Tag Archives: Billy

Part 5: Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generativity vs. Stagnation

It took them years before they were any good at the trade; then, it only took them months to edge out all other competition.

Lord Fairfax, Sr. died of chronic liver failure two years before their control over the drug trade was absolute.  Charles became the new Lord Fairfax, Baron of Berkeley, instead of Billy.  In private, Charles had expressed outrage that the eldest son had been passed over.  Billy, for his part, showed no concern for the slight at all.

“You’re his son,” Billy had said.  “His legitimate son, I mean.  If you ask me, it was always yours.  Besides, I never wanted to be nobility.”

Charles had forced himself to express more indignation and issued several empty promises of ‘making things right,’ knowing full well that he had no intention of doing any such thing.  It was his birthright, after all.  He had been the one to survive under the tender ministrations of the Lady Fairfax…he had endured years of benign neglect from their father.

Billy had received love, affection, and understanding from the late Lord Fairfax.  It seemed perfectly equitable that Charles should receive the title.

(He repeated that thought to himself, night after night, and it never felt equal to him.)

Life became nothing more than work, from that night.  Occasional interlopers attempted to muscle in on their business.  Billy identified the newcomers and Charles destroyed them, either through the force of law or through force of arms.  They turned the drug trade from something that thrived only in the criminal underground into a business that turned over record profits, year after year.  They used that money to hire or coerce others from overseas into streamlining the process, minimizing their operating costs, and flying in the best help that money could be.

Decades after they had started, the two brothers found themselves at the head of one of the profitable criminal enterprises in living memory.  Their business included the production and sale of various illegal substances, shrouded in the auspices of otherwise legitimate industries.  They worked with major gangs in Russia and South America, doing their best to stay on the cutting edge of the business.  When difficulties arose, they dealt with them as a team, moving with synchronized efficiency to maintain their grip on their employees and the beast they had built.

Life was good.  To Charles, however, a good life wasn’t enough.

On the night of his thirty-eighth birthday, Charles started the same argument that he’d been having with his brother for five years.

“We can do more,” Charles said.  He kept his voice at an appropriate volume, even though there wasn’t anybody else in their private suite.  “You know I’m right.”

“It isn’t as though we’re hurting for money or influence.”

“We don’t need the Russians, for one.  The amount of money we pay them to handle the smuggling side of operations isn’t exactly insignificant.”

“Sure, we lose a chunk of profits to them.  But allow me to present a couple of reasons why we don’t want to cut them out of things.  One: they’re the best at this sort of thing.  They’ve been doing it for years, and the Bratva are very proud of that.”

Charles downed the remainder of his Scotch in a single swallow and refilled the glass from a crystal decanter.  “They’re the best now.  What about that new technology from Brazil?”

“Untested and, therefore, unreliable.  But let’s assume for the moment that the Brazilians got their act together and perfected the process.  We’ve still got point number two: they are insane over there, Charles.  Seriously.  I’m not even talking about the stories I’ve heard, just the people I’ve actually spoken to.  London is too profitable for them to let the entire city go without putting up a fight.”

A headache began building behind Charles’ temples.  He took a deep breath before continuing.  “What if I want a fight?”

“Then you’re an idiot,” Billy said and shrugged.  “The Russians are…the Russians.  We’ve been at this for a couple of decades.  They’ve been elbow deep in crime since the Berlin Wall came down.  We aren’t the first people who thought we might be able to wiggle out from underneath them and, after they’re finished burying our mutilated corpses, we won’t be the last.”

“And if I know someone who’d be willing to intercede on our behalf?  Maybe they’d supplement our men with a little more firepower, in case the Russians decide to disagree with our business choices.”

Even that slight tentacle of conjecture was enough to jolt Billy out of his indolent, casual demeanor.  He sat up straight and locked eyes with Charles.  “What do you mean?”

“Let’s call them…possibilities.”

“And have you spoken to these possibilities?”

Charles said nothing.

Billy put his drink – a bottle of some Welsh beer that Charles couldn’t be bothered to remember the name of – down onto the table and leaned both elbows onto his knees.  “I just want to make sure I understand what you’re talking about here.  You want to cut ties with the fucking Russians, of all people, in favor of someone crazy enough to back that sort of play?  Did you think that these ‘other parties’ aren’t going to be just as bad, if not even worse?”

“Of course I’ve thought about that,” Charles snapped.  “But we’re never going to get any bigger than we are now, so long as we’re stuck to the Russians.”

“We won’t get any bigger if we’re killed, either.  And why do we need to get bigger?  We own London.”

“Because this is nothing compared to what’s out there.  Think about what we could do with our influence, if we could actually put it to use, Billy.”

“And these ‘possibilities?’  You think they aren’t going to have their own restrictions to deal with?”

Charles shrugged, faking a bit more nonchalance than he actually felt.  “We can deal with that problem when we come to it.  First the Russians.”

“I have thought about expanding,” Billy said, after a long, thoughtful pause.  “And that would only be signing up for more trouble than we need.  We got into this so that we could have money for medical treatments, Charles.  Maybe a little bit extra spending money, I’m not going to lie.  But we never planned on getting this big.  I don’t even know what we’re going to do with all this when we’re gone, but I’m certainly not about to work on giving us both even more work to deal with.”

“Let the next guy concern himself with what comes after us.”  Charles heard his volume increasing and couldn’t summon the concern to modulate his voice.  “I’m bigger than this.”

Billy leaned back and looked at Charles for a long minute.  He sighed, finally, and reached out for his beer.  “That’s what this is really about, isn’t it?”

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

“Being better than this,” Billy clarified.  “Not that we’re better, though.  That you’re better.”

“Billy, I don’t know what – “

“At least you can be honest with me!” Billy snapped, summoning palpable heat and willpower in the blink of an eye.  Before he could help himself, Charles found himself recoiling into his own chair.  “We’ve known each other for most of our lives, Charles; do you really think I can’t figure out when you’re hiding something from me?”

Charles took several seconds to think about what he should say next; those seconds proved to be too much for Billy to suffer through.  The older man stood up, bumping one knee into a bucket filled with chilled champagne bottles, and began stalking out of the room.

“Wait!”  Charles extended a hand and managed to make contact with Billy’s arm, before it was jerked out of his reach.  “Wait, can we talk about this?”

Billy whirled around.  “What exactly do you want to talk about, brother?  Because you clearly don’t have any intention of telling me what this is really about.”

“I just…I just want to build something on my…on our own.  I don’t know what’s wrong with that, and I don’t know what’s got you acting like this.”

“You just said it,” Billy replied.  “Just now.  You probably didn’t even hear it, did you?  You want to build something on your own.  Not together.  Not the way we built this whole operation with our bare hands, starting from nothing except for our childish hopes and dreams.  It doesn’t matter to you, unless you did it without me.”

“I don’t…I don’t even…”

“You don’t even know what to say?  Yeah.  I figured you’d say something like that.”  Billy dug into his pocket and fished out a cell phone.  He entered the necessary codes and threw it across the room, where it landed onto the couch cushion just to Charles’ right.  “One of your lackies didn’t realize that we apparently aren’t working together anymore.  Sent an email to the joint account instead of to whatever private account you have set up.”

The temperature of Charles’ blood dropped about a dozen degrees in a heartbeat.  “Whatever you read, Billy, it isn’t…”

“It isn’t true?  You’re really going to sit there, look me in my eyes, and lie to me?  I’d rather you just shut up and not waste both of our times trying to dig your way out of this.”

As much as he wanted to find some way to defuse the situation, Charles wasn’t foolish enough to disregard good advice.  If Billy had somehow intercepted any of the private messages that Charles had been sending, there really wasn’t any point in denying their contents.  At the same time, nothing he’d sent recently had been of critical importance.  The occasional disparaging comment, certainly; more than a few phrases he would have preferred his older brother not be aware of, absolutely; but nothing about the possible benefactors or the decision Charles had been forced to make in the past few days.

“Okay,” Charles said, while his thoughts continued to race.  He couldn’t risk any more pauses.  Not if he wanted a chance to talk Billy off of the ledge…or to cancel the plans that had already been set into motion.  “Okay, I can explain.”

“I thought I understood you,” Billy said.  “I thought we were brothers.”

“We are!”

“We obviously are not.”  The intensity of Billy’s glare forced Charles a little deeper into his couch and a little farther away from his older brother.  “Unless the definition has changed in the past few years, I don’t believe brothers would say the sort of things I read about one another.”

“It isn’t…it isn’t what you think it is,” Charles sputtered.  “The men have certain ideas about things and it’s easier to just go along with them than to correct them.”

“Oh?  That’s why you told them that you wished I hadn’t ever come to live with you and Father?  That was their idea, was it?”

Charles winced.   He’d written that particular message to one of his closer confidants – as close as he allowed the hired help to get, anyway – during a fit of irritation.  “You…it wasn’t about you, Billy, it was about Father.”

“Please, enlighten me.  What did Father have to do with any of the things you wrote?”

Thinking about what he’d written – recalling the exact state of mind he’d been in while he’d typed out the email – brought those feelings back to the forefront of his thoughts.  He felt cornered by his older brother’s anger and that trapped feeling only amplified the anger that never simmered too far from the surface.  “Because he forgot about me as soon as you got there, Billy.  Or didn’t you notice that?”

It was Billy’s turn to blink.  The heat of his glare died away, replaced by a puzzled expression.  “He did not – “

Long buried heat bubbled up from some private room in Charles’ heart.  He stood up and slashed a hand through the air like a knife, cutting his older brother off before Billy could begin to focus his own thoughts.  “No, you wouldn’t have noticed it.  Because you didn’t even think about it.  As soon as you moved in, you just carried on, being whoever you wanted to be and it worked.  You weren’t expected to conform or to change who you were friends with so that the family name wouldn’t be weakened.”

“I didn’t even have the family name!”  Billy regained a measure of control and put it to work immediately.  “You and Father agreed with me on that.”

“That isn’t the point, Billy!”  For a single ludicrous moment, Charles wanted to sweep an arm across the table and scatter their bottles to the floor.  That bone-deep sense of etiquette and proper decorum kept him from venting his frustration in a manner so loud and public.  He loaded all of that frustration and vitriol into his voice, instead, and spoke without really thinking.  “The point is that you’ve never understood what it’s like to be a Fairfax, because you weren’t one.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, Charles knew he’d gone too far.  Still, he was all too aware that he couldn’t take back what he’d said.  The only thing worse than uttering those particular words would be cheapening them with a false apology.

Billy’s mouth dropped open and stayed there for five or six seconds before, slowly, he brought his teeth together with an audible click.  Moving with excruciating care, he removed his wallet and peeled off several large notes.  “If you want to do this so badly,” Billy said, “you go right ahead.  But you do it without me.  Since this apparently isn’t a family business anymore, it shouldn’t be a problem if I go off and do things on my own.  Maybe I’ll do some traveling.”

“Billy, I…”  Charles began, but no other words came out.

Billy nodded, as if that silence was confirmation of some question he hadn’t quite asked.  “Be seeing you.”  He let the notes fall from his hands, so that they fluttered down to the table.  By the time the last piece of paper reached the table’s surface, Billy was gone.

Charles sat in the private room, still and silent, for one full minute.  On the sixtieth second, he sighed and reached out for the nearest open container: Billy’s Welsh beer.  He drank deeply from the bottle and decided, eventually, that it wasn’t entirely terrible.

When he’d finished with the beer and another glass of his preferred Scotch, Charles had managed to wrestle his emotions back down to a simmering rage.  He used his phone to dial a number.  He’d memorized the digits and, according to instructions, burned the paper they’d been written on.

Mister Hill,” the robotic voice answered on the second ring.  “We assume this is good news.”

Charles thought about what to say next.  He knew that his words could, ultimately, decide the trajectory of the rest of his life.  On the one hand, there was Billy.  Infuriatingly charming, infallible Billy.  On the other hand…

“Why should I do this?”

Respect,” the voice said, as if it were the counterpoint to his own interior monologue.  “Power.  Wealth.  All this and more.  Everything that you deserve.  Do we have a deal?”

Charles tapped a finger against the rim of his glass.  They couldn’t have built the business without his contacts or his father’s money.  As Lord Fairfax, he’d been able to open doors that illegitimate Billy hadn’t even known about.  It was only right that he be able to decide where things went now that they’d reached the extent of his own web of influence.

“My business partner isn’t on board,” Charles said slowly into the phone.  He hated to reveal even that much information, but the mysterious party had proven that they could find out whatever they wanted, should they be motivated to do so.  “What will happen to him?”

Removed from the field,” the voice said.  “Anything else would leave a potential loose end.

Ten seconds passed.  “We have a deal,” Charles finally said, “under one condition.”

The robotic voice chuckled.  “And that is?

“Don’t kill him,” Charles blurted out.  He felt ridiculous making demands at this late hour.  It wasn’t as though he could really stop his unknown benefactors if they decided to ignore him.

And why should we not eliminate potential complications?”

“Because…”  Charles swallowed.  “…because he’s my brother.”

Silence, stretching out for so long that Charles thought the voice at the other end of the line might have disconnected.  Then, finally: “We have a deal.”

The line went dead.

Charles let the phone drop from his fingers to the couch, every drop of anger evaporated in that final perilous instant.  Suddenly, what he’d chosen seemed monstrous.  Billy was his last living family and Charles had just abandoned him.

He realized that it might not be too late.  No matter how powerful the mysterious party was, they weren’t omnipotent.  They couldn’t have made a move against Billy yet.  Charles could still call him and…and what?  Fight against them?  Die together?  What purpose would that serve?

“Billy made this choice,” Charles muttered out loud.  “He did this to himself.  Besides, it isn’t personal.  It’s just business.”

Instead of reaching for the phone, Charles took the crystal decanter half-filled with Scotch and began to drink straight from the bottle.  He did that until his mind was numb, his limbs uncoordinated, and his guilt submerged so deeply that he could barely find it anymore.  By then, he almost believed the mantra he kept repeating to himself.

“It’s nothing personal.  It’s just business.  It’s nothing personal.  It’s just business.  Just…it’s just business.”

 

Intimacy vs. Isolation

These days, Charles often wondered why he continued to be surprised.

Of course Billy had gotten into an argument with some of the elitist idiots who matriculated at their university.  And of course the disagreement had escalated from words – barbed, nasty words, designed specifically to devastate and humiliate – into harsher vitriol and, ultimately, into naked violence.  And of course Charles himself had been compelled to join in on his brother’s behalf, punching and kicking to ensure, if nothing else, that Billy wouldn’t be swarmed by more than two of the six larger boys.

His knuckles were sore and skinned, now.  There was blood drying on his cheek, just beneath a shallow cut that from the corner of an eye to the top of his cheekbone.  He was winded and muscles ached in places that he hadn’t known existed.  Charles closed his eyes, allowing the pain to wash over him, and thought about the dozen other ways the two could have avoided conflict and the myriad punishments that the headmaster could levy against them for causing such a public disturbance.

It wouldn’t matter that Billy had been provoked.  No, that would have been too much like fairness.  The boys weren’t nobility like Charles, but their families had managed to accrue vast amounts of wealth through various means.  The Fairfax name didn’t carry the same weight anymore.  His father’s poor financial decisions, coupled with his open acknowledgment of his bastard son, had robbed their family of much-needed political capital.  Charles and Billy were treated, for the most part, as something to be tolerated at best and insulted at worst.

“Hell of a fight, wasn’t it?” Billy asked.

Charles opened one eye and looked to his left.  Billy sat next to him, pressing a cold compress to a bruise that promised to turn an impressive shade of purple before too long.  He kept one arm pressed to his rib, but he was breathing easily enough that Charles doubted anything serious had been broken or fractured.

“We lost,” Charles pointed out.  “Badly.”

Billy wiped a spot of blood away from one corner of his lips and smirked.  “Bet they’ll think twice before they start up with that shit again, though.”

Charles struggled valiantly to keep a reciprocal smile from appearing on his face.  He failed.  As the smile began to stretch his lips, he shook his head and sighed.  “I’m certain that lot learned their lesson,” he said.  “Next time they want to corner you, they’ll bring ten instead of six.  Just to make certain you don’t bleed too much on their shoes.”

“They’d better bring twelve.”  Billy’s smile thinned, then vanished.  He straightened his back and turned to look Charles fully in the face.  “Been dealing with shit like that for too long, as is.  Be damned if I’m going to let anyone start up with that here.”

Charles nodded and said nothing.  This was a familiar back-and-forth with Billy.  Ever since their first meeting, Charles’ brother had carried a Big Ben sized chip on his shoulder and, almost since their first joint appearance in public, other nobles and rich children had been all too happy to taunt him.  The exact nature of the mockery varied from person to person.  Some people went after the circumstances of his birth.  Others attacked his accent…or, at least, they’d done that until Billy learned to hide the lower-class consonants and vowels in casual conversation.  Some even went so far as to imply certain things about Billy’s mother, and the nature of her employment.

That last group learned quickly to choose other targets.  Billy and Charles were very thorough about conveying the exact cost of that particular slander.

“What’d they say this time?” Charles asked.

Billy picked at his teeth.  “Wasn’t anything new.”

