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.
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 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.