Category Archives: Noblesse Oblige

Part 5: Recap

When Asher Knight – Devlin O’Brien’s former partner, ex-friend, and the brains behind all of our hero’s most recent difficulties – kidnaps Alexander Jaeger’s daughter, the team of thieves and criminals find themselves pushed to a new breaking point.  Prisoner exchange terms are offered, rules are dictated, and a seven-day long timer is set into place.  Within a week, Devlin, Sarah, and their team must come up with a way to spirit the young Ally away from her captors or face terrible consequences for their failure.

They are joined in their planning by Alex himself, frantic after a red-eye flight across Europe in pursuit of his daughter.  Joining forces with Devlin and company, the entire group decides to ask their newest ally Billy for his insight on the situation.  Where their knowledge of London is fairly limited, Devlin hopes that a native Londoner might be able to provide a clue as to where Ally is being held.  That hope pays off when Billy instantly recognizes subtle details in Asher’s “proof of life” video and is able to identify where the video was made: an abandoned Tube station turned bomb shelter, far enough away from prying eyes that secrecy is a given.

Starting with that tidbit of information, the team is able to cobble together a plan that relies more on luck than foresight – involving the Ukrainian bomb-maker Anton, a thorough grasp of the train schedule, and a stolen subway engine – just in time to meet Asher’s deadline.

At the abandoned train station, Devlin and Asher face off with each other.  Barbs are exchanged, insults are offered, and the tension rises to a dangerous level when Asher reveals his remote controlled device, specifically to kill Ally if he doesn’t get what he wants.  Sarah, anticipating such a move, activates a signal jammer to block Asher’s move and Devlin ends up in a position where he can hold Asher hostage against his will.

Still, Devlin can’t bring himself to kill his old friend, no matter how much that move would help him, his cause, and the people working beside him.  Instead of pulling the trigger, Devlin and his team use an expertly timed explosion to drop through the floor of the train station and down to a waiting subway engine, “borrowed” from a station a ways out of London proper.  Alex and his daughter are reunited, the veritable horde of hired goons are temporarily neutralized, and yet another of Asher’s power plays has been intercepted before it was able to grow any worse.

It isn’t until the team returns to their penthouse suite at the Brooklands that they find the young theoretical mathematician and her Man Friday – the girl, Avis, and her friend Neal – have been stolen from underneath their noses.  In addition, Billy – the proprietor of the Halfway house and a thorn in Hill’s side – has also been taken

Using some of the information left in the wake of Avis’ kidnapping, Sarah points the team towards one of Hill’s primary supporters and a possible link in the chain leading to their friends.  With that scant clue in mind, Devlin, Sarah, Michel, and Mila all head to a tense dinner with Lord Charles Fairfax, who has repeatedly appeared in their lives since first setting foot on English soil.

Things at Hill’s palatial estate go well enough.  Devlin, under the false identity of a German business magnate, engages in a verbal sparring match with Hill regarding their different philosophies and Sarah, using her own name and all of the prestige that it comes with, provides a counterpoint.  However, things take a decidedly sinister turn when Fairfax reveals a surprise guest: Billy, beaten and held captive by the psychopathic mercenary Aiden, with whom Mila shares a dark past.

Things begin to fall into place for Devlin rapidly.  Fairfax – the arrogant nobleman, the foppish ladies man, the ever-present irritant – is none other than the mysterious “Hill” himself.

Fairfax – or Hill – informs the team that he has taken steps to consolidate his power, in preparation for a move away from the stranglehold of the Magi.  To that end, he has used Asher to facilitate matters on a ground level, but Devlin and company’s impressive record against him in the past few weeks has caused him to reconsider things.  Instead of using Asher for as long as possible before eventually discarding him, Hill offers Devlin an opportunity: if the Irishman will work for Hill, then Hill will deliver his nemesis to him on a silver platter.  If the team chooses to work against Hill’s designs, he will simply have them exterminated at his earliest convenience.

Hill gives the team one week to consider his terms.  It takes them only a few minutes to agree that working for Hill is a non-starter.  He is a mad dog, hungry for more power, and heedless of the cost that pursuit might take upon the innocent.

Back at the Brooklands, Devlin, Sarah, and the rest of their group finally bring in every person potentially affected by Hill’s final move – not just Billy’s men, Chester and James; but also Anton, Stani, and the Russian pair Leonid and Iosif – so that, together, they can come up with a plan to dethrone London’s reigning drug kingpin at the height of his power, before his plans can come to fruition.

They are thieves, getaway drivers, and hackers.  Taking on a madman fully capable of murder is well beyond anything they have ever done.  But Devlin and Sarah know that no one else is in a position to do anything to stop Hill – except for the mysterious Lady, who has chosen not to involve herself directly – which means that the mantle of responsibility falls to them.  If they have the skills to potentially stop the death of an innocent child, then they owe it to Avis to give their all.

Noblesse oblige: those with the power to help have the responsibility to do so.  It’s apparent that the power-mad Lord Fairfax, in his guise as the kingpin Hill, has forgotten this simple principle.  Whether or not Devlin, Sarah, and the crew of international misfits will be able to remind him of that fact remains to be seen.

Chapter 115

Compared to the excruciating days spent terrified about Ally, the three days it took for us to get everything into position went by surprisingly quickly.  There were no marked difficulties to speak of; no insane hurdles to clear or intractable individuals to bribe; no last minute complications, save for a little bit of legal red tape that Sophie alluded to.  Things went as smoothly as they possibly could have gone, all things considered.

While Sarah worked up a dozen different back-up plans, and Mila practiced her aim using her off hand, I spent my time trying – with varying degrees of success – to charm open a Maximus safe.  The Fortress would be far more difficult, with redundancies that I still knew nothing about, but I intended to tackle that problem with something resembling my former expertise in safe-cracking.  By the time Anton called to let me know that he, the Russians, and Billy’s people were ready to go, I had made it to about seventy percent of my previous skill.  I could have waited longer, practiced more.  In fact, I should have.  But there was no guarantee that Hill wouldn’t move up the timetable or, perhaps, simply grow tired with waiting for an answer.  And, of course, we had to move before Asher caught wind of Hill’s intended betrayal, lest my former partner throw our carefully timed flowchart into disarray by moving toward whatever goals he had in mind prematurely.

So, when I got that call, I told the satellite members of my team to wait for my signal, but to expect kick-off the following day.  Anton relayed the message and we ended the conversation.

Sarah happened to be working in the living room.  She glanced up from her screen as I tossed the phone onto the unoccupied loveseat.  “Anton?”


“He’s already got everything set up?”

“Sounds like it.”  I pinched the bridge of my nose, feeling a sudden weariness that I hadn’t expected.

“So.”  Sarah closed her laptop.  “We’re really doing this?”

“Sounds like it,” I repeated.  “Unless you’ve got another way for us to get out of this with our lives?”

“We could run,” Sarah suggested.  Her tone was light, but there was an undercurrent of force that belied her outwardly casual demeanor.

I blinked.  “We?”

“I mean…all of us.  Mila knows people we could hire for protection, if we needed to.  I can probably get most of the money out of my accounts, even the payment we got for the crown, and start up entirely new places to stash it.”

“And just leave Billy, Avis, and Neal to Hill’s tender ministrations?”  I shook my head.  “You aren’t serious.”

Sarah sighed.  “No.  No, I’m not serious.  I just…this whole thing can go wrong so easily.  It almost certainly will go wrong.  Nothing ever goes the way we plan.  And even if everything magically decides to unfold in exactly the way we think it will…”

“If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.”  I stretched until I felt a series of pops travel down my spine and crossed the short distance over to Sarah.  “I’m obviously not going to promise you that everything will be fine.  But I will say that I’m not going to let anything happen to our friends, if there’s something I might be able to do to stop it.”

She barked out a sharp laugh.  “That’s exactly what I thought you’d say.”

“I’m nothing, if not predictable.”

One of Sarah’s eyebrows arched upward.  “Then you must be nothing.  Your whole thing is random, wanton chaos.”

“Would you really want it any other way?”

She didn’t answer.  After a few seconds, she patted the cushion next to her.  Cautiously, I took that as an invitation and sat down beside her.

Sarah cleared her throat and spoke, her voice hitching a little bit at every third word.  “Did you ever think we’d end up here?  All of our history, all the jobs we pulled…do you think you still would have wanted to work with me, back at the charity job, if you knew it was all going to end up here?”

“In a heartbeat,” I answered immediately.  I didn’t even consciously form the words.  They simply sprang, unbidden and wholly formed, from my lips.  “If God himself had descended from the heavens and told me that it was going to lead to this circus, I still wouldn’t have hesitated for a second.”

Sarah put one arm up, around my shoulders, and then pulled me into a hug.  I froze for an instant.  It was the most intimate contact we’d had since that final, devastating argument, and the warmth of her body against mine sent my brain into a temporary state of stupefaction.  I recovered quickly, though, and returned the hug with just as much force.

The elevator dinged.  We broke away from each other, but we weren’t quite fast enough to reach opposite ends of the couch before Mila and Michel entered the suite.  I noticed that Michel was carrying a small caliber handgun now.  It looked like one of Mila’s, but I couldn’t really be sure.  Mila’s uninjured hand held about half of an unwrapped KitKat bar.

“Are we interrupting something?” Mila asked.  Her lips twitched slightly, not quite becoming a smirk.  Michel, at least, had the good grace to seem embarrassed.

“We were just talking about our collective insanity,” Sarah replied smoothly.  “Seeing as every one of us has decided to leap cheerfully off a cliff tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”  The not-quite smirk fell away from Mila’s face.  “Everything’s in position?”

“As much as it’s going to be,” I said.  “Michel, the vehicles you needed aren’t going to get placed until later, after I let Sophie know to set that up.”

The Frenchman nodded.  “I have worked on the route these last few days.  I know it, backwards and forwards.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“What about your friends?” Mila asked.

“Alex and his daughter are going to stay here at the start of it,” I said.  “When we’ve got Hill suitably distracted, that’ll be the best time for them to get out of the country.  There’s a train that’ll get them out of the immediate area and then he can use some of his friends to handle the rest of the trip back to Germany.”

“And you’re sure he’s going to use that train?”

“About as sure as I am about anything else that’s been going on lately.”

“So.”  Mila shifted her weight and started to scratch idly at the bit of exposed skin just above her cast.  “This is it.”

“One way or another, yeah.”

“I feel…”  She hesitated.  “I feel like you should…I don’t know, like you should say something.”

The absurdity of that sentiment, coming from Mila of all people, sent a wave of chuckles through all of us in the room.  Even Mila smiled a little and shook her head.

“I didn’t really have a rousing speech planned,” I said.  “We’ve been up against insane odds for a couple of weeks and we’ve come out ahead.  At least now we know who we’re up against and we know what we’re after.”

“This is easily the craziest job I’ve ever tackled,” Sarah said.  She moved closer to Mila and Michel, which had the side-effect of bringing her nearer to me.  Our fingers nearly touched on the couch.  “But I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever worked with who could have pulled off the things we did.”

I nodded.  “Sarah’s right.  Basically, what I’m trying to say is this: if I ever find myself up against a psychotic ex-partner who’s out for my blood and a fratricidal drug kingpin, while also struggling to fulfill the whims of a mysterious woman and her pet giant, you guys are the team I’d want for the job.”

“That is…very specific,” Michel said, his smile widening.

“I thought you’d like that.  Mila, is that enough, or should I start in on the Braveheart?”

She finished off her KitKat bar and crumpled the wrapper in one fist.  “I guess that’s what I should’ve expected.  It’ll do.”

“Fantastic.”  I cracked my knuckles.  “Everybody, finish up with whatever preparations you need, and then get some sleep.  Kick-off is tomorrow, 3:30 PM.”

A round of nods went around the room and then, with nothing else that needed to be said between us, we all went our separate ways.  I returned to my own bedroom, where the Maximus waited to taunt my inabilities.  Both invigorated and terrified by the knowledge that there was no more time for practice, planning, or second-guessing, I attacked the safe for another two hours before I finally slumped against the door and slept.

I awoke to bustle and fuss outside of my room.  The safe hadn’t been a comfortable bed, as my back was happy to declare, but I pushed through the discomfort.  A quick trip to the shower helped to clear away the lingering traces of mental fog and then I found myself back in my bedroom, staring into my closet.  The Lady had accommodated any possible sartorial requirements I might have, so long as I was infiltrating high society.  She had not been so efficient or fastidious when it came to more covert options.  Sophie could probably have arranged for something in black with only a few moments of notice, but…

Moving quickly, I dressed myself in the same suit I’d worn to the museum gala, so many nights ago; the one that Sophie had created, specifically for me.  The fit was impeccable and the surprisingly breathable vest provided an additional layer of safety.  What led me to choose that suit over something more practical, however, wasn’t its cut or its stylings.  Sophie was, in a way, a part of the entire London affair.  Bringing her work along with me felt right.

Besides, it wasn’t as though I planned to do very much sneaking.  If I were seen, at any point, it wouldn’t exactly matter what I was wearing.  No quantity of all black turtlenecks would do a thing to keep me concealed in broad daylight.

When that was finished, I slipped all of my usual toys and gadgets into their appropriate places and stepped out into the hallway.  Sarah left her own room at the same time and nearly bumped into me.

“Oh!”  She stepped back quickly, performing a quick dance to keep any of the electronics in her arms from falling to the ground.  “I was just about to get you.  Is that…is that what you’re wearing?”

“There’s a distinct lack of options,” I said.  “And I figured there was something to be said for the dramatic effect.”

Her lips puckered and twisted up for a second, then eased back into a subtle smile.  “I like it.”

A smile appeared on my own face.  “Everybody else is ready?”

Mila stepped into view from just out of sight, blocking the entrance to the hallway.  She wore a tight shirt and jeans, with holsters around one thigh; crisscrossed between her shoulder blades, so that guns hung to either side of her in easy reach; and at the small of her back.  A duffle bag was slung over her shoulder.  “I’m good to go, if you are.”

I gave her equipment a skeptical look.  “Planning on starting an international incident today?”

She didn’t smile at the little joke.  “You know who’s going to be there,” she said.  “I’d rather have something I don’t use, then need something I left at home.”

“Good point.  Did you find one for me?”

She knelt, unzipped the duffle bag, and dug around inside of it for a few seconds.  She emerged before too long and held out a weapon, in its own holster.  “This is a Ruger,” she said.  “Easy enough for beginners, which you clearly are.  If you pull this, be prepared to use it.”

I took the gun and examined it.  “Looks like something Bond would use.”

Mila ignored that.  “There’s a key for the safety,” she said, as she located and passed that to me, as well.  “Make absolutely sure the safety is off, if you end up needing the gun.”

“Got it.”  It took me a few tries to position the holster just right beneath my suit jacket and the added weight at my side still felt odd when I finished.

“Michel’s downstairs.  Car’s already running.”

Sarah, Mila, and I rode the elevator down and exited the Brooklands through the lobby.  Not only did I see the car that we’d arranged through Sophie, but the concierge herself stood a few feet away from the idling vehicle.  She shifted her weight from one foot to the other until she saw us, at which point her posture became immaculate and stiff.

“Soph?” I asked.  “Everything okay?”

“Everything is fine, Mister O’Brien,” Sophie said.  She took a deep breath before continuing.  “I simply wanted to take this opportunity to, uh…wish you the best of luck in your activities today.  Your stay here at the Brooklands was an…interesting experience.  If you ever find yourself in London again, I would be happy to provide suitable service.  Assuming, of course, that you, uh…”

I rescued her from any more stuttering with a vague gesture.  “That almost sounds like you like us,” I said, “and that’s what I’m going to take it to mean.”

“Ah.”  She sighed and deflated slightly.  “Yes.  Well.  If you require anything else, you only have to contact me.”

“I don’t think we’ll need you anymore today,” I said.

“Still.”  She seemed to consider something and then stepped forward to take one of my hands into both of hers.  “Anything at all I can do to help, don’t hesitate to ask.”

It was, perhaps, the most genuine emotion I’d seen from Sophie in our time at the Brooklands.  I shook her hand.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Very good, then,” Sophie said, as we separated.  The expression on her face told me that she had something else to say, but she shook her head and left without speaking her thoughts aloud.

The three of us piled into Michel’s car and he pulled away without wasting a single second.  We’d been on the road for ten or fifteen minutes before he said anything.  “Do the others know what you plan to do?”

“You mean Anton, the Russians, and Billy’s gang?”  I shook my head.  “No reason to tell them.  They aren’t involved in any of the sensitive bits, beyond the stuff with the bombs.  As long as they can keep to the schedule, their part will go perfectly.”

“And if you find yourself needing their assistance?”

“If I need their assistance, it’ll be too late.”

Michel accepted that answer with a grim tightening around his lips and a soft grunt of displeasure.

The rest of the trip passed in complete silence, save for the steady click of Sarah’s keyboard as she worked.  I considered several conversation starters and dismissed each and every one of them.  There simply wasn’t anything left to say.  The time for words had ended; now, it was the time for frenzied, panicked action.

Michel eased the car to a complete stop when we reached the staging area.  Sarah’s specialty van waited in a parking spot nearby.  She put the finishing touches on one of her programs and closed her laptop.  “This is my stop,” she said and opened the door to step outside.

I reached out and put a hand on her elbow.  She went still.  “See you on the other side,” I said softly.

“Yeah.  See you on the other side.”

She exited Michel’s car and walked across the parking lot until she reached her van, then disappeared inside.  A moment later, my earbud popped twice and came to life.

She cleared her throat before speaking.  “Can everybody hear me?”



Those answers came from Michel and Mila.

“Same as ever.”

That one came from me.

Da,” Stani’s voice said over the comms.  “You are in position?”

