Tag Archives: Ally

Girl out of Jersey

Juliana knew more about her husband’s past than he thought she did, although not as much as she believed. She’d grown up with cousins and uncles that had experienced the revolving door of the prison system: out just long enough to realize that cons didn’t have options other than falling back into the game again. In college, she’d personally suffered through a two year long cocaine binge and only barely kept that addiction from ruining her life. Alcohol and peer pressure had pushed her into more than a few inebriated shoplifting experiences. She knew the signs of a guilty conscience,of a man trying to pretend his way into being better, of someone trying to cut off a part of their past.

What she couldn’t know, she guessed at or crowd-sourced. Many conference calls had been spent tossing ideas around, discussing “hypothetical” scenarios with her girlfriends and trying to piece together the parts of her husband’s life that he refused to discuss. Her family thought she was writing a screenplay, as if she could possibly commit any more to the role of “dedicated, but ultimately bored housewife.” But the truth – that Alex was lying to her, possibly lying to her quite a lot – would invite too many questions, too many unasked for opinions, and too much scrutiny of her relationship.

The simple truth was this: she loved Alex and he loved her. Hell, Jules even loved Ally, his daughter from another marriage…most of the time. Sure, Alex sometimes seemed to drift away mid-conversation, as if his thoughts had suddenly become unmoored. And sure, there were other times when he looked at her with such intensity that it was like being looked through. And sure, sometimes he wept in his sleep and murmured the name Johannah like a mantra.

But they were happy, most of the time. Everyone, even Johannah herself, had a little darkness in their past. No one lived like a saint forever. If Alex wanted to keep those secrets to himself…if that was the price she had to pay for nine good days out of ten…well, it was hardly a choice at all.

That was how she comforted herself and soothed her own concerns in the past. Now, however, it had been a full week since Alex’s abrupt departure and it wasn’t love she felt rising up into her throat like lava. It wasn’t affection that gripped her heart like a vise. Alex was gone and, for no reason she could name, Jules wasn’t sure if he was coming back.

On the morning of the eighth day, she realized that she could no longer keep her emotions safely contained behind the stormwalls. Instead of collapsing into a heap of tears and sobs, Jules did the next best thing: she called her mother.

Sofia Bianchi, matriarch and undisputed ruler of the Jersey Bianchis, answered the video call on the third ring. Despite the distance, the connection was rock solid. Jules could see that Sofia was trying something new with her makeup, that her steel gray hair was shorter now than it had been, and that she’d lost a worrying amount of weight.

That last bit was more concerning than anything else, but she kept the thought to herself. If there was anything that would set Sofia off, it would have to be anything that could possibly be construed as pity. She’d been a strong enough woman to make her way to America from the Old Country and to tame the wild stallion who had fathered her children. A little weight loss wouldn’t even have factored into her mind as something to be concerned about.

“Honey!” Sofia puckered her lips and blew an air kiss across the airwaves. “What are you doing? I thought we weren’t scheduled for another one of these video chats until…uh…”

“Next Friday,” Jules said. “Yeah, Ma, I know. But I just needed to clear my head about some things. You aren’t busy, are ya?” It didn’t take long for the Jersey to creep back into her voice.

‘Someone threw a football at full speed from off-camera. The projectile came within an inch of some precariously placed glassware before Sofia snatched it from the air with the speed of someone half her age.

“Aldo!” Sofia shrieked. The tone of voice brought back painful memories of wooden spoons. “You better get your little friends out of here, or there’s gonna be hell to pay, ya hear me?”

Jules shuddered. She remembered being on the receiving end of similar tongue lashings and was all too familiar with the “hell” that might follow after it. “I can call you later,” she began, “if you’re busy.” Even as she said the words, Jules felt like her chest would explode or cave in if she didn’t unburden herself twenty minutes ago.

Sofia dismissed the suggestion with a wave of her hand. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Nothing more going on here that I can’t take care of by myself. Not like I’m not used to doing everything around this house, after all. You go on, tell me what’s on your mind.”

Now that the opportunity had gone, Jules found that she couldn’t quite figure out how to start. Years of half-truths and misdirection, deflected questions, and late nights spent wondering what her husband might possibly be hiding after so many years…it was just too much to dump on one person. Especially if it turned out that Alex had a perfectly legitimate reason for keeping his cards so close to his chest. It wouldn’t take much for Sofia to turn against the German; she hadn’t liked Alex to begin with, simply because he’d taken Jules away from Jersey and her family.

She decided to approach the problem from an oblique angle. “How’s Dad? He can’t help you out with the boys?”

Sofia rolled her eyes, deliberately exaggerating the action for effect. “Your father left for work about an hour ago, allegedly.” She made very large air quotes around the last word.

“Where do you think he really is?”

“The bar,” Sofia said. “He’s been working at the docks for about a year today, so the boss probably took him out to get good and drunk. Bet he’ll come stumbling back in here around midnight, smelling up the whole house and stumbling into anything not smart enough to move out of his way.”

“You aren’t mad?”

“Why would I be mad?” Sofia glanced at something off-screen for an instant and, without a single word, managed to convey an entire world’s worth of danger. Whoever had been the target of the look fled the scene, judging from the slamming door that Jules heard a moment later. “He works hard to put a roof over my head and he damn sure didn’t have to take in Donna’s kids when she split. If he wants to take some time to blow off his steam, I’m sure as hell not going to get in his way.”

Jules pondered that for a moment. In the beginning, she had asked Alex where his money came from. He wasn’t wealthy, in the sense of private jets and yachts, but they lived extremely comfortably. He had explained that he’d come into quite a bit of money and made several wise investments. From those investments, he’d made others and, eventually, developed a healthy nest egg.

She hadn’t believed a word of that, but she’d smiled politely and resolved to find out the truth of the matter eventually. Only she’d fallen in love and, after the marriage, the matter ceased to be as important to her as it had once been.

Was Alex just tired of working so hard to take care of a family? Had he just needed some time to blow off steam?

Or was he simply tired of taking care of this family?

The insecurities made no sense, of course. He’d been willing to give up his entire life to be with her, save his daughter. The fact that they’d moved to Germany had been her decision. But knowing that she was being irrational didn’t actually make her feel any better.

“Is something going on with Alex?” Sofia asked.

Jules’ surprise jolted her out of her darkening thoughts. “What? What makes you say that?”

“Three things,” Sofia said, raising a corresponding number of fingers. She lowered them as she made her points. “One, you got that thousand-yard, wistful stare as soon as we started talking about your father who I know isn’t your favorite person. Two, I normally can’t get you to stop talking about how wonderful your German is, but you haven’t said a thing about him since we started talking. And three…well, I know my girl. So why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you? What’d he do?”

“He didn’t do anything, ma, it’s just…” Jules struggled momentarily to put her thoughts into words. “You ever think that there might be more to dad than you know about? Like, maybe he lived a whole ‘nother life before you two met?”

Sofia snorted. “Mario Bianchi never did anything except drink too much and knock up yours truly one night. I’ve known him since I came over here on a boat and he’s never changed.” She paused. “Why, do you think Alex is keeping something from you?”

“Ma, I know he’s got his own secrets. He’s got a nineteen year old daughter that grew up without a mother, but no one ever talks about what happened to her? Of course he’s not telling me everything. That’s not the problem.”

“What is the problem, then? What’s got you so bothered?”

This was going to be delicate work. If she said too much or even implied too much, Sofia would almost certainly demand that Jules come home. As vulnerable as she felt, Jules would probably go. “Do you think people can change, ma? Like, really change?”

“Your father only drinks two or three times a year now,” Sofia said. “That was a hell of a change from his weekly binges. And I never would’ve thought that you’d leave us all to go overseas with someone you met at the market. Seem like pretty damn big changes to me.”

“Not like that,” Jules said. “Something bigger than that. Like…not just change what you do, but change who you are.”

To her credit, Sofia didn’t rush to an answer. She gave the question a good bit of thought before replying. “I think they can,” she said, “but only if they really want to. It’s always easier to keep doing the same things than it is to really look at yourself in the mirror.”

“But if you had…something worth changing for? Then it might be possible?”

“I guess so.” Sofia lowered her voice. “This is about Alex’s past? Whatever it was that he won’t talk about? You think it’s got something to do with how his first wife died?”

Jules hesitated before nodding, just once. She could feel the tears building and she tried to keep them from falling onto her cheeks.

“You don’t think he did it, do you?”

“No! Ma, of course I don’t think that!” Jules shook her head, glad that the action gave her an excuse to look away from the screen for a few heartbeats. ‘That’s crazy, ma, you’ve gotta know that. Alex is a good man.”

“Then what?”

“I think that…I think that maybe he used to run with a bad crowd,” Jules managed to say. “A dangerous crowd. Not by choice or anything like that. But it feels like he might have been involved in some stuff that might…it might not have gone away. It might not be over.”

Jules didn’t say anything for several long seconds.

When it became clear that her daughter wasn’t going to answer the question on her own, Sofia gave her some gentle prompting. “Do you think he didn’t let that part of his past go?”

“I don’t think his past has let go of him,” Jules said in a whisper. “I don’t know if it’s ever going to.”

Sofia lit a cigarette. “Let me tell you something, honey,” she began, “and you listen good.”

Jules nodded.

“Now, you know I never liked that Alex with his fancy clothes and his accent and all that. Man comes to Jersey just long enough to sweep my baby girl off her feet, then he flies across the world with you in tow?”

“Ma, I told you that’s not what -”

Sofia raised her hand to cut off any further explanation. “And you know I wish you came home more. Lord knows your father misses you. Hell, you haven’t found the time to visit with the boys since they started school and you know how much they look up to you. I’d love it if you came back here, set down roots with your family instead of going so far away. But I’m gonna put all that aside, because I know when my girl needs her ma, okay?”

Jules pushed back the tears for the second time as she prepared herself for whatever rebuke Sofia was preparing for the absent Alex.

“Do you still love him?” Sofia asked.

Jules blinked. “Do I…what kinda question is that, ma?”

“Well? Do you?”

“Of course I do!”

“Good. Because I’ll tell you this much. No matter how I feel about him personally, I can promise you one thing: Alex for damn sure loves you. Now, I don’t know what he might’ve been into in the past. Hell, he might have been a whole different person back in the day. But the man I met? That man would walk over broken glass if it’d make you smile. If he’s got to choose between his past and coming home to you, it wouldn’t even be a question.”

It was the longest string of praise Sofia had ever spoken about Alex. It might well have been the only nice thing she’d ever said about him at all.

Jules felt the tears coming for the third time. She would’ve let them fall, and been glad to do so, if the front door hadn’t opened downstairs.

Sofia Bianchi needed reading glasses to help the kids with their homework and she used a cane to go up the three steps to her front porch, but her hearing was as keen as it had ever been. “Were you expecting someone?”

Before Jules could answer, she heard the voices. A booming male voice, cheerful and boisterous came first, saying something in German; a moment later, a voice with a much higher pitch responded in the same language. She would’ve known the voices anywhere.

“Ma, I think that’s him. I…I gotta go, alright?”

“You sure, honey? You gonna be alright?”

“I think so,” Jules said. She nodded twice; once for her mother and once for herself. “Yeah, I think so. Thanks, ma.”

“You want to thank me?” Sofia asked. “Find the time in your busy schedule to visit your aging mother. You know I won’t be around to dispense the wisdom forever.”

Jules smiled. This, too, was familiar: the patented Bianchi guilt trip. “Yes, ma, I hear you. I love you, you know that?”

“You wouldn’t know it from how you act,” Sofia said. She smiled a little, softening the rebuke into something more like gentle needling. “I love you too, baby. Give Ally my love.”

“Not Alex?”

