Tag Archives: Anton

Part 6: Recap (1/2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

A little too well, perhaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 118 (Chester)

Chester hadn’t felt the need to break into a car for going on seven years now, starting from the moment when Billy had intervened and provided a more reliable source of income; he hadn’t felt the desire to do so for, perhaps, half as long.  His skills in close quarters work, as well as his exhaustive knowledge on the best ways to hotwire a variety of makes and models, weren’t the sort of thing that one forgot.  For the first three and a half years of his employment, his fingers had practically itched every time his work took him near rare or expensive cars.  The fact that he didn’t need to pinch the cars for money anymore didn’t diminish the thrill.

By the time he’d finally adjusted to his new job, with all of the odd restrictions and rules that Billy placed on all of his operatives, Chester had managed to wrestle the thirst for blatant grand theft auto down to a manageable distraction.  When these Americans – and the Frenchman, he reminded himself – had shown up, he had allowed himself a moment of wild hope.  These were thieves, by their own admission.  It wasn’t entirely unreasonable to think that Billy might finally have decided to be more aggressive when dealing with Hill’s operation.  It was also not unreasonable to hope that the tight rules might be relaxed a little bit, at least when it came to Chester and cars.

Instead, everything had gone to absolute shit in astoundingly short order.  A simple job to retrieve product from one of Hill’s legitimate fronts became a firestorm that threatened to consume a lot of the territory Billy had managed to claim for himself; from there, when the short Hispanic woman had been captured by the police, the newcomers had gone after her, breaking into Scotland Yard of all places along the way.  And now…

Now, Billy had been kidnapped.  Snatched off of the street by one of Hill’s hired hitmen, the man who had saved Chester when he’d most needed saving was now in danger of death (if he was lucky) or torture (if he was not).

So he couldn’t help but laugh that now, of all times, his particular skillset was being called upon.

“James,” Chester said, “you ever nicked a car before?”

The terminally quiet man lifted an eyebrow and shook his head.

Chester turned his attention to the Russian – he couldn’t remember if the bombmaker was Russian or not, but he certainly looked Baltic – and sent his next question in that direction.  “What about you?”

“Once or twice,” the bombmaker said.  “I was…not very good at it.”

“Guess this one’s on me, then.”  Chester touched the unfamiliar weight in his ear with an index finger.  Sarah had told him multiple times that gesture wasn’t necessary for her to hear what he said and he had decided, after several seconds of thorough consideration, to do it anyway.  It wouldn’t hurt anything to be certain.  “I can take care of that.  What do you want us to do about the blokes in the car right now, though?”

“Hmm.  I hadn’t planned on them driving in pairs,” Sarah replied.

It was weird to hear her voice in his ear, as though she were sitting right next to him, when he knew perfectly well that was somewhere across town.  He’d hated that sensation at the processing plant and he hated it now.  Odds were high that he’d always find it distinctly uncomfortable, but that was a small price to pay for real-time status updates.

She cleared her throat and continued speaking.  “The most important thing is that they don’t get a chance to report in.  So, whatever you do, neither of those guards can have an opportunity to alert Hill or the rest of the organization that something’s wrong.”

“You sayin’ what I think you’re sayin’?”  Chester asked.

“I’m not saying that, actually.  We’re trying to stay on the side of the angels here and bodies have a way of attracting questions.  To say nothing of the fact that these goons might just be the hired help.  So, something other than a fatal solution, ideally.”

Chester swallowed a lump of nervous fear and allowed himself a tiny sigh of relief.  He was a car thief, sure, and a drug runner.  He had no illusions about the legality of his occupation, any more than he had doubts about the necessity of what he did.  Without his work, his sister wouldn’t have been able to get the treatment she needed.  Even if she never spoke to him again – which was likely, considering the strained relationship between Chester and her lazy husband – that was a price worth paying.  What he was not, however, was a killer.  The worst he’d ever done was beat the nonsense out of a few roughs in Billy’s new territory that hadn’t been willing to fall in line with the new rules.  Taking things further than that might have been a line too far.

Not that he was going to admit his reticence to anyone in the car or over the earbud, though.  He had a reputation to maintain.

Fine,” he said, channeling his very real feelings of relief into what he hoped sounded like irritation.  “How long do you need them out of commission?”

