Of the five of us – Michel, Mila, Neal, the girl Avis, and myself – I was, by far, the slowest person to react to Sarah’s sudden arrival. Mila took the lead, ushering Neal and Avis into the backseat of the car. Michel’s jaw dropped open for a second, before his lips curled up into a smile. “It is always a pleasure to see you,” he said, “and never more than right now.”
“Try being charming inside the car,” Sarah retorted. Deep concern warred with impish delight in her eyes.
“Oui, mademoiselle.” Michel inclined his head politely. The warm expression didn’t budge an inch from his face. Sarah stepped out of the car, allowing him to take the driver’s seat. Neal settled into place beside Avis and removed a heavy book on complicated mathematics from her backpack. He bent over the textbook with her, tracing sentences with an index finger, while her lips moved without sound.
I wasn’t capable of much more than disconnected sounds and half-formed syllables until the only three people outside of the car were Mila, Sarah, and myself. Mila squinted her eyes off in the direction of the manor house. “What are you doing here?” I asked Sarah, when I regained the gift of logical communication.
“You needed a ride,” she said. “I had a car. If their system is down, there isn’t much I can do to help from there, so…” She shrugged.
That logic was straightforward and without any obvious flaws. She was, of course, the best candidate to serve as a temporary wheelman. We didn’t need a dedicated driver – Michel fit that role perfectly well – but we had needed a car for him to drive. Sarah’s dramatic arrival had neatly solved that problem. In hindsight, that solution should have occurred to me immediately.
“But you…this isn’t…”
“But I what?” Sarah’s chin came up fractionally and her eyes grew a little more steely. “This isn’t what?”
A burst of uncharacteristic foresight hit me like a train. I realized where I stood, metaphorically speaking: ankle deep in a wide pit, a well-worn shovel prepared to clear away another load of dirt. I snapped my jaw shut and counted to five. “Nevermind,” I said. “Good to see you.”
“He should be here by now,” Mila said. I followed the trajectory of her eyes and saw nothing approaching on the street. “Why isn’t he here? What’s he playing at?”
“Oh. That.” Sarah turned back to the car and motioned for Michel to hand her a tablet from the passenger seat. When she held it in her hands again, she opened an app and checked a readout. “Aiden’s car uses keyless entry,” she said. “Push-button start, the whole nine. Very useful if you’re in a hurry and can’t be bothered to look for keys. But…”
She trailed off and I picked up the thread. “But it’s useless if the car can’t read the signal from the key fob. You can do that?”
“Not directly, no. I’d have to know exactly which car I was targeting and the specific frequency that the key fob used to synchronize.”
Sarah entered a short command into her tablet and handed it back to Michel. “But there’s nothing stopping me from transmitting a total blackout signal that hits every frequency. They blew the system, but left that clip you installed alone. Anything that isn’t plugged into a wall over there isn’t going to work until they find the source of the signal and shut that down.”
Pride swelled in my chest, and I heard it in my voice when I spoke again. “How long should that take?”
“It won’t take long,” Sarah said. “I didn’t really have a lot of time to disguise the signal, what with me speeding across town to save you from near-certain death.” Her words were slightly sharper than necessary.
“Anytime you just earned us is better than the time we had.”
A loud siren emitted from the tablet: two long tones, followed by two short ones. “Does that mean what I think it does?” I asked.
Sarah nodded. “Signal just got cancelled.”
“We need to go, then,” Mila said. She reached out for my arm. I stepped back, out of instinct, before I’d consciously thought about it. “I will knock you out if I have to, throw you into the backseat, and sit on you if I have to, Devlin.”
“Whoa there.” I raised my hands in surrender. “We’ve got a few seconds and I’d rather not find myself driven into a corner because I didn’t think things through first.”
Every muscle in Mila’s body radiated tension, like a too-tight guitar string. She clenched her fists before she answered. “What do you need from me?”
