Tag Archives: Billy

Part 4: Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Eighty-Five

Scotland Yard – it had been New Scotland Yard before my prison sentence – was a monolith of a building.  Eight stories tall, not counting sub-levels or basements, constructed of steel and glass stretching into the sky at the edge of the Thames.  Billy sat in the passenger’s seat of the van, while one of his men drove slowly past the front entrance to the building.  Sarah and I sat in the back, along with the rest of our ragtag group.  Iosif had turned one of Billy’s wheelchairs into a sort of rotating seat for Sarah to work from.  She was able to move backwards and forwards, inputting commands on any of three different monitors, with relative ease and she took full advantage of the mobility.

I tried to remain as still as possible during the ride.  The pressure in my temples had subsided from a pounding roar to an uncomfortable, occasional throbbing reminder but I didn’t want to risk exacerbating that injury with any sudden movement.  Billy’s man kept the van from rattling too much, although the occasional pothole along the way did cause the pain to spike a few times before we finally rolled to a soft stop.

“Scotland Yard,” Billy said, in a grandiose, tour guide’s voice.  “Only recently moved back to its original home, here at the Green Building…where it belongs, if you ask me.  If you look to the left, you’ll see a bit of the London Eye; to your right, you can see the building where our fair city’s noble policemen keep the city of London safe from scoundrels and the like.”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” I asked him.

“If you can’t enjoy your work,” Billy replied, “you ought to get into a new line of business, don’t ya think?”

I couldn’t really disagree with that sentiment.

God,” Sarah said, using her motorized chair to slide back to a monitor in the center of the van’s right wall.  “I’ve got to deal with two of you now?”

I raised both of my hands in mock surrender. “What did I say?”

She looked away from her work, probably preparing some suitably scathing response, but stopped as a thought occurred to her.  “Wait.  You said they just moved here, Billy?”

“A year or two ago, yeah,” Billy confirmed.  “From what the papers said, the old building was too expensive to renovate, so they decided to come back here.  Doesn’t make much sense to me, but I’m not a paper-pusher, so…”

“Well,” Sarah said, interrupting Billy as if he wasn’t still talking, “that might make this a lot easier.”  She slid over to the farthest monitor from the back of the van and began fervently searching through Google pages.  A moment later, the display changed from the recognizable search engine to a black screen with green text.  I didn’t know what that meant, in the technical sense of things, but I recognized it as the screen Sarah did most of her hacking from.

“Care to explain for the class?” I asked a minute later, when I realized that she had no intention of elaborating.

Sarah answered without looking away from the monitor.  “I remember reading that they were going to move back to the old building, but I didn’t look into the timeline.  Honestly, I figured they were finished with renovations, because the old building sold almost a year ago.  But if they’re still constructing – and that would explain the traffic in the area, considering the time of night – then that means there might be a simpler way of getting our recon done.”

“Simpler than just asking someone for information?” Billy asked.

I arched an eyebrow.  “That was your plan?  Just ask someone to tell you everything we need to know?”

He shrugged.  “Nobody thinks twice about the bloke in a wheelchair.”

From his words, and the slightly jocular tone, it would have been easy to miss the way his eyes darkened or how his fist clenched a little tighter for an instant.  I decided not to pursue that point.  “You’re thinking about the construction crews?” I asked Sarah, instead.

She nodded.  “And, if one of Billy’s men can get close enough to one of the architects, I might be able to access that network and pull the building plans.  It won’t be perfect, because there’s no way of knowing which parts of the station are already occupied and in use, but it’ll give me a layout to work with.  When Michel gets us into Scotland Yard’s computers, and I’ve got access to their cameras, I can lay one over the other, and I ought to be able to compile a real time view of who’s in the building and where they are.”

Billy’s fist clenched once more.  I might have been the only one in the van in a position to see the movement.  “So, nothing for me to do, then?” He asked.

Sarah glanced away from the computer and gave Billy a brief, dazzling smile.  “Of course there’s something for you to do.  Any ‘good’ crew of workers needs someone to actually keep them on task.  How good of a foreman can you play?”

Billy was momentarily taken aback, both by the offer and the genuine warmth Sarah displayed.  It wasn’t hard to combine his reaction now to the aggression he’d shown earlier.  I didn’t know if Sarah had somehow guessed at his sensitivities, or if she’d picked up on other clues while I was sleeping.

“I can do that,” Billy said.  “So long as no one asks too many questions, I don’t see why that’ll be a problem.”

“Are you kidding?  I want people to ask questions,” Sarah said.  “That would be the best possible scenario.  With everything going on out by the Halfway House, can you imagine how much attention a disabled foreman could draw if someone had the idiocy to actually say something about it?”

I expected Billy’s fist to clench once more, or for his voice to tighten.

Sarah turned back to her work and spoke while she worked.  “I’m not just throwing you a bone here.  Getting attention away from Michel is one of the key parts of the job, and you’re the best person for it.  So, if you’re going to be touchy about it, let me know now, and I’ll come up with something else.”

“Touchy?” Billy’s smile widened.  “Why, I’d say that plan’s definitely got some legs to it.”

I groaned and, a moment later, everyone in the van did the same.

“What did I do in a past life,” Sarah mused, “to deserve such devastatingly witty team members?”

Billy gave her a sage look.  “Must have been your excellent karma up to this point.”

Sarah responded with a silence that somehow managed to be more pointed than any verbal reply I could imagine.  After a few frigid seconds of that, she spoke to Michel.  “We’re going to let you out here.  Do you remember what you’re supposed to do when you get inside?”

The Frenchman nodded.  “Find a computer as soon as possible and put this into one of the USB ports.”  He fished a flash drive out of his coat pocket and held it up.

“The program I put on there will self-execute,” Sarah said, “and it’s a very small file.  You’ll only need a minute, if that, before you can take the drive out.  I’ll start working on a way to get Mila out of custody and you can start looking for the evidence room.”

“What am I to do when I get there?”

“Wait?”  Sarah’s intonation made the statement into a question.  “I don’t know what security they already have in place to protect that particular area, but I’ll have a better idea about how to bypass it once I’m past their firewall.”

She did not say anything past that point, but I could hear the unspoken thoughts that followed as clearly as if she’d said the words.  There were so many possible points that could go horribly wrong before Sarah had the cameras.  Much of the early part of the plan rested squarely on Michel’s ability to improvise his way past any obstacles or complications.  Things would become simpler for him once we had greater access, but until then…

“I understand,” Michel said.  I squeezed his shoulder in silent support as he moved past me and opened the back door of the van.  There weren’t any officers nearby to question why a uniformed cop was exiting what was obviously a civilian van, thank God.

“Keep your earbud on and your camera pointed forward,” Sarah advised.  “We’ll give you the signal to make your approach, as soon as we’ve got a distraction going on around the back.  That should keep anyone from asking too many questions.”

The unspoken ‘hopefully’ was so loud in my head that I averted my eyes for a moment.

Michel nodded once more and closed the door to the van.  Sarah drew in her breath and let it out slowly.  “Take us to the back of the place,” she said.  “That’s where the construction crews should be working.”

While Billy’ s man drove us around, I slipped my own earbud in and activated it.  The double pop let me know that I was connected.  In a short break between fervent typing, Sarah passed earbuds out to everyone in the van, and they followed suit.

“She’s going to keep us muted from each other, for the moment,” I explained, as Billy and his guys switched the earbuds on.  “By and large, Sarah will be the only one with full access to the comms, but we’ll link you in, as needed.”

“Not exactly true,” Sarah said.  I raised an eyebrow.  “Remember, I’m going in this time.  You’ll have to man the communications system while I’m out.”

A brief examination of the monitors arrayed against the opposite wall of the van was intimidating enough that blood began to recede from my cheeks.  “That’s…probably not the best plan.  Are you sure you can’t just…you know…”

“What?  Carry a laptop into Scotland Yard and just hope that no one asks why I’m constantly talking to myself?”  Sarah shook her head.  “The communications system isn’t complicated.  I’ll give you a quick overview before I go in, but it’s mostly point and click.  All you’ll need to do is keep an eye on the cameras – I’ll put those on this monitor right here – and connect the lines if someone needs to share quick information.  Honestly, you could just keep all the lines disconnected and handle the crosstalk by yourself, if it’s really that much of a problem.”

“No, no, I can handle it.”  The external confidence I displayed was a good deal larger than the internal confidence I actually felt, but I locked my doubts away.  If Michel could grift his way into the headquarters of police operations here in London; if Sarah could go into the field, for the first time since we’d met at that benefit so many years ago; if Billy and his guys could risk appearing in public, on the off chance that they might be able to help someone they barely even knew…well, then learning a little bit about computers was the least I could contribute.

“There’s a dumbed down version of the same program on that smartphone,” Sarah said.  “Again, just in case things go sideways and you have to get out of the van.”

“Dumbed down?  How dumbed down are we talking?”

“It’s got two options: complete mute or completely active.  Either no one hears anything or everyone hears everything.”

I drummed a quick beat into the floor of the van.  “What are the pros and cons to that?”

Sarah shrugged.   “In case something like the processing plant happens again, I figured it’d be useful if we could quickly connect all the lines without having to waste time doing it manually.  Especially since you’ll be the one who has to link everyone up, and you’re hardly an expert.  No offense.”

I shrugged back.  “None taken.”

“Be careful, though,” Sarah said.  “If you leave the van, that means you’ll be the only one with remote control over the communications system.  Basically, if you link us all up for some reason, you’re the only one who can separate the lines again.  So getting back to the van as soon as possible should be the priority.  Got it?”

I nodded my understanding back at her.

The occupants of the van sat in silence for the next minute or so, while Billy’s guy picked his way through traffic until we reached the rear of the Curtis Green building.  We could no longer see the Thames or the London Eye; instead, in place of the spectacular view, we were now confronted by the skeleton of a great building in progress.  Men in hard hats and bright orange vests milled aimlessly from one pile of rubble to the next.  Sledgehammers, huge wrenches, and other assorted tools were scattered across the ground and a persistent cloud of thick gray dust floated in the air.

I was a little surprised to see anyone still working – the sun was hours away from rising – but no one seemed to pay much attention as we pulled into an open space and parked.   “This should be close enough,” Sarah said.  “I can see their network, even if I can’t log onto their wireless yet.”

“So, just making sure,” Billy said, smirking slightly.  “You want me to make a show of things?”

“Keep everyone guessing as to exactly who you are,” I advised.  “People really don’t want to ask questions, and they’re perfectly content to assume someone else knows more about what’s going on than they do.  If anyone challenges you about your credentials, challenge them back or just imply that you’ll go over their head.”

“To who?”

I shook my head.  “No clue.  Doesn’t really matter, though.  Everybody’s got a boss.”

“And that’s who we want you to meet,” Sarah said.  She pointed at Billy’s phone on the dashboard and he handed it back to her.  She plugged a USB cord into the charging port and input some commands while she spoke.  “The higher up we can get, the more likely it is that we’ll find someone with access to the building’s blueprints.  As soon as we have that, assuming that people continue to be lazy about security, I’ll be able to give Michel specific directions through the station.”

“And what if I run into someone who is not stupid about security?”

Sarah scoffed in answer to that.  “You mean, what if pigs start to fly?”  She handed the phone back.  “Just get close enough and I’ll handle the rest.”

Normally, I would have pointed out the danger of invoking fate with that attitude, but she was right.  While the intricacies of Sarah’s digital work remained an enigma to me, I couldn’t deny that every job I’d pulled had taught me a single, inalienable fact: marks are always stupider than they think they are.  That wasn’t to say that I was necessarily smarter, but people react typically to similar stimulus.  Anyone working on the site of a major renovation job would want access to the plans and they wouldn’t want to go through a complicated login procedure every single time he or she needed to double-check something.

I glanced out of the window and saw that the workers nearest our van had moved over to an area closer to the building itself.  They had left behind a small pile of gear: hats, vests, and a tool-belt brimming with hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers, and the like.  “Alright, gentlemen,” I said.  “You’re up. You get the same advice as Michel; keep your earbud in.  I’ll call any audibles as I see them.  And don’t forget to turn on your cameras.”

Billy directed his men to help him into one of his wheelchairs and, with a little assistance from me, we lowered him to the ground.  Sarah handed me a clipboard with some generic plans clipped in place, and I passed that back to them, as well.  The men quickly slipped into the discarded safety gear, without any interference from the actual construction workers, and started to traverse the ground toward the building proper.

Billy was too far away for me to hear with my own unaided, but I could still see him as he approached a group of men taking what seemed to be a very late, or very early, lunch break.  Judging from the wild gesticulation coming from Billy, and the way the men scrambled to their feet, he must have opened up by calling them lazy.  These were third shift workers; I had little to no doubt that they’d want to move his complaint up the ladder as quickly as possible.

Within five minutes, I was proven correct.  A suited man in a hardhat approached Billy, his men, and the hapless construction workers.  He pointed at a clipboard in his hands; Billy responded by doing the same, except much more forcefully.

“What are they saying?”  I asked Sarah.

She switched the comms from her personal earbud to the van’s speaker system.

“You mean to tell me that no one gave you the updated plans?”  Billy was asking.

The suited man flinched slightly away from Billy.  “I think I’d know if they had – “

“If they had what?” Billy interrupted.  “They’d call down to tell you if there was a problem with the money?  Really?”

Several seconds of stunned silence.  I imagined the face of the suited man – stunned, confused, insulted –  so clearly that I felt I could almost see it.

“I’ve been in constant communication with the bosses,” the suited man said, “and I haven’t heard a thing about any changes.  In fact, I haven’t heard anything about you.  What did you say your name was?”

“And that,” Sarah said into the earbud, for Billy’s benefit, “is all I needed.  Your friend there is a foreman, but not one of the higher positioned ones, if his work ID is any indication.”

“How’d you get that?” I asked.

“The firm that handles the construction is moving to a more digital system,” she said.  “This guy would scan his phone to get access to anything inside of the building.”

“But…?”

“But,” Sarah continued, “if he isn’t physically at the offices, he just logs into the network remotely.  But that’s such a pain, so he went ahead and told his phone to just save the information.”

“People,” I said sagely, “continue to be stupid.”

“Imagine my surprise.”  Sarah grinned.  “Billy, I’ve got what I need.  He won’t be able to check your story unless I let him.  Keep him there, and start a distraction.”

