Tag Archives: Hill

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.”

Chapter 132

“You,” Hill said in a strained voice, “have proven yourself to be remarkably resourceful.”

“I aim to impress.”  I muted my earbud with a subtle gesture, taking great care not to let the hand holding the gun waver in the slightest.  A distraction now could be fatal for me, Billy, and possibly everyone who’d chosen to throw their lot in with mine.

“In fact,” he continued, “your resourcefulness is nearly equal to how irritatingly smug you seem to be at every available opportunity.”

I tilted my head slightly, not breaking eye contact for a single moment.  “I’m flattered to hear that, considering you’re in the running for the ‘most arrogant son of a bitch on the continent’ award.  Really, it means a lot to me.”

The frosty mask of control on Hill’s face faltered for an instant.  Cool, calm dispassion flickered away, as he pulled his lips back from his teeth and he practically growled at me.  He pressed the gun to Billy’s temple even harder and my new wheelchair-bound friend moved his head to compensate.  Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the expression of naked anger vanished and was replaced again with dispassion and mild irritation.

“Your friend was absolutely certain that close quarters combat was not your strong suit,” Hill said.  He stressed the word friend to the breaking point, making absolutely certain that I heard the derision and sarcasm.  “That assessment was a primary factor in my decision to dispatch only a single person to interrupt you earlier.  I suppose that is another area in which Mister Knight’s abilities have failed me.”

“He wasn’t wrong,” I replied.  “Not exactly.  But after you find yourself on the wrong end of a fight a couple of times, you start to pick up a few tricks.  Why don’t you put that gun down and I’ll show you some of them?”

Hill threw his head back and laughed.  “This, at least, he predicted accurately.”

“Asher predicted that I was going to kick your ass in your own house?”  I made my mouth into a little ‘o’ of amazement.  “That’s even more impressive than my smugness.”

Color began rising up into Hill’s cheeks.  His glare turned harder and I could immediately tell that it was harder for him to maintain the air of control.  “This is merely bravado, Mister O’Brien.  A show, designed to distract and obfuscate.  After Mister Knight so thoroughly failed to eliminate you as an adversary at one of my warehouses, I decided to do my own research into you.”

“What’d you find out?” I asked, half out of a desire to stall for time and half out of a genuine curiosity.

“While no one who’s worked with you in the past had anything bad to say about you – Mister Knight excluded, of course – it appears that you’re somewhat small-time.  This current affair is well above your…what’s the vernacular?  Ah!  This current affair is well above your weight class.”

I kept my face placid, while I found myself internally agreeing with that assessment.  Still, it wouldn’t do to let the mark know when he had me on the ropes.  The longer I kept him talking, the longer Plan B had to work.  If Hill decided to use that weapon on me or Billy before things were in position, everything we’d done would amount to exactly nothing.

“Well, as I always say, what is a life lived without a little bit of challenge?”

Longer,” Hill pronounced and a chill responded to that note of finality in his voice.

I swallowed hard against the lump in my throat before speaking again.  “Let’s look at it this way,” I said.  “We’re in your house with all of your men and your personal pet team of mercenaries.  But I’m the one who made it past all of your guards, into your bedroom, and now I’m the one with the Book.”  I held up the briefcase, to illustrate my point.  “The way I see it, I’m in a much better position than you are.  You’re playing your last card right now, Hill.  It’s all in or bust.”

Billy’s mouth was restricted by the gag but his eyes and ears were not.  Something I’d said set him off.  He furrowed his brow and stared at me for several seconds, then flicked his gaze in Hill’s direction, and back again.  Between each rotation of that odd pantomime, he shook his head in the most infinitesimal of movements.

Hill didn’t seem to notice what his half-brother was doing.  “You say all of this as though you have already succeeded,” he said.  “Yet we found ourselves here, at an impasse.  You have the Book, yes, but you cannot leave with it.  Even if you somehow find a way past me, you cannot possibly hope to evade me and my forces for very long.  I know your voice.  I know your name.  And I will be highly motivated to recover my property and to extract sufficient recompense for the trouble.”

“So, what then?”

“I exposed myself to you, in the hopes that we would be able to form a mutually beneficial working relationship,” Hill said.  “You and your team were the ones who decided that open conflict was preferable to diplomatically working our way to a solution that would have been advantageous for both of us.”

“You want to make a deal?”

He shrugged.  “In a manner of speaking, yes.”

“The Book for Billy?  Is that it?”  I scoffed.  “Even if I were willing to compromise on my principles, what possibly reason would I have to believe that you wouldn’t just come after us later on, just for giggles?”

“Two points,” Hill said.  He raised his index and middle finger, then lowered the middle one.  “First, I would have no reason to expend resources.  You have proven yourself capable when circumstances require it.  I would hope that you would also possess the ability to realize when the game has been lost, to cut your losses and retreat.”

“And allow you to solidify your control over the Underground here?  Possibly extend some tendrils into the neighboring countries, until you’re spreading your personal brand of misery and subjugation all over the place like some kind of bloated parasite?”  I shook my head.  “No dice.”

Hill nodded, as though he’d been expecting that answer.  Billy’s eyes were traveling between Hill and me faster than before, almost frantically.  “Second,” he said, lowering the corresponding finger, “I have no interest in making an exchange for Billy’s sake.  My brother has made his position perfectly clear and, at any rate, there are other plans in the works for him.”

I shuddered at that, but forced myself to smile broadly at Hill.  “The Book for my life, then?  I’m going to go with a solid ‘no’ on that, too.”

Hill raised an eyebrow.

I continued after a moment, when it became clear that he didn’t have anything to say.  “You can’t pull that trigger before I pull mine.  We’ll both go down, and neither one of us can be sure that we’ll actually hit anything vital.  Pretty sure that Billy isn’t going to just sit there and let you kill me, either.”

“Nothing about your behavior since your arrival in London has led me to believe that you are an individual overly concerned with your own self-interest,” Hill said.  He shifted his weight and relieved some of the pressure on Billy’s temple.  “Threatening to kill you has, thus far, proven woefully inadequate.”

“So, what then?  You offered me money and power.  You aren’t going to threaten to kill me, when I’ve got you dead to rights?  What’s your play now?”

“The trade I’m offering,” Hill said, “is one that I’m certain you’ll wish to partake in: the Book for Miss Ford’s life.”

I’d taken in a breath to say something else biting and sarcastic, hoping to needle Hill into an emotional reaction and out of the calm center of his power.  Now, taking in what he’d said so casually, that breath caught in my throat.  “You already made that threat,” I managed to say.  “Didn’t stop me before.”

“Previously, I was hoping that you would make the smart decision and join forces with the clearly superior party.  Since you have instead chosen the path of the noble fool, I no longer feel any obligation to pull my metaphorical punches.”

I blinked.  “What are you saying?”

“Judging from the expression on your face,” Hill said, “I believe you understood me perfectly.  If you do not surrender the book to me, then I will give the order to eliminate every member of your team.  That much is a foregone conclusion; they have done entirely too much and would serve as too much of an embarrassment to continue living.  After that, I will have my men take your precious ex-wife hostage.  At that point, I will no longer see the necessity of further negotiation.  You will have lost the only opportunity you could have had to keep her safe and you will have done so for absolutely no reason.  It is inevitable, Mister O’Brien; I will have what I want, one way or the other.”

“Sarah left the country.”  The words came out automatically, completely devoid of emotional investment.  I could only hope they sounded convincing.  “She did it right after we had dinner.  You can’t get to her unless you’re willing to go to war with a legitimate financial and political powerhouse of a family.”

“I am more than aware of Miss Ford’s familial relations and, moreover, I have taken steps to ensure that her sudden disappearance would be accounted for in a variety of believable ways.  But come now, Mister O’Brien; surely, we have reached the point where further deception is no longer necessary.”

“No deception,” I said.  “You really think she would stay anywhere near here, knowing what I planned to do?”

“I don’t merely think it,” Hill replied, “I know it, for a fact.”

He dipped his free hand into his pocket and pressed some button.  I didn’t quite know what to expect, so I tightened my grip on the Ruger and took extra care to keep my arm steady.  After a moment, an oversized projector screen descended from the ceiling, behind Hill and located in such a way that I had a perfect view.  When the screen reached the end of its track, a projector came to life to me and broadcast an image onto the screen.

At first, I thought it was a static image, but I realized a moment later that it was actually a video…albeit, a video where very little seemed to be moving.  There weren’t any people in frame and nothing was moving.  I see a leaf inch across the ground, at the very bottom of the video, propelled by a barely-there breeze.  In the background, there was a prominent Beatles memorabilia sign.

I saw all of those details subconsciously, but didn’t pay any active attention to them.  All of my focus was on the centerpiece of the video: Sarah’s van, specially made and parked well outside of Hill’s estate where we had thought she would be safe.

Hill pressed another button and voices filled the room.  Mila and Michel.  Anton, Stani, the Russians.  Chester and James.  And, over all of them, coordinating our escape, Sarah in her clear, authoritative voice; the persona she took on whenever the situation was at its most dire.

“I cannot find a way through them!” Michel cried out.

“And I’m almost out of ammo,” Mila added.  “We need that gate open and we need it now!”

“Bloody workin’ on it, alright?” This, from Chester.  “More of his heavies out here than you thought about and it’s hard bloody work doing all this without knowing everything that’s going on!”

“This isn’t the time for a debate about the merits of full disclosure,” Sarah said.  Steady and unshaken, like the eye of a hurricane.  But I knew her well enough to hear the fear hidden behind the steadfast, level exterior.  “We’re here now and we’ve still got a job to do.  Here’s what we’re going to do.”

Hill muted the video, but did nothing about the projected image.  He allowed it to play out behind him, forcing me to look at him, then the screen, then back again.  Billy was no longer attempting to send me a message.  Now, he had slumped down into his chair, weakly resisting the pressure from Hill’s gun.  “I must admit, I am very curious how exactly she has managed quite so much in such a small vehicle.  My own command center encompasses a rather large portion of my basement and took several highly trained individuals to setup.  I believe I’ll have to have ask her how I can streamline things, when next she and I speak.”

My mouth was bone-dry.  I swallowed fearfully several times, just to work up the moisture to speak without it sounding like a death rattle.  “If I don’t get out of here, then – “

“Then what?” Hill interrupted.  “Plan B, whatever that is?  Your entire team of compatriots is pinned down by sheer force of numbers.  Even if you had some incredibly brilliant stroke of luck, it would do you no good.  There is something to be said for ingenuity and cleverness in the face of otherwise implacable odds, I freely admit.  And the tale of your plucky resistance, despite everything that your former friend has thrown at you, would certainly make for an inspirational story.  But that, Mister O’Brien, is all that it will ever be: a story.”

“I can still kill you,” I said.  A note of desperation crept into my voice before I could stop it.  “Maybe I’ll die, too, but you won’t be around to gloat about it, will you?”

