Tag Archives: Anna

Chapter 115

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“He’s already got everything set up?”

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

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

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

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

I blinked.  “We?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m nothing, if not predictable.”

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

“Would you really want it any other way?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Glad to hear it.”

“What about your friends?” Mila asked.

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

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

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

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

“One way or another, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Soph?” I asked.  “Everything okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And if you find yourself needing their assistance?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  See you on the other side.”

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

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

Oui.

“Yeah.”

Those answers came from Michel and Mila.

“Same as ever.”

That one came from me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 Fifty

Mila insisted that we stop at the Brooklands to collect Sam before we started our trip proper.  From there, the Texan’s address led us away from London and into the English countryside.  The drive was scheduled to take four hours, at minimum.  Driving at or slightly under the speed limit, with occasional stops to make sure that we weren’t being followed, I estimated the journey would take at least five hours, if not more.

I gave Sarah a brief rundown of the conversation with Asher, highlighting the areas where his information lacked critical details and very carefully mentioning nothing at all about Munich.  The Aston Martin, a luxurious vehicle in its own right, was a gift from the Lady, by way of Mila.  Just because we hadn’t found any listening devices didn’t mean that there weren’t some buried in the frame or wired directly into the engine.  I hoped that Sarah would be able to grasp what information I was leaving out and why.

After that was finished, I slept for two hours.  It wasn’t a good sleep, but a full day of exhausting fruitless research coupled with the tension of an unexpected face-to-face with my self-declared enemy was draining.  Any rest, however fitful, was better than no rest at all.  When I woke, the car had stopped at a rural gas station.  Michel stood outside of the window, filling the tank and toying with an unlit cigarette.  Sarah sat beside me, scrolling idly through a document on her tablet.  Sam had moved into the front seat of the Aston, while Mila was nowhere to be seen.

“You’re up,” Sarah noted drily.  “Welcome back to the land of the living.”

“We aren’t all robots,” I said.  “Sleep’s a necessity.”

She shrugged.  “I got an hour earlier, while you were already knocked out.  That should be good enough, until we find somewhere to stay in this town.”

“What’d I miss?”  The thickness of slumber slurred my words slightly.  I cleared my throat and worked my jaw up and down to shake the delay free.  “Where’s Mila?”

“You haven’t missed anything,” she answered, without looking up.  “This is the third stop since you went to sleep.  Mila ran into the shop for snacks, I guess.  Michel, as you can see, is refilling the tank.  Apparently, these things are not very gas – petrol, I should say – efficient.”  A small, adorable cough passed her lips.  She covered it the back of one hand.  “No sign of anyone following us, so there’s that.”

“Well, I appreciate you not saying anything more positive than that.”  I sat fully upright and blinked into the rising sun.

“I’m a natural pessimist.”  Sarah finished reading and switched the tablet into sleep mode with a series of quick finger movements.  “Makes it easy to avoid unwarranted optimism, unlike some others I could mention.”

“I did not jinx the museum job.”

“That’s not the way I remember it,” she said.  “Although I do have the audio records, so we could always play it back, just to remove doubt.”

I rolled my eyes but wisely decided not to push the point.  There was every chance that she was right, anyway.  “I assume you’ve been researching the address?”

“As much as I can,” she answered, “but I’m not getting very good service here and there isn’t any local Wi-Fi, as you can imagine.”  Sarah gestured at her window.  I looked past her, at an endless field of dark brown, dying plants.

I closed my eyes and sighed heavily.  “At this point, anything is better than the heaping mess of nothing we’ve got on our plate.”

She sighed.  “I’ve got a little information, but not enough.  Not anywhere near enough.”

“Hit me with what you’ve got.”

“It’s a private residence, as opposed to another museum or something like the hangar.  There are records of the property changing hands a couple times over the past few decades.  With a better connection, I could run down the histories of the buyers and sellers.”

“I mean, do that when you can,” I said, “but I’ve got a feeling it won’t matter.  If this ‘key’ is hidden there, those names are probably all fakes.”