Straining my eyes, I could see as Billy nodded his assent.  “So, what are you saying, exactly?” He asked the suited man.  “That someone in a wheelchair couldn’t possibly be a foreman on a construction site?”

“What?  That…that isn’t what I said,” the suited man replied.

“It sure sounded like that’s what you were saying,” Billy shot back.  “Go get your superior; I think I’d like to go over this with him.”

“I, uh…”

“Now!”

The suited man rushed off.  Billy maneuvered his wheelchair to face the group of men he’d accosted in the first place – he made the process considerably more difficult than it had to be, I noticed – and yelled at them to get back to work.

A noise drew my attention back to the monitor Sarah was working on.  The black screen and green text had been replaced by a blue screen with white lines drawn across it: the architectural plans for Scotland Yard’s renovation.

Sarah activated Michel’s line.  “Distraction is underway,” she said, “and I’ve got the blueprints.  You should make your approach now, and I’ll walk you through the layout.”

There was a stretch of tangible silence from Michel’s end of the line, before he cleared his throat.  “Roger that,” he said.

I leaned carefully against the inside wall of the van, and massaged my temples with the thumb and index fingers of my unbandaged hand.  The headache there was still manageable but I knew – knew it as an absolute certainty, like gravity, death, or taxes – that it would be far worse before everything was said and done.

Chapter Eighty-Four

I blinked at both Sarah and Michel.  “What?”

“She’s one of ours,” Sarah said.  “Nothing would have happened to her if she hadn’t been doing her job, keeping you safe.  I’ll be damned if I’m about to start abandoning people to the mercies of the criminal justice system now.  Especially considering what started all this, by which I mean Asher’s…flexible definition of loyalty.”

“This is what you wanted to do, no?” Michel added.  He scratched uncomfortably at the collar of his policeman’s uniform.

“I mean…yeah,” I said, “but I didn’t expect…I mean, I just figured that…”

Sarah dismissed my stuttering with a lazy hand.  “You’ve had this information for about five minutes.  I’ve been tracking her since I got on site, and I’ve been using that time to come up with some vague outline that might be good enough to get us into the building.”

“And from there?”

She shrugged.  “I’m starting to realize that there’s really no point in planning beyond the immediate next step.  The best laid plans, et cetera, et cetera.”

I glanced at the outline on Sarah’s screen.  While I understood the individual words written in the bubbles displayed there, the sum total of their meaning escaped me.  I blamed my mental fog on the head trauma.  “How are we going to do this, then?  Shouldn’t you get back to your command center in the Brooklands?”

Sarah shook her head.  “I tried to get into Scotland Yard’s network a while ago, when you first showed up at the black market.  Either they’ve changed protocols or they hired someone with half an idea about how to secure a system; the punchline is that I can’t get into their system unless I’m actually logged into their wireless.”

I gave her a blank look, which was only partly an affectation.  “In small words, for those of us recovering from serious head injuries?”

She rolled her eyes and responded in a forced, obnoxiously slow voice.  “I have to be within a few dozen yards of Interpol,” Sarah said.  “Maybe closer, maybe farther.  I’ll know more when I’m actually there.”

“How are you going to get a full setup close enough for that?  Is Sophie going to…I don’t know, rent out a nearby apartment building?”

Sarah opened her mouth, paused, and tilted her head.  “I…had not considered that.  But, no…even if she could pull that off – and I’m not sure she couldn’t – that’s a little too high profile for what I’ve got in mind.  Billy here volunteered his assistance and one of his personal vehicles.”

Now, I turned disbelieving eyes at the man in the wheelchair.  Billy spread his hands wide and pointed his palms at the ceiling.  “I’m a man of my word,” he said.  “You pulled off the job I sent you on, despite considerable complications.  More than that, you saw to it that my boys Chester and James got back here safe.”

“A kingpin with a conscience?”  Again, my thoughts travelled back to the elegant Lady and her personal giant.

Billy winced.  “Please, mate; I’m a businessman, and these are my associates and employees.  I look out for them, and they do the same for me.  You put yourself on the line for me and mine; throwing in a little aid to get your mate out of custody is the least I can do.”  He smiled wistfully.  “Besides, it’s been a while since I got to do anything in the field.  I’m actually looking forward to it.”

“You worked in the field?”

“Not as a thief,” Billy said.  He wheeled himself to the other side of the bed, closer to Sarah’s laptop.  “But I used to run for the previous king of this little hill.  Haven’t done anything since this happened, but I think I’ve still got what it takes.”

Sarah met my eyes, reading the unasked question contained within them, and nodded.  “We need people.  Stani went back to report to his superiors about the incident at the processing plant.”

“What about Iosif and Leonid?”

“He’s loaning them to us for the duration of this particular operation,” Sarah said.  “His words, exactly.  They aren’t exactly happy about the arrangement, but they’ve been following my orders so far.”

I didn’t understand what talents the bulky Russians might be able to provide.  Of course, I’d only seen them in situations where my life had been immediate danger so far, and they’d proven useful enough in Kiev and at the plant.

Sarah must have read confusion in my expression because she chuckled softly to herself.  “I’m not bringing them with us.  But the right-handed one is surprisingly good with electronics.”

“Iosif,” I said.

“You can tell them apart?”

“Oh, sure,” I replied.  “Iosif’s just a regular bundle of laughs.  Leonid’s more of the strong, silent type.”

Sarah searched my face for several seconds before realizing that I was kidding.  “Well, whatever.  I did use Sophie to transport some of the more sensitive components of my setup at the hotel out here, and the Russians are wiring it to the power supply in Billy’s van.”

In all the years we’d worked together, it had never occurred to me to convert Sarah’s setups from the stationary battle rooms she preferred to a more mobile setup.  Now that she’d thought of it on her own, it made sense as a permanent solution.  Ever since we’d landed in London, a good portion of our time had been spent transferring files from one system to another, or ensuring that the Lady hadn’t bugged our latest computer purchase.

“Your vans have special wiring?”  I asked Billy.

“Well, as you may have noticed, I have somewhat special requirements for transportation,” Billy said.  A part of my thoughts noticed that he rarely referred directly to his legs, or the resultant handicap.  Another question, perhaps, for a time when there were fewer immediate problems that required my attention.  “As it turns out, I had a model that your lovely lady here was able to repurpose.”

Sarah shot Billy a malevolent look.  “Are we going to have another talk about my name, and the consequences if you continue to not use it?”

He raised his hands in surrender.  “Sorry, sorry.  Force of habit, you understand.”

Sarah turned up her nose at Billy before returning her attention to me.  “I’ve got the general outline for the approach figured out.  We can probably use the same plan we talked about before; everyone’s on high alert, but Interpol and the local police department are all over the place dealing with the explosion at the plant.  As soon as the Russians finish setting up my station in the van, we’ll head over to the area and start fine-tuning from there.”

Michel had been very quiet since entering the room.  I directed my next question at him.  “And why, exactly, are you wearing a policeman’s uniform?”

“It is not exactly the uniform these police wear,” Michel said.  “But it is a close approximation.”

I sat back down on the bed and waited for an actual answer.

“When Michel stole the ID in the bar, I went ahead and cloned the cop’s cell phone,” Sarah said.  “He kept drinking for another few hours, judging from the security feeds, and I’ve traced his phone to an apartment almost thirty minutes away on a good night.”

“Meaning…?”

“Meaning,” Sarah said, “that Michel’s already got a cover we can use.”

I wanted desperately to protest to that idea, but it had too much merit to dismiss outright.  No one was going to be checking IDs in the middle of a possible crisis.  Properly attired and clearly in possession of the proper RFID codes to allow him access into the building to begin with, there was every possibility that no one would look twice at Michel.  If he could get inside the building, he might be able to use one of Sarah’s USB drives into a connected station.  Even if Michel couldn’t get close enough to a computer to do that, it still gave us a pair of eyes on the inside.

Of course, that was the best case scenario.  At worst, he might be discovered and charged with impersonation of a police officer.  Even worse: the officers might decide that he had some connection to the explosion.  From there, I didn’t want to imagine what charges they could levy against him.

“You came up with this idea?” I asked Sarah.

“No,” Michel answered.  “I did.”

“Well…alright,” I said, instead of a dozen other ideas that quickly came to mind.  “Sarah, walk me through our respective parts here.”

Sarah moved the computer screen so that it faced her once again and scanned through the flow chart.  “Recon’s going to be mostly Billy and some of his men.  We can’t risk being seen before we infiltrate.”

“Which men?” I asked.

“James follows orders,” Billy said.  “Chester had a bit of a problem with following your calls, or so I hear; I’m giving him a bit of a time out, and bringing along two of the younger boys I use for runs.”

“Okay.  I can probably work with that.”

“Glad to hear it,” Sarah said.  “Although, if you couldn’t, I don’t really know what else we would have done.  Anyway, after the recon, I should hopefully have access to their network.  All I really need is someone to forget to turn their phone’s Bluetooth off.  From there, I can get started on their internal security system.  I’ll have screens set up inside of the van; those’ll let me keep a watch on the people inside the station.”

I could wrap my head around the shape of the plan so far, even if the details were beyond my ability to understand.  I nodded to signal that I was following along.

Sarah returned the gesture and continued speaking.  “Michel can use faked credentials and the RFID card to get inside the building.  I’m not hoping to use him to actually get Mila out of custody; all I need is for him to finish the job of getting me past their network security.  After that’s finished, I’ll have to automate most of the work and hand the rest off to you and Billy.”

“Hand it off to…you’re keeping me on the bench?”

“You’re injured,” Sarah said, flatly.  “You won’t be able to move as quickly and you’ve mentioned your own head injuries in this very conversation.  If I put you in the field, that’d be another liability that we’d have to account for.”

I felt my face shifting into a childish pout.

“Think about it this way,” Sarah said.  “If it were one of us in the same condition, what would you tell him or her to do?”

Instead of answering that, I allowed my expression to darken by a noticeable degree.  “What if I have to get involved?  Just to keep someone from disrupting the plan, if nothing else?  I can’t watch the screens if I’m anywhere other than inside the van.”

Sarah sighed and bent over to dig inside of her purse.  A moment later, she found the object of her search and held up a smartphone that was almost entirely composed of a glossy screen.

“Another burner?” I asked.

“Yes and no,” Sarah replied.  “This whole experience has made me realize that we need to be better able to communicate when we aren’t standing right next to each other.  There’s an app on that phone that’ll allow you to connect to any active cameras, one at a time, so you can keep up with what we’re each doing.  I’m going to give one of these to everyone on the team eventually, but I only had time to work up a prototype of the program while you were, uh…recovering.”

I accepted the phone and tested its weight in my hand.  It was light enough that I legitimately feared I might break it on accident, but the quality of its construction let me know that Sarah had acquired a top of the line model.  I doubted I’d be able to do any serious damage to it without extreme negligence or incredibly poor luck.

“Also,” Sarah added, “I’m getting tired of buying burner phones.  That one’s encrypted above and beyond anything that someone should be able to crack.”  Pause.  “Ideally.”

“Well, as long as that’s figured out.”  I shifted my weight slightly so that I could slip the phone into my pocket.  It bumped against the phone I’d been using – Alex’ phone, borrowed from him back in Munich – so I removed the older model and placed it on the bedside table.  “What do we do after you and Michel get inside the building, assuming everything doesn’t turn to shit before we get that far?”

“Honestly?”

I gave her a vague gesture of acknowledgement.

“I’ve got no idea,” Sarah said.  “Without a clear visual of the interior, I can’t really come up with a solid chain of events.  We’ll be flying completely blind.”

“As opposed to partially blind,” I said, sighing and leaning back slightly.  “Which has been our MO for the last couple of days.”

“At least we know going in that we’re going to have figure things out on the fly,” Sarah offered, in a slightly sarcastic, slightly hopeful tone.

“Billy,” I said, shifting my eyes over to the man in the wheelchair.  He faked surprise at the attention.  “We’re going to need to borrow some of that product we got out of the plant.”

“It’s not my place to judge what a man does in his free time,” Billy said, “but I don’t know that this is really the right time to partake of any pharmaceutical products.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Not for me to use.  Sarah and I have other plans for it.  We don’t need a lot; just enough to make sure that the law enforcement starts paying attention to the quality of the product getting into the country.”

He was quiet for a few seconds as he worked through the implications of that sentence.  I recognized the look on his face; I’d seen it in mirrors on more than one occasion, in the midst of one job or another throughout the years.  When he reached the proper conclusion, his eyes lit up.  “You want to turn the police against Hill?”

I nodded.

“That’s a bit of risky business, isn’t it?”  Billy smiled, broad and sincere.  “And you’ll still be doing a good bit of work to support my side of things while you’re at it, too.  I don’t know what the police will do about it – Hill’s got his fingers in quite a few dirty pockets – but being the focus of an investigation, right after losing two major parts of his operation can’t be good for his business.”

Billy couldn’t know why we actually wanted the product and I was in no mood to correct his assumption.  “Sure.  I’m nothing, if not thorough.”

“I’ll have the boys bring a bit of the goods and load it into the van right now,” Billy said.  “When do you want to get moving?”

“I don’t know how long it’ll take before they get around to processing her,” Sarah said.  “Could be an hour, could be a couple of hours.  The sooner we get her out of there, the better it’ll be for all of us.  Dev, how soon do you think you’ll be able to move?”

As if in answer to that question, Iosif opened the door and searched the area until he found Sarah.  He spoke a couple of words in Russian; she replied in the same language, and he left as quickly as he’d arrived.  “He says it’s done,” Sarah translated.

“There’s your answer, Billy,” I said.  “We get started right now.”

Chapter Eighty-Three

I was aware of two things, even before my eyes opened.  One: some sort of weight pressing against my upper chest.  The weight moved slightly as I stirred, beginning the long climb out of sweet unconscious bliss.  Two: four distinct tracks of warmth in my clenched fist, and a complimentary fifth line across the back of my hand.

A third realization came to me, gradually.  I was in a bed or cot.  My internal sense of balance told me that I was lying horizontal, but the surface beneath me was too uniform to be simple earth or a floor.  From that, I guessed that Iosif had managed to get us away from the destruction at the processing plant.  My current location was still a mystery.  The fog of sleep, mixed with a haze that could very well have been caused by a concussion, made it difficult for me to think much further than that immediate fact.

