Tag Archives: Carlos

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-Two

I noted, in a detached sort of way, that there were fewer flames than I would have expected.  The heat crawling out of the HVAC center wasn’t my greatest concern; it was pressure that attempted to keep me pressed against the wall.  A violent cough ripped itself out of my throat as I pushed myself back to my feet, shaking my head in an effort to think clearly again.  “What?”  I asked.

“Hill wasn’t keeping up with the proper precautions,” Sarah said, in a terse voice.  “It’s technical, but the details don’t matter.  You have to get out of that factory right now.”

I heard truth in those words and, using the adrenaline I’d been tapping for fifteen minutes, managed to stand up again.  Mila was slumped against the opposite wall.  A steady trickle of blood came from a wound on the back of her head, but she was awake.  Her eyes tracked me as I lurched forward and grabbed her wrist in both of my hands.  She used one of her hands to push off of the wall while I pulled.  We were both on our feet and rushing back down the hallway at top speed within a few seconds.

The toxic fumes from Billy’s fake plastic shards continued to spread through the building, expanding at a ridiculous speed to fill every cubic inch of space.  I hadn’t asked Sarah what the side effects of inhalation might be, but I suspected that I wouldn’t like them.  It didn’t matter, though; I still needed to breathe, both to speak and to power my bruised body through the twists and turns of the processing plant.  “I need an out, Sarah!”

“I’m looking!”

While she worked, I turned my attention to Mila.  With effort, she was keeping pace with me.  “What happened to Carlos?”

“I don’t know!”  Mila yelled back.  “He’s probably making his own escape!”

I started to reply, but another explosion shook the building at that exact moment. The sudden bloom of fire ripped the oxygen away from me and any words I planned to speak died on my lips.  Another wave of overwhelming pressure hit us from behind and I barely managed to grab onto one of the machines to my left.  Almost immediately, I realized that not all heat necessarily came with a visible indication; the metallic surface of the machine was hot enough that I could practically smell my palms burning.  I jerked my hands away and kept my balance through sheer force of will.

In addition to the original explosion, fires had begun to spread through the factory.  Tongues of flames leapt from one machine to the other, crawled along the ceiling in parallel lines, and dripped to the ground like raindrops.  The path ahead of us came to life in an instant.  Mila and I backed away from the fires, intending to turn back, but that way was blocked as well.

“Sarah?”  My words were surprisingly calm, considering our situation.  A miniscule part of my mind congratulated myself for that.

“Uh…take a left from where you’re at,” she said.  “I don’t know how long that path’s going to stay clear, so you have to hurry.”

Neither Mila or I wasted even a single split-second.  She was a little faster than me, but I was less than inch behind her as we hooked a left and dashed down the aisle.  At the end of that path, Sarah provided more directions and we followed those like our lives quite literally depended on it.

While we ran, I found myself analyzing our situation and drawing conclusions.  The reduction in breathable air, caused by the fire, was intense enough that I legitimately feared asphyxiation.  At the same time, it was possible that the vacuum was responsible for my continued good health.  Without an in-depth understanding of the chemical reaction I’d started, I couldn’t know what concentration of fumes I could safely inhale.  Since I could barely breath at all, my concern shifted from possibly toxic gases to a general breathlessness.  I wasn’t sure if that was better, but it was at least a familiar problem.

“Devlin?”  A voice asked, from less than a few feet away.  I pulled myself out of my thoughts and noticed the Russians standing at an intersection ahead of me.  Stani gave me a look that was something between astonishment and bewilderment.  “What has happened?”

Gradually, I came to a stop and bent in half, gasping greedily at the scant amount of oxygen available.  “Complications,” I managed to say.

“I don’t know how long you’ve got until the entire building comes down around you,” Sarah said.  “The route I had in mind is…not an option, anymore, but I think Carlos and whoever else came with him are leaving.”

A cough shook my entire body before I could respond.  “You think?”

“There’s kind of a lot going on,” Sarah shot back.  “We can figure out the next step after I get you out of this death trap.”

“No complaints here,” I croaked out.  “Where…what do you…”

I coughed again.  In the haze of smoke and the general chaos of the fire, I couldn’t be sure if there was blood mixed into the drops that flew from my mouth.  My breaths, which had been difficult before, became impossible.  I felt my temples pounding and could not, for the life of me, remember exactly why that pain was there.

Mila held out an impatient hand, gesturing wildly at Stani to pass over his coat, which he did after a moment.  She balled the garment up and pressed it to the back of her head.  “Devlin’s not doing well,” she said.  “Sarah, where do we go from here?”

I listened to Sarah’s answer, as if it dealt with someone other than me.  She sounded…panicked?  Concerned?  There was a nervous beat of emotion in her words that I had difficulty placing.  “The loading bay,” Sarah said.  “Get to the loading bay, I can open the door and let you guys out.  But if the network goes…”

She didn’t finish the sentence.  She didn’t have to.  Mila and Stani helped me to my feet and, with their help and the assistance of Iosif and Leonid, we began to pull ourselves through the aisles.  Sarah didn’t need to provide directions; the Russians had just left the loading area, and they apparently remembered the way.

At some point along the way, I succeeded in pushing the mental fog away long enough to form a few valid thoughts.  “James?”  I asked, without prelude or preamble.  “Chester?”

“They should have gotten away by now,” Sarah answered.  “Stani’s group got caught by the fire, but Billy’s guys had a clear path out of the building.”