“Smoke, mirrors, et cetera.”  Sarah began to drum her fingernails on the tablet’s back.

“Building plans?”  I asked.  “General layout of the place?”

“It’ll take me a while to get any architectural stuff,” Sarah said.  “Google Earth didn’t have any photos of the area.  As it turns out, they don’t have a full three blocks in any direction of the address.  Street view just skips right over the missing land.”

I whistled, but the sound lacked the force of true surprise.

“That wasn’t too surprising,” Sarah continued, mirroring my dull lack of shock, “so I went back to the other search engine to pull up the information that way.”

“Any luck?”

Sarah shook her head.  “Linking up with that program uses an absolute ton of bandwidth, which I don’t have out here and can’t get.  It’s been working for the last thirty minutes to find a connection strong for what I want to do.  If I had a landline, that would speed things up immensely, but I don’t know where I’m going to find one of those out here.”  Idly, she twisted a stray strand of hair around a finger.  “We could break into someone’s house, I guess, but that runs the risk of bringing the law down on us.”

“And, as soon as we leave fingerprints somewhere, Adlai will know we’re in town,” I pointed out.  “It’s a short leap from knowing that we’re in London to figuring out our involvement in the museum job.”

Your involvement,” Sarah said.

“What?”

“Adlai doesn’t even know that I exist,” she pointed out.  “And my fingerprints aren’t in any system.”

“Well, gee, thanks for the reassurance.”

Sarah smiled to let me know she wasn’t serious. “Anyway, until I know more about whatever it is that we’ll have to do, we should probably not get the cops involved.”

“Reasonable.”  I considered the problem and, unconsciously, began to weave the card between my fingers.  “We don’t have any safe houses out here?”

“Even if we did, it wouldn’t be upgraded enough for these purposes.  But we don’t, so that’s kind of moot.”

“Hotels?”

“Maybe a bed and breakfast,” she allowed.  “Do you think that would give us the sort of privacy we’d need?”

I blew a lungful of air from my lungs in an explosive rush.  “We’d be one forgotten door knock before the whole local constabulary mobilizes.”

“The set-up at the Brooklands was perfect,” Sarah mused.  “If we could get Michel to drop us off somewhere, maybe he could drive back with some of my gear?”

The business card was made of hard stock.  My dexterous fingers made a mistake and, instead of spinning the card around my fingers like a miniature flag, I nearly gave my left index finger a severe paper cut.  I looked down at the card for several seconds, replaying the hotel employee’s offer of assistance, coupled with how utterly unsurprised she seemed by the arrivals of Mila and Michel.  When an utterly wild thought occurred to me, I froze.  “Hold on a second,” I said.  “I might have an idea.”

The burner phone was in my pants pocket.  I fished it free and dialed the digits on the business card.  It rang twice before a polite, efficient voice answered.  “Yes sir,” said a familiar, female voice.

Sarah shot me a quizzical look, which I ignored.  “You said that if we needed anything,” I asked, “we only had to ask?  Is that offer still good?”

“That’s correct.  Would I be correct in assuming that you require additional service in your endeavors?”

“Sort of.  Another question, first, though: are there any limits to what you’re authorized to offer us?”  It was an awkwardly worded question, with a fair amount of room for miscommunication, but I couldn’t risk tipping my hand to an employee who was simply doing her job.

“So long as you are a guest of the Brooklands or any of its subsidiaries across the world,” the woman said, “I have been given explicit authority to assist you in whatever areas you may require.  So far as that assistance does not require that I take a physical role or that I betray the nature of my employer.  Does that answer your question?”

It did.  The Lady had done more than provide us a base of operations that couldn’t conceivably be tied to any identity or account that Sarah and I possessed.  She’d also placed the equivalent of a criminal concierge at our fingertips.  A tangible electric thrill ran through me at the idea.  Sarah and I had money, but it wasn’t the sort of money we could easily spend without raising alarms.  The Lady, however, possessed no such baggage.  “Is there a limit on the cost of our requirements?”