One corner of Sofia’s mouth turned down slightly. “I know what I said. Now get out of here!”

Jules terminated the connection and sat in the room for a few seconds. She didn’t head downstairs until she was certain that she wasn’t going to burst into tears at a moment’s notice.

She saw Ally first. Alex’s daughter had entered the pubescent phase of “you’re not my real mother” at twelve and decided to stay there for the next seven years. The relationship between stepmother and stepdaughter was supposed to be difficult, according to the self-help books Jules had read, but the animosity Ally threw her way hadn’t appreciably weakened in almost a decade. She readied herself for some veiled insult or disrespect.

Ally practically chirped when she saw Jules at the top of the staircase. “Ah! We thought that you might have been out on the town.”

“I was just using the computer,” Jules said. “Your father told me that you went out on vacation with your friends. You’re back already?”

“The trip was…not as much fun as you would think,” Ally said. Jules heard the hesitation in her voice and almost asked for more information. The memory of her own activities at nineteen stopped her from poking that particular bear. “So Papa came to get me.”

“Oh? Well, it’s good to have you back home.”

“It is good to be home.” Ally opened her mouth to speak, closed it after a second, then opened it again. “I realized something while I was, uh…away.”

“What’s that?”

“I have not been fair to you, have I?”

Jules stared at Ally for a long time. “What?”

“You have been nothing but good to my father and me. And I have been…” She paused and considered her words. “I have been a bitch. And I am sorry for that.”

First, Sofia had praised Alex’s dedication to his family; now, Ally was apologizing for years of teenage angst?

“It’s, uh…it’s okay,” Jules said, even as she privately wondered whether or not she was in a dream.

“It is not okay,” Ally said. “But I will try to be better.”

Before Jules could say anything else, Ally bounded up the stairs and planted a kiss on her cheek. Then, she ran off to her room and closed the door behind her.

Jules remained where she stood for about thirty seconds before she shook her head and filed the incident away for later examination. Something must have happened on Ally’s “trip” to account for such a drastic change in personality, but Jules wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. She headed downstairs to find her husband.

She found him in the kitchen, tying his favorite apron on and checking the fridge at the same time. He was so engrossed in the search that he didn’t hear her enter.

Jules cleared her throat. “I just had the weirdest talk with Ally. Did she tell you what happened wherever she -”

She didn’t get to finish the sentence. Alex jerked his head out of the fridge, blinked, and then bulldozed across the room to sweep her up into a tight bear hug. Alex was a big man and he hadn’t let the passage of years rob him of his strength. He lifted her as easily as if she didn’t weigh anything and spun her in a tight circle.

“Jules! Oh, it is good to see you again!”

Jules tried to wriggle her way out of the hug without any success. Failing at that, she tried another tack and managed to extricate herself enough to speak. “It’s only been a week,” she said, between gasps for oxygen. “You have business trips that last longer.”

“Ah, but it felt like so much longer,” Alex said. “And I missed you, my love. I missed you so much.”

He lowered her to the floor again. Jules smoothed an invisible wrinkle out of her shirt before speaking again. “What brought that on?”

Alex looked like he might pick her up again, although he restrained himself. “I saw a few old business partners when I went to pick up Ally,” he said. “And I learned some things that reminded me how lucky I am to have you.”

He wasn’t telling the whole truth. That much was obvious. Jules didn’t know everything about Alex, but she knew enough to tell when he was evading.

Instead of letting the deception pass without comment, she stepped closer to him and lowered her voice. “Is it over?”

Alex went completely still. His smile withered and died on his face. “What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know. But whatever it is…whatever it was…is it over now? Finally?”

For a second, Jules was certain that he was going to lie again or that he’d tell a half-truth. He surprised her by taking a deep breath and visibly steeling himself. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it is over.”

She didn’t bother to stop the relief from flooding into her expression. “Will you ever tell me about it?”

“One day,” Alex said. “Maybe, if you really want to know. But not today.”

“Why not today?” Jules asked. She didn’t really care about the answer anymore. Alex had come home and, if he was to be believed, the ghosts of his past hadn’t come home with him. She loved him and he loved her. That wasn’t the only thing that mattered, but it did count for a lot. The rest, she was willing to give him on faith.

Alex clapped his hands together. “Because today we celebrate!”

This time, when he picked her up, Jules squealed in delight and allowed herself to enjoy the moment.

Advertisements

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.

Chapter 138

After I retrieved my personal effects and made my way out of Scotland Yard, I decided that calling Sarah or Michel for a ride would probably not be the best idea.  Adlai’s bemusing amiability aside, it wasn’t insane to think that someone was probably tracking my movements.  Hill might have been dethroned, but every member of his organization might not have received notice of that.  Had I been in the former drug lord’s position, I would’ve taken steps to make certain that the architect of his downfall paid dearly for his or her presumption, regardless of what happened to me in the interim.

Since I was said architect – or, at least as far as Hill knew, the primary instigator – it seemed prudent to take a few steps to ensure my safety.

By the time I finally reached the Brooklands, after switching modes and methods of transportation enough times that even I was starting to feel irrationally paranoid, I was both hungry and exhausted.  Sophie wasn’t at the front desk when I entered, but that wasn’t surprising.  We weren’t her only clients and I suspected that at least one of the Brooklands’ less ‘legally challenged’ guests had requests or demands of their own to make.  I gave the front desk clerk a vague sort of wave, walked past him without saying anything, and went straight to the penthouse elevator.  Then I stopped, walked back to the front desk, and plucked a banana from a dish of fruit.

“Long day,” I said to the clerk.

He blinked at me, but said nothing.

The elevator shot straight up through the Brooklands’ floors and stopped after only a few seconds.  I took a bite of my banana and straightened my suit jacket as the elevator doors slid open.

I was greeted with a gaping gun barrel, leveled at a point just between my eyes.  I blinked with excruciating caution and, just as slowly, took another bite of my banana.

“I’m going to have to teach you how to fight, aren’t I?”

“Might be useful,” I said.  “Although, judging from what I heard before, you might not be up to a teaching lesson for a couple of weeks.  Or months.”

“Please.  I could be unconscious and still kick your ass.”

“And, on that note, it’s good to see you too,” I said to the gun barrel.  “Although I think I would have been a little more welcoming, had I been in your shoes.”

The barrel stayed there, rock steady, for another second or two.  Then, it lowered slightly and I saw Mila’s bruised face at the other end of the gun.  “That’s because you’re a softie,” she said.  “If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t have waited for the doors to open before I drew.”

We held eye contact for another handful of seconds before Mila returned the gun to a shoulder holster, dangling free underneath her bad arm.  “So,” I said, “are we supposed to hug now or…?”

She snorted, cutting me off mid-sentence.  “There’s still some liquor here, I think.  Or you can just ask Sophie to get some for us.”

“Yeah.  Either way, celebrating with an awe-inspiring hangover is always an option.”

She smiled then.  The expression crept across her face, growing by millimeters, until she wore a smile from one ear to the other.  She moved out of the way, allowing me to move deeper into the room and then returned to a position where her diminutive frame more or less blocked the elevator from sight.

“You’re an idiot,” Mila said.  “An absolute idiot.  Do you know how worried everyone was about you?”

“Even you?”

Mila rolled her eyes.  “Everyone else. What was there to be worried about?  If you didn’t come out of Scotland Yard on your own, then I would just have gone in there to get you.”

There was every possibility that she was being entirely serious.  In a pitched battle between the forces of law enforcement in the great city of London and a pissed off Mila who wanted to honor the terms of her contract, I wasn’t sure which side I’d want to put my money on.

“Good thing I got out of there on my own,” I said.  “Before you had to go starting World War III on my account.”

“Good thing,” she agreed.  The smile dimmed slightly, then faded away.  “Did she know what you were going to do?  Using yourself as bait like that, making sure that all of the bad guys were too busy looking at you to watch what we were doing?”

Mila didn’t have to clarify who she was.  “Part of it,” I said.  “Not everything.  Hell, I didn’t know everything that was going to happen.”

“You were guessing?”  There was more shock and surprise in Mila’s voice now than I’d ever heard before.  “That was a risk you took on a whim?”

“More than a whim,” I said.  “There were signs.  But, uh…yeah, kind of.”

She whistled.  “She’s going to be furious with you.  You do know that, right?”

“I’d sort of figured as much.  I’m just hoping she’ll give me a chance to explain before she – “

I noticed, in a detached way, the exact instant when Mila took a half-step back and turned slightly.  The elevator dinged and a tiny red light above it flickered to life.  Mila’s eyes widened and her lips parted, as though she were going to say something.

All of these details dawned on me in slow motion, but I wasn’t quite able to grasp their importance immediately.  So, when it came, the thunderous slap that filled my sight with a field of exploding red stars of pain caught me entirely off guard.

When my vision cleared, Sarah stood in front of me.

Tears were streaming down her face in tiny rivers.  Her eyes were red and the skin around them puffed out.  An invisible tie held her frizzy brown hair back and corralled it into an approximation of a ponytail.

“You…you…”  Her voice failed her, but her mouth continued to open and close as if she’d been suddenly rendered incapable of producing sound.

“Hello to you, too,” I said, massaging my cheek.  “And ow.”

“You knew what was going to happen!”  Her voice came out sharp and shrill.

“I didn’t know that Hill had an inside man,” I countered.  “Not until it was too late to actually tell you about it.  I thought Alex would’ve explained that.”

“Oh, he explained it, all right.  Just before he told me that you planned to get arrested again.  That you’d never even intended to leave the estate in one piece.”

Ah.  That explained the slap.

“Did you honestly think there was any other way that was going to work out?” I asked.  “Even if we hadn’t been compromised from the very beginning, Hill had more men, more money, and more to lose.  The only way to keep him from issuing the kill order was letting him think that he was winning, until the very last second.  So…”  I trailed off.

“So you kept that from me?  So you decided to throw yourself in the line of fire, without stopping to ask anyone else what they thought?”

I opened my mouth, realized that I didn’t have anything to say that would constitute even a modicum of an acceptable excuse, and closed my mouth again.

“I thought we’d already talked about this, Devlin,” she said.  “But you’re apparently too damned noble and suicidally stupid to understand exactly what I meant before.  So, let me make this excruciatingly clear.”

Sarah took a step forward.  She was only an inch or two shorter than me and her nose hovered just a hair beneath mine.  I prepared myself for another thunderous slap.

She wrapped her arms around me and pulled me into a fierce hug before, almost without making a sound, she started to sob into my chest.  “I am not,” she said, between heaving sobs, “going to let you get yourself killed.  If you’re in trouble, I am always going to come get you.  Do you get that?”

My mouth was suddenly dry.  My mental gears stuttered over this new complication and ground painfully to a halt.  Without any active input or a conscious desire to do so, I pulled Sarah into an even tighter embrace.  Despite the low temperature outside and her natural tendency towards a subzero body temperature, her skin felt warm against mine.  I wasn’t sure if my heart was beating faster, or hers, or both, but I wanted to savor the sensation regardless of the truth.

The moment ended too soon for my taste.  Michel stepped around Sarah, followed by Alex and Ally.  Michel and Alex looked vaguely embarrassed at the display of affection between my ex-wife and me.  Ally, on the other hand, looked equally thrilled and disappointed.  We separated, mumbling nonsense to each other.  Sarah looked away and wiped furiously at her eyes.

“Let me get one thing clear,” Alex said, “before we discuss any of the details.”

“And that is?” I asked.

“I cannot believe that worked.”

“Well, if someone hadn’t decided to go off on their own, it probably wouldn’t have gone so well.”

Alex laid a hand over his heart and assumed a saintly posture.  “I do not know what you are talking about.”