“How far until the – “

I cut myself off as a man stumbled into the path in front of us.  It wasn’t difficult to see that he was in bad shape.  His chest should have been ventilated, judging from the holes peppering his shirt, but it seemed most of the shrapnel and debris had been stopped by some type of concealed body armor.  The occasional shard had found flesh, on his shoulders, his legs, and his face.  Each breath seemed to cause him pain and a mixture of blood and spit came from his lips with each exhale.  One of his arms was bent at the wrong angle, a flash of white bone standing out amidst the field of scarlet blood; the other hand held a gun, pointed in our direction.

It wasn’t a handgun.  It was too long to be a handgun.

Carlos’s eyes widened as he saw us.  Instead of making any attempt at convincing Mila to join him, however, he opened fire with the assault rifle an instant after he recognized our group, pouring bullets into the aisle like he held a firehose instead of a firearm.  Using the split second of notice my adrenaline soaked senses provided, I tugged at Mila and Stani and pulled them out of the aisle, so that they collapsed onto me in an undignified heap.  Iosif and Leonid took cover in the shadow of a machine across the aisle from us.

Carlos was yelling something in Spanish, but I couldn’t make out the syllables over the roar of the fire and the steady pops from his gun.

“The security system is completely down,” Sarah yelled into the comms.  “I can’t see anything that’s happening inside.  I need you to tell me what’s going on!”

Whatever effects the toxic cloud was supposed to cause, I had begun to feel them enough that I could feel my ability to rationalize slipping away.  The Russians covered their mouths with shirt sleeves and tried to breathe sparingly, but it was too late for me to do anything like that.  I’d been at ground zero, when both explosions caused the plan to quite literally blow up in my face.  The tiny portion of my mind that had, so far, continued to note details with a clinical detachment drew the logical conclusion: if I didn’t escape, and soon, there wouldn’t be any need to worry about permanent side effects.

A chunk of cement broke free of the ceiling overhead and dropped to the ground between us and Carlos with a momentarily deafening thud.  I struggled to force my limbs to cooperate, hoping to take advantage of the brief break in gunfire, but my numb legs refused to do much more than twitch.  The beginnings of a headache pressed against the inside of my temples.

“Sarah, we need an exit!”  Mila, helping me to my feet and supporting the majority of my weight with her much smaller body.  I don’t know how she managed it, but she carried me forward and covered the path in front of us with her weapon held in the other hand.

“I’m looking for one, but I can’t…there isn’t any way to make sure that you aren’t going to get caught by the fire!”

“Figure it out, then, and figure it out fast!”

“Uh…according to the blueprints, there’s an exit just two turns ahead.  Maybe a few dozen yards, if something else doesn’t go wrong along the way.”

Mila grunted inarticulately in response.  She moved, as if to redistribute my weight across her shoulder, but stopped when Iosif and Leonid both stepped up and took me from her.  The two Russians were, collectively, strong enough to simply lift me from my feet and carry me, at double speed, towards the exit.  The plant continued to fall apart around us, in chunks of increasing size.  At one point, we were forced to navigate around boulder of rebar and cement that fell within mere feet of our group.

Eventually, we saw open air and the moonless night ahead of us, through an open loading bay door.  With most of the fire behind us, Iosif and Leonid stopped for a quick handful of seconds to catch their breath.  Stani’s eyes were growing watery, but he gave me a quick examination anyway.  When his hand touched the small of my back, his expression turned stony.  His hand, when he withdrew it, came away wet and red.

Something was wrong.  I knew that much, even if I couldn’t seem to figure out exactly what was amiss.  It wasn’t Carlos’ appearance; while surprising, we could have dealt with that.  It wasn’t the fire of the secondary explosion.  Those had been a shock, but why would my smoke-choked mind be wasting processing power on facts I already knew?

There had been an original timeline.  A concern that Sarah and I both shared, dealing with our group’s ability to infiltrate the processing plant before…

The cops.  I dug deep within myself for focus, felt something shift in my chest that most certainly was not supposed to move, and forced words out.  “How long…until…the cops?”

Sarah gave an answer, but it was lost as Carlos picked his way through the rubble and opened fire on us once again.  Except for the vans, there was no cover available and the Russians practically dragged me behind one of the vehicles while Mila returned fire in short, controlled bursts.

The sound of sirens reached my ears, providing an answer to my question, during a brief lull in the gunfire.  A simple break-in, as we’d planned, might only have brought a token police force to investigate.  A full-scale explosion at an industrial plant, however?  That would bring police, ambulances, fire trucks…there was no chance of making a clean escape from the factory now.  Too many eyes would be on the scene and too many questions would be asked.

“Local law will be on the scene in maybe two minutes,” Sarah said.  “You’ve got to get moving!”

Of course, that wasn’t a possibility.  Whatever damage the initial explosion had done to my body, it had been enough to ensure that I wasn’t going to move very far or very fast anytime in the near future.  Sarah couldn’t see the grave expressions the Russians wore – I must have lost the camera at some point during the mad dash to freedom – but I could, and I knew what those faces meant.  We had lost.  The game was up.

A surprising depth of anger swelled from deep inside of me, complimented by the pounding inside my skull.  We had made it so far and accomplished so much.  The idea of losing here, because Hill’s fake corporation hadn’t kept up with safety protocols, was infuriating.  I slammed my fist into the side of the van, ignoring the brief flash of pain when my knuckles connected with the metal.

