Tag Archives: Billy

Part Six Recap (2/2)

After a painful hello, Sarah and the rest of the team settle down with Devlin to discuss the day’s events at the Brooklands. The first order of business for the brave thief is a frank discussion with Alex and his daughter about the ambush that had killed Johannah.

Both father and daughter struggle to come to grips with this new reality. The idea that Asher could have been so petty, so motivated by revenge, that he would commission a hit against unarmed and innocent targets is a bitter pill to swallow. The knowledge that Johnnah’s death was nothing more or less than a complete accident is even more difficult to accept. But, with Asher finally brought down by his own arrogance, there is at least a little hope that healing can begin and the family torn asunder by one tragic death might finally begin to reconnect.

Sarah provides Alex and his daughter with the identification they’ll need to get back to their own country without incident and Devlin, growing increasingly angry with every second spent dwelling on his own thoughts, encourages them to leave immediately. The final task he has in mind will require his full attention.

Devlin barely has enough time to shower and change into more comfortable clothing before he and Sarah lead their team downstairs, to a conference room where Billy and his men are celebrating. Upon Devlin’s request, Billy dismisses the majority of his men, except for his two most trusted lieutenants. Chester and James take positions on either side of their leader; Sarah and Devlin share a spot at the opposite side of the table, while Michel and Mila flank them.

The primary issue, as Devlin sees it, is how quickly Hill was able to mobilize and counter their plans. It happened at the processing plant, which would have been enough of a problem. But the fact that he had known the exact time of their attack, had in fact planned for it, implies more than temporary lapse in judgement or a moment of loose lips. For that much information to leak, someone in Billy’s organization would have to be a mole.

Unfortunately, Devlin has no way of proving his suspicions. Without discussing the matter, he passes the bluff over to Sarah, trusting that she will find a path between the truth and exaggeration that rings true enough to shake something loose.

She begins by elaborating the main problem with Hill’s intelligence. The drug lord simply could not have listened to her communications without either the services of a superlative hacker, capable of penetrating Sarah’s electronic defenses, or he would have needed one of her earbuds with an active connection to her network.

Sarah tells Billy that her equipment has certain proprietary technology: upgraded bits and pieces that no other earbud on the market would have any need for. In order to keep her improvements from filtering out into the wider criminal underworld, she makes sure that each earbud has a specific signature. That way, if one goes missing, she’ll be able to identify and brick the gear before anyone else has an opportunity to reverse engineer it.

With every transmission tagged, Sarah continues, it would only be the work of a few seconds to determine whose earbud Hill was using to eavesdrop on their plans. Whoever gave Hill access to to their communications would have to be the mole.

She looks across the table at the three men. Billy, freshly released from imprisonment by his own brother; Chester, brash and angry, even when those emotions were weaknesses and liabilities; and James, steady and reliable.

After a minuscule signal from Devlin, Sarah looks directly at James and asks him why he chose to betray everyone’s trust.

Every person in the room, except for Devlin and Sarah, stare in shocked silence at James. Of anyone, his treachery is the most surprising possible outcome. Had the signal come from anyone other than Devlin, Sarah would have doubted it; but it was from him and she trusts him without hesitation.

Exposed in front of his friends and “family,” James defaults to a position of innocence. He only cracks when Sarah threatens to retrieve all of the audio from his earbud – a boldfaced lie, delivered with the sincerity of a saint – that he cracks and admits his wrongdoings. The team manages to get him to admit to the crime of leaking information to Hill but, before they can uncover how long he’s been playing both sides, James takes drastic action and attempts to simply kill Devlin and Sarah. They’re only saved by the instinctive actions of Chester, their greatest critic and least likely savior, when he draws and fires without thinking.

Prior to his last ditch efforts, James admitted to working for someone…not Hill, but someone higher. For the team, there’s only one entity higher than Hill with skin in the game. Their theories are confirmed in short order when they head upstairs, the entire London affair finally put to bed, and discover the Lady in Avis’ room.

She invites them to make themselves comfortable and keeps the promise she made to Devlin so many days ago, at the beginning of the job. For their success against impossible, unimaginable odds, the team has earned the most precious of rewards: the truth.

***

Devlin and Mila respond to the Lady’s arrival as casually as possible. Sarah and Michel – who have never seen the mysterious Puppetmaster in person – react with more surprise. David, the Lady’s personal giant, steps forward to protect his mistress until Mila issues a sober, serious threat. The terms of her employment leave no room for misinterpretation and, even if they did, her time as a member of a healthy team of compatriots and comrades has caused a change in the stoic bodyguard. Devlin, Sarah, and Michel are her charges and no one – not the Lady, not David, not anyone – is going to put them in danger.

The Lady seems delighted at this development. She calls David off and begins to explain.

While she knew much of what was going on in London, she did not have all of the information. Fairfax’s double identity – as both a nobleman and the kingpin “Hill” – slipped past her as did the connection between Hill and the beggar’s king, Billy. The fact that her much-desired key turned out to be a living child also proved to be a surprise. And, although she was fully aware that someone in Billy’s organization was a mole, she had no particular idea who it might be. Now, with the knowledge of the mole’s identity, she suggests that he essentially committed suicide. Not to protect himself, necessarily, nor to protect the family he mentioned in his last moments.

His suicide, the Lady theorizes, was specifically to protect the very people he betrayed. His masters, the Magi, would have razed the Earth in order to keep him from talking.

When Devlin points out that Hill would likely know even more about the Magi’s operations than a lowly informant, the Lady responds by having David turn on the television. A breaking news report tells the team that an explosion on the M1 has brought traffic to a standstill while emergency services sought to uncover the cause of the detonation.

The central car – the one that went up in flames – is the same one that Hill was traveling in. The Interpol agent assigned to supervise the transfer, Agent Lane, has disappeared. Escaping an exploding car before it explodes leads everyone in the room to the same conclusion: Lane, Adlai’s mentor, must also be working for the Magi.

Sarah can barely wrap her head around the implications of such a highly placed operative. Devlin does better, but not much. The sheer scope of the Magi’s operation, previously intimidating, must truly be gargantuan if a senior Interpol agent is underneath their ethereal, criminal thumb.

The Lady ignores their stupor and presses on. The Book she wanted – the Book that Devlin and his friends risked their lives to acquire – contains a list of names, like Lane’s and Fairfax’s. People of influence and power in the real world who owe their success to the Magi are enumerated within, along with bank accounts and potential soft spots. It isn’t a complete resource containing every agent in every cover, but it is enough that the simple fact of the Book’s existence makes it as dangerous to possess as radioactive materials.

In a just and intelligent world, the Lady would destroy the Book immediately and forget that it ever existed. The team would leave London and find somewhere nice where they could lay low until they were certain the Magi weren’t waiting to string them up as an example. They would be able to spend their acquired wealth in peace and security.

In this world, however, she has other plans. Wronged by the Magi at some point in her distant past, the Lady wants nothing so much as revenge. To that end, she wants to use the names contained within the Book as a first step towards the greater goal of finding out the true names of her enemies. Without the cloak of secrecy they’ve used as protection for an unknown amount of years, the Lady intends to drag the Magi out in the light of day and destroy them.

To that end, she needs Devlin, Sarah, and their team.

Since the prison break in London, the Lady had guided Devlin and Sarah so that they would find themselves in this position. By attacking the business of a duly appointed agent of the Magi – and therefore, attacking the Magi themselves – the team has made themselves targets for the organization. Without the Lady’s protection, it’s only a matter of time before they are captured, tortured, and gruesomely murdered. Even then, the Lady’s resources can only provide a temporary cover and, by using them, she risks exposing herself as well.

Her champions chosen, the Lady puts all of her chips in for one last bet: that Devlin, Sarah, Michel, and Mila – a group of criminals, riffraff, thieves without any particular distinction before this affair – will be able to do the impossible.

“Find their names,” the Lady tells them before she leaves them to ponder their new predicament. “Your lives quite literally depend on it.”

Truer words had never been spoken.

Devlin has been played, manipulated, and positioned like a game piece. His friends, both new and old, have gone into deeper darkness than ever before and emerged safe. He has new allies and new enemies, although he isn’t quite sure who belongs to which category. Up to his neck in troubles he could never have imagined, he knows that the only way around the impossible situation is through.

The team – Devlin O’Brien, Sarah Ford, Emilia Durante, and Michel St. Laurents – have been made pawns by forces far more powerful than they. But there’s no rule that says pawns can’t become powerful in their own right, given time to grow and a reason to do so.

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Part 6: Recap (1/2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

A little too well, perhaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 141

Despite Billy’s every attempt to wheedle more information out of me – begging, pleading, threatening – I steadfastly refused to say another word about the Magi to him.  Sarah, Michel, and Mila were equally tight-lipped.  Finally, angry at our collective silence, he told his men to wrap James’ body up into a convenient floor rug and left the Brooklands in a state of mixed emotion: fury, because someone he’d considered a friend was dead and we weren’t providing any answers; apprehension, because there was every possibility that he had even more moles in his organization that he simply hadn’t rooted out yet; and terror, because he knew less now than he had before coming to the Brooklands, except that now, his people were dying.

A part of me longed to tell him everything I knew.  If I’d been in his shoes, I would’ve wanted to know.  A force that could turn a friend into an enemy or push someone into an act of cold blooded murder was a force I would’ve pitted myself against, in sheer ignorant defiance.  In fact, I’d just finished doing something similar for a little girl I barely knew.

Sarah would have called that streak of nobility dangerous and idiotic.  She would have been right.

After he left, I asked Sophie to remove James’ chair from the conference room.  She showed a brief flash of shock when she saw the bloodstain but she recovered quickly.  The offending chair and all trace of the blood was gone within twenty minutes.  Ten minutes after that, an efficient team of maids cleared away all of the food and drink and left the four of us alone in the room with nothing but our thoughts.

Sarah spoke first.  She’d used the time since Billy’s departure, while we waited for Sophie to do her work, to center herself.  There was only a slight quaver in her voice now.  “That didn’t make sense,” she said.

I nodded.  “You’re right.  As soon as you shook him up, he started throwing out all kinds of micro expressions.  He’d been working within Billy’s organization for a long time; I guess he’d assumed that stoic posture as an excuse to be generally unreadable.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.  He shouldn’t have gone for his gun.  Moles don’t commit murder for causes.  They work for other people.  They lie, they cheat, they steal.  But they aren’t brave enough to kill.  Certainly not for masters who aren’t in a position to help them anymore.”

“I knew what you meant.  I was just…being delicate about it.”

Sarah shook her head.  “Being delicate isn’t going to solve anything.  Whatever happened here is something that we’ve got to figure out.  What pushed James into what he did?  What did he think he had to gain?  Hill is in prison and Asher is on the way.  I’ve personally disrupted every account I could find and the police will put a freeze on everything else before too long.  So why did he go for the gun?”

“I should’ve killed him myself,” Mila said in a moody tone.  She’d moved so that her back was to a wall and there were two guns on the table in front of her.  “Can’t believe he got the drop on me.”

“That isn’t helping anything either,” I said.  “You’re injured.  I’m injured.  We just went through hell to pull off what we did and it’s a miracle that any of us even made it back to the Brooklands, let alone all of us.”

“Working while injured is my job,” Mila shot back.

“And, in the future, I’ll be more than happy to let you fire high caliber weapons with broken fingers,” I said, “but for right now?  Either stop talking or be useful.”  The tone was sharper than I would normally have used.  Coddling Mila wouldn’t do any good.  If anything, she’d reject to the implication that she was suddenly too damaged to handle criticism.

Michel spoke up.  “Devlin, surely you cannot – “

“No,” Mila interrupted.  She took a deep breath.  “No, he’s right.  I can work through my issues when things calm down.  Thanks.”

“Anytime.  So?  Any thoughts on what just happened?”

She was silent for a few seconds, while she thought over the events of the last hour.  “James must have wanted to die,” she said finally.  “I don’t think he ever planned to kill Sarah for outing him.  He didn’t even want to get away.”

“What makes you say that?” Sarah asked.

“Because I was in the room.  Slower than normal, sure, but that wouldn’t have stopped me from putting him down.  If he wanted to kill you, he should have tried to kill me first.  Then, while the rest of you were panicked, he could have taken both you and Devlin out and fled.”

“Except for Chester and Billy,” I pointed out.  “And the rest of Billy’s gang waiting outside.”

Mila acknowledged that point with a slight bob of her head.  “True.  But Billy doesn’t carry a gun and Chester wasn’t going to shoot him.”

“Uh, Mila,” Michel said tentatively, “Chester did shoot him.”

“That was a reflexive thing.  The way he was shaking, repeating the same idea over and over like he was trying to convince himself of something?  Typical behavior from a first time shooter.  He’s never killed before and he certainly didn’t mean to do it tonight.”

“Then why did he do it?”

She shrugged.  “All of that emotion these two stirred up – anger, betrayal, doubt, fear – just made a perfect environment.  Chester saw a gun and he reacted.  I’d bet he’s regretting it now, but he’ll probably work his way back around to a justification before too long.”  She turned to Sarah.  “Sorry, but you didn’t work your way into his good graces enough that he’d kill to protect you.”

“Good to know that I don’t have to add anyone to my Christmas list,” Sarah said sourly.  “Anything else?”

“Off the top of my head?  Nothing worthwhile.  Give me some time to think about it and I might be able to come up with more.”

“We still do not know who he was really working for,” Michel said.  “If he was not working for Hill this entire time, who put him into Billy’s organization to begin with?”

I gave him a meaningful look.  “You know who put him there.”

Silence.  We all knew who James’ real masters had been.

“Alright,” Sarah said, after the tension grew thick enough that I could practically feel it against my skin, “let’s say that…they…were the ones who put James in a position where he could inform on Billy.  Why?  Billy’s gang wasn’t even a major factor in London, let alone on an international stage.  How?  He couldn’t have been paid for his work.  And if he was paid, where’s the money?”

“He told Chester that he had a family.  These rich and powerful types love to use loved ones as leverage,” I said.

“And I told you that he doesn’t have a family!”  I stared at her.  A moment later, she raised her hands in apology or surrender.  “Sorry.  Feeling a little tense right now.  What I mean is this: there isn’t any record of him having a family.  Not any that are still alive, at least.”

“What did you find?  Anything that might shed some light on this situation?”

Sarah pulled up a document on her tablet.  “James Vidoc was born in Burford, England to a pair of loving French immigrants.  His father died when he was twelve, in a chemical fire; his mother died fifteen years later when her car went off of a cliff.  He left town and started working temp jobs for a while.  Eventually, he fell off the radar and he doesn’t show up on any public records again until he was pulled in for a few minor possession charges.  That’s probably just before he started working with Billy.”

She showed me the tablet.  Displayed on its screen was a picture of James, taken by a prison photographer.

Something tickled at the back of my thoughts.  I focused on that feeling and, gradually, it crystallized into a memory.  “Vidoc?  That’s his last name?”

Sarah nodded.  “Why?”

