Tag Archives: Aiden

Part 6: Recap (1/2)

At the eleventh hour, with every possible disadvantage stacked against them, Devlin, Sarah, and their team of misfits and malcontents approach an impossible job: breaking into a mansion owned by the elusive and dangerous Hill to save the girl Avis, her companion Neal, their erstwhile associate Billy, and the golden Book responsible for the chaos and madness that has plagued them during their struggles in London. Every asset is tapped, every ally contacted, and every potential plan checked and re-checked, in hopes of mining even the remotest opportunity at success, in the face of almost certain failure.

It begins with the Russian mafioso Stanislav and his Ukrainian cohort/ex-paramour Anton. An explosion specifically designed to create more fear than damage, crafted with the aid of Anton’s bombmaking expertise, creates an atmosphere of uncertainity and doubt in Hill’s poorly trained men. That window of confusion is then capitalized on by the native Brits, Chester and James, to waylay a single vehicle in the elaborate shell game perpetrated by their opponent. With that piece taken out of play and replaced by one of their own – namely, an identical car driven by the Frenchman Michel – the team is able to find their way past the first layer of Hill’s defenses, by relying on the natural propensity of frightened people to close ranks and rely on trusted security whenever possible.

Devlin and his bodyguard, Emilia, emerge from the trunk of their Trojan horse on the other side of Hill’s cameras and security systems. Together, they infiltrate into the mansion itself, keeping to the shadows to avoid detection, and searching for any sort of security hub that Sarah might be able to subvert to their own ends. Instead of locating that, however, it doesn’t take them long before they stumble upon a secret corridor leading down, beneath the mansion. There, they find Neal, beaten and bloodied.

Despite enduring considerable abuse, Hill’s former employee maintained the presence of mind to track his surroundings. As a result, he alone is able to lead Devlin and Emilia straight to the room where Avis is being kept. After a brief conversation, and a heartfelt reunion between the girl and her unlikely friend, Devlin makes a judgment call: Emilia is to go with Avis and Neal, protecting them as they make their way back out of the mansion and into Michel’s waiting getaway car. Emilia protests, asserting that her primary job is the protection of Devlin and Sarah, but he convinces her that this plan, more than any other, has the highest chance of success. Reluctantly, she agrees, and the three slip away to find their own way out of the mansion.

At the same time, Devlin’s former partner turned bitter rival, Asher Knight, enters the building with a retinue of armed men intent of hunting down the man he once called ‘friend.’ With Sarah guiding him, Devlin desperately hides himself within Hill’s master bedroom. Within that very bedroom, concealed behind a false dresser, he finds a safe; within that safe, he hopes, he might find the Book that has catalyzed so much trouble for so many people.

His time behind bars and the advances in technology aren’t enough to keep him from cracking the state-of-the-art vault and retrieving the item of his search. However, just as he readies himself to secret the Book away from Hill’s custody, an ominous click sounds behind him and his comms, as well as the miniature camera he wears to give Sarah eyes on the scene, go dark.

At first concerned, then gradually growing panicked, Sarah opens a line of communication with Michel. The Frenchman isn’t at an angle where he can truly see into the building, although he does remember seeing the silhouette of two men in Hill’s bedroom, just before the radios went quiet. With a rapidly diminishing pool of options – the Russians are on the outside of the estate, Michel’s contribution to the plan will only work so long as he remains unobtrusive, and the Brits are notoriously difficult to keep in line – Sarah goes with her gut, fumbles the connections momentarily, and calls for Mila to return to the building and save her ex-husband.

Mila, however, has issues of her own. Only a few yards away from freedom, she is stopped and forced to confront Aiden, the man who trained her, mentored her…and, ultimately, broke her.

Aiden tries firs to seduce Mila away from her wards, promising a return to glory and an inevitable promotion to his place at the head of their mercenary outfit, when his illness finally takes his life. When delicacy and charm do not work, something snaps in the man’s demeanor and he attacks her like a wild animal. The battle between the two trained fighters is more than simply physical and, at a critical moment, Mila realizes that she cannot kill Aiden without proving his philosophically correct. She hesitates to pull the trigger and Aiden, sensing blood in the water, attempts to provoke her by shooting Avis instead.

Michel, listening in due to the mishandled transfer of open lines, interrupts Aiden’s attempt at murder with the back end of his car. The mercenary, already wounded, is knocked through a window and into the mansion proper. Without waiting to see whether he will emerge again, Avis, Neal, and Emilia all pile into the getaway vehicle and prepare to escape the mansion for good.

Sarah accelerates the timeline for their escape, funneling their enemies in specific directions, and activates the Russians and Brits outside of the estate to provide even more misdirection. At that exact moment, Devlin’s comms come back online. He explains that the signal was jammed and that revelation lays bare exactly how stark their situation has become…how stark, in fact, it had always been. If Hill knew to have a signal jammer, then he already knew their frequency. If he knew that, then it was possible he had been listening to them in real time, all from the very start.

With nothing left to do but improvise, Devlin tells Sarah to activate Plan B, which she is reluctant to do. Only after he explains his reasoning, correctly pointing out that the alternatives involve their grisly deaths, she relents and sets things into motion.

Plan B, as it turns out, begins with a phone call to the London Metropolitan Police Department.

***

After dealing with the unexpected arrival of someone specifically equipped to block his communications, Devlin decides to make moves. He retrieves a suitcase – the very same one contained within Hill’s personal safe – and leaves the room. With Sarah in his ear and helped by a generous helping of luck, he manages to avoid encountering any of Hill’s or Asher’s men as he makes his way downstairs.

A little too well, perhaps.

He realizes, just before walking into a trap, that the path is almost too clear. If Hill was capable of intercepting their communications, it would only be reasonable to assume that he knew exactly where Devlin was and how he would plan to make his escape. Therefore, if Devlin’s route is clear, then it is probably clear for a reason. What reason that might be eludes the intrepid thief and, with no other real option, he takes a deep breath…and walks straight into the noose that Hill had laid out for him.

Inside the dining room, the grand table where Hill revealed himself to be the seemingly weak nobleman Fairfax is gone. In its place, there is only Hill and his bastard older brother, William Fairfax, literally chained into his wheelchair, with a gun pressed to his temple. Reflexively, Devlin pulls out his own weapon, borrowed from Emilia, and the two men stare each other down for seconds that feel like an eternity.

For only the second time since meeting, and the first time without outside interruption, Hill speaks to Devlin in his true persona: ruthless, sadistic, and solely focused on increasing his power no matter the cost to anyone around him. Hill reveals the truth behind his agenda, explains why he effectively challenged Devlin and his team to come after him, their friends, and the Book.

First: by using a known enemy, especially one who has proven so frighteningly proficient at improvisation in the face of the certain doom, to stress test his defenses, Hill plans to make his home into an impenetrable fortress so secure that no other thief would be able to steal from in the future.

Second, and more importantly: antagonizing Devlin’s team into increasingly spectacular displays runs the risk of attracting the attention of Hill’s mysterious masters, the Magi. When the Magi inevitably take notice of the chaos in London, the manner in which their finances in the area have been disrupted, Hill will be able to use Devlin and company as scapegoats, to ensure that no suspicion falls on him. If the Book should happen to go missing at the same time by, say, pure happenstance, then no blame could fall on him.

Of course, both of those outcomes depend on retrieving the Book from Devlin in the first place. Hill demands that Devlin sacrifice the suitcase and its contents. If not, Hill promises to kill not just Devlin…he will give the order to his men to execute Sarah and Devlin’s entire team. In that moment, to illustrate his point, Hill unveils the full depth of his surveillance. Cameras, pointed at Sarah’s supposedly safe staging area, well away from the estate; ears, in the form of the communications system that Sarah worked so tirelessly to protect; live-streaming video as Devlin’s friends struggle to find a way out of Hill’s death trap.

While Devlin listens to the enumerations of his problems, a burst of intuition warns him of an incoming attack. He barely manages to avoid the butler Coleman’s initial assault. It doesn’t take Devlin long to realize that Coleman is being forced to assist Hill, but that knowledge doesn’t help him in the ensuing scuffle. He loses the suitcase, first, and ultimately even his own gun. It’s only through a last minute attack, throwing caution to the wind, that Billy manages to disarm his older brother, although not before Devlin suffers a wound to his upper thigh that removes any chance of evading further attacks. Spitefully, Hill disdains the use of his own weapon and retrieves the gun that Devlin entered the room with before throwing open the suitcase, triumphantly and pompously revealing that he has obtained…

…nothing at all. The suitcase is completely, utterly, impossibly empty.

Infuriated by this sudden, unexpected turn of events, Hill rails impotently at Devlin, who is content to merely laugh at the latest development. When Hill turns Devlin’s own gun on the thief and attempts to execute him, he is stymied once more. The gun has been unloaded. After speeding through the stages of grief, Hill attempts to pressure Coleman – the butler, now armed with Hill’s original weapon – to kill Devlin. Just before the butler works up the nerve to squeeze the trigger, Sarah speaks into Devlin’s ear and the thief plays his final card: he knocks five times on the floor and makes eye contact with Coleman.

The butler taps one finger against the side of his gun twice, completing the signal. Then, he turns his gun to point at Hill, instead.

Forcing himself upright, Devlin explains to the dumbfounded Hill that Coleman’s family has been rescued from his clutches. Furthermore, the forces he’d planned on using to murder Devlin’s team have mysteriously all disappeared. The live-feed was actually a fabrication, masterminded by Sarah from her mobile command center; the comms chatter, faked for Hill’s benefit. Every weapon that Hill believed he had against Devlin and his team has been disarmed, removed, or otherwise proven to be false. And the final insult? Coleman, loyal butler for most of Hill’s life, has been working with the police in order to bring down the drug lord, once and for all.

