrilled that I was putting myself in danger, elevating the pressure on myself so that I could ease the intensity of opposition on the other, less experienced members of my team.

There were arguments I could have woven that might have changed her mind in the short term.  I elected not to use any of those.  Manipulating Sarah was uncomfortably close to lying to her, and the fallout from the last time I’d made that mistake still hung around my neck like a dead albatross.  “This is the only way,” I said in a low whisper, letting my own anxiety and fear bleed into my voice.  “You know it and I know it.”

“Doesn’t mean I’ve got to like it.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it, either.  But when I get out of here, you have my permission to lead everyone in a resounding chorus of ‘Devlin is an idiot and look at what he got us into.’  I’ll even join in.”

A puff of breath, like the very beginning of a chuckle, came from Sarah’s end of the comms.  “Do you still have that tablet?”

I did.  I’d slipped it into my interior jacket pocket after the encounter in Hill’s bedroom.  Keeping both hands on the briefcase with its precious cargo had seemed, at the time, more important than anything else.  Now, I relaxed my death grip on the handle and used one hand to fish out the tablet.  “Right here.  Why?”

“Just want to make sure you’re keeping an eye on things.  Aiden is off the board right now, but Carlos and his pharmacist are still in play.  Not to mention Asher, whatever thugs he’s managed to bring around to his personal employ, and the small army that Hill brought to bear.”

As I continued through the estate, pausing every so often to reorient myself or to make certain that I wasn’t about to walk into a squad of men, I realized that things within the estate had gone very quiet, all of a sudden.  It wasn’t completely silent, of course.  That would have been too eerie for words.  But the general bustle of men moving through the lower floors seemed to have lessened noticeably.  There were still shouts and calls, but there didn’t appear to be as much vigor behind the voices.

“Tell me what’s going on outside,” I said, partly out of curiosity and partly because the sound of my own voice kept me from becoming completely unnerved.

The line clicked off and, about thirty seconds later, clicked back on.  “It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect,” she said.  “Hill had a couple of men in cars, on standby.  Either they were more shells to use as distraction or he just wanted to be prepared for anything.  Either way, they fell on Michel pretty quickly as soon as they realized what he was trying to do.”

“Are they okay?”

“They’re fine.  According to him, none of our opposition have the skills to back up their cars.  He’s had to lead them in loops across the grounds, while Mila and Neal cripple a car at a time.”

“Are they getting any help from the others?”

“The Russians are pulling the front gate’s attention, so that they can’t attack Michel from both sides.  Anton, Chester and James are ready to distract, as soon as Michel gets enough of a lead to just drive through the gate and get out of there.”

I nodded.  Things weren’t proceeding in an elegant or civilized fashion, despite our hopes.  In an odd sort of way, the general chaos of the situation lightened the weight of dread.  Elegant and civilized were Hill’s hallmarks.  Chaos, bedlam, and general mayhem were all tools that I preferred.  By foregoing any attempt at keeping things quiet, I was doing one small thing to place the heist back onto familiar ground.

The estate’s hallways all looked identical.  I was forced to check the tablet more and more frequently as I moved, just to make sure that I wasn’t heading towards a dead end.  When I reached the end of a particularly long landing, I took the staircase waiting there two steps at a time.  My specially made dress shoes didn’t make a sound on the hard wood of the stairs, but the pounding of my heart more than made up for absence of exterior noise.

“Sarah?”  I asked.

“What’s wrong?”

Nothing’s wrong,” I said.  “That’s the problem.”

She was quiet for a second.  “What do you mean by that?”

“Someone knew that I was in Hill’s bedroom and that person came equipped with a signal jammer, specifically to limit our ability to communicate.”


“And then, just after I left the room, I literally ran into a guard already on the third floor.  Wouldn’t that suggest that the rest of the men would have found me in fairly short order?”

“I…would say so, yes.”

“And yet, there is a distinct lack of conflict along my route.  In fact, I’m on the second floor now and I still don’t see anyone.  So, what does that say to you?”

Silence.  Then, “Trap?”

“Trap,” I said, nodding my head even though Sarah couldn’t actually see the gesture.

I slowed down and began taking extremely cautious steps.  My shoes were the next best thing to cat’s feet, completely soundless regardless of the surface beneath them, and I still turned every ounce of skill I’d learned over the years to the task of making myself invisible.  I even started clinging to walls and moving quickly between patches of relative shadow.

Success in the business of thievery is easy enough to come by, in the short term.  But in order to make it a career, one had to either be born with or acquire certain essential skills and talents.  Ever since I’d been a child, even before my father left me and my mother to fend for ourselves, I’d always had a sixth sense about being watched.  It wasn’t infallible, but it was reliable enough that I tended to trust the instinct whenever it reared its head.  For several minutes now, there had been an intense prickling sensation just above my spinal column, needling me incessantly and demanding that I pay attention to it.

“Someone’s watching me,” I said.  I was as certain of that as I was of my own name.

“I’ve broken into his computer network already,” Sarah replied.  “Didn’t find any cameras, but…”


“But that only means Hill doesn’t have a camera system hooked up through his computer network.”

“Could he have had hidden it another way?”

Sarah thought about that.  “A purely physical connection would suffice, if he didn’t care about archiving large amounts of data for long periods of time.  Or he could have – “

I interrupted her before she could go off on a mental tangent.  “The specifics didn’t matter, so much as the reality.  If there are cameras inside the estate, then…”

I didn’t really need to finish the thought.  If I was being tracked, then there was almost certainly a surprise waiting for me before I could make my own escape.  Preparing myself now for a confrontation might very well be the difference between success or defeat.

I carefully made way down another set of stairs, watching the blinking red dots on the tablet carefully.  It wouldn’t do to lose track of my primary adversaries.  The dot I’d identified as Aiden’s was being moved away from the estate by two other dots, marked C and M.  I exhaled, long and slow, at that.  I doubted that there was any amount of preparation that would help me beat even one of the mercenaries.

Asher’s dot had stopped moving.  It was located at the front entrance to the estate.  I didn’t have to stress my imagination too much to understand that he wouldn’t be waiting there alone.  I headed for the servant’s exit instead.

An idea struck me just before I stepped into the dining room.  Asher wasn’t moving.  He’d given up searching for me and there was only a single reason why he would do that.

I crouched down in the shadow of the entrance into the dining room and lay the tablet on the floor.  Then, with my now free hand, I reached for the weapon Mila had acquired for me.  Guns weren’t very complicated things for someone unconcerned with flair or subtlety.  All in all, learning how to use one wasn’t much more difficult than learning how to use a remote control.

Point and shoot.  Simple enough for someone who broke into impossible safes under unreasonable deadlines.

