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.”