“You could,” Hill allowed, “but you won’t.  I don’t quite know how you managed to get away from my man, but I’ve watched everything you have done in London since your arrival.  You have had any number of opportunities to finish things in a more permanent manner – with me, with Mister Knight – and you have taken none of them.  In fact, you have made things infinitely more difficult because of your naïve adherence to a sense of morality.  The prospect of you killing me in hot, cold, or any sort of blood is so unlikely as to be impossible.”

It was a struggle, but I still tried to keep anything from showing on my face.  “You’re certain you want to risk that?  Everything you’ve built, everything you’ve sacrificed for, on a gamble?  If you’re that sure you’ve already won, why bother making the offer at all?”

“Expediency,” Hill said.  “I have taken great pains to arrange things in such a way that my success is all but assured.  It would be poor form to stumble at this point, simply because I couldn’t be bothered to strike a deal and eliminate even the possibility of a stumbling block.”

“So you do have your doubts,” I said, a touch of triumph finding its way into my voice.  It didn’t quite drown out the fear I felt for Sarah, but it at least disguised it.

“I do not doubt that you have put things into motion that will complicate my victory,” Hill said.  “I do not doubt that some of those things will irritate or perhaps stymie me in such a way that I may be forced to expend actual effort to squash any remaining resistance.  You’ve certainly earned that much respect.  But, do not mistake my respect for trepeditation.  I have all of the power and you have none.  My men outnumber your ragtag group ten to one.  They are armed killers and you are a thief, scurrying around in the shadows of greater men, nipping at their heels.”

He was deliberately making his voice colder, I noticed.  My incessant goading must have been affecting him more than he was letting on.  That might have been good.  At the same time, I didn’t want to push him so far that he gave the order to capture Sarah, kill Billy, to drop the hammer on my team outside of the estate.  The plan depended on just a little more time.

At the same time, everything he said rang true.  I believed in myself, to an extent, and I certainly believed in Sarah, but we did have limits.  Even before we’d split up, she had been the one to acknowledge the truth: if we continued to increase the scale of our heists, a point would eventually come where we would run up against our hard limits.

Hill spoke, as if he’d read my mind.  “You mentioned a metaphor earlier.  Very well, then.  You, Miss Ford, and every lowlife hireling you’ve managed to get your hands on lost this game before it even began.  Mister O’Brien, no matter how lucky you are, no matter how committed, surely you know better than most: the house always wins.”

Chapter 131

I clutched the briefcase to my chest so tightly that it hurt and hurried through the halls of Hill’s palatial estate.  Not for the first time, I was glad that Sarah couldn’t see anything that my mini-camera couldn’t; I would have felt irrational shame if she’d been able to see my trembling hands or how fervently my eyes kept darting from one darkened corner to another.

In my business, fear was typically a healthy feeling to cultivate.  Fear kept a thief moving, kept them aware of their surroundings, kept them from falling into a false sense of security.  Fear, more often than not, provided the impetus to create a brand new scheme just before the mighty fist of the law came crashing down on top of our heads.

Right now, though, fear was an obstacle.  I couldn’t think past it or around it; I couldn’t bring myself to create or to improvise, so long as the only thing occupying my thoughts was the all-encompassing spectre of ‘things that could go wrong.’  My encounter in Hill’s bedroom had been sobering, in a way that I hadn’t expected possible.  Up to that point, I’d foolishly assumed that I’d at least considered every problem that could occur during our incursion.  I didn’t necessarily have solutions for all of those problems, but I’d at least considered them.

At least, that had been what I’d thought.

The reality had been explicitly clear, now.  No matter how thoroughly we’d planned things, Hill had been one step ahead of us.  It stood to reason, then, that Asher might very well be one step ahead of him.  And, operating at a level inconceivably higher than any of us were even aware, there was the Lady and the Magi.  Our job hadn’t just been difficult; it had been impossible, from the very beginning.  How well we played the game would never have mattered, so long as the game had been rigged from the start.

Now, my only priority was escape.  Mila, Michel, Avis, and Neal were making their way away from Hill’s estate.  With the help of Sarah, Anton, and the Russians I didn’t doubt that they could pull it off.  Asher had managed to suborn a portion of Hill’s forces and my former partner didn’t care about Hill’s plan, except where it could be used to supplement his own objectives.  If letting my team get away would bring him closer to me, Asher would give the command in a heartbeat.  Good for them, terrible for me.

That was fine.  Increasing the difficulty of my situation from ‘impossible’ to ‘fucking impossible’ couldn’t possibly throw me any more off my game.

Still, that portion of my mind that worked on its own orders kept whirring away, filing away details and observations, ordering them into shapes and outlines that I might be able to use.  As quickly as those prospective plans fell into place, my conscious mind tore them down by pointing out a flaw here or a misconception there.  Looming over the entire process like a grim shadow of death, I couldn’t let myself forget that nothing had ever been what it had seemed to be.  A perfect plan still held every possibility of falling apart under yet another revelation.

I was so lost in my thoughts that I rounded a corner and nearly ran directly into a short, fair-skinned man with a beard that reached down to his navel.  He took a reflexive step back as I appeared in front of him then blinked in confusion.  I understood the feeling.  Surprise had robbed me of initiative and thought for a few seconds, not too long ago.

Now, however, I’d accepted the inherent unpredictability of my job and I leaped into action before the bearded man could do more than inhale sharply.  I let all of my weight fall onto my back foot and whipped the briefcase around in a vicious arc.  The bearded man reached for a weapon at his side as I moved.  The briefcase found its target before the bearded man could draw his weapon and the sharp metallic edge of the case cut into his face.  Blood spurted out from a long, uneven gash from his cheek bones to his chin and he stumbled away from the attack.  I pressed the offensive, shifting my weight so that I could bring my impromptu bludgeon up at an angle.  It caught the bearded man underneath his chin and rocked his head backwards with enough force that I could actually see the moment he lost consciousness, still standing on his feet.

While he fell, I stepped around the man and continued to move.  Sarah joined the line while I was running.  “They have a clear path, more or less,” she said, without preamble.  I appreciated that about her.  Banter was all well and good when we had time to spare; when working under the gun, though, she dismissed with any pretense of joviality and became a machine focused solely on achieving our goals.  “I can’t do anything more for them right now, anyway.  Where are you?  What do you see?”

“I ran into a patrol,” I said.  “He wasn’t ready for me, so I took him out before he could raise an alarm, but…”

“But that means that Asher’s men are getting closer to your position,” Sarah finished.  “There aren’t any cameras in the building that I can use to keep track of the search.”

“I know that.  Could you maybe track my GPS signal and lock any doors leading to me, though?  I don’t know where they are, but you’ve got the plans.  You could make sure that they’ve got to work to catch up with me, couldn’t you?”

I knew that Sarah hadn’t gained control over the door’s electronic locks before we’d lost contact, but I’d had plenty of time to grow accustomed to her personality over the years.  If she was helping Mila and company escape from the estate, she wouldn’t have just taken over the network connected to the front gate.  Every door in the building that she could lay her digital hands on would be under her control by now.

She proved me right by clearing her throat and speaking into the comms.  “Done,” she said.  “But I don’t know if those doors have physical locks.  If so, there’s really nothing I can do from here to keep them from catching up to you.”

“I’ll take what I can get.”  A door’s lock clicked into place beside me.  Several more followed suit as I passed them and, all the way down the hallway, a chorus of clicks came back to me.  I didn’t linger in the area long enough to listen at each door, to see whether or not one of Asher’s goons waited on the other side of it to make a getaway.  “Let me know when they’re clear.  I don’t want to do anything that puts them in danger, if I can help it.”

“Puts them in danger?” Sarah repeated, altering my inflection so that a declarative sentence became an interrogative.  “What about putting you in danger, Dev?”

“I’m the only member of our group, Billy excepted, that is located inside the house.  Hill knows we’re here and he’s made plans specifically tailored to interrupt anything we could come up with.  There are an unknown number of armed men searching for me, all led by my psychotic and delusional ex-partner, while my only assistance is a tiny voice in my ear.”  I flattened myself against a wall and cautiously peered around the corner, hoping to avoid a repeat of my previous confrontation.  “I think I’m a little bit past being in danger.  This way, we can hope to minimize how many people in the crosshairs.”

She didn’t reply to that immediately.  She didn’t really need to.  I wasn’t foolish enough to think that I understood Sarah completely – I was certain that, if I ever reached that level of enlightenment, I would be elevated instantly to a state of Nirvana – but I could read into some of her silences as clearly as if she’d spoken her thoughts.  She wasn’t thrilled that I was putting myself in danger, elevating the pressure on myself so that I could ease the intensity of opposition on the other, less experienced members of my team.

There were arguments I could have woven that might have changed her mind in the short term.  I elected not to use any of those.  Manipulating Sarah was uncomfortably close to lying to her, and the fallout from the last time I’d made that mistake still hung around my neck like a dead albatross.  “This is the only way,” I said in a low whisper, letting my own anxiety and fear bleed into my voice.  “You know it and I know it.”

“Doesn’t mean I’ve got to like it.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it, either.  But when I get out of here, you have my permission to lead everyone in a resounding chorus of ‘Devlin is an idiot and look at what he got us into.’  I’ll even join in.”

A puff of breath, like the very beginning of a chuckle, came from Sarah’s end of the comms.  “Do you still have that tablet?”

I did.  I’d slipped it into my interior jacket pocket after the encounter in Hill’s bedroom.  Keeping both hands on the briefcase with its precious cargo had seemed, at the time, more important than anything else.  Now, I relaxed my death grip on the handle and used one hand to fish out the tablet.  “Right here.  Why?”

“Just want to make sure you’re keeping an eye on things.  Aiden is off the board right now, but Carlos and his pharmacist are still in play.  Not to mention Asher, whatever thugs he’s managed to bring around to his personal employ, and the small army that Hill brought to bear.”

As I continued through the estate, pausing every so often to reorient myself or to make certain that I wasn’t about to walk into a squad of men, I realized that things within the estate had gone very quiet, all of a sudden.  It wasn’t completely silent, of course.  That would have been too eerie for words.  But the general bustle of men moving through the lower floors seemed to have lessened noticeably.  There were still shouts and calls, but there didn’t appear to be as much vigor behind the voices.

“Tell me what’s going on outside,” I said, partly out of curiosity and partly because the sound of my own voice kept me from becoming completely unnerved.

The line clicked off and, about thirty seconds later, clicked back on.  “It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect,” she said.  “Hill had a couple of men in cars, on standby.  Either they were more shells to use as distraction or he just wanted to be prepared for anything.  Either way, they fell on Michel pretty quickly as soon as they realized what he was trying to do.”

“Are they okay?”

“They’re fine.  According to him, none of our opposition have the skills to back up their cars.  He’s had to lead them in loops across the grounds, while Mila and Neal cripple a car at a time.”