A thousand questions immediately leapt to the forefront of my mind. Who was Aiden? Where had she met him, and why did he seem so fixated on reclaiming her, as opposed to simply killing her? What connection did he have to Mila’s deeply mysterious past? I let them bounce around my skull for a fraction of a second, and then dismissed them. They weren’t immediately important and anything that wasn’t currently vital was relegated to a distant second place. “Asher’s a chessmaster,” I said. “Anything other than a completely unexpected move is probably going to play directly into his hands. Is Aiden like that? Do we need to worry about traps down the way?”
She shook her head. “He’s…if Asher plays chess, Aiden plays…” Mila stopped, considered her words. “Aiden plays tag. He’ll close off routes of escape, make sure you can’t get too far ahead of him, but he doesn’t lay traps. He doesn’t think it’s fair.”
For some reason, the final syllable in Mila’s answer sent a fresh wave of gooseflesh down my spine.
“He didn’t know I was here, though,” she continued. “Or, at least he didn’t until he was already here. I know his tricks about as well as anyone, so he’ll have to adjust his plan to account for that.”
“How many men does he have?”
She blinked. “How many…what?”
“He was sent to pick up Avis, or so we’re assuming,” I said. “How many men does he normally run with?”
“You saw them,” Mila said. “It’s just Aiden and those two guys. Unless he’s decided to change things up – and he doesn’t do that – one of them should be Carlos.”
I added Carlos to the mental file labeled ‘Aiden.’ “What’s Carlos bring to the table?”
“First class driver,” she said. “He’s raced Grand Prix, Rally, Motocross…if it’s got wheels and an engine, he can handle it. Adrenaline junkie, addicted more to the thrill of the job than any financial benefit.”
I did not point out the similarities and, instead, picked a more informative and useful question. “And the other guy?”
“No idea,” she said. “Aiden picks his people based on criteria that only he knows, and it’s always to fill some hole he feels that he’s got. Whatever this new guy can do, it’s probably not good for us.”
I opened my mouth to ask for clarification about Aiden’s previous hires – hoping, perhaps, to gain a little more insight into his relationship with Mila – but stopped as an engine revved into the red zone off in the distance. Judging from the volume, the approaching vehicle was possibly just out of sight. “Michel, how good are you feeling today?” I asked.
He leaned out of the still-open driver’s side door and activated his brightest, most dazzlingly French smile. For the first time since he’d come to London, he glowed as if from an inner light and there wasn’t a single iota of doubt in his eyes. “I am good enough,” he said. “Whoever this Carlos is, he will not catch up to me.”
Sarah and Mila slipped into the backseat. I entered on the passenger’s side, careful not to sit on the feline who’d kept my seat warm. Sam leapt down into the well, near my feet, without any prompting on my part. “No better time to find out than now, right?”
“There are plenty of reasons why shouldn’t find this out while we’re –“ Sarah began. She never made it past that point. Michel’s foot found the accelerator and he pressed down. With the car still running, and an open stretch of road in front, the car reached staggeringly high speed within seconds. Mila didn’t react to the increase in pressure, but every other person within the cab found themselves pressed into their seats.
“I didn’t even know these could get this fast,” Mila murmured.
“Neither did I!” Michel sounded electrified, as if a live wire of enjoyment was pumping tens of thousands of volts into every cell of his body.” “This should be…”
“Don’t say it!” When Michel risked a glance across the car to me, I tried my best to shrug. The effort was minimally successful. “Luck, man. Gotta keep that in mind.”
“I was going to say,” Michel continued, “that this is going to be fun.”
Approaching fast from the direction of the manor house, I could hear the throaty growl of an extremely powerful engine. Its sound forced me to give our own modest mode of transportation a skeptical look. I’d seen Aiden’s car briefly; nothing about the man, either what I’d personally witnessed or how Mila described him, led me to think that his choice of car would be anything other than exotic. “You’re sure you can handle this?” I asked Michel.
He nodded, still baring his teeth in a fierce smile. “I am sure.”
Michel shifted the car into a higher gear and it responded with power, sending up a spray of stones and twigs in every direction. The SUV fishtailed briefly as it struggled to find traction. Michel spun the wheel, calm as only an expert could be, and got the car back under control.
“This man, Aiden?” Michel spoke without taking his eyes from the narrow, winding road. “Can you tell me what he is driving, Sarah?”