“Whatever you hear for the next few minutes,” I said under my breath, “make sure that you stick to the plan.”  I made sure the safety on my gun was switched off, took a deep breath, and then stepped into the dining room before Sarah could reply.

Standing in the center of the room, where the long table had been on my previous visit, was Hill.  Billy was in front of him, bound and gagged.  He couldn’t speak around the gag, but his eyes communicated more emotion than I could easily parse: fear, anxiety, horror, defiance, and more.

Personally, I found myself more interested in the extremely large hand-cannon that Hill was pressing into Billy’s temple.

I raised my own gun so that it pointed directly at Hill’s forehead.  At this distance, it would be difficult for even a novice like me to miss.  Then, forcing myself to portray an aura of absolute control, I said in a cheerful voice, “Well.  We have got to stop running into each other like this, don’t we?”

Chapter 130 (Sarah)

I couldn’t actually hear the impact as Michel’s Suzuki crashed into Hill’s estate, but I felt like I could.  The sound of the crash itself was picked up by two sets of earbuds on scene, which created an interesting – that is to say, deafening – feedback loop.  Reflexively, I cringed and covered my ears, which did nothing to lessen the intensity.  After a few seconds, my program started to normalize the volume levels.

A few seconds ticked by before my hearing returned and I felt comfortable risking the comms.  “Michel?  Can you hear me?”

The reply, when it came, was from Mila.  “He can hear you,” she said, “but you can’t hear him.”

I blinked in confusion, then examined one of my monitors.  Sure enough, Michel’s line was muted.  I’d intended to do that before Mila had encountered Aiden.  What I had not planned on, however, was forming a connection between Mila’s line and Michel’s.  When had that happened?

It was an easy thing to unmute Michel’s line and link all three of us into a single communications channel.  “Will someone please tell me what happened?”

“Aiden happened,” Mila said in a terse voice.  It sounded as though she was speaking through tightly gritted teeth.

That much I knew.  “How did you get away?  Did you…you know?”

Mila chuckled.  “No.”

“Is he following you?”  Immediately, I started to think of ways to slip a tail.  Anton, Stani, the Russians, and Billy’s men were still in a holding pattern around the estate.  I could probably get them to provide some type of moving screen, confounding anyone’s attempts to directly follow a single vehicle.  With luck, that distraction might hold up long enough to change cars and disappear into the city.

“Be surprised if he’s up for a run right now.”

“What…what happened?”

“Aiden happened to me,” Mila repeated.  Then, “And Michel happened to Aiden.”

It took me a second to piece the clues together into a coherent whole, complete with several false starts and dead ends.  Obviously, Michel couldn’t have fought Aiden to a standstill.  Nothing I’d seen in the man so far led me to believe that he held secret certifications in deadly martial arts, after all.  At the same time, the little I’d learned about Aiden left little hope that he could be persuaded or tricked.

But there had been the crash.

“You hit him with a car?” I asked, unable to lessen the incredulity in my voice.

Miles away, I could practically hear Michel’s self-conscious little shrug.  “I did not have a lot of time to think of a better option,” he said.  “When I heard that she was in trouble, I just, uh…”

He trailed off.  I waited a second or two for him to start speaking again and, when he didn’t, picked up the conversational slack.  “But how did you hear that she was in trouble to begin with?  You were…” I checked the GPS history, just to make sure that I wasn’t delusional.  “You were on the other side of the building.”

“When you muted my line,” Michel said, “you must have accidentally connected me to Mila.  I heard everything that she heard.  That is how I knew where she was and that she needed help.”

Sure enough, a quick check of the relevant screen showed that Michel’s line had been connected.  A small part of my pride chafed at the idea that I’d been clumsy enough to make that sort of mistake.  That chastisement was followed swiftly by cold fear, as I remembered exactly why I’d been frazzled enough to press the wrong buttons.

Devlin was still in danger.  With a painful exertion of effort, I forced myself to put that concern aside and focus on the current situation.

“Mila, are you in any condition to fight?” I asked.

Michel sucked in a sharp breath and started to say something.  Mila must have waved him off, because it was her voice that I heard next.  “Remember that broken arm they put in a cast?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, I’m going to need a new cast,” she said.  “Maybe some bandages for my ribs, too.  And an MRI.”

“Is it that bad?”

Now, Michel answered.  “It is worse than that, Sarah.  Whatever that man did to her was brutal.”

Shit.  Shit, shit, shit.  Shit.

Mila was our only real source of muscle and she’d been taken entirely out of the field.  Between her efforts and Michel’s aggressive driving, they had collectively managed to bench the largest physical threat on the opposition’s side – a fantastic achievement in virtually any other situation – but that didn’t appreciably lower the danger represented by the dozens of men searching for Devlin.

Inadequacy was a rare feeling for me.  I made it a point of professional pride to not remain inadequate at any given skill, as soon as that deficiency was made apparent.  There were few exceptions to that rule, though.

One: I couldn’t cook.  Before, during, and after my marriage, I’d tried countless times to learn the culinary arts and every effort ended in disaster.

Two: I was a terrible dancer.  While I’d been married to Devlin, his relative grace had been a source of constant embarrassment for me and constant amusement for him.

Three, and most immediately relevant: I was terrible at improvisation.

Still, wallowing in my own feelings of inadequacy wouldn’t help anyone.  Almost every aspect of our plan had been met with unexpected opposition or unreasonable timetables, so the vast majority of the team was now in serious danger.  I could worry about Devlin, who had made a choice to isolate himself in pursuit of the greater good, or I could save our new friends.

I knew which answer he would have wanted to me to choose.  Knowing that didn’t make it any less difficult to wrench my thoughts away from him so that I could focus on cobbling together some sort of escape.

“That impact is going to draw a lot of attention,” I said, marveling internally at my own ability to compartmentalize my fear and anxiety, “which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Some of the people inside of the house aren’t going to be able to help themselves: more than a few of the men searching for Devlin are going to be distracted.”

“Is that something that will help us?” Michel asked.

“Yes,” I answered immediately.  Then, after allowing myself a few seconds to think about how or why that would help, I elaborated.  “You’re going to be the bait for a little while.  I want you to draw as much attention as possible in your direction.”

“How will that – “

I talked over him.  “Hill’s already moved his men inside to chase down Devlin and to make sure that Avis and Neal don’t get away from him. We have two of the people he wants and his men are going to be playing catch up.  All we need to do is get you out of his territory.  He can’t bring military force to bear against you in public and we all know that much.”

“So, you want me to…what is it that you want me to do?”

“I want you to drive,” I said.  “As loudly and as quickly as possible.  I want you chased by as many people as possible, because as soon as you get past that gate, you’ll be in the clear.”

