Tag Archives: Chester

Part Six Recap (2/2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truer words had never been spoken.

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

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

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Part 6: Recap (1/2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

A little too well, perhaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 140

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy’s expression turned doubtful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you found an earbud?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

James said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What wasn’t for Hill?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 139

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

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

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

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

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

“Should we…I don’t know, practice?”

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

“Fair enough.  So…play it by ear?”

Sarah nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Physically, I mean,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that mean to you?”

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

“Agreed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy tilted his head.  “How?”

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

“Which is?”

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

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

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

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

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

I could feel Sarah roll her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 130 (Sarah)

I couldn’t actually hear the impact as Michel’s Suzuki crashed into Hill’s estate, but I felt like I could.  The sound of the crash itself was picked up by two sets of earbuds on scene, which created an interesting – that is to say, deafening – feedback loop.  Reflexively, I cringed and covered my ears, which did nothing to lessen the intensity.  After a few seconds, my program started to normalize the volume levels.

A few seconds ticked by before my hearing returned and I felt comfortable risking the comms.  “Michel?  Can you hear me?”

The reply, when it came, was from Mila.  “He can hear you,” she said, “but you can’t hear him.”

I blinked in confusion, then examined one of my monitors.  Sure enough, Michel’s line was muted.  I’d intended to do that before Mila had encountered Aiden.  What I had not planned on, however, was forming a connection between Mila’s line and Michel’s.  When had that happened?

It was an easy thing to unmute Michel’s line and link all three of us into a single communications channel.  “Will someone please tell me what happened?”

“Aiden happened,” Mila said in a terse voice.  It sounded as though she was speaking through tightly gritted teeth.

That much I knew.  “How did you get away?  Did you…you know?”

Mila chuckled.  “No.”

“Is he following you?”  Immediately, I started to think of ways to slip a tail.  Anton, Stani, the Russians, and Billy’s men were still in a holding pattern around the estate.  I could probably get them to provide some type of moving screen, confounding anyone’s attempts to directly follow a single vehicle.  With luck, that distraction might hold up long enough to change cars and disappear into the city.

“Be surprised if he’s up for a run right now.”

“What…what happened?”

“Aiden happened to me,” Mila repeated.  Then, “And Michel happened to Aiden.”

It took me a second to piece the clues together into a coherent whole, complete with several false starts and dead ends.  Obviously, Michel couldn’t have fought Aiden to a standstill.  Nothing I’d seen in the man so far led me to believe that he held secret certifications in deadly martial arts, after all.  At the same time, the little I’d learned about Aiden left little hope that he could be persuaded or tricked.

But there had been the crash.

“You hit him with a car?” I asked, unable to lessen the incredulity in my voice.

Miles away, I could practically hear Michel’s self-conscious little shrug.  “I did not have a lot of time to think of a better option,” he said.  “When I heard that she was in trouble, I just, uh…”

He trailed off.  I waited a second or two for him to start speaking again and, when he didn’t, picked up the conversational slack.  “But how did you hear that she was in trouble to begin with?  You were…” I checked the GPS history, just to make sure that I wasn’t delusional.  “You were on the other side of the building.”

“When you muted my line,” Michel said, “you must have accidentally connected me to Mila.  I heard everything that she heard.  That is how I knew where she was and that she needed help.”

Sure enough, a quick check of the relevant screen showed that Michel’s line had been connected.  A small part of my pride chafed at the idea that I’d been clumsy enough to make that sort of mistake.  That chastisement was followed swiftly by cold fear, as I remembered exactly why I’d been frazzled enough to press the wrong buttons.

Devlin was still in danger.  With a painful exertion of effort, I forced myself to put that concern aside and focus on the current situation.

“Mila, are you in any condition to fight?” I asked.

Michel sucked in a sharp breath and started to say something.  Mila must have waved him off, because it was her voice that I heard next.  “Remember that broken arm they put in a cast?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, I’m going to need a new cast,” she said.  “Maybe some bandages for my ribs, too.  And an MRI.”

“Is it that bad?”

Now, Michel answered.  “It is worse than that, Sarah.  Whatever that man did to her was brutal.”

Shit.  Shit, shit, shit.  Shit.

Mila was our only real source of muscle and she’d been taken entirely out of the field.  Between her efforts and Michel’s aggressive driving, they had collectively managed to bench the largest physical threat on the opposition’s side – a fantastic achievement in virtually any other situation – but that didn’t appreciably lower the danger represented by the dozens of men searching for Devlin.

Inadequacy was a rare feeling for me.  I made it a point of professional pride to not remain inadequate at any given skill, as soon as that deficiency was made apparent.  There were few exceptions to that rule, though.

One: I couldn’t cook.  Before, during, and after my marriage, I’d tried countless times to learn the culinary arts and every effort ended in disaster.

Two: I was a terrible dancer.  While I’d been married to Devlin, his relative grace had been a source of constant embarrassment for me and constant amusement for him.

Three, and most immediately relevant: I was terrible at improvisation.

Still, wallowing in my own feelings of inadequacy wouldn’t help anyone.  Almost every aspect of our plan had been met with unexpected opposition or unreasonable timetables, so the vast majority of the team was now in serious danger.  I could worry about Devlin, who had made a choice to isolate himself in pursuit of the greater good, or I could save our new friends.

I knew which answer he would have wanted to me to choose.  Knowing that didn’t make it any less difficult to wrench my thoughts away from him so that I could focus on cobbling together some sort of escape.

“That impact is going to draw a lot of attention,” I said, marveling internally at my own ability to compartmentalize my fear and anxiety, “which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Some of the people inside of the house aren’t going to be able to help themselves: more than a few of the men searching for Devlin are going to be distracted.”

“Is that something that will help us?” Michel asked.

“Yes,” I answered immediately.  Then, after allowing myself a few seconds to think about how or why that would help, I elaborated.  “You’re going to be the bait for a little while.  I want you to draw as much attention as possible in your direction.”

“How will that – “

I talked over him.  “Hill’s already moved his men inside to chase down Devlin and to make sure that Avis and Neal don’t get away from him. We have two of the people he wants and his men are going to be playing catch up.  All we need to do is get you out of his territory.  He can’t bring military force to bear against you in public and we all know that much.”

“So, you want me to…what is it that you want me to do?”

“I want you to drive,” I said.  “As loudly and as quickly as possible.  I want you chased by as many people as possible, because as soon as you get past that gate, you’ll be in the clear.”

I chose not to voice the caveat in that plan.  If my guess was wrong and Hill had more men at the front gate than expected…if Michel made a mistake and foundered for a minute here or a minute there…if someone under Hill’s employ had more desperation than common sense and was willing to risk exposing themselves publicly…well, if any of those things or a dozen other eventualities came to pass, then everything would fall apart.  Michel and Mila would be captured and, most likely, executed.  Avis and Neal would be returned to Hill’s house, so that the girl could finish translating the contents of the Book.  After that, their prospects for survival weren’t very good, either.

A cold voice rose up from within me and spoke the very thought that I’d been trying my hardest to ignore: And it might still be too late for Devlin.

“I can help keep some of these guys from getting too close,” Mila said.  Her voice was strained and there was obvious pain laced between every syllable.  “Won’t…be too much help, but it can’t hurt.”