And then I stopped, the pain of my wounds, my dizziness, and my confusion disappearing for a single instant.  I hit the van again, this time with my palm, and an answer crystallized as if from thin air.  I kicked weakly at Stani until he focused his eyes on mine, then I flicked my vision to the van’s driver side door.  It took two repetitions of that before he understood what I intended.

He gave quick orders to his goons in Russian.  Iosif opened the door just wide enough that he could slip inside and started to hotwire the vehicle; Leonid half-pulled, half-carried me to the vehicle’s back doors.  I used some of the last dredges of strength I possessed to help him get me into the back of the van.  I struggled into an upright position against a tiny wall of white baking powder.  Stani leapt in next to me a moment later, and spat out a few more words that I couldn’t understand.

The car sputtered and came to life around us.  From my position, I couldn’t see anything other than the open air, but I could still hear.

“You’ve got to get in there,” Sarah said.  Not to me, but to Mila.

“So that he can perforate that van as soon as they start to leave?”  Mila replied.  “Not a chance.  I’ve got a job to do here.”

“You have to leave,” Sarah insisted.

There was a brief exchange of gunfire that drowned out any sentence either Mila or Sarah might have spoken.  Then, “Get him out of here!”

Stani touched two fingers on his whole hand to the earbud and I was reminded that he was also listening to the conversation.  He searched my expression for some sign of what to do; finding nothing there except what must have been blank, rapidly spreading confusion, he made up his mind.

He said two words to Iosif before lowering his voice and speaking directly to me.  “Hold on to something.”

The back of the van was remarkably devoid of any hand holds, so I grabbed onto Leonid’s arm as Iosif whipped the van into motion.  It was a not a vehicle designed to take corners well, but he managed to pull it out of a momentary fishtail and point it in the proper direction.  This had the effect of allowing me a brief view through the van’s swinging back doors.

Mila stood, facing into the fire and chaos of the processing plant, firing both of her guns into the flames.  Every line of her body stood in clear, sharp defiance.  She threw caution to the wind and sent rounds flying in Carlos’ direction, without bothering to take cover.  He fired back at her, but his aim lacked any precision.  At least one bullet pierced the wall above my head and another managed to find its way into Stani’s arm.

“You…don’t have…do this…” I managed to cough out.

Mila turned from her tableau of fire and devastation for an instant and actually smiled at me.  “Feed the cat, will you?”

Something ruptured within the factory and the explosion that came from its depth made the first two seem like firecrackers in comparison.  Everything tilted.  I watched as a pipe ripped its way free from the wall and swung with awesome force into Mila’s midsection.  She was lifted into the air, just as a fireball of biblical proportions issued forward.

The ensuing tremor caused Iosif to lose control of the van once more.  My grip on Leonid’s arm had been too weak to do much more than provide comfort; as soon as the rear of the van swung wide, I lost hold and flew the short distance through empty air until my skull connected with the opposite wall.

Fire trucks and ambulances were pulling up to the plastics plant in large numbers.  I saw as the police took up the perimeter, securing a zone we had somehow managed to escape.  I saw as the plant grew smaller and smaller.  I made it for a few more seconds, perhaps half a minute, before my injuries, the smoke inhalation, and my own bone-deep exhaustion became too much to bear.  I closed my eyes, and slipped into unconsciousness where I saw nothing at all.

Chapter Eighty-One

It was a testament to the seriousness of the situation that Stani limited himself to only a few choice Russian swear words.  He couldn’t have been pleased to discover yet another member of my team inserted into this job, after his explicit instructions, but he was apparently a professional.  There wasn’t time to start an argument about his terms or my flexible adherence to them.  Instead, he spoke a few sharp words to Iosif and Leonid before speaking directly to me.  “A trap?  What do you mean?”

“Hill couldn’t have known that we were going to be here.”  I wasn’t exactly answering the question.  There were so many disparate puzzle pieces to fit into place and my mind sped up until those shards started to fall together.  “That wouldn’t make sense.  The fact that I’m here is dumb luck.”

“What?  I do not understand what you are saying.”

Sarah spoke next, providing the counterpoint to my own thoughts.  “Hill must have leaked information to someone in Billy’s organization,” she said.  “Something that made the prospect of a raid tonight too attractive to pass up.”

“So we’re just trapped in the net, on accident?”  I barked out a sharp, humorless laugh.  “Of course.  That’s just our luck.”

“What do you want to do?”  Sarah asked.  “Aiden is only a couple minutes out.  He’ll beat the cops here by a good margin.”

I squeezed my eyes shut, calculating variables at high speed.  “Link us all up.  I need to redirect Chester and James, if we’re going to get out of this in one piece.”

The comms beeped twice.  “Devlin,” Sarah said, “the lines are all live now.”

“What’s this?”  Chester asked.  “Who’s that on the line?”

“Operations,” I said.  “Listen, we don’t have time to go over the details of this right now.”

“You had another man in the wings?”

“I had another teammate, yes, but that’s really not the point right now, Chester.”

“All this time you was pretending to know more than you really did, and you was really hiding another person out there somewhere.”  Chester clearly had no intentions of letting the point drop.  I hadn’t expected to find myself appreciating Stani’s adherence to protocol, but the situation provoked an appreciative feeling in my stomach.  “What else are you hiding, eh?”

“Oh.  My.  God.”  Sarah enunciated each syllable with precise, deliberate care.  “There are trained mercenaries on the way to the processing plant, armed to teeth and more than willing to kill, and you’re going to get hung up on the fact that the new guy didn’t tell you every single thing he had up his sleeve?”

