Tag Archives: Fairfax

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 128 (Billy)

Billy wanted nothing so much as a few seconds of mobility.  He found himself wishing fervently to move his legs again, to see the toes wiggle in response to his will, to stand to his full height once more and walk.  He doubted that he had ever wanted anything more.

If he were able walk again, Billy reckoned that he could get the better of his younger brother.  Charles had never been a fighter, even when Billy’s pride had dragged the pair of them into scuffles on a weekly basis.  With his money, his criminal contacts, and the ability to simply hire muscle when necessary, Charles probably hadn’t gotten any better at plain old fisticuffs.

Even if the balance had shifted over the years, Billy had desperation on his side.  He might not win, but he’d be able to do something, instead of watching passively at his friends, both new and old, fruitlessly risked their lives to save his.  If only he could walk.

Billy was, at the moment, confined to a wheelchair and that wheelchair was bolted to the wall, through several hooks specifically constructed for the purpose.  The keys to those locks lived on a necklace around Charles’ neck and, even if lock-picking had been one of Billy’s skills, the locks themselves were placed in an area that could only be reached by someone not confined to the chair.  So long as he was seated, Billy was locked in place.  If he made an effort to move, so that he could break or pick the locks, his own paralysis would see to his imprisonment.

“At first,” Charles said, as though he were speaking to himself, “I wasn’t entirely convinced that a complete jam of all communications into and out of my bedroom was necessary.  Eventually, I came to accept that allowing your brash young friend to alert the others would cause more trouble than it could possibly be worth.”

Previously, one of the six screens spread across the far wall had shown a video of Devlin as he entered Charles’ bedroom.  Unaware of the hidden camera, connected to a security system through a separate system, Devlin had located the safe and successfully broken into it.  He’d barely been able to savor the glow of success before the feed turned to static.

“Truly, he is an impressive individual,” Charles continued.  He didn’t look away from the screens as he spoke.  “I was informed by several of the very best safecrackers in the business that the Fortress was all but invincible.  I suppose nothing can stand against a suitably motivated individual, though.”

Hate filled Billy, molten hot and painful in its intensity.  He ground his teeth together until his gums hurt and focused on the largest toe of his right root.  It had been a long time since he’d tried to move his lower extremities.  A fierce desire sparked to life in his gut.

Nothing happened.  The flame of hope guttered out, dying as quickly as it had been born.

Charles turned away his bank of monitors.  He saw the look on Billy’s face before it could be hidden away and smiled in response to it.  “I really would have preferred a more dignified method of restraint,” he said.  His tone was insultingly casual.  “But then I realized that it would have been pure folly to start underestimating you at this point.”

“If you’re going to gloat,” Billy shot back, “you can at least have the courtesy to be honest about it.”

“Why would I need to gloat?”  Charles extended his arms to either side and, behind him, the glowing screens of at least six different camera feeds provided a striking backdrop for his stance.  “I am perhaps hours away from moving into the final stages of my plan.  Each and every piece is in place, ready to be moved into their ultimate positions.  My enemies are contained within the equivalent of a hamster’s wheel, trying their hardest to emerge victorious from a conflict that was rigged from the very beginning.  Soon, I will have everything I am owed and there is nothing that you or anyone else can do to stop me.  Honestly, William, gloating now seems a bit…gauche.”

The fact that Charles was right on every point stuck in Billy’s throat.  He swallowed, hard, before speaking.  “Why go through all of this, then?  You don’t need to kill my men and you don’t need to do anything to Devlin and his friends.  What’s the point, if you don’t need any of this theatre?”  A note of pleading made its way into his voice and Billy made no effort to conceal it.  The time for pride and posturing had ended several days ago.

