Category Archives: Most Wanted

Part 4: Recap

After the problematic extraction of “the key” – actually a preteen girl named Avis, as well as her friend/handler Neal – Devlin O’Brien and the rest of his team soon discover that their exploits in the London countryside have garnered the attention of the London Metropolitan Police and, in a spectacularly unfortunate turn of events, Adlai Neetipal, Devlin’s own personal nemesis.  With his name and face publically displayed on the news and the noose slowly tightening around his neck, Devlin and Sarah decide that they must first tackle the problem of the police before turning their attention fully towards whatever challenge lies around the next corner.

First, he must find a way to steal an authorized identification card, from someone with the clearance necessary to enter Scotland Yard and retrieve or destroy any incriminating evidence.  Sarah works her networking magic to ensure that Adlai’s superior, Inspector Lane, will be at a specific location at a very specific time and, as Devlin’s face is the one on display, Mila and Michel take point on the initial leg of the operation.

The plan is deliberately uncomplicated.  Michel is to pour shots down Lane’s throat, until such time as Mila is capable of lifting and copying the man’s identification card.

Immediately, the framework of that plan falls to ruin, when Mila and Michel discover that Adlai himself has joined Lane at the bar.  Instead of calling things off, however, Michel musters the resolve to follow through with the approach.  With Devlin in his ear to guide the conversation, Michel deftly navigates past any conversational traps planted by the Indian agent.  Even Mila’s unplanned detour – leaving her ward momentarily for a hasty discussion with the Japanese twins that Devlin calls The Things – doesn’t cause too many ripples.  At least, until Adlai discovers the miniature camera on Michel’s lapel.

Some fast thinking, faster fingers, and a touch of a silver tongue manage to derail Adlai’s suspicions.  Michel manages to convince both the agent and his Superintendent that he is a police officer, planted undercover in Hill’s organization.  A quick call from Lane luckily provides confirmation that at least one officer is, in fact, working to derail the operation from the inside.  Using that serendipitous knowledge as a basis for his new cover identity, Michel is able to distract Lane long enough for Mila to do her work, and then beat a hasty escape before any questions can be asked that might compromise his true goal.

Before the night is out, though, Devlin receives a terse phone call from associates he had not expected and was not prepared for: Stanislav Novikof, the Russian Mafioso, and his two lieutenants.  Stani requires Devlin’s presence in the slums of London, for some task that might potentially provide illumination to the mystery of the Magi, the ephemeral crime lords that seem to be providing Asher with both support and considerable firepower.

Mila cannot be contacted, for some reason, and Michel is incapacitated by one too many celebratory shots.  Sarah’s physical presence is completely out of the question, so Devlin goes to meet the Russians alone.  The meeting is supposed to take place within a local black market, an impoverished pocket of commerce and activity within the world of the downtrodden and destitute.  Devlin meets the Russians and, after a short conversation, discovers that Stani now suspects that he is involved with the Magi and might actually be working on their behalf.  The unexpected arrival of Mila, walking the black market for her own mysterious reasons, doesn’t help matters.

Devlin temporarily diffuses the situation long enough for the group – consisting now of Devlin, Mila, Stani, Leonid, and Iosif – to head towards their true destination: a building constructed of black stone, standing tall and unbowed within the poverty of the black market.  Inside, they meet a man with ties to Hill, the Russian mafia, and to the people who seek shelter in his Halfway House, who introduces himself simply as Billy.

Billy makes a request of Devlin’s team that might help all parties involved.  A processing plant in the area is run by Hill and serves as a cover for his drug smuggling.  Inside, a special type of plastic can be transmuted back into pure cocaine.  Billy wants to sabotage the plant entirely, by replacing the treated plastic with a special version.  This version, when subjected to extreme heat, will produce extreme quantities of toxic smoke, forcing a shutdown of the processing plant and hobbling Hill’s efforts.

In exchange for leading this raid, Billy offers to answer any question that Devlin has about the man. The opportunity to deal another blow to Hill – and, by extension, Asher – is too much for Devlin and Sarah to turn down.  With the addition of James and Chester, two of Billy’s men, they set off for the factory with a hastily constructed plan and no real idea of how badly things could go wrong.

The approach goes perfectly.  The infiltration, with Sarah’s crucial long-distance assistance, goes perfectly.  In fact, everything goes wonderfully until Devlin and Mila reach the center of the operation, where the chemical process is supposed to take place.  Then, and only then, do they discover that the product contained in the loading area is common baking soda, not cocaine.  And the center of the plant does not harbor the mechanism for transmuting plastic into cocaine.  For some reason, nothing is the way it should be.

Instead of a successful raid, Devlin and Mila discover that they have walked themselves directly into a trap.

With law enforcement on the way, summoned by a deliberately triggered alarm, and Aiden’s group of cutthroat mercenaries even closer, Devlin makes the call to finish with the plan.  Instead of relying on a scheduled chemical process to activate Billy’s fake plastic, he uses two of the chemicals located within the plant to forcibly create a fire that will provide cover for his escape.  The fact that the factory is not up to safety standards, and the localized reaction results in a massive conflagration instead of a controlled burn, comes as a surprise to everyone in the building.

Chaos rains from the sky around them, as Devlin and Mila, as well as Stani and his lieutenants, search for a way out of the burning factory.  A path out, via the loading bay, is provided by Sarah, but the presence of Aiden’s man Carlos complicates matters.  In complete defiance of Devlin’s wishes and fervent requests, Mila takes it upon herself to do her job: protecting Devlin from harm, no matter the cost.  She stays behind, firing blindly into the fire to distract Carlos until Devlin and the Russians can make it to the relative safety of Billy’s Halfway House.  Devlin watches, transfixed, as the building tears itself apart and Mila is lost to the blaze before the toxic fumes he has inhaled drag him away from the world of the conscious.

When he wakes again, Devlin is surprised to see that Sarah has left her command post at the Brooklands.  She informs him of his injuries and informs him that Mila survived the explosion at the processing plant and is now held at Scotland Yard, awaiting further questioning.  Devlin rallies and marshals his wits for an impassioned speech, only to learn that Sarah and Michel have already decided on the only appropriate course of action.  Mila is one of theirs.  Where the previous twenty-four hours had been bent wholly to the task of removing Devlin from beneath the watchful eye of the police, now they must go directly into the dragon’s lair to retrieve their teammate before things can find a more disastrous path to follow.

Billy, and a few more men in his employ, join them for the initial approach on Scotland Yard.  Billy engages with several workers and a foreman, working on the reconstruction of the building, and provides Sarah with access to a working set of blueprints.  Michel uses the stolen identity card, as well as a falsified uniform, to gain access to their internetwork.  With all that done, Sarah readies herself to do something she has not done since joining forces with Devlin, so many years ago: she must go into the field, to provide a distraction for Adlai that he cannot ignore, so that Michel is able to steal, destroy, or corrupt anything that might provide the police with any solid basis for further investigations into Devlin or his allies.

But Adlai is not interested in Sarah’s stories and he shows no weakness to the Ford name.  With time running out, and fearing that Sarah might be compromised, Devlin takes it upon himself to sever the complicated knot.  He presents himself to the agents, prepared to match wits with the man who has hunted him for nearly a decade.

The conversation between Adlai and Devlin is civil, yet charged with a terrifying energy.  Their ideals clash in violent exchanges.  Just when Devlin is convinced that he will be forced to spend even more time in jail – only thirty-six hours, instead of the two and a half years inflicted on him by Asher – he is rescued by the intervention of a mysterious figure.  Within seconds, he discovers the identity of that savior: David, the giant who stood like a sentinel over the shoulder of the Lady in the Black Dress.  She greets him as he exits the police station, gives him a thick file of information pilfered from the clutches of Scotland Yard during his operation, and leaves him with a few cryptic words: “Your friends will be the death of you.”

It is not until some time later, safely ensconced within the protective walls of the Brooklands, that Devlin remembers the ignored calls and missed text messages from his old friend Alex in Berlin.  While he listens to those messages, an email arrives from an anonymous source, whose identity is quickly made clear: Asher, reaching out to taunt his former partner just a little more.

Instead of attempting to run down Devlin, Asher has also elected to cut the knot and take the shortest path to his goal.  Why search for his former partner when the kidnapping of Allie, Alex’ only daughter, will accomplish the same goal?

Now, Devlin finds himself faced with an even more impossible task than any he has faced thus far.  How can he steal Allie away from Asher’s clutches, without exposing his team to even greater risk?  Is there a way to turn events away from their inevitably disastrous conclusion and to pull success from the clutches of almost certain defeat?  If one man can go from most wanted to exonerated in a single night, might it also be possible to go from defense to offense?

He does not know.  What he does know is that he will have to find new reserves of intelligence and cunning, lest his alleged crimes against Asher finally come calling for a price too expensive for anyone to pay.

Advertisements

Chapter Ninety-One

Between the two of them, Sarah and Michel filled me on the details of our incursion as he drove us back to the Brooklands.  Apparently, the arrival of David had thrown a great many things in disarray.  Several key individuals found themselves pulled away from otherwise sensitive areas to deal with the complaints he raised.  The conspicuous absence of those officers, in conjunction with the placement of an incredibly lax clerk at the evidence desk, made the task of planting evidence almost too easy to be believed.  After that, he’d made a hasty retreat and met up with Sarah at the van.  Billy and his men made their own exit, following a hearty round of recriminations for the construction crew.

Michel been listening to our brief conversations, both before my conversation with Adlai began in earnest and after he’d left momentarily to check on whatever other problem had bothered him.  According to both him and Sarah, the moment when the line died hadn’t been triggered on their end of things.  Sarah had tried to call me back, but she was stopped by the arrival of an unmarked limousine that crowded into their space and risked drawing attention to the oversized van.  As soon as they began moving the vehicle to a less visible location, Sarah had received an email with map coordinates and a ticking clock.  Realizing the signature of the lady at work, she’d instructed Michel to drive to the indicated location which, of course, turned out to be exactly where I stood when they pulled up.

I had my own suspicions about how things had managed to play out perfectly.  The Lady wasn’t ever going to provide confirmation, in either direction, but it seemed likely that the clumsy, inattentive desk clerk who had allowed Michel to slip past him was probably one of the assets she’d mentioned in the limousine.  That same person would then have been able to remove the files on Asher after Michel left.  If worse came to absolute worst, it wouldn’t be too difficult for the Lady to throw the Frenchman under the bus in order to keep her asset securely placed within Scotland Yard.

When I shared that thought with Sarah, she shook her head.  “That doesn’t sound like her.”

“What doesn’t?  The thought that she’d use our difficulties to get herself into a better position?”

“Well, no, that sounds exactly like her.  What I meant, however, was that she doesn’t keep people in place after she’s done with them.  After she broke you out of La Santé, that guard couldn’t ever go back to work in the prison.  At least one other inmate would have been able to prove that he’d been involved in a crime.”

“Two other inmates,” I corrected.  “Patrick might not have seen anything, but he heard enough to provide evidence.  If it had come down to it.”

“Exactly.  She burned that asset, because leaving him in place left a link that might be traced back to you.  And from you…”  Sarah trailed off.

I nodded, coming to grips with her unspoken conclusion.  The Lady had said it herself: even if I wanted to talk, it wasn’t as though I possessed enough information to be a threat to her.  At best, I might manage to inconvenience Asher.  Perhaps even cause serious damage to his plans, if the stars aligned.  But I’d be breaking my own arm, figuratively speaking, if I threw that punch.

“You think she really is protecting me?” I asked Sarah out loud.

“Obviously,” Mila drawled.  She’d been silent for most of the ride, simultaneously nursing her broken arm and trying to pet Sam as he rubbed his voluminous white fur into her face.

“Not just you,” Sarah replied, shooting a look Mila’s way.  “If I had to guess, I’d say that the clerk who let Michel get past him is going to move somewhere very far from London for the foreseeable future.”

“What the hell is she really after?” I asked myself out loud.  “She’s burned assets in the French prison system and a highly placed person in the London Metropolitan Police Department that I know about.  She’s provided a blank check so that we can get whatever resources we deem necessary and managed to secure the services of someone uniquely capable of acquiring these things almost immediately.  This can’t be just about the local drug trade.”

Sarah tapped an index finger against her bottom lip for a few seconds.  “No, it probably isn’t.  But she doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’s going to leave dangling threads to her plans that we can just pull until the whole thing comes apart in our laps.”

I knew as much about knitting as I did Russian: not quite nothing, but just enough to be really dangerous to myself if left without adult supervision.  I got the metaphor, though.  “Maybe there’s something in here?”  I held up the folder.

Instead of reaching out to take the documents from my hand, Sarah narrowed her eyes at the folder.

“What?” I asked.  “You’re the one who thinks she’s actually protecting us, in her own twisted way.  What’s so scary about a few pieces of paper?”

“Nothing,” Sarah said.  “But…are you sure you don’t want to go through that on your own, first?”

I blinked.

“Since this whole thing started, you’ve been incredibly dodgy about what happened in St. Petersburg and I haven’t pushed.  I’m not going to start now, unless you feel that whatever went down between the two of you is something that might affect the job.  Do you think that?”

My thoughts traveled back to that night.  The memories returned with such force that I could practically smell the smoke from a half dozen small fires; I could feel the cobblestones beneath my thin-soled shoes as I ran to the nearest safe house and began to the exhaustive process of slipping out of the country without alerting any authorities to my departure.  Even knowing for a solid fact that Asher was okay, that he’d survived the blaze – not unharmed, but burn scars were a comparatively small price to pay for your life, I thought – I still felt guilty for leaving him there, in the first place.

Slowly, I pulled the folder back to my chest.  “I don’t know,” I answered honestly.  “I can look through these when we’re back at the hotel.”

“And you’ll tell me if you find anything important?”  Sarah’s tone was soft enough that I knew she wasn’t making a demand, but insistent enough that I couldn’t easily ignore it.  “Promise?”

“I promise.”

Mila groaned and, struggling under the weight of the hefty feline, managed to push Sam off of her chest.  “If the two of you are done staring soulfully into each other’s eyes,” she said, “we should figure out what we’re going to do about my contract.”

“What about it?” I asked.

“I’ll be honest here.  I’ve never had a job I couldn’t finish.  You two aren’t the ones paying the bill, but even the Lady doesn’t see fit to uphold her end of the deal, I won’t hold it against anyone.  It’s my fault I ended up like this.”  She wiggled her broken arm at me, taking great care to not jostle it too much.

I took a moment to consider what Mila was saying.  The absurdity of her offer was so great that I laughed before I could stop myself.  She glowered at me for several seconds before I managed to get myself back under control.  “You’re not quite that lucky,” I said, between little tremors of giggles.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means,” Sarah said, picking up when it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be able to speak on my own, “that you don’t get to blame yourself because someone doesn’t know when to call it quits.”

I laid a hand over my chest in mock chagrin.  “You wouldn’t be referring to yours truly, would you?  Because, unless I’m sorely mistaken, you agreed that going after Hill’s property was also a good idea.  Surely you aren’t trying to shift the blame for that debacle solely onto my shoulders.”

“I…wasn’t…okay, fine.  I’m just as guilty as you are.”  Sarah did not look as though as she felt particularly guilty, although her eyes did flick over to where Mila sprawled across the floor of the van.

“I swear, the two of you are the worst clients I’ve ever had,” Mila said.  “I can’t fight like this.  It’ll heal, sure, but I’m useless until then.”

“You wouldn’t have been injured at all if you hadn’t been protecting me in the first place,” I said.  “And you certainly wouldn’t have ended up in prison if Sarah and I had taken the time to work through exactly what we planned to do.”

“That’s my job,” Mila insisted.  “And, since we’re talking about my arrest, it is absolutely not your job to look after me.”

“You’ll excuse me if I disagree with that point.  For the moment, you’re a part of my team.  And anyone who I consider a partner is my responsibility.”  Without looking away from Mila, I felt Sarah’s eyes on me.  I revised my previous assertion.  “They’re our responsibility.  We look out for each other.  I’m not going to let you throw yourself into the fire to save any one of us, unless you’re willing to accept that I’ll do the same for you.”

“As will I,” Michel said, from the front of the car.

“And so will I,” Sarah added.  “Sorry, but you’re in this for the long haul.  Unless you’re saying you genuinely want out because of…other reasons.”

She didn’t have to say Aiden’s name.  It hung in the air like a foul stench, unspoken and rancid.

“I don’t want anyone to jump into this half-hearted,” I said.  “That’s something the Lady said back before we even went to retrieve Avis, and I happen to agree with her on that point.  So, if you want to leave because you actually don’t want to be here, then…well, then go.  But if this is just you trying to draw our enemies off based on some suicidal idea of ‘protection,’ then forget about it.  I’m not dropping your contract.”

Emotions flickered across Mila’s face at high speed, too fast for me to catch and identify.  I recognized some of them, though, and they were enough that I was able to get a better read on the woman.  She’d mentioned her troubled past and the nature of her relationship with Aiden before, but I hadn’t understood then what she meant.

I softened my voice.  “This isn’t going to be like…it was,” I said.  “I want you with us on this.  You’ve been through tougher situations in just the past seventy-two hours than I’ve encountered in the last two decades, and you’ve been amazing the whole way.”

When Mila spoke, she did so in a nearly inaudible voice.  “Why do you want me?”

I started to answer.  Michel beat me to it.  He turned slightly, not quite taking his eyes away from the road and said, “Because you are one of us.”

Just that.  He didn’t elaborate on the point and he made no effort to be any more convincing.  He only spoke that one sentence, those five words, and left it at that.  I was in a position to see the gradual change, the hardening of will that took place behind Mila’s eyes.

“You’re all idiots,” she said, finally.  “I don’t know what you expect me to do when Hill and Asher start throwing trained fighters at us and I’ve only got the one good arm.”

“I don’t know,” I said, forcing a breezy tone into my voice.  “We’ll figure something out.”

Mila had a very good point but, at that moment, acknowledging that would have been disastrous.  I guessed that she’d been given some sort of painkiller at the hospital which hadn’t knocked her out, but was having the effect of lowering her defenses.  Otherwise, I doubted I would have been able to read anything at all from the slight downcast to her eyes, the way she held her broken arm at a protective angle across her chest, or the minute adjustment to her shoulders that made her seem ever so slightly smaller than she already was.  Individually, she’d shown minor signs of her secret thoughts before but taken as a hole, I could see the truth for the first time since I’d met her.