Devlin wouldn’t have been able to resist a comment at her choice of words, but I was too wired to pay much attention to the unintentional slip.  “I don’t want you or Neal getting yourself into critical condition,” I said.  “There’s no point in coming up with an escape plan if you ruin it by bleeding out before we can get you to see one of Sophie’s doctors.”

As soon as I said the words, I realized that I probably should arrange something with our concierge, so that Neal and Mila could receive medical attention as soon as possible.  That was something I would normally have done automatically.  The stress was affecting me worse than I’d realized.

Mila managed a laugh.  “This isn’t a plan, so much as one of the insane improvisations that Devlin comes up with.”

“That was the sort of the idea,” I admitted.

“Good,” Mila said.  “I like it.”

Even through the miasma of fear, that simple comment brought a shadow of a smile to my face.  “I’ve still got access to some of the electronics in the house,” I said.  “I’m going to give the men a little bit of a push, so that they start heading in your direction sooner rather than later.”

“That means that I should be going already?”

“It means,” I stressed, “that you should already be gone.”

With that, I clicked off of the line, so that I could work without distraction and began to navigate through Hill’s intranet.  Most of the directories were either redundant or obvious dead ends.  I dismissed those out of hand and focused instead on the hidden files and folders that a less skilled intruder might have overlooked.  Whoever had worked on the structure was a long way away from amateur-level.  However, I’d been working with computers since my college years and subjugating networks with better defense than this for over a decade.  It was difficult, sure, but it was by no means impossible.

Besides, what I wanted with the system wasn’t anything delicate or subtle.  The time for subtlety had passed, right around the moment when Devlin’s line had gone dead and Aiden had cornered Mila.  The only options available to us now were to go impossibly loud, to make as big of an impact as possible, and to hope that Hill and Asher weren’t in a position to retaliate in time.

That would put Billy at risk, though.  I recognized that fact.  Before starting this heist to begin with, Devlin and I had talked about the possibility that raising too much of an alarm would only result in the deaths of Billy, Avis, and Neal.  Two out of our three primary goals weren’t bad, considering the long odds we’d been up against from the very beginning.  I asked myself if I could live with leaving Billy at the estate and heading for the hills with our people, before Hill recovered enough to go back on the offensive.

I didn’t share Devlin’s bleeding heart sensibilities or his tendency to befriend anyone who wasn’t actively trying to kill him, at that moment.  Mila had saved his life, so she was part of our team.  Avis was a child and Neal was, in a weird sort of way, her guardian.  That extended protection to them, as well.  But Billy?  Billy was a player in the same game, but he had used us to further his own goals, just as we had used him.

If it meant his life in exchange for Devlin’s, I could learn to live with myself.  I was certainly willing to try.

The network defenses finally gave way under my concentrated assault.  Still, I couldn’t see into the room where Devlin was presumably being held hostage and there wasn’t a web of cameras that I could repurpose to my own ends, but I was pleased to discover that Hill had foolishly linked control of the gates and the doors to the estate without providing any additional security.  I had those under my control, in addition to the lights and the alarm sirens themselves.  I switched off everything and then, after allowing the men a few seconds of confusion, selectively reactivated some of the lights that led in Mila and Michel’s direction.  That wouldn’t be enough to ensure movement, but it would draw the eye and, with the sense of sight, I could only hope that someone in the horde of armed men noticed the sound of a car engine.

With that finished, I activated the lines for Stani, Chester, Anton, and the two interchangeable Russians all at once.  “No time to explain,” I said in a terse, no-nonsense tone, “but you’re about to have a lot of company headed in your direction.”

“What do you mean by that?” Chester asked, as if he had somehow missed the part where I’d said I couldn’t explain.

Still, it wouldn’t disrupt my emerging timeline too badly to elaborate on what I meant by ‘company.’  “Things didn’t go according to plan,” I said, “and we’re having to make an emergency retreat.  And not a very well planned retreat, at that.”

Chester scoffed into the comms.  “Could’ve told you that was going to happen.”

In a less tense situation, I would have been more than happy to devote some time to tearing Chester apart.  I couldn’t bring myself to do that, though.  I knew that he’d only gotten involved with our plan because we’d promised to help Billy and I also knew that, by virtue of revealing ourselves in such an undeniable fashion, I was putting his leader in mortal peril.

Instead, I chose to ignore him.  Stani provided a useful excuse to do exactly that, a moment later.  “What does this mean for us?”

“I want you guys in position to run a version of the same game Hill was using,” I said.  There wasn’t any reason to clarify that Hill had been using the entire shell game as a smokescreen.  “Meet up at the roundabout near the estate grounds, then split up as soon as Michel’s Suzuki gets there.  Chester, James, Anton: your car is going to be the primary decoy.  Stani, Iosif, Leonid: I want you guys to circle back as soon as you know you’ve lost your tails and start providing cover, if necessary.”

“Define cover,” Stani said.  A note of danger appeared as she spoke the last word.

“Nothing lethal,” I said, “and nothing that’s going to attract more attention.  We’re already going to have enough problems without inviting the forces of law and order down on our heads.”

A light flashed at the very edge of my peripheral vision.  I barely paid any attention to it, at first.  Then, my brain caught hold of that information and my heart skipped, my breath caught in my throat, and my fingers began to tremble.

“I’ll link you up with Michel,” I managed to say, in a surprisingly calm voice.  “I’ve got other things to take care of.”

I pressed the requisite buttons on autopilot and then, slowly, activated Devlin’s now-blinking line.

“Sarah, I really hope you’re listening to this,” he was saying, “because it would really be great if you would let me know that I’m not just talking to myself.”

“I’m here!” I practically chirped into the comms.  “What’s going on?  What happened?”

“Signal jammer,” Devlin said.

I’d figured that much out myself.  “Someone got the drop on you?  Are you…are you okay?”

He didn’t answer for a few seconds.  “I’m fine,” he said finally.  “He made a mistake and I managed to turn the tables on him.”

“Is he going to be a problem?”

More silence.  Then, “No.  He won’t be a problem.”

As far as I knew, Devlin had never killed before.  He’d injured, sure, but taking a life was a step beyond anything he’d ever done.

But that was only as far as I knew.  He had been in jail for a long time.  I’d heard stories about prison changing people in far more drastic ways.

“That’s not important now,” he continued and I forced myself to pay stricter attention.

“What is important?”

“If one of Hill’s men was already equipped with a signal jammer, then he knew I was communicating with someone outside of the house.”

“There’s no way to listen in on these communications,” I said, without stopping to think about it.

“Are you sure about that?”

“I wrote the protocol myself.”  I thought about that for a second and checked my ego.  “If Hill has a way of listening to my communications without me knowing about it, he could make more money going legitimate and selling the technology to private military companies.”

Silence.  Seconds passed before Devlin spoke.  “It doesn’t matter.  Whether he can listen in or not, he already knew we were coming.  We’re blown, Sarah.  We’ve been blown since before we entered the estate to begin with.”

I’d been in the position of making snap decisions for only a few minutes and I held a new appreciation for Devlin, in that moment.  “What do you want me to do?”

“Go to Plan B,” he said.