Everyone chuckled at that and I gave us all a few seconds to enjoy the moment before moving onto the next order of business.  We weren’t quite finished.  There were still a few details that needed to be dealt with before we could truly relax.  “Where’s everyone else?”

“Anton and the Russians disappeared,” Sarah said.  “Somewhere between you calling for Plan B and the police actually showing up.  After they lost them, the Russians jumped into a getaway vehicle of their own and ditched the comms.”

“And Anton went with them?”

“From the way I heard it, it didn’t seem like the other guys gave him a lot of choice in the matter.”

“The Book?”

Alex stepped forward.  “I gave it to Sarah as soon as I made contact with her.”

“And I gave it to Avis, as soon as we got back to the hotel.  She’s in her room downstairs, working on translating it as fast as possible,” Sarah said.  “Sophie’s doctor gave Neal some pretty powerful pain killers.  It doesn’t look like Hill had a chance to inflict any permanent damage before we got there.”

I nodded.  So far, so good.  “What about Chester and James?”

Alex made a disgusted face.  “Downstairs, in the conference room where we met before.  They brought some of their other men with them, as well as Billy.  He is not in good health, but he insisted on being here with them.  I asked Sophie to keep them satisfied until we figured out what to do about…well, your situation.”

My mood darkened as I thought about the betrayal, and the damage it had almost allowed Hill to inflict on me and my friends.

“Speaking of your, uh, situation,” Michel said, “what happened?  How did you get out of custody so quickly?  Did the Lady intervene again?”

I thought over the entire series of events, starting from my conversation with Hill’s lawyer and ending in the confrontation with Adlai.  My eyes went to Alex and Ally, standing side by side.  “You might want to sit down for this,” I said to them.

Alex’s eyebrow raised, but it was his daughter who spoke.  “What is wrong?”

“It’s about your mother,” I said.

“What are you…”  Alex began, then stopped.  The color drained from his face and, in that instant, I realized that he knew.  A quick glance at Sarah told me that she was on the verge of making that same intuitive leap.

But neither Michel or Mila knew enough context to figure out what I was talking about, so I was forced to start right after I’d lost consciousness at the estate and tell them the entire story of the day I’d spent in police custody.  When I reached the conclusion, every jaw in the room – except for Mila’s, of course – hung open in shock.

“It was him?”  Alex asked finally.  “This whole time, it was him?”

I nodded.  “We thought he was dead.  That’s why we weren’t able to find any evidence.  It would’ve all gone to a dead end.  Or so we believed at the time.”

“And he…it wasn’t even about…”  Alex started a few more sentences and found himself incapable of completing any of them.

I reached out a hand and gripped his shoulder.  “I got him for you,” I said.  “We got him.”

Alex looked as though he still couldn’t quite believe it, although he seemed to be making a solid effort to keep himself from bursting into tears.  Ally made no such pretense.  She was openly weeping, her shoulders rising and falling in oddly rhythmic patterns.  Alex took his daughter in his arms and hugged her tight.  After a moment, she returned the affection with an equally fierce embrace.

Michel cleared his throat.  I noticed tears glistening at the corners of his own eyes, but he wiped them away before speaking.  “So, Adlai let you go?  Just like that?”

“I’m still not entirely sure I believe it myself,” I said, “but it looks like that’s what happened.  Maybe something about our amazing civic responsibility has convinced him to turn a blind eye to some lesser acts of civil disobedience.”

“Or,” Sarah chimed in, “he knows that you won’t be able to stop yourself from stealing again and he’ll just get another shot at you later on, when you aren’t on the side of the angels.”

“It’s just like you to be such a pessimist.”  I stuck my tongue out at her.

She flashed me a wicked, knowing grin in response and my heartbeat quickened again.

“That is…” Michel struggled to find the right word for a second or two.  “…remarkably lucky, isn’t it?”

“Well, we didn’t jinx things,” I said, affecting an older, wiser intonation.  “That’s probably what did it for us.  Besides, all I did was let everybody beat themselves.  You’re the one who hit a hardened, probably crazy, and definitely homicidal mercenary with a car, Michel.”

He couldn’t really blush, considering his skin tone, but I was certain that his cheeks grew warmer at the praise.  “It was, uh…it was nothing, really.  I only did what I could to help Mila.”

“It was nothing?” Sarah repeated.  “Is that really what you’re going with?”

He shrugged and looked away.  His eyes caught Mila’s for an instant before he found something interesting to examine on the completely normal kitchen wall.

“I just want to make sure I’ve got all of this straight,” Mila said.  She shifted her weight and grimaced as one of her injuries decided to make itself temporarily known.  “We went through all of that so that Hill would reveal his contacts, allowing Asher to steal those contacts, and then you walked Asher into getting himself arrested?  Meanwhile, all we had to do to steal the Book, the girl who can translate it, and her personal Kato was just to drive away with them?”

I considered that for a moment, and then nodded.  “First: yes, pretty much.  Second: Kato?  Really?”

Mila grinned.  “I’m not completely out of touch.”

Alex cleared his throat, drawing all of our attention back to him and his daughter.  Any lingering laughter in the room died away.  “I think that we are finished here,” he said.  “Ally and I, we…we need some time to really think about what you’ve told us.  To make some sort of peace with it.”

“Oh.  Yeah, that makes sense.  Do you, uh…do you know what you’re going to tell Jules?”

Alex shook his head.  “Nothing?  Everything?  It is…complicated.  I am not sure what would be best.  I did not tell Ally about my past and look where that has led us.”

“Papa,” Ally said, “you cannot tell Jules.  You can’t.”

He gave her a skeptical look.  “This, coming from you?  I would have expected you to have the opposite opinion.”

Ally’s lips twisted up as she picked her next words carefully.  “You lived two lives when I was a child and only told me about one.  But you have been with Jules entirely.  Telling her about who you used to be would not help; she does not have any questions about that time in your life.  Does that make sense?”

“But you always wondered what I was keeping from you,” Alex said back.  “Yes.  Yes, I think that does make sense.  But still, it is a decision I will need to think about.  And, of course, I want your input on the matter.”

Ally looked surprised at that.

“You are my daughter,” Alex continued.  “Who else could I trust to give me the best advice?”

There were still tears drying on her cheeks when she smiled.  Somehow, the juxtaposition of the two conflicting emotions made the smile that much brighter.

Alex turned to me.  “You saved my life many years ago,” he said.  “And now you have gotten justice for my wife’s murder.  I do not know that I will ever be able to repay you.”

“You can live a long happy life away from all of this,” I said, immediately.

Sarah rummaged around in her pocket for a few seconds before producing a pair of tickets.  “I’ve got your tickets home, routed through a few different shell companies.”  She looked momentarily abashed.  “Old habits die hard, I guess.  Anyway, your flight leaves in two hours.  Just enough time for you to get through all of the preliminaries and security and whatnot.”

Alex nodded.  “Do you need me to stay a little longer?  To deal with…”  He made a vague gesture, presumably indicating the conference room where Billy’s gang waited.

I shook my head.  My fingers balled into a tight fist, entirely of their own volition, and I squeezed them so tight that it started to hurt.  “No.  You can get out of here.  This is something I really want to take care of myself.”

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 111

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

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

“You’re telling me,” Chester snapped.

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

“What do you mean by that?”

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

Chester grumbled something incomprehensible and then, reluctantly, nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s that?”

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

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

“Oh?” Stani asked.  “Why is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that has changed?”  Stani asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded.

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

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

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

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

“We can use bombs to…what, exactly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled.

“A bomb,” I said, out loud.

Several bombs,” Michel said, smiling widely.

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

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

“Mobilize?  Mobilize for what?”

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

“And what’s that, then?”

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

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

“What subway station?” Stani asked.

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

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

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

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

“Excellent.  Very excellent.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will not know unless I try.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If that’s it, then?”  I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re absolutely right,” I said.

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

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

Chapter 110

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He raised an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

He nodded.  “You will tell me everything.”

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

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

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

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

James nodded silently next to his partner.

Sophie listened without comment from her place by the door.

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

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

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

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

“Well,” he said, “this…is not good.”

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

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

“Why would you want to do that?”

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

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

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

We all turned to look at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah lifted an eyebrow.  “Racer X?”

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

She rolled her eyes.

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

“Thus far?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Could we not do that?” Ally asked.

“Do what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The look Chester gave me was answer enough.

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

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

I blinked.  “Information?  Like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded.  “It’s a shell game.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

An outline was something that I could work with.

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

“Well, what?” Sarah asked.

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

Chapter 104

“Alright,” I said, strolling into the living room and taking a seat on the couch opposite Sarah.  She was sitting on the loveseat, with her laptop positioned on the coffee table.  Mila strode past her, into the kitchen, where she began rummaging through cabinets for something.  “What do we know?”

Sarah broke off her conversation with Anton about some sort of explosive compound and replied to me without missing a beat.  “Lord Fairfax is nothing if not typical,” she said.  “Blueblooded English nobility, with more money than intelligence or motivation.  He inherited the title from his father, who inherited it from his mother, and on and on through the generations.”

I nodded.  That agreed with my own personal read of the man.  “Where does he live?”

“He has a few residences that are publicly listed,” Sarah said.  Her fingers worked across the keyboard for a moment.  “I’ve got addresses in Surrey, Sussex, and Somerset, according to the official websites.”

“Where’s the family estate?”

“Berkeley, of course.”  Sarah’s lips twisted up into a slight smile.  “About eighty-five percent of that estate is open to the public.  Apparently, Fairfax inherited more than just a title.  His father wasn’t good at picking winning businesses, so the family name is in a considerable amount of debt.”

“That explains why he got into bed with Hill,” I said.  “We know he’s in London, though.  I don’t think he’s been sticking around the area for no reason.  Does he have any residences in the area?”

She checked the laptop again.  “Well, if I look into the unofficial registers, it seems that there are a few hidden assets.  He owns a house an estate in Central London, under the name of a family friend.  Well…it’s a few family friends deep, but you get my drift.”

“Alright.  That’s something we can keep in mind, if we need to put some pressure on him.  Can you absolutely prove that he’s the real owner of the property?”

Sarah gave me a shocked look that I read as slightly exaggerated for effect.  “Your lack of faith wounds me, Devlin.  Of course I can prove it.”

“Just making sure, Sarah.  Can’t be too sure about anything right now.”  I pursed my lips for a few seconds.  “How long would it take you to get into his emails?”

“Without knowing what his email address even is?” She asked back.  “And without any idea how many addresses he maintains, or with what security measure he protects what is surely riveting interpersonal drama between him and the heads of other houses?”

“That’s what I’m asking, yeah.  How long?”

She shrugged.  “If you can get close enough to his phone, I can write something that will transmit wirelessly and give me access.  It’s similar to something I’ve used before, so if I pull the basic malware off of my cloud server, I can have something ready in a few hours.”

“That long?”

“Like you said: can’t be sure about anything right now.  I’d rather take my time and get it right, as opposed to rushing things and finding out that I made a mistake somewhere.”

“And what,” Alex said from the table in his rumbling baritone, “are we to do?”

I’d forgotten momentarily that anyone else was in the room except for Sarah.  Forcing a cough that I hoped would cover a little bit of the awkwardness, I turned around and leaned against the back of the couch so that I faced the table.  Alex, Ally, and Michel sat there, watching me.

“We already talked about this,” I said.  “You and your daughter are getting on the first flight that Sarah can arrange without some sort of trail, and you’re getting the hell out of dodge.”

“If you had not come to rescue me,” Ally said, “this girl – what was her name? – would still be safe, no?”

The earnestness in her eyes made it difficult to lie or dissemble.  “Maybe,” I admitted, begrudgingly.  “Maybe not.  It’s possible that Asher would have found some other way to put us out of position.  That’s not the point, though.”