“Do you know what made them start in on you?”

“Other than the fact that they’re a pack of bloody berks?”

“Yes.  Other than that.”

Billy shrugged.  “Think their leader’s girl might have fancied a bit of rough.  At least, that’s what she told me.”

Charles sat forward, as well.  “You didn’t.”

“Not this time, no,” Billy said.  He laughed.  “Not that she didn’t try to change my mind.  Might have managed it, if her bloke hadn’t decided to make an appearance today.  Although…well, now I think he might have made up my mind for me.”

“You never learn, do you?” Charles asked, expecting no answer except for the self-satisfied smirk that Billy wore on a near-constant basis.  “Did you at least chat with this one first, or did she just throw herself in your path?”

Despite his birth…despite his accent…despite how little Billy fit into proper high society, nothing seemed to stick to him.  For as many enemies as he made by simply existing, Billy made twice as many friends.  It didn’t matter what he wore or how he acted; women still flocked to him.  It made him an insufferable friend.  What escalated him into a superlative brother – at least, in Charles’ limited experience – was his complete lack of self-awareness.

“You’re one to talk,” Billy said.  “What’s your lady’s name?  Chelsea?  Danielle?  You go through them so fast that I can’t keep up.”

“That’s not the same thing, and you know it.”  Charles paused.  “And her name is Laurel, by the way.”

“Seems like the same thing to me,” Billy said.

Charles considered debating the point.  He decided against it within short order.  It wasn’t something that Billy would be able to understand.  Their father had claimed Billy as a son, but Billy himself had refused to change his last name.  That marked him as an outsider more than most things, but it also insulated him from the worst part of a noble heritage.

Everyone who liked Billy did so because they liked Billy.  He had nothing to offer them: no money, no lands, no honorable name.  He was simply himself and that was all he needed to attract men and women to his side.  There were days when Charles felt certain that everyone in his life – except for his father and for Billy – only cared about what benefits a relationship with him might yield.

Not that he had those days very often anymore.  Even those sycophants and opportunists had trickled to nothing, in light of his family’s declining fortunes.

Charles started to say something – he had no idea what – when the door to Lord Fairfax’s personal study opened and their father exited.  Circles so dark that they were the next best thing to black ringed his eyes and there were thunderclouds in his expression.

“I hope the two of you understand,” Lord Fairfax began, “that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated.  Not now, not so long as you live on this property, and not as long as you live.  There are expectations and decorum and those are requirements that will be met!”

At the crescendo of his opening salvo, Lord Fairfax slapped an open hand against a conveniently placed nightstand.  Glasswear and candlesticks fell to the carpet, accompanied by soft thumps as each item made contact with the floor.

In all of his years, Charles had never grown fully accustomed to his father when he was in a mood.  It wasn’t that Lord Fairfax had ever hit him.  That had always been the purview of his late mother, God rest her damned soul.  What set his nerves on edge was the complete shift from father to nobleman, the change in demeanor and bearing that signified that Lord Fairfax had entered the room and would brook no further argument.

The Lord came out less and less these days.  That didn’t diminish the effect when some misadventure pushed him into that transition, though.

Charles cringed away from his father’s outburst, instinctively trying to make himself somehow smaller.  Billy did no such thing.  Instead he jumped out of his chair and took two long steps forward to meet Lord Fairfax’s blazing glare.

“I’ll be happy to keep my mouth shut, just as soon as these pricks get it through their heads,” he snapped back, every line of his body as imperious and commanding as Lord Fairfax at his best.  His accent came back in full force, adding a healthy dose of seasoning to each word.  “Anytime they want to start something with me, they’re free to try.  So long as they’ve got the balls to do it proper, instead of taking shots at you, or Charles, or my mum.”

“William, you – “

“It ain’t William, and you know it!”  Billy took another step forward.  He was almost nose-to-nose with their father now.  “If you got a problem with that, or you think I ought to just shut up and play the role of a charity project so that you don’t have to explain me to your rich friends, I can leave anytime.  Got that?”

Lord Fairfax and Billy stared at each other while Charles stared at Billy.  No one spoke to Lord Fairfax like that…at least, not to his face.  But to confront the man in his own home was unheard of.  Charles found himself both thrilled that Coleman wasn’t present to behold the scene and, oddly, upset that there weren’t any other witnesses to confirm what he was watching.

The tension in the room grew to unbearable thickness.  Charles could feel the battle of wills between his brother and his father, could almost see it like thin blue lines of arcing electricity that danced between their locked eyes.  He prepared himself emotionally for the moment when one or the other snapped and lashed out.

The moment never came.

Instead, Lord Fairfax drew in a deep breath, held it for a second or two, and then released it slowly.  As he exhaled, he seemed to deflate.  His body language shifted and slid into a more casual, conciliatory posture; his eyes softened; and, when he spoke, it was clear that the nobleman had left the room.  “Billy,” he said, in a softer voice, “you have to understand the pressures that our family is under.”

“Bad business deals, bad partners,” Billy said.  “I’m not an idiot; I know you’re losing money.”

We’re losing money,” Lord Fairfax corrected gently.  “You’re a part of this family, too.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t my money.”  He gestured at their surroundings.  “If these bills are too much to handle, why don’t you sell some of this?”

Charles blinked, stunned.  He had grown more accustomed to Billy’s nonchalant dismissal of material wealth, but…but they couldn’t get rid of the trappings of prosperity.  Some of the things on the estate – some of the things in that very room – were over a hundred years old.  It was one thing to bleed money on the stock market.  It was something else entirely to sell off your very history.

As if Billy had read his mind, the older boy turned and faced Charles.  “And before you say anything about it, it isn’t my history.  You’re my brother, he’s my father, but the rest of these people?  They don’t have anything to do with me.”

“That’s not the point,” Lord Fairfax said.  He opened his mouth to continue but a wracking cough interrupted him.  He doubled over for five seconds…then those five seconds stretched out into ten.  When he finally regained control of himself, nearly fifteen seconds of scratchy, choking sounds that were awful to hear had passed.

“Look,” Billy said, placing one hand on Lord Fairfax’s back and stroking.  “Look, I’m sorry I got into the fight.  You’re right; I have to consider what it looks like for you.  I can’t keep going back to who I was every time somebody says the wrong thing to me.”

Charles noted the lower-class accent was gone now, replaced by the approximation of high society that Billy deigned to use.  He was capable of mimicking even their father flawlessly, but he chose this halfway point as an homage to both sides of his parentage.  Or, at least that was what he made a point to tell Charles, every time the conversation came up.

Lord Fairfax looked as though he might say something else for a second or two, before removing a handkerchief and wiping at the corners of his mouth.  “We’ll talk about this later,” he said to Billy.  His eyes traveled from his oldest son to his youngest and that tight, controlled authority crept back into his voice.  “Both of you.”

He pivoted on his heel and walked away, in the direction of the bathroom instead of his personal study.  Both boys watched him go.

“See?” Billy asked, when their father was out of sight.  He collapsed back onto his chair, smiling broadly and easily.  “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Charles shot Billy a dark look.  “It wasn’t so bad for you.  I don’t even know what he would have done if I’d been the one to get in a fight at university.”

“What’s the worst he could do?  You’re bigger than him.  We both are.  It’s not like he could hit us or anything like that.”

That hadn’t stopped Charles’ mother, but he kept that memory to himself.  He cheerfully shared almost everything with his brother; there were some things, however, that he preferred to keep close to his own chest.

“You don’t know what he was like before you got here,” Charles said.  “It was…”

“What, was he one of those men who goes around proclaiming his superiority to everyone who would listen?”  Billy interrupted, barely making an effort to hide how absurd that proposition was.

And Charles privately admitted to himself that it was an absurd thought.  Lord Fairfax hadn’t ever been overtly domineering.  He’ d been good to Charles, just…it was ‘good’ in a very impersonal sense.  They shared nothing with each other, except for the mutual loss of a woman that neither had particularly cared for.

Lord Fairfax shared something more personal than that with Billy, though.  It wasn’t just the loss itself, so much as the raw wound that the death of Billy’s mother had left in both of them.  Charles had never met the woman and, in fact, knew very little about her.  Neither Billy nor their father wanted to talk about it and so he found himself on the outside of that very private pain.

He was jealous of that, for no reason he could name.

“Would you really have done it?” Charles asked, instead of the dozen other questions he longed to speak.

“Done what?”

Charles swallowed.  “Would you have left?”

Billy tilted his head from one side to the other and shrugged.  “Probably not.”  Then, suddenly hearing the plaintive tone of Charles’ voice, he looked sharply over at his brother.  “I wouldn’t have left you.  You’re family.  But other than that?  It’s possible that I might have tried to make a go of things on my own.”

“How?  Do you have money saved up or something?”

Billy gave Charles a secretive smile.  “Not at the moment, no.  But…well, let’s just say that I know a few people who might be looking to hire some extra hands.”

Charles puzzled over that for a few seconds.  Billy had lived on the estate since his mother’s death and that lifestyle came with so many privileges that it seemed unlikely he’d found himself in need of part time employment.

“What’d you mean by that?” Charles asked.

Billy peered at the door that their father had exited through before lowering his voice to a conspiratorial volume.  “Well, just because dear old Dad is running low on funds, that doesn’t mean we can’t find other ways to make use of our illustrious peers.”

Charles lifted an eyebrow.

Billy sighed and broke his thought process down even further.  “I’ve got friends on both sides of the Thames, if you catch my meaning.  I got people like these entitled pricks up at Uni who all want to pretend to be rougher than they really are…and I still know a few people who never made it up out of the slums.  Figure there might be a way we could make a little money, if we’re willing to run messages from one of those groups to the other.”

It still took Charles a few moments to connect the dots.  “Drugs?”  The word came out in a harsh whisper, a little louder than he’d intended.

Billy rolled his eyes.  “I’ve been thinking about this for a while.  Maybe we could come up with just enough to hold things over until the business side of things smooths over.  Or…well, you’ve seen how bad Father’s health has been, lately.  If we’re out of money, what’re we going to do if something…happens?”

The slight hiccup in Billy’s speech, the momentary hesitation, spoke entire volumes to Charles.  He doubted that anyone else would really have been able to pick up on it.

Charles considered what his next words should be.  Billy had offered him something and, despite how casually he’d mentioned it, there wasn’t any doubt that it was a serious proposition.  Years ago, before their father had revealed his infidelity, Charles would never have considered doing anything illegal.  The risks were too great, the possible repercussions too massive to allow.

Now, though?  Now, he had an older brother who seemed incapable of failure.  Someone who had survived the loss of a mother who had loved him, who had managed to carve out a place for himself in the notoriously unwelcoming high society of London nobility.

Someone who their father loved and who honestly didn’t appear able to do wrong.

As much as that thought galled him, it also provided him with an unusual impetus to act.  He could see the possibilities unfolding in front of him.  He knew that his “friends” at Uni partook of drugs, whenever they thought they could get away with it and he was on better terms with most of them than Billy.  With the two of them working together…they might be able to turn more than just a decent profit.

The two of them might be able to do something for their father.  Something that all three of them would share, then, instead of just Lord Fairfax and his eldest illegitimate son.

“How…”  Charles swallowed nervously, started over.  “How would we do it?”

Competence versus Inferiority

“I have a brother?”

“You’ve had a brother,” Lord Fairfax said.  “He’s older than you.”

“Why didn’t Mother tell me about him?  Why haven’t I met him before?”

The older man pinched the bridge of his nose and was silent for a long time.

Charles Fairfax shuffled his feet and picked at the heavy fabric of his school uniform’s coat while he waited.

Until he’d seen his father waiting nervously at the front entrance to the estate, Charles’ day had been typical to the point of banality.  The lessons in school weren’t necessarily difficult, when he could be bothered to pay attention to them, but they provided just enough of a challenge that he had been forced to work at it.  It seemed to come easier to his school friends – if the atmosphere of near-constant backstabbing and treachery could truly foster anything like friendship – and that absolutely galled Charles.  He wasn’t stupid, but it made him feel stupid to watch as the other boys answered questions immediately that took him a few more seconds to grasp.

The end result of a day filled with dozens of little irritants had ultimately pushed Charles into a particularly foul mood.  He didn’t live in eleventh-century England.  Why should he care about who won the Battle of Hastings, or why?  He had no aspirations towards becoming any sort of mathematician; in fact, he doubted he would ever have to work at all, considering his father’s noble station and the privilege that bestowed upon Charles himself.  So what possible reason could there be for him to sit through yet another hour of intricate geometrical problems or to learn all about how Euclid proved his own version of math as valid as any other?

If he could have extracted himself without upsetting his father, Charles would have been happy to break something or yell at some undeserving soul.  He could not do that, however, and so he forced himself to wait a little longer for his father to find the right words.

All told, it didn’t take more than a minute before Lord Fairfax cleared his throat and spoke again.  “Your mother didn’t know about him,” he said slowly, as if he feared Charles wouldn’t be able to read between the lines.

The specific details of childbirth still eluded Charles, but he knew enough about the general shape of things to figure out what his father meant.  “He has a different mother.”

Bright red blossomed in his father’s cheeks and he looked away from Charles.  “Yes.  That is…”  He sighed.  “Yes, he had a different mother.”

Charles thought about his next question.  “Why are you telling me now?”

“Your brother,” Lord Fairfax said, “was…hmm.  What would be the best way to explain this?”

Your brother.  Charles turned that phrase around in his mind, examined it from different directions.  A brother.  A brother. He’d grown up surrounded by various servants and, at the same time, absolutely alone on the estate.  His school friends occasionally came over to visit, at about the same frequency as he went to visit with them, but there was always an impassable distance between them.

He tuned back into what his father was saying, although he’d missed the first few words.  “ – bit of trouble.  You understand that we have an obligation to help others, yes?”

Charles nodded.  “As noblemen and individuals with real power to affect change, it is our responsibility to do what we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves.”

He repeated the words he’d learned at the age of six, recited them like a chant.  After only five years, the words themselves had lost any meaning to him.  They were simply a series of syllables, repeated at a specific pattern and with a certain cadence.  He could’ve defined the concept of noblesse oblige while asleep.

“Precisely that,” Lord Fairfax said.  “And, as I have a…shall we say, a special obligation to your brother, I thought it would best to bring him here.”

“For a visit?”

“No, son.”  Lord Fairfax reached out a hand and touched the slick black sheen of Charles’ hair with two fingers.  He didn’t apply enough pressure for the grease to come off of his fingertips or to disrupt the perfectly arranged coif.  The contact was light enough that Charles could feel it, but not heavy enough that he would mistake it for anything resembling true affection.

“Then what?”

“Your brother is coming here to live with us,” Lord Fairfax said.

Charles blinked.  He opened his mouth to say something and, after allowing a second for his jaw to hang slackly open, closed it again.  He blinked a second time.  “To live with us?” He repeated, finally.

“Indeed.”  Lord Fairfax moved away from his son, across the cavernous space that served as their sitting room, until he stood near a window with its heavy curtains drawn back.  “You were listening to what I said about his mother, yes?”

“Of course,” Charles lied.

Either Lord Fairfax didn’t believe him or he didn’t care.  “She was always ill,” he said to his son, without turning away from the window.  “And it was only a matter of time before she caught something fatal.  It would be unconscionable to turn him away.”

Charles started to reply but realized, a second before he could put breath to the words on his tongue, that Lord Fairfax was speaking to himself.

“I should have done more for her,” Lord Fairfax continued in that same soft undertone.  “I knew she wasn’t doing well, but I thought…I just thought that…”

Charles cleared his throat.  “Sir?”

Lord Fairfax shook his head and refocused his attention on his son.  “Ah.  Yes.  Well, your brother needs our help.  And, as we have the capacity to provide that assistance…”

A sound came from the parlor, closer to the estate’s entrance.  Lord Fairfax let his sentence dwindle and die, turning to look in that direction.  Charles mirrored his father’s actions without really thinking about it.

Their butler, Coleman, came up the stairs holding the hand of a dirty, disheveled boy.  The boy’s eyes darted up, down, left, and right at fervent speeds, taking in everything he saw while making an effort to appear completely uninterested.  Tear tracks, pale and drying like streaks of white paint, ran from his eyes and down his cheeks.  As Coleman and the boy came closer, Charles saw that the boy’s eyes were bloodshot and puffy.

Coleman stopped, just outside of the reading room.  The boy glanced up at Charles, then Lord Fairfax, and then turned his gaze to the floor beneath his feet.

“Ah, yes,” Lord Fairfax said.  “Coleman, come in.  Charles, I’d like to introduce you to someone.”

Etiquette, drilled into Charles from as far back as he could remember, propelled him forward where curiosity might have given him a moment of pause.  He took several long steps across the reading room until he was less than foot away from the boy and held out a hand.

The boy didn’t move.  Charles, bewildered by the lack of response, continued to hold his hand out until the muscles in his upper arm began to hurt.  He lowered his hand and cleared his throat.

“What’s your name?” Charles asked, hoping that a different tactic might yield better results.

The boy cleared his throat and shuffled his feet.  Twin streaks of darkest brown mud were left on the carpet.  He mumbled something.

“What was that?”