“Are they getting any help from the others?”

“The Russians are pulling the front gate’s attention, so that they can’t attack Michel from both sides.  Anton, Chester and James are ready to distract, as soon as Michel gets enough of a lead to just drive through the gate and get out of there.”

I nodded.  Things weren’t proceeding in an elegant or civilized fashion, despite our hopes.  In an odd sort of way, the general chaos of the situation lightened the weight of dread.  Elegant and civilized were Hill’s hallmarks.  Chaos, bedlam, and general mayhem were all tools that I preferred.  By foregoing any attempt at keeping things quiet, I was doing one small thing to place the heist back onto familiar ground.

The estate’s hallways all looked identical.  I was forced to check the tablet more and more frequently as I moved, just to make sure that I wasn’t heading towards a dead end.  When I reached the end of a particularly long landing, I took the staircase waiting there two steps at a time.  My specially made dress shoes didn’t make a sound on the hard wood of the stairs, but the pounding of my heart more than made up for absence of exterior noise.

“Sarah?”  I asked.

“What’s wrong?”

Nothing’s wrong,” I said.  “That’s the problem.”

She was quiet for a second.  “What do you mean by that?”

“Someone knew that I was in Hill’s bedroom and that person came equipped with a signal jammer, specifically to limit our ability to communicate.”

“Alright…”

“And then, just after I left the room, I literally ran into a guard already on the third floor.  Wouldn’t that suggest that the rest of the men would have found me in fairly short order?”

“I…would say so, yes.”

“And yet, there is a distinct lack of conflict along my route.  In fact, I’m on the second floor now and I still don’t see anyone.  So, what does that say to you?”

Silence.  Then, “Trap?”

“Trap,” I said, nodding my head even though Sarah couldn’t actually see the gesture.

I slowed down and began taking extremely cautious steps.  My shoes were the next best thing to cat’s feet, completely soundless regardless of the surface beneath them, and I still turned every ounce of skill I’d learned over the years to the task of making myself invisible.  I even started clinging to walls and moving quickly between patches of relative shadow.

Success in the business of thievery is easy enough to come by, in the short term.  But in order to make it a career, one had to either be born with or acquire certain essential skills and talents.  Ever since I’d been a child, even before my father left me and my mother to fend for ourselves, I’d always had a sixth sense about being watched.  It wasn’t infallible, but it was reliable enough that I tended to trust the instinct whenever it reared its head.  For several minutes now, there had been an intense prickling sensation just above my spinal column, needling me incessantly and demanding that I pay attention to it.

“Someone’s watching me,” I said.  I was as certain of that as I was of my own name.

“I’ve broken into his computer network already,” Sarah replied.  “Didn’t find any cameras, but…”

“But?”

“But that only means Hill doesn’t have a camera system hooked up through his computer network.”

“Could he have had hidden it another way?”

Sarah thought about that.  “A purely physical connection would suffice, if he didn’t care about archiving large amounts of data for long periods of time.  Or he could have – “

I interrupted her before she could go off on a mental tangent.  “The specifics didn’t matter, so much as the reality.  If there are cameras inside the estate, then…”

I didn’t really need to finish the thought.  If I was being tracked, then there was almost certainly a surprise waiting for me before I could make my own escape.  Preparing myself now for a confrontation might very well be the difference between success or defeat.

I carefully made way down another set of stairs, watching the blinking red dots on the tablet carefully.  It wouldn’t do to lose track of my primary adversaries.  The dot I’d identified as Aiden’s was being moved away from the estate by two other dots, marked C and M.  I exhaled, long and slow, at that.  I doubted that there was any amount of preparation that would help me beat even one of the mercenaries.

Asher’s dot had stopped moving.  It was located at the front entrance to the estate.  I didn’t have to stress my imagination too much to understand that he wouldn’t be waiting there alone.  I headed for the servant’s exit instead.

An idea struck me just before I stepped into the dining room.  Asher wasn’t moving.  He’d given up searching for me and there was only a single reason why he would do that.

I crouched down in the shadow of the entrance into the dining room and lay the tablet on the floor.  Then, with my now free hand, I reached for the weapon Mila had acquired for me.  Guns weren’t very complicated things for someone unconcerned with flair or subtlety.  All in all, learning how to use one wasn’t much more difficult than learning how to use a remote control.

Point and shoot.  Simple enough for someone who broke into impossible safes under unreasonable deadlines.

“Whatever you hear for the next few minutes,” I said under my breath, “make sure that you stick to the plan.”  I made sure the safety on my gun was switched off, took a deep breath, and then stepped into the dining room before Sarah could reply.

Standing in the center of the room, where the long table had been on my previous visit, was Hill.  Billy was in front of him, bound and gagged.  He couldn’t speak around the gag, but his eyes communicated more emotion than I could easily parse: fear, anxiety, horror, defiance, and more.

Personally, I found myself more interested in the extremely large hand-cannon that Hill was pressing into Billy’s temple.

I raised my own gun so that it pointed directly at Hill’s forehead.  At this distance, it would be difficult for even a novice like me to miss.  Then, forcing myself to portray an aura of absolute control, I said in a cheerful voice, “Well.  We have got to stop running into each other like this, don’t we?”

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.

Generativity vs. Stagnation

It took them years before they were any good at the trade; then, it only took them months to edge out all other competition.

Lord Fairfax, Sr. died of chronic liver failure two years before their control over the drug trade was absolute.  Charles became the new Lord Fairfax, Baron of Berkeley, instead of Billy.  In private, Charles had expressed outrage that the eldest son had been passed over.  Billy, for his part, showed no concern for the slight at all.

“You’re his son,” Billy had said.  “His legitimate son, I mean.  If you ask me, it was always yours.  Besides, I never wanted to be nobility.”

Charles had forced himself to express more indignation and issued several empty promises of ‘making things right,’ knowing full well that he had no intention of doing any such thing.  It was his birthright, after all.  He had been the one to survive under the tender ministrations of the Lady Fairfax…he had endured years of benign neglect from their father.

Billy had received love, affection, and understanding from the late Lord Fairfax.  It seemed perfectly equitable that Charles should receive the title.

(He repeated that thought to himself, night after night, and it never felt equal to him.)

Life became nothing more than work, from that night.  Occasional interlopers attempted to muscle in on their business.  Billy identified the newcomers and Charles destroyed them, either through the force of law or through force of arms.  They turned the drug trade from something that thrived only in the criminal underground into a business that turned over record profits, year after year.  They used that money to hire or coerce others from overseas into streamlining the process, minimizing their operating costs, and flying in the best help that money could be.

Decades after they had started, the two brothers found themselves at the head of one of the profitable criminal enterprises in living memory.  Their business included the production and sale of various illegal substances, shrouded in the auspices of otherwise legitimate industries.  They worked with major gangs in Russia and South America, doing their best to stay on the cutting edge of the business.  When difficulties arose, they dealt with them as a team, moving with synchronized efficiency to maintain their grip on their employees and the beast they had built.

Life was good.  To Charles, however, a good life wasn’t enough.

On the night of his thirty-eighth birthday, Charles started the same argument that he’d been having with his brother for five years.

“We can do more,” Charles said.  He kept his voice at an appropriate volume, even though there wasn’t anybody else in their private suite.  “You know I’m right.”

“It isn’t as though we’re hurting for money or influence.”

“We don’t need the Russians, for one.  The amount of money we pay them to handle the smuggling side of operations isn’t exactly insignificant.”

“Sure, we lose a chunk of profits to them.  But allow me to present a couple of reasons why we don’t want to cut them out of things.  One: they’re the best at this sort of thing.  They’ve been doing it for years, and the Bratva are very proud of that.”

Charles downed the remainder of his Scotch in a single swallow and refilled the glass from a crystal decanter.  “They’re the best now.  What about that new technology from Brazil?”

“Untested and, therefore, unreliable.  But let’s assume for the moment that the Brazilians got their act together and perfected the process.  We’ve still got point number two: they are insane over there, Charles.  Seriously.  I’m not even talking about the stories I’ve heard, just the people I’ve actually spoken to.  London is too profitable for them to let the entire city go without putting up a fight.”

A headache began building behind Charles’ temples.  He took a deep breath before continuing.  “What if I want a fight?”

“Then you’re an idiot,” Billy said and shrugged.  “The Russians are…the Russians.  We’ve been at this for a couple of decades.  They’ve been elbow deep in crime since the Berlin Wall came down.  We aren’t the first people who thought we might be able to wiggle out from underneath them and, after they’re finished burying our mutilated corpses, we won’t be the last.”

“And if I know someone who’d be willing to intercede on our behalf?  Maybe they’d supplement our men with a little more firepower, in case the Russians decide to disagree with our business choices.”

Even that slight tentacle of conjecture was enough to jolt Billy out of his indolent, casual demeanor.  He sat up straight and locked eyes with Charles.  “What do you mean?”

“Let’s call them…possibilities.”

“And have you spoken to these possibilities?”

Charles said nothing.

Billy put his drink – a bottle of some Welsh beer that Charles couldn’t be bothered to remember the name of – down onto the table and leaned both elbows onto his knees.  “I just want to make sure I understand what you’re talking about here.  You want to cut ties with the fucking Russians, of all people, in favor of someone crazy enough to back that sort of play?  Did you think that these ‘other parties’ aren’t going to be just as bad, if not even worse?”

“Of course I’ve thought about that,” Charles snapped.  “But we’re never going to get any bigger than we are now, so long as we’re stuck to the Russians.”

“We won’t get any bigger if we’re killed, either.  And why do we need to get bigger?  We own London.”

“Because this is nothing compared to what’s out there.  Think about what we could do with our influence, if we could actually put it to use, Billy.”

“And these ‘possibilities?’  You think they aren’t going to have their own restrictions to deal with?”

Charles shrugged, faking a bit more nonchalance than he actually felt.  “We can deal with that problem when we come to it.  First the Russians.”

“I have thought about expanding,” Billy said, after a long, thoughtful pause.  “And that would only be signing up for more trouble than we need.  We got into this so that we could have money for medical treatments, Charles.  Maybe a little bit extra spending money, I’m not going to lie.  But we never planned on getting this big.  I don’t even know what we’re going to do with all this when we’re gone, but I’m certainly not about to work on giving us both even more work to deal with.”

“Let the next guy concern himself with what comes after us.”  Charles heard his volume increasing and couldn’t summon the concern to modulate his voice.  “I’m bigger than this.”

Billy leaned back and looked at Charles for a long minute.  He sighed, finally, and reached out for his beer.  “That’s what this is really about, isn’t it?”

Charles blinked.  “What?  What are you talking about?”

“Being better than this,” Billy clarified.  “Not that we’re better, though.  That you’re better.”

“Billy, I don’t know what – “

“At least you can be honest with me!” Billy snapped, summoning palpable heat and willpower in the blink of an eye.  Before he could help himself, Charles found himself recoiling into his own chair.  “We’ve known each other for most of our lives, Charles; do you really think I can’t figure out when you’re hiding something from me?”