“What is the point?”  Ally persisted.  “I was not a burden in Munich, was I?  When you needed to get out of that concert without drawing any additional information, you said that I was good at this sort of work.”

Blithely, I ignored the sharp look Alex directed my way, and responded directly to his daughter.  “That’s not what I meant.  And taking something out of a beer hall – something that belonged to me, by the way – is about as different from what’s going on here as it could possibly be.  This is life and death, Ally.  You already got kidnapped and that was before Asher thought you were involved in what’s going on.  You think it’s going to get better from here?”

Her mouth opened, like she was going to respond, and then slowly closed.

“Alex, think about this,” I said, shifting my attention.  “I mean, seriously think about this.  You’re the only one of us who isn’t tied into this situation.  If Asher finishes whatever he’s planning, he’s going to come right after Sarah and me.  Michel might get away, but – “

The cabdriver cut me off.  “I am not going anywhere.”

“-but he’s not going anywhere,” I repeated and gave Michel an appreciative look.  “Mila’s sticking around until the end of her contract, no matter what.  But you have a chance to get away!  What’s more: you have something to get back to.  Staying in London to help with this is only going to make your life infinitely worse.”

The stone expression on his face – brute, obstinate stubbornness – wavered slightly.

Mila cleared her throat and dropped the finishing blow without blinking an eye or changing her body language in any noticeable way.  “And you’re a liability,” she said.  “Asher knows he can manipulate you by going after your daughter.  As long as you’re here, that makes you our liability, too.”  She strode out of the kitchen with a small container of cake icing and a spoon, found a spot beside the television and leaned against the wall there.  Sam prowled from his hiding place and nestled up next to her shin.

Alex tried to remain steadfast and unreadable, but I knew him better than most.  I knew the exact instant he realized that we were all telling him unavoidable truths.  “I do not like this,” he said, finally.

“None of us do,” I said.  “But it is what it is.  Sarah?”

She’d been working on her computer for the duration of the little side conversation and looked up when I said her name.  “Assuming that Asher or Hill has someone watching the major international airports, it’s going to take me a bit to finagle some financial wizardry.  If I use any of the regular dummy accounts, I risk revealing them to the very people we’re trying to avoid.”

“How long is a bit?”

“If I’m working on the other thing?”  She tapped an index finger to her bottom lip.  The unconscious action was ridiculously distracting, so I found something interesting outside of the balcony past her head to look at.  “A day.  Maybe longer, depending.”

“On?”

“When you’re making your approach,” she said.  “You’re going to need support…support that I won’t be able to provide if I’m splitting my attention.  Not everyone can do the multitasking thing.”

A wealth of anecdotal experience watching as Sarah worked on two or three different monitors without missing a single development told a different story.  I decided not to point that out to her.  “There you go, Alex.  A day or two and then you’re getting out of town.  Agreed?”

His lips drew into a tight line.  Ally, clearly her father’s daughter, did the exact same thing.  I wondered if they realized how similar they looked at that moment.  “Fine,” Alex spat out, eventually.  “But I can still help.  As long as I am here, I might be able to provide a different viewpoint on things.  You are not going to deny me that much, are you?”

“Of course not.  I was hoping you’d do that, actually,” I said.  “We’ve got a lot of different minds in the room right now.  Asher knows how I think.  He might even have an idea how Sarah works.  The only way we’re going to get ahead of him is if we hit this from an angle he wouldn’t expect.”

“Agreed,” Sarah said.  “So, this is what I’m thinking.  Devlin already has a cover identity he can use to get close to Fairfax.  It’s pretty solid, as these things go, although it isn’t exactly bulletproof.”

“Neither am I,” I pointed out.  The attempt was meant to inject a small amount of levity into the room and I was rewarded by a short laugh from Sarah before she composed herself again.

Anyway,” she said, struggling to keep a small smile from her face, “Devlin ran into Fairfax outside of the Strand, just before we went in to get Ally out of there.  Whether he intended to or not, he invited Devlin to a personal meeting, so that they can discuss their ‘differing ideals of business’ or whatever bull he spouted.”

I picked up the thread.  “That’s an invite I think I’m going to accept.  Aggressively, if necessary.”

Sarah nodded.  “When he goes to dinner with Fairfax, I’ll be working to penetrate his email servers.  His name is in the files that Avis dropped, so we know he’s involved with Hill somehow.  If I can get specific details, Devlin can use that to pressure him into making a mistake.  Maybe he’ll reveal some bit of information that leads us to where they’re keeping Avis, Neal, and Billy.”

“Maybe not,” I said.  “But it’s still a lead we can pursue and it’s the only lead we have.”

“So?”  Sarah asked.  “Any questions?”

Everyone stared at us with varying degrees of surprise and confusion.  Finally, Michel raised a hand.  “I have a question.”

“What’s on your mind?” I asked.  “Anything, no matter how silly it seems, could be the deciding point.”

“When,” Michel said, speaking slowly, “did the two of you have any time to come up with that plan?”

I blinked.  Sarah did the same.

Michel continued.  “You went to the room to shower,” he said, pointing at me, “almost as soon as we found out anything about this Fairfax.  And you did not go into the room to talk to him.”  He moved his finger from me to Sarah.  “Did you talk about this before?  Is this something you do often?”

Both Sarah and I started to answer, at the exact same time.  We stopped, paused, and then I gestured for her to speak first.  “No one, uh…no one does anything like this,” she said.  “But the specifics…I mean, the general outline isn’t particularly special.”

“Exactly,” I said.  “There’s only so much we could do to get close to Fairfax, and if we’ve got to do it under a time limit, then –“

“ – then we don’t want to pick now to start getting creative,” Sarah said, finishing my sentence.  She didn’t seem to realize what she’d done until Mila snickered.  The bodyguard didn’t even have the good grace to hide her laughter, either.  Sarah’s eyes flickered to meet mine, then down to her computer where she started to work furiously on something.

I cleared my throat with a bit more force than strictly necessary.  “Does anybody have any other questions?  About the job?”

The silence that fell over the room was less curious, now, and more thoughtful.  Alex spoke first.  “This Fairfax is a nobleman, yes?”

“A Baron, yeah.”

“If he was born to money,” Alex said, “he probably does not have much concern for the people that work for him.”

I snorted.  “I’ve had two whole conversations with him and I can promise you that he isn’t the kind of person who worries about the people who clean his house.”

“So, maybe there is someone in the household who would be willing to provide information in exchange for some, uh…financial incentives?”

I tilted my head, considering that.  “It’s got merit,” I said, finally.  “But how are we going to find out who’s on his staff, possibly close enough to tell us anything other than how he likes his eggs in the morning?”

“Over easy,” Sarah said.

I looked at her, silent confusion evident on my face.

“Credit card receipts,” she said, without looking up from the computer.  I didn’t have the foggiest idea how she’d uncovered that nugget of information and, I decided after less than a heartbeat of thought, I didn’t particularly want to know.

“Point still stands,” I said.  “If we’re going to turn one of his employees to our side of things, I’d want to make absolutely sure that we’re not wasting time we can’t afford to be wasting.  Know what I mean?”

Alex grunted.  “I understand.  But…”

“But what?” I prompted.

“I could ask some of my associates in the area,” Alex said.  “There are still people in London who owe me favors.  It would not be something that exposed me to unnecessary risk, but it could prove useful.”

I glared at him.  Alex’s expression remained as innocent as an angel’s, though, and I eventually felt ridiculous maintaining such an aggressive expression in the face of such sanguine grace.  “You’re not going to leave this to us, are you?”

“I have to stay here until Sarah can get me out of the country without attracting attention,” Alex said.  “So long as I am here, if I am able to help…why would I do anything less than that?”

A growl of irritation found its way up my throat and out my mouth, but I gave Alex a short nod.  “Nothing that ties directly to you,” I said.  “None of us went through all of the trouble getting your daughter away from Asher just so that the two of could throw yourselves to the wolves in Avis’s place.”

“Of course.  I will be very discreet.”

As much as Alex’s insistence on involving himself galled me, I couldn’t deny that the man had skills I lacked.  In all the years we’d worked together, and all the years since his retirement, Alex kept up with an ever-widening circle of criminals in a menagerie of professions.  Forgers, safe-crackers, and basic brutes were all within easy reach of the German, if he was of a mind to tap their skills.  If anyone would be able to ferret out the weak links within Fairfax’s household, it was Alex.

“Can I help?” Ally asked.

I shook my head, in unison with both Sarah and Alex.  “You’ve done enough.  If you come up with something that we should know, feel free to tell Sarah.  She’ll relay it to me and the two of us can figure out what to do.  Otherwise, you don’t leave your room downstairs until it’s time for you to get on a plane.  Understand?”

Ally pouted for several seconds before she gave me a single, sharp nod.

“Is this something that I should tell Stani about?” Anton asked.  “If you think that Fairfax will lead you to Hill, and that Hill will lead you to Asher, I should inform him about what we are doing.  Already, he wonders why I have been with you for so long.”

I considered the possibilities in that.  Stani, Iosif, and Leonid were gangsters, not thieves.  If they got involved in I had in mind, it was more than possible that they would only serve to escalate things into a fevered clash of combatants.  That had been useful during the infiltration and eventual destruction of Hill’s processing plant; causing a similar disturbance at the private estate of a Baron would probably be less useful.

“No,” I said, dragging out the syllable.  “No, don’t let them know what’s going on for right now.”

The look on Anton’s face was a mixture of chagrin, wounded pride, and a dash of trepidation.

I took a wild guess as to the concerns on his mind and waved them away with a lazy hand.  “If we start zeroing in on Asher, I’ll let them know.  Believe me, I don’t want to deal with him and his army of hired goons without anything less than a trained group of my own.  You know Stani better than I do; do you really think this is the sort of operation he’s best suited for?”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized that there might have been an unintended subtext to the implication that Anton and Stani were closer than simply forced business associates.  The flash of nervousness that crossed Anton’s face told me that I’d hit the mark, but he smoothed his face back into a mask of neutrality before anyone else could notice.  “No,” he said.  “You are correct.  I will…find something to tell him, so that he does not blunder into your plans.”

“That could be worth more than almost anything else you could possibly do,” I said.  “The last thing I need is a last minute surprise, throwing everything into chaos while I’m still trying to tease information out of Fairfax.”

Mila cleared her throat.  The small container of cake icing was empty, judging from the hollow sound as she dropped the spoon and container down onto the nearest shelf. “I’d ask where you want me to be,” she said, yawning, “but I already know.”

“Oh?” I asked.  “Where is that?”

“Next to you,” she said.  “You’re planning on going into the estate of someone who we know is involved with Hill.  You’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to sit this one out.”

That was, more or less, exactly what I’d expected from her.  Our conversation in the bedroom had only served to reinforce the knowledge that Mila wouldn’t be content anywhere except where the action was thickest.

“We didn’t bench you when we went after Ally,” I said.  “I’m not about to bench you now.  Besides, Fairfax has already seen you.  It won’t take a lot of fast talking to convince him that I’m wealthy enough to have my own bodyguard.”

“Glad to hear it,” Mila said.  “When are you going to make the approach?”

“First,” I said, raising my voice slightly, “does anyone else have any questions?”

No one said anything.

“Alright.  You all have earbuds,” I said, “and I want you to hold onto them.  Sarah, what’s the range on those?”

“As long as you’re on wireless, I can pick up what you’re saying,” she said, directing her answer to everyone in the room.  “As you get farther away, it might take a bit for the signal to strengthen enough for me to make sense of it, but it’ll get through.”

“Fantastic,” I said.  “Keep those earbuds on.  If you think of anything else – anything else – do not hesitate to get in touch with Sarah.  The smallest thing might be all we need to avoid a trap or wiggle out of one that we’re already stuck in.”