When I’d been in La Santé, there had been precious little to do.  Storytime with Patric helped to pass the days but, when he was unavailable or tired, I’d taken to reading whatever translated works the prison library had.  “Vidoc was an author,” I said.  “A French author. He was a criminal who ended up becoming the Chief of Police in Paris for a while.  I read his memoirs.”

“Vidoc’s not an uncommon French name, either,” Sarah said, but she sounded uncertain.  “It’s not the most common, but it’s not what anyone would use for a pseudonym.”

“Maybe.  But it says right here that Burford’s population is only thirteen hundred people.  What do you think the odds are of anyone from a town that size making their way to London?”  The thoughts were connecting faster and faster.  I followed the chain as far as it led.  “And another thing.  A chemical fire and a car accident?  A car accident that took the car off of a cliff?  Was she near a large body of water when this accident happened?”

Sarah’s eyes widened.  “Yes,” she whispered.  “And I’ll answer your next question before you even have to ask it: the car was never found.”

“If there was a car,” I said.

“What are you implying?” Michel asked.  He hadn’t made the same leap, but he was sensitive enough to pick up on the sudden foreboding atmosphere in the conference room.

“James Vidoc,” I said, “doesn’t exist.  He never existed.  Everything about him is fabricated.”

“But that’s…that’s…”  Sarah struggled to find the right words for a moment.  “Do you understand what that kind of forgery entails, Devlin?  Creating an entire identity from scratch isn’t easy.  Faking a history is harder.  But to fake police documents, medical examiner reports, newspaper articles, and bank accounts tracing back for a lifetime?”

“No,” I said.  “But I’d be willing to bet that the Magi do.”

“Devlin.  They ran his fingerprints.”

There wasn’t anything to say to that.  Sarah understood, probably better than me, what that detail meant.

“Is that something you could falsify?” Mila asked.

“Me, alone?  No.”  Sarah wasn’t bothering to protect her ego anymore.  The possibility that someone was capable of technical wizardry at that scale had destroyed any hint of pretense.  “With other people to change documents and erase files, in real-time?  Maybe.  But I’m not sure.”

“And James…?”

“If what Devlin is suggesting is true – and I’m not willing to say that it’s even possible – then someone completely altered every record relating to a James Vidoc in every law enforcement database between here and the other side of Europe.”  She swallowed.  “And that still doesn’t answer why anyone would go through that much trouble.”

“I don’t know.  That scares the shit out of me, though.”

“Me too.”

We all fell into a contemplative silence.  Michel moved, without making a sound, and found a bottle of liquor that Sophie’s maids had overlooked.  He didn’t speak as he raised the bottle to his lips and took a long drink from it.  “You use false names,” he said.  “This name is more thorough.  What is the difference?”

“There are still people who know that I’m not some German businessman,” I said.  “You knew the truth.  Sarah did, obviously.  Asher, Mila, Alex…I didn’t become someone else.  I was just pretending.  According to Billy, James lived with them.  He’s spent years as someone who he might not have been.  There are police records.  Assuming those aren’t faked, he’s been at this for at least a decade.”

Mila reached out and took the bottle from Michel’s fingers.  “And there’s nothing to say, one way or another, that the police records aren’t faked.  Or coerced in some way.”  She took a long pull at the liquor, as well.

“And if that’s true, then we’re back to square one.  Square zero, really.  Everything we know about James might be a lie.  But we don’t have anything else to go off of.”  I desperately wanted a go at the liquor myself, but I suppressed the urge.

Sarah did not share my compunctions.  She plucked the bottle from Mila and took a long drink.  Then, after a moment, she repeated the process.  “All we know for certain is that he was so scared of what might happen to him that he chose effective suicide instead of facing them again.  We don’t know why he was in Billy’s organization, why he was tasked to help Hill after working against him for so long, what they were holding over him, how many more people they have in similar positions…”  She trailed off.

I picked up the thread for her.  “And we don’t know what they want.”

Neither Sarah or I were using our name for the mysterious string-pullers and puppet-masters.  Those two syllables – the Magi – seemed to have taken on a mystical feeling and I had no desire to see what happened if I spoke it out loud too many times.

Sarah’s phone beeped.  The sound startled all of us to different degrees.  “It’s Avis,” Sarah said, when she calmed down enough to check her phone’s display.

“Why is she texting you?  How is she texting you?”

“I dropped off a phone earlier,” Sarah said, “while you were in Scotland Yard.  The idea had been to make sure we could contact her if we had to…you know.”

“If we had to break you out of jail again,” Mila said.  Sarah shot her a look and Mila shrugged.  “What?  Was I not supposed to tell him what you had in mind?”

Sarah crossed her feet at the ankles beside me.  We were sitting close enough that I could feel the movement.  “Anyway,” I said, trying my best to divert attention away from Sarah before she lashed out in embarrassment, “what does Avis have to say?”

“She says that she’s found something in the Book that we might want to see.”

“No elaboration?”

“None,” Sarah said.  “But, all things considered, do you think it’d really be safe for her to send out that kind of information over the cell network?”

Sarah’s phones were encrypted.  She’d told me so herself.  I didn’t understand the technology, but I knew how fastidious she could be about her privacy when the situation called for it.  There would precautions built on top of precautions, redundant defenses within more redundant defenses, all for the sole purpose of ensuring that no one could possibly find a way to eavesdrop on our conversations.

“No,” I said.  “All things considered, I’m not sure it’s safe for us to even have that kind of information.”

There was no denying the summons, though.  Sarah’s curiosity had been whetted.  No matter the danger, she was going to follow the trail of clues to its end.  And where Sarah went, I went, too.

She led us out of the conference room and to our private elevator.  It was spacious enough for all of us to fit without unnecessary crowding.  I noticed that Sarah kept a tight grip on the bottle of liquor.

The ride up to Avis’ room was shorter than the ride to our suite.  We reached our destination before I’d had a proper amount of time to really shed the feeling of dread from downstairs.  Something still felt wrong, like I was missing some obvious clue or overlooking an important detail by virtue of my own shortsightedness.

The elevator doors opened onto an empty hallway.  I’d never actually been to Avis’ room, so I let Sarah lead the way down the hallway until we reached an ordinary – at least, ordinary for the Brooklands – door.

“Avis,” Sarah said, “we’re here.  What did you have for us?”  She knocked twice on the door.

The door swung open.

A hole formed in the pit of my stomach.  My heart dropped through that hole and disappeared into a pit at the soles of my feet.

“Avis?” Sarah called out.  I could hear the fear in her voice.

Mila pulled out a gun and stepped into the room.  The rest of us crowded in behind her.

My time at the Brooklands had been spent in only two locations: the conference room downstairs and our penthouse suite at the top of the building.  Still, I knew that their less expensive rooms probably had more furniture than the barren scene I saw in front of me.

There were only two pieces of furniture in the room.  A coffee table crafted from some exquisite and probably exotic type of wood was a few feet past the doorway.  There was a cell phone resting on that table and, next to that, a nearly full bottle of dark red wine.  Just beyond that coffee table, there was a deep, comfortable-looking chair.

Seated in that chair, the Lady looked at all of us with an expression that made me feel like an ant underneath a child’s magnifying glass on a hot day.  She raised a glass to her flawless lips and downed half of that glass’ contents.

“I was beginning to think,” she said, that alluring accent shifting with each syllable, “that you were never going to figure it out.”

Chapter 140

Chester jerked away from James and his jaw dropped in disbelief.  Billy controlled his expression marginally better, in that he only began to stare.  “What?  That can’t be right.”

James, however, met the accusation with a disturbing amount of calm.  “You must have got it wrong,” he said in that low rumble.  “Maybe you should run that program again?”

“I’ll be the first to admit when I might have made a mistake,” Sarah said.  I privately disagreed with that sentiment, but wisely kept those thoughts to myself.  “But not this time.  There were only so many earbuds that I didn’t have under my direct control.”

“I didn’t even have one,” James countered.  “You gave it to Chester, remember?”

“Well, it sure as bloody as hell wasn’t me!” Chester’s voice was filled with something approaching panic.  “She’s the one making the accusation.  You ever think that your encryption whatever-you-called-it isn’t as good as you thought?”

I ignored Chester and focused on James, instead.  “Chester doesn’t have a motive to do it,” I said, “and I honestly don’t think he even has the ambition.  Billy helped him get the money to save his sister and that was enough.  The thought of betraying him for a chance at something better wouldn’t even have occurred to him.”

As I was talking, my mind was beginning to draw connections, outlining what must have happened before we’d even entered London.  I didn’t have all of the details, and I probably never would, but it was easy to imagine the conversations that could have taken place in dark rooms or darker alleys.  Everyone spoke the language of money and poor people spoke it better than most.  A lifetime struggling to survive at Billy’s Halfway House would have been more than enough to soften anyone’s resolve.  From that point, a suitably large cash offer for something as harmless as a little shared information would be difficult to resist.  And, after making that mistake once, every request of increasing severity would become harder and harder to say no to.

But was that really true?  I didn’t know for certain.  It could have been blackmail or some other form of coercion.

“But you, James?” I asked out loud.  “I look at you, and I see someone who’s thinking.  Never talking any more than you have to, only ever answering direct questions so that you don’t accidentally reveal more than you want to.  And you’ve been perfectly placed since we joined up with you guys to pass intelligence on to Hill.  But why?  That’s what I want to know.”

“Can’t tell you what I don’t know,” James said, “seeing as I didn’t do what you’re accusing me of.”

“It’s funny,” Sarah said.  “I looked into both of you, as soon as we crossed paths.  Chester was easy to figure out, all things considered.  But I couldn’t find much about you.  Name, National Insurance number, former addresses.  Nothing too out of the ordinary, but also nothing to explain why you were caught up with Billy and his lot.”

“Not hard to figure out,” he said immediately.  “Had a bad string of luck.  Lost my house when my parents died and I ended up with Billy.  Worked my way up from there.”

“That’s true,” Billy said.  “He’s been with me, almost since the beginning.”

“Isn’t that exactly where you’d want to put an inside man?  At the very beginning of things, when he could take an active hand in the way an organization grew, while still knowing all of the infrastructure?”

Billy’s expression turned doubtful.

Chester was not so easily unsettled, though.  “That’s my mate,” he said, “and he’s not a bloody grasser.  He helped save your life at that plant!”

If I hadn’t badly misread him, James had also put my life in danger at the plant first, so that particular debacle wasn’t earning him any points in my book.  “Look at it this way.  How many people knew about the plant in the first place?  Who did Sarah and I talk to about the estate job?”

“We had to get all of our men in position to detonate those bombs,” Chester countered, as though he’d scored a great point.  “One of them could be the leak.”

“Unless you decided to act like a bigger idiot than you actually are,” I snapped, “none of your men should have known we exist.  And they certainly wouldn’t have access to one of Sarah’s earbuds.  Honestly, Chester, you cannot be this dense.  You wouldn’t have made it this far if you were.  Was there ever an opportunity where he could have gotten your earbud without you realizing?  Did it ever move overnight, even though you knew for a fact that it was on the nightstand, for instance?  That never happened?”

Chester glared at me and then, slowly, the suspicion shifted away from me and over to James.  “You found the earbud after the processing plant thing went sideways,” he said.  “Told me it’d been under some rubble. Why’d you go back to look through the rubble?”

“Seriously?”  James leaned back and crossed his arms.  “I went back to see if there was anything worth salvaging.  Some of the product, maybe.  I don’t know.”

“But you found an earbud?”

“Those aren’t indestructible,” Sarah chimed in.  “You could probably break one by stepping on it.  Exactly where did you find it, James?  When did you even have the time to look?”

“Chester,” James said.  “You know me.  Whatever she thinks she knows, it’s wrong.”

He was talking more than normal, letting anxiety slip into his words.  A fear reaction was normal, even for an innocent party.  We needed more.

“You’ve been caught,” I said, stressing the operative word as much as possible.  “Hill’s been taken down and so has Asher.  Whatever he had on you – if he had something on you – is gone now.  There isn’t any illegal monolithic empire waiting in the wings to fall down on you if you break ranks.”

The veins on Chester’s neck stood out a little.  Not much, but enough for me to guess at what emotion he was feeling.

“Wait…was that it?  Was it that simple?” I asked.

James said nothing.

Billy cleared his throat.  “What are you talking about?”

I mused aloud, letting my mind free associate its way through the problem.  “Hill was going to move up in the world.  Asher already had his connections, and he was in a position to profit no matter who won. But if Hill graduated to controlling larger portions of the European market, that would leave a vacancy here.  Someone would have to step into that role.”  James glanced up for an instant and my eyes caught his.  “Someone who’d proven himself loyal, capable, and willing to backstab their friends in exchange for a little more power.  That’s exactly the kind of person who Hill would appreciate.”

“You’re not wrong,” Billy said.  Unconsciously, he rubbed one of his paralyzed legs.  “But…no, it couldn’t be James.  It couldn’t be.”

There wasn’t enough hard evidence.  Billy and Chester had an unknown amount of years working side by side with James.  I could plant doubt, but not enough to actually matter.  There was too much trust between the three of them.  Suspicion and vague hints weren’t going to be sufficient.

“The earbuds never really stop recording,” Sarah said casually.  “They just don’t transmit all of the time.  Even when they’re off, there’s a small charge that keeps them ready for reactivation.  There’s an easy way to figure this out.  Chester, let me see your earbud.  I’ll go through its history and then we’ll know for sure.”

I blinked.  Sarah hadn’t told me about that feature.  Frantically, I went through my memory, wondering if I’d ever made any particularly embarrassing admissions when I thought she couldn’t hear me.

Then I looked at Sarah’s face and the tiniest corner of her mouth quirked down.

Chester shrugged.  “If it gets James clear of this bloody nonsense, here you go.”  He reached into his pocket and fished out the earbud, moving as if to toss it onto the table in front of him.

Before the tiny black piece of electronic equipment could touch the surface of the table, James moved.  Despite his size, he was frighteningly quick.  He snatched the earbud out of the air, perhaps an inch or two before it would have landed.

“What’re you doing?” Chester asked his friend.  “Let her have the damn thing and then we can focus on finding out who the real leak is.”

“It…”  James stopped, swallowed, and started again.  “It wasn’t for Hill.”

What wasn’t for Hill?”

“He wasn’t involved in all of it,” James continued.  “Not the whole time.  Not until just before this lot came here and started stirring things up.  But then they gave him my name and he started using me for information.”

Chester looked as if he couldn’t quite understand the words coming out of James’ mouth.  “What are you talking about, mate?”

James kept on talking.  His voice was calm and controlled, like he was discussing the weather instead of revealing the depths of his own treachery.  “You don’t understand,” he said.  “You can’t understand.  I didn’t have a choice.”

Billy spoke next and there was frost on every syllable.  “So you gave me bad intelligence.  Let me send good people – people that only wanted to help – into a trap.  Helped my brother keep me hostage and risked the lives of every man and woman who you’ve been working side by side with for years.  Is that about the size of it?  What possible excuse could you have?  You didn’t have a choice, James?  You could have come to me!  We could’ve figured it out!”