The warm glow that I felt at not having to make decisions anymore instantly evaporated.  “Plan B?”  I repeated, shocked and aghast in equal measure.  “That was mostly just a joke, Dev.  Are you sure about that?”

“I can’t think of any other options that stand even the slightest chance of getting me out of this alive.”

That sentence resolved any lingering doubts in my own mind.  “Alright.”  The lines belonging to Stani and Michel lit up on my screen.  “I’ve got to deal with getting the others out of the estate, but I’ll take care of the other thing first.”

“Good,” he said.  “I’ll…I guess I’ll try and stall.  Let me know if something else goes wrong, okay?”

I let out a long, nearly silent breath.  The effort did little to settle my nerves.  “Alright.  You let me know if you’re about to get cut off again before I’m sitting over here, contemplating a full front assault?”

“Awww,” Devlin cooed into the comms, “you really do like me.”

I cut off his line.  I knew he was being coy and flippant, aiming to break the tension he’d brought down by invoking Plan B.  It was, surprisingly, more successful than I would have expected, but it couldn’t dispel the sense of doom completely.

He was right, joking or not.  I really did care about him and I really did care about the team.  If it was a choice between their freedom and their lives, though…well, then, that wasn’t really any sort of choice at all.

I touched two fingers to my lips and said a silent prayer, then dialed the phone number for the London Metropolitan Police Department.

Chapter 118 (Chester)

Chester hadn’t felt the need to break into a car for going on seven years now, starting from the moment when Billy had intervened and provided a more reliable source of income; he hadn’t felt the desire to do so for, perhaps, half as long.  His skills in close quarters work, as well as his exhaustive knowledge on the best ways to hotwire a variety of makes and models, weren’t the sort of thing that one forgot.  For the first three and a half years of his employment, his fingers had practically itched every time his work took him near rare or expensive cars.  The fact that he didn’t need to pinch the cars for money anymore didn’t diminish the thrill.

By the time he’d finally adjusted to his new job, with all of the odd restrictions and rules that Billy placed on all of his operatives, Chester had managed to wrestle the thirst for blatant grand theft auto down to a manageable distraction.  When these Americans – and the Frenchman, he reminded himself – had shown up, he had allowed himself a moment of wild hope.  These were thieves, by their own admission.  It wasn’t entirely unreasonable to think that Billy might finally have decided to be more aggressive when dealing with Hill’s operation.  It was also not unreasonable to hope that the tight rules might be relaxed a little bit, at least when it came to Chester and cars.

Instead, everything had gone to absolute shit in astoundingly short order.  A simple job to retrieve product from one of Hill’s legitimate fronts became a firestorm that threatened to consume a lot of the territory Billy had managed to claim for himself; from there, when the short Hispanic woman had been captured by the police, the newcomers had gone after her, breaking into Scotland Yard of all places along the way.  And now…

Now, Billy had been kidnapped.  Snatched off of the street by one of Hill’s hired hitmen, the man who had saved Chester when he’d most needed saving was now in danger of death (if he was lucky) or torture (if he was not).

So he couldn’t help but laugh that now, of all times, his particular skillset was being called upon.

“James,” Chester said, “you ever nicked a car before?”

The terminally quiet man lifted an eyebrow and shook his head.

Chester turned his attention to the Russian – he couldn’t remember if the bombmaker was Russian or not, but he certainly looked Baltic – and sent his next question in that direction.  “What about you?”

“Once or twice,” the bombmaker said.  “I was…not very good at it.”

“Guess this one’s on me, then.”  Chester touched the unfamiliar weight in his ear with an index finger.  Sarah had told him multiple times that gesture wasn’t necessary for her to hear what he said and he had decided, after several seconds of thorough consideration, to do it anyway.  It wouldn’t hurt anything to be certain.  “I can take care of that.  What do you want us to do about the blokes in the car right now, though?”

“Hmm.  I hadn’t planned on them driving in pairs,” Sarah replied.

It was weird to hear her voice in his ear, as though she were sitting right next to him, when he knew perfectly well that was somewhere across town.  He’d hated that sensation at the processing plant and he hated it now.  Odds were high that he’d always find it distinctly uncomfortable, but that was a small price to pay for real-time status updates.

She cleared her throat and continued speaking.  “The most important thing is that they don’t get a chance to report in.  So, whatever you do, neither of those guards can have an opportunity to alert Hill or the rest of the organization that something’s wrong.”

“You sayin’ what I think you’re sayin’?”  Chester asked.

“I’m not saying that, actually.  We’re trying to stay on the side of the angels here and bodies have a way of attracting questions.  To say nothing of the fact that these goons might just be the hired help.  So, something other than a fatal solution, ideally.”

Chester swallowed a lump of nervous fear and allowed himself a tiny sigh of relief.  He was a car thief, sure, and a drug runner.  He had no illusions about the legality of his occupation, any more than he had doubts about the necessity of what he did.  Without his work, his sister wouldn’t have been able to get the treatment she needed.  Even if she never spoke to him again – which was likely, considering the strained relationship between Chester and her lazy husband – that was a price worth paying.  What he was not, however, was a killer.  The worst he’d ever done was beat the nonsense out of a few roughs in Billy’s new territory that hadn’t been willing to fall in line with the new rules.  Taking things further than that might have been a line too far.

Not that he was going to admit his reticence to anyone in the car or over the earbud, though.  He had a reputation to maintain.

Fine,” he said, channeling his very real feelings of relief into what he hoped sounded like irritation.  “How long do you need them out of commission?”

Sarah’s fingers clicked rapidly across a keyboard, at her end of the connection.  “If everything goes perfectly, maybe an hour.  Let’s assume double that, just in case.”

Chester sucked at his teeth.  “Might be doable,” he said, finally.  “You don’t want us to take them right here, though.  Too many witnesses, for one.  No way of telling if someone’s going to be a hero and jump in on their behalf, either.”

“I leave the details up to you,” Sarah said.  “Car theft isn’t something I’ve ever had to worry about.”

Chester’s eyebrows drew together at that thought, but he kept any questions to himself.

“I’m muting your line for a second so that I can talk to Michel,” she continued.  “I’m still listening in, though, so just say my name when you need my attention.”

The earbud popped twice, as if Chester had just gone to a high elevation, and went dead.

“Well,” Chester said.  “First things first.  James, let’s switch.  You’ll have to drive.”

James nodded and unbuckled his seatbelt.  The Sig Sauer at his waist went into the glovebox while the two men maneuvered so that they switched places.  Chester felt unreasonably proud that they managed the transition without swerving too far out of the painted lines on the road.

Mentally, Chester began referring to the black Suzuki as “the target.”  Back in his boosting days, that little trick had helped to give him the proper perspective when casing a particular vehicle.  He was surprised that the shift happened so easily.

A second man, dressed in jeans and a long black overcoat, exited the petrol station.  His arms were full of snacks and, Chester noted, an entire carton of cigarettes.  The second man entered the vehicle on the passenger side and the driver, wearing almost identical clothing to his riding partner, pulled the car away from the station and out into traffic.  James waited at a stop sign until a few more vehicles were in place to provide them with a bit of cover before he pulled out as well.

While James drove, Chester ran through a list of his old standby approaches.  Most were unfeasible, right from the start.  He couldn’t wait for an opportune moment to steal the car when nobody was looking, obviously.  Hotwiring the car was probably also going to be unnecessary.  The keys were already in the target.

