Tag Archives: Avis

Chapter 129 (Avis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I – “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 127 (Emilia)

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

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

Worst case, Neal might die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 123

The feeling of panic inside the room sharpened to a point.  Our collective concern, fear, and anxiety prickled against my skin like the touch of a hundred phantom spiders, raising hairs on both of my arms and up my back.  Still, when I spoke, I managed to keep the majority of those emotions from leaking into my voice.

“Alright,” I said.  “New plan.”

New plan?” Mila asked.  I could tell that was clinging desperately to her normal dispassion, but the façade was cracking around the edges.  Her eyes were a little too wild and the grip on her handgun was a bit too tight.  “I never knew what the old plan was.  Outside of getting us into the estate, to begin with.”

“We knew that Asher was going to come back eventually,” I said.  “And we all knew that Aiden was going to be a factor in this, no matter how it shook out.  He doesn’t care about the money and I strongly doubt he cares who comes out on top of this, so much as he’s obsessed with…well, with one thing.”

“With me.”  Mila swallowed a lump of emotions.  “He’s obsessed with me.  He’s not going to stop.  He’ll never stop and –“

“Mila!”  I took a long step closer and clapped my hands about three inches in front of her face.  The sound was sharp enough to sting my ears and, judging from the winces of sympathetic pain from Avis and Neal, everyone else in the room.  Mila’s eyes focused first at the point of impact, then on me.  “I need you to stay with me, okay?  I absolutely can not do this if you fall apart.  Do you understand me?”

She nodded slowly at first, but with gradually escalating speed.  “You said there’s a new plan?”

I gave her an encouraging smile, summoning the last dredges of positive thoughts from my soul.  “Right.  Yes.  That.  New plan.”

“You do have a plan, don’t you?”

“Of course I’ve got a plan!”  I lied, thinking furiously while I prevaricated.  “First, we’ve got to take stock of our problems.  I’ll go first; we’re trapped on the upper floors of an estate, surrounded by a countless number of armed thugs who, for the most part, already know what we look like.”

“Could we sneak out?” Avis asked.  “Like you did at the manor house?”

I shook my head.  “That was always going to be a trick that only worked once.  Hill knows all about the secret passages in his own house.  Even if he didn’t before we stole you, we can be damn certain he made a point to learn about them afterwards.  He’ll have men positioned at any possible exits and I’m not even sure if there are any of those that wouldn’t still leave us trapped on his grounds.”

“Fight through?” Neal asked, through cracked and bleeding lips.

“I don’t know how many people he brought,” Mila said.

“And I still don’t have access to his security system,” Sarah added, speaking direct to us from her position of relative safety in her mobile command center.  “So I can’t count them.”

“If I don’t know what I’m fighting or where they are, it’d only be a delaying tactic,” Mila finished.  “Besides, you aren’t in any condition to be fighting anything at all.  You’d only be a liability.”

“If you can’t figure out a way to get us out of here,” Avis said, jabbing a tiny finger in my direction, “anything we do is just going to be a delaying tactic.”

I did have a method of exfiltration in mind, but it wouldn’t work with so many people.  Worse, it was just like our escape at the manor house; the trick would only work one time, when it was too insane to be considered by any rational thinkers.  Hell, I hadn’t even told Sarah about my idea yet, and she might prove instrumental to timing everything perfectly.  Even saying it out loud before everyone was in position might be enough to scuttle the entire thing.

If I couldn’t use that method, though, I was drawing a blank.  I could admit that Asher was categorically more intelligent than me.  He might have been as smart as Sarah, maybe even smarter in certain areas, but it wasn’t his brute intelligence that made him dangerous right now.  No, what had everyone scared was that he knew me, and he knew how I thought.  Trapped within the estate, he could take his time clearing room by room until he found me.  I couldn’t fight back.  I couldn’t run away.  He’d be able to patiently savor the possibility of revenge against me, ignoring the reality that I hadn’t actually done anything to him.

I blinked.  “Asher.  He’s focused on me.”

“Yes,” Mila said, “we all know that.  What’s your point?”

“I mean, he’s entirely focused on me.  He’s potentially ruined perfectly good plans before, just to take a shot at me.  And the only two people that these goons actually follow orders from are Asher and Hill.”   An idea began to crystallize in my thoughts and a plan began forming around that lone crystal.

Mila scowled at me.  “That’s exactly the problem.  He will not stop until he gets his hands on you.  So what are you trying to say here?”

Another piece fell into place.  It wasn’t a plan, so much as a general outline of events that I could only hope unfolded in the way I wanted them to, but it was better than nothing.  “I’m saying that we have to split up.”

Mila gave me a blank, uncomprehending look.  That expression was mirrored on Avis’s face and, if I could see his features through the mask of blood obscuring them, I suspected that I’d see a very similar expression on Neal.  “Split up,” Mila repeated.

“I’m with her,” Sarah said, through the earbud.  “Why would you split up?  How would that help anything?”

“We’ve got to accept that we can’t get the Book right now,” I said.  “Avis, you have a good memory, don’t you?”

“Photographic,” she replied, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.

“Then that’ll have to do.  That’s the first thing.  We switch tracks from finishing the job to getting out of here in one piece.  We don’t know how many people are in this estate and we don’t know how many are coming, but we do know that Asher will redirect every single of them to capture me, if it comes down to it.”

“You want to make yourself bait?” Sarah asked, incredulously.

“Not going to happen,” Mila said, at the exact same time.

“If the two of you would both listen for a second,” I snapped, “you’d know that this is the only way we’re going to get out of this alive.”  I focused on Mila.  “On my best day, I can barely keep up with Asher and I’ve got no problem admitting that.  I’ve still got some things up my sleeve, and those might catch him off guard, but I can promise you one thing, right now: I have no chance of beating Aiden.”

Her jaw tightened, but she didn’t say anything.

I decided to press the point a little harder.  “You’ve said it yourself: he has a one-track mind and it’s currently leading him straight to you.  He can’t be tricked or misled or played against anyone else.  That’s the absolute worst case scenario for someone like me.  If he’s in this, we’re all screwed.  Point blank.”

“So you…what, exactly?  You want me to draw him away from you?”  Mila asked.  “You want me to make myself bait?”

I rolled my eyes and seriously considered shaking some sense into Mila.  “It isn’t about bait!  Why are both of you so fixated on that idea?  This is about creating matchups that we each have a possibility of winning, as opposed to playing it the way they want, with the terms they want, and losing everything in the long run.  Can you seriously not understand that?”

Silence.  Avis clung to Neal’s outstretched, bloody hand like a life preserver.  Mila’s dark eyes narrowed into slits as she thought about my idea.  And Sarah…Sarah was quiet.  I didn’t hear the sound of her fingers flying across one of her keyboards and her shallow breaths were still audible over the line, so I knew she hadn’t muted us.  Everyone was just…waiting.

“Devlin, I don’t think I can beat him,” Mila said, finally, in a soft voice that sounded so unlike her that it brought my thoughts to a screeching halt.

“You absolutely can,” I insisted, “and I don’t believe for a second that you’re going to let this be the end of things.  You’ve still got a job to do, don’t you?”

“And I’m not going to be doing that job if I’m somewhere else, dealing with my own personal demons, am I?”

“That depends on how you choose to look at it,” I said.  “I can play Asher and Hill against each other, maybe start a miniature civil war amongst the thugs loyal to Hill and the ones that Asher managed to buy.  That should buy me time.  Maybe even enough time for me to get out of here on my own.  But I absolutely will not be able to do that against Aiden and his crew.  Getting them to look somewhere else could very well be exactly what saves my life in the long run.”

“And that just happens to leave you facing the entirety of Hill’s hired army all by yourself, without your bodyguard.”  Mila and I made eye contact for the briefest of moments.  There was more in her eyes than I could read in the brief glance, but I did manage to make out a twinkle of fear before it was drowned it by a flood of resolution.  “This is a bad idea.  You know it’s a bad idea.”

“You’re the one that jinxed us,” I said.  “I’m just trying to salvage everything.”  I flashed her a quick smile to let her know that I was joking.

She didn’t answer me out loud.  Instead, she reached into her jacket and removed a second clip of bullets.  She tossed them to me without a word and I snatched them out of the air.

When those bullets were secured into one of my concealed pockets, I turned my attention to Neal and Avis.  “You two are going to go with her.  Most of the attention’s going to be on me until Hill shows up to assert control, and there’s no way to know when that’s going to happen.  It’s better to get you off of the estate before things get that bad.”

“How are we going to do that?” Avis asked.

“Michel – he’s the Frenchman who drove us away from the manor house – is waiting outside.  If Asher’s bringing most of the men inside to find me, there might be an opening at the gate.  Or, if nothing else, a skeleton shift that he can just drive past before they really have a chance to react.  Either way, the odds are better out there.”

“I’ll let him know what you’re planning,” Sarah said.  She didn’t have to express her displeasure overtly; I could feel it in every syllable of her speech.  The line popped twice and she was gone before I could think of anything I might say to soothe her.

Avis nodded.  “You saved us,” she said, “and you didn’t have to.  You could’ve left, like…like everyone else always leaves.”  She paused, looked up at Neal, then amended her thought.  “Almost everyone.”

“He’s an idiot like that,” Mila said.  I glanced back at her and saw that she’d gathered up some of the papers from Avis’ tiny desk and stuffed them into various pockets on her person.  “It’s one of those things you’ve just got to get used to.”

“I…I think I would not mind that,” Avis said.  She squeezed Neal’s hand fractionally harder – I suspected that even the small girl might be strong enough to hurt him, in his current condition – and moved closer to him.

Mila walked over to me.  “You aren’t going to be the first job I fail.  You get that?”

I nodded.  “Trust me, no plans to die today.  If worse comes to worst, I can always activate Plan C.”

“And what’s what Plan C?”

“That would be Plan ‘Cry Until Mila Comes To Save Me.’  It’s a new one in the repertoire.  Haven’t really had a chance to put it through its paces yet, but I think it’s got potential.”