Chester sputtered something incoherent over the line.  For my part, I decided that silence was the best option.  While Sarah took on Chester’s ego, I might be able to form some sort of haphazard plan to get us all through the next few minutes without any additional bullet holes.

“Every single one of you has secrets,” Sarah continued.  “You’ve got medical debt up to your eyeballs, Chester, and if it wasn’t for Billy’s help, there’s no chance you’d be doing anything other than rotting in the modern day equivalent of debtor’s prison.  But you don’t hear me calling you out for not fully disclosing your entire financial situation, do you?”

I took in her words with a small sliver of my conscious attention and wondered idly when she’d found the time to research Chester.  The rest of my thoughts were occupied with reconstructing the factory’s blueprints, adjusting timelines, and allowing for the very real possibility that I was, finally, too far over my head.

If this was indeed a trap with Aiden positioned to capture anyone attempting to raid the facility, the guards we’d forced out of position weren’t going to return.  Fewer bodies roaming the halls of the factory, gunning for our heads was a good thing, sure; but, Aiden’s men were trained and disciplined.  I wouldn’t have complained about some dissension and chaos in the ranks that I could manipulate.

“You don’t know nothing about me,” Chester was saying.  “And don’t pretend like you do, love.”

“Here’s what I know,” Sarah said.  “I know that your sister is suffering from a cocktail of diseases that are going to require at least three more surgeries and I-don’t-even-know-how-much treatment.  I know that you only got into this business a few months ago.  And I absolutely know that you do not have the experience to deal with the absolutely staggering shit-storm that is coming your way.  So you can either get with the program and follow whatever play Devlin calls, or you can continue to throw tantrums every single time that things don’t go exactly your way.  Your choice.”

Silence.  The miniscule fraction of attention I’d tasked to pay attention to Sarah’s diatribe practically cheered.  The rest of me was in the final steps of discarding unfeasible options and adjusting the few choices that remained until they had the highest possibility of success.  Those percentages weren’t high, by my reckoning, but there were considerably better than our chances if Mila and I stayed trapped within the lab.

“It’s game time, Chester,” I said.  “Pick your side.  Things are about to go very bad, very quickly, and I need to know where you’re going to come down on all of this.”

Precious seconds ticked away.  “Fine,” he said, finally.  “What do you got in mind?”

Chester’s ability to follow orders was far from a definite quantity, but there really wasn’t time to negotiate for a more enthusiastic response.  Mentally, I tagged him as ‘unreliable,’ and reworked the plan in my head to have a little more wiggle room.  “If Aiden was on call to deal with a break-in, then I’m assuming he took steps to close off any other avenues of escape.  That’s what he’d do, right, Mila?”

She nodded mutely.  The death grip she maintained on her weapon seemed to be tightening, and her knuckles stood out beneath taut skin.  Mila was making an effort to hold it together.  Whether or not that effort would be successful was another variable I couldn’t calculate around.

“What’re you thinking?” Sarah asked.

“I’m thinking…I’m thinking that we need some breathing room,” I said.  Then, barely an instant after the words passed my lips, a solution finally presented itself.  “Breathing room.  That’s how we can get out of this mess?”

“What are you…”  Sarah trailed off, as she worked through the disparate clues and reached the same conclusion.  “You really think you can pull that off in time?”

“Not in the slightest,” I replied.  “But I’m not seeing a lot of other options right now.  If Anton was here, that would make things easier to pinpoint.”

“You’re standing in the middle of a laboratory,” Sarah pointed out.  “Give me a second, I’ll find something that’ll work.”

The line beeped twice as she muted herself; my connection with the other two groups was still live, though.  I could hear Stani fervently muttering to his companions and, while Chester was silent for the moment, his breaths were ragged and loud.

“I need to know you’re going to be okay here,” I said to Mila.  “This is going to be close enough, and I absolutely cannot have you freeze.”

She did not reply.

I almost reached out to jostle her shoulder, but thought better of it at the last minute.  There was no telling how Mila might react to unexpected physical contact, especially when Aiden’s impending presence already had her on edge.  “Mila!”

She blinked twice, hard, and then focused on me.  “I’ll be okay,” she said in a small voice.

Sarah unmuted herself.  “Alright, I need you to look around the room for me.”

Without questioning, I began to turn in a slow circle, allowing the camera I wore to survey the room.  The beakers and containers were each marked with a different, unpronounceable Latin name; those meant nothing to me, so I refused to spend any mental processing power on them.  “There!  The, uh…magnesium phosphide.  Black bottle, on the second shelf to the left.”

“Got it.”  I hurried over and pulled the black bottle off of the shelf.  “What else?”

“Red phosphorous,” Sarah said.  “I didn’t see it already, but…”

“I’ve got that one,” Mila cut in.  She extended a shaky hand and pulled down a clear bag of what looked like red sand.

“You need to move.  I’ll give you directions.  The HVAC center isn’t far, but you’re going to have to time this perfectly.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said, moving to the door.  Mila was just a touch slower getting into motion and I felt my concern for her grow a proportionate amount.

“What do you need us to do?”  Stani asked.

“For right now, I’d suggest stalling, but that’s the sort of thing that’s liable to end up fatal to someone.  Probably you.”