“Speak up, boy,” Lord Fairfax said to the boy.  “This is your brother.  Coleman should have told you about him, already.  You did talk to the boy, didn’t you, Coleman?”

“Of course sir,” Coleman replied, bowing his head.

“M’name’s Billy,” the boy repeated, this time at an audible volume.

“William?” Charles repeated.

The boy shook his head with a bit more force than necessary.  “Billy,” he said.  “S’what my mum called me.”  He sniffled and rubbed one filthy hand under his nose.

“Alright, then,” Charles said, faking an ease that he didn’t feel in the slightest.  “Billy, then.  It’s, uh…good to meet you.”

Billy said nothing in reply.  After a few seconds, Charles took a half step back and pivoted to face Lord Fairfax again.

“As I’ve said, Billy’s mother has…passed on,” Lord Fairfax said.

“I’m very sorry to hear that, sir,” Charles said.

It occurred to him, for the first time, that he didn’t feel the slightest bit of surprise at learning about his father’s illegitimate son.  His own mother had died years before and he should have been offended on her behalf.  He searched himself and didn’t find any trace of that emotion.

“You, of course, understand the trauma that sort of loss can cause,” Lord Fairfax said.

Charles hadn’t particularly cared for his mother.  She’d been a shrew of a woman, constantly obsessed with decorum and proper behavior; worse, she had been a hypocrite of the highest order.  While she had insisted on enrolling Charles into the most prestigious academy that their considerable wealth could afford, the woman preferred to spend her nights crawling deep within whatever bottle of alcohol she could lay hands on.  She had been the one who, on more than one occasion, had actually struck Charles when he spoke out of turn or failed to adhere to the strict rules of protocol.

He missed her, as he felt all boys would miss their mother, but he hadn’t loved her.  And, he suspected that she hadn’t loved him, either.

“Yes, sir,” Charles said out loud.

“Well.”  Lord Fairfax cleared his throat.  “Since the two of you will be living together, I thought it best that you meet and get to know each other.”

Charles turned back to Billy.  Except for the nervous shuffling feet and the furtive, almost frightened glances, he hadn’t moved.  “Did you hear that?  We’re going to be living together.”

“I heard,” Billy said.  Charles had to strain his ears to make out the words.

“And we’re going to be…”  The word stuck in his throat.  Charles swallowed, picked another word, and tried again.  “…we’re going to be friends.”

Still, nothing.

“I’d like that very much,” Charles said.  He felt his practiced poise beginning to slip.  None of his classmates would ever act this way.  Even if they didn’t mean a thing they said, the boys at his private school were fastidious about maintaining an attitude of civility.

No reply.  Charles heard his father approach from behind him.  “Give him a moment to adjust,” Lord Fairfax said.  “This must be quite a shock to the poor boy.”

The news of his father’s extramarital relationship and the child it had spawned was also quite a shock to Charles, but his father clearly hadn’t taken that into consideration.  He stayed quiet, though.

Lord Fairfax placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “William,” he began, then stopped.  “Billy.  I know that you have suffered a terrible loss.  I knew your mother well and we were…very close.  If I’d been a different person or if she had…well, it doesn’t matter.”

“She talked about you,” Billy muttered.

“Did she?  What did she say about me?”

“Told me all about my father.  Said he was a good man, but that he couldn’t live with us because it’d look bad.”

Lord Fairfax cleared his throat several times.  Charles glanced away from Billy and up at his father.  He was surprised to see that there were drops of moisture pooling at the corners of the man’s eyes.

“Did she…did she say anything else?” Lord Fairfax asked.

Billy raised his head and locked eyes with Lord Fairfax.  “Said she loved you.  Said you must not have loved her.”

Silence followed that sentence.  Charles made a conscious effort to look anywhere in the room except at his father.  Even then, he could still hear the choked sounds in his father’s throat.  They sounded like sobs.  It was more emotion than Charles had ever seen from his father, up to and including the eulogy he’d delivered at his wife, and Charles’ mother’s, funeral.

It was a great deal more emotion than Lord Fairfax had ever shown to his own son…although Billy was also one of his father’s children.

“I…I loved your mother very much,” Lord Fairfax finally managed to say.  “What happened to her was…was a tragedy.”

“You didn’t want to be with her, though,” Billy said.  His accent – something culled, no doubt, from a lifetime in the poorest parts of the city – rounded the edges off of his letters and gave the entire sentence a truculent tone.  “Why was that?”

“I had…obligations.”  Lord Fairfax looked away from the dirty boy and wiped at his eyes.  When he faced Billy again, his eyes were red but they were at least dry.  “There were things I needed to do and promises that needed to be kept.  Your mother understood that.”

“That’s why you brought me here, then?” Billy asked.  “Because you’ve got…whatever it was you called ‘em?”

Charles, who remembered exactly what words his father had used to describe the situation, kept those thoughts to himself.

There was a shift in demeanor, a subtle change in the atmosphere of the room.  Charles had been in his father’s presence often enough to identify the cause.  He could almost feel Lord Fairfax building up a wall of protocol and etiquette to separate himself from emotion, so that he could say what needed to be said without allowing his own emotions to get in the way.

“You are an obligation, yes,” Lord Fairfax said.  His words were crisp now, although there was still a thickness to his voice.  “You are my son and I have not served you in that capacity.  I intend to remedy that.  That’s why I’ve invited you to live here, with me and with your brother.”

Billy thought silently for a few seconds, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.  “What’s your name?”

It took Charles a moment to realize that Billy was speaking to him now, instead of to his father.  “Charles Fairfax,” he said and stepped forward.  He didn’t raise his hand again.  His pride still stung from that first rejection.

“Like him?”  Billy lifted his chin to indicate Lord Fairfax.  “You both got the same name?  Shouldn’t you be Charles the second or something, then?”

“Our middle names are different.  My…”  Charles trailed off, changed tracks, and started over.  “We don’t share the same middle name.  Who were you named after?”

“My uncle,” Billy said.  “He helped us out, when he could get the work.”

“Where’s your uncle now?”

“Dead.”  There wasn’t any emotion attached to the answer.  Billy said it plainly and simply.  The starkness of the words sent a wave of chills down Charles’ spine.

“Oh.  Well.”  Nothing else came to mind, so Charles lapsed back into silence.

That stretched out over fifteen seconds, with the two boys and their father all standing awkwardly in the reading room.  Coleman was there, as well, but the butler had cultivated the ability to remove his presence from any room.  Most times, Charles took that skill for granted.  Now, he found himself wishing that he could do the same thing.

“Never had a brother,” Billy said.

Charles looked up.

Billy raised a hand in slow, jerky movements and held it out in front of him.  Charles extended his own hand automatically and shook.

Brother.  The word still sounded weird in Charles’ head but, perhaps, it felt a little less strange than it had before.  Either way, it felt right in a way that nothing so far had.

He could feel his father looking down at the top of his head – their heads – and he cleared his throat.  “Brothers,” he repeated.  He tasted the word on his tongue and decided that he liked the way it felt.

Chapter 109

“A job,” I repeated.  “You want to hire me?”

“Think about it,” Hill said.  “In your efforts to undermine and expose your former partner, you and your team have done amazing work in London, thus far.  Granted, that work has caused me no small amount of discomfort…but nothing you have done cannot be undone with the information the girl will provide me.  Consider what you would be able to accomplish if you were my ally, instead of my adversary.  Imagine the heights you would be able to scale with the financial backing of someone in my position.”

That detached part of my brain – the one that continued chugging away at problems, even when my emotions were otherwise overloaded and endangering even the hope of clear thoughts – noted that Hill must not know about the Lady.  The sum total of her assistance amounted to a particularly savvy concierge and a last-minute assist at Scotland Yard, sure, but Hill obviously thought that everything we’d done in London so far, we had done on our own.

“You already pointed out a particularly large problem with that,” I said.  “Asher works with you and I’m not going to start working with him, just to find a knife between my shoulder blades at his earliest convenience.”

“Asher works for me,” Hill corrected, in a terse tone, “and I find his service lackluster, as of late.  If it were not for his ridiculous vendetta against you, perhaps he would have been able to bring the issue of your continued interference to a satisfactory conclusion.  Instead, we now find ourselves here.”

“And what exactly would you want me to do for you?  If I accepted your offer, which I am by no means doing.”

“Troubleshooting, to begin with.  I do not imagine that the individual cogs in the machine will cheerfully fall in line without difficulties.  Acquiring their names and financial information from the book will go far in securing their loyalty – or, failing that, their respect – but as soon as I make my move, others will doubtless be inspired to do the same.  It would hardly be worth my trouble if the entire machine broke down as soon as I laid claim to it.”

“Not to mention,” I added, “that whoever’s pulling your strings now probably isn’t going to take your little insurrection lying down.”

Hill leaned back in his chair and his eyebrows shot up.  “You are particularly clever, aren’t you?  Asher informed me of such on multiple occasions, but I wasn’t quite sure that your successes weren’t attributable to considerable luck.  Tell me: how did you learn about my…employers?”

I gave Hill an even look and said nothing at all.

After several seconds of stony silence, Hill shook his head and went back to his roast.  “No matter.  In reply to that concern, you are correct.  Agents will be sent to bring me under heel once more or, perhaps, to simply kill me out of hand.  An object lesson in obedience might very well serve them more than any individual with a known penchant for ambition.”

“And that’s what you want me to sign up for?  To throw myself directly into the line of fire, so that you can continue choking the life out of London with your drugs and your guns?  Pardon me if I don’t break my legs running for the sign-up sheet.”

“Sarcasm,” Hill said, “is the weakest form of humor.”

“I thought that was puns.”

At any rate,” Hill said, and I was irrationally pleased to have gotten under his skin, “your work for me would not be without its benefits.  For instance, if you agree to take the position, I would have no further use for your former partner.  He is not aware that we are having this conversation, of course.”

“Of course.”

“As you well know, he has made many enemies over the last few years; some of which at my request, others due to his charming personality.  Yet, you would be the one who actually caught him.  Kill him, torture him, sell him to other interested parties in exchange for cash or considerations.  The options are limitless.”

I went very still, so as not to reveal anything at all by virtue of an uncontrolled micro-expression, before I answered.  “What else?”

“Protection,” Hill said.  “Unless you are actively engaged in operations against my enemies and rivals, you would enjoy the same protection that has so stymied you in the case of your former partner.  I have operated in this city for quite some time.  There are very few police officers who I do not own or cannot threaten.  You and your team would be able to work without fear of the local constabulary and this city could serve as a sort of safe haven.  You cannot truly tell me that you don’t find that possibility the slightest bit intriguing.”

He wasn’t wrong.  The possibility of safety was something I’d never really considered, but I was considering it now.  Not for me, but…I looked over at Sarah.  She sat there, as still as a statue, watching the conversation between Hill and me.  I wondered what she was thinking but, for once, her poker face was absolutely flawless.  I had a better chance of reading Tarot cards than analyzing Sarah’s secret thoughts at the moment.

I turned back to Hill.  “And if I say no?”

“Why would you do that?  If there’s something else that you would require, the terms are up for negotiations.”

“No terms,” I said, “and no negotiation.  You’re a drug dealer, which I’m fine with.  But you peddle to the poor and the indigent, to children and to the sick.  You’re a killer and you work with killers.”

“And you truly believe that your friend Stanislav has not taken life before?  That your own bodyguard has hands completely clean of blood?”

I shrugged.  “Maybe.  But they don’t enjoy it the way you do.  You couldn’t wait to trot out your own brother, just for effect.  I don’t know what you’ve been doing to him since you took him out of the subway, but something tells me it wasn’t all Candyland and catching up on old times.”

Hill stared at me, without comment.

I kept going.  “Besides, my team doesn’t follow my orders.   I don’t own their choices.  But I can tell you right now that at least one of the people at this table isn’t going to work with anyone who deals in misery and someone else would probably rather die than go into your service.”  I paused for effect.  “And I’d rather die than ask her to.”

“Is that all?” Hill asked, stiffly.

“No,” I said.  “There’s also Avis.”

Hill quirked one eyebrow up in a quizzical gesture.

“And that, right there, is what I mean.  She isn’t a tool or a machine that you can use and discard whenever you see fit.  Avis is a child and you have every intention of murdering her as soon as you’ve finished exploiting what she can do.  Even if you don’t have to do that, you’d rather kill a child than risk a loose end.”

Hill considered what I’d said and then nodded one time.  “I had hoped to convince you to see my side of things with a carrot, so to speak.  But, if you must insist on clinging to these tiresome morality, I suppose I will have to use the stick, instead.”

He didn’t give any command to Aiden.  He didn’t say a word, or make a gesture, or even look in his direction.  Aiden moved without receiving even the slightest visual cue from Hill.  The mercenary pulled an obscenely long, serrated knife from a holster that I couldn’t see and placed it against Billy’s throat.  Billy immediately stiffened and took considerable care not to move a muscle.

“You wouldn’t,” I said, with none of the false confidence I’d been managing to exude earlier.

I wouldn’t,” Hill replied.  He took another bite of roast, chewing it with careful, deliberate slowness.  “But Aiden might.  I gave William an opportunity to fade into obscurity; I even allowed him to operate his little shelter in the dregs of the city, without bringing down the hammer of my own operation against him; and yet, he continued to hassle me for years.  It appears that I must overcome my reluctance towards killing a family member, if I’m ever to have any peace at all.”

Billy and I made eye contact, across the table.  He didn’t dare speak, nod, or even draw a particularly deep breath.  Instead, he filled his gaze with a thousand unnamed emotions and thoughts and willed them to me.  The message was clear: he would rather have his throat slit than to help Hill succeed in his plans, and he wanted me to make that same decision.

“Now,” Hill said, “I am not a man unused to diplomacy, even if that diplomacy must take place at knifepoint.”

“Diplomacy,” I scoffed.  “You’re a thug and a thief, just like the rest of us.  You’ve just got better toys and more money to throw at your problems.”

“If that’s what you wish to believe.  But, Mister O’Brien, let me tell you what will happen in the coming days.  Perhaps a more thorough understanding of events will…give you a different perspective on what choice you should make.”

I glared at him in silence, while he finished off the roast on his plate and then carefully selected a piece of the herb-encrusted bread and began to nibble at the edges.

“The girl – Avis, if you must – will finish decrypting all of the relevant information from the book,” Hill said, between bites of food.  “After that, I will dispose of her and the traitor who helped her escape the manor house, to begin with.  Even you, despite the considerable prowess you’ve displayed thus far, will not be able to find her in sufficient time to stop this much from happening.”

“Oh?”

“Indeed,” Hill said agreeably.  “Individual strongholds have, thus far, proven entirely useless against your talent at finding the tiniest possible openings to wriggle through.  So, I am no longer relying on the fortress approach to protection.”

He was keeping her mobile.  Damn, Hill intended to keep Avis on the move until he finished with her.  I kept my face smooth – or at least, as smooth as I could manage – while I began to rage internally.  Given enough time, I had no doubt that Sarah and I could come up with a plan to infiltrate almost any building.  But if he was moving her from one place to another, the task became infinitely more difficult.  A hundred new variables introduced and discarded at a moment’s notice; numerous guard rotations and camera placements to memorize; and a schedule that could change at a moment’s notice were only some of the problems.

“Now,” Hill was saying, “as I said, I’m willing to negotiate.  The death of the girl and the traitor are foregone conclusions, but I could perhaps be persuaded to give William a position in the organization I intend to build in the coming days.  You could work directly with him.  The two of you are clearly capable of devastating levels of success; why not allow you to work with one another, in my service?”  Hill paused, finished off a piece of bread, and then took a long swallow from a waiting wine glass.  “But if you cannot see fit to change your mind, then I will have no choice to but to finish the job I began so many years ago.”

“I won’t do it,” Mila muttered.  I wasn’t sure if she’d spoken loud enough for anyone but me to hear her.  “I won’t.”

Hill certainly gave no indication of having caught her words.  “Your former partner will continue to possess the privilege of my protection, as well; I require a problem-solver capable of operating on the ground level, so to speak.  My…employers trained him exceptionally well in that regard and it is their misfortune that he sought to turn those skills against them, as I do.  If he remains in that position, though…”

He took another drink of wine.  I waited for him to continue and, when he didn’t, finally prompted him with two fingers.  “Then what, Hill?”

“Then I cannot allow known problems to continue operating in my territory.  Nothing about your personality leads me to believe that you will leave him alone, so I will be forced to simply eliminate you, out of hand.  You, your ex-wife, your teammates and partners…root and branch, every associate who has been involved in your operations here in London will come to an abrupt, violent end.”

Hill delivered that threat with all of the passion of a man talking to a landscaper.  There was no heat to the words, no passion, and not even the barest sliver of personal anger.  I understood a great deal about him in that instant.  He was a man who legitimately saw people like myself, like Asher, even someone with international name recognition like Sarah as disposable pawns in a greater game.

“And if we do what you want?”  Sarah asked.  “Then what?”

“Then we can come to a harmonious arrangement,” Hill said.  “Which I believe will work better for all of us, instead of the messy business I will be forced to enact otherwise.”