At first, she scowled at me, but the expression cracked and shattered into a wide, genuine smile.  Then, with only a slight hesitation, Mila reached out and wrapped me in a one-armed hug.  When we separated, it was possible that she’d been as surprised by the sudden outburst of emotion as I was.

“Don’t die,” she said, gruffly.

I blinked.  “Right.  Check.  Won’t die.”  I blinked a second time and recovered more of my faculties.  “Make sure they get out of here safe.  One way or another, you’ll know how this all works out in the end.”

Mila opened her mouth and closed it, a moment later, without uttering a single sound.  Her phone beeped instead.  She motioned for Avis to take it from her pocket.  “It’s a map,” the little girl said.  “From Sarah.  There’s a location marked where Michel is supposed to be.”

“Does your memory work with anything other than numbers?” Mila asked.

Avis responded with an arch, scathing look.

“Glad to hear it.  You’re going to be our navigator, then.  Stand behind me and say where to turn, and when to do it.  Got it?”

“I understand,” Avis said.  She moved into position.  Neal had to nearly bend in half to stay concealed behind Mila’s short frame, but he managed it.

Mila turned around one more time.  I could tell that she wanted to say something, but had no idea how exactly she was supposed to say it.  I took a shot in the dark, hoping to save her a little bit of awkwardness.  “Tell Aiden he’s an asshole for me, okay?  I want to hear all about how he took it when we’re back at the hotel.”

The lines around her eyes grew tighter, more resolved, and she nodded.  Then, without another word, she slipped out of the room with Avis and Neal trailing behind her.

I stood there for a few seconds without moving.  Eventually, I checked the chamber on my borrowed handgun for what felt like the hundredth time and let out a long sigh.  “Well,” I said to myself, “I started this whole thing alone anyway.  Figures that’s how I should end it.”

The earbud popped twice.  “Not alone,” Sarah said.  “You should know better than that.”

A lot of embarrassing things had happened over the course of our combined careers, and Sarah had seen most of them courtesy of miniature cameras or security cameras strategically positioned to give her a view of my actions.  I’d grown so used to their presence that I almost didn’t think about them anymore.  The only thing she couldn’t typically see were my own facial expressions, unless I made a point to describe them to her, which I hardly ever did.

In all the years we’d worked together, I had never once been so disappointed in that difficulty.  Because there weren’t any words I could possibly have used to describe the wide, radiant grin that spread across my face when Sarah spoke into my ear.  The English language simply failed to encompass the wealth of emotions.

So, instead of trying, I cleared my throat twice and faked a cough.  “No,” I managed to say.  “No, I guess I’m not.”

Chapter 122

Neal led us in a half-shuffle, half-walk to a second sealed staircase down the hallway, in the opposite direction from where we’d entered.  Relief flooded into me when I saw that this door had a simple lever, as opposed to an internal keypad.  There was every possibility that Hill would have been stupid enough to use the same passcode on multiple doors, but he’d already snowed us with the shell game.   I wasn’t in the mood to try my luck.

I pulled the lever myself, so that Mila could keep her uninjured hand free to draw, aim, and shoot, if necessary.  Neal didn’t provide much assistance aside from infrequent coughing outbursts and the occasional mumbled, incoherent sentence.

When the door began to grind open, I turned to him.  “Are you sure this is the right way?”

He lifted his head and let it fall once.  “Made a point to…pay attention,” he said.  It hurt me to see how badly coherent speech hurt him.  “Staircase leads up, and…”

“Stop talking,” Mila said, cutting him off before he could put himself through any more misery.  “Tell us where to go, when it’s necessary.  Point if you can.”  She looked over to me.  “Try to keep the questions to a minimum.  I said that he shouldn’t be in any lethal danger, but I’m not a doctor.  These are definitely the kind of injuries designed to keep someone off of their feet.”

“I can do that.”  The dark mouth of the staircase/tunnel beckoned us onward.  I swallowed hard.  “Come on.”

This set of stairs went farther up than the first set and we could only travel at the fastest speed that Neal was capable of.  The effect of those combined factors was that I spent far longer surrounded by darkness and the feeling of pressure than before.  I kept my will focused on suppressing any claustrophobic thoughts, to some small degree of success.  Mila helped Neal as much as she could, but neither of them was at one hundred percent.  I found myself wishing that there’d been a place for Alex on this job.  He could’ve helped Neal up the stairs at a faster pace – hell, Alex could probably have just carried him, if necessary – which would have freed up Mila’s attention, as well as reduced the strain on her already bruised and broken body.

In my heart, and in the part of my brain that rarely surfaced to make intelligent decisions, I knew that Alex would have been a larger liability than an asset.  He would have been fine now, while we were rescuing people who had helped up in the past.  As soon as Asher showed up, though, he would have abandoned any scrap of the plan still remaining in order to run straight at the man who’d kidnapped his daughter.

I couldn’t blame him for that.  I just couldn’t allow it to happen.  Already, I didn’t know how I was going to steer things back onto track for our planned grand finale.  The addition of a furious freight train of a protective German father would not have been helpful.

“People are starting to show up outside,” Sarah said, over comms.  Her voice helped to pull me out of my own musings.  I focused on it, instead of the oppressive darkness.  “Not a lot yet, but it’s building.”

“How many?” I asked.

She was silent for a moment.  “I don’t know.  Michel can’t get into a position where I can see them all without putting himself at risk.”

“If you had to guess?”

“A lot,” she said immediately.  “Too many.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

The stunned silence from her end of the line made me smile, despite the situation.  “In what world is that a good thing?” She asked.

“This way,” I said, “we don’t have to worry about them blindsiding us.  If everyone has the good graces to stand right in front of the estate, then – “

“Devlin,” Mila interrupted.  “Top of the stairs.”

I blinked and realized that, during our short conversation, my surroundings had gradually been growing lighter and more visible.  At some point, we must have reached the top of the underground staircase.  I had been so focused on Sarah that I’d managed to miss the transition, or the fact that we’d stopped moving while the door opened, entirely.

“Neal, which way do we go now?”

He opened his mouth to reply, in blatant defiance of Mila’s orders, but couldn’t seem to make any actual sound in his condition.  He pointed diagonally forward and to the left, instead.

“Are there any other secret doors we should know about?”

He shook his head.

I exited the tunnel and looked around at the room.  The books lining the wall gave it away as some sort of miniature library or study.  A desk made of dark wood tipped the scale in favor of ‘study.’  The décor was tastefully understated, as I would have expected from British nobility; demur enough that it didn’t scream for attention and rich enough that no one would possibly mistake its owner for anything other than old money.  On a normal day, I might have searched for some valuable knickknack.  On this day, however, I was only interested in one thing.

“Mila, put him on that couch,” I said, pointing at the furniture in question.  “We can come back and get him after we retrieve Avis.”

She moved to comply without question or complaint.  When Neal was slumping gradually into a horizontal position, she raised an eyebrow.  “You still haven’t told me how you plan on getting out of here,” she said.  There wasn’t any accusation in her voice, nor was there the faintest trace of anger.  It sounded more like idle curiosity than anything else.

“That’s because you have a terrible habit of deliberately jinxing things,” I said, “and I really don’t think my escape route is going to need any more bad luck thrown its way.  Don’t worry about it, though.  We need to get the girl and rework the timeline.”

“From what to what?”

“We wanted to get the Book secured before tackling this.  Apparently that’s not going to be the way it works out.  We’ll need to figure out a way to at least locate the Book before Hill gives the order to move in and secure his prize translator.”

“That’s not a new plan,” Mila said.

“Huh.  And here I thought it was a well-thought out series of predictable events that would absolutely never go wrong.  I guess I’ve learned something new today.”

The sarcasm was such a natural reaction to stress, that it slipped out before I was even aware that I’d started to speak.  I was pleasantly surprised when Mila took no offense at the tone and, instead, smiled one of her hungry smiles back at me.  “Well, what are we waiting for, then?”

She moved forward and eased the study’s door open before I could say anything for or against any action.  The slight smile on my face, still there from Sarah’s confusion earlier, deepened as I followed after her.  Ahead of the room, and to the left, I saw a thin sliver of light from a door that wasn’t quite closed.  Mila noticed it, as well, and the two of us made crouch-walked over to it as fast as we could manage without making any unnecessary noise.

“Guards?” She whispered.

“Maybe,” I whispered back.

“What do you want me to do about them?”

Considering the stakes of our current game, the lives and livelihoods literally at stake, and the fact that a child might have been in very real danger…I might have given that question more than thought than it really deserved.  Not everyone who worked for Hill was a scumbag.  I broke the law on a regular basis, after all, and I considered myself a fairly moral personal.  Sarah probably found herself in outlaw territory more often than me – at least, in the past, before she’d gone straight – and she was one of the best people I knew.  It wouldn’t be fair for me to start judging men or women based solely on who they chose as an employer.

But…at the same time, I couldn’t go easy on them, either.  They were working for a known drug dealer, which wasn’t so much a problem as the drug dealer they’d chosen to work for.  More than that, whoever Hill had chosen to keep Avis under guard would have to know that they were holding a child hostage and exploiting her natural talents.  Presumably, this hypothetical guard would have orders to shoot her if she put up too much of a fight or argued too aggressively.  Nothing that would kill her, of course.  Just something that would hurt.

I decided that I could live with myself if something bad happened to anyone willing or able to hurt a child.  “Take care of them,” I said to Mila, lacing my response with as many shades of meaning as possible.

With her stated difficulties understanding people, I doubted that she understood every hidden message I tried to send.  The whisper-soft click as she checked her weapon’s chambered round told me that she’d understood enough.

She only had one hand and it was occupied with her handgun.  I took the initiative and held up three fingers, lowering them one at a time.  When the third finger was down and my hand had become a fist, she threw her shoulder into the door, blasted it open, and rolled into the room.  The move seemed a little too dramatic for practical use, but she managed to come up with her gun held straight and true.  Her eyes flickered across the room, searching out anyone who might be hiding in wait.

