After downing some food from room service, Sarah and I told Alex to take his daughter and leave the country. His involvement in the chaos over the last weeks was minimal but I didn’t even want to chance anything else going wrong before they were safely back in Germany. He conceded to the request with only a token amount of resistance. He had a lot to think about, I knew, and a lot of unresolved anger to process.
I wondered whether he thought life in prison was a suitable punishment for Asher, after what he’d done. I wasn’t sure if a suitable punishment even existed. Still, confinement would have to do for the moment.
Sarah suggested that I take a shower before confronting our personal Benedict Arnold. Mila agreed with that assessment and Michel, in his own subtle way, made it clear that bathing wouldn’t be a terrible idea. So, I washed off as quickly as possible, and changed out of my custom suit into a pair of comfortable jeans and a polo shirt. Then, feeling more like myself, I led us all into the elevator and down to the conference room where our new allies waited.
We paused at the door. “Are you ready for this?” I asked Sarah.
She sighed. “Not really, but what other choice do we have?”
“Should we…I don’t know, practice?”
“What good would that do? You don’t know what’s going to happen any more than I do.”
“Fair enough. So…play it by ear?”
Michel opened his mouth to say something. Mila stopped him with a raised hand. “No, they aren’t going to tell us what they’re talking about. No, they didn’t have a chance to discuss any of this yet.” She grinned. “Yes, this is all somehow going to work out.”
Immediately upon entering the conference room, I saw that Sophie had taken Alex’s simple directive and gone completely overboard with it. The long table running down the center of the room was overflowing with food and drink. There were cooked hams and turkeys, more bottles of liquor than I could count at a glance, and an assortment of finger foods available for the taking. Billy’s men were voraciously attacking the fare, focusing mostly on the liquor. The scene reminded me of a nature documentary I’d once been forced to watch about piranhas and their feeding habits.
That was good, though. Sophie’s typically overblown zeal ensured that my quarry would be in an amenable mood and, therefore, unlikely to realize what we had in mind until too late.
Billy sat at the distant point of the table. He wasn’t partaking of the food or drink as we entered. Instead, he seemed withdrawn and uncharacteristically moody. The effect of his sulk was only magnified by the bruises visible on his skin like spots on a leopard.
He looked up and the gloom surrounding him lightened a little. “Well, look who it is!” He forced exuberance into his voice, but very little of that emotion found its way onto his face. “Boys, take a good long look at our conquering hero. In just a few weeks, he managed to do what we’ve been trying to do for years. Give ‘em three cheers, eh?”
The horde of men tore themselves away from the feast in front of them and, raising whatever glasses were close at hand, roared out three cheers for me. I accepted them with a slight nod. “How’re you feeling?” I asked Billy, when the noise died down and the men returned to their drinks.
“My brother kidnapped and threatened to kill me,” Billy said, “just before he went completely off the deep end and tried to kill you with his bare hands in front of me. So I’m feeling bloody lovely, of course.”
His accent sharpened and slipped, seemingly at random. He was either more emotional than he was letting on or he’d had more than his fair share of liquor before we’d made our way downstairs. Probably both.
“Physically, I mean,” I said.
He shrugged one shoulder and winced in pain. “I’ll live. I’ve had worse beatings from schoolboys. Charlie always did hit like a girl.” Pause. “Present company excluded, I mean.”
Mila raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms underneath her breasts, but she didn’t say a word.
“There are some things we need to talk about,” I said.
“Can it wait?” Billy asked. “I think my boys need a little bit of time to celebrate before we get down to the business of figuring out what to do with that whole empire my brother was so intent on ruling.”
“No,” I said, “it really can’t. It’s about what happened at the estate today. The longer we wait to have this discussion, the worse it’s going to be.”
Billy accepted that enigmatic statement with ease. “Alright, then. Chester, James; leave that mess alone and get over here. The rest of you, take a bottle for the road, and take a walk!”
The two men, chief lieutenants in Billy’s organization and local heroes in their own right, detached themselves from the mass of drunks with some difficulty and headed in our direction. They took up seats on either side of Billy: Chester seated on his right while James deposited himself to Billy’s left. Then, all three men looked expectantly at me.
