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.”
“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.