Stani did not disagree, which raised my estimation of him another notch or two.  This was a man willing to deal with unexpected complications in the heat of the moment and someone capable of accepting an outside assessment without any unnecessary ego.  “Then what?”

“Assuming Aiden has secured the perimeter in ways we didn’t expect and can’t see,” I said, “the only way out is through him.  The alarm went off at the southern entrance, but you guys got into a fight at the loading bays.”

“He’ll pick one,” Mila said, “and cover the other area before he starts his sweep.”

“Good to know.  Sarah can tell us how he decides to enter.  Stani, I need you and Billy’s guys to rendezvous inside the building.  Mila and I can draw Aiden deeper into the plant before we drop off the plastic.”

“You are still planning on this sabotage?”

In a less serious situation, Stani’s absolute bewilderment would have made me smile.  As it was, I only bared my teeth in a fierce, feral grin.  “Billy’s got answers that we all need.  Pulling this off is the sort of thing that gets us deep in his favor.  Besides…Hill is really starting to piss me off.”

“You’re damn right,” Sarah added, from her end of the line.

“I…okay,” Stani said.  “How will we know where to go?”

I paused at that.  Sarah couldn’t relay directions to me and direct both of the other groups, at the same time.  That hesitation lingered for a few more critical seconds before I made the call.  “Sarah, which way is the HVAC center?  Generally speaking.”

“From where you are?”  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  “Two lefts and a right.”

“Alright, I can remember that.  Can you coordinate the two others, so we can make our escape at the same time?”

Sarah weighed her answer for a moment before responding.  “I assume you don’t want me distracting you?”

“It would be nice not to split my attention, yes.”

She sighed.  “Hurry up, then.  I can only watch so many things at once, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for yourself.”

“Roger that.”  The comms went silent and I motioned to Mila.  “Come on.”

We rushed out of the room at top speed, careening to our left without bothering to slow down, and my right shoulder collided with one of the industrial machines.  I used the brief flash of pain as motivation and pushed myself down the aisle with Mila less than a step behind me.

Left, down another path populated on both sides by machines like the ones I’d seen earlier.  Another left, and the scenery changed from machinery to what seemed to be a line of offices.  At the end of that aisle, we took the right and entered into a hallway that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an office building, but was an odd juxtaposition against the backdrop of industrial chic.

It took less than two minutes to cover the distance, and we slowed in the hallway to examine the title plates bolted in place beside the sporadic doors.  Mila spotted the correct nameplate first, on the left side of the hallway a few yards away.

The earbud beeped twice.  “Devlin!  They’re coming your way!  Three mercs, split up so that they can cover more ground.  You’re about to run into-”

Before I could do much more than process Sarah’s words, a door at the far end of the hallway flew open, practically tearing itself from its hinges.  I hurled myself to the right, on pure impulse, a split second before a loud report issued through the enclosed space.  Mila took cover as well and squeezed off three rounds.

“Dev!  There aren’t any cameras in that hallway; I can’t see what’s going on!”

I couldn’t spare the breath to answer Sarah’s plaintive cries.  Instead, I looked across the hallway at Mila, crouched behind a protrusion in the wall.  She met my eyes and I was struck by how wide her pupils were.  The terror in every quivering inch of body language woke a similar fear in me.  I tried to push that fear down, to wrestle it back into submission with the years of training and the ice-cold focus I typically clung to while on the job, and was only partially successful.

“He wouldn’t want me to kill you!” A voice called out, and my panicked mind catalogued and identified the accent without any conscious decision to do so.  South American – Brazillian, maybe? – male, perhaps in his late twenties.  It wasn’t Aiden at the end of the hallway, then; this was Carlos, the driver.

Carlos kept talking.  “You know how much he misses you, Thorn,” he said.  “Just come out, and the two of you can talk this out.  Don’t you want to talk this out?”

Mila didn’t respond, but I could practically see the words hovering at the edge of her lips.  She extended her gun an inch or two into the hallway and fired off another three bullets.

I risked a glance out at the same time.  Carlos ducked out of the doorway as the rounds struck the frame and wall, but he didn’t fire back.  The first salvo must have been pure instinct, then.  If Aiden wanted Mila alive, then Carlos couldn’t risk firing blindly into the hallway.  That was something I might be able to use.

When I looked back at Mila, I saw that her mind had followed a similar track.  She fired the last three rounds without any effort to aim and, with her other hand, gestured at me.

“Sarah,” I whispered, “open every door in the place.”

I dashed across the hallway without waiting for a reply, scooping up the magnesium phosphide and red phosphorous on the floor by Mila as I passed, and slammed a shoulder into the door marked ‘HVAC.’  Mercifully, it was an electronic lock, and Sarah opened it as my body collided into the metal.  I stumbled into the room, lost my balance, and nearly cracked the container of magnesium phosphide as I fell.  The air smelled…not stale, precisely.  Heavy, in some way I couldn’t quite identify.  My mind tracked that information, filed it away, and refocused on the task at hand.

“What do I do?”  I practically screamed into the earbud.

The pace of Sarah’s typing had accelerated to the point where it sounded more like a single, constant hum than individual keystrokes.  “Just mix them together, and throw it anywhere.  You’ll only have a few seconds before…”

I unscrewed the top from the magnesium phosphide before she could finish that thought and dumped the red phosphorous into the jar.  Then, I dug a fistful of Billy’s plastic shards from my pocket and added those to the now-smoking concoction.