Sarah’s tablet emitted several sounds as she checked her information. “A registration check on the license plate has it as an Audi R8 Spyder. Either the V8 or the V10, I’m guessing.”
Michel let out a low whistle. “Do you know how fast it can go? Is there a chance that we could outside of this town before they can catch up to us?”
More sounds from the backseat. I turned, just in time to see Sarah’s eyebrows rise up to her hairline. She looked and locked eyes with me. Then, she shook her head imperceptibly. “No,” she said. “We won’t.”
Angled so that I could face Sarah, I had a perfect view through the back window. So, I was the first to see the Audi, slick and gleaming, shoot up over a hill like a silver bullet. “I’d step on it,” I said, and was surprised by the steadiness of my own voice.
My heartbeat tripled as Aiden’s car chewed up the distance with astonishing speed. It was too close and too fast. The idea that we might have managed a relatively clean getaway was thoroughly scotched. We needed a new plan. A handful of tense moments passed before an idea presented itself.
“Sarah, do you still have one of the burner phones on you?”
“Yes, but why?”
“Call the cops.”
Her mouth dropped open. “What?”
“The cops,” I repeated. “Interpol, the FBI, NSA, the KGB…whoever can get to town quickly and in large numbers.”
“How is that going to help us now?”
“Aiden was the first to get his car going, but he isn’t going to be the last one. A police presence at the manor house would go a long way towards keeping those armed jerks from coming after us, too.”
Neal had been busy speaking in calming tones to Avis. He looked up from that momentarily. “There’s a battery operated police scanner,” he said. “If a call goes out to the local authorities, everyone’s under strict orders to find somewhere to torch everything that might be used as evidence and to hide.”
“That’s perfect,” I said. “Make the call, please?”
Sarah pulled a burner phone free and dialed out. I tuned out her words and focused on Mila. “Aiden’s man, the driver.”
She jerked at my voice and then nodded. “What about him?”
“He’s a professional racer? Grand Prix, motocross, and so on, right?”
She nodded again. “If he’s not the best, he’s close.”
“How does he do in traffic?”
Mila opened her mouth, blinked, and closed it again. A slow smile appeared on her lips and crept up her cheeks until her teeth showed.
My knowledge of cars was limited to basic information: ignition switch, gas pedal, and brakes. Sometimes, I could even find the windshield wiper in an unfamiliar car, without assistance. But even with my considerable naiveté, it was clear that Aiden was going to catch us. The Audi was near enough now that I could see three silhouettes in the vehicle. The one in the passenger seat had his teeth bared; not in a grin, but more like a hungry animal. Outrunning them wasn’t an option. It wasn’t even a possibility. They couldn’t shoot into the car, for fear of hitting Avis, but there was nothing stopping them from simply following us until our car ran out of gas or we reached the Brooklands hotel again. Either outcome didn’t bode well for my team.
If we were going to be run down, one way or the other, I preferred to force the confrontation on my terms.
“Michel, head for the nearest freeway. Drive like…” I considered my word choice. “Drive like a cabbie,” I said finally.
He took an upcoming right turn at near-full speed, drifting within a foot of the local tavern, and fully ignoring the stop sign. Aiden’s R8 followed on our heels. There was a straight length of road ahead of us and Michel cut his eyes towards me for a split second. “You are sure?”
I nodded. “I’m sure. And if you can, try to nudge them a little bit. He’s got to be concerned about what happens to us, and he won’t push this chase if he thinks it’s going to hurt the girl.”
“She’s got a name,” Neal snapped. “And aren’t we worried about what happens to us?”
“Incredibly so.” I shifted my weight in the seat. “But he doesn’t have to know that, does he?”
Sarah paused, her fingers millimeters away from the tablet, and looked up at me sharply. “What do you mean?”
I started to speak, making connections as quickly as the words tumbled out of my mouth. “There isn’t any way of figuring out what information we got from their network, is there?”
Sarah looked distinctly offended. “Of course not. Even if they hadn’t physically destroyed the damn thing, I made sure to cover my tracks.”
