Tag Archives: Coleman

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.

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Chapter 134

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

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

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

First, Denial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Works better with bullets,” I offered helpfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?  Well, I’d be happy to explain.”

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

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

“I’ve noticed that too,” Sarah said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sarah?  Show him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When?  Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 133

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I legitimately felt bad for the man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Charles, I – “

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

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

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

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

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

There was nothing inside.

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

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

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