Tag Archives: Sophie

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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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.

Chapter 111

Chester smoked two cigarettes, one immediately after the other, before he returned the conference room.  Judging by the look on his face, the nicotine hadn’t done much to calm him or to put him in a more receptive state of mind.  James entered the room behind Chester, silent and stout, and sat back down in his seat as though he’d never left.

I decided to speak first, before Chester had an opportunity to work himself up to some burst of outrage again.  “This isn’t going to work,” I said.

“You’re telling me,” Chester snapped.

“If you would allow me to finish, I was going to say that we aren’t going to be able to make this work, the way we’re trying to do it.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that you and I work in ways that are really a lot alike,” I said.  “We both rely on hiding in plain sight.  You and the rest of Billy’s people pull that off by operating in areas where the rich and powerful don’t bother to notice you.  My team does it by getting in their face and not letting them see anything except what we want them to see.  Either way, we’re all about disguise and subterfuge.  With me, so far?”

Chester grumbled something incomprehensible and then, reluctantly, nodded.

I took that as a sign of progress and pressed on.  “And I don’t have the slightest problem admitting when someone else has a skill that I don’t.  I’m working in Billy’s territory right now, but Billy isn’t here.  So that’s falling to you right now.  If you want to work with me, we can come up with a way to get Billy away from Hill and save Avis.  If you insist on doing things your own way, I promise you: we are all going to get killed.  So…what’s it going to be?”

Chester opened his mouth to say something.  His lips hadn’t yet begun to form so much as a single letter, but the tight lines around his eyes told me that his reply wasn’t going to be polite.  Before he could put breath to whatever thought he planned to voice, James reached out from his seat and gripped Chester’s elbow.

“Mate,” James said, in his rumbly bass voice.  “Hear ‘em out, yeah?”

Chester glared at James.  James returned that glare with steady, unblinking eyes until Chester finally looked away.  “You got something in mind, then?”

“Not yet,” I admitted.  “But I’m getting there.  And, in a way, you’re the one who kick-started the thought in the first place.”

“How’s that?”

The door clicked open.  Sophie stepped out of the way, allowing Stani and his lieutenants back into the room.  Anton followed a few steps behind them.

I clapped my hands together.  “Just the people I wanted to see.”

“Oh?” Stani asked.  “Why is that?”

“Watching the two of you go at it gave me an idea.  More of a realization, really.”

Chester and Stani gave me twin looks of impatience.  I couldn’t help but smile at that.

“They aren’t the only people in the room without a clue here,” Mila said drily.  “I’d appreciate it if you’d stop being so impressed by your own cleverness and just tell us what you thought of.”

“They have no appreciation for showmanship,” I stage-whispered to Sarah.

She rolled her eyes.  “And you have no sense of timing.”

“Fair.”  I turned back to the other people in the room.  “One of the hardest things about everything we’ve done here in London is that the bad guys keep working together.  Hill and Asher were tag-teaming us from the beginning.  That gave someone with Asher’s creativity access to Hill’s resources, and we’ve only just been able to stay a step ahead of them for weeks now.”

“And that has changed?”  Stani asked.

Michel’s eyes widened, though, as he began to grasp the same thought that had only recently dawned on me.  “It has changed, hasn’t it?”

A moment passed before Anton’s face also lit up.  “You said that this Hill wants to hire you to be his new enforcer…but he could not have told Asher this, could he?”

“Not at all,” I replied, touching an index finger to the side of my nose.  “And, if he’s keeping secrets from Asher, it stands to reason that he’s running this operation on his own.  After all, as far as he’s concerned, my old pal has been nothing but a gigantic disappointment.  He lost the crown, Mila burned down one of Hill’s warehouses, and we stole Avis from right under his nose.  Hill’s got to pretty pissed at Asher right about now and – as the two of you so neatly demonstrated – pissed off people do not work well together.”

“Alright,” Sarah said slowly.  “What does that mean to us?”