I didn’t want to wake up – every inch of my body had begun to call out for my attention, as if the nerves themselves had waited until I came back to reality – but awareness came anyway.  I blinked once, twice, and then looked around to take stock of my situation.  The lack of a shirt caused me to have a moment of severe modesty-induced panic, until I felt the fabric of my pants brush against my leg.  Bandages were wrapped around my torso, tight enough that I had difficulties drawing in complete breaths.  I still had a headache, but it was a bearable one.

I was in a bed.  Not the luxurious one I had at the Brooklands, but any port in a storm was better than none.  The mattress was bare enough in some places that I felt springs poking into my back.  Any attempt to move myself away from those minor discomforts only put me into contact with new springs, inflicting new pains to my already battered torso.  I groaned, put one hand under me, and pushed into a more upright position.

The weight on my chest – Sam, apparently – meowed quizzically at me as I sat up in bed.  He jumped down from the bed in a smooth movement, landing on the floor without making a single sound, and prowled a short distance across the floor until eventually collapsing into a white heap at the foot of a chair.  Seated in the chair, asleep but still holding tightly to my hand, was Sarah.

She looked so peaceful when she was asleep.  It had been years ­– practically a lifetime – since I’d had the opportunity to see her like that.  That thought brought a surge of emotion that threatened to drown me; hastily, I reconstructed my mental walls and pushed those feelings away.  Still, despite a burning desire for a status update, I couldn’t bring myself to wake her.

Billy had no such compunctions.  “Gave us a bit of scare, didn’t ya?”

In my peripheral vision, Billy was in the process of wheeling himself over to my bedside.  At the sound of his voice, Sarah sleep-snorted and then rejoined me in the land of the conscious.  Her transition to wakefulness was slower than mine by a good margin.  At first, she looked blankly at me, her mind slowly beginning to work again; then, after fifteen or twenty seconds, her eyes widened and she squeezed my hand hard enough to hurt.  “You’re up!”

“Of course he’s up,” Billy said.  “Your fancy doctor said he’d be alright, didn’t he?

I swallowed a mouthful of saliva to moisten my throat.  Of all the injuries I’d incurred in the night’s catastrophe, the rawness of my throat seemed the most immediately uncomfortable.  “Doctor?” I managed to croak out.

“I figured I might as well use the resources we had,” Sarah said.  “As soon as Stani and his guys got you back here, I dragged Michel out of bed and Sophie arranged to have a private doctor sent over to have you looked at.”

“Avis?  Neal?”

“She was up, working through some of the files; Neal was asleep.  I didn’t bring them, because we don’t really know them and this is kind of a personal thing.”

I nodded silently.  Distracting Avis from her decryption would do more harm than good, and it wasn’t as though either she or Neal possessed any skills that might be useful.

“You…you weren’t waking up,” Sarah said, “and there was so much blood that I…I almost thought…”

I tightened my grip on hers.  “I’m fine,” I rasped.  “Although I could do with some water.”

Sarah started to stand up, but stopped as Billy produced a water bottle and set it gently on a table to my left.  “Your doctor’s been taking care of the rest of you boys,” he said.  “Patching up cuts and scrapes, mostly, though one of those Russians is going to have a nasty scar on his arm, I’d wager.  You think I ought to have him come check you out, now that you’re staying on this side of the Pearly Gates?”

I unscrewed the top of the water bottle and swallowed several mouthfuls of the liquid before replying.  It didn’t make the pain there any weaker, but I found that I could at least communicate without sounding like a crypt keeper.  “Maybe in a little bit,” I said.  “What’d I miss?”

“You mean, aside from widespread property damage and general mayhem?”  Billy smiled at me and I thought the gesture might have been a genuine one.  I did like him.

“Yeah.  Aside from that.”

“Your Russians managed to get a good distance away from the plant on two flat tires before they ditched the van,” Billy said.  “After that, they took turns carrying you for a while until this divine specimen of a woman and the Frenchie arrived to bring all of you the rest of the way here.”

“Here?”  As soon as the words left my mouth, I looked through the doorway and saw two children taking a seat at a cafeteria style table.  “Nevermind, the Halfway House.”

The corners of Billy’s eyes scrunched together.  “Is that what you call it?”

“Ignore him,” Sarah said.  She untangled her fingers from mine and walked across the room.  “Doctor!  He’s awake now.”

I waited until she was sitting before I asked my next question.  “Did James and Chester tell you what happened before that, Billy?”

“You mean, about the trap?”  The smile faded from his lips.  “They got back a good while before the rest of you, so they had plenty of time to walk me through the raid.”

“Hill leaked you bad information,” I said.

“Apparently so.”

“Do you have any idea who might have been the mole?”

Billy was quiet for a few seconds.  “Could be that someone just made an honest mistake,” he said, finally.  “Wouldn’t be the first time a bloke’s used misinformation to get his way of things.”

“Could be that,” I agreed.  “Do you think that’s really how it went down, though?”

He shook his head slowly.  “No.  No, I don’t.  There’s a mole in my house somewhere.  I’ll have to figure out who that is at a later date.”

I let my posture slip and took another drink from the bottled water.  “You needed that, uh…product to keep this place up and running, didn’t you?  What’re you going to do now that you can’t be sure what information to trust?  You can’t go another raid.”

Billy blinked.  “What are you…oh!  That’s right, you just woke up.  Nobody told you that part yet, I suppose.”

“That part?  What part?”

“As it turns out, the van you guys stole was loaded with the real stuff,” Billy said.  “More of it than we’ve ever gotten on a raid before.  Purest product I’ve ever seen.  With that load, I can do a lot of business with a lot of people.  This…what’d you call it?”

“The Halfway House.”

“Well, the Halfway House is in no danger of closing its doors anytime soon.  Might even be able to do something about cleaning up that Black Market outside.”

I scratched at my scalp with my free hand, noting absently that my palm was covered in a thick, white lotion.  “Hill kept actual product in the building that he knew you were going to attack?”

Sarah cleared her throat and gestured for Billy to toss her one of the bottled waters.  “He’s cocky,” she said, after draining a third of the bottle in a single pull.

“Cocky doesn’t equal stupid,” I countered.  “Just because he had a plan in place doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have taken precautions just in case something went wrong.”

“This is the same man who attends an annual or semiannual party specifically designed to allow rich people to show off their rich things,” Sarah pointed out.  “He thought he was smarter than Billy, and he didn’t want to waste an opportunity to turn a little more profit.  Hill is hardly the only person to start believing their own press.”

“Fair enough,” I guess.

Sophie’s doctor came into the room and the three of us lapsed into silence while he checked me over.  The process took maybe twelve minutes, during which Sarah left the room to attend to some matter or another and Billy gave orders to some of his men to catalogue the haul from the processing plant.  When it was finished, the doctor gave me a bottle of lotion and informed me that I was lucky to have only gotten away with first degree burns after touching metal of an indeterminate temperature.  I didn’t have a concussion and the vest I’d worn under my clothing had managed to keep my insides, more or less, inside of me.  There were two fractured ribs, however, and a laundry list of other more minor injuries that would need to be monitored.

I listened patiently to his recitation of symptoms, treatments, and damages while the majority of my mind disengaged and thought about the larger issues.  If Billy had consented to allow us to use the Halfway House for the moment – and if the tone of his voice, or the jocularity of his comments, were any indication – it stood to reason that he considered the job completed.  If not ideally, at least to his satisfaction.  The damage we’d caused to Hill’s processing plant went well beyond ‘sabotaged.’  The size of the last fireball I’d seen, just before I’d lost consciousness, was large enough that it alone would have thoroughly set back any attempts to work out of the plant in the future.  To say nothing of the structural damage a dust explosion would have caused or the lingering toxic cloud that probably permeated the atmosphere.  He wouldn’t be using that building for a long time.

We had dealt Hill’s organization a significant blow.  Without information about how many plants he operated, there wasn’t any way to tell exactly how much damage we’d caused, but it was emblematic.  Three times, my time had managed to get ahead of him and escape.  We’d taken the crown and, with it, his reputation.  We’d taken Avis and, with it, the key to his organization’s encrypted data.  Now, we’d utterly devastated one of his legitimate fronts.  With that move, we had managed…something.  I didn’t know exactly what, but it was something.

The moment of delight was short-lived.  Sam leapt from the floor, up into Sarah’s empty chair, and tilted his head at me.  The question in the cat’s demeanor was obvious.  It wasn’t that he disliked Sarah and me – in fact, Sam seemed rather fond of Sarah, despite the latter’s clear distaste for any animal that might possibly shed – so much as the fact that the cat knew who his owner was, and wanted to see her again.

I thought back to the image I now associated with Mila: brilliant and defiant, standing out against a field of fire with guns in both hands.  She could have gotten into the van with us.  Carlos’ aim was, in all likelihood, a bit impacted by the flames and destruction all around him.  We might have all gotten away together.  Instead, Mila had chosen to stay and draw his attention, despite knowing that Aiden and Mikhail were probably nearby.

She had done her job.

When the doctor finished, Sarah returned with a laptop bag slung over her shoulder and thanked him for his assistance.  He replied that he was happy to be of help and left Billy, Sarah, and I alone in the room again.

“That is one professional bloke,” Billy said, when the doctor was gone.

“According to Sophie,” Sarah said, “he’s worked with people who…operate in less than legal channels.  I’d guess that we don’t have to worry about his discretion.  Anyone operating on our side of things knows better than to make enemies and certainly knows better than to go to the police.”

“Besides,” I added, “he didn’t do anything illegal.  As far as he knows, I got these burns from a toaster-related accident.  Or at least, that’s what he can say if he gets questioned by the police.”

“I know all that,” Billy said.  “I just mean that he didn’t laugh at a single one of my jokes, and that simply doesn’t happen.”

I gave him a flat look for three seconds before a chuckle made its way past my lips.  “Ha.  Ha.”  I pronounced each syllable carefully and deliberately.

The three of us sat in silence for another thirty seconds before I finally worked up the nerve to ask the question I’d been dreading.  “What happened to her?”

There was no need to clarify who I meant.  “What was the last thing you saw?”  Sarah asked.

“She was keeping Carlos’ attention,” I said.  “Something tore itself out of the wall and hit her in the chest.  After that, I…”

Sarah opened her laptop and checked the screen.  “That sounds accurate, then.”

“What’re you looking at?”

She hesitated for a heartbeat.  “I’ve got good news,” she said.  “And I’ve got bad news.  Good news is that Mila didn’t die.  I think.”

I would have leapt to my feet in surprise if the simple thought didn’t cause waves of vertigo to ripple through my head.  “What?  Where is she?  How is she?”

“Severe damage to the sternum,” Sarah replied.  The intonation of her voice was odd.  She wasn’t speaking, but reading.  The information I’d asked for her was on her computer.  “One broken left arm, two bruised or cracked ribs.  Head trauma.”

“Where are you getting all that from?”

She looked up from the computer screen.  “That’s the bad news.  She didn’t get away from the plant.  That last explosion and the pipe you saw hit her must have thrown her a good distance away from the building and knocked her out.”

“So?” I asked.  “Where is she at?”

“The cops picked her up, Devlin,” Sarah said.  “They took her to the closest hospital as a Jane Doe, but the weapons she was carrying on her person…well, those and the fact that she appears to be a US citizen…”

“Sarah, stop beating around the bush.  Where is Mila?”

She sighed.  “Scotland Yard.”

I sat there, thunderstruck, for nearly a full minute before I made up my mind.  Ignoring the waves of dizziness that threatened to send me crashing to the floor, I forced myself out of bed and onto my feet.  “How long has she been there?  How long was I out?”

“She’s been out of the hospital for…maybe thirty minutes.  I can’t tell how long she’s actually been at the station.  Normally, they’d have already run her fingerprints, but the chaos at the processing plant is taking up a lot of resources.”

“So there’s still a chance?” I asked.  “They don’t have her on file yet?”

“You know I can’t access their system like that,” Sarah said, “but no, I don’t think they do.  It’s low priority, compare to a suspected terrorist attack.”

“We’ve got to go get her,” I said.  Sarah opened her mouth to say something, but I waved her off.  “I know it’s stupid, and I know we haven’t had any time to plan.  But she risked her life for us, and leaving her at Interpol is just not an option.  Not to mention, if Aiden finds out where she is, there’s every chance he’ll shoot the place up and she’ll have no way to defend herself.”

“I know that,” she began, “but…”

I interrupted her.  “No buts.  It’s dangerous, sure, but this is the right thing to do.  It’s what she would have done, right?”

Sarah sighed again, but her eyes flicked away from me to the door.  I turned to follow her gaze.  Michel stood in the doorway, wearing an all-black policeman’s uniform, complete with hat.  “I do not think this fits well, but…”  He stopped, realizing that I was staring at him in blank confusion.  “You are awake!  Bon, bon!  Sarah, did you tell him what we are doing yet?”

“I was going to,” Sarah replied, “but he decided to give a little speech first.”

“Wait.  Wait.  What’s happening?”

Sarah turned her laptop around and showed me a flow chart she’d written out, detailing various steps and possible paths of divergence.  “Of course, we’re going to get her out,” she said.  “We were only waiting for you to wake up before getting started.”

Chapter Seventy-Nine

By the time we reached the processing plant, the moon and the stars were completely covered by thick, lumpy clouds.  We were forced to use flashlights to navigate through the back alleys until we finally made it close enough to the plant that we could see by the lights still on within the building.  I held up a hand to signal a momentary pause.  Mila, the Russians, James, and Chester all crouched into the shadows behind me and waited.

“I want to make sure we’re clear on this,” I said in a low voice.  There were easily a few dozen yards between where I knelt and the plant, but years of practice rebelled at the idea of speaking at a full volume.  “There’s no way of knowing exactly what we’re going to walk into, but if we stick to the plan, we should be able to adapt to whatever surprises Hill throws at us.”

“I understand,” James said.  It was the first time that the older, scarred man had spoken.  He’d followed my gestures and suggestions without comment and it was only now that I was able to hear his strong Scottish accent.  More than that, his voice was rough and gravelly, like sandpaper sliding over broken glass.  I suspected the scar on his face might have done more damage than was readily visible; it might also have something to do with his decision to remain mostly silent.

“Sure,” Chester added.  He still sounded upset at Billy’s decision to give command of the raid to me, but I doubted he’d do anything more than sulk about it.  “Sure, I got it.  But what are you gonna do if things go sideways, eh?  You ain’t even carrying no piece.”