Sarah’s fingers clicked rapidly across a keyboard, at her end of the connection.  “If everything goes perfectly, maybe an hour.  Let’s assume double that, just in case.”

Chester sucked at his teeth.  “Might be doable,” he said, finally.  “You don’t want us to take them right here, though.  Too many witnesses, for one.  No way of telling if someone’s going to be a hero and jump in on their behalf, either.”

“I leave the details up to you,” Sarah said.  “Car theft isn’t something I’ve ever had to worry about.”

Chester’s eyebrows drew together at that thought, but he kept any questions to himself.

“I’m muting your line for a second so that I can talk to Michel,” she continued.  “I’m still listening in, though, so just say my name when you need my attention.”

The earbud popped twice, as if Chester had just gone to a high elevation, and went dead.

“Well,” Chester said.  “First things first.  James, let’s switch.  You’ll have to drive.”

James nodded and unbuckled his seatbelt.  The Sig Sauer at his waist went into the glovebox while the two men maneuvered so that they switched places.  Chester felt unreasonably proud that they managed the transition without swerving too far out of the painted lines on the road.

Mentally, Chester began referring to the black Suzuki as “the target.”  Back in his boosting days, that little trick had helped to give him the proper perspective when casing a particular vehicle.  He was surprised that the shift happened so easily.

A second man, dressed in jeans and a long black overcoat, exited the petrol station.  His arms were full of snacks and, Chester noted, an entire carton of cigarettes.  The second man entered the vehicle on the passenger side and the driver, wearing almost identical clothing to his riding partner, pulled the car away from the station and out into traffic.  James waited at a stop sign until a few more vehicles were in place to provide them with a bit of cover before he pulled out as well.

While James drove, Chester ran through a list of his old standby approaches.  Most were unfeasible, right from the start.  He couldn’t wait for an opportune moment to steal the car when nobody was looking, obviously.  Hotwiring the car was probably also going to be unnecessary.  The keys were already in the target.

Bad news and good news, then.  He could deal with that.

“Alright,” Chester said, including both Anton and James with his body language.  “This is how it’s got to happen.  We can’t wait until no one’s looking.  Best thing we can hope for is to catch his particular target without any additional witnesses.”

“How will we do that?”  This, from the bombmaker.  Chester wasn’t sure, but he wanted to say that his name was Anton.

“We could follow them until they end up on a lonely stretch of road, but…”  A thought occurred to him.  “Sarah?  Are you still listening?”

The earbud popped twice.  “I’m here.  What do you need?”

“You said you can see where we’re at, didn’t you?”

“I can see where your phones are at, so yes.  Why?”

“Are there any blind turns coming up?  Places where the road’s too thin for too much traffic to go through at the same time?”

James grumbled from his seat.  “Could’ve asked me.”

Chester rolled his eyes, but kept the majority of his attention firmly on the little earbud and on Sarah’s voice.  “I can see a couple options.”

“Can you…I don’t bloody know.  Pick the one closest to us – that still leads to Hill’s estate – and send me the details.”  As soon as the words left his mouth, Chester realized that he was letting his anxiety affect his temper.  He wasn’t an idiot; most times, he knew when he was being an ass.  It was just that he couldn’t often muster the energy to care.  In this situation, though, with so much on the line…well, it seemed like the best plan would be to moderate his words.  So, reluctantly, he added, “Please.”

Sarah didn’t acknowledge the addition, which Chester felt was a bit rude.  “I’m on it.  One second.”  Then, the machine gun speed clicks from her keyboard.  Five or ten seconds after that, his phone beeped.  “There.  Anything else?”

“That’s all I need,” Chester said.  “What about the two of you?”

“I am good,” Anton said.

James nodded, as though Sarah could somehow tell what physical gestures he was making.  A moment passed before Chester remembered the miniature cameras on their lapels.  It was very possible that she could see what they were doing or, if necessary, at least piece it together through context clues.

“Good,” Sarah said.  “I’m forwarding that address over to Michel, so that he can pick up the same route.”

Before Chester could say anything else, the line popped and she was gone.

He sighed and picked up the thread of his conversation where he’d left it before speaking to Sarah.  “This is how we’re going to play it.  Two men in that car, probably armed.  No way of knowing how violent they’re going to be, but it is what it is.  We’re going to have to do this face-to-face.”