“And you?” Michel asked.  “What will you do?”

“Get in touch with Fairfax,” I said.  “Schedule a meeting, the sooner the better.  Have dinner and, somehow, manage to pull Hill’s location out of him without letting him know what I’m after.  Just another night in the life.”

Mila knelt to scratch between Sam’s ears.  “No, Mister Bond,” she murmured, under her breath.  It was only due to the silence in the room that I was able to hear her at all.  “I don’t expect you to dine.”

“What was that?” I asked her, even though I’d heard her perfectly well.

She glanced up from her position, her fingers still working in the fur at the top of her pet’s head.  “Goldfinger,” she said.  “Like the Bond villains Asher was talking about.  ‘No, Mr. Bond, I don’t expect you to dine.’”

“I expect you to die,” Sarah finished.

I looked at her and she looked back.  We both looked away at the same time, simultaneously deciding that the best thing to say in the moment was nothing at all.  Still, the words echoed through my head.

I expect you to die.

Well, I expected something else.  Sadly, only one of us could be right.  I could only hope that Fairfax – or Goldfinger, whoever – was a little less skilled than me or my team.  Otherwise, things would go badly, quickly, and mine wouldn’t be the only life lost at the end of the encounter.

Chapter 102

“The doctor, Sophie,” I snapped.  “Get the doctor.”

Her mouth opened and closed several times, producing nothing except for dead air.

Now!”

Sophie blinked, visibly pulling herself back together, and then gave me a sharp nod.  “Of course.  Brandon, help this gentleman into the suite.  I will be right back.”  She frantically pressed a button on the elevator’s interior console until the doors slid shut.

The bellhop – Brandon, apparently – did as he was ordered and managed to get Billy’s man out of the hallway and into the suite.  With effort, Brandon dumped the wounded man onto one of the couches.  Sharp gasps of surprise and horror came from the table where my team sat.  The wounded man groaned and listed from a seated position into a slump across the length of cushions.

“What’s your name?” I asked the man on the couch.  For the moment, I ignored the half-dozen questions coming from the table, focusing instead on the man in front of me.

The man coughed, sending flecks of crimson blood onto the otherwise pristine furniture in the process.  “Name’s Peter,” he said, between racking gasps for breath.

“Alright, Peter,” I said, “I need you tell me what happened.  Exactly what happened.  Can you do that?”

Peter didn’t say anything for several seconds.  He spent that time gathering his thoughts and struggling to regain some measure of composure.  The blood seeping through his shirt into the fabric of the couch made it difficult to even look at the man, but I forced myself to stay calm and focused.  The terror I felt flooding into my veins could be dealt with later, when there wasn’t a man on death’s door seated on my couch.

“Was an ambush,” Peter said finally.  “Went to the tube to keep an eye on that girl, but…”  He coughed.  “…they was waiting for us.  Not at first, but a few stops down the line.  Happened too quick for me to do nothing about it.  Just…came out of nowhere, yeah?  Four men with clubs, rushed us as soon as we stopped.”

“Where’s Billy?”

“They took ‘em,” Peter said.  “Two of them grabbed him straight out of his chair and dragged him off.  One of them worked on me, and the other took the man who was with the girl.”

“Neal?” Sarah asked.  She had recovered enough from her shock to form questions, moving from the table over to the loveseat nearest the couch where Peter half-sat, half-lay.  “You’re talking about Neal?”

Peter made a non-committal noise.  “Don’t know his name,” he said.  “Never asked.  But they knocked him out while the girl was screaming, then took the whole lot of ‘em somewhere else.”

The brittle calm I’d been holding on to shattered under this new information and a torrent of increasingly vile swear words poured out of me before I could help it.  In my peripheral vision, I noticed Ally blanching slightly at my choice of language, but I couldn’t spare the attention to worry about her delicate sensibilities.

For the moment, Sarah was more in control of herself than I was.  She took the lead in questioning Peter without needing to be asked to do so.  “How did you get here?”

“They wasn’t worried about me,” Peter said.  “Wasn’t worried about leaving any evidence behind, neither.  Billy dropped his phone when they took him and I got this address out of it.”

Sarah’s eyebrows drew closer together.  “This address?  How did Billy know where we were?”

Peter shrugged.  A fit of coughs robbed him of speech for the next six or seven seconds.

Somehow, I managed to haul my thoughts away from vitriol and back into the land of the thinking.  “He would have had us followed,” I said.  “But we wouldn’t have noticed his people.”

Sarah considered that before nodding slowly.  “Who looks at the people on the side of the road?”  It was a rhetorical question, and I didn’t have any desire to answer one of those at the moment.  “Jesus, we’ve been off of our game this entire time.”

“We can’t worry about that right now,” I said.  “Peter, is there anything else you can tell us?  Anything at all?”

“I don’t…don’t know what’s going on here,” Peter replied.  “Head’s all full of bloody fog, yeah?”  Then, he groaned again and lapsed into silence, slumping even further down.

It didn’t take a medical professional to realize that Peter was in bad shape. “Mila,” I said, “are you still with us, over there?’

As I spoke, I took my eyes away from Peter’s supine form and cast them in Mila’s direction.  The bodyguard sat at the table, one hand still on the hidden weapon at the small of her back.  Her eyes flitted all across the room, taking in everything they beheld with the cold professionalism of a trained killer.  “This could be a trap,” she said in a cold voice.

“If it was a trap,” I countered, “we’d already be in trouble.  Asher hasn’t been following us.  Either he wanted us to get away, in which case he wouldn’t risk blowing his cover…or he doesn’t want us to get away, and we’d have gotten an RPG through the balcony by now.”

Both Alex and his daughter edged slightly away from the balcony at that.  Michel stayed where he was, mouth hanging open at the scene in front of him.  Mila gave me a slight, grudging nod.  “What about Hill?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But I do know that this man might be the only lead we’ve got right now.  Did you learn anything about field medicine while you were…uh…”

She saved me from continuing by jumping from her chair and rushing over to Peter’s side.  “Alex, keep an eye on the elevator.  Sarah, I need you to get bedsheets for me.  And duct tape, if you can find some.”

“Duct tape?” Sarah repeated.  “Why would I have duct tape?”

“Find something!” Mila shouted back.  “Until your concierge gets back with a doctor, it’s entirely possible that this man’s going to pass out from blood loss.  If that happens, you aren’t getting anything out of him.”

Sarah sucked in a sharp breath, but she hurried away to find the sheets and duct tape.  Anton joined her after a moment.

“Just in case you can’t fix him,” I said to Mila, “what can we do to get information out of him right now?”

Mila thought about that for a few seconds.  Then, with an absolutely placid expression, she slapped Peter across the face with an open hand.  The sound reverberated through the room and Peter’s eyes snapped open.

“That works,” I said.  “Peter, I need you tell me more about what happened.  Details are important, okay?  Anything you remember might be the difference between finding Billy alive or dead.”

“But,” Peter began in a dazed voice, “they didn’t want him dead.  Couldn’t have…barely even touched him, except for when they pulled him out of the chair.”

Peter began to drift away again.  Mila raised a hand, as if to slap him back into awareness once more, and I waved her down.

“They didn’t hurt him?” I asked.  “Did they say anything when they came?”

“Didn’t say nothing,” Peter said.  A second passed before he shook his head, clearing away some of the fog that had to be clogging his brain like ethereal spiderwebs.  “No, wait…that ain’t right.  Said he knew why they were there.  Told him that, uh….”

“What did they tell him?”  I pressed.

“Said someone wanted to see him again,” Peter said.  “Said it was past due.  Why’d they say that, though?”

I was about to try a different tactic, when Sarah and Anton returned with sheets and a tube of superglue.  “I couldn’t find any duct tape,” Sarah said, offering both items to Mila.  “Will this work?”

Mila grimaced.  “He won’t be happy about it in the morning,” she said, then shrugged with one shoulder.

She set to work without another word, tearing the sheets into shreds and directing each of us where each strip should be placed and how tightly the knots should be tied.  Mila handled the work of applying super glue to cuts and gouges on Peter’s body.  She pressed the sides of each wound together with a steady hand and drizzled the adhesive over the skin, then pressed them together until each injury stayed shut.  Blood continued to leak out of Peter but there wasn’t anything we could about that.  In stunned silence, all of us – Mila, Anton, Michel, Sarah, and I – worked to keep Peter was bleeding out in front of us.

The work continued with Mila calling out tasks at sporadic intervals until Sophie returned with a doctor in tow.  The dark-skinned woman took one look at the tableau in front of her – Peter sprawled on the couch, five novices administrating triage, while Alex and Ally watched in shock from their table – before he briskly ordered all of us away.  With her bag of tricks, the doctor began treating the most serious of Peter’s wounds, undoing what we’d done to keep him alive and conscious as she went.

While the doctor did her job, all of us retreated to the table.  “What the hell do you think is going on here?” I asked the table, in a lowered voice.

“Asher…he must have known,” Alex said.  “This thing with Ally…it must have only been a diversion.  Something to keep you away from the little girl while his men moved in to take her.”

That had been the first idea in my head but, hearing it spoken aloud by Alex, I found myself shaking my head in disagreement.  “No.  No, that can’t be it.  If he knew where Ally was, he wouldn’t have needed the trap in the first place.  He could have just arranged to have our attention somewhere else.  Besides, he’d have to know where we’re hiding out, wouldn’t he?”

Alex considered that for several seconds before offering me a reluctant nod.  “Perhaps.”

“You said that he has been leading us around?” Michel asked.

“That’s what it looks like,” I said.  “Hell, that’s what it feels like.”

“Kidnapping Ally was a bold move, then,” Michel said.

“How so?”

“If he knew that you would come, and he knew that you would find a way to get away, why would he do it?  That would only make sense if he wanted you to figure out what he was doing.”

I blinked.  Something might have been lost in translation there, but the general thrust of Michel’s thought made it through.  Assuming that Asher had been guiding us through the process of attacking Hill at strategic points, there still wasn’t any satisfactory explanation for kidnapping Ally.  There was even less of a reason for a sudden attack on Billy.  If we were right, Asher didn’t even care about Neal and Avis.  His goal was something else, something that we hadn’t yet deciphered.

“And,” I said out loud, “even if he really did want Avis, what reason would he have to leave Billy alive?”

“Leverage?” Mila offered.

“Leverage for what?” I shot back.  “Billy’s sphere of influence isn’t all that considerable, even in the areas where he’s strongest.  Asher deciding to bet on Hill makes more sense.”

“What about the Lady?” Sarah asked.

That thought warranted a few more seconds.  The idea that the Lady had been playing us from the beginning had occurred to me on more than one occasion.  And, after the requisite seconds had passed, I reached the same conclusion as I had a half dozen times before.  “Doesn’t make sense, either.  She’s had too many opportunities to take us out and she hasn’t taken any of them.  When I was in Scotland Yard, she wouldn’t even have had to do anything except leave me alone, but she went through the trouble of exposing David, just to get me out.”

“We still don’t know what she really wants,” Sarah said.

“True.  But whatever it is, I’m confident it’s something that she needs us to get for her.”  Sarah gave me a questioning look.  “Trust me.  You’d understand if you met her.  If she was trying to lead us into temptation, we wouldn’t even have begun to see her plan.  What’s happening here positively reeks of Asher.”

She hesitated.  “I’d agree with you,” she said, slowly, “but he’s been running circles around you this whole time.  All of us.  How do we know this isn’t more subterfuge on his part?”

I stood up and began to pace.  There wasn’t much distance between the table and the nearest wall, so I traversed the distance twice before speaking.  “We don’t,” I said.  “That’s been the problem with everything we’ve done so far.”