Enraged beyond belief, Hill rushes at Devlin and tries to kill him with his bare hands. It’s only through the timely arrival of the police, phoned not too long ago by Sarah herself, that Hill is stopped from committing at least one murder. Unfortunately, the police arrest Devlin for breaking and entering, at the same time that they put Hill in handcuffs for his litany of crimes.

At the hospital, during a brief stop where the worst of his injuries can be treated, Devlin receives an unexpected visitor. Hill’s lawyer, a slimy man who practically reeks of corruption, sidles into the room and informs Devlin that Hill has every intention of dodging any and all charges thrown at him. His tendrils extend to the highest levels of the Metropolitan Police. And, as soon as Hill gets out of police custody, he intends to make Devlin’s suffering his highest priority.

When the lawyer leaves, Devlin tells the police that he’s ready to talk, but only if he can do so at Scotland Yard. The request is granted and, after a quick discussion with an inspector, Devlin finds himself alone in the interrogation room.

And then, exactly as Devlin had known, Asher enters the room.

***

Through all the madness and the mayhem, Devlin and Asher have found themselves face-to-face several times. Via Skype in Ukraine, just before a hired sniper perforated the trailer by the docks; in the warehouse outside of London, after Devlin had been drugged and kidnapped; at the Green Light Gala, where they’d fenced with words and wit, immersed within the most elite criminals in Europe; and, most recently, in an abandoned subway station, where Asher had threatened the life of Devlin’s oldest friend. But it is only here, seated across from each other in the heart of the London police system, that Devlin O’Brien and Asher Knight finally have the opportunity to talk.

After an opening salvo between the two men, the conversation turns deathly serious when Devlin finally asks Asher why, of all things, the genius mastermind blames his friend and former partner for the abuse suffered at the hands of the Magi. Without an audience to bluster for, caught off guard by the blunt simplicity of the question, Asher finally admits the truth. He doesn’t blame Devlin for the mistakes that led to his capture and torture; he is, however, jealous of how quickly Devlin and Sarah met, fell in love, and married each other. In his mind, it seems, Devlin replaced his friend without a second thought and that, more than anything else, pushed Asher into his vengeful vendetta.

In exchange for an honest answer, Asher asks Devlin how, exactly, he managed to remove the Book from Hill’s estate, directly under the man’s nose. Devlin plays coy, only dropping the scantest hints, and Asher guesses at the rest on his own. With the anarchy at the estate – stolen cars, fistfights between trained mercenaries, the arrival of the armed wing of the police – every eye was squarely on Devlin and his known team of associates. Therefore, it was child’s play for Alex to slip in, disguised as one of the guards. Alex’s connections among all walks of life put him contact with Coleman and, through the butler, he discovered the truth about the police’s inside man and about Hill’s ultimate plan. During the comms blackout, Alex had met and warned Devlin. Together, they had formed a last ditch plan and, by necessity, kept it entirely off of comms until such time as Sarah was able to circumvent Hill’s techniques. While Hill faced down Devlin, Alex had been free to leave the building with the real prize.

In awe of how effective this simple act of misdirection was, and temporarily less guarded than normal, Asher lets slip a nugget of information that turns Devlin’s blood cold: years ago, when the Magi felt comfortable allowing their newest plaything a bit of free rein, Asher used his first hit squad in an attempt to kill Sarah. Instead of accomplishing that goal, however, that squad was responsible for the death of Alex’s wife, Johannah.

Even when confronted by a furious Devlin, Asher shows no remorse for his actions. The failure of the squad to kill Sarah, he says, only motivated him to become more creative in his twisted pursuit of ‘justice.’

Stunned by the cavalier attitude of the man he once considered a friend, Devlin can just barely find the words to point out that Asher has admitted to a capital crime while inside of a police station. Asher shows no concern at this. He informs Devlin that, during the theft of the Book, Asher pulled off his own coup: every bit of blackmail and leverage that Hill had amassed during his time as London’s premier crime lord changed owners. With those secrets safely in his pocket, Asher knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that no London police officer would dare arrest him.

Devlin, despite the rage pumping in his vein, allows himself a thin smile and unveils his last trick. Where the London police would falter to arrest someone with so many connections, Interpol would not. Almost as if summoned, Agent Neetipal Adlai enters the room, having listened to the entire conversation with his own ears and immediately arrests Asher for murder in the first degree.

In an eerie echo of the tense conversation that preceded it, Devlin and Adlai end up on opposite sides of the interrogation table once more. This time, however, Adlai surprises the intrepid thief. According to Coleman, their man on the inside of Hill’s operation, Devlin’s assistance was instrumental in bringing down the drug lord. What’s more, there has been no official report of anything having been stolen. As far as the police are concerned, Devlin isn’t guilty of a single crime with regards to the events at Hill’s estate.

“You are a criminal,” Adlai tells his enemy, rival, unexpected comrade-in-arms, “but you are not the bad guy today.”

With those words, Adlai leaves Devlin alone in the interrogation room to consider how dramatically things are changing. Then, with no one stopping him anymore, he leaves the police station as well. There is still one final piece of business that demands his attention.

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Chapter 129 (Avis)

Everything that Avis knew about fighting, she had learned from books and books about combat hadn’t ever been something that she’d found herself interested in.  Like most things, her ability to recall details was directly dependent on how important she viewed the information.  Names were, for the most part, unimportant and she lost track of those easily.  Dates went even faster.  The few things she’d read or watched with fights had bored her, so she’d made absolutely no effort to retain that information.  Watching the fight unfolding before her now, however, digging into her prodigious memory for every scrap of knowledge about fights she’d ever accidentally gleaned, she found herself hoping.

The fight wasn’t going well for the woman.  Her broken arm varied between a hindrance and an asset. At times, the woman used her cast to block an overhead blow or a wild hook.  When she managed to get the plaster up in time, the man jerked his fists and feet back, howling in pain.  At about the same frequency, though, the man would leave an apparent opening, but the woman couldn’t get the cast in motion quickly enough to take advantage of the opportunity.  When that happened, the man laughed and showed all of his teeth in an entirely too-wide grin before leaping back on the attack.

The man was strange, too.  Stranger than most people were, at any rate; Avis had no idea what constituted normalcy for mercenaries.  What she did know was that she’d seen two versions of the tattooed man.  There had been the calm, controlled force of nature who had pursued her after her escape from the manor house, giving orders and appearing undisturbed by the arrival of Devlin, Sarah, and the team of misfits they’d assembled to kidnap Avis away from her “protector.”  That man had radiated threat like body heat.  Waves of menace came off of his exposed skin, from the very tattoos themselves, in such density that Avis fancied she could actually see them.

That man was different from the animal that fought against the woman now.  Where he had once held himself in a sort of rigid, inhuman control, he was now wild and furious.  He gave up as many openings as he took advantage of, allowed himself to tank as many punches as he threw, and missed about as often as he actually connected.  But, to Avis’ eyes, it just didn’t matter.  He kept coming, snarling and actually foaming at the mouth, wading through the woman’s rain of blows and getting closer with every passing second.

Fear filled Avis.  It wasn’t a completely unknown emotion, but it had grown unfamiliar over the years.  Carefully, moving slowly enough that Neal could come with her, she began to shuffle away from the fight.  Neither combatant seemed to notice her retreat; for both the man and the woman, there didn’t appear to be anyone else in the world.

“They aren’t paying attention to us,” Avis said to Neal.  She kept her voice low on instinct, even though she suspected that yelling the words wouldn’t have drawn the attention of either fighter.  “We can get away while they’re fighting.”

Neal coughed.  Avis was positioned in such a way that she could hear the dangerous rattling sound in his chest as he spat out a mouthful of dark, nearly black blood.  He swallowed another glob of blood before speaking.  “Where?  How?”

“I don’t know where,” Avis admitted, even though the admission frightened her nearly as much as the possibility of capture and her own eventual death.  “But we can’t stay here.”

“Find us,” Neal rasped out.  “He’ll find us.”

Neal didn’t need to clarify who he was.  Either he was referring to Hill, who had employed both of them until their flight from the manor house, or he was talking about the tattooed man, in either of his personalities.  Regardless of who Neal meant, the outcome would be the same.

Avis had a sudden intuition.  She’d had those before and she typically ignored them.  Intuition wasn’t predictable or orderly or neat.  Sometimes it was right and, just as often, it could be woefully wrong.

An instant later, she realized that she couldn’t very well trust her grasp of facts, either.  She had known, for instance, that Hill needed her services if he wanted to remain in control of the documents she encrypted and that he would never do anything that might endanger their tenuous “relationship.”  And yet, he had fully intended to use her services – had tortured and threatened her friend, in fact, as a means of motivation – with the stated goal of discarding her as soon as she finished with the task.

She went against her natural inclinations and trusted her intuition.  “You can’t help her fight,” she said.

Neal’s body stiffened and she knew she’d guessed correctly.  “They…saved me,” he said in halting gasps.  “Saved you.  Can’t…let her fight…alone.”

“She’s going to lose,” Avis said insistently.  As she spoke the words, a sound like cracking branches filled the air.  She looked over and saw that the man was swinging a handgun like a club, battering mercilessly at the woman’s upraised arm.  She was down on one knee now, teeth grimaced in pain as she attempted to withstand the brutal assault.  The cast protecting her head was beginning to splinter under the repeated blows.  Just when Avis thought that the next strike might be the one to split the cast asunder, the woman rolled out of the way at the last possible second and swept out one leg.  Her intention must have been to trip up the man, but he saw the attack coming and stepped out of the way.  The woman took advantage of the temporary respite and scrambled to her feet, pressing her own attack before the man had his feet fully underneath him again.