“You want to confront two armed men in a tight space?” Anton asked.

“I don’t want to do it,” Chester said, “but it’s the only way to get it done.  Not my preferred way of working, trust me.  Are you carrying?”

Anton visibly swallowed before he pulled back his coat to reveal a Makarov and no fewer than four hand grenades hanging on special laps built into the coat itself.

“Don’t use those,” Chester said, recoiling from the explosives on pure instinct.  “But the handgun might be something we can use.  If they get violent.”

When,” James rumbled.

“Fine.  When they get violent.  Anything we can do to keep them from escalating the situation is good.  Sarah doesn’t want these guys dead, but I’d be shocked to find out they’ve got the same limitations.”

“How should we get them to stop?”

“That one’s easy,” Chester said.  He held out the phone, with the information sent by Sarah, so that James could read the screen at a glance.  “Head to this street, put the car in park, and then run the engine until it’s about to die.”

James raised an eyebrow.  “Why?”

“Damsel in distress,” Chester replied.  “Oldest play in the book.  If that doesn’t work, we can always go with a more aggressive technique.  This one has the possibility, at least, of getting them out of that car.  Hell, the bloody thing might be armored for all we know.”

After a second, James nodded.  He accelerated their car and changed lanes so that he passed both the buffer and the target car, then took a right turn and followed the path until reaching the desired area.  Once he was there, he parked the car and placed all of his weight onto the accelerator.  The car began to purr before it switched to louder roars; those roars quickly turned into choked sounds and the engine began producing a frightening amount of thick, black smoke.

“More?” James asked.

“That oughta be enough,” Chester said.  “Shouldn’t be too long before they get here.”

The three men stepped out of the car and, with smoke billowing from underneath the hood, waited.  Sarah had picked the spot well.  This route took several sharp turns and only led to a few main thoroughfares, it seemed.  The only people likely to take this path instead of one of the faster, more accessible options were people with a vested interest in avoiding attention.  Still, a few cars did pass by them.  Mercifully, they did without stopping.  One minivan began to slow down, but Chester waved it away before it could come to a complete stop.

They didn’t have to stand by the road for very long before the target car pulled around the corner.  There weren’t any witnesses ahead of them and, to Chester’s eyes, there weren’t any coming up behind the Suzuki.  He stepped out into the road and flagged down the occupants.

“Oy!  Oy, we could use a hand ‘ere, mate!”  He doubled down on the ‘man of the people’ accent, hoping that it might lure the Suzuki’s occupants into a second or two of hesitation later.  “Mate, can I get a bloody jump?”

The Suzuki’s windows had a dark tint, but Chester could make out silhouettes.  The silhouette in the driver’s seat turned to the shadow beside it.  The second silhouette replied.

The Suzuki showed no signs of slowing and, without turning, Chester could feel the subtle tightening of nerves from the two men behind him.  He put one hand out to his side, palm facing the ground, and stepped directly into the path of the oncoming vehicle.  Only when he was squarely located in the car’s path did the car slow, then stop.

The driver rolled down his window and leaned out.  He was a thin man, with the facial hair of someone who tries very hard to look like they don’t try very hard at all.  There were bruises on his face and what looked like the remnants of a black eye fading on his features.  “Looks like you had a bit of bad luck, eh?”

“Just a bit, yeah,” Chester said.  “You mind giving me a hand? Just need to get this off the road.”

The Suzuki’s two occupants conferred with each other.  Chester could imagine their conversation.

“You think we should help him?”

“Don’t know if we can trust anybody right now.  But…but he’s in the middle of the road, anyway.”

“That’s what I’m thinking.  If one of the other cars comes this way, he could be a major problem.”

Or something similar to that.  Whatever words passed between the two men, the driver pulled his car to the opposite side of the road and stepped out of the vehicle.  Simultaneously, James moved so that he was closer to the black Suzuki.  Not so close that it would raise any alarms, but definitely close enough that he stood a good chance of reaching the car before any weapons could be drawn.

The driver of the car – Chester thought of him as the Kid, because of the facial hair and the roundness of his features – approached cautiously.  The Kid tried badly to hide the weapon at his waist.  Each step he took betrayed his intentions, as the coat he wore pulled back and revealed flashes of metal.

