After I retrieved my personal effects and made my way out of Scotland Yard, I decided that calling Sarah or Michel for a ride would probably not be the best idea. Adlai’s bemusing amiability aside, it wasn’t insane to think that someone was probably tracking my movements. Hill might have been dethroned, but every member of his organization might not have received notice of that. Had I been in the former drug lord’s position, I would’ve taken steps to make certain that the architect of his downfall paid dearly for his or her presumption, regardless of what happened to me in the interim.
Since I was said architect – or, at least as far as Hill knew, the primary instigator – it seemed prudent to take a few steps to ensure my safety.
By the time I finally reached the Brooklands, after switching modes and methods of transportation enough times that even I was starting to feel irrationally paranoid, I was both hungry and exhausted. Sophie wasn’t at the front desk when I entered, but that wasn’t surprising. We weren’t her only clients and I suspected that at least one of the Brooklands’ less ‘legally challenged’ guests had requests or demands of their own to make. I gave the front desk clerk a vague sort of wave, walked past him without saying anything, and went straight to the penthouse elevator. Then I stopped, walked back to the front desk, and plucked a banana from a dish of fruit.
“Long day,” I said to the clerk.
He blinked at me, but said nothing.
The elevator shot straight up through the Brooklands’ floors and stopped after only a few seconds. I took a bite of my banana and straightened my suit jacket as the elevator doors slid open.
I was greeted with a gaping gun barrel, leveled at a point just between my eyes. I blinked with excruciating caution and, just as slowly, took another bite of my banana.
“I’m going to have to teach you how to fight, aren’t I?”
“Might be useful,” I said. “Although, judging from what I heard before, you might not be up to a teaching lesson for a couple of weeks. Or months.”
“Please. I could be unconscious and still kick your ass.”
“And, on that note, it’s good to see you too,” I said to the gun barrel. “Although I think I would have been a little more welcoming, had I been in your shoes.”
The barrel stayed there, rock steady, for another second or two. Then, it lowered slightly and I saw Mila’s bruised face at the other end of the gun. “That’s because you’re a softie,” she said. “If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t have waited for the doors to open before I drew.”
We held eye contact for another handful of seconds before Mila returned the gun to a shoulder holster, dangling free underneath her bad arm. “So,” I said, “are we supposed to hug now or…?”
She snorted, cutting me off mid-sentence. “There’s still some liquor here, I think. Or you can just ask Sophie to get some for us.”
“Yeah. Either way, celebrating with an awe-inspiring hangover is always an option.”
She smiled then. The expression crept across her face, growing by millimeters, until she wore a smile from one ear to the other. She moved out of the way, allowing me to move deeper into the room and then returned to a position where her diminutive frame more or less blocked the elevator from sight.
“You’re an idiot,” Mila said. “An absolute idiot. Do you know how worried everyone was about you?”
Mila rolled her eyes. “Everyone else. What was there to be worried about? If you didn’t come out of Scotland Yard on your own, then I would just have gone in there to get you.”
There was every possibility that she was being entirely serious. In a pitched battle between the forces of law enforcement in the great city of London and a pissed off Mila who wanted to honor the terms of her contract, I wasn’t sure which side I’d want to put my money on.
“Good thing I got out of there on my own,” I said. “Before you had to go starting World War III on my account.”
“Good thing,” she agreed. The smile dimmed slightly, then faded away. “Did she know what you were going to do? Using yourself as bait like that, making sure that all of the bad guys were too busy looking at you to watch what we were doing?”
Mila didn’t have to clarify who she was. “Part of it,” I said. “Not everything. Hell, I didn’t know everything that was going to happen.”
“You were guessing?” There was more shock and surprise in Mila’s voice now than I’d ever heard before. “That was a risk you took on a whim?”
“More than a whim,” I said. “There were signs. But, uh…yeah, kind of.”
She whistled. “She’s going to be furious with you. You do know that, right?”
“I’d sort of figured as much. I’m just hoping she’ll give me a chance to explain before she – “
I noticed, in a detached way, the exact instant when Mila took a half-step back and turned slightly. The elevator dinged and a tiny red light above it flickered to life. Mila’s eyes widened and her lips parted, as though she were going to say something.
All of these details dawned on me in slow motion, but I wasn’t quite able to grasp their importance immediately. So, when it came, the thunderous slap that filled my sight with a field of exploding red stars of pain caught me entirely off guard.
When my vision cleared, Sarah stood in front of me.
Tears were streaming down her face in tiny rivers. Her eyes were red and the skin around them puffed out. An invisible tie held her frizzy brown hair back and corralled it into an approximation of a ponytail.
“You…you…” Her voice failed her, but her mouth continued to open and close as if she’d been suddenly rendered incapable of producing sound.