“If something goes so horribly wrong that I need to have a gun,” I said, “trust me: we’re already screwed beyond belief.  Besides, Mila here can handle any of the physical stuff, should it absolutely become necessary.”

Chester gave Mila a disbelieving look.  “This little girl is supposed to protect us?”

Mila replied with a saccharine, predatory smile.  “I’m supposed to protect him,” she replied.  “If something happens to you, that’d just be an absolute shame.”

It seemed that Chester might have said more, possibly fracturing my tenuous grasp on this group of wildly conflicting personalities, so I cut him off.  “Everybody’s a badass,” I said, “so let’s move on.  Stani, do you and your guys think you can handle your side of things?”

Stani consulted with Iosif in a quick burst of Russian before turning to me and nodding.  “If you can get us into this building, yes; what you ask will not be a problem.”

I checked the time on my phone and saw that, somehow, I’d missed a phone call.  Or, more accurately, I’d been out of the service area and, instead of notifying me as to who had called, I’d simply received a voicemail.  I shelved any questions about the voicemail until later and focused entirely on the job at hand.

“Okay,” I said, “we’re going to stick to small teams for this one.  Stani, you know your men better than I do, so you’ll obviously be in charge of them.  James and Chester?  I’m assuming you two can work well together?”

Chester opened his mouth, probably to say something he considered clever, but James nudged him before the words could come out.  “Yeah,” James said, instead.  “We can work well together.”

“Fantastic.  I want you two at the north end.  We’ll send you a signal whenever it’s safe to come in.”

“And what sort of signal is that gonna be?” Chester asked.

I consulted my phone for the time again.  “That depends on the situation inside,” I admitted.  “Don’t worry; you’ll know what it is.”

James laid a heavy hand on Chester’s shoulder and squeezed.  The younger man looked back at his partner and then nodded once.

“One more thing,” I said.  I dug into my pockets, past the lock picks I rarely left home without, and found two more earbuds.  I gave one to Stani and one to Chester.  “This should help us keep in contact, just in case things get crazy.”

I did not add that, considering prior experiences, I had every reason to expect a fair amount of insanity.

“You just carry stuff like this around with you?”  Chester asked.  He fit the earbud into its proper place.

“I was a boy scout once,” I replied, casually.

“What’s that?”

“Nevermind, you wouldn’t get it.  Stani?”

The short Russian struggled to put the earbud in for a moment, before he switched to his undiminished hand.  He had much less difficulty inserting the earbud after that.  “This is strange,” he said.  “Like having one ear missing.”

“You get used to it,” I assured him.  “Now, we’re all linked up, but I’m the one with the plan and so I’m calling the shots.  If I need a team to move, don’t worry about whether or not it makes sense, just go.  Got it?”

Both Stani and, after another reluctant few seconds, Chester gave grunts of assent.

“Alright.  Get into position, then.  Mila and I will get things started.”

They took that as the starter’s pistol that it was.  Chester and James went to the north side of the building.  Stani’s group headed to the eastern side.  That left Mila and I crouched alone, in the darkness.

“Sarah?”  I asked, when I was sure that the other men weren’t going to overhear.

The line popped twice.  “I’ve got them cut out of our communications,” she said, without prompting.  “If you want to say something that they can hear, you’ll have to let me know specifically.  Otherwise, it’s only going to me, you, and Mila.”

“Do you have any good news for me?”

“Well,” Sarah said, “it seems like Hill decided to run his cover business with exactly the same amount of network security as a real business would have used.”

“Meaning…?”

“The firewall they’re using is honestly about as effective as a wet paper towel.”

“What are we looking at, in terms of physical security?”

She was silent for a few seconds as she worked through some problem on her end of the connection.  “It looks like a closed circuit television.  There’s no internet connection to work with, so I can’t do anything about that remotely.  You’d have to physically infiltrate the security center and deactivate the system.”

“How hard is that going to be?”

“I have no idea how hard it’ll be for you to get there,” Sarah said, “but it’s only a few keystrokes to turn the whole thing off.”

I blew some air out of my nostrils, while I formulated my next question.  “Can you at least tell me what’s going to show up on the CCTV?”

“I most certainly can,” Sarah replied.  “And since the two of you have the GPS on your phones active, I can try to keep you away from any patrols.  It won’t be perfect, though.”

“It never is.  Anything else I should know about before I get the ball rolling on this?”

“I’ve got access to some doors – the ones with electronic seals – but I can’t do anything about a physical lock.”

I patted one hand to the lock picks in my pocket.  “I’ve got that handled.”

“Well, then, you’re good to go.  I’ll call any trouble out if I see it; otherwise, I’m going to keep working up escape options.”

“Roger that.”  I tapped the earbud twice out of habit, and then motioned to Mila.  “Let’s go.”

The two of us crept closer to the southern door, staying low and moving slowly enough that any casual observer from higher up would probably have skipped over us without even realizing it.  The moonless night turned out to be a benefit; with shadows stretching all across the clearing, we had plenty of space to maneuver and only found ourselves exposed to the light once or twice before we reached the door.

I spoke a soft word into the earbud and Sarah, using her technical wizardry, unlocked the door and allowed us access.  The interior of the factory was, of course, even darker than the grounds; it was dark enough, unfortunately, that I was forced to turn the flashlight back on.  Mila freed a handgun and attached a silencer to it.  I prepared to shoot her a warning look, but paused when I noticed that she had one eye closed against the light.

“What are you doing?”

“Night vision,” she said, as though it were answer enough.

I pushed the follow-up question back down and started to move through the darkened factory without another word.  My memory of the blueprint wasn’t bad, but Sarah had the benefit of digital backups, as well as a field of vision that encompassed the entire building.  I let her tell us when to move and when to hide, while Mila took point of her own accord.

“Stop,” Sarah whispered, five minutes into the infiltration.  Dutifully, Mila and I stopped.

I strained my ears but couldn’t hear the sound of footsteps, either approaching or departing.  Hazarding a small question seemed like an appropriate risk.  “What is it?”  I asked, in a voice closer to sub-vocalization than a simple whisper.

“Nothing to do with you,” Sarah said.  “It’s the two guys outside.  Billy’s men, uh…”

“James and Chester?”

“Yeah, those two.  Chester’s trying to work up the nerve to act on his own, but James is holding him back.  So far.”

I didn’t want to peek my head past my cover.  “How long until we’ve got another patrol to worry about?”

Sarah was quiet for two seconds, while she searched through the camera feeds.  “Moving at their pace, you’re clear for four minutes.  Maybe less.”

“Connect my line to theirs,” I said.  “Make sure to keep yourself muted, though.”

She didn’t answer with words; two beeps were the only notification I had before Chester’s voice came through my earbud, loud and clear.  “We been doing this a long time, James; don’t tell me you think we can’t handle it without some posh git telling us what to do now!”

James replied in his rocky, Scottish voice.  “It ain’t about that,” he said.  “You heard what Billy said, same as me.”

“Sure I did, and I ain’t never done nothing he didn’t want me to do before, have I?  But this is a bit much, innit?”

James didn’t respond out loud.  There was a stretch of silence, so I assumed he must have replied with some sort of physical gesture.

“That’s what I’m saying!”  Chester cried out.  “Now, think about how it’ll be feel to be the two blokes what brought back the score of a lifetime, eh?  Probably have to get a promotion, we will.”

I’d heard enough to get the general gist of Chester’s argument and to craft a reply that would, hopefully, stop him from doing anything stupid.  “You won’t get anything if Hill captures you,” I said.

The shocked silence was almost palpable from Chester’s end of the line.  “You never said you’d be listening in on us,” he said, finally, in a voice so much like an accusing child that I almost laughed.

“And you never said you’d be an idiot,” I countered.  “But here we are.”

“What’d you just call me?”  Chester’s voice became more high pitched as he grew increasingly irritated.  A detached part of my thoughts hoped, for his sake, that he learned to keep that under control in the future.

“I said that you’re being an idiot,” I repeated.  “You think a couple of raids automatically make you ready for the big leagues, kid?”

Chester sputtered in indignation.  “I ain’t no kid, and I don’t have to stand here while you talk to me like that!”

“Yes, you damn well do!”  I couldn’t yell without possibly alerting someone inside the factory to my presence, but I could load the sentence with as much intensity as I could bear.  “You are not the only one with something at stake here.  If you want to start grandstanding to get attention, you can do it on your time.  But right now?”

“Yeah?”  I could imagine Chester puffing his chest out.  “What if I decide to do my own thing right now?  Billy wouldn’t ever know and when we pull the job off, he won’t be too upset about the particulars, now will he?”

I had an answer in mind, but Mila spoke before I could form the first syllable.  “If you move before Devlin calls for it…if you put either of us at risk because you’ve got to prove a point…”

She left the threat hanging in the air, unfinished.  The detached, coldly logical portion of my mind appreciated the artistry there.  Nothing Mila could have said would have been as terrible as what Chester, young and brash as he was, could imagine.

I gave my companion an appreciative nod.  Traditionally, I worked with people who trusted my ability to lead a group, but the luxury of selecting my team was apparently not something the Lady intended me to have.  In lieu of that, the old standby of ‘good cop, bad cop’ worked when it came to wrangling individuals under control.  I wasn’t a physical threat and I suspected that Chester was the sort of person who wouldn’t respect anyone who couldn’t beat him in an arm wrestling context, or some other clash of testosterone.  Mila was a far better bad cop than I could ever hope to be.

On the heels of that thought, a question floated to the surface: if Chester was the type of person who only respected force, what the hell had Billy done to earn his loyalty?

“I’ll wait,” Chester said, over comms.  “But not for much longer.  If you’re such a bloody fantastic thief, I figure you’ll have all this under control before too long, won’t ya?”

“…yeah, let’s go with that.”  I heard footsteps approaching, farther down the corridor in the direction of the security room, so I lowered my voice.  “I can’t talk about this anymore.  Wait for the signal.”

Sarah cut the line before Chester could reply.  “You’ve got another minute or so before the patrol reaches you.  If you cut across the aisle right now, you’ll see an empty room where you and Mila should be safe for another couple of minutes.”

Mila moved automatically, clinging to the long shadows like a natural, and I followed in her wake.  We were safely within the empty room, the heavy steel door shut tight, before the footsteps and a bobbing flashlight came down the aisle, paused momentarily, and then continued on their way.

“How much farther until the control center?”  I asked Sarah in a low voice.

“Not far.  Five minutes, max.”

“And how many people are in the room?”

Pause.  “I count five,” Sarah said, finally.  “Three watching the monitors and two watching them.”

I didn’t have to ask Mila if she could handle five people, but that conflict would only serve to draw attention to the interior of the factory.  If possible, we didn’t want to let Hill know that we’d actually infiltrated the building.  The plan depended on him not changing anything about his operations, after all.

“You said this is closed circuit, right?  Are there any taped backups?”

“Not if what I’m seeing is correct, no.  Why?”

“Just splitting up duties in my head,” I said.  “Connect me to Stani, please.”

The line beeped twice and I heard as either Iosif and Leonid muttered something in Russian.  Stani replied in the same language and all three Russians grunted in unison.

I checked my phone for the third time.  Time had once more become my greatest asset and my worst enemy.  “Stani, are you three in position?”

Da, we are ready.  Are you ready to begin?”

“There are more guards than we expected, so we’re going to have to escalate the timetable,” I said.

“What do you mean by this?”

Mila checked the chamber of her semiautomatic handgun with a soft click.  The earbud probably hadn’t picked that up, but I coughed anyway to provide a little extra audio coverage.  “You know exactly what I mean,” I said to Stani.  “I’m just making sure you’re ready for this.”

He heaved a heavy sigh and relayed my words to Iosif and Leonid, in their native language.  “And you are sure that you know what you are doing?”  Stani asked, when he was finished translating.

“Absolutely,” I lied.  “Totally got this under control.  Signal’s incoming, so get ready.”

Da.

“And Stani?  Don’t kill anyone, if you can possibly avoid it.”

The stretch of silence that issued from Stani was longer and, somehow, thicker than I would have expected.  “Da,” he said finally.

Sarah cut the line.  “The response time to your location is only ten minutes,” she said.  “Is that going to be enough time?’

“We can safely add another five, maybe even another ten.  This isn’t the sort of area that the police are going to want to visit.”

“So, twenty minutes?  That’s going to be long enough?”

“I guess it’ll have to be.”  I rolled my shoulders again until they were loose enough and nodded once at Mila.  “Sarah…hit the alarm.”

Chapter Seventy-Eight

Some of Billy’s men cleared away the plates and dishes, revealing the blueprints for what looked like a manufacturing plant stretched across the table.  “This,” he said, “is one of Hill’s many processing plants.”

“Processing?”  I leaned over the blueprint, ostensibly for a better look.  In reality, I wanted to give Sarah a chance to look over the information.  “You mean, production?”

“All that takes place overseas,” Billy said.

“Or in other countries,” Stani added.  One of his hands – the one with all of its fingers – was held protectively over the two missing digits on the opposite hand.  “There is a facility in Moscow that my superiors have used for many years.”

“I’m assuming you don’t know much about how this works?”  Billy asked me.

I shook my head.  “I’m aware of the trade, but I stay away from it.”

“Really?  Not even the occasional touch of the pollen?”

I didn’t recognize the slang, but I could figure out its meaning through context clues.  “If it’s stronger than whiskey, I pretty much avoid it.  I mean, to each their own, but it’s not my cup of tea.”

Billy nodded slowly.  “And you don’t have a problem with this?”

“You’re a grown man.  As long as you aren’t peddling to children or shooting up the streets in turf wars, what you sell to another grown man isn’t any of my business.”  I shrugged.  “Why?”

“Curiosity is all,” Billy said.  “You’re quite the strange man, aren’t you?”

“I pride myself on it.  Anyway, you were saying this is a processing plant?  Processing what?”

Billy turned his attention back to the blueprint.  “Couple years back, some South American blokes came up with a technique to turn cocaine into a kind of plastic.  Like what you’d see on a DVD case, yeah?  South America’s where most of the cocaine comes from, but your country’s been trying to crack down on that sort of thing, so the cartels out there have had to turn to outside sellers in order to keep making profits.  Getting cocaine across national borders can be a bit of a bear, unless you’re willing to get a little creative.”

“Cocaine,” I repeated.  I elected to focus on the topic at hand, instead of correcting Billy’s assumption about my nationality.  “Into plastic?  And that actually works?”