In the hallway outside of the room, someone – Mila, judging from the distinctive sound of her smaller weapon – fired several times.  I glanced in that direction without thinking, and almost missed the next Sarah said.

Shit, the precautions!  That factory hasn’t passed the regulations for – “

I did miss whatever Sarah said next.  I turned to run and, behind me, the mixture of magnesium phosphide and red phosphorous did exactly what Sarah and I had planned for it to do: it exploded, consuming the fake plastic, and creating a cloud of noxious fumes that spread through the small room as if it had a mind of its own.  On the heels of that, however, another explosion triggered in the very air around me.  The force of that second explosion picked me up off of my feet and threw me forward, out of the room, and into the opposite wall in the hallway with enough force that my bones rattled and, for a second, I lost track of my surroundings.

“-dust explosion!”  Sarah’s voice, disconnected from any sense of space or time.  “You have to get out!  You have to get out now!

Part 3: Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mercenary

Kill her, the Passion whispered in his ear.  Hunt her down, tie her up, force her to submit.  Never let her leave you again.  Never let her HURT you again.

Aiden squeezed the bridge of his nose with two fingers and turned to look out of the window.  The Passion’s voice was getting harder to ignore, as of late.  He redoubled the strength of his mental barriers, internally reciting the words of his mother’s favorite poem, and even that didn’t have the same effect it once had.  Still, it gave him a few moments of relief from the presence and those seconds of space allowed him to think.

She was here, in London.  He’d been so close; closer than he’d been since she’d left his side, in the first place.  Only a single door had blocked his path, and she had still managed to escape.  He was as impressed by her ingenuity as he was angered by the evasion.  There was a certain allure to the chase, though.  Considering how close he was, Aiden was positive he could identify and follow any trail she left.  It was only a matter of time before he caught up to her again.  When he managed that, he knew he could talk to her, convince her that all was forgiven, demonstrate that her proper place was as a member of his team.

She abandoned you.  Abandoned everything you built for her, discarded the security you offered, and ran.  SHE RAN.

Movement might help.  It did, sometimes.  He stood, ignoring the subtle tremor in his left leg, and walked away from the window into the kitchen of his accommodations.  A slim folder lay on the counter, opened to reveal a single photograph and a note card filled with information.  The name of the target, how much money was being offered for the job, an accepted amount of collateral damage he was allowed in pursuit of his goal.  He read through it all for the fourth time since returning.   He saw nothing there that he hadn’t seen before.

On the surface, nothing about the job should have attracted her attention.  Emilia provided a very specific set of services, and nothing that took place at the manor house made sense given those skills.  In order to get past the manor house’s guards, a man had masqueraded as a German official who Aiden had personally made disappear, several months prior.  Someone had also penetrated the manor house’s security system and done serious damage to the network, even after the pretenders were barricaded within the little girl’s room.  According to the men he’d questioned after their escape, there had been at least three men, in addition to the child, who’d made their escape from the manor house during the gunfight.  One of those was, presumably, the driver of the tiny SUV who had managed to evade and exasperate Carlos’ attempts at capture.

Why had Emilia been there, with them?  She worked alone.  She always worked alone, since –

Since she cut you loose, shed you like dead skin, moved on to better things, the Passion hissed.  You should never have trusted her, never given her your faith, never let her get so close.

– since they’d parted ways.  Infiltration wasn’t her specialty.  Subterfuge wasn’t something Emilia used; it wasn’t even something she was particularly talented at.  She was a weapon, to be wielded against anyone foolish or unlucky enough to find themselves standing against the inferno of rage she kept inside her; she was an animal, to be unleashed as needed, to savage any target in her way.

She was his.

With that thought, he felt the shift.  It was familiar to him now; not exactly unpleasant, but unusual.  It was as though his consciousness shifted elsewhere and, in its place, the Passion took control.  Aiden swept out a hand, sending the folder and its contents fluttering to the ground.  That wasn’t enough destruction.  He took an empty bottle from a nearby table and hurled it against the far wall.  It shattered into shards and chunks of glass that rained down to the floor.  The rest of his actions were a blur, after that.  The Passion didn’t have any understanding about reasonable force, limitations, or control; it didn’t concern itself with self-harm or social mores.  It was only need and hatred, both directed at the same person: Thorn, Emilia, the woman who had left him after he had saved her.  The anger poured out of him, while the Passion howled vile curses and maledictions against her.  The Professional, shunted out of Aiden’s body, stood by, watching in silent disdain.

Are you done?  The Professional asked, after an unknowable period of time.  Is any of this helping?

Aiden spun and kicked a wooden panel hard enough to split it in two.  “You were mine!  You were just like me!  And you left!”

Then, the Professional said in an intent mental tone, how do we get her back?

Aiden paused, just long enough to catch his breath.  The brief cessation of outpoured rage was enough to allow the Professional control again.  The Passion coalesced into its regular form nearby: a small Maori boy, several years away from even his first tattoo.

Mine, it hissed.  The Passion’s lips moved without a sound; the words formed inside Aiden’s head without ever touching the air.  Mine.

Aiden sighed, exhausted from the outburst.  Those were becoming more frequent as the days turned into months.  If the doctors were right, the Passion would begin to hold greater sway over his actions as the illness progressed.  It was even possible that another phantom guest might appear, though Aiden personally thought that was unlikely.  The struggle between his professionalism and his passions wasn’t something new.  All the sickness really did was provide a visual representation for the parts of himself he tried to keep in check.