“Hello to you, too,” I said, massaging my cheek. “And ow.”
“You knew what was going to happen!” Her voice came out sharp and shrill.
“I didn’t know that Hill had an inside man,” I countered. “Not until it was too late to actually tell you about it. I thought Alex would’ve explained that.”
“Oh, he explained it, all right. Just before he told me that you planned to get arrested again. That you’d never even intended to leave the estate in one piece.”
Ah. That explained the slap.
“Did you honestly think there was any other way that was going to work out?” I asked. “Even if we hadn’t been compromised from the very beginning, Hill had more men, more money, and more to lose. The only way to keep him from issuing the kill order was letting him think that he was winning, until the very last second. So…” I trailed off.
“So you kept that from me? So you decided to throw yourself in the line of fire, without stopping to ask anyone else what they thought?”
I opened my mouth, realized that I didn’t have anything to say that would constitute even a modicum of an acceptable excuse, and closed my mouth again.
“I thought we’d already talked about this, Devlin,” she said. “But you’re apparently too damned noble and suicidally stupid to understand exactly what I meant before. So, let me make this excruciatingly clear.”
Sarah took a step forward. She was only an inch or two shorter than me and her nose hovered just a hair beneath mine. I prepared myself for another thunderous slap.
She wrapped her arms around me and pulled me into a fierce hug before, almost without making a sound, she started to sob into my chest. “I am not,” she said, between heaving sobs, “going to let you get yourself killed. If you’re in trouble, I am always going to come get you. Do you get that?”
My mouth was suddenly dry. My mental gears stuttered over this new complication and ground painfully to a halt. Without any active input or a conscious desire to do so, I pulled Sarah into an even tighter embrace. Despite the low temperature outside and her natural tendency towards a subzero body temperature, her skin felt warm against mine. I wasn’t sure if my heart was beating faster, or hers, or both, but I wanted to savor the sensation regardless of the truth.
The moment ended too soon for my taste. Michel stepped around Sarah, followed by Alex and Ally. Michel and Alex looked vaguely embarrassed at the display of affection between my ex-wife and me. Ally, on the other hand, looked equally thrilled and disappointed. We separated, mumbling nonsense to each other. Sarah looked away and wiped furiously at her eyes.
“Let me get one thing clear,” Alex said, “before we discuss any of the details.”
“And that is?” I asked.
“I cannot believe that worked.”
“Well, if someone hadn’t decided to go off on their own, it probably wouldn’t have gone so well.”
Alex laid a hand over his heart and assumed a saintly posture. “I do not know what you are talking about.”
Everyone chuckled at that and I gave us all a few seconds to enjoy the moment before moving onto the next order of business. We weren’t quite finished. There were still a few details that needed to be dealt with before we could truly relax. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Anton and the Russians disappeared,” Sarah said. “Somewhere between you calling for Plan B and the police actually showing up. After they lost them, the Russians jumped into a getaway vehicle of their own and ditched the comms.”
“And Anton went with them?”
“From the way I heard it, it didn’t seem like the other guys gave him a lot of choice in the matter.”
Alex stepped forward. “I gave it to Sarah as soon as I made contact with her.”
“And I gave it to Avis, as soon as we got back to the hotel. She’s in her room downstairs, working on translating it as fast as possible,” Sarah said. “Sophie’s doctor gave Neal some pretty powerful pain killers. It doesn’t look like Hill had a chance to inflict any permanent damage before we got there.”
I nodded. So far, so good. “What about Chester and James?”
Alex made a disgusted face. “Downstairs, in the conference room where we met before. They brought some of their other men with them, as well as Billy. He is not in good health, but he insisted on being here with them. I asked Sophie to keep them satisfied until we figured out what to do about…well, your situation.”
My mood darkened as I thought about the betrayal, and the damage it had almost allowed Hill to inflict on me and my friends.
“Speaking of your, uh, situation,” Michel said, “what happened? How did you get out of custody so quickly? Did the Lady intervene again?”
I thought over the entire series of events, starting from my conversation with Hill’s lawyer and ending in the confrontation with Adlai. My eyes went to Alex and Ally, standing side by side. “You might want to sit down for this,” I said to them.
Alex’s eyebrow raised, but it was his daughter who spoke. “What is wrong?”
“It’s about your mother,” I said.
“What are you…” Alex began, then stopped. The color drained from his face and, in that instant, I realized that he knew. A quick glance at Sarah told me that she was on the verge of making that same intuitive leap.
But neither Michel or Mila knew enough context to figure out what I was talking about, so I was forced to start right after I’d lost consciousness at the estate and tell them the entire story of the day I’d spent in police custody. When I reached the conclusion, every jaw in the room – except for Mila’s, of course – hung open in shock.
“It was him?” Alex asked finally. “This whole time, it was him?”