I chose not to voice the caveat in that plan.  If my guess was wrong and Hill had more men at the front gate than expected…if Michel made a mistake and foundered for a minute here or a minute there…if someone under Hill’s employ had more desperation than common sense and was willing to risk exposing themselves publicly…well, if any of those things or a dozen other eventualities came to pass, then everything would fall apart.  Michel and Mila would be captured and, most likely, executed.  Avis and Neal would be returned to Hill’s house, so that the girl could finish translating the contents of the Book.  After that, their prospects for survival weren’t very good, either.

A cold voice rose up from within me and spoke the very thought that I’d been trying my hardest to ignore: And it might still be too late for Devlin.

“I can help keep some of these guys from getting too close,” Mila said.  Her voice was strained and there was obvious pain laced between every syllable.  “Won’t…be too much help, but it can’t hurt.”

Devlin wouldn’t have been able to resist a comment at her choice of words, but I was too wired to pay much attention to the unintentional slip.  “I don’t want you or Neal getting yourself into critical condition,” I said.  “There’s no point in coming up with an escape plan if you ruin it by bleeding out before we can get you to see one of Sophie’s doctors.”

As soon as I said the words, I realized that I probably should arrange something with our concierge, so that Neal and Mila could receive medical attention as soon as possible.  That was something I would normally have done automatically.  The stress was affecting me worse than I’d realized.

Mila managed a laugh.  “This isn’t a plan, so much as one of the insane improvisations that Devlin comes up with.”

“That was the sort of the idea,” I admitted.

“Good,” Mila said.  “I like it.”

Even through the miasma of fear, that simple comment brought a shadow of a smile to my face.  “I’ve still got access to some of the electronics in the house,” I said.  “I’m going to give the men a little bit of a push, so that they start heading in your direction sooner rather than later.”

“That means that I should be going already?”

“It means,” I stressed, “that you should already be gone.”

With that, I clicked off of the line, so that I could work without distraction and began to navigate through Hill’s intranet.  Most of the directories were either redundant or obvious dead ends.  I dismissed those out of hand and focused instead on the hidden files and folders that a less skilled intruder might have overlooked.  Whoever had worked on the structure was a long way away from amateur-level.  However, I’d been working with computers since my college years and subjugating networks with better defense than this for over a decade.  It was difficult, sure, but it was by no means impossible.

Besides, what I wanted with the system wasn’t anything delicate or subtle.  The time for subtlety had passed, right around the moment when Devlin’s line had gone dead and Aiden had cornered Mila.  The only options available to us now were to go impossibly loud, to make as big of an impact as possible, and to hope that Hill and Asher weren’t in a position to retaliate in time.

That would put Billy at risk, though.  I recognized that fact.  Before starting this heist to begin with, Devlin and I had talked about the possibility that raising too much of an alarm would only result in the deaths of Billy, Avis, and Neal.  Two out of our three primary goals weren’t bad, considering the long odds we’d been up against from the very beginning.  I asked myself if I could live with leaving Billy at the estate and heading for the hills with our people, before Hill recovered enough to go back on the offensive.

I didn’t share Devlin’s bleeding heart sensibilities or his tendency to befriend anyone who wasn’t actively trying to kill him, at that moment.  Mila had saved his life, so she was part of our team.  Avis was a child and Neal was, in a weird sort of way, her guardian.  That extended protection to them, as well.  But Billy?  Billy was a player in the same game, but he had used us to further his own goals, just as we had used him.

If it meant his life in exchange for Devlin’s, I could learn to live with myself.  I was certainly willing to try.

The network defenses finally gave way under my concentrated assault.  Still, I couldn’t see into the room where Devlin was presumably being held hostage and there wasn’t a web of cameras that I could repurpose to my own ends, but I was pleased to discover that Hill had foolishly linked control of the gates and the doors to the estate without providing any additional security.  I had those under my control, in addition to the lights and the alarm sirens themselves.  I switched off everything and then, after allowing the men a few seconds of confusion, selectively reactivated some of the lights that led in Mila and Michel’s direction.  That wouldn’t be enough to ensure movement, but it would draw the eye and, with the sense of sight, I could only hope that someone in the horde of armed men noticed the sound of a car engine.

With that finished, I activated the lines for Stani, Chester, Anton, and the two interchangeable Russians all at once.  “No time to explain,” I said in a terse, no-nonsense tone, “but you’re about to have a lot of company headed in your direction.”

“What do you mean by that?” Chester asked, as if he had somehow missed the part where I’d said I couldn’t explain.

Still, it wouldn’t disrupt my emerging timeline too badly to elaborate on what I meant by ‘company.’  “Things didn’t go according to plan,” I said, “and we’re having to make an emergency retreat.  And not a very well planned retreat, at that.”

Chester scoffed into the comms.  “Could’ve told you that was going to happen.”

In a less tense situation, I would have been more than happy to devote some time to tearing Chester apart.  I couldn’t bring myself to do that, though.  I knew that he’d only gotten involved with our plan because we’d promised to help Billy and I also knew that, by virtue of revealing ourselves in such an undeniable fashion, I was putting his leader in mortal peril.

Instead, I chose to ignore him.  Stani provided a useful excuse to do exactly that, a moment later.  “What does this mean for us?”

“I want you guys in position to run a version of the same game Hill was using,” I said.  There wasn’t any reason to clarify that Hill had been using the entire shell game as a smokescreen.  “Meet up at the roundabout near the estate grounds, then split up as soon as Michel’s Suzuki gets there.  Chester, James, Anton: your car is going to be the primary decoy.  Stani, Iosif, Leonid: I want you guys to circle back as soon as you know you’ve lost your tails and start providing cover, if necessary.”

“Define cover,” Stani said.  A note of danger appeared as she spoke the last word.

“Nothing lethal,” I said, “and nothing that’s going to attract more attention.  We’re already going to have enough problems without inviting the forces of law and order down on our heads.”

A light flashed at the very edge of my peripheral vision.  I barely paid any attention to it, at first.  Then, my brain caught hold of that information and my heart skipped, my breath caught in my throat, and my fingers began to tremble.

“I’ll link you up with Michel,” I managed to say, in a surprisingly calm voice.  “I’ve got other things to take care of.”

I pressed the requisite buttons on autopilot and then, slowly, activated Devlin’s now-blinking line.

“Sarah, I really hope you’re listening to this,” he was saying, “because it would really be great if you would let me know that I’m not just talking to myself.”

“I’m here!” I practically chirped into the comms.  “What’s going on?  What happened?”

“Signal jammer,” Devlin said.

I’d figured that much out myself.  “Someone got the drop on you?  Are you…are you okay?”

He didn’t answer for a few seconds.  “I’m fine,” he said finally.  “He made a mistake and I managed to turn the tables on him.”

“Is he going to be a problem?”

More silence.  Then, “No.  He won’t be a problem.”

As far as I knew, Devlin had never killed before.  He’d injured, sure, but taking a life was a step beyond anything he’d ever done.