Except for the small dark-skinned girl furiously scribbling into a composition notebook at a far table, there wasn’t a single soul in the room.

I breathed a sigh of relief at the realization that Mila wouldn’t have to kill anyone right now.  At least, not on my orders.

“Avis,” I said, coming into the room as Mila stood up and pushed the door closed behind me.  “Avis, we’re here to get you away from Hill.”

“Again?” Avis asked, without looking up.

“Uh…yes,” I said.  “Again, I guess.”

“It didn’t work the first time,” Avis said.  “Why should I think it’ll work this time?”

“We made a mistake.  We didn’t have enough information and that cost us.  We do know what’s going on now and that’s why we’re here to get you out of the state and somewhere safe.”

A bitter laugh came from the little girl.  There was too much weariness in that sound for a girl her size and age.  “Nowhere’s safe,” she said.

I couldn’t think of any way to reply to that.  Mila saved me by stepping up, taking my place in the conversation.  “You’re right,” Mila said.  “There aren’t any real safe places.  But your place with us is safer than it is with Hill.”

My mind caught Mila’s usage of “us,” even if this wasn’t the perfect time to draw attention to that subtle verbal reveal.

“He’s got the men with guns,” Avis said.  “Your team has a woman with a broken arm who’s barely holding on right now and a thief who’s convinced himself that he’s a good guy.  I think Hill’s the safer option.”

“You know he’s going to kill you, right?” Mila asked.

Avis shrugged.

“As soon as you finish decrypting the Book, he’s going to have you and Neal executed,” I confirmed.  “He straight up said that to my face a few days ago.”

“I’ve…I’ve got to die someday,” Avis said, but there was a quaver in her voice now.  She didn’t have any concern for her own welfare.  She only worried when a specific someone else was in danger.  And that had been why Hill hadn’t outright killed Neal when he’d kidnapped Avis in the first place.

Hill had her psych profile.  He knew that she wouldn’t fight back so long as Neal was in danger.   Torturing him downstairs hadn’t been an opportunity; it had been the intention.

“We’ve already saved him,” I said, lowering my voice to conspiratorial volumes.  “He’s out of that room now.”

Avis, finally, looked up sharply from her work.  Her eyes were wide and the pupils had become tiny pinpricks of black in a field of white.  “You’re lying.”

Before I could say anything to persuade her, the door to room opened.  Mila spun with blurring speed and brought her gun up before I could anything more than suck in a sharp breath of surprise.

Neal stood in the doorway.  It might have been more accurate to say that Neal leaned against the doorway, actually.  He was weezing, gasping for oxygen, and blood was pouring from numerous wounds.  “Avis,” he croaked out.

The girl was out of her chair in a flash.  She rushed across the room so quickly that the papers on her tiny desk were whipped away in her passing and she barely stopped herself before she bowled Neal over with her tiny body.  “Neal!”

“We’ve got…to…”

“We’ve got to get you two out of here,” Mila finished for him.  “Or get you somewhere relatively safe.  Things are about to get a lot worse if we have to keep up with the two of you.”

Avis slowly turned away from Neal, back to Mila and me.  “Hill said he’d kill him if I did anything wrong,” she said.  “He’d bring him up here every couple of hours, just to show me what he could do.”

Confirmation of my suspicions didn’t make me feel any better.  In fact, I felt bile beginning to rise in my throat.

“I knew he wasn’t going to let us go, but…I didn’t want them to hurt him anymore,” Avis said.  “I thought that…I didn’t think anyone was coming.”

“We said we’re your friends, didn’t we?” I asked.  “That we’d take care of you, as best we could, right?”

Avis’s head moved up and down in jerky movements.  Without looking, she raised one hand behind her back and Neal somehow found it with his own.  “I didn’t think…I just thought you were…”

“We weren’t,” I said.   “Now, here’s the deal.  We need to get you guys somewhere safe for the moment and then get the Book away from Hill.  Do you know where it is?”

Avis shook her head.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Hill brought me pictures and I decrypted them.  What Book are you talking about?”

I bit down on the inside of my lip, hard enough that it hurt.  That would’ve been too much to ask for.  So long as Hill had the Book in his possession, he didn’t need to actually show it to anyone. After all, the Book itself wasn’t worth anywhere near as much as its contents.

“We’ll have to find it, then.  We’re running low on time, but – “

“Devlin,” Sarah cut in.  “You aren’t running low on time.  You’re out of it.”

“What do you mean by that?”

She spent a few seconds typing.  “Okay, I know what room all of you are in.  Look out of the window.”

I found the only window in the room and walked over, drew back its curtains, and looked outside.  At first, I saw nothing except for the green of Hill’s estate grounds.  I changed the angle of my gaze and saw a cluster of black Suzukis.  The backdoor on the passenger’s side of one of the cars opened and a figure stepped out.

From this distance, it would have been difficult for anyone except me to recognize the figure.  But I knew the subtle quirks like I knew my own name.  I could see, if I strained my eyes to their absolute limit, the mottled and warped skin that extensive burns left in their wake.

“Asher’s here,” I said in the smallest voice possible.

There was more, though.  The other three doors on the Suzuki opened as well and three more men stepped out of the car.

“Oh no,” Mila said, from right beside me.  It was a testament to my own growing horror that her sudden presence didn’t give me a heart attack.  “Oh no.”

“Michel’s close enough that I might be able to use his camera and some lip-reading software to figure out what they’re saying,” Sarah said.  “One second, and…”

The line popped twice as she connected Michel’s line to ours.  I could hear the Frenchman breathing frantically into his own microphone, but he stayed silent.  Instead, the digitized voices of Aiden, Asher, Carlos, and Mikhail came through the earbud.  From this angle, I could see their lips move, so I was able to connect the speaker to their oddly robotic voices.

“…must have figured it out,” Asher was saying.  “Or at least he took a shot in the dark.  What other reason would he have for the distraction at the stashes?”

Aiden began to pace.  Everything about his body language was different now than it had been at our dinner with Hill.  There, he’d been calm, controlled, and menacing like a patient tiger might be.  Now?  I wasn’t close enough to see his face and I counted that as a mercy.  He seemed…ravenous?  Untamed?  I couldn’t think of the exact right words, except that he appeared raw in a way that promised violence, hot and bloody.

“She’s with him,” Aiden said.  “She has to be.  He wouldn’t come in without her, and she wouldn’t let him.  Oh, she’s here, and she knew I’d be here.”

Asher took a long step back, away from Aiden.  “Whatever you say.  Our deal still stands.  Leave him to me, and you can do whatever you want with everybody else.”

With so much distance, I didn’t think it would be possible for me to see a specific expression cross Aiden’s face.  I was wrong.  He turned and looked up the building and I swear, he looked straight through me.

“Oh,” Asher said.  “Will someone sound an alarm, please?”

A second later, one of the guards on the ground floor followed the command.  A shrill, angry sound like a thousand bees being fed into a blender came from hidden speakers all throughout the estate.

“Oh, Devlin,” Asher said, in a sing-song voice made even eerier by its synthesized nature, “don’t you think it’s time to come out and play?”

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.

Part 4: Recap

After the problematic extraction of “the key” – actually a preteen girl named Avis, as well as her friend/handler Neal – Devlin O’Brien and the rest of his team soon discover that their exploits in the London countryside have garnered the attention of the London Metropolitan Police and, in a spectacularly unfortunate turn of events, Adlai Neetipal, Devlin’s own personal nemesis.  With his name and face publically displayed on the news and the noose slowly tightening around his neck, Devlin and Sarah decide that they must first tackle the problem of the police before turning their attention fully towards whatever challenge lies around the next corner.

First, he must find a way to steal an authorized identification card, from someone with the clearance necessary to enter Scotland Yard and retrieve or destroy any incriminating evidence.  Sarah works her networking magic to ensure that Adlai’s superior, Inspector Lane, will be at a specific location at a very specific time and, as Devlin’s face is the one on display, Mila and Michel take point on the initial leg of the operation.

The plan is deliberately uncomplicated.  Michel is to pour shots down Lane’s throat, until such time as Mila is capable of lifting and copying the man’s identification card.

Immediately, the framework of that plan falls to ruin, when Mila and Michel discover that Adlai himself has joined Lane at the bar.  Instead of calling things off, however, Michel musters the resolve to follow through with the approach.  With Devlin in his ear to guide the conversation, Michel deftly navigates past any conversational traps planted by the Indian agent.  Even Mila’s unplanned detour – leaving her ward momentarily for a hasty discussion with the Japanese twins that Devlin calls The Things – doesn’t cause too many ripples.  At least, until Adlai discovers the miniature camera on Michel’s lapel.

Some fast thinking, faster fingers, and a touch of a silver tongue manage to derail Adlai’s suspicions.  Michel manages to convince both the agent and his Superintendent that he is a police officer, planted undercover in Hill’s organization.  A quick call from Lane luckily provides confirmation that at least one officer is, in fact, working to derail the operation from the inside.  Using that serendipitous knowledge as a basis for his new cover identity, Michel is able to distract Lane long enough for Mila to do her work, and then beat a hasty escape before any questions can be asked that might compromise his true goal.

Before the night is out, though, Devlin receives a terse phone call from associates he had not expected and was not prepared for: Stanislav Novikof, the Russian Mafioso, and his two lieutenants.  Stani requires Devlin’s presence in the slums of London, for some task that might potentially provide illumination to the mystery of the Magi, the ephemeral crime lords that seem to be providing Asher with both support and considerable firepower.

Mila cannot be contacted, for some reason, and Michel is incapacitated by one too many celebratory shots.  Sarah’s physical presence is completely out of the question, so Devlin goes to meet the Russians alone.  The meeting is supposed to take place within a local black market, an impoverished pocket of commerce and activity within the world of the downtrodden and destitute.  Devlin meets the Russians and, after a short conversation, discovers that Stani now suspects that he is involved with the Magi and might actually be working on their behalf.  The unexpected arrival of Mila, walking the black market for her own mysterious reasons, doesn’t help matters.