“It didn’t at the time,” Billy said.  “You could turn the stuff into plastic, but you couldn’t make it work perfectly the other way.  I wasn’t in the business then, but I’ve heard tales about the bad product that hit the streets before people figured out it wasn’t a good idea.”

“Alright,” I said, scratching again at my stubble in thought.  “So, really genius idea that didn’t work out quite so well.  Not the first time I’ve heard a story like that.”

Billy extended an index finger and touched it lightly to the side of his nose.  “Ah, but that was years ago.  Since then, a few interested parties working in governments that don’t care quite so much about what a man does in his spare time were able to come up with a technique that didn’t leave quite so many broken bits in the mix.”

Stani sucked in a sharp breath.  “You perfected that?  We have been trying for years to discover the trick.”

Billy coughed and looked away.  “Well, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t figure out anything.  Hill and I had been working on that problem, every now and again, while we were still partners.”

“And he figured out how to do it after he ousted you?”  I guessed.

“Seems like,” Billy said.  “Some of my fellas raided one of Hill’s facilities a few years back and found a half-finished product.  Took us a while to piece together what he’d done.”

“You were going to cut business ties with the Bratva?”  Stani’s words didn’t sound accusatory, although there was more suspicion in them now than there had been.

“Maybe,” Billy admitted.  “It hadn’t gotten to that point yet.  Guess we’ll never know, will we?”

I could feel the heat of Stani’s gaze without turning to actually see his eyes.  Instead of allowing the staring contest to continue until either the Russians or Billy’s men escalated into physical violence, I cleared my throat at a theatrical volume.  “Let’s stay focused here,” I said.  “Billy, go on with your explanation.”

“So.  This building right here is the closest plant Hill uses to turn the plastic back into product.  He operates it as a factory by day and turns it over to his thugs after hours.  If the law gets suspicious or someone starts feeling like making a name for themselves, the books are clean and there’s a full record of taxes, supplies, and the like.”

“Money laundering,” I said.  “But for cocaine.  That is a good plan.”

“Next time I see Hill,” Billy said, “I’ll be sure to pass on the compliment.”

“And you want to rob this place?”

“Even better,” Billy said, with a grin.  “I want to rob the place and embarrass him a bit.”

His amusement was infectious; I felt a fierce smile on my own lips as well.  “And how exactly did you want to go about doing that?”

Instead of answering, Billy wheeled himself away from the table and over to a workbench set against a nearby wall.  He waved off any attempt by his men to help him, choosing to move by the strength of his own arms.  It was dark in the Halfway House, but I could see bruises on his knuckles and, when he returned to the table, callouses on his fingertips.  “This,” Billy said, “is what I want to do.”

He dropped a small square of hard plastic to the table’s surface.  I picked it up and examined it for anything noteworthy.  “I don’t get it.”

“Give it a second,” Billy said.  “You seem bright enough to figure it out on your own.”

I gave him a light scowl before focusing my attention fully on the plastic in my hands.  It took me almost thirty seconds before the lightbulb went off.  “Sabotage,” I said.  “You want to give him bad product so that he loses face with his customers?”

“Close,” Billy said.  “Not quite, but bloody close.  If I just gave him terrible material, his customers – my former customers – likely wouldn’t survive the first dose or two.  I’m not trying to have their deaths on my conscience, if I can help it.”

“So, you want to…?”

“Those plastics that Hill’s importing get turned back into product through a long chemical process that I don’t even fully understand.  I do know that it involves heat, though.  And what happens when you burn regular plastic?”

“Gas,” I answered, immediately.  “Carbon monoxide, mostly.”

“Not just that, either.  A whole lot of mess gets into the air, and that’d slow down his men appreciably, I’d wager.”

“Not to mention,” Mila said from my left, “melted plastic’s a bitch to get out of anything delicate.  Especially if anyone’s dumb enough to touch it with their bare hands.”

“That’s the beauty of this,” Billy said.  “See, this plastic you see right here is specially made.  It’ll hold its shape until a certain temperature and then it goes off.  Gas, smoke, the whole nine yards.  A whole hell of a lot more than you’d think, considering its size.  That’s going to necessitate a complete evacuation of the building, unless Hill wants to risk losing his men to lung disease.”

“Something tells me that he really wouldn’t care either way,” I said.

“Probably wouldn’t,” Billy agreed, “but in the moment, panicking?  I’d bet the men at the factory take it under their own initiative.”

“Sure, until Hill orders them to go back in.”

“And how’s he going to do that?”  Billy’s smile was positively radiant.  “This is a legitimate business, remember?  That sort of chemical mistake mandates a shutdown. Nothing Hill can do about that, since he’s tied himself up by making the business official.”

I stood up from the table.  Instantly, Billy’s men reached into their shabby coats for weapons and Mila did the same.  I held up my hands to calm everyone at the table.  “Whoa there.  I’m just stretching my legs.  We’ve been sitting down for a while now and I want to think about the best way to do this.”

“Let him walk if he wants to walk,” Billy said.  “Don’t take too long thinking, though; if my sources are correct, Hill’s going to be done with this shipment tonight.  No way of knowing when he’ll be at it again.”

“I get it, I get it.  Mila, come with me?”

Mila stood, utterly ignoring the hostile looks from Billy’s men, and joined me.  The two of us walked a distance away from the table, far enough that they couldn’t hear what we said, and leaned towards each other as if in deep conversation.

“Sarah,” I whispered.  “What do you think?”

She didn’t reply immediately.  I heard the familiar pop and fizz of a soda.  “About the plan?”

“About all of it,” I said.  “Do you think what Billy’s saying is actually possible?”

There were a few seconds of silence while she considered her answer.  “I did some light Googling while he was talking,” she said, finally.  “There are a few articles from 2006 that talk about the possibility that some of the South American cartels were experimenting with new methods of smuggling.  I can’t find anything more recent, but it’s possible that someone actually figured out the technique.  But…”

“But you don’t think it was Hill,” I finished for her.

“No, I don’t.  If I had to guess, the amount of money it would take to research that sort of thing, let alone to put it into mass production would be staggering.  It’s not the kind of thing someone would even bother with, since there are so many other less expensive and experimental methods of smuggling something into the country.”

“So, the Magi.”

It wasn’t a question, but Sarah answered it anyway.  “With what we know, and what we’re guessing?  Yeah, I’d say this is their work.”

“So it is possible,” I said.  “That’s something, at least.  And the plan?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to call his idea a plan,” Sarah said.  “More like a poorly thought out excuse to get some personal revenge.”

She probably hadn’t meant for that denunciation to apply to anyone except Billy, but her words still struck a note with me.  I comforted myself with the reminder that, even if I had left Asher alone after the jailbreak, he wouldn’t have stopped with his one-sided war.  There was every possibility that he would have been able to pull off whatever he had in mind unopposed, after all.

And, of course, it wasn’t as though the Lady would’ve allowed me the opportunity to sink into relative obscurity.

“You know what I mean,” I said.

A few more seconds of dead air.  “It could be done,” Sarah said.  “I’m not a chemist, and I’m certainly not an expert in European OSHA regulations, but the theory’s sound.”

“How would we go about it?”

“Without knowing anything about the security Hill will have in place?”  Sarah sighed.  “I’ve got the blueprints – thanks for that, by the way – and an address.  I’ll see what I can do about getting into their network and I’ll draw up a quick outline of ideas while you’re going over the details with Billy.  It’s not going to be pretty.”

Mila looked over my shoulder, at the table where Billy and the others sat, engaged in a conversation.  The Russians spoke their own language, while Billy used English.  There were moments where Billy clearly had to think about what he’d heard and translate it in his head, but his grasp of the language was still a hell of a lot better than mine.

“Something tells me that it’s never pretty with the two of you,” Mila said, without moving her lips.

“Sometimes it’s downright gorgeous,” Sarah said, in response.  “Just…not so much lately.”

“It wasn’t a complaint,” Mila said.  “This is the most fun I’ve had on a job in years.”

Sarah snickered before she could help herself.  “Devlin,” she said, “go and find out what details Billy has in mind.  I should have something for you before too long.”

“You’re an angel, Sarah, and I don’t care what anybody says.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” she said, but I heard the smile in her voice.  The line beeped twice and she was gone.

Mila and I walked back over to the table, just as Billy said, “Money?  Hussars don’t take money!”

Stani roared with laughter and slammed his diminished fist against the table in delight.  Iosif remained his usual impassive self, but a touch of amusement played around the corner of Leonid’s mouth.  I took my seat and raised an eyebrow.  “What’d we miss?”

“It wouldn’t translate,” Billy said, smiling at his own joke.

“Ah…okay, I guess,” I said.

“So.  What’d you decide?”

“That depends on what these three want.”  I gestured at the Russians.  “They have their own superiors to answer to and I can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do.”

Stani gave me a look, tinged with…appreciation?  Gratitude?  I hadn’t spent anywhere near enough time with the man to read him.  “I have a certain amount of freedom to act, while I am here,” he said, directing the sentence to Billy.  “If I can recover the secret to this process, that would go a long way to easing tensions between my superiors and your own organization.”

“Organization’s a bit more than I’d call this, but alright,” Billy said.  “And you, Devlin?”

“I’m not the right person to call anybody out for wanting revenge,” I answered, picking each word with great care.  “But you can’t be sure if you’re going after this with a clear head.”

“That’s…probably a fair judgement.  What do you suggest, then?”

“We go in alone,” I said, immediately.  “I call the shots and we follow my play.”

I didn’t feel the need to add that my play would actually be Sarah’s play.  No point in confusing the issue without the possibility for additional profit.

“You aren’t going in by yourself,” Billy countered.  “But I’ll give you two of my men who’ll follow orders.  How’s that for a compromise?”

The comms beeped twice in my ear before I answered.  “I can work with that,” Sarah said.  “In fact, the plan I’m thinking of might work better with more bodies.”

I scratched behind my ear and subtly tapped the earbud twice to signal that I’d heard her.  “That’s fine,” I said, out loud.

Billy extended a hand and pointed with two fingers at the men by the door.  “James, Chester!  Come over here for a second!”

The men – James and Chester, presumably – looked at each other in confusion for a moment before they did as requested.  When they were close enough, I gave them both a quick once over.  There hadn’t been any reason to separate them by physical appearance earlier, when they’d served as door guards, but I’d need to tell them apart in the field.

One of the men was barely in his twenties, if that.  He was clean-shaven with light-brown, earnest eyes and a slight limp on his left side.  He forced himself to scowl as he approached the table, but the expression lacked commitment.  This was a man playing a role; there was no sense of danger or threat around him.

The other man was the first’s exact opposite: maybe in his late forties or early fifties, with a face like stalagmites.  A diagonal scar marked his face, just above his cheekbones on the right, and traveled down almost to his upper lip.  He did not scowl at me, but he did give me a piercing examination even as I looked him up and down.

“James,” Billy said.  “I want the two of you to go with these gents – and the lady, of course – on tonight’s raid.”

The older man nodded and I mentally tagged him with the appropriate name.

Chester, on the other hand, immediately opened his mouth in protest.  “Boss, we don’t need this lot to watch our backs.  We’ve done plenty of runs without ‘em, ain’t it?”

“And I’m not saying you haven’t,“ Billy replied, “nor am I saying that you can’t handle yourselves without supervision.  This ain’t about that.  You know as well as I do that these operations are getting harder and harder to hit without taking a risk.  Ain’t that right?”

Billy’s accent had thickened and changed slightly: more Cockney than Birmingham, now.  I wondered idly what his real accent was and the thought immediately triggered a memory of the Lady and her shifting syllables.

Chester nodded, reluctantly.

“Well, I’m not about to send you or anyone else off without any protection, if I can help it,” Billy continued.  “Now you’ll go with this lot and you’ll follow what they say like it came straight from me.  Understand?”

Chester couldn’t have made his displeasure any clearer, but he was apparently a good soldier.  He nodded his assent, radiating unhappiness in waves, and shut his mouth.

“Alright, then,” Billy said.  He clapped his hands together.  “Not that we’ve got that sorted.  What’ve you got in mind, then?”

I rolled my shoulders and tilted my head from one side to the other until the joints popped and relaxed.  The blueprint of the processing plant took up the entire table but, from this angle, Sarah would be able to see most of it.  Even if she couldn’t, I suspected that she’d taken a screenshot from before and could analyze that.

“This is how it’s going to go down,” I said, and Sarah provided the words just before I spoke them out loud.  She was right: it wasn’t the neatest plan she’d come up with.  I could only hope that it was neat enough.

Chapter Seventy-Seven

Two of Billy’s people brought over a small platter of food and some glasses of water from the cafeteria region of the building – which I had begun to think of as the Halfway House – and set them up on the table in front of us.  He waited patiently until they withdrew, nibbled around the edges of some burnt toast, and took a sip of water before he spoke.  “What do you want to know?”

“It’s that simple?”  I considered the food on the table before breaking off a small piece of toast for myself.  “You’ll just tell me whatever I want to know?  Just like that?”

Billy extended an index finger and ticked it back and forth like a metronome.  “Now, I didn’t say any of that, did I?  I’m only asking what you want to know.  Never said nothing about actually telling you.”

I’d spent a long time in the underworlds of one city or another, but this black market and the Halfway House were new territories.  Judging from the deferential treatment that Billy received, he was in some sort of leadership position here.  I didn’t see anyone else giving orders or even hinting at commands, so it was very possible that he was the authority in the area.

My nose wrinkled of its own accord as I chewed over that thought.  Billy hadn’t actually given any orders since my team had entered the Halfway House.  Sure, he’d gestured and implied his desires, but he hadn’t needed to explicitly command anyone to do anything.  It wasn’t fear, then, that motivated his followers and the black market that swelled just outside of the Halfway House made it clear that they didn’t wait on him out due to any particular sense of greed.

In fact, at the farthest edges of my peripheral vision, I could see that some of the individuals at the cafeteria tables were sharing with others.  No one pushed or jostled for a better place in line; there were no fights or arguments that I could see; and, most surprising of all, some of the homeless or indigent men and women were smiling.

Whatever the story was, it promised to be an interesting one.  “Alright,” I said to Billy.  “Tell me what you want, and we’ll see if we can work something out.”

“I want the same thing you do,” Billy said.

“And that is?”