Mila moved slightly.  As movements went, it wasn’t a major one.  She didn’t pull a gun or leap to her feet.  All she did was shift her weight slightly, which brought one of her arms closer to my own.  I almost jumped in surprise.  The bare skin of her hand was on fire; the heat of blood rushing through her body, powered by vast wells of adrenaline, rose from her like convection from an active volcano.  I wondered, in that idle and detached way, how she was keeping herself from attacking everyone on the other side of the table out of sheer survival instinct.

I swallowed and placed a warning hand on her burning skin.  “We need to talk about this,” I said to Hill.  “There are a lot of things we’re going to need to discuss before we can really come to the bargaining table.”

Understand me, I thought, hoping that Mila would be able to feel the sentiment in some way.  Trust me.

Hill nodded.  Again, without any visible signal, pulled the knife an inch away from Billy’s throat and he let out a long, shaky breath.  “That seems reasonable,” Hill said.  “But business waits for no man, woman, or child.”

“How long?”

Hill thought about the question.  “A week,” he said, finally.  “One week to weigh the pros and cons of what I’m offering.  If you prefer, you can treat it as a week in which you can get your affairs in order.  You can even use the time to make arrangements, to hide yourselves away from me.  It doesn’t particularly matter to me.  But, in one week, I will be finished with the girl.  If you have not seen the light by then, you will leave me no choice but to move against you.”

I didn’t doubt that he meant every word of that.  Our exploits in London notwithstanding, a week was hardly enough time to begin casing a single building.  Any sort of mobile protection would take weeks or even months, depending on how many safe-houses Hill had at his disposal.  And establishing preliminary surveillance was only the first step of many.  Sarah and I were good, but we weren’t that good.

“I believe I will keep William here, under the careful watch of my own men,” Hill continued.  “He has proven himself capable of a great deal of mischief, if left unchecked.  And, if you ultimately decide to resist what’s coming, it will make it much easier to begin the purge.”  His lips turned up in a shallow approximation of a smile.

“But what about us?” I asked.

“You can leave,” Hill said.  “After you’ve eaten, of course.  I will not have it be said that I am an inconsiderate host.”

“Somehow,” I said, “I think we’ve lost our appetite.  Sarah?”

“I agree.”  She stood up, but made no move to walk away from the table.  “You expect us to believe that you’re just going to let us walk away?  No strings attached, no gun to our heads?”

“The ‘gun,’ so to speak,” Hill said, “has already been positioned and its presence is no secret.   I have nothing to fear from you and your options have been severely castrated.  If talking amongst yourselves is what you require to come to the obvious conclusion, I have no problem allowing you to do exactly that.”  Pause.  “Although, it would do you well to keep in mind that your friend William will be here, with me, for the foreseeable future.”

“Don’t you worry about me,” Billy said suddenly.  “This bastard doesn’t have the balls to – “

He stopped talking, as Aiden returned the knife edge to just above his Adam’s Apple.

“As I was saying,” Hill said.  “If you do find yourselves possessed of an unavoidable urge to act against me, do so with the knowledge that it could quite easily result in the death of a man.”

I pushed my chair back and stood up, as well.  Mila, after a moment, did the same.  I could still feel the smoldering intensity of the gaze she turned to Aiden beside me.  Aiden returned the look with an expression of sanguine calm.

“One week,” Hill repeated.  He rose from the table, dabbing a napkin at an invisible spot of food at the corner of his lips.  “Seven days.  I hope to hear from you before then.  Otherwise…well, otherwise, I expect that you’ll be hearing from me, in one form or another.”

He walked out of the room without allowing me an opportunity to deliver a parting shot of my own.  Aiden kept the knife to Billy’s throat so that he couldn’t speak, winked at Mila, then used his free hand to push Billy out of the room in Hill’s wake.  That left Sarah, Mila, and me standing alone in the extravagantly oversized dining room.

We had been played, I realized.  A critical lack of knowledge had forced our hands into revealing each member of our team to the enemy without even realizing what we were doing.  And now, that fundamental error had led us here: all avenues closed off, any chance of escape dead on arrival.  I didn’t think, even for a minute, that Hill would allow us to work for him indefinitely.  As he was betraying Asher, he would almost certainly betray us, as well.

And, even if I heard a promise from the mouth of God himself, I wasn’t going to work with anyone who would threaten a child or hurt his family like that.  Hill, despite his trappings of elegance and wealth, was scum.  And scum could not be allowed to win.  It simply would not stand.

“Sarah,” I said, “let Michel know that we’re ready for pick-up.”

She nodded.  “Okay.  But, after that?”

I turned and looked at her.  Somehow, she read my expression at a glance and nodded.  Mila, who had known me for far less time and lacked a similar gift at discerning unspoken intentions, took a step closer to me.  “How are you going to beat him?”

“I’m also going to need you to call Sophie,” I said, still to Sarah.  “Have her arrange for a conference room.  And then call everyone.”

“Everyone?”

I nodded.  “Everyone.  I think it’s about time we all started working off of the same page, don’t you?”

Chapter 108

I blinked, and the pieces finally started to fall into place.

A thousand disparate clues, half-formed ideas, and discarded thoughts coalesced into a single cohesive whole in a single frozen instant.  Questions that I’d asked myself before, only to disregard because of a more immediate need for mental horsepower; details I’d noticed, but lacked the proper context for; things I’d heard or thought I’d heard, suddenly given the correct frame of reference for me to finally understand.

Billy, the drug lord in exile, confined to a wheelchair because of the ambition of his former partner.  Why not kill him?  Why leave a potential rival alive and in a position to cause you trouble in the future?

With all of the opportunities I’d given Asher, by accident or on purpose, why hadn’t he simply killed me by now?  Why was Hill allowing me to operate without bringing the force of his criminal empire to bear against my ragtag team before we managed to deal his business irreparable harm?  Why had Fairfax consented to a meeting with von Ackerman, a man who he didn’t even seem to like?

Why would the Lady, possessed of unknowable information as she almost certainly was, not have stepped in to stop me from antagonizing a local nobleman?  Surely, there was something to be said for delicacy, especially when dealing with someone capable of making my life markedly more difficult with a single phone call.  My personal difficulties with the rich and powerful shouldn’t have let me get too invested in needling Fairfax, and I knew that, but the Lady had said nothing at all about it.  Of course, she knew.  She knew everything or so it seemed.  So, why not stop this?

I blinked again.  A heartbeat hadn’t even passed yet.  Beside me, I heard Mila draw in a sharp breath.  Sarah did the same and I noticed, in a detached sort of way, that her lips were trembling with sudden terror and comprehension.

Brothers.  They were brothers.  Billy – who had offered no last name – and Lord Charles Fairfax were brothers.  How could they be related?  Sarah was nothing, if not thorough.  Any mention of living family members would surely have…and then that penny dropped as well.

Not full brothers, but half brothers.  Perhaps Fairfax, Sr. had a taste for a bit of rough.  It wasn’t unheard of in these types of communities.  A nobleman decides to dabble in some flavor from the lower class and finds that he has impregnated someone of a station too low to even be considered.  Most times, a quiet abortion would handle the problem.  But Fairfax, Sr. might have been something of a romantic, perhaps?  Maybe he’d been pro-life or, maybe, the pregnancy hadn’t been noticed until too late.

What would he have done then?  Supported the child, if only to keep the mother from raising too much of a fuss.  He might even have gone so far as to introduce the bastard son – because it was a son, wasn’t it? – to his own legitimate offspring, in hopes of keeping the child from going to the authorities.  A nobleman with financial difficulties and debtors knocking down his door could scarcely afford to pay child support for a by-blow, born due to a drunken indiscretion.

And the child, himself?  Someone raised by a mother who dallied once with a nobleman and then clung to the man for dear life?  That could very well be the type of man who grew to resent the nobility, who threw himself into the seedier side of life as a sort of rebellion.  The mother wouldn’t be in a position to stop him and the father…well, the father wouldn’t particularly care, so long as it stayed out of the papers.  I could almost hear Fairfax, Sr.’s voice in my head, as I imagined what he might have said.

“As long as he stays out of sight, why should I care what he does?  Maybe he’ll get himself killed and save all of us a great deal of trouble in the long run.”

But that child wouldn’t have died.  Maybe he survived, despite the odds.  Maybe he forged a stronger connection with his half-brother than expected and the two of them decided to dip a toe into the underworld community.  After all, the bastard would already have connections, wouldn’t he?  Connections that would be well-served by the money the legitimate child might be able to offer.

I blinked a third time.  Mila was beginning to stand, one hand diving into the interior of her suit jacket.  Sarah opened her mouth – To protest?  To complain?  To encourage? – and her jaw dropped in inky slow-motion.

What would the legitimate son have done?  Faced with the debts of his father and the tattered remnants of a legacy that should have been unbesmirched, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that the legitimate son might have a chip on his shoulder.  Not just against the nobility that would surely shun him if they knew they truth…oh, no.  No, that chip would’ve encompassed everyone who’d reached a better station than him, either by virtue of their birth of their skills.  And, after clawing his way up to a position he felt he deserved…well, the legitimate son might very well decide to dispose of his only legitimate competition.  It only made sense.

Except for the family connection.  One couldn’t simply dispose of family.  It simply wasn’t done.

Asher had done the same thing, back in Paris.  While I’d been at his mercy, he’d been unable to simply end my life.  In his own twisted way, I realized, he’d actually intended me to be safe behind bars in La Santé.  If he’d been planning all of this since his time in St. Petersburg, I could easily believe that he’d warped his own mindset to the point that prison seemed like the safest place to him.  I wasn’t going to be in harm’s way, there.  He could dispose of Sarah at his leisure and wait until I eventually came around.

The legitimate son wouldn’t have done that, though.  People might have seen them together.  A life in the spotlight afforded one certain privileges – alibis, for one thing – but it also came with certain disadvantages.  If a close friend suddenly went to prison, there would be questions, interviews, cameras.  No, it would be much easier to make them disappear entirely.  But how to do that?

An injury would suffice.  Something suitably horrific that it would account for a retreat from the public eye; some wound so terrible that even the paparazzi would feel like slime for asking about.  And, I noted, it would also have the delicious effect of providing an object lesson in what would happen if anybody in the underworld crossed you again.

Yes, that would make sense.  It made entirely too much sense, and I didn’t know how I’d let myself miss it before.

I blinked for a fourth time and, at the same time, held out a hand in Mila’s direction.  It brushed against her hip and she looked at out of the corner of one eye, confusion winning out over raw fear and anger in her expression.

“Hill,” I said.  I abandoned the German accent and yet, the voice I spoke in sounded nothing like my own.  It was far too cold, too distant. “You’re Hill, aren’t you?”

Fairfax – Hill – sighed and speared another forkful of roast meat.  “A childhood nickname,” he said casually.  “You see, I had a bit of tendency to exaggerate problems into things that were far greater and more difficult to handle.  I would make a mountain out of a molehill, yes?”

I stared at him in silence.

Billy, pushed by Aiden, was wheeled from the door over to a spot near his brother.  As he drew closer, I could see the purple and red marks that accompanied bruises in-the-making on his face.  He didn’t make eye contact with me as Aiden eased him into place and he said nothing when Hill – I couldn’t think of him as Fairfax, anymore – sliced off several pieces of meat and dropped them onto a plate.

“Eat, brother,” Hill said.  “You’ve been slumming it down in that wretched hive for so long, I wouldn’t be surprised if you caught something.  It’s important that you keep your strength up; at least that’s what the doctors said, isn’t it?”

At that, Billy’s head snapped up.  The force of his glare wasn’t even directed in my general direction, but I could feel the heat rising off of it, as though Billy’s eyes were shooting a laser directly into Hill’s brain.  “You would know, wouldn’t you?  Seeing as you’re the reason I needed a doctor in the first place.”

“I could have done much worse,” Hill said.  “I gave specific orders that you were to be left alive.  And I’ve looked the other way while your illicit operation has continued in the bowels of our city, haven’t I?  Is it not through my largesse that you’re even here to partake of this meal?”

Billy scowled and lapsed back into silence.

“Ah,” Hill said.  “That’s what I thought.”

I swallowed a mouthful of saliva and, without looking to Sarah or Mila, spoke.  “You couldn’t have killed him.”

“Oh?”

“He’s family,” I said, stressing the word to its breaking point.  “And you’re better than that aren’t you?”

Hill considered that before giving me a small nod.  He took one of the herb-encrusted slices of bread from the platter in front of me and chewed pensively on it for a few seconds before replying.  “I suppose you’re right.  It would hardly be civil of me to kill my only surviving relative, would it?”

“But crippling him was okay?” I asked.  “Having your men beat him until he needed a wheelchair was somehow not as bad as ordering them to just shoot him?”

“A dead man can teach no lessons, Mister O’Brien,” Hill said.  A spike of anxiety ran through me when I realized that he knew my real name, but it subsided quickly.  Of course he knew my name.  Asher was working with him, after all.  “I needed to ensure that my business would be left alone until such time as I was able to secure its foundations on my own terms.  To that end, some…sacrifices had to be made.”

“And those ‘sacrifices’ happened to be your brother’s legs.”  I scoffed and pushed aside the plate of baked bread, leaning forward onto the table so that I could get as close to Hill’s face as possible.  “You really think that paralyzing someone is the best way to deal with a problem?  Did you even consider asking him to step aside?”

“And why would he have done that?”  Noticing that Billy hadn’t touched the food in front of him, Hill took one of the roast slices and started chewing around its edges on his own.  “Would you have voluntarily relinquished your interest in our business, William?”

Billy glared at his half-brother and, somehow, captured a wealth of vile words and baleful condemnations in that look.

“That’s what I thought,” Hill said.  “And so, Mister O’Brien, I did what I felt necessary to secure my position.  Unless I’m mistaken, isn’t your sole reason for being in London to bring down your own former partner?  After his betrayal, could you simply forgive him and move on with your joint opportunities?”

He gave Sarah a thin smile.  I restrained the urge to look at her, to give her some sort of unspoken signal so that she would know to pass the message along to Michel.  I was stopped by the certainty that Michel wouldn’t be able to reach the estate in time.  Aiden was there; presumably, that meant his men were in the wings, weapons held at the ready.

“And him?” I asked, gesturing at Aiden.  “Why’d you bring him here?”

“Aiden and I have to an arrangement,” Hill said.  “Vastly different from the one he’s reached with your former partner, Mister Asher.”

“And that deal is?”

“He works for me,” Hill said, “and takes my orders, as necessary.  There will be plenty of insurrection in the coming days, as some of my higher-placed associates attempt to muscle in on the territory I hope to free from their control.”

The way he said ‘their´ immediately made me think of the Magi.

Hill continued speaking.  “Of course, he’ll continue to receive his medication – I believe you already know about that? – and his men will be paid exorbitantly for their time.”

“What else did you promise him?” I asked.

“Why, your bodyguard, of course,” Hill replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Like hell you did,” Mila growled.  I extended my arm to stop her from reaching for a gun without even consciously realizing that I’d done it.

I cleared my throat and was forced to take a sip of water to wash down the dryness.  “Why,” I asked, “do you want us then?  You didn’t have to agree to this dinner.  If you knew our names and our faces, you could’ve set up a trap and taken care of us all right off of the bat.”

Hill smirked.  “My intentions should be obvious at this point, shouldn’t they?  I wanted to make your position perfectly clear to both you and to the inestimable Missus Ford.  Or is it Miss, now?”  He gave Sarah a withering, insulting little look.  “I find it so very difficult to keep up with these mundane relationships.  So quick to come; just as quick to disappear again.”

I was surprised to find my fingers clenching themselves into a tight, painful fist.  With great effort, I forced myself to relax and to think.

Hill was here.  He hadn’t made any sort of aggressive move towards us, yet.  In fact, with the exception of Aiden’s simple presence, Hill hadn’t made any overt gestures of strength.  Obviously, I’d read him badly at first meet, but even this revelation only served to strengthen other areas of the mental profile I’d drawn of the man.

“You wanted to brag,” I said.

“If you must be so absolutely boorish about it,” Hill replied, “then yes.  I wanted to lay out certain inescapable facts for your consideration.”

“And you brought him because?”  I gestured at Billy.

“Because, Mister O’Brien, I couldn’t be certain of what your reaction would be.  You’ve only been in London for…how long has it been?  A week, perhaps?  And so far you have already been directly responsible for a staggering amount of property damage and a not-inconsiderable setback to my business operations.  Besides, Aiden has informed me that your bodyguard has something of a violent streak.”  He turned that mocking smile from Sarah to me.  “You can hardly blame me for taking steps to protect myself.”

Mila growled beside me.  Literally growled.  I caught a flash of pearly white as she bared her teeth at Aiden.  “I should fucking kill you,” she hissed.

“You could fucking try,” Aiden replied evenly.  He was cultured, now, as opposed to the raving lunatic I’d heard at the manor house while we’d been making our mistake.  If he was in any way offended or upset by Mila’s proclamation, he didn’t allow any of that offense or anger to reach his expression.  “You might even be successful, but I doubt it.  Remember: I taught you everything you know.”

“You taught me everything you know,” Mila countered.  “Why don’t you come over and I’ll show what new tricks I’ve picked in the meantime?”