For a moment, Billy didn’t think that his brother would answer.  Then, Charles sighed and pulled up a chair, just outside of Billy’s reach.  “Two reasons,” said.  “First, I consider today’s circus to be something of a stress test.  When I have eliminated, subjugated, or otherwise dispatched with all competition from my peers, I will need to be absolutely certain that I am not vulnerable to the tactics I personally employed.  I would have preferred to hire your new friend as an employee, but it seems that he and his have chosen the noble, stupid path.”  Charles shrugged.  “At least their efforts here will prove instructional, in the event that anyone else attempts to steal from me.”

Billy glanced past Charles, at the monitors behind him.  Displayed on three of the six monitors, Billy could see silent videos playing out in real time.  On one, the short Hispanic woman who somehow served as Devlin’s bodyguard fought desperately against the tattooed and scarred man who worked for Charles.  At this distance, he couldn’t make out specific details, but a sinking feeling in his stomach told him that the fight wasn’t going well for the woman.  On another screen, he saw a familiar van, parked outside of a Beatles memorabilia store.  The van had been one of his, before Devlin’s ex-wife had recommissioned it into a mobile command center of sorts.  A third screen was filled with nothing but static.  The other three screens changed at regular intervals to show parts of the estate and the horde of men swarming into each room, checking for any other intruders with obvious, lethal intention.

“You set this up,” Billy whispered.  Mounting horror and realization stole the breath from his lungs.

“Not all of it,” Charles corrected.  “I couldn’t have anticipated that your new friend would be anywhere near as effective as he’s proven and I certainly didn’t realize that my own newest hire would be so cheerfully willing to sabotage my efforts in pursuit of his own revenge.”  He tilted his head in thought.  “That was a particular shame to discover.  Asher made such a useful tool and I don’t know how long it would have taken me to arrange for the Book’s theft without his particular expertise.  If only he’d been able to look past his own short term desires, it’s possible that I wouldn’t have to take care of him until much later.”

Billy laughed, and the sound was far too ugly to convey anything like actual amusement.  “That’s rich, coming from you.  The two of us had everything we ever wanted and you couldn’t get over your issues long enough to see that.”  He gestured at his dead legs.  “Or did you forget what you did to me?”

Charles shot out of his chair, with so much force that the chair was thrown backwards.  The resulting bang was only made louder by the confined dimensions of the room.  “It was not about that!  We could have had more, but you…you only wanted to hold me back, William.  And I refuse to be anything less than I am destined to be!”

Billy couldn’t get out of the chair to physically attack Charles, but there was nothing stopping him from striking emotional blows.  In lieu of any other options, he could only hope that a slightly unbalanced Charles might make a mistake at a critical moment.  “You can’t even admit it to yourself, can you?  You really think that everything between us is because I was holding you back?”  Billy forced himself to laugh again.  “Everything you have now is because of me.  You really think you could’ve built this without me, helping you every step of the way?”

“That is not true,” Charles hissed.  “How would you have found the money to get started?”

“How would you have found the clients?  Or dealt with competition?  Do you have any idea how many upstart rivals I crushed before you even realized there was a problem?”

Charles was breathing heavily now.  A possibility occurred to Billy; perhaps, if he were able to push exactly the right buttons, he might be able to goad Charles into physically attacking him.  That opened up all sorts of possibilities.

Billy thought for less than a second – he couldn’t afford to lose momentum, or to allow Charles a chance to regain his composure – before he pressed his attack.  “I had to grow up in a house a lot like this one,” he said, “and I did it with you cringing into a corner every single time Father was in a bad mood.  You needed me to protect you then, and you needed me to watch out for you when we started up the business.  You’re a bloody liar if you’re going to revise history now, just so that you come off looking better.  Of all the people to tell your fictionalized backstory to, I am the absolute worst choice because I know when you’re full of shit.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Charles spat out.  Even though he’d expected and had been actively courting a furious reaction, the sheer venom in Charles’ voice caught Billy off guard.  “You protected me?  You weren’t even here for the worst of it.  Your mother loved you, at least.  Mine thought of me as a necessary obligation, something that needed to be created so that she could solidify her grip on my father’s lands and finances.  And every single time I so much as flirted with the idea of behaving in a manner not befitting someone of my birth…”

He trailed off, spinning away to hide his face from Billy.  The movement wasn’t quite fast enough to conceal the moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes and the room was so small that the choked sounds of his strangled sobs were unmistakable.