Bad news and good news, then.  He could deal with that.

“Alright,” Chester said, including both Anton and James with his body language.  “This is how it’s got to happen.  We can’t wait until no one’s looking.  Best thing we can hope for is to catch his particular target without any additional witnesses.”

“How will we do that?”  This, from the bombmaker.  Chester wasn’t sure, but he wanted to say that his name was Anton.

“We could follow them until they end up on a lonely stretch of road, but…”  A thought occurred to him.  “Sarah?  Are you still listening?”

The earbud popped twice.  “I’m here.  What do you need?”

“You said you can see where we’re at, didn’t you?”

“I can see where your phones are at, so yes.  Why?”

“Are there any blind turns coming up?  Places where the road’s too thin for too much traffic to go through at the same time?”

James grumbled from his seat.  “Could’ve asked me.”

Chester rolled his eyes, but kept the majority of his attention firmly on the little earbud and on Sarah’s voice.  “I can see a couple options.”

“Can you…I don’t bloody know.  Pick the one closest to us – that still leads to Hill’s estate – and send me the details.”  As soon as the words left his mouth, Chester realized that he was letting his anxiety affect his temper.  He wasn’t an idiot; most times, he knew when he was being an ass.  It was just that he couldn’t often muster the energy to care.  In this situation, though, with so much on the line…well, it seemed like the best plan would be to moderate his words.  So, reluctantly, he added, “Please.”

Sarah didn’t acknowledge the addition, which Chester felt was a bit rude.  “I’m on it.  One second.”  Then, the machine gun speed clicks from her keyboard.  Five or ten seconds after that, his phone beeped.  “There.  Anything else?”

“That’s all I need,” Chester said.  “What about the two of you?”

“I am good,” Anton said.

James nodded, as though Sarah could somehow tell what physical gestures he was making.  A moment passed before Chester remembered the miniature cameras on their lapels.  It was very possible that she could see what they were doing or, if necessary, at least piece it together through context clues.

“Good,” Sarah said.  “I’m forwarding that address over to Michel, so that he can pick up the same route.”

Before Chester could say anything else, the line popped and she was gone.

He sighed and picked up the thread of his conversation where he’d left it before speaking to Sarah.  “This is how we’re going to play it.  Two men in that car, probably armed.  No way of knowing how violent they’re going to be, but it is what it is.  We’re going to have to do this face-to-face.”

“You want to confront two armed men in a tight space?” Anton asked.

“I don’t want to do it,” Chester said, “but it’s the only way to get it done.  Not my preferred way of working, trust me.  Are you carrying?”

Anton visibly swallowed before he pulled back his coat to reveal a Makarov and no fewer than four hand grenades hanging on special laps built into the coat itself.

“Don’t use those,” Chester said, recoiling from the explosives on pure instinct.  “But the handgun might be something we can use.  If they get violent.”

When,” James rumbled.

“Fine.  When they get violent.  Anything we can do to keep them from escalating the situation is good.  Sarah doesn’t want these guys dead, but I’d be shocked to find out they’ve got the same limitations.”

“How should we get them to stop?”

“That one’s easy,” Chester said.  He held out the phone, with the information sent by Sarah, so that James could read the screen at a glance.  “Head to this street, put the car in park, and then run the engine until it’s about to die.”

James raised an eyebrow.  “Why?”

“Damsel in distress,” Chester replied.  “Oldest play in the book.  If that doesn’t work, we can always go with a more aggressive technique.  This one has the possibility, at least, of getting them out of that car.  Hell, the bloody thing might be armored for all we know.”

After a second, James nodded.  He accelerated their car and changed lanes so that he passed both the buffer and the target car, then took a right turn and followed the path until reaching the desired area.  Once he was there, he parked the car and placed all of his weight onto the accelerator.  The car began to purr before it switched to louder roars; those roars quickly turned into choked sounds and the engine began producing a frightening amount of thick, black smoke.

“More?” James asked.

“That oughta be enough,” Chester said.  “Shouldn’t be too long before they get here.”

The three men stepped out of the car and, with smoke billowing from underneath the hood, waited.  Sarah had picked the spot well.  This route took several sharp turns and only led to a few main thoroughfares, it seemed.  The only people likely to take this path instead of one of the faster, more accessible options were people with a vested interest in avoiding attention.  Still, a few cars did pass by them.  Mercifully, they did without stopping.  One minivan began to slow down, but Chester waved it away before it could come to a complete stop.

They didn’t have to stand by the road for very long before the target car pulled around the corner.  There weren’t any witnesses ahead of them and, to Chester’s eyes, there weren’t any coming up behind the Suzuki.  He stepped out into the road and flagged down the occupants.

“Oy!  Oy, we could use a hand ‘ere, mate!”  He doubled down on the ‘man of the people’ accent, hoping that it might lure the Suzuki’s occupants into a second or two of hesitation later.  “Mate, can I get a bloody jump?”

The Suzuki’s windows had a dark tint, but Chester could make out silhouettes.  The silhouette in the driver’s seat turned to the shadow beside it.  The second silhouette replied.

The Suzuki showed no signs of slowing and, without turning, Chester could feel the subtle tightening of nerves from the two men behind him.  He put one hand out to his side, palm facing the ground, and stepped directly into the path of the oncoming vehicle.  Only when he was squarely located in the car’s path did the car slow, then stop.

The driver rolled down his window and leaned out.  He was a thin man, with the facial hair of someone who tries very hard to look like they don’t try very hard at all.  There were bruises on his face and what looked like the remnants of a black eye fading on his features.  “Looks like you had a bit of bad luck, eh?”

“Just a bit, yeah,” Chester said.  “You mind giving me a hand? Just need to get this off the road.”

The Suzuki’s two occupants conferred with each other.  Chester could imagine their conversation.

“You think we should help him?”

“Don’t know if we can trust anybody right now.  But…but he’s in the middle of the road, anyway.”

“That’s what I’m thinking.  If one of the other cars comes this way, he could be a major problem.”

Or something similar to that.  Whatever words passed between the two men, the driver pulled his car to the opposite side of the road and stepped out of the vehicle.  Simultaneously, James moved so that he was closer to the black Suzuki.  Not so close that it would raise any alarms, but definitely close enough that he stood a good chance of reaching the car before any weapons could be drawn.

The driver of the car – Chester thought of him as the Kid, because of the facial hair and the roundness of his features – approached cautiously.  The Kid tried badly to hide the weapon at his waist.  Each step he took betrayed his intentions, as the coat he wore pulled back and revealed flashes of metal.

“What’s the problem?” The Kid asked.

“I’m not really good with cars,” Chester lied.  He’d known cars like he knew his own name since his fifteenth birthday.  Nothing about his time with Billy had diminished that particular knowledge pool.  “Maybe you’ll have better luck, though.”  He gestured toward the car.

The Kid waited until a car drove past and then crossed the street so that he was standing right next to Chester’s own vehicle.  Chester popped the hood and waved; the Kid took that as an invitation and drew even closer to the engine.