But that was only as far as I knew.  He had been in jail for a long time.  I’d heard stories about prison changing people in far more drastic ways.

“That’s not important now,” he continued and I forced myself to pay stricter attention.

“What is important?”

“If one of Hill’s men was already equipped with a signal jammer, then he knew I was communicating with someone outside of the house.”

“There’s no way to listen in on these communications,” I said, without stopping to think about it.

“Are you sure about that?”

“I wrote the protocol myself.”  I thought about that for a second and checked my ego.  “If Hill has a way of listening to my communications without me knowing about it, he could make more money going legitimate and selling the technology to private military companies.”

Silence.  Seconds passed before Devlin spoke.  “It doesn’t matter.  Whether he can listen in or not, he already knew we were coming.  We’re blown, Sarah.  We’ve been blown since before we entered the estate to begin with.”

I’d been in the position of making snap decisions for only a few minutes and I held a new appreciation for Devlin, in that moment.  “What do you want me to do?”

“Go to Plan B,” he said.

The warm glow that I felt at not having to make decisions anymore instantly evaporated.  “Plan B?”  I repeated, shocked and aghast in equal measure.  “That was mostly just a joke, Dev.  Are you sure about that?”

“I can’t think of any other options that stand even the slightest chance of getting me out of this alive.”

That sentence resolved any lingering doubts in my own mind.  “Alright.”  The lines belonging to Stani and Michel lit up on my screen.  “I’ve got to deal with getting the others out of the estate, but I’ll take care of the other thing first.”

“Good,” he said.  “I’ll…I guess I’ll try and stall.  Let me know if something else goes wrong, okay?”

I let out a long, nearly silent breath.  The effort did little to settle my nerves.  “Alright.  You let me know if you’re about to get cut off again before I’m sitting over here, contemplating a full front assault?”

“Awww,” Devlin cooed into the comms, “you really do like me.”

I cut off his line.  I knew he was being coy and flippant, aiming to break the tension he’d brought down by invoking Plan B.  It was, surprisingly, more successful than I would have expected, but it couldn’t dispel the sense of doom completely.

He was right, joking or not.  I really did care about him and I really did care about the team.  If it was a choice between their freedom and their lives, though…well, then, that wasn’t really any sort of choice at all.

I touched two fingers to my lips and said a silent prayer, then dialed the phone number for the London Metropolitan Police Department.

Chapter 129 (Avis)

Everything that Avis knew about fighting, she had learned from books and books about combat hadn’t ever been something that she’d found herself interested in.  Like most things, her ability to recall details was directly dependent on how important she viewed the information.  Names were, for the most part, unimportant and she lost track of those easily.  Dates went even faster.  The few things she’d read or watched with fights had bored her, so she’d made absolutely no effort to retain that information.  Watching the fight unfolding before her now, however, digging into her prodigious memory for every scrap of knowledge about fights she’d ever accidentally gleaned, she found herself hoping.

The fight wasn’t going well for the woman.  Her broken arm varied between a hindrance and an asset. At times, the woman used her cast to block an overhead blow or a wild hook.  When she managed to get the plaster up in time, the man jerked his fists and feet back, howling in pain.  At about the same frequency, though, the man would leave an apparent opening, but the woman couldn’t get the cast in motion quickly enough to take advantage of the opportunity.  When that happened, the man laughed and showed all of his teeth in an entirely too-wide grin before leaping back on the attack.

The man was strange, too.  Stranger than most people were, at any rate; Avis had no idea what constituted normalcy for mercenaries.  What she did know was that she’d seen two versions of the tattooed man.  There had been the calm, controlled force of nature who had pursued her after her escape from the manor house, giving orders and appearing undisturbed by the arrival of Devlin, Sarah, and the team of misfits they’d assembled to kidnap Avis away from her “protector.”  That man had radiated threat like body heat.  Waves of menace came off of his exposed skin, from the very tattoos themselves, in such density that Avis fancied she could actually see them.

That man was different from the animal that fought against the woman now.  Where he had once held himself in a sort of rigid, inhuman control, he was now wild and furious.  He gave up as many openings as he took advantage of, allowed himself to tank as many punches as he threw, and missed about as often as he actually connected.  But, to Avis’ eyes, it just didn’t matter.  He kept coming, snarling and actually foaming at the mouth, wading through the woman’s rain of blows and getting closer with every passing second.

Fear filled Avis.  It wasn’t a completely unknown emotion, but it had grown unfamiliar over the years.  Carefully, moving slowly enough that Neal could come with her, she began to shuffle away from the fight.  Neither combatant seemed to notice her retreat; for both the man and the woman, there didn’t appear to be anyone else in the world.

“They aren’t paying attention to us,” Avis said to Neal.  She kept her voice low on instinct, even though she suspected that yelling the words wouldn’t have drawn the attention of either fighter.  “We can get away while they’re fighting.”

Neal coughed.  Avis was positioned in such a way that she could hear the dangerous rattling sound in his chest as he spat out a mouthful of dark, nearly black blood.  He swallowed another glob of blood before speaking.  “Where?  How?”

“I don’t know where,” Avis admitted, even though the admission frightened her nearly as much as the possibility of capture and her own eventual death.  “But we can’t stay here.”

“Find us,” Neal rasped out.  “He’ll find us.”

Neal didn’t need to clarify who he was.  Either he was referring to Hill, who had employed both of them until their flight from the manor house, or he was talking about the tattooed man, in either of his personalities.  Regardless of who Neal meant, the outcome would be the same.

Avis had a sudden intuition.  She’d had those before and she typically ignored them.  Intuition wasn’t predictable or orderly or neat.  Sometimes it was right and, just as often, it could be woefully wrong.

An instant later, she realized that she couldn’t very well trust her grasp of facts, either.  She had known, for instance, that Hill needed her services if he wanted to remain in control of the documents she encrypted and that he would never do anything that might endanger their tenuous “relationship.”  And yet, he had fully intended to use her services – had tortured and threatened her friend, in fact, as a means of motivation – with the stated goal of discarding her as soon as she finished with the task.

She went against her natural inclinations and trusted her intuition.  “You can’t help her fight,” she said.

Neal’s body stiffened and she knew she’d guessed correctly.  “They…saved me,” he said in halting gasps.  “Saved you.  Can’t…let her fight…alone.”

“She’s going to lose,” Avis said insistently.  As she spoke the words, a sound like cracking branches filled the air.  She looked over and saw that the man was swinging a handgun like a club, battering mercilessly at the woman’s upraised arm.  She was down on one knee now, teeth grimaced in pain as she attempted to withstand the brutal assault.  The cast protecting her head was beginning to splinter under the repeated blows.  Just when Avis thought that the next strike might be the one to split the cast asunder, the woman rolled out of the way at the last possible second and swept out one leg.  Her intention must have been to trip up the man, but he saw the attack coming and stepped out of the way.  The woman took advantage of the temporary respite and scrambled to her feet, pressing her own attack before the man had his feet fully underneath him again.