“Answers.”  Billy dipped his toast into a small lake of baked beans and took a bite.  “Way I see it, you four are out of your element and you’d need one hell of a fantastic reason to come all the way out to my corner of creation this late at night.  So you answer my questions, and I’ll answer yours.”

“Within reason,” I said immediately.  Just as I’d been unwilling to volunteer the names of my companions, I had no intention of agreeing to a blanket honesty pact.  Some things I intended to keep secret for my own protection; other things simply weren’t my stories to tell.

“Within reason,” Billy agreed, grinning slightly as he spoke.  “Of course.  Now, seeing as I’m the host, seems only right that I should let you have the first go at this.  Ask your question.”

I thought for almost a full minute about which question to lead with.  Each answer I received would allow me to better focus the questions that followed, so this first question was perhaps the most important one.

The rest of my party seemed content to let me take the lead.  Mila seemed content to relax in her chair, sipping occasionally from her water, and somehow watching everyone in the room and no one in particular at the same time.  Stani looked nervously at his surroundings; Iosif and Leonid seemed equally uncomfortable, but they masked that discomfort by shooting stern looks in every direction at regular intervals.

As I was rapidly coming to realize, this interaction was entirely on my shoulders.

“Whatever you ask,” Sarah said in my ear, “I can help you with any follow-ups.”

Her voice came as a shock, and I kept myself from actually jerking through force of will.  She’d been silent for so long that I had, for a single moment, forgotten that Sarah was involved in this meeting, inasmuch as any of the Russians or Mila was.  That thought comforted me and, with my nerves put slightly at ease, I was able to come up with a first question.

“What’s your relationship to Hill?”

Billy finished off a piece of toast and then reached for another.  None of my group followed suit, although I did notice Iosif giving the bacon a soulful, longing look.  “That’s complicated,” Billy said, after several very long seconds.

“I’ve got time.”

“Figured you might,” Billy said, smiling ruefully.  “Let’s call him a…former business partner, then.”

I gave Billy my best ‘patient, but still waiting’ expression.

He sighed, drained half of his remaining water, and then started to talk again.  “Hill and I started out as low level dealers, pushing product to the good men and women of our fair city,” he said.  “Time went by and we eventually got enough backing to make a move on the throne.”

“The throne?”  I lifted an eyebrow.  “Who was in charge before you and Hill?”

“You only get one question,” Billy said, in a close approximation of a schoolteacher’s voice.  “And don’t interrupt.  Anyway, we made our move and managed to get the local dealers and pushers under our control before too long.  Hill wanted to stay out of the spotlight, so I stepped up to be the personality, while he handled the, uh, back of house business.”

Stani cleared his throat.  Billy and I both turned to look at the Russian, who had thus far managed to remain completely silent.  I hadn’t heard his voice since before we’d entered the Halfway House.  “That was when you were working with my superiors?”

“You mean, when I was making business deals with the Bratva?”  Billy shrugged.  “I don’t remember the exact year.  If my recollections are accurate, then the previous kingpin was in talks to do something similar.  More product smuggled into the country equals more product that can be sold equals more money.  Our operation here didn’t have the scope to start streamlining production yet, you see?”

I nodded, and motioned for him to continue.  Through the earbud, I listened to Sarah as her fingers drummed an allegro beat into the keyboard.  I wasn’t sure what information she hoped to uncover, but I trusted to her ability to ferret out something, eventually.

“Anyway,” Billy said.  “Like I said, Hill never had the proper disposition for making deals, so we agreed that I’d be the face of our little conglomerate.  I handled all the negotiations with foreign powers, while he took care of the industrial side of things back home.  Situation worked out lovely that way, for a good time.”  His expression darkened, as his thoughts traveled back through his memories.

“But then he got greedy,” I supplied, after a few moments.

“That’s a bit of an understatement, considering,” Billy said, gesturing weakly at his legs.  “Long story short, he made a play for power and I didn’t see it coming.  I ended up on the business end of a baseball bat before everything was finished with, and Hill got the power he was after.”

“Why didn’t he kill you?”  I asked.

“You did hear me when I said you only get one question?”  Billy countered.

I settled back into my chair and drank some water.  “What’s your question, then?”

“I know what I’ve got against the bastard,” Billy said, “but you’re something new.  He doesn’t even let that fake name get out of his organization, if he can help it.  But three Russians coming into my establishment along with the two of you?  What’ve you got against him?  Did he screw you over, too?”

I took a few seconds to choose exactly the right words.  I liked Billy, but I didn’t trust him.  There was every possibility that he might betray my motivations to Hill, or to Asher, or – heaven forbid – to the Magi themselves.  Attempting to dethrone the local drug lord had already proven itself to be an undertaking of unimaginable difficulty; if the Magi decided to involve themselves or their considerable financial base directly, “difficult” would quickly become “impossible.”

“We don’t have a specific problem with Hill,” I said, carefully.  “But he’s got someone on the payroll that we do have issues with.  So long as Hill’s providing cover for this person…”

Mila cleared her throat, drawing all of our eyes to where she sat.  She had somehow managed to locate a large chocolate bar and was nibbling around one corner absently.  “I don’t have a problem with him,” she said, between bites.  “Well…I don’t like him, but the problem is yours, not mine.”

“Thanks for that,” I said to her.  “Good to know that you’re in my corner.”

“I am who I am,” Mila said, without the faintest trace of shame.

Billy’s eyes narrowed minutely as he examined Mila and me with a slowly dawning shrewdness.  I realized, with more than a small amount of chagrin, that I’d been taken in by Billy’s accent.  He spoke like someone from the working class and the general décor of the Halfway House served to reinforce that delusion.  The reality, however, was that the circumstances of his birth had absolutely nothing to do with his intelligence.  If his story was to be believed, this was a man who had forged a stable organization within the chaotic underworld and maintained his power until he’d been betrayed.

“Ah,” Billy said.  “Got it.”

I didn’t know exactly what it was that he suddenly ‘got,’ but I suspected that it was information I wouldn’t have wanted him to have.  “My turn.  Why didn’t Hill kill you?”

“Because he’s an utter bastard, is why,” Billy said.  “After the, uh, incident with the baseball bat, Hill made sure to get me the proper medical care.  Obviously, there wasn’t nothing they could do about my legs, but he didn’t spare any expense.”

“Sentimentality?”  Mila asked.  She didn’t quite scoff, but I could hear it in the tone of her voice.

“Dominance,” Billy corrected.

I could draw connections between those dots without Billy explicitly outlining what must have happened.  “He keeps you alive as an example,” I said.  “Someone he trots out whenever one of his employees starts getting the idea that maybe he could run the business better.”

“Not quite,” Billy said.  “But close enough.  He goes out of his way to keep his men in the dark, and he hires stupid, so he probably isn’t concerned with that aspect of it.  Personally, I think he did it just because he wanted to see me suffer.”

Hill was connected, ambitious, and vindictive, apparently.  Those were three traits that I suspected Billy might be downplaying.  It wasn’t encouraging, but any information was useful information.

As if on cue, Sarah spoke into my ear.  “I’m looking into records for assaults in the area, but the data pool is too large.  If I know who Billy is, maybe I can find out who Hill is, too.  I’ll let you know when I’ve got something to go on.”

I scratched at the stubble on my chin and tapped my index finger against the earbud in acknowledgement, at an angle that should have concealed the action from Billy.

“My turn again, isn’t it?”  Billy asked.  He continued, without waiting for a reply.  “This person you’re after; what’d he do to you?”

“Each of us has our own problems with the man,” I said.  “That’s a lot of questions you’re asking.”

“I didn’t ask about what he did to these four, did I?”  David wheeled himself slightly backwards so that he could settle both elbows on the table and use the cup of his palms to support his chin.  “What’d he do to you?”

“We used to work together.  Had a job trying to, uh, acquire some artwork.  He…betrayed me,” I said.  Frost practically wafted into the air with each word, and my blood ran a little colder.  “Set me up and then hit me with a Taser when I wasn’t paying attention.”

“I assume that this acquisition wasn’t the legal sort?”

“I spent almost three years in prison because of that bastard,” I said.  “Tried, charged, and convicted of robbery, and spent all that time in La Santé.”

Billy winced.  “I’ve heard stories.  It’s as bad as they say?”

“I don’t know what they say, but it was pretty damn bad if you ask me.”

“Ah,” Billy said.  “Liberating, isn’t it?”

“What is?”

Billy smiled, and there was a hint of genuine warmth in the expression.  Not a lot of warmth, but enough.  “Knowing what it is that you’re after,” he said.  “Most of us just go through life bouncing from one day to the next, lying as we tell ourselves that we know what we’re doing in life.  But when you’ve got something like you and I have?”

He laughed and, suddenly, I began to understand how Billy had been able to forge a coalition between the drug dealers in London’s underworld.  He wasn’t just pretending to be affable; this was a man who might actually be a nice guy.

The fact that he was nice, however, didn’t mean that he wouldn’t order his men to start shooting if I crossed a line in my questioning.  He might just feel bad, afterwards.

“It doesn’t feel like something to be happy about.  I’d just as soon take care of my business in town and leave,” I said, mindful once more of the Magi’s many listening ears.  “The longer I’m here, the more time Hill has to mobilize some sort of counter to our plans.”

“Plans you haven’t quite figured out yet, I take it?”

I shrugged and smiled back at Billy.  “Not your turn.”

Billy leaned back in his wheelchair and twirled two fingers lazily in the air, the universally understood sign for ‘go on, then.’

My mind was trying to form connections between the information I had and the information I needed.  There were too many gaps to do much more than make wild guesses, unfortunately, and the stakes were too high for sheer guesswork.  A wrong move could result in jail time for any of my team, at best; at worst, Hill and Asher and any other agents of the Magi might decide to implement a more lethal form of punishment.  What I needed, even more than answers, was some sort of angle I could play.

Sarah provided the next question.  “Billy’s got this area pretty much under his control,” she said in my ear.  “Why? How?”

“Billy,” I said, scratching at my stubble as though the idea had come to me on its own, “how’d you get this whole area to follow your orders?”

“That’s pouring it on a bit thick,” Billy said.  “I don’t give orders around here, see.”

His point was difficult to believe at that exact moment.  A small child, who couldn’t have been much older than Avis, hurried over to the table and replaced Billy’s empty glass of water with a full one.  He tousled her hair with one hand, eliciting a brief giggle, before she retreated again.  I raised an inquisitive eyebrow at her back and then turned the expression back to Billy.

“It’s a bit complicated,” Billy said, after a couple of seconds.  “See, these lovely people don’t have access to the sort of basic necessities that other people just take for granted.  After Hill and I had our falling-out, I used a few of my connections to find a little place to call my own.  And, so long as I’m here, I figure I might as well help out as much as I can.”

“How exactly do you help out?”

Billy shrugged.  “Food, for the most part.  A couple of warm beds, and a roof for when it’s raining.”

“When isn’t it raining?”  Mila asked.

Billy laughed.  “Fair point, that.”

“How can you afford all of this?”  I cut in, before Mila could distract Billy from his answer.  He was providing more than I’d asked for.  I wasn’t sure if that was deliberate or if he was simply warming to the topic, but I wanted to ride that swell as long as possible.

“Connections, of course,” Billy said.  “Just because I’m not in business with Hill anymore doesn’t mean I suddenly lost all of the professional relationships what got me this far in the first place.”

“You’re still dealing?”

Facilitating,” Billy said, carefully applying stress to the word.  “I figure that people are always going to want drugs; if I can make the process a little more streamlined and a little less dangerous, what’s the harm?”

“And Hill just lets you run a black market under his nose?”

“He doesn’t let me do anything,” Billy said, “so much as he doesn’t care enough to get directly involved.”

“How do you get your product?”

Billy started to answer and then stopped, as if suddenly realizing how much intelligence he was giving away for free.  “Got me on gabbing on for a bit,” he said slowly.  “Haven’t really been able to talk about this with anyone for a while.  This lot doesn’t care how the product gets here, just that it’s here.  But you owe me a couple of questions…tell you what, though.  How about I narrow it down to just one, and we call it even?”

My ears perked up.  “One question for the four I just asked you?”

“It’s kind of an important question,” Billy said.

“Go for it.”  I kept my voice level but, internally, I sensed that Billy might be close to tipping his hand.  The angle I’d been looking for might not be so hard to uncover, after all.

“My supply line’s been stretched a bit thin as of late,” Billy said.  “Hill’s been muscling into the smuggling trade, putting his people in charge of shipments instead of relying on the Russians like we’d been doing before he ousted me.”

Stani grunted.  It was the first sound I’d heard from him in a while.  “There is one mystery solved,” he said in an undertone.  At first, I thought he hadn’t meant for anyone to hear him, but I realized after a moment that he’d spoken in English.  He looked up from the table and made eye contact with Billy.

“Vertical consolidation.”  Billy nodded to himself.  “Cut back on the amount of money going out to other parties, and use that to corner the market.  Basic economic principles at work.”  He gave me a small, rueful smile.

“Makes sense,” I admitted.  Hill wasn’t the first person who had tried to use legitimate business practices in conjunction with underworld ruthlessness.  He was, I had to admit, much more successful than most.

“I still don’t know exactly where he’s getting the capital from,” Billy continued, “but that’s neither here nor there.  As you can see, my mobility has been a bit hampered since my last encounter with Hill and, while I don’t think this lot’s the sort to betray me, they don’t really have the skills I need to get my little business back on its feet.”

“And what skills are those?”

“I’m thinking that your skills might be what I’m looking for, actually.  A thief might be just the sort of person we’ve been waiting for.”

I leaned forward, placing my elbows on the table.  “You’ve got my attention.  What’s your question?”

“Hill’s got an operation running, not far from here.  His shipments get processed and trucked off to other distribution centers, so that he can keep the city in his chokehold.  I was thinking that maybe some of that product might be better served in the hands of a legitimate man of the people, such as myself.  And I was wondering if maybe you’d be up for a bit of light thievery tonight, before Hill’s men have a chance to get that product out onto the street.”  He gestured at the map stretched across the table.  “He’s already on the back foot after something happened to one of his other warehouses, and I’m thinking the loss of product here might be worse for his credibility than anything else.”

“Devlin,” Sarah said in my ear.  “We do need to get some of Hill’s drugs, if we’re going to implicate him to Adlai and the rest of Interpol.  This isn’t the way I’d want to do it, but we’d have to find another way to run down a pure stash otherwise.”