That sentiment struck an eerie chord in my memory.  It sounded perilously like the conversation I’d had with Asher, back at Scotland Yard.

“So you were going to take Hill’s spot, then?” Billy continued remorselessly.  “You were going to finish the job my brother started, I guess: kill me and run London while Charles moved up in the world.  Tell me if I’m wrong.”

“It isn’t even my fault!” James yelled back.  “If it hadn’t been for them, things would’ve been fine.  Asher would have taken over, instead of Hill, and he didn’t even care about you.  Everything would have worked out, except…except…”

“I can’t believe I ever trusted you,” Billy said.  The condemnation hit James like a physical blow.  He rocked back from the force of it.  “I should have left you in the gutter where I found you.”

James tried and failed to meet the anger in Billy’s eyes.  “Chester,” he said, “you’ve got a family, too.  You understand what kind of pressure someone can put on you.”

Chester’s expression had changed from shock to suspicion.  Now, it seemed as though he were verging dangerously close to sympathy.

“He used your earbud,” Sarah said.  “You were the one who would’ve taken the fall for it.”

“Is that true?” Chester asked James in a near whisper.  “Were you setting me up to take the fall for you?”

James looked at Chester, then Billy, then back to Chester.  He deflated slightly, as whatever self-justification he’d used to sleep at night evaporated under the simple question from his friend.  Then, with a malevolence smoldering in his eyes like hellfire, he turned to Sarah.

His hand vanished under the table and I knew, instantly, what was going to happen.  Revealed as a traitor, there was only one thing James could do.  There wasn’t any chance to spin things, at this point.  He was finished with Billy’s gang.  All he could do was make sure that we paid for ruining his plan.

The barest sliver of metal cleared the edge of the table, glinting with an evil light.  Mila wouldn’t be fast enough.  The injuries from the processing plant coupled with the damage Aiden’s beating had given her weren’t enough to sideline her, but they were sufficient to slow her down by a second or two.  Michel was out, as well.  Given an opportunity for his adrenaline to mount, he might have pulled something off, but there wasn’t going to be time.

Sarah’s eyes widened.  Some flash of intuition must have warned her because she started to bring her tablet up to her chest like a shield.  She was moving in agonizing slow motion, though, and the tablet might not have been enough to actually stop the bullet.

In a moment of ludicrous clarity, I regretted changing out of the suit with its bulletproof vest.  Still, I never stopped to think about what I did next.  I threw myself to the side, knocking her out of the way with my own body, just as a sound like thunder rang out in the comparatively small room.

My shoulder hit the ground first, but that particular pain had been such a constant companion that I scarcely felt the new flare up.  There weren’t any new screams of agony from my battered body, though.

That was shock, probably.  The bullet wound in my leg had hurt worse, although the one I’d just taken to the gut should have caused much more damage.

“Devlin?”  Sarah asked in a quavering voice.  “Are you okay?”

I wanted to laugh.  I had just thrown myself in front of a bullet for her. ‘Okay’ wasn’t really a word that applied to the situation.  Dazed, I reached down to feel the extent of my injury.

I felt nothing.  No bullet hole or injury existed, no matter how fervently I patted down my body.

“I’m…fine, I think?”  The statement came out as a question.

Cautiously, I got back to my feet.  Mila was standing with a gun in her uninjured hand.  Michel hadn’t quite fled behind her, but he was in a position where he could attack or flee with equal ease.  The gun in Mila’s hand was ready, but no smoke twined out of its barrel.

Instead, the thin trail of dark gray vapor came from the weapon in Chester’s hand.

James was slumped in his chair and a red stain was slowly spreading across the front of his shirt.  I stared at the body in horror for several long seconds.  Finally, I cleared my throat and spoke around the lump that had formed there.  “Did you…is he…?”

Chester spun on me and pointed the gun in my direction.  “No!  You…don’t move!”

Billy put his hand on top of Chester’s.  “Don’t do it,” he said in a soothing voice.  “This isn’t on them.”

“He was…he was my friend and I…I…”  Chester couldn’t finish a sentence.  He let out a shuddering breath and let his hand fall to the table.  The weapon clattered out of his loose grasp.  “I didn’t think, I just…I just…”

“I didn’t think that he’d…” Sarah began.  She stopped as a full body tremor made her shiver.  “I didn’t think that he’d try to kill me.”

Even though I had seen the move coming a split second beforehand, I didn’t understand the action entirely myself.  James had lost a lot, but he hadn’t seemed suicidal.  He’d seen Mila in action.  He had to have known that she would have killed him a heartbeat after he pulled the trigger.

“What are you going to do with him?”  The question came from my own lips, surprisingly steady.

“Can’t leave him here,” Billy said, equally calm.  “Get your concierge to keep any civilians out of the way, and I’ll…I’ll get my men to get him out of here.”  He paused.  “We’ll see to it that’s he buried.  I…I didn’t know that he had any family.”

“Neither did I,” Sarah said.  “There wasn’t anything about a family in his records and I was thorough.

James began to tremble in his seat.  Billy wheeled himself closer and wrapped an arm around his lieutenant.  “I can’t believe it was him,” Billy said.  “I just can’t believe it.”

“He was scared,” I said.  I wasn’t talking to anyone in the room, just airing my thoughts as they occurred to me.  “Not angry.  He was scared.”

“Of what?” Billy asked.  “What could he have been so scared of to risk his life – our lives – like that?”

“Not what.”  I pulled myself out of my thoughts and spoke, not to Billy, but to Sarah and my team.  “Who.”

Chapter 139

After downing some food from room service, Sarah and I told Alex to take his daughter and leave the country.  His involvement in the chaos over the last weeks was minimal but I didn’t even want to chance anything else going wrong before they were safely back in Germany.  He conceded to the request with only a token amount of resistance.  He had a lot to think about, I knew, and a lot of unresolved anger to process.

I wondered whether he thought life in prison was a suitable punishment for Asher, after what he’d done.  I wasn’t sure if a suitable punishment even existed.  Still, confinement would have to do for the moment.

Sarah suggested that I take a shower before confronting our personal Benedict Arnold.  Mila agreed with that assessment and Michel, in his own subtle way, made it clear that bathing wouldn’t be a terrible idea.  So, I washed off as quickly as possible, and changed out of my custom suit into a pair of comfortable jeans and a polo shirt.  Then, feeling more like myself, I led us all into the elevator and down to the conference room where our new allies waited.

We paused at the door.  “Are you ready for this?” I asked Sarah.

She sighed.  “Not really, but what other choice do we have?”

“Should we…I don’t know, practice?”

“What good would that do?  You don’t know what’s going to happen any more than I do.”

“Fair enough.  So…play it by ear?”

Sarah nodded.

Michel opened his mouth to say something.  Mila stopped him with a raised hand.  “No, they aren’t going to tell us what they’re talking about.  No, they didn’t have a chance to discuss any of this yet.”  She grinned.  “Yes, this is all somehow going to work out.”

Immediately upon entering the conference room, I saw that Sophie had taken Alex’s simple directive and gone completely overboard with it.  The long table running down the center of the room was overflowing with food and drink.  There were cooked hams and turkeys, more bottles of liquor than I could count at a glance, and an assortment of finger foods available for the taking.  Billy’s men were voraciously attacking the fare, focusing mostly on the liquor.  The scene reminded me of a nature documentary I’d once been forced to watch about piranhas and their feeding habits.

That was good, though.  Sophie’s typically overblown zeal ensured that my quarry would be in an amenable mood and, therefore, unlikely to realize what we had in mind until too late.

Billy sat at the distant point of the table.  He wasn’t partaking of the food or drink as we entered.  Instead, he seemed withdrawn and uncharacteristically moody.  The effect of his sulk was only magnified by the bruises visible on his skin like spots on a leopard.

He looked up and the gloom surrounding him lightened a little.  “Well, look who it is!”  He forced exuberance into his voice, but very little of that emotion found its way onto his face.  “Boys, take a good long look at our conquering hero.  In just a few weeks, he managed to do what we’ve been trying to do for years.  Give ‘em three cheers, eh?”

The horde of men tore themselves away from the feast in front of them and, raising whatever glasses were close at hand, roared out three cheers for me.  I accepted them with a slight nod.  “How’re you feeling?” I asked Billy, when the noise died down and the men returned to their drinks.

“My brother kidnapped and threatened to kill me,” Billy said, “just before he went completely off the deep end and tried to kill you with his bare hands in front of me.  So I’m feeling bloody lovely, of course.”

His accent sharpened and slipped, seemingly at random.  He was either more emotional than he was letting on or he’d had more than his fair share of liquor before we’d made our way downstairs.  Probably both.

“Physically, I mean,” I said.

He shrugged one shoulder and winced in pain.  “I’ll live.  I’ve had worse beatings from schoolboys.  Charlie always did hit like a girl.”  Pause.  “Present company excluded, I mean.”

Mila raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms underneath her breasts, but she didn’t say a word.

“There are some things we need to talk about,” I said.

“Can it wait?” Billy asked.  “I think my boys need a little bit of time to celebrate before we get down to the business of figuring out what to do with that whole empire my brother was so intent on ruling.”

“No,” I said, “it really can’t.  It’s about what happened at the estate today.  The longer we wait to have this discussion, the worse it’s going to be.”

Billy accepted that enigmatic statement with ease.  “Alright, then.  Chester, James; leave that mess alone and get over here.  The rest of you, take a bottle for the road, and take a walk!”

The two men, chief lieutenants in Billy’s organization and local heroes in their own right, detached themselves from the mass of drunks with some difficulty and headed in our direction.  They took up seats on either side of Billy: Chester seated on his right while James deposited himself to Billy’s left.  Then, all three men looked expectantly at me.

I turned my gaze to the table’s setup while the lower ranked men followed Billy’s order and slowly filed out.  There was a seat at the head of the table, opposite Billy, and more than enough chairs to accommodate my team.  There was only a single problem with the arrangement.  I took one of the surprisingly heavy chairs and dragged it across the floor, until it was directly next to me, then gestured to Sarah.  “After you.”

She seemed delighted by the gesture and made a curtsy in response.  “Such a gentleman,” she said.  “If prison taught you manners like this, you should go more often.”

“It’s called jail before conviction,” I countered.  “And I didn’t even go to lockup tonight, so let’s not be premature.”

Mila and Michel exchanged a look before taking seats of their own.

“What’s so important that you needed to talk about it right now, then?” Billy asked, when we were all settled in place.

I decided to dispense with as much formality, pomp, and circumstance as I could get away with.  These accusations required a certain amount of delicacy, I knew, but that didn’t mean I had to waste time before making them.  “This isn’t the first time a plan of ours has gone sideways,” I said.  “I mean, certainly not the first time in my life, but it isn’t even the first time it’s happened in London.  It’s the second time, in fact, that Hill caught us flat-footed and unawares.”

Using the nickname for Billy’s brother came naturally.  I’d only known him by that moniker for the vast majority of my time in conflict with him, so it was difficult to reprogram my brain.  Billy graciously didn’t correct me.  “I was thinking about that myself,” he said.

“Let’s go over both of those situations, then.  Just so we’re all perfectly clear.”  I took a deep breath.  Presentation was key, here.  “The processing plant was a trap.  The whole thing was just an excuse to get us in one place, so that Hill could have his hit squad pour bullets into the building.”

“I remember,” Billy said.  “I’m not that old.”

“The problem, though, is that he couldn’t have known when you were going to find out about the plant.  Without that knowledge, he couldn’t have anticipated when you’d attack.  And he obviously didn’t have time to adjust his plan for our intervention.”

“What’s that mean to you?”

“That he has a mole in your organization,” I said, “but that said mole didn’t have an opportunity to warn Hill that you’d changed plans.  Agreed?”

“Agreed.”

Chester cleared his throat with a great deal more noise than was strictly necessary.  “What’re you getting’ at?”

“I’m painting a picture,” I replied, through gritted teeth.  “It’s all going to make sense in a little bit.  I promise.”

He looked as though he had something else to say, but he lapsed into sulky silence instead.

I gestured for Sarah to pick up where I’d left off.  “Then there’s this whole business with Hill’s estate. There was absolutely no way for someone to intercept my communications without hiring someone as good or better than me, and giving that person days to take apart my encryption protocols.  The only way, then, that Hill and his men would be able to listen in on our conversations was if they had an exact copy of an earbud or receiver already using those protocols.”

“You said something about that before the police came crashing in,” Billy said.  “And your friend’s the one who found about the mole, yeah?”

Chester leaned forward in his chair, eager to hear what I had to say next.  Even James, normally stoic to the point of muteness, seemed interested.

“Yes and no,” I said.  “My friend learned that there was a mole, from Coleman.  But Coleman didn’t actually meet the guy, so he couldn’t give us a name.”

Chester let out an explosive breath.  “What’s the point of all this, then?  We already know all of this.”

Billy nodded his agreement.  “Soon as we get a second to catch our breaths, I’ve got plans to go through the organization from top to bottom until I find out who was playing both sides.  Can’t run the business with that kind of a leak.”

“About that,” I said.  “There can’t really be a business, Billy.  Hill’s going down and Asher’s going to see to it that the infrastructure is unusable, at least in the recent future.  Even after Interpol leaves town, trying to run anything as big as Hill’s enterprise is just going to be asking for trouble.”

If Billy could have used his legs, he would have stood up in sudden outrage.  As it was, he slapped his palms down on the table.  “You could’ve said something about that before!”

“I didn’t know about it before,” I said.  “Asher’s being vindictive, which I could probably have predicted, but even I didn’t know that he’d be willing to burn everything to the ground rather than let anyone else have it.”

“And the people I’m looking out for?”  Billy asked.  “What am I supposed to do to help them?”

“Hill went to a lot of trouble to make his businesses seem legitimate,” Sarah said.  “My guess is that he expected a lot of attention on how he ran things.”

Privately, I thought that the scrupulous and overzealous attention to detail was a result of his employment by the Magi, but I kept that thought to myself.  The less Billy, Chester, and James knew about the Magi, the better it would be for everyone involved.

“It wouldn’t take much to use those shell companies,” Sarah continued, “and to turn them into something that actually made money.”

Billy tilted his head.  “How?”

“You’d have to launder all of the liquid cash he’s had stashed away,” she said.  “That’s not going to be easy, but it is doable.  There’ll be a scandal when it comes out that he was the head of the drug ring, which hurts your reputation, but there’s another story that can be spun out this that could turn things your way.”

“Which is?”

“Think about it,” I interjected.  “One brother, born to privilege, falls into a life of crime; the other, the product of an illicit love affair, rises to restore his family’s honor.  It’s got potential.”

Billy thought about that for several seconds.  “I never wanted to be a Fairfax,” he said finally.