Neal struggled to detach himself from Avis.  She noticed the instant that his bulk began to lighten against her shoulders and her legs started to strain a little less.  “You can’t,” Avis insisted.

“But I – “

You can’t,” Avis repeated, trying to sound authoritative and coming off as plaintive to her own ears.

She looked longingly in the direction of the distant front gate.  No matter the stakes, Avis wasn’t an idiot.  The math was stark and undeniable: there was simply no way for a girl her size to carry a man of Neal’s weight across the intervening distance with anything resembling speed.  If the tattooed man won, and it was looking increasingly as though that was a foregone conclusion, he would have plenty of time to chase them down and drag both Avis and Neal back to the estate.  Running now would only ensure that, when he captured them, Avis would be too tired to mount any sort of defense.

Avis eased Neal to the ground, propping him against the outer wall of the estate’s mansion and started to look around for other ways to escape.  She did not share his feeling of responsibility or debt to the thieves who had “saved” her.  They needed to use her skills, just as Hill did; their only saving grace was how refreshingly upfront Devlin and Sarah had been about their intentions.

No…Avis shook her head slowly.  No, that wasn’t right.  While they did need her to decrypt the files they’d managed to steal from the manor house, neither Devlin or Sarah had given off the same ruthless vibe that she’d felt from Hill or the malevolence that she felt from the tattooed man.

Intuition again, then.  Another unquantifiable feeling that had no basis in observable fact, no roots in any sort of cause and effect relationship that she could name.  Her short time around the thieves and Neal must have rubbed off on her.

She watched the fight unfold while she thought.  The short woman continued to attack, switching from jabs to kicks and back again, trying her best to take full advantage of her temporary advantage.  In any other fight, Avis suspected that the ferocity of the woman’s attacks would be enough to turn the tide.  In this contest, however, the tattooed man fought like a man possessed.  When the woman’s foot connected with the outside of the man’s knee, he grunted and twisted his weight to absorb the impact.  Then, moving with the speed of a snake, both of his hands darted down in a blur of motion and grasped at her foot.  The woman pulled the limb back before the tattooed man could grab hold, but the motion robbed her of balance.  She toppled backwards and the cast smashed against a protruding root.  It cracked even further, so that Avis could actually see through a wide split in the plaster.  The woman bit back her scream of pain, rolled with her momentum, and sprang back to her feet just in time to lean away from another of the man’s wild haymakers.

“You can’t win this,” the tattooed man howled, premature triumph dripping from his now-rough voice.  “Everything you know I taught you, Thorn!  Every trick, every technique, every little move you could think about trying…I put all of those thoughts there!”

A chill went down Avis’ spine.  She’d been listening to the conversation between the woman and the tattooed man and she thought she’d managed to piece together some of their past, although nowhere near enough that she would have hazarded any sort of guesses.  The idea that the woman was fighting a losing battle against her own mentor, however, was obvious enough that it didn’t require any further explanation.

Neal laid a weak hand on Avis’ shoulder and shook her.  “You…you can…get…”  A series of wet coughs interrupted him and he folded in on himself, groaning as he slid lower.

Avis understood what he meant.  In his condition, Neal would slow her down.  If she tried to save him, she would only end up dooming both of them.  But she was small, fast, and motivated.  With all of the commotion happening inside the estate, courtesy of Devlin and his team, it was possible that she might be able to slip through the weakened guard at the front gate without arousing too much suspicion.

In fact, as she thought more, she knew that she could do it.  She knew more about Hill’s complement of hired guns than anyone, Hill included.  He scrimped on finances whenever possible and, if the documents she’d only recently finished decrypting for Devlin and company, he’d used too many of his men on the distraction with the cars moving around London proper.  She could get away, but…but that would require leaving Neal in her wake.

She looked at Neal where he lay, beaten and bloodied.  The only reason Hill hadn’t killed him out of hand before was so that he could be used as leverage.  If she got away, there wouldn’t be any logical reason not to shoot him and be done with it.  Avis would probably be able to slip away into obscurity, using her talents as necessary to secure some sort of lifestyle for herself, but that life would be stained by the knowledge that she’d let someone – several someones, she forced herself to admit – to die in her place.

Avis asked herself if she could do it.  She’d left people in the past, usually before they had a chance to do the same to her.  Neal was…different.  He had sought out a friendship with her in the early days of her time at the manor house, when she’d still been mostly feral from her time on the streets.  And he had stuck by her through those days, until she’d warmed slightly to his constant, irritating presence and his incessant need to explain away her tantrums and outbursts.  When Devlin had come to the manor house, pretending to be the very real agents who had shown up after him, Neal had gone far beyond the bounds of duty and friendship by trying to actually sneak her out of the manor house, despite knowing that capture would make the simple attempt tantamount to a death sentence.

He had stuck by her.  Avis didn’t know that she’d be capable of leaving him, even at his own insistence; if she found the will to do that, she knew that she would never truly be able to look at herself in the mirror again.

And then there was the matter of Devlin, Sarah, and their team.  Avis was trying not to think about them, but they worked their way into her head, nonetheless.  They had kidnapped her because they needed her…except, no, that wasn’t quite right.  They had, in fact, intentionally sabotaged their own plan in order to rescue her.  If not for the accidental reveal of Sarah’s tablet, they would never have known that Avis was the key to their decryption problem.

More than that, they were here, in the flesh.  What possible reason did they have for coming here, now?  She’d finished decrypting most of the information that they’d managed to steal from the manor house.  Neal wasn’t of any use to them.  Yet Devlin had still shown up, sneaking into Hill’s estate despite the general state of lockdown, and had actually tasked his personal bodyguard to keep both of them safe.  The same bodyguard that, even now, was limping away from the tattooed man leering over her.

“Don’t worry, Thorn,” the tattooed man said.  “I’m not going to hurt you.  Nothing that you can’t heal from, at least.  You’ll have to be in fighting condition if you want to make sure that the others will accept you back.”

His personality had changed again.  The shift must have happened while Avis had been considering her options.  Now, there was no remnant of uncontrolled, animal fury in the tattooed man’s face.  He looked calm and composed.  His heavy breathing and the slight limp on his left side were the only indications that he’d been in a fight at all.

There was fear in the short woman’s eyes, blind and unreasoning.  The emotion pierced through Avis’ indecision and reached straight to the very core of her being, where that same fear had hidden since her earliest memories.  Avis saw a glint of something familiar in the woman’s eyes, mingled with an unformed thought that tickled at the back of her thoughts.

The woman closed her eyes and grit her teeth.  The tattooed man stepped closer, bearing his teeth in a fierce, angry grimace.  The woman’s eyes snapped open and she lashed out with another sweeping kick, aimed high at the man’s right knee.  Avis was looking directly at the two of them and she could barely track the speed of the attack.  The tattooed man had no such problem.  He lifted his entire leg up off the ground, displaying an insane level of flexibility for someone who had previously claimed illness, and moved to bring the heel of his foot down on the woman’s head.

The woman completed the sweep and, pivoting with the force of the attack, continued in a full rotation and came up off of the ground.  She extended her broken arm at just the right moment – Avis didn’t know very much about ballistics or physics, but she understood the simple equation of ‘mass times acceleration’ – and the cast on her arm smashed into the side of the tattooed man’s head with literally bone shattering force.  The cast exploded into chips and shards of plaster with the force of impact.

Both the tattooed man and the woman roared in pain, but it was the tattooed man who went down.  The woman threw her head back and let out a scream of triumph or agony.  Avis wasn’t sure which.  The woman limped a step or two away, as her uninjured hand went behind her back and, a moment later, came back into sight holding a small handgun.  Standing over the tattooed man, the woman pointed the gun directly at his head.  “You taught me everything you know,” she said.  “I learned a few things on my own.”

He looked up at her from the ground and smiled with a mouthful of bloody teeth.  “That’s what I wanted to see,” he said.  Avis blinked in confusion.  The tattooed man shouldn’t be able to speak and he certainly shouldn’t’ have the look of self-satisfaction on his face.  “A return to form, instead of all this half-assed protection nonsense.  So, what are you going to do now, Thorn?”

The woman’s hand quivered slightly.  She said nothing.

“You’ve only got two options,” the tattooed man said.  Holding one hand to the shattered ruin of his cheek bone, he forced himself to his feet.  He made no move to rush the woman and she kept her gun pointed, more or less, at his face.  “Either you kill me, a defeated and dying man, and prove that you’re the same killer I made you into.  Or you let me go and I make it my mission to hunt down everyone you use to lie to yourself.  One way or another, you will understand who you really are, Thorn.  It’s up to you how many people have to die before that happens.”

The woman’s glare intensified but, aside from that, she didn’t move a muscle.

“Still so indecisive,” the man taunted.  “Why I don’t make the decision a little easier for you?”

Several things happened so quickly and so close to each other that, to Avis, it seemed like everything happened in the same eye blink.  A sound, distant but rapidly drawing nearer, reached her ears, carried by a soft breeze.  The tattooed man moved with a speed that seemed impossible, considering the injury he’d just suffered, pivoting and reaching for some hidden weapon that Avis couldn’t see.  The woman’s gun tracked the movement and her index finger twitched infinitesimally closer to the trigger.  Neal sucked in a sharp breath.

Avis knew what was going to happen.  She could see it as clearly in her mind as if it were unfolding in real time in front of her.  The tattooed man wouldn’t shoot the woman; he wanted her alive for some reason.  In his mind, his targets were and always had been Avis and Neal.  If the two of them were dead, the tattooed man believed that the woman would see things his way.  To that end, he was willing to sacrifice his own life.  He was certainly willing to kill two obstacles, which Avis and Neal most assuredly qualified as.