I turned my gaze to the table’s setup while the lower ranked men followed Billy’s order and slowly filed out. There was a seat at the head of the table, opposite Billy, and more than enough chairs to accommodate my team. There was only a single problem with the arrangement. I took one of the surprisingly heavy chairs and dragged it across the floor, until it was directly next to me, then gestured to Sarah. “After you.”
She seemed delighted by the gesture and made a curtsy in response. “Such a gentleman,” she said. “If prison taught you manners like this, you should go more often.”
“It’s called jail before conviction,” I countered. “And I didn’t even go to lockup tonight, so let’s not be premature.”
Mila and Michel exchanged a look before taking seats of their own.
“What’s so important that you needed to talk about it right now, then?” Billy asked, when we were all settled in place.
I decided to dispense with as much formality, pomp, and circumstance as I could get away with. These accusations required a certain amount of delicacy, I knew, but that didn’t mean I had to waste time before making them. “This isn’t the first time a plan of ours has gone sideways,” I said. “I mean, certainly not the first time in my life, but it isn’t even the first time it’s happened in London. It’s the second time, in fact, that Hill caught us flat-footed and unawares.”
Using the nickname for Billy’s brother came naturally. I’d only known him by that moniker for the vast majority of my time in conflict with him, so it was difficult to reprogram my brain. Billy graciously didn’t correct me. “I was thinking about that myself,” he said.
“Let’s go over both of those situations, then. Just so we’re all perfectly clear.” I took a deep breath. Presentation was key, here. “The processing plant was a trap. The whole thing was just an excuse to get us in one place, so that Hill could have his hit squad pour bullets into the building.”
“I remember,” Billy said. “I’m not that old.”
“The problem, though, is that he couldn’t have known when you were going to find out about the plant. Without that knowledge, he couldn’t have anticipated when you’d attack. And he obviously didn’t have time to adjust his plan for our intervention.”
“What’s that mean to you?”
“That he has a mole in your organization,” I said, “but that said mole didn’t have an opportunity to warn Hill that you’d changed plans. Agreed?”
Chester cleared his throat with a great deal more noise than was strictly necessary. “What’re you getting’ at?”
“I’m painting a picture,” I replied, through gritted teeth. “It’s all going to make sense in a little bit. I promise.”
He looked as though he had something else to say, but he lapsed into sulky silence instead.
I gestured for Sarah to pick up where I’d left off. “Then there’s this whole business with Hill’s estate. There was absolutely no way for someone to intercept my communications without hiring someone as good or better than me, and giving that person days to take apart my encryption protocols. The only way, then, that Hill and his men would be able to listen in on our conversations was if they had an exact copy of an earbud or receiver already using those protocols.”
“You said something about that before the police came crashing in,” Billy said. “And your friend’s the one who found about the mole, yeah?”
Chester leaned forward in his chair, eager to hear what I had to say next. Even James, normally stoic to the point of muteness, seemed interested.
“Yes and no,” I said. “My friend learned that there was a mole, from Coleman. But Coleman didn’t actually meet the guy, so he couldn’t give us a name.”
Chester let out an explosive breath. “What’s the point of all this, then? We already know all of this.”
Billy nodded his agreement. “Soon as we get a second to catch our breaths, I’ve got plans to go through the organization from top to bottom until I find out who was playing both sides. Can’t run the business with that kind of a leak.”
“About that,” I said. “There can’t really be a business, Billy. Hill’s going down and Asher’s going to see to it that the infrastructure is unusable, at least in the recent future. Even after Interpol leaves town, trying to run anything as big as Hill’s enterprise is just going to be asking for trouble.”
If Billy could have used his legs, he would have stood up in sudden outrage. As it was, he slapped his palms down on the table. “You could’ve said something about that before!”
“I didn’t know about it before,” I said. “Asher’s being vindictive, which I could probably have predicted, but even I didn’t know that he’d be willing to burn everything to the ground rather than let anyone else have it.”
“And the people I’m looking out for?” Billy asked. “What am I supposed to do to help them?”
“Hill went to a lot of trouble to make his businesses seem legitimate,” Sarah said. “My guess is that he expected a lot of attention on how he ran things.”