Neal struggled to detach himself from Avis.  She noticed the instant that his bulk began to lighten against her shoulders and her legs started to strain a little less.  “You can’t,” Avis insisted.

“But I – “

You can’t,” Avis repeated, trying to sound authoritative and coming off as plaintive to her own ears.

She looked longingly in the direction of the distant front gate.  No matter the stakes, Avis wasn’t an idiot.  The math was stark and undeniable: there was simply no way for a girl her size to carry a man of Neal’s weight across the intervening distance with anything resembling speed.  If the tattooed man won, and it was looking increasingly as though that was a foregone conclusion, he would have plenty of time to chase them down and drag both Avis and Neal back to the estate.  Running now would only ensure that, when he captured them, Avis would be too tired to mount any sort of defense.

Avis eased Neal to the ground, propping him against the outer wall of the estate’s mansion and started to look around for other ways to escape.  She did not share his feeling of responsibility or debt to the thieves who had “saved” her.  They needed to use her skills, just as Hill did; their only saving grace was how refreshingly upfront Devlin and Sarah had been about their intentions.

No…Avis shook her head slowly.  No, that wasn’t right.  While they did need her to decrypt the files they’d managed to steal from the manor house, neither Devlin or Sarah had given off the same ruthless vibe that she’d felt from Hill or the malevolence that she felt from the tattooed man.

Intuition again, then.  Another unquantifiable feeling that had no basis in observable fact, no roots in any sort of cause and effect relationship that she could name.  Her short time around the thieves and Neal must have rubbed off on her.

She watched the fight unfold while she thought.  The short woman continued to attack, switching from jabs to kicks and back again, trying her best to take full advantage of her temporary advantage.  In any other fight, Avis suspected that the ferocity of the woman’s attacks would be enough to turn the tide.  In this contest, however, the tattooed man fought like a man possessed.  When the woman’s foot connected with the outside of the man’s knee, he grunted and twisted his weight to absorb the impact.  Then, moving with the speed of a snake, both of his hands darted down in a blur of motion and grasped at her foot.  The woman pulled the limb back before the tattooed man could grab hold, but the motion robbed her of balance.  She toppled backwards and the cast smashed against a protruding root.  It cracked even further, so that Avis could actually see through a wide split in the plaster.  The woman bit back her scream of pain, rolled with her momentum, and sprang back to her feet just in time to lean away from another of the man’s wild haymakers.

“You can’t win this,” the tattooed man howled, premature triumph dripping from his now-rough voice.  “Everything you know I taught you, Thorn!  Every trick, every technique, every little move you could think about trying…I put all of those thoughts there!”

A chill went down Avis’ spine.  She’d been listening to the conversation between the woman and the tattooed man and she thought she’d managed to piece together some of their past, although nowhere near enough that she would have hazarded any sort of guesses.  The idea that the woman was fighting a losing battle against her own mentor, however, was obvious enough that it didn’t require any further explanation.

Neal laid a weak hand on Avis’ shoulder and shook her.  “You…you can…get…”  A series of wet coughs interrupted him and he folded in on himself, groaning as he slid lower.

Avis understood what he meant.  In his condition, Neal would slow her down.  If she tried to save him, she would only end up dooming both of them.  But she was small, fast, and motivated.  With all of the commotion happening inside the estate, courtesy of Devlin and his team, it was possible that she might be able to slip through the weakened guard at the front gate without arousing too much suspicion.

In fact, as she thought more, she knew that she could do it.  She knew more about Hill’s complement of hired guns than anyone, Hill included.  He scrimped on finances whenever possible and, if the documents she’d only recently finished decrypting for Devlin and company, he’d used too many of his men on the distraction with the cars moving around London proper.  She could get away, but…but that would require leaving Neal in her wake.

She looked at Neal where he lay, beaten and bloodied.  The only reason Hill hadn’t killed him out of hand before was so that he could be used as leverage.  If she got away, there wouldn’t be any logical reason not to shoot him and be done with it.  Avis would probably be able to slip away into obscurity, using her talents as necessary to secure some sort of lifestyle for herself, but that life would be stained by the knowledge that she’d let someone – several someones, she forced herself to admit – to die in her place.

Avis asked herself if she could do it.  She’d left people in the past, usually before they had a chance to do the same to her.  Neal was…different.  He had sought out a friendship with her in the early days of her time at the manor house, when she’d still been mostly feral from her time on the streets.  And he had stuck by her through those days, until she’d warmed slightly to his constant, irritating presence and his incessant need to explain away her tantrums and outbursts.  When Devlin had come to the manor house, pretending to be the very real agents who had shown up after him, Neal had gone far beyond the bounds of duty and friendship by trying to actually sneak her out of the manor house, despite knowing that capture would make the simple attempt tantamount to a death sentence.

He had stuck by her.  Avis didn’t know that she’d be capable of leaving him, even at his own insistence; if she found the will to do that, she knew that she would never truly be able to look at herself in the mirror again.

And then there was the matter of Devlin, Sarah, and their team.  Avis was trying not to think about them, but they worked their way into her head, nonetheless.  They had kidnapped her because they needed her…except, no, that wasn’t quite right.  They had, in fact, intentionally sabotaged their own plan in order to rescue her.  If not for the accidental reveal of Sarah’s tablet, they would never have known that Avis was the key to their decryption problem.

More than that, they were here, in the flesh.  What possible reason did they have for coming here, now?  She’d finished decrypting most of the information that they’d managed to steal from the manor house.  Neal wasn’t of any use to them.  Yet Devlin had still shown up, sneaking into Hill’s estate despite the general state of lockdown, and had actually tasked his personal bodyguard to keep both of them safe.  The same bodyguard that, even now, was limping away from the tattooed man leering over her.

“Don’t worry, Thorn,” the tattooed man said.  “I’m not going to hurt you.  Nothing that you can’t heal from, at least.  You’ll have to be in fighting condition if you want to make sure that the others will accept you back.”

His personality had changed again.  The shift must have happened while Avis had been considering her options.  Now, there was no remnant of uncontrolled, animal fury in the tattooed man’s face.  He looked calm and composed.  His heavy breathing and the slight limp on his left side were the only indications that he’d been in a fight at all.

There was fear in the short woman’s eyes, blind and unreasoning.  The emotion pierced through Avis’ indecision and reached straight to the very core of her being, where that same fear had hidden since her earliest memories.  Avis saw a glint of something familiar in the woman’s eyes, mingled with an unformed thought that tickled at the back of her thoughts.