“They’d better be,” Chester’s voice said in reply.  “Put every man I could ahold of on this.  If they ain’t even where they’re supposed to be, then – “

“We’re all in position,” Sarah said, neatly cutting Chester off before he could work up a head of steam.  “We all know what we’re supposed to do.  That’s my part, handled.  Devlin?”

I inhaled and exhaled several times, willing my heartbeat to steady itself.  The effort proved unsuccessful, so I just accepted the wild variance and focused on stilling my thoughts instead.  That went better.

Mila and Michel looked at me from the front of the car.  They were waiting, too, although what they were waiting for could not have been any more different.

I let the still air over the comms hang there for a few more seconds.  When I spoke again, things would get insane, unpredictable, and dangerous.  No matter how thoroughly we had checked and double-checked every aspect of the plan, Sarah and I both knew better than to assume we’d stick to every detail…or, honestly, any detail beyond the vaguest beginning steps.

I thought of Avis and Neal, of Billy, of Asher.  I thought about my old friend and his vendetta against me.  I thought about the Lady with her ice-chip eyes.

Then I cleared my throat.  “Sarah,” I said.  “Start the clock.”

Chapter 114

Sarah opened her mouth, presumably to explain whatever dastardly plan she’d managed to create during my alcohol-induced slumber, just as the elevator dinged.  Mila’s uninjured hand darted across her torso to the handle of her concealed gun and she only relaxed the tiniest bit when Michel’s head came into view.

The Frenchman made a very deliberate effort not to move any unnecessary muscles.  His eyes went from Mila’s face down to her weapon, then back again.  He dipped two fingers into his front pants pocket, moving with excruciating care.  When the fingers came back into sight again, he held a candy bar in a delicate grip.

“I do not think you have tried this one before,” Michel said.  “Perhaps you will not like it, but…”

Mila rolled her eyes.  The tension in her body lessened appreciably and she took two long steps over to the open elevator door, just to snatch the candy bar from Michel’s fingers in a motion too quick for me to follow.  “Very funny,” she said.

I noticed that, despite her tone, she couldn’t quite contain the faint shadow of a smile on her lips.

“Ah!”  Michel exited the elevator and walked over to the couch where I sat.  “You are awake!  Sarah, have you told him what you came up with yet?”

“I was just about to, actually,” Sarah said.  “It’s better that you’re here, too, come to think of it.  If Dev points out any flaws, it’ll be easier to come up with workarounds while we’re all in the same place, as opposed to communicating that sort of thing on the fly.”

“Is that coffee I smell?”

I nodded and passed Michel my own drained mug.  “Get me some more, too?”

“On an empty stomach?” Sarah asked.  “You know what that does to you.”

“I’ll order room service in a little bit.  Or I’ll cook something.  But I’m not awake enough yet to think clearly and we don’t really have the time for me to get there without more caffeine.”

She shrugged.  “It’s your health.”

Michel vanished into the kitchen for a minute or two.  He returned with two full, steaming mugs of coffee.  He placed one of them in front of me and took the other with him to an empty space on the coffee table, where he sat and began to drink deeply.

“Alright,” Sarah said, after I’d had a chance to consume a little bit of my third coffee in maybe thirty minutes.  “I looked a lot of different options while you were out, crunched numbers, reached out to any associates I absolutely trust.”

“I don’t imagine that you have a lot of those,” I pointed out.

“You’re not wrong.  Surprisingly, hackers and criminals are not the most trustworthy sort.”  Her expression darkened slightly as she spoke.  I owned my technical illiteracy and Sarah’s web of friends and frenemies had always been something beyond my understanding.  If I wasn’t misreading her – a valid possibility, if ever there was one – the fact that she couldn’t rely on those resources was bothering her more than she let on.

“Go on,” I prompted, both out of curiosity and a desire to change the subject before she had a chance to really start brooding.

Sarah physically shook herself out of her thoughts.  “I’ll spare you the details and the ideas that just wouldn’t work because of time, personnel, and so on.  Here are the problems I’ve come up with, though.  Let me know if I missed anything.”

“I’m listening.”

Sarah did something with her tablet so that it displayed onto the television screen, where everyone in the room could more easily follow along.  Even Mila, already halfway through the candy bar Michel had brought her, left her position by the elevator so that she would have a better view.

“One,” Sarah said.  The number one appeared on the television screen and letters followed after it, only slightly out of sync with Sarah’s voice.  “We do not know anything about the interior of the estate, beyond what we saw when Hill invited us there in the first place.”

“Can’t you find that out?”

“Apparently, no.”  The fingers on her left hand twitched – actually, only a single finger twitched – before she clenched them all into a fist.  “I’m guessing that Hill went out of his way to make sure that the property doesn’t have any sort of official construction plans.  Maybe he did the work with some of the people from his more…shall we say, illicit business dealings.  However he did it, the point is that I can’t physically get any intelligence about he’ll have the place laid out.”

I frowned.  That wasn’t a promising start.  If our plan was to break into the house somehow, rescue our friends, and steal the Book without bringing down armed fury on our heads, we’d have to be quick and we’d have to be quiet.  Relative silence was easy enough to manage, but we couldn’t afford to spend precious minutes or hours searching through the estate room by room.  Every second inside the estate put us a second closer to disaster.

Sarah had clearly drawn the same conclusion.

“Could you do it like the manor house?” I asked.  “Infiltrate his wireless network and use his own security cameras to map out where things are located?”

“Thought about that.  Won’t work.”  With some deft finger-work, she made a second bullet point appear on the screen, along with the words ‘cannot remotely access network.’

“Why not?” I asked.

“You want the technical answer?”  Sarah shook her head before I replied.  “No, of course you don’t.  Okay, um…okay, I can explain this.  I hack into systems wirelessly whenever possible, because it lets me stay away from the actual target.  At the manor house, that wasn’t feasible, so you just co-opted their own wireless signal for me to use.  Even then, you had to physically attach a clip and find your way to the security room.”

I nodded.  “I’m following along.”

“There is no wireless signal coming from Hill’s house.  None at all.”

“You hacked into his emails, didn’t you?”

“I hacked into his phone,” Sarah corrected, “where his emails are stored.  He either didn’t care or didn’t know how to protect his phone better than the defaults, which is…honestly, a little concerning.  Anyway.  His home network, though?  As far as my programs are concerned, it doesn’t exist.”

“How likely is that?”

The look Sarah gave me spoke volumes about my own ignorance.  “It is not particularly likely that nobility living in the 21st Century would have an estate without any sort of computer network.  It’s even less likely that a crime lord would kidnap his brother, the human equivalent of a Turing machine, and a relative innocent without some way to actually keep an eye on them.”

“Ah.  Well.  Okay, then.  So, what does that mean, then?”

“It means that he’s using air-gapped computers,” Sarah said.  She gave my blank, uncomprehending expression a dismissive wave and elaborated in Layman’s terms.  “It means that his computers can’t be remotely hacked.”

“That much I understand.  So.  No way to know how the estate is built or where Hill’s more likely to stash Avis, Neal, Billy, or the Book.  No way for you to hack into his computer system.  Any other impossible obstacles I should start worrying about?”

“It isn’t impossible to get into the network,” Sarah said.  “It’s impossible for me to remotely get into their network.  It wouldn’t be impossible if someone were able to physically insert a flash drive into the primary computer.”

I drank the coffee in my mug down to about half its previous volume.  “And when you say someone, you mean me?”

“Or me,” Mila said.

I gave her a quizzical look.  “You aren’t trained in this sort of thing.  You’re good in your own area, obviously, but this isn’t going to be the sort of thing that you can fight your way out of.”

“Ask me if I care about any of that,” Mila replied, in that slightly dangerous, even-handed tone.  “I’ve got a job to keep you safe.  I’m not going to let you go into Hill’s estate, just to get captured and killed.  Besides…I hate owing people favors.”

“Favors?  What are you – “ I stopped, mid-sentence.  “You’re talking about the thing with the police?”

Mila nodded.

“You don’t owe any of us for that!”

“Doesn’t matter.  You go in, I’m going in.”

The angle of her shoulders, the minute tightening of her jaw, the slight curling of the fingers on her uninjured hand…all that and a dozen other quirks of body language told me that nothing I said was going to change Mila’s mind.  “Sarah,” I said, exasperated and irritated, “what else have you got for us?”

“Not much more.”  She entered a command into the tablet with quick, darting movements.  A third bullet point appeared on the television screen.  “Assuming that we can’t trust anybody to actually be on the ground with us, we just don’t have the personnel for an operation like this.  You can’t be in two places at once.  Anton can’t be responsible for the bombs and running around all over London.  Et cetera, et cetera.”

“Do you have a possible fix for that?”

She shook her head.  “Not even the slightest.  I’m just hoping you can figure that out, because we’ve still got…”  Sarah trailed off as a fourth bullet point slid into place on the television screen.  It read, in bold, stark lettering: “priorities.”

I understood what that mean, even before Sarah had to draw in breath to explain it to me.  “Too many targets,” I said, “and not enough time to hit them all.”

Sarah nodded.  “Pretty much.  With the lack of personnel already being an issue, there just isn’t any way that I can think of to accomplish everything we want to.  Unless Hill was stupid enough to put Avis, Neal, Billy, and the Book in the same unsecured room, we’re going to have to make some choices on what to prioritize.”

We made eye contact for a brief heartbeat.  That wasn’t all that long in the life of things, but it felt like an eternity.  In that singe frozen instant of eye contact, Sarah and I communicated a wealth of things without ever speaking a word.  She knew what I would say, Asher’s betrayal be damned.  And she wanted me to say it.  One of us had to make the obvious suggestion, just as one of us had to find a way to bring the mountain to Mohammed, so to speak.  I’d always been closer to the heart of any group we found ourselves working in.  It was only reasonable that I’d have to speak in that role now.

“We save our friends,” I said.  There was a slight flicker in Sarah’s expression.  Gratitude, perhaps, or resignation.  Certainly not disappointment or surprise.

“What about Asher?  Or the Book?”

“If the Lady has a problem with how I make decisions, she should have hired someone who’d make different choices.  No matter how badly I want to make Asher pay for setting me up in Paris, I’m not going to buy that revenge with the life of a child or someone who’s helped all of us.”

One corner of Sarah’s lips twitched slightly upward, in an instant so fast that even I nearly missed it.  “I figured you’d say that.”

“So did I,” Mila added.  She heaved a dramatic sigh, clearly not caring in the slightest about hiding her emotions.  “Because it would make too much sense if you guys went after the Book, which is going to be so much easier to transport than three human beings.”

“We might have other chances at the Book,” I pointed out.  “Hill’s explicitly said he’s going to kill Billy, Avis, and Neal as soon as he finishes getting what he needs decrypted.”

“None of which is your problem,” Mila said.  “Or, at least, none of which has to be your problem.  But I’d be lying if I said I was surprised to find out that you’re going to put yourself in a more difficult situation.”

I smirked at that.  “And you’re still sure about this contract?”

“I already agreed to the terms.”  Mila rolled one shoulder, then the other.  “And your old friend has pissed me off a little bit too much.  I think a little bit of controlled destruction is past due, honestly.  I’d probably want to ruin his day, even if I weren’t being paid exorbitant amounts to keep you safe.”

Mila and I shared that sentiment in common.

“Sarah,” I said, “is that the last problem on your list?”

“That’s the last one I was able to come up with,” she replied.  “Of course, I’m expecting a million other things to go wrong between now and whenever we set things into motion, but that’s going to be up to you to figure out.”

I nodded.  “Well, I figure that’s the most impossible list of restrictions and requirements we’ve been up against since we came to London, but we haven’t let any of that stop us yet, have we?  You said you had a plan?”

“I have a plan to get you into the estate,” Sarah said.  While she spoke, her fingers busily worked across the tablet’s surface, changing the display on the television screen from the list of problems to a flowchart.  “Or the two of you, whatever.  But I don’t have any idea what you’ll have to do while you’re in there and I have no idea how to get you out again.”

“Thirty-three percent of a plan is still better than zero percent,” I pointed out.  “What’ve you got in mind?”

Using the television screen as a prop, Sarah outlined her idea.  I listened with growing astonishment, confusion, and frank surprise as she walked me through every twist and turn of the infiltration.  The image on the screen changed several times, normally when she reached some point that required visual representation.  When she was done, I stared at her for nearly a full minute.

Sarah broke the silence before I did.  “Well?  What do you think?”

I blinked and swallowed hard, picking my words with exquisite care.  “I thought that I was supposed to be the crazy one.”

She responded to that by throwing a pillow at me.  Either because of the coffee or because of a genuine lack of intent on her part, I easily dodged the projectile.  “I’m serious here.  This is more your speed, but Asher and Hill have been ahead of us every step of the way with my plans.  Even when we thought we were winning, we might only have been helping one side or the other get closer to their goals.”

“So you figured you’d change things up?”  I gave her an approving nod.  “That’s probably what we needed.  Like Mila said: a little bit of controlled destruction might do us all some good.  And, if nothing else, we can at least put a serious dent in anything Hill’s trying to do in the region.”

“Right before we all die horrible, fiery deaths,” Mila said.

We all looked at her.  It was Michel who spoke first.  “With that attitude,” he said, “it is a wonder that everyone does not come to you for your cheery disposition.”

Mila seemed as though she might have taken offense at that for a few seconds, before she relaxed and allowed a genuine smile to spread across her face.  “This is me being cheery,” she said.  “You don’t want to see what I’m like when I’m actually pessimistic.”

Michel shook his head with slow, mock sadness.  “It is a shame.  She does not understand the meaning of sarcasm at all.”

“Is this what dealing with me feels like?” I asked Sarah.

“Pretty much.  Except Michel’s got the accent, so that’s working for him.”

A number of reprisals leapt to mind, but I sidelined them before they made it past their infancies.  Another thought followed on their heels, which crystallized into solidity almost instantly.  I turned it around in my mind, examined it from every possible angle, before deciding that it had a less than zero percent chance of working.  In this situation, with all of the odds stacked against us, that was a higher percentage than any of us had any right to expect.

“You can get me in,” I said, “and I think I might have an idea to get me back out again.  But you definitely aren’t going to like it.”  I turned to Mila.  “Neither of you are.”

“Let me be the judge of that,” Sarah said.  “Maybe there’s some way we can mitigate whatever difficulties you’re planning to set up for yourself.”

“Doubt it.”

I told her my idea.  It took considerably less time than she had used on her own explanation and required none of the props.

“You’ve lost your mind,” Sarah said, immediately after I finished speaking.  “Seriously, you have absolutely lost your mind.”

“Think about it,” I said.  “We both know there isn’t any other way I can get out of the estate.  Even using your plan to get in, I’d just be trapped inside with however many men Hill’s employed.  And some of your tricks are only going to work the one time.”

Mila took two steps forward.  “You weren’t kidding when you said I wasn’t going to like it.  Not that it matters either way, because I’m not going to let you do it.”

“Yes it does matter, and yes you will let me go through with it.  Because the alternatives aren’t any better, and almost all of them involve one or both of us dying those fiery deaths you mentioned earlier.  We have limited resources to bring to bear here, so we’ve got to make use of everything we have.  Even if it’s not something we’d typically prefer to get involved.”

Mila grumbled something under her breath, but she didn’t move any closer.

“Michel?” I shifted my attention over to the Frenchman.  “What do you think?”

He gave his answer deep thought.  “I think,” he said, finally, “that you are crazy.”

“Crazy like a fox or crazy like…well, like Asher?”

“Neither,” Michel replied.  “Or both.  But maybe…maybe you are crazy enough that this thing will work.”

I decided that, in spite of my own second-guesses and the general air of disbelief in the room, I would have to take Michel’s faint praise as endorsement enough.  Besides, if my idea didn’t work, I strongly doubted that anyone would be in any mood to tell me that they’d been right all along.

Chapter 113

When I awoke, it was completely dark inside the hotel suite.  Bleary-eyed, I fumbled around on the nightstand until my fingers found the edges of the encrypted phone.  A quick check, followed by some curiously difficult math, told me that I’d only slept for a few hours.  Considering the time, I nearly expected everyone else to be fast asleep, but the sounds of life and activity reached me from the main area, outside my door and down the hallway.

Cursing softly for no reason I could think of, I stumbled out of bed, into a pair of loose flannel pajama pants, and made my way out of the bedroom.  Immediately, I shielded my eyes against the light.  Sharp, stabbing shafts of light poured out of Sarah’s computer room and that was compounded by every light in the hallway, all the way down to the main area.  It took a second or two before my eyes had adjusted enough that I dared risk walking forward at all and I still managed to stub my toe against the wall.

“What,” I asked, when I finally reached the living room, “is everyone doing up?  And why is it so damn bright in here?”

“That’s what people usually do when they need to read,” Sarah said.  I couldn’t see her through the cracks in my fingers, but the self-satisfied tone of voice came through loud and clear.

I turned so that I was facing in her general direction before replying.  “Your sarcasm is not appreciated.”

She drew in a fake gasp of horror.  “However will I live with myself?  I’ll have you know that some people find my sarcasm quite charming.”

“Did those people have the luxury of sleeping before encountering your biting wit?”

“I don’t know.  I never asked.”

“You know, he really does not respond well when he hasn’t gotten enough sleep,” Mila said.  Judging from her voice, she was standing in the corner of the room.  Probably in the nook just to the side of the elevator, where she normally took up residence.  It gave her a vantage point of the room and a clean shot at any uninvited guests, after all.

I faced what I thought was the corner and glared at Mila.  The effect was probably spoiled by the fact that I literally couldn’t manage to open my eyes wider than a slit, but it made me feel better, anyway.  “I work perfectly fine without sleep,” I said, affecting a huffier tone than strictly necessary.

“It’s true,” Sarah said.  “It’s the vodka that does it to him.  Dev, there’s coffee in the kitchen, whenever you feel like being a person again.”