“Looks like…looks like nothing’s wrong,” the Kid said, after a few seconds of examination.  “Except you’ve been running the engine like – “

He didn’t get to finish that thought before Anton stepped forward and whipped his handgun across the Kid’s face like a baton.  The distinct, unmistakable sound of breaking bones came from the Kid’s face but, to his credit, he maintained enough presence of mind to reach for the gun at his waist.  Chester made certain that he didn’t actually reach that weapon by lashing out with a fierce roundhouse kick and an uppercut that drove the Kid’s head back into the roof of the smoking automobile.  He slumped to the ground, conscious but unthreatening.  Anton kicked at his waist until the gun dislodged itself and then pushed it away, just in case.

At the same time, James sprinted across the street at top speed.  The Suzuki’s passenger started to leap out of the car at the first sign of danger – Chester considered it a blessing that he hadn’t gone for the phone instead – but James caught him with one foot on the ground and one still inside the car.  With his full mass moving at top speed, James pulverized the passenger’s leg.  Then, before the man had a chance to do anything except howl in pain, he opened the door and pulled the man free.  James raised him above his head with one fully extended arm and then, with an odd sort of care, smashed him against the Suzuki once…twice…three times.  When the man’s body went limp, James tossed it carelessly into the back seat.

Anton and Chester both stared at the Scottish man in awe.  James, for his part, shrugged.

Chester cleared his throat twice and swallowed two more times before he spoke.  “Sarah?”

The line popped to announce her presence.  “I’m watching through the cameras,” she said immediately.  “Great work.  Get them out of sight, though.”

Chester and Anton exchanged a look.  Anton was bigger than Chester by a fair amount, so he started to drag the unconscious Kid while Chester opened the back door of their smoking vehicle.  The groaning man went into the backseat.

“Alright,” Chester said.  “Now what?”

A new voice spoke through the earbud.  It was rich, cheerful, and unmistakably French.  “Now,” Michel said, “it is my turn.”

Chapter 117 (Anton)

“Fuckin’ hell!” Chester yelled, when the first bomb went off.  Within the confines of their relatively compact vehicle, the sudden outburst set Anton’s nerves on edge.  “It supposed to be that loud, then?”

With great effort, Anton kept himself from rolling his eyes.  “Yes, it is supposed to be that loud.  It is a distraction.”

“And you’re sure you didn’t mess it up?  That fire isn’t going to start spreading?”

“No, it is not going to start spreading,” Anton said, sighing as he did so.  He could have explained that none of the bombs placed by Chester’s men produced any noticeable quantity of flame, leaning instead towards noise and smoke, but there wasn’t any point.

His earbud popped twice, saving him from any further consideration on the matter, and Sarah cleared her throat into the comms.  “That was a little earlier than we expected,” she said.

“I told you that it was not a perfect estimate,” Anton replied.  “Is it close enough for what you have planned?”

She thought about her answer in silence for about five seconds.  “We can make it work.  Worst case, we have to escalate the timetable when we reach the back half of things.”

“You messed up the timing?” Chester sneered.  “Some expert you turned out to be.”

Anton inhaled and exhaled slowly, taking great care to keep his eyes fixed firmly on a point in the distance.  Chester wasn’t the first person to denigrate Anton’s skills.  In fact, being attacked for his professionalism was a welcome change from the usual target of jeers and insults he received while working.  The benefit of a near-lifetime of ridicule, Anton decided, was thick enough skin to ignore anything he didn’t feel like dealing with.

Sarah either didn’t feel that he could handle the insult, though, or she was just reaching the end of her patience with Chester’s constant antagonism.  “Trust Anton,” she snapped.  “He knows what he’s doing.  If he didn’t, we wouldn’t have gone with this approach.”

A surge of happiness brought a smile to Anton’s face.  He understood that Sarah didn’t trust him, so much as she trusted Devlin who trusted him.  That knowledge did nothing to diminish the warm feeling in his stomach.  He’d worked with a dozen different crews, just in the past five or six years, and none of those masterminds had ever felt the need to compliment Anton on his work.

“Alright, alright, we’re all best friends,” Devlin said, also over the comms.  “Keep your eyes peeled.  We need to know when the shells start moving, so that we can get in position.  The timing on this isn’t going to exact.  Sarah, we’re going to need Michel on this line.”

“Already on it.  Should probably link us all up for the moment, anyway.”  The earbud popped twice to signify the connection of the other participants.

Anton shifted nervously in his seat.  Only a few seconds passed before someone spoke and the Ukrainian spent all of those seconds wondering who would take the initiative and what they might say.  A hundred different disastrous possibilities played out in his mind, in the space of an eye blink.

If Michel talked, there was every possibility that the Frenchman might say something flirtatious.  It wasn’t as though Sarah and Devlin maintained any sort of decorum over the line.  And Anton had enjoyed their conversation a few days ago, while they waited to ride a borrowed train into an abandoned station.  Under the right circumstances, Michel might be someone who Anton enjoyed having even more conversations with.  Just…not now.  Certainly not with Stani on the line and the unresolved bundle of emotions that he represented.

Thankfully, the bodyguard named Mila was the first one to talk.  She spoke in a clear, authoritative tone which set the tempo for the conversation to follow.  “Sarah, how long do you think it’ll be before I’m in position?”

“If everything goes exactly the way we planned it?”  Anton could almost hear Sarah shrug.  He actually could hear the soda as she popped its top.  “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“I really hope that your guess is a lot better than mine.”

“You know what I mean.”

It wasn’t the first time that Anton had found himself amazed at Devlin and his partner in crime.  No matter how dire the situation, they seemed entirely immune to tension.  No matter what was going on, they could joke as though nothing at all was wrong.  He had tried to emulate that nonchalance before, to no avail.  His personality was too stern, too by-the-numbers, for that.  Still, he enjoyed the fact that they kept things light, even when the sky was about to fall on their collective heads.

“Stani?”  Sarah asked.  “What do you see in your position?”

“I think…movement, maybe.  It is hard to tell for certain,” Stani said, after a few seconds.

“It’s the same model as…oh, wait, you didn’t see what Michel’s driving.  Devlin, what make of car is Hill using?”

“Suzuki,” Devlin responded.  “Although I didn’t get a chance to see what Michel’s driving, either.”

“I did,” Mila said.  “It’s pretty nondescript.”

“Which is the exact point of using those vehicles,” Sarah said.  “We got very lucky that Hill was lazy enough or stupid enough to purchase these cars with his legitimate business contacts and even luckier that this information happened to be in the files that Avis already got to.  Otherwise, we’d never be able to pick out his people from the general traffic.”  She paused.  “Okay, Stani, I’m sending you a picture of the type of car you should be looking for.”

Seconds ticked away.  Then: “DaDa, this is what I see.”

“You’re positive about that?” Sarah pressed.

“There are two black…Suzukis?  Da, two black Suzukis.  One is leaving the blast zone.”

“And the other?”

“The driver is trying to look as surprised and scared as everybody else.  And…now he is leaving, too.”

“Which way is he heading?”

“North,” Stani said, with a confident note in his voice that did strange things to Anton’s insides.  He suppressed the memories threatening to resurface with an ease born of long hours of practice.

In the front seat of the car, Chester’s phone beeped.  He checked the front screen and nodded.  “I’m ‘earing similar things from my people,” he said.  “Looks like six or seven different cars from all over London, far as they can tell.”