It seemed for a moment that Aiden might take her up on that threat.  Tension ratcheted up in the room, raising the temperature by several degrees by simple virtue of Mila and Aiden’s clashing wills.  Then, the moment passed.  Aiden looked away – not out of shame or fear, but more resigned sadness – and shook his head.  “I think not,” he said.  “And I don’t think you’ll do anything either.  That’s your new M.O., isn’t it?  Stick to the contract and only kill when your client allows you to?

Mila recoiled from his words like he’d stretched an arm across the table and slapped her in the face.

Aiden continued, his voice smooth and persuasive.  “Wouldn’t it be something to go back to the way you used to be, though?  Why, the Mila I know…no, I’m sorry.”  He waved a hand in the air, smiling slightly to himself.  “I just can’t call you that.  The Thorn that I knew…now she would’ve already been in motion, wouldn’t she?  This table wouldn’t have stopped her.  This hostage wouldn’t have slowed her down.  And those two?”  Now, he pointed deliberately at me, then at Sarah.  “Well, those two wouldn’t have been able to do any more to get in her way than a screen door against a hurricane.  But you aren’t the same person anymore.  Unless…unless you want to be that person again.  Do you?”

I tried, and failed, to keep my eyes from traveling over to Mila.  The expression on her face hurt to behold.  Terror, excitement, rage, lust – all of those emotions, and a dozen others that I couldn’t immediately name, raced each other across her face.  In that moment, I became aware that, without Mila, Sarah and I had inadvertently walked ourselves directly into the lair of our enemy.  If Hill gave the word and Mila didn’t step in to stop him, there was little to no chance that either Sarah or I would make it out of the estate alive.

Even if Mila lost control and managed to turn that anger against Aiden and Hill, it wouldn’t particularly matter.  She would have lost against Aiden, as surely as if he’d killed her himself.  Taking his life would justify his worldview, validate his beliefs about who Mila truly was in her heart of hearts, and we’d lose her, then.  Sure, we could claim it as a victory with regards to our job from the Lady, but I’d grown close enough to Mila over the last few days that I counted her as a friend.

I wasn’t in the habit of sacrificing friends to further my own goals…not even if that sacrifice was to themselves.

So, before Mila could say or do anything at all, I cleared my throat with such deliberate force that my throat began to hurt.  “This is what you wanted, then?  To call us here, just so that you can goad one of my team into making a mistake that we’re all going to regret?”  I directed that to Hill.

Hill took another forkful of roast and the smug smile slid from his face.  “As I said, I wanted to make things perfectly clear between us.”

“I’m listening.”

“I have the girl,” Hill said.  “I have the book.  And, since you were gracious enough to reveal the burgeoning friendship between her and my former employee, I have leverage to force her to decrypt what I wish for her to decrypt.  It is only a matter of time before I have all of the information I require, at which point I will be free to eliminate any loose ends which might prove problematic in the future.”

Former employee…Hill was talking about Neal.  Of course, that made sense now.  He wouldn’t have allowed Avis to be taken without putting up a fight and she, in her odd manner, cared about him, as well.  If Hill and his men threatened to torture Neal, it was absolutely reasonable that the small child might give Hill what he wanted, in hopes of saving her friend.

“Despite your efforts,” Hill continued, “I have everything in my possession that I have sought after for so many months.  And, despite the repeated failures of your former friend, I am closer now to claiming my rightful position over the miscreants and addicts of my city.  Although…I must admit, I was rather impressed by your creativity and the way you continued to elude my every effort to simply stamp you out.”

“And now we’re here,” I said, somehow managing to project a great deal more confidence than I actually felt.  “So, is this the part where you have us dragged away?  Because I don’t think ‘my bodyguard’ is going to let that happen without a fight, and you’re looking awfully unprotected there in your new suit.”

For the first time since we’d entered the building, Hill seemed slightly taken aback.  “Kill you?  Why would I do that?”  He set down the fork and leaned all of his weight onto the tabletop separating the two of us.  “Mister O’Brien, I don’t want to hurt you.  I want to offer you a job.”

Chapter 107

Where the manor house had been large, Fairfax’s estate was grand, in a way that words simply failed to encapsulate.  Acres upon acres of land greeted us, just inside the pass-coded gates that sat at the edge of Fairfax’s land.  Once inside, I saw that the property consisted of wide swaths of emerald grass, dotted at even intervals with flowers in colors like bubblegum pink, plum purple, and azure blue.  As Michel drove the BMW up the driveway – that term seemed woefully inadequate to describe the wide road leading up to Fairfax’s front door, but no better ones came to mind – I could see at least a dozen men and women tending to the health of the flowers on the grounds.  For a few months, my mother had worked as a gardener for a particularly vile business magnate in Maine.  I’d picked up a little bit of knowledge in that field, so it wasn’t surprising to learn that Fairfax required so many people just to make sure that the plants looked fresh and crisp, every hour of the day, in case a visitor showed up.  I was fairly sure that some of the plants on display weren’t even in season, but that wasn’t something I felt like wasting time to research.

The house itself seemed to burst out of the ground itself at the end of the driveway/road.  In fact, to call it a house would more properly require capitalization on the word; what I saw through the front window of the BMW was a House, in the same size and proportions of one I expected to find on Pennsylvania Avenue or, perhaps, Downing Street.  According to all of the information Sarah had been able to dig up about Fairfax, he was an unmarried man without children or close relatives with whom he had anything resembling a good relationship.  The fact that he’d spent time and money acquiring an estate like this, when he could easily have purchased a lovely flat in the city center for far less trouble, told me a lot about the man he was.

Pompous.  Arrogant.  Overly concerned with his own self-worth.  I’d guessed that much about Fairfax on our first meeting; seeing where he chose to spend his time only served to validate those earlier thoughts.

Having drawn conclusions about my surroundings, I set part of my mind to draw up possible ways to manipulate Fairfax and separated the rest of my thoughts from that particular problem.  An answer would present itself, as soon as one was ready, and I couldn’t afford to spend conscious time working through possible conversations that might never happen.  I’d have to let Fairfax lead the conversation at first until Sarah was able to penetrate his email accounts.  After that, I could turn the tables and lay him out.  It was a matter, then, of keeping my cool in the face of such wasted splendor.

I’d done it before, with people I liked even less.  I strongly doubted that Fairfax could possibly be such an unpleasant person to be around that my abilities would shrivel up.  Nearly three years in prison hadn’t dulled most of the useful talents; I’d be damned if I was going to let some trumped up nobleman throw me off of my game.

“The van’s providing my wireless right now,” Sarah said.  “So it’s good that it’s working correctly.  As long as it’s on, I can use it as a connection point.  I don’t know what kind of security Fairfax has sprung for, but I’d rather not tie everything back to his house while we’re having dinner.”

“What does that mean for me?  In Layman terms, of course.”

“I won’t be using his connection,” Sarah said.  “Even if he’s got someone watching for strange packets or unusual traffic, they won’t find any trace of what I’m doing.  Also, the computers are in the van are considerably stronger than anything I could carry on my person.”

I nodded dumbly.  Some of those were words I knew.  Some had even been used in a configuration that I might have been able to piece together.

Michel drove the BMW up a lengthy stretch of road, bounded by rows of carnations, lilies, and roses on either side.  As we drew closer to the mansion itself, the flowers gave way to larger trees, standing tall and firm like arboreal sentinels casting deep shadows across the driveway they stood watch over.  Inside of the car, it seemed as though we were literally driving into darkness as we passed beneath the trees; I found that thematically fitting, in an odd way.

A man dressed in black pants, a white shirt, and a black tailed coat stood outside of the mansion’s front door with his hands held neatly behind his back.  He inclined his head slightly as Michel eased the BMW to a stop, then reached out – with white gloved hands – to open the back door.

Herr Ackerman,” he said, and I couldn’t help but notice how artificially crisp his Northern London accent was.  Immediately, I formed a rough profile of the man: someone who’d worked his way up from an ignoble birth and who prided himself on the ability to walk amongst the nobility and higher class with his head held high.  It was probably all an act, but I couldn’t help but feel a certain kinship with the butler.

“Indeed,” I said, lowering the register of my voice and slipping into Ackerman’s German accent.  “I had hoped that Lord Fairfax would be here to meet me in person?”

“He means no offense by his absence,” the butler said, “but other matters called for his direct involvement.  He will, of course, be away for only a short time.”

I pouted…well, I did whatever the rich business magnate’s version of a pout would be.  I didn’t mind waiting.  It might even give Sarah more time to penetrate what network security Fairfax had in place.  But Ackerman would mind considerably, and I had to play that role to the hilt right now.

“Perhaps,” I said, “he does not consider my time important.  Frau Ford, what do you think?”

Sarah tapped an index finger against her bottom lip.  “We drove all the way out here,” she said, after a suitably long stretch of silence.  “It would be a shame to leave already.  Perhaps we could get a tour of the property?”  She directed that question at the butler.

He seemed slightly uneasy with that but he recovered quickly.  “It would be my pleasure, Miss Ford.  It is the least I can do to accommodate you, until such time as Lord Fairfax returns from his obligations.  If you would be so kind?”

I exchanged a look with Sarah.  She gave a slight, almost imperceptible nod.  We stepped out of the car and, a second later, Mila opened her door as well.  The butler raised an eyebrow.

“Personal security,” I said in a droll voice.  “One can never be too safe.  There are always criminals running around, stealing property and threatening lives these days.”

“Ah,” the butler replied, “I was not informed that there would be another guest.  I, uh…”

Mila cleared her throat and stopped him from saying anything else.  “I go where they go,” she said.  “Whether you’re going to make that difficult is your call.”

The butler struggled with that for a second, then nodded.  “Very well.  If you would follow me?”

He started off toward the mansion, taking long strides that made the tails of his coat flutter slightly, as if caught by an evening breeze.  I turned slightly and, under my breath, said, “Michel, park by the van.  Wait for the pickup signal.”

“And if something goes wrong?”

I hesitated.  “There’ll be a signal for that, too.  Get out of here.”

I watched him nod out of the corner of my eye.  He started the BMW again, drove around the circle of cleared land in front of the mansion, and then left via the road leading off of Fairfax’s property.

Sarah touched my elbow with two fingers, then put those same two fingers to her earlobe in a quick gesture.  Michel was still connected and able to communicate, albeit with a slight delay, through Sarah.  There was every possibility, however, that the few seconds after I gave Sarah the ‘emergency’ signal, but before Michel received it, could end being crucial.

I put that thought out of my mind before I could begin to worry about it.  The butler was standing in front of the building, one gloved hand on the handle of a massive door, cut from a wood so dark that it was nearly black.  He was well-trained enough that his subtle tells of impatience and irritation took me a bit to notice.

The three of us walked over to the door.  Sarah strode with the purpose of self-assurance of someone who knows that their presence is in high demand and I matched my gait to hers.  Mila walked just behind me, to my right, and each of her steps was solid and deliberate.  Mental images of military men and women came to mind with each rhythmic, sharp step she took.  Something in her shoes must have been metallic.  Or something on her shoes.

Inside the mansion, the butler turned and gestured magnanimously at a portrait on the wall, just a few feet away from the entrance.  The man pictured there looked familiar: the eyes, perhaps, or the length of his nose reminded me of Fairfax.  But there was also something about his forehead and the way his lips were only barely curled up into a smile for the painter that seemed odd.

“This was Lord Reginald Fairfax,” the butle said, his voice swelling with something resembling pride.  “The current Lord Fairfax’s esteemed great-grandfather.  It was his savvy with business and social skills that allowed the Fairfax family to rise to their current place of prominence.”

I suppressed a snicker.  Through Sarah, I’d come into possession of a more than a few documents outlining the various debts that our Fairfax owed to creditors, both national and international.  ‘Prominence’ was painting it a little heavy, but it wasn’t as though the butler could outright tell us that his master was in trouble.  In fact, it was largely possible that the poor man didn’t even know.

“And his father?” Sarah asked politely, as if she didn’t already know the answer.

The butler sighed, caught himself, and turned the exhalation into a cough.  “Charles Fairfax, Sr.  He was…an ambitious man, with grand dreams and grander aspirations.”

That wasn’t an answer.  Of course, Sarah hadn’t really asked a question.

“I must say,” I said, in Ackerman’s voice, “that I find the prospect of a tour less and less enjoyable with each passing second.  It has nothing to do with you, sir, but…”  I trailed off, let the silence hang in the air for a second, and then continued.  “Perhaps another time.  If I find myself in London on business again and Fairfax can deign to tear himself away from his business opportunities.  Of course, I will have to tell all of my associates to beware working with Lord Fairfax in the future.  He is such a busy man, of course.”

Blood fled from the butler’s face.  He sputtered something incoherent.  When he regained control of himself, he cleared his throat.  “I am sure that Lord Fairfax will not be away for very long.  If you could only wait just a little bit longer…”

“Calm yourself, Coleman,” a resonant voice said from upstairs, in the direction of an extravagant staircase.  Sarah and I looked up at the same time; Mila’s weight shifted slightly and I could almost feel the gathering of tension around her.

“My apologies,” Fairfax said.  He strolled into view, utterly at ease, and took the stairs at a leisurely, almost insulting pace.  “I would have scheduled this dinner for later if I had known something would arise that required my personal attention.”

“Your man…what was it?  Ah, Coleman,” I said, “was kind enough to inform us that your business was suffering some difficulties.”

“Nothing beyond my ability to handle.  But the nature of the delay was personal in nature, not professional.”  Fairfax reached the bottom of the stairs and paused.  The angle of his body was reminiscent of a pose and, I had to admit to myself, the effect worked.  He was wearing a crisp dark blue suit, cut to his precise measurements, and looked like nothing so much as a fashion model.  The thin wisps of graying hair at his temples only highlighted his attractiveness, instead of taking anything away from the visual.

“Personal?  I hope that everything is well.”

He heaved a dramatic sigh.  Something felt wrong about that sigh, but I couldn’t quite my finger on what bothered me.  “Family,” Fairfax said.  “A member of my family in a similar line of business as myself requested a chair at this dinner.”

“Oh?”  We hadn’t planned on conning more than one person.  Still, as long as the façade held up long enough, we might be able to make an exit and return to blackmail Fairfax into submission later.

“Quite.  The possibility of opening new lines of communication with our German counterparts was something that neither he nor I could pass up.  Now, our dinner awaits.  My insistent family member will have to show himself in, whenever he arrives.  Coleman, you can see that, yes?”

It wasn’t really a question.  The butler, Coleman, nodded twice, seemingly pleased to be given a valid reason to leave our company.  I couldn’t blame him.  Fairfax was such a deliberately over-the-top figure that it seemed he sucked up all the oxygen from a room just by entering.  I couldn’t imagine working around the man on a daily basis, being required to rush from place to the other in deference to whatever whim moved him.  Just thinking about it made me a little exhausted.

I resolved to find some way to supplement Coleman’s income…presumably through whatever payment we received from the Lady after taking down Hill.  That thought cheered me slightly.

Fairfax led us through the mansion, occasionally pointing out a portrait or knickknack, until we reached a large door cut from the same wood as the front door.  He pushed it open and gestured for Sarah, Mila, and me to enter the room in front of him.  We did so and found ourselves confronted with a majestic table with enough room for at least ten people to sit and eat comfortably.  Platters and trays were already set out on the table, stretching from one end to the other, tendrils of delicious-smelling smoke drifting up into the air from each.

“I must confess,” Fairfax said, taking no notice of the scents in the air, “that I am not a particular fan of this arrangement.  I prefer more intimate settings, no matter what the occasion.  There’s little that can’t be solved with a one-on-one conversation, in close quarters.”

“Ah,” I replied, “but would it not be preferable to have as many witnesses as possible to any handshake deals you make?”

Fairfax gave me a slight, anemic smile.  “Of course not.  People will make all sorts of concessions when they feel that no one else is looking.  The trick is to lure them into a sense of safety and then to force them to accept your terms.”

I couldn’t help but grin at that.  “I suppose I could not agree more.”

Surprisingly, Fairfax did not take a seat at the head of the table.  Instead, he chose a chair a few spaces down and motioned for us to sit opposite him.  When we were comfortable, he removed the lid off of the platter directly in front of him – revealing some type of roast, judging by the shape, size, and scent – and cut a large piece of meat free.

“Help yourself,” he said, when the slice of roast was safely on his plate.  “Unless you’d prefer I called the servants in to assist you?”

That same feeling of wrongness intensified.  Everything I knew about Fairfax – both from our conversations and the information Sarah had dug up about him – told me that he was the sort of person who would delight in using servants to display his wealth.  As it was, we’d only seen Coleman since entering the house itself.  The landscapers outside might not even work for Fairfax directly; it would be fairly easy to hire those sort of people on an as-needed basis.  It would make more sense, as well.

A tray on my right was populated by a freshly baked loaf of bread, cut into thin slices and topped with a healthy smattering of herbs.  I took a few of those and then ladled out some soup into a bowl.  Fairfax raised an eyebrow.  “I would feel better waiting for your family member,” I said, by way of explanation.  The truth – that my stomach wouldn’t settle down while that gnawing feeling of missing something continued to work at it – wasn’t something I felt like sharing.