“What’s the problem?” The Kid asked.

“I’m not really good with cars,” Chester lied.  He’d known cars like he knew his own name since his fifteenth birthday.  Nothing about his time with Billy had diminished that particular knowledge pool.  “Maybe you’ll have better luck, though.”  He gestured toward the car.

The Kid waited until a car drove past and then crossed the street so that he was standing right next to Chester’s own vehicle.  Chester popped the hood and waved; the Kid took that as an invitation and drew even closer to the engine.

“Looks like…looks like nothing’s wrong,” the Kid said, after a few seconds of examination.  “Except you’ve been running the engine like – “

He didn’t get to finish that thought before Anton stepped forward and whipped his handgun across the Kid’s face like a baton.  The distinct, unmistakable sound of breaking bones came from the Kid’s face but, to his credit, he maintained enough presence of mind to reach for the gun at his waist.  Chester made certain that he didn’t actually reach that weapon by lashing out with a fierce roundhouse kick and an uppercut that drove the Kid’s head back into the roof of the smoking automobile.  He slumped to the ground, conscious but unthreatening.  Anton kicked at his waist until the gun dislodged itself and then pushed it away, just in case.

At the same time, James sprinted across the street at top speed.  The Suzuki’s passenger started to leap out of the car at the first sign of danger – Chester considered it a blessing that he hadn’t gone for the phone instead – but James caught him with one foot on the ground and one still inside the car.  With his full mass moving at top speed, James pulverized the passenger’s leg.  Then, before the man had a chance to do anything except howl in pain, he opened the door and pulled the man free.  James raised him above his head with one fully extended arm and then, with an odd sort of care, smashed him against the Suzuki once…twice…three times.  When the man’s body went limp, James tossed it carelessly into the back seat.

Anton and Chester both stared at the Scottish man in awe.  James, for his part, shrugged.

Chester cleared his throat twice and swallowed two more times before he spoke.  “Sarah?”

The line popped to announce her presence.  “I’m watching through the cameras,” she said immediately.  “Great work.  Get them out of sight, though.”

Chester and Anton exchanged a look.  Anton was bigger than Chester by a fair amount, so he started to drag the unconscious Kid while Chester opened the back door of their smoking vehicle.  The groaning man went into the backseat.

“Alright,” Chester said.  “Now what?”

A new voice spoke through the earbud.  It was rich, cheerful, and unmistakably French.  “Now,” Michel said, “it is my turn.”

Chapter 117 (Anton)

“Fuckin’ hell!” Chester yelled, when the first bomb went off.  Within the confines of their relatively compact vehicle, the sudden outburst set Anton’s nerves on edge.  “It supposed to be that loud, then?”

With great effort, Anton kept himself from rolling his eyes.  “Yes, it is supposed to be that loud.  It is a distraction.”

“And you’re sure you didn’t mess it up?  That fire isn’t going to start spreading?”

“No, it is not going to start spreading,” Anton said, sighing as he did so.  He could have explained that none of the bombs placed by Chester’s men produced any noticeable quantity of flame, leaning instead towards noise and smoke, but there wasn’t any point.

His earbud popped twice, saving him from any further consideration on the matter, and Sarah cleared her throat into the comms.  “That was a little earlier than we expected,” she said.

“I told you that it was not a perfect estimate,” Anton replied.  “Is it close enough for what you have planned?”

She thought about her answer in silence for about five seconds.  “We can make it work.  Worst case, we have to escalate the timetable when we reach the back half of things.”

“You messed up the timing?” Chester sneered.  “Some expert you turned out to be.”

Anton inhaled and exhaled slowly, taking great care to keep his eyes fixed firmly on a point in the distance.  Chester wasn’t the first person to denigrate Anton’s skills.  In fact, being attacked for his professionalism was a welcome change from the usual target of jeers and insults he received while working.  The benefit of a near-lifetime of ridicule, Anton decided, was thick enough skin to ignore anything he didn’t feel like dealing with.

Sarah either didn’t feel that he could handle the insult, though, or she was just reaching the end of her patience with Chester’s constant antagonism.  “Trust Anton,” she snapped.  “He knows what he’s doing.  If he didn’t, we wouldn’t have gone with this approach.”