“I’m going to refrain from too much enthusiasm,” Sarah said, “but this is all sounding good.  Chester, do you trust any of your people to fail those cars without tipping them off?”

“’course I trust them!”

Sarah sighed.  “This isn’t the time for pride and it isn’t the time for team loyalty.  If they can’t do it, I need to know.  If they figure out what we’re doing before we have everything in motion, we’re all screwed and Billy’s going to die.”

Chester chewed over that thought.  “A couple could probably handle it,” he admitted.  “So long as you don’t expect them to do much else besides keep an eye on these cars.”

“Pass along those orders, then.  Stani, you stay on the car that just left your location.”

From their parking space, Anton could see that yet another black Suzuki was easing its way into traffic.  “We have one here,” he said into the comms.  “Should we follow this one, as well?”

“Yes and no,” Sarah said.  “Depending on what path they take, either your group or Stani’s group is going to have a more hands-on job.  I just want the other cars tracked, in case they decide to go to a different location.”

“And if that happens?”

“We improvise?”  Sarah sounded distinctly unsure about their chances, should it come down to improvisation.  “I should have put trackers in the cars that your people are using, Chester, but there’s no point crying over spilled milk.”

“What does that mean?” Stani asked.

“It’s…never mind, doesn’t matter.  Stay on your marks, people.”

“Sarah?” Michel asked.  “Should I be driving somewhere?’

“Not yet.  There’s no way of telling when we’ll get the best opportunity or where that’s going to be.  For right now, stay where you are.  That should give you the best chance to make the trip in time, just as soon as we figure out exactly where that trip’s going to take you.”

Oui,” Michel said.

“Mila and I will just twiddle our thumbs,” Devlin added.  There was a tremor of nervous energy in his words that Anton recognized.  Whenever things became too difficult to plan for, Devlin always got jumpy.  It stood to reason that he’d be even more anxious than normal now, all things considered.  ‘Don’t mind us at all.”

“If you keep distracting the grown-ups,” Sarah said, “I’m seriously going to mute your line.  Shut up and sit tight.  Stani, Chester?  I’m tracking your cell phones, but you’ll have to tell me if your marks do something strange.  Other than that?  Start moving.”

Despite his trunculence and general bad attitude, Chester recognized authority when he heard it.  He started the car and pulled it out into relatively light traffic, two cars behind the black Suzuki.  James, Chester’s partner, moved a large caliber Sig Sauer out of the way so that he could buckle his seatbelt.  Anton gave the steadily growing cloud of smoke and dust an appraising eye – he could have done more, if they’d given him any sort of notice, and that frustrated him – before strapping himself in, as well.

Chester kept up with traffic, about two kilometers per hour under the speed limit.  After five minutes, he slapped his open palms against the steering wheel in frustration.  “Wish they’d bloody well figure out where they’re going and just get there,” he said, under his breath.

“Not like it’s a race,” James rumbled back.  Anton had barely heard him speak five complete sentences since getting into the car.

“Longer it takes Sarah to do whatever it is that she’s got up her sleeve,” Chester said, “the more chance there is that something goes wrong.  If Hill gets bored or angry, then…”

“It’ll be alright,” James said.  He squeezed Chester’s left shoulder with one big, meaty hand.  “We’ll get him.”

Chester grumbled something in articulate that might have been acknowledgement or might have been some swear word that Anton didn’t know.  Whatever it was, he relaxed slightly after saying it and loosened his death grip on the steering wheel.

Anton hadn’t expected to feel a sudden kinship for Chester, but he could feel one developing.  He still didn’t like the man – he suspected that very few people had the patience for someone as willfully obstinate – but he thought he might be able to understand him a little bit.

Sarah and Devlin hadn’t given many details about their target.  Anton knew that Asher was involved with this Hill, in one way or another, and that the conflict between Devlin and his former partner had spilled over to affect Devlin’s friends.  That was why they’d rescued Ally a few days ago.  Whatever reason the two had for declaring war against a sitting drug lord was something they’d elected to keep strictly within their inner circle.

As much as it galled him to be on the outside, he couldn’t very well start pointing fingers.  He knew more about what Stani and his superiors back in Moscow intended for Asher.  He’d gleaned details about the Bratva’s true goals, mostly by virtue of knowing Stani’s tells and some judiciously careful questions.  Even with what he thought he knew – which was, by any reasonable measure, more than enough to get him killed out of hand – Anton still realized that he wasn’t privy to the whole picture.

So, he didn’t tell Devlin and Sarah about what the Russians had in mind.  The Russians didn’t actually tell him what they truly wanted.  And no one told Chester, James, or any of Billy’s men scattered across London anything more than that their leader was in trouble and no one would be able to save him except for their crew of thieves.

If they had expected Anton work with so little information and under such dire straits, he knew he’d probably a little irritable, too.

Two cars ahead of them, the black Suzuki took a sudden right turn.  Chester immediately moved to follow suit, but was stopped by James.  The generally quiet man shook his head and pointed ahead.  “Shortcut up there,” he said.  “Not as obvious.”

“Do you think he knows…no, he couldn’t.  He couldn’t!”

“Boys,” Sarah said, “tell me what you’re seeing.”

Chester continued to sputter to himself, so Anton took the lead.  “The driver of the Suzuki turned suddenly.  I do not know this town, but it does not seem like he is headed where you thought he would go.”

Sarah swore to herself.  “I’m assuming that, between the three of you, someone knows how to tail a car without being spotted.”

There was a vague waspishness to her comment that put Anton’s nerves on edge.  He was saved from formulating a response by Stani, of all people.  “My mark did the same thing,” he said.  “We were forced to let it get out of sight, or else risk being seen.”

Sarah cursed again, louder.  “I would think that this might be some sort of protocol, but it doesn’t feel right.  Devlin, what do you think?”

“Without being able to see anything you people are talking about?”  Devlin grunted.  “James, you said there was a shortcut?  What else is in that area?”

James swallowed a mouthful of bottled water before answering.  “Couple of shops.  Petrol station.  Nothing important.”

“Maybe they’re just making a quick stop, then?” Devlin suggested.

Anton opened his mouth, probably to point out ridiculous that would be, when Chester took the shortcut that James had mentioned.  There, standing out from every other car because of its glossy matte black exterior, the black Suzuki was parked at a petrol station.  One man was still seated in the driver’s seat.  He blew smoke out of the window.  The other man – Anton could only assume that there was a second man – must have been inside the store itself.

“Looks like you were correct,” Anton said to Devlin.  “I think one of them might be out of cigarettes.”

“Never attribute to clever planning what could more easily be the fault of stupid, lazy employees,” Devlin said, with the intonation of a man quoting something he’d memorized a long time ago.

“That isn’t the quote,” Sarah said.

“And yet, I was correct.  I think it’s only reasonable that I get to – “

The line popped twice and Devlin’s sentence was cut off before it could reach its climax.  “Anyway,” Sarah said, “you’ve got the car back in your sights again?”

“It is stopped, yes,” Anton replied.  “If this was only a pit stop, then we should be able to follow them back without any problems.”

“Well, Stani lost his mark – no shame there, by the way, you made the right choice – so that nominates your car for the next step in the plan.”