Avis’ intuition mixed with that nascent idea in the back of her mind and she was in motion before she realized it.  Neal made a strangled cry behind her.  She pushed it out of her mind and focused.  The tattooed man turned his gaze away from Neal and focused on Avis instead.  The gun in his hand followed suit.  Avis was coming in low, using her childlike height as an advantage for the first time, and poured on as much speed as she possibly could.  It was going to be close, her instincts told her, even though she wasn’t quite sure what would happen if she were wrong.  About a foot away from the two, she leapt, turning her body into a spear and…

She crashed into the woman, just below her ribs.  Avis didn’t weigh enough to actually move her, but the surprise of her action coupled with the simple expedient of momentum was enough that the woman was forced to stumble back several steps.  The tattooed man stopped himself from squeezing the trigger, when he realized that doing so stood the possibility of harming the woman.

The tattooed man sucked at his teeth.  “Do you see now, Thorn?  These sheep will always protect themselves first, even if it means sacrificing the weak and wounded for a few more seconds of – “

The black Suzuki careening across the greens, roaring as loudly as its relatively small engine could manage, interrupted the tattooed man before he could finish that thought.

Avis hadn’t consciously done the math, but her subconscious had recognized the sound and calculated the Doppler effect as closely as such a thing could be done.  The timing of her tackle had pushed the woman out of the car’s path by scant inches.  The Suzuki headed straight for the tattooed man who, as soon as he realized that he was square in the vehicle’s path, attempted to jump away.  As soon as he was airborne and incapable of further dodges, the driver of the Suzuki whipped the car into a fishtail.  At that speed, the earlier equation of mass times acceleration now yielded considerably higher forces.  The rear of the car connected squarely with the tattooed man’s torso and sent him flying back into the estate.

Instead of hitting one of the walls – an impact that would almost certainly have killed him – the tattooed man flew into and through one of the large plate windows on the first floor of the estate.  Avis waited with baited breath as the car smoked and coughed for the man to return.  After a few seconds, she allowed herself to breath.  Whatever he was, the tattooed man did have limits.

The woman looked down at Avis, up to the Suzuki, down at Avis again, and then finally let her eyes rest on the car.  “What?  How?”  She asked.  “Who?”

Avis didn’t have answers to any of those questions, but the third was answered a moment later.  The driver’s side door of the Suzuki swung open and a dark skinned man flashed a set of perfect, straight white teeth at them.  The expression didn’t conceal the fear and anxiety on his brow; if anything, it was accentuated by the emotions he was so clearly trying to hide.

“Sarah left the comms open,” the dark skinned driver said, as if that explained anything.  “Did, uh…did anyone need a ride?”

Chapter 127 (Emilia)

The chill in the air was no match for the frigid shards of ice that filled Mila’s veins, as she tried to meet Aiden’s steady gaze.  Behind her, the girl Avis and her companion Neal took refuge in her slight shadow.  Mila doubted that would matter.  If Aiden was here, in front of her, then his men weren’t far behind.  It wouldn’t be long until they were completely surrounded, hemmed in on all sides by Hill’s hired hands and the better trained, more psychopathic mercenaries that Aiden had trained.  When that happened, none of them would be safe, no matter where they happened to be hiding.

Their best bet – their only bet, in fact, when it came to survival – was to rush him before he had a chance to get his feet under him.  Avis wouldn’t be able to do much, of course, but Neal had been hired by hill at some point.  He’d served in the military.  He probably didn’t possess the training necessary to take Aiden in a straight fight, but he might serve as an adequate distraction if Mila could convince him to take the lead.  Best case scenario, the two of them could overwhelm Aiden and beat him down before he was able to start firing shots and dropping bodies.

Worst case, Neal might die.

Mila didn’t feel any particular way about that possible outcome.  She’d been hired to protect Devlin, not her two current charges.  The fact that she was nowhere near her primary goal was a significant deviation from the norm, already.  Saving someone else’s life, instead of Devlin or Sarah, was unthinkable.

If Neal died, Mila could imagine that Devlin and Sarah would be angry.  But, eventually, they would have to realize that she had made the only logical choice in the situation.  Neal was an accessory to one of their true goals.  The pair of thieves needed Avis, if they were ever going to decode the contents of the Book.  Devlin, specifically, needed Mila if he held even the slightest hope of survival.  Neal was…extraneous.  Sacrificing him wouldn’t derail too many plans.  It was even possible that the death of her caretaker would provide Avis with the impetus to destroy Hill, as his men would have been technically responsible for the murder.

Or, maybe not.  Maybe Avis would blame Mila and, by extension, Sarah and Devlin for the death of her only friend.  Maybe she would throw her lot back in with Hill.  Maybe she would decide to go rogue, using her talents in service of the highest bidder.  Her employer might be able to do something, if that became the case.  She certainly had enough money to recklessly throw around.

Emotions, and the confusing interplay between them, weren’t her strong point.  Her entire life had been constructed on the belief that cold logic – the hard, undeniable math of life – was easier to grasp and understand, as opposed to the shifting allegiances and loyalties that amounted to regular relationships with other humans.  Animals were easier; cats were best.  These were beings whose loyalties were perfectly clear and entirely predictable.  If fed, Sam would be loyal and lovable.  If not, he would turn angry and lash out.  There weren’t any additional layers of double-speak or obfuscation to sift through.

Whatever the possible ramifications, Mila knew that she had to move, now, before things could get any worse.  Yet, she couldn’t seem to will her muscles into action.  There was a large caliber gun hidden in a holster at the small of her back, but her hand simply refused to move in that direction.  Another handgun, smaller than the one at her back, was concealed inside of an ankle holster.  Mila found that she couldn’t make herself reach for that one either.  Even the spring-loaded Derringer in her sleeve – the one that only required a single expert flick of her wrist to summon – was beyond her ability.  She was armed to the teeth, practically bristling with weaponry, and she couldn’t bring herself to use so much as a switchblade in her own defense.

Instead, she stared everywhere, except at Aiden.  Her mentor – former mentor, she corrected aggressively – looked at her with cold, flat eyes.  His expression betrayed no emotion, no weakness, and it was too chilling for Mila to bear, even if only in passing.  She kept her eyes flickering from left to right, preparing herself mentally for the inevitable arrival of Aiden’s hirelings.

“Are you just going to stand there?”  Mila projected confidence, despite the fact that she was only barely keeping herself from trembling in terror.  “Did you want to do something, or are you just going to look threatening?”

Thorn,” Aiden replied in a seductive whisper.  The sound of his voice strummed a note on strings in her soul that Mila herself had forgotten about.  She shivered in response to the sensation before she could help herself.  “Oh, it is good to see you again.”

Mila wanted to say something clever and devastating in response to that.  Her time around Devlin and Sarah had been short, as protection assignments went, but they’d managed to infect her with the desire for banter.  Academically, she knew that the right insult at the right time might be enough to shake Aiden out of his comfort zone.  If he were out of his comfort zone, he might make a mistake.  Then, she could gain the upper hand and handle him before things got too far out of her control.

Nothing clever or devastating came to mind.  She simply glared at him, instead.

“You have done an amazing job proving your point,” Aiden continued, in that same enticing half-whisper.  “And I’ve learned my lesson, trust me.  You are nothing like the others, Thorn.  I know that know.  That’s why I’ve spent so much time trying to find you.”

“Why?” Mila’s lips moved and her lungs provided the oxygen for the question, even though she’d never given them the conscious order to do either thing.  “Why try so hard to find me?  You could just replace me with the next broken girl, couldn’t you?”

“Replace you?”  Aiden threw back his head and laughed.  “You think I’ve spent this much time and money for my own health?  You think there’s anyone in the world that could possibly replace you?”

Mila knew the man well enough to realize when he was building up to something.  She watched him and, at the same time, allowed her awareness to skip across her surroundings.  She couldn’t forget that Carlos and Mikhail were out there somewhere and, if nothing else, Carlos would have a vested interest in seeing her suffer.  Their working relationship had been fraught with tension at the best of times.  She doubted that his disposition would have changed after she’d humiliated him at the processing plant.

Aiden’s left arm jerked violently up and out.  The sudden movement caught Mila, Avis, and Neal off guard.  The little girl and her guardian cowered back, closer to the house, and Mila’s uninjured hand darted back to the handgun at the small of her back without a moment’s hesitation.  She bent her knees slightly, ready to leap either to the left or the right, depending on what Aiden’s next move was.

He made no additional move.  Instead, he gave her a mildly rueful look, rolled his shoulder, and shook his head.  “I’d hoped to keep that from you until later.”

“What’s wrong?”  Mila asked the question automatically.  As soon as the words passed her lips, she regretted them.  The lingering vestige of concern was as surprising as it was disheartening.

“A degenerative illness,” Aiden said.  He reached one hand into his pocket and removed a fistful of pills, which he dry-swallowed.  “Mikhail knows the technical name.  All I know is that it’s killing me.  Faster, lately.”  He gave her a little smile.  “That’s probably got something to do with all the exertion.”

“You’re dying,” Mila repeated, dumbly.

It didn’t seem real.  The idea that Aiden, who had been such an integral part of her formative years…Aiden, who had trained and guided her until she’d been able to harness the darkness inside of her…Aiden, who had filled the last few years of her life with terror and unreasoning apprehension…he was dying.

Of course, she’d known that he was taking medication.  She had even managed to find out the name of those pills and the likely diagnoses.  But to hear the words from his own lips, spoken so casually, was a different thing entirely.  It meant an end to the stalking, the constant fear of what lay around the next corner.

It meant the loss of yet another link to her past, her identity.

Mila’s mouth continued to work, operating on its own initiative.  “What do you want from me, then?  Shouldn’t you be convalescing somewhere, trying to get better?”