“Two things.”  I held up two fingers to illustrate the point.  “First thing: that means they can’t take advantage of each other’s strengths.  Hill’s blaming Asher for everything that’s gone wrong.  It must not have occurred to him that he’s been leaving holes for us to wriggle through.”

“And you’re sure about that?” Chester asked.  “We thought had the best of him, too, but then he laid that trap at the plant, didn’t he?”

“Exactly.  He tried to kill you, but Sarah and I were sitting across the table from him and Aiden.  If Hill had any idea how much of a threat we actually were, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

“He’s right,” Sarah chimed in.  “People born to wealth like that don’t even consider that problems could be their own fault.  It’s so much easier to just hire and fire the help, as needed.”

“You would know, wouldn’t you?” Chester asked, with just a touch of snideness in his tone.  I clenched my jaw to keep from firing some insult back.  He continued speaking after a moment and he might have been a little disappointed that I’d let his bait slip by untouched.  “What’s the second thing, then?”

“The second thing,” I said, “is that we can play them against each other now, too.  Instead of our ragtag group going up against their combined forces, we can start playing one of my favorite games.”

It took Sarah a second to connect the dots.  That was to be expected.  The relevant memory went back several years, after all.  “The Green Hornet?”

“I prefer to use its original name.  ‘Let’s you and him fight’ just sounds more fun to me.”

She smiled.  It was a genuine smile and it warmed my heart to see it on her face.  “I do like that turn of phrase more.”

Mila cleared her throat.  “Since this is apparently my job now,” she said, “could the two of you share with the rest of us what the hell you’re talking about?”

The warmth from Sarah’s smile was so invigorating that my own mood didn’t dampen, even in the face of Mila’s light sarcasm.  “Asher knows that we can’t be underestimated, but he doesn’t have access to Hill’s resources.  Hill could have us all killed at a moment’s notice but, for some reason, he doesn’t think that we’re enough of a threat to warrant that kind of action.”

“Poor planning on his part,” Sarah said, under her breath.

I heard her and elected to ignore that side comment.  “The two of them working together would be…difficult to get ahead of.  Not impossible, maybe, but it would certainly would not be something I’d voluntarily chose to do.  But the two of them at each other’s throats?  All we’d have to do is pick up the pieces when they were done taking chunks out of each other.”

“You think you can do that?” Mila asked.

“I think that Asher has done nothing in the past few years, except prove how poorly he handles even the illusion of betrayal,” I said.  “So he’ll either take out Hill on his own in a fit of rage or he’ll start planning to backstab him.  Either way, that’s at least one adversary we don’t have to deal with and, with these stakes, one less enemy is definitely something we could use.”

A round of silent nods went around the conference table, starting with Michel and working all the way back around to Mila.  “That’s all good for you lot,” Chester said, breaking the rare moment of camaraderie, “but that still doesn’t tell us how we’re supposed to get Billy away from that bloody bastard, does it?”

“I’m…still working on that part,” I said.  “If there was some way to guarantee that Asher would go after Hill, we might be able to shake him down for information.  But that’s as likely to bomb as anything else right now.”

“Bomb,” Michel mused to himself.  I attributed that to an English idiom he wasn’t fully familiar with and put it out of my mind.

“You said that you can track Hill’s cars?” I asked Chester.

He nodded.

“Right after you went outside to smoke, it occurred to me that Hill might be running a shell game.  You know that is, right?”

The expression on his face darkened.  “You think I was born yesterday, do you?”

I raised my hands in surrender.  “Just making sure.  They might have called it something else over here.  Anyway, if he’s doing that, then Billy’s people might be the only way we have to keep an eye on his movements.  It won’t let us figure out exactly where he’s keeping Avis, but that’s a problem we can tackle later on.”

“No,” Michel interrupted, shaking his head furiously.  “No.  We can use bombs!”

“We can use bombs to…what, exactly?”

Instead of speaking to me, Michel turned to face Chester.  “How many safe-houses does Hill have?”

“Depends on what you mean by ‘safe-houses,’ I figure,” Chester said.