Charles took several seconds to think about what he should say next; those seconds proved to be too much for Billy to suffer through.  The older man stood up, bumping one knee into a bucket filled with chilled champagne bottles, and began stalking out of the room.

“Wait!”  Charles extended a hand and managed to make contact with Billy’s arm, before it was jerked out of his reach.  “Wait, can we talk about this?”

Billy whirled around.  “What exactly do you want to talk about, brother?  Because you clearly don’t have any intention of telling me what this is really about.”

“I just…I just want to build something on my…on our own.  I don’t know what’s wrong with that, and I don’t know what’s got you acting like this.”

“You just said it,” Billy replied.  “Just now.  You probably didn’t even hear it, did you?  You want to build something on your own.  Not together.  Not the way we built this whole operation with our bare hands, starting from nothing except for our childish hopes and dreams.  It doesn’t matter to you, unless you did it without me.”

“I don’t…I don’t even…”

“You don’t even know what to say?  Yeah.  I figured you’d say something like that.”  Billy dug into his pocket and fished out a cell phone.  He entered the necessary codes and threw it across the room, where it landed onto the couch cushion just to Charles’ right.  “One of your lackies didn’t realize that we apparently aren’t working together anymore.  Sent an email to the joint account instead of to whatever private account you have set up.”

The temperature of Charles’ blood dropped about a dozen degrees in a heartbeat.  “Whatever you read, Billy, it isn’t…”

“It isn’t true?  You’re really going to sit there, look me in my eyes, and lie to me?  I’d rather you just shut up and not waste both of our times trying to dig your way out of this.”

As much as he wanted to find some way to defuse the situation, Charles wasn’t foolish enough to disregard good advice.  If Billy had somehow intercepted any of the private messages that Charles had been sending, there really wasn’t any point in denying their contents.  At the same time, nothing he’d sent recently had been of critical importance.  The occasional disparaging comment, certainly; more than a few phrases he would have preferred his older brother not be aware of, absolutely; but nothing about the possible benefactors or the decision Charles had been forced to make in the past few days.

“Okay,” Charles said, while his thoughts continued to race.  He couldn’t risk any more pauses.  Not if he wanted a chance to talk Billy off of the ledge…or to cancel the plans that had already been set into motion.  “Okay, I can explain.”

“I thought I understood you,” Billy said.  “I thought we were brothers.”

“We are!”

“We obviously are not.”  The intensity of Billy’s glare forced Charles a little deeper into his couch and a little farther away from his older brother.  “Unless the definition has changed in the past few years, I don’t believe brothers would say the sort of things I read about one another.”

“It isn’t…it isn’t what you think it is,” Charles sputtered.  “The men have certain ideas about things and it’s easier to just go along with them than to correct them.”

“Oh?  That’s why you told them that you wished I hadn’t ever come to live with you and Father?  That was their idea, was it?”

Charles winced.   He’d written that particular message to one of his closer confidants – as close as he allowed the hired help to get, anyway – during a fit of irritation.  “You…it wasn’t about you, Billy, it was about Father.”

“Please, enlighten me.  What did Father have to do with any of the things you wrote?”

Thinking about what he’d written – recalling the exact state of mind he’d been in while he’d typed out the email – brought those feelings back to the forefront of his thoughts.  He felt cornered by his older brother’s anger and that trapped feeling only amplified the anger that never simmered too far from the surface.  “Because he forgot about me as soon as you got there, Billy.  Or didn’t you notice that?”

It was Billy’s turn to blink.  The heat of his glare died away, replaced by a puzzled expression.  “He did not – “

Long buried heat bubbled up from some private room in Charles’ heart.  He stood up and slashed a hand through the air like a knife, cutting his older brother off before Billy could begin to focus his own thoughts.  “No, you wouldn’t have noticed it.  Because you didn’t even think about it.  As soon as you moved in, you just carried on, being whoever you wanted to be and it worked.  You weren’t expected to conform or to change who you were friends with so that the family name wouldn’t be weakened.”

“I didn’t even have the family name!”  Billy regained a measure of control and put it to work immediately.  “You and Father agreed with me on that.”

“That isn’t the point, Billy!”  For a single ludicrous moment, Charles wanted to sweep an arm across the table and scatter their bottles to the floor.  That bone-deep sense of etiquette and proper decorum kept him from venting his frustration in a manner so loud and public.  He loaded all of that frustration and vitriol into his voice, instead, and spoke without really thinking.  “The point is that you’ve never understood what it’s like to be a Fairfax, because you weren’t one.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, Charles knew he’d gone too far.  Still, he was all too aware that he couldn’t take back what he’d said.  The only thing worse than uttering those particular words would be cheapening them with a false apology.

Billy’s mouth dropped open and stayed there for five or six seconds before, slowly, he brought his teeth together with an audible click.  Moving with excruciating care, he removed his wallet and peeled off several large notes.  “If you want to do this so badly,” Billy said, “you go right ahead.  But you do it without me.  Since this apparently isn’t a family business anymore, it shouldn’t be a problem if I go off and do things on my own.  Maybe I’ll do some traveling.”

“Billy, I…”  Charles began, but no other words came out.

Billy nodded, as if that silence was confirmation of some question he hadn’t quite asked.  “Be seeing you.”  He let the notes fall from his hands, so that they fluttered down to the table.  By the time the last piece of paper reached the table’s surface, Billy was gone.

Charles sat in the private room, still and silent, for one full minute.  On the sixtieth second, he sighed and reached out for the nearest open container: Billy’s Welsh beer.  He drank deeply from the bottle and decided, eventually, that it wasn’t entirely terrible.

When he’d finished with the beer and another glass of his preferred Scotch, Charles had managed to wrestle his emotions back down to a simmering rage.  He used his phone to dial a number.  He’d memorized the digits and, according to instructions, burned the paper they’d been written on.

Mister Hill,” the robotic voice answered on the second ring.  “We assume this is good news.”

Charles thought about what to say next.  He knew that his words could, ultimately, decide the trajectory of the rest of his life.  On the one hand, there was Billy.  Infuriatingly charming, infallible Billy.  On the other hand…

“Why should I do this?”

Respect,” the voice said, as if it were the counterpoint to his own interior monologue.  “Power.  Wealth.  All this and more.  Everything that you deserve.  Do we have a deal?”

Charles tapped a finger against the rim of his glass.  They couldn’t have built the business without his contacts or his father’s money.  As Lord Fairfax, he’d been able to open doors that illegitimate Billy hadn’t even known about.  It was only right that he be able to decide where things went now that they’d reached the extent of his own web of influence.

“My business partner isn’t on board,” Charles said slowly into the phone.  He hated to reveal even that much information, but the mysterious party had proven that they could find out whatever they wanted, should they be motivated to do so.  “What will happen to him?”

Removed from the field,” the voice said.  “Anything else would leave a potential loose end.

Ten seconds passed.  “We have a deal,” Charles finally said, “under one condition.”

The robotic voice chuckled.  “And that is?

“Don’t kill him,” Charles blurted out.  He felt ridiculous making demands at this late hour.  It wasn’t as though he could really stop his unknown benefactors if they decided to ignore him.

And why should we not eliminate potential complications?”

“Because…”  Charles swallowed.  “…because he’s my brother.”

Silence, stretching out for so long that Charles thought the voice at the other end of the line might have disconnected.  Then, finally: “We have a deal.”

The line went dead.

Charles let the phone drop from his fingers to the couch, every drop of anger evaporated in that final perilous instant.  Suddenly, what he’d chosen seemed monstrous.  Billy was his last living family and Charles had just abandoned him.

He realized that it might not be too late.  No matter how powerful the mysterious party was, they weren’t omnipotent.  They couldn’t have made a move against Billy yet.  Charles could still call him and…and what?  Fight against them?  Die together?  What purpose would that serve?

“Billy made this choice,” Charles muttered out loud.  “He did this to himself.  Besides, it isn’t personal.  It’s just business.”

Instead of reaching for the phone, Charles took the crystal decanter half-filled with Scotch and began to drink straight from the bottle.  He did that until his mind was numb, his limbs uncoordinated, and his guilt submerged so deeply that he could barely find it anymore.  By then, he almost believed the mantra he kept repeating to himself.

“It’s nothing personal.  It’s just business.  It’s nothing personal.  It’s just business.  Just…it’s just business.”

 

Intimacy vs. Isolation

These days, Charles often wondered why he continued to be surprised.

Of course Billy had gotten into an argument with some of the elitist idiots who matriculated at their university.  And of course the disagreement had escalated from words – barbed, nasty words, designed specifically to devastate and humiliate – into harsher vitriol and, ultimately, into naked violence.  And of course Charles himself had been compelled to join in on his brother’s behalf, punching and kicking to ensure, if nothing else, that Billy wouldn’t be swarmed by more than two of the six larger boys.

His knuckles were sore and skinned, now.  There was blood drying on his cheek, just beneath a shallow cut that from the corner of an eye to the top of his cheekbone.  He was winded and muscles ached in places that he hadn’t known existed.  Charles closed his eyes, allowing the pain to wash over him, and thought about the dozen other ways the two could have avoided conflict and the myriad punishments that the headmaster could levy against them for causing such a public disturbance.

It wouldn’t matter that Billy had been provoked.  No, that would have been too much like fairness.  The boys weren’t nobility like Charles, but their families had managed to accrue vast amounts of wealth through various means.  The Fairfax name didn’t carry the same weight anymore.  His father’s poor financial decisions, coupled with his open acknowledgment of his bastard son, had robbed their family of much-needed political capital.  Charles and Billy were treated, for the most part, as something to be tolerated at best and insulted at worst.

“Hell of a fight, wasn’t it?” Billy asked.

Charles opened one eye and looked to his left.  Billy sat next to him, pressing a cold compress to a bruise that promised to turn an impressive shade of purple before too long.  He kept one arm pressed to his rib, but he was breathing easily enough that Charles doubted anything serious had been broken or fractured.

“We lost,” Charles pointed out.  “Badly.”

Billy wiped a spot of blood away from one corner of his lips and smirked.  “Bet they’ll think twice before they start up with that shit again, though.”

Charles struggled valiantly to keep a reciprocal smile from appearing on his face.  He failed.  As the smile began to stretch his lips, he shook his head and sighed.  “I’m certain that lot learned their lesson,” he said.  “Next time they want to corner you, they’ll bring ten instead of six.  Just to make certain you don’t bleed too much on their shoes.”

“They’d better bring twelve.”  Billy’s smile thinned, then vanished.  He straightened his back and turned to look Charles fully in the face.  “Been dealing with shit like that for too long, as is.  Be damned if I’m going to let anyone start up with that here.”