“This isn’t the kind of thing I’m going to get better from,” Aiden said.  He took a half step closer and Mila, without thinking, took a half step back.  He betrayed no offense at the movement, except for a tiny shrug with one shoulder.  “But you have to know what I want from you.”

A shiver went through her body that had nothing to do with fear.  “I’m not…”  She stopped, swallowed, started again.  “I’m not going back with you.  Not this time.”

“Isn’t that you said last time, Thorn?”  Mila sensed a movement from either Avis or Neal.  Aiden’s eyebrows went up a millimeter.  “You didn’t tell your new charges yet, did you?”

As much as Mila wanted to say something, anything, to stop him from continuing, she couldn’t seem to form coherent thoughts.  She stood, still as a gargoyle, and failed to meet Aiden’s prying gaze.

“This isn’t the first time she’s gone rogue,” Aiden continued, directing his words to the little girl and the wounded man behind Mila.  “Although it is the longest she’s ever been away.  I’d be angry about that, but I’ve got some bigger issues to deal with, at the moment.”

His body shook slightly.  One eye winked half shut and her lowered his head for a second, pressing one thumb into his temple as he did so.  Mila knew that she should use the momentary weakness to attack, or to flee, but she remained rooted to the spot.

Aiden recovered but, when he spoke, there was a roughness to his voice that hadn’t been there before.  “It doesn’t matter.  I’ve found you again, so it’s time to give up on this whole charade.  This isn’t who you are, Thorn, and we both know it.  Why don’t you just come back and – “

“No!” Mila screamed.  The word ripped out of her throat with painful force.  She staggered back another step or two, bumping into the smaller Avis as she did so.  “No, Aiden!  I’m not coming back with you!  I won’t be one of your lackies again!”

Aiden blinked twice, very deliberately.  “Is that what you think?  That because I couldn’t replace you, I want you to come work for me again?”  He laughed.  The seductive timbre was gone, replaced by a raspy sound, like shards of glass on broken gravel.  “Thorn, Thorn, Thorn.  You really don’t understand, do you?”

“What,” Mila asked again, in a bare hint of a whisper, “do you want from me?”

“I want you to replace me,” Aiden said.  “Who else would I trust to take over for me after this thing finishes with me?”

Mila’s bottom jaw dropped open.  She heard a sharp intake of breath from the two people behind her, but she couldn’t seem to care about their presence.  She knew, with her conscious mind, that this had to be nothing more than another one of Aiden’s twisted games.  It wasn’t the first one he’d played to get her back under his thumb, but it was the most original she’d encountered.  An offer to take over his mercenary crew after his death?  She couldn’t imagine the collective of hired guns working for anyone except for Aiden himself.

However…she couldn’t deny the possibilities inherent in the proposition.  She hadn’t left because the work itself had bothered her.  She’d left because she feared the person she became when Aiden was in a position to pull on her strings.  With him gone, and her as his designated replacement, she could expect some rebellion from the likes of Carlos.  That wouldn’t be a problem.  Mikhail was an unknown factor, but she supposed that he’d only been hired for his pharmaceutical skills.  So long as Mila took over possession of the finances, he would most likely stay.  Even if he didn’t, she’d built up a fearsome reputation of her own over the years.  It wouldn’t be difficult to assemble a pool of talent to handpick her own squad from.

Aiden was talking.  The new, sandpaper quality to his voice did nothing to detract from the pull it exerted on her secret yearnings and fears.  “You know it’s what you’ve always wanted,” he said.  “A chance to do things your way, instead of just following orders.  You can pick your own team, choose your own jobs.  I’ll let everyone know that you, Thorn, are my chosen successor.  You won’t be able to deal with all the offers that come your way.”

It was as though he could read her mind.  She risked a moment of eye contact and instantly wished that she hadn’t.  His gaze practically bore into hers.

“This way,” he continued, “you’ll be free to do whatever you want, whenever you want to.  No more pretending that you’re this protecting angel, swooping down to save the rich and indolent from the deaths they’ve got coming.  You can be an avenging angel, if that’s what your heart really wants.  I know you don’t have any love for the people who hired us.  I know you don’t spend your life waiting for the score.  Thorn, I know what you really want.”

He did.  Mila couldn’t find it in herself to deny that.  Aiden knew her better than anyone alive ever would.  It wasn’t that their relationship had ever progressed into anything sexual – Mila personally disdained that particular interaction and, while Aiden engaged in recreation with a few people in more than a few ports of call, he’d never made an advance – but that their relationship was mental.  It was emotional.  If she’d been religious, Mila would have called it spiritual.

She couldn’t lie to him.  She’d never really been able to fool him, except when he’d wanted to be fooled.  That had to be why he’d let her leave so many times; Aiden had known, beyond a shadow of that, that she’d come back, every time.  Not because she had run out of money or resources, but because she would want to come back.

“I’m not going to leave them,” Mila croaked out.  “I won’t let you have them.”

Aiden threw back his head and roared with laughter once more.  “I couldn’t care less about your projects,” he said.  “I won’t kill them, but I won’t protect them, either.  If they’re too weak to survive on their own, then they deserve whatever comes their way.”

Time seemed to stretch out into infinity while Mila considered that offer.  She might be able to draw Aiden away this way.  Perhaps she could bluff him into retreating and make her escape another way.  She could still use Aiden’s men to protect Devlin and his crew from afar, once the man finally succumbed to his sickness.  It wasn’t ideal, but…

Mila cut the line of thought short with a brutal shake of her head.  There wasn’t any point lying to herself.  She knew the truth, just as well as Aiden did: if she went with him now, she’d never really come back.  Not as she was, no.  Emilia would die here.

“I’ve got to admit,” Aiden said, “that I don’t even know what you see in them.  These meek lambs, cringing away from real power and bleating the whole way to slaughter.  These people could never understand anyone like us.”  Mila realized that he’d closed the distance between them, without her noticing, and now he reached out and brushed the back of his hand against her cheek.  “They could never love you.  Not like I do.”

She longed for more of his touch, his approval.  Her knees buckled slightly and a soft sound of pleasure passed her lips.  Her foot lifted from the ground of its own accord and she started to take a single, fatal step forward.

Then his words sunk in.  She looked up and saw the same hunger that growled in her belly reflected in Aiden’s eyes.  For the first time, she looked at that naked desire and didn’t recognize it.

Mila stepped back and slapped Aiden’s hand away.  “No, Aiden.  Not like you.  Never like you.  Not again.”  She extended both arms, the broken and the unbroken, so that her body shielded the two people hiding behind her.  “You don’t love me, Aiden.  You never did.  You love you, and the part of you that you see in me.  But…but I’m not you, Aiden.  I never was and I never will be.”

The change that came over Aiden’s face happened in a heartbeat and it was no less horrifying for its swiftness.  Every line of his face shifted and contorted in an expression of absolute, baleful rage and his fingers curled into claws.  He lashed out at her face and Mila barely managed to lean back, away from the attack.  She shuffled back several more feet, pushing Avis and Neal as she went, until she was almost back inside of the estate.

“You’re a liar!” Aiden said, between tightly gritted teeth.  “You’re just like me, Thorn, no matter what lies you have to tell yourself.  And you will come back with me; either you do it on your own, or you do it unconscious.  If I have to kill your little lambs with my bare hands to prove it, I will and you know it.”

Mila nodded, feeling a strange sense of calm acceptance flooding her body.  “I know.  And I’ll die before I let you.”  She paused.  “And the name’s Emilia.”

Aiden made a guttural noise that sounded painful in the back of his throat.  Spittle appeared at the corners of his mouth.  Mila started to reach for the gun at the small of her back, but it didn’t matter.  Sick or not, Aiden was as fast as he’d ever been.  The first blow caught her, just above her left temple, before she was even able to blink.

Chapter 126 (Sarah)

“Devlin?  Can you hear me, Devlin?”

No reply came through the comms.  I stared at my center screen, where a widget displayed the status of each team member’s earbud.  According to that, Devlin’s earbud should have been active and I couldn’t imagine a situation in which he wouldn’t respond.  Underneath his name, I saw that both Mila and Michel were muted on my end.  I could hear what they said, but they weren’t able to listen to anything I talked about with Devlin.

More than that, however, the miniature camera on Devlin’s lapel had gone dark.

I decided to check that system, just to make sure that the problem wasn’t purely software based.  “Mila, are you there?”

Nothing.

“Michel?  Michel, can you tell me what you see right now?”

Again, no response.

I shook my head, as if that action might fix whatever problem was keeping me from communicating with Devlin.  Then, I ran through a basic checklist of troubleshooting techniques.  I didn’t get into anything incredibly technical.  There wasn’t time for anything like that.  But the basic tricks were easy to perform and I was able to think about possible issues while I restarted the relevant programs; unplugged the relevant dongle for several seconds, then reinserted it into the appropriate slot; and, ultimately, power cycled the entire system running on the center screen.

Devlin had the Book.  I’d heard that much.  Against all odds, he’d managed to break into Hill’s safe and, in one move, finally managed to acquire the object that had caused us so much trouble in the last two or three weeks.  A fierce wave of pride swept through me at that thought.  He had done it.  He had done it.  The company that manufactured the Fortress was, by and large, viewed as the worst thing to happen to professional safecrackers since someone had invented false contact points.  But Devlin – my Devlin – had managed to break into their top of the line product, with no practice and precious little information, after two and a half years spent out of the game.  It was enough to draw a wide smile out of me.

That smile turned brittle and fell away when I finished my checklist and checked the comms again.  “Devlin?  Say something if you can hear me.  I’m starting to get worried here.”

Silence.