She was scared, but it wasn’t the very reasonable fear of conflict or violence that I would have expected from anyone else.  It wasn’t even the fact that Aiden was in London and gunning for her, although that certainly played a part in it all.  Mila was afraid of being left behind.

How I’d managed to miss that for so long was a testament to my exhaustion.  Every effort to pull away or distance herself from the group was nothing more than a self-defense mechanism.  The transient nature of her jobs kept her from forming any relationships she might regret leaving behind.  She didn’t want to owe anyone anything, because she feared that they might one day use that against her.

I wasn’t sure about all of that, but most of it made sense.  One thing I was positive about, however, was that Mila would react badly if I so much as spoke my guesses out loud.  I resolved to talk more about it with Sarah at a later time, when she could help me fine tune my broad strokes into something more concrete.

We rode the rest of the way back to the Brooklands, mulling over the events of the last twenty-four hours.  I texted Sophie when we weren’t far out and, when we arrived, Mila was greeted with a very large man who wordlessly offered to help her out of the van.  She scorned the assistance at first.  After a moment of thought, she consented to allow the man to carry Sam – who had since fallen deeply asleep – up to her room.  I extracted a guarantee that she’d remain in her rooms, recuperating, until we had a chance to figure out the next step in our plans.  She gave me her assurances with obvious reluctance, but I could have sworn I saw a twinkle of some appreciative emotion in the corner of one eye before she left.

Michel took the van to an underground parking garage, where Sophie promised to find a space removed from any security cameras.  I suspected that he really wanted an opportunity to tinker with his and Sarah’s new toy.

Sarah and I went back to our suite.  She went to her computer room for a few minutes and I started to make a late breakfast before my thoughts finally turned back to the Lady’s mysterious farewell.  “Your friends will be the death of you.”

My friends, for a given value of the word, were the only reasons I was still alive.  Stanislav, Iosif, and Leonid had been instrumental in drawing off the majority of the guards at the processing plant, even if it had turned out to be a trap.  Without Mila, the whole operation would have been blown at the manor house.  Michel hadn’t even been part of the underworld when he swooped in to save me from the debacle at the museum.  Hell, I probably wouldn’t even have been able to retrieve my false passport, if it hadn’t been for –

I stopped, the spatula in my hand frozen an inch above the skillet.  The last day had been a blur of activity, rushing from one place to the other, orchestrating conversations from miles and miles away.  I closed my eyes, ignoring the smell of cooking food that wafted up from the stove into my nostrils, and thought back.

I’d missed a call while Mila and Michel were gladhanding Adlai and his boss.  That had been at the beginning of the night.  Later, while the Russians, Billy’s men, and I were planning our run on Hill’s processing plant, I’d noticed a voicemail message.  Both of those things had been put into a distant room in my mind, filed away so that they wouldn’t get in the way of immediate necessities.  Now, triggered by the Lady’s visit and warning, they returned in full force.

“Sarah?” I called out.  “What did you do with that phone I got from Alex?”

She didn’t reply.  I turned the stove down and walked a short distance down the hallway, intending to knock on her door and pull her away from whatever work she was engrossed in.  She surprised by throwing open the door just before I could knock.  Her eyes were wild with anxiety.

“You’ve got an email,” she said breathlessly.

“From who?”

“Asher.  It went to one of your old addresses, but I have a program that checks all of those sporadically.”

I blinked and a cold feeling began to settle into the pit of my stomach.  “How long ago?”

“The program checks every morning, at the same time.  I don’t know when this email was sent, but I only just pulled it out of the inbox.”

Delicately, I pushed past Sarah and took a seat at her computer setup.  The email in question wasn’t a text message but, instead, simply an attachment at the bottom of an untitled message.

I gave Sarah a questioning look and she nodded.  “I scanned for viruses, so you’re fine.”

I clicked the attachment open.  It was less than a second before a window opened up to fill the entire center monitor.

In the image, Asher sat casually in a metallic, armless chair.  He was smoking one of his cigarettes as he looked straight into the camera.  He stayed like that for several long moments, before he finally spoke.

“If you’re seeing this email,” he said, “then you’ve somehow managed to stay alive longer than I expected.  Which is an impressive feat, I’ve got to admit.  Kudos to you.  He clapped sarcastically, careful not to burn himself with the lit cigarette.

He let that stretch out lazily for a while before he continued.  I recognized the theatre at work in this play; recognition didn’t make the tight knot of dread in my stomach any lighter or easier to bear.  “If you aren’t seeing this, then I guess I went to a lot of trouble for no reason.  Not that this is very difficult,” he gestured at the camera, “but getting everything in place for this little film wasn’t…well, okay.  It wasn’t difficult, but it was more effort than I really felt like sparing just to make a point.”

A sound came from off camera.  Asher looked in that direction, smiled pityingly, and then turned back.

“You have something I want, Devlin,” he said.  “Two things, actually.  I want the girl, of course, but you must have realized that.  I would say that you can have her back after I’m done – I know you’ve got such a soft spot for abandoned children – but that’d be a lie.  Because I also want you.  I’m done playing these cat and mouse games.”

“Sarah,” I said, without looking away from the screen.  “I need to look at Alex’s phone.  Now.”

She lingered for the space of a heartbeat before she began rummaging through a disorganized box nearer to the door.

“You’re probably thinking about how you’ve got me right where you want me,” Asher continued, and he was right, up to a point.  It was eerie that even a recording could be so capable of reading me.  “Oh, I bet you and that bitch are thinking up amazing ideas about you’ll lure me into a trap, so that you can finally bring all of this to a close.  Which is why I went ahead and took certain precautions.  Just a…just a little something to ensure that everything goes according to my plan.”  He walked off camera and began dragging something into view.

“Devlin,” Sarah said, from behind me.  “Catch.”

I turned enough to see the phone coming and snatched it out of the air in a swift grab.  I bypassed the security and saw that, where once there had been one message, I now had at least ten.  Each and every one of them was from Alex.  I picked the most recent one and, as my dawning horror coalesced into a physical mass, read it out loud.  “Ally is gone.  Do you know what has happened?  Has she contacted you?”

Sarah’s mouth formed into a perfectly round ‘O.’  She pointed wordlessly to the screen.  I turned back to face it, even though I already knew what I would see there.

Gagged and tied to a chair very similar to Asher’s, my oldest friend’s only child sat, held captive by my former partner.  Asher leaned his arms over the back of her chair.  “You’ve got things to take care of.  I get that.  So I’ll give you one week from today.  If I don’t see you and the girl by then, then Ally and I get to have a long discussion about the nature of friendship and debts owed.  Because, one way or another, I will get what I’ve earned.”  He stubbed out his cigarette and flicked it in an arc up and over the camera.  “See you then.”

The video ended.  I stared at the blank screen for a full minute, then another.  By the third minute, the cold pit in my stomach had melted away in the torrent of a fury unlike anything I’d ever felt before.  I stalked out of the room, back down the hallway, and grabbed the folder on Asher that the Lady had delivered earlier.

Sarah stopped me before I could go into my bedroom.  “What are we going to do?”

With great effort, I managed to force the hurricane of emotions down far enough to speak through clenched teeth, although I kept my face pointed firmly to the floor.  “You’re going to call Alex and let him know what’s going on.  He’ll want to know what’s going to happen next.”

“And that is?”

“I’m getting some information,” I said, holding up the manila folder.  I noticed absently that the skin on the back of my knuckles was taut and the hand itself was vibrating with anger.  “I can’t afford to play this fast and loose.  Not when Ally’s in danger.”

“And after you finish reading that?” Sarah asked.  “What then?”

“Asher said it himself.”  I looked up.  I don’t know what Sarah saw in my face but, whatever it was, she jerked nearly a foot away from me.  “He’s going to get what he’s earned.”

Chapter Ninety

I stared at the Lady in silent confusion and she returned the look evenly.  Although her clothing was different, she still wore the same effortless grace that I remembered from our first encounter.  When David started the limousine and eased it away from Scotland Yard, she leaned back in her seat and flashed a barely decent amount of leg at me.  I looked away immediately and, just as soon, realized that I’d probably failed some sort of test.

“So,” I said, as an opener.  “You’re the one who got me out of there?”

She raised an eyebrow.

“I mean, you pulled some legal mojo to get me away from Adlai before I could talk?”

The Lady smiled at that.  “If you had chosen to talk, Mister O’Brien, what exactly would you have told the man?  That you should, by all rights, still be behind the walls of La Santé in Paris, except for the intervention of a well-connected woman whose name you do not know?  Or perhaps that your ex-wife, who has thus far managed to remain out of Inspector Adlai’s crosshairs, has been assisting you in a not-inconsiderable crime spree these past weeks?”

Irritation climbed from the pit of my stomach up into my throat.  I forced it back down for two reasons.  One: the only things separating my throat from David’s meaty hands were a privacy screen and the Lady’s whims.  Two: she was absolutely right.

“I only ask,” I said, through gritted teeth, “because I don’t know if this is another thing I’ll owe you for.”

“Ah.  Well, then, the answer to your question is ‘no.’  I was not directly responsible for the…what did you call it?”

“Legal mojo?”

“Yes, that.”  Her smile deepened slightly, but only on one side.  The effect was off-putting.  “I was responsible for the action, but I find it distasteful to reveal myself in person quite so easily.  If you are looking for someone to thank for your extraction, might I recommend my associate?”

I blinked and turned to look at the opaque privacy screen.  “David’s a lawyer?  That’s what he does for you?”

“It is a service he provides,” the Lady said.  “Among others.”

Smart and physically imposing ranked low on the list of traits I wanted in a possible adversary.  I had enough enemies that could out-think and out-fight me; the possibility of adding another to the list made my mouth go dry.  I swallowed twice before I managed to ask another question.  “Why?”

“You’ll have to be more specific,” the Lady replied.

“Why did you get me away from the interrogation?”

“The reasons for my indirect action involve powers you are not yet fully aware of,” the Lady said.  “For the moment, let us simply agree that you are better suited for my purposes outside of jail, as opposed to locked away.”

I swallowed a third time and squeezed my eyes shut for almost ten full seconds.  I used that time to center myself.  She had caught me off-guard, again; there was a reason she chose to ambush me like that.  She wanted control: control of the setting, control over the situation, and control over what I thought.  The Lady had successfully claimed the first two things without any competition, but my mind was my own.

“I’m working on your job,” I said, on the eleventh second.

“Oh?  I did not realize that my task for you involved waking the ire of the London police department.”

“It doesn’t.  But if you want my team to take on Hill, we had to come up with some way to keep the police from getting in our way at every step.”

Your team?”  The Lady dipped two long, delicate fingers into a clutch by her side and removed a smartphone that resembled the one in my own pocket.  She bypassed the security and swiped at the screen a few times.  “This would include the Russians Stanisliav Novikof, as well as his lieutenants Iosif and Leonid, in addition to the bodyguard I hired for you?”

“Her name’s Mila,” I said.  My voice was just a touch shy of snapping at her and I could swear the privacy screen to my back inched down slightly at the high point of the sentence.

“If you honestly believe that she uses her real name,” the Lady said, “then I would be better served returning you to Inspector Adlai and trying my luck with one of your underworld associates.”

I opened my mouth, closed it, and opened it again before speaking.  “I’m just saying that she isn’t ‘your bodyguard.’  She has a name and Mila’s the one she’s using for right now.”

The Lady favored me with a smirk so soft that it was barely visible and a steady look.  I shrugged to hide the chill that ran through my torso and all the way down to my legs.

“Anyway,” I said.  “I know what I said: for right now, they’re my team.  And we’re doing what you want.  We got the key from the manor house and Sarah’s working on getting access to any information that might point us to Hill’s real identity.  As soon as we know that, we can start working on a plan to steal back the golden book.”

If the Lady hadn’t made a point of flaunting her knowledge over me at every turn, I would have felt more uncomfortable with the slight untruth I slipped into a wall of otherwise unassailable facts.  We were planning to go after Hill and the golden book.  We had stolen the ‘key’ from the manor house, just in front of Asher’s team of trained killers.  However, it wasn’t Sarah translating the information we’d managed to steal; it was the child Avis, and her friend/guardian Neal.  The idea of offering up a child to the Lady’s whims – whatever those might be – didn’t sit well with me.  My stomach churned at the very thought.

The Lady showed no sign at all of catching the lie.  “I cannot help but imagine that your efficiency would be negatively influenced by nearly a day and a half of jail-time.”

“Is time a factor now?  If you’d told me that to begin with, I might have turned this job down to begin with.  That was an option, wasn’t it?”

“It was.  It is no longer one.”  The Lady returned her smartphone to the clutch and pressed a button on the armrest.  A panel slid away from the back of my seat, revealing a steaming carafe.  “However, with the exception of the authorities you’ve managed to incite, you and your team are doing spectacular work thus far.”

I shifted my gaze slightly so that the carafe was easier to see in my peripheral vision.  “What’s that?  Some sort of drug that’ll knock me out and erase the last few minutes of my memory?  Truth serum?  Or is there some other pharmaceutical trick you have up your sleeve?”

“I don’t have any sleeves, Mister O’Brien.”

I scowled at her, still taking effort to keep the expression as polite as possible under the circumstances.  “You know what I mean.”

“Your grasp of figurative language never ceases to amuse me,” the Lady said, without the faintest trace of laughter on her face or in her bearing.  “Why would I offer you some sort of drug, when I could simply ask David to feed it you forcefully?”

She leaned over, flashing the pale skin of her cleavage at me and I flinched away instinctively.  The Lady reached past me, removed the carafe and a small teacup from the hidden cabinet, and poured herself a cup of the scalding liquid contained within.  “Coffee?” I asked.

“It has been a rather long night,” the Lady said.  “You haven’t had much opportunity to rest over the last twenty-four hours, or so my sources have led me to believe.”

My eyebrows knit together for a moment as I thought my way through that statement.  “Sophie,” I said, after a moment.  “Sophie’s keeping you informed of our movements?”

“Sophie.  That would be the concierge at the Brooklands, I believe?”  The Lady continued without waiting for me to answer.  “She is incredibly talented at her job – truly, perhaps one of the most resourceful concierges in the greater London area – but she prefers to remain as hands-off as possible, when it comes to criminal activities.  She informed me that you had procured a vehicle, yes, but your activities beyond that were outside of her…shall we say, her realm of expertise.”

“Then how?”  I doubted that the Lady was the sort of person who would see the benefit of seeding sources among the downtrodden men and women in Billy’s Halfway House.

“I have spent a great deal of time and money preparing for this operation,” she said.  “I was aware of Hill’s operations, both legal and illegal.  When one of his plants suffered a tragic chemical accident, it occurred to me that there are very few people so brazen, so bold, or so unaccountably clumsy that they would dare to involve themselves in the affairs of a drug kingpin.  When Miss Ford’s name appeared in the register of guests at Scotland Yard, the rest was simple enough to piece together.”

I smothered the instinct to swear.

“Oh, calm yourself,” the Lady said.  “The program that you went to such lengths to plant in Scotland Yard’s system served multiple purposes.  In addition to the corruption of the files on your own crimes, several key minutes of security footage was irretrievably damaged.  Miss Ford’s identity remains a closely guarded secret, from nearly all interested parties.”

“Nearly all?”

She gave me that half-smile and, as if my body’s reactions were hers to toy with, I shivered.

“So.  What do I owe the privilege of your company to?” I asked, more so that I could come up with a better question than out of any real curiosity.

“Other than enjoying the opportunity to watch you squirm?”  The Lady sipped from her teacup of coffee.  “Your actions this evening have been incredibly loud and resulted in a disastrous amount of attention cast in your direction from the local authorities.  However, not every single thing you have managed to accomplish has been without merit.”

She dipped a hand into a larger bag on the floor.  I hadn’t noticed it there and, in virtually any other situation, I would have berated myself for the lapse in my attention.  As it was, the Lady consumed so much attention simply be existing that I allowed myself a pass.

When her hand came back into sight, she held a thick manila folder.  “While your driver was engaged in the extraction of any physical evidence, I decided to use the services of an occasional employee to remove some information of my own.”

“You have people inside Scotland Yard?”

“I do not have people,” the Lady said.  “But there are individuals who owe me favors and, on occasion, I call those favors in.  How else did you think I managed to arrange for your early release from prison?  How have I been able to keep track of you so absolutely since you absconded from Paris, information in hand?”

With great effort, I managed to maintain the expressionless mask.  Twice, since Paris, the Lady had missed things.  Thus far, she’d made no mention of Alex or his minor role in the drama so far.  And she seemed to be operating under the assumption that the ‘key’ was a formula or document, instead of a small girl with an intuitive grasp of impossibly complicated mathematics.  Neither of those facts provided me with an edge I could use to wiggle out from under her thumb, but the knowledge that she wasn’t omniscient led me to believe that it might be possible to fool her.  I didn’t know exactly how I might pull that off at a later date, but simply knowing that it was possible was a great boost to my mental state.

“What information did you need from Scotland Yard?” I asked.

“There were…questions that required answers,” she said.  “Not for myself, of course.”

“Then for who?  Your partner?  Or – what did you call him?  – your associate?”

The Lady laughed.  The sound surprised me, not least of all because it was utterly unexpected.  What shocked me the most was the genuine warmth in the laugh.  “David,” she said, “has never been particularly interested in the minutiae of grudges.  He does as I ask and, at least so far as I am aware, that is enough for him.”

She held the manila folder out to me.  I made no move to accept it.  “What is that?”

“Open it and see.”

I sighed, shifted uncomfortably under the weight of her steady gaze, and finally took the folder from her fingers.  I opened it and scanned the first page. Halfway down the sheet of paper, the temperature of my blood dropped by about twenty degrees.  “St. Petersburg,” I muttered to myself.  Then, to the Lady: “This is the police report from St. Petersburg.”

“Indeed.”  She swallowed another mouthful of coffee, as if the steaming hot liquid didn’t bother her in the slightest.  “Among other things.”

“Why would you want this?”

“Because I did not already have it,” she answered.  “And because I have realized that you will require all of the information available, if you are to stand even the slightest chance of completing your task.”

“I was in St. Petersburg,” I said, feigning disinterest.  “I don’t need to read the paperwork to remember what happened.  Asher and I were working a job and things went sideways.  I got out; he didn’t.  Fast forward a couple of years, lightly season with insanity, and you end up with an obsessive asshole who’s hell-bent on killing me. Not a real big mystery.”

