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.”

“Alright…”

“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?”

“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?”

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