Chester jerked away from James and his jaw dropped in disbelief. Billy controlled his expression marginally better, in that he only began to stare. “What? That can’t be right.”
James, however, met the accusation with a disturbing amount of calm. “You must have got it wrong,” he said in that low rumble. “Maybe you should run that program again?”
“I’ll be the first to admit when I might have made a mistake,” Sarah said. I privately disagreed with that sentiment, but wisely kept those thoughts to myself. “But not this time. There were only so many earbuds that I didn’t have under my direct control.”
“I didn’t even have one,” James countered. “You gave it to Chester, remember?”
“Well, it sure as bloody as hell wasn’t me!” Chester’s voice was filled with something approaching panic. “She’s the one making the accusation. You ever think that your encryption whatever-you-called-it isn’t as good as you thought?”
I ignored Chester and focused on James, instead. “Chester doesn’t have a motive to do it,” I said, “and I honestly don’t think he even has the ambition. Billy helped him get the money to save his sister and that was enough. The thought of betraying him for a chance at something better wouldn’t even have occurred to him.”
As I was talking, my mind was beginning to draw connections, outlining what must have happened before we’d even entered London. I didn’t have all of the details, and I probably never would, but it was easy to imagine the conversations that could have taken place in dark rooms or darker alleys. Everyone spoke the language of money and poor people spoke it better than most. A lifetime struggling to survive at Billy’s Halfway House would have been more than enough to soften anyone’s resolve. From that point, a suitably large cash offer for something as harmless as a little shared information would be difficult to resist. And, after making that mistake once, every request of increasing severity would become harder and harder to say no to.
But was that really true? I didn’t know for certain. It could have been blackmail or some other form of coercion.
“But you, James?” I asked out loud. “I look at you, and I see someone who’s thinking. Never talking any more than you have to, only ever answering direct questions so that you don’t accidentally reveal more than you want to. And you’ve been perfectly placed since we joined up with you guys to pass intelligence on to Hill. But why? That’s what I want to know.”
“Can’t tell you what I don’t know,” James said, “seeing as I didn’t do what you’re accusing me of.”
“It’s funny,” Sarah said. “I looked into both of you, as soon as we crossed paths. Chester was easy to figure out, all things considered. But I couldn’t find much about you. Name, National Insurance number, former addresses. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but also nothing to explain why you were caught up with Billy and his lot.”
“Not hard to figure out,” he said immediately. “Had a bad string of luck. Lost my house when my parents died and I ended up with Billy. Worked my way up from there.”
“That’s true,” Billy said. “He’s been with me, almost since the beginning.”
“Isn’t that exactly where you’d want to put an inside man? At the very beginning of things, when he could take an active hand in the way an organization grew, while still knowing all of the infrastructure?”
Billy’s expression turned doubtful.
Chester was not so easily unsettled, though. “That’s my mate,” he said, “and he’s not a bloody grasser. He helped save your life at that plant!”
If I hadn’t badly misread him, James had also put my life in danger at the plant first, so that particular debacle wasn’t earning him any points in my book. “Look at it this way. How many people knew about the plant in the first place? Who did Sarah and I talk to about the estate job?”
“We had to get all of our men in position to detonate those bombs,” Chester countered, as though he’d scored a great point. “One of them could be the leak.”
“Unless you decided to act like a bigger idiot than you actually are,” I snapped, “none of your men should have known we exist. And they certainly wouldn’t have access to one of Sarah’s earbuds. Honestly, Chester, you cannot be this dense. You wouldn’t have made it this far if you were. Was there ever an opportunity where he could have gotten your earbud without you realizing? Did it ever move overnight, even though you knew for a fact that it was on the nightstand, for instance? That never happened?”
Chester glared at me and then, slowly, the suspicion shifted away from me and over to James. “You found the earbud after the processing plant thing went sideways,” he said. “Told me it’d been under some rubble. Why’d you go back to look through the rubble?”
“Seriously?” James leaned back and crossed his arms. “I went back to see if there was anything worth salvaging. Some of the product, maybe. I don’t know.”
“But you found an earbud?”
“Those aren’t indestructible,” Sarah chimed in. “You could probably break one by stepping on it. Exactly where did you find it, James? When did you even have the time to look?”
“Chester,” James said. “You know me. Whatever she thinks she knows, it’s wrong.”