The woman closed her eyes and grit her teeth.  The tattooed man stepped closer, bearing his teeth in a fierce, angry grimace.  The woman’s eyes snapped open and she lashed out with another sweeping kick, aimed high at the man’s right knee.  Avis was looking directly at the two of them and she could barely track the speed of the attack.  The tattooed man had no such problem.  He lifted his entire leg up off the ground, displaying an insane level of flexibility for someone who had previously claimed illness, and moved to bring the heel of his foot down on the woman’s head.

The woman completed the sweep and, pivoting with the force of the attack, continued in a full rotation and came up off of the ground.  She extended her broken arm at just the right moment – Avis didn’t know very much about ballistics or physics, but she understood the simple equation of ‘mass times acceleration’ – and the cast on her arm smashed into the side of the tattooed man’s head with literally bone shattering force.  The cast exploded into chips and shards of plaster with the force of impact.

Both the tattooed man and the woman roared in pain, but it was the tattooed man who went down.  The woman threw her head back and let out a scream of triumph or agony.  Avis wasn’t sure which.  The woman limped a step or two away, as her uninjured hand went behind her back and, a moment later, came back into sight holding a small handgun.  Standing over the tattooed man, the woman pointed the gun directly at his head.  “You taught me everything you know,” she said.  “I learned a few things on my own.”

He looked up at her from the ground and smiled with a mouthful of bloody teeth.  “That’s what I wanted to see,” he said.  Avis blinked in confusion.  The tattooed man shouldn’t be able to speak and he certainly shouldn’t’ have the look of self-satisfaction on his face.  “A return to form, instead of all this half-assed protection nonsense.  So, what are you going to do now, Thorn?”

The woman’s hand quivered slightly.  She said nothing.

“You’ve only got two options,” the tattooed man said.  Holding one hand to the shattered ruin of his cheek bone, he forced himself to his feet.  He made no move to rush the woman and she kept her gun pointed, more or less, at his face.  “Either you kill me, a defeated and dying man, and prove that you’re the same killer I made you into.  Or you let me go and I make it my mission to hunt down everyone you use to lie to yourself.  One way or another, you will understand who you really are, Thorn.  It’s up to you how many people have to die before that happens.”

The woman’s glare intensified but, aside from that, she didn’t move a muscle.

“Still so indecisive,” the man taunted.  “Why I don’t make the decision a little easier for you?”

Several things happened so quickly and so close to each other that, to Avis, it seemed like everything happened in the same eye blink.  A sound, distant but rapidly drawing nearer, reached her ears, carried by a soft breeze.  The tattooed man moved with a speed that seemed impossible, considering the injury he’d just suffered, pivoting and reaching for some hidden weapon that Avis couldn’t see.  The woman’s gun tracked the movement and her index finger twitched infinitesimally closer to the trigger.  Neal sucked in a sharp breath.

Avis knew what was going to happen.  She could see it as clearly in her mind as if it were unfolding in real time in front of her.  The tattooed man wouldn’t shoot the woman; he wanted her alive for some reason.  In his mind, his targets were and always had been Avis and Neal.  If the two of them were dead, the tattooed man believed that the woman would see things his way.  To that end, he was willing to sacrifice his own life.  He was certainly willing to kill two obstacles, which Avis and Neal most assuredly qualified as.

Avis’ intuition mixed with that nascent idea in the back of her mind and she was in motion before she realized it.  Neal made a strangled cry behind her.  She pushed it out of her mind and focused.  The tattooed man turned his gaze away from Neal and focused on Avis instead.  The gun in his hand followed suit.  Avis was coming in low, using her childlike height as an advantage for the first time, and poured on as much speed as she possibly could.  It was going to be close, her instincts told her, even though she wasn’t quite sure what would happen if she were wrong.  About a foot away from the two, she leapt, turning her body into a spear and…

She crashed into the woman, just below her ribs.  Avis didn’t weigh enough to actually move her, but the surprise of her action coupled with the simple expedient of momentum was enough that the woman was forced to stumble back several steps.  The tattooed man stopped himself from squeezing the trigger, when he realized that doing so stood the possibility of harming the woman.

The tattooed man sucked at his teeth.  “Do you see now, Thorn?  These sheep will always protect themselves first, even if it means sacrificing the weak and wounded for a few more seconds of – “

The black Suzuki careening across the greens, roaring as loudly as its relatively small engine could manage, interrupted the tattooed man before he could finish that thought.

Avis hadn’t consciously done the math, but her subconscious had recognized the sound and calculated the Doppler effect as closely as such a thing could be done.  The timing of her tackle had pushed the woman out of the car’s path by scant inches.  The Suzuki headed straight for the tattooed man who, as soon as he realized that he was square in the vehicle’s path, attempted to jump away.  As soon as he was airborne and incapable of further dodges, the driver of the Suzuki whipped the car into a fishtail.  At that speed, the earlier equation of mass times acceleration now yielded considerably higher forces.  The rear of the car connected squarely with the tattooed man’s torso and sent him flying back into the estate.

Instead of hitting one of the walls – an impact that would almost certainly have killed him – the tattooed man flew into and through one of the large plate windows on the first floor of the estate.  Avis waited with baited breath as the car smoked and coughed for the man to return.  After a few seconds, she allowed herself to breath.  Whatever he was, the tattooed man did have limits.

The woman looked down at Avis, up to the Suzuki, down at Avis again, and then finally let her eyes rest on the car.  “What?  How?”  She asked.  “Who?”

Avis didn’t have answers to any of those questions, but the third was answered a moment later.  The driver’s side door of the Suzuki swung open and a dark skinned man flashed a set of perfect, straight white teeth at them.  The expression didn’t conceal the fear and anxiety on his brow; if anything, it was accentuated by the emotions he was so clearly trying to hide.

“Sarah left the comms open,” the dark skinned driver said, as if that explained anything.  “Did, uh…did anyone need a ride?”

Chapter 128 (Billy)

Billy wanted nothing so much as a few seconds of mobility.  He found himself wishing fervently to move his legs again, to see the toes wiggle in response to his will, to stand to his full height once more and walk.  He doubted that he had ever wanted anything more.

If he were able walk again, Billy reckoned that he could get the better of his younger brother.  Charles had never been a fighter, even when Billy’s pride had dragged the pair of them into scuffles on a weekly basis.  With his money, his criminal contacts, and the ability to simply hire muscle when necessary, Charles probably hadn’t gotten any better at plain old fisticuffs.

Even if the balance had shifted over the years, Billy had desperation on his side.  He might not win, but he’d be able to do something, instead of watching passively at his friends, both new and old, fruitlessly risked their lives to save his.  If only he could walk.