“What you want has very little to do with what you are,” I countered.  “But it’s just something to think about.  You could help your people – give them jobs, rebuild the devastated areas where your Halfway House is, clean up some of the brute crime – and you wouldn’t have to run the risk of police intervention.”

“That’s rich coming from you,” Billy said, but there wasn’t any malice in his voice.  “A thief telling me to go straight?”

“I’m full of contradictions.  Some would say it’s my best trait.”

I could feel Sarah roll her eyes.

“Anyway.  That’s not what I wanted to talk about.  Coleman couldn’t get a name, true.”  I paused for dramatic effect.  “But we figured one out on our own.”

Silence, deep and profound, fell over the room.  Sarah and I hadn’t rehearsed this bit – there hadn’t been any time – so Michel and Mila were both in the dark, as well.  Michel looked rapt with curiosity and Mila appeared slightly more interested than usual.

James was the first person to speak, surprisingly.  “Well?  Who is it?”

I didn’t answer him.  This was Sarah’s show, now.

She started her speech by tapping a few keys on her cell phone.  I was in a position to see that she’d been pressing random buttons, but Billy, Chester, and James were not.  “I make a habit of not bothering to reveal every single technical detail of my equipment to anyone,” Sarah said.  “Devlin doesn’t care about the specifics, for one thing, and he’s really the only partner I’ve had.”

A tremor of pleasure went through my body at her use of the word ‘partner.’

She continued speaking.  “The technology I used to construct the earbuds is proprietary.  A lot of it is guesswork, honestly.  And I’ve had plans to sell some of it legitimately, just to shore up my own profile.  Anyway, the point is this: each earbud is marked.”

Two truths and a lie.  Maybe two lies.  It was possible that Sarah intended to market some of her technology.  We hadn’t really talked about anything financial in years, even before our divorce.

“Marked?” Chester asked.  “What’s that mean?”

“It means that every transmission coming from a given earbud has a certain signature, so that I could make sure that one earbud wasn’t transmitting as another,” Sarah said.  “If someone let Hill use one of my earbuds to copy the protocols, they’d also copy the signature.  When I realized that Hill was listening in our communications, I immediately went back through every transmission, so that I could find out who the mole was.”

She fell silent and allowed the tension in the room to build to an almost painful level.  I could barely keep from grinning, personally.  Unlike the rest of her family, Sarah had never been one for long speeches.  Despite her relative inexperience, however, she was doing a masterful job of bullshitting.

Despite my enjoyment, I had my own job to do.  I looked across the table, reading micro expressions on the faces of all three men, searching for some sort of sign.

Sarah kept right on vamping.  “It wasn’t easy.  All of the transmissions coming out of Hill’s estate made it difficult to find the exact frequency.  That’s why I didn’t say anything at first: I wasn’t sure yet.  While Devlin was somehow contriving a way out of Scotland Yard, I had programs running to filter and identify.”

“Oh, come on!” Chester said.  “Don’t make us bloody wait forever!  Who the hell is it?  Who’s the mole?”

One of the men across from me moved, lowering their chin and tucking it in maybe a half of a millimeter.  It was such a minute gesture that most people would have missed it.  To me, searching their faces with something approaching desperation, it was as obvious as a lighthouse on a clear night.  I made a subtle gesture with two fingers where Sarah could see it.

Sarah turned her head a millimeter in my direction and raised an eyebrow.  I nodded.  “Alright then,” she said, shifting her attention back to the three men at the other end of the table.  “I’ll get to the point.  James…why’d you do it?”

Chapter 134

The look on Hill’s face was worth every injury and injustice that I’d suffered since arriving in London.  Since our first meeting, when I had been more than willing to disregard him as an ineffectual, puffed up noble with more money than common sense, he had radiated a sense of entitlement that raised the hackles on my neck.  When we had learned that the same Fairfax who spent his days cavorting around with one debutante or another was the same man who operated as London’s premier drug lord, that had elevated his threat level in my eyes, sure.  It hadn’t done anything to make me think better of the man and it certainly hadn’t made me respect him.

Everything he had, he’d acquired from someone else.  His name and the associated relevance came from his father.  The business that had caused us all so much money had come from Billy’s hard work, as much – if not more than – Hill’s.  And his only aspiration for greater glory had been to steal the Magi’s distributors and suppliers, instead of forging new connections and building something on his own that might rival the elusive international financiers’ organization.

None of that was possible now, though.  Without the Book, he had no way of acquiring the information he’d sought for so long and I knew enough about his personality to assume that he wouldn’t see this as an impetus to build something for himself.  He’d been deadlocked, stalled, even checkmated…and the best part, for me, was being in a position where I could watch as each successive realization hit him with the force of a hundred blows.  It was like a fast forwarded slide show of the stages of grief.

First, Denial.

Hill began to pace, taking only a few steps in one direction before whirling back around to the other.  “This can’t be,” he said to himself.  I thought he might actually have forgotten about me.  “The case was still locked and there’s no way that you got my fingerprints.  It’s…impossible!”

“And yet, here we are,” I said casually.  The pain was beginning to recede a little bit.  I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad, but it was certainly preferable to the sea of agony I’d previously been swimming in.  “All dressed up and nothing to read.”

“No.  No!  It has to be on your somewhere.  You…you must have hidden it somewhere on your way down here!”

“If you have cameras watching my friend, you certainly had cameras watching me.  Did you see me stash a giant golden book on my way downstairs?”

Hill actually narrowed his eyes in thought, searching his memory.  “What did you do to it, then?  And how?”

“Wouldn’t you just love to know what I did to your precious book?” I asked.  I planted my very best cocky smirk on my face and turned the intensity up to eleven.  “But you’ll just have to wonder a little bit longer, won’t you?”

Anger rushed in, pushing Denial away in the blink of an eye.  Hill’s gaze turned from confused to malevolent and he pointed the Ruger at me.  “Tell me where the Book is or I’ll kill you where you lay.”

“That’s not much of an incentive,” I said, still pumping casual disregard into the air like some sort of weaponized aura.  “Because you’re probably going to kill me, whether I tell you or not.  At least this way, I can make sure you don’t get what you want.”

“You’re right,” Hill said.  “And besides, I don’t need you to tell me.  Wherever your precious ex-wife is, you’re certain to have told her what you intended to do.”

“If that’s what helps you sleep at night, sure.”

“I am tired of your incessant back-talk!” Hill snapped.  A vein sprang prominently into visibility on his forehead and his entire face was rapidly turning tomato-red.  He was younger than Billy, which was not quite the same thing as being young, in an objective sense.  I hoped he wouldn’t give himself a stroke.  That wouldn’t do, at all.

“Join the club, Chuck,” I said.  “I’ve pissed off people I liked a lot better than you.”

Hill’s nostrils flared like a bull’s in the few seconds before the fatal charge.  “Go to hell, knowing that you have condemned your lover to an unimaginable amount of pain and suffering,” he pronounced and pulled the trigger.

A click came from the weapon as it attempted to fire its empty clip.  Other than that, the room was completely silent.

Both Hill and Billy stared at the gun in blank bewilderment.  The laughter bubbling up from my gut was beginning to hurt more than it was worth and I lapsed into a wide, Cheshire smile when Hill squeezed the trigger two more times.

“Works better with bullets,” I offered helpfully.

“You…what is this?  What was the point of all this?  You don’t my Book; you don’t even have a gun!”

“I thought about carrying,” I said, “but I knew you were just cocky enough to gloat when you should take action.  And I couldn’t exactly run the risk of you getting a chance to shoot me in the back before things had a chance to play out, could I?”

If it had been possible, I was positive that steam would be curling out of Hill’s nostrils.  He tightened his grip on the Ruger until he knuckles turned bone white and then hurled it at me.  In his anger, he didn’t take the time to aim the projectile.  If he had, I wouldn’t have been able to dodge it in my weakened state.  As it was, I was just barely able to roll to one side and the Ruger bounced six inches away from my head.

“No matter,” Hill said.  “Just because you only came prepared to play games doesn’t mean that I did the same.  Coleman, kill him.”

Coleman took a step away from Hill.  “He’s defenseless, sir,” he said.  “Surely there isn’t a need to –“

“Did I start paying you for your opinion?” Hill asked, cutting Coleman’s complaints off with an insulting air of presumption.  “You know what I expect of you.  Now, finish this, or else your family will feel the consequences for your ineptitude.”

Cautiously, Coleman raised the hand-cannon that I’d managed to knock out of Hill’s hands and pointed it in my direction.  His arm wavered and the look in his eyes was anything but certain.  He was almost pleading with me silently.  Out loud, he said, “I…I am sorry, but…”

I watched him from my position on the floor.  I’d guessed that something like this would happen sooner or later.  The problem was, I hadn’t come up with a foolproof method of dealing with it.  There were options in place, wheels already set in motion that might provide dividends, if only I could stall for a little more time.

“You aren’t this kind of man,” I said.  “And you can’t let Hill make you into this kind of man, either.”

“He will kill them,” Coleman replied.  “If it is not you, then me and the ones I love!”

“All of you were dead the moment Hill decided to bring you into his business.  Maybe you’re lucky enough that you don’t die for a couple of months, maybe a year, but you’ll know too much about his business by then to be anything less than a vulnerability.  Think about it, Coleman.  How many who know who he really is are in a position to talk about it?”

Coleman’s eyes flickered over to Billy.  The immobile man raised his head from the floor and shook it gravely.

“This is not a discussion,” Hill said in that strident, commanding tone.  “You will do it or they will die miserably, wondering why you would let something like me happen to them.  Are you truly ready to save this man’s life instead of people you care about?”

Coleman was wavering.  I knew I didn’t have long before he made a fatal decision.  Physically, I wasn’t in a position to fight back and I only had a single card to play.  I just needed it to fall into place now, but I couldn’t…

The earbud I’d silenced before entering the room vibrated.  Not once, not twice, but four times.  The rhythm of the beeps was familiar.  I tapped it out with one hand, carefully keeping eye contact with Coleman as I did so.

His eyes widened slightly and he didn’t move at first.  Then, cautiously, he tapped the corresponding answer to my own rhythm: two knocks, with a slight pause between, finishing the most familiar notes of ‘Shave and a Haircut.’

Hill’s impatience only allowed him to wait for a second before an angry rush of words burst out of him again.  He spun back around to face his butler.  “What are you waiting for, you idiot?  Kill him!

Coleman blinked and I thought I saw a tear gathering at the corner of one eye.  He straightened his shoulders and steeled himself.

Then, he turned the gun to point directly at Hill’s chest.

There weren’t any clocks in the room, but I swear I could literally hear seconds ticking away as a single heartbeat stretched into ten.  I tore my eyes away from the tableau just long enough to check Billy’s expression.  Where he had been frightened before, now every line of his face screamed astonishment.

“What are you doing?” Hill asked, in a squeaky voice completely different from the command he’d spoken with earlier.  “Have you lost your mind?”

Coleman swallowed nervously and his arm started to tremble.  But he didn’t move the gun.

“Maybe you need to be reminded what’s at stake,” Hill said.  “Your brand new friend didn’t have a chance to search through the entire sub-basement.  I’m virtually certain he didn’t have a chance to find my other guests.”  His hand dipped back into his pocket and he pressed whatever button he had concealed there.

The video changed.  Sarah’s van disappeared and, in its place, a static image of a room appeared.  Just like the briefcase and the Ruger, the room was completely empty.

Hill’s jaw actually dropped open.  “I…but…”

I shifted my weight so that I could use my uninjured arm to touch my earbud with two fingers.  It came to life under the slight pressure.  “Hey, Sarah?  You still listening?”

Her voice came back, clear and strong, amplified by the speakers that Hill had so courteously installed in the room.  “I’m here and I’m listening.”

“I don’t think Hill’s going to figure it out on his own,” I said.

“Oh?  Well, I’d be happy to explain.”

She typed something into her computer.  The video on the screen rewound at her command, reached a predetermined point, and began to play again.  There wasn’t much to see.  Hill had installed the camera so that it looked into the room, but not at the door itself.  I saw a middle-aged woman and a small boy, huddled in the corner.  Something happened out of frame that drew their attention and then, cautiously, they both stood up and walked in the direction of the camera.  They passed under it as they left the room.

“Seems like someone’s all out of leverage,” I commented.

“I’ve noticed that too,” Sarah said.

“Seems like someone made a few too many assumptions.”  I groaned and settled my weight back against the floor.  It didn’t feel great, but it did put less pressure on my injuries.

“But I…I…”  Hill was struggling to form sentences now.

“You still don’t get it, do you?” I asked.  Without exerting too much effort, I managed to position myself in such a way that I could look him in his eyes.  “Plan B?  I was bait, you arrogant ass.”

“I was listening to your communications,” Hill said, dazed.  It seemed like he wasn’t even seeing Coleman’s gun pointed at him.  “I was watching you.  How did…”

“You just said the magic words,” I interrupted.  “You were watching me and trusting in your men to handle everything else.”

“There are dozens of them outside,” Hill said.  “Dozens.  Your team isn’t big enough to…”

“Sarah?  Show him.”

The image flickered and changed.  We were looking at the Beatles memorabilia shop again, except Sarah’s van was gone now.  The display flickered a second time to show Hill’s front gate blown inward.  There was no sign of his men.

“See,” I said, “you were so sure that you had everything under control that you didn’t think about the one weakness you kept right next to you the whole time.”

A dim flash of understanding appeared in his eyes.  “Coleman?  You did this?”

“You threatened my family,” Coleman said.  As he spoke, his voice became surer and steadier.  “You are not the boy I knew, Lord Fairfax and I…I couldn’t allow you to hurt them.”

Hill’s eyes narrowed in thought for a moment.  “Then I won’t hurt them,” he said.  “We could be partners.  I realize that I made a mistake in not trusting you.  But this doesn’t have to end badly for all of us.  Just for him.”  He jabbed a finger in my direction.  “He knows where the Book is.  You can help me find it, to get that information out of him, and then we can go our separate ways.  I can make it worth your while.”

Ah, Bargaining: the preferred tool of scumbags around the world.

Hill hadn’t grasped everything yet.  If the images Sarah had shown weren’t exaggerated, then our plan had almost come to fruition.  But I still needed a little more time and I needed to make Hill just a little angrier.  If he figured out everything, there was just enough of a window for him to ruin everything.

“You think he just figured out what you were up to?” I asked, loading my words with as much derision and scorn as I could muster.  “Seriously?  You’ve been running your business out of your estate for years.  Sure, you’ve been careful to keep everything directly connected to you above board, but only where the outside world was concerned.  Inside your house, though?  From the one person who’s known you since your childhood and would know about anything you were doing here?”

I left the idea dangling and waited for Hill to finish it for himself.  Surprisingly, it took him less time to reach the obvious conclusion than I would have expected.  His eyes became round and some of the red flush of anger drained away from his cheeks, replaced by the paler shade of someone who has just come to a horrible realization.

“You…”  Hill shook his head, as if he couldn’t quite believe what all of the evidence was pointing towards.  “How long?”