Devlin temporarily diffuses the situation long enough for the group – consisting now of Devlin, Mila, Stani, Leonid, and Iosif – to head towards their true destination: a building constructed of black stone, standing tall and unbowed within the poverty of the black market.  Inside, they meet a man with ties to Hill, the Russian mafia, and to the people who seek shelter in his Halfway House, who introduces himself simply as Billy.

Billy makes a request of Devlin’s team that might help all parties involved.  A processing plant in the area is run by Hill and serves as a cover for his drug smuggling.  Inside, a special type of plastic can be transmuted back into pure cocaine.  Billy wants to sabotage the plant entirely, by replacing the treated plastic with a special version.  This version, when subjected to extreme heat, will produce extreme quantities of toxic smoke, forcing a shutdown of the processing plant and hobbling Hill’s efforts.

In exchange for leading this raid, Billy offers to answer any question that Devlin has about the man. The opportunity to deal another blow to Hill – and, by extension, Asher – is too much for Devlin and Sarah to turn down.  With the addition of James and Chester, two of Billy’s men, they set off for the factory with a hastily constructed plan and no real idea of how badly things could go wrong.

The approach goes perfectly.  The infiltration, with Sarah’s crucial long-distance assistance, goes perfectly.  In fact, everything goes wonderfully until Devlin and Mila reach the center of the operation, where the chemical process is supposed to take place.  Then, and only then, do they discover that the product contained in the loading area is common baking soda, not cocaine.  And the center of the plant does not harbor the mechanism for transmuting plastic into cocaine.  For some reason, nothing is the way it should be.

Instead of a successful raid, Devlin and Mila discover that they have walked themselves directly into a trap.

With law enforcement on the way, summoned by a deliberately triggered alarm, and Aiden’s group of cutthroat mercenaries even closer, Devlin makes the call to finish with the plan.  Instead of relying on a scheduled chemical process to activate Billy’s fake plastic, he uses two of the chemicals located within the plant to forcibly create a fire that will provide cover for his escape.  The fact that the factory is not up to safety standards, and the localized reaction results in a massive conflagration instead of a controlled burn, comes as a surprise to everyone in the building.

Chaos rains from the sky around them, as Devlin and Mila, as well as Stani and his lieutenants, search for a way out of the burning factory.  A path out, via the loading bay, is provided by Sarah, but the presence of Aiden’s man Carlos complicates matters.  In complete defiance of Devlin’s wishes and fervent requests, Mila takes it upon herself to do her job: protecting Devlin from harm, no matter the cost.  She stays behind, firing blindly into the fire to distract Carlos until Devlin and the Russians can make it to the relative safety of Billy’s Halfway House.  Devlin watches, transfixed, as the building tears itself apart and Mila is lost to the blaze before the toxic fumes he has inhaled drag him away from the world of the conscious.

When he wakes again, Devlin is surprised to see that Sarah has left her command post at the Brooklands.  She informs him of his injuries and informs him that Mila survived the explosion at the processing plant and is now held at Scotland Yard, awaiting further questioning.  Devlin rallies and marshals his wits for an impassioned speech, only to learn that Sarah and Michel have already decided on the only appropriate course of action.  Mila is one of theirs.  Where the previous twenty-four hours had been bent wholly to the task of removing Devlin from beneath the watchful eye of the police, now they must go directly into the dragon’s lair to retrieve their teammate before things can find a more disastrous path to follow.

Billy, and a few more men in his employ, join them for the initial approach on Scotland Yard.  Billy engages with several workers and a foreman, working on the reconstruction of the building, and provides Sarah with access to a working set of blueprints.  Michel uses the stolen identity card, as well as a falsified uniform, to gain access to their internetwork.  With all that done, Sarah readies herself to do something she has not done since joining forces with Devlin, so many years ago: she must go into the field, to provide a distraction for Adlai that he cannot ignore, so that Michel is able to steal, destroy, or corrupt anything that might provide the police with any solid basis for further investigations into Devlin or his allies.

But Adlai is not interested in Sarah’s stories and he shows no weakness to the Ford name.  With time running out, and fearing that Sarah might be compromised, Devlin takes it upon himself to sever the complicated knot.  He presents himself to the agents, prepared to match wits with the man who has hunted him for nearly a decade.

The conversation between Adlai and Devlin is civil, yet charged with a terrifying energy.  Their ideals clash in violent exchanges.  Just when Devlin is convinced that he will be forced to spend even more time in jail – only thirty-six hours, instead of the two and a half years inflicted on him by Asher – he is rescued by the intervention of a mysterious figure.  Within seconds, he discovers the identity of that savior: David, the giant who stood like a sentinel over the shoulder of the Lady in the Black Dress.  She greets him as he exits the police station, gives him a thick file of information pilfered from the clutches of Scotland Yard during his operation, and leaves him with a few cryptic words: “Your friends will be the death of you.”

It is not until some time later, safely ensconced within the protective walls of the Brooklands, that Devlin remembers the ignored calls and missed text messages from his old friend Alex in Berlin.  While he listens to those messages, an email arrives from an anonymous source, whose identity is quickly made clear: Asher, reaching out to taunt his former partner just a little more.

Instead of attempting to run down Devlin, Asher has also elected to cut the knot and take the shortest path to his goal.  Why search for his former partner when the kidnapping of Allie, Alex’ only daughter, will accomplish the same goal?

Now, Devlin finds himself faced with an even more impossible task than any he has faced thus far.  How can he steal Allie away from Asher’s clutches, without exposing his team to even greater risk?  Is there a way to turn events away from their inevitably disastrous conclusion and to pull success from the clutches of almost certain defeat?  If one man can go from most wanted to exonerated in a single night, might it also be possible to go from defense to offense?

He does not know.  What he does know is that he will have to find new reserves of intelligence and cunning, lest his alleged crimes against Asher finally come calling for a price too expensive for anyone to pay.

Chapter Sixty-Five

“In twenty words or less,” I said, blowing through the computer room’s door, “tell me exactly how screwed we are.”

Sarah spun her chair around to face me.  Her eyes were slightly wide and the breaths came short and quick from her mouth.  “Someone you met in the countryside remembered what you look like.  Adlai got the sketch and connected some dots.”

I blinked.  That explanation was short enough for me.  “You only used nineteen words,” I pointed out, after a moment.

Sarah narrowed her eyes.  “I know,” she said.  “Idiot.”

Mila stepped into the doorway.  A brief instant of eye contact passed between us – long enough for her to acknowledge that I had some unanswered questions about her past – before she spoke.  “Michel should be back shortly.”   Sam slinked past his owner, vocally expressing his pleasure at the brief moment of contact, and found a corner of the room, closer to Sarah, to curl up in.  “I think he likes you, Sarah.”

Yay for me,” Sarah deadpanned.  She turned back to me.  “Adlai makes for one hell of an obstacle, Devlin.  I’m open to ideas, here.”

I frowned and started to pace from one side of the room to the other.  “That makes two of us.  Or three, I guess, unless you’ve got a suggestion, Mila.”

“I’m not even sure what the problem is,” she said.  ‘You’ve got a record.  This inspector knows about it.  If you get caught, you’re going back to jail, whether he’s the one putting the handcuffs on or not.  How does a photo make that any worse?”

“The photo isn’t the part we’re worried about,” Sarah said.  She sounded calmer than I would have expected, but it wasn’t her face on the evening news.  “Although that’s a part of it, sure.”

“Then what?  Worried about someone recognizing Devlin on the street?”

I scoffed at that idea, almost immediately.  “Because people actually watch the news?”

“What he means,” Sarah interjected, “is that people aren’t actually looking to run into criminals on the street.  Adlai even knows that; this isn’t about raising an army that might catch Devlin while he’s out getting coffee or whatever.”

“One second,” Mila said, holding up a finger.  “I’ll be right back.

She slipped out of the door frame.  When she was gone, I lowered my voice slightly.  “Honestly, Sarah, how bad is this?”

“Not as bad it could be,” she hedged.  “But it is pretty terrible.  He doesn’t know our cover names, or he’d already be here.  Our connection to the museum job is too thin for him to use against us, but there’s more than enough from the absolute disaster we just left to pin you to the wall for breaking and entering, kidnapping, and assault.”

“So, on a scale from one to ten?”

Sarah pursed her lips for a moment.  “A ten being…?”

“Remember Rio?”

She whistled.  “Seven, then.  Seven and a half, maybe.”

There was some small comfort in knowing that our situation could still get worse.  The knowledge that they almost certainly would devolve further reduced that comfort considerably.

Mila walked back into the room, carrying an open bag of Skittles.  “Alright,” she said, squatting down near Sam and scratching idly between his ears.  “If it’s not the citizens, what is it about?”

“Two things,” Sarah said.  “First: control.  By doing it the way he did, Adlai just put the entire London underworld on notice that Devlin is radioactive.  No one’s going to risk helping us while we’re in Adlai’s crosshairs.  Theoretically, that cuts off a lot of our options.”

“Theoretically, maybe,” Mila said.  “But you can’t trust any of the local talent anyway.  Cutting off support that you weren’t using doesn’t seem too bad.”

Sarah gave her a reluctant nod.  “By itself, it isn’t.  And we’d be fine, if it weren’t for the second reason.”

“Which is?”

I walked to the edge of Sarah’s desk and leaned against it, facing Mila.  “It’s a declaration of war.”

“Oh,” Mila said.  A moment passed and I could almost see the wheels turning in her head as she considered what resources a fully motivated and obsessed Interpol inspector could bring to bear against our ragtag team.  When the realization hit her, she let out a breath.  “Oh.