“All the same,” Fairfax said.  “And you, Miss Ford?”

“I’ve already eaten,” Sarah replied.  There was a slight hitch in her voice, a millisecond of hesitation.  I didn’t need to look at her to know that I would see a slight puzzled expression on her face.  Whatever was wrong, she felt it, too.

“Ah.  I’m certain that our guest will arrive shortly, von Ackerman, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long.”

“You said that you do not prefer this sort of room?” I asked, more to fill the time than out of any real curiosity.  Sarah had said to keep Fairfax in this room, where we could keep an eye on him, and I intended to do just that.

“Not particularly, no.”

“Then why do you not change it?  Surely you can afford to redecorate?”

Fairfax froze, the roast speared on his fork and halfway to his mouth.  Slowly, he lowered the utensil.  “I am currently living on the largesse of a…shall we call him a friend?  He is graciously allowing me the use of his estate while he’s away on business.”

“And you have been here long enough to hang your own paintings?”

Fairfax shrugged.  “The business my friend is engaged is in the sort that will likely require much of his attention for the foreseeable future.  Of course, I would be more than happy to leave if I were asked to, but I doubt he will have many problems with my decorative choices.”

The earbud I wore vibrated twice.  The line didn’t activate.  I read the signal as something Sarah had deliberately done, wordlessly sending me a message.  The problem with that is that I couldn’t understand the message meant, in this context.  Had she already broken Fairfax’s security?  Or was she telling me that she’d require more time and to continue needling him, pushing him so that he felt compelled to engage in a battle of quips?  Was something wrong with Michel?

I tapped my fingernail against the table twice, as subtly as I could manage, hoping that she could grasp my confusion.  A second later, the earbud vibrated two more times, more intensely than before.

I almost turned to look at Sarah, thinking that I might be able to divine her intention with a moment of eye contact.  I was stopped by a delighted noise from Fairfax.  He set his fork down on the plate with an audible clink and smiled widely.

“Ah,” he said, “and here is our unexpected guest.  It’s good to see you again, brother.”

I turned, almost involuntarily, to face the newcomer.  Entering through the same door that we’d come through, I saw a man with tribal tattoos and a face like cut granite.  In front of him, a man in a wheelchair.

Aiden.  Billy.

“It has been such a long time, hasn’t it?” Fairfax asked behind me.  “We have so many things to catch up on, don’t we?”

Chapter Ninety-Seven

The six days that followed were, in my conservative opinion, the longest six days of my life.  They were longer even than the two and a half years spent behind the walls of La Santé; longer than the years after Sarah and I parted ways in the most gut-wrenching way imaginable; longer than the years in my childhood, dragged in my mother’s wake from one temporary home to another.  Before those six days, I thought I knew something about patience.  While working, I’d spent weeks casing establishments and months perfecting the ideal approach to a mark.  I’d learned entire personal routines, down to the very second, so that every individual aspect of a plan could proceed without the slightest hiccup.  I imagined, in my own naïve way, that I understood what it meant to wait.

I was wrong.

The difference between those times in the distant past, when lives weren’t at stake and abandoning the job was always an option that could be kept in mind, and the six days that came after our conversation at the disused subway car was easy enough to identify: Alex.  Alex spent every waking minute pacing from one side of our Brooklands suite to the other, when he wasn’t obsessively watching and re-watching the short video Asher had sent to us.  Whenever he called home to check in with Julianna, Sarah and I sat only a room away and listened to the half-truths and misdirections he used to keep her from worrying.  From what we gathered, he hadn’t told her exactly what had happened to Ally, but the version of events he laid out couldn’t possibly remove the anxiety that threaded every word that passed his lips.  I couldn’t hear what Julianna said on her end of the line but, if the false tone of soothing in Alex’s voice was even the barest indication, she was as terrified for Ally’s well-being as Alex was…even if she didn’t know the true source of the threat.

The first day was spent in negotiation with Avis who, unsurprisingly, demonstrated a marked reluctance at putting herself within arm’s reach of Hill and Asher again.  Neal agreed with her, as we’d expected.  Sarah and I had been forced to outline the plan to both of them several times, in isolation and together, until the girl had consented to at least make an appearance.  Extracting even that concession had required a personal vow of safety from Mila.  I doubted that either Avis or Neal truly appreciated the lengths that Mila would go to, in order to keep the child safe, but I’d seen her truly at work before.  I couldn’t fully shake the mental image of her wreathed in flames, still firing madly into an inferno to provide a cover for my own escape.

It took Anton two days to extricate himself from the watchful eye of Stani and his goons.  We held a quick meeting at a café located several crucial miles away from the Brooklands and informed him of our general plan.  He asked few questions, except to make sure that Asher hadn’t yet hurt Alex’s baby girl, and then promised to be at the location we named at the appropriate time.  I didn’t ask him where he would get the supplies for an explosive of unknown strength and he did not offer that information.  Professional courtesy provided a measure of faith in Anton’s skills and resourcefulness; a shared terror between the two of us went the rest of the way.

After that meeting, there was nothing to do but plan, evaluate, and re-plan.  A dozen approaches were discarded every few hours, only to be replaced by another dozen which we all took turns picking apart until every constituent part had been reduced to shredded ideas and half-formed concepts.  Alex tried to provide objective commentary at first; after three days of Mila’s banal, morbid comments, he gave up on the process and resigned himself to burning out every ounce of nervous energy he could through pointless exercise and – in what he presumed, incorrectly, to be isolation – broken crying jags.  Even Mila, as detached from emotion as she always seemed to be, seemed affected by the sounds.  The rest of us possessed no such defense against such pure heartbreak.  By the fourth day, a running soundtrack of music provided a backdrop to our work, and offered Alex another level of sound to mask his sorrow.

Sarah and I worked together on more than just the plan.  With the sporadic outbursts of tears from Alex, the mood in the suite veered sharply into depressive.  Sarah and Asher had, by and large, been the only long-term partners I’d ever worked with, but I knew enough about team psychology to realize that an air of misery would make us sluggish and decrease our ability to react to any unknown obstacles…obstacles which I expected would be considerable.  So, the two of us forced ourselves to keep up a light banter of chatter and pop-culture references, drawing the others – Mila, Michel, and occasionally Anton – into our conversation through sheer force of will.

Our efforts weren’t entirely successful.  The notes were a little too sharp or too flat; the comic beats fell just a touch too quickly or a hair too late; the smiles and laughs were just the tiniest bit too wide.  But, it was still something other than tension and anxiety and the fear that ran through each of our bodies like blood and thrummed with each beat of our heart: the fear that would not be smart enough, or quick enough, or clever enough to finagle Ally out from underneath Asher’s nose without losing a member of our team to something unforeseen.

On the sixth day, Mila and I performed another sweep of the area, riding the subway in both directions to make certain that we understood our time table.  We said nothing to each other for most of the trip, except for a brief exchange of words while we waited for the subway at Piccadilly Station.

“Hell of a thing,” Mila had said.  For once, she had not been holding any sort of candy or food.

“Yeah,” I had replied.

“I want to kill him.”

There hadn’t been any need to ask her who ‘he’ was.  “Yeah.”

“Think you’ll stop me?”

After almost two full minutes of thought and consideration, I had decided not to answer.  The reconnaissance mission had proceeded without any additional comment from that point.

On the seventh day, we all rose early and prepared ourselves in different ways.  For my part, I put on the bulletproof vest from Suzie and loaded each of my pockets with as much gear as I could carry without jangling.  Sarah copied several essential programs onto her tablet and passed out earbuds and encrypted smartphones to each member of the team who might find themselves confronted by one of Asher’s goons.  Michel, who had been practicing both his train-handling skills and some advanced driving techniques, put on the outfit he’d worn when I’d first met him.

Mila removed the sling she’d been using to hold her cast in place and secreted at least six different handguns in various locations on her person.  While I’d made an effort to keep my extra baggage concealed, she had given the process only the faintest hint of care.  At the time, that had made perfect sense.  She was a known element to Asher and it would have been stranger if she hadn’t been armed.

It did not occur to me until later that, if Asher intended for me to disappear into some dark hole, the presence of a bodyguard at all would seem unusual.

Then, girded for war in our own particular ways, we all spent a silent moment in thought and prayer, hoping against all reason that we might be able to pull off this exchange with a minimum of bloodshed…or, if bloodshed was inevitable, that we might ensure that only deserving blood was spilled.

There had been no way to know the future, no trick of intuition or insight, that might have shown us the drastic error in our thinking.  The questions we had not asked – in fact, the questions we had not even thought to ask – remained hidden behind a wall of our fears and doubts.

So, when we left to execute our plan on the seventh day, it turned out that we could have used at least another twenty-four hours.  In hindsight, that might have made all the difference.

***

At precisely eight-thirty on the seventh day, Sarah received an email from Asher detailing his location and the terms of the prisoner exchange.

“Wherever it is that you’re holed up, you’ve got an hour to make it over to 171 Strand,” the email read.  “Bring the girl and make certain that you’re also there, Devlin.  I’ll meet you out front and show you in.  Can’t wait to catch up.”

The message had been ‘signed’ with an emoji, adding just a touch more absurdity to the situation.

Of course, we had already figured out his hiding place and were already in position, but there wasn’t any reason to let him know that.  Keeping him in the dark about what we did and did not know was an essential part of the plan; it allowed us a decent cushion of time when we could move without any concern that he might already be moving complications into position, to separate or otherwise inconvenience us.

Therefore, Sarah, Mila, Alex, and I left the Brooklands nearly an hour and a half before that email arrived.  We took a car, provided by Sophie, and made the trip through fairly miserable traffic with almost thirty minutes to spare.  Then, we’d taken up position across the street from the street-level entrance to the unused Aldwych station and waited.  We had only been there a few minutes before Billy met us there.

Michel and Anton had left even earlier, and traveled across the city to the stabled train, until Sarah was in a position to activate their third rail.  She’d offered some technical mumbo jumbo that involved the “metropolitan intranet” and “penetrating their firewall” before I’d given her the widely understood signal for my waning interest: dramatically loud snoring.  She’d worked in silence on some program after that.

While Michel and Anton were on comms – by mutual unspoken agreement, it had been decided that every member of the team should be equipped with the means to call for assistance, if necessary – Sarah had kept their lines muted from the rest of us.  Occasionally, a shadow of a smile touched her lips at something either the Frenchman or the Ukrainian said.  The third time she smirked, I raised an eyebrow at her.

“They’re getting along,” she said.  When my eyebrow did not decrease its elevation in the slightest, she elaborated.  “They’re really getting along.”

I blinked.  “Oh.  Well, good for them, I guess?  Stani’s probably not going to be thrilled about that development.”

“Well, I don’t think they’re planning on taking out a full page ad, if and when they decide to see each other outside of…this.” She gestured vaguely at our surroundings.

“That…is probably a very good point, actually.”

We sat on benches facing the entrance to Aldwych Station – according to additional research, the specific name for the building I looked at was the Strand – in silent thought for a few more seconds.

After enough time that my own imagination threatened to become a hated enemy, I cleared my throat and asked, “How are Neal and Avis doing?”

“Riding the rails, just like we discussed,” Sarah said.  “Avis wanted to finish working on one of the documents I stole from the manor house, so she looked at the layout before she left to time everything perfectly.”

“The layout?  What layout?”

“Of the Underground.  The entire London Underground.”  Sarah rolled her eyes and shook her head at the same time.  “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but she figured out exactly what trains to ride and at what time to get into position exactly when we need her there in, like, a second.”

I let out a low whistle.  “How exactly did she do that?”

“According to her, it’s just a pattern.  One pattern’s as good as any other.  From there, just a quick glance at the official schedule and…”  Sarah shrugged and gave Billy a sidelong glance.  “Anyway, that’s a thing.  They’ll be in motion as long as we need them.”

“And Billy?  What will you be doing?”

The wheelchair-bound man laid a hand on his chest and winked at Sarah before answering.  “l’ll stay one train behind them, just in case things go badly.  Don’t want to get too close, on account of the possibility that one of Hill’s men might spook.  That’s bloody unlikely, though.”

“Better safe than sorry,” I said.

Sarah nodded.  “What he said.”

“Alright, alright.”  Billy raised both hands in surrender, then gestured with two fingers at the man he’d chosen for today’s excursions.  “Let’s get to it, then.  See you lot on the other side, eh?”

Billy’s man wheeled him off down the sidewalk and I followed him with my eyes.

Mila, silent by her own decision through the last minute review, shifted her weight and rolled her good shoulder.  “Incoming,” she said, in an absolutely bland voice.

Her tone was so casual that I almost didn’t pay any attention to her words.  The part of my brain that hadn’t quite left ‘high alert’ mode, however, prodded the greater part of my thoughts.  “Incoming?  What?  Who?”

Mila tapped me on the arm and directed my attention to my left, approaching from the opposite direction from the one Billy had left by.  A man in resplendent finery who I did not immediately recognize was heading straight for us.  I blinked, racking my memory for a name that matched the face.

Sarah, surprisingly, made the connection first.  “What is Lord Fairfax doing here?”

Lord Fairfax….it took me another few seconds to dredge the appropriate memory from storage.  The low level nobleman I’d met at the gala, just before I’d been drugged by Asher and hauled away.  I stood up from the bench, carefully reconstructing the false identity of Hubert von Ackerman as I did so, and was ready to face him exactly as he reached us.

Although I didn’t plan on using this identity past London, simple professionalism rebelled at the thought of offering up a possible name stuck in my throat.  I decided to take the offense and get rid of Fairfax before Asher came out of the Strand to greet us.

“Lord Fairfax,” I said, affecting the accent of a native German forced to use a language he didn’t particularly care for. “How good to see you again.”

For someone who had seemingly been walking straight toward us, the expression on Fairfax’s face read as pure surprise.  He took a few seconds to compose himself, looking past us momentarily, before he spoke.  “Ah.  Von Ackerman, was it?  After your abrupt departure from the museum gala, I assumed that some manner of business had demanded your attention.  I had not expected you to even be in the city any longer.”

“Unfortunately,” I said, drawing myself up to my full height – which, unfortunately, was still a few inches shorter than Fairfax – and trying to look down my nose at the man, “a prior entanglement did require a bit of a personal touch.”

“One hopes that everything has been successfully resolved?”

“Not quite.  I have high hopes that we will reach a satisfactory conclusion to this particular dilemma in the near future, however.”

Fairfax sniffed at the air, as if something foul had reached his nostrils.  “And your companions?”

It was only with great self-control and the constant reminder of the upcoming operation that I kept myself from swinging at Fairfax.  The way he looked at Sarah was equal parts condescension and undisguised lust.  I had no right to get upset about that – she was free to be ogled by whomever she desired – but that didn’t stop the fire from flooding into my veins.

“Sarah Ford,” she said, standing and offering her hand.  “A business associate of Hubert, you might say.”

“Ah, yes,” Fairfax said.  “You did look rather familiar.  I believe I read something of your family in a tabloid the other day.  Scandalous, I dare say.”

The smile on Sarah’s face was brittle enough that a stray breeze might have cracked into a thousand pieces.  “My family does enjoy a great deal of press coverage.  One of the reasons I have chosen to work in other markets, for the time being.”

“And how is the import business doing?”

I blinked twice before I remembered the rest of the cover story.  “Halcyon performs as well as it ever has,” I said.

“What is it that you Americans say?  Smooth sailing, yes?”

It took a second before I realized that he was talking to Sarah, and not to me.  She fielded the question with a barely noticeable twitch at one corner of her mouth.  “Smoother, perhaps, than it has ever been.  What is it that you do, Lord Fairfax?”

“A bit of this, a bit of that,” he replied with an airy wave of his hand.  “The family business requires most of my attention these days.  Constant interruptions in the supply chain, difficulties securing supply…nothing unusual.  Or, at least nothing I expect will continue to be problems for very long.”

As he spoke, he took his phone from his jacket pocket and typed out a quick message without taking his eyes away from either Sarah or me.

“And your companion from the other night?  If I may, where might she be this morning?”

Fairfax rolled his eyes.  “Long term partnerships are such a hassle.  I prefer to remain flexible, instead of tying myself to a single prospect, even when that prospect has proven itself to be an…unsuitable match.”

I checked my watch and concluded that I didn’t have the time to fence words here.  Of course, I couldn’t leave the area, but there was nothing stopping me from offending Fairfax enough that he left of his own volition.

He surprised me, however, when he returned his phone to a pocket and dipped his head slightly.  “If you’ll excuse me, yet another complication has arisen.  I fear I must take care of this personally.  Good help is so terribly difficult to find.”

“I wouldn’t say that.  A solid team is often the foundation to any successful business deal, in my opinion.”

“Hmm.  Well, to each their own.  One hopes I might be able to call upon you at some point, Herr Ackerman.  Perhaps a discussion of our different philosophies could prove…enlightening.”

I nodded, more to hurry him along than out of any real curiosity for a peek into his mind.  “Of course.  I will be in contact when my current situation is in hand.”

“I look forward to it.”

He left, without ever saying a single word to Mila.  That was understandable, though.  My false identity was a person of importance and Sarah’s last name alone guaranteed her a seat at virtually any table she desired.  As far as Fairfax was concerned, Mila might as well have been invisible.  She would rank so low in his eyes that he would barely register her as a being worthy of even the barest sliver of his attention.