Billy was, at the moment, confined to a wheelchair and that wheelchair was bolted to the wall, through several hooks specifically constructed for the purpose.  The keys to those locks lived on a necklace around Charles’ neck and, even if lock-picking had been one of Billy’s skills, the locks themselves were placed in an area that could only be reached by someone not confined to the chair.  So long as he was seated, Billy was locked in place.  If he made an effort to move, so that he could break or pick the locks, his own paralysis would see to his imprisonment.

“At first,” Charles said, as though he were speaking to himself, “I wasn’t entirely convinced that a complete jam of all communications into and out of my bedroom was necessary.  Eventually, I came to accept that allowing your brash young friend to alert the others would cause more trouble than it could possibly be worth.”

Previously, one of the six screens spread across the far wall had shown a video of Devlin as he entered Charles’ bedroom.  Unaware of the hidden camera, connected to a security system through a separate system, Devlin had located the safe and successfully broken into it.  He’d barely been able to savor the glow of success before the feed turned to static.

“Truly, he is an impressive individual,” Charles continued.  He didn’t look away from the screens as he spoke.  “I was informed by several of the very best safecrackers in the business that the Fortress was all but invincible.  I suppose nothing can stand against a suitably motivated individual, though.”

Hate filled Billy, molten hot and painful in its intensity.  He ground his teeth together until his gums hurt and focused on the largest toe of his right root.  It had been a long time since he’d tried to move his lower extremities.  A fierce desire sparked to life in his gut.

Nothing happened.  The flame of hope guttered out, dying as quickly as it had been born.

Charles turned away his bank of monitors.  He saw the look on Billy’s face before it could be hidden away and smiled in response to it.  “I really would have preferred a more dignified method of restraint,” he said.  His tone was insultingly casual.  “But then I realized that it would have been pure folly to start underestimating you at this point.”

“If you’re going to gloat,” Billy shot back, “you can at least have the courtesy to be honest about it.”

“Why would I need to gloat?”  Charles extended his arms to either side and, behind him, the glowing screens of at least six different camera feeds provided a striking backdrop for his stance.  “I am perhaps hours away from moving into the final stages of my plan.  Each and every piece is in place, ready to be moved into their ultimate positions.  My enemies are contained within the equivalent of a hamster’s wheel, trying their hardest to emerge victorious from a conflict that was rigged from the very beginning.  Soon, I will have everything I am owed and there is nothing that you or anyone else can do to stop me.  Honestly, William, gloating now seems a bit…gauche.”

The fact that Charles was right on every point stuck in Billy’s throat.  He swallowed, hard, before speaking.  “Why go through all of this, then?  You don’t need to kill my men and you don’t need to do anything to Devlin and his friends.  What’s the point, if you don’t need any of this theatre?”  A note of pleading made its way into his voice and Billy made no effort to conceal it.  The time for pride and posturing had ended several days ago.

For a moment, Billy didn’t think that his brother would answer.  Then, Charles sighed and pulled up a chair, just outside of Billy’s reach.  “Two reasons,” said.  “First, I consider today’s circus to be something of a stress test.  When I have eliminated, subjugated, or otherwise dispatched with all competition from my peers, I will need to be absolutely certain that I am not vulnerable to the tactics I personally employed.  I would have preferred to hire your new friend as an employee, but it seems that he and his have chosen the noble, stupid path.”  Charles shrugged.  “At least their efforts here will prove instructional, in the event that anyone else attempts to steal from me.”

Billy glanced past Charles, at the monitors behind him.  Displayed on three of the six monitors, Billy could see silent videos playing out in real time.  On one, the short Hispanic woman who somehow served as Devlin’s bodyguard fought desperately against the tattooed and scarred man who worked for Charles.  At this distance, he couldn’t make out specific details, but a sinking feeling in his stomach told him that the fight wasn’t going well for the woman.  On another screen, he saw a familiar van, parked outside of a Beatles memorabilia store.  The van had been one of his, before Devlin’s ex-wife had recommissioned it into a mobile command center of sorts.  A third screen was filled with nothing but static.  The other three screens changed at regular intervals to show parts of the estate and the horde of men swarming into each room, checking for any other intruders with obvious, lethal intention.

“You set this up,” Billy whispered.  Mounting horror and realization stole the breath from his lungs.

“Not all of it,” Charles corrected.  “I couldn’t have anticipated that your new friend would be anywhere near as effective as he’s proven and I certainly didn’t realize that my own newest hire would be so cheerfully willing to sabotage my efforts in pursuit of his own revenge.”  He tilted his head in thought.  “That was a particular shame to discover.  Asher made such a useful tool and I don’t know how long it would have taken me to arrange for the Book’s theft without his particular expertise.  If only he’d been able to look past his own short term desires, it’s possible that I wouldn’t have to take care of him until much later.”

Billy laughed, and the sound was far too ugly to convey anything like actual amusement.  “That’s rich, coming from you.  The two of us had everything we ever wanted and you couldn’t get over your issues long enough to see that.”  He gestured at his dead legs.  “Or did you forget what you did to me?”

Charles shot out of his chair, with so much force that the chair was thrown backwards.  The resulting bang was only made louder by the confined dimensions of the room.  “It was not about that!  We could have had more, but you…you only wanted to hold me back, William.  And I refuse to be anything less than I am destined to be!”

Billy couldn’t get out of the chair to physically attack Charles, but there was nothing stopping him from striking emotional blows.  In lieu of any other options, he could only hope that a slightly unbalanced Charles might make a mistake at a critical moment.  “You can’t even admit it to yourself, can you?  You really think that everything between us is because I was holding you back?”  Billy forced himself to laugh again.  “Everything you have now is because of me.  You really think you could’ve built this without me, helping you every step of the way?”

“That is not true,” Charles hissed.  “How would you have found the money to get started?”

“How would you have found the clients?  Or dealt with competition?  Do you have any idea how many upstart rivals I crushed before you even realized there was a problem?”

Charles was breathing heavily now.  A possibility occurred to Billy; perhaps, if he were able to push exactly the right buttons, he might be able to goad Charles into physically attacking him.  That opened up all sorts of possibilities.

Billy thought for less than a second – he couldn’t afford to lose momentum, or to allow Charles a chance to regain his composure – before he pressed his attack.  “I had to grow up in a house a lot like this one,” he said, “and I did it with you cringing into a corner every single time Father was in a bad mood.  You needed me to protect you then, and you needed me to watch out for you when we started up the business.  You’re a bloody liar if you’re going to revise history now, just so that you come off looking better.  Of all the people to tell your fictionalized backstory to, I am the absolute worst choice because I know when you’re full of shit.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Charles spat out.  Even though he’d expected and had been actively courting a furious reaction, the sheer venom in Charles’ voice caught Billy off guard.  “You protected me?  You weren’t even here for the worst of it.  Your mother loved you, at least.  Mine thought of me as a necessary obligation, something that needed to be created so that she could solidify her grip on my father’s lands and finances.  And every single time I so much as flirted with the idea of behaving in a manner not befitting someone of my birth…”

He trailed off, spinning away to hide his face from Billy.  The movement wasn’t quite fast enough to conceal the moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes and the room was so small that the choked sounds of his strangled sobs were unmistakable.