The three of us sat in the room in silence for nearly five minutes, with nothing but the clicks and beeps of Sarah’s system as background noise, until Michel joined us.  In that time, I managed to dial my panic down to reasonable concern, but I still hadn’t managed to generate any brilliant ideas.

“What is the matter?”  The Frenchman asked, as he entered the room.

“Devlin’s screwed,” Mila said, before either Sarah or I had a chance.  “On the plus side, he isn’t in any more physical danger than he was.  Might be safer, actually.”

“Adlai’s tried to kill me before,” I pointed out.

“He wasn’t trying to kill you,” Sarah said.  “He was trying to stop you.”

“Well, Sarah, I don’t think the bullet he shot at me would’ve been overly concerned with his exact intentions.”

“Uh.  Pardon?”  Michel raised his hand in the air until Sarah and I stopped bickering.  “What?”

“That Interpol agent I told you about, after the museum job?  He just put my face on the evening news,” I said.

“And that’s bad?”

Mila rose from her spot near Sam.  “Apparently,” she said, popping a handful of Skittles into her mouth.

To his credit, Michel didn’t ask for details.  Instead, he calmly closed the door and bowed his head for a few seconds.  “What do we do now?”

It was refreshing, in an odd sort of way, to work with Michel’s simple, earnest desire to help.  He hadn’t known what he was signing up for.  Hell, I hadn’t known what a complete shitstorm we were sowing.  Michel had been thrown into the deep waters only a few days ago, and we’d expected him to function while the world he knew steadily fell to pieces around him.  And, so far, he’d still managed to keep his head above the rising waters.  More impressive: he actually had the temerity to stand in a room of professionals and ask for more.

My opinion of the man went up several notches.  “Right now, there’s really nothing we can do,” I said.  “I need a better idea of where we’re standing before I make any judgment calls.  Sarah?”

She entered a series of commands into the computer and documents began tiling themselves across her monitors.  “These are the scans I’ve managed to upload and some of the files I pulled from their network before Aiden blew up the line.”

It looked like gibberish to me.  “They’re encrypted?”

“I’ll answer that with a metaphor,” Sarah said.  “These files are encrypted in the same way that the sun is, on occasion, slightly warm.”

“So, that’s a yes.”


“But Avis can break the code?”

Sarah leaned back in her chair and pinched the bridge of her nose.  “So it seems.”

“How can she do that?”  I asked.  “I thought you said the encryption was impossible to figure out.”

“I was also wondering about that,” Michel said.

“Me three,” Mila added.

All of us turned to regard the woman with surprise and blank confusion.

“I do know things,” Mila said, a trifle defensively.  “It isn’t all fighting and guns.”

She very carefully did not look at me and I, in turn, very carefully did not look at her.  There were depths to her.  Aiden had known her.  The relationship between a master and his student was not something I wanted to undervalue.

Thus far, Mila’s contract had proven solid enough, but I couldn’t help but question her state of mind now.  If Aiden returned, I wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t leave us in the lurch.  Worse: there was every possibility that she might join his side, instead of ours.

Sarah’s knowledge about my concerns was minimal, though, so she missed the moment of non-interaction.  “I’ll keep this basic,” she said.  “The encryption is mathematically impossible to decipher.  Even if I had unlimited time and unlimited resources, there just isn’t any possible way to brute force it.”

“Why can Avis do it, then?”  I asked.

“She can’t,” Sarah said.  “Not technically.  What she does isn’t breaking the code; she’s translating it.  She knows the algorithms by heart.  All of them.”

I blinked, considered that information, and blinked again.  “Wait.  You’re saying that she memorized dozens of formulas that your computer can’t decipher?”

Sarah shook her head.  “Not dozens; hundreds.  And she isn’t memorizing them.  If I’m right, Avis is making them up on the fly.”

The four of us chewed on that tidbit for a few moments.

“Where is she now?”  I asked.

“Like I said, she’s with Neal,” Mila answered.  “Why?”

“Because if Avis is anywhere near as important as Sarah thinks, we are in very serious trouble.  Think about it.  The tiny amount of information we managed to steal is nothing compared to the only person on the planet who can actually understand any of it.”

“I was thinking that, too,” Sarah said.  “Without her, Hill can’t decrypt the book.  That’s reason enough for him to rain hell down on us.  But he also can’t decipher any files he had her encrypt: shipping manifests, balance sheets, personnel numbers…anything he thought was important enough to hide is as good as gone now.”

Bead of sweat sprang to life on my forehead as I thought more about what we’d done.  “We just kidnapped the living equivalent of nuclear launch codes and we can’t even use them.”

“We could give her back,” Mila suggested mildly.  “Follow whoever they send for the retrieval back to Hill’s place and grab the book.”

“They will kill her!”  Michel cried out, stepping forward in protest.  “You cannot be serious!”

“My job is to protect Devlin and Sarah,” Mila said.  “And you, I guess.  If keeping the girl makes that harder, then…”  She trailed off and shrugged one shoulder, instead of actually finishing the thought.

“Can we just put that to bed, once and for all?”  I knew my nerves were approaching the fraying point.  By any reasonable standard, they should have already snapped.  It was remarkable that I could keep myself from screaming, but I couldn’t keep the frustration from my voice.  “Even if you magically found another way to decrypt this information…even if I could convince Asher and Hill and the Magi to swear a blood oath to never touch a hair on her head…even if the Lady herself orders me to do it, I will not give a child back to a known drug dealer!”

“Because the four of us are better choices?”  Mila didn’t have to yell.  The intense aura around her simply ratcheted up.  The hairs on my arm stood upright and my skin broke out in goosebumps, while Mila never moved an inch from where she stood.  “Thieves, hackers, getaway drivers, and…and killers?”

The hiccupping pause stood like a beacon in the night sky.  “We aren’t the best choices,” I said, “but we’re damn sure better than the ones who just sent a fucking wet squad to kill her!”

“Is that what happened?”  A small voice asked, from the doorway.  “Is that they were there?”

I hadn’t heard the door open.  I whirled and found myself staring down into Avis’ wide, dark brown eyes.  Michel was openly gaping and Mila even looked a little shocked at the girl’s presence.  Neal leaned against the wall behind Avis, slightly out of breath.  “That isn’t…” I stammered.  “I mean, there’s more to it than that.”

“Tell me the truth, then,” Avis said.  “I can handle it.  And if you lie to me, I’ll never trust another word you say.”

She looked…serious.  There was something in her eyes that I’d once seen in Sarah’s, so many years ago.  The girl’s body shivered in the low temperature, and what looked like tears glistened in the corners of her eyes, but her back was straight and controlled.  It was a disconcertingly adult expression on such a cute face.

“Devlin,” Sarah began, “you can’t –“

I waved her into silence.  “No.  She deserves the truth.  This is her life we’re talking about, isn’t it?”

Avis nodded once.  “I’m listening.”

I couldn’t risk lying to the girl, so I went back and started from the beginning.  Excising the parts that didn’t really have anything to do with her – my difficulties in Munich, the nature of the strained relationship between Sarah and me, and the mystery of Mila’s past – it didn’t very long to hit the high points.

By the time I’d finished, Avis had taken Mila’s place by the cat.  “So,” she said softly.  “You weren’t there to save me, from these…these Magi?  You just want to use me?”

That wasn’t an unfair read of the situation, but it wasn’t a complete one.  “Everybody uses everyone else,” I replied.  “Doesn’t matter how old you are.  Yes, we want to use to you.  I want to use you.  That isn’t the only thing I want, though.  And it’s not all I’m offering.”

“They paid me for what I did,” Avis said.  “Fed me, bought me toys and books, protected me.  Can you do those things?”


“Probably?”  She repeated and laughed.  “Why would I accept a ‘probably,’ when what I can would get me top dollar anywhere else in the world?”

“Because you’ll just end up a prisoner again,” I said.  Avis’ eyebrows jumped, but I continued before she could interrupt.  “As soon as anyone figures out how valuable you are, they’ll just put you in a golden cage.  Sure, you’ll get anything you could ever ask for, but you won’t ever be free again.

Avis weighed that.  “And with you?”

“Freedom.”  I remembered that first sight of the sky after so many years in prison.  I poured that feeling into my voice.  “With us, you get to choose how your life goes from here.”

The girl had been stroking Sam’s ears.  She stopped and the cat meowed in protest.  After several seconds, Avis sighed and resumed petting.  “I don’t trust you,” she said.  “You’re thieves and liars.  People always promise me things they won’t deliver.”

“I’m not other people,” I said.

“That’s what they all say.”  She looked out of the room, at Neal, who was still standing awkwardly in the doorway.  “What about him?  Can you keep him safe, too?”

“If he’s with you,” I said, “then he’s with us.”

“Fine,” Avis said.  “I don’t trust you, but I don’t think you’re lying.”

It was easy to read between the lines.  I wanted to reinforce my offer, to swear that she wouldn’t ever end up as someone’s pet again.  But I just couldn’t make that promise in good conscience.  Even if I managed to unseat Hill and take Asher down, there was no guarantee that the Lady wouldn’t find some use for the girl as her own personal cryptographer.

What I said instead threaded the line between realism and optimism.  “Help us bring Hill down and I will do everything in my power to keep you safe.  Both of you.”

Sarah and Michel nodded vigorously; after a moment, Mila followed as well, with much less enthusiasm.

“Fine,” Avis said again.  She stuck out her bottom lip as she did it.  It was such a typically childish expression – especially contrasted with the very grown up posture from only seconds before – that I nearly laughed out loud.  “What do you want me to do?”

Sarah pulled up a document on her primary monitor.  “You understand these?”

Avis rose and crossed the room to examine the screen.  “This one is just a product manifest,” she said after a second.  “This is all you want?”

“You did that in your…” Sarah stopped, swallowed, and started over.  “Do you think could translate any more of these?”

“I made all of these,” Avis said.  “That doesn’t answer my question.  What are you looking for?”

I cleared my throat, deliberately louder than necessary.  “Honestly?  We don’t know what information we might need yet.”