“A year,” Coleman admitted.  “The police came to me and I…I decided to help them.”

“When?  Why?

“When you started to bring in guns and that little girl came back from wherever you sent her.  I couldn’t just stand by and watch it anymore.”

I perked up at that.  We hadn’t known that Avis had been elsewhere.  We’d thought that she’d been used primarily to control information about Hill’s drug operation.  If she’d been moved, though…

Coleman was still speaking.  “Look at what you did to your brother,” he said, gesturing at Billy.  “I should have done something then, but…but I lied to myself.  I told myself that it was not what it seemed to be.  I should have acted before now.”

Of all the things Hill had predicted or arranged, this was apparently one step too far.  It wasn’t going to be much longer before the tension reached a climax and I needed to push him a little bit farther.

“Do you know where you went wrong?” I asked Hill.  “Because I can tell you, if you’re curious.  I figure it’s the sort of thing you really ought to know, considering just how badly you played this.”

Hill’s mouth was still opening and closing without making a sound.  I took that as a sign to continue.

“I’ll admit, I didn’t expect the inside man,” I said.

Hill jerked in surprise at the casual revelation.  “You knew?”

Sarah answered before I could.  Her voice came over the room’s hidden speakers in surround sound, which only magnified her deliberately snide tone.  “Not at first,” she admitted.  “Listening in on my comms should be just about impossible, unless you somehow managed to get in touch with one of the three or four people on the planet who know the protocols.  Or you could just copy the protocols wholesale, without understanding them at all, if you got your hands on one of my earbuds.  After we figured out that you were listening in, it was pretty easy to guess how you were doing it.”

“And it was almost enough to derail everything,” I said.  “Except that you didn’t count on one thing: that we might have an inside man of our own.  Which is just abysmal form, old chap.  If a trick’s good enough to use on your target, it’s good enough to be used on you in return.  All this time you’ve been employing Coleman, it never once occurred to you that he might be working undercover?  The only person adjacent to your whole organization who you weren’t blackmailing or extorting, the only one who might have some pangs of conscience about the whole ‘international purveyor of drugs and guns’ thing?”

The next step on Hill’s progression would have been Depression.  We didn’t need that.  I needed him aggressive, out of position, and off-balance.  Stunned and stupefied wasn’t going to get it done and it was easy to see that he had been so blindslided by this series of reveals that he was lapsing into indolent stupidity.

So, I cleared my throat and dropped my final blow in a clear voice.

“Billy,” I said, “would have figured it out long ago.”

Hill skipped past Depression and Acceptance, rocketing back into Anger at full speed.  He blinked once.  When his eyes opened, they were focused on me with a murderous intensity.  I would have stepped away, if I’d been on my feet.  Instead, I merely began dragging myself backward.

“Even if I don’t have the Book, I can still make sure that you don’t leave here alive,” he snarled.

“You’ve never killed anyone in your life,” I said.  “Neither have I, in fairness, but I’m not the one pretending to be a hardened fighter.  Hell, you were so sure that Billy could’ve kicked your ass that you practically chained him into a wheelchair.”

Hill’s nostrils were flaring again.  Just the tiniest bit more.

“Why don’t you come over here and show me what you’ve got, Charles?”  Painstakingly, clenching my teeth against the waves of pain that threatened to drown me, I forced myself back up onto my feet.  The gunshot wound in my upper thigh wasn’t bleeding all that much, although it still hurt like hell.  I couldn’t possibly fight Hill.

He didn’t seem to realize that.  Lowering his head, he charged at me.  Coleman had a clean shot and he raised his gun in jerky movements.  I waved him away.  Shooting Hill would have been too clean for what we had in mind.

When Hill’s shoulder connected with my chest, I let myself fall backward with the force.  My body had pretty much reached the limits of its ability to register pain.  Then, in a fit of blind rage, he wrapped his hands around my throat.  That I hadn’t expected.

I struggled to pry his fingers from around my throat but, in his anger, Hill seemed to possess a certain brand of insane strength.  I wasn’t in top condition and, even if I hadn’t been on the receiving end of a few strong hits and at least one bullet, I would have laid even odds on me finding the strength to push Hill off of me.

But I had been hit and I had been shot and now I found myself sprawled on the ground with Hill trying desperately to kill me with his bare hands.

“Devlin!”  Sarah’s voice, in my ear and in the air around me.  “Get away from him, you son of a bitch!”

Billy was clawing at the ground for purchase, trying to reach me, but he’d fallen too far away.  Coleman couldn’t fire the gun now, without putting me in as much danger as Hill.  Sarah was miles away by now, as per our pre-arranged agreement.  Mila, Michel, Avis, and Neal would be with her.

I was alone now, exactly as planned…although Sarah hadn’t been in on that part of the planning.  From the preliminary phases of our brainstorming, I’d come to the only obvious conclusion and Sarah had somehow managed to avoid seeing it: there simply wasn’t a way to get everyone out of the estate.  One of us was always going to have to stay behind.  Since I was the one who’d started this whole affair, it only seemed reasonable for me to fill that role.

I was fine with the sacrifice play.  I just wasn’t fine with it now.

Through some miraculous exertion of muscles and leverage, I managed to steal a few breaths before Hill tightened his grip around my throat again.  Blackness began to creep in around the edges of my vision, followed shortly by a red haze.

A loud noise, like something exploding open, came from somewhere out of my vision.

“SO19!”  That came from an entire chorus of voices.  “Raise your hands into the air and surrender or we will shoot!”

Hill’s grip went slack.  I slid out of his grip and succeeded in using my arms to cushion the fall.  In my peripheral vision, I could see two men in black body armor rushing over to Coleman.  The man crumped to his knees and allowed them to relieve him of the Ruger.

That was a shame.  I was starting to like that gun.

Two more men approached Hill.  They displayed a slightly humorous reluctance to actually touch a member of the nobility, but the fight had gone out of him.  He’d been caught in the act of trying to murder someone.  That, coupled with the evidence that Coleman must have been able to pull, would be pretty damning.  Getting into a fist fight with armed men wasn’t likely to be high on his list of priorities.

I giggled at the image and, just as soon as the sound passed my lips, realized that I was getting loopy.  One of the men in body armor walked over and examined me.  From my position, it looked as though he were dangling from the ceiling.  I giggled at that again.

Metal glinted on the man’s chest and my mouth moved silently as I worked through the words: ‘London Metropolitan Police.’

“The cavalry,” I said in a stupid, weak voice.  “Took you long enough.”

Then, mercifully, I passed out from either blood loss or exhaustion.  More likely, it was a combination of the two.

Chapter 133

The instant after Hill made that pronouncement, something changed in the room.  I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what, at the moment.  It was just a feeling of intense intuition, centered mainly at a spot just an inch or two below the base of my skull.  I reacted to that feeling without stopping to question it, throwing myself to one side and bring up the metallic briefcase to protect my vulnerable skull.

A jet black baton whistled through the air where my head had been.  The bludgeon missed me by less than inches; it was so close that I could almost smell the hard plastic coating its surface.  In the next few split seconds, my brain took in the face of Hill’s loyal butler, Coleman.  He had crept close enough to attack, moving on cat’s feet so soft that even my finely tuned awareness hadn’t noticed him until almost too late.  Then, before I could feel more than a sharp stab of shame that I could be caught off guard twice during a single heist, I hit the ground, shoulder first.

Thankfully, my momentum carried me forward more than down, and I skidded across the floor instead of crashing into it.  That saved me from serious injury, but did nothing to lessen the exploding stars of pain.  Gritting my teeth, I forced myself to think clearly and reoriented myself so that I turned the uncontrolled slide into something at least resembling a roll.  With my feet under me, I was able to leap back in time to avoid a follow-up swing from Coleman.  This one also missed me, but I was off-balance.  The third swing managed to get me high on my arm.  The nerves flared to life then, a breath later, went dead.  My fingers turned numb and the briefcase slipped from their suddenly weak grasp and fell to the floor.

Coleman and I looked at each other, then at the briefcase.  Panicked, I kicked the briefcase away from both of us, lest he manage to surprise me with a burst of speed.  As my foot connected with the briefcase, Coleman moved, and I saw that I’d made that right choice; he was faster than I would have expected.  Uninjured, I was probably faster and Mila was certainly quicker, considering the blurring exchanges I’d seen her partake in since we’d joined forces, but he covered the distance between where he stood and where the briefcase had been with enough speed that he probably would’ve gotten his hands on it.  As it was, his fingers clutched at nothing but empty air.

Now, he was out of stance and I was in a better position.  The tables had turned, momentarily, but I held no illusions about winning a fight if Coleman were allowed to center himself again.  While he was still trying to pull back his hand, I drove a swift kick up into his midsection.  The air came out of his lungs in an explosive rush and, when he hit the ground, he was already doubled over.  I tried to repeat my performance but, again, Coleman proved faster than I would have thought.  I missed and he managed to get back to his feet.

For the first time, I looked into Coleman’s eyes.  What met my gaze was not the steady expression of someone accustomed to violence, but the wide-eyed fear that only came when one was acting under duress.  In a flash, I understood the truth of the matter.  Before the events of the last few days – maybe even before the events of the last few hours – Coleman hadn’t known about Hill’s more profitable business venture.  He had been a patsy or, more likely, an unwitting assistant.  I wondered what euphemisms Hill used to describe his activities, whenever Coleman got involved.

Whatever the lie, and however Hill had told it, now Coleman was into the business up to his neck.  I could imagine the conversation Hill would have had with his employee, the threats he would have leveraged to ensure compliance, the incentives he would have offered to invoke commitment.  There wouldn’t really have been enough time for subtlety.  Coleman had probably been hit over the head with the true nature of Hill’s business and pressganged into this final ambush.

I legitimately felt bad for the man.

“You don’t have to do this,” I said, gasping for breath.  I kept a part of my peripheral attention focused on Hill, even though he showed no intention of getting directly involved in the fight.  “Do you even understand who he is?  What he is?”

Coleman began to circle warily around me and I matched the movement.  Feeling was starting to return to my arm in tingling fits.  I flexed my fingers experimentally as I moved to block Coleman from having a clear line of sight to the briefcase.  “What I know,” he said, “is that I have a family.  And I cannot…I will not put their lives at risk.”

So it had been threats, then.  No carrot for poor Coleman, only the stick.  I felt a sickening anger rise up in my throat like bile and felt as much hate for Hill as I felt pity for Coleman.  “We can protect them.  If you just help me take him down, he won’t be able to do anything!”

“Like you protected the girl?  Like you protected him?”  Coleman gestured in Billy’s direction without looking away from and, tellingly, didn’t use the man’s name.  “You can’t even protect yourself!”

I couldn’t really refute that point.  “Are you sure this is how you want this to happen?” I asked.  “Putting everything on the line for someone who you clearly didn’t even know?”

“I will do whatever I have to,” Coleman said, “to protect my family.”

I didn’t have a counter to that, either.  I knew how far I’d go to protect Sarah.  It wouldn’t be fair to ask Coleman to do anything less.

In the first exchange of blows, the Ruger had been knocked free and things had been too hectic in the next few seconds for me to really think about that problem.  Now, I spared a second to search for it and saw that, luckily, the weapon had fallen within a foot of the briefcase. I could go for one or the other, but not both.

Coleman looked past me and seemed to reach the same conclusion.  Our eyes met again, electric tension traveling through the air between us in practically visible lines of intensity, and then we both moved in sync.

I was closer and, motivated by desperation, faster.  My fingers closed around the briefcase’s handle and I pulled it close, hugging it to my chest.  Coleman abandoned his baton and grasped the Ruger.  He swept it in my direction without missing a beat.

Just as quickly, I raised the briefcase so that it was in front of my face.  I could hear Hill’s gasp of surprise mingled with shock.  “Don’t shoot!  Do not bloody shoot that briefcase!”

Mentally, I pumped my fist in celebration.  I wasn’t sure what Hill’s briefcase was actually made of, but I doubted it was bulletproof.  If that were the case, then, its contents would be as vulnerable to gunfire as anyone using the briefcase for cover.  To Hill, the item inside of the briefcase was worth far more to him intact than I was worth to him dead.

That realization aside, there was only going to be a slim period of time before Hill decided to use his own weapon to even the odds.  I angled the briefcase and charged in Coleman’s general direction.  The metal of the briefcase made it impossible for me to see exactly where I was.  I only made it a few steps before I impacted something fleshy.  The person I’d hit gave way under the assault and went down.  Without my sight, I fell as well and was forced to use the briefcase as an impromptu cushion for my fall.

My head swam and one of my shoulders was screaming with pain.  Still, I started striking out with my fists and feet wildly, unaware of exactly what I was hitting or where.  Coleman returned the favor with equal vigor.  After a few seconds of fisticuffs that felt like minutes or longer, both of us extricated ourselves from the tangle of limbs and skittered back to our feet.

“This isn’t what I wanted!” Coleman yelled.  He’d lost the gun somehow and the baton was similarly out of reach.  He lowered his head and ran at me like a bull.

I didn’t want to use the briefcase to defend myself against the attack.  Coleman wasn’t a bad person, so much as someone bent over a metaphorical barrel, and the kind of damage a head-to-metal impact could do wasn’t anything to scoff at.  Instead, I waited until he had almost reached me before I pivoted and stuck out one foot to trip up Coleman as he went past me.  He stumbled, nearly caught himself, and then went down in a heap, gasping greedily for air.

There wasn’t any time to savor that slim victory.  I turned back and began moving in a wide circle.  This time, I kept up the briefcase up high enough that I could just barely see under its bottom edge.  In the thin widow of visibility, I saw that Hill had removed the gun from Billy’s temple and was finally pointing it directly at me.

I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing.  I certainly had no intention of lingering in any one place long enough for Hill to decide the matter for me.

The distance between Hill and I was short enough that I could see the fury filling in his eyes and the red flush of rage flooding his cheeks.  Billy’s eyes were wide and bloodshot.  I didn’t know what I looked like, but I could imagine: equally fearful and brave, madly rushing to attack someone who could end my life in a moment, if only he took the time to think clearly through the haze of emotion my resistance had caused in him.

Then, perhaps a yard or two away from Hill, I watched as his eyes narrowed and I knew he’d taken the requisite time to actually think about his problem.  He lowered his aim from my face, protected by the briefcase, and pointed his gun at my torso instead.  I started to lower my shield, fully aware that I wasn’t going to be fast enough to protect myself.

Just before Hill’s finger squeezed around the trigger, Billy brought his elbow back in a vicious arc and the swing terminated with literal bone-cracking force into his younger brother’s ribs.  Hill let out a roar of pain and did two things in pure instinct.

One: he kicked at Billy’s wheelchair reflexively.  The wheels were locked and the chair couldn’t go anywhere.  Instead, Billy flew from the wheelchair and landed in a sprawled heap on the floor.

Two: he finished squeezing the trigger on his gun and fired it at me.