I grumbled several vile things – well, they weren’t actually words, but the sentiment was far from polite – and went into the kitchen.  While my vision cleared and adjusted, I managed to unearth a gargantuan coffee mug and filled it almost to the brim.  Another few seconds of searching yielded some liquid creamer.  I drank the mixture down in two or three large gulps, refilled it, and finished half of that as well.

With all that done, I walked back into the living room.  “Alright,” I said.  There was still sleep clinging to every other syllable and I felt a terrible case of cotton-mouth building up, but at least I could look around without wincing in pain.  “What’re we doing?”

“Taking stock of our assets,” Sarah replied.  “Figuring out what we might need to get from Sophie and how useful it’ll be.”

“To know any of that stuff, wouldn’t we need some vague idea of exactly how we’re going to get Billy, Avis, and the Book away from Hill and company?”

“That is…another part of what we’re doing,” Sarah admitted.  I took a seat across from her and she passed the tablet in her hands over to me.  “Here, take a look.”

I rubbed some gunk from the corner of my eyes and did as ordered.  The tablet displayed a ledger list of purchases, all attributed to one Lord Charles Fairfax.  Much of what I saw there was renovation-related – new doors, tables, and furniture; rugs and carpets of various shapes and sizes; reinforced window panes – so I clicked an icon at the top of the screen, so that I could skim through those items without being distracted by anything else there.

Sarah spoke to me while I read.  “I didn’t think he’d purchase any of the serious stuff using his own public identity, but it seems like Hill’s a good bit stupider than you’d think.  Everything you’re looking at now has a totally legitimate purpose, on the surface.  Taken in aggregate with everything we know, though…”

“He’s fortifying,” I said.  “How far back do these purchases go?”

“I’ve only been able to find a few months.”  Sarah paused.  “Well, okay.  Ally was able to find a few months’ worth of purchases.  I think I might have been giving Hill too much credit or…or, I don’t know, maybe I was just tired, but I would’ve missed it if she hadn’t been here to point it out.”

I shrugged one shoulder and took another long drink of coffee.  “Girl’s got talent, I guess.  She managed to figure out that Alex used to be a thief and you know how hard we worked to keep that under wraps.”

“Fair enough.”  Sarah still seemed a little upset at missing the trail, but she continued after a deep breath.  “This is what I’m thinking: Hill arranged for Asher to steal the book from the bank at Limassol.  Asher decided to use his contacts in the Bratva to provide a little extra muscle, fully expecting to betray them as soon as he got what he wanted.  As soon as the book had been safely extricated from the country, Hill put it somewhere in his house and started preparing the estate for a siege.”

“From who?”  A moment passed and then I answered, before Sarah could.  “The Magi.  He’s getting ready in case they find out what he’s doing before everything’s in place.”

Sarah nodded.  “Pretty much.”

“But why did Asher decide to betray the Magi, in favor of Hill?” I asked.  “If all he wants is power – and I can tell you for a fact that he’s very interested in power and always has been – wouldn’t it make more sense to stay with the heavyweight champions of the criminal world?”

“Maybe he wants it on his own terms?”

Mila cleared her throat.  I glanced at her and discovered, to no great surprise, that she had produced a Turkish Delight out of thin air.  She unwrapped the candy while she talked.  “Or he had a grudge against the Magi.  I know a thing or two about wanting to get even.  It isn’t the sort of thing that typically lends itself to clear thinking.”

That wasn’t directed at me, and I knew it, but I still reflexively looked away from Mila.  It wasn’t that I’d forgotten my ultimate goal of avenging Asher’s betrayal – after all, that had been the impetus for this whole, sordid affair – but so many things had happened that I’d lost sight of the target.  There were new friends that I felt personally responsible for; enemies I hadn’t anticipated making; mysteries and mysterious people behind the scenes; and a throng of other complications that made it impossible for me to stay focused on any one thing.  Even now, while I wanted nothing more than to take Asher and Hill down for the offences they’d committed against me and my friends, it wasn’t coming from a place of personal anger.

Or was it?  Was it possible that I would have found another way to deal with everything if I hadn’t wanted, deep down, to make Asher pay for my prison sentence?  Was there any way to really know?

I shook my head to clear it, failed, and decided to simply shift my thoughts to a different track for the moment, instead.  That tactic was only marginally more successful than the first.  “We’ll have to add that to the list of things we still don’t know,” I said.

“That one keeps getting longer and longer,” Sarah said.  “Every time we think we’re getting ahead, it turns out that we’ve only been giving someone a minor inconvenience.”

“I don’t think we need to worry about that, anymore.”

Sarah raised an eyebrow.

I finished the rest of my coffee.  I thought about getting a third cup.  My empty stomach answered the question for me.  A third cup without taking time to eat would only make me sick and jittery; two things I couldn’t afford to be, at the moment.  “Just like Asher was playing all of his cards when he kidnapped Ally, Hill is going all in with this move.  Either we take his job offer and become his enforcers when various Underworld elements refuse to fall in line, or he kills us and wipes his hands of the entire affair.  He can’t be holding anything back now.”

“Or so you think.”

“Or so I think,” I repeated.  “But if I have to choose between thinking the wrong thing now or second-guessing everything, I’ll go with the first choice.”

Sarah sighed.  “That is the sort of thing you’d do, isn’t it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nevermind.”  Sarah shook her own head several times.  “Look at the rest of that list and tell me what you see.”

I spent a few heartbeats puzzling over Sarah’s oddities before turning my attention back to the tablet.  My fingers tapped the appropriate buttons to switch over the ledger to a full accounting for all of Hill’s purchases.  I scrolled and found nothing of note.  I scrolled some more and, still, saw nothing particularly unusual for someone preparing for siege.  I scrolled down again, froze, blinked, and then whispered a single curse word.

“Yeah,” Sarah said.  “That.”

“Yeah,” Mila asked, “what?  Sarah saw something on that list and she had the same reaction as you, Devlin.”

“It’s a safe,” I said.

“Well, if he wanted to keep the book safe, Hill would have to have a safe.  What’s so surprising about that?”

“It isn’t a safe.”  I looked at the coffee cup and, suddenly, found myself wishing that it had been filled with something stronger than mere caffeine.  “It’s the safe: the Döttling.”

“Judging from your expression, I’m going to assume that the Döttling is heavy-duty?”

“Let me put it this way.”  I set the tablet down on the couch beside me, taking great care not to disturb Sam where he slept, and steepled my fingers in front of my face for a few moments.  “You’re armed, right?”

Mila lifted an eyebrow in my direction before lifting her broken arm slightly to reveal the black leather of her shoulder holster.

“And you’re carrying a…what, a Glock?”

“Sig Sauer, actually.  Easier to get ahold of in the UK.”

“Alright.  Now, I’m just guessing, but you’re probably pretty damn good with that thing.  Accurate and all that, right?”

Mila responded by arching her eyebrow even more and, somehow, conveying a great wealth of wounded pride in the simple gesture.

“I’m just asking.  It’s important that you really understand what we’re talking about here.  So, imagine a Sig Sauer.  Hold that in your head.  Now, imagine that someone had the idea to take everything about that gun and make it better.  Needlessly better.  Higher capacity, less recoil, more range.  Turn each dial on that gun up to eleven.”

Mila took a bite from her Turkish Delight.  “Like something from TrackingPoint,” she said, finally.


“They make guns that…it’s hard to explain, but let’s just say you can’t miss with a gun like that unless you’re really trying to.  They’re damned expensive.”

I nodded.  “Alright, I can work with that.  So, you’ve got a perfectly serviceable weapon, and then you’ve got something like this TrackingPoint gun.  Except the difference between the Döttling and the next best safe on the market is about two or three times as wide.”

Mila looked from me to Sarah.  Sarah gave her a short nod.  Mila looked back at me, swallowed her mouthful of candy, and allowed the tiniest bit of stunned shock to reach her otherwise placid expression.  “Seriously?”

“Seriously.”  I drummed my fingers against the side of my mug.  “So, he’s got a Fortress in there?”

“Not a Fortress.  A Fortress Maximus,” Sarah said.  “The new and improved model.  I’m not even sure that these things are publically available yet.”

“How did he – wait, no, never mind.  It doesn’t matter how, just that he does.  Can you find any of the specs online?”

Sarah shook her head.  “I’ve only been looking for a little while, so there’s always a possibility, but…no, I don’t think I’ll be able to.”

Another string of curses threatened to make their way past my lips.  I bit them back and forced myself to think instead.  “Maybe Alex knows someone.  Those are German made, after all.”

“Hmm.  Maybe.  I’ll send this over to him whenever he wakes up.  Someone decided to drink half a bottle of vodka with him, so he’s a little out of commission at the moment.”

It only took the briefest mention of that particular cursed alcohol to remind my headache that I’d been enjoying several peaceful moments.  It returned with just enough strength that I had to press my thumbs into my temples.  “I’m going to cut off your Diet Coke supply,” I said, “just to see how you handle it.”

Sarah faked a gasp.  I noticed that, even though she was dramatizing her shock, she made certain to tighten her grip on the soda can in front of her.  “You go right ahead and try that.  We’ll see how it works out for you.”

I grumbled something between a challenge and an acknowledgment.  “I assume you’ve got tabs on everyone else?”

“The ones that didn’t turn their earbuds off as soon as they left the hotel, sure.”  Sarah motioned for me to hand her the tablet.  When it was in her hands again, she closed out the window of Hill’s purchases and navigated over to a map with a few deft movements of her fingers.  “Stani switched off his earbud the first chance he got.”

“Probably trying to make sure we don’t figure out where he’s hiding out,” Mila said.  “Makes sense.  You’re still working for someone who may or may not have the Bratva’s best interests in mind.”

“Fair enough,” Sarah said, “but he should probably have made sure that Anton turned off his earbud, as well.  I’ve got his location right here.”

Virtually all of my time in London, so far – in fact, almost every waking minute since being broken out of prison – had proceeded in a fairly regular fashion.  Receive clue, pursue clue, walk into trap, manage to survive by the skin of my teeth.  Lack of knowledge had been our greatest enemy; second to that, my team had fallen victim to a not inconsiderable amount of overconfidence.

I cleared my throat to draw attention back to me.  “For right now, let’s assume that Anton and Stani aren’t in the same place.  If we had more time – and if we knew who we could and couldn’t trust – I’d suggest getting someone over there to check out the place, but we’ll just have to be extra careful about making assumptions for the moment.”

Sarah blinked.  She sipped from her Diet Coke in quiet thought and then blinked again.  “That’s an awful lot of caution from you, Dev.”

“I’ve got more people than normal to think about,” I replied, “and I’m tired of getting out played because I didn’t think any further than the immediate future.”

“I’m not going to lie.”  Sarah finished the remainder of her soda and immediately popped the top on a fresh can.  “It’s a little weird hearing this much reasonable thought coming from you.”

I considered several responses before ultimately settling on a classic: I stuck my tongue out at her.

She returned the gesture, with gusto.

Mila coughed from her corner, far louder than could possibly have been necessary.  She did it a second time, even after Sarah and I were both paying attention to her.  “Back to this safe,” she said.  “Do you have any idea at all how to break into it?”

I shook my head.  “No clue.  Even when I wasn’t out of practice, that’s the kind of safe I would have preferred to bypass entirely.”

“Bypass?  How would you do that?”

“Usually, I’d just take the whole thing out of the wall.”  I shrugged.  “It isn’t elegant and there isn’t any way to hide that a theft has taken place, but that’s preferable to getting caught trying to finesse your sixteenth tumbler.”

Mila gave me a blank look.  “I’m going to assume those are things that safecrackers would understand?”

“You know as much as I do,” Sarah said.

I allowed myself a smug smile.  “Well, now you both understand how I feel when the two of you start talking about your own areas of expertise.”

“This is what you do, then?”  Mila asked.

I nodded.  Of all the various skills I’d acquired over the years, safecracking was one of the first I’d developed and it was probably the skill I was objectively best at.  Or, it had been my best talent before La Santé.  Some things had a way of atrophying without practice and breaking into safes was definitely something that required constant practice.  Between that and the advance in safe technology, I’d need a refresher course before I felt comfortable stepping into the same room with a Fortress Maximus.  I wondered idly if Sophie could arrange for the Fortress – the Maximus’ inferior cousin, apparently – for my use.

“You didn’t ask where Michel is,” Sarah said.

I pulled myself out of my thoughts.  “What?  Oh, yeah; what’s he doing?”


“Practicing what?”

The slow smile that inched its way across Sarah’s face practically glowed with mischievous energy.  “The route, I believe.  It’s going to come down to seconds, either way.”

“What are you…wait, you have a plan?”

“I’ve got the basics of one, yeah.  You woke up just in time, actually.”

I leaned back into the couch, the pounding drumbeat in my skull temporarily forgotten.  “With everything you just told me, you’ve still got a way in?  Is this something I’m going to like?”

“You’ll like it just fine if everything goes the way I think it will,” Sarah said.  “If not, I imagine you’ll have a great many problems.  How you feel about the plan isn’t likely to be one of them.”


Chapter 112

Everyone went their separate ways to handle their separate tasks about an hour later.  We spent the time sipping idly at some alcoholic drinks that appeared at the door and discussing various problems as they came up.  Nothing concrete was decided but I felt that the time was still well-spent.  Most of the people on my growing team knew Sarah and me well enough to trust out judgment when it came to jobs…although those jobs hadn’t been performed under the threat of death, so much as temporary imprisonment.  I preferred to work with familiar associates, whenever possible, and to stack my team with tested talents if I couldn’t have friends.

I wasn’t being afforded that privilege this time.

Stani and the Russians took their marching orders from overseas, and he made certain that I knew where his loyalties lay.  If the higher-ups in the Bratva decided to pull the plug on his operations in London, I wasn’t sure what he’d do.  My instincts told me that he’d toe the line, pack up his equipment, and leave for Russia with Iosif and Leonid as soon as possible.  He might even go so far as to take Anton with him, whether the Ukrainian wanted to go or not.

If that was going to happen, I preferred that it happen now, as opposed to later when we were too deep into the plan to start covering unplanned-for absences.  I could adapt like few others I’d worked with, and Sarah knew me well enough to leave room in her plans for some improvisation, but if we lost two potential heavy hitters and our bomb-maker, things were going to go very badly for all of us remaining.

And then there was Chester.  I trusted that he cared about Billy.  Sarah had said something about his family a few days ago – medical bills, maybe? – but I couldn’t remember the details.  Whatever tied him to Billy was strong enough that I trusted Chester to do whatever he thought best to retrieve Billy before Hill could kill him.  Problem was, Chester’s idea of “what’s best” varied wildly from my own.  If we could have spared the time and resources, I would have asked Sarah to keep an eye on him whenever possible, just to ensure that he didn’t get impatient and decide to go off-script at a particularly vulnerable moment.  Of course, we didn’t have the time or the resources, so I was left crossing my fingers and hoping that Chester didn’t suddenly decide to handle things on his own.

So, the hour we spent drinking and talking was essential, in that it began to glue us together as a team, instead of a group of individuals with our own reasons for going after Hill and Asher.  The connection wasn’t as solid as I would have liked – I doubted that Chester had a particularly strong connection with anyone, for instance, and Stani was still too wary about even looking in Anton’s direction for too long – but it was something.  In lieu of a convenient team-building cruise for all of us to take, that little spark would have to do.

After the Russians, Anton, Chester, and James left the conference room, Sarah took Ally upstairs to start combing through the files from Hill’s estate.  Michel left, at Sophie’s direction, to retrieve the BMW from the parking garage with one of her bellboys.  Mila lingered for a few more minutes before she went upstairs as well, ostensibly to catalog her available weaponry and to find something suitable for me, a relative neophyte, to start carrying on my person.

Alex and I were alone in the room, then.  We sat in…well, it wasn’t entirely a comfortable silence, but it wasn’t unfamiliar.  He reached across the table and pulled the last two beers out of a bucket.  He opened both of them with quick, deft movements, and then offered one to me.  I accepted it and took a long pull at the bottle.  Alex did the same.

“I have known you a long time,” he said, in a solemn tone.

I nodded.  “Years.  I think you might have been one of my first partners, actually.”

Alex chuckled and downed more of the beer.  “What is it that we were trying to steal, again?”

“Some jewels, I think.  There was a Brazilian model who’d got her hands on a Harry Winston.”

“Ah!”  He leaned back in his chair, a slow smile spreading across his face.  “Yes, I remember now.  You were so young, then.”

I mirrored his posture.  “I wasn’t that young.”

“Oh, you were,” Alex said.  “But you would not think so.  You thought you knew more than anyone else on that job and you were not shy about letting people know that.  It was endearing…like watching a little puppy bark at a Great Dane.”

My pride sufficiently stung, I struggled to keep my cheeks from filling with color.  The effort was only moderately successful.  “You must be thinking of a different job, Alex.  The one I’m thinking about was about to fall apart because the mastermind didn’t take Carnival into account.”

“Oh no,” Alex said, “do not misunderstand me.  You did know more than anyone else on that team.  There were mostly older people, like me, who either did not know enough about the modern age to do our jobs or who chose not to adapt.  That is a problem with much of our…community?”

“Community works.”  It was rare for Alex to not know the right word, but I had no problem providing a little assistance if necessary.  “What do you mean, though?”

“We get stuck in our ways.  It is easier to continue doing what has always worked than it is to change with the times.  You have never had a problem with that.  It is, perhaps, one of your best traits.”

“Only one of them?”

Alex smirked for a moment, before his expression smoothed into sober seriousness again.  “You are also a little too sure of yourself and you take on more than you should.  First, this thing with Asher, even though you knew he had made powerful friends.  Then, you found yourself in bed with this Lady of yours, going after someone on his home territory, where he is all of the advantages.  You are a thief, Devlin, and yet you went into a trap to rescue my daughter.”