“None that I’m aware of,” she answered, “although I would hazard against frivolous expenditures for the sheer principle.”

“Can we do away with the pretense?”  I asked.

“What pretense, sir?  I only wish to ensure that your stay at the Brooklands is handled professionally and politely.”

I sighed, gave up any effort to draw her out of the cover, and started to phrase my request in my head.  “I assume you’ve been listening to our conversations?”

Our concierge cleared her throat.  “I have not, no, but my employer may have installed additional security devices into your vehicle.”

I ignored the doublespeak.  “We’re headed into the countryside for the foreseeable future.  My partner has certain electronic needs, so that she can handle her work.  Something as close to the set-up in the Brooklands suite, if possible.  I’m also going to need a place to work, without attracting any unnecessary attention, and a set of the usual tools.”

The phone was silent for two full minutes.  “Sir, we have a small cottage available in a town less than two miles away from your destination.”  I blinked.  I hadn’t given her any address at all.  “The needs you’ve mentioned will be in place before your arrival.  I’ve also taken the liberty of acquiring a less conspicuous car while your work requires that you remain in this particular area.  Assuming, of course, that this arrangement is acceptable to you.  Would that meet your requests adequately?”

Two minutes.  In one hundred and twenty seconds, the Lady’s agent had been capable of organizing a cottage in a countryside village with enough bandwidth that Sarah could do her research as well as privacy and tools for me.  “Was that transaction traceable?  There are a lot of people looking for me, as of late.”

“Discretion,” the lady said, “is one of the precepts by which we here at the Brooklands prove our loyalty.”  She offered no further answer.

And she’d done it, presumably, without raising any flags.  The amount of influence gave me pause once more.  “That…will be acceptable,” I said.

“Excellent.  All necessary information will be emailed to Miss Bennett immediately.  I should mention: there are two additional rooms for your driver and bodyguard.  One Missus Mila Rodriguez and a Monsieur Michel St. Laurents.  Is that correct?”

“That is.  Why?”

“I assume their presence will be a continued factor?”

“For the foreseeable future,” I answered.  “You aren’t answering my question, though.  Why do you want to know all this?”

“Clothing more appropriate will be provided for them, as well.  The outfits you were provided are too flashy for reconnaissance in a town this small.  I was simply aiming to decrease your visibility.”  Definitely smugness in her voice.  In a way, her sarcasm made the odd exchange marginally more comfortable.  She was still human.  “Is there anything else you require?”

I thought about the question.  A wide variety of implausible and pointless suggestions came to mind.  I wanted to test the limits of this newfound influence, just to see exactly what I could get by simply asking a distant voice.  With great effort, I reined that impulse back into check.  “What’s your name?”  I asked, instead.

“Sir?”

“Your name,” I said again.  “What your parents call you.  Or, if you prefer, what your friends call you.  As of late, I find that there are a lot of people who I only use nicknames for, and I’d like to just be able to talk to you.  Does that make sense?”

The line was quiet for several seconds.  “Is this a matter that you will insist upon?”

“Sure,” I said, “if that makes it easier.  I find it simpler to work with people whose names I know, instead of strangers.  Blah blah blah.  Whatever I’ve got to say to get you to tell me your name, just assume I said it.”

“Sophie,” the concierge said.  “Sophie Morgan.”

“Alright, Sophie.  I’m pretty sure that we’ll be talking more in the future.”

“If I can be of assistance,” Sophie said, “you only need to call.”  She disconnected the line.

I held the phone to my ear for thirty more seconds, listening to nothing but dead air, before I lowered it.  Sarah cleared her throat.  “What was that about?”

“You know how things have been getting more and more complicated with literally everything we find out?”

She nodded.  “Your point?”

“This is one of those things,” I said.