Charles nodded and said nothing.  This was a familiar back-and-forth with Billy.  Ever since their first meeting, Charles’ brother had carried a Big Ben sized chip on his shoulder and, almost since their first joint appearance in public, other nobles and rich children had been all too happy to taunt him.  The exact nature of the mockery varied from person to person.  Some people went after the circumstances of his birth.  Others attacked his accent…or, at least, they’d done that until Billy learned to hide the lower-class consonants and vowels in casual conversation.  Some even went so far as to imply certain things about Billy’s mother, and the nature of her employment.

That last group learned quickly to choose other targets.  Billy and Charles were very thorough about conveying the exact cost of that particular slander.

“What’d they say this time?” Charles asked.

Billy picked at his teeth.  “Wasn’t anything new.”

“Do you know what made them start in on you?”

“Other than the fact that they’re a pack of bloody berks?”

“Yes.  Other than that.”

Billy shrugged.  “Think their leader’s girl might have fancied a bit of rough.  At least, that’s what she told me.”

Charles sat forward, as well.  “You didn’t.”

“Not this time, no,” Billy said.  He laughed.  “Not that she didn’t try to change my mind.  Might have managed it, if her bloke hadn’t decided to make an appearance today.  Although…well, now I think he might have made up my mind for me.”

“You never learn, do you?” Charles asked, expecting no answer except for the self-satisfied smirk that Billy wore on a near-constant basis.  “Did you at least chat with this one first, or did she just throw herself in your path?”

Despite his birth…despite his accent…despite how little Billy fit into proper high society, nothing seemed to stick to him.  For as many enemies as he made by simply existing, Billy made twice as many friends.  It didn’t matter what he wore or how he acted; women still flocked to him.  It made him an insufferable friend.  What escalated him into a superlative brother – at least, in Charles’ limited experience – was his complete lack of self-awareness.

“You’re one to talk,” Billy said.  “What’s your lady’s name?  Chelsea?  Danielle?  You go through them so fast that I can’t keep up.”

“That’s not the same thing, and you know it.”  Charles paused.  “And her name is Laurel, by the way.”

“Seems like the same thing to me,” Billy said.

Charles considered debating the point.  He decided against it within short order.  It wasn’t something that Billy would be able to understand.  Their father had claimed Billy as a son, but Billy himself had refused to change his last name.  That marked him as an outsider more than most things, but it also insulated him from the worst part of a noble heritage.

Everyone who liked Billy did so because they liked Billy.  He had nothing to offer them: no money, no lands, no honorable name.  He was simply himself and that was all he needed to attract men and women to his side.  There were days when Charles felt certain that everyone in his life – except for his father and for Billy – only cared about what benefits a relationship with him might yield.

Not that he had those days very often anymore.  Even those sycophants and opportunists had trickled to nothing, in light of his family’s declining fortunes.

Charles started to say something – he had no idea what – when the door to Lord Fairfax’s personal study opened and their father exited.  Circles so dark that they were the next best thing to black ringed his eyes and there were thunderclouds in his expression.

“I hope the two of you understand,” Lord Fairfax began, “that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated.  Not now, not so long as you live on this property, and not as long as you live.  There are expectations and decorum and those are requirements that will be met!”

At the crescendo of his opening salvo, Lord Fairfax slapped an open hand against a conveniently placed nightstand.  Glasswear and candlesticks fell to the carpet, accompanied by soft thumps as each item made contact with the floor.

In all of his years, Charles had never grown fully accustomed to his father when he was in a mood.  It wasn’t that Lord Fairfax had ever hit him.  That had always been the purview of his late mother, God rest her damned soul.  What set his nerves on edge was the complete shift from father to nobleman, the change in demeanor and bearing that signified that Lord Fairfax had entered the room and would brook no further argument.

The Lord came out less and less these days.  That didn’t diminish the effect when some misadventure pushed him into that transition, though.

Charles cringed away from his father’s outburst, instinctively trying to make himself somehow smaller.  Billy did no such thing.  Instead he jumped out of his chair and took two long steps forward to meet Lord Fairfax’s blazing glare.

“I’ll be happy to keep my mouth shut, just as soon as these pricks get it through their heads,” he snapped back, every line of his body as imperious and commanding as Lord Fairfax at his best.  His accent came back in full force, adding a healthy dose of seasoning to each word.  “Anytime they want to start something with me, they’re free to try.  So long as they’ve got the balls to do it proper, instead of taking shots at you, or Charles, or my mum.”

“William, you – “

“It ain’t William, and you know it!”  Billy took another step forward.  He was almost nose-to-nose with their father now.  “If you got a problem with that, or you think I ought to just shut up and play the role of a charity project so that you don’t have to explain me to your rich friends, I can leave anytime.  Got that?”

Lord Fairfax and Billy stared at each other while Charles stared at Billy.  No one spoke to Lord Fairfax like that…at least, not to his face.  But to confront the man in his own home was unheard of.  Charles found himself both thrilled that Coleman wasn’t present to behold the scene and, oddly, upset that there weren’t any other witnesses to confirm what he was watching.

The tension in the room grew to unbearable thickness.  Charles could feel the battle of wills between his brother and his father, could almost see it like thin blue lines of arcing electricity that danced between their locked eyes.  He prepared himself emotionally for the moment when one or the other snapped and lashed out.

The moment never came.

Instead, Lord Fairfax drew in a deep breath, held it for a second or two, and then released it slowly.  As he exhaled, he seemed to deflate.  His body language shifted and slid into a more casual, conciliatory posture; his eyes softened; and, when he spoke, it was clear that the nobleman had left the room.  “Billy,” he said, in a softer voice, “you have to understand the pressures that our family is under.”

“Bad business deals, bad partners,” Billy said.  “I’m not an idiot; I know you’re losing money.”

We’re losing money,” Lord Fairfax corrected gently.  “You’re a part of this family, too.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t my money.”  He gestured at their surroundings.  “If these bills are too much to handle, why don’t you sell some of this?”

Charles blinked, stunned.  He had grown more accustomed to Billy’s nonchalant dismissal of material wealth, but…but they couldn’t get rid of the trappings of prosperity.  Some of the things on the estate – some of the things in that very room – were over a hundred years old.  It was one thing to bleed money on the stock market.  It was something else entirely to sell off your very history.

As if Billy had read his mind, the older boy turned and faced Charles.  “And before you say anything about it, it isn’t my history.  You’re my brother, he’s my father, but the rest of these people?  They don’t have anything to do with me.”

“That’s not the point,” Lord Fairfax said.  He opened his mouth to continue but a wracking cough interrupted him.  He doubled over for five seconds…then those five seconds stretched out into ten.  When he finally regained control of himself, nearly fifteen seconds of scratchy, choking sounds that were awful to hear had passed.

“Look,” Billy said, placing one hand on Lord Fairfax’s back and stroking.  “Look, I’m sorry I got into the fight.  You’re right; I have to consider what it looks like for you.  I can’t keep going back to who I was every time somebody says the wrong thing to me.”

Charles noted the lower-class accent was gone now, replaced by the approximation of high society that Billy deigned to use.  He was capable of mimicking even their father flawlessly, but he chose this halfway point as an homage to both sides of his parentage.  Or, at least that was what he made a point to tell Charles, every time the conversation came up.

Lord Fairfax looked as though he might say something else for a second or two, before removing a handkerchief and wiping at the corners of his mouth.  “We’ll talk about this later,” he said to Billy.  His eyes traveled from his oldest son to his youngest and that tight, controlled authority crept back into his voice.  “Both of you.”

He pivoted on his heel and walked away, in the direction of the bathroom instead of his personal study.  Both boys watched him go.

“See?” Billy asked, when their father was out of sight.  He collapsed back onto his chair, smiling broadly and easily.  “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Charles shot Billy a dark look.  “It wasn’t so bad for you.  I don’t even know what he would have done if I’d been the one to get in a fight at university.”

“What’s the worst he could do?  You’re bigger than him.  We both are.  It’s not like he could hit us or anything like that.”

That hadn’t stopped Charles’ mother, but he kept that memory to himself.  He cheerfully shared almost everything with his brother; there were some things, however, that he preferred to keep close to his own chest.

“You don’t know what he was like before you got here,” Charles said.  “It was…”

“What, was he one of those men who goes around proclaiming his superiority to everyone who would listen?”  Billy interrupted, barely making an effort to hide how absurd that proposition was.

And Charles privately admitted to himself that it was an absurd thought.  Lord Fairfax hadn’t ever been overtly domineering.  He’ d been good to Charles, just…it was ‘good’ in a very impersonal sense.  They shared nothing with each other, except for the mutual loss of a woman that neither had particularly cared for.

Lord Fairfax shared something more personal than that with Billy, though.  It wasn’t just the loss itself, so much as the raw wound that the death of Billy’s mother had left in both of them.  Charles had never met the woman and, in fact, knew very little about her.  Neither Billy nor their father wanted to talk about it and so he found himself on the outside of that very private pain.

He was jealous of that, for no reason he could name.

“Would you really have done it?” Charles asked, instead of the dozen other questions he longed to speak.

“Done what?”

Charles swallowed.  “Would you have left?”

Billy tilted his head from one side to the other and shrugged.  “Probably not.”  Then, suddenly hearing the plaintive tone of Charles’ voice, he looked sharply over at his brother.  “I wouldn’t have left you.  You’re family.  But other than that?  It’s possible that I might have tried to make a go of things on my own.”

“How?  Do you have money saved up or something?”

Billy gave Charles a secretive smile.  “Not at the moment, no.  But…well, let’s just say that I know a few people who might be looking to hire some extra hands.”

Charles puzzled over that for a few seconds.  Billy had lived on the estate since his mother’s death and that lifestyle came with so many privileges that it seemed unlikely he’d found himself in need of part time employment.

“What’d you mean by that?” Charles asked.

Billy peered at the door that their father had exited through before lowering his voice to a conspiratorial volume.  “Well, just because dear old Dad is running low on funds, that doesn’t mean we can’t find other ways to make use of our illustrious peers.”

Charles lifted an eyebrow.

Billy sighed and broke his thought process down even further.  “I’ve got friends on both sides of the Thames, if you catch my meaning.  I got people like these entitled pricks up at Uni who all want to pretend to be rougher than they really are…and I still know a few people who never made it up out of the slums.  Figure there might be a way we could make a little money, if we’re willing to run messages from one of those groups to the other.”

It still took Charles a few moments to connect the dots.  “Drugs?”  The word came out in a harsh whisper, a little louder than he’d intended.

Billy rolled his eyes.  “I’ve been thinking about this for a while.  Maybe we could come up with just enough to hold things over until the business side of things smooths over.  Or…well, you’ve seen how bad Father’s health has been, lately.  If we’re out of money, what’re we going to do if something…happens?”

The slight hiccup in Billy’s speech, the momentary hesitation, spoke entire volumes to Charles.  He doubted that anyone else would really have been able to pick up on it.