“How many places could he hide Avis, if he needed to?”

Chester counted on his fingers for a few seconds.  “If he weren’t worried about her health?  He could use some of the stash spots in the city proper and maybe a few more places where his men keep weapons and the like.  Why?”

Michel swiveled to face me.  “What if he could not use those places anymore?”

I took the information Michel had given me – both the conscious and unconscious signals – and tuned the full force of my mind to the problem.  Each movable piece sprang to mind, three-dimensional blocks in a puzzle that I couldn’t see the full shape of.  I started to fit them into place, one at a time.

The shell game was a deceptively simple game to unravel.  However, knowing that the game would be rigged wasn’t something that would help me cheat the cheater, though.  There were only a few surefire ways to counteract a well-run shell game and none of those were options I could use in this situation.

What would I do, if I were confronted by a game I couldn’t beat?  The answer came to me immediately: I wouldn’t play.

With that, another piece clicked into its proper place.  Why play the game at all?  Hill had set up the shell game on purpose, to give my team something to puzzle over while he extracted all of the information he needed from Avis and then had her disposed of, like an obsolete computer chip.  Its purpose wasn’t to hide her indefinitely, but to hide her long enough.  That difference was an essential facet of Hill’s plan that I’d allowed myself to overlook.

If there were some way to shake him out of the game, though…well, Hill had already proven that he didn’t take my team seriously.  I strongly doubted that he would have taken the pains to establish a reliable back-up plan.  Asher might have known me well enough to put several redundancies in place, but Hill wouldn’t.  At least, I hoped he wouldn’t.

How to disturb his well-orchestrated machine, in such a dramatic way that he couldn’t rapidly adjust things to keep with his plan of shuttling Avis from one spot to another?

I smiled.

“A bomb,” I said, out loud.

Several bombs,” Michel said, smiling widely.

“Okay,” Mila said.  “This part I understand.”

I winked at her.  “I thought you might.”  I turned my attention to Chester, Anton, and the Russians.  “How many people do you think you can mobilize in a few days, Chester?”

“Mobilize?  Mobilize for what?”

“We still don’t know exactly what Asher’s going to do when we make our move,” I said.  “He knows better than to take us for granted, but he’s got a weakness of his own that we can take advantage of.”

“And what’s that, then?”

“He can’t improvise very well.  Sure, he can make an elaborate plan, but when things go wrong, he isn’t the best at coming up with new ideas on the fly.  We’ve got a little bit more information than him.  That’s great to start with.  But with a little bit of creative chaos, we can throw anything he’s got in mind completely off of the rails.”  I glanced at Anton.  “Like the subway station, except bigger.  More bombs, better timed.  Less about the actual destruction and more about the sense of an explosion, if that makes sense.”

Anton nodded slowly, the gesture picking up speed as he began to grasp the idea more fully.  “I could make several things like that, if I had the time and the materials.”

“What subway station?” Stani asked.

I ignored his question.  “We can’t do anything about the time, but materials might not be a problem.  Unless that’s over the line for you, Sophie?”

The concierge shook her head, the ghost of a smile barely visible at one corner of her lips.  “Perhaps you’ve developed an interest in some sort of construction project,” she said sweetly.  “Or your import business has begun trafficking in inert substances that could be used in that sort of thing.  I’m certain there isn’t any sort of illegal activity you would have in mind.”

I grinned back.  “Yeah, we’ll go with that.  So, Chester?  How many men do you think you can get on the streets?  You and the rest of Billy’s people know where Hill’s places are, and we’re going to need to hit a lot of those spots at the same time if this is going to go the way I want it to.”

For the first time since meeting him, Chester seemed to consider that question without seething at my general presence.  “To get Billy away from that bastard?  We’ll get as many men as you need.”

“Excellent.  Very excellent.”

Sarah cleared her throat.  “When you’ve caused your customary explosion of bedlam and mayhem,” she asked, “what’s your next step?  You’ve still got to get Avis and Billy away from him before he decides to cut his losses.”