Ever since moving in with his biological father, Billy had held secret suspicions about the late Lady Fairfax.  There had been clues scattered around the estate, for one thing.  While the older Fairfax tended towards explosive displays of temper, followed shortly by contrite and sincere apologies, the younger Fairfax cowed and hid when threatened.  In fact, he hadn’t begun to join Billy in his schoolyard fights until they’d been living together for almost a full year.

He knew very little about regular familial relationships, but Billy could see, in a flashing glimpse, how Charles’ life must have felt.  He was certain now that Charles’ mother had fundamentally damaged him from his earliest years.  And then, after the Lady Fairfax died, Charles’ father had brought home another son, born by a woman who had actually held the man’s heart.  For a child adrift, it would only be too easy to think that he was being replaced by a newer, unbroken model.

That didn’t excuse his actions, of course, but it might begin to explain them.

At the same time, Billy knew that he couldn’t allow himself to back down now.  Whatever the reason, Charles had grown into a malicious human being.  He had crippled his brother; he had manipulated, used, and discarded countless individuals in his pursuit of greater power and authority; and now, at this breaking point, he had every intention of eliminating a group of thieves who’d simply had the misfortune of stumbling into London at exactly the wrong moment.

Billy drew in a deep breath, hating himself for what he was about to do, and went on the attack again.  “You know what, Charles?  You’re right.  You’re absolutely right.  I don’t know what you went through, because my parents actually cared about me.  Both of them.  And all the power, all the money in the world isn’t going to be enough to change that.”

Charles balled the fingers on both hands into tight fists by his side.  Unconsciously, Billy mirrored the gesture.  Charles took two deliberate steps forward and then…stopped.  He lingered, just a step or two outside of Billy’s reach, before he shook his head slowly.  Billy could actually watch the anger drain out of his face.

A smile crept across Charles’ lips.  “No,” he said, “it won’t, will it?  But I’ll at least be alive and able to walk.  I guess that will have to be enough.”

Billy’s heart sank.  “Think about what you’re doing,” he said.  “Honestly, stop and think about it.  Whatever you take now, you won’t be able to hold.  It might not be too late to stop all of this before it spins too far out of control.”

Charles carefully bent and retrieved his chair.  He set it back down on the floor and took his seat once more.  “Correct.  As it stands, the…individuals who assisted me in reaching my current position would only sweep in to set things back to the status quo.  That’s what they do, of course: maintain a steady, unchanging grip over their territory, expanding only when the landscape is suitable for such a move.  If it ever came to light that I was responsible for the upheaval here, even in the most indirect fashion, they would not hesitate to have me eliminated.”

“If you know that,” Billy asked, “why are you hell-bent on committing suicide?”

The smile deepened and turned more sinister.  “Because they aren’t going to learn that I was the one responsible.  Why would they, when there are such excellent patsies already in position to take the blame?”

Billy stared at Charles, aghast and shocked, while understanding dawned on him.  Charles was a lot of things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.  He had to have known that any sort of aggressive move would draw attention from other interested parties: rivals, competitors, suppliers, as well as the mysterious backers who everyone seemed too terrified to directly name.  That must have been why he’d hired Devlin’s former partner in the first place.  And when Devlin, Sarah, and the rest of his team showed up in London, it wouldn’t have required too much of an effort to shift things so that they could be held responsible.

“You wanted someone to take the heat for you,” Billy said.  “Someone you could claim was acting on their own.  Then, when your backers show up demanding their pound of flesh, you’ll just hand over your own employees and deny any knowledge of their activities.”