Charles considered what his next words should be.  Billy had offered him something and, despite how casually he’d mentioned it, there wasn’t any doubt that it was a serious proposition.  Years ago, before their father had revealed his infidelity, Charles would never have considered doing anything illegal.  The risks were too great, the possible repercussions too massive to allow.

Now, though?  Now, he had an older brother who seemed incapable of failure.  Someone who had survived the loss of a mother who had loved him, who had managed to carve out a place for himself in the notoriously unwelcoming high society of London nobility.

Someone who their father loved and who honestly didn’t appear able to do wrong.

As much as that thought galled him, it also provided him with an unusual impetus to act.  He could see the possibilities unfolding in front of him.  He knew that his “friends” at Uni partook of drugs, whenever they thought they could get away with it and he was on better terms with most of them than Billy.  With the two of them working together…they might be able to turn more than just a decent profit.

The two of them might be able to do something for their father.  Something that all three of them would share, then, instead of just Lord Fairfax and his eldest illegitimate son.

“How…”  Charles swallowed nervously, started over.  “How would we do it?”

Chapter 109

“A job,” I repeated.  “You want to hire me?”

“Think about it,” Hill said.  “In your efforts to undermine and expose your former partner, you and your team have done amazing work in London, thus far.  Granted, that work has caused me no small amount of discomfort…but nothing you have done cannot be undone with the information the girl will provide me.  Consider what you would be able to accomplish if you were my ally, instead of my adversary.  Imagine the heights you would be able to scale with the financial backing of someone in my position.”

That detached part of my brain – the one that continued chugging away at problems, even when my emotions were otherwise overloaded and endangering even the hope of clear thoughts – noted that Hill must not know about the Lady.  The sum total of her assistance amounted to a particularly savvy concierge and a last-minute assist at Scotland Yard, sure, but Hill obviously thought that everything we’d done in London so far, we had done on our own.

“You already pointed out a particularly large problem with that,” I said.  “Asher works with you and I’m not going to start working with him, just to find a knife between my shoulder blades at his earliest convenience.”

“Asher works for me,” Hill corrected, in a terse tone, “and I find his service lackluster, as of late.  If it were not for his ridiculous vendetta against you, perhaps he would have been able to bring the issue of your continued interference to a satisfactory conclusion.  Instead, we now find ourselves here.”

“And what exactly would you want me to do for you?  If I accepted your offer, which I am by no means doing.”

“Troubleshooting, to begin with.  I do not imagine that the individual cogs in the machine will cheerfully fall in line without difficulties.  Acquiring their names and financial information from the book will go far in securing their loyalty – or, failing that, their respect – but as soon as I make my move, others will doubtless be inspired to do the same.  It would hardly be worth my trouble if the entire machine broke down as soon as I laid claim to it.”

“Not to mention,” I added, “that whoever’s pulling your strings now probably isn’t going to take your little insurrection lying down.”

Hill leaned back in his chair and his eyebrows shot up.  “You are particularly clever, aren’t you?  Asher informed me of such on multiple occasions, but I wasn’t quite sure that your successes weren’t attributable to considerable luck.  Tell me: how did you learn about my…employers?”

I gave Hill an even look and said nothing at all.

After several seconds of stony silence, Hill shook his head and went back to his roast.  “No matter.  In reply to that concern, you are correct.  Agents will be sent to bring me under heel once more or, perhaps, to simply kill me out of hand.  An object lesson in obedience might very well serve them more than any individual with a known penchant for ambition.”

“And that’s what you want me to sign up for?  To throw myself directly into the line of fire, so that you can continue choking the life out of London with your drugs and your guns?  Pardon me if I don’t break my legs running for the sign-up sheet.”

“Sarcasm,” Hill said, “is the weakest form of humor.”

“I thought that was puns.”

At any rate,” Hill said, and I was irrationally pleased to have gotten under his skin, “your work for me would not be without its benefits.  For instance, if you agree to take the position, I would have no further use for your former partner.  He is not aware that we are having this conversation, of course.”

“Of course.”

“As you well know, he has made many enemies over the last few years; some of which at my request, others due to his charming personality.  Yet, you would be the one who actually caught him.  Kill him, torture him, sell him to other interested parties in exchange for cash or considerations.  The options are limitless.”

I went very still, so as not to reveal anything at all by virtue of an uncontrolled micro-expression, before I answered.  “What else?”

“Protection,” Hill said.  “Unless you are actively engaged in operations against my enemies and rivals, you would enjoy the same protection that has so stymied you in the case of your former partner.  I have operated in this city for quite some time.  There are very few police officers who I do not own or cannot threaten.  You and your team would be able to work without fear of the local constabulary and this city could serve as a sort of safe haven.  You cannot truly tell me that you don’t find that possibility the slightest bit intriguing.”

He wasn’t wrong.  The possibility of safety was something I’d never really considered, but I was considering it now.  Not for me, but…I looked over at Sarah.  She sat there, as still as a statue, watching the conversation between Hill and me.  I wondered what she was thinking but, for once, her poker face was absolutely flawless.  I had a better chance of reading Tarot cards than analyzing Sarah’s secret thoughts at the moment.

I turned back to Hill.  “And if I say no?”

“Why would you do that?  If there’s something else that you would require, the terms are up for negotiations.”

“No terms,” I said, “and no negotiation.  You’re a drug dealer, which I’m fine with.  But you peddle to the poor and the indigent, to children and to the sick.  You’re a killer and you work with killers.”

“And you truly believe that your friend Stanislav has not taken life before?  That your own bodyguard has hands completely clean of blood?”

I shrugged.  “Maybe.  But they don’t enjoy it the way you do.  You couldn’t wait to trot out your own brother, just for effect.  I don’t know what you’ve been doing to him since you took him out of the subway, but something tells me it wasn’t all Candyland and catching up on old times.”

Hill stared at me, without comment.

I kept going.  “Besides, my team doesn’t follow my orders.   I don’t own their choices.  But I can tell you right now that at least one of the people at this table isn’t going to work with anyone who deals in misery and someone else would probably rather die than go into your service.”  I paused for effect.  “And I’d rather die than ask her to.”

“Is that all?” Hill asked, stiffly.

“No,” I said.  “There’s also Avis.”

Hill quirked one eyebrow up in a quizzical gesture.

“And that, right there, is what I mean.  She isn’t a tool or a machine that you can use and discard whenever you see fit.  Avis is a child and you have every intention of murdering her as soon as you’ve finished exploiting what she can do.  Even if you don’t have to do that, you’d rather kill a child than risk a loose end.”

Hill considered what I’d said and then nodded one time.  “I had hoped to convince you to see my side of things with a carrot, so to speak.  But, if you must insist on clinging to these tiresome morality, I suppose I will have to use the stick, instead.”

He didn’t give any command to Aiden.  He didn’t say a word, or make a gesture, or even look in his direction.  Aiden moved without receiving even the slightest visual cue from Hill.  The mercenary pulled an obscenely long, serrated knife from a holster that I couldn’t see and placed it against Billy’s throat.  Billy immediately stiffened and took considerable care not to move a muscle.

“You wouldn’t,” I said, with none of the false confidence I’d been managing to exude earlier.

I wouldn’t,” Hill replied.  He took another bite of roast, chewing it with careful, deliberate slowness.  “But Aiden might.  I gave William an opportunity to fade into obscurity; I even allowed him to operate his little shelter in the dregs of the city, without bringing down the hammer of my own operation against him; and yet, he continued to hassle me for years.  It appears that I must overcome my reluctance towards killing a family member, if I’m ever to have any peace at all.”

Billy and I made eye contact, across the table.  He didn’t dare speak, nod, or even draw a particularly deep breath.  Instead, he filled his gaze with a thousand unnamed emotions and thoughts and willed them to me.  The message was clear: he would rather have his throat slit than to help Hill succeed in his plans, and he wanted me to make that same decision.

“Now,” Hill said, “I am not a man unused to diplomacy, even if that diplomacy must take place at knifepoint.”

“Diplomacy,” I scoffed.  “You’re a thug and a thief, just like the rest of us.  You’ve just got better toys and more money to throw at your problems.”

“If that’s what you wish to believe.  But, Mister O’Brien, let me tell you what will happen in the coming days.  Perhaps a more thorough understanding of events will…give you a different perspective on what choice you should make.”

I glared at him in silence, while he finished off the roast on his plate and then carefully selected a piece of the herb-encrusted bread and began to nibble at the edges.

“The girl – Avis, if you must – will finish decrypting all of the relevant information from the book,” Hill said, between bites of food.  “After that, I will dispose of her and the traitor who helped her escape the manor house, to begin with.  Even you, despite the considerable prowess you’ve displayed thus far, will not be able to find her in sufficient time to stop this much from happening.”

“Oh?”

“Indeed,” Hill said agreeably.  “Individual strongholds have, thus far, proven entirely useless against your talent at finding the tiniest possible openings to wriggle through.  So, I am no longer relying on the fortress approach to protection.”

He was keeping her mobile.  Damn, Hill intended to keep Avis on the move until he finished with her.  I kept my face smooth – or at least, as smooth as I could manage – while I began to rage internally.  Given enough time, I had no doubt that Sarah and I could come up with a plan to infiltrate almost any building.  But if he was moving her from one place to another, the task became infinitely more difficult.  A hundred new variables introduced and discarded at a moment’s notice; numerous guard rotations and camera placements to memorize; and a schedule that could change at a moment’s notice were only some of the problems.

“Now,” Hill was saying, “as I said, I’m willing to negotiate.  The death of the girl and the traitor are foregone conclusions, but I could perhaps be persuaded to give William a position in the organization I intend to build in the coming days.  You could work directly with him.  The two of you are clearly capable of devastating levels of success; why not allow you to work with one another, in my service?”  Hill paused, finished off a piece of bread, and then took a long swallow from a waiting wine glass.  “But if you cannot see fit to change your mind, then I will have no choice to but to finish the job I began so many years ago.”

“I won’t do it,” Mila muttered.  I wasn’t sure if she’d spoken loud enough for anyone but me to hear her.  “I won’t.”

Hill certainly gave no indication of having caught her words.  “Your former partner will continue to possess the privilege of my protection, as well; I require a problem-solver capable of operating on the ground level, so to speak.  My…employers trained him exceptionally well in that regard and it is their misfortune that he sought to turn those skills against them, as I do.  If he remains in that position, though…”

He took another drink of wine.  I waited for him to continue and, when he didn’t, finally prompted him with two fingers.  “Then what, Hill?”

“Then I cannot allow known problems to continue operating in my territory.  Nothing about your personality leads me to believe that you will leave him alone, so I will be forced to simply eliminate you, out of hand.  You, your ex-wife, your teammates and partners…root and branch, every associate who has been involved in your operations here in London will come to an abrupt, violent end.”