“Oh?”  Anton perked up, despite himself.  There was something intoxicating about one of Sarah’s plans.  When they’d worked together in the past, Devlin had served as the front man for all negotiations and he’d been the only one in communication with Sarah.  The fact that he would finally get to hear the master piece, straight from its creator’s mouth, sent a shock all the way through his body.  “What is the next step, then?”

“Well.”  Sarah cleared her throat more times than could possibly have been necessary.  “This might get a little technical, and I realize that you aren’t in possession of all of the details.  You’ll just have to trust that I know what I’m doing.”

Before Chester could say anything clever in response to that, James squeezed his shoulder again and shook his head.  Chester visibly changed tracks.  “Whatever you’ve got in mind is really gonna ‘elp us get Billy back?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Then…then I’ll trust you.  For right now.  What do you need us to do?”

Anton imagined something intricate and daring.  They had blown up a subway platform to save Alex’s daughter and they’d stolen a train before that.  There was no way of knowing how extravagant the plans might become at this most critical juncture.

“Okay,” Sarah said.  “I need you to mug those men.”

Anton blinked.  He could swear he heard – actually heard – Chester and James do the same.

“You want us to what?”

“I think,” Mila said, in her perfectly calm tone of voice, “that the appropriate term is carjack.”

“Ah.  Yeah, this is usually something that Devlin handles,” Sarah said.  “But, yeah.  Carjack them.  Steal their car.  Whatever terms work for you.”

“But…why?”

“Because we don’t want them to have it, obviously,” Sarah replied, with inflection so sarcastic that Anton legitimately felt stupid for asking the question in the first place.

Chester barked out a laugh and, a moment later, James joined him.  “Now that,” Chester said, between chuckles, “sounds like something we can ‘andle.”

Chapter 116 (Sarah)

It was easy enough to find a comfortable position in the Van.  The chair, after all, had been constructed specifically for me.  But the difference between physical comfort and emotional ease had never been so starkly drawn out.  So, I fidgeted and shuffled my feet; I made the chair slide all the way down the rails and back up again; I maximized and minimized various windows on my work stations that had nothing to do with the job at hand.  None of those nervous actions made me feel any better, but they did keep me from obsessing over any of the darker thoughts my brain seemed all too happy to provide, so I considered it a zero-sum game.

“Sarah?”  Devlin’s voice.  In all of my twitching and jittering, I’d managed to keep his line isolated for my ears only.  He could make the call to switch over to a wider frequency, if necessary.  I doubted he’d do that so early in the plan.  “Sarah, are you there?”

“I’m here.  What do you need?”

“Oh nothing.”  He let an off-key whistle out, which elicited a smile from me, followed by a stern frown.  He was trying to distract me from the fearful beat just under his voice, the way his words were coming out a little too fast, the slight hitch in every other word.

“You’re scared, too?”

“I’d be lying if I said this was something I saw myself doing when I woke up last month.”

“In fairness,” I said, “you aren’t even supposed to be out of prison yet.  So, technically, anything that happens now is an improvement, right?”

A moment passed before he breathed out soft, barely audible chuckle.  “I wouldn’t go that far.  I’ve certainly got better company out here, though.”

“Happy to serve as your eye candy,” I said, suppressing a little thrill of excitement.  It was all too easy to fall back into that old rhythm.  It was simpler when we were fully engaged in the work.  Then, I had entirely too many technical things to deal with and I couldn’t afford the time for self-introspection.

Now, however, I had nothing to do but wait, and my id was all too eager to fill the dead time with questions I didn’t dare ask myself and certainly wouldn’t dare to answer.

Devlin was silent for a few seconds.  I opened my mouth, hoping that I might be able to say something to get us back on track, but he cleared his throat and saved me the trouble.  “How are things going across town?”

I sent up a silent prayer of thanks for the rescue – in the process, cheerfully ignoring my own professed atheism – and navigated to the monitor nearest the front of the Van.  I’d tasked that one to keep track of some of my mini-cameras.  Two were worn by James and Chester and four more went to Anton, Stani, and the other two Russians who I still couldn’t manage to tell apart.

Those six people were in charge of the first wing of our operation.  If things went badly for them or if Hill proved more resourceful than we’d assumed, we were all still in positions where evacuation might remain a possibility.  It would probably still end in violent death and agony, but there was at least a chance of escape, so long as we took it then.

After the first stage, success or failure, we were locked in.

“Give me a second,” I told Devlin and did some quick work with my fingers to connect Anton, Stani, and Chester with my own line.

From what I could see, Stani and Chester were in the same vehicle, while Anton rode with the two Russians.  I remembered Devlin saying something about their past relationship and wondered, idly, whether the seating arrangements might have been influenced by that.  Then, realizing that my earlier flirtation with Devlin was causing me to focus on the wrong things, I gave myself a quick mental chastisement and focused.

“Anton,” I said, without warning.  His camera didn’t jump or shake, meaning that he hadn’t physically reacted to the unexpected voice.  Stani and Chester, however, jerked in surprise.

“Sarah?”  Anton replied.

“Do you have a timeline on when things are going to kick off?”

He was silent for a second and I could see that he was counting off on his fingers.  “If everything is where it should be,” he answered, when he’d with his calculations, “perhaps five minutes.”

“Perhaps?”

Watching through the camera on one of the interchangeable Russians’ lapels, I could see that Anton shrugged.  “It is not exact science,” he said.  “Something could go wrong.  Not bad, but sooner than expected.  Or later.  If I had used a detonator, this would not be a problem, but…”

“No, no…you’re right.  We’ll have to make due with whatever we get.”

Anton didn’t ask why we’d forbidden the detonator and I appreciated his blind faith in my insane plan.  He didn’t know me very well, of course.  With the exception of the charity where I’d met Devlin and a few very rare instances since then, I made a point to stay out of the field.  That worked best, considering my preferred style of ‘combat,’ and it allowed Devlin to attract all of the attention.

However, I had technically worked with Anton before, even if Devlin had handled all of the face to face communication.  I knew that he was good at his job and he knew…well, he didn’t know exactly how talented I had once been, but he trusted Devlin.  That was good enough for the Ukrainian and, surprisingly, that transitive faith was good enough for me, as well.

Still, I did feel a little pang of guilt.  I couldn’t tell Anton everything.  I couldn’t tell anyone everything.  Devlin’s fear that someone from Billy’s crew might be doubling as a mole rang a little too true for me to entirely ignore.  My own paranoia, unbound by Devlin’s boundless faith in human beings, went even further.  Of the people in our team, I’d worked with exactly one before, and that had been at a distance.  If Alex had been involved, perhaps I would have felt more secure, but we’d gone to great pains to keep him sidelined.  So, as it was, I was surrounded by unknown individuals with unknown motivations and unknown skeletons in their closets.

I didn’t even feel comfortable that some of these people knew my first name.  I certainly wasn’t about to divulge the sensitive details of our plan before it had a chance to come to fruition.

“Chester, Stani?”  I took a sip of soda before I continued.  “Updates, please.”

It was a little shocking that Stani was the first to speak.  “The packages are in position on the east side of the target area,” he said crisply.  He betrayed no hint of misogyny in his voice or his tone.  I’d heard about his very specific brand of homophobia from Devlin and it only took a few heartbeats of pondering to draw conclusions about why that might be.  “The timers that…the timers are counting down.”