The Lady sucked her teeth at me.  “I could entice you with promises of answers; I could offer you threats of danger in the near future.  Neither would suffice for my purposes and, more importantly, neither would be necessary.  You want to know what happened to Mister Knight to make him into the man he is today, almost as much as you wish to bring him to heel for his betrayal in Paris.”

She was right.  I knew it, and so did she.  I refused to give her the satisfaction of acknowledging that point, so I looked back at the top sheet in the manila folder instead.

“There were other reasons for my arrival,” the Lady said, after a few moments.  From her tone, I realized that she considered the matter of the manila folder closed.  “You mentioned a time constraint earlier.”

“I did.  You didn’t say there was going to be a timer running on this job.  Planning these sort of things take time.”

“As much time as you needed to arrange the theft of the barbarian crown?  Or as much time as you needed to forcefully assault the manor house and abscond with the key?  Or, perhaps, as much time as you and yours needed to organize the destruction of Mister Hill’s primary processing plant?”

I bit back several sharp words before they could touch air.  “Those were different,” I said.  “No one in their right mind would choose to work under those circumstances.”

“Ah,” the Lady said, ticking one long index finger back and forth in the air in front of her face.  “But I did not hire anyone in their right mind.  I hired you.  And, if my sources are correct, this is where you excel.  This, in fact, is one of the main reasons why I sought to contract your services in the first place.”

“Because I’m crazy?”

She nodded.  “Because you are resourceful.  I doubt you even realize the true value of your actions these past few days, but allow me to assure you: no matter how badly it seems things have gone, you and your team have done exemplary work under less than ideal situations.  For that, you have earned my genuine respect.”

Oddly enough, I felt as though she were telling the literal, unvarnished truth.  My profession didn’t typically afford me a great deal of praise, either from clients or teammates, and every instinct I possessed told me that the Lady wasn’t in the habit of doling out idle compliments.

“So,” I said, “you respect what we’ve managed to pull off so far or maybe you just respect that we’ve been able to do anything at all without having the faintest amount of time to plan.  Fine.  You know what you’re actually after; why don’t you tell me what it is, so that we can start taking the time to come up with something that doesn’t end up literally exploding in our faces?”

“Multiple reasons,” the Lady said.  “For the moment…let us say that you do not yet have the proper frame of reference to appreciate my motivations.  Even if I were to tell you my true goal, you would fail to grasp the true import.  Please, do not think that I am insulting you; it is simply a matter of position.”

“You’re just going to leave us in the dark, then?”

“For now.”  She gestured at the manila folder in my lap.  “Although I am willing to provide answers when the time is necessary, as I have already proven.  Do not overly concern yourself, Mister O’Brien.  As soon as the time arrives, I will tell you exactly what I have been positioning you for.”

With that said, the Lady fell silent.  I spent five minutes in quiet contemplation before I opened my mouth to say something.  At that exact moment, the car lurched to a stop.  I hadn’t been paying attention to the momentum of the vehicle and the sudden deceleration surprised me.

“We have arrived,” the Lady said.

“The Brooklands isn’t anywhere near this close to Scotland Yard,” I said.

“No, it isn’t.  However, it would hardly do for me to be seen in your company at a location so thoroughly connected to your falsified identities.  Appearances must be maintained, of course.”

“Of course,” I said.  I meant to inject the words with a heavy dose of sarcasm, but I managed only light sardonic humor.  The Lady’s presence was intimidating, but her appearance threatened to lull me into a potentially dangerous stupefaction.  Which, I assumed, was almost certainly the reason for her attire and body language.

“In keeping with that, it is important that you understand: David cannot risk being seen in connection with you at any other point, so long as you are engaged in London,” the Lady said.  “Already, it is possible that he has risked too much, and if my operations in this area were more extensive, I would not have allowed him to involve himself in the first place.”

Allowed, instead of ordered?  That implied the giant had taken it upon his own initiative to step in on my behalf, which did not fit with the image of the man I’d cobbled together from our two previous encounters.

I nodded at the Lady, while my mind continued to mull over that possible nugget of information.  “No more get of jail free cards, then?”

“Nothing is free, Mister O’Brien,” the Lady said.  “But, in answer to the question you meant to ask?  No.  Any additional encounters with the authorities must be resolved in whatever way is most expedient to you, your team, and your available resources.  I leave the details up to you and yours.  Unless I’m mistaken, they should be arriving shortly.”

“You’re just going to leave me?  After all the trouble your personal jolly Green Giant went through to get me out of Scotland Yard?”

“I have no intention of allowing any of your associates to tail me,” the Lady said.  “Although I suppose I should offer points for ambition.”

I bit down on my bottom lip, and said nothing for several seconds.  The Lady made no move to indicate that I should leave the limo.  Eventually, I took it upon myself to open the door and stepped out.  We were in a particularly isolated portion of an unused parking garage.  There were no cars that I could see or hear in the vicinity, but I didn’t doubt that she knew more about Sarah’s location than I did.

I turned to close the door, clutching the manila folder tight to my thigh.  As soon as it clicked shut and locked, the car window rolled slowly down.  The Lady gave me a serious look, those dangerous eyes glittering over the rim of her teacup.  “I have invested a great deal into you, Mister O’Brien.  See that I am not disappointed.”

The limo started to pull away and finally, my brain clicked over a question she’d alluded to, but never quite answered.  “Wait!  You said there’s a time constraint.  Why?  What changed?”

The car didn’t stop, but her voice floated back to me through the cracked window.  “Your friends,” she said, “will be the death of you.”

I stared after her for a long while, watching as her limousine turned a corner and disappeared, mulling over what she might have meant by that cryptic farewell.  Even after Sarah arrived in her mobile command center, even after Michel wrapped me in a warm embrace, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Lady’s cold eyes and colder words hinted at some darker twist we’d yet to discover.

Chapter Eighty-Nine

“I don’t even know why I’m here,” I said, still clinging to the whinier version of myself as cover.  “Will someone just tell me what’s going on?”

Adlai’s hands tensed for a second before relaxing slightly.  “I do not find your little act amusing, O’Brien,” he said.  “You and I both know why you are here and what you have done.”

“I haven’t done anything!”

“Very well, then,” Adlai said.  “Excuse me while I retrieve the information on each and every one of your crimes.  The list is quite substantial, or I would have done so before coming in to this…interview, to begin with.”

He started to stand and I held out a hand to stop him without even thinking.  Sarah had been very clear; if Adlai accessed the files that she was corrupting, the entire process would be a non-starter.  His attention had to be kept away from any computer that might provide him with an opportunity to ruin our plans.  For the moment, the only way to keep his eyes firmly on me was to play his game.

“Let’s say,” I began, “that I hypothetically know what you’re talking about.”

“Hypothetically.”

His intonation made it clear that he didn’t consider my choice of vocabulary as valid, but I wasn’t talking for him at the moment.  The one-way glass might conceal a cadre of police officers and prosecutors, waiting with baited breath for me to misspeak.

I gave Adlai a nod.  “In fact, let’s assume that whatever conversation you want to have is preceded by an invisible ‘hypothetically.’  I’d hate for someone to get the wrong idea about our chat, or to start thinking that I’m confessing to crimes that I obviously don’t know anything about.”

Adlai tapped two fingers against the side of his left leg in thought.  I watched him silently, hoping I’d read him correctly.  I knew from miserable firsthand experience that his slavish adherence to the law made him the kind of opposition best handled from a distance of several hundred, or thousand, miles.  But it wasn’t his faith in the legal system that brought him back into my life, time and time again.  For some reason I couldn’t understand, Adlai treated our relationship as a personal affront to his sensibilities.

It was that personal angle that I hoped to take advantage of.  A good police officer would have left the room, regardless of my protest.  In fact, a good police officer probably wouldn’t have entered the interrogation room without as much evidence as he could lay his hands on, and he certainly wouldn’t have sent away any corroborating witnesses.  To my reckoning, Adlai was a superlative officer of the law: fastidious and exacting in a way that had, on more than occasion, convinced me that the man would have made an excellent thief.

He was also, however, a human being.  It took him less than ten seconds to decide to walk back across the room, pull his chair from under the table, and seat himself opposite me again.

Adlai steepled his fingers once more and turned his eyes to me.  The look on his face hit me like a well-thrown punch.  “Let us say that.  What do you have say for yourself?”

“About what?”

“You have stolen,” Adlai said, “you have broken into houses across Europe, and you have been complicit in widespread panic and destruction.”

“I have not,” I protested.  Then, a moment later, “Hypothetically speaking, of course.”

“You think that I did not keep up with your trail of destruction?” Adlai asked.  “What led to your incarceration while in Paris, then, if not a firebomb that left several neighborhoods in darkness for two days?”

“That wasn’t…okay, that wasn’t exactly me.”

“Oh, of course not,” Adlai said.  A mirthless laugh escaped his lips.  “It is never you.  You are just unlucky enough to always been in the wrong place – the wrong city, or the wrong country perhaps – at exactly the right time.  It is a coincidence that so many items of value disappear when you go on vacation, is it not?”

“Items of value?  You mean paintings and jewelry…things like that?”

Adlai gave me a nod.

I snorted back in derision.  “Those things don’t have any real value.  Having a Renoir doesn’t help feed anybody, but it does look damn good when you’re having thirty of your closest friends over for a fancy dinner party.   An original Castellani is only good for one thing: looking good around the neck of a dilettante whose father or husband or pool boy has more money than they know what to do with.”

It occurred to me that Sarah’s family owned several Castellanis and at least one Renoir; I elected to keep that information to myself.

“And you are such a good person,” Adlai asked, “that you do not care about the value of these things?”

“If I did anything you’re accusing me of, you think I did it for the money?”

Adlai gave me a second sharp nod.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.  What’s something you think I’ve stolen?”

“Four and a half years ago, one Vermeer from the private collection of Nathaniel Romanov.”  He didn’t have the files in front of him, but he provided an answer without even pausing to check his memory.  I must have been on his mind more than I’d let myself admit.

“Something like that would go for…”  I pretended to think, while actually racking my brain to recall exactly how much Sarah had been able to negotiate for that particular piece.  If my memory wasn’t failing me, that had been a commissioned job and we’d voluntarily taken a pay cut on the deal, in exchange for future considerations in the area.  “Let’s say twenty million.”

“If you add a zero to that number,” Adlai said, “you would be closer to the truth.”

“Really?  Two hundred million?  Vermeer’s actually go for that much?”  Apparently, I’d taken a larger pay cut than I’d realized.  No wonder the client had been so effusive about referring further work our way.  “Well, even if it were just the original number.  You don’t think a man can live his entire life off of twenty million dollars and live comfortably?  And you’re implying that I’ve been involved in other thefts like that, right?”

Adlai parted his lips, probably to rattle off a list of my other successes over the years, and I waved him into silence.

“So, any one or two of those jobs could pay for a lavish life of luxury, don’t you think?  Why would I continue stealing these things, opening myself up to greater and greater risk every single time, if I’d already gotten away with a small fortune?”

“Then why?  Why would you do the things you have done?”

I opened my mouth to answer, then froze as I realized I didn’t have an easy answer to that question.  I had, on previous occasions, spent some much needed time in self-reflection on that very point: what drove me to steal, why I chose the targets that I did, and why I simply didn’t leave the business entirely.  I’d spent a lifetime on the edge of capture, evading police forces and private investigators across the globe by nothing more than the skin of my teeth; I’d worked with some particularly distasteful individuals who performed unsavory tasks for unsavory people; and, though it was painful to admit, I’d unwillingly sacrificed my marriage to the job.

And I had not, for the life of me, been able to identify why I continued to go through it all.  After the divorce, I’d only been attempting to chase down that feeling I really only felt when Sarah was pulling strings from a safe location.  But before that?  Even before I’d started working with Asher and well before I’d met and married Sarah…I couldn’t put my finger on a single, solid answer.

“Why?” I repeated to Adlai, giving myself more time to think and also ensuring that he wouldn’t leave the room before I answered.  “Because it’s fun, I guess.  No one really gets hurt.  The marks have all of their property ensured, so it isn’t like they’re actually money.  And they get a great story to tell when they meet up for drinks on top of the Eiffel tower, or whatever else it is that fabulously rich people do with their spare time.”

“You do not think you hurt anyone?  What about the law?  Does that mean nothing to you?”

“The law isn’t a person,” I said, immediately.

“It is important,” Adlai shot back.  “Just because you personally enjoy flaunting the law, that does not mean you are some sort of Robin Hood figure.”

I barked out a laugh.  “When did I say I was some sort of noble thief, out to help the people?  Anything I stole – hypothetically – I either kept or sold.  Mostly sold.  I don’t really see the point of holding onto extravagant paintings, and it isn’t like I find myself entertaining a lot of people, what with the relatively short period of time I spend in a given country.”

“So you admit that you are just a thief!” Adlai cried out, triumphant.

“I did not admit any such thing,” I said.  “But, if what you’re saying turned out to be true, then yes.  I would be a thief.  I’m not under any illusions about that.  But seriously?  Can you honestly tell me that I’m the worst criminal that’s had the displeasure of your attention?”

“That is not the point,” Adlai said.  “A crime is a crime; it does not matter if you think that your crime is somehow less of what it is.”

I blinked and searched his expression for any hint of dissemblance.  There was none to be found.  “You’re serious?  You actually think that art theft is bad as every other crime?”

The stony stare he directed my way served as answer enough.

“What kind of cases do they have you working, Adlai?  You don’t deal with murderers, or rapists, or human trafficking?  I’m serious, here.  Are you, like, in the welterweight division as far as Interpol goes?”

“Welterweight?”  His eyebrows drew closer together in thought for a moment.  “What is that supposed to mean?”

“What I mean,” I said, “is that you’re out of your mind if you think that what I allegedly do is anywhere near as bad as a whole hell of a lot of crimes I can name off the top of my head.”

What had originally only been intended as a diversion now felt subtly different to me.  I’d been on the run from Adlai for more years than I could count and, all things considered, I honestly felt that it was something purely professional on both of our parts.  Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog, taking shots at each other all day long, only to drop the act after the cameras switched off.  Even if the small matter of my dubious relationship with the law didn’t matter, it wasn’t likely that I’d want to spend a lot of time with the man, but I could respect his work ethic and dogged tenacity.

Listening to him now – actually seeing him, face to face – gave me the impression that it wasn’t just professional for him, and it certainly wasn’t just a personal vendetta.  The worst thing I’d ever done to Adlai specifically hadn’t done much worse than ruin a suit and cost him a few frequent flyer miles.

“What did I do to you?” I asked him, foregoing the fiction of my innocence.  It wasn’t going to convince Adlai of anything, and Scotland Yard didn’t have enough to hold me, anyway.

“You…what?  You did nothing to me.  You have broken the law, and that is enough.”

“That’s enough for the way you’ve been chasing me for years?  Let me ask you a question: what about the real bad guys?  Do you have the same level of obsession with them?”

“I will catch any criminal,” Adlai said.  He spoke robotically, as if he was repeating something he’d committed to memory a long time ago.  “The law is not something to be played with.”

“And that seems right to you?  You have to understand how absurd you’re being.”  An idea occurred to me.  It might be possible to accomplish two things at once, if I spoke carefully.  At the moment, there wasn’t any way to check what information had and had not been released to the public, and I didn’t want to provide any of these delightful law enforcement officers with more solid legal footing.  “You’re international, so maybe you heard about a bank robbery a few months ago?”

Adlai nodded before he could stop himself.  “Was that you, as well?”

“From what I heard, people died there. You know I wouldn’t play things that way.”

He didn’t betray any emotion but, after a few seconds of thought, his head inclined slightly in acknowledgement.  “What does that have to do with you, then?”

I could have named Asher.  Adlai’s focus on me had been like a laser, so I wasn’t sure if he was even aware of Asher’s existence, but I could have done it.  It might even have worked.  There was every possibility that it might even be enough to put pressure on Hill and Asher’s plan.  What stopped me wasn’t common sense, but simple ego.  I wanted to catch him on my own.  Handing him over to the police before I’d had a chance at a long, long conversation with Asher didn’t sit well with me.

“It doesn’t,” I said, after a moment.  “I mean, not really.  But there’s…someone out there who is killing people, threatening innocents, and you think that’s the same as me?  Compared to that, I’m the good guy.”

Adlai slammed his fist onto the table.  The action exploded out of nowhere and I jerked away from him instantly.  “You are a criminal,” he said.  “I am the ‘good guy.’  I am the one who is trying to preserve the law!”

“Not like this you aren’t,” I shot back.  My own temper began rising up from the pit of my stomach and I made no particular effort to hold it down.  “If you’re going to focus all of your resources on catching me, instead of going after the real monsters, then you’re as good as helping those assholes get away with actual murder.  I can help, Adlai; I’m trying to help, but I can’t do that if I’ve got to deal with you on my tail every second of every day.”

“So, this is your angle?” Adlai asked.  “Convince me of some spectral threat and make yourself out to be some sort of hero?  I thought that you were not the Robin Hood type.”

“I’m not,” I said.  “But I’m far from the worst person in the field right now, and you have got to know that.  What brought you here, in the first place?  It certainly wasn’t the break-in at the Museum of London and the whole situation at the manor house isn’t something that would involve Interpol.  Your superiors sent you here to deal with something, but you got distracted by the possibility of catching me.  How, exactly, is that acting in the pursuit of justice?”

An interesting thing happened to Adlai’s eyes.  They narrowed first, and locked onto me with malevolent force, as if he could somehow will me out of existence.  Then, they widened slightly at the corners.  I recognized that micro-expression: a piece of some puzzle had fallen into place within his mind.

“What is it?” I asked.  “What are you thinking?”

“No,” Adlai said.  It took me a moment to realize that he was talking to himself.  “No, that isn’t right.  But…how else…?”

Without more information, I couldn’t help him proceed further down his train of thought, nor could I stop him.  I didn’t even know which option would be better for me and my team.  So, instead of interrupting, I sat quietly and watched Adlai for any sign that might help me make the best decision.

Lost in a sudden torrent of thoughts, it was like the agent had forgotten entirely about my presence.  He removed a smartphone from his pocket and checked something on the screen.  Then, shaking his head slowly, he closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose, and looked a second time.

“When,” he asked, finally, “did you arrive in London?”

Before answering, I considered the mental odds of him managing to run down the fake identities Sarah and I had used to enter the country.  On a given day, at least a hundred thousand passengers went through Heathrow.  I was safe to answer that question.  “Maybe two weeks ago.  Why?”