A surge of happiness brought a smile to Anton’s face.  He understood that Sarah didn’t trust him, so much as she trusted Devlin who trusted him.  That knowledge did nothing to diminish the warm feeling in his stomach.  He’d worked with a dozen different crews, just in the past five or six years, and none of those masterminds had ever felt the need to compliment Anton on his work.

“Alright, alright, we’re all best friends,” Devlin said, also over the comms.  “Keep your eyes peeled.  We need to know when the shells start moving, so that we can get in position.  The timing on this isn’t going to exact.  Sarah, we’re going to need Michel on this line.”

“Already on it.  Should probably link us all up for the moment, anyway.”  The earbud popped twice to signify the connection of the other participants.

Anton shifted nervously in his seat.  Only a few seconds passed before someone spoke and the Ukrainian spent all of those seconds wondering who would take the initiative and what they might say.  A hundred different disastrous possibilities played out in his mind, in the space of an eye blink.

If Michel talked, there was every possibility that the Frenchman might say something flirtatious.  It wasn’t as though Sarah and Devlin maintained any sort of decorum over the line.  And Anton had enjoyed their conversation a few days ago, while they waited to ride a borrowed train into an abandoned station.  Under the right circumstances, Michel might be someone who Anton enjoyed having even more conversations with.  Just…not now.  Certainly not with Stani on the line and the unresolved bundle of emotions that he represented.

Thankfully, the bodyguard named Mila was the first one to talk.  She spoke in a clear, authoritative tone which set the tempo for the conversation to follow.  “Sarah, how long do you think it’ll be before I’m in position?”

“If everything goes exactly the way we planned it?”  Anton could almost hear Sarah shrug.  He actually could hear the soda as she popped its top.  “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“I really hope that your guess is a lot better than mine.”

“You know what I mean.”

It wasn’t the first time that Anton had found himself amazed at Devlin and his partner in crime.  No matter how dire the situation, they seemed entirely immune to tension.  No matter what was going on, they could joke as though nothing at all was wrong.  He had tried to emulate that nonchalance before, to no avail.  His personality was too stern, too by-the-numbers, for that.  Still, he enjoyed the fact that they kept things light, even when the sky was about to fall on their collective heads.

“Stani?”  Sarah asked.  “What do you see in your position?”

“I think…movement, maybe.  It is hard to tell for certain,” Stani said, after a few seconds.

“It’s the same model as…oh, wait, you didn’t see what Michel’s driving.  Devlin, what make of car is Hill using?”

“Suzuki,” Devlin responded.  “Although I didn’t get a chance to see what Michel’s driving, either.”

“I did,” Mila said.  “It’s pretty nondescript.”

“Which is the exact point of using those vehicles,” Sarah said.  “We got very lucky that Hill was lazy enough or stupid enough to purchase these cars with his legitimate business contacts and even luckier that this information happened to be in the files that Avis already got to.  Otherwise, we’d never be able to pick out his people from the general traffic.”  She paused.  “Okay, Stani, I’m sending you a picture of the type of car you should be looking for.”

Seconds ticked away.  Then: “DaDa, this is what I see.”

“You’re positive about that?” Sarah pressed.

“There are two black…Suzukis?  Da, two black Suzukis.  One is leaving the blast zone.”

“And the other?”

“The driver is trying to look as surprised and scared as everybody else.  And…now he is leaving, too.”

“Which way is he heading?”

“North,” Stani said, with a confident note in his voice that did strange things to Anton’s insides.  He suppressed the memories threatening to resurface with an ease born of long hours of practice.

In the front seat of the car, Chester’s phone beeped.  He checked the front screen and nodded.  “I’m ‘earing similar things from my people,” he said.  “Looks like six or seven different cars from all over London, far as they can tell.”

“I’m going to refrain from too much enthusiasm,” Sarah said, “but this is all sounding good.  Chester, do you trust any of your people to fail those cars without tipping them off?”

“’course I trust them!”

Sarah sighed.  “This isn’t the time for pride and it isn’t the time for team loyalty.  If they can’t do it, I need to know.  If they figure out what we’re doing before we have everything in motion, we’re all screwed and Billy’s going to die.”

Chester chewed over that thought.  “A couple could probably handle it,” he admitted.  “So long as you don’t expect them to do much else besides keep an eye on these cars.”