“That was something I was hoping you’d be able to work on,” I said.  “All I can do is make sure that their plan isn’t going to work, but we both know I’m not really the person to start thinking about long-term solutions.”

“At least you’re admitting it,” Sarah said, with a little smile to let me know that her rebuke was meant in good spirits.  “As it turns out, I’ve got a few ideas in mind.  I’ll need to look back through the information I managed to pull from his network while we were there.”

“You were still working on that?”  I blinked.  The reveal that Fairfax and Hill were, in fact, the same person had dominated my thoughts since leaving his estate.  It hadn’t occurred to me that Sarah’s original plan – to infiltrate his network and retrieve potential blackmail – would have continued, regardless of any other factors.

“The program was automated,” she said.  “I stopped monitoring it as soon as I read an email that talked about the manor house.  Why else did you think I was buzzing your earbud?”

“I figured you just felt something was wrong, too.”

“I knew something was wrong.  At any rate, if that was something that his men were keeping in the loop about, it’s possible they were telling him other information.  I’ll go through it tonight and see what I can dig out of those files.”

“Alright, then.”  I spread my arms wide, gesturing for anyone with a thought or suggestion.  “Anyone got anything else to add?”

Alex, who had been silent for the past few minutes, looked at Ally.  She looked back at him and he shrugged with one shoulder.  “I will continue to work with my friends inside his estate,” he said, facing me.

“You’ve got friends…what am I saying, you’ve got friends everywhere.  Do you think you’ll be able to get anything out of them?”

“I will not know unless I try.”

“Fine.  Ally, you’re not a part of this, so – “

She shook her head and cut me off.  “I know that I am not someone who can do the things you do, but I am not going to sit here and do nothing.”

“These are very dangerous people,” Alex protested immediately.  “You have already been through too much.  When you have had some time to think about it, you will understand.  Perhaps Sophie can find you something to do here that will not require you to – “

“Father, I am an adult now,” Ally said, her words cutting neatly through whatever Alex had been about to say.  “You would not let people who had helped you face trouble alone.  Why would you ask me to do the same thing?”

I went through a few quick ideas – ways to convince her to stand down or to shuttle her off somewhere safe – but discarded them all before any could grow past the larval stage.  Devoting any time to that task would divert our attention away from the things we needed to do in the next few days.

“You can help Sarah go through the files she got from Hill’s place, then,” I said.

Ally’s cheeks reddened and a light came on behind her eyes.  She flicked her gaze away from her father and over to me.  “Of course, Devlin!  If you think that will help, of course.”

Alex caught my eyes, from an angle that Ally couldn’t see, and gave me a miniscule nod of acknowledgement. I nodded back at Alex. He understood my intentions and, even if he wasn’t thrilled about his daughter’s decision, he trusted mine.

Sarah would be in the safest possible position, as far away from the action as we could manage.  If Ally insisted on contributing, it made sense to keep her in the back, behind the rest of us who would be busily juggling a half dozen things and trying our level best not to die tragically.

“If that’s it, then?”  I asked.

Mila coughed and sat up straighter in her chair.  “Stani,” she said, “how are you guys getting your weapons?”

The Russian had been trying to mouth silent questions to Anton – the words ‘subway station’ seemed to be repeated quite a lot – but he looked at Mila when she spoke to him.  “We have our own ways,” he said cautiously.

“Hill’s trying to muscle the Russians out of the smuggling operation here,” Mila said.  “I don’t want to ask Sophie here to arrange for anything, no matter how good she is at rationalization, and tipping him off to anything we purchase seems like a bad idea.  If I get you a list of things I’m going to need in the next couple of days, you think you could use your ways to make that sort of thing happen?”

Stani gave her a sharp, perfunctory nod.  “So long as you are able to pay for whatever you request.”

“I’m good for it.”  She smiled, showing a few too many teeth in the process.  “If not, feel free to come and take them back when I’m done.”

“I…will simply trust your credit,” Stani said.