He was talking more than normal, letting anxiety slip into his words. A fear reaction was normal, even for an innocent party. We needed more.
“You’ve been caught,” I said, stressing the operative word as much as possible. “Hill’s been taken down and so has Asher. Whatever he had on you – if he had something on you – is gone now. There isn’t any illegal monolithic empire waiting in the wings to fall down on you if you break ranks.”
The veins on Chester’s neck stood out a little. Not much, but enough for me to guess at what emotion he was feeling.
“Wait…was that it? Was it that simple?” I asked.
James said nothing.
Billy cleared his throat. “What are you talking about?”
I mused aloud, letting my mind free associate its way through the problem. “Hill was going to move up in the world. Asher already had his connections, and he was in a position to profit no matter who won. But if Hill graduated to controlling larger portions of the European market, that would leave a vacancy here. Someone would have to step into that role.” James glanced up for an instant and my eyes caught his. “Someone who’d proven himself loyal, capable, and willing to backstab their friends in exchange for a little more power. That’s exactly the kind of person who Hill would appreciate.”
“You’re not wrong,” Billy said. Unconsciously, he rubbed one of his paralyzed legs. “But…no, it couldn’t be James. It couldn’t be.”
There wasn’t enough hard evidence. Billy and Chester had an unknown amount of years working side by side with James. I could plant doubt, but not enough to actually matter. There was too much trust between the three of them. Suspicion and vague hints weren’t going to be sufficient.
“The earbuds never really stop recording,” Sarah said casually. “They just don’t transmit all of the time. Even when they’re off, there’s a small charge that keeps them ready for reactivation. There’s an easy way to figure this out. Chester, let me see your earbud. I’ll go through its history and then we’ll know for sure.”
I blinked. Sarah hadn’t told me about that feature. Frantically, I went through my memory, wondering if I’d ever made any particularly embarrassing admissions when I thought she couldn’t hear me.
Then I looked at Sarah’s face and the tiniest corner of her mouth quirked down.
Chester shrugged. “If it gets James clear of this bloody nonsense, here you go.” He reached into his pocket and fished out the earbud, moving as if to toss it onto the table in front of him.
Before the tiny black piece of electronic equipment could touch the surface of the table, James moved. Despite his size, he was frighteningly quick. He snatched the earbud out of the air, perhaps an inch or two before it would have landed.
“What’re you doing?” Chester asked his friend. “Let her have the damn thing and then we can focus on finding out who the real leak is.”
“It…” James stopped, swallowed, and started again. “It wasn’t for Hill.”
“What wasn’t for Hill?”
“He wasn’t involved in all of it,” James continued. “Not the whole time. Not until just before this lot came here and started stirring things up. But then they gave him my name and he started using me for information.”
Chester looked as if he couldn’t quite understand the words coming out of James’ mouth. “What are you talking about, mate?”
James kept on talking. His voice was calm and controlled, like he was discussing the weather instead of revealing the depths of his own treachery. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You can’t understand. I didn’t have a choice.”
Billy spoke next and there was frost on every syllable. “So you gave me bad intelligence. Let me send good people – people that only wanted to help – into a trap. Helped my brother keep me hostage and risked the lives of every man and woman who you’ve been working side by side with for years. Is that about the size of it? What possible excuse could you have? You didn’t have a choice, James? You could have come to me! We could’ve figured it out!”
That sentiment struck an eerie chord in my memory. It sounded perilously like the conversation I’d had with Asher, back at Scotland Yard.
“So you were going to take Hill’s spot, then?” Billy continued remorselessly. “You were going to finish the job my brother started, I guess: kill me and run London while Charles moved up in the world. Tell me if I’m wrong.”
“It isn’t even my fault!” James yelled back. “If it hadn’t been for them, things would’ve been fine. Asher would have taken over, instead of Hill, and he didn’t even care about you. Everything would have worked out, except…except…”
“I can’t believe I ever trusted you,” Billy said. The condemnation hit James like a physical blow. He rocked back from the force of it. “I should have left you in the gutter where I found you.”
James tried and failed to meet the anger in Billy’s eyes. “Chester,” he said, “you’ve got a family, too. You understand what kind of pressure someone can put on you.”
Chester’s expression had changed from shock to suspicion. Now, it seemed as though he were verging dangerously close to sympathy.
“He used your earbud,” Sarah said. “You were the one who would’ve taken the fall for it.”