“I don’t know very much about my silent partners, I freely admit,” Charles replied.  “But I do know that their problem solving techniques tend towards the immediately fatal.  I suppose that delivering the bodies of several individuals who have been known to disrupt operations and wreak havoc would suffice, in place of a living witness who could potentially paint a different picture.”

From its place in his stomach, Billy’s heart found a hole and sank even further down into the soles of his feet.

None of it had mattered.  No matter how hard he’d worked the downtrodden poor of London, no matter how hard he’d worked himself, Charles’ plan had accounted for their activities.  Even the arrival of Devlin had only served to provide him with additional options.  Everything the Irish thief and his team had accomplished over the past few weeks would only serve to solidify whatever story Charles spun later.

“Why are you telling me this?” Billy asked.  He didn’t mean to speak the question out loud; his mouth moved of its own accord.

“Because you aren’t going to be able to tell anyone else,” Charles replied immediately.

“So you’re going to finally kill me too?”

Charles leaned back in his chair and his eyebrows drew slightly closer together.  “Of course I’m not going to kill you,” he said.  “You’re my brother, even if only through a technicality.  But you have people you care about: all those wretched people who take shelter in that house you set up, for instance.  You are far too noble to let any harm come to them, even if it meant sacrificing your sense of honor in the bargain.”

“If I tell anyone what actually happened,” Billy said, speaking the words as an odd detachment came over him, “you’ll go after them?”

“I won’t have to go after them.  I can simply keep you here, a recipient of my hospitality, until they collapse on their own.  I know who would take control of your organization in your absence and I have…well, let us simply say that I have suborned key individuals already.  It will only be a matter of time before everything you have built falls apart under its own weight.”  Charles stood up and walked back over the monitors.  “Or you could allow things to proceed, without interference.  The responsibility for the Book’s theft will fall on these newcomers who failed to see the value in my offer.  I will use the information contained within to claim control over vast swaths of the European drug market and I will graciously allow you to continue your operations, so long as you agree to cease these sporadic attacks on my interests.”

Billy pressed his lips together until they became a thin line of frustration.

“What do you say, brother?” Charles asked.  “We won’t be partners again – I’ve learned that you lack the vision necessary to do what is required – but we can at least be colleagues.”

Billy said nothing.  He knew that it didn’t matter if he said nothing.  Charles held all of the cards and he always had, since the beginning of this conflict and probably before that.  The choice had to make – Devlin and his crew weighed against the entirety of the community that Billy had built amongst the poorest citizens in London – was brutally simple.

So, instead of saying anything at all, Billy turned his attention away from his brother – his half brother – and began looking at the screens behind Charles.  There, captured by a half dozen cameras hidden so well that no one who didn’t know about them would ever find them, he could see his group of new friends struggling vainly against impossible odds.  Everything they did only played into Charles’ hands.

Billy couldn’t speak.  Instead, silent and defeated, he could only watch.  So, with a heart as heavy as lead, watching is what he did.

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.

Competence versus Inferiority

“I have a brother?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For a visit?”

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

“Then what?”

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

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

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

“Of course,” Charles lied.

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

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

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

Charles cleared his throat.  “Sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?”

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

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

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

“William?” Charles repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” Charles said out loud.

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

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

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

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

Still, nothing.

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

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

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

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

“She talked about you,” Billy muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s your uncle now?”

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

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

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

“Never had a brother,” Billy said.

Charles looked up.

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

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

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

Chapter Ninety-Seven

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

I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I had replied.

“I want to kill him.”

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

“Think you’ll stop me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The layout?  What layout?”

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

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

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

“And Billy?  What will you be doing?”

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

“Better safe than sorry,” I said.

Sarah nodded.  “What he said.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One hopes that everything has been successfully resolved?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how is the import business doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I look forward to it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I glared at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fair enough.  Where’s the girl?”

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

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

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

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