The invisible hairs on my arm rose slowly, reaching up to the roof of the van, as a horde of dark thoughts began to parade through my mind.  What if he’d been captured?  What if Hill had been a step ahead of us, after all?  It wouldn’t take much to catch him off guard.  Whenever Devlin allowed himself to fall into the task of safecracking, his peripheral senses dwindled away to nothing.  An elephant would be able to sneak up on him, if there was a puzzle of sufficient complexity consuming his attention.  And, if someone got the drop on him, there wouldn’t be much of a fight.  He excelled at improvisation, evasion, and obfuscation; direct conflict, however, was a glaring hole in his skillset.

In a fit of irrational, self-sacrificing, foolishly noble idealism, Devlin had sent his bodyguard away to protect Avis and her handler.  That was exactly the sort of idiocy that had drawn me to him in the first place and, at the moment, I found myself terrified that he would be killed by that same nobility.

With a conscious effort, I forced my fear back down and commanded myself to think.  There were a lot of reasons why Devlin might not be answering.  If, for instance, someone had entered the room, then Devlin might be hiding.  If that were the case, he couldn’t exactly risk speaking aloud.  Someone could hear him, after all.

But if that were the situation, then he was still alone in a room with a potentially armed guard.  He might come out on top of a conflict, if he attacked first and furiously, but the possibility that he might not win was too large to ignore.

I repeated his name into my earbud several times, only to receive the same deafening silence in reply every time.  Whatever the reason, he either couldn’t hear me or he couldn’t respond.  Ultimately, the cause for his silence didn’t matter.  What was important was that I find a way to get back into contact with him, as soon as possible.  Devlin was good in a pinch, but he wasn’t perfect.  He was as prone to making the wrong snap decision as anyone else, perhaps more so.

I activated Michel’s earbud and cleared my throat.  “Where are you at right now?”

The Frenchman must have been caught off guard by my voice.  He sputtered into the earbud for a few seconds before pausing, catching his breath, and starting over with more understandable language.  “I am outside of the estate,” he said, “where you told me to remain.  Should I be somewhere else?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose with the index and thumb of my left hand, even as my right hand flew across the keyboard to pull up a view of Michel’s body camera.  “I honestly don’t know,” I admitted.  “There’s a room on the third floor, though.  I was hoping you might be able to look into it and tell me what you see.”

“Where is this room?”

Michel’s cell phone and, therefore, his location was still visible on my screen.  I glanced at that, then the blueprint I’d pulled up of the estate, so that I could figure out where Hill’s bedroom was, relative to where Michel was waiting.  “Directions are incoming.  It’s a very specific room, so it’s important that you know where you’re going.”

A second or two passed before the message traveled from my computer to Michel’s cell phone.  “What am I looking for?”  I didn’t hear an engine turning over, so I allowed myself to assume that Michel knew better than to drive across the grounds while it was on high alert.  His instincts were good; with Asher and Aiden on the scene, every goon’s focus had shifted from the gate to the interior of the estate.  Thus far, it had apparently not occurred to anyone that we might have snuck someone onto the premises under their noses and left him in a relatively inconspicuous position.

“I’ll tell you as soon as you get there,” I said.

Oui, oui,” he replied in a hushed voice.  He didn’t ask any further questions and, if I turned the volume on the comms to the maximum, I could just barely hear his footsteps as he moved through the well-kept grounds.

I appreciated that I didn’t have to guide Michel through the intricacies of an infiltration and that it wasn’t necessary to stress the importance of subtlety, but both of those thoughts were peripheral.  My primary concern – the overwhelming pressure that dominated my mind – was Devlin.  Where was he?  What was happening in Hill’s bedroom?  And, above all else, was he okay?

Academically, I knew that there wasn’t anything I could have done to stop him from attempting the Fortress.  Devlin was his own man, after all.  The challenge of a new model would have been too much for him to ignore on his very best, most altruistic and forward-thinking day.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel like I could have said something – anything – that would have kept him from wasting time on the safe.  If he’d been out of the bedroom, he might have been somewhere safe right now.  He might have been responding.

That train of thought was a non-starter, though.  The history between Devlin and me made it perfectly clear that he would tackle whatever challenges presented themselves to him, even if he knew better.  And I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I would allow him to do so.  Encourage him, even.  I’d done it before, unwittingly, and I’d done it again now.  I hoped that I wouldn’t live to regret that decision.

I sat in the van, isolated from my entire team except through the tiny voices coming through my earbud, while I waited for Michel to reach a vantage point of the bedroom.  Without anything else to do except for wallow in stress and self-doubt, I decided to check in on the other channels.  Chester, James, and Anton were driving in circles around the perimeter of the estate, remaining far enough away that no one was likely to notice them.  In case the situation inside the estate deteriorated into absolute mayhem, the Russians were waiting nearby, as well.  Neither I nor Devlin actually knew their capabilities, but I’d been willing to bet that they would be our best source of muscle in a general sense.

Mila had, of course, been positioned specifically to keep Devlin out of trouble.  That no longer applied.

“I think that I am here,” Michel said.  I jerked in surprise, the Frenchman’s soft voice jolting me out of my thoughts like an electric prod.  “Now, what am I looking for?”

I considered telling him to look for Devlin.  I decided against that, almost as soon as the thought occurred to me.  Devlin’s relationship with Michel had grown quickly in the short time we’d had together.  I wasn’t sure that Michel would be able to look at the situation objectively, if he thought that Devlin might be in some sort of danger.

As I thought my way through that, my fingers began to hurt.  I glanced down and saw, to my surprise, that I was gripping the edge of the desk.  I forced myself to relax, in spurts, until I wasn’t in danger of ripping some of the metal off.

“Just tell me what you see,” I said to Michel.

“It is very far away,” Michel said.  “I cannot see very much.  There is a bed, a dresser…no, two dressers…and a man.”

“A man?”  With great effort, I managed to keep myself from leaping to my feet.  “Just one man?”

Michel was silent for a few seconds that passed like geological eras.  “No,” he said finally.  “There are two men in the room.  A big man and a smaller one.  The big one is holding…something.  I cannot tell what it is, but the small man does not seem to like it.”

I blinked, confused, before the penny dropped.  If the comms weren’t working, then they were being jammed.  If we were being jammed, then Devlin had been caught.  A hole appeared in my stomach and my heart dropped straight it, down to the soles of my feet.  I tried to breathe, to say something to Michel, but the words wouldn’t come.

“Sara?” Michel asked.  “Is everything okay?”

Of course everything wasn’t okay.  Devlin was probably in mortal peril, flanked by one of Hill’s goons – or worse, what if one of Aiden’s men had gotten the drop on him – and I was too far away to help.  All I could do was listen to his words, provide advice, and try my best to clear a path for him, electronically speaking.  The last of those options had been removed by Hill’s air-gapped network, the first item wasn’t an option at the moment, and the second…well, what use for advice would Devlin have when what he really needed was someone on the ground with him?

“No,” I said, managing to find the oxygen and ability to speak the single syllable.  Then, as if that short word had broken some invisible dam inside my chest, “No, everything’s not alright.”

Two men.  Devlin and someone else.  I strained and wrestled my fear down, willing myself to think.  Planning was the only thing I could do, after all.  If there was any possible chance of saving Devlin, it would depend entirely on my ability to use my one gift to its absolute fullest.

He wasn’t dead yet.  That was something.  So long as Devlin was alive, there was still hope.  He might be able to slip away or fabricate a situation where he regained the upper hand.  He’d won fights before, with the element of surprise and a willingness to play dirty.  It wasn’t an impossibility.

At the same time, however, there were too many people inside of the estate with an interest – either personal or professional – in making sure that Devlin did not get the opportunity.  It was only a matter of time before the big man called for backup, or someone else entered the room of their own volition, or Devlin antagonized his opponent just enough that it was easier to simply kill him than to –

I squeezed my eyes shut hard enough that they hurt.  Thoughts like that weren’t helpful.  I needed to be as positive as possible.  What pieces were at my disposal and how could I use them?  I tried to think about the board like Devlin, eschewing any long-term plans in favor of a single, powerful short term goal.

Moving Anton, Chester and James into position was a possibility, but the odds of success were remote.  As soon as they stormed the front gate, every man inside in the estate would go on high alert, shooting first and asking questions never.  Devlin’s survival depended on coaxing his captor into a false sense of security.

In the same vein, I also couldn’t use the Russians.  I knew less about them than I did about Chester and James, both of whom were complete mysteries, aside from the details I’d managed to dig up on a routine search.  Moreover, they undoubtedly had their own game in mind.  I couldn’t risk putting them into play, when there was every possibility that what they wanted might not coincide with what I wanted.

Mila, though…Mila was a possibility.  Devlin had tasked her to get Avis and Neal out of the estate – exactly the type of idiotic, stupidly noble thing he was wont to do – but he’d given that order before the big man had gotten the drop on him.  Surely, he would want his personal bodyguard back in place, now that he was in trouble?

I shook my head.  No, he wouldn’t want Mila to drop her mission.  If it came down to his life or the life of a child, he’d choose the child’s life, without hesitation.  He would probably have chosen to save Neal, who he knew nothing about, rather than ask for Mila to return.  And if he thought that sacrificing himself might possibly keep me even an iota safer, then he’d do that.

I ground my teeth together.  I wanted to hate him for his foolish idealism, I wanted to yell at him for being the only thief in the world clinging to a code of honor, I wanted to beat him about the face and shoulders until he accepted that he wasn’t responsible for everyone who chose to follow him into the lion’s mouth…but I couldn’t do any of those things until he was safe again.