Billy’s attack and the resulting injury was sufficient to derail Hill’s aim, but it was not enough to make him completely miss.  Instead of catching me in the gut, the bullet sunk into the fleshy part of my upper thigh.  The pain was mind-erasing and that, coupled with the sudden obstacle of Billy’s immobile torso, caused me to lose my balance entirely.

Hill gritted his teeth and prepared to fire again.  Using my last few dredges of strength I had to focus through the agony, I pushed off from my uninjured leg and launched myself towards Hill, leading with the briefcase.  I didn’t mind if he ended up permanently injured.

The tackle was well aimed, but there wasn’t any real power behind it.  I managed to connect with Hill’s body, and he sucked in a sharp breath as the sharp edges of the briefcase found soft parts of his torso, but it didn’t knock him down.  He moved so that I continued past him and landed painfully on my shoulder again.  At this point, the joint didn’t even bother to send up any further alarm bells.

Enough!” Hill screamed.  Every ounce of control was gone from his voice.  He wasn’t bothering to play the part of a nobleman anymore.  The drug lord, in all of his ruthlessness, was fully here.

He stalked over to where I lay and pressed down on my wounded leg with all of his weight.  I nearly passed out as the pain, which had already reached levels I hadn’t known existed, found new heights.  I couldn’t even manage to yell.  Only a low moan escaped my lips.

“You have been beaten,” he snarled as he kicked me.  “All of this has been for nothing!”

Weakly, I rolled away from his attack.  “Not…not going to let you…”

“You aren’t going to let me what?”  Hill asked.  He didn’t press the assault, which I appreciated.  At the same time, it wasn’t like he really needed to.  Billy couldn’t move from where he was and I seriously doubted that any part of my body would listen to a thing I told it to do.  “All that you have accomplished is wasting my time.”

The collision with the floor must have shaken Billy’s gag loose, because it was his voice that I heard next.  “Charles,” he said.  “Charles, it’s over.  You have what you want.  Just…let him go.  He doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

“No!  I offered this man a chance to join my side, just as I offered you one.  And what did I get in return for my generosity?  My business has been impacted, my reputation impugned, and even now you attack me when all I have ever done is try to claim that which is mine!”  He walked over to Billy, stopped just out of the sprawling man’s reach, and dropped his voice into a dangerously low register.  “I want you to know this.  We could have been amazing, you and I.  If you had only been willing to follow my lead, instead of stubbornly insisting on doing things your own way, we could have been legends.”

“Charles, I – “

Hill ignored his brother and walked back to me.  Coleman, who had recovered his footing at some point, limped over so that he stood just behind Hill.  He picked up the weapon that his employer had been carrying and the Ruger that I’d lost, as well.  He handed my gun to Hill.

“And you,” Hill said.  “This is what I want you to know.  You have doomed your friends.  You have doomed your lover.  Everything you know and love will suffer because of your misplaced sense of nobility.  As if someone like you could possibly understand what is necessary to win.”

“You…can’t,” I gasped out.  “Don’t have…the pull…”

“Not yet, I don’t,” Hill replied.  He kicked the briefcase free from my weak grip and knelt to retrieve it.  When it was in his hand, he brandished it at me like some sort of totem.  “But this will give me what I want.  And no one – not you, not William, not the Magi themselves – will be able to get in my way.”

The briefcase wasn’t locked with a combination or a key.  Hill pressed his thumb to a well-disguised reader on the briefcase’s side and it responded with a soft click as it unlocked.  He opened it with a flick of his wrist, intending to show me his trophy as one last insult.

There was nothing inside.

It took Hill a second to realize that he held a very expensive, very empty briefcase.  A look of confusion came over his face, replacing the exultant expression from a few heartbeats before.  “What?  But…what?”

I was beaten, bruised, wounded, and weak.  I couldn’t have stood up without assistance and I knew it was only a matter of time before I lost consciousness.  Still, digging deeper within myself for strength than I had ever dug before, I found one last nugget of willpower.  I used that to roll onto my back and laughed at the top of my lungs.

“Didn’t see that coming, did you?” I said, between wracking gasps and full-body laughs.  “Gotcha, you sanctimonious bastard.”

Chapter 132

“You,” Hill said in a strained voice, “have proven yourself to be remarkably resourceful.”

“I aim to impress.”  I muted my earbud with a subtle gesture, taking great care not to let the hand holding the gun waver in the slightest.  A distraction now could be fatal for me, Billy, and possibly everyone who’d chosen to throw their lot in with mine.

“In fact,” he continued, “your resourcefulness is nearly equal to how irritatingly smug you seem to be at every available opportunity.”

I tilted my head slightly, not breaking eye contact for a single moment.  “I’m flattered to hear that, considering you’re in the running for the ‘most arrogant son of a bitch on the continent’ award.  Really, it means a lot to me.”

The frosty mask of control on Hill’s face faltered for an instant.  Cool, calm dispassion flickered away, as he pulled his lips back from his teeth and he practically growled at me.  He pressed the gun to Billy’s temple even harder and my new wheelchair-bound friend moved his head to compensate.  Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the expression of naked anger vanished and was replaced again with dispassion and mild irritation.

“Your friend was absolutely certain that close quarters combat was not your strong suit,” Hill said.  He stressed the word friend to the breaking point, making absolutely certain that I heard the derision and sarcasm.  “That assessment was a primary factor in my decision to dispatch only a single person to interrupt you earlier.  I suppose that is another area in which Mister Knight’s abilities have failed me.”

“He wasn’t wrong,” I replied.  “Not exactly.  But after you find yourself on the wrong end of a fight a couple of times, you start to pick up a few tricks.  Why don’t you put that gun down and I’ll show you some of them?”

Hill threw his head back and laughed.  “This, at least, he predicted accurately.”

“Asher predicted that I was going to kick your ass in your own house?”  I made my mouth into a little ‘o’ of amazement.  “That’s even more impressive than my smugness.”

Color began rising up into Hill’s cheeks.  His glare turned harder and I could immediately tell that it was harder for him to maintain the air of control.  “This is merely bravado, Mister O’Brien.  A show, designed to distract and obfuscate.  After Mister Knight so thoroughly failed to eliminate you as an adversary at one of my warehouses, I decided to do my own research into you.”

“What’d you find out?” I asked, half out of a desire to stall for time and half out of a genuine curiosity.

“While no one who’s worked with you in the past had anything bad to say about you – Mister Knight excluded, of course – it appears that you’re somewhat small-time.  This current affair is well above your…what’s the vernacular?  Ah!  This current affair is well above your weight class.”

I kept my face placid, while I found myself internally agreeing with that assessment.  Still, it wouldn’t do to let the mark know when he had me on the ropes.  The longer I kept him talking, the longer Plan B had to work.  If Hill decided to use that weapon on me or Billy before things were in position, everything we’d done would amount to exactly nothing.

“Well, as I always say, what is a life lived without a little bit of challenge?”

Longer,” Hill pronounced and a chill responded to that note of finality in his voice.

I swallowed hard against the lump in my throat before speaking again.  “Let’s look at it this way,” I said.  “We’re in your house with all of your men and your personal pet team of mercenaries.  But I’m the one who made it past all of your guards, into your bedroom, and now I’m the one with the Book.”  I held up the briefcase, to illustrate my point.  “The way I see it, I’m in a much better position than you are.  You’re playing your last card right now, Hill.  It’s all in or bust.”

Billy’s mouth was restricted by the gag but his eyes and ears were not.  Something I’d said set him off.  He furrowed his brow and stared at me for several seconds, then flicked his gaze in Hill’s direction, and back again.  Between each rotation of that odd pantomime, he shook his head in the most infinitesimal of movements.

Hill didn’t seem to notice what his half-brother was doing.  “You say all of this as though you have already succeeded,” he said.  “Yet we found ourselves here, at an impasse.  You have the Book, yes, but you cannot leave with it.  Even if you somehow find a way past me, you cannot possibly hope to evade me and my forces for very long.  I know your voice.  I know your name.  And I will be highly motivated to recover my property and to extract sufficient recompense for the trouble.”

“So, what then?”

“I exposed myself to you, in the hopes that we would be able to form a mutually beneficial working relationship,” Hill said.  “You and your team were the ones who decided that open conflict was preferable to diplomatically working our way to a solution that would have been advantageous for both of us.”

“You want to make a deal?”

He shrugged.  “In a manner of speaking, yes.”

“The Book for Billy?  Is that it?”  I scoffed.  “Even if I were willing to compromise on my principles, what possibly reason would I have to believe that you wouldn’t just come after us later on, just for giggles?”

“Two points,” Hill said.  He raised his index and middle finger, then lowered the middle one.  “First, I would have no reason to expend resources.  You have proven yourself capable when circumstances require it.  I would hope that you would also possess the ability to realize when the game has been lost, to cut your losses and retreat.”

“And allow you to solidify your control over the Underground here?  Possibly extend some tendrils into the neighboring countries, until you’re spreading your personal brand of misery and subjugation all over the place like some kind of bloated parasite?”  I shook my head.  “No dice.”

Hill nodded, as though he’d been expecting that answer.  Billy’s eyes were traveling between Hill and me faster than before, almost frantically.  “Second,” he said, lowering the corresponding finger, “I have no interest in making an exchange for Billy’s sake.  My brother has made his position perfectly clear and, at any rate, there are other plans in the works for him.”

I shuddered at that, but forced myself to smile broadly at Hill.  “The Book for my life, then?  I’m going to go with a solid ‘no’ on that, too.”

Hill raised an eyebrow.

I continued after a moment, when it became clear that he didn’t have anything to say.  “You can’t pull that trigger before I pull mine.  We’ll both go down, and neither one of us can be sure that we’ll actually hit anything vital.  Pretty sure that Billy isn’t going to just sit there and let you kill me, either.”

“Nothing about your behavior since your arrival in London has led me to believe that you are an individual overly concerned with your own self-interest,” Hill said.  He shifted his weight and relieved some of the pressure on Billy’s temple.  “Threatening to kill you has, thus far, proven woefully inadequate.”

“So, what then?  You offered me money and power.  You aren’t going to threaten to kill me, when I’ve got you dead to rights?  What’s your play now?”

“The trade I’m offering,” Hill said, “is one that I’m certain you’ll wish to partake in: the Book for Miss Ford’s life.”

I’d taken in a breath to say something else biting and sarcastic, hoping to needle Hill into an emotional reaction and out of the calm center of his power.  Now, taking in what he’d said so casually, that breath caught in my throat.  “You already made that threat,” I managed to say.  “Didn’t stop me before.”

“Previously, I was hoping that you would make the smart decision and join forces with the clearly superior party.  Since you have instead chosen the path of the noble fool, I no longer feel any obligation to pull my metaphorical punches.”

I blinked.  “What are you saying?”

“Judging from the expression on your face,” Hill said, “I believe you understood me perfectly.  If you do not surrender the book to me, then I will give the order to eliminate every member of your team.  That much is a foregone conclusion; they have done entirely too much and would serve as too much of an embarrassment to continue living.  After that, I will have my men take your precious ex-wife hostage.  At that point, I will no longer see the necessity of further negotiation.  You will have lost the only opportunity you could have had to keep her safe and you will have done so for absolutely no reason.  It is inevitable, Mister O’Brien; I will have what I want, one way or the other.”

“Sarah left the country.”  The words came out automatically, completely devoid of emotional investment.  I could only hope they sounded convincing.  “She did it right after we had dinner.  You can’t get to her unless you’re willing to go to war with a legitimate financial and political powerhouse of a family.”

“I am more than aware of Miss Ford’s familial relations and, moreover, I have taken steps to ensure that her sudden disappearance would be accounted for in a variety of believable ways.  But come now, Mister O’Brien; surely, we have reached the point where further deception is no longer necessary.”

“No deception,” I said.  “You really think she would stay anywhere near here, knowing what I planned to do?”

“I don’t merely think it,” Hill replied, “I know it, for a fact.”

He dipped his free hand into his pocket and pressed some button.  I didn’t quite know what to expect, so I tightened my grip on the Ruger and took extra care to keep my arm steady.  After a moment, an oversized projector screen descended from the ceiling, behind Hill and located in such a way that I had a perfect view.  When the screen reached the end of its track, a projector came to life to me and broadcast an image onto the screen.

At first, I thought it was a static image, but I realized a moment later that it was actually a video…albeit, a video where very little seemed to be moving.  There weren’t any people in frame and nothing was moving.  I see a leaf inch across the ground, at the very bottom of the video, propelled by a barely-there breeze.  In the background, there was a prominent Beatles memorabilia sign.

I saw all of those details subconsciously, but didn’t pay any active attention to them.  All of my focus was on the centerpiece of the video: Sarah’s van, specially made and parked well outside of Hill’s estate where we had thought she would be safe.

Hill pressed another button and voices filled the room.  Mila and Michel.  Anton, Stani, the Russians.  Chester and James.  And, over all of them, coordinating our escape, Sarah in her clear, authoritative voice; the persona she took on whenever the situation was at its most dire.

“I cannot find a way through them!” Michel cried out.

“And I’m almost out of ammo,” Mila added.  “We need that gate open and we need it now!”

“Bloody workin’ on it, alright?” This, from Chester.  “More of his heavies out here than you thought about and it’s hard bloody work doing all this without knowing everything that’s going on!”

“This isn’t the time for a debate about the merits of full disclosure,” Sarah said.  Steady and unshaken, like the eye of a hurricane.  But I knew her well enough to hear the fear hidden behind the steadfast, level exterior.  “We’re here now and we’ve still got a job to do.  Here’s what we’re going to do.”

Hill muted the video, but did nothing about the projected image.  He allowed it to play out behind him, forcing me to look at him, then the screen, then back again.  Billy was no longer attempting to send me a message.  Now, he had slumped down into his chair, weakly resisting the pressure from Hill’s gun.  “I must admit, I am very curious how exactly she has managed quite so much in such a small vehicle.  My own command center encompasses a rather large portion of my basement and took several highly trained individuals to setup.  I believe I’ll have to have ask her how I can streamline things, when next she and I speak.”

My mouth was bone-dry.  I swallowed fearfully several times, just to work up the moisture to speak without it sounding like a death rattle.  “If I don’t get out of here, then – “

“Then what?” Hill interrupted.  “Plan B, whatever that is?  Your entire team of compatriots is pinned down by sheer force of numbers.  Even if you had some incredibly brilliant stroke of luck, it would do you no good.  There is something to be said for ingenuity and cleverness in the face of otherwise implacable odds, I freely admit.  And the tale of your plucky resistance, despite everything that your former friend has thrown at you, would certainly make for an inspirational story.  But that, Mister O’Brien, is all that it will ever be: a story.”

“I can still kill you,” I said.  A note of desperation crept into my voice before I could stop it.  “Maybe I’ll die, too, but you won’t be around to gloat about it, will you?”