“I really hate that man,” I said, when Fairfax was too far away to overhear.

“He is kind of an ass,” Sarah agreed.  “But it isn’t like you haven’t dealt with snootier people before.”

“True.  But usually they’re paying me.” I shrugged and dismissed Fairfax from my thoughts.  Maybe when we finished with Asher, I might spend some time coming up with a way to deflate the Lord’s overinflated ego, but every square millimeter of mental real estate needed to stay on the task at hand.

Asher left the Strand ten minutes before the appointed time.  He noticed us immediately, but made no move to walk across the street.  Instead, he smoked two cigarettes down to the filter before sauntering across the street.

He came close enough that I could have punched the smug expression off of his face and into the gutter.  To keep myself from doing that – and blowing the operation before it even had a chance to begin – I dug my fingernails into my palm.  Blood welled up there and dripped down the street.

“Well,” he said, by way of greeting.  “You’re early.”

“I’m motivated,” I said through gritted teeth.

Asher smiled, showing too many teeth, and extended both of his arms in a welcoming gesture.  “No hug for your old pal?”

“Let Ally go and I’ll be happy to show you exactly how I feel about you.”

“So butch,” Asher said.  He mimed a heart breaking.  “Prison must have done a number of you, eh?”

I glared at him.

He turned his attention to Sarah.  “I don’t know if I got a chance to tell you this,” he said, “but you looked absolutely ravishing in that dress.  You know, the one you wore the Green Light gala?  Where did you manage to find something so magnificent on such short notice?”

“I have friends,” Sarah said.  “Something you find yourself in very short supply of, I’d imagine.”

“Friendship is a lie,” Asher said.  The mask of good humor cracked and I caught a glimpse of burning rage beneath the surface.  “Who needs friends when you can have money and power, instead?”

Sarah bared her teeth at him.  The expression was closer to a feral growl than any indication of warmth.  “I’ve had money and power.  Those aren’t hard to get, if you’re patient or you’re lucky.  But friendship?  That requires loyalty.  You do remember what loyalty is, don’t you?”

“You,” Asher said, waving an extended index finger in Sarah’s direction, “are not the person who gets to talk to me about loyalty.  First, you entice poor Devlin here away from his partner, his compadre, his friend.  And then you leave him high and dry at the first little argument the two of you have?  Over what?  A lie.”  He barked out a laugh.

“Enough, Asher.”  I was surprised at the firmness in my own voice.  “You want to do this?”

“Fair enough.  Where’s the girl?”

“Safe.  And she’s going to stay safe until I’m sure you aren’t just fucking with us.”

He shrugged.  “Fine, fine.  Let’s get this over with, then.  Follow me.”

Asher turned on his heel and walked back across the street.  I let him get a few feet ahead of me before turning to Sarah.  She answered before I could even phrase the question in my mind.  “Yeah.  Everything’s in place.”

I nodded and reached a hand into my pocket.  I didn’t need to withdraw the phone in order to activate the stopwatch I’d set before leaving the Brooklands.  The slight vibration let me know that the countdown had started.  Then, with precious seconds literally ticking away out of sight, I led Sarah and Mila into the Strand, down the stairs, and into the heart of Asher’s power.

Chapter Ninety-Six

“You want to steal a train.”  Sarah’s words, precise and clipped, implied a question.  Her tone, however, made her disbelief unmistakably clear.

“Of course I don’t want to steal a train,” I said.  “I want to, uh…borrow a train.  We’ll give it back.  What would we even do with one outside of London?”

“I don’t even know what you want to do with this one.”

Sarah and I – as well as Michel, Mila, Billy, and the man he’d brought to push his wheelchair – stood outside of a squat building, in the City of Westminster, looking at the steel frame of a 1972 Stock train.  The train, aged and wizened as it was, stared back at us.

Alex was conspicuous by his absence.  It had taken all of the persuasiveness I possessed and a great deal of Sarah’s charm to convince Alex that forty-eight hours without sleep made him a liability.  He was resting in the Brooklands, now, while we moved onto the reconnaissance phase of the job.

“Explain,” Sarah said, after a few seconds.  “Slowly.”

“This track,” I said, pointing down the line, towards the dark tunnel that marked an entrance into the Underground, “runs all the way into Aldwych Station.  That station is used for location filming, like King’s Cross, except that it’s an older disused platform.  But, because movies sometimes need to use trains to get certain shots, someone in authority decided to keep this particular machine stabled here.  The tracks are kept in workable condition.”

“So you want to take this train from here,” Sarah pointed at the stable, “and drive it down to there.  You don’t think that’s the kind of thing that might tip Asher off?”

I shook my head.  “Ah, but the Hostel is still underground.  Any train is going to sound the same: loud, distracting, but ultimately something you’d have to learn to ignore, assuming you set up base in the area.”

“How are you going to move it?”

“If you can redirect some electricity to this third rail,” I said, “that should be enough to get a little bit of momentum.  From there, Michel just has to keep it from going literally off the tracks.”

Sarah pursed her lips.  “Okay.  And the escape?”

That’s the best part.”  I beamed at her.  “With a little bit of manual operation, it’s entirely possible to reconnect this dead track to the Piccadilly line.”

“So we use the train to get into platform five,” Sarah said.

“Yep.”

“Disembark and find our way into platform six.”

“Uh huh.”

“Figure out where Ally’s being kept and contrive some way to get her away from Asher without getting either her or ourselves killed.”

“Correct.”

“And then sneak an entire subway train away from platform five again, by connecting it to one of the busiest lines in London so that we can use it as a distraction.”

I nodded.  “Yeah, that’s about the size of it.”

A dry chuckle came from Mila.  I didn’t know how she managed to produce the noise, considering that her mouth was occupied by an oversized Cadbury Egg, but she pulled it off anyway.  She bisected the candy with her incisors and swallowed fully half of it in one go.  “You’ve got to admit,” she said, around the other half, “it isn’t even the craziest thing he’s thought of this week.”

“And,” Billy added, “you’ve got to appreciate the artistry of it.”

Sarah gave both of them a positively baleful look.  “Your commentary is greatly appreciated,” she said, in a tone which seemed to carry a great many emotions, none of which were appreciation.  She turned back to me.  “So, excepting the considerable number of flaws that I can’t even imagine yet, there are some obvious holes in your plan.”

“I was hoping you might be willing to help us figure out the fine points,” I said.  “This is, after all, your area of expertise.”

“Train robbery – literal train robbery – isn’t anybody’s forte, but let’s not get into that right now.”  She sipped from a can of Diet Coke in thought before she spoke again.  “Alright.  What do we do if Asher decides to move her?”

“I don’t know why he would.  If he was going to keep her in motion, he would have been doing that from the start.  Either you set up perfect mobile protections – redundancies, route changes, decoys, and so on – or you fortify a single location.  You don’t do both.”

“Okay.  And how do we find out where she is, specifically?  Billy, you said the Hostel used to house immigrant workers?”

He nodded.  “Yeah, that’s what I heard.  Don’t know anybody who could confirm that.”

“That’s fine.”  Sarah entered a few quick commands onto her tablet and pulled up a rough schematic.  “I couldn’t find an actual blueprint of the area online.  The best I could come up shows several different rooms on the first level and some dormitories above that.”

“The dorms would be our best bet,” I said.  “He’ll probably keep his men in the other offices, to seal off any avenues of entrance, should things go wrong.”

“And when things go wrong,” Sarah said, “that’s going to be how they keep us from getting back to the train.  Assuming everything goes perfectly up to that point.”

That thought bore further consideration.  After a few moments of thought, I perked up.  “What if we can pull them away from the dorms?”

“How would you do that?”

“Asher’s going to be at the exchange,” I mused aloud.  “That’s almost guaranteed to happen.  And he won’t want to miss the moment where I hand myself over.”  With only a slight vocal hiccup, I managed to keep myself from revealing anything about Avis.  I wouldn’t mind Alex knowing about her, but we would all be better off if Billy didn’t have any more details than necessary.

“So you provide enough of a distraction that he calls for backup which, ultimately, only serves to clear the path to Ally?”  Sarah gave a begrudging nod.  “That might work.  I’m sure you could be sufficiently irritating, if it came down to it.”

“With a smile on my lips,” I agreed.  “Problem, though: there’s no way to be absolutely sure he’ll be at the Hostel any other time than the exchange.”

Sarah took a second to process that and to work through the next few steps.  “And if we try to move the time of the exchange, Asher’s going to realize that we’ve got something in mind.  Which will probably lead to him moving the location.”

“Or killing the girl and cutting his losses,” Mila said.

Everyone turned to look at her.  Michel’s expression was pure horror; Billy’s and Sarah’s faces both creased into stricken shock; and I couldn’t muster any particular emotion other than frank disbelief.  Billy’s man, however, merely seemed disinterested.

Mila calmly unwrapped another Cadbury egg.  This time, she tore a large part of it instead of attempting to consume it in one bite.  “What?  We’re all thinking it.”

“We weren’t yet,” I said, “but you do make a good point.  Asher’s going to assume that we’re planning something.  This idea is crazy enough that it’s not the sort of thing he’d see coming, but if he starts thinking that he might have been out-played, he’ll just change the terms of conflict.  Either by changing venues or by escalating it to a point where we can’t think clearly.”

“Escalating?” Sarah asked.  A heartbeat later, her eyes widened.  “You mean Julianna?”

“Or Suzie, maybe.  Your family has considerable personal protection, so they’re probably beyond his reach, but I want to stress probably here.  If Hill’s involved, that’s a pretty decent amount of power that might be used to bribe a few guards.  If he’s doing this with the Magi’s backing?”  I whistled.

“And if he’s doing it on his own?”

“If he’s doing it on his own,” I said, “that just means he’ll get more creative, even if he can’t necessarily go bigger.  Either way, the last thing we want to do is alter the terms, especially if we have even the slightest idea how to cheat them as they stand.”

Sarah let a vague, noncommittal sound rumble its way out of her throat.  “If we can’t change the date of the exchange, we’ll have to get it absolutely perfect the first time.  Any mistakes and…”  Instead of finishing that thought, Sarah gestured in Mila’s direction.

“I know.  But I’m not seeing any other options.  Anything subtler might not make it into or out of the Hostel in time.  Anything less subtle runs the very real risk of giving him enough time to counter what we’re doing.”

“Hmm.”  Sarah drummed her fingers across the surface of her tablet, then used her thumb and index fingers to zoom in on a particular part of the map.  “What about this wall?  It isn’t connected to anything load-bearing, but it could provide a little bit of extra assurance.”

I examined the portion of the map that Sarah had highlighted.  “Between the canteen and these offices?  How would that help?”

“Additional distraction.  Plus, we wouldn’t have to get past the guards.  If we could just get into one of the offices and blow out a few walls, we’d have a clean shot to the ramp right here.”  She slid her finger along the diagram until she reached a part of the map labeled ‘track level.’

“Billy, you said that the Hostel was used as a bomb shelter?” Mila asked.

“Yes mum, I did.”

“So it stands to reason that the walls are not the sort of flimsy things that can be easily destroyed?”

Billy nodded.

Mila turned to Sarah.  “Do you have any particular expertise in explosives?”

Sarah shook her head.

“Do you?” Mila asked, shifting her attention over to Billy.

“Not my area, no,” Billy replied.  “Possibly someone at the House, but I’d be shocked, to say the least.”

“Well, I don’t,” Mila said.

I tilted my head and lifted an eyebrow at that.  “Something you aren’t an expert with?”

“My Farsi’s also a little rusty,” she replied, a touch more defensively than I would have expected.  “And I couldn’t carry a tune in a barrel.”  I raised my hands in the signal for ‘I surrender,’ and she sighed.  “Someone else on the…team handled the explosives, when I was still working with Aiden.  My skills lay in other areas.”

A few moments of pregnant silence passed without comment from any corner, until I cleared my throat.  “Well, I know someone who might be able to help.”

Sarah drew the appropriate connections within a heartbeat.  “Anton?  You’re sure you want to get him involved?”

“He’s trustworthy,” I replied.  “And he already knows that Alex has a kid.  He isn’t about to be invited to their house for Christmas dinner, but he’s close enough to Alex that he’d want to help.”

“If you pull him into this, though…how sure are you that you aren’t going to get the other Russians – Stani and the other two – involved, too?”

I hesitated before replying.  “I’m not sure.  But you think the explosives are a good idea?”

Sarah took a few moments before responding with a single, sharp nod of her head.  “Yeah.  Yeah, I really think they are.  If we’re doing this, then we can’t risk wasting time dealing with anyone that we don’t absolutely have to deal with.”

Internally, I noted the change in her tone.  She was onboard with the idea, if she’d already moved onto the process of strengthening the general outline.

“Then we’re going to need an expert.”  My thoughts travelled back to St. Petersburg: to fire, and screams, and many long nights of shallow sleep.  “This isn’t the kind of thing we want to wing.”

Sarah considered that for a second or two before she gave her assent.  “Alright.  Do you have some way to get in contact with him that isn’t necessarily going to alert the Russians?”

“There’s an email address, I think, but I don’t remember it.”

She waggled her tablet at me.  “Pretty sure I can find it from this.  Give me a second.”

Sarah set to work digging through the vast network of email addresses and fake dot-coms she’d built over the years.  While she did that, the rest of us stood around awkwardly.  “So,” Billy said, shifting his weight so that he faced Mila.  “I put out some feelers about this ‘flurpitine’ thing you’re looking into.”

She immediately perked up, a third Cadbury egg slipping free from her fingers as she whirled on Billy.  “What?  What’d you find out?”

“Nothing for certain, you see.  It’s hard to get anything concrete when all I’ve got is a name, without the faintest bit of bloody context.”  He waited, hoping that someone would take that blatant conversational bait.  When we all let it dangle there, untouched, he gave Mila a slight smile and continued.  “Seems a man with some distinctive burn scars has been pushing some of the local dealers to get into the pharmaceutical game.”

“Asher’s getting the drugs?” I asked.  “Why would the Things have known about that?”

“I don’t know anything about Asher, except for what you told me,” Billy said, “but I did start wondering why the sudden increase in activity in that market.  Now, back when I was working side-by-side with Hill, there’d be some high rollers who had their particular choice of drug.  Usually something high-end or designer that wasn’t normally available, so we’d have to work a little harder to get our hands on it, see?”

“I’m following,” Mila said.

“Now, no one had any interest in flurpitine before a couple days ago, maybe a week.  All of a sudden, everyone’s being put on high alert to horde any of it they can get their hands on.”

“What changed?”  I wondered aloud.  Then, an instant later, “Aiden changed.”

“Aiden?”  Billy’s lips twisted into an off-center pout.  “That the guy who came after you lot at the processing plant?”

“Uh…yes and no.  Let’s settle on ‘involved in the processing plant,’ and leave it at that for right now.  The story gets complicated.”

Billy shrugged.  “Fine by me.  Anyway, I let my curiosity get the better of me.  I don’t have a lot of contacts left outside of the city – Hill made a point to take care of the ones he knew about when we ‘parted ways’ – but there’s still a few who like me enough to take a call.  And they said there’s been a string of business like that, all across Asia and Europe.  Sudden interest in flurpitine, then it dies off.”

“Is he moving?” Michel asked.  “Aiden, I mean.”

“He is a mercenary,” I said.  “It would make sense.  Wherever he goes, there’s got to be a specific supply of that particular drug.  But why?”

While there had been other things on my mind at the time, I vaguely recalled what Sarah had told me outside of Scotland Yard the previous night.  In addition to its uses as a pain reliever, there had been some early clinical trials that suggested it might have some ability to combat the symptoms of Mad Cow Disease.  My knowledge on the specifics of that particular illness was vanishingly small, but it certainly sounded like something no one – least of all of a mercenary whose life often depended on the ability to make split second decisions and on their martial prowess – could afford to leave untreated.  The idea, however, that Aiden was suffering from a chronic illness, the likes of which could trigger a national panic by its mere mention, was absurd.

Although, my life had been nothing but absurd since the Lady had deigned to lay her hands on it.

“He might be sick,” I said.  “Sarah was looking into it earlier.  Aiden might be suffering from something…chronic.  If he is, there’s a chance that he’s taking the drugs on a regular basis to stave off the other effects.”

“You think he is self-medicating?” Michel asked.

“He might have been doing that before he decided to recruit Mikhail,” I said, then remembered that Michel hadn’t been on comms during the original meeting with Billy at the Halfway House in the middle of a black market.  “Sorry, that’s the guy Mila didn’t recognize, back at the manor house.  Who, as it turns out, might be…I don’t know, his doctor?”

Mila turned and impaled me with the force of her gaze. “What does he have?”

“This is just an idea.  I’m not even sure if it’s possible –“

“What,” she repeated, “does he have?”

I sighed.  “Mad Cow.  I think.  Maybe.”

A dozen emotions flickered across her face, too fast and too varied for me to do more than track every third change.  Tension melted into fury into satisfaction into, paradoxically, grief.

The calm, emotionless mask settled back into place, however.  “Oh,” she said.  “What are the symptoms of that?”