“That was before the museum was robbed,” Adlai mused.  “But…”

“But what?”  When he didn’t answer, I leaned forward and rested my weight on the table in front of me.  I could sense that he was close to a revelation, even if I had no idea what that revelation might turn out to be.  “Are you just going to sit there and be deliberately inscrutable?”

“I will be back,” he said.  Without giving me the opportunity to say anything that might keep him inside the interrogation room and away from any computer, Adlai rushed out of the room.  He left the folder, filled with documents on the table in his haste.

I bit back a sharp curse and checked my phone.  I’d managed to keep Adlai in the room for maybe ten minutes.  Sarah’s ability to function at the top of her game on short notice wasn’t as pronounced as my own, but she wasn’t someone to be discounted.  My faith in her was validated when, only a second or two after Adlai left me to my own ruminations, the encrypted cell phone in my pocket vibrated.  I fished it out and answered the incoming call.

“Good, there isn’t a delay on these things,” Sarah said, without preamble.  “I wasn’t sure, and there isn’t really a way to check.”

“Ah yes,” I said, “the dreaded delay.  Worst thing ever when it happens to…what are you talking about, again?”

“The camera, idiot.”  In my peripheral vision, the solid red light blinked on and off several times, signaling Sarah’s control over the equipment.  “There aren’t any networked microphones, and the resolution is terrible, but I’ve been watching to see if we needed to step directly in.”

“That would defeat the entire reasoning behind my current predicament, Sarah.  What’s the deal with Mila?”

“She’s here,” Sarah said.  “Looking a little perturbed that we came after her, but she’ll get over it.”

“What happened?”

“I…honestly don’t know,” Sarah admitted.  “Neither does she.  They just came in, uncuffed her, and said that she should make an effort to stay reachable for the next few days.  I’ll be honest, I’ve never been arrested; is this something that happens a lot?”

“Not in my experience, no.  But, I’ll be honest: the last time I dealt with the police in any meaningful fashion, they ended up throwing me in jail.  I might be a little biased.”

“We can figure everything out from the safety of the Brooklands,” Sarah said.  “We’ve just go to figure out a way to get you out of there.”

“You want to walk back into Scotland Yard and destroy the only reason I’m sitting in this predicament in the first place?  Adlai doesn’t have anything on me, and we aren’t in America, where he could just lock me up for forty-eight hours because he’s having a bad day.”  Pause.  “He doesn’t have anything on me, does he?”

“Not anymore,” Sarah assured me.  “Those files are corrupted beyond repair.  He’ll realize something happened, but there’s not a lot he can do about that.”

“That’s what I’m saying.  There’s no reason to come in, guns blazing, when I’ve only got to wait out this interview.”

Silence from Sarah’s end of the comms for several seconds, punctuated by the rapid fire clicking of her computer keys.  “As it turns out, Adlai can’t put you in jail for forty-eight hours, but there’s nothing stopping him from a solid thirty-six.  Maybe even longer, if he can find a magistrate who’ll listen to whatever he’s got to say.”

I blinked and resolved to learn more about the various legal statutes of any country I planned to rob.  “Still, it’s only thirty-six hours.  Avis is still working on decrypting the documents and we don’t even know who or where Hill actually is yet.  All we can do is wait anyway.”

A noise outside of the room drew my attention to the door.  Sarah, presumably watching through the low resolution camera, must have seen my head swivel around.  “I think I’ve got an idea.  Just in case it doesn’t work, don’t worry about the phone.  If someone other than you tries to use it, it’s only going to wipe the hard drive.”

“Good to know, Sarah,” I said, just as the door opened and Adlai stepped back into the interrogation room.  “Talk to you…”

The line disconnected suddenly.  Sarah protecting the line, perhaps?  I shrugged and, when I looked up, expected to see suspicion in Adlai’s eyes.  He would almost certainly realize that I was somehow responsible for corrupting the files in his system, even if he couldn’t prove it.

What I saw instead was closer to frustration and it wasn’t directed in my direction, at all.

“What is it?”

“Your…lawyer,” Adlai said, forcing the word past his lips like they tasted foul.

I stared back at him.  “My what?”

“You heard me.  Your lawyer is insisting that we either release you or formally charge you.  Scotland Yard does not have the manpower to pursue an investigation right now, with the disaster at the processing plant – I am confident that you know all about that – and other situations that have cropped up over London in the past few weeks.”

“So you’re letting me go?”

“I am allowing you to a brief moment to collect yourself,” Adlai said.  I could see how much it killed him to play by these rules, and I understood that feeling in a vague sort of way.  Someone higher up had probably forced his hand and Adlai, despite being incredibly accurate about the state of affairs in London, hadn’t been given a choice.

I tried not to gloat as I stood up.  “Well, I enjoyed our talk.  And I’m serious; you should really take some time to think about everything.  Know what I mean?”

He glowered at me and the temperature around the man seemed to drop five or ten degrees.  “And you should remember that I am not fooled by your lies.  You will make a mistake, and I will be there to catch you.”

“I make mistakes on a daily basis,” I replied.  “So, what you’re saying is that we’ll see each other sooner rather than later.”

“Yes.”  A thin smile spread across his face.  “Sooner, rather than later.”

I walked out of the room, taking great care not to bump into Adlai and technically find myself charged with assault.  Back in the general office, there wasn’t any lawyer that I could see.  I made my way downstairs in a hurry, wondering idly how Sarah had managed to arrange a lawyer in the few seconds she’d had available.

That answer came when I exited Scotland Yard and found myself confronted by a black stretch limousine that seemed conspicuously out of place in the early morning light of London.  As large as the car was, it was dwarfed by the man standing next to the rear passenger door.  The giant David looked coldly at me for several seconds before he opened the door and motioned for me to step inside.  I swept my eyes across the surrounding area first and saw that Sarah’s mobile work station was gone from the area.

David gestured a second time, more forcefully.  I stepped into the limo, for fear that he might simply throw me into the limousine.  Seated opposite me, wearing a white wool dress decorated with twining lengths of black vines and flowers, sat the Lady.  She appraised me with eyes as sharp as knives and, before the door closed and locked me into the back of the limo with her, I found myself wondering whether thirty-six hours in prison would really have been so bad.

Chapter Eighty-Eight

What happened next could most charitably be described as a circus’ worth of activity, contained within the storm wall of a particularly chaotic whirlwind.  The two officers at the front desk first blinked at me, then at each other, before realization dawned on them.  From that point, it took only a single phone call and two words – my name – to bring several burly men rushing into the lobby, both by elevator and the stairs.

There were benefits to my hasty decision, I realized, as men in uniforms began ushering me upstairs, to the nearest interrogation room.  Primarily, I’d turned myself in, rather than waiting for the law to locate me on their own.  I was only listed as a person of interest, in connection to the museum robbery and the shootout at the manor house.  Just because the owners of the Rose and Thorn had described me well enough to produce a passable sketch, the police still didn’t have enough hard evidence to actually place me under arrest.  Of course, it would still be preferable to remove or otherwise impugn even that sketch, but any port in a storm would have to do.

Another unexpected positive angle occurred to me a moment later, when we reached the second floor and I was ‘escorted’ into a featureless room, marked by a wall mounted camera and double-sided mirror.  I was in England, and the police in England didn’t carry weapons typically.  That wasn’t an immediate benefit – I doubted anyone would try to shoot a surrendering suspect, just because – but it was still something worth keeping in mind.  It wasn’t as though I could defend myself, so it was comforting to at least be able to minimize the amount of threats I had to concern myself with.

When I was comfortably seated in the interrogation room, the officers left me seated there in isolation.  The space itself reminded me of the room where Asher had stashed me, back at the warehouse, before he’d been able to enact whatever dastardly tortures he’d intended.  The double sided mirror was a change.  While I’d only been forced to endure one prison sentence of any appreciable length, I’d spent more than my fair share of time seated in rooms exactly like that one, so I waved casually to whoever was watching from the other side of the glass.  A table was also bolted to the floor in front of me, with a little divot and bar combination designed to restrain anyone in handcuffs.  I was not cuffed – at least, not yet – but my wrists began to ache in anticipation of that inevitable conclusion.

Other than the minor benefits and environmental changes that I’d noted, nothing particularly heartening came to mind.  I had absolute faith that Sarah, once she was able to leave the building without bringing legal attention to herself or the Ford family at large, would be able to erase any digital footprint that might exist.  As I was in the process of deliberately leaving very large physical footprints, however, I didn’t hold out much hope for my own situation.

One minute into my lonely considerations, the encrypted cell phone I’d taken from the car began to play the opening chords from ‘Cruel Summer.’  My eyebrows crinkled together for a few seconds before I understood the joke.  Before answering, I looked up at the camera, mounted high on the wall opposite me, so that it was nestled into a corner.  The indicator light was dark, but that didn’t mean anything.

I leaned back in my chair, waved once more to the invisible watchers on the other side of the double sided glass, and pressed the ‘Answer Call’ button on the phone.  “Hello?”

“Devlin, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Sarah hissed at me.  “You think we went through all this trouble, just so that you could turn yourself in the first chance you get?”

“Glad to hear you made it home safe,” I said.  I couldn’t assume that the police weren’t recording everything that went on the interrogation room while they left me alone to stew over my own thoughts.  Sarah would understand any slight dissemblance I chose to use.  “It was touch and go for a little bit there, wasn’t it?”

“That’s not the point,” Sarah said.  “I could have figured something out.  Even if not, there’s nothing Adlai could have done to me, other than decide to treat me with more suspicion the next time we encountered each other.  And I wasn’t exactly planning on there being a next time.”

“How’s the family?” I asked.  “You haven’t talked to them in a while, yeah, but you know what they say.  Blood is thicker than water and all that.”

Sarah was quiet for a few seconds.  When she spoke again, the razor’s edge of anger wasn’t quite gone from her voice, but it was least blunted by audible concern.  “Fine.  I’ll acknowledge that.  But do you have any plan, at all, to get out of there?  Or were you just going to hand yourself to Adlai with a bow, hoping that Hill and Asher don’t have people in the prison system specifically to deal with loose ends?”

It was my turn to think in silence.  The beginnings of a plan were beginning to crystallize in my mind, but I couldn’t exactly convey the steps to Sarah while someone might be watching or listening to every word I spoke.  “It’s kind of a long story,” I said, finally.  “I’m clearing up a misunderstanding right now.”

I didn’t speak for a few seconds, as if Sarah were asking me some question.

“It’s complicated,” I said, after an appropriate amount of time had passed.  “But I’m pretty sure it’ll go away as soon as they figure out they’ve got bad information.”

Sarah sucked in a sharp breath.  “You want to me to erase the files, while you’re there?”

“I’m about to talk to whoever’s in charge now,” I said.  “No telling how long it’ll take, but it’s not like I’ve got anything better to do.”

“I can get Michel into the evidence room.  The ongoing construction, coupled with the amount of officers moving in and out of the building tonight, is going to make that easier than expected.  You want all of the digital information gone too?”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Sarah didn’t say anything for a second or two.  “I could do that, but that’s only going to let Adlai know for sure that you’re working with a hacker.”

“Say that again?” I asked.  “I didn’t understand that.”

“I said…oh, you know what I said.  What I mean is that I can corrupt the files, instead.  Same difference, but at least there’s the outside possibility that it was something that happened naturally.  You think that’ll work?”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding at the camera and the double sided mirror in turn.  “Yeah, that sounds like it could work.  When do you think you’ll get here?”

“I don’t have complete access yet, but…no, nevermind.  Listen, I’ll get in.  I don’t know how I’ll let you know, but I can do it.”  She paused.  “You’re going to have to keep Adlai from pulling up the files, though.  I can’t change anything if the files are open.  His entire focus has to be in the room, with the two of you.”

At that, the door to the interrogation room swung open with such force that it bounced off of the wall and came to rest at a forty-five degree angle.  I turned in my seat to see Adlai storming into the room, flanked by a dark-skinned man in a travel-worn tweed jacket and thin red tie.

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” I said to Sarah.  “I’ll have to call you back, though.”

I hung up before she could respond and assumed a posture of absolute innocence.  Adlai took up position in one corner of the room, under the presumably inactive camera, while the dark-skinned man turned the chair opposite me around so that he could lean his weight across the back.  He was a big man, and the chair wasn’t meant to be used like that, but he made it work.  Barely.  He placed a thin, tan folder on the table between us, as well as a steaming cup of what smelled like cheap coffee, and locked eyes with me.

“Mister O’Brien,” the dark-skinned man said in a rich baritone.  “We’ve been looking for you.”

“I just saw that on the news,” I replied, widening my eyes to convey a suitably confused wariness.  “I was out of the area on, uh, business.  I came down as soon as I heard.”

“And what sort of business are you involved in, Mister O’Brien?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Could you un-complicate it for me, then?” The dark-skinned man scratched at a thick layer of stubble and gave me a rueful sort of smile.  I imagined that smile had lulled any number of criminals into a false sense of security before.  It might very well have eased a little of my own tension, if Adlai hadn’t been perched in the corner, watching me like a hawk sizing up the best angle to pounce on its next meal.

“Acquisitions,” I said, honestly enough.

Adlai barked out a sharp laugh at that.  When the dark-skinned man turned slightly, Adlai raised both of his hands and signaled that he didn’t have anything to say.

The dark-skinned man returned his attention to me.  “Ah,” he said calmly, loading the single syllable with a surprising amount of subtext.

“What’s this about?” I asked.

“Well, there’s been more than a few spots of trouble in London, these last few days,” the British detective said.  “And my associate here seems to think that you might know a bit about that.  You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that trouble, would you?”

“I don’t even know what trouble you’re talking about,” I protested.

The dark-skinned detective opened his folder and removed several photographs.  Carefully, as though the pictures might be damaged by his large hands, he spread them out across the table so that I could see each one.  When that was done, he pointed at the picture farthest to my left.  “A couple of days ago, we got an anonymous tip to examine this area outside of town.  Do you know what we found?”

I recognized the landscape in the picture, but there was nothing else there except for the smoky ruins of a building.  It looked considerably different in the full light of day.

The dark-skinned detective continued, taking my silence as an answer.  “Right around here, you can see the foundation of what looks like a very large building.  But you don’t see the building itself because it was burned to the ground.  I personally went through some records and there’s no mention anywhere of a building out there.  Of course, if someone wanted to build anything that far out of town, there really wouldn’t be any way to know, would there?”

He pointed to the next picture in line, and I was more familiar with that than the landscape.  “Isn’t this that crown that was on display at Museum of London?”

“Indeed it is,” the dark-skinned detective said.  “Or, it might be more precise to say that it was the crown.  It was stolen from the museum.”

I wasn’t quite playing a character, but I still modified my reactions to fit with a hypothetically innocent person.  To my estimation, most people wouldn’t particularly care about the theft of artwork or jewelry, so long as it didn’t affect them personally, so I only gave the picture a skeptical look and shrugged with one shoulder.  “When did that happen?”

“To the best of our forensic estimation,” the dark-skinned detective said, “it seems like the theft took place around the same time as this building – whatever it was – burned to the ground.”

“What does any of this have to do with me?”

Instead of immediately answering, the dark-skinned detective took a long drink from his tiny Styrofoam cup of coffee.  “Good behavior,” he said, finally.

The quizzical expression that came to my features wasn’t faked in the slightest.  “What?”

“Good behavior,” the dark-skinned detective repeated.  “You were paroled early in France, for good behavior.  Is that right?”

I blinked several times, contemplating how to answer.  It said a lot about the last few days that I wasn’t terribly shocked to discover the Lady’s ability to manipulate events extended to changing public record.  Adlai would almost certainly have been keeping tabs on my prison sentence, so erasing me from the system entirely would have set off red flags.  By adjusting the date of my release, however, the Lady had done just enough that I could move around Europe without setting off alarms at every airport or checkpoint.

“I made a mistake,” I said, picking my words carefully.  “And I paid for that mistake.”

“And what mistake was that?”

My not-quite character assumed a more aggressive posture and tone.  “You’ve got my record.  You tell me.”

The dark-skinned detective raised his hands, palms facing me, in the universal sign of surrender.  “No need to get hostile,” he said.  “Just trying to understand everything.  What can you tell me about this?”  He pointed at the third picture: the manor house, swarming with police officers, techs, and forensic analysts.

“A post-modern take on Downton Abbey?” I asked.  “I’m here on business, yeah, but none of that business requires me to spend any time with lords or ladies.”

“Just…what was it?  Two days ago?  Three?  Anyway, a few days ago, there was a major incident at this location.”  The detective tapped an index finger against the photograph.  “Guns and everything.  Unlike Americans, we take guns very seriously here in England.”

I rolled my eyes.  “I’m not American.”

The detective raised an eyebrow.  “Sure about that?”

“Both my mother and father are Irish,” I explained, “and that’s where I was born.  I grew up in America, which isn’t the same thing.”

The detective jotted down some notes on that and I instantly rejected the clarification.  It wasn’t likely to amount to anything – my mother had been buried a long time ago and the whereabouts of my father remained a mystery I couldn’t bring myself to care about – but it was the principle of the thing.

“My apologies about that,” the detective said, when he finished writing.  “Now, you say you didn’t have any business to be up in this area?  Can you explain this, then?”

He pointed at the third picture, which was not a photograph at all.  It was the sketch I’d seen on the news.  I pretended to examine it for several seconds before I shrugged again.  “It’s someone who looks like me, I guess?  What’s your point?”

“We’ve got a witness – two, actually – who can put you in town right around when this shootout was happening,” the detective said.

“If you have two witnesses who can do that, I’ll be impressed,” I countered, “seeing as I wasn’t there.  And even if I was, and you could prove it, all that would do is prove…what, exactly?  That I was traveling somewhere?  That’s not illegal, is it?”

“Not unless you’re carrying weapons,” the detective said.  “You aren’t carrying weapons, are you?”

“I was searched before they brought me up here, so you already know I’m not.  Look, do I need to call a lawyer?  Or a barrister, or whatever you call them over here?”

The detective tilted his head at me.  “I don’t know.  Do you?”

“If you don’t get to the point soon, I think I very well might have to.”

“I’m getting to that.  Now, can you tell me what you see here?” The detective pointed at the final picture in the lineup.  “Just a couple of hours ago, this factory went up in smoke.  And I suppose you wouldn’t happen to know anything about this?”

“Who do you think I am?” I asked.  “I mean, seriously; what do you think I do?  I’m in acquisitions.  Why would I blow up a factory?”