“I’ve known Ally since she was a kid,” I said quickly.  “I wasn’t about to let Asher use her as bait and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let her hurt her.”

“And I will owe you for that, as long as I live,” Alex said.  “But that is not my point.  What you have been doing here is impressive beyond all measure.  Without any time to plan or to even catch your breath, you have nearly hamstrung a kingpin in the center of his power.  That is nothing to be ashamed of.”

I took a small drink of beer and swished the liquid in my mouth for a few seconds before swallowing.  “What are you trying to say, Alex?”

He didn’t speak for a few seconds and I could feel him sifting through the English language for the right words.  “You are taking on too much responsibility,” he said carefully.

“It isn’t like I’m asking for this, Alex.  Most of this is being put on my shoulders for me.  I can’t just walk away from something that’s this obviously wrong.”

He nodded.  “That does not change the facts.  You are taking on too much and, so far, you have been able to find a way to pull off these impossible jobs.  But your luck will not last forever, Devlin.”

Silence.  I cleared my throat after a moment or two.  “I know that’s a possibility.”

“It is not a possibility,” Alex said, stressing the word to its breaking point.  “It will happen.  At best, you will end up back in jail again for…I do not even know how many laws you have broken or what the charges would be.  At worst, this Hill might simply kill you, Sarah, and everyone you know.  Or perhaps Asher would get his hands on you.  I cannot imagine what tortures he has in store for you.”

I could.  The files I’d received from the Lady were still fresh in my mind’s eye.  “So what do you think I should do, then?”

He threw his hands up in defeat.  “I do not know,” he admitted.  “You have always been better at that than me.”

“Well, thanks for pointing out all the various ways this could go horribly wrong, Alex.  Certainly perked me right up.”

There weren’t any more beers to partake of, but Stani had graciously left the bottle of vodka in the center of the conference room table.  Alex plucked it off of the table with two fingers and lifted an eyebrow in my direction.  I gave him a vague gesture of assent – fully aware that I’d eventually regret drinking whatever rotgut vodka the Russians preferred – and Alex filled the only remaining glass on the table with the clear liquid.

“You’re not drinking?” I asked, reaching out for the glass.

Alex scooped the glass back in his direction and replaced it with the remaining bottle of liquor.  “I am not driving anywhere tonight and neither are you.  You will have too much to do in the next few days to really relax.  I cannot help you figure out the best plan, but I can still be a friend.”

“By giving me the worst hangover known to man?” I asked, but I couldn’t hide the smile stretching across my face.  I lifted the bottle and Alex touched its side gently with his own glass.  We both took a long swig and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Stani hadn’t ordered paint thinner.  Well, it was either that or Sophie had elected to provide him with something more suitable for the Brooklands.  Either way, it felt like swallowing a soothing stream of slow-burning fire, instead of pouring broken glass down my throat.

Alex noticed the pleased expression on my face.  “Surprised?”

“We’ve both had drinks with Russians before,” I said.  “Let’s not pretend you weren’t ready for this to knock you on your ass.”

“I am a German,” Alex replied, affecting a lofty bearing and thickening his accent noticeably.  “You Americans have no tolerance at all.”

I scowled at that and took another swig of liquor.  Alex followed suit.  “How’s Ally doing?” I asked, after we’d had a moment to enjoy each other’s company.

“She is…doing better than I would have thought,” Alex replied.  He rose from the table and started to pace, sipping from his drink sporadically.  “I think that I am more unsettled by what Asher did than she is.”

“Shock, maybe?”

“Maybe.  But she is her mother’s daughter, down to the soles of her feet.  You were not there when she found out what I do…what I did, that is.”

“You never told me about how that happened, no.”  I waited until he settled back into his seat to continue.  “I figured you’d tell me about that whenever you were ready.”

“It is no great story,” Alex said.  “I made a stupid mistake and she managed to pull the whole story out of me after a few hours.  But do you know what I thought was most interesting?  She was not mad…well, she was very angry that I had lied to her, of course.  But she was not mad about what it is that I did for money.  She was worried for me, but she accepted my line of work almost too easily.”  He paused, finished his drink, and poured himself another.  “Sometimes, I wish she had not been so accepting.”

Even with my limited understanding of normal familial relationships, it wasn’t hard to see what was really scaring Alex.  He was a stalwart and steadfast friend, no doubt about that, but his greater concern was his daughter.  Ally was his last living reminder of his first wife and she was in the line of fire through no fault of her own.  The similarities to the disaster in Venice – a loved one who stumbled into our line of work and, unprepared, found themselves cut down by bullets meant for those of us who’d chosen to do the work we did – had to be terrifying for him.

A fresh swell of rage and hate rose up in me.  Of course Asher would have chosen this angle to attack me.  He must have learned about the attack that had killed Alex’s wife at some point.  It wouldn’t have been difficult information to uncover, even for someone without his enhanced resources.  The Underworld communities of a half dozen cities had been humming with the news for months afterward.  So, he must have decided that the best way to completely derail Alex would be to put him in the same state of mind, hoping that my friend would respond irrationally.

Honestly, I was more than a little impressed that Alex was holding it together as well as he was.

“And Ally seems more than a little interested in this business,” I said.  “It might just be a passing thing.  She finds it interesting because this is a very immediate in-your-face situation, but it’ll pass when she really has a chance to think about it, you know?”

“She has been digging into my past since her mother died.  I do not think this is the sort of thing that will pass.”

“Well…I don’t know, man.  Is there something I can say to her?  Something I can do to make her understand that this isn’t a life of glamour and excitement?”

“She has been kidnapped, nearly blown up, and she is now helping Sarah to find a stolen child.  If she does not understand that things can get dangerous in this field, then she never will.”

Again, I found myself with no idea what I could say.  Most people who worked in the Underworld made a point not to form any connections that could be used against us.  My relationship with Sarah – at least, the purely physical component – hadn’t been unheard of, but even that was rare.  Emotions complicated the gears of even the most finely tuned crew.  It only took one person who held a grudge and a second of delay to make up the difference between capture and escape.  It took even less time than that for a crush to endanger the entire team.  A marriage?  That was pure insanity.  We’d only survived through the years by being smarter, better prepared, and luckier than anyone else.

Alex had been married and fathered a child.  That was a level of familial involvement that simply baffled me.  After his wife’s death, I’d assumed he’d retreat entirely from the various Underworlds, but here he was, dragged back into the game.  And there now the added threat – near certainity, if I was being honest with myself – that his daughter would follow in his footsteps.

“Another?” I asked, offering to fill his half-empty glass.

Alex gave me a weak smile and nodded.

“If she’s with Sarah, she’ll be fine,” I said.  A moment passed.  “She should be safe.”

“And if she isn’t?”

“She will be,” I said, with a great deal more confidence than I actually felt.

Alex apparently knew me well enough to slice directly through that half-hearted line of BS.  “You cannot make that promise, Devlin.”

“Okay.  Fair enough.  But I promise to do everything in my power to keep her as far out of the line of fire as possible.  Can I make that promise?”

He searched my face.  I could have smoothed my expression into something stern and believable, but I elected to leave my real emotions there in plain sight.  I couldn’t know how much Alex wanted to keep his daughter safe, but I felt a keen need to protect Sarah.  Voicing that sentiment in front of her would probably result in her giving a shoulder as cold as an Ice Age, but I could privately admit that to myself.  No matter what she said and no matter what she believed, Asher’s vendetta against her was simply an extension of his anger to me.

I’d brought her into this and I’d be damned if I couldn’t get her back out of it alive.  Her, and Michel, and Mila…all of them.  Each and every single person who’d thrown their lot in me with me on this doomed job were here only because of my relationship with Asher.  It was my responsibility to fix this.  I intended to do exactly that.

Eventually, Alex nodded, satisfied with what he saw in my face.  “And I will do my best to help you.”

“From here,” I said immediately.  “Or from wherever Sarah decides to set up her mobile station.”

Alex looked back at me, his gaze even and almost serene.

“We already talked about this, Alex.  You stay out of the field.  Whatever we end up doing, Mila’s going to insist on staying with me.  That would leave Ally and Sarah undefended.  That’s what I need you to do.  Sure, help with the planning, but you have to stay physically out of this.  Agreed?”

The serenity on his face dimmed.  “I understand,” he said slowly.

“Good.  That’s at least one thing I don’t have to worry about.”



Alex cleared his throat.  “If you do not finish things with Asher,” he said in a deliberate voice, “I will.  You understand that?”

I blinked.  “Have you ever…you know?”

“There is a first time for everything.”

I added another item to my growing list of impossible tasks: handle Asher, before Alex could do anything to him that would take him away from his family.  How I would handle that was a complete mystery, but if I was going to create a string of miracles in the next week, adding one more wasn’t the worst thing.

There was little else to say between Alex and me.  We sat in the conference room until we finished the bottle of vodka, the remainder of Sarah’s wine, and the last dregs of some sweet liquor that Michel had seemed to particularly enjoy.  Then, feeling tipsy and rapidly approaching drunk, we left the conference room and went to our separate suites.  Alex, I assumed, was going to pass out from exhaustion.  He’d been running on adrenaline for far too long.

I, on the other hand, laid in bed for at least another two hours, tired but unable to sleep.  Fragmented images of possible horrific ends floated into and out of focus through the miasma of inebriation.  A thousand different ways for things to go horrifically wrong occurred to me and even when I finally found sleep, the only possible way out that occurred to me still had at least one casualty.


Chapter 111

Chester smoked two cigarettes, one immediately after the other, before he returned the conference room.  Judging by the look on his face, the nicotine hadn’t done much to calm him or to put him in a more receptive state of mind.  James entered the room behind Chester, silent and stout, and sat back down in his seat as though he’d never left.

I decided to speak first, before Chester had an opportunity to work himself up to some burst of outrage again.  “This isn’t going to work,” I said.

“You’re telling me,” Chester snapped.

“If you would allow me to finish, I was going to say that we aren’t going to be able to make this work, the way we’re trying to do it.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that you and I work in ways that are really a lot alike,” I said.  “We both rely on hiding in plain sight.  You and the rest of Billy’s people pull that off by operating in areas where the rich and powerful don’t bother to notice you.  My team does it by getting in their face and not letting them see anything except what we want them to see.  Either way, we’re all about disguise and subterfuge.  With me, so far?”

Chester grumbled something incomprehensible and then, reluctantly, nodded.

I took that as a sign of progress and pressed on.  “And I don’t have the slightest problem admitting when someone else has a skill that I don’t.  I’m working in Billy’s territory right now, but Billy isn’t here.  So that’s falling to you right now.  If you want to work with me, we can come up with a way to get Billy away from Hill and save Avis.  If you insist on doing things your own way, I promise you: we are all going to get killed.  So…what’s it going to be?”

Chester opened his mouth to say something.  His lips hadn’t yet begun to form so much as a single letter, but the tight lines around his eyes told me that his reply wasn’t going to be polite.  Before he could put breath to whatever thought he planned to voice, James reached out from his seat and gripped Chester’s elbow.

“Mate,” James said, in his rumbly bass voice.  “Hear ‘em out, yeah?”

Chester glared at James.  James returned that glare with steady, unblinking eyes until Chester finally looked away.  “You got something in mind, then?”

“Not yet,” I admitted.  “But I’m getting there.  And, in a way, you’re the one who kick-started the thought in the first place.”

“How’s that?”

The door clicked open.  Sophie stepped out of the way, allowing Stani and his lieutenants back into the room.  Anton followed a few steps behind them.

I clapped my hands together.  “Just the people I wanted to see.”

“Oh?” Stani asked.  “Why is that?”

“Watching the two of you go at it gave me an idea.  More of a realization, really.”

Chester and Stani gave me twin looks of impatience.  I couldn’t help but smile at that.

“They aren’t the only people in the room without a clue here,” Mila said drily.  “I’d appreciate it if you’d stop being so impressed by your own cleverness and just tell us what you thought of.”

“They have no appreciation for showmanship,” I stage-whispered to Sarah.

She rolled her eyes.  “And you have no sense of timing.”

“Fair.”  I turned back to the other people in the room.  “One of the hardest things about everything we’ve done here in London is that the bad guys keep working together.  Hill and Asher were tag-teaming us from the beginning.  That gave someone with Asher’s creativity access to Hill’s resources, and we’ve only just been able to stay a step ahead of them for weeks now.”

“And that has changed?”  Stani asked.

Michel’s eyes widened, though, as he began to grasp the same thought that had only recently dawned on me.  “It has changed, hasn’t it?”

A moment passed before Anton’s face also lit up.  “You said that this Hill wants to hire you to be his new enforcer…but he could not have told Asher this, could he?”

“Not at all,” I replied, touching an index finger to the side of my nose.  “And, if he’s keeping secrets from Asher, it stands to reason that he’s running this operation on his own.  After all, as far as he’s concerned, my old pal has been nothing but a gigantic disappointment.  He lost the crown, Mila burned down one of Hill’s warehouses, and we stole Avis from right under his nose.  Hill’s got to pretty pissed at Asher right about now and – as the two of you so neatly demonstrated – pissed off people do not work well together.”

“Alright,” Sarah said slowly.  “What does that mean to us?”

“Two things.”  I held up two fingers to illustrate the point.  “First thing: that means they can’t take advantage of each other’s strengths.  Hill’s blaming Asher for everything that’s gone wrong.  It must not have occurred to him that he’s been leaving holes for us to wriggle through.”

“And you’re sure about that?” Chester asked.  “We thought had the best of him, too, but then he laid that trap at the plant, didn’t he?”

“Exactly.  He tried to kill you, but Sarah and I were sitting across the table from him and Aiden.  If Hill had any idea how much of a threat we actually were, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

“He’s right,” Sarah chimed in.  “People born to wealth like that don’t even consider that problems could be their own fault.  It’s so much easier to just hire and fire the help, as needed.”

“You would know, wouldn’t you?” Chester asked, with just a touch of snideness in his tone.  I clenched my jaw to keep from firing some insult back.  He continued speaking after a moment and he might have been a little disappointed that I’d let his bait slip by untouched.  “What’s the second thing, then?”

“The second thing,” I said, “is that we can play them against each other now, too.  Instead of our ragtag group going up against their combined forces, we can start playing one of my favorite games.”

It took Sarah a second to connect the dots.  That was to be expected.  The relevant memory went back several years, after all.  “The Green Hornet?”

“I prefer to use its original name.  ‘Let’s you and him fight’ just sounds more fun to me.”

She smiled.  It was a genuine smile and it warmed my heart to see it on her face.  “I do like that turn of phrase more.”

Mila cleared her throat.  “Since this is apparently my job now,” she said, “could the two of you share with the rest of us what the hell you’re talking about?”

The warmth from Sarah’s smile was so invigorating that my own mood didn’t dampen, even in the face of Mila’s light sarcasm.  “Asher knows that we can’t be underestimated, but he doesn’t have access to Hill’s resources.  Hill could have us all killed at a moment’s notice but, for some reason, he doesn’t think that we’re enough of a threat to warrant that kind of action.”

“Poor planning on his part,” Sarah said, under her breath.

I heard her and elected to ignore that side comment.  “The two of them working together would be…difficult to get ahead of.  Not impossible, maybe, but it would certainly would not be something I’d voluntarily chose to do.  But the two of them at each other’s throats?  All we’d have to do is pick up the pieces when they were done taking chunks out of each other.”

“You think you can do that?” Mila asked.

“I think that Asher has done nothing in the past few years, except prove how poorly he handles even the illusion of betrayal,” I said.  “So he’ll either take out Hill on his own in a fit of rage or he’ll start planning to backstab him.  Either way, that’s at least one adversary we don’t have to deal with and, with these stakes, one less enemy is definitely something we could use.”

A round of silent nods went around the conference table, starting with Michel and working all the way back around to Mila.  “That’s all good for you lot,” Chester said, breaking the rare moment of camaraderie, “but that still doesn’t tell us how we’re supposed to get Billy away from that bloody bastard, does it?”

“I’m…still working on that part,” I said.  “If there was some way to guarantee that Asher would go after Hill, we might be able to shake him down for information.  But that’s as likely to bomb as anything else right now.”

“Bomb,” Michel mused to himself.  I attributed that to an English idiom he wasn’t fully familiar with and put it out of my mind.

“You said that you can track Hill’s cars?” I asked Chester.

He nodded.

“Right after you went outside to smoke, it occurred to me that Hill might be running a shell game.  You know that is, right?”

The expression on his face darkened.  “You think I was born yesterday, do you?”

I raised my hands in surrender.  “Just making sure.  They might have called it something else over here.  Anyway, if he’s doing that, then Billy’s people might be the only way we have to keep an eye on his movements.  It won’t let us figure out exactly where he’s keeping Avis, but that’s a problem we can tackle later on.”

“No,” Michel interrupted, shaking his head furiously.  “No.  We can use bombs!”

“We can use bombs to…what, exactly?”

Instead of speaking to me, Michel turned to face Chester.  “How many safe-houses does Hill have?”

“Depends on what you mean by ‘safe-houses,’ I figure,” Chester said.

“How many places could he hide Avis, if he needed to?”

Chester counted on his fingers for a few seconds.  “If he weren’t worried about her health?  He could use some of the stash spots in the city proper and maybe a few more places where his men keep weapons and the like.  Why?”

Michel swiveled to face me.  “What if he could not use those places anymore?”

I took the information Michel had given me – both the conscious and unconscious signals – and tuned the full force of my mind to the problem.  Each movable piece sprang to mind, three-dimensional blocks in a puzzle that I couldn’t see the full shape of.  I started to fit them into place, one at a time.

The shell game was a deceptively simple game to unravel.  However, knowing that the game would be rigged wasn’t something that would help me cheat the cheater, though.  There were only a few surefire ways to counteract a well-run shell game and none of those were options I could use in this situation.