I nodded. “So, maybe we went into the manor house for other reasons? Was there anything else in the files that might have been worth stealing?”
She shrugged. “How would I know, Devlin? It’s all encrypted!”
I decided to drop the conversation. Firstly, because Sarah’s irritation had reached a peak and any further discussion would only dissolve into pointless arguments and sniping. That would provide exactly zero benefits. Secondly, and much more importantly, because Aiden’s R8 roared up next to us and pushed the rear passenger tire of our car.
We started to tilt and turn sideways. “What was that about him not wanting to hurt the girl?” Sarah howled, as Michel spun the steering wheel to compensate. Our car was slower, but heavier than the Audi. The Frenchman managed to get the car back under his control, and then he returned the favor.
Aiden’s driver, Carlos, anticipated the tactic and slammed on his car’s brakes. Michel swung wide, blocking the Audi and forcing it to try another time to get around us. I gripped my seatbelt in both hands, for no reason I could actually name, and glanced back behind us. Sarah’s hands clenched tightly around her tablet; Mila was turned fully around to stare at the approaching Audi, a single gun held in the ready position; while Neal and his charge were huddled together. The guard spoke to her in gentle, reassuring tones. The girl seemed unconcerned with the chase, although she did allow Neal to “comfort” her.
The chase carried on like that through the sleepy countryside town. Carlos would approach on one side or another, Michel would adjust to the attack, and force Aiden’s driver to retreat slightly. In the narrow roads, twisting and twining past pubs and homes, the R8 wasn’t able to reach its full speed, but it was never very far behind. That continued until we reached the highway. Michel hit the on ramp at full speed – which was modest, in comparison to the ravening beast that was Aiden’s car – and swerved into the flow of traffic without missing a beat.
“Uh, are you absolutely sure this is safe?” I asked Michel.
He ignored me. I could see the focus in the tense lines around his eyes, the way his lips worked without making noise. There were enough cars on their daily commute that Aiden wasn’t able to get close enough to attack our tires again, but not enough that I held out any hope of him losing our trail. I watched as Carlos wove in and out of traffic, growing closer in fits and spurts. I made a snap judgment call.
“Mila?” Her eyes flickered from the rear window to me. “Take out the tires.”
She nodded and aimed her weapon through the rear window. At the same time, Sarah gave me a look of sharp surprise and concern. “There are innocent people out there!”
“I won’t miss,” Mila said. Michel slowed slightly and Carlos, sensing blood in the water, drew closer. Mila waited until I felt anxiety tighten in my chest, until the Audi was so close that it could have hit the car one more time. The road ahead opened up, and the approaching car accelerated until it was next to us. It did not, however, take another swipe. Instead, the driver’s side window rolled down. I saw a dark skinned man behind the wheel, his eyes fixed forward. Beside him, I saw Aiden: tanned, hair neatly cropped, eyes alight with intelligence and amusement. His gaze swept right past me and Michel and traveled to the backseat. Neal and Avis crouched low, when Mila lowered her window too.
“Just like old times, eh?” Aiden called out. His voice was scarcely audible over the roar of the wind and the engines. “You know you can’t get away, Thorn!”
I saw the emotions shift and change on her face. First, fear; then, a shadow of the paralysis that had struck her in the manor house; then, finally, anger.
“Not again,” she whispered. I could barely hear it myself. The sound of her gunshot was considerably louder. One of the Audi’s tires exploded, but Carlos, the dark-skinned wheelman, never lost his cool. His car swung wildly from right to left, losing speed with each second, and I followed him with my eyes as he managed to pull the Audi off of the highway without hitting anything else. I looked into the rearview mirror, just in time to see Aiden step out of the passenger side and actually wave goodbye as we pulled into another knot of traffic.
No one in the car said anything for a solid five minutes. Michel wove through the thickening morning rush, pulled off of the road, and parked near a gas station in the middle of nowhere. “What do we do now?” He asked.
I looked at Neal, Avis, and Mila. Sarah cleared her throat and drew my attention to her. She was still holding onto her tablet in a death grip. “Answers?”
I nodded. “Answers.”