“That’s a very good question,” the detective replied.  “Now, I’m just getting up to speed on this case, but my friend here is convinced that you know more about what’s going on than you’re letting on.  And I’ve got to tell you; from all appearances, this is a very smart man.”

“Well,” I said, directing my voice to Adlai.  He still hadn’t spoken, but it was important that I keep his attention inside of the room.  It wouldn’t take much before he decided to check on my files and, in doing so, make it impossible for Sarah to finish with her work.  “Do you talk for yourself?”

Adlai’s eyes narrowed.

“Because if you did,” I continued, “I’d ask you why you’re letting this fine detective do all the interrogation himself?  If you’ve got questions, ask them with your own lips.”

Still nothing.

“If I was involved with any of the things you’re showing me,” I said, “why in God’s name would I turn myself in?  Why wouldn’t I just hide until this all blew over?”

For several seconds, Adlai continued to watch me silently and I repeated my last question in the vaults of my own mind.  Hiding would have been a fantastic plan, if Asher’s presence wasn’t forcing my team and me to take increasingly reckless actions.  Then, jarring me from my ruminations, Adlai spoke.

“Detective Inspector,” Adlai said, in his soft and lightly accented voice.  “If you could leave the two of us alone.”

“You sure?” The dark-skinned detective gave me a dubious look.

Adlai didn’t take his eyes from me for a heartbeat.  “I am positive.”

The detective – detective inspector, actually – pushed away from the table.  He took his cup of coffee, but left the photos spread across the table.  “Good luck, mate,” he said to me and then stepped out of the room.  The door closed behind him with a loud, ominous click.

Adlai walked from his corner to the chair where the detective had sat.  He turned the chair back to its proper orientation, sat, and neatly stacked all of the pictures up before returning them to the thin, tan folder.  He placed the folder to his right with its edge flush with the edge of the table.  Adlai steepled his fingers and then wove them together in a penitent fashion, watching me over his knuckles with hunter’s eyes.

“So,” he said, finally.  “Here we are.”

Chapter Eighty-Seven

It was only through an exertion of palpable self-control that I kept myself from asking Sarah not to go through with her idea.  She wouldn’t have listened, at best.  At worst, the implication that she might not be able to handle this task could cause a fight that we couldn’t afford to have.  And, I admitted to myself, she had been absolutely right in her original estimation.  Using Sarah in this way, at this moment, was simply the best option.

Adlai didn’t know that Sarah was working with me, or that she’d been instrumental to some of the greater heists I’d successfully pulled over the years.  As far as he would know, she would be Sarah Ford, scion of a particularly powerful and influential American family.  While she made a point to stay out of the news – unlike her sisters, who consumed every second of available media time like oxygen – Sarah was still a known quantity.

She’d appeared at high society functions sporadically before retiring to San Francisco following the dissolution of our partnership and marriage.  Her full name was listed on copious amounts of legal paperwork; she’d attended a prestigious college; and, during a wild two years immediately following her graduation, the tabloids had flirted with the idea of portraying Sarah as some sort of wild child.  Her public persona was flighty and unfocused, which clashed so horribly with the reality of the situation – Sarah’s ability to focus on, identify, and absolutely eradicate a problem defied logic sometimes – that I still found it hilarious to consider.

Even with the glut of negative press, however, she was still a Ford.  The family held political influence in America and, through clever trade deals and backroom arrangements, possessed connections in several overseas markets.  If Sarah made a request of local authorities, she couldn’t exactly be ignored, without facing potential career suicide.  Adlai wouldn’t necessarily care about that, but he’d follow protocol.  That was, after all, what one was supposed to do.

I thought about all of this, and more, while I drove the van back to the front of Scotland Yard.  When Sarah stood up, before she opened the door to step down from the van, I finally found something to say.  “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“I hadn’t planned to get kidnapped, start a shootout, or blow the building up,” Sarah said.  “If it’s all the same to you.”

I scowled at her.  “You know what I mean.”

Sarah’s expression softened.  “Yeah.  I know what you mean.  You understand how to work this system?”

“Press button,” I replied, in my very best ‘caveman’ voice.  “Speak loud.”

“That’s about the gist of it,” Sarah said.  I noticed, to my great delight, that she was struggling to hide a smile.  “Let me know what the system comes up with about the evidence room, as soon as it pops.  I can probably do most of the work from my tablet, I think.”

“Probably?  You think?”

Sarah shrugged.  “Stop trying to stall.”

I blinked, and then realized that I was trying to keep her from leaving.  “Alright,” I said, after a heartbeat or two.  “Get out of here, you’re cramping my style.”

Sarah started to say something.  She shook her head, dismissing the half-formed idea, and stepped down from the van without another word.  I closed the door for her.

As soon as I did that, I jumped up into her chair and spent a few seconds fiddling with the installed controls.  The joystick on the left side of the repurposed wheelchair was fairly intuitive, but it took me a few tries to master the ability to snap directly to a given monitor and stay there.  When I had that under control, I moved myself to the first monitor and clicked the icon marked ‘Ford,’ switching the camera feed away from Michel to the brooch Sarah had pinned to her lapel before leaving the Halfway House.

Where Michel had simply entered through the security checkpoint, Sarah headed directly to the front desk.  Two officers were stationed there.  One of the two gave Sarah a slow once-over.  “Yes, ma’am,” the officer said.  “How can we help you?”

I rolled my eyes and imagined Sarah doing the same.

“There is something that I would like to discuss,” she said, “with regards to an ongoing investigation.”

She was using her oldest sister’s carriage again.  I wondered idly whether that was a deliberate choice, or simply an accident of circumstance.

The second officer – the one who hadn’t immediately started to undress Sarah with his eyes – lazily began to type information into an older computer in front of him.  “And what officer is working your case?”

“That is a complicated answer.  However, if you tell one Inspector Adlai that a Miss Ford is here to see him…well, I think that will clear things up.”

The two guards took a second, blinking confusion at Sarah and each other, before they drew the appropriate connections.  The first guard immediately blushed and snatched a phone from its cradle.  He pressed two buttons, connecting the front desk to Adlai’s floor, and informed the Interpol inspector that a Ford had arrived to discuss a case.  The officer had to repeat that information several times before, finally, he hung the phone back up again.

“He’ll see you in his office,” the first officer said.  “It’s been a, uh…been a bit of mess around here, what with the renovations and all going on just ‘round back.  You understand.”

“Ah,” Sarah said.  Just the one syllable, delivered so drily that she had to be deliberately playing the character a shade over the top.

“Just, uh…just go right on through the metal detectors over there, and take the elevator straight up to the third floor.”

“Excellent,” Sarah said.

She turned and walked away.  Through the security cameras, I could see as the two officers watched her depart with slack jaws.  When she was far enough away, they felt comfortable whispering to each other like children caught by a stern teacher.

I waited until she stepped into the elevator before laughing out loud.  “Was that really necessary?” I asked.

“Probably not,” Sarah replied, “but it was fun.  Let him worry that I was offended for a little bit.  It’ll do him good.”

My chuckling continued until she reached the third floor and stepped off of the elevator into absolute bedlam.  The relative calm of Michel’s floor and the entryway had lulled me into a false sense of ease, I realized.  Here, on the floor where they were keeping Mila, was where the chaos had been sown.  It seemed like an electric wire of adrenaline had been inserted into the room and subsequently overcharged.

Sarah picked her way through the bullpen, taking great care not to accidentally disturb any of the police officers, until she found a corner of the room that the chaos seemed to have missed: Adlai’s office.

“And here we go,” she whispered to me, and then knocked twice on the door.

A large window allowed me to see as Adlai looked up from his work and, recognizing Sarah after a split second of blankness, waved absently for her to enter.

“I am busy,” he said, before she’d even had the chance to take a seat.  “What do you need, Miss Ford?  I am not aware of any case involving your family; I am not certainly not investigating anything, at least.”

“Is there someone else I can speak to, then?”  Sarah asked.  I frowned.  Adlai had already put her on the back foot.

“My superior is…unavailable, at the moment.  Perhaps you could make an appointment to see him tomorrow?  As you can see, there is a great deal happening tonight that makes it…difficult to sort through information, at the moment.”

He hadn’t looked up from his documents since Sarah had entered the room.  There weren’t any security cameras in the office and the angle wasn’t good enough to allow me a view of his work.  I considered asking Sarah to try for a better look, but I knew Adlai well enough to guess that he’d simply cover everything up if it seemed like privileged information might risk getting out into the public domain.

“That simply won’t do,” Sarah said, doubling down on the ‘idle rich’ affectation.  “This is a very important matter, and time is of the essence.”

Adlai sighed.  “What is the matter, Miss Ford?”

I tuned Sarah out temporarily and slid over to the second monitor to check on Michel’s progress.  He was nearly at the evidence room now and, so far, no one had stopped or questioned him.  One of Sarah’s computers beeped to let me know that it had found the appropriate procedural manual and the correct frequency.

I clicked the comms over to speak to Michel.  “Can you hold that ID card over your phone’s IR port?” I asked.  “I need to change your level of access.”

He removed the wallet from his pocket in a smooth gesture and slipped the ID card out.  I double clicked on the icon marked ‘RFID’ and a single window appeared on the display.

I smiled to myself.  Sarah must have written this program specifically for a luddite’s use; a blinking, bright red button in the center of the screen told me that I should ‘click to activate.’  I did exactly that and, a few moments later, a second window flashed across the screen, notifying me that I had been successful.

“That’ll do,” I said.  “When you get to the evidence room, remember; all you need to do is…well, if you can’t remove the evidence, just misfiling it will buy enough time for us to finish up in London and clear the area.”

“What about Mila?” Michel asked, under his breath.

“Sarah’s in place right now, keeping Adlai from getting any alone time with her,” I assured him.

I glanced over to the screen displaying Sarah’s viewpoint and immediately regretted my optimism.  I assumed that Sarah had given Adlai our agreed-upon cover story, but the Interpol inspector didn’t seem the least bit interested.

“One sec,” I told Michel and switched lines back over to listen to Sarah’s conversation.

“Let me see if I have this correct,” Adlai said.  At least he was looking up from the documents now, but the expression of barely concealed suspicion on his features wasn’t a great improvement from the top of his head.  “You believe that I should drop everything I am doing at this moment, in order to pursue someone who might have stolen your purse?”

“Well, you are an international police officer, aren’t you?” Sarah asked.  “I remember seeing you on the television earlier.”

“There are more important things that require my attention,” Adlai said.  “I will see to it that an officer is detailed to assist you in drawing up a sketch, but if you’ll excuse me, Miss Ford…”  He stood as if to leave.

“Wait!” A little bit of Sarah’s true anxiety bled through into her voice.  That was good; the fictionalized version of herself that she was playing would probably be feeling pretty anxious, too.  “I had very important documents in that purse…it would be disastrous if they were to fall into the wrong hands.  Are you sure you can’t help me?”

What happened next was subtle.  Michel or Sarah would have missed it, had they been in my position.  Any of the Russians almost certainly wouldn’t have caught it and I doubted that Mila would have cared much about the subtleties of micro-expressions.  It was possible that Alex might have noticed, if he’d been given forewarning and been at one hundred percent, but his specialty dealt with making friends instead of analyzing potential enemies.

I was the right person to see it, though.  I knew Adlai well enough to realize that the slight hesitation before he spoke didn’t mean he was unsure of what answer to give, so much as he was debating various options.  His eyes widened by a millimeter – maybe not even by that much – as an idea hit him, then narrowed as he looked at Sarah in a new light.  The right corner of his mouth twitched minutely up, then down.  And, in a movement that was so quick that I might only have imagined it, his gaze flickered away from Sarah’s face and down to the brooch she wore on her chest.

I opened Sarah’s line.  “Shit,” I said.  “He’s not buying it.  I think he knows you’re wearing a camera, too.”

Sarah obviously couldn’t respond with Adlai watching her so intently.  She couldn’t even touch the earbud to acknowledge that she’d heard me.  But the soft, sharp intake of breath was enough of a statement, in and of itself.

“Well,” Sarah said suddenly, rising to her feet, “I suppose if you’re simply swamped with work, I can come back another time.”

“Not at all,” Adlai said.  His eyes were still narrowed as he plastered a saccharine-sweet smile.  “I would be happy to take your statement.  If you would just give me one moment to collect the proper forms, we can begin to figure out what is going on…was going on, I mean.”  The smile grew sharper.  “With your purse, that is.”

“Ah…yes, that will be very good,” Sarah replied.  Reluctantly, she took her seat again.  Adlai returned all of his documents to the manila folder and tucked it underneath his arm before leaving the room.

“You’re staying?” I asked her, as soon as the door clicked shut behind him.

“Well, I can’t leave, can I?  He knows my name, Devlin!  If I try to walk away, he’ll know something’s going on.”

The corollary to that thought became apparent an instant after Sarah finished speaking.  She still had a public identity to maintain.  Whereas I could conceivably change names or go underground until the heat died down, the circumstances of Sarah’s birth made her a person that couldn’t easily disappear.  That wasn’t to say she couldn’t manage it, but doing so would necessitate a complete severing of any relationship that might be used to track her down.

“Maybe lose the brooch?” I suggested.

“And where am I going to put it?” Sarah countered.  “This isn’t the largest office, and I’m pretty sure he’ll notice that I changed as soon as he left the room.”

“Just…give me a second to think about this.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and, as the speed of my thoughts seemed to accelerate, allowed myself to consider all of the options.  Sarah was right; she couldn’t leave the room, so long as Adlai suspected something might be wrong with her cover story.  But he couldn’t have suspected that she was connected to me.  Sarah was too thorough to have left a digital trail he might be able to follow.  Besides, if he had any idea that Sarah even knew my name, he wouldn’t have risked leaving her in the room alone to begin with.

That meant it wasn’t a targeted suspicion.  Adlai was naturally paranoid and the events at the processing plant – which had, presumably, been noisy enough that he’d felt compelled to come to work on his night off – would only have put those senses on high alert.  A member of the prestigious Ford family arriving at the exact time might not normally have put him on edge, but tonight was apparently the night where he second- and triple-guessed everything.

He was looking for a connection and grasping at straws.  Sarah was, metaphorically speaking, the latest straw in his clenched fist.  I needed to think of a way to get her out of that room without elevating her perceived value in Adlai’s eyes.  I needed to…

I knew exactly what I needed to do.  “Sarah, listen.”

“Can’t really do anything else, at the moment.”

“In about three minutes, Adlai’s going to get called away from that floor.  You can use that time to make an escape – I’m sure there’s a back staircase you can find – and get back down to the van.  You’ll have to help Michel through whatever problems he runs into.”

“Why am I going to have to…wait, you aren’t serious.”

I sighed and rose from my seat.  “If I’m remembering this one episode of Law and Order I watched, I should be able to keep my phone for a bit.  No idea how long that’s going to hold up, but it’ll have to do.  I’m leaving my earbud in the car so that there’s no chance of the line being intercepted.”

“Devlin, I can figure something out.  Just give me – “

I deactivated my earbud and removed it before Sarah could say anything else.  I made a point to look away from the screen, in case she was mouthing words into her camera.  A quick check of my person told me that I wasn’t carrying anything incriminating or illegal, which was a small favor in a sea of unfairness.  After a quick instant of consideration, I kept the encrypted cell phone.

I left the keys for the van in the back, underneath Sarah’s seat, and stepped out into the street.  Moving at double speed – this whole gambit would be useless if Adlai returned to the office before I made it inside – I rushed into Scotland Yard and approached the two guards seated behind the desk.

What I needed to do, I realized, was give him exactly what he’d been looking for.  Any attention that might have fallen on Mila or Sarah would evaporate like fog on a hot day the instant Adlai thought he might be able to arrest me.

The officers frowned as I hurried towards them.

“My name’s Devlin O’Brien,” I replied, as soon as I was within earshot.  “I heard you guys might be looking for me?”

Chapter Eighty-Six

When Michel activated his camera, one of the three screens in the van switched from a static background to a dynamic view of the interior of Scotland Yard.  Judging from the camera image, Michel was moving slowly through the building…not exactly dawdling, but not in any great rush to reach the entry point where the cloned RFID would be tested.  As such, his stolid movement stood out in sharp contrast to the frenzied rush of uniformed men and women, into and out of the building.  The explosion at the processing plant must have been drawing more attention than Sarah had estimated.  Not a single soul stopped to ask Michel who he was, or where he was headed.

He made his way all the way into the building, up to the first of what may very well have been many security checkpoints.  He stopped a little bit before actually approaching the waist-high scanner.

“As long as your phone is switched on,” Sarah said, “I can broadcast the correct frequency.  All you have to do is swipe that card I gave you over the scanner and I’ll handle the rest from here.”

While we could see Michel, he could not see us.  He wasn’t in a position to see the nervous signs that Sarah was sending off like fireworks.  Her left foot tapped an irregular rhythm into the floor of the van, while she bit so fiercely into her bottom lip that I was momentarily worried that she might draw blood.

I switched my earbud off for a moment before speaking.  “Maybe…maybe we can come up with something else?  Mila doesn’t have a record here, so…”

Sarah turned away from her screens to face me.  “Even if you did mean that – and we both know that you don’t – I’m not about to back down now.”

Michel didn’t reply, so I assumed that she had disconnected her line from his.  “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Not unless you’re suddenly an expert in radio frequencies, no.”

I felt…useless.  It was an odd feeling.  I’d been the point man on more jobs than I could count, while Sarah and most of our other transient team members operated around the periphery of the operation.  If something went wrong, I could at least work under the knowledge that the only person at risk of jail was me.  Now, there were a great deal of people in motion, most of which I barely knew, while I was safe and secure in Sarah’s new operations vehicle.

It wasn’t that I wanted to be in danger.  I’d made a career out of avoiding any situation that might lead to incarceration, conflict, or fatalities…at least, I had made a point to steer clear of those problems until this latest stretch of hastily constructed assignments.  But if someone had to be in the crosshairs, it felt infinitely more fair if it was me forced to dodge bullets and talk my way out of trouble.

What was and was not fair, however, had little to do with reality.  I pulled myself out of my thoughts and focused on the screen showing Michel’s field of vision.  He walked the short distance from where he paused up to the scanner, fishing a falsified ID card from his front pocket as he moved, and swiped it over the scanner.

It beeped once…twice…three times, before the indicator light switched from red to green.  The officer seated to the right of the scanner waved a vague welcoming hand in Michel’s direction.  He didn’t even lift his eyes to see what the newcomer looked like.