With Billy and the Russians seated around me, I couldn’t exactly answer her.  I couldn’t even ask for advice.  Instead, I met Mila’s eyes for a moment, before turning to Billy.  “I’ve got questions of my own,” she said.  “If he decides to help with your situation…”

Billy raised one hand into the air and placed another over his heart.  “Swear on me mother’s eyes,” he said, thickening the accent for effect, “I’ll answer whatever questions you’ve got.  I suspect there were other reasons for your late night slumming expedition, after all.”

Mila didn’t look away from Billy but I saw one shoulder climb minutely in the barest possible shrug.  “Let me answer your question,” I said to Billy, “with another question.”

“Alright then.  What is it?”

I allowed a slow, fox-like smile to creep across my lips.  There were so many metaphorical birds in the air and here I was, presented with a single stone that could very well bring them all tumbling down.  “When do we get started?”

Chapter Seventy-Six

“I’d like to see them try,” Mila said.  Her voice was mild, almost disinterested, but I recognized it for the warning sign that it really was.

I put my hands up, palms facing the man in the wheelchair.  “Whoa there.  How about we slow down on the threats for a second here?  Is this the welcome you put out for everyone, or are we just special?”

“With the clothes you’re wearing and the way you talk?”  He settled his forearms on the armrests of his wheelchair as he examined us.  “Don’t look hungry or desperate enough to be in this part of town.  Stands to reason, then, that you’re here looking for something.  Might be that you found it, mate.”

I didn’t know enough about the man and this makeshift cafeteria/mall.  From the street outside, I’d expected difficulties but not outright hostility.  My mind scrambled to make connections, to draw some conclusion from the miniscule amount of information available to me, and I realized exactly how it must feel to be on the receiving end of a sudden verbal attack.

Stani and his goons were visible to my left, barely in my peripheral vision.  They didn’t seem threatened by the men holding them but, at the same time, they weren’t taking any action.  Presumably, they realized that any violence now would ruin our chances of getting answers.  Since Iosif’s and Leonid’s skillsets were both limited to conflict, and Stani’s talents skewed more towards intimidation than conversation, that left this part of the interaction up to me.

I could only hope that Mila had drawn the same conclusion.

“I’m not a man without principle, though,” the man in the wheelchair said, before I could formulate an angle of attack.  “Used to be that men judged me on sight, thinking themselves twice the man I was.  I wouldn’t want to do that to no one that didn’t deserve it, you understand?”

I gave the man a flat look.

After a moment, he snickered.  “Twice the man, eh?  You get it?  ‘cause of this whole situation?”  He gestured at his legs, concealed beneath a gray, threadbare blanket.  “Come on, you got to admit that was a good one, yeah?”

He chuckled to himself for a good fifteen seconds before I cleared my throat and spoke.  “I don’t know if I’m supposed to laugh or…?”

“Laughing at life’s about the only way to keep sane, innit?”  He lifted one hand from the armrests and waved it dismissively at the men holding us.  They let go immediately and stepped back into their hidden positions beside the door.

“I’m guessing that was the right answer?”  I asked, massaging the spot on my upper arm where the steel grip had been.

“Wasn’t looking for a particular answer,” the man said.  “Wanted to see what you’d do.  ‘course I noticed those pieces your friends got hidden under their coats.  Couldn’t miss the ones they got in their hands.  If they wanted to make a thing out of it, would’ve gotten right messy, but you kept the lady and the gentlemen from getting into any mischief right at the start.”

“I didn’t exactly keep her from anything,” I said quickly.  There wasn’t any point in flicking Mila’s metaphorical nose, if possible.  “She just decided to let me handle the talking.”

“Same deal with these three?”  The man tilted his head and gave Stani’s group a quick onceover.  “Don’t look like the type to hold back without a damn good reason.  They’re Russian, if I’m not mistaken?”

Iosif was closest to the man in the wheelchair.  Instead of answering, he turned his head to Stani.  The short Russian took the signal as a request for assistance and answered immediately, taking two steps forward so that he was nearly next to me.  “Da, I am Russian.  What is it to you?”

“Years back, I used to work with some Russians,” the man in the wheelchair said.  “Tough blokes to get along with, but bloody fantastic when it came to smuggling.  Now, you wouldn’t happen to know any of them, would ya?”

“If you aren’t just blowing smoke,” I said, “we actually might have found what we were looking for.  My…uh…friends and I heard from a little bird that we might be able to find someone who knows a little something about the trade in these parts.  That wouldn’t happen to be you, would it?”

“If there’s someone else,” the man said, “I haven’t met him.  What’s your interest?”  His eyes narrowed slightly as he asked the question and, for the first time, I felt a shrewd wariness practically coming off of the man in tightly controlled waves.

I elected to use the truth, rather than a lie that might fall apart and cost me what little goodwill I’d somehow managed to earn.  “We’ve each got our own issues with someone in the area, but we can’t do anything about him while he’s being protected.”

“Protected?  By who?”

“I don’t know his real name,” I said, “but we’re calling him Hill for right now.  Does that ring a bell?”

The wariness sharpened into anger, as sudden as a storm cloud.  It passed an instant later, quick enough that I almost wasn’t sure I’d seen it in the first place.  “There’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time,” he muttered, more to himself than to me.

“So you know him?”

“Oh, I know him alright.  Bastard’s the reason…”  He trailed off, then shook his head violently, as if he could physically shake the thoughts away.  “Nevermind.  Boys, stand down.  Me and the fellas – and the lady, of course – are going to talk for a bit.”

The men behind us didn’t move back to their waiting positons by the entrance.  I opened my mouth to point that out when I saw movement against the far wall, by the cafeteria section.  One of the shabbier looking men, clad only in the remants of what must once have been a coat and jeans, shuffled back toward the food.  His shuffling escape wasn’t quick enough to keep me from noticing the glint of metal in his waistband.

A visual sweep from one side of the room to the other revealed several more seemingly homeless, destitute men and women concealing weapons.  Some had handguns, while others held what looked like hunting rifles and knives.  We were outnumbered in here by a factor of three or four, easily, and the man in the wheelchair had successfully kept me from noticing how bad our position actually was.  And he’d done it by making a joke.

He noticed my eyes widening and allowed himself a miniscule smile.  It was a mere shadow of what I’d seen before, when he’d been laughing entirely to himself, but it still appeared genuine.  “Like I said.  Could’ve gotten messy.  Now, pick up the pace; I’ve got strategy to discuss tonight.”

“We can wait,” I said, trying to be courteous.  Of course I couldn’t actually afford to wait, but an hour in either direction probably wouldn’t hurt things too much.

“The strategizing can wait.”  He spun the wheelchair around to face in the opposite direction and started wheeling away.

I chanced a look at Mila and at Stani’s crew.  Four sets of blank, confused eyes met my own.  I started to follow the wheelchair and the man it carried deeper into the…whatever the building actually was.  My first guess – that it would be a crack house of some sort, or perhaps a whorehouse – was clearly wrong.  I could have described it as a base of operations, but even that seemed lacking.  The closest word that came to mind was…some sort of halfway house?

But that didn’t make any sense.  I shelved the thought, for later consideration when there was more information available, and followed after the man in the wheelchair.

Two beeps, and then Sarah was speaking softly into my ear.  Mila’s head tilted slightly and I assumed that she was in on the communications, as well.  “Are you thinking that this guy’s on the level?”

Stani, Iosif, and Leonid were trailing behind us to watch the homeless individuals lurking in darkened corners.  I didn’t think we had anything to worry about, but their distance allowed me to answer Sarah’s question without having to whisper.  “I think he knows more about what’s going on in this city than we do,” I said.  “Maybe he’s just playing it up for effect, but it’s still a lead.”

“Why would Stani want you to come here for this?”  Sarah mused, as much to herself as to me.  “If the Russians already have a connection with the previous powers, bringing on a new player wouldn’t serve any purpose.”

“Assuming that it was me he wanted to bring along,” I said.

“Hmm?”

“Don’t forget: Stani thinks that I have the Lady’s backing.  Maybe he’s trying to orchestrate a power play and he needed someone with a little more oomph.”

“A little more than the Russian mob?”

Mila shook her head, and then visibly realized that Sarah couldn’t see the gesture.  I allowed myself a smile at that action, remembering how many jobs it had taken me to adapt.  “If Hill’s as entrenched as you two think,” she said, “the Bratva can’t make an open move against him.”

“Why’s that?”  I asked.

“I forget that neither of you really deal with the underworld any more than you have to.”  Mila sighed.  “You were at the Green Light gala.  Any type of overt move is going to bring a corresponding level of force.  Maybe the Bratva win, maybe they lose.  Either way, business is going to come to a crawl while that’s going on, and nobody wants that to happen.”

“Makes sense,” Sarah said.  “In the legitimate world, corporations try to keep the power plays under wraps because it shows weakness to any potential predators.”

“You make it sound like the Wild West,” I said.

“Not the Wild West,” Sarah replied.  “More like the jungle.  Kill or be kill, eat or be eaten.”

“Glad to see one of you understands,” Mila said in a sarcastic whisper.

“You realize,” I said, “that the microphone picks up and amplifies everything you say?”

“Oh?  I hadn’t realized.”

The man in the wheelchair reached the table and gestured lazily at the people congregated around it.  They dispersed reluctantly, shooting suspicious looks in our direction as they withdrew to one of the long cafeteria-style tables set against the wall.  They were far enough away that they wouldn’t be able to overhear any conversation, but no so far that they couldn’t take action if the Russians or Mila decided to make an aggressive move.

Mila, specifically, wasn’t a concern.  Assuming that she kept to her word – despite the matter of withholding information earlier, she’d done nothing to imply that she would outright lie – she would only fight if either she or I was threatened.  The man in the wheelchair had very carefully avoided making any intimations toward violence.  The Russians, however, were a different matter.  Their endgame was ostensibly capturing Asher, but I doubted strongly that the powers in charge of the Bratva would be so involved in the pursuit of a traitor, without other possible angles to play.  There were more pieces in play and it would be foolish to believe that I could see the whole field, yet.  Stani’s goals were almost certainly different than my own; it was even possible that they were directly antithetical.

“Go on, then,” the man in the wheelchair said, “have a sit.”  He waved a hand expansively at the now abandoned chairs.  “Way I see it, you’ll be wanting some answers, eh?”

I took a seat opposite the man in the wheelchair and, very deliberately, placed both of my hands on the table in plain view.  Until I knew more, I intended to do everything possible to minimize the possibility of seeming like a threat.  “That’s about the gist of it,” I said.

Mila took a seat to my left and the Russians filled in at other spots along the table’s perimeter.  “So,” the man in the wheelchair said, “you’re in charge of this ragtag bunch?”

“I wouldn’t say that.  How about we just stick with ‘spokesman’ for the moment?”

“Fair enough,” the man in the wheelchair said.  “Wouldn’t want to accidentally offend the lady, now would we?”

“The lady,” Mila interjected, “is perfectly comfortable with whatever terminology he chooses.  You, however, should probably just stick with using my name.”

I shot her a look and Mila didn’t even have the decency to shrug her indifference back at me.

The man in the wheelchair barked out a laugh, however, and raised his hands in surrender.  “I didn’t mean nothing by it, trust me!  And I would use your name, just as soon as you’d tell me what it is.”  He left the thought open.

“You show me yours,” I said, after a moment.  “Maybe I’ll show you mine.”

He laughed again.  “Careful and diplomatic?  I think I could get to like you.”

I waited.

The man in the wheelchair let out a long, dramatic breath.  “Well, then, allow me to introduce myself.”  His voice grew louder, each word more carefully enunciated, and the accent softened until it was almost imperceptible.  He was playing for the audience, I realized.  “Name’s William but, round here, most just call me Billy.”

“Billy?”  I repeated.

“A simple name for a simple man,” Billy said.  “And yours?”

My first name wasn’t necessarily common to the area, but it wasn’t uncommon.  Giving it to this man wouldn’t cost me too much position and I wasn’t certain that Stani or the other Russians wouldn’t accidentally let it slip at a later point in the conversation.  I was using my real name an uncomfortable amount, as of late, but there wasn’t really anything I could do about that.  “Devlin,” I said.

“And your friends?”

That was more than I was willing to offer.  Let Mila and the Russians make up their own minds as to whether or not they wanted that information floating around the London underworld.

After twenty seconds of stilted silence, Mila stepped forward.  “Emilia,” she said.  “Call me Mila.  Everyone else does.”

“Ah, Mila,” Billy said.  He seemed to be savoring the sound of the name.  “Pleasure to meet you.  Is that another gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

Mila gave him a thin smile.  “Can’t it be both?”

“Oh, I do like the lot of you,” Billy said.  He clapped his hands together and leaned back in the wheelchair.  “Been quite a while since I met anyone who caught me off guard.  This lot’s pretty predictable, all said.”

“This lot?”  I turned so that I could look once more at the building’s interior.  Most of the people who had been sitting outside of my direct field of vision had found other things to occupy their attention: food, mostly, although more than a few were not engaged in fervent conversation.  There were still some who watched my group with wary eyes, but their hands weren’t hidden within folds of cloth or openly displaying weapons.  “I would imagine they aren’t particularly surprising.”

“Not a wit,” Billy said.  “But they’re the ones what took me in, so it is what it is.”

“Took you in?”  I made eye contact with Billy over the table, and he held the contact with a surprising amount of force.  “I’m guessing Hill had something to do with that?”

“Not at all,” Billy replied.  He bared his teeth in an approximation of a smile.  It reminded me more of a rictus than anything.  “He’s the reason I lost my business, my home, and my legs.  But, he didn’t have nothing to do with these kind people taking me in as one of their own.  That was all on my own.”

I leaned forward, more attentive now than I had been before.  This had the sense of betrayal about it, and that was a feeling I now had an intimate understanding of.  “I think you ought to tell me that story from the beginning.  Something tells me we might be able to help each other out.”

Chapter Seventy-Five

“Devlin,” Mila said in a quiet, intense voice.  Somehow, she seemed to be watching both of the Russians with equal focus.  “I repeat: what are you doing here?  Why aren’t you in the hotel?”

“My associates here requested a meeting,” I replied, stressing the word to the breaking point.

“And you decided that tonight would be the best time for that?  Considering everyone who’s currently doing their level best to put neat little holes in you?”

“I didn’t decide anything,” I snapped.  “And I wouldn’t be out here, unprotected, if someone answered their phone.”