“Pass along those orders, then.  Stani, you stay on the car that just left your location.”

From their parking space, Anton could see that yet another black Suzuki was easing its way into traffic.  “We have one here,” he said into the comms.  “Should we follow this one, as well?”

“Yes and no,” Sarah said.  “Depending on what path they take, either your group or Stani’s group is going to have a more hands-on job.  I just want the other cars tracked, in case they decide to go to a different location.”

“And if that happens?”

“We improvise?”  Sarah sounded distinctly unsure about their chances, should it come down to improvisation.  “I should have put trackers in the cars that your people are using, Chester, but there’s no point crying over spilled milk.”

“What does that mean?” Stani asked.

“It’s…never mind, doesn’t matter.  Stay on your marks, people.”

“Sarah?” Michel asked.  “Should I be driving somewhere?’

“Not yet.  There’s no way of telling when we’ll get the best opportunity or where that’s going to be.  For right now, stay where you are.  That should give you the best chance to make the trip in time, just as soon as we figure out exactly where that trip’s going to take you.”

Oui,” Michel said.

“Mila and I will just twiddle our thumbs,” Devlin added.  There was a tremor of nervous energy in his words that Anton recognized.  Whenever things became too difficult to plan for, Devlin always got jumpy.  It stood to reason that he’d be even more anxious than normal now, all things considered.  ‘Don’t mind us at all.”

“If you keep distracting the grown-ups,” Sarah said, “I’m seriously going to mute your line.  Shut up and sit tight.  Stani, Chester?  I’m tracking your cell phones, but you’ll have to tell me if your marks do something strange.  Other than that?  Start moving.”

Despite his trunculence and general bad attitude, Chester recognized authority when he heard it.  He started the car and pulled it out into relatively light traffic, two cars behind the black Suzuki.  James, Chester’s partner, moved a large caliber Sig Sauer out of the way so that he could buckle his seatbelt.  Anton gave the steadily growing cloud of smoke and dust an appraising eye – he could have done more, if they’d given him any sort of notice, and that frustrated him – before strapping himself in, as well.

Chester kept up with traffic, about two kilometers per hour under the speed limit.  After five minutes, he slapped his open palms against the steering wheel in frustration.  “Wish they’d bloody well figure out where they’re going and just get there,” he said, under his breath.

“Not like it’s a race,” James rumbled back.  Anton had barely heard him speak five complete sentences since getting into the car.

“Longer it takes Sarah to do whatever it is that she’s got up her sleeve,” Chester said, “the more chance there is that something goes wrong.  If Hill gets bored or angry, then…”

“It’ll be alright,” James said.  He squeezed Chester’s left shoulder with one big, meaty hand.  “We’ll get him.”

Chester grumbled something in articulate that might have been acknowledgement or might have been some swear word that Anton didn’t know.  Whatever it was, he relaxed slightly after saying it and loosened his death grip on the steering wheel.

Anton hadn’t expected to feel a sudden kinship for Chester, but he could feel one developing.  He still didn’t like the man – he suspected that very few people had the patience for someone as willfully obstinate – but he thought he might be able to understand him a little bit.

Sarah and Devlin hadn’t given many details about their target.  Anton knew that Asher was involved with this Hill, in one way or another, and that the conflict between Devlin and his former partner had spilled over to affect Devlin’s friends.  That was why they’d rescued Ally a few days ago.  Whatever reason the two had for declaring war against a sitting drug lord was something they’d elected to keep strictly within their inner circle.

As much as it galled him to be on the outside, he couldn’t very well start pointing fingers.  He knew more about what Stani and his superiors back in Moscow intended for Asher.  He’d gleaned details about the Bratva’s true goals, mostly by virtue of knowing Stani’s tells and some judiciously careful questions.  Even with what he thought he knew – which was, by any reasonable measure, more than enough to get him killed out of hand – Anton still realized that he wasn’t privy to the whole picture.

So, he didn’t tell Devlin and Sarah about what the Russians had in mind.  The Russians didn’t actually tell him what they truly wanted.  And no one told Chester, James, or any of Billy’s men scattered across London anything more than that their leader was in trouble and no one would be able to save him except for their crew of thieves.

If they had expected Anton work with so little information and under such dire straits, he knew he’d probably a little irritable, too.