What would I do, if I were confronted by a game I couldn’t beat?  The answer came to me immediately: I wouldn’t play.

With that, another piece clicked into its proper place.  Why play the game at all?  Hill had set up the shell game on purpose, to give my team something to puzzle over while he extracted all of the information he needed from Avis and then had her disposed of, like an obsolete computer chip.  Its purpose wasn’t to hide her indefinitely, but to hide her long enough.  That difference was an essential facet of Hill’s plan that I’d allowed myself to overlook.

If there were some way to shake him out of the game, though…well, Hill had already proven that he didn’t take my team seriously.  I strongly doubted that he would have taken the pains to establish a reliable back-up plan.  Asher might have known me well enough to put several redundancies in place, but Hill wouldn’t.  At least, I hoped he wouldn’t.

How to disturb his well-orchestrated machine, in such a dramatic way that he couldn’t rapidly adjust things to keep with his plan of shuttling Avis from one spot to another?

I smiled.

“A bomb,” I said, out loud.

Several bombs,” Michel said, smiling widely.

“Okay,” Mila said.  “This part I understand.”

I winked at her.  “I thought you might.”  I turned my attention to Chester, Anton, and the Russians.  “How many people do you think you can mobilize in a few days, Chester?”

“Mobilize?  Mobilize for what?”

“We still don’t know exactly what Asher’s going to do when we make our move,” I said.  “He knows better than to take us for granted, but he’s got a weakness of his own that we can take advantage of.”

“And what’s that, then?”

“He can’t improvise very well.  Sure, he can make an elaborate plan, but when things go wrong, he isn’t the best at coming up with new ideas on the fly.  We’ve got a little bit more information than him.  That’s great to start with.  But with a little bit of creative chaos, we can throw anything he’s got in mind completely off of the rails.”  I glanced at Anton.  “Like the subway station, except bigger.  More bombs, better timed.  Less about the actual destruction and more about the sense of an explosion, if that makes sense.”

Anton nodded slowly, the gesture picking up speed as he began to grasp the idea more fully.  “I could make several things like that, if I had the time and the materials.”

“What subway station?” Stani asked.

I ignored his question.  “We can’t do anything about the time, but materials might not be a problem.  Unless that’s over the line for you, Sophie?”

The concierge shook her head, the ghost of a smile barely visible at one corner of her lips.  “Perhaps you’ve developed an interest in some sort of construction project,” she said sweetly.  “Or your import business has begun trafficking in inert substances that could be used in that sort of thing.  I’m certain there isn’t any sort of illegal activity you would have in mind.”

I grinned back.  “Yeah, we’ll go with that.  So, Chester?  How many men do you think you can get on the streets?  You and the rest of Billy’s people know where Hill’s places are, and we’re going to need to hit a lot of those spots at the same time if this is going to go the way I want it to.”

For the first time since meeting him, Chester seemed to consider that question without seething at my general presence.  “To get Billy away from that bastard?  We’ll get as many men as you need.”

“Excellent.  Very excellent.”

Sarah cleared her throat.  “When you’ve caused your customary explosion of bedlam and mayhem,” she asked, “what’s your next step?  You’ve still got to get Avis and Billy away from him before he decides to cut his losses.”

“That was something I was hoping you’d be able to work on,” I said.  “All I can do is make sure that their plan isn’t going to work, but we both know I’m not really the person to start thinking about long-term solutions.”

“At least you’re admitting it,” Sarah said, with a little smile to let me know that her rebuke was meant in good spirits.  “As it turns out, I’ve got a few ideas in mind.  I’ll need to look back through the information I managed to pull from his network while we were there.”

“You were still working on that?”  I blinked.  The reveal that Fairfax and Hill were, in fact, the same person had dominated my thoughts since leaving his estate.  It hadn’t occurred to me that Sarah’s original plan – to infiltrate his network and retrieve potential blackmail – would have continued, regardless of any other factors.

“The program was automated,” she said.  “I stopped monitoring it as soon as I read an email that talked about the manor house.  Why else did you think I was buzzing your earbud?”

“I figured you just felt something was wrong, too.”

“I knew something was wrong.  At any rate, if that was something that his men were keeping in the loop about, it’s possible they were telling him other information.  I’ll go through it tonight and see what I can dig out of those files.”

“Alright, then.”  I spread my arms wide, gesturing for anyone with a thought or suggestion.  “Anyone got anything else to add?”

Alex, who had been silent for the past few minutes, looked at Ally.  She looked back at him and he shrugged with one shoulder.  “I will continue to work with my friends inside his estate,” he said, facing me.

“You’ve got friends…what am I saying, you’ve got friends everywhere.  Do you think you’ll be able to get anything out of them?”

“I will not know unless I try.”

“Fine.  Ally, you’re not a part of this, so – “

She shook her head and cut me off.  “I know that I am not someone who can do the things you do, but I am not going to sit here and do nothing.”

“These are very dangerous people,” Alex protested immediately.  “You have already been through too much.  When you have had some time to think about it, you will understand.  Perhaps Sophie can find you something to do here that will not require you to – “

“Father, I am an adult now,” Ally said, her words cutting neatly through whatever Alex had been about to say.  “You would not let people who had helped you face trouble alone.  Why would you ask me to do the same thing?”

I went through a few quick ideas – ways to convince her to stand down or to shuttle her off somewhere safe – but discarded them all before any could grow past the larval stage.  Devoting any time to that task would divert our attention away from the things we needed to do in the next few days.

“You can help Sarah go through the files she got from Hill’s place, then,” I said.

Ally’s cheeks reddened and a light came on behind her eyes.  She flicked her gaze away from her father and over to me.  “Of course, Devlin!  If you think that will help, of course.”

Alex caught my eyes, from an angle that Ally couldn’t see, and gave me a miniscule nod of acknowledgement. I nodded back at Alex. He understood my intentions and, even if he wasn’t thrilled about his daughter’s decision, he trusted mine.

Sarah would be in the safest possible position, as far away from the action as we could manage.  If Ally insisted on contributing, it made sense to keep her in the back, behind the rest of us who would be busily juggling a half dozen things and trying our level best not to die tragically.

“If that’s it, then?”  I asked.

Mila coughed and sat up straighter in her chair.  “Stani,” she said, “how are you guys getting your weapons?”

The Russian had been trying to mouth silent questions to Anton – the words ‘subway station’ seemed to be repeated quite a lot – but he looked at Mila when she spoke to him.  “We have our own ways,” he said cautiously.

“Hill’s trying to muscle the Russians out of the smuggling operation here,” Mila said.  “I don’t want to ask Sophie here to arrange for anything, no matter how good she is at rationalization, and tipping him off to anything we purchase seems like a bad idea.  If I get you a list of things I’m going to need in the next couple of days, you think you could use your ways to make that sort of thing happen?”

Stani gave her a sharp, perfunctory nod.  “So long as you are able to pay for whatever you request.”

“I’m good for it.”  She smiled, showing a few too many teeth in the process.  “If not, feel free to come and take them back when I’m done.”

“I…will simply trust your credit,” Stani said.

I tapped Mila on the shoulder.  She turned to me, the vulpine smile fading into her usual mask of passionless focus.  “You’ve got your ideas,” she said, “and that’s fine.  I’ve seen you pull things off that I wouldn’t have thought anyone could do with so little planning.  But I’ve still got a job to do here, and I can’t do that unarmed.”

“You’re absolutely right,” I said.

Mila blinked.  “What’d you want, then?”

“I was going to ask if you know what gun might good for me to start carrying,” I said.  That sentence brought an eerie, still calm to the entire room.  I cleared my throat and spoke into the silence.  “One way or another, Asher’s not going to take this lying down.  I’ve got to be ready for anything, right?”

Chapter 110

We returned to the Brooklands via a circuitous route, depositing the BMW at a parking garage along the way and sneaking out the back into the kitted-out van, and I honestly wasn’t sure if we’d been followed anymore.  I was starting to get tired of being so outclassed by every single one of my adversaries and, I realized, it was starting to make me cranky.  So I didn’t say anything during the ride back, or in the hotel suite while I changed into comfortable clothing, or during the elevator trip back down to the lobby and the waiting conference room.  After parking the van out of sight, Michel joined us there.

In fact, I didn’t say anything at all while Anton, Stani, and Stani’s lieutenants sauntered into the conference room, their bemused expressions slightly humorous even through the foul blackness of my mood.

Alex and Ally were already there; it had been a short trip from their hotel room down to join us.  They watched me silently.  At first, Alex had attempted to pull some information out of me, but he’d given up after receiving a stiff look.

James and Chester arrived a full fifteen minutes after the Russians.  It seemed like they’d made an effort to clean themselves up, but there could only be so many fashion options available at the Halfway House.  Even if their best attire, both men looked woefully out of place.

In a surprising turn of events, Sophie elected to stay in the conference room.  I didn’t mind her presence as much as I expected.  It would probably be easier in the long run to have her present during the meeting, as opposed to filling her in on whatever we required later on.  Besides, it was possible that Hill intended to kill her, as well.  While she hadn’t been directly involved, Sophie had been instrumental to pulling off the jobs of the past few days.  If she wanted a seat at the table – or by the door, whichever – then she’d done more than enough to earn it, in my opinion.

When everyone was seated – or, in Sophie’s case, positioned as comfortably as possible –  I cleared my throat and pulled free of my own sulk.

“Let’s start with the obvious,” I said, by way of opening.  “Stani, James, Chester; I haven’t been telling you everything.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“In fairness,” I continued, speaking directly to Stani, “nothing I’ve held back so far has really seemed important to what you wanted to do.  Your people want Asher; I want Asher taken out of play.  But I…I know more than I’ve been telling you about where he is, what he’s doing, what he wants.”

“And why,” Stani asked, “are you telling me this now?”

The calmness of his voice belied the subtle tightening around his eyes, the way his hand drifted out of sight beneath the table.  Anton, for his part, did not look particularly surprised, though a sense of wariness sprung to life in the room.

“Because…honestly, because we’re out of our depth here,” I said honestly.  “And, instead of keeping you in the dark and possibly botching this whole thing, I figured it was about time I tell you what you’ll need to know.”

He nodded.  “You will tell me everything.”

“Of course I won’t tell you everything,” I said immediately.  “But I’ll tell you everything I know about Asher.  And then I’m going to have to ask for your help.  That sound fair?”

Stani exchanged looks with Iosif and Leonid, scrupulously letting his eyes travel past Anton without slowing or stopping.  Something passed between the three Russians.  I remembered suddenly that Iosif and Leonid could understand English, even if they didn’t speak the language.

“We are listening,” Stani said, after a few stilted seconds.

“Don’t care about you,” Chester said.  I noticed that he was trying to smooth out his accent.  That might have been an affectation for Sophie’s benefit, or he might simply be reacting to the opulence of the Brooklands.  “Don’t care about your friends, neither.  But if that bastard’s got Billy, then I want to know how to get him back.”

James nodded silently next to his partner.

Sophie listened without comment from her place by the door.

I took a deep breath and laid out almost everything for the Russians, Anton, Alex, and his daughter.  I excised any direct mention of the Lady or her personal Jolly Green Giant rom the story.  We’d only met in person two times and Sarah hadn’t directly communicated with her, so much as received instructions, but I knew that the Lady was not the type of person who frequently exposed herself to the public.  Or, if she did, she did so under pseudonyms and veils of secrecy, hiding her true nature with layers and layers of obfuscation.  There wouldn’t be any point in wriggling out from underneath Hill’s thumb, only to find ourselves in the crosshairs of a pissed off former employer who apparently had access to Sarah’s secure files, our banking information, and had proven herself capable of tracking me down across the globe without the faintest hint of difficulty.

Everything else, however, was fair game.  I told them about the true nature of the golden book, without mentioning how I’d come into possession of that information; I told them all about the girl Avis, her unusual abilities, and the plans had in mind for her when he finished treating her as a tool; I told them about Billy and his relationship with Fairfax.  I laid out what we’d done so far, working against Hill and Asher, and detailed our current situation: the standing threat from Hill; the things that we stood to lose and how badly we’d misread the situation; the thin timeline we had available in which to plot, plan, and somehow overcome.

Sarah provided commentary at some points along the way, clarifying what she’d done on her side of things when my explanation failed to properly encapsulate the things we’d done.  Ally, it seemed, understood some of Sarah’s techno-babble.  Mila spoke infrequently, as well; she talked about the warehouse where I’d been taken, after Asher drugged me at the gala.  Haltingly, unwilling to go into great detail, she told them about Aiden: his capabilities, his strengths, and his weaknesses.  I didn’t want to put her in a headspace where she started to ask herself why exactly she’d left him before.  Just the brief time they’d been in each other’s presences already had me feeling uncomfortable.  Mila, thankfully, showed no particular interest in delving any farther into the past than strictly necessary.

When the three of us finished, silence fell over the room again.  A minute passed, and then another, while everyone in the room thought about the story we’d just laid at their feet.  Alex coughed and spoke first.

“Well,” he said, “this…is not good.”

I rolled my eyes.  “That’s kind of an understatement, don’t you think?”

He nodded.  “I am merely trying to make light of it.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

It was Mila who answered.  “Because,” she said, “that’s just how you work.  Anybody else would have given up days ago.  But you just joke your way through everything and it works.  I don’t know how, but it does.”

“Your faith in me notwithstanding,” I said, “I think all of this might require a little more serious consideration.”

“They aren’t wrong, Devlin,” Sarah said.

We all turned to look at her.

“It’s just how you work,” Sarah continued.  “You’re right, we are in some deep shit right now.  But you can’t let Hill push you out of your comfort zone or we’re all screwed.”

I considered that for a few seconds, then nodded.  “Anyway, first thing: Stani, are you okay with all of this?  I know I kept things from you but it wasn’t like I had any reason to think things would get to this point.”

Stani chewed on his bottom lip.  He touched two fingers to the stumps on his diminished hand, glanced involuntarily over to Anton, then found something interesting to examine on the table itself.  “I knew that you were keeping things from me,” he said, finally.  “I know that you are still keeping things from me.  But I believe that you are working to stop Asher before he can succeed in his plans.”

I preferred his calmness to an outburst, but the serene expression on his face was distinctly unsettling.  “Good enough,” I said.  “Chester, James?  You’ll have to serve as stand-ins for Billy’s gang, since he’s a bit out of reach at the moment.”

Chester was grinding his teeth together so fiercely that my own jaw began to hurt.  “You telling me that this all your fault, then?”

“What?  How did you get that from anything I just said?”

“If you hadn’t been pokin’ at ‘em,” Chester said, “Hill might have just left Billy alone, yeah?  He didn’t pay us no mind before you got in town, that’s for bloody sure.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose and tried to wrestle down the irrational surge of anger that rose within my belly.  “There were other factors,” I managed to say, through clenched teeth of my own, “and we didn’t have a lot of choice here.  Besides, you can’t think that Hill would have let Billy take shots at him indefinitely.”

Chester had nothing to say to that, so he glared at me instead.  I put him out of my mind and focused on the more civilized individuals around the conference table.

“How have you – how did you put it? – stay ahead of Asher and this Hill for so long?” Alex asked.

“Luck,” Sarah and I answered, at the exact same time.

I didn’t have to turn my head.  I could practically feel Mila’s smirk against the side of my face.

I cleared my throat.  “Luck,” I repeated, “and the fact that we had resources that neither of them knew about.  Mila was in place to rescue me from the warehouse; Neal was already going to sneak Avis out of the house and no one expected Sarah to drive up and save the day like Racer X; we happened to have a better plan at the processing plant than they did; and…”  I trailed off, unwilling to say anything more about the Lady’s involvement at Scotland Yard.  “…and we got enough of a lead on law enforcement that they couldn’t really do anything to me, even when I was sitting in their interrogation room.”

Sarah lifted an eyebrow.  “Racer X?”

“I couldn’t think of anyone else,” I admitted.  “But it fits, right?”

She rolled her eyes.

“You have also,” Sophie said, in a soft voice that somehow carried throughout the room, “had the benefit of my assistance, thus far.”

“Thus far?” I asked.

“I realize that your…experience with my services are new,” Sophie said and I almost missed the slight hiccup in her voice.  She’d been about to point out that we hadn’t been the ones to hire her, but she must have felt the same unspoken prohibition against mentioning the Lady in front of anyone who she hadn’t personally vetted.  That, or she was simply following my lead.  Either way, I was glad that she’d exercised discretion.  “But I make a point not to involve myself in anything explicitly illegal.  It is how I have managed to stay in business thus far and I do my best not to cross that very clear line.”

“Okay,” I said slowly, “but you’re fine with only technically breaking the law?”

“How am I supposed to know why you require so many different vehicles, picked up in so many different locations with a maximum of secrecy?” Sophie asked.  She assumed an expression of angelic innocence.  “The sum total of my job as your concierge is to ensure that you have access to those things you require, so long as those things do not jeopardize my position within the Brooklands or my standing in the eyes of the local constabulary.”

“But you know…no, you know what? Nevermind.  Are you saying that you’re willing to help us, as long as we can give you some plausible deniability?”

“What would I have to deny?” Sophie asked.  “Surely you do not intend to do anything that would break the law, after all.”

“Of course,” I said, barely keeping myself from rolling my eyes up into my skull.  “We’ll keep that in mind.”

“Could we not do that?” Ally asked.

“Do what?”

“Call the police,” she clarified.  “He has kidnapped a little girl.  Surely that is something that the police can’t ignore.  There must be someone looking for her.”

I paused, mid-thought, and realized that I hadn’t asked Avis a single question about her family.  I hadn’t even thought to question Neal about it.  That realization made me feel a little sick inside.  Sure, she had only been with us for a day or two before Ally’s kidnapping consumed our attention.  And, sure, she’d been occupied with decryption for most of the time.  But I couldn’t treat my team members as important beyond all reasonable measure and also use Avis like she was nothing more than a tool.