“What do you mean?”

“We don’t know anything.”  A brief flash of anger urged me to clear the table with a single violent sweep of my arm.  I suppressed that.  “Everyone has more information than we do.  Asher’s had years to set up whatever he’s working on, and he’s working with the support of the Magi.  I think.  We’re in Hill’s territory.  Hell, I’m almost positive the Lady has more intelligence than she’s offering, and that doesn’t make any sense at all.  Why would she hire us to steal the book and Avis, then deliberately kneecap us right out of the gate?”

Everyone thought about that question in silence.  While we found ourselves in isolated contemplation, Sophie’s doctor finished working on Peter.  The wounded man’s eyes were open now, but they weren’t focusing on anything in particular.  Without waiting to be asked, the doctor moved over and gave Ally  quick examination.  Her injuries were mostly cosmetic.  Asher – or his men, I wasn’t sure – hadn’t done anything to the girl that required anything other than bandages and bedrest.  From there, the doctor looked at Mila.

Mila gave her a steady look and then, slowly, shook her head.  “I’m fine,” she said.

“You need to have that arm looked at,” the doctor said.

“I’m fine,” Mila repeated.

The doctor’s eyes narrowed.  When Mila showed no sign of surrendering the point, the doctor sighed and began to pack up her supplies.

“Doc?” I asked.

She stopped, a stethoscope in one hand and a vile of some medicine in the other.  “Yes?”

“How long do you think he’ll be unconscious?”  I gestured to where Peter lay.

The doctor cast an appraising eye at Peter’s form.  “That depends on a lot of factors,” she said, finally.

“Do you think you could get him awake right now?  He can sleep for as long as he needs to later, but I still need answers now.”

The doctor placed the items in her hand into bag of tricks, then removed a fistful of tiny white packets.  She tossed those to me and I caught them in the air.

“Smelling salts,” the doctor said.  She stood up and started to move towards the elevator.  “He’ll wake up for a little while, but you have to let him sleep.  I don’t want to come back up here in a day or two, only to find out that you’ve worked him to death.”

“Will do, Doc,” I said.  “Thanks.”

The doctor gave me a cursory nod and pressed the call button for the elevator.  A few seconds later, she stepped inside and disappeared.

“Why not kill Peter?” I asked aloud, when I was sure that the doctor wouldn’t reappear.  “If Asher’s in his endgame, he’s got no reason to leave any witnesses alive.”

“Unless he really is leading us around by the nose,” Sarah pointed out.

“Sure.  But Peter didn’t tell us anything that points us in any given direction.  We’re exactly where we’d be if Peter hadn’t shown up at all.”  I walked over to the couch, prepared to use the smelling salts on Peter.  “He’s got to know something else.”

Before I could place one of the packets underneath his nose, Peter’s eyes focused sharply on me.  “I…kept this,” he said, in halting fragments.  He turned over so that he was laying on his back and fished around in his shirt pocket.  It took him a few tense seconds to find the object of his search.  “Here.”

He handed me a small item, sheathed in hard plastic.  I didn’t recognize its weight or shape at first; when I held it up to the light, I understood what I held.

Sarah, of course, knew what it was immediately.  “A USB drive?  What good is that?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I tossed the drive to Sarah.  Her eyes widened and she began fumbling with her tablet; Mila snatched the object out of the air and placed it gently on the table in front of Sarah.  I pretended not to notice Sarah’s moment of blind panic.  “You tell me.”

Sarah put aside the tablet and retrieved a laptop, instead.  She went through a series of customary checks that involved things like “creating a virtual space” and “disconnecting from the cloud servers” before inserting the USB drive into a tiny slot on the left side of the keyboard.  She waited a second and then began typing commands into the system.

The rest of us waited impatiently.  After five minutes of the steady clicking of Sarah’s nails against her keyboard, I couldn’t stand the tension any longer.  “What is it?”

She looked up from the screen.  “These are the files Avis was working on,” she said.  “Not just that…this might be everything she’s been working on since we got her out of the manor house to begin with.”

“Decrypted?”

Sarah nodded.  “Looks that way.  I’ve got balance sheets, ledgers, some personnel records.  There are even names of local suppliers and corrupt officers that can be bribed to look the other way when shipments come in.”

“Okay…anything else?”

“Nothing that I can…”  She stopped speaking.

“What is it?”  She didn’t immediately answer.  “Sarah, what else is there?”

“One of Hill’s associates is listed here.  It looks like just a low level contact, for when Hill has to move among the elite.”

“Who?  We might be able to find out something important from whoever that is.  Infiltrate his circle of friends or just plain blackmail them into telling them what we need.”

Instead of answering, she turned the laptop around so that the screen faced all of us gathered around the table.  The picture displayed there was immediately familiar.

Michel, Alex, and Ally lacked the appropriate context, though.  “Who is it?” Ally asked and, for the moment, I forgot that the girl should be on a flight far away from London by any reasonable measure.  “Do you know him?”

“Lady and gentlemen,” I said, in a profoundly resigned voice, “allow me to introduce our new target: Lord Charles Fairfax, Baron of Berekley.”

Chapter 101

After returning the train to its stable, we changed vehicles three different times and took a circuitous route around the greater London area until we were absolutely sure that Asher had not somehow managed to follow us.  Then, and only then, did we allow ourselves to exhale a collective sigh of relief and return to our base of operations in the Brooklands.

Alex clung to Ally with all of the not-inconsiderable force in his arms, thrilled beyond words to have her safely back and terrified that something might manage to steal her away again.  Ally allowed her burly father to embrace her with only a modicum of complaint, still clinging to some semblance of dignity in the face of the ordeal she’d just escaped.  I expected that mask to crumble as soon as she was away from so many strangers.  That would only be natural.

When we reached the hotel, Sophie greeted us with the formality and civility that I’d come to associate with the concierge.  The only emotion she allowed to reach her face was a barely raised eyebrow when Ally stepped out of the car.

“Shall I arrange for medical treatment, then?” Sophie asked smoothly.  Even as she spoke the words, her eyes flitted down to her tablet, while her fingers began to type.

“I’d appreciate that,” I said, smiling.  Sophie did not return the expression, but I hadn’t really expected her to.  “And you’ve got someone to pick up those cars?”

“Of course.  I believe those particular vehicles were scheduled for a deep cleaning today, as it happens.”

Translation: any evidence of our presence in those cars we’d abandoned would be eradicated.  As far as I knew, Sophie’s cars weren’t linked to any crimes, and we hadn’t technically done anything that would attract the attention of the law again.  Still, leaving as small of a footprint as possible was just good tradecraft.

“I think you might be right about that,” I said, out loud.  “Our friends are going to be staying here, by the way.”

“Ah.  And how long will they require accommodations?”

“A day or two,” Sarah said, before I could answer.  I gave her a look, which she blithely ignored.

Sophie started the process of acquiring a room for Alex and his daughter.

Ally shifted her weight from one foot to the other in the temporary silence that followed.  I watched her visibly struggling with another question, before she plunged forward and spoke.  “You knew him?” She asked her father.  “The man who took me…both of you knew him?”

Alex and I shared a look, then nodded.  “A long time ago,” I said, “yeah.  I knew him.”

“What did he want with me?  I heard him say something about a girl, but…”

“It’s…complicated,” I said.  “Let’s just say that he wanted to get to me, and you were the only way he was able to do that on short notice.”

“And this is…about what you used to do?”  Ally’s question was directed at her father.

Alex sighed.  “Unfortunately.  That is why I left that life behind.  It is too dangerous for a man with children and a…a wife.”

The slight hiccup might as well have signaled a fog horn to me.  I knew the story Alex was tiptoeing around.  I did not, however, know whether or not he had gotten around to telling Ally the truth about her mother’s death.  I certainly didn’t want to be the one who broached that topic, so I kept my mouth shut.

Sarah stepped into the conversational gap before things could grow too awkward.  “Let’s talk about this upstairs.  Devlin’s right; I think a celebratory meal is in order.”

“And, after that?” Alex asked.

“After that,” Sarah said, “you get your daughter on a plane, I’ll arrange for Julianna to meet you in some as-yet undisclosed country, and the three of you can lay low until we get a chance to finish things here.”

Alex’s jaw dropped open.  It worked up and down in silence for a few seconds before he regained the power of speech.  “He stole my daughter!  And you want me to let him get away with it?”

“You just said that it’s too dangerous to bring your loved ones into this game,” Sarah said.  “As far as Asher knew, you weren’t active and he still came after Ally.  We both know he’s going after Jules next.  The best you can do is get somewhere out of sight so that he can’t use you or your family as leverage again.”

Alex stammered out an incoherent response.

I raised my hands, drawing eyes back to me.  “We can discuss all of this over food,” I said.  “And out of sight, preferably.”

“I second that,” Mila said.  “Sam needs to be fed, anyway.”

“Sam?”  Ally asked.  “Is he another one of your old friends, papa?”

I laughed again.  This time, Mila allowed herself to crack the barest smile as well.  “No,” I said, “not a friend.  Come on.  You’ll understand when you see him.”

Upstairs, the feline Sam was overjoyed at Mila’s return…or, more accurately, as overjoyed as a lethargic furball could be.  He jumped off of the couch and sauntered over to his owner, rubbing his bulk against her leg and purring like a jackhammer.  Mila picked him up and stroked between his ears.

“This,” she said, “is Sam.”

“Can I…can I pet him?” Ally asked, hesitating a little bit with each word.

Mila nodded, so Ally approached Sam and held out a tentative hand.  The cat sniffed her fingers, seemed to give the matter deep contemplation, before ultimately tilting his head slightly with an air of deep sufferance.  Ally found an acceptable spot behind one ear for her fingers to work and Sam started up his jet engine impersonation once more.

“Alright, then,” Sarah said, when we were all seated around the dining room table.  There wasn’t any food on the table, but several of the alcoholic drinks we’d purchased over the last week found their way into glasses and cups.  Anton deigned to drink something other than vodka and even Ally had a short glass filled with a dark lager.  “It’s five o clock somewhere, isn’t it?”

“It might as well be five o’clock here, if you’re asking me,” I said.  “Here’s to cheating failure yet again.”

We all raised our glasses in salute and drank a toast.

“I cannot believe that worked,” Michel said, lowering his glass back to the table.

“Neither can I,” I admitted.  “I wouldn’t have thought to do the thing with the explosives, Anton.”

The Ukrainian shrugged.  “It is not the sort of thing that people think about,” he said.  “But what can destroy a wall can also destroy a floor.  It would not have worked so well if you had not been able to tell me exactly where to put the detonators.”

I pointed my glass at Sarah.  “That one wasn’t me.  She was the one who marked the area.”

Sarah inclined her head, in acceptance of my praise.  “True.  But you’re the one that actually got us all into one area.  How did you know Asher would keep talking to you?”

“I didn’t.  But I didn’t have a whole lot of other options, so I figured…might as well go with what works.”

“Keep talking until whoever your victim happens to be decides to give up and let you have your way?” Sarah asked, with a slight smile on her face.

“If it ain’t broke.”  I swallowed another mouthful of beer and Ally, seated across from me, did the same.  Alex gave her an odd look, too fleeting for me to read the subtext.

“But the gun…what if you had guessed wrong with the gun?” Ally asked.

In a flash of sudden understanding, I decided not to tell Ally about exactly how much guesswork had gone into the operation to rescue her.  It wouldn’t do her any good to know exactly how close to gruesome death we’d all been, and it certainly wouldn’t help Alex to possess even the slightest knowledge about the assumptions we’d made.  A single mistake would have been sufficient to derail everything.  If I had missed a cue by five or ten seconds; if Anton had not been able to come up with an explosive compound that pierced the rock floor without destroying it entirely; if Asher had been willing to lose his life, so long as he got ours in exchange…

“Sarah knew what she was doing,” I said, out loud.