Avis pointed at one of Sarah’s discarded tablets.  “Can I use that?”

Sarah nodded.

“It’s going to take me a while,” Avis said, “especially if you want direct transcripts.  They didn’t show me anything with context, but maybe you’ll be able to piece it together.”

“Are you going to get started on that now?”  I asked.

Avis gave me a flat look for several very long seconds.  “I’m nine,” she said finally.  “I’m going back to bed.”

My mouth opened and then, slowly, closed.  There really wasn’t a comeback for that.

“Neal?” Avis asked.  “Are you ready?”

Neal jerked upright at his name.  “You’re ready to go already?”

“I’m tired,” Avis said.  “You can stay if you want, but I…uh…”

He smiled down at her.  “Can’t reach the elevator button?”

“No!  That isn’t it!  It’s just…I’d feel better if someone rode down with me.”

“Ah,” Neal said.  “Fair enough.  Well, I’m ready when you are.”  He looked directly at me.  “I’d like to talk to you later.  Figure out exactly what we’re involved in.”

I wasn’t concerned about the kid, but that was still not a conversation I was looking forward to.  “I’ll let you know when we’re free,” I said.

Neal nodded and held out a hand for Avis.  She took it after a few moments of hesitation and the pair left us alone with only our thoughts.

“Well,” I said after the silence had stretched out long enough.  “That’s one problem…not solved, but being worked on.”

“What’s next?”  Michel asked.

Sarah and I responded at the same time: “Adlai.”

Chapter Sixty-Four

Sophie greeted us in front of the hotel, holding two key cards between the fingers of one hand and a tablet in the crook of her opposite arm.  One of her eyebrows elevated when she saw Avis but, when she spoke, she didn’t sound confused by the young girl’s presence.  “Your guests, I presume?”

“In a manner of speaking,” I said.  “Those keys are for them?”

Sophie nodded.  “Quite.  I took the liberty of placing their quarters as close to your personal suite as possible, available space permitting.  If you’d like to give me some time, I’m certain that I could – ”

“Close enough is fine.”  I looked at the newest additions to our ragtag group.  Avis was standing on her own now, but her eyelids drooped; Neal didn’t look much better, although he managed to keep his back straight.  “They’re going to need some sleep, I think.”

“Of course.”  Sophie pressed a button on her tablet and, a moment later, a porter appeared at her side.  She handed the key cards to him.  “If you could show the gentleman and the child to their rooms,” she said.

The porter nodded.

I held up a hand before Neal and Avis could move to follow him.  “Avis,” I said carefully, “Sarah and I are going to have to talk to you about…what you told us earlier, okay?”

The girl scowled a very un-childlike scowl.

“What you know – what you can do – is very important to us, Avis.”  I spoke slowly, picked my words carefully, and made sure to keep my body language as inviting as possible.  I’d read in a book somewhere that those were all useful skills when communicating with a child.  “Do you think you’d be able to tell us more about how to translate those numbers, after you get a chance to rest?”

The expression on Avis’ face darkened.  She took a step forward, one fist balled up at her side, and positively glared up at me.  “If I could explain how to do what I do,” she said, “I’d have a lot less value, wouldn’t I?”

I blinked.

She continued, stepping around the porter and reaching up to jab a finger into my chest.  “I know I’m a child, but please don’t talk to me like I’m one.”

Neal intervened before she could say anything else.  He reached out and gently pushed her arm back down.  “What she means,” he said to me, “is that she doesn’t like being patronized.  If you’re going to talk to her, you should do it as though she’s just another adult.”

“A very tiny adult,” Mila commented.  When I shot her a look of my own, she shrugged and found something interesting in the tree line to study.

“Okay, Avis,” Sarah said.  “I can deal with that.  Devlin can, too.  You get some rest and, when you’re feeling up to it, come up to the suite.  I’ve got some questions I’d like to ask.  Does that sound fair?”

Instead of answering Sarah, she turned to Neal.  “Let’s go,” she said and pulled on his arm.

Neal allowed himself to be tugged toward the Brooklands, following after the porter.  “I’ll make sure she comes to see you,” he called out.  Then, he was inside the hotel lobby and, a moment later, out of sight.

“May I ask what happened to the vehicle I acquired for you?”  Sophie asked.

“It’s…”  I trailed off, suddenly aware that we’d abandoned a perfectly good vehicle because of paranoia.  There was, of course, very good reason to be paranoid, but it still seemed rude.  “Michel was, uh, going to ask if you could send someone with him to go retrieve it.”

“Retrieve it?”  Sophie echoed.  “Where, exactly, is it now?”

Michel saved me this time.  “If there is a valet that you can spare,” he said, “I would be happy to show him where we parked the car.  It is not far from here.”

Sophie’s lips twitched slightly, as if she was about to say something, but nothing but a soft sigh came out.  “Very well.  If you could wait by the track, I’ll see to it that someone is sent over to assist you.”

Michel tilted his head at me, and I nodded back.  “You know where we’ll be,” I said.  “Don’t take too long, alright?  There’s a lot we’ve got to go over now, and I’d rather get into that sooner than later.”

Oui, oui.  I will not be long.”  He hurried from where we stood, in the direction of the track.

“Is there anything else?”  Sophie asked.  I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like something about her professionalism was…off.  Not wrong, per se, but different than it had been before we’d gone to the countryside.

“Nothing that I can think of,” Sarah said.  “Devlin?”

I shook my head absently, distracted by my efforts to get a read on Sophie.

“Excellent.”  Sophie entered a command into the tablet.  “I’ll arrange for a menu to be sent up to the penthouse, immediately.  I would imagine that whatever difficulties you might have encountered during your trip left you with little time for meals.”

My stomach grumbled at the mention of food and I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything since the previous day.  That, coupled with the adrenaline high I was still coming down from, served to derail any train of thought I had about Sophie’s change in demeanor.  I needed to eat and I needed to sleep, if only to tackle this newest problem at anything near one hundred percent.

Sarah, bless her heart, apparently had the same idea.  “That sounds fantastic.”  Pause.  “Sophie?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“There might be some people looking for us,” Sarah said, carefully.  “It would be…preferable if they weren’t able to get in contact with us.”

Sophie nodded, entirely unfazed.  “Of course, your privacy is of paramount importance here.  If you’d like to check over the documentation yourself, however…”

“If it wouldn’t be too much of an issue,” Sarah said.  “I’m sure that you’re very good at your job; those people that might be looking for us are extremely good at theirs.”

Sophie’s nostrils widened minutely, for a fraction of a second.  “Think nothing of it.  I’ll have the files delivered to your room immediately.”

Mila yawned, a little too loud for the action to have been genuine.  “I’ve got to pick some things up,” she said.  “Sophie, don’t worry about arranging for a ride; I need to clear my head a bit, anyway.”

“What have you got to pick up?”  Sarah asked.  Suspicion colored her words.

Mila looked at me and, on the surface, the expression was exactly as flat and disinterested as it had always been.  Except, I knew better, now.  I understood, in a vague sense, why Mila needed to be alone.  She covered it well, but I’d seen the way that the mercenary’s presence had utterly wrecked her.   Michel wouldn’t push the issue and Sarah had only heard the conversations.  I’d looked into her eyes, witnessed as fear crippled her, and now she needed some time to center herself again.

Begrudging her that opportunity wouldn’t just be cruel; it would be actively damaging.  A bodyguard who was too afraid to do their job was not the person you wanted at your back when things went sideways.  “Go for it,” I said.  “Sarah and I should be alright for a few hours.”

“Sounds good.”  She knelt and put down Sam, scratching a spot between his ears.  “These guys are going to get you up to the room, alright?”

Sam meowed at her, tilting his head in the way that only cats can really pull off.

“I’ll be back,” Mila said.  “Just need to get some things together.”

I watched the odd one-sided conversation play out, struggling to fit this image of Mila with the other two I’d personally seen.  In my peripheral vision, I saw Sophie stop another porter with an empty luggage trolley.  “The feline needs to go with these guests,” she said.

Mila loaded Sam onto the trolley without any prompting.  “See you later,” she said to Sarah and I.  She walked away from the hotel without any further conversation.

Sarah and I looked at each other, and I recognized the familiar signs of grudging acceptance in the angle of her eyebrow, the slight downturn at the corner of her lips.  “I’ll explain later,” I said.


“Sure.  As soon as I know what’s going on, you’ll be the first to know.”

She nodded at that: not pleased with the answer, but willing to give me a little bit of rope to figure things out.   “Let’s get some sleep, then.”

We went up to the penthouse and, after wolfing down a grilled cheese sandwich and a banana parfait, I passed out on the couch.  The time slipped away as I slumbered, suspended in a dreamless black expanse of sleep.  While I slept, occasional snatches of conversation and fractured images floated through my mind, disconnected from any context.  Aiden’s words to Mila; the nickname he’d used that had triggered her episode; Avis’ attitude, and how comfortable she seemed around admitted criminals and kidnappers; Asher’s threats; the Magi; and, like a musical refrain, the image of the Lady, legs crossed as she watched me like a lion watches a prospective meal.

When I woke, the living room was dark and the sun was much lower in the sky than it had been before.  Mila was seated across from me, finishing off a vending machine bag of potato chips, watching something on television.  It was a testament to my sleep-fogged brain that I barely jerked in surprise.

“Morning,” she said.  She looked out of the patio window.  “Well, evening, but you know what I mean.”

I groaned and forced myself to sit up.  “How long was I out?”

“Couple hours, off and on.  I came back about thirty minutes ago.  Had a late lunch, took care of some equipment orders with Sophie.”  She pointed at a glass of water on the table in front of me.  “Thirsty?”

I took the glass and drank half of it in one go.  “Anything happen that I should know about?”

“Nothing that I can think of, no.”  Mila considered her own glass of water, nearly empty, for a couple of seconds.  “Think it’s too early for a beer?”

“It’s probably too early for me,” I said, “but go for it, if you want.”