That was how Hill had treated her.  It was how the Magi has used her, too.

“I don’t know if there’s someone out there looking for her or not,” I said, swallowing a little bit of bile that climbed into my mouth.  “If Avis has been working with the Magi and with Hill for long enough to encrypt that entire golden book, it’s a safe bet that her parents aren’t in the picture anymore.  We certainly can’t wait for the police to get involved, either way.”

“Besides,” Sarah said, “Hill told us, pretty much straight up, that he’s got the police in his pocket.  Or at least he’s got a few key policemen on his personal payroll.  If we’re going to get her out of there before Hill gets what he needs from her, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

Michel tilted his head.  I gestured for him to share his thoughts with the rest of us.  “Inspector Lane said that there someone undercover in Hill’s operation, no?”

I thought back.  The night when Michel had encountered Adlai and Lane had been rife with excitement and terror, in equal measure, so the details of the conversation at the sports pub had slipped my mind.  “I think so.  Isn’t that the only reason Adlai bought your story about being a police officer?”

Michel nodded.  “Is that something we could use?”

I weighed the possibilities while I used a neat little device on the table to order several pitchers of water, a bucket of beers, and some vodka for the Russians.  As an afterthought, I added six Diet Cokes to the order and a bottle of wine.  I didn’t know what kind of mood Sarah was in, but it would be easier to return something she didn’t want, instead of ordering the wrong thing to begin with.

With that finished, I turned my attention back to Michel.  “Probably not,” I said.  “If he’s got his fingers into the police department, it stands to reason that he already knows about whatever undercover agents the law managed to place in his operation.  Hell, he was probably involved in hand-picking the guy they sent.  That’s a no-go.”

“And killing him is out of the question?” Stani asked.

I raised a hand before Mila could chime in with support for that idea, but not before Chester pushed back from the table and jumped to his feet.  “My boss is being held by that maniac, mate, and I’ll be buggered if you think you can just sacrifice him for your own business, got that?”

“It is hardly our fault your boss was captured,” Stani said.  “But Asher is a bigger threat, as well as this Hill, if I am not mistaken.  The smart thing would be to kill him, before he can get his hands on the information in the book.”

“And if you hadn’t brought your fight into our city, maybe things could have kept on as they were, eh?  You think about that?”  Chester was getting more and more heated by the second.

Stani seemed perfectly calm in the face of that explosion.  Iosif and Leonid, however, reacted like someone had electrified their seats.  Hands vanished into their jackets and dull metal glinted in the fluorescent lighting of the conference room.  Mila moved closer to me, Sarah rolled her chair back from the table, and Michel gaped openly at the spectacle.  Anton started to reach out with both hands, palms facing both sides of the approaching conflict, while Alex took his daughters into his arms and turned his back slightly to the melee.

“Stop that!” I snapped and was surprised when all parties involved actually did as commanded.  “This is exactly what Hill’s hoping for, my God.  Are you seriously going to spend this entire week at each other’s throats?”

“I didn’t want to work with you,” Chester spat, “and I sure as hell don’t want to work with them.  If it comes down to it, I can get the fellas together and we’ll break Billy out of there on our own.”

“You really think that’s how it would play out?” I asked.  “Hill has trained mercenaries working for him.  You remember what Mila did at the processing plant?”

The look Chester gave me was answer enough.

“Yeah,” I pressed, “like her.  What exactly do you think you’re going to be able to do if you run off without a plan other than possibly piss Hill off badly enough that he kills Billy just to save himself the trouble?”

“Sure, he’s got resources,” Chester said, after a few seconds, “but he doesn’t have all the information.  You think he’s the only with eyes and ears out there.  You have any idea how much our people can watch, if no one’s even looking for them, do ya?”

I blinked.  “Information?  Like what?”

“We know where his safe-houses are, know what his cars look like.  We can figure out where he’s keeping Billy and get him out of there before Hill has a chance to do anything.  You didn’t think about that, did you?”

“Hill specifically said that’s he’s keeping Billy close to him.”  A headache began to press against the inside of my skull.  I pushed back, burying it somewhere where it couldn’t bother me for the moment.  “Although…you can watch his men’s movements?”

“He’s trying to hide what he’s doing,” Chester continued, oblivious to the first part of what I’d said.  “But doesn’t matter how many cars he’s got moving around, we’ll figure out what he’s hiding.  If we can’t get Billy, we’ll just take something that he wants just as much.”

James looked less than convinced, but he didn’t speak up to contradict Chester.  I respected that, as much as it irritated the nonsense out of me.

“And you’d let the girl die?” I asked Chester.  “Because she’s just something you’d be willing to let go, so long as you can save Billy?  He asked me not to give Hill anything, even if it meant dying, and here you are ready to give Hill everything he wanted.  You’d hand him your entire operation if you went after him like that!”

Chester slammed his fists against the table.  The sound made most of us in the room jump in surprise.  “I need a fag,” he announced.  “C’mon, James.”

Instead of pushing past Sophie, Chester and James used the alternate entrance.  I thought they might be leaving, until I glimpsed a cloud of smoke drift past one of the windows.

“And I,” Stani said, “will go check on that vodka.  I think it will be good to stretch my legs.  Iosif, Leonid?”

The two Russians gave their assent without speaking a word.  The three of them stood up and walked out of the room.  A moment later, Anton sheepishly got out of his seat and joined them.

I turned to Sarah.  “Multiple cars,” I said. “Are you thinking what I am?”

She nodded.  “It’s a shell game.”

“What is a shell game?” Ally asked.  She wriggled out from her father’s protective grasp.

“Generic term,” I said.  “As long as he keeps the target in motion, it’s impossible to figure out exactly which car to follow.   And even if we get it right once, he can always just switch cars at one of the safe-houses, where we can’t follow.  It’s a damn good strategy.  Almost impossible to crack if the opposition is doing it right.”

“Only ‘almost,’ though?” Michel asked.

“With time,” Sarah said, “we could figure out the pattern, if there is one.  But that’s the one thing we don’t have.  As it is, we’ll have to be spend most of our effort keeping Chester from barking at everyone who looks at him the wrong way.”

“And Stani,” Alex added, “does not seem like the type of person who works well with others.  Are you certain you can trust him to follow whatever plan you come up with?”

Until that moment – literally, until Alex asked the exact question – I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to take down Hill, eliminate the threat Asher posed, and rescue Billy, Avis, and Neal from the clutches of the enemy.  But as Alex finished speaking, I could almost sense a shape beginning to appear from the misty confusion of my mind.  Unfocused, undefined, but still…it was an outline.

An outline was something that I could work with.

“Can’t get these personalities to work together,” I mused aloud.  “Well.”

“Well, what?” Sarah asked.

“Well,” I repeated, “there might be something we can use there.”

Chapter 109

“A job,” I repeated.  “You want to hire me?”

“Think about it,” Hill said.  “In your efforts to undermine and expose your former partner, you and your team have done amazing work in London, thus far.  Granted, that work has caused me no small amount of discomfort…but nothing you have done cannot be undone with the information the girl will provide me.  Consider what you would be able to accomplish if you were my ally, instead of my adversary.  Imagine the heights you would be able to scale with the financial backing of someone in my position.”

That detached part of my brain – the one that continued chugging away at problems, even when my emotions were otherwise overloaded and endangering even the hope of clear thoughts – noted that Hill must not know about the Lady.  The sum total of her assistance amounted to a particularly savvy concierge and a last-minute assist at Scotland Yard, sure, but Hill obviously thought that everything we’d done in London so far, we had done on our own.

“You already pointed out a particularly large problem with that,” I said.  “Asher works with you and I’m not going to start working with him, just to find a knife between my shoulder blades at his earliest convenience.”

“Asher works for me,” Hill corrected, in a terse tone, “and I find his service lackluster, as of late.  If it were not for his ridiculous vendetta against you, perhaps he would have been able to bring the issue of your continued interference to a satisfactory conclusion.  Instead, we now find ourselves here.”

“And what exactly would you want me to do for you?  If I accepted your offer, which I am by no means doing.”

“Troubleshooting, to begin with.  I do not imagine that the individual cogs in the machine will cheerfully fall in line without difficulties.  Acquiring their names and financial information from the book will go far in securing their loyalty – or, failing that, their respect – but as soon as I make my move, others will doubtless be inspired to do the same.  It would hardly be worth my trouble if the entire machine broke down as soon as I laid claim to it.”

“Not to mention,” I added, “that whoever’s pulling your strings now probably isn’t going to take your little insurrection lying down.”

Hill leaned back in his chair and his eyebrows shot up.  “You are particularly clever, aren’t you?  Asher informed me of such on multiple occasions, but I wasn’t quite sure that your successes weren’t attributable to considerable luck.  Tell me: how did you learn about my…employers?”

I gave Hill an even look and said nothing at all.

After several seconds of stony silence, Hill shook his head and went back to his roast.  “No matter.  In reply to that concern, you are correct.  Agents will be sent to bring me under heel once more or, perhaps, to simply kill me out of hand.  An object lesson in obedience might very well serve them more than any individual with a known penchant for ambition.”

“And that’s what you want me to sign up for?  To throw myself directly into the line of fire, so that you can continue choking the life out of London with your drugs and your guns?  Pardon me if I don’t break my legs running for the sign-up sheet.”

“Sarcasm,” Hill said, “is the weakest form of humor.”

“I thought that was puns.”

At any rate,” Hill said, and I was irrationally pleased to have gotten under his skin, “your work for me would not be without its benefits.  For instance, if you agree to take the position, I would have no further use for your former partner.  He is not aware that we are having this conversation, of course.”

“Of course.”

“As you well know, he has made many enemies over the last few years; some of which at my request, others due to his charming personality.  Yet, you would be the one who actually caught him.  Kill him, torture him, sell him to other interested parties in exchange for cash or considerations.  The options are limitless.”

I went very still, so as not to reveal anything at all by virtue of an uncontrolled micro-expression, before I answered.  “What else?”

“Protection,” Hill said.  “Unless you are actively engaged in operations against my enemies and rivals, you would enjoy the same protection that has so stymied you in the case of your former partner.  I have operated in this city for quite some time.  There are very few police officers who I do not own or cannot threaten.  You and your team would be able to work without fear of the local constabulary and this city could serve as a sort of safe haven.  You cannot truly tell me that you don’t find that possibility the slightest bit intriguing.”

He wasn’t wrong.  The possibility of safety was something I’d never really considered, but I was considering it now.  Not for me, but…I looked over at Sarah.  She sat there, as still as a statue, watching the conversation between Hill and me.  I wondered what she was thinking but, for once, her poker face was absolutely flawless.  I had a better chance of reading Tarot cards than analyzing Sarah’s secret thoughts at the moment.

I turned back to Hill.  “And if I say no?”

“Why would you do that?  If there’s something else that you would require, the terms are up for negotiations.”

“No terms,” I said, “and no negotiation.  You’re a drug dealer, which I’m fine with.  But you peddle to the poor and the indigent, to children and to the sick.  You’re a killer and you work with killers.”

“And you truly believe that your friend Stanislav has not taken life before?  That your own bodyguard has hands completely clean of blood?”

I shrugged.  “Maybe.  But they don’t enjoy it the way you do.  You couldn’t wait to trot out your own brother, just for effect.  I don’t know what you’ve been doing to him since you took him out of the subway, but something tells me it wasn’t all Candyland and catching up on old times.”

Hill stared at me, without comment.

I kept going.  “Besides, my team doesn’t follow my orders.   I don’t own their choices.  But I can tell you right now that at least one of the people at this table isn’t going to work with anyone who deals in misery and someone else would probably rather die than go into your service.”  I paused for effect.  “And I’d rather die than ask her to.”

“Is that all?” Hill asked, stiffly.

“No,” I said.  “There’s also Avis.”

Hill quirked one eyebrow up in a quizzical gesture.

“And that, right there, is what I mean.  She isn’t a tool or a machine that you can use and discard whenever you see fit.  Avis is a child and you have every intention of murdering her as soon as you’ve finished exploiting what she can do.  Even if you don’t have to do that, you’d rather kill a child than risk a loose end.”

Hill considered what I’d said and then nodded one time.  “I had hoped to convince you to see my side of things with a carrot, so to speak.  But, if you must insist on clinging to these tiresome morality, I suppose I will have to use the stick, instead.”

He didn’t give any command to Aiden.  He didn’t say a word, or make a gesture, or even look in his direction.  Aiden moved without receiving even the slightest visual cue from Hill.  The mercenary pulled an obscenely long, serrated knife from a holster that I couldn’t see and placed it against Billy’s throat.  Billy immediately stiffened and took considerable care not to move a muscle.

“You wouldn’t,” I said, with none of the false confidence I’d been managing to exude earlier.

I wouldn’t,” Hill replied.  He took another bite of roast, chewing it with careful, deliberate slowness.  “But Aiden might.  I gave William an opportunity to fade into obscurity; I even allowed him to operate his little shelter in the dregs of the city, without bringing down the hammer of my own operation against him; and yet, he continued to hassle me for years.  It appears that I must overcome my reluctance towards killing a family member, if I’m ever to have any peace at all.”

Billy and I made eye contact, across the table.  He didn’t dare speak, nod, or even draw a particularly deep breath.  Instead, he filled his gaze with a thousand unnamed emotions and thoughts and willed them to me.  The message was clear: he would rather have his throat slit than to help Hill succeed in his plans, and he wanted me to make that same decision.

“Now,” Hill said, “I am not a man unused to diplomacy, even if that diplomacy must take place at knifepoint.”

“Diplomacy,” I scoffed.  “You’re a thug and a thief, just like the rest of us.  You’ve just got better toys and more money to throw at your problems.”

“If that’s what you wish to believe.  But, Mister O’Brien, let me tell you what will happen in the coming days.  Perhaps a more thorough understanding of events will…give you a different perspective on what choice you should make.”

I glared at him in silence, while he finished off the roast on his plate and then carefully selected a piece of the herb-encrusted bread and began to nibble at the edges.

“The girl – Avis, if you must – will finish decrypting all of the relevant information from the book,” Hill said, between bites of food.  “After that, I will dispose of her and the traitor who helped her escape the manor house, to begin with.  Even you, despite the considerable prowess you’ve displayed thus far, will not be able to find her in sufficient time to stop this much from happening.”


“Indeed,” Hill said agreeably.  “Individual strongholds have, thus far, proven entirely useless against your talent at finding the tiniest possible openings to wriggle through.  So, I am no longer relying on the fortress approach to protection.”

He was keeping her mobile.  Damn, Hill intended to keep Avis on the move until he finished with her.  I kept my face smooth – or at least, as smooth as I could manage – while I began to rage internally.  Given enough time, I had no doubt that Sarah and I could come up with a plan to infiltrate almost any building.  But if he was moving her from one place to another, the task became infinitely more difficult.  A hundred new variables introduced and discarded at a moment’s notice; numerous guard rotations and camera placements to memorize; and a schedule that could change at a moment’s notice were only some of the problems.

“Now,” Hill was saying, “as I said, I’m willing to negotiate.  The death of the girl and the traitor are foregone conclusions, but I could perhaps be persuaded to give William a position in the organization I intend to build in the coming days.  You could work directly with him.  The two of you are clearly capable of devastating levels of success; why not allow you to work with one another, in my service?”  Hill paused, finished off a piece of bread, and then took a long swallow from a waiting wine glass.  “But if you cannot see fit to change your mind, then I will have no choice to but to finish the job I began so many years ago.”

“I won’t do it,” Mila muttered.  I wasn’t sure if she’d spoken loud enough for anyone but me to hear her.  “I won’t.”

Hill certainly gave no indication of having caught her words.  “Your former partner will continue to possess the privilege of my protection, as well; I require a problem-solver capable of operating on the ground level, so to speak.  My…employers trained him exceptionally well in that regard and it is their misfortune that he sought to turn those skills against them, as I do.  If he remains in that position, though…”

He took another drink of wine.  I waited for him to continue and, when he didn’t, finally prompted him with two fingers.  “Then what, Hill?”

“Then I cannot allow known problems to continue operating in my territory.  Nothing about your personality leads me to believe that you will leave him alone, so I will be forced to simply eliminate you, out of hand.  You, your ex-wife, your teammates and partners…root and branch, every associate who has been involved in your operations here in London will come to an abrupt, violent end.”

Hill delivered that threat with all of the passion of a man talking to a landscaper.  There was no heat to the words, no passion, and not even the barest sliver of personal anger.  I understood a great deal about him in that instant.  He was a man who legitimately saw people like myself, like Asher, even someone with international name recognition like Sarah as disposable pawns in a greater game.

“And if we do what you want?”  Sarah asked.  “Then what?”

“Then we can come to a harmonious arrangement,” Hill said.  “Which I believe will work better for all of us, instead of the messy business I will be forced to enact otherwise.”

Mila moved slightly.  As movements went, it wasn’t a major one.  She didn’t pull a gun or leap to her feet.  All she did was shift her weight slightly, which brought one of her arms closer to my own.  I almost jumped in surprise.  The bare skin of her hand was on fire; the heat of blood rushing through her body, powered by vast wells of adrenaline, rose from her like convection from an active volcano.  I wondered, in that idle and detached way, how she was keeping herself from attacking everyone on the other side of the table out of sheer survival instinct.

I swallowed and placed a warning hand on her burning skin.  “We need to talk about this,” I said to Hill.  “There are a lot of things we’re going to need to discuss before we can really come to the bargaining table.”

Understand me, I thought, hoping that Mila would be able to feel the sentiment in some way.  Trust me.

Hill nodded.  Again, without any visible signal, pulled the knife an inch away from Billy’s throat and he let out a long, shaky breath.  “That seems reasonable,” Hill said.  “But business waits for no man, woman, or child.”

“How long?”