Michel breathed out an audible sigh of relief.  At that, the officer standing guard finally glanced up.  “Everything all right, mate?”

“Everything’s fine,” Michel replied, in a gruff, low voice.  His natural accent was disguised by the guttural tone, though not completely hidden.

The officer narrowed his eyes at Michel for a moment, then shrugged and returned to reading a paperback novel.  Michel hurried past the man, deeper into the building, until he reached an elevator.  He pressed down the button and spoke into the comms under his breath.  “Which floor am I going to?”

In the van, Sarah pressed a button and her motorized chair slid over to a different monitor, locking into place with a loud click.  The blueprints she’d stolen took up the entire screen.  I noticed that, at some point, she had added a blinking red dot that represented Michel onto the image.  She entered a short command into the computer, which switched the view from the ground floor of the building to the second floor.  Then, again, to the third.  At the fourth floor, she nodded to herself in affirmation of some silent point, and returned to the first screen.

“There are cops on the second and third floors,” she said.  “Probably working on the paperwork Devlin and company threw their way, like the scoundrels they are.”

“Because you had a better plan?”  I shot back.

She merely smiled in response, and continued talking only to Michel.  “Fourth floor is an office level.  Clerks, tech support, that sort of thing.  You’ll want to go there to get access.”

“What about Mila?” Michel asked.

“When I’ve got access to their network, I can find out where they’re keeping her,” Sarah said.  “If I had to guess, they haven’t run her fingerprints yet.  So, she’s probably on the second or third floor.  But focus on the immediate problem; don’t get ahead of the situation.”

It was a slow elevator.  When it finally reached his floor, Michel stepped past a pair of officers grumbling about the late shift and pressed the round button marked ‘4.’  A brief burst of static came over the line and, for a moment, panic gripped me.  The moment passed a heartbeat later.

“Elevator’s blocking the signal?” I asked Sarah.

“Not exactly blocking,” she replied, “but close enough.  I could boost it if I wanted to, but the camera still works.”

I nodded.  “You’re monitoring all of the lines, right?  How are Billy and his boys doing?”

Sarah’s chair slid over to a different screen, so that she could watch Billy’s camera.  She was quiet for a second while she listened and then barked out a sharp laugh.

“What?  What’s so funny?”  I asked.

“At this exact moment,” Sarah said, failing to suppress another laugh, “Billy has gone through at least two supervisors and has several of the workers helping him up to a better position so that he can, and I quote, ‘see how badly you tossers have ruined the whole bloody work site.’  It’s very possible that he’ll get construction done sooner, if we leave him there long enough.”

“You know me,” I said.  “Always happy to help law enforcement.  Anything else I should know about?”

Sarah drummed her fingers across one of her keyboards, not heavy enough to type anything, but hard enough that her nails made a staccato sound.  “Maybe one thing, but it isn’t relevant to this job.”

“We can’t do anything until Michel gets out of the elevator, anyway.  What is it?”

Sarah shifted Billy’s camera feed to the left side of that screen, where it docked into place, and opened another window to fill the remaining half of the screen.  “I’ve been running an automatic web search for anything related to that drug name Mila got from the twins.”

“Things,” I said, immediately.  “We’re calling them the Things.”

One corner of her mouth curved up and my heartbeat quickened in response.  “The Things, then.  Anyway, when you asked me earlier, I only suspected that it might have some sort of medical use.”

“And now?”

“Now, I’m confused.”  She directed my attention to her screen.

I pushed myself up from the floor and peered at the language displayed there.  A few seconds later, I sighed and returned to a seated position.  “I missed a few semesters of med school,” I said.

“Amusingly enough, so did I,” Sarah said.  Considering her family’s connections, I wasn’t at all sure if she was carrying on with the joke or that was the simple, honest truth.  “But the gist of all this jargon is that the drug Mila’s looking for information on is the experimental stages.  It has no recreational uses that I could find, and nothing that might give a mercenary an edge.”

“So, no diazepam, no amphetamines, nothing that might cause a change in adrenaline production?”

Sarah turned fully away from the monitor to give me a stunned look.

I smirked back.  “I didn’t say I missed every semester of med school.”

In actuality, I was merely reciting some information I’d picked up in La Santé from one of Patrick’s gentlemen thieves, regarding a job he’d pulled against a corrupt member of the Royal Air Force’s private estate.  But Sarah didn’t have to know all of that.

Anyway, Doctor Quinn, you’re right.  Maybe this drug combines with something else to have some sort of effect, but I have no idea what.”

“You said it was in the experimental phases?  Experimenting for what?”

Sarah swiveled back to the screen and was silent for several, very long seconds.  “Have you ever heard of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease?”

“Surprisingly, no, I haven’t,” I said, in my very best deadpan voice.

“Alright.  How about Mad Cow Disease?”

“I’ve heard about that,” I said, “but I can’t honestly say I know all that much about what that actually means.”

Behind Sarah, on the screen displaying the feed from Michel’s camera, I saw that he’d reached the third floor.  A pair of men in cheap, ill-fitting suits got on when the elevator stopped, but they were too busy discussing architectural plans to take notice any notice of the Frenchman.

“I’ll keep this short,” Sarah said.  “Mad Cow is sort of a general name for a whole suite of diseases that all…well, the proteins in your brain basically start to eat themselves alive.”

I grimaced.  “That’s graphic.”

“I’m exaggerating, but not by much.  This is an illness to which there are no known cures and the life expectancy, from diagnosis to death, is measured in weeks.  Months, at the outside.”

“And you’re saying that Mila’s mystery drug…?”

Sarah nodded.  “It’s still in experimental stages, but my web crawler found a few reports that indicate some preliminary successes.”

“Why would Aiden be interested in something like that?” I asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine.  I’ll widen the scope of the program when I get back to the Brooklands, and I can actually focus on the task.”  Sarah’s lips parted, and then closed, as Michel finally reached Scotland Yard’s fourth floor.  “We’ll pick this up later.  You’re up.  Well…not really, but you know what I mean. I’m going to stay muted so that I don’t distract him, or you.”

I reactivated my earbud and tuned out the exterior world – Sarah, the other two monitors, every car honking in a vain effort to move through traffic a little faster – so that I could focus entirely on Michel and the small window of his vision that I could see.

The process only took me two seconds.  “Alright, Michel,” I said, when I was ready, “you’re going to want to find an unused work station.”

“If he can find one that’s already logged on,” Sarah said, “that would make things easier.  Either way’s fine, but if we’re trying to shave off every second possible…”

I gave her a nod of acknowledgement.  “Scratch that.  You want someone who’s already using their computer.”

“Okay,” he replied in an uncertain whisper.  “What should I do if I am confronted?”

“Authority is going to be key.  When you were dealing with Adlai and Lane, you wanted to seem interested, but not aggressive.  Go the other way now.  You won’t be dealing with police officers; these are techs, accountants, and clerks.”

“What does that mean for me?”

“It means that none of them are going to want to question someone who even looks like they know what they’re doing,” I said.  “Walk a little bit into the room and then do a turn, so that I can see what you’re working with.”

Michel did as I asked.  The camera jerked a little bit, and I could imagine that he would have looked awkward while turning in place, but luck was on our side: no one looked up from their computers and the rare man or woman who happened to be on their feet was too occupied with their own world to take note of the uniformed officer in their midst.

I spotted a potential mark, seated at a computer near the wall.  “There,” I said.  “White shirt, green tie.  He’s sitting right by the water fountain.  You see who I’m talking about?”

“I see him,” Michel said, after a second.

“That’s who you’re going to move,” I said.  “This is not going to be complicated.  All you need to do is convince him that he’s needed somewhere else.  If he figures out that isn’t true, that’s still okay; we only need him to leave you alone with the computer for…”  I left the sentence open.

Sarah stepped in to provide the answer.  “Thirty seconds, give or take.”

“…thirty seconds,” I finished for Michel.

“How should I convince him to go somewhere else?”

“This is more of an art form than a science,” I admitted.  “You’ll have to play it by ear, but I’ll be right here to help if you end up in a sticky spot.”

In a less clearheaded state of mind, I might have doubted my ability to extricate Michel from a problematic situation quickly, but I wasn’t in a mental place where doubt was possible.  There was the job – get Mila out of police custody and, if possible, remove any physical evidence linking me to either the theft of the crown or the shootout at the manor house – and there were complications keeping us from accomplishing that task.

Michel approached the man I’d targeted.  He was moving cautiously at first but, as he drew closer and the man took notice of the uniformed officer approaching, Michel’s pace increased and the camera angle seemed to be a little higher than before.  He was standing straighter, I realized.

“Good man,” I murmured.  “Remember, you don’t want to let him ask questions.  Keep him off-balance, so that he doesn’t have any choice but to follow where you lead him.  Sarah, I don’t know much about the system here.  What can he use?”

“Paperwork,” she answered immediately.  “They’re incredibly focused on paperwork.  A late form can make or break a case, even though the clerks are hilariously overworked.”

I relayed the information to Michel.  “Stay on offense,” I advised him.

When Michel reached the desk, the man lifted an eyebrow.  “Can I help you?”

“You can help me,” Michel said, using his not-quite British accent, “by doing your job.”

“My job?” The man asked.  He turned fully to face Michel and, conveniently, provided the camera with a view of the ID badge pinned to his chest: David Heathrow.  I entertained a brief moment of distraction, imagining the Lady’s giant, also named David, seated at a desk and plunking away at forms for law enforcement.

Sarah saw the badge, as well.  She immediately moved her seat over to a free monitor and began to search for any publicly accessible information on David Heathrow, but I doubted I’d need the assistance.

“Yes, your job,” Michel said.  “Or were you just going to ignore the memo?”

“Memo?” David Heathrow asked.  “What memo?”

“The memo requesting the latest files on the case,” Michel said immediately.

That was a risk, but such a small one that I felt a fierce surge of pride at Michel’s instincts.  If the clerks here were overworked, there was little to no chance that there wasn’t some case on their docket that required more attention than the others.  Even if that wasn’t the case, Michel had been assertive enough that David Heathrow would almost certainly choose a case to prioritize.

“The Williams case?” David Heathrow asked.  I suppressed the urge to fist-pump.  “That was just a basic smash and grab, and they’ve already got the suspect in custody.  Why would they need new paperwork on that?”

“Things have changed,” Michel said, before David Heathrow could get any further.  “Do you want the suspect to get away because of a technicality?  A technicality that you could have prevented?”

“No, but…wait, who’s asking for these forms?  I caught the lead detective on the case on the way out, and he didn’t say anything about – “ As David Heathrow spoke, his eyes traveled back to his computer screen, presumably to check for the memo that Michel had fabricated from thin air.

Michel actually snapped his fingers in the air, yanking David Heathrow’s attention away from the monitor.  “Did you hear what I said?  You do not have time to waste!”

“But, I could swear that I just saw…”

“Unless you want to spend the time when you could be helping to keep a dangerous man off of the streets searching for a memo that you missed,” Michel said, neatly cutting into whatever David Heathrow was going to say.

“Attacker?  The Williams case was a burglary.

Michel paused for less than a heartbeat.  “I told you that things had changed, no?  Now, hurry!  They will require new paperwork, or else the suspect might slip through the cracks!”

David Heathrow glanced at Michel, then back at his computer, then grabbed an armload of files from his desk.  Michel watched as he rushed over to the elevator, muttering under his breath about the ridiculous stresses placed on simple civil servants as he went.

“Very nicely done, Michel,” I said.  “Now, just plug the flash drive in and let Sarah do her thing.”

Michel pulled the flash drive out of his pocket and slid it into its proper place.  Immediately, a notification appeared on one of Sarah’s monitors.  It stayed there, alternating between blue and black, for twenty seconds before settling into a static color.

“Got it,” Sarah said.  “And we’re in luck!  Mister Heathrow isn’t quite an administrator, but he is connected to one via instant messenger.  One quick message, and…oh Lord, it’s like no one cares about network security anymore.  He actually clicked that link?”

“Uh, Sarah?”

“Sorry, sorry.  The connection inside Scotland Yard is incredibly fast…good for them, better for me.  I’ll have access…in…now!”

Thus far, Sarah had limited her work to two screens.  The third one came to life now and miniature squares of videos tiled across the display.

It took only a few seconds before we found the image we’d been looking for.  Mila sat in a windowless interrogation room, staring resolutely at the featureless wall opposite her.  Her left arm was concealed within a thick plaster cast; her right hand was connected to an odd belt she wore around her waist, and handcuffed into place.  For the moment, she was alone.  I didn’t know how long we had until that situation changed.

Through a different camera, I watched as Adlai walked out of one office, clutching a folder overflowing with documents, and grabbed a seat at a desk to discuss some matter with another officer.  It didn’t surprise me that somehow he’d drawn a connection between the explosion at the processing plant and his own ongoing investigation; the world simply wasn’t good to be kind enough to keep him entirely out of hair.  I signaled to Sarah and she took note of Adlai’s presence, as well.

“Michel,” Sarah said, “we found her.  I’m going to send you a map of the building, highlighting the areas where there’s the most activity; that should lead you to the evidence room.  I still don’t know what security protocols they have in place yet, but I’ll keep receiving automated updates as these files are parsed and decrypted.”

“What will you do?”

Sarah sighed heavily and pressed a button that slid her chair as close to the van’s rear door as possible, before pivoting outwards so that she could stand.  “The whole point of this to keep everyone in motion, so that no one can get pinned down.  Distraction, constantly shifting the battle lines, so to speak.  Never let the law get their feet under them.”

“What does that mean?”

Sarah sighed.  “It’s my turn in the hot seat.  I guess it’s time for the good Inspector to have a sit down with the local representative of the Ford family.”  She turned and gave me a half-smile.  “Mother always did want me to go into law.”

Chapter Eighty-Five

Scotland Yard – it had been New Scotland Yard before my prison sentence – was a monolith of a building.  Eight stories tall, not counting sub-levels or basements, constructed of steel and glass stretching into the sky at the edge of the Thames.  Billy sat in the passenger’s seat of the van, while one of his men drove slowly past the front entrance to the building.  Sarah and I sat in the back, along with the rest of our ragtag group.  Iosif had turned one of Billy’s wheelchairs into a sort of rotating seat for Sarah to work from.  She was able to move backwards and forwards, inputting commands on any of three different monitors, with relative ease and she took full advantage of the mobility.

I tried to remain as still as possible during the ride.  The pressure in my temples had subsided from a pounding roar to an uncomfortable, occasional throbbing reminder but I didn’t want to risk exacerbating that injury with any sudden movement.  Billy’s man kept the van from rattling too much, although the occasional pothole along the way did cause the pain to spike a few times before we finally rolled to a soft stop.

“Scotland Yard,” Billy said, in a grandiose, tour guide’s voice.  “Only recently moved back to its original home, here at the Green Building…where it belongs, if you ask me.  If you look to the left, you’ll see a bit of the London Eye; to your right, you can see the building where our fair city’s noble policemen keep the city of London safe from scoundrels and the like.”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” I asked him.

“If you can’t enjoy your work,” Billy replied, “you ought to get into a new line of business, don’t ya think?”

I couldn’t really disagree with that sentiment.

God,” Sarah said, using her motorized chair to slide back to a monitor in the center of the van’s right wall.  “I’ve got to deal with two of you now?”

I raised both of my hands in mock surrender. “What did I say?”

She looked away from her work, probably preparing some suitably scathing response, but stopped as a thought occurred to her.  “Wait.  You said they just moved here, Billy?”

“A year or two ago, yeah,” Billy confirmed.  “From what the papers said, the old building was too expensive to renovate, so they decided to come back here.  Doesn’t make much sense to me, but I’m not a paper-pusher, so…”

“Well,” Sarah said, interrupting Billy as if he wasn’t still talking, “that might make this a lot easier.”  She slid over to the farthest monitor from the back of the van and began fervently searching through Google pages.  A moment later, the display changed from the recognizable search engine to a black screen with green text.  I didn’t know what that meant, in the technical sense of things, but I recognized it as the screen Sarah did most of her hacking from.

“Care to explain for the class?” I asked a minute later, when I realized that she had no intention of elaborating.

Sarah answered without looking away from the monitor.  “I remember reading that they were going to move back to the old building, but I didn’t look into the timeline.  Honestly, I figured they were finished with renovations, because the old building sold almost a year ago.  But if they’re still constructing – and that would explain the traffic in the area, considering the time of night – then that means there might be a simpler way of getting our recon done.”

“Simpler than just asking someone for information?” Billy asked.

I arched an eyebrow.  “That was your plan?  Just ask someone to tell you everything we need to know?”

He shrugged.  “Nobody thinks twice about the bloke in a wheelchair.”

From his words, and the slightly jocular tone, it would have been easy to miss the way his eyes darkened or how his fist clenched a little tighter for an instant.  I decided not to pursue that point.  “You’re thinking about the construction crews?” I asked Sarah, instead.

She nodded.  “And, if one of Billy’s men can get close enough to one of the architects, I might be able to access that network and pull the building plans.  It won’t be perfect, because there’s no way of knowing which parts of the station are already occupied and in use, but it’ll give me a layout to work with.  When Michel gets us into Scotland Yard’s computers, and I’ve got access to their cameras, I can lay one over the other, and I ought to be able to compile a real time view of who’s in the building and where they are.”

Billy’s fist clenched once more.  I might have been the only one in the van in a position to see the movement.  “So, nothing for me to do, then?” He asked.

Sarah glanced away from the computer and gave Billy a brief, dazzling smile.  “Of course there’s something for you to do.  Any ‘good’ crew of workers needs someone to actually keep them on task.  How good of a foreman can you play?”

Billy was momentarily taken aback, both by the offer and the genuine warmth Sarah displayed.  It wasn’t hard to combine his reaction now to the aggression he’d shown earlier.  I didn’t know if Sarah had somehow guessed at his sensitivities, or if she’d picked up on other clues while I was sleeping.

“I can do that,” Billy said.  “So long as no one asks too many questions, I don’t see why that’ll be a problem.”

“Are you kidding?  I want people to ask questions,” Sarah said.  “That would be the best possible scenario.  With everything going on out by the Halfway House, can you imagine how much attention a disabled foreman could draw if someone had the idiocy to actually say something about it?”

I expected Billy’s fist to clench once more, or for his voice to tighten.

Sarah turned back to her work and spoke while she worked.  “I’m not just throwing you a bone here.  Getting attention away from Michel is one of the key parts of the job, and you’re the best person for it.  So, if you’re going to be touchy about it, let me know now, and I’ll come up with something else.”