Hill delivered that threat with all of the passion of a man talking to a landscaper.  There was no heat to the words, no passion, and not even the barest sliver of personal anger.  I understood a great deal about him in that instant.  He was a man who legitimately saw people like myself, like Asher, even someone with international name recognition like Sarah as disposable pawns in a greater game.

“And if we do what you want?”  Sarah asked.  “Then what?”

“Then we can come to a harmonious arrangement,” Hill said.  “Which I believe will work better for all of us, instead of the messy business I will be forced to enact otherwise.”

Mila moved slightly.  As movements went, it wasn’t a major one.  She didn’t pull a gun or leap to her feet.  All she did was shift her weight slightly, which brought one of her arms closer to my own.  I almost jumped in surprise.  The bare skin of her hand was on fire; the heat of blood rushing through her body, powered by vast wells of adrenaline, rose from her like convection from an active volcano.  I wondered, in that idle and detached way, how she was keeping herself from attacking everyone on the other side of the table out of sheer survival instinct.

I swallowed and placed a warning hand on her burning skin.  “We need to talk about this,” I said to Hill.  “There are a lot of things we’re going to need to discuss before we can really come to the bargaining table.”

Understand me, I thought, hoping that Mila would be able to feel the sentiment in some way.  Trust me.

Hill nodded.  Again, without any visible signal, pulled the knife an inch away from Billy’s throat and he let out a long, shaky breath.  “That seems reasonable,” Hill said.  “But business waits for no man, woman, or child.”

“How long?”

Hill thought about the question.  “A week,” he said, finally.  “One week to weigh the pros and cons of what I’m offering.  If you prefer, you can treat it as a week in which you can get your affairs in order.  You can even use the time to make arrangements, to hide yourselves away from me.  It doesn’t particularly matter to me.  But, in one week, I will be finished with the girl.  If you have not seen the light by then, you will leave me no choice but to move against you.”

I didn’t doubt that he meant every word of that.  Our exploits in London notwithstanding, a week was hardly enough time to begin casing a single building.  Any sort of mobile protection would take weeks or even months, depending on how many safe-houses Hill had at his disposal.  And establishing preliminary surveillance was only the first step of many.  Sarah and I were good, but we weren’t that good.

“I believe I will keep William here, under the careful watch of my own men,” Hill continued.  “He has proven himself capable of a great deal of mischief, if left unchecked.  And, if you ultimately decide to resist what’s coming, it will make it much easier to begin the purge.”  His lips turned up in a shallow approximation of a smile.

“But what about us?” I asked.

“You can leave,” Hill said.  “After you’ve eaten, of course.  I will not have it be said that I am an inconsiderate host.”

“Somehow,” I said, “I think we’ve lost our appetite.  Sarah?”

“I agree.”  She stood up, but made no move to walk away from the table.  “You expect us to believe that you’re just going to let us walk away?  No strings attached, no gun to our heads?”

“The ‘gun,’ so to speak,” Hill said, “has already been positioned and its presence is no secret.   I have nothing to fear from you and your options have been severely castrated.  If talking amongst yourselves is what you require to come to the obvious conclusion, I have no problem allowing you to do exactly that.”  Pause.  “Although, it would do you well to keep in mind that your friend William will be here, with me, for the foreseeable future.”

“Don’t you worry about me,” Billy said suddenly.  “This bastard doesn’t have the balls to – “

He stopped talking, as Aiden returned the knife edge to just above his Adam’s Apple.

“As I was saying,” Hill said.  “If you do find yourselves possessed of an unavoidable urge to act against me, do so with the knowledge that it could quite easily result in the death of a man.”

I pushed my chair back and stood up, as well.  Mila, after a moment, did the same.  I could still feel the smoldering intensity of the gaze she turned to Aiden beside me.  Aiden returned the look with an expression of sanguine calm.

“One week,” Hill repeated.  He rose from the table, dabbing a napkin at an invisible spot of food at the corner of his lips.  “Seven days.  I hope to hear from you before then.  Otherwise…well, otherwise, I expect that you’ll be hearing from me, in one form or another.”

He walked out of the room without allowing me an opportunity to deliver a parting shot of my own.  Aiden kept the knife to Billy’s throat so that he couldn’t speak, winked at Mila, then used his free hand to push Billy out of the room in Hill’s wake.  That left Sarah, Mila, and me standing alone in the extravagantly oversized dining room.

We had been played, I realized.  A critical lack of knowledge had forced our hands into revealing each member of our team to the enemy without even realizing what we were doing.  And now, that fundamental error had led us here: all avenues closed off, any chance of escape dead on arrival.  I didn’t think, even for a minute, that Hill would allow us to work for him indefinitely.  As he was betraying Asher, he would almost certainly betray us, as well.

And, even if I heard a promise from the mouth of God himself, I wasn’t going to work with anyone who would threaten a child or hurt his family like that.  Hill, despite his trappings of elegance and wealth, was scum.  And scum could not be allowed to win.  It simply would not stand.

“Sarah,” I said, “let Michel know that we’re ready for pick-up.”

She nodded.  “Okay.  But, after that?”

I turned and looked at her.  Somehow, she read my expression at a glance and nodded.  Mila, who had known me for far less time and lacked a similar gift at discerning unspoken intentions, took a step closer to me.  “How are you going to beat him?”

“I’m also going to need you to call Sophie,” I said, still to Sarah.  “Have her arrange for a conference room.  And then call everyone.”

“Everyone?”

I nodded.  “Everyone.  I think it’s about time we all started working off of the same page, don’t you?”

Chapter 108

I blinked, and the pieces finally started to fall into place.

A thousand disparate clues, half-formed ideas, and discarded thoughts coalesced into a single cohesive whole in a single frozen instant.  Questions that I’d asked myself before, only to disregard because of a more immediate need for mental horsepower; details I’d noticed, but lacked the proper context for; things I’d heard or thought I’d heard, suddenly given the correct frame of reference for me to finally understand.

Billy, the drug lord in exile, confined to a wheelchair because of the ambition of his former partner.  Why not kill him?  Why leave a potential rival alive and in a position to cause you trouble in the future?

With all of the opportunities I’d given Asher, by accident or on purpose, why hadn’t he simply killed me by now?  Why was Hill allowing me to operate without bringing the force of his criminal empire to bear against my ragtag team before we managed to deal his business irreparable harm?  Why had Fairfax consented to a meeting with von Ackerman, a man who he didn’t even seem to like?

Why would the Lady, possessed of unknowable information as she almost certainly was, not have stepped in to stop me from antagonizing a local nobleman?  Surely, there was something to be said for delicacy, especially when dealing with someone capable of making my life markedly more difficult with a single phone call.  My personal difficulties with the rich and powerful shouldn’t have let me get too invested in needling Fairfax, and I knew that, but the Lady had said nothing at all about it.  Of course, she knew.  She knew everything or so it seemed.  So, why not stop this?

I blinked again.  A heartbeat hadn’t even passed yet.  Beside me, I heard Mila draw in a sharp breath.  Sarah did the same and I noticed, in a detached sort of way, that her lips were trembling with sudden terror and comprehension.

Brothers.  They were brothers.  Billy – who had offered no last name – and Lord Charles Fairfax were brothers.  How could they be related?  Sarah was nothing, if not thorough.  Any mention of living family members would surely have…and then that penny dropped as well.

Not full brothers, but half brothers.  Perhaps Fairfax, Sr. had a taste for a bit of rough.  It wasn’t unheard of in these types of communities.  A nobleman decides to dabble in some flavor from the lower class and finds that he has impregnated someone of a station too low to even be considered.  Most times, a quiet abortion would handle the problem.  But Fairfax, Sr. might have been something of a romantic, perhaps?  Maybe he’d been pro-life or, maybe, the pregnancy hadn’t been noticed until too late.

What would he have done then?  Supported the child, if only to keep the mother from raising too much of a fuss.  He might even have gone so far as to introduce the bastard son – because it was a son, wasn’t it? – to his own legitimate offspring, in hopes of keeping the child from going to the authorities.  A nobleman with financial difficulties and debtors knocking down his door could scarcely afford to pay child support for a by-blow, born due to a drunken indiscretion.

And the child, himself?  Someone raised by a mother who dallied once with a nobleman and then clung to the man for dear life?  That could very well be the type of man who grew to resent the nobility, who threw himself into the seedier side of life as a sort of rebellion.  The mother wouldn’t be in a position to stop him and the father…well, the father wouldn’t particularly care, so long as it stayed out of the papers.  I could almost hear Fairfax, Sr.’s voice in my head, as I imagined what he might have said.

“As long as he stays out of sight, why should I care what he does?  Maybe he’ll get himself killed and save all of us a great deal of trouble in the long run.”

But that child wouldn’t have died.  Maybe he survived, despite the odds.  Maybe he forged a stronger connection with his half-brother than expected and the two of them decided to dip a toe into the underworld community.  After all, the bastard would already have connections, wouldn’t he?  Connections that would be well-served by the money the legitimate child might be able to offer.

I blinked a third time.  Mila was beginning to stand, one hand diving into the interior of her suit jacket.  Sarah opened her mouth – To protest?  To complain?  To encourage? – and her jaw dropped in inky slow-motion.

What would the legitimate son have done?  Faced with the debts of his father and the tattered remnants of a legacy that should have been unbesmirched, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that the legitimate son might have a chip on his shoulder.  Not just against the nobility that would surely shun him if they knew they truth…oh, no.  No, that chip would’ve encompassed everyone who’d reached a better station than him, either by virtue of their birth of their skills.  And, after clawing his way up to a position he felt he deserved…well, the legitimate son might very well decide to dispose of his only legitimate competition.  It only made sense.

Except for the family connection.  One couldn’t simply dispose of family.  It simply wasn’t done.

Asher had done the same thing, back in Paris.  While I’d been at his mercy, he’d been unable to simply end my life.  In his own twisted way, I realized, he’d actually intended me to be safe behind bars in La Santé.  If he’d been planning all of this since his time in St. Petersburg, I could easily believe that he’d warped his own mindset to the point that prison seemed like the safest place to him.  I wasn’t going to be in harm’s way, there.  He could dispose of Sarah at his leisure and wait until I eventually came around.

The legitimate son wouldn’t have done that, though.  People might have seen them together.  A life in the spotlight afforded one certain privileges – alibis, for one thing – but it also came with certain disadvantages.  If a close friend suddenly went to prison, there would be questions, interviews, cameras.  No, it would be much easier to make them disappear entirely.  But how to do that?

An injury would suffice.  Something suitably horrific that it would account for a retreat from the public eye; some wound so terrible that even the paparazzi would feel like slime for asking about.  And, I noted, it would also have the delicious effect of providing an object lesson in what would happen if anybody in the underworld crossed you again.

Yes, that would make sense.  It made entirely too much sense, and I didn’t know how I’d let myself miss it before.

I blinked for a fourth time and, at the same time, held out a hand in Mila’s direction.  It brushed against her hip and she looked at out of the corner of one eye, confusion winning out over raw fear and anger in her expression.