I nodded. “We thought he was dead. That’s why we weren’t able to find any evidence. It would’ve all gone to a dead end. Or so we believed at the time.”
“And he…it wasn’t even about…” Alex started a few more sentences and found himself incapable of completing any of them.
I reached out a hand and gripped his shoulder. “I got him for you,” I said. “We got him.”
Alex looked as though he still couldn’t quite believe it, although he seemed to be making a solid effort to keep himself from bursting into tears. Ally made no such pretense. She was openly weeping, her shoulders rising and falling in oddly rhythmic patterns. Alex took his daughter in his arms and hugged her tight. After a moment, she returned the affection with an equally fierce embrace.
Michel cleared his throat. I noticed tears glistening at the corners of his own eyes, but he wiped them away before speaking. “So, Adlai let you go? Just like that?”
“I’m still not entirely sure I believe it myself,” I said, “but it looks like that’s what happened. Maybe something about our amazing civic responsibility has convinced him to turn a blind eye to some lesser acts of civil disobedience.”
“Or,” Sarah chimed in, “he knows that you won’t be able to stop yourself from stealing again and he’ll just get another shot at you later on, when you aren’t on the side of the angels.”
“It’s just like you to be such a pessimist.” I stuck my tongue out at her.
She flashed me a wicked, knowing grin in response and my heartbeat quickened again.
“That is…” Michel struggled to find the right word for a second or two. “…remarkably lucky, isn’t it?”
“Well, we didn’t jinx things,” I said, affecting an older, wiser intonation. “That’s probably what did it for us. Besides, all I did was let everybody beat themselves. You’re the one who hit a hardened, probably crazy, and definitely homicidal mercenary with a car, Michel.”
He couldn’t really blush, considering his skin tone, but I was certain that his cheeks grew warmer at the praise. “It was, uh…it was nothing, really. I only did what I could to help Mila.”
“It was nothing?” Sarah repeated. “Is that really what you’re going with?”
He shrugged and looked away. His eyes caught Mila’s for an instant before he found something interesting to examine on the completely normal kitchen wall.
“I just want to make sure I’ve got all of this straight,” Mila said. She shifted her weight and grimaced as one of her injuries decided to make itself temporarily known. “We went through all of that so that Hill would reveal his contacts, allowing Asher to steal those contacts, and then you walked Asher into getting himself arrested? Meanwhile, all we had to do to steal the Book, the girl who can translate it, and her personal Kato was just to drive away with them?”
I considered that for a moment, and then nodded. “First: yes, pretty much. Second: Kato? Really?”
Mila grinned. “I’m not completely out of touch.”
Alex cleared his throat, drawing all of our attention back to him and his daughter. Any lingering laughter in the room died away. “I think that we are finished here,” he said. “Ally and I, we…we need some time to really think about what you’ve told us. To make some sort of peace with it.”
“Oh. Yeah, that makes sense. Do you, uh…do you know what you’re going to tell Jules?”
Alex shook his head. “Nothing? Everything? It is…complicated. I am not sure what would be best. I did not tell Ally about my past and look where that has led us.”
“Papa,” Ally said, “you cannot tell Jules. You can’t.”
He gave her a skeptical look. “This, coming from you? I would have expected you to have the opposite opinion.”
Ally’s lips twisted up as she picked her next words carefully. “You lived two lives when I was a child and only told me about one. But you have been with Jules entirely. Telling her about who you used to be would not help; she does not have any questions about that time in your life. Does that make sense?”
“But you always wondered what I was keeping from you,” Alex said back. “Yes. Yes, I think that does make sense. But still, it is a decision I will need to think about. And, of course, I want your input on the matter.”
Ally looked surprised at that.
“You are my daughter,” Alex continued. “Who else could I trust to give me the best advice?”
There were still tears drying on her cheeks when she smiled. Somehow, the juxtaposition of the two conflicting emotions made the smile that much brighter.
Alex turned to me. “You saved my life many years ago,” he said. “And now you have gotten justice for my wife’s murder. I do not know that I will ever be able to repay you.”
“You can live a long happy life away from all of this,” I said, immediately.
Sarah rummaged around in her pocket for a few seconds before producing a pair of tickets. “I’ve got your tickets home, routed through a few different shell companies.” She looked momentarily abashed. “Old habits die hard, I guess. Anyway, your flight leaves in two hours. Just enough time for you to get through all of the preliminaries and security and whatnot.”
Alex nodded. “Do you need me to stay a little longer? To deal with…” He made a vague gesture, presumably indicating the conference room where Billy’s gang waited.
I shook my head. My fingers balled into a tight fist, entirely of their own volition, and I squeezed them so tight that it started to hurt. “No. You can get out of here. This is something I really want to take care of myself.”