“She would know more than me,” I said, hooking a thumb in Sarah’s direction.  “Ask her to give you a rundown when we’re back at the hotel.”

Mila nodded, without saying another word, and Sarah chose that moment to raise her voice.  “Alright, well…alright.”

I gave our bodyguard another few seconds of consideration before I turned to Sarah.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Stani wasn’t lying when he said that Anton was busy,” she said.  “He was collecting supplies, in case he needed to make something go boom.  When you met up with Stani and his crew, he just sort of waited for other orders.”

“Orders?”

She shrugged.  “It’s hard to get tone out of email, especially when you’re talking to a non-native speaker, but I get the impression that he’s working with Stani.  Like, as a partner.”

The word choice there threatened to bring a ghostly smile to my lips, but I smothered it.

“Anyway,” Sarah continued, “as soon as I told him what happened, he said that he’s in.  The problem, though…”

“Problem?  Another problem?  Imagine that.”

She gave me a withering, fake smile.  “The problem is the lack of blueprints.  I can’t find any information online about how strong the walls are, what they’re made of, which ones are load-bearing and which ones aren’t.  And, if I can’t find them, then I can’t tell them to Anton.”

“So?”

“He’s in,” Sarah said, “but he’s got to come with us.  He can use the train to store whatever tricks of the trade he’s going to need to blow a hole into the wall without dropping the entire damn train system on our heads, I guess.”

“And Stani won’t miss him?”

She shrugged.  “We’ve got a couple of days to figure out to sneak a train into a disused train station, steal our friend’s only daughter back, and then get out without starting a mass panic.  Whether or not Stani’s feelings get hurt because we borrowed his bomb-maker ranks very low on my ‘concern’ scale.”

“That is…a very valid point.”

“He’s going to be there,” Mila said.

That pronouncement brought another blanket of silence over all of us.  There wasn’t any need to ask who ‘he’ was.

She kept speaking.  “If this is part of Asher’s plan, and he’s expecting you to try something, then you’ve got to know he’s going to take special precautions.  Aiden is…a very special precaution.  And I…”  She trailed off there.

“I’m not going to lie and say that I’m not worried about,” I said, “but I don’t doubt that we can figure something out.  You don’t even have to come; if someone starts shooting, we’re probably all screwed anyway.”

Mila’s eyes came to life, blazing with pure vitality.  “If you’re going in, I’m going in.  That’s my job.”

I raised my hands to placate her.  “Alright, then.  So that makes…what?  Me, you, Sarah, Michel, and Anton?”

Billy and his men moved slightly away from us.  “Glad to see you aren’t including me too, mate,” he said.  “I’ve got other things to take care of and early suicide isn’t on the to-do list, is it?”

“Fine.  The five of us, and we’ve got one week to get the timing on this down to an absolute science.”

Somewhere far away from us, carried to our ears by the wind and favorable acoustics, the sound of a train leaving its station came wafting over the landscape.  Its timing seemed both poetic and prophetic.

“Now leaving for Crazy Town,” I said in a soft voice, more to myself than to my comrades.  “All aboard.”

Chapter Ninety-Five

Instead of meeting Billy at the Halfway House, it was decided that the light of day warranted a more appropriate rendezvous point.  No one particularly wanted to let Billy know about the Brooklands, or to offer him even the barest chance of uncovering our current false identities, so we chose a more neutral grounds, seven miles south of the hotel.  We gave him plenty of time to prepare transportation before we headed out ourselves, and we still managed to beat him to Hatchlands Park by nearly thirty minutes.

While the outdoors had never held any particular allure for me, even I was able to objectively appreciate its beauty.  Over four hundred acres of green grass and deep blue water went a long way towards mitigating the otherwise brisk early winter temperatures.  Flowers in a greater variety than I could begin to guess at populated the hills and the lakeshore, bursting with color in defiance of the weather.  I found myself wishing that I’d worn the button camera, just so that Sarah could get a view of the spectacle.  My traitorous mind, roused by that idle thought, began to plan a return visit to the park when spring had fully returned.  I shut that down before it could develop beyond the barest bud of an idea.

Mila, Alex, and I used cash to purchase our tickets and walked in a wide circle around the property.  On our second circuit, I recognized Billy as one of his men – a younger man, who was considerably wider than he was tall – pushed his wheelchair onto the path.

Billy raised a hand in greeting when he saw us and his man angled the wheelchair in our direction.  We met, exchanged pleasantries, and then started our third circuit down the Hatchlands’ walking path.

“Well, this is a massive bloke you’ve brought with you, eh?  You’ve got a lot of different mates, innit?” Billy asked.  His accent was different now; he sounded like someone from Essex, which stood out in stark contrast to the myriad accents he’d used the previous night.  I was beginning to suspect that he modified his mannerisms in order to make his men – wherever they happened to hail from – more comfortable.  Even if I was wrong, the inflection and slang wasn’t indecipherable.

“I’m a friendly person,” I said.  “People just flock to my side.  It’s more of a curse, really.”

Billy threw his head back and laughed.  “Don’t know that I’d go that far, bruv, but you certainly ain’t the bad sort.  That job you did was a bloody sight, it was.”

“Glad to help.  Did you get everything you wanted out of that?  I know it didn’t really go…the way we’d planned.”

“Got everything and more,” Billy said.  His eyes narrowed slightly, and the laughter went out of them. “Why?”

“Just wondering if I might be able to use some of this newfound friendship and ask you a couple of questions.”

He tilted his head to a shallow angle in thought.  “You calling in a favor, then?”

“Not a favor,” I said.  “But some questions I’d rather you not repeat, if possible.”

Billy considered that for several more seconds.  Finally, he looked up and over his shoulder at the man pushing his wheelchair.  “Go make sure the car’s fit to ride,” he said.  “Might have to bomb it later.”

While that particular bit of slang did go over my head, it apparently meant something to Billy’s man.  A curious expression passed over his face and, when Billy said nothing else in elaboration, he shrugged and left the wheelchair in the middle of the path.  Billy’s man walked back the way he’d came and disappeared around a bend before too long.

“One of you mind helping me out?” Billy asked Mila, when his man was completely out of sight.  The accent, predictably, was less intense now.  Still British, but nowhere near as thick.

“You can’t do it yourself?” Mila countered.

“I can,” Billy said, shrugging, “but it’s always easier not to.  Might as well ask.”

Mila gave him a steady look, her expression entirely unchanging and impassive, until Alex eventually sighed and moved behind Billy’s wheelchair.  We started back down the path.

I reached into my pocket and removed what was either a very small tablet or a very large phone, then passed it over to Billy.  “Take a look at that and tell me what you see?”

Before leaving the Brooklands, Sarah had neatly excised any direct mention of Alex or his daughter, as well as anything that might imply what Asher wanted.  The video, therefore, was mostly a mishmash of incomplete sentiments and dangling phrases, but the situation was already too dicey to risk information leaking out before we were ready to act.

I prepared myself to accept the possibility that Billy might not have anything to offer, but was pleasantly surprised when he looked up after only a few minutes.  “That’s the Hostel,” he said.  “What’ve you got going on there?”

“The Hostel?”  I repeated, after allowing myself a few seconds of dumbfounded confusion.  “What’s the Hostel?”

“Used to be a tube station,” Billy said.  “Closed years back, on account of an infrequent customer base.”

An abandoned subway station did have possibilities as a holding area.  From what I knew of the London Underground, stations and landings branched off from main lines like the entire network of tunnels was some sort of living organism.  Occasionally, these stations did well enough to serve as starting points for their own growing lines but it was more common for them to close after enough years of disuse.

There were some law abiding individuals who made a point of scouting out these areas and, of course, people whose interests ran closer to my side of the tracks.  A sufficiently abandoned one might serve nicely to keep someone out of sight, yet within relatively easy reach.

“How do you know about it?” I asked.

Billy squeezed his eyes shut for a few moments, clearly digging around in his own memory for an answer.  “I had a business associate who lived out in Piccadilly,” he said, finally.  “This was before that station shut down, but I used to take the tube on platform five out to handle the business.”

“And that’s the Hostel?”

Billy opened his eyes and shook his head.  “No, platform five was a different thing.  The Metro authority kept that up to date, far as I could tell.  At least, until they shut it down, I mean.  Platform six on the other hand…that’s what we used to call the Hostel, yeah.”

“Why’d you call it that?”

He hesitated.  “This wasn’t my business,” he said carefully, “but there were some less savory individuals who used to put up workers there.”

“Workers?”

“The kind that might not be properly documented,” Billy clarified.

Immigrant workers, then.  The Hostel, as Billy called it, would have served as some sort of boarding house for the poor and penniless immigrants smuggled into the country by one criminal interest or another.  That elevated its likelihood as Asher’s current base of operations several notches.  Any area can be used as a hideout, but an area with previously proven value was more difficult to easily locate.

“Okay,” I said slowly.  With only a barely noticeable missed step, I pulled my encrypted cell phone out of my pocket and sent a text to Sarah with those two words – “the Hostel” – and then turned my attention back to Billy.  “Can you tell me anything else about it?”

“That depends on why you want to know,” he said.  “You seem like a nice enough fella, but I’m not about to get in bed with anyone who works that far in the dark, if you catch my drift.”

“What?”  I blinked, sputtered, and blinked again.

“I’ve been a lot of things in my time but nothing like that.”  Billy’s eyes were hard.  “So I’m going to have to ask about the, uh…nature of your interest in that particular area.”

I couldn’t risk glancing at Alex, but Michel – who had remained silent so far – did not possess my same self-control.  As soon as the question passed Billy’s lips, Michel flinched and looked directly over Billy’s shoulder.  When Billy turned to follow Michel’s gaze, Alex tried gamely, but he couldn’t succeed in hiding the stricken and pained lines in his face.

“It’s got to do with this one?”  Billy asked.

“I…”

Alex saved me from dissembling – either through a direct lie or some other form of misdirection – by clearing his throat.  “Devlin,” he said, in his booming baritone.  “Can we trust him?”

“Trust is a little strong,” I replied.  “But I think we’re working towards the same goals, at least.”

Alex nodded.  “My daughter,” he said to Billy, without any fanfare.  “He has my daughter.”

It was Billy’s turn to sit, stunned into muteness, for several seconds.  We turned a corner and found ourselves facing an idyllic pond.  It was cold, but not quite cold enough for frost to cover the surface of the water.  We stopped and looked out at the scene.

“Hill?” Billy asked finally, quiet and without any of his customary impishness or his earlier suspicion.

“No,” I said.  “But it might as well be Hill.  The guy that I’m after took her.”

“Why?”  Before I could answer, Billy shook his head and waved me back into silence.  “No, that’s a silly question.  He did it to lure you in, didn’t he?  Take the girl, so you’ve got to go wherever he wants, whenever he wants you to.  That about the size of things?”

There wasn’t any conceivable way that Billy might deduce the existence of Avis from the scant clues he had to work with.  My rudimentary understanding of her abilities was enough that I knew anyone would literally kill to have her services for their own.  I made the call on the spot.

“That’s about the size of it, yeah.”

“So the video was cut to hell because…?”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said, “but your organization doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation with me right now.  Someone leaked you bad intelligence and nearly got me and my team killed.  We made a decision to keep things as close to our figurative vests as possible.”

“No offense taken,” Billy said.  “You’re right and it’s probably the same thing I would have done, in the circumstances.”

“Do you have children?” Alex asked.

Billy gave a weak shrug, followed by an almost imperceptible shake of his head.  “Not anymore.”

“Ah.”

Neither man said anything else for a long time and all of us – Mila, Michel, Alex, Bily, and myself – stared out over the pond in contemplative silence.

“They do some filming on platform five,” Billy said, after what felt like an eternity.  His voice was rougher now than I’d heard it before.  He swallowed before he continued.  “I can have one of my men…no, I can bring you anything else I come up with.  How long do you have before your man escalates the matter?”

The question was directed at me.  “A week,” I said.  “I’m not planning on giving him the opportunity to dictate how this goes, though.”

“You think that’s a good idea?  Antagonizing him might make things worse.”

“I have it on good authority that things are going to get worse, either way.  If that’s unavoidable, I’d prefer to get as many innocents out of the way as possible beforehand.”

Another stretch of silence.

“Anything you need, just ask.  If Hill’s involved with this – hell, even if he isn’t – I want to help fix this.  You understand?”

I nodded.  “We’ll keep that in mind.  But for right now, all we need is information.  Figuring out how to play this comes later.”

My phone vibrated.  I took it out and checked the display.  Sarah had replied to my text with a picture of railway lines and her own message – “Does he mean this?” – underneath the image.  I showed the screen to Billy.

“That’d be where to find the Hostel,” he said.  “See, this part right here?”

He pointed at one of four lines.  There wasn’t any discernible difference to me, but I trusted to his experience in the matter.

“This is the Piccadilly line now,” Billy continued.  “The lower level takes you south down the line and this one – the landing’s a floor up, see? – takes you north.”

“Which was in platform five?”

“None of them.  See, those two lines are still running today.”  He moved his finger to the end of one line.  “This is where platform five would be.  That was the, uh…I think it was the Aldwych platform?  Would’ve served the shuttle between Holborn and Aldwych.  Might have been the Holborn platform, come to think of it.”

I twirled my finger in a loose circle, giving Billy the universal sign for ‘keep going.’

“Let’s call it Aldwych,” he said.  “Anyway, that closed up in ’94 and the place got boarded up.  I think they used it as storage.  And this,” Billy moved his finger once again, “is platform six.”

“When was that closed?”

“Officially?”  He lifted his shoulders, then let them fall.  “I know the military used it to ride out some of the Blitz.  Beyond that, no clue.  Your lady friend might be able to find some information on that.  All I know is that it’s been abandoned for a long time; last I saw, the whole platform might as well have been from a century ago.”

I let this new information bounce around in my head, seeking connections wherever they may be found.  Nothing particularly inspiring came back.  If the Hostel had been used as shelter during World War II, there was little chance of drilling or bombing our way in, even if we had the resources or the time to make that approach anything more than a fanciful dream.  Sarah might have better luck pinpointing accurate blueprints for the platform, especially since it was now just another abandoned station in the veins of the London Underground’s convoluted transport system, but I didn’t want to start holding out hope for a miracle.

“They filmed movies there?”  Michel asked.

“Not at the Hostel,” Billy said, patiently, “but on platform five.  I think you can see it in a lot of films, actually.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Platform five is pretty, but nothing’s running down there anymore.  So you don’t have to worry about getting permits to shut down the tube for a few hours.”

Mila kicked a rock into the pond with both considerable force and admirable accuracy.  It skipped four times across the surface of the water before it finally sank.  “Anything I would have seen?” she asked, without looking up.

Billy looked at her if she had asked the stupidest question imaginable.  “I don’t know,” he eventually said.  “Superman, I think?  That zombie movie?  I don’t have a lot of opportunity to go the movies.  Is this really important right now?”

I opened my mouth to voice a similar sentiment.  My jaw continued to hang open as an idea went from the fetal stage into something resembling a solid, workable concept.  “Wait.  Superman?  Which Superman?”

“The bad one?”

I closed my eyes.  I’d seen that movie.  Billy was right; it was, by far, the worst of the lot, but its relative quality wasn’t what my mind had caught onto.  “They filmed some of that here?  That movie had barely any budget.  They couldn’t have…”

My fingers began to fly across my phone, sending a quick question to Sarah.  Mila watched me work for a moment before turning a smug look to Billy.  “That’s why I asked,” she said.  “He’s got a weird talent for pulling useful information out of completely random facts.”

“What did you think of?” Alex asked me.

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.  Maybe nothing.  Maybe something.  It’s just an idea, right now.  I’d rather not talk about it until it turns out that I’ve actually got something to share.”

He accepted that with a grudging nod.  Michel had barely spoken since we’d left the Brooklands, according to the plan we’d discussed before leaving.  Mila, of course, appeared perfectly at ease, despite the stakes.  Billy, who had known me only for the barest possible time, opened his mouth to ask for more clarification and I silenced him with a single raised finger.

“I’ve seen both of those movies,” I said.  “Neither of which had the budget to set up a lot of complicated machinery for camerawork.  I know that Asher isn’t a huge moviegoer, so I doubt he’d even think about the significance of the place, but it’s something I could swear I’ve heard about.”

My phone informed me of Sarah’s response.  I looked at the screen and smiled.

“What?” Alex asked.  “What is it?”

“I think there might be a way in.  Or at least, a way to get close enough to figure out the next step.”

“What is it?” Alex’s excitement was contagious and I felt the smile on my face stretch even wider.

“I should know better by now,” Mila said, “but even I’m kind of curious what I said that triggered your Eureka moment.  And, you know, what the moment actually means for the rest of us?  I’m not looking forward to breaking another rib.”  She gestured vaguely with her cast and sling.  “Or an arm.”

“No worries about that.  You aren’t the key part of this,” I said.  I turned to Michel.  “You are.”

“Me?”  He blinked several times.  “What do you need me to do?”

I checked the phone again as Sarah sent me another text, providing additional details that might prove critical later.  “That depends,” I said.  “Do you think you can drive a train?”