“Hill,” I said.  I abandoned the German accent and yet, the voice I spoke in sounded nothing like my own.  It was far too cold, too distant. “You’re Hill, aren’t you?”

Fairfax – Hill – sighed and speared another forkful of roast meat.  “A childhood nickname,” he said casually.  “You see, I had a bit of tendency to exaggerate problems into things that were far greater and more difficult to handle.  I would make a mountain out of a molehill, yes?”

I stared at him in silence.

Billy, pushed by Aiden, was wheeled from the door over to a spot near his brother.  As he drew closer, I could see the purple and red marks that accompanied bruises in-the-making on his face.  He didn’t make eye contact with me as Aiden eased him into place and he said nothing when Hill – I couldn’t think of him as Fairfax, anymore – sliced off several pieces of meat and dropped them onto a plate.

“Eat, brother,” Hill said.  “You’ve been slumming it down in that wretched hive for so long, I wouldn’t be surprised if you caught something.  It’s important that you keep your strength up; at least that’s what the doctors said, isn’t it?”

At that, Billy’s head snapped up.  The force of his glare wasn’t even directed in my general direction, but I could feel the heat rising off of it, as though Billy’s eyes were shooting a laser directly into Hill’s brain.  “You would know, wouldn’t you?  Seeing as you’re the reason I needed a doctor in the first place.”

“I could have done much worse,” Hill said.  “I gave specific orders that you were to be left alive.  And I’ve looked the other way while your illicit operation has continued in the bowels of our city, haven’t I?  Is it not through my largesse that you’re even here to partake of this meal?”

Billy scowled and lapsed back into silence.

“Ah,” Hill said.  “That’s what I thought.”

I swallowed a mouthful of saliva and, without looking to Sarah or Mila, spoke.  “You couldn’t have killed him.”

“Oh?”

“He’s family,” I said, stressing the word to its breaking point.  “And you’re better than that aren’t you?”

Hill considered that before giving me a small nod.  He took one of the herb-encrusted slices of bread from the platter in front of me and chewed pensively on it for a few seconds before replying.  “I suppose you’re right.  It would hardly be civil of me to kill my only surviving relative, would it?”

“But crippling him was okay?” I asked.  “Having your men beat him until he needed a wheelchair was somehow not as bad as ordering them to just shoot him?”

“A dead man can teach no lessons, Mister O’Brien,” Hill said.  A spike of anxiety ran through me when I realized that he knew my real name, but it subsided quickly.  Of course he knew my name.  Asher was working with him, after all.  “I needed to ensure that my business would be left alone until such time as I was able to secure its foundations on my own terms.  To that end, some…sacrifices had to be made.”

“And those ‘sacrifices’ happened to be your brother’s legs.”  I scoffed and pushed aside the plate of baked bread, leaning forward onto the table so that I could get as close to Hill’s face as possible.  “You really think that paralyzing someone is the best way to deal with a problem?  Did you even consider asking him to step aside?”

“And why would he have done that?”  Noticing that Billy hadn’t touched the food in front of him, Hill took one of the roast slices and started chewing around its edges on his own.  “Would you have voluntarily relinquished your interest in our business, William?”

Billy glared at his half-brother and, somehow, captured a wealth of vile words and baleful condemnations in that look.

“That’s what I thought,” Hill said.  “And so, Mister O’Brien, I did what I felt necessary to secure my position.  Unless I’m mistaken, isn’t your sole reason for being in London to bring down your own former partner?  After his betrayal, could you simply forgive him and move on with your joint opportunities?”

He gave Sarah a thin smile.  I restrained the urge to look at her, to give her some sort of unspoken signal so that she would know to pass the message along to Michel.  I was stopped by the certainty that Michel wouldn’t be able to reach the estate in time.  Aiden was there; presumably, that meant his men were in the wings, weapons held at the ready.

“And him?” I asked, gesturing at Aiden.  “Why’d you bring him here?”

“Aiden and I have to an arrangement,” Hill said.  “Vastly different from the one he’s reached with your former partner, Mister Asher.”

“And that deal is?”

“He works for me,” Hill said, “and takes my orders, as necessary.  There will be plenty of insurrection in the coming days, as some of my higher-placed associates attempt to muscle in on the territory I hope to free from their control.”

The way he said ‘their´ immediately made me think of the Magi.

Hill continued speaking.  “Of course, he’ll continue to receive his medication – I believe you already know about that? – and his men will be paid exorbitantly for their time.”

“What else did you promise him?” I asked.

“Why, your bodyguard, of course,” Hill replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Like hell you did,” Mila growled.  I extended my arm to stop her from reaching for a gun without even consciously realizing that I’d done it.

I cleared my throat and was forced to take a sip of water to wash down the dryness.  “Why,” I asked, “do you want us then?  You didn’t have to agree to this dinner.  If you knew our names and our faces, you could’ve set up a trap and taken care of us all right off of the bat.”

Hill smirked.  “My intentions should be obvious at this point, shouldn’t they?  I wanted to make your position perfectly clear to both you and to the inestimable Missus Ford.  Or is it Miss, now?”  He gave Sarah a withering, insulting little look.  “I find it so very difficult to keep up with these mundane relationships.  So quick to come; just as quick to disappear again.”

I was surprised to find my fingers clenching themselves into a tight, painful fist.  With great effort, I forced myself to relax and to think.

Hill was here.  He hadn’t made any sort of aggressive move towards us, yet.  In fact, with the exception of Aiden’s simple presence, Hill hadn’t made any overt gestures of strength.  Obviously, I’d read him badly at first meet, but even this revelation only served to strengthen other areas of the mental profile I’d drawn of the man.

“You wanted to brag,” I said.

“If you must be so absolutely boorish about it,” Hill replied, “then yes.  I wanted to lay out certain inescapable facts for your consideration.”

“And you brought him because?”  I gestured at Billy.

“Because, Mister O’Brien, I couldn’t be certain of what your reaction would be.  You’ve only been in London for…how long has it been?  A week, perhaps?  And so far you have already been directly responsible for a staggering amount of property damage and a not-inconsiderable setback to my business operations.  Besides, Aiden has informed me that your bodyguard has something of a violent streak.”  He turned that mocking smile from Sarah to me.  “You can hardly blame me for taking steps to protect myself.”

Mila growled beside me.  Literally growled.  I caught a flash of pearly white as she bared her teeth at Aiden.  “I should fucking kill you,” she hissed.

“You could fucking try,” Aiden replied evenly.  He was cultured, now, as opposed to the raving lunatic I’d heard at the manor house while we’d been making our mistake.  If he was in any way offended or upset by Mila’s proclamation, he didn’t allow any of that offense or anger to reach his expression.  “You might even be successful, but I doubt it.  Remember: I taught you everything you know.”

“You taught me everything you know,” Mila countered.  “Why don’t you come over and I’ll show what new tricks I’ve picked in the meantime?”

It seemed for a moment that Aiden might take her up on that threat.  Tension ratcheted up in the room, raising the temperature by several degrees by simple virtue of Mila and Aiden’s clashing wills.  Then, the moment passed.  Aiden looked away – not out of shame or fear, but more resigned sadness – and shook his head.  “I think not,” he said.  “And I don’t think you’ll do anything either.  That’s your new M.O., isn’t it?  Stick to the contract and only kill when your client allows you to?

Mila recoiled from his words like he’d stretched an arm across the table and slapped her in the face.

Aiden continued, his voice smooth and persuasive.  “Wouldn’t it be something to go back to the way you used to be, though?  Why, the Mila I know…no, I’m sorry.”  He waved a hand in the air, smiling slightly to himself.  “I just can’t call you that.  The Thorn that I knew…now she would’ve already been in motion, wouldn’t she?  This table wouldn’t have stopped her.  This hostage wouldn’t have slowed her down.  And those two?”  Now, he pointed deliberately at me, then at Sarah.  “Well, those two wouldn’t have been able to do any more to get in her way than a screen door against a hurricane.  But you aren’t the same person anymore.  Unless…unless you want to be that person again.  Do you?”

I tried, and failed, to keep my eyes from traveling over to Mila.  The expression on her face hurt to behold.  Terror, excitement, rage, lust – all of those emotions, and a dozen others that I couldn’t immediately name, raced each other across her face.  In that moment, I became aware that, without Mila, Sarah and I had inadvertently walked ourselves directly into the lair of our enemy.  If Hill gave the word and Mila didn’t step in to stop him, there was little to no chance that either Sarah or I would make it out of the estate alive.

Even if Mila lost control and managed to turn that anger against Aiden and Hill, it wouldn’t particularly matter.  She would have lost against Aiden, as surely as if he’d killed her himself.  Taking his life would justify his worldview, validate his beliefs about who Mila truly was in her heart of hearts, and we’d lose her, then.  Sure, we could claim it as a victory with regards to our job from the Lady, but I’d grown close enough to Mila over the last few days that I counted her as a friend.

I wasn’t in the habit of sacrificing friends to further my own goals…not even if that sacrifice was to themselves.

So, before Mila could say or do anything at all, I cleared my throat with such deliberate force that my throat began to hurt.  “This is what you wanted, then?  To call us here, just so that you can goad one of my team into making a mistake that we’re all going to regret?”  I directed that to Hill.

Hill took another forkful of roast and the smug smile slid from his face.  “As I said, I wanted to make things perfectly clear between us.”

“I’m listening.”

“I have the girl,” Hill said.  “I have the book.  And, since you were gracious enough to reveal the burgeoning friendship between her and my former employee, I have leverage to force her to decrypt what I wish for her to decrypt.  It is only a matter of time before I have all of the information I require, at which point I will be free to eliminate any loose ends which might prove problematic in the future.”

Former employee…Hill was talking about Neal.  Of course, that made sense now.  He wouldn’t have allowed Avis to be taken without putting up a fight and she, in her odd manner, cared about him, as well.  If Hill and his men threatened to torture Neal, it was absolutely reasonable that the small child might give Hill what he wanted, in hopes of saving her friend.

“Despite your efforts,” Hill continued, “I have everything in my possession that I have sought after for so many months.  And, despite the repeated failures of your former friend, I am closer now to claiming my rightful position over the miscreants and addicts of my city.  Although…I must admit, I was rather impressed by your creativity and the way you continued to elude my every effort to simply stamp you out.”

“And now we’re here,” I said, somehow managing to project a great deal more confidence than I actually felt.  “So, is this the part where you have us dragged away?  Because I don’t think ‘my bodyguard’ is going to let that happen without a fight, and you’re looking awfully unprotected there in your new suit.”

For the first time since we’d entered the building, Hill seemed slightly taken aback.  “Kill you?  Why would I do that?”  He set down the fork and leaned all of his weight onto the tabletop separating the two of us.  “Mister O’Brien, I don’t want to hurt you.  I want to offer you a job.”