A knock came at the door.  Aiden jerked in that direction, reaching for his handgun as he did so.  The joints in his body ached at the sudden movement; he squashed the pinprick flare of pain with a brief effort of will.  “Sir?”  The speaker had an accent.  Aiden had never been good at identifying accents without additional information, but there were only two men who would dare to knock on Aiden’s door after an episode, and their accents were different enough that even he could easily deduce the speaker’s identity.

“Yes, Raphael?”

“It’s Carlos,” the voice said.  “Sir.”

Of course, it was Carlos.  Raphael was dead; fallen in a hail of bullets several years ago.  Aiden knew that.  It wasn’t that his memory was coming and going in unpredictable patches.  He was just tired.  The struggle for mental control had drained him and he’d misspoken.  That was all.

“Carlos, of course.  What do you need?”

“I…had a question, sir.”

Aiden swept a quick look around the room.  There was no real way of fixing the damage to the furniture, the walls, or the glassware.  He didn’t understand how he could have created so much wreckage but, at the same time, he was forced to admit to himself that he wasn’t really sure how long the Passion had been in control.  He decided, after a second spent considering the options, that it would cause more damage in the long run if he ignored Carlos or sent him away.  The image that Aiden – specifically, that the Professional – cultivated was that of a benevolent father figure.  If Carlos was struggling with doubts, it was important to control that problem before it grew into a festering sore that required more thorough solutions.  One spoiled apple, et cetera.

“Come in,” he said and stepped back, so that he stood almost in the center of the room.  That forced the ghostly image of the Passion back into a corner, but it wasn’t as though the phantom actually needed comfort.

Carlos entered, cautiously.  Aiden could see as the man’s eyes took in the devastation of torn upholstery and glass shrapnel.  It was obvious that he wanted to know what had transpired – there was almost no way the Passion had been silent during the episode – but training and conditioning kept him from breathing a word about what he saw.

“Yes?”  Aiden asked.  He was calm and controlled, each movement of his body specifically chosen to elicit the appropriate effect.  His voice, soft enough that it forced others to actually listen, was a skill he’d inherited from his father.  “How can I help?”

“It’s about…”  Carlos stopped and Aiden could practically hear the gears in the Spanish man’s mind grind to a halt, only to switch tracks and gradually work their way back up to speed.  He’d excised her name, at the last moment.  “It’s about the girl.  Our target, sir.”

“Yes?  What about her?”

“We…didn’t get her, sir.  Are we going after the people who managed to extract her before we got there?”

Find her.  The Passion was almost purring and every muscle in Aiden’s body, every fiber of his being, longed to do exactly that, in that moment.  Bring her back.  Force her to stay.  Never let her leave.

“We will,” Aiden said.  “When the time comes.”

“When do you – ?”

Aiden interrupted the man in that maddeningly soft voice.  “Do you know why we failed to retrieve the girl?”

Carlos blinked.  “Sir?”

“This was just a nine year old girl.  All of her guards were bought and paid for, even before we got on a plane.  This should have been the easiest retrieval of our lives.  So, tell me; what went wrong?”

Carlos opened his mouth, performed another of his obvious last second word swaps, and then spoke.  “Someone got there first,” he said.

“Indeed.”  Aiden stepped carefully over the ruined knickknacks scattered across the room’s floor and headed for a glass decanter of liquor that had somehow survived his rage.  He filled two glasses with the alcohol.  “Here.  Have a drink with me.”

It was a calculated gesture.  Aiden kept his teams small, on purpose; it was easier to maintain mystique and control, if your followers were kept relatively isolated.  He removed himself, even from them, by never relaxing in their presence.  It served to keep him as a figure above them.  By allowing Carlos to drink with him, Aiden was elevating the man to something like an equal, even if only for a moment.

It didn’t hurt matters that Aiden really wanted a drink himself.  He noticed, as he handed one glass over to Carlos, that his knuckles were torn and bleeding.  When had that happened?  How had he not noticed?

Kill the ones who stole her from you.  Murder them, make them suffer.  Take her.  Have her again.

Carlos accepted the offering and waited until Aiden raised his own glass in toast.  They clinked glasses softly and drained the containers in a single go.

“We failed,” Aiden said in that soft, fatherly voice, “because we didn’t know enough.  We were sent to retrieve the girl, but we didn’t know about the secret passage.  We didn’t know about the tunnels.  We didn’t know about this…other party, and their interest in the girl.”

Carlos nodded slowly, understanding the general idea.  Aiden hadn’t chosen him for his intelligence, but the man was reasonably quick at picking up concepts.  That made him an asset for the moment; it also meant that, eventually, Carlos would find himself in the unenviable position of being a liability.

Conquer, crush, kill, the Passion said.  This was an old, familiar recitation.  Dominate the weak. 

“I don’t intend to find myself in that position again,” Aiden said.  “The terms of our contract were perfectly clear.  Conveniently, there was no mention of a time constraint.”

“So, sir, you’re going to…?”

“Plan,” Aiden said.  “Use the resources at my disposal to uncover as much information as possible about the individuals in question.  Then, I will close off every avenue of escape, every hole they might choose to hide in, and close in.  The next time I see them will be the last time they are seen by anyone at all.”

One of the tricks he’d acquired over the years was nothing more or less than careful use of pronouns.  By using the plural earlier, when discussing their failure, he folded Carlos and himself into a single unit.  Doing so deflected the blame for any failures across all parties.  There were ways of exonerating himself, and those techniques would certainly be used at a later date, but it was important to make certain that Carlos understood he had a part in the failed job.