She stood, walked into the kitchen, and returned a moment later with a beer for her and one for me.  “You might want this.”

“I just said that -”

“Aiden,” she said.  Just the one word, like a proclamation.  “You’ve got questions.”

I moved the water to one side, sat up a little straighter, and opened the beer.  “Where’s Sarah?”

Mila gave me a little smirk.  “I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count.”

Now that I was listening for it, I caught the familiar sounds of Sarah’s keyboard from the back room.  “Already?”

“According to her,” Mila said, “someone had to keep an eye on the radio traffic.  She thinks there might be something they turn up that could be helpful.”

“Fair enough.  And Michel?”

“I sent him on a little errand,” she said.  “You’re the one who’s…well, not in charge, but close enough.  This seems like something you and I should talk about.  Then you can make up your own mind on what to do.”

“About Aiden?”  I asked.  Mila nodded once.  “Alright.  Questions.  Who is he?”

“He’s a mercenary,” she answered, opening her beer.  “Cult leader might be a little closer to the truth, though.  He takes in broken kids, mentors them, turns them into disposable weapons for his amusement.”  One side of her lips curled up in a snarl as she spoke.

“Broken kids,” I repeated.  “Like Carlos, the driver.  Or the other guy.  The one you didn’t know anything about.”

“Like Carlos, like the other guy,” Mila confirmed.  “Like me.”

It wasn’t surprising that she’d had a rough childhood.  I had assumed as much, from the moment she’d flown into the guards at the warehouse like a whirlwind of fists and feet.  That sort of rage didn’t come from happy memories.  It was surprising, however, that she was being so forthright about it.  “You worked with him?”  I asked.

“For a couple of years.”  She swallowed a mouthful of beer.  “Longer than I should have.  Shorter than he wanted.”

“How’d you get away?”

Mila looked out of the patio window for a long time before she said anything.  “He trusted me to do something for him.  Just a stupid errand that he could easily have done on his own, but he wanted me to take care of it instead.  When his back was turned, I jumped him and…”  She trailed off and shrugged.

“That isn’t what I meant,” I said.

She raised an eyebrow.

“You said he takes in broken kids?”  I asked.  “Becomes something like a father figure?  I get that.  But that doesn’t explain why you didn’t fall under the same spell.”

Another long stretch of silence.  “Who says I didn’t?”

“What…what did you do for him?”

“You’ve seen firsthand what I can do,” she said.  “Use your imagination.”

I’d already been using my imagination but those words, like unsolicited permission, allowed an assortment of images to pop into my head with startling clarity.  Many of those images involved a disturbing amount of blood.  “You’re past that, though,” I said.  “Whatever you did when you were younger doesn’t define who you are now.”

“Doesn’t it, though?”  There was a distance in her eyes, as she turned them back to me.  “I don’t mean just metaphorically, or whatever.  Aiden’s been trying to get me back ever since I left him.  This isn’t the first time he’s been close; it is the closest he’s been, yet.”

“You want to go?”  I asked.

She jerked back at that.  “What?”

“Do you want to go?”  I repeated.  “Sarah and I are here, and we’ve got Avis.  Hill and Asher will be focusing their attention on us, so if you want to slip away while no one’s looking…”

“I took a contract,” Mila said, as if that answer closed the matter entirely.

I downed another swallow of beer.  “Then what’d you mean, when you said that I could figure out what to do with you?”

“I’m a threat to your safety right now,” she said.  “Aiden couldn’t care less about Hill’s drug business, Asher’s power plays, or whatever it is that Avis can do.  Now that he knows I’m here, he’s going to come after me.  Hard.  That puts you in the crosshairs of a fight you didn’t sign up for.  If I go, he’ll follow me.  It won’t help you with Asher and Hill, but at least you won’t have a paramilitary group gunning for you at every turn.”

“So…what, exactly?  You’d make yourself into bait?”

“And I’d put the Lady in contact with some other options as bodyguards, yeah,” Mila said.  “Having me around is bad for your health.  That’s what I’m saying.”

I nodded thoughtfully.  “I understand what you mean.  And the answer is no.”

Mila blinked wide, confused eyes at me.  “No?”

“No, I don’t want you to go somewhere else,” I clarified.

“Aiden isn’t a thief, Devlin.  He’s a professional killer with a vendetta.  I’m a killer.  You really don’t know what you’re getting into here.”

“I really don’t,” I agreed.  “But that’s not the point.  You know one of the first rules I learned in prison? ”

Mila shook her head.  “Unless it involves field stripping a light machine gun, I don’t really see how it’s relevant.”

“No machine guns in prison, thank God,” I said.  “But, no, seriously.  A guy I met on my first day had a whole group of friends who’d been arrested with him.  They’d serve their sentences, get released on parole, end up back in the system inside of a year.  But whenever one of them went down, they all went down.  No one bailed, no one cut ties to get a few extra seconds of head start.”

“And this matters because?”

“I asked why he didn’t get a better team,” I said to Mila.  “And he told me that your team is your team, for better or worse.”

Mila opened her mouth to say something, probably something sarcastic, but stopped as my words set in.

“You’re part of a team now,” I said.  “This team.  As long as that’s what you want, I mean.”

“Devlin, I…”

Her voice withered and fell away.  Something on the television had her attention.  I moved on the couch so that I could see the screen and felt, in excruciating detail, as every drop of blood in my body turned to chips of liquid nitrogen.  I fumbled around for the remote controller and unmuted the television.

“Local authorities, in conjunction with Interpol agents, are releasing this composite sketch of an individual they believe to be connected to the outbreak of violence earlier today in…”

The sketch wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough that I could easily recognize it as my own visage.

“Devlin,” Mila said, and her voice had changed.  The rare moment of sensitivity was gone and the bodyguard was back.  “I’m not a thief or anything, but that’s not a good thing, is it?”

I was focused on the newscast.  A man and woman – Cat and Evan, from the countryside pub – were walking up to the reporter.

You said that this was the man you encountered here,” the reporter asked.  “Only a few days before the gunfire and car chase?”

Well, he seemed like such a nice young man, but this is such a small community,” Cat answered.  “I wouldn’t want to say that the poor lad had anything to do with any of this fuss, but it does seem awfully suspicious, it does.

Evan nodded along with everything his wife said.

I stared in mute shock at the screen, incapable of pulling my thoughts into anything coherent for entirely too long.  When I was able to move again, I finished the entirety of my beer and then Mila’s.

“Sarah!”  I yelled, hopefully loud enough to be heard over her headphones.  “We’ve got problems!”

Part 3: Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Sixty-Three

Instead of going directly back to the Brooklands, Michel drove us on a circuitous path for the next three hours, circling our own path so many times that I lost count.  We stopped at random locations, waited for any hint of Aiden’s group on our tail, and generally turned “appropriate paranoia” into our survival mantra.  For a while, I considered ditching the SUV, just to be absolutely safe. Ultimately, we decided to park the car several blocks away from the hotel, taking back alleys and shortcuts through the woods at the edge of the Brooklands’ grounds to reach our destination.

Avis grumbled slightly at the imposition for the first hour; after that, she’d taken to reading one of her mathematics textbooks and, eventually, slumped to sleep against one of Neal’s arms.  When we left the SUV, he scooped the girl up and simply carried her for a good portion of the trip, until she roused and began to walk on her own.  The interactions between the two of them was interesting, and I watched them with a keen eye, trying to piece together a working profile on either of them.

I could see that Avis was fiercely independent, when she was conscious.  Her choice of vocabulary, her diction, and her tone matched up with some of the rougher people I’d worked with.  There was a hint of a Cockney accent mixed up in there, somewhere, but I could hear that it was being deliberately obscured.  Even the way she carried herself reminded me more of a short criminal – someone like Stanislav, for instance – than a nine year old girl who hung out with armed guards and worked at the behest of a British drug kingpin.  When she slept, however, all of those trappings fell away.  She muttered softly while she dreamed and nestled up to Neal for warmth.  The first few minutes after she woke up were much the same; it wasn’t until she’d fully returned to the land of wakefulness that her attitude reasserted itself.

Taken together, I was willing to guess that the commanding air was something Avis consciously portrayed, rather than a natural disposition.  That answer only gave me more questions, though.  Where had she come from?  How had she become involved with Hill and the Magi?  And, perhaps most importantly, what service did she provide that warranted the protection/surveillance that she’d been living under?  She was important, somehow, and she obviously knew it.

Neal was as much of a mystery as his charge.  I was operating under the profile offered by Mila, until something happened that necessitated a change, and it seemed like she’d nailed a lot of the particulars.  He moved like a soldier; responded to orders with immediate, almost unconscious obedience; and, as I’d seen in the firefight at the manor house, he knew how to handle a weapon.  That was something I could possibly use, if we found ourselves in a situation like that again, but I didn’t anticipate needing a second bodyguard.  His interactions with Avis seemed more like an older brother than a bodyguard or handler.

I composed a mental note to ask Sarah for a complete background on Benjamin Neal: his family, background, service record, any possible criminal history.  Any information she could uncover could easily prove instrumental in the future.

I pulled myself out of my thoughts as we approached the edge of the treeline, and used one of my burner phones to dial Sophie’s number.  She answered after the second ring.  “Yes, Mister O’Brien?  Is there something I can assist you with?”

“Good news, bad news,” I said, ignoring Sarah’s quiet groan behind me.  “We’ve finished up with our time in the country.  I assume you’ll want to…I don’t know, repurpose that cottage for some other ‘guest?’”

Silence for a few seconds, followed by a rapid series of keystrokes.  “If you have no further use for that particular location, I would be happy to send a team of cleaners.  It would be a shame to have left something of importance where it could be found and misused.”

Translation: “fingerprints, hair follicles, and DNA samples.”  “I’d appreciate that,” I said into the phone.  “Here’s the bad news, though.  We need another room at the Brooklands.”

There was a pause that lasted for less than a millisecond before Sophie cleared her throat deliberately.  “I assume you would like easy access to that room?”