He couldn’t even say Anton’s name?  Whatever had passed between the two of them must have been much more than a simple affair or experimentation?  Hell, even Devlin didn’t have problems saying –

I cut myself off, mid-thought.  Not the place to think about what had once been and certainly not the time.  “Chester?  Your area was smaller, but there were more targets.  Were you able to get to all of them?”

“Yeah, we got to ‘em,” Chester grumbled.  “Knocked all that out about an ‘our ago.  You want to tell me what the ‘ell all this is for, then?”

“Not really,” I said.  It wasn’t a great difficulty to let some of my very real irritation seep into my voice, although I did take care to keep my tone from becoming caustic.  “Unless you plan on telling me who sent my friends into that trap, out at the plant?”

Chester said nothing.

“I didn’t think so.  All three of you, park your cars somewhere safe and wait for further instructions.  We’ll need you to cover a lot of ground and I can’t coordinate with Billy’s people from here.”

“Guess she does need us, ‘after all,” Chester said, presumably to James.

James turned – or, more accurately, his camera turned – to face Chester.  A large hand came from out of frame and slapped Chester, right across the temple.  “Shut up, mate,” James rumbled.  “She can ‘ear you.”

“I’ve heard worse things from people I like more, James,” I said, “but I appreciate the sentiment.  Remember, stay out of sight, but be ready to move.”

“Got it,” James said.

Chester mumbled something that might have been assent.  Whatever it was, I took it as agreement and returned the lines to their previous state.

“You still there?” I asked.

Devlin’s reply was a hair too quick.  “I’m still here.  Judging from the lack of panic in your voice, I assume that things are going swimmingly outside?”

“About as well as can be expected,” I said.  “Chester’s being an ass, which is nothing new.  I think you’re right about Stani and Anton, by the way.”

“I told you so.  What gave it away to you?”

“They’re riding in different cars.  Which doesn’t make any sense, when you consider that I’m the only other person in this channel who speaks Russian.”

“Ah.”  Devlin’s camera was off, but I could imagine him stroking at an invisible goatee.  “Wise deductions, those were.”

“I will leave you alone,” I threatened.  “I won’t even lose that much sleep over it.”

“Ha ha ha,” Devlin said, forcing the laughs out without even the barest bones of actual amusement.  Then, a few seconds later: “You’re kidding, right?  You aren’t going to cut the line?”

“I’m not going to cut the line,” I confirmed.  “I’m even going to keep you on while I check in with Mila and Michel, because I’m such a kind and generous soul.”

“However will I repay this gift?”

“Try shutting up for a change.  Let’s give that a whirl.”  I connected the requisite lines, so that everyone on the channel could hear each other.

“If it pops twice,” Mila said, almost instantly, “that means the line is active, yeah?  So someone’s listening to me right now?”

“Several someones,” I corrected.  “I’m here, as well as Devlin and Michel.”

“Are the two of you okay?” Michel asked.  I was in relative safety, so I assumed he was asking the other two people on the line.

“I’m fine,” Mila said.  “Little cramped. Kinda wish I’d packed a snack.”

That’s your biggest concern right now?” Devlin asked.  “The contents of your stomach?”

“It’s one of the only things I can control,” Mila replied.  I’d known her almost as long as Devlin, give or take a benefit gala, and even I could hear the subtle shift in her voice that accompanied the serious pronouncements.  I couldn’t imagine that Devlin would have missed it.  “Things get crazy – and they always get crazy when…he’s involved – and you there’s no way to know what’s going to happen next.  Guns jam, engines backfire…hell, I’ve seen trained fighters slip on a wet spot and break their necks before.”

“That happens outside of cartoons?”  Devlin asked.

Mila chuckled and I could literally hear the smile on her lips.  “Point is, you can always make sure you’ve gotten something to eat.”

Oh.  That made much more sense about our odd bodyguard.  And if it made sense to me, then…

“I get that,” Devlin said.  “Trust me.  And that’s why you’ll find a little surprise I left for you, if you’re willing to look for it.”

A lot of noise came from Mila’s line in a very short period of time – metal clanking against metal, shuffling, the sound of a heavy weight touching fabric – before she let out an exultant cry.  “Is this a Duvalin?”

“Indeed it is,” Devlin said, with no small amount of pride in his voice.  “Those are not easy to get ahold of.  At least, I think they aren’t.  I only asked Sophie, but she seemed very put out by the request.”

“I’m not sure,” Mila said, around a mouthful of what I guessed was some sort of candy, “whether I’m supposed to hug you or punch you in the face, until you shut up.”

“It tends to be about a fifty-fifty split,” Devlin said.  “Ask Sarah, she can attest.”

“Seventy-thirty, most days,” I added.  “In favor of the punching.”

My heart wasn’t really in the light joking.  Neither was my head.  Both of those organs were occupied with the thought that I’d only just figured out a piece of Mila’s history, while Devlin had come to similar conclusions with enough time to arrange for a surprise.  A surprise that, contrary to everything I’d managed to figure out from limited exposure to our stoic bodyguard, actually managed to pull genuine delight from the woman.  And he’d done it incidentally.  He probably hadn’t thought twice about it.

That was one of the traits that made it so damned hard to remain angry at him.  He was short-sighted, frequently childish, and incapable of planning anything past the next big distraction.  But he was also caring, warm, and genuinely wanted the best for those he considered his friends.  Our own breakup had been…unpleasantly public and there was no doubt that he’d deserved it, but it was becoming more and more difficult to summon the same level of apathy about Devlin.

I blinked and remembered what my psychologist had told me multiple times: ‘it’s never good to lie to yourself.’  With that in mind, I mentally backspaced and admitted that I’d never felt apathy towards Devlin, no matter how much I might have longed for that disconnect in the moment.

Devlin was talking.  I stopped wasting time reminiscing about the past – at least, for the moment, since my id showed no signs of halting the constant siege for my attention – and started paying attention to him.  “…was Michel’s idea, honestly.  I only came up with the specific suggestion.”

“Well,” Mila said.  “Um.  Thanks.  This is…it’s really nice of you.  Both of you.”

“No problem,” Devlin said.  “If you can keep me alive for the next few hours, I might even be willing to call it even.”

Mila finished her candy and began sucking at her fingertips.  “I can probably handle that.  Guess we’ll see, won’t we?”

“And on that ominous note…”  Devlin cleared his throat.  “Sarah, how much longer until things get started?”

My eyes flickered over to the left monitor, just as my fingers touched the miniature joystick so that I could move over to that screen.  A sound like a giant clearing his throat sent a tremor through the Van before I could do anything, though, and I could see plumes of smoke beginning to rise from a spot far into the distance, through one of the Van’s windows.  A second later, the lone trail of smoke was joined by two others, and then four more.  Before long, a dozen – two dozen – individual clouds of smoke stretched from the ground up to the clouds.

“Did you hear that?”  I asked.  All thoughts of our relationship were, blessedly, wiped away in an instant.

“Sure did,” Devlin said, his voice perfectly serious again.  “Sounded like a starter’s pistol to me.”

Part 5: Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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