“You could,” Hill allowed, “but you won’t.  I don’t quite know how you managed to get away from my man, but I’ve watched everything you have done in London since your arrival.  You have had any number of opportunities to finish things in a more permanent manner – with me, with Mister Knight – and you have taken none of them.  In fact, you have made things infinitely more difficult because of your naïve adherence to a sense of morality.  The prospect of you killing me in hot, cold, or any sort of blood is so unlikely as to be impossible.”

It was a struggle, but I still tried to keep anything from showing on my face.  “You’re certain you want to risk that?  Everything you’ve built, everything you’ve sacrificed for, on a gamble?  If you’re that sure you’ve already won, why bother making the offer at all?”

“Expediency,” Hill said.  “I have taken great pains to arrange things in such a way that my success is all but assured.  It would be poor form to stumble at this point, simply because I couldn’t be bothered to strike a deal and eliminate even the possibility of a stumbling block.”

“So you do have your doubts,” I said, a touch of triumph finding its way into my voice.  It didn’t quite drown out the fear I felt for Sarah, but it at least disguised it.

“I do not doubt that you have put things into motion that will complicate my victory,” Hill said.  “I do not doubt that some of those things will irritate or perhaps stymie me in such a way that I may be forced to expend actual effort to squash any remaining resistance.  You’ve certainly earned that much respect.  But, do not mistake my respect for trepeditation.  I have all of the power and you have none.  My men outnumber your ragtag group ten to one.  They are armed killers and you are a thief, scurrying around in the shadows of greater men, nipping at their heels.”

He was deliberately making his voice colder, I noticed.  My incessant goading must have been affecting him more than he was letting on.  That might have been good.  At the same time, I didn’t want to push him so far that he gave the order to capture Sarah, kill Billy, to drop the hammer on my team outside of the estate.  The plan depended on just a little more time.

At the same time, everything he said rang true.  I believed in myself, to an extent, and I certainly believed in Sarah, but we did have limits.  Even before we’d split up, she had been the one to acknowledge the truth: if we continued to increase the scale of our heists, a point would eventually come where we would run up against our hard limits.

Hill spoke, as if he’d read my mind.  “You mentioned a metaphor earlier.  Very well, then.  You, Miss Ford, and every lowlife hireling you’ve managed to get your hands on lost this game before it even began.  Mister O’Brien, no matter how lucky you are, no matter how committed, surely you know better than most: the house always wins.”

Chapter 131

I clutched the briefcase to my chest so tightly that it hurt and hurried through the halls of Hill’s palatial estate.  Not for the first time, I was glad that Sarah couldn’t see anything that my mini-camera couldn’t; I would have felt irrational shame if she’d been able to see my trembling hands or how fervently my eyes kept darting from one darkened corner to another.

In my business, fear was typically a healthy feeling to cultivate.  Fear kept a thief moving, kept them aware of their surroundings, kept them from falling into a false sense of security.  Fear, more often than not, provided the impetus to create a brand new scheme just before the mighty fist of the law came crashing down on top of our heads.

Right now, though, fear was an obstacle.  I couldn’t think past it or around it; I couldn’t bring myself to create or to improvise, so long as the only thing occupying my thoughts was the all-encompassing spectre of ‘things that could go wrong.’  My encounter in Hill’s bedroom had been sobering, in a way that I hadn’t expected possible.  Up to that point, I’d foolishly assumed that I’d at least considered every problem that could occur during our incursion.  I didn’t necessarily have solutions for all of those problems, but I’d at least considered them.

At least, that had been what I’d thought.

The reality had been explicitly clear, now.  No matter how thoroughly we’d planned things, Hill had been one step ahead of us.  It stood to reason, then, that Asher might very well be one step ahead of him.  And, operating at a level inconceivably higher than any of us were even aware, there was the Lady and the Magi.  Our job hadn’t just been difficult; it had been impossible, from the very beginning.  How well we played the game would never have mattered, so long as the game had been rigged from the start.

Now, my only priority was escape.  Mila, Michel, Avis, and Neal were making their way away from Hill’s estate.  With the help of Sarah, Anton, and the Russians I didn’t doubt that they could pull it off.  Asher had managed to suborn a portion of Hill’s forces and my former partner didn’t care about Hill’s plan, except where it could be used to supplement his own objectives.  If letting my team get away would bring him closer to me, Asher would give the command in a heartbeat.  Good for them, terrible for me.

That was fine.  Increasing the difficulty of my situation from ‘impossible’ to ‘fucking impossible’ couldn’t possibly throw me any more off my game.

Still, that portion of my mind that worked on its own orders kept whirring away, filing away details and observations, ordering them into shapes and outlines that I might be able to use.  As quickly as those prospective plans fell into place, my conscious mind tore them down by pointing out a flaw here or a misconception there.  Looming over the entire process like a grim shadow of death, I couldn’t let myself forget that nothing had ever been what it had seemed to be.  A perfect plan still held every possibility of falling apart under yet another revelation.

I was so lost in my thoughts that I rounded a corner and nearly ran directly into a short, fair-skinned man with a beard that reached down to his navel.  He took a reflexive step back as I appeared in front of him then blinked in confusion.  I understood the feeling.  Surprise had robbed me of initiative and thought for a few seconds, not too long ago.

Now, however, I’d accepted the inherent unpredictability of my job and I leaped into action before the bearded man could do more than inhale sharply.  I let all of my weight fall onto my back foot and whipped the briefcase around in a vicious arc.  The bearded man reached for a weapon at his side as I moved.  The briefcase found its target before the bearded man could draw his weapon and the sharp metallic edge of the case cut into his face.  Blood spurted out from a long, uneven gash from his cheek bones to his chin and he stumbled away from the attack.  I pressed the offensive, shifting my weight so that I could bring my impromptu bludgeon up at an angle.  It caught the bearded man underneath his chin and rocked his head backwards with enough force that I could actually see the moment he lost consciousness, still standing on his feet.

While he fell, I stepped around the man and continued to move.  Sarah joined the line while I was running.  “They have a clear path, more or less,” she said, without preamble.  I appreciated that about her.  Banter was all well and good when we had time to spare; when working under the gun, though, she dismissed with any pretense of joviality and became a machine focused solely on achieving our goals.  “I can’t do anything more for them right now, anyway.  Where are you?  What do you see?”

“I ran into a patrol,” I said.  “He wasn’t ready for me, so I took him out before he could raise an alarm, but…”

“But that means that Asher’s men are getting closer to your position,” Sarah finished.  “There aren’t any cameras in the building that I can use to keep track of the search.”

“I know that.  Could you maybe track my GPS signal and lock any doors leading to me, though?  I don’t know where they are, but you’ve got the plans.  You could make sure that they’ve got to work to catch up with me, couldn’t you?”

I knew that Sarah hadn’t gained control over the door’s electronic locks before we’d lost contact, but I’d had plenty of time to grow accustomed to her personality over the years.  If she was helping Mila and company escape from the estate, she wouldn’t have just taken over the network connected to the front gate.  Every door in the building that she could lay her digital hands on would be under her control by now.

She proved me right by clearing her throat and speaking into the comms.  “Done,” she said.  “But I don’t know if those doors have physical locks.  If so, there’s really nothing I can do from here to keep them from catching up to you.”

“I’ll take what I can get.”  A door’s lock clicked into place beside me.  Several more followed suit as I passed them and, all the way down the hallway, a chorus of clicks came back to me.  I didn’t linger in the area long enough to listen at each door, to see whether or not one of Asher’s goons waited on the other side of it to make a getaway.  “Let me know when they’re clear.  I don’t want to do anything that puts them in danger, if I can help it.”

“Puts them in danger?” Sarah repeated, altering my inflection so that a declarative sentence became an interrogative.  “What about putting you in danger, Dev?”

“I’m the only member of our group, Billy excepted, that is located inside the house.  Hill knows we’re here and he’s made plans specifically tailored to interrupt anything we could come up with.  There are an unknown number of armed men searching for me, all led by my psychotic and delusional ex-partner, while my only assistance is a tiny voice in my ear.”  I flattened myself against a wall and cautiously peered around the corner, hoping to avoid a repeat of my previous confrontation.  “I think I’m a little bit past being in danger.  This way, we can hope to minimize how many people in the crosshairs.”

She didn’t reply to that immediately.  She didn’t really need to.  I wasn’t foolish enough to think that I understood Sarah completely – I was certain that, if I ever reached that level of enlightenment, I would be elevated instantly to a state of Nirvana – but I could read into some of her silences as clearly as if she’d spoken her thoughts.  She wasn’t thrilled that I was putting myself in danger, elevating the pressure on myself so that I could ease the intensity of opposition on the other, less experienced members of my team.

There were arguments I could have woven that might have changed her mind in the short term.  I elected not to use any of those.  Manipulating Sarah was uncomfortably close to lying to her, and the fallout from the last time I’d made that mistake still hung around my neck like a dead albatross.  “This is the only way,” I said in a low whisper, letting my own anxiety and fear bleed into my voice.  “You know it and I know it.”

“Doesn’t mean I’ve got to like it.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it, either.  But when I get out of here, you have my permission to lead everyone in a resounding chorus of ‘Devlin is an idiot and look at what he got us into.’  I’ll even join in.”

A puff of breath, like the very beginning of a chuckle, came from Sarah’s end of the comms.  “Do you still have that tablet?”

I did.  I’d slipped it into my interior jacket pocket after the encounter in Hill’s bedroom.  Keeping both hands on the briefcase with its precious cargo had seemed, at the time, more important than anything else.  Now, I relaxed my death grip on the handle and used one hand to fish out the tablet.  “Right here.  Why?”

“Just want to make sure you’re keeping an eye on things.  Aiden is off the board right now, but Carlos and his pharmacist are still in play.  Not to mention Asher, whatever thugs he’s managed to bring around to his personal employ, and the small army that Hill brought to bear.”

As I continued through the estate, pausing every so often to reorient myself or to make certain that I wasn’t about to walk into a squad of men, I realized that things within the estate had gone very quiet, all of a sudden.  It wasn’t completely silent, of course.  That would have been too eerie for words.  But the general bustle of men moving through the lower floors seemed to have lessened noticeably.  There were still shouts and calls, but there didn’t appear to be as much vigor behind the voices.

“Tell me what’s going on outside,” I said, partly out of curiosity and partly because the sound of my own voice kept me from becoming completely unnerved.

The line clicked off and, about thirty seconds later, clicked back on.  “It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect,” she said.  “Hill had a couple of men in cars, on standby.  Either they were more shells to use as distraction or he just wanted to be prepared for anything.  Either way, they fell on Michel pretty quickly as soon as they realized what he was trying to do.”

“Are they okay?”

“They’re fine.  According to him, none of our opposition have the skills to back up their cars.  He’s had to lead them in loops across the grounds, while Mila and Neal cripple a car at a time.”

“Are they getting any help from the others?”

“The Russians are pulling the front gate’s attention, so that they can’t attack Michel from both sides.  Anton, Chester and James are ready to distract, as soon as Michel gets enough of a lead to just drive through the gate and get out of there.”

I nodded.  Things weren’t proceeding in an elegant or civilized fashion, despite our hopes.  In an odd sort of way, the general chaos of the situation lightened the weight of dread.  Elegant and civilized were Hill’s hallmarks.  Chaos, bedlam, and general mayhem were all tools that I preferred.  By foregoing any attempt at keeping things quiet, I was doing one small thing to place the heist back onto familiar ground.

The estate’s hallways all looked identical.  I was forced to check the tablet more and more frequently as I moved, just to make sure that I wasn’t heading towards a dead end.  When I reached the end of a particularly long landing, I took the staircase waiting there two steps at a time.  My specially made dress shoes didn’t make a sound on the hard wood of the stairs, but the pounding of my heart more than made up for absence of exterior noise.

“Sarah?”  I asked.

“What’s wrong?”

Nothing’s wrong,” I said.  “That’s the problem.”

She was quiet for a second.  “What do you mean by that?”

“Someone knew that I was in Hill’s bedroom and that person came equipped with a signal jammer, specifically to limit our ability to communicate.”

“Alright…”

“And then, just after I left the room, I literally ran into a guard already on the third floor.  Wouldn’t that suggest that the rest of the men would have found me in fairly short order?”

“I…would say so, yes.”

“And yet, there is a distinct lack of conflict along my route.  In fact, I’m on the second floor now and I still don’t see anyone.  So, what does that say to you?”

Silence.  Then, “Trap?”

“Trap,” I said, nodding my head even though Sarah couldn’t actually see the gesture.

I slowed down and began taking extremely cautious steps.  My shoes were the next best thing to cat’s feet, completely soundless regardless of the surface beneath them, and I still turned every ounce of skill I’d learned over the years to the task of making myself invisible.  I even started clinging to walls and moving quickly between patches of relative shadow.

Success in the business of thievery is easy enough to come by, in the short term.  But in order to make it a career, one had to either be born with or acquire certain essential skills and talents.  Ever since I’d been a child, even before my father left me and my mother to fend for ourselves, I’d always had a sixth sense about being watched.  It wasn’t infallible, but it was reliable enough that I tended to trust the instinct whenever it reared its head.  For several minutes now, there had been an intense prickling sensation just above my spinal column, needling me incessantly and demanding that I pay attention to it.

“Someone’s watching me,” I said.  I was as certain of that as I was of my own name.

“I’ve broken into his computer network already,” Sarah replied.  “Didn’t find any cameras, but…”

“But?”

“But that only means Hill doesn’t have a camera system hooked up through his computer network.”

“Could he have had hidden it another way?”

Sarah thought about that.  “A purely physical connection would suffice, if he didn’t care about archiving large amounts of data for long periods of time.  Or he could have – “

I interrupted her before she could go off on a mental tangent.  “The specifics didn’t matter, so much as the reality.  If there are cameras inside the estate, then…”

I didn’t really need to finish the thought.  If I was being tracked, then there was almost certainly a surprise waiting for me before I could make my own escape.  Preparing myself now for a confrontation might very well be the difference between success or defeat.

I carefully made way down another set of stairs, watching the blinking red dots on the tablet carefully.  It wouldn’t do to lose track of my primary adversaries.  The dot I’d identified as Aiden’s was being moved away from the estate by two other dots, marked C and M.  I exhaled, long and slow, at that.  I doubted that there was any amount of preparation that would help me beat even one of the mercenaries.

Asher’s dot had stopped moving.  It was located at the front entrance to the estate.  I didn’t have to stress my imagination too much to understand that he wouldn’t be waiting there alone.  I headed for the servant’s exit instead.

An idea struck me just before I stepped into the dining room.  Asher wasn’t moving.  He’d given up searching for me and there was only a single reason why he would do that.

I crouched down in the shadow of the entrance into the dining room and lay the tablet on the floor.  Then, with my now free hand, I reached for the weapon Mila had acquired for me.  Guns weren’t very complicated things for someone unconcerned with flair or subtlety.  All in all, learning how to use one wasn’t much more difficult than learning how to use a remote control.

Point and shoot.  Simple enough for someone who broke into impossible safes under unreasonable deadlines.