Sarah didn’t need to look at me to understand my thought process.  “Asher has tried that trick on other people before,” she lied.  The smoothness of that deception surprised me; historically, her ability to prevaricate had always been subpar, before we’d split ways.  “Besides, we had a few other options in mind, just in case he decided to get creative.”

“I…I would be dead if you hadn’t saved me,” Ally said.  I noticed, after a moment, that she’d directed that sentiment entirely to me.

“Your father is a friend,” I said.  “And there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for a friend.  Besides, you and I have history now.”

She blinked in confusion.

“If not for you,” I continued, “I might not have gotten my passport out of that beer hall.  Without that, I wouldn’t have made it to Ukraine and…well, no need to think about what have happened.  Let’s just say that you might have saved your own life.”

That logic was circuitous, but it couldn’t hurt to bolster the girl’s self-esteem.  A light dusting of positive deception would do her good.

“But that would not have worked without all of you,” Alex rumbled, pulling our eyes away from each other with the intonation.  “And it would not have happened at all, if not for Asher.”  He spoke the name like it was the foulest sort of curse.

Sarah placed her half-empty drink down on the table.  “You can’t do this,” she said, discarding all flowery language in favor of the blunt truth.  “You want it too bad, Alex.”

“Of course I want to make him pay.”  Alex’s voice, deep at the best of times, dropped into a barely indecipherable growl.

“And you don’t think that’s what he’d want?” Sarah asked.  Alex hesitated at that.  “Every time we’ve beat him so far, we did it by going after his target in a way he couldn’t anticipate.  Devlin hit the museum while Asher was dealing with a fire; we managed to get away from the manor house with Avis and Neal through sheer audacity; and to get your daughter back, we stole a train, and then dropped through the floor itself to get away before he could react.  But if you’re angry?  You’ll run straight at him, and he’ll pick you apart.  What’s more: you know I’m telling the truth.”

Alex stared at Sarah over the lip of his glass and said nothing for a long time.  When he finally spoke, there was an unmistakable note of resignation in his voice.  “Perhaps.”

“There is no perhaps,” Sarah said.  “Devlin, would you please tell him that I’m right?”

“Wait.  What’d you say a second ago, Sarah?” I asked.

“When?”

“When you were telling Alex how we keep beating Asher.”

One of Sarah’s eyebrows twitched upward.  From their seats, Mila and Michel leaned closer as well.  “Did you think of something?” Michel asked me.

I let my thoughts travel back a few seconds, running over Sarah’s words.  We had beaten Asher on multiple occasions: we’d gotten to the crown first, extracted Avis from the manor house, escaped Interpol’s noose, and dealt a serious blow to Hill’s operations.  Except…none of those actions had actually damaged Asher at all, had they?

“We got distracted,” I muttered.

“Say again?” Sarah asked.

“I said that we got distracted.”  My palm came up and slapped against my forehead.  “Damn it, we’ve been on defense this whole time.”

“I do not understand,” Michel said.

Sarah’s lips worked without sound, as she ran through our actions in London.  I had faith that she would eventually come to the same conclusion, so I turned my attention to Michel and Mila, instead.  “Everything we’ve done has only hurt Hill, so far.  Asher hasn’t had any skin in this game.  Sure, he’s been pulling strings to keep putting obstacles in our way, but why would he care if Hill loses a storage warehouse or a processing plant?  It isn’t his business, after all.”

“That’s what the Lady wanted you to do,” Mila said.  “Take down Hill so that you can get a clear run at your former friend.”

“Yes, but that still doesn’t explain why Asher took Ally.”  I stressed the words to make their importance unmistakably clear.  “That doesn’t fit with everything else that’s been going on.  He’s harried us, kept us on our heels, but he hadn’t done anything aggressive before this.  Not directly.”

“He did try to kill us in Kiev,” Anton pointed out.

“No.  He tried to kill you, Stani, and his gruesome twosome.  Since then he’s been strictly hands off.”

Sarah looked up.  “Maybe we’re damaging his plan somehow?  Whatever he’s got in the works that involves Hill might be in danger of falling apart.  That’s a possibility, right?’

“It is, but…that still doesn’t make sense.  Why would he bother making us the offer?”  Another thought dropped into place.  “He could have just given the order to shoot us after we dropped through the floor, but he didn’t.  Why?”  The answer occurred to me a moment later.

When the moment of realization hit her, Sarah’s eyes grew wide.  “He’s been drawing us out, hasn’t he?”

I bit back a swear, in deference to Alex’s daughter.  “How the hell didn’t I see this?”

“I still don’t see it,” Mila said.

Alex had been quiet during the exchange of ideas.  Now, he cleared his throat.  “I can only make guesses, of course, but think about this.  If he had not drugged Devlin at the museum, would you have exposed yourself so soon?”

Mila shook her head.

“And you,” Alex continued, shifting his gaze over to Michel, “would not have gotten involved at all if the crown had not been equipped with the secondary alarm system.”

“I…”  Michel started, then stopped.  “I do not know.”

“Anton, you and your comrades would still be overseas, following Asher’s trail, if Devlin had not discovered him here in London.  I would still be in Germany, as would my daughter.”

“And I’d still be in San Francisco,” Sarah breathed.  “My God, this…this must have been his plan.”

With that, I began to see the full shape of things.  Asher’s taunting, the deliberately inflammatory move of hiring Mila’s worst nightmare as a hitter, the way that every difficulty seemed to involve yet another member of my multi-national team.  We were all here, in one place, and all that we’d accomplished was a systematic disruption of business for the local drug kingpin.  Nothing that would inconvenience Asher personally.  But, still…

“Still,” I said out loud, “I don’t understand why he’d want us all here.  What would he have to gain by doing that?  And since he didn’t get it, why would he just let us get away?”

“He wanted the girl, didn’t he?” Mila asked, but she didn’t sound entirely certain.  “Trade you and Avis for the girl.  He needs her to decrypt that book.  I saw his eyes; that part wasn’t a lie.  Whatever’s in there is something that he needs.”

A deep sense of unease and dread dropped over my thoughts like a thick blanket.  “Okay,” I said slowly.  “But does anyone know where Avis and Neal are?”

Dead silence filled the room.

“They should be back by now,” I said.  “Sarah, call Billy?”

She retrieved her phone with shaking fingers and dialed a number.  She held the phone to her ear for several seconds before taking it away and staring at me.  “No answer.”

“Try Neal.”

She started to do that, but stopped when a clear ding came from the elevator.  Tense as we were, every person in the room practically jumped out of their seats at the sudden noise.  Mila’s uninjured hand slipped to the small of her back, where the handle of a small handgun was barely visible.

I stood up and waved everyone, except Mila, back into positions of readiness before walking across the room on soundless feet.

“Sir?”  Sophie’s voice, a little strained and breathless.  I relaxed fractionally.

“We’re a little busy, Soph,” I said.

“I understand that, but…”

I rounded the corner so that I could see into the elevator.  There, I saw Sophie and a male bellhop, carrying what looked like nothing so much as a bloodied pile of rags.

I blinked twice before the reality set in.  It was not a bloody pile of rags; the bellhop supported the weight of a person.  Even as that thought rocked me, the man managed to raise his head and I recognized him: Billy’s man, the one who had pushed his wheelchair off, so that there would be a third party keeping eyes on Avis and Neal.  There was no Billy in sight.

“Sophie, what the hell?”

The concierge seemed, for the first time, entirely unable to articulate a perfectly poised response.  Some of the man’s blood had gotten onto her otherwise spotless suit and a violent tremor ran from the tips of her fingers all the way up to the top of her scalp.

Billy’s man swallowed with an obvious effort before he spoke.  “They found us,” he managed to croak out.  “Don’t know how, but…they found us.”

Chapter 100

Mila’s bullet took Asher in the shoulder, forcing him to drop the phone from fingers that, for a moment, refused to obey his commands.  The report of the pistol shocked all of the guards and, in the instant of frozen confusion, I crossed the intervening space in three long strides, grabbed the gun, and moved behind Asher with surprising grace.  He struggled, ignoring what must have been searing pain in his wounded shoulder, until I placed the barrel of the little handgun to his forehead.  Then, he went still.

“Neat trick,” he said, under his breath.  The words were for me, and me alone.  “How’d you pull it off?”

“I figured you’d have some way to hurt Ally, if things went wrong,” I replied.  “Whatever it was, you’d want to be able to trigger it remotely.  And that equals radio signals.”

He followed that lead to its logical conclusion.  “Ah.  Signal jammer.  I wouldn’t have thought of that.”  Slowly, so as not to force me into any movement, he clapped his hands together.  “Not bad…not bad at all.  You do realize, however, that there are at least ten different people in this room who would be more than happy to kill you if I gave the word, don’t you?”

The guards in the room had recovered from their temporary daze.  Their guns were raised once more, trigger fingers within millimeters of the triggers.  Half of the men pointed those weapons at me; the other half maintained a steady watch on Mila.  Thin tendrils of smoke spread lazily from the barrel of her handgun.  Sarah moved closer to Mila, her eyes flickering up to survey the room and then back down to the tablet in the crook of her elbow.

“I’m aware,” I said.  “But you aren’t the guy who’ll commit suicide, even if it means getting revenge.  I know that much about you.”

“So you’re threatening me now?  What are you going to do, Devlin?  Shoot me and then hope you can fight your way past all of my men?  Because there are a lot more than these ten holed up here.  Jamming the signal temporarily isn’t going to stop them from coming to ask some very serious questions about who started firing guns.”

Asher wasn’t lying.  Even as he spoke, burly men with long assault rifles began pounding up the staircase leading into the dormitory.  They came through the door into the room, blank expressions on their face as they surveyed the scene, and then spread out to take up strategic positions around the perimeter.  As they did that, Mila and Sarah inched closer to where I stood until a half circle of armed and angry goons faced my tiny group, the captive Ally, and Asher.

“Tell them to stand down,” I growled.

“Or what?  You’ll shoot me?”  Asher laughed.  “What possible reason do I have to do anything you want me to?  If you kill me – and you aren’t a killer, Devlin, don’t pretend – these gentlemen will punch neat little holes in all of you.  If you let me go, then I’ll just be able to do it myself.  The jammer was a nice move, but what’re you going to do now?”

The sarcastic edge in his voice, coupled with the certainty that Asher was only a second or two from actually smiling, managed to temporarily shatter my calm.  I pressed the barrel harder against his forehead, until a grunt of pain escaped his lips.

“You needed me to drop the phone,” Asher continued, “because your trick doesn’t work twice.  Or it doesn’t work for long.  Just tell me if I’m getting warm, okay?”

“Shut up, Asher,” I said.

“I don’t think I’m going to do that,” he said back.  “So.  Sarah was able to come up with jamming technique on the fly, just to stop me from sending the signal to the gun.  Now you’ve got it pointed at my brains and even if I could send that text now, it wouldn’t do me any good.  So, this…this is a stalling technique?  You’ve got something else in the works?”

I pressed my lips together, but couldn’t stop myself from giving Sarah a significant look behind Asher’s back.  She responded with the barest possible lift of a single shoulder before returning to her work.  In my pocket, the phone vibrated once more.  I couldn’t exactly check it, though.

Asher was still talking.  Whatever focus he’d intended to spend on undermining Mila’s focus, he now turned fully to me.  “You were right, by the way.  I’m not about to commit suicide-by-thief…especially when I don’t have to do anything other than wait.  Eventually, your Hill is going to figure out that things haven’t gone exactly according to plan here.  Then he’ll send in the type of people who’ll just start opening fire into this dorm, trusting that it’ll all work out eventually.  The girl might have given them pause, but…well, you thought the best idea would be to keep her far away from here.”