Privately, I thought that the scrupulous and overzealous attention to detail was a result of his employment by the Magi, but I kept that thought to myself. The less Billy, Chester, and James knew about the Magi, the better it would be for everyone involved.
“It wouldn’t take much to use those shell companies,” Sarah continued, “and to turn them into something that actually made money.”
Billy tilted his head. “How?”
“You’d have to launder all of the liquid cash he’s had stashed away,” she said. “That’s not going to be easy, but it is doable. There’ll be a scandal when it comes out that he was the head of the drug ring, which hurts your reputation, but there’s another story that can be spun out this that could turn things your way.”
“Think about it,” I interjected. “One brother, born to privilege, falls into a life of crime; the other, the product of an illicit love affair, rises to restore his family’s honor. It’s got potential.”
Billy thought about that for several seconds. “I never wanted to be a Fairfax,” he said finally.
“What you want has very little to do with what you are,” I countered. “But it’s just something to think about. You could help your people – give them jobs, rebuild the devastated areas where your Halfway House is, clean up some of the brute crime – and you wouldn’t have to run the risk of police intervention.”
“That’s rich coming from you,” Billy said, but there wasn’t any malice in his voice. “A thief telling me to go straight?”
“I’m full of contradictions. Some would say it’s my best trait.”
I could feel Sarah roll her eyes.
“Anyway. That’s not what I wanted to talk about. Coleman couldn’t get a name, true.” I paused for dramatic effect. “But we figured one out on our own.”
Silence, deep and profound, fell over the room. Sarah and I hadn’t rehearsed this bit – there hadn’t been any time – so Michel and Mila were both in the dark, as well. Michel looked rapt with curiosity and Mila appeared slightly more interested than usual.
James was the first person to speak, surprisingly. “Well? Who is it?”
I didn’t answer him. This was Sarah’s show, now.
She started her speech by tapping a few keys on her cell phone. I was in a position to see that she’d been pressing random buttons, but Billy, Chester, and James were not. “I make a habit of not bothering to reveal every single technical detail of my equipment to anyone,” Sarah said. “Devlin doesn’t care about the specifics, for one thing, and he’s really the only partner I’ve had.”
A tremor of pleasure went through my body at her use of the word ‘partner.’
She continued speaking. “The technology I used to construct the earbuds is proprietary. A lot of it is guesswork, honestly. And I’ve had plans to sell some of it legitimately, just to shore up my own profile. Anyway, the point is this: each earbud is marked.”
Two truths and a lie. Maybe two lies. It was possible that Sarah intended to market some of her technology. We hadn’t really talked about anything financial in years, even before our divorce.
“Marked?” Chester asked. “What’s that mean?”
“It means that every transmission coming from a given earbud has a certain signature, so that I could make sure that one earbud wasn’t transmitting as another,” Sarah said. “If someone let Hill use one of my earbuds to copy the protocols, they’d also copy the signature. When I realized that Hill was listening in our communications, I immediately went back through every transmission, so that I could find out who the mole was.”
She fell silent and allowed the tension in the room to build to an almost painful level. I could barely keep from grinning, personally. Unlike the rest of her family, Sarah had never been one for long speeches. Despite her relative inexperience, however, she was doing a masterful job of bullshitting.
Despite my enjoyment, I had my own job to do. I looked across the table, reading micro expressions on the faces of all three men, searching for some sort of sign.
Sarah kept right on vamping. “It wasn’t easy. All of the transmissions coming out of Hill’s estate made it difficult to find the exact frequency. That’s why I didn’t say anything at first: I wasn’t sure yet. While Devlin was somehow contriving a way out of Scotland Yard, I had programs running to filter and identify.”
“Oh, come on!” Chester said. “Don’t make us bloody wait forever! Who the hell is it? Who’s the mole?”
One of the men across from me moved, lowering their chin and tucking it in maybe a half of a millimeter. It was such a minute gesture that most people would have missed it. To me, searching their faces with something approaching desperation, it was as obvious as a lighthouse on a clear night. I made a subtle gesture with two fingers where Sarah could see it.
Sarah turned her head a millimeter in my direction and raised an eyebrow. I nodded. “Alright then,” she said, shifting her attention back to the three men at the other end of the table. “I’ll get to the point. James…why’d you do it?”