Fine, then.  Devlin could be as mad as he wanted to be, just as soon as he managed to get away from Hill, his goons, Asher, Aiden, and whoever else wanted to kill, capture, or torture him.  I could deal with a little righteous indignation, if it meant that I wouldn’t have to bury him later.

I moved to press two buttons, missed one in my haste, and activated Mila’s line.  At the same time, I checked her phone’s GPS and saw that, somehow, she had managed to make it to the estate’s rear exit.  “What are you doing, right now?  Where are you at?”

Mila responded instantly.  “Trying to avoid these patrols, at the moment, so I don’t really have time to talk.  Is this important?”

“Someone surprised Devlin,” I said.

Several beats of silence followed that sentence. “If I go back,” Mila said finally, “I don’t know how I’m going to get these two out of here.”

“We can worry about that later.  Devlin and I do have a plan of absolute last resort, but I can’t put that into effect if one of Hill’s thugs is in a position to just kill him out of hand.”

More silence.  I heard a sharp intake of breath, the shuffling of feet on stone, and then nothing.

“Mila?  Did you hear me?  I need you to go back and get him away from whoever’s in the room.”

Nothing.

“Mila?  This is serious, okay?  You have a job to do and I’m telling you to go do it.  I’ll give you directions.”

When Mila spoke again, her voice had lost its usual disinterested distance.  Her words were breathy, weaker than normal, and soft enough that I had to strain to hear them.

“I’ve got problems of my own,” she said.  Then, in a louder voice, “What do you want, Aiden?”

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 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.”

“Oh?”

“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.”

“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.”

“Oh?”

“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?”

Chapter Eighty

The first thing I heard was the distinctive hum as several dozen industrial lights switched on at the same time.  A moment after that, a high pitched siren began to warble through the factory.  And a few moments after that, the sound of boots reached us, even behind the protective and muffling steel door.  There were more people than I’d expected in the hallway, however.  I tried, and failed, to keep count; at a conservative estimate, there were at least a dozen guards rushing from various points to respond to the alarm, probably more.

Mila didn’t seem particularly bothered by the uproar but, in fairness, she didn’t seem particularly bothered by anything.  She held her handgun parallel to her thigh, its barrel pointed down, and kept her finger aligned with the side of the weapon.  She was ready for combat, but not actively courting it; I approved of that wary stance, even as I felt a deep unease at the sight of her crouched like some large cat.

“Remind me why this plan is supposed to work?”  Mila asked.  Her voice was pitched so that I could catch the words over the cacophony, but not so loud that anyone outside of the room would hear a thing.  “I thought we were trying to avoid letting Hill know we were here?”

“It’s complicated,” I said, at the same slightly exaggerated volume.

“Doesn’t seem that complicated,” Mila replied.  “Set off a building-wide alarm and kick a hornet’s nest full of armed guards.  Makes perfect sense to me, and I’m just the muscle for hire.”

I shot her a sidelong glance and Mila, without the faintest hint of shame, lapsed back into tense silence.

If she had actually been interested in the answer, I could have explained the process to her.  The alarm and the guards were things Sarah and I had prepared for, and we’d anticipated a certain amount of chaos as soon as the alarm went off.  Without sufficient time to case the establishment and perform the necessary due diligence – discovering guard rotations, identifying possible weak points in the social structure, preparing multiple escape routes – Sarah had elected to repurpose an old plan that had served us well on more than one occasion.

If we couldn’t stop a response to our incursion, and we couldn’t predict how severe that response might be, there was only a single viable option remaining: utter bedlam.  Panic caused people to react in predictable ways and it took an absurd amount of training to override those primal ‘fight or flight’ instincts.  My experience with Hill’s men at the manor house had taught me that, no matter how well funded these goons were, none of them were what I would charitably call ‘well-trained.’  Given an obvious target – provided courtesy of Sarah’s access to their security system – the men stationed inside the factory would rush directly to the problem area, hoping to solve the issue through brute force and a simple numerical advantage.

“Trust me,” I said to Mila.  Then, to Sarah, I added, “Tell me what you see.”

A few seconds passed while Sarah input a series of commands into her computer.  “Most of the guards are headed to secure the southern exit,” she said.  “Just like I thought they would.”

“And the rest?”

“Just a skeleton crew, split into three groups.  A couple guys stayed behind to secure the security room, but they’re in a room across the way.”

“Trying to ambush anyone who makes a move on the actual system,” I commented.  “Not a bad plan.”

“It’d be a better idea if they hadn’t chosen a room with an electronic lock,” Sarah said.

“So you can lock them in?”

“I could turn the heat up and sweat them out of their tactical gear, if I wanted to,” Sarah replied.

“Ah.”  I felt uncomfortable suddenly, but the feeling passed after only a single ridiculous moment.  “What about the other two groups?”

“Moving to secure the priority targets, of course.  I’m tracking targets moving to…looks like Loading Area B, and some are splitting off into the deeper parts of the factory.”

“Well, that lets us know where they’re actually processing the fake plastic at,” I said.  “Connect me to Stani, please and keep an eye on the traffic outside of this room.  I need to move as soon as possible.”

“Check and check,” Sarah said.

I waited for the two beeps before speaking again.  “You’re looking for Loading Dock B,” I said.  “It’s just a skeleton team guarding the area, but that’s where the processed product should be.”

Over the comms, Stani relayed my words to Iosif and Leonid in Russian.  “Okay,” he said to me, in English, when he was done speaking to his comrades.  “And you will be…?

“Getting Billy’s sabotage in place.  If you cause enough of a fuss, no one should realize we were already inside the factory.  Hit it hard and fast, get the product, and get away as quick as you can.  We’re looking at a twenty minute timetable, at the outside, before local law enforcement comes to check out the alarm.”

“It will be done,” Stani said.

The line beeped twice, and then I heard Sarah’s voice.  She wasn’t exactly calm, but the words were possessed of that same vital force and focus that I’d fallen in love with so many years ago.  “I’ll tap into the police frequencies that I know about,” she said, “but there’s no way of knowing if they started operating on something new since the last time I was here.”

“Whatever you can do will be enough,” I assured her.  “I need Chester and James now.”

It took a few more seconds for the lines to connect than before.  Sarah must be multitasking several screens’ worth of information now, if the simple task of switching connections was taking her a noticeable amount of time.  I found myself idly wondering exactly how many cameras she had displayed on her screens back at the hotel room.

The telltale beeps came over the comms, just in time for me to hear Chester swearing under his breath.  He spoke to me before I had a chance to form any thought into a coherent sentence.  “You there, mate?”

“I’m here,” I replied.  “There’s your signal.  I want the two of you to pull back a bit, and make sure that Mila and I are going to have a clean exit.”

“And trust you with the loot?”

“I don’t want the drugs, Chester.”  With great effort, I kept myself from snapping at him in pure irritation.  “Billy and I made a deal, and I intend to honor that.  Neither you nor James have the expertise required to infiltrate the base without making a fuss, and you aren’t trained.”

When subtlety and charm failed to work, I was always willing to fall back on blunt facts.  The fact that Mila herself wasn’t really a subtle presence did not escape my mind; neither did I forget that Stani and his two hangers-on were untested elements.  I just kept my realization of those facts out of my voice.

“Alright,” Chester conceded, perhaps fifteen seconds later.  “How do you expect us to keep your flank clear, if you don’t want using guns, then?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me; I’m going out of my way to make sure that you don’t have to deal with the majority of the guards, and you’re complaining because you don’t get to shoot the one or two you might have to deal with.”

“It’s not that,” Chester said, “so much as the fact that I don’t trust anyone what says they can do what you said, if I can’t see it with me own eyes.”

Which wasn’t a terrible point to make, even if the idea came from general distrust.  Without Sarah working her magic on the other end of the connection, this raid would have been over very quickly.  “Trust me, or don’t trust me,” I said, “but we don’t have the time to argue about this.”

A few more seconds passed before he grunted.  “Fine,” Chester said, “but every bit of the goods had better be there, or else..”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure you would do something very painful.  Blah blah blah.  I’m cutting you off, so that I can focus on this.”  The dull roar of repeated heavy footsteps outside of the door was thinning.  “Keep that exit clear.  I’ll call when we’re on the way out.”

Sarah severed the line for me.  “It looks like you’re clear,” she said, hesitantly.  “Might be a few more guards lurking somewhere that I can’t see, though.  The security feeds don’t provide full coverage.”

“Wouldn’t want to accidentally make a videotape of your illegal activities, after all,” I said.  “Especially not when you can’t be sure how secure your systems are.”

“I’ve been wondering about that, actually,” Sarah said.

“Wondering what?”

“Hill has to know you’re working with a hacker by now.  Between the museum job and the manor house…”

“He doesn’t know I’m involved in this raid, though,” I pointed out.

“At this point, if I were him, I’d start expecting you to pop up like the Kool Aid Man at every possible moment.  You’ve barely been in London for a week, after all, and you keep showing up to throw him off of his game.”  She paused.  “Plus, Asher knows you.  This doesn’t seem right.”

“What’re you saying?”

Sarah sighed and changed topics.  “I don’t know what I’m saying.  Nevermind, don’t worry about it now.  We can talk it out later.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure, yeah.”  Pause.  “Alright, there’s no more movement in the aisles.  I’ll lock the mobilized guards out of the building, but you’ve only got…maybe fifteen minutes to switch out the plastics.”

I nodded to myself.  “Got it.  Mila?”

Mila returned my nod and then threw the steel door open, checking left and right for any surprises.  There were none.  Following Sarah’s guidance, we navigated through the brightened aisles, weaving back and forth between the silent industrial machines.  It took less than three minutes, moving at double speed, to reach a crossroads.  Down one aisle, a sign labeled ‘Loading Dock B’ hung prominently from the ceiling.  The occasional sounds of conflict were barely audible, if I strained my hearing to the limit.  I ignored that path and turned instead to my left.