Hill thought about the question.  “A week,” he said, finally.  “One week to weigh the pros and cons of what I’m offering.  If you prefer, you can treat it as a week in which you can get your affairs in order.  You can even use the time to make arrangements, to hide yourselves away from me.  It doesn’t particularly matter to me.  But, in one week, I will be finished with the girl.  If you have not seen the light by then, you will leave me no choice but to move against you.”

I didn’t doubt that he meant every word of that.  Our exploits in London notwithstanding, a week was hardly enough time to begin casing a single building.  Any sort of mobile protection would take weeks or even months, depending on how many safe-houses Hill had at his disposal.  And establishing preliminary surveillance was only the first step of many.  Sarah and I were good, but we weren’t that good.

“I believe I will keep William here, under the careful watch of my own men,” Hill continued.  “He has proven himself capable of a great deal of mischief, if left unchecked.  And, if you ultimately decide to resist what’s coming, it will make it much easier to begin the purge.”  His lips turned up in a shallow approximation of a smile.

“But what about us?” I asked.

“You can leave,” Hill said.  “After you’ve eaten, of course.  I will not have it be said that I am an inconsiderate host.”

“Somehow,” I said, “I think we’ve lost our appetite.  Sarah?”

“I agree.”  She stood up, but made no move to walk away from the table.  “You expect us to believe that you’re just going to let us walk away?  No strings attached, no gun to our heads?”

“The ‘gun,’ so to speak,” Hill said, “has already been positioned and its presence is no secret.   I have nothing to fear from you and your options have been severely castrated.  If talking amongst yourselves is what you require to come to the obvious conclusion, I have no problem allowing you to do exactly that.”  Pause.  “Although, it would do you well to keep in mind that your friend William will be here, with me, for the foreseeable future.”

“Don’t you worry about me,” Billy said suddenly.  “This bastard doesn’t have the balls to – “

He stopped talking, as Aiden returned the knife edge to just above his Adam’s Apple.

“As I was saying,” Hill said.  “If you do find yourselves possessed of an unavoidable urge to act against me, do so with the knowledge that it could quite easily result in the death of a man.”

I pushed my chair back and stood up, as well.  Mila, after a moment, did the same.  I could still feel the smoldering intensity of the gaze she turned to Aiden beside me.  Aiden returned the look with an expression of sanguine calm.

“One week,” Hill repeated.  He rose from the table, dabbing a napkin at an invisible spot of food at the corner of his lips.  “Seven days.  I hope to hear from you before then.  Otherwise…well, otherwise, I expect that you’ll be hearing from me, in one form or another.”

He walked out of the room without allowing me an opportunity to deliver a parting shot of my own.  Aiden kept the knife to Billy’s throat so that he couldn’t speak, winked at Mila, then used his free hand to push Billy out of the room in Hill’s wake.  That left Sarah, Mila, and me standing alone in the extravagantly oversized dining room.

We had been played, I realized.  A critical lack of knowledge had forced our hands into revealing each member of our team to the enemy without even realizing what we were doing.  And now, that fundamental error had led us here: all avenues closed off, any chance of escape dead on arrival.  I didn’t think, even for a minute, that Hill would allow us to work for him indefinitely.  As he was betraying Asher, he would almost certainly betray us, as well.

And, even if I heard a promise from the mouth of God himself, I wasn’t going to work with anyone who would threaten a child or hurt his family like that.  Hill, despite his trappings of elegance and wealth, was scum.  And scum could not be allowed to win.  It simply would not stand.

“Sarah,” I said, “let Michel know that we’re ready for pick-up.”

She nodded.  “Okay.  But, after that?”

I turned and looked at her.  Somehow, she read my expression at a glance and nodded.  Mila, who had known me for far less time and lacked a similar gift at discerning unspoken intentions, took a step closer to me.  “How are you going to beat him?”

“I’m also going to need you to call Sophie,” I said, still to Sarah.  “Have her arrange for a conference room.  And then call everyone.”


I nodded.  “Everyone.  I think it’s about time we all started working off of the same page, don’t you?”

Chapter 108

I blinked, and the pieces finally started to fall into place.

A thousand disparate clues, half-formed ideas, and discarded thoughts coalesced into a single cohesive whole in a single frozen instant.  Questions that I’d asked myself before, only to disregard because of a more immediate need for mental horsepower; details I’d noticed, but lacked the proper context for; things I’d heard or thought I’d heard, suddenly given the correct frame of reference for me to finally understand.

Billy, the drug lord in exile, confined to a wheelchair because of the ambition of his former partner.  Why not kill him?  Why leave a potential rival alive and in a position to cause you trouble in the future?

With all of the opportunities I’d given Asher, by accident or on purpose, why hadn’t he simply killed me by now?  Why was Hill allowing me to operate without bringing the force of his criminal empire to bear against my ragtag team before we managed to deal his business irreparable harm?  Why had Fairfax consented to a meeting with von Ackerman, a man who he didn’t even seem to like?

Why would the Lady, possessed of unknowable information as she almost certainly was, not have stepped in to stop me from antagonizing a local nobleman?  Surely, there was something to be said for delicacy, especially when dealing with someone capable of making my life markedly more difficult with a single phone call.  My personal difficulties with the rich and powerful shouldn’t have let me get too invested in needling Fairfax, and I knew that, but the Lady had said nothing at all about it.  Of course, she knew.  She knew everything or so it seemed.  So, why not stop this?

I blinked again.  A heartbeat hadn’t even passed yet.  Beside me, I heard Mila draw in a sharp breath.  Sarah did the same and I noticed, in a detached sort of way, that her lips were trembling with sudden terror and comprehension.

Brothers.  They were brothers.  Billy – who had offered no last name – and Lord Charles Fairfax were brothers.  How could they be related?  Sarah was nothing, if not thorough.  Any mention of living family members would surely have…and then that penny dropped as well.

Not full brothers, but half brothers.  Perhaps Fairfax, Sr. had a taste for a bit of rough.  It wasn’t unheard of in these types of communities.  A nobleman decides to dabble in some flavor from the lower class and finds that he has impregnated someone of a station too low to even be considered.  Most times, a quiet abortion would handle the problem.  But Fairfax, Sr. might have been something of a romantic, perhaps?  Maybe he’d been pro-life or, maybe, the pregnancy hadn’t been noticed until too late.

What would he have done then?  Supported the child, if only to keep the mother from raising too much of a fuss.  He might even have gone so far as to introduce the bastard son – because it was a son, wasn’t it? – to his own legitimate offspring, in hopes of keeping the child from going to the authorities.  A nobleman with financial difficulties and debtors knocking down his door could scarcely afford to pay child support for a by-blow, born due to a drunken indiscretion.

And the child, himself?  Someone raised by a mother who dallied once with a nobleman and then clung to the man for dear life?  That could very well be the type of man who grew to resent the nobility, who threw himself into the seedier side of life as a sort of rebellion.  The mother wouldn’t be in a position to stop him and the father…well, the father wouldn’t particularly care, so long as it stayed out of the papers.  I could almost hear Fairfax, Sr.’s voice in my head, as I imagined what he might have said.

“As long as he stays out of sight, why should I care what he does?  Maybe he’ll get himself killed and save all of us a great deal of trouble in the long run.”

But that child wouldn’t have died.  Maybe he survived, despite the odds.  Maybe he forged a stronger connection with his half-brother than expected and the two of them decided to dip a toe into the underworld community.  After all, the bastard would already have connections, wouldn’t he?  Connections that would be well-served by the money the legitimate child might be able to offer.

I blinked a third time.  Mila was beginning to stand, one hand diving into the interior of her suit jacket.  Sarah opened her mouth – To protest?  To complain?  To encourage? – and her jaw dropped in inky slow-motion.

What would the legitimate son have done?  Faced with the debts of his father and the tattered remnants of a legacy that should have been unbesmirched, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that the legitimate son might have a chip on his shoulder.  Not just against the nobility that would surely shun him if they knew they truth…oh, no.  No, that chip would’ve encompassed everyone who’d reached a better station than him, either by virtue of their birth of their skills.  And, after clawing his way up to a position he felt he deserved…well, the legitimate son might very well decide to dispose of his only legitimate competition.  It only made sense.

Except for the family connection.  One couldn’t simply dispose of family.  It simply wasn’t done.

Asher had done the same thing, back in Paris.  While I’d been at his mercy, he’d been unable to simply end my life.  In his own twisted way, I realized, he’d actually intended me to be safe behind bars in La Santé.  If he’d been planning all of this since his time in St. Petersburg, I could easily believe that he’d warped his own mindset to the point that prison seemed like the safest place to him.  I wasn’t going to be in harm’s way, there.  He could dispose of Sarah at his leisure and wait until I eventually came around.

The legitimate son wouldn’t have done that, though.  People might have seen them together.  A life in the spotlight afforded one certain privileges – alibis, for one thing – but it also came with certain disadvantages.  If a close friend suddenly went to prison, there would be questions, interviews, cameras.  No, it would be much easier to make them disappear entirely.  But how to do that?

An injury would suffice.  Something suitably horrific that it would account for a retreat from the public eye; some wound so terrible that even the paparazzi would feel like slime for asking about.  And, I noted, it would also have the delicious effect of providing an object lesson in what would happen if anybody in the underworld crossed you again.

Yes, that would make sense.  It made entirely too much sense, and I didn’t know how I’d let myself miss it before.

I blinked for a fourth time and, at the same time, held out a hand in Mila’s direction.  It brushed against her hip and she looked at out of the corner of one eye, confusion winning out over raw fear and anger in her expression.

“Hill,” I said.  I abandoned the German accent and yet, the voice I spoke in sounded nothing like my own.  It was far too cold, too distant. “You’re Hill, aren’t you?”

Fairfax – Hill – sighed and speared another forkful of roast meat.  “A childhood nickname,” he said casually.  “You see, I had a bit of tendency to exaggerate problems into things that were far greater and more difficult to handle.  I would make a mountain out of a molehill, yes?”

I stared at him in silence.

Billy, pushed by Aiden, was wheeled from the door over to a spot near his brother.  As he drew closer, I could see the purple and red marks that accompanied bruises in-the-making on his face.  He didn’t make eye contact with me as Aiden eased him into place and he said nothing when Hill – I couldn’t think of him as Fairfax, anymore – sliced off several pieces of meat and dropped them onto a plate.

“Eat, brother,” Hill said.  “You’ve been slumming it down in that wretched hive for so long, I wouldn’t be surprised if you caught something.  It’s important that you keep your strength up; at least that’s what the doctors said, isn’t it?”

At that, Billy’s head snapped up.  The force of his glare wasn’t even directed in my general direction, but I could feel the heat rising off of it, as though Billy’s eyes were shooting a laser directly into Hill’s brain.  “You would know, wouldn’t you?  Seeing as you’re the reason I needed a doctor in the first place.”

“I could have done much worse,” Hill said.  “I gave specific orders that you were to be left alive.  And I’ve looked the other way while your illicit operation has continued in the bowels of our city, haven’t I?  Is it not through my largesse that you’re even here to partake of this meal?”

Billy scowled and lapsed back into silence.

“Ah,” Hill said.  “That’s what I thought.”

I swallowed a mouthful of saliva and, without looking to Sarah or Mila, spoke.  “You couldn’t have killed him.”


“He’s family,” I said, stressing the word to its breaking point.  “And you’re better than that aren’t you?”

Hill considered that before giving me a small nod.  He took one of the herb-encrusted slices of bread from the platter in front of me and chewed pensively on it for a few seconds before replying.  “I suppose you’re right.  It would hardly be civil of me to kill my only surviving relative, would it?”

“But crippling him was okay?” I asked.  “Having your men beat him until he needed a wheelchair was somehow not as bad as ordering them to just shoot him?”

“A dead man can teach no lessons, Mister O’Brien,” Hill said.  A spike of anxiety ran through me when I realized that he knew my real name, but it subsided quickly.  Of course he knew my name.  Asher was working with him, after all.  “I needed to ensure that my business would be left alone until such time as I was able to secure its foundations on my own terms.  To that end, some…sacrifices had to be made.”

“And those ‘sacrifices’ happened to be your brother’s legs.”  I scoffed and pushed aside the plate of baked bread, leaning forward onto the table so that I could get as close to Hill’s face as possible.  “You really think that paralyzing someone is the best way to deal with a problem?  Did you even consider asking him to step aside?”

“And why would he have done that?”  Noticing that Billy hadn’t touched the food in front of him, Hill took one of the roast slices and started chewing around its edges on his own.  “Would you have voluntarily relinquished your interest in our business, William?”

Billy glared at his half-brother and, somehow, captured a wealth of vile words and baleful condemnations in that look.

“That’s what I thought,” Hill said.  “And so, Mister O’Brien, I did what I felt necessary to secure my position.  Unless I’m mistaken, isn’t your sole reason for being in London to bring down your own former partner?  After his betrayal, could you simply forgive him and move on with your joint opportunities?”

He gave Sarah a thin smile.  I restrained the urge to look at her, to give her some sort of unspoken signal so that she would know to pass the message along to Michel.  I was stopped by the certainty that Michel wouldn’t be able to reach the estate in time.  Aiden was there; presumably, that meant his men were in the wings, weapons held at the ready.

“And him?” I asked, gesturing at Aiden.  “Why’d you bring him here?”

“Aiden and I have to an arrangement,” Hill said.  “Vastly different from the one he’s reached with your former partner, Mister Asher.”

“And that deal is?”

“He works for me,” Hill said, “and takes my orders, as necessary.  There will be plenty of insurrection in the coming days, as some of my higher-placed associates attempt to muscle in on the territory I hope to free from their control.”

The way he said ‘their´ immediately made me think of the Magi.

Hill continued speaking.  “Of course, he’ll continue to receive his medication – I believe you already know about that? – and his men will be paid exorbitantly for their time.”

“What else did you promise him?” I asked.

“Why, your bodyguard, of course,” Hill replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Like hell you did,” Mila growled.  I extended my arm to stop her from reaching for a gun without even consciously realizing that I’d done it.

I cleared my throat and was forced to take a sip of water to wash down the dryness.  “Why,” I asked, “do you want us then?  You didn’t have to agree to this dinner.  If you knew our names and our faces, you could’ve set up a trap and taken care of us all right off of the bat.”

Hill smirked.  “My intentions should be obvious at this point, shouldn’t they?  I wanted to make your position perfectly clear to both you and to the inestimable Missus Ford.  Or is it Miss, now?”  He gave Sarah a withering, insulting little look.  “I find it so very difficult to keep up with these mundane relationships.  So quick to come; just as quick to disappear again.”

I was surprised to find my fingers clenching themselves into a tight, painful fist.  With great effort, I forced myself to relax and to think.

Hill was here.  He hadn’t made any sort of aggressive move towards us, yet.  In fact, with the exception of Aiden’s simple presence, Hill hadn’t made any overt gestures of strength.  Obviously, I’d read him badly at first meet, but even this revelation only served to strengthen other areas of the mental profile I’d drawn of the man.

“You wanted to brag,” I said.

“If you must be so absolutely boorish about it,” Hill replied, “then yes.  I wanted to lay out certain inescapable facts for your consideration.”

“And you brought him because?”  I gestured at Billy.

“Because, Mister O’Brien, I couldn’t be certain of what your reaction would be.  You’ve only been in London for…how long has it been?  A week, perhaps?  And so far you have already been directly responsible for a staggering amount of property damage and a not-inconsiderable setback to my business operations.  Besides, Aiden has informed me that your bodyguard has something of a violent streak.”  He turned that mocking smile from Sarah to me.  “You can hardly blame me for taking steps to protect myself.”

Mila growled beside me.  Literally growled.  I caught a flash of pearly white as she bared her teeth at Aiden.  “I should fucking kill you,” she hissed.

“You could fucking try,” Aiden replied evenly.  He was cultured, now, as opposed to the raving lunatic I’d heard at the manor house while we’d been making our mistake.  If he was in any way offended or upset by Mila’s proclamation, he didn’t allow any of that offense or anger to reach his expression.  “You might even be successful, but I doubt it.  Remember: I taught you everything you know.”

“You taught me everything you know,” Mila countered.  “Why don’t you come over and I’ll show what new tricks I’ve picked in the meantime?”

It seemed for a moment that Aiden might take her up on that threat.  Tension ratcheted up in the room, raising the temperature by several degrees by simple virtue of Mila and Aiden’s clashing wills.  Then, the moment passed.  Aiden looked away – not out of shame or fear, but more resigned sadness – and shook his head.  “I think not,” he said.  “And I don’t think you’ll do anything either.  That’s your new M.O., isn’t it?  Stick to the contract and only kill when your client allows you to?

Mila recoiled from his words like he’d stretched an arm across the table and slapped her in the face.

Aiden continued, his voice smooth and persuasive.  “Wouldn’t it be something to go back to the way you used to be, though?  Why, the Mila I know…no, I’m sorry.”  He waved a hand in the air, smiling slightly to himself.  “I just can’t call you that.  The Thorn that I knew…now she would’ve already been in motion, wouldn’t she?  This table wouldn’t have stopped her.  This hostage wouldn’t have slowed her down.  And those two?”  Now, he pointed deliberately at me, then at Sarah.  “Well, those two wouldn’t have been able to do any more to get in her way than a screen door against a hurricane.  But you aren’t the same person anymore.  Unless…unless you want to be that person again.  Do you?”

I tried, and failed, to keep my eyes from traveling over to Mila.  The expression on her face hurt to behold.  Terror, excitement, rage, lust – all of those emotions, and a dozen others that I couldn’t immediately name, raced each other across her face.  In that moment, I became aware that, without Mila, Sarah and I had inadvertently walked ourselves directly into the lair of our enemy.  If Hill gave the word and Mila didn’t step in to stop him, there was little to no chance that either Sarah or I would make it out of the estate alive.