I tapped Mila on the shoulder.  She turned to me, the vulpine smile fading into her usual mask of passionless focus.  “You’ve got your ideas,” she said, “and that’s fine.  I’ve seen you pull things off that I wouldn’t have thought anyone could do with so little planning.  But I’ve still got a job to do here, and I can’t do that unarmed.”

“You’re absolutely right,” I said.

Mila blinked.  “What’d you want, then?”

“I was going to ask if you know what gun might good for me to start carrying,” I said.  That sentence brought an eerie, still calm to the entire room.  I cleared my throat and spoke into the silence.  “One way or another, Asher’s not going to take this lying down.  I’ve got to be ready for anything, right?”

Chapter 110

We returned to the Brooklands via a circuitous route, depositing the BMW at a parking garage along the way and sneaking out the back into the kitted-out van, and I honestly wasn’t sure if we’d been followed anymore.  I was starting to get tired of being so outclassed by every single one of my adversaries and, I realized, it was starting to make me cranky.  So I didn’t say anything during the ride back, or in the hotel suite while I changed into comfortable clothing, or during the elevator trip back down to the lobby and the waiting conference room.  After parking the van out of sight, Michel joined us there.

In fact, I didn’t say anything at all while Anton, Stani, and Stani’s lieutenants sauntered into the conference room, their bemused expressions slightly humorous even through the foul blackness of my mood.

Alex and Ally were already there; it had been a short trip from their hotel room down to join us.  They watched me silently.  At first, Alex had attempted to pull some information out of me, but he’d given up after receiving a stiff look.

James and Chester arrived a full fifteen minutes after the Russians.  It seemed like they’d made an effort to clean themselves up, but there could only be so many fashion options available at the Halfway House.  Even if their best attire, both men looked woefully out of place.

In a surprising turn of events, Sophie elected to stay in the conference room.  I didn’t mind her presence as much as I expected.  It would probably be easier in the long run to have her present during the meeting, as opposed to filling her in on whatever we required later on.  Besides, it was possible that Hill intended to kill her, as well.  While she hadn’t been directly involved, Sophie had been instrumental to pulling off the jobs of the past few days.  If she wanted a seat at the table – or by the door, whichever – then she’d done more than enough to earn it, in my opinion.

When everyone was seated – or, in Sophie’s case, positioned as comfortably as possible –  I cleared my throat and pulled free of my own sulk.

“Let’s start with the obvious,” I said, by way of opening.  “Stani, James, Chester; I haven’t been telling you everything.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“In fairness,” I continued, speaking directly to Stani, “nothing I’ve held back so far has really seemed important to what you wanted to do.  Your people want Asher; I want Asher taken out of play.  But I…I know more than I’ve been telling you about where he is, what he’s doing, what he wants.”

“And why,” Stani asked, “are you telling me this now?”

The calmness of his voice belied the subtle tightening around his eyes, the way his hand drifted out of sight beneath the table.  Anton, for his part, did not look particularly surprised, though a sense of wariness sprung to life in the room.

“Because…honestly, because we’re out of our depth here,” I said honestly.  “And, instead of keeping you in the dark and possibly botching this whole thing, I figured it was about time I tell you what you’ll need to know.”

He nodded.  “You will tell me everything.”

“Of course I won’t tell you everything,” I said immediately.  “But I’ll tell you everything I know about Asher.  And then I’m going to have to ask for your help.  That sound fair?”

Stani exchanged looks with Iosif and Leonid, scrupulously letting his eyes travel past Anton without slowing or stopping.  Something passed between the three Russians.  I remembered suddenly that Iosif and Leonid could understand English, even if they didn’t speak the language.

“We are listening,” Stani said, after a few stilted seconds.

“Don’t care about you,” Chester said.  I noticed that he was trying to smooth out his accent.  That might have been an affectation for Sophie’s benefit, or he might simply be reacting to the opulence of the Brooklands.  “Don’t care about your friends, neither.  But if that bastard’s got Billy, then I want to know how to get him back.”