“Touchy?” Billy’s smile widened.  “Why, I’d say that plan’s definitely got some legs to it.”

I groaned and, a moment later, everyone in the van did the same.

“What did I do in a past life,” Sarah mused, “to deserve such devastatingly witty team members?”

Billy gave her a sage look.  “Must have been your excellent karma up to this point.”

Sarah responded with a silence that somehow managed to be more pointed than any verbal reply I could imagine.  After a few frigid seconds of that, she spoke to Michel.  “We’re going to let you out here.  Do you remember what you’re supposed to do when you get inside?”

The Frenchman nodded.  “Find a computer as soon as possible and put this into one of the USB ports.”  He fished a flash drive out of his coat pocket and held it up.

“The program I put on there will self-execute,” Sarah said, “and it’s a very small file.  You’ll only need a minute, if that, before you can take the drive out.  I’ll start working on a way to get Mila out of custody and you can start looking for the evidence room.”

“What am I to do when I get there?”

“Wait?”  Sarah’s intonation made the statement into a question.  “I don’t know what security they already have in place to protect that particular area, but I’ll have a better idea about how to bypass it once I’m past their firewall.”

She did not say anything past that point, but I could hear the unspoken thoughts that followed as clearly as if she’d said the words.  There were so many possible points that could go horribly wrong before Sarah had the cameras.  Much of the early part of the plan rested squarely on Michel’s ability to improvise his way past any obstacles or complications.  Things would become simpler for him once we had greater access, but until then…

“I understand,” Michel said.  I squeezed his shoulder in silent support as he moved past me and opened the back door of the van.  There weren’t any officers nearby to question why a uniformed cop was exiting what was obviously a civilian van, thank God.

“Keep your earbud on and your camera pointed forward,” Sarah advised.  “We’ll give you the signal to make your approach, as soon as we’ve got a distraction going on around the back.  That should keep anyone from asking too many questions.”

The unspoken ‘hopefully’ was so loud in my head that I averted my eyes for a moment.

Michel nodded once more and closed the door to the van.  Sarah drew in her breath and let it out slowly.  “Take us to the back of the place,” she said.  “That’s where the construction crews should be working.”

While Billy’ s man drove us around, I slipped my own earbud in and activated it.  The double pop let me know that I was connected.  In a short break between fervent typing, Sarah passed earbuds out to everyone in the van, and they followed suit.

“She’s going to keep us muted from each other, for the moment,” I explained, as Billy and his guys switched the earbuds on.  “By and large, Sarah will be the only one with full access to the comms, but we’ll link you in, as needed.”

“Not exactly true,” Sarah said.  I raised an eyebrow.  “Remember, I’m going in this time.  You’ll have to man the communications system while I’m out.”

A brief examination of the monitors arrayed against the opposite wall of the van was intimidating enough that blood began to recede from my cheeks.  “That’s…probably not the best plan.  Are you sure you can’t just…you know…”

“What?  Carry a laptop into Scotland Yard and just hope that no one asks why I’m constantly talking to myself?”  Sarah shook her head.  “The communications system isn’t complicated.  I’ll give you a quick overview before I go in, but it’s mostly point and click.  All you’ll need to do is keep an eye on the cameras – I’ll put those on this monitor right here – and connect the lines if someone needs to share quick information.  Honestly, you could just keep all the lines disconnected and handle the crosstalk by yourself, if it’s really that much of a problem.”

“No, no, I can handle it.”  The external confidence I displayed was a good deal larger than the internal confidence I actually felt, but I locked my doubts away.  If Michel could grift his way into the headquarters of police operations here in London; if Sarah could go into the field, for the first time since we’d met at that benefit so many years ago; if Billy and his guys could risk appearing in public, on the off chance that they might be able to help someone they barely even knew…well, then learning a little bit about computers was the least I could contribute.

“There’s a dumbed down version of the same program on that smartphone,” Sarah said.  “Again, just in case things go sideways and you have to get out of the van.”

“Dumbed down?  How dumbed down are we talking?”

“It’s got two options: complete mute or completely active.  Either no one hears anything or everyone hears everything.”

I drummed a quick beat into the floor of the van.  “What are the pros and cons to that?”

Sarah shrugged.   “In case something like the processing plant happens again, I figured it’d be useful if we could quickly connect all the lines without having to waste time doing it manually.  Especially since you’ll be the one who has to link everyone up, and you’re hardly an expert.  No offense.”

I shrugged back.  “None taken.”

“Be careful, though,” Sarah said.  “If you leave the van, that means you’ll be the only one with remote control over the communications system.  Basically, if you link us all up for some reason, you’re the only one who can separate the lines again.  So getting back to the van as soon as possible should be the priority.  Got it?”

I nodded my understanding back at her.

The occupants of the van sat in silence for the next minute or so, while Billy’s guy picked his way through traffic until we reached the rear of the Curtis Green building.  We could no longer see the Thames or the London Eye; instead, in place of the spectacular view, we were now confronted by the skeleton of a great building in progress.  Men in hard hats and bright orange vests milled aimlessly from one pile of rubble to the next.  Sledgehammers, huge wrenches, and other assorted tools were scattered across the ground and a persistent cloud of thick gray dust floated in the air.

I was a little surprised to see anyone still working – the sun was hours away from rising – but no one seemed to pay much attention as we pulled into an open space and parked.   “This should be close enough,” Sarah said.  “I can see their network, even if I can’t log onto their wireless yet.”

“So, just making sure,” Billy said, smirking slightly.  “You want me to make a show of things?”

“Keep everyone guessing as to exactly who you are,” I advised.  “People really don’t want to ask questions, and they’re perfectly content to assume someone else knows more about what’s going on than they do.  If anyone challenges you about your credentials, challenge them back or just imply that you’ll go over their head.”

“To who?”

I shook my head.  “No clue.  Doesn’t really matter, though.  Everybody’s got a boss.”

“And that’s who we want you to meet,” Sarah said.  She pointed at Billy’s phone on the dashboard and he handed it back to her.  She plugged a USB cord into the charging port and input some commands while she spoke.  “The higher up we can get, the more likely it is that we’ll find someone with access to the building’s blueprints.  As soon as we have that, assuming that people continue to be lazy about security, I’ll be able to give Michel specific directions through the station.”

“And what if I run into someone who is not stupid about security?”

Sarah scoffed in answer to that.  “You mean, what if pigs start to fly?”  She handed the phone back.  “Just get close enough and I’ll handle the rest.”

Normally, I would have pointed out the danger of invoking fate with that attitude, but she was right.  While the intricacies of Sarah’s digital work remained an enigma to me, I couldn’t deny that every job I’d pulled had taught me a single, inalienable fact: marks are always stupider than they think they are.  That wasn’t to say that I was necessarily smarter, but people react typically to similar stimulus.  Anyone working on the site of a major renovation job would want access to the plans and they wouldn’t want to go through a complicated login procedure every single time he or she needed to double-check something.

I glanced out of the window and saw that the workers nearest our van had moved over to an area closer to the building itself.  They had left behind a small pile of gear: hats, vests, and a tool-belt brimming with hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers, and the like.  “Alright, gentlemen,” I said.  “You’re up. You get the same advice as Michel; keep your earbud in.  I’ll call any audibles as I see them.  And don’t forget to turn on your cameras.”

Billy directed his men to help him into one of his wheelchairs and, with a little assistance from me, we lowered him to the ground.  Sarah handed me a clipboard with some generic plans clipped in place, and I passed that back to them, as well.  The men quickly slipped into the discarded safety gear, without any interference from the actual construction workers, and started to traverse the ground toward the building proper.

Billy was too far away for me to hear with my own unaided, but I could still see him as he approached a group of men taking what seemed to be a very late, or very early, lunch break.  Judging from the wild gesticulation coming from Billy, and the way the men scrambled to their feet, he must have opened up by calling them lazy.  These were third shift workers; I had little to no doubt that they’d want to move his complaint up the ladder as quickly as possible.

Within five minutes, I was proven correct.  A suited man in a hardhat approached Billy, his men, and the hapless construction workers.  He pointed at a clipboard in his hands; Billy responded by doing the same, except much more forcefully.

“What are they saying?”  I asked Sarah.

She switched the comms from her personal earbud to the van’s speaker system.

“You mean to tell me that no one gave you the updated plans?”  Billy was asking.

The suited man flinched slightly away from Billy.  “I think I’d know if they had – “

“If they had what?” Billy interrupted.  “They’d call down to tell you if there was a problem with the money?  Really?”

Several seconds of stunned silence.  I imagined the face of the suited man – stunned, confused, insulted –  so clearly that I felt I could almost see it.

“I’ve been in constant communication with the bosses,” the suited man said, “and I haven’t heard a thing about any changes.  In fact, I haven’t heard anything about you.  What did you say your name was?”

“And that,” Sarah said into the earbud, for Billy’s benefit, “is all I needed.  Your friend there is a foreman, but not one of the higher positioned ones, if his work ID is any indication.”

“How’d you get that?” I asked.

“The firm that handles the construction is moving to a more digital system,” she said.  “This guy would scan his phone to get access to anything inside of the building.”

“But…?”

“But,” Sarah continued, “if he isn’t physically at the offices, he just logs into the network remotely.  But that’s such a pain, so he went ahead and told his phone to just save the information.”

“People,” I said sagely, “continue to be stupid.”

“Imagine my surprise.”  Sarah grinned.  “Billy, I’ve got what I need.  He won’t be able to check your story unless I let him.  Keep him there, and start a distraction.”

Straining my eyes, I could see as Billy nodded his assent.  “So, what are you saying, exactly?” He asked the suited man.  “That someone in a wheelchair couldn’t possibly be a foreman on a construction site?”

“What?  That…that isn’t what I said,” the suited man replied.

“It sure sounded like that’s what you were saying,” Billy shot back.  “Go get your superior; I think I’d like to go over this with him.”

“I, uh…”

“Now!”

The suited man rushed off.  Billy maneuvered his wheelchair to face the group of men he’d accosted in the first place – he made the process considerably more difficult than it had to be, I noticed – and yelled at them to get back to work.

A noise drew my attention back to the monitor Sarah was working on.  The black screen and green text had been replaced by a blue screen with white lines drawn across it: the architectural plans for Scotland Yard’s renovation.

Sarah activated Michel’s line.  “Distraction is underway,” she said, “and I’ve got the blueprints.  You should make your approach now, and I’ll walk you through the layout.”

There was a stretch of tangible silence from Michel’s end of the line, before he cleared his throat.  “Roger that,” he said.

I leaned carefully against the inside wall of the van, and massaged my temples with the thumb and index fingers of my unbandaged hand.  The headache there was still manageable but I knew – knew it as an absolute certainty, like gravity, death, or taxes – that it would be far worse before everything was said and done.

Chapter Eighty-Four

I blinked at both Sarah and Michel.  “What?”

“She’s one of ours,” Sarah said.  “Nothing would have happened to her if she hadn’t been doing her job, keeping you safe.  I’ll be damned if I’m about to start abandoning people to the mercies of the criminal justice system now.  Especially considering what started all this, by which I mean Asher’s…flexible definition of loyalty.”

“This is what you wanted to do, no?” Michel added.  He scratched uncomfortably at the collar of his policeman’s uniform.

“I mean…yeah,” I said, “but I didn’t expect…I mean, I just figured that…”

Sarah dismissed my stuttering with a lazy hand.  “You’ve had this information for about five minutes.  I’ve been tracking her since I got on site, and I’ve been using that time to come up with some vague outline that might be good enough to get us into the building.”

“And from there?”

She shrugged.  “I’m starting to realize that there’s really no point in planning beyond the immediate next step.  The best laid plans, et cetera, et cetera.”

I glanced at the outline on Sarah’s screen.  While I understood the individual words written in the bubbles displayed there, the sum total of their meaning escaped me.  I blamed my mental fog on the head trauma.  “How are we going to do this, then?  Shouldn’t you get back to your command center in the Brooklands?”

Sarah shook her head.  “I tried to get into Scotland Yard’s network a while ago, when you first showed up at the black market.  Either they’ve changed protocols or they hired someone with half an idea about how to secure a system; the punchline is that I can’t get into their system unless I’m actually logged into their wireless.”

I gave her a blank look, which was only partly an affectation.  “In small words, for those of us recovering from serious head injuries?”

She rolled her eyes and responded in a forced, obnoxiously slow voice.  “I have to be within a few dozen yards of Interpol,” Sarah said.  “Maybe closer, maybe farther.  I’ll know more when I’m actually there.”

“How are you going to get a full setup close enough for that?  Is Sophie going to…I don’t know, rent out a nearby apartment building?”

Sarah opened her mouth, paused, and tilted her head.  “I…had not considered that.  But, no…even if she could pull that off – and I’m not sure she couldn’t – that’s a little too high profile for what I’ve got in mind.  Billy here volunteered his assistance and one of his personal vehicles.”

Now, I turned disbelieving eyes at the man in the wheelchair.  Billy spread his hands wide and pointed his palms at the ceiling.  “I’m a man of my word,” he said.  “You pulled off the job I sent you on, despite considerable complications.  More than that, you saw to it that my boys Chester and James got back here safe.”

“A kingpin with a conscience?”  Again, my thoughts travelled back to the elegant Lady and her personal giant.

Billy winced.  “Please, mate; I’m a businessman, and these are my associates and employees.  I look out for them, and they do the same for me.  You put yourself on the line for me and mine; throwing in a little aid to get your mate out of custody is the least I can do.”  He smiled wistfully.  “Besides, it’s been a while since I got to do anything in the field.  I’m actually looking forward to it.”

“You worked in the field?”

“Not as a thief,” Billy said.  He wheeled himself to the other side of the bed, closer to Sarah’s laptop.  “But I used to run for the previous king of this little hill.  Haven’t done anything since this happened, but I think I’ve still got what it takes.”

Sarah met my eyes, reading the unasked question contained within them, and nodded.  “We need people.  Stani went back to report to his superiors about the incident at the processing plant.”

“What about Iosif and Leonid?”

“He’s loaning them to us for the duration of this particular operation,” Sarah said.  “His words, exactly.  They aren’t exactly happy about the arrangement, but they’ve been following my orders so far.”

I didn’t understand what talents the bulky Russians might be able to provide.  Of course, I’d only seen them in situations where my life had been immediate danger so far, and they’d proven useful enough in Kiev and at the plant.

Sarah must have read confusion in my expression because she chuckled softly to herself.  “I’m not bringing them with us.  But the right-handed one is surprisingly good with electronics.”

“Iosif,” I said.

“You can tell them apart?”

“Oh, sure,” I replied.  “Iosif’s just a regular bundle of laughs.  Leonid’s more of the strong, silent type.”

Sarah searched my face for several seconds before realizing that I was kidding.  “Well, whatever.  I did use Sophie to transport some of the more sensitive components of my setup at the hotel out here, and the Russians are wiring it to the power supply in Billy’s van.”

In all the years we’d worked together, it had never occurred to me to convert Sarah’s setups from the stationary battle rooms she preferred to a more mobile setup.  Now that she’d thought of it on her own, it made sense as a permanent solution.  Ever since we’d landed in London, a good portion of our time had been spent transferring files from one system to another, or ensuring that the Lady hadn’t bugged our latest computer purchase.

“Your vans have special wiring?”  I asked Billy.

“Well, as you may have noticed, I have somewhat special requirements for transportation,” Billy said.  A part of my thoughts noticed that he rarely referred directly to his legs, or the resultant handicap.  Another question, perhaps, for a time when there were fewer immediate problems that required my attention.  “As it turns out, I had a model that your lovely lady here was able to repurpose.”

Sarah shot Billy a malevolent look.  “Are we going to have another talk about my name, and the consequences if you continue to not use it?”

He raised his hands in surrender.  “Sorry, sorry.  Force of habit, you understand.”

Sarah turned up her nose at Billy before returning her attention to me.  “I’ve got the general outline for the approach figured out.  We can probably use the same plan we talked about before; everyone’s on high alert, but Interpol and the local police department are all over the place dealing with the explosion at the plant.  As soon as the Russians finish setting up my station in the van, we’ll head over to the area and start fine-tuning from there.”

Michel had been very quiet since entering the room.  I directed my next question at him.  “And why, exactly, are you wearing a policeman’s uniform?”

“It is not exactly the uniform these police wear,” Michel said.  “But it is a close approximation.”

I sat back down on the bed and waited for an actual answer.

“When Michel stole the ID in the bar, I went ahead and cloned the cop’s cell phone,” Sarah said.  “He kept drinking for another few hours, judging from the security feeds, and I’ve traced his phone to an apartment almost thirty minutes away on a good night.”

“Meaning…?”

“Meaning,” Sarah said, “that Michel’s already got a cover we can use.”

I wanted desperately to protest to that idea, but it had too much merit to dismiss outright.  No one was going to be checking IDs in the middle of a possible crisis.  Properly attired and clearly in possession of the proper RFID codes to allow him access into the building to begin with, there was every possibility that no one would look twice at Michel.  If he could get inside the building, he might be able to use one of Sarah’s USB drives into a connected station.  Even if Michel couldn’t get close enough to a computer to do that, it still gave us a pair of eyes on the inside.

Of course, that was the best case scenario.  At worst, he might be discovered and charged with impersonation of a police officer.  Even worse: the officers might decide that he had some connection to the explosion.  From there, I didn’t want to imagine what charges they could levy against him.

“You came up with this idea?” I asked Sarah.

“No,” Michel answered.  “I did.”

“Well…alright,” I said, instead of a dozen other ideas that quickly came to mind.  “Sarah, walk me through our respective parts here.”

Sarah moved the computer screen so that it faced her once again and scanned through the flow chart.  “Recon’s going to be mostly Billy and some of his men.  We can’t risk being seen before we infiltrate.”

“Which men?” I asked.

“James follows orders,” Billy said.  “Chester had a bit of a problem with following your calls, or so I hear; I’m giving him a bit of a time out, and bringing along two of the younger boys I use for runs.”

“Okay.  I can probably work with that.”

“Glad to hear it,” Sarah said.  “Although, if you couldn’t, I don’t really know what else we would have done.  Anyway, after the recon, I should hopefully have access to their network.  All I really need is someone to forget to turn their phone’s Bluetooth off.  From there, I can get started on their internal security system.  I’ll have screens set up inside of the van; those’ll let me keep a watch on the people inside the station.”