Even if Mila lost control and managed to turn that anger against Aiden and Hill, it wouldn’t particularly matter.  She would have lost against Aiden, as surely as if he’d killed her himself.  Taking his life would justify his worldview, validate his beliefs about who Mila truly was in her heart of hearts, and we’d lose her, then.  Sure, we could claim it as a victory with regards to our job from the Lady, but I’d grown close enough to Mila over the last few days that I counted her as a friend.

I wasn’t in the habit of sacrificing friends to further my own goals…not even if that sacrifice was to themselves.

So, before Mila could say or do anything at all, I cleared my throat with such deliberate force that my throat began to hurt.  “This is what you wanted, then?  To call us here, just so that you can goad one of my team into making a mistake that we’re all going to regret?”  I directed that to Hill.

Hill took another forkful of roast and the smug smile slid from his face.  “As I said, I wanted to make things perfectly clear between us.”

“I’m listening.”

“I have the girl,” Hill said.  “I have the book.  And, since you were gracious enough to reveal the burgeoning friendship between her and my former employee, I have leverage to force her to decrypt what I wish for her to decrypt.  It is only a matter of time before I have all of the information I require, at which point I will be free to eliminate any loose ends which might prove problematic in the future.”

Former employee…Hill was talking about Neal.  Of course, that made sense now.  He wouldn’t have allowed Avis to be taken without putting up a fight and she, in her odd manner, cared about him, as well.  If Hill and his men threatened to torture Neal, it was absolutely reasonable that the small child might give Hill what he wanted, in hopes of saving her friend.

“Despite your efforts,” Hill continued, “I have everything in my possession that I have sought after for so many months.  And, despite the repeated failures of your former friend, I am closer now to claiming my rightful position over the miscreants and addicts of my city.  Although…I must admit, I was rather impressed by your creativity and the way you continued to elude my every effort to simply stamp you out.”

“And now we’re here,” I said, somehow managing to project a great deal more confidence than I actually felt.  “So, is this the part where you have us dragged away?  Because I don’t think ‘my bodyguard’ is going to let that happen without a fight, and you’re looking awfully unprotected there in your new suit.”

For the first time since we’d entered the building, Hill seemed slightly taken aback.  “Kill you?  Why would I do that?”  He set down the fork and leaned all of his weight onto the tabletop separating the two of us.  “Mister O’Brien, I don’t want to hurt you.  I want to offer you a job.”

Chapter 107

Where the manor house had been large, Fairfax’s estate was grand, in a way that words simply failed to encapsulate.  Acres upon acres of land greeted us, just inside the pass-coded gates that sat at the edge of Fairfax’s land.  Once inside, I saw that the property consisted of wide swaths of emerald grass, dotted at even intervals with flowers in colors like bubblegum pink, plum purple, and azure blue.  As Michel drove the BMW up the driveway – that term seemed woefully inadequate to describe the wide road leading up to Fairfax’s front door, but no better ones came to mind – I could see at least a dozen men and women tending to the health of the flowers on the grounds.  For a few months, my mother had worked as a gardener for a particularly vile business magnate in Maine.  I’d picked up a little bit of knowledge in that field, so it wasn’t surprising to learn that Fairfax required so many people just to make sure that the plants looked fresh and crisp, every hour of the day, in case a visitor showed up.  I was fairly sure that some of the plants on display weren’t even in season, but that wasn’t something I felt like wasting time to research.

The house itself seemed to burst out of the ground itself at the end of the driveway/road.  In fact, to call it a house would more properly require capitalization on the word; what I saw through the front window of the BMW was a House, in the same size and proportions of one I expected to find on Pennsylvania Avenue or, perhaps, Downing Street.  According to all of the information Sarah had been able to dig up about Fairfax, he was an unmarried man without children or close relatives with whom he had anything resembling a good relationship.  The fact that he’d spent time and money acquiring an estate like this, when he could easily have purchased a lovely flat in the city center for far less trouble, told me a lot about the man he was.

Pompous.  Arrogant.  Overly concerned with his own self-worth.  I’d guessed that much about Fairfax on our first meeting; seeing where he chose to spend his time only served to validate those earlier thoughts.

Having drawn conclusions about my surroundings, I set part of my mind to draw up possible ways to manipulate Fairfax and separated the rest of my thoughts from that particular problem.  An answer would present itself, as soon as one was ready, and I couldn’t afford to spend conscious time working through possible conversations that might never happen.  I’d have to let Fairfax lead the conversation at first until Sarah was able to penetrate his email accounts.  After that, I could turn the tables and lay him out.  It was a matter, then, of keeping my cool in the face of such wasted splendor.

I’d done it before, with people I liked even less.  I strongly doubted that Fairfax could possibly be such an unpleasant person to be around that my abilities would shrivel up.  Nearly three years in prison hadn’t dulled most of the useful talents; I’d be damned if I was going to let some trumped up nobleman throw me off of my game.

“The van’s providing my wireless right now,” Sarah said.  “So it’s good that it’s working correctly.  As long as it’s on, I can use it as a connection point.  I don’t know what kind of security Fairfax has sprung for, but I’d rather not tie everything back to his house while we’re having dinner.”

“What does that mean for me?  In Layman terms, of course.”

“I won’t be using his connection,” Sarah said.  “Even if he’s got someone watching for strange packets or unusual traffic, they won’t find any trace of what I’m doing.  Also, the computers are in the van are considerably stronger than anything I could carry on my person.”

I nodded dumbly.  Some of those were words I knew.  Some had even been used in a configuration that I might have been able to piece together.

Michel drove the BMW up a lengthy stretch of road, bounded by rows of carnations, lilies, and roses on either side.  As we drew closer to the mansion itself, the flowers gave way to larger trees, standing tall and firm like arboreal sentinels casting deep shadows across the driveway they stood watch over.  Inside of the car, it seemed as though we were literally driving into darkness as we passed beneath the trees; I found that thematically fitting, in an odd way.

A man dressed in black pants, a white shirt, and a black tailed coat stood outside of the mansion’s front door with his hands held neatly behind his back.  He inclined his head slightly as Michel eased the BMW to a stop, then reached out – with white gloved hands – to open the back door.

Herr Ackerman,” he said, and I couldn’t help but notice how artificially crisp his Northern London accent was.  Immediately, I formed a rough profile of the man: someone who’d worked his way up from an ignoble birth and who prided himself on the ability to walk amongst the nobility and higher class with his head held high.  It was probably all an act, but I couldn’t help but feel a certain kinship with the butler.

“Indeed,” I said, lowering the register of my voice and slipping into Ackerman’s German accent.  “I had hoped that Lord Fairfax would be here to meet me in person?”

“He means no offense by his absence,” the butler said, “but other matters called for his direct involvement.  He will, of course, be away for only a short time.”

I pouted…well, I did whatever the rich business magnate’s version of a pout would be.  I didn’t mind waiting.  It might even give Sarah more time to penetrate what network security Fairfax had in place.  But Ackerman would mind considerably, and I had to play that role to the hilt right now.

“Perhaps,” I said, “he does not consider my time important.  Frau Ford, what do you think?”

Sarah tapped an index finger against her bottom lip.  “We drove all the way out here,” she said, after a suitably long stretch of silence.  “It would be a shame to leave already.  Perhaps we could get a tour of the property?”  She directed that question at the butler.

He seemed slightly uneasy with that but he recovered quickly.  “It would be my pleasure, Miss Ford.  It is the least I can do to accommodate you, until such time as Lord Fairfax returns from his obligations.  If you would be so kind?”

I exchanged a look with Sarah.  She gave a slight, almost imperceptible nod.  We stepped out of the car and, a second later, Mila opened her door as well.  The butler raised an eyebrow.

“Personal security,” I said in a droll voice.  “One can never be too safe.  There are always criminals running around, stealing property and threatening lives these days.”

“Ah,” the butler replied, “I was not informed that there would be another guest.  I, uh…”

Mila cleared her throat and stopped him from saying anything else.  “I go where they go,” she said.  “Whether you’re going to make that difficult is your call.”

The butler struggled with that for a second, then nodded.  “Very well.  If you would follow me?”

He started off toward the mansion, taking long strides that made the tails of his coat flutter slightly, as if caught by an evening breeze.  I turned slightly and, under my breath, said, “Michel, park by the van.  Wait for the pickup signal.”

“And if something goes wrong?”

I hesitated.  “There’ll be a signal for that, too.  Get out of here.”

I watched him nod out of the corner of my eye.  He started the BMW again, drove around the circle of cleared land in front of the mansion, and then left via the road leading off of Fairfax’s property.

Sarah touched my elbow with two fingers, then put those same two fingers to her earlobe in a quick gesture.  Michel was still connected and able to communicate, albeit with a slight delay, through Sarah.  There was every possibility, however, that the few seconds after I gave Sarah the ‘emergency’ signal, but before Michel received it, could end being crucial.

I put that thought out of my mind before I could begin to worry about it.  The butler was standing in front of the building, one gloved hand on the handle of a massive door, cut from a wood so dark that it was nearly black.  He was well-trained enough that his subtle tells of impatience and irritation took me a bit to notice.

The three of us walked over to the door.  Sarah strode with the purpose of self-assurance of someone who knows that their presence is in high demand and I matched my gait to hers.  Mila walked just behind me, to my right, and each of her steps was solid and deliberate.  Mental images of military men and women came to mind with each rhythmic, sharp step she took.  Something in her shoes must have been metallic.  Or something on her shoes.

Inside the mansion, the butler turned and gestured magnanimously at a portrait on the wall, just a few feet away from the entrance.  The man pictured there looked familiar: the eyes, perhaps, or the length of his nose reminded me of Fairfax.  But there was also something about his forehead and the way his lips were only barely curled up into a smile for the painter that seemed odd.

“This was Lord Reginald Fairfax,” the butle said, his voice swelling with something resembling pride.  “The current Lord Fairfax’s esteemed great-grandfather.  It was his savvy with business and social skills that allowed the Fairfax family to rise to their current place of prominence.”

I suppressed a snicker.  Through Sarah, I’d come into possession of a more than a few documents outlining the various debts that our Fairfax owed to creditors, both national and international.  ‘Prominence’ was painting it a little heavy, but it wasn’t as though the butler could outright tell us that his master was in trouble.  In fact, it was largely possible that the poor man didn’t even know.

“And his father?” Sarah asked politely, as if she didn’t already know the answer.

The butler sighed, caught himself, and turned the exhalation into a cough.  “Charles Fairfax, Sr.  He was…an ambitious man, with grand dreams and grander aspirations.”

That wasn’t an answer.  Of course, Sarah hadn’t really asked a question.

“I must say,” I said, in Ackerman’s voice, “that I find the prospect of a tour less and less enjoyable with each passing second.  It has nothing to do with you, sir, but…”  I trailed off, let the silence hang in the air for a second, and then continued.  “Perhaps another time.  If I find myself in London on business again and Fairfax can deign to tear himself away from his business opportunities.  Of course, I will have to tell all of my associates to beware working with Lord Fairfax in the future.  He is such a busy man, of course.”

Blood fled from the butler’s face.  He sputtered something incoherent.  When he regained control of himself, he cleared his throat.  “I am sure that Lord Fairfax will not be away for very long.  If you could only wait just a little bit longer…”

“Calm yourself, Coleman,” a resonant voice said from upstairs, in the direction of an extravagant staircase.  Sarah and I looked up at the same time; Mila’s weight shifted slightly and I could almost feel the gathering of tension around her.

“My apologies,” Fairfax said.  He strolled into view, utterly at ease, and took the stairs at a leisurely, almost insulting pace.  “I would have scheduled this dinner for later if I had known something would arise that required my personal attention.”

“Your man…what was it?  Ah, Coleman,” I said, “was kind enough to inform us that your business was suffering some difficulties.”

“Nothing beyond my ability to handle.  But the nature of the delay was personal in nature, not professional.”  Fairfax reached the bottom of the stairs and paused.  The angle of his body was reminiscent of a pose and, I had to admit to myself, the effect worked.  He was wearing a crisp dark blue suit, cut to his precise measurements, and looked like nothing so much as a fashion model.  The thin wisps of graying hair at his temples only highlighted his attractiveness, instead of taking anything away from the visual.

“Personal?  I hope that everything is well.”

He heaved a dramatic sigh.  Something felt wrong about that sigh, but I couldn’t quite my finger on what bothered me.  “Family,” Fairfax said.  “A member of my family in a similar line of business as myself requested a chair at this dinner.”

“Oh?”  We hadn’t planned on conning more than one person.  Still, as long as the façade held up long enough, we might be able to make an exit and return to blackmail Fairfax into submission later.

“Quite.  The possibility of opening new lines of communication with our German counterparts was something that neither he nor I could pass up.  Now, our dinner awaits.  My insistent family member will have to show himself in, whenever he arrives.  Coleman, you can see that, yes?”

It wasn’t really a question.  The butler, Coleman, nodded twice, seemingly pleased to be given a valid reason to leave our company.  I couldn’t blame him.  Fairfax was such a deliberately over-the-top figure that it seemed he sucked up all the oxygen from a room just by entering.  I couldn’t imagine working around the man on a daily basis, being required to rush from place to the other in deference to whatever whim moved him.  Just thinking about it made me a little exhausted.

I resolved to find some way to supplement Coleman’s income…presumably through whatever payment we received from the Lady after taking down Hill.  That thought cheered me slightly.

Fairfax led us through the mansion, occasionally pointing out a portrait or knickknack, until we reached a large door cut from the same wood as the front door.  He pushed it open and gestured for Sarah, Mila, and me to enter the room in front of him.  We did so and found ourselves confronted with a majestic table with enough room for at least ten people to sit and eat comfortably.  Platters and trays were already set out on the table, stretching from one end to the other, tendrils of delicious-smelling smoke drifting up into the air from each.

“I must confess,” Fairfax said, taking no notice of the scents in the air, “that I am not a particular fan of this arrangement.  I prefer more intimate settings, no matter what the occasion.  There’s little that can’t be solved with a one-on-one conversation, in close quarters.”

“Ah,” I replied, “but would it not be preferable to have as many witnesses as possible to any handshake deals you make?”

Fairfax gave me a slight, anemic smile.  “Of course not.  People will make all sorts of concessions when they feel that no one else is looking.  The trick is to lure them into a sense of safety and then to force them to accept your terms.”

I couldn’t help but grin at that.  “I suppose I could not agree more.”

Surprisingly, Fairfax did not take a seat at the head of the table.  Instead, he chose a chair a few spaces down and motioned for us to sit opposite him.  When we were comfortable, he removed the lid off of the platter directly in front of him – revealing some type of roast, judging by the shape, size, and scent – and cut a large piece of meat free.

“Help yourself,” he said, when the slice of roast was safely on his plate.  “Unless you’d prefer I called the servants in to assist you?”

That same feeling of wrongness intensified.  Everything I knew about Fairfax – both from our conversations and the information Sarah had dug up about him – told me that he was the sort of person who would delight in using servants to display his wealth.  As it was, we’d only seen Coleman since entering the house itself.  The landscapers outside might not even work for Fairfax directly; it would be fairly easy to hire those sort of people on an as-needed basis.  It would make more sense, as well.

A tray on my right was populated by a freshly baked loaf of bread, cut into thin slices and topped with a healthy smattering of herbs.  I took a few of those and then ladled out some soup into a bowl.  Fairfax raised an eyebrow.  “I would feel better waiting for your family member,” I said, by way of explanation.  The truth – that my stomach wouldn’t settle down while that gnawing feeling of missing something continued to work at it – wasn’t something I felt like sharing.

“All the same,” Fairfax said.  “And you, Miss Ford?”

“I’ve already eaten,” Sarah replied.  There was a slight hitch in her voice, a millisecond of hesitation.  I didn’t need to look at her to know that I would see a slight puzzled expression on her face.  Whatever was wrong, she felt it, too.

“Ah.  I’m certain that our guest will arrive shortly, von Ackerman, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long.”

“You said that you do not prefer this sort of room?” I asked, more to fill the time than out of any real curiosity.  Sarah had said to keep Fairfax in this room, where we could keep an eye on him, and I intended to do just that.

“Not particularly, no.”

“Then why do you not change it?  Surely you can afford to redecorate?”

Fairfax froze, the roast speared on his fork and halfway to his mouth.  Slowly, he lowered the utensil.  “I am currently living on the largesse of a…shall we call him a friend?  He is graciously allowing me the use of his estate while he’s away on business.”

“And you have been here long enough to hang your own paintings?”

Fairfax shrugged.  “The business my friend is engaged is in the sort that will likely require much of his attention for the foreseeable future.  Of course, I would be more than happy to leave if I were asked to, but I doubt he will have many problems with my decorative choices.”

The earbud I wore vibrated twice.  The line didn’t activate.  I read the signal as something Sarah had deliberately done, wordlessly sending me a message.  The problem with that is that I couldn’t understand the message meant, in this context.  Had she already broken Fairfax’s security?  Or was she telling me that she’d require more time and to continue needling him, pushing him so that he felt compelled to engage in a battle of quips?  Was something wrong with Michel?

I tapped my fingernail against the table twice, as subtly as I could manage, hoping that she could grasp my confusion.  A second later, the earbud vibrated two more times, more intensely than before.

I almost turned to look at Sarah, thinking that I might be able to divine her intention with a moment of eye contact.  I was stopped by a delighted noise from Fairfax.  He set his fork down on the plate with an audible clink and smiled widely.

“Ah,” he said, “and here is our unexpected guest.  It’s good to see you again, brother.”

I turned, almost involuntarily, to face the newcomer.  Entering through the same door that we’d come through, I saw a man with tribal tattoos and a face like cut granite.  In front of him, a man in a wheelchair.

Aiden.  Billy.

“It has been such a long time, hasn’t it?” Fairfax asked behind me.  “We have so many things to catch up on, don’t we?”