James nodded silently next to his partner.

Sophie listened without comment from her place by the door.

I took a deep breath and laid out almost everything for the Russians, Anton, Alex, and his daughter.  I excised any direct mention of the Lady or her personal Jolly Green Giant rom the story.  We’d only met in person two times and Sarah hadn’t directly communicated with her, so much as received instructions, but I knew that the Lady was not the type of person who frequently exposed herself to the public.  Or, if she did, she did so under pseudonyms and veils of secrecy, hiding her true nature with layers and layers of obfuscation.  There wouldn’t be any point in wriggling out from underneath Hill’s thumb, only to find ourselves in the crosshairs of a pissed off former employer who apparently had access to Sarah’s secure files, our banking information, and had proven herself capable of tracking me down across the globe without the faintest hint of difficulty.

Everything else, however, was fair game.  I told them about the true nature of the golden book, without mentioning how I’d come into possession of that information; I told them all about the girl Avis, her unusual abilities, and the plans had in mind for her when he finished treating her as a tool; I told them about Billy and his relationship with Fairfax.  I laid out what we’d done so far, working against Hill and Asher, and detailed our current situation: the standing threat from Hill; the things that we stood to lose and how badly we’d misread the situation; the thin timeline we had available in which to plot, plan, and somehow overcome.

Sarah provided commentary at some points along the way, clarifying what she’d done on her side of things when my explanation failed to properly encapsulate the things we’d done.  Ally, it seemed, understood some of Sarah’s techno-babble.  Mila spoke infrequently, as well; she talked about the warehouse where I’d been taken, after Asher drugged me at the gala.  Haltingly, unwilling to go into great detail, she told them about Aiden: his capabilities, his strengths, and his weaknesses.  I didn’t want to put her in a headspace where she started to ask herself why exactly she’d left him before.  Just the brief time they’d been in each other’s presences already had me feeling uncomfortable.  Mila, thankfully, showed no particular interest in delving any farther into the past than strictly necessary.

When the three of us finished, silence fell over the room again.  A minute passed, and then another, while everyone in the room thought about the story we’d just laid at their feet.  Alex coughed and spoke first.

“Well,” he said, “this…is not good.”

I rolled my eyes.  “That’s kind of an understatement, don’t you think?”

He nodded.  “I am merely trying to make light of it.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

It was Mila who answered.  “Because,” she said, “that’s just how you work.  Anybody else would have given up days ago.  But you just joke your way through everything and it works.  I don’t know how, but it does.”

“Your faith in me notwithstanding,” I said, “I think all of this might require a little more serious consideration.”

“They aren’t wrong, Devlin,” Sarah said.

We all turned to look at her.

“It’s just how you work,” Sarah continued.  “You’re right, we are in some deep shit right now.  But you can’t let Hill push you out of your comfort zone or we’re all screwed.”

I considered that for a few seconds, then nodded.  “Anyway, first thing: Stani, are you okay with all of this?  I know I kept things from you but it wasn’t like I had any reason to think things would get to this point.”

Stani chewed on his bottom lip.  He touched two fingers to the stumps on his diminished hand, glanced involuntarily over to Anton, then found something interesting to examine on the table itself.  “I knew that you were keeping things from me,” he said, finally.  “I know that you are still keeping things from me.  But I believe that you are working to stop Asher before he can succeed in his plans.”

I preferred his calmness to an outburst, but the serene expression on his face was distinctly unsettling.  “Good enough,” I said.  “Chester, James?  You’ll have to serve as stand-ins for Billy’s gang, since he’s a bit out of reach at the moment.”

Chester was grinding his teeth together so fiercely that my own jaw began to hurt.  “You telling me that this all your fault, then?”

“What?  How did you get that from anything I just said?”

“If you hadn’t been pokin’ at ‘em,” Chester said, “Hill might have just left Billy alone, yeah?  He didn’t pay us no mind before you got in town, that’s for bloody sure.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose and tried to wrestle down