I could wrap my head around the shape of the plan so far, even if the details were beyond my ability to understand.  I nodded to signal that I was following along.

Sarah returned the gesture and continued speaking.  “Michel can use faked credentials and the RFID card to get inside the building.  I’m not hoping to use him to actually get Mila out of custody; all I need is for him to finish the job of getting me past their network security.  After that’s finished, I’ll have to automate most of the work and hand the rest off to you and Billy.”

“Hand it off to…you’re keeping me on the bench?”

“You’re injured,” Sarah said, flatly.  “You won’t be able to move as quickly and you’ve mentioned your own head injuries in this very conversation.  If I put you in the field, that’d be another liability that we’d have to account for.”

I felt my face shifting into a childish pout.

“Think about it this way,” Sarah said.  “If it were one of us in the same condition, what would you tell him or her to do?”

Instead of answering that, I allowed my expression to darken by a noticeable degree.  “What if I have to get involved?  Just to keep someone from disrupting the plan, if nothing else?  I can’t watch the screens if I’m anywhere other than inside the van.”

Sarah sighed and bent over to dig inside of her purse.  A moment later, she found the object of her search and held up a smartphone that was almost entirely composed of a glossy screen.

“Another burner?” I asked.

“Yes and no,” Sarah replied.  “This whole experience has made me realize that we need to be better able to communicate when we aren’t standing right next to each other.  There’s an app on that phone that’ll allow you to connect to any active cameras, one at a time, so you can keep up with what we’re each doing.  I’m going to give one of these to everyone on the team eventually, but I only had time to work up a prototype of the program while you were, uh…recovering.”

I accepted the phone and tested its weight in my hand.  It was light enough that I legitimately feared I might break it on accident, but the quality of its construction let me know that Sarah had acquired a top of the line model.  I doubted I’d be able to do any serious damage to it without extreme negligence or incredibly poor luck.

“Also,” Sarah added, “I’m getting tired of buying burner phones.  That one’s encrypted above and beyond anything that someone should be able to crack.”  Pause.  “Ideally.”

“Well, as long as that’s figured out.”  I shifted my weight slightly so that I could slip the phone into my pocket.  It bumped against the phone I’d been using – Alex’ phone, borrowed from him back in Munich – so I removed the older model and placed it on the bedside table.  “What do we do after you and Michel get inside the building, assuming everything doesn’t turn to shit before we get that far?”

“Honestly?”

I gave her a vague gesture of acknowledgement.

“I’ve got no idea,” Sarah said.  “Without a clear visual of the interior, I can’t really come up with a solid chain of events.  We’ll be flying completely blind.”

“As opposed to partially blind,” I said, sighing and leaning back slightly.  “Which has been our MO for the last couple of days.”

“At least we know going in that we’re going to have figure things out on the fly,” Sarah offered, in a slightly sarcastic, slightly hopeful tone.

“Billy,” I said, shifting my eyes over to the man in the wheelchair.  He faked surprise at the attention.  “We’re going to need to borrow some of that product we got out of the plant.”

“It’s not my place to judge what a man does in his free time,” Billy said, “but I don’t know that this is really the right time to partake of any pharmaceutical products.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Not for me to use.  Sarah and I have other plans for it.  We don’t need a lot; just enough to make sure that the law enforcement starts paying attention to the quality of the product getting into the country.”

He was quiet for a few seconds as he worked through the implications of that sentence.  I recognized the look on his face; I’d seen it in mirrors on more than one occasion, in the midst of one job or another throughout the years.  When he reached the proper conclusion, his eyes lit up.  “You want to turn the police against Hill?”

I nodded.

“That’s a bit of risky business, isn’t it?”  Billy smiled, broad and sincere.  “And you’ll still be doing a good bit of work to support my side of things while you’re at it, too.  I don’t know what the police will do about it – Hill’s got his fingers in quite a few dirty pockets – but being the focus of an investigation, right after losing two major parts of his operation can’t be good for his business.”

Billy couldn’t know why we actually wanted the product and I was in no mood to correct his assumption.  “Sure.  I’m nothing, if not thorough.”

“I’ll have the boys bring a bit of the goods and load it into the van right now,” Billy said.  “When do you want to get moving?”

“I don’t know how long it’ll take before they get around to processing her,” Sarah said.  “Could be an hour, could be a couple of hours.  The sooner we get her out of there, the better it’ll be for all of us.  Dev, how soon do you think you’ll be able to move?”

As if in answer to that question, Iosif opened the door and searched the area until he found Sarah.  He spoke a couple of words in Russian; she replied in the same language, and he left as quickly as he’d arrived.  “He says it’s done,” Sarah translated.

“There’s your answer, Billy,” I said.  “We get started right now.”

Chapter Eighty-Three

I was aware of two things, even before my eyes opened.  One: some sort of weight pressing against my upper chest.  The weight moved slightly as I stirred, beginning the long climb out of sweet unconscious bliss.  Two: four distinct tracks of warmth in my clenched fist, and a complimentary fifth line across the back of my hand.

A third realization came to me, gradually.  I was in a bed or cot.  My internal sense of balance told me that I was lying horizontal, but the surface beneath me was too uniform to be simple earth or a floor.  From that, I guessed that Iosif had managed to get us away from the destruction at the processing plant.  My current location was still a mystery.  The fog of sleep, mixed with a haze that could very well have been caused by a concussion, made it difficult for me to think much further than that immediate fact.

I didn’t want to wake up – every inch of my body had begun to call out for my attention, as if the nerves themselves had waited until I came back to reality – but awareness came anyway.  I blinked once, twice, and then looked around to take stock of my situation.  The lack of a shirt caused me to have a moment of severe modesty-induced panic, until I felt the fabric of my pants brush against my leg.  Bandages were wrapped around my torso, tight enough that I had difficulties drawing in complete breaths.  I still had a headache, but it was a bearable one.

I was in a bed.  Not the luxurious one I had at the Brooklands, but any port in a storm was better than none.  The mattress was bare enough in some places that I felt springs poking into my back.  Any attempt to move myself away from those minor discomforts only put me into contact with new springs, inflicting new pains to my already battered torso.  I groaned, put one hand under me, and pushed into a more upright position.

The weight on my chest – Sam, apparently – meowed quizzically at me as I sat up in bed.  He jumped down from the bed in a smooth movement, landing on the floor without making a single sound, and prowled a short distance across the floor until eventually collapsing into a white heap at the foot of a chair.  Seated in the chair, asleep but still holding tightly to my hand, was Sarah.

She looked so peaceful when she was asleep.  It had been years ­– practically a lifetime – since I’d had the opportunity to see her like that.  That thought brought a surge of emotion that threatened to drown me; hastily, I reconstructed my mental walls and pushed those feelings away.  Still, despite a burning desire for a status update, I couldn’t bring myself to wake her.

Billy had no such compunctions.  “Gave us a bit of scare, didn’t ya?”

In my peripheral vision, Billy was in the process of wheeling himself over to my bedside.  At the sound of his voice, Sarah sleep-snorted and then rejoined me in the land of the conscious.  Her transition to wakefulness was slower than mine by a good margin.  At first, she looked blankly at me, her mind slowly beginning to work again; then, after fifteen or twenty seconds, her eyes widened and she squeezed my hand hard enough to hurt.  “You’re up!”

“Of course he’s up,” Billy said.  “Your fancy doctor said he’d be alright, didn’t he?

I swallowed a mouthful of saliva to moisten my throat.  Of all the injuries I’d incurred in the night’s catastrophe, the rawness of my throat seemed the most immediately uncomfortable.  “Doctor?” I managed to croak out.

“I figured I might as well use the resources we had,” Sarah said.  “As soon as Stani and his guys got you back here, I dragged Michel out of bed and Sophie arranged to have a private doctor sent over to have you looked at.”

“Avis?  Neal?”

“She was up, working through some of the files; Neal was asleep.  I didn’t bring them, because we don’t really know them and this is kind of a personal thing.”

I nodded silently.  Distracting Avis from her decryption would do more harm than good, and it wasn’t as though either she or Neal possessed any skills that might be useful.

“You…you weren’t waking up,” Sarah said, “and there was so much blood that I…I almost thought…”

I tightened my grip on hers.  “I’m fine,” I rasped.  “Although I could do with some water.”

Sarah started to stand up, but stopped as Billy produced a water bottle and set it gently on a table to my left.  “Your doctor’s been taking care of the rest of you boys,” he said.  “Patching up cuts and scrapes, mostly, though one of those Russians is going to have a nasty scar on his arm, I’d wager.  You think I ought to have him come check you out, now that you’re staying on this side of the Pearly Gates?”

I unscrewed the top of the water bottle and swallowed several mouthfuls of the liquid before replying.  It didn’t make the pain there any weaker, but I found that I could at least communicate without sounding like a crypt keeper.  “Maybe in a little bit,” I said.  “What’d I miss?”

“You mean, aside from widespread property damage and general mayhem?”  Billy smiled at me and I thought the gesture might have been a genuine one.  I did like him.

“Yeah.  Aside from that.”

“Your Russians managed to get a good distance away from the plant on two flat tires before they ditched the van,” Billy said.  “After that, they took turns carrying you for a while until this divine specimen of a woman and the Frenchie arrived to bring all of you the rest of the way here.”

“Here?”  As soon as the words left my mouth, I looked through the doorway and saw two children taking a seat at a cafeteria style table.  “Nevermind, the Halfway House.”

The corners of Billy’s eyes scrunched together.  “Is that what you call it?”

“Ignore him,” Sarah said.  She untangled her fingers from mine and walked across the room.  “Doctor!  He’s awake now.”

I waited until she was sitting before I asked my next question.  “Did James and Chester tell you what happened before that, Billy?”

“You mean, about the trap?”  The smile faded from his lips.  “They got back a good while before the rest of you, so they had plenty of time to walk me through the raid.”

“Hill leaked you bad information,” I said.

“Apparently so.”

“Do you have any idea who might have been the mole?”

Billy was quiet for a few seconds.  “Could be that someone just made an honest mistake,” he said, finally.  “Wouldn’t be the first time a bloke’s used misinformation to get his way of things.”

“Could be that,” I agreed.  “Do you think that’s really how it went down, though?”

He shook his head slowly.  “No.  No, I don’t.  There’s a mole in my house somewhere.  I’ll have to figure out who that is at a later date.”

I let my posture slip and took another drink from the bottled water.  “You needed that, uh…product to keep this place up and running, didn’t you?  What’re you going to do now that you can’t be sure what information to trust?  You can’t go another raid.”

Billy blinked.  “What are you…oh!  That’s right, you just woke up.  Nobody told you that part yet, I suppose.”

“That part?  What part?”

“As it turns out, the van you guys stole was loaded with the real stuff,” Billy said.  “More of it than we’ve ever gotten on a raid before.  Purest product I’ve ever seen.  With that load, I can do a lot of business with a lot of people.  This…what’d you call it?”

“The Halfway House.”

“Well, the Halfway House is in no danger of closing its doors anytime soon.  Might even be able to do something about cleaning up that Black Market outside.”

I scratched at my scalp with my free hand, noting absently that my palm was covered in a thick, white lotion.  “Hill kept actual product in the building that he knew you were going to attack?”

Sarah cleared her throat and gestured for Billy to toss her one of the bottled waters.  “He’s cocky,” she said, after draining a third of the bottle in a single pull.

“Cocky doesn’t equal stupid,” I countered.  “Just because he had a plan in place doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have taken precautions just in case something went wrong.”

“This is the same man who attends an annual or semiannual party specifically designed to allow rich people to show off their rich things,” Sarah pointed out.  “He thought he was smarter than Billy, and he didn’t want to waste an opportunity to turn a little more profit.  Hill is hardly the only person to start believing their own press.”

“Fair enough,” I guess.

Sophie’s doctor came into the room and the three of us lapsed into silence while he checked me over.  The process took maybe twelve minutes, during which Sarah left the room to attend to some matter or another and Billy gave orders to some of his men to catalogue the haul from the processing plant.  When it was finished, the doctor gave me a bottle of lotion and informed me that I was lucky to have only gotten away with first degree burns after touching metal of an indeterminate temperature.  I didn’t have a concussion and the vest I’d worn under my clothing had managed to keep my insides, more or less, inside of me.  There were two fractured ribs, however, and a laundry list of other more minor injuries that would need to be monitored.

I listened patiently to his recitation of symptoms, treatments, and damages while the majority of my mind disengaged and thought about the larger issues.  If Billy had consented to allow us to use the Halfway House for the moment – and if the tone of his voice, or the jocularity of his comments, were any indication – it stood to reason that he considered the job completed.  If not ideally, at least to his satisfaction.  The damage we’d caused to Hill’s processing plant went well beyond ‘sabotaged.’  The size of the last fireball I’d seen, just before I’d lost consciousness, was large enough that it alone would have thoroughly set back any attempts to work out of the plant in the future.  To say nothing of the structural damage a dust explosion would have caused or the lingering toxic cloud that probably permeated the atmosphere.  He wouldn’t be using that building for a long time.

We had dealt Hill’s organization a significant blow.  Without information about how many plants he operated, there wasn’t any way to tell exactly how much damage we’d caused, but it was emblematic.  Three times, my time had managed to get ahead of him and escape.  We’d taken the crown and, with it, his reputation.  We’d taken Avis and, with it, the key to his organization’s encrypted data.  Now, we’d utterly devastated one of his legitimate fronts.  With that move, we had managed…something.  I didn’t know exactly what, but it was something.

The moment of delight was short-lived.  Sam leapt from the floor, up into Sarah’s empty chair, and tilted his head at me.  The question in the cat’s demeanor was obvious.  It wasn’t that he disliked Sarah and me – in fact, Sam seemed rather fond of Sarah, despite the latter’s clear distaste for any animal that might possibly shed – so much as the fact that the cat knew who his owner was, and wanted to see her again.

I thought back to the image I now associated with Mila: brilliant and defiant, standing out against a field of fire with guns in both hands.  She could have gotten into the van with us.  Carlos’ aim was, in all likelihood, a bit impacted by the flames and destruction all around him.  We might have all gotten away together.  Instead, Mila had chosen to stay and draw his attention, despite knowing that Aiden and Mikhail were probably nearby.

She had done her job.

When the doctor finished, Sarah returned with a laptop bag slung over her shoulder and thanked him for his assistance.  He replied that he was happy to be of help and left Billy, Sarah, and I alone in the room again.

“That is one professional bloke,” Billy said, when the doctor was gone.

“According to Sophie,” Sarah said, “he’s worked with people who…operate in less than legal channels.  I’d guess that we don’t have to worry about his discretion.  Anyone operating on our side of things knows better than to make enemies and certainly knows better than to go to the police.”

“Besides,” I added, “he didn’t do anything illegal.  As far as he knows, I got these burns from a toaster-related accident.  Or at least, that’s what he can say if he gets questioned by the police.”

“I know all that,” Billy said.  “I just mean that he didn’t laugh at a single one of my jokes, and that simply doesn’t happen.”

I gave him a flat look for three seconds before a chuckle made its way past my lips.  “Ha.  Ha.”  I pronounced each syllable carefully and deliberately.

The three of us sat in silence for another thirty seconds before I finally worked up the nerve to ask the question I’d been dreading.  “What happened to her?”

There was no need to clarify who I meant.  “What was the last thing you saw?”  Sarah asked.

“She was keeping Carlos’ attention,” I said.  “Something tore itself out of the wall and hit her in the chest.  After that, I…”

Sarah opened her laptop and checked the screen.  “That sounds accurate, then.”

“What’re you looking at?”

She hesitated for a heartbeat.  “I’ve got good news,” she said.  “And I’ve got bad news.  Good news is that Mila didn’t die.  I think.”

I would have leapt to my feet in surprise if the simple thought didn’t cause waves of vertigo to ripple through my head.  “What?  Where is she?  How is she?”

“Severe damage to the sternum,” Sarah replied.  The intonation of her voice was odd.  She wasn’t speaking, but reading.  The information I’d asked for her was on her computer.  “One broken left arm, two bruised or cracked ribs.  Head trauma.”

“Where are you getting all that from?”

She looked up from the computer screen.  “That’s the bad news.  She didn’t get away from the plant.  That last explosion and the pipe you saw hit her must have thrown her a good distance away from the building and knocked her out.”

“So?” I asked.  “Where is she at?”

“The cops picked her up, Devlin,” Sarah said.  “They took her to the closest hospital as a Jane Doe, but the weapons she was carrying on her person…well, those and the fact that she appears to be a US citizen…”

“Sarah, stop beating around the bush.  Where is Mila?”

She sighed.  “Scotland Yard.”

I sat there, thunderstruck, for nearly a full minute before I made up my mind.  Ignoring the waves of dizziness that threatened to send me crashing to the floor, I forced myself out of bed and onto my feet.  “How long has she been there?  How long was I out?”

“She’s been out of the hospital for…maybe thirty minutes.  I can’t tell how long she’s actually been at the station.  Normally, they’d have already run her fingerprints, but the chaos at the processing plant is taking up a lot of resources.”

“So there’s still a chance?” I asked.  “They don’t have her on file yet?”

“You know I can’t access their system like that,” Sarah said, “but no, I don’t think they do.  It’s low priority, compare to a suspected terrorist attack.”

“We’ve got to go get her,” I said.  Sarah opened her mouth to say something, but I waved her off.  “I know it’s stupid, and I know we haven’t had any time to plan.  But she risked her life for us, and leaving her at Interpol is just not an option.  Not to mention, if Aiden finds out where she is, there’s every chance he’ll shoot the place up and she’ll have no way to defend herself.”

“I know that,” she began, “but…”

I interrupted her.  “No buts.  It’s dangerous, sure, but this is the right thing to do.  It’s what she would have done, right?”

Sarah sighed again, but her eyes flicked away from me to the door.  I turned to follow her gaze.  Michel stood in the doorway, wearing an all-black policeman’s uniform, complete with hat.  “I do not think this fits well, but…”  He stopped, realizing that I was staring at him in blank confusion.  “You are awake!  Bon, bon!  Sarah, did you tell him what we are doing yet?”

“I was going to,” Sarah replied, “but he decided to give a little speech first.”

“Wait.  Wait.  What’s happening?”

Sarah turned her laptop around and showed me a flow chart she’d written out, detailing various steps and possible paths of divergence.  “Of course, we’re going to get her out,” she said.  “We were only waiting for you to wake up before getting started.”