“Is that true?” Chester asked James in a near whisper. “Were you setting me up to take the fall for you?”
James looked at Chester, then Billy, then back to Chester. He deflated slightly, as whatever self-justification he’d used to sleep at night evaporated under the simple question from his friend. Then, with a malevolence smoldering in his eyes like hellfire, he turned to Sarah.
His hand vanished under the table and I knew, instantly, what was going to happen. Revealed as a traitor, there was only one thing James could do. There wasn’t any chance to spin things, at this point. He was finished with Billy’s gang. All he could do was make sure that we paid for ruining his plan.
The barest sliver of metal cleared the edge of the table, glinting with an evil light. Mila wouldn’t be fast enough. The injuries from the processing plant coupled with the damage Aiden’s beating had given her weren’t enough to sideline her, but they were sufficient to slow her down by a second or two. Michel was out, as well. Given an opportunity for his adrenaline to mount, he might have pulled something off, but there wasn’t going to be time.
Sarah’s eyes widened. Some flash of intuition must have warned her because she started to bring her tablet up to her chest like a shield. She was moving in agonizing slow motion, though, and the tablet might not have been enough to actually stop the bullet.
In a moment of ludicrous clarity, I regretted changing out of the suit with its bulletproof vest. Still, I never stopped to think about what I did next. I threw myself to the side, knocking her out of the way with my own body, just as a sound like thunder rang out in the comparatively small room.
My shoulder hit the ground first, but that particular pain had been such a constant companion that I scarcely felt the new flare up. There weren’t any new screams of agony from my battered body, though.
That was shock, probably. The bullet wound in my leg had hurt worse, although the one I’d just taken to the gut should have caused much more damage.
“Devlin?” Sarah asked in a quavering voice. “Are you okay?”
I wanted to laugh. I had just thrown myself in front of a bullet for her. ‘Okay’ wasn’t really a word that applied to the situation. Dazed, I reached down to feel the extent of my injury.
I felt nothing. No bullet hole or injury existed, no matter how fervently I patted down my body.
“I’m…fine, I think?” The statement came out as a question.
Cautiously, I got back to my feet. Mila was standing with a gun in her uninjured hand. Michel hadn’t quite fled behind her, but he was in a position where he could attack or flee with equal ease. The gun in Mila’s hand was ready, but no smoke twined out of its barrel.
Instead, the thin trail of dark gray vapor came from the weapon in Chester’s hand.
James was slumped in his chair and a red stain was slowly spreading across the front of his shirt. I stared at the body in horror for several long seconds. Finally, I cleared my throat and spoke around the lump that had formed there. “Did you…is he…?”
Chester spun on me and pointed the gun in my direction. “No! You…don’t move!”
Billy put his hand on top of Chester’s. “Don’t do it,” he said in a soothing voice. “This isn’t on them.”
“He was…he was my friend and I…I…” Chester couldn’t finish a sentence. He let out a shuddering breath and let his hand fall to the table. The weapon clattered out of his loose grasp. “I didn’t think, I just…I just…”
“I didn’t think that he’d…” Sarah began. She stopped as a full body tremor made her shiver. “I didn’t think that he’d try to kill me.”
Even though I had seen the move coming a split second beforehand, I didn’t understand the action entirely myself. James had lost a lot, but he hadn’t seemed suicidal. He’d seen Mila in action. He had to have known that she would have killed him a heartbeat after he pulled the trigger.
“What are you going to do with him?” The question came from my own lips, surprisingly steady.
“Can’t leave him here,” Billy said, equally calm. “Get your concierge to keep any civilians out of the way, and I’ll…I’ll get my men to get him out of here.” He paused. “We’ll see to it that’s he buried. I…I didn’t know that he had any family.”
“Neither did I,” Sarah said. “There wasn’t anything about a family in his records and I was thorough.”
James began to tremble in his seat. Billy wheeled himself closer and wrapped an arm around his lieutenant. “I can’t believe it was him,” Billy said. “I just can’t believe it.”
“He was scared,” I said. I wasn’t talking to anyone in the room, just airing my thoughts as they occurred to me. “Not angry. He was scared.”
“Of what?” Billy asked. “What could he have been so scared of to risk his life – our lives – like that?”
“Not what.” I pulled myself out of my thoughts and spoke, not to Billy, but to Sarah and my team. “Who.”