“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.”