By using the singular now, Aiden isolated himself once more.  The disaster at the manor house was a shame that could be divided amongst the entire team.  The ability to succeed, the will and intelligence required to circumvent whatever obstacles cropped up in the future, the resources such an undertaking would require…all of those things, and more, belonged exclusively to Aiden.

“Even Thorn?”  Carlos’ lips turned down slightly into the beginnings of a frown as he remembered who Emilia had been, when they’d worked on the same team.

Their relationship, Aiden recalled, had always been antagonistic.  Of course, Aiden had wanted it that way; Emilia had emerged from the conflict with greater prestige and a higher place in Aiden’s eyes.  Carlos had apparently never gotten over the insult.

“Thorn poses a different dilemma,” Aiden said.  He poured two more drinks, but drank his own before Carlos had a chance to do the same.  “Her familiarity with my tactics creates a certain additional level of difficulty.  Not an unmanageable one, but still something that requires attention.”

Carlos tipped his glass and emptied it a second time.  “She was working with them, sir,” he said.  “Whoever got to the girl before us…they did it with Thorn’s help.”

Traitor, the Passion growled.  She is a traitor.

“I am aware of the work she has done since our…parting,” Aiden said.  He bared his teeth in an expression that Carlos would almost certainly read as a grin, but was closer to a grimace in reality.  The idea that she would take the skills he had painstakingly taught her and to protect with them was…disquieting.

There were plenty of opportunities for violence in that field, though.  There was something important in that tidbit.  No matter what she did, she wouldn’t ever be able to truly walk away from what they’d done together.  She’d never be able to change who she was, now.

Even her new name represented that.  Names, Aiden had found, told more about the person than most expected.  A name wasn’t just a method of identifying oneself to others; it was a way to frame one’s own self-identity.  The names he used for the warring aspects of his personality – the Professional, for the mercenary who’d inflicted violence in more than two dozen countries; and the Passion, who enjoyed the carnage for its own sake – were proof enough of that.  When Thorn had chosen her new name, she’d elected for something meaningful in her native language.  Emilia Espina Durante: the enduring thorn that protects.

She was Thorn now; she would always be Thorn.

My Thorn, the Passion rumbled in agreement.  Mine.

“I am certain, however,” Aiden continued, “that she can be convinced to…forego the path she’s chosen.  When I manage to remove the influences of whatever criminals she’s take up with, there will be time enough to identify and solve whatever concerns keep her from my side.”

Relaxed slightly by the alcohol and by the intoxicating presence of his leader, Carlos forgot himself for just an instant.  “Bitch doesn’t deserve a second chance, if you ask me.”

As soon as the sentence left his mouth, he regretted what he’d said but, by then, it was too late.  The Passion was too close, still too strong, and it rushed back into Aiden’s body.  He had Carlos by the throat in an instant; an eyeblink later, the Spanish man was bent backwards over the counter, his head a millimeter away from the glass decanter.  There were broken shards all over the space, and they bit into the skin on Carlos’ cheek.  Aiden doubled the pressure until Carlos cried out.

“That is my place to decide,” he growled, through painfully gritted teeth.  “Not yours.  I am the one who assembled this team; I am the one who trained you, taught you, gave you purpose.  I am the one who rescued you.”

“Of…of course, sir!”  Carlos practically screamed the words.  Even pressed against the counter by Aiden, he was too well trained to fight back.  That was the type of sin that led to a fatal resolution.  None of Aiden’s acolytes ever dared so much.

Except for Thorn, the Professional said.  He lounged in the corner where the Passion had been, wearing the guise of Aiden’s own father.  Why did that happen?

“We will bring her back,” Aiden said.  “And you will remember your place.”

He didn’t need to finish that thought with any threat.  Carlos nodded his agreement, adding another couple of cuts to his cheek, until Aiden relented.  The hot flash of rage dimmed enough for the Professional to reassert control.

Aiden stepped back and allowed Carlos to collect himself.  “Yes, sir,” the Spanish man said after a handful of seconds.  He went to attention and snapped off a quick salute.  “If that’s what you want, sir, then we will make it happen.”

Blood trickled down from Carlos’ cheek.  There was no way he didn’t notice the warm, wet sensation on his skin.  He made no move to wipe it away.

“Dismissed, soldier,” Aiden said.  He turned away from Carlos without another word.

“Sir, yes, sir!”

Because his back was turned, Aiden couldn’t actually watch Carlos leave, but he listened as the man’s boots crunched across the broken glass on the floor.  When he estimated that Carlos was at the door, he raised his voice slightly.  “Carlos.”

“Sir?”

“Send Mikhail in,” Aiden said.

“Yes, sir!”

There were two more crunches and then Carlos was gone.

Aiden counted to thirty before he relaxed.  Two outbursts in less than twenty minutes was a new record.  The medication wasn’t working as well, anymore.  He recited two of his mother’s favorite poems in his head, but the Passion still pressed against his thoughts.

Eventually, he would need to up the dosage.  There were side effects, but Aiden didn’t have any illusions about his lifespan: he wouldn’t be around long enough for the side effects to do much more than inconvenience him.  For now, in lieu of an ability to actually quiet the Passion, he closed his eyes and allowed an actual smile to crease his lips.

“I’ll be seeing you soon, Thorn,” he said to the air.

On that, both the Professional and the Passion agreed.