From my angle, I could only see the back of her head, but I could have sworn that Mila twitched slightly at that.

“What are you doing here?” I asked her again.

“Business,” she answered.  “Personal business.  I assumed that you would be smart enough to stay somewhere safe until I got back.”

My eyes went from the nape of Mila’s neck, over her shoulders, to the three Russians: Iosif and Leonid, the aim of their weapons changing from Mila to me and back again, in a protective stance around Stanislav.  For his part, the shorter man watched my conversation through narrowed eyes.  He didn’t give the order for his men to fire but, at the same time, he also didn’t tell them to stand down.

“I didn’t expect this to be a dangerous meeting.  I thought that we were all working toward the same goal, here.”  I deliberately raised my voice so that Stani could hear.

“How’s that working out for you?”  Mila asked.

“Not well,” I admitted.

The five of us stood there, locked into position, while the destitute and impoverished flowed around us, giving the conflict a wide berth.  The tension was almost unbearable but I knew that simply acting wasn’t an option.  Making the wrong move would easily send this détente spiraling into open gunfire.  I didn’t want that and, unless I’d badly misread Stani so far, he didn’t want it either.

“So?”  I asked the Russian.  “Can we talk about this like professionals?  Or are you going to let this end in bloodshed, when Asher is so close?”

“You were supposed to come alone,” Stani repeated.

“And you weren’t supposed to be an idiot,” I countered.  “I’m willing to start over if you are.”

A few more seconds stretched by.  Finally, an eternity later, Stani lifted two fingers and then let them fall.  Iosif and Leonid reluctantly lowered their guns but did not holster them.  Mila assumed the same posture.

I carefully stepped around Mila, so that I could look Stani in the eyes.  “Alright.  Now, did you actually have something or was this all just part of your plan to get me alone?”

Stani scowled back at me.  Clearly, he wasn’t fully convinced that I wasn’t playing some long game.  In fairness, I wasn’t convinced that the Lady hadn’t somehow maneuvered me into a position where I’d have to betray the Russians, but I certainly wasn’t going to let him know that.

“Who is this?”  Stani asked, pointing with his diminished hand at Mila.

“A friend,” I said.  Then, turning to face her fully, I added, “I think.”

There was no mistaking Mila’s guilty twitch this time.

“And she can be trusted?”

“She’s under contract,” I said, as if that explanation alone was sufficient.  “Mila isn’t going to start any trouble unless someone else starts it first.  Case in point.”

Stani considered that silently and, while he thought, the tide of bodies drew tighter around us.  The men and women who hadn’t moved far since the brief standoff still gave us almost a yard of space and the others – the ones who had been in other areas of the black market or who had been asleep, drugged, or otherwise insensate – followed that cue.

“Come,” Stani said, finally.

He turned on his heel and moved deeper into the market.  Iosif turned immediately, while Leonid continued to face me for a few tense seconds before he followed suit.

I waited until he was three yards ahead before I started to walk in that direction.  I felt Mila’s presence beside me, and I spoke to her under my breath as we went.  “Personal business?”  I asked.  “Now?”

“I’m allowed personal time,” she said.

“I’m not saying that you aren’t,” I said. “We cleared that up already.  But it isn’t that you wanted to take some time to clear your head.  It’s that you lied about where you were going.  What if something had happened at the hotel?”

“I spoke to Sophie before I left.  I’m not so far away that I couldn’t have gotten back, and that suite’s got a private elevator.  I’m not saying nobody could get in; I’m just saying that nobody could have gotten in before I got there to stop them.”

That may very well have been true.  I hadn’t really thought about the security measures the Brooklands might provide, but it stood to reason that the Lady wouldn’t go through the trouble of hiring a bodyguard, only to put us in the equivalent of the Holiday Inn, with regards to protection.  “This is about the Things, isn’t it?”  I asked.

“The…”  Mila was quiet for a second, connecting the reference to reality.  “You mean the twins.”

“Yeah, them.  That’s the business that pulled you out in the middle of the night?”

Mila sighed.  “Here.  Look at this.”

She passed a folded slip of paper over my shoulder.  I missed a step, shuffled to keep upright, and then opened the note.  A long word that I didn’t recognize was printed there in neat block letters, along with the date and a specific time.

“Flurpitine,” I said the word out loud.  It didn’t sound like any language I’d ever heard.  In fact, it sounded like a drug.  “Are you really out here getting high?”

Mila barked out two sharp laughs from behind me.  “The twins gave me that, at the bar.”

That explained why she’d turned off her camera before approaching them.  The solution to that mystery only brought another question to mind: what other information was she withholding?

Was there even anything I could do to ferret out those secrets, if Mila was intent on keeping them to herself?

Two pops in my earbud forced me to shelve those concerns.  Through the line, I listened as Sarah settled back into place.  “Sorry, I had to…”

I turned slightly, so that my button camera and, by extension, Sarah could see Mila.

Sarah’s words faltered.  “Um,” she said.  “What’s Mila doing there?”

“Funny you should ask that.”  I fished around in my pocket for a spare earbud.  When I found one, I floated it back to Mila.  “We were just getting to that part, I think.”

“I step up away for one second, I swear,” Sarah muttered, mostly to herself.  “Can someone fill me in on what I missed?  From the beginning, please.”

My side of the story only included the past few minutes, most of which had been spent talking Stani and his men down from the metaphorical edge.  Mila’s tale was far more interesting.

After leaving the hotel, she had apparently disassembled her phone to confound any effort to track her before she’d set off to run down the strange word and whatever connection it might have with Aiden, her own personal bogeyman.  That path had led her to the houses of a few former clients with more substantial connections to the local underworld.  According to Mila, she hadn’t needed to employ anything beyond implied threats to get those answers.  The freshly skinned knuckles on her right hand made that hard to believe.  Regardless, each name had her to another until she had, ultimately, found herself in this neighborhood’s black market.

“And here we are,” Mila finished.  “One big happy family.”

“Sarah?”  I asked.

“I’ll look into it,” she said.  “I’m guessing it isn’t recreational, but I’m still looking at a a long search.  If I had more to go on, maybe…”

Mila interrupted Sarah’s train of thought with a single word.  “Aiden.”

“What about him?”

“The twins said that his newest hire – Mikhail, right? – was more than just a drug dealer.”

I followed that thread back to the relevant memory.  “Thing One called him a pharmacist,” I said.  “Or Thing Two.  Whichever one was female?”

Mila gave me a tight, thin-lipped smile.  “Exactly.  So, maybe that drug’s something pharmaceutical, then?”

Sarah heaved out a sigh, even as the familiar sound of her fingers accelerated to their machine gun pace.  “This is still going to take some time.  I’ll have to sift through research journals, generic names, et cetera, et cetera.”

“But you can find it?”  I asked.

“If it exists,” Sarah answered, “I can find it.”

“Glad to hear it,” Mila said.  She took an extra-long step so that she stood slightly in front of me and then stopped.  “I think Devlin’s pal might have something to show us.”

She was right.  Stani, Iosif, and Leonid had stopped pushing their way through the crowd.  Now, they stood in front of a…shack wasn’t quite the right word, even if it had the right feeling.  The building was made of jet black stone, scarred with pockmarks and missing the occasional chunk from its surface.  A cloud of smoke hung around the entrance and I noticed, almost absently, that every second or third person that passed in front of the building shot a jealous glance in its direction.  Some people went in, and some people came out, but everyone found a reason to look.

In this black market, the building was probably the equivalent of a luxury residence.  Assuming, of course, that it was someone’s home.  As I took a few seconds to consider the traffic, I discarded that idea.  This was a business, just like every other ramshackle stall and corner, but the difference between this building and the ones that populated the square was painfully stark.

“Stani almost shot me just for running into Mila,” I said to Sarah.

“He almost tried, you mean,” Mila added, casually, and shrugged.

I ignored that.  “Point is, he probably won’t take too kindly to knowing there’s a third party involved in this, even if you aren’t technically here.”

“What about Anton?”  Sarah asked.  “He knows about me; he might be able to smooth things over if it gets heated, right?”

“Anton doesn’t know you’re involved,” I said.  “I trust him, as much as that sort of thing goes, but not the people he’s working with.  Besides, he wasn’t even with them earlier.”

Sarah digested that in thoughtful silence for a few seconds.  “You think he’s alright?”  She asked, finally.

That worry had crossed my mind; I had just banished it to the back of my thoughts immediately.  Sarah’s question brought that fear back, in full force.  “I hope he is,” I said.  “But I can’t get distracted by that right now.  Whatever it is that Stani wants to show me required weapons, and he was nervous enough about it that he almost ordered his goons to shoot me.”

“You need to stay focused,” Sarah said.  It wasn’t a directive on her part; just a confirmation.  “I’ll stay quiet, but I’m not going anywhere.  If something goes wrong…”

I’m here,” Mila said.  She sounded offended at the implication that a situation might arise that she couldn’t handle.  “I got a good read on those Russians.  The caliber of their guns is probably higher than their IQ; Devlin’s in good hands.”

“Glad to hear it,” Sarah said.  “Going silent, then, while I try to run down this drug.”

Two pops, and she was gone.

I rolled my neck until I felt the muscles there loosen appreciably.  “Alright.  Let’s see what’s behind door number one.”

I covered the distance between where we stood and where Stani waited, without waiting for a response from Mila.  She fell in step, less than a foot behind me.

“This,” Stani said when we drew close enough to hear him, “is what we are here for.”

“Are you going to tell me what this is?”  I asked.

“I only know what my superiors saw fit to tell me.”  Stani looked nervously around, even though no one was paying noticeable attention to our small group.  In fact, after the brief standoff from only a few minutes ago, people were actively trying not to look at us.  “Many years ago, before the Bratva established themselves in this country, there was a man who was…an associate.  We provided the product and he sold it to others.  Eventually, that arrangement became unnecessary and the Bratva moved into a position of partnership, instead of simply being the supplier.”

“Many years ago?  How long ago are we talking about?”

Stani shrugged his answer back at me.

“Okay,” I asked, “what happened to shake things up?”

“We do not know,” Stani said.  “One day, the man we worked with simply stopped replying to our messages and messengers.  Eventually, another man – this Hill, I suppose – assumed the same role, and we resumed operations from that point.”

I nodded in understanding.  There were benefits to the life I’d chosen, but those benefits came with steep tradeoffs.  It wasn’t uncommon for an underling to start feeling ambitious before making a play for greater power, and that power couldn’t be acquired so long as their previous employer continued to draw breath.  If Stani’s story was true – I didn’t think he was lying, although I did have my doubts about whether or not he was simply wrong – the transfer of power had been so smooth that the Bratva hadn’t noticed.  That part was surprising.

“The history lesson is appreciated,” I said, “but what’s that got to do with us, right now?”

“Some of our local soldiers heard a rumor in the streets about a man operating a small business from this black market.  Nothing large enough to warrant an official response, but still substantial enough to be noticed.  With a little more effort, and the assistance of the sniper you so kindly provided for questioning, the truth came to light.”

“It’s the guy?”  I asked.  “The guy your superiors used to work with?”

Stani nodded.

“Wait, wait, wait.”  I held up both hands in front of me, palms facing the small Russian.  “Let me see if I’ve got this straight.  There was a guy who ran this town before Hill, but he’s still alive?”

Mila sniffed at the air and I turned, reflexively, at the sound.  “Seems like poor planning,” she said.  “Why leave a possible competitor alive, if you can help it?  Especially one who’s just going to start up the same business, right under your nose?”

“We do not know,” Stani said.  “I do not know.  That is why we are.  If there is anyone who knows what this Hill is doing or how it relates to Asher, it would be this man.”  He gestured at the building.

I looked at Mila.  She answered my unspoken question with an even gaze and, instead of replying verbally, checked the slide of her still-unholstered weapon.  Stani nodded approvingly at this action and then walked inside.  I allowed my imagination a moment of frozen anxiety, picturing all of the ways this situation could spiral further out of control, before I steeled myself and entered the building, as well. On

Judging from the building’s exterior, and the general state of disrepair evidenced by the sprawling black market, I’d expected more of the same inside.  Perhaps nothing more than people drugged to gills, sprawled across the floor like morbidly animate carpets.  Or a more condensed version of the shops I’d seen outside, with higher quality wares for sale…for a commensurately higher price tag.  Maybe even a whorehouse, for those whose need so drastically outweighed their means that no other options remained.

I saw none of those.

The building’s interior was still dirty, of course.  The desperation inherent to places like this seeped into the very soil and affected everything it touched.  But it was less dirty, less miserable than I’d expected.  To one side, several long tables were populated by shabby men and women who rested, spoke to each other in low voices, or huddled over steaming bowls of some sort of stew.  Across from that, a makeshift bar had been cobbled together from several shipping pallets, where a jauntily dressed man in clearly secondhand clothes filled dirty glasses, mugs, and thermoses with liquor and booze.  A banner hung across the back of the room, but it was so tattered that the symbol it had once borne was indecipherable.

Underneath that banner, an older man, hair graying and thinning at his temples, hunched over a table.  A group of other people clustered around him, some standing while others sat a little higher than the graying man, pointing at what looked like a map stretched out before them.  I couldn’t make out what they said from this distance, but their body language made it clear: this was an important thing.  Presumably, then, the graying man was the person Stani had come here looking for.  Even if he wasn’t, it stood to reason that he might know more details that could prove useful.

I took a step forward to say something and realized, even before the first hand gripped my shoulder like a steel vice grip, that I had forgotten to check for security.  I froze, anticipating an attack of some sort, but none came.  The hand on my shoulder was firm, but not unkind.  A quick glance behind me showed that Mila, Stani, Iosif, and Leonid were restrained by similar men in similar postures.

The graying man at the table looked up and noticed us.  He gestured easily for his crowd to disperse and then slid back from the table and came over to us.  He didn’t walk across the distance.  I hadn’t noticed before, but I could see now that he hadn’t sat lower; he was in a wheelchair.

As he wheeled himself toward us, men and women alike parted to allow him passage.  They did this, not with fear, but with a semblance of…was that respect?

“Well now,” the graying man said when he drew close enough to see us.  He peered at our attire, eyes flickering over the guns some of my party held in clenched hands, and nodded once in affirmation of some unspoken thought.  “Seems like this is something new in my little part of paradise.  Care to explain before my men have to ask questions the hard way?”