“If possible, sure,” I said.  “Think you could arrange that?”

I hadn’t meant the question as a challenge, but the small huff that made its way through the line told me that Sophie thought otherwise.  She didn’t anything at all for a few moments and the sound of her fingers rapidly flying across the keys was the only sound, except for my groups’ footsteps through the dead pine needles on the ground.  “Of course,” Sophie said, finally.  “How many guests will you be arriving with?”

“Just two,” I said.  “Thanks, Sophie.”

“I am happy to help,” Sophie said, and disconnected the line.

I slipped the phone back into my pocket and turned to Sarah.  “Any word on the mess we just left behind us?”

She walked without looking up from her smartphone.  She’d learned that skill at some point in her life and, despite a not-insignificant amount of effort, I had never learned how to mimic it without walking into a wall or pillar.  “Local law enforcement called for support when they found the manor house riddled with bullets.  No arrests have been made, though, and it looks like the entire property was cleared out before any uniforms made it.”

I cursed softly.  “That would have been too good to hope for, I guess.”

“Hope for whatever you’d like,” Sarah said.  “But you aren’t lucky enough to get a break like that.”  She glanced up from her phone for an instant, smirked, and returned to reading.

I smiled back at the top of her head.  “Have you had any luck with the other thing?”

Sarah sighed in response and the smirk faded away.  “I transferred the files I was able to pull onto one of my servers,” she said, “and I’ve got a program sorting through them for any mention of a key.  It hasn’t found anything yet.”

Neal and Avis were traveling a little behind us, far enough away that they couldn’t hear our conversation.  I lowered my voice, anyway.  “I’ve got a room for those two at the hotel,” I said, “but I don’t know what we should do with them.  Ideas?”

Sarah shrugged.  “Let them lay low for a day or two, just until the heat dies down.  I’ll set up a couple of identities that’ll get them out of the country.  After that…”

“Asher is going to find out that we were at the manor house.  I don’t want to cut them loose, only for them to get picked up again in a day or two,” I said.  “But his focus will be on us and the decryption key.”

“Maybe not in that order,” Sarah said.

I nodded.  “If he can’t get Neal and Avis back without disrupting whatever he’s got in the works, he’s likely to just shelve that problem until later.”

“You want to make yourself into the bait, just so that these two can get a clean break?”  Sarah asked.

“I’m already the bait,” I said.  “I just think we might as well get some use out of that.”

Michel stepped up, past Avis and Neal, to join on my left side.  “Is everything okay?”  He asked.

“Things are as good as can be expected,” I non-answered.  “How are you holding up?”

The Frenchman flexed his fingers, opening and closing them a few times, before he answered.  “I am a little shaky,” he said.  “And I think I could use something to eat.  Perhaps a drink, as well.”

“That’s the adrenaline leaving you,” I said.  “If you stick with us long enough, you’ll get used to it.  At the rate things are going, you’ll probably build up a tolerance a lot faster than most people.”

“Is it always like that?”  Michel asked.

“Like what?”

“Guns and mercenaries and…”  His sentence withered away to nonsense syllables, but I understood his meaning.

“And excitement?”  I asked.  “Exhilaration?”

Michel looked sheepish as he nodded once.

“Yeah,” I said, smiling wistfully.  “Yeah, it can be like that.  Normally, there’s fewer guns involved – well, there are fewer guns on our side – but it’s basically the same.”

“And this is what you do?”  He pressed.  “Did you miss this when you were in prison?”

“I’ll be honest here,” I said.  “I miss the rush, pretty much every time I’m not chasing after it.”

Michel considered that sentiment for a dozen steps before he nodded, a light of dim understanding flickering to life behind his eyes as he did so.

Something moved in the underbrush to my right and I jerked my eyes in that direction, instantly.  A squirrel darted away at top speed.  I adjusted my head slightly, so that Sarah could share in my moment of anxiety, and found an expression on her face that I didn’t recognize.  Her eyes had slid away from the screen of her smartphone, down to her feet; her lips were slightly parted, as though she wanted to say something, but didn’t have the courage; and, as I watched, she took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly.  She glanced up at me, licked her lips, and then looked away without saying anything aloud.

“Don’t get too hooked on that,” Mila said, suddenly right behind me.

I jumped ­– actually jumped – a good four inches from the ground in shock.  When I landed, I spun on her, wide-eyed.  “Do you have to do that?”

“Do what?”  She held Sam on one side of her body, carefully secured in such a way that her arm didn’t restrict the cat’s breathing.

“Your…you know, the thing when you…”  I threw my hands up in surrender, turned, and started forward again.  “Anyway.”

“Anyway,” she agreed.  “Yeah, I wouldn’t suggest getting too addicted to that rush, Michel.”

“Why is that?”  He asked.

“Does things to you,” Mila answered, simply.  “Changes the way you look at things.”  She shrugged one shoulder.

With the enigmas presented by Avis and Neal dominating my unconscious mind, I hadn’t been able to turn any attention to Mila.  The way she’d broken down at the manor house bothered me, more deeply than I would’ve admitted to anyone.  While I didn’t know anything about her, personally, I did know a few people who worked as muscle for hire.  To a person, each of those had fit into a very narrow personality type: dangerously violent men and women, almost to the point of instability, who drank heavily when they weren’t on the job.  Sometimes, even when they were.  None of them had shown any real empathy towards their charges or, really, anything at all besides the fight.

What little I’d seen of Mila in action didn’t align with that profile, though.  She enjoyed violence, of course.  That much was obvious.  She was capable of restraint, however, and she followed orders to the letter.  I wasn’t even the person actually paying her bills, but some sense of integrity kept her from doing whatever she pleased in pursuit of ‘keeping me safe.’

That would be odd enough.  But, she had a cat.  And, by all appearances, it was a cat she actually cared about.  I didn’t have any idea what to make of that, but it did serve as a sign of humanity.  I could work with humanity; people had skills, talents, abilities that could be aimed and capitalized on.

Humanity also came with flaws, and those were what had gnawed at me.  Aiden had done more than spook her; she had been terrified of him, and that terror nearly rendered her catatonic.  I knew the universe better than to think we’d seen the last of the mercenary and, if Mila couldn’t face or even be in the same building as him, I needed to know why.  My life – Sarah’s life – could easily depend on an instant or two of frozen indecision.

I didn’t speak any of those thoughts to her.  That was a conversation we could have a later time, when it was just the two of us.  The last thing I wanted was to put Mila on the defensive, at the moment.  “Well,” I said, “we’ll just have to hope this doesn’t run on long enough for that to happen.”

“If wishes were fishes,” Sarah muttered.

I scowled over at her, but her eyes didn’t leave the smartphone in her hand.  “Do you have any idea when that thing’ll be done with…whatever it’s doing?”

“It is done,” she said, heated and angry.  She clenched her fingers around the smartphone.

“That doesn’t sound good,” I said.  “What’s wrong?”

“Out of every file I managed to download, there are only two types: encrypted files and decrypted files.  But there isn’t a key in here, at all.”

“Wait.”  I stopped and held out a hand, palm facing Sarah.  “You’re saying we got nothing?”

“Oh, we got a lot of information,” she said.  “It’s just that we can’t use any of it.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and pinched the bridge of my nose until it hurt.  “Do you think you can brute force it?  Use one of your programs to try every possible combination until you hit on something that does the trick?”

“I’ve been trying to do that,” Sarah said.  “And I’m going to keep trying, but…I don’t know.  Whatever this is, it’s heavy duty.  This encryption is stronger than anything I’ve ever seen.  It’s almost like there isn’t a pattern, but that would be…”

Avis, bent over one of her books, hadn’t noticed when we stopped walking.  Neal was busy helping the girl over a fallen branch, and so he didn’t see us either.  The two bumped into Sarah and me, but they weren’t moving that fast.  I stumbled forward a step and the book I’d taken from the manor, pinched to my side, slipped free and fell to the ground.  It landed in the underbrush near Neal’s feet.

I knelt to pick it up, but Avis caught my wrist.  The shock of her tiny fingers wrapped around my wrist actually caused me to freeze in surprise for a moment  “Excuse me,” she said.  “That’s private.”

“What?”  I asked.

“That’s my diary,” Avis clarified.  “Why would you steal my diary?”

I blinked.  “I didn’t…I wasn’t trying to get your diary, I just…”

Sarah had gone very still, her mouth gaping open.  She licked her lips and spoke.  “That’s yours?”

“Of course, it’s mine!”  Avis snapped.  “Who else would write a diary?  Neal?”

Sarah leaned over, careful not to reach out for the fallen notebook.  I looked down, following her reach, and saw that the page was filled with an alphanumeric jumble, interspersed with occasional grammatical symbols for flavor.  An insane idea bubbled up from the recesses of my mind.  Something to do with the way Aiden had pursued us, but hadn’t simply shot out the SUV’s tires.  Something related to the nature of the manor house: not a prison, but a cage.

“Avis,” I said slowly, “why would those men encrypt your diary?”

They didn’t do that,” the girl snapped.  “I did.  How else could I keep anything secret?”

“You can read this?”  Sarah asked.

“I wrote it,” Avis said.  “Of course I can read it.”

Sarah’s mouth snapped shut.  We made eye contact, and I saw understanding there.  Sarah opened something on her tablet and, very cautiously, shifted her weight so Avis could see the screen.  “Can you read this?”  She asked the girl.

Avis rolled her eyes and planted her tiny fists on her hips.  “It’s only a memo about some shipments from last year.  Why would you care about that?”

The absurdity of my life was, for a moment, simply too much.  I threw my head back and laughed.

“What is so funny?”  Michel asked.  He didn’t get it, yet.

“You didn’t create the key,” Sarah said to Avis, in dumbfounded realization.  “You are the key.”

“I should have asked Sophie to get these two some clothes,” I said, between peals of hysterical laughter.  “I’m thinking they’re going to be with us a little longer than anyone expected.”