“Whatever you hear for the next few minutes,” I said under my breath, “make sure that you stick to the plan.”  I made sure the safety on my gun was switched off, took a deep breath, and then stepped into the dining room before Sarah could reply.

Standing in the center of the room, where the long table had been on my previous visit, was Hill.  Billy was in front of him, bound and gagged.  He couldn’t speak around the gag, but his eyes communicated more emotion than I could easily parse: fear, anxiety, horror, defiance, and more.

Personally, I found myself more interested in the extremely large hand-cannon that Hill was pressing into Billy’s temple.

I raised my own gun so that it pointed directly at Hill’s forehead.  At this distance, it would be difficult for even a novice like me to miss.  Then, forcing myself to portray an aura of absolute control, I said in a cheerful voice, “Well.  We have got to stop running into each other like this, don’t we?”

Chapter 128 (Billy)

Billy wanted nothing so much as a few seconds of mobility.  He found himself wishing fervently to move his legs again, to see the toes wiggle in response to his will, to stand to his full height once more and walk.  He doubted that he had ever wanted anything more.

If he were able walk again, Billy reckoned that he could get the better of his younger brother.  Charles had never been a fighter, even when Billy’s pride had dragged the pair of them into scuffles on a weekly basis.  With his money, his criminal contacts, and the ability to simply hire muscle when necessary, Charles probably hadn’t gotten any better at plain old fisticuffs.

Even if the balance had shifted over the years, Billy had desperation on his side.  He might not win, but he’d be able to do something, instead of watching passively at his friends, both new and old, fruitlessly risked their lives to save his.  If only he could walk.

Billy was, at the moment, confined to a wheelchair and that wheelchair was bolted to the wall, through several hooks specifically constructed for the purpose.  The keys to those locks lived on a necklace around Charles’ neck and, even if lock-picking had been one of Billy’s skills, the locks themselves were placed in an area that could only be reached by someone not confined to the chair.  So long as he was seated, Billy was locked in place.  If he made an effort to move, so that he could break or pick the locks, his own paralysis would see to his imprisonment.

“At first,” Charles said, as though he were speaking to himself, “I wasn’t entirely convinced that a complete jam of all communications into and out of my bedroom was necessary.  Eventually, I came to accept that allowing your brash young friend to alert the others would cause more trouble than it could possibly be worth.”

Previously, one of the six screens spread across the far wall had shown a video of Devlin as he entered Charles’ bedroom.  Unaware of the hidden camera, connected to a security system through a separate system, Devlin had located the safe and successfully broken into it.  He’d barely been able to savor the glow of success before the feed turned to static.

“Truly, he is an impressive individual,” Charles continued.  He didn’t look away from the screens as he spoke.  “I was informed by several of the very best safecrackers in the business that the Fortress was all but invincible.  I suppose nothing can stand against a suitably motivated individual, though.”

Hate filled Billy, molten hot and painful in its intensity.  He ground his teeth together until his gums hurt and focused on the largest toe of his right root.  It had been a long time since he’d tried to move his lower extremities.  A fierce desire sparked to life in his gut.

Nothing happened.  The flame of hope guttered out, dying as quickly as it had been born.

Charles turned away his bank of monitors.  He saw the look on Billy’s face before it could be hidden away and smiled in response to it.  “I really would have preferred a more dignified method of restraint,” he said.  His tone was insultingly casual.  “But then I realized that it would have been pure folly to start underestimating you at this point.”

“If you’re going to gloat,” Billy shot back, “you can at least have the courtesy to be honest about it.”

“Why would I need to gloat?”  Charles extended his arms to either side and, behind him, the glowing screens of at least six different camera feeds provided a striking backdrop for his stance.  “I am perhaps hours away from moving into the final stages of my plan.  Each and every piece is in place, ready to be moved into their ultimate positions.  My enemies are contained within the equivalent of a hamster’s wheel, trying their hardest to emerge victorious from a conflict that was rigged from the very beginning.  Soon, I will have everything I am owed and there is nothing that you or anyone else can do to stop me.  Honestly, William, gloating now seems a bit…gauche.”

The fact that Charles was right on every point stuck in Billy’s throat.  He swallowed, hard, before speaking.  “Why go through all of this, then?  You don’t need to kill my men and you don’t need to do anything to Devlin and his friends.  What’s the point, if you don’t need any of this theatre?”  A note of pleading made its way into his voice and Billy made no effort to conceal it.  The time for pride and posturing had ended several days ago.

For a moment, Billy didn’t think that his brother would answer.  Then, Charles sighed and pulled up a chair, just outside of Billy’s reach.  “Two reasons,” said.  “First, I consider today’s circus to be something of a stress test.  When I have eliminated, subjugated, or otherwise dispatched with all competition from my peers, I will need to be absolutely certain that I am not vulnerable to the tactics I personally employed.  I would have preferred to hire your new friend as an employee, but it seems that he and his have chosen the noble, stupid path.”  Charles shrugged.  “At least their efforts here will prove instructional, in the event that anyone else attempts to steal from me.”

Billy glanced past Charles, at the monitors behind him.  Displayed on three of the six monitors, Billy could see silent videos playing out in real time.  On one, the short Hispanic woman who somehow served as Devlin’s bodyguard fought desperately against the tattooed and scarred man who worked for Charles.  At this distance, he couldn’t make out specific details, but a sinking feeling in his stomach told him that the fight wasn’t going well for the woman.  On another screen, he saw a familiar van, parked outside of a Beatles memorabilia store.  The van had been one of his, before Devlin’s ex-wife had recommissioned it into a mobile command center of sorts.  A third screen was filled with nothing but static.  The other three screens changed at regular intervals to show parts of the estate and the horde of men swarming into each room, checking for any other intruders with obvious, lethal intention.

“You set this up,” Billy whispered.  Mounting horror and realization stole the breath from his lungs.

“Not all of it,” Charles corrected.  “I couldn’t have anticipated that your new friend would be anywhere near as effective as he’s proven and I certainly didn’t realize that my own newest hire would be so cheerfully willing to sabotage my efforts in pursuit of his own revenge.”  He tilted his head in thought.  “That was a particular shame to discover.  Asher made such a useful tool and I don’t know how long it would have taken me to arrange for the Book’s theft without his particular expertise.  If only he’d been able to look past his own short term desires, it’s possible that I wouldn’t have to take care of him until much later.”

Billy laughed, and the sound was far too ugly to convey anything like actual amusement.  “That’s rich, coming from you.  The two of us had everything we ever wanted and you couldn’t get over your issues long enough to see that.”  He gestured at his dead legs.  “Or did you forget what you did to me?”

Charles shot out of his chair, with so much force that the chair was thrown backwards.  The resulting bang was only made louder by the confined dimensions of the room.  “It was not about that!  We could have had more, but you…you only wanted to hold me back, William.  And I refuse to be anything less than I am destined to be!”

Billy couldn’t get out of the chair to physically attack Charles, but there was nothing stopping him from striking emotional blows.  In lieu of any other options, he could only hope that a slightly unbalanced Charles might make a mistake at a critical moment.  “You can’t even admit it to yourself, can you?  You really think that everything between us is because I was holding you back?”  Billy forced himself to laugh again.  “Everything you have now is because of me.  You really think you could’ve built this without me, helping you every step of the way?”

“That is not true,” Charles hissed.  “How would you have found the money to get started?”

“How would you have found the clients?  Or dealt with competition?  Do you have any idea how many upstart rivals I crushed before you even realized there was a problem?”

Charles was breathing heavily now.  A possibility occurred to Billy; perhaps, if he were able to push exactly the right buttons, he might be able to goad Charles into physically attacking him.  That opened up all sorts of possibilities.

Billy thought for less than a second – he couldn’t afford to lose momentum, or to allow Charles a chance to regain his composure – before he pressed his attack.  “I had to grow up in a house a lot like this one,” he said, “and I did it with you cringing into a corner every single time Father was in a bad mood.  You needed me to protect you then, and you needed me to watch out for you when we started up the business.  You’re a bloody liar if you’re going to revise history now, just so that you come off looking better.  Of all the people to tell your fictionalized backstory to, I am the absolute worst choice because I know when you’re full of shit.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Charles spat out.  Even though he’d expected and had been actively courting a furious reaction, the sheer venom in Charles’ voice caught Billy off guard.  “You protected me?  You weren’t even here for the worst of it.  Your mother loved you, at least.  Mine thought of me as a necessary obligation, something that needed to be created so that she could solidify her grip on my father’s lands and finances.  And every single time I so much as flirted with the idea of behaving in a manner not befitting someone of my birth…”

He trailed off, spinning away to hide his face from Billy.  The movement wasn’t quite fast enough to conceal the moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes and the room was so small that the choked sounds of his strangled sobs were unmistakable.

Ever since moving in with his biological father, Billy had held secret suspicions about the late Lady Fairfax.  There had been clues scattered around the estate, for one thing.  While the older Fairfax tended towards explosive displays of temper, followed shortly by contrite and sincere apologies, the younger Fairfax cowed and hid when threatened.  In fact, he hadn’t begun to join Billy in his schoolyard fights until they’d been living together for almost a full year.

He knew very little about regular familial relationships, but Billy could see, in a flashing glimpse, how Charles’ life must have felt.  He was certain now that Charles’ mother had fundamentally damaged him from his earliest years.  And then, after the Lady Fairfax died, Charles’ father had brought home another son, born by a woman who had actually held the man’s heart.  For a child adrift, it would only be too easy to think that he was being replaced by a newer, unbroken model.

That didn’t excuse his actions, of course, but it might begin to explain them.

At the same time, Billy knew that he couldn’t allow himself to back down now.  Whatever the reason, Charles had grown into a malicious human being.  He had crippled his brother; he had manipulated, used, and discarded countless individuals in his pursuit of greater power and authority; and now, at this breaking point, he had every intention of eliminating a group of thieves who’d simply had the misfortune of stumbling into London at exactly the wrong moment.

Billy drew in a deep breath, hating himself for what he was about to do, and went on the attack again.  “You know what, Charles?  You’re right.  You’re absolutely right.  I don’t know what you went through, because my parents actually cared about me.  Both of them.  And all the power, all the money in the world isn’t going to be enough to change that.”

Charles balled the fingers on both hands into tight fists by his side.  Unconsciously, Billy mirrored the gesture.  Charles took two deliberate steps forward and then…stopped.  He lingered, just a step or two outside of Billy’s reach, before he shook his head slowly.  Billy could actually watch the anger drain out of his face.

A smile crept across Charles’ lips.  “No,” he said, “it won’t, will it?  But I’ll at least be alive and able to walk.  I guess that will have to be enough.”

Billy’s heart sank.  “Think about what you’re doing,” he said.  “Honestly, stop and think about it.  Whatever you take now, you won’t be able to hold.  It might not be too late to stop all of this before it spins too far out of control.”

Charles carefully bent and retrieved his chair.  He set it back down on the floor and took his seat once more.  “Correct.  As it stands, the…individuals who assisted me in reaching my current position would only sweep in to set things back to the status quo.  That’s what they do, of course: maintain a steady, unchanging grip over their territory, expanding only when the landscape is suitable for such a move.  If it ever came to light that I was responsible for the upheaval here, even in the most indirect fashion, they would not hesitate to have me eliminated.”

“If you know that,” Billy asked, “why are you hell-bent on committing suicide?”

The smile deepened and turned more sinister.  “Because they aren’t going to learn that I was the one responsible.  Why would they, when there are such excellent patsies already in position to take the blame?”

Billy stared at Charles, aghast and shocked, while understanding dawned on him.  Charles was a lot of things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.  He had to have known that any sort of aggressive move would draw attention from other interested parties: rivals, competitors, suppliers, as well as the mysterious backers who everyone seemed too terrified to directly name.  That must have been why he’d hired Devlin’s former partner in the first place.  And when Devlin, Sarah, and the rest of his team showed up in London, it wouldn’t have required too much of an effort to shift things so that they could be held responsible.

“You wanted someone to take the heat for you,” Billy said.  “Someone you could claim was acting on their own.  Then, when your backers show up demanding their pound of flesh, you’ll just hand over your own employees and deny any knowledge of their activities.”

“I don’t know very much about my silent partners, I freely admit,” Charles replied.  “But I do know that their problem solving techniques tend towards the immediately fatal.  I suppose that delivering the bodies of several individuals who have been known to disrupt operations and wreak havoc would suffice, in place of a living witness who could potentially paint a different picture.”

From its place in his stomach, Billy’s heart found a hole and sank even further down into the soles of his feet.

None of it had mattered.  No matter how hard he’d worked the downtrodden poor of London, no matter how hard he’d worked himself, Charles’ plan had accounted for their activities.  Even the arrival of Devlin had only served to provide him with additional options.  Everything the Irish thief and his team had accomplished over the past few weeks would only serve to solidify whatever story Charles spun later.

“Why are you telling me this?” Billy asked.  He didn’t mean to speak the question out loud; his mouth moved of its own accord.

“Because you aren’t going to be able to tell anyone else,” Charles replied immediately.

“So you’re going to finally kill me too?”

Charles leaned back in his chair and his eyebrows drew slightly closer together.  “Of course I’m not going to kill you,” he said.  “You’re my brother, even if only through a technicality.  But you have people you care about: all those wretched people who take shelter in that house you set up, for instance.  You are far too noble to let any harm come to them, even if it meant sacrificing your sense of honor in the bargain.”

“If I tell anyone what actually happened,” Billy said, speaking the words as an odd detachment came over him, “you’ll go after them?”

“I won’t have to go after them.  I can simply keep you here, a recipient of my hospitality, until they collapse on their own.  I know who would take control of your organization in your absence and I have…well, let us simply say that I have suborned key individuals already.  It will only be a matter of time before everything you have built falls apart under its own weight.”  Charles stood up and walked back over the monitors.  “Or you could allow things to proceed, without interference.  The responsibility for the Book’s theft will fall on these newcomers who failed to see the value in my offer.  I will use the information contained within to claim control over vast swaths of the European drug market and I will graciously allow you to continue your operations, so long as you agree to cease these sporadic attacks on my interests.”

Billy pressed his lips together until they became a thin line of frustration.

“What do you say, brother?” Charles asked.  “We won’t be partners again – I’ve learned that you lack the vision necessary to do what is required – but we can at least be colleagues.”

Billy said nothing.  He knew that it didn’t matter if he said nothing.  Charles held all of the cards and he always had, since the beginning of this conflict and probably before that.  The choice had to make – Devlin and his crew weighed against the entirety of the community that Billy had built amongst the poorest citizens in London – was brutally simple.

So, instead of saying anything at all, Billy turned his attention away from his brother – his half brother – and began looking at the screens behind Charles.  There, captured by a half dozen cameras hidden so well that no one who didn’t know about them would ever find them, he could see his group of new friends struggling vainly against impossible odds.  Everything they did only played into Charles’ hands.

Billy couldn’t speak.  Instead, silent and defeated, he could only watch.  So, with a heart as heavy as lead, watching is what he did.