“I’m not seeing that as a bad idea,” I said.  Asher knew my buttons too well for me to fully ignore him.  If that wasn’t an option, then, I would simply have to engage in verbal combat.  We were still running on a timer and things would fall apart remarkably quickly if Asher’s prodigious mind was given enough leash to figure out every detail before we could put them fully into place.

“And I’m not saying you’re entirely wrong.  But keeping her somewhere else does have the unfortunate side effect of putting her outside of your protection…whatever that protection is worth, I mean.”

“Who said I left her alone?”

“The guard from the manor house?  What was his name…Neal, right?”  Asher snorted.  “You’ll excuse me if I don’t treat the threat of a new hire as something worthy of my full attention.  We only need the girl alive; what shape she’s in is debatable.  Considering the information she’s got access to, Devlin, killing her when we’re done might be the humane thing to do.”

“Humanity,” I said.  “From you?”

“The people I’m working for would torture and kill her to get what they want.  Especially now that she’s gone rogue.  At least she was kept happy at the manor house, until you decided to go be a hero.”

“You had people coming to kill her,” I said.  “If I hadn’t decided to save her, she’d already be in a shallow grave somewhere.”

“It’s only been a few days,” Asher replied.  “She’d probably be in a dark room by now, decrypting every last bit of information before she, uh…had an unfortunate accident.”

“Information’s what you want?  Maybe the information in that golden book of yours?”

The stunned silence that came from Asher was both gratifying and exhilarating.  Even when we’d been partners, it was a rare verbal jab that stunned him into silence.

“How…”  He trailed off, swallowed audibly, and started again.  “How do you know about that?”

“You aren’t the only one with contacts,” I said.  I nearly referred to the Lady as a ‘friend’ or ‘employer,’ but decided against either of those options at the last second.  The former took far too many liberties with the relationship between the mysterious black-clad woman and myself; the latter would have given away more to Asher than I was willing to risk.

“That book is more important than you could possibly know,” Asher said, after several seconds of silence.

“Connections, supply chains, corrupt men and women who can be paid to look the other way.”  I faked a yawn, directly into Asher’s ear.  “Big deal.”

“You…you really don’t know anything, do you?  How the hell did you get this far if you are this absolutely ignorant about what you’re playing with?”

There was a surprising lack of mocking in his voice now.  No…Asher sounded entirely serious.  Earnest, even.  The sharp change in tone was enough to give me a moment’s hesitation.

“You know what they did to me,” Asher continued, lowering his voice even farther.  I had to strain to catch the words.  “But you don’t know.  You can’t know.”

“But you got out, Ash.  The Magi let you go and you could have come to me.  I don’t know what they’ve got you doing, but we could have found a way out.”

We?”  He laughed, and the sound was filled with bitterness and derision.  I almost recoiled from it.  “Me, you, and the missus?  You expect me to believe that you would have worked with me ever again, if she didn’t want you to do it?”

I blinked.  “What?  What are you talking about?”

“I saw you with her,” he said.  “Leaving the benefit, in love with each other.  You were practically skipping, you were so happy.  You wouldn’t have given that up just to throw your lot back in with me.”

My mind supplied the relevant memory a heartbeat later.  I’d had my suspicions about what the Magi might have shown him to convince him that I’d moved past him, but the reality was still staggering.  “The benefit?  That was the first time we’d even seen each other, Ash.  You…that’s what you thought happened?”

“You’re saying it isn’t?”

“You’re damn right I’m saying it isn’t!”  At my raised voice, the half circle of guards tensed.  Mila, who had kept her eyes on a constant swivel, looked sharply at me.  Sarah jerked and, finally, looked up from her tablet.  We shared a moment of eye contact and she nodded imperceptibly.

“It…it doesn’t matter anymore, does it?” Asher asked, resignation thick in his voice.  “We could back and forth over this all day, but it’s in the past now.”

“It isn’t in the past,” I snapped.  “You kidnapped Alex’s daughter.  You sent me to jail and then you tried to kill me in Ukraine.  You did all that less than a month ago, Asher.  Hell, you drugged and dragged me out the museum two weeks ago!”

“You didn’t leave me a choice!”

Silence.  From above, I heard the subway car from before start to ease its way away from the station.  I felt its acceleration in the soles of my feet, as the vibrations started again.

“I tried to keep you out of this,” Asher said, in a quiet voice.  “But you didn’t leave me any options, Devlin.  If you’d stayed in jail, then…you wouldn’t have to be here for this.”

I tried, and failed, to wrap my head around the mental gymnastics required for that sentiment to make even the slightest amount of sense.  “You betrayed me.  You set me up, hit me with a Taser, and left me for the police because you wanted to keep me safe?  Asher, when I say this, I want you to know that I’m not kidding: you are insane.  You need help.”

Sympathy welled up inside of me, almost against my will.  Despite everything he’d done to me…despite everything he’d threatened to do to Sarah and Michel and Mila…despite the very real risk he posed to my friends and families, I felt sorry for him.  His upbringing on the Street was a mystery that I was unlikely to ever fully comprehend, but whatever happened there had been enough to prejudice him against the very idea of true friendship.  I’d thought that he might have learned something about it during our partnership, but this conversation sharply disabused me of that notion.

“What I need, Dev,” Asher said, “is for you to stop with this whole charade.”  He inhaled slowly.  I couldn’t see his face, but the tension in his muscles told me that the mask of cocky smugness, or arrogant self-possession, was sliding back into place on his features.  “You made your choice.  I made mine.  And now, here we are.”

Two more vibrations from my pocket.  Sarah took a tiny step closer to Ally and, in a motion so slight that I nearly missed it even while specifically waiting for it, drew a small circle on the screen of her tablet with one thumb.  Then, she tapped her fingernail against the back of the tablet six times, without looking at me.

“So?” Asher asked.  “What’s it going to be?  Either you kill me now and all of you – Alex’s precious girl included – get to go down in a glorious hail of bullets.  Or you let me go, we finish our deal as discussed, and…well, they’ll still die anyway.  But at least that way, you can tell yourself they have a chance.”

“You don’t have to do this,” I said.  There had been a moment when I’d felt my old friend, just beneath the surface of the madman held hostage at the barrel of a stolen gun.  “This doesn’t have to go down like this.”

“Yes,” Asher said, “it does.  Honestly…how else did you think this was going to end?”

He fell silent once more and, this time, he showed no intention of speaking again.  I stood there, gun to the temple of a former friend, with the power of life and death literally at my fingertips.

Asher’s words – at least, the words of the real Asher, underneath the posturing and bravado – rang with an uncomfortable note of truth.  If he was under the thumb of the Magi, then he could no more slip his bonds than I could find a way to trick the Lady.  Even without that, though…even without that, I realized, Asher had lost too much to find his way back after a simple conversation.  Some of it had been lost before we’d even met; more had steadily eroded every time he’d felt the need to lie about some detail on a job; and the Magi had painstakingly, carefully, scoured out the last of it during weeks of inventive and effective torture.  The man in front me wasn’t the one I’d known.  Not anymore.

Sarah’s thoughts on the matter played on a loop in my head.  Asher couldn’t be allowed to live.  He was too much of a danger, even operating under whatever limiters his situation had.  Unhampered, and motivated by the delusional belief that I had somehow betrayed him by moving on after his apparent death, the only way my friends could hope to survive would be to go so deep underground that even the memory of light became a faint dream.  Michel could never go home, never return to his life in France.

Sarah…Sarah could never go home.  Not really.  As long as Asher was out in the world, free to harass and harry her at his convenience, she’d be forced to live life on the run.

“Untie her,” I said, in a cold voice.

“Why?  So you can all die on your feet?”

Untie her,” I repeated, pressing the barrel of the gun into Asher’s temple with a little more force.

He sighed, but fiddled with the knots on Ally’s bonds until the ropes fell to the floor.  She stood up, tore the gag from her mouth, and then open-hand slapped Asher with enough force that the crack of it reverberated through the space.

“You…you…”  She couldn’t wrestle her thoughts back under control.  Emotion – fear, anger, disgust – rolled off of her in nearly visible waves.  Stammering incoherent rage was apparently all that she could muster.

“Yes,” Asher said.  He reached up and touched a spot on his lip, where a small blossom of red blood had appeared.  He wiped the blood away with a thumb and then popped that same thumb into his mouth.  “Yes, me.”

“Come over here, Ally,” I said.

The girl gave Asher a look, as if she were considering a second strike, before she kicked the chair out of the way and came to my side.  An uncomfortable amount of adoration was plainly apparent on her face, directed at me, which I wisely chose to ignore.

“Should I be picking out some final words?” Asher asked.  Not quite taunting, but a far cry from serious.

My finger went from the trigger guard to the trigger itself.  A part of me itched to squeeze the trigger.  That would end the threat of Asher.  We could let the cards fall where they wanted after that.

A larger part, however, couldn’t bring myself to take a life.  Least of all, the life of someone I’d once considered a friend.

“Go,” I said, pushing Asher away from me, closer to the staircase that led up into the dormitories and his waiting throng of armed men.  I made sure to keep the gun pointed at him, though.  Mila kept Asher in her sights, as well.

Asher stumbled forward a few steps before he caught himself.  With a gesture, one of the men positioned nearest him removed a second handgun from a hidden holster and passed it to Asher.

“Well.  I guess this is how it ends, then,” Asher said.  “I’ve got to admit.  Even when things were good…even when we were taking on the hardest jobs…I always knew it’d go down like this.”

I stepped closer to Sarah, without moving my eyes away from Asher’s, and smiled.  “You have no idea how right you are.  Ally, bend your knees for me.”

She blinked.  “What?”

My phone vibrated three times and, one second later, the floor beneath our feet exploded, shooting chips of rock and metal in every direction.  I wrapped an arm around Ally’s shoulder, holding her close to my body.  Sarah pressed herself to my other side and Mila adjusted her aim as we fell down one floor, out of the dormitory and down to the station itself.

There, the gleaming subway train we’d borrowed from its stable waited.  Michel was nowhere to be seen, and Anton had moved away from the blast zone before detonating the ring of explosives he’d planted in a vague circle around our location.  Alex, however, rushed into the cloud of dust and debris, tearing Ally away from me and pulling her into a bear hug that lifted her from her feet.

“My girl!  Oh, my girl, you are safe!”

“Not quite safe,” Mila said.  She glanced up at the circle of open air above us.  There, in the dormitory, Asher and his men coughed and spat out mouthfuls of congealed dust.  “Maybe you can have the touching reunion somewhere else?”

Alex nodded, not bothering to hide the ecstatic smile on his face.  He pulled Ally out of the cloud of dust and ushered her into the waiting subway car.  Sarah looked at me, nodded once, and then moved to join them.  Mila and I lingered there for a moment longer, until Asher peeked over the edge and down.

“This isn’t going to change anything,” he called down.  “I’m still going to see you again.  You know that, right?”

I took note of the fact that he was talking, rather than ordering his men to fire blindly down on us.  That meant something.  I wasn’t sure what, but I knew it meant something.  I turned to hurry into the subway car, which was already beginning to back out of the station, back towards its stable where a car waited with fake license plates – another gift from the invaluable Sophie – without bothering to reply.

Those final words haunted me.  I’d only stalled Asher.  A reckoning between the two of us was still brewing on the horizon and, sooner rather than later, I knew that I’d have to make a final decision with regards to my old friend.

I didn’t speak those thoughts out loud, though.  Instead, I clung to Sarah as Michel guided the stolen subway train out of the Hostel and back towards whatever safety distance might provide.