Two cars ahead of them, the black Suzuki took a sudden right turn.  Chester immediately moved to follow suit, but was stopped by James.  The generally quiet man shook his head and pointed ahead.  “Shortcut up there,” he said.  “Not as obvious.”

“Do you think he knows…no, he couldn’t.  He couldn’t!”

“Boys,” Sarah said, “tell me what you’re seeing.”

Chester continued to sputter to himself, so Anton took the lead.  “The driver of the Suzuki turned suddenly.  I do not know this town, but it does not seem like he is headed where you thought he would go.”

Sarah swore to herself.  “I’m assuming that, between the three of you, someone knows how to tail a car without being spotted.”

There was a vague waspishness to her comment that put Anton’s nerves on edge.  He was saved from formulating a response by Stani, of all people.  “My mark did the same thing,” he said.  “We were forced to let it get out of sight, or else risk being seen.”

Sarah cursed again, louder.  “I would think that this might be some sort of protocol, but it doesn’t feel right.  Devlin, what do you think?”

“Without being able to see anything you people are talking about?”  Devlin grunted.  “James, you said there was a shortcut?  What else is in that area?”

James swallowed a mouthful of bottled water before answering.  “Couple of shops.  Petrol station.  Nothing important.”

“Maybe they’re just making a quick stop, then?” Devlin suggested.

Anton opened his mouth, probably to point out ridiculous that would be, when Chester took the shortcut that James had mentioned.  There, standing out from every other car because of its glossy matte black exterior, the black Suzuki was parked at a petrol station.  One man was still seated in the driver’s seat.  He blew smoke out of the window.  The other man – Anton could only assume that there was a second man – must have been inside the store itself.

“Looks like you were correct,” Anton said to Devlin.  “I think one of them might be out of cigarettes.”

“Never attribute to clever planning what could more easily be the fault of stupid, lazy employees,” Devlin said, with the intonation of a man quoting something he’d memorized a long time ago.

“That isn’t the quote,” Sarah said.

“And yet, I was correct.  I think it’s only reasonable that I get to – “

The line popped twice and Devlin’s sentence was cut off before it could reach its climax.  “Anyway,” Sarah said, “you’ve got the car back in your sights again?”

“It is stopped, yes,” Anton replied.  “If this was only a pit stop, then we should be able to follow them back without any problems.”

“Well, Stani lost his mark – no shame there, by the way, you made the right choice – so that nominates your car for the next step in the plan.”

“Oh?”  Anton perked up, despite himself.  There was something intoxicating about one of Sarah’s plans.  When they’d worked together in the past, Devlin had served as the front man for all negotiations and he’d been the only one in communication with Sarah.  The fact that he would finally get to hear the master piece, straight from its creator’s mouth, sent a shock all the way through his body.  “What is the next step, then?”

“Well.”  Sarah cleared her throat more times than could possibly have been necessary.  “This might get a little technical, and I realize that you aren’t in possession of all of the details.  You’ll just have to trust that I know what I’m doing.”

Before Chester could say anything clever in response to that, James squeezed his shoulder again and shook his head.  Chester visibly changed tracks.  “Whatever you’ve got in mind is really gonna ‘elp us get Billy back?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Then…then I’ll trust you.  For right now.  What do you need us to do?”

Anton imagined something intricate and daring.  They had blown up a subway platform to save Alex’s daughter and they’d stolen a train before that.  There was no way of knowing how extravagant the plans might become at this most critical juncture.

“Okay,” Sarah said.  “I need you to mug those men.”

Anton blinked.  He could swear he heard – actually heard – Chester and James do the same.

“You want us to what?”

“I think,” Mila said, in her perfectly calm tone of voice, “that the appropriate term is carjack.”

“Ah.  Yeah, this is usually something that Devlin handles,” Sarah said.  “But, yeah.  Carjack them.  Steal their car.  Whatever terms work for you.”

“But…why?”

“Because we don’t want them to have it, obviously,” Sarah replied, with inflection so sarcastic that Anton legitimately felt stupid for asking the question in the first place.

Chester barked out a laugh and, a moment later, James joined him.  “Now that,” Chester said, between chuckles, “sounds like something we can ‘andle.”

Part 5: Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 115

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

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

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

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

“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.”

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.”