“You’ve got four guards in a room across from the lab,” Sarah said.

“Can you lock them in?”

“Done and done.  I don’t have any visuals into the lab itself, though; there’s every possibility Hill stationed someone there.”

“If he did,” Mila said, “it won’t matter for very long.”

“Take it slow,” Sarah advised.  “That’s all I’m saying.  The more noise you make, the higher the probability that Hill figures out something is wrong and starts thinking outside of the box.”

That made sense, but something about the way Sarah said the words gave me a moment of pause.  “Hill hasn’t thought outside of the box, so far,” I said slowly.

“What’s that?”  Sarah asked.

The half-formed idea retreated back into my subconscious when I tried to examine it further.  “Nothing,” I said.  “Lock the doors and walk us in.”

Keeping low, Mila and I crept down the aisle, past the room where – according to Sarah – four guards hadn’t yet realized they’d been effectively neutralized, until we reached a pair of swinging doors.  I pushed one open, while Mila handled the other, and the two of slipped inside as quiet as shadows.

Past another set of doors, we reached the lab itself.  Beakers and glasses of various sizes, and filled with concoctions in a rainbow of colors, were scattered across shelves and countertops.  I saw graduated cylinders filled to the brim with clear liquid, discarded latex gloves, and more than one abandoned machine with some inscrutable purpose.  Two computers hummed softly while their attached monitors shed a bluish light that tinted the room.  Lining the farthest wall, at least four different recycling containers were plainly visible.

I saw all that in an instant, but none of those details interested me.  It was what I didn’t see that sent alarm bells screaming through my head.

“There’s no one here,” I said.

“What?”

“I said that there’s no one here,” I repeated.  “No plastics to switch out, no technicians performing a procedure in either direction.  The lab is empty.”

Sarah was quiet for a few moments as she digested that.  “Then why would the guards come to protect an empty room?”

“I don’t know, Sarah, but…”  I stopped.  The idea from earlier returned and hit me with a staggering, awful force.  “How did Billy find out about this shipment?”

“You never asked,” Sarah said.  “Hill’s organization probably isn’t perfect, and this plant isn’t very far from Billy’s place anyway.  Why?”

A chunk of ice formed in my gut and the hairs on the nape of my neck stood straight up.  “Sarah, connect me to Stani.”

“Why would…”

“Just do it!”  I snapped at her.  I rarely raised my voice, let alone to Sarah.  Even Mila gave me a shocked look.

The line beeped twice.  “Stani, can you hear me?”

Da, I hear you very well,” the Russian replied.  “What is it?”

“Are you still at the loading bay?”

“We have sent the guards into retreat,” Stani replied, with a hint of a laugh in his voice.  “They put up barely any fight at all.  We are just about to drive the van out of this plant and back to Billy.”

“Check the back of the van,” I said.

I could almost feel the confusion coming from his end of the connection, but he relayed the order in Russian to one of his men.  There were a few seconds of tense silence, punctuated by a rattle as either Iosif or Leonid threw the van’s door open.

“It is here,” Stani said.  This time there was no mistaking the glee in his voice.  “It is all here.”

Mila tapped me on the shoulder and raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Can you, uh…check it?”  I asked Stani.  “Just to make sure.”

“We do not have much time for this,” he said, “but if you insist…”

More Russian from him.  Several seconds ticked away before someone replied to Stani.  “What?”

“What is it?”  I asked.

“Iosif says that this is not cocaine,” he replied.  “This is baking powder.”

“Shit!”  I started to pace around the empty lab, heedless of my volume.  “Shit, I should’ve seen this coming!”

“What are you talking about?”

I ignored the Russian.  “Sarah, pull up the exterior cameras and tell me what you see.”

“Who is…”

The line beeped twice as she unmuted herself.  “The regular traffic, mostly, and…”  She trailed off, and those few moments of silence were more damning than anything she could have said.  “And an Audi.”

“An Audi?”  Stani asked.  Then, a moment later, “Who is speaking?  Who is that?”

Sarah spoke directly to me, disregarding Stani’s complaints.  “The license plate matches up.  How did Aiden get here so fast?  You’ve only been in the building for a couple of minutes!”

“This isn’t a raid,” I spat out, furious with myself for missing the signs.  “This is a trap.”

Part 3: Recap

Following the theft of a barbarian crown from the Museum of London, Devlin O’Brien heads back to his hotel room, only to be confronted by the puppeteer who has been pulling on his strings since breaking him out of La Santé: an elegant Lady, clad in splendor and secrets, flanked by the strange Mila and a silent giant of a man.  Admitting to her role in steering both Devlin and Sarah into open conflict with Asher and his backers in the United Kingdom, the Lady has come in person to offer Devlin another job.  Somewhere in the greater London area, there is a key.  That key can be used to unlock the secrets contained within the golden book, stolen by Asher from the bank in Limassol.  Devlin’s job, should he choose to accept it, is to discover the location of that key and retrieve it – as well as the book, at some point in the future – so that the Lady can use the information contained within for unknown purpose.  In addition to the promise of a hefty payday, the Lady promises that doing these things will clear away any protection Asher should possess.

To that end, Mila reveals that she has been hired as Devlin’s personal bodyguard for the coming difficult days and forcibly inserts herself into his growing team of thieves and criminals.  Operating under the assumption that Devlin will accept the offered terms, the lady provides him with two invitations to an exclusive event where the first of many clues might well be found: The Green Light Gala.

The Green Light turns out to be nothing so much as an elaborate dinner party for the criminal underworld elite; an excuse to cut deals and carve out territory, while also displaying their accumulated wealth and comparing it to the fortunes of their peers and competition.  While there, Devlin and Sarah receive a slip of paper with coordinates pointing to a small town in the English countryside and encounter Asher himself, when the traitorous man makes an appearance at the gala in person.  Hamstrung by the rules of the gala, Devlin can only exchange tense words with his former friend before beating a hasty treat.  From there, the foursome – Devlin, Sarah, Michel, and Mila – make their way toward the manor house indicated by the coordinates, where the next clue might be found.

Sophie, the concierge from the Brooklands, proves herself equal to the task of assisting Devlin and his team.  Using her connections and what must be an inexhaustible fund, she purchases a cottage in the area, arranges for subtler methods of transportation, and acquires a computer system for Sarah’s use.

Sarah immediately begins work on a virus to incapacitate whatever security there might be, Devlin and Michel physically surveil the target area and the surrounding countryside.  One stop along the way leads to them to a local pub; its owners, Cat and Evan; and one of the manor house’s guards, having sharing a meal with a small girl in possession of some very complicated mathematical textbooks in topics ranging from theoretical physics to advanced cryptography.

Sarah estimates that it will take her several days to work up a proper plan to infiltrate the manor house, retrieve the information the team seeks, and leave without making a fuss.  That timeline is scuttled when Mila, on a run for some snacks, discovers that there are plans to remove the girl from the manor house.  All four agree that the criminals in charge of the manor house, whoever that might be, are not the types to allow a possible witness – especially a small child – to leave without taking permanent steps to ensure her silence. Instead of waiting for everything to be in place, they put their plan into action on the third day after they arrive.

The plan is simple: Devlin, pretending to be an agent of the Magi, uses the illusion of authority to draw the guards’ attention to him, while Sarah – through a physically installed clip at the backbone of the manor house’s internetwork – provides validation for his stories and siphons all information contained within.  When that task is suitably automated, Devlin is to remove the girl from the manor house and take her to a safe location where time can be taken to figure out her connection to the conspiracies tangling themselves around them all.

That plan falls apart remarkably quickly when the Magi’s real agent – a tattooed, scarred man with a small team of highly trained professionals – arrives at the manor house while Devlin and company are still waiting for Sarah to finish with her digital tasks.  What’s worse: Mila, unflappable and unmoved in any situation they’d encountered thus far, is rendered near catatonic at the very sight of the new man, whom she calls Aiden.

With their tenuous grasp over the situation weakening, Devlin leads Michel and Mila up to the girl’s room, only to find that the guard named Neal – the same one who they’d seen at dinner with the girl before – is midway through an attempt to sneak her out of the manor house.  Devlin decides to add the two of them to their party on the fly, and uses a network of secret passages to escape the manor house…but not before Aiden blows up the computer itself, in an effort to terminate any possible connection that could be made to the system.  Sarah has some files, but not all, and there isn’t any time to formulate a second option.

She meets them at the exit of the tunnel, useless from an electronic standpoint, and Michel takes over as Aiden and his wheelman pursue them in a tense race through the streets of the small, sleepy town and onto the highway, until Mila finally recovers enough to put a bullet into the rear tires of Carlos’ vehicle.  Using that space and the rare moment to catch their breath, they take steps to ensure they haven’t been followed and head back to the Brooklands to recover and evaluate their new position.

Along the way, Sarah discovers that none of the information contained in the documents she managed to steal from the manor house contain the decryption key.  She is prepared to call the entire event a waste of time when a single misstep, a few pages in a diary, and an outburst from the girl Avis reveals the truth of the matter: she isn’t merely a ward of the Magi, nor is she a wunderkind who managed to create a code of sufficient strength to stymie even Sarah’s prodigious skills.  She is the code itself: a human being capable of creating complex algorithms in her head and applying them to text in the blink of an eye.

This explains her presence at the manor house and the reason for her assumed freedom.  She is an asset, yes, and a mathematical genius, but she was also a prisoner: a bird, trapped in a cage, unable to fly free.  Now that she finds herself in the company of the thieves, will she turn her skills against those who kept her hostage?  Or will she seek the comfort of familiarity…even if that means she must clip her own wings to do so?