Sarah opened her mouth to say something, when her tablet’s screen lit up.  She unlocked it and skimmed the email notification.  “The hell?”  She asked, when she finished.  “What the hell is this?  How do we suddenly have access to a different address, just outside of the one we were headed to in the first place?”  She pinched the bridge of her nose, an endearing gesture under normal circumstances and a distinctly hilarious one under the current situation’s rules.

“I don’t know if I can keep doing this,” Sarah said.  “Connected people with influence miles and miles beyond what is even slightly plausible, dueling with other people, using you and me and Michel and Mila – to an extent – as pawns?  I need answers, and I’m not getting them.  How the fuck did this happen?”

I waited until her energy wound down.  Then, I cleared my throat delicately and picked my tone for maximum effect.  I rarely had the opportunity to get one over on Sarah.  “Sophie,” I said simply.

“Who’s that?”

I explained to Sarah, in succinct terms, our concierge’s side of the conversation.  When I finished, she covered her eyes with one hand and ran the other through her hair.  “So, this is what I’m going to do,” she said, without revealing her eyes or expression.  “I’m just going to stop asking questions.  Because, so far, every answer I’ve gotten has either been utterly insane or mind-blowingly ridiculous.  If not both.”

“I’d say that it’s both more often than not,” I said.

She lowered her hand an inch so that her responding glare was fully visible, while her face remained largely concealed.

The front passenger door opened and Mila slid into the seat.  “What’s going on?”  She asked, around a mouthful of potato chips.

“Your employer,” Sarah said.  She paused, sighed, and amended the sentence.  “Our employer.  She’s too connected.  I’m not thrilled about working with someone who has that much of an advantage over me.”

“Thinking about running?”  Mila asked.  She spoke the words without a hint of concern.  I hadn’t been planning to skip out, but Mila’s cavalier question still made my muscles tense.

“Would that be a problem?”  Sarah countered.

Mila shook her head.  “Not for me.  My job isn’t to keep you on mission; I’m supposed to make sure that you’re safe, so long as you’re in England.  If you decide to go on the run, I can sleep easy knowing that I fulfilled my job and everything else was out of my control.”

“That’s good to –“

Mila interrupted with a single raised hand.  “That being said, even if the Lady decides to leave you alone, Asher won’t.  He’s already made a few pretty solid attempts on your life, Devlin.  The first one you survived because you happened to get lucky with allies in the area; the second, I showed up in time to stop him from pulling out the pliers and blowtorch.  Do you really want to try your luck in the wind, while he’s gunning for you?”

I shook my head and looked at Sarah.  “If she can find us, then Asher’ll be able to do the same, whenever he finishes whatever plan he’s working on.”

“So, what then?  We just let her point us at a target – a target that we know nothing about, by the way – and follow orders?”

I scoffed.  “Of course not.  But, so long as we’re technically her agents in the field, I say we should get the most out of her resources.  It got us Mila here,” I gestured, “and the car.  Why not see how far we can push things?  You did say you needed a better connection to use your custom program.”

Sarah visibly struggled with the concept.  I’d relied on the knowing or unknowing kindness of strangers for most of my childhood, begging for meals at the food bank or convincing the latest temp agency that my mother actually could do the job.  Sarah, however, had been born into a life of luxury. The very concept of needing help or of depending on anyone was utterly alien to her.  I could almost hear gears grinding in her head as I watched and waited.

Michel returned to the driver’s seat while Mila and I waited for Sarah’s response.  He picked up the tension in the car immediately.  “What did I miss?  Is everything okay?”

“Well?”  I asked.  “Is everything okay?”

“It’s…fine,” Sarah said finally, hesitating a little between the two words.  “We’re going to a different address, Michel.”  She navigated screens on her tablet at breakneck speed.  When she found the window she wanted, she swiped her index finger up.  Michel’s GPS beeped a moment later.  “Directions should be on your GPS now.”

“Ah, oui, there they are.”  The car hummed to life beneath us.  “But, uh…what happened?”

Sophie happened,” Sarah answered and then she turned back to her tablet, without a word, for the remainder of the trip.