Ever since moving in with his biological father, Billy had held secret suspicions about the late Lady Fairfax.  There had been clues scattered around the estate, for one thing.  While the older Fairfax tended towards explosive displays of temper, followed shortly by contrite and sincere apologies, the younger Fairfax cowed and hid when threatened.  In fact, he hadn’t begun to join Billy in his schoolyard fights until they’d been living together for almost a full year.

He knew very little about regular familial relationships, but Billy could see, in a flashing glimpse, how Charles’ life must have felt.  He was certain now that Charles’ mother had fundamentally damaged him from his earliest years.  And then, after the Lady Fairfax died, Charles’ father had brought home another son, born by a woman who had actually held the man’s heart.  For a child adrift, it would only be too easy to think that he was being replaced by a newer, unbroken model.

That didn’t excuse his actions, of course, but it might begin to explain them.

At the same time, Billy knew that he couldn’t allow himself to back down now.  Whatever the reason, Charles had grown into a malicious human being.  He had crippled his brother; he had manipulated, used, and discarded countless individuals in his pursuit of greater power and authority; and now, at this breaking point, he had every intention of eliminating a group of thieves who’d simply had the misfortune of stumbling into London at exactly the wrong moment.

Billy drew in a deep breath, hating himself for what he was about to do, and went on the attack again.  “You know what, Charles?  You’re right.  You’re absolutely right.  I don’t know what you went through, because my parents actually cared about me.  Both of them.  And all the power, all the money in the world isn’t going to be enough to change that.”

Charles balled the fingers on both hands into tight fists by his side.  Unconsciously, Billy mirrored the gesture.  Charles took two deliberate steps forward and then…stopped.  He lingered, just a step or two outside of Billy’s reach, before he shook his head slowly.  Billy could actually watch the anger drain out of his face.

A smile crept across Charles’ lips.  “No,” he said, “it won’t, will it?  But I’ll at least be alive and able to walk.  I guess that will have to be enough.”

Billy’s heart sank.  “Think about what you’re doing,” he said.  “Honestly, stop and think about it.  Whatever you take now, you won’t be able to hold.  It might not be too late to stop all of this before it spins too far out of control.”

Charles carefully bent and retrieved his chair.  He set it back down on the floor and took his seat once more.  “Correct.  As it stands, the…individuals who assisted me in reaching my current position would only sweep in to set things back to the status quo.  That’s what they do, of course: maintain a steady, unchanging grip over their territory, expanding only when the landscape is suitable for such a move.  If it ever came to light that I was responsible for the upheaval here, even in the most indirect fashion, they would not hesitate to have me eliminated.”

“If you know that,” Billy asked, “why are you hell-bent on committing suicide?”

The smile deepened and turned more sinister.  “Because they aren’t going to learn that I was the one responsible.  Why would they, when there are such excellent patsies already in position to take the blame?”

Billy stared at Charles, aghast and shocked, while understanding dawned on him.  Charles was a lot of things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.  He had to have known that any sort of aggressive move would draw attention from other interested parties: rivals, competitors, suppliers, as well as the mysterious backers who everyone seemed too terrified to directly name.  That must have been why he’d hired Devlin’s former partner in the first place.  And when Devlin, Sarah, and the rest of his team showed up in London, it wouldn’t have required too much of an effort to shift things so that they could be held responsible.

“You wanted someone to take the heat for you,” Billy said.  “Someone you could claim was acting on their own.  Then, when your backers show up demanding their pound of flesh, you’ll just hand over your own employees and deny any knowledge of their activities.”

“I don’t know very much about my silent partners, I freely admit,” Charles replied.  “But I do know that their problem solving techniques tend towards the immediately fatal.  I suppose that delivering the bodies of several individuals who have been known to disrupt operations and wreak havoc would suffice, in place of a living witness who could potentially paint a different picture.”

From its place in his stomach, Billy’s heart found a hole and sank even further down into the soles of his feet.

None of it had mattered.  No matter how hard he’d worked the downtrodden poor of London, no matter how hard he’d worked himself, Charles’ plan had accounted for their activities.  Even the arrival of Devlin had only served to provide him with additional options.  Everything the Irish thief and his team had accomplished over the past few weeks would only serve to solidify whatever story Charles spun later.

“Why are you telling me this?” Billy asked.  He didn’t mean to speak the question out loud; his mouth moved of its own accord.

“Because you aren’t going to be able to tell anyone else,” Charles replied immediately.

“So you’re going to finally kill me too?”

Charles leaned back in his chair and his eyebrows drew slightly closer together.  “Of course I’m not going to kill you,” he said.  “You’re my brother, even if only through a technicality.  But you have people you care about: all those wretched people who take shelter in that house you set up, for instance.  You are far too noble to let any harm come to them, even if it meant sacrificing your sense of honor in the bargain.”

“If I tell anyone what actually happened,” Billy said, speaking the words as an odd detachment came over him, “you’ll go after them?”

“I won’t have to go after them.  I can simply keep you here, a recipient of my hospitality, until they collapse on their own.  I know who would take control of your organization in your absence and I have…well, let us simply say that I have suborned key individuals already.  It will only be a matter of time before everything you have built falls apart under its own weight.”  Charles stood up and walked back over the monitors.  “Or you could allow things to proceed, without interference.  The responsibility for the Book’s theft will fall on these newcomers who failed to see the value in my offer.  I will use the information contained within to claim control over vast swaths of the European drug market and I will graciously allow you to continue your operations, so long as you agree to cease these sporadic attacks on my interests.”

Billy pressed his lips together until they became a thin line of frustration.

“What do you say, brother?” Charles asked.  “We won’t be partners again – I’ve learned that you lack the vision necessary to do what is required – but we can at least be colleagues.”

Billy said nothing.  He knew that it didn’t matter if he said nothing.  Charles held all of the cards and he always had, since the beginning of this conflict and probably before that.  The choice had to make – Devlin and his crew weighed against the entirety of the community that Billy had built amongst the poorest citizens in London – was brutally simple.

So, instead of saying anything at all, Billy turned his attention away from his brother – his half brother – and began looking at the screens behind Charles.  There, captured by a half dozen cameras hidden so well that no one who didn’t know about them would ever find them, he could see his group of new friends struggling vainly against impossible odds.  Everything they did only played into Charles’ hands.

Billy couldn’t speak.  Instead, silent and defeated, he could only watch.  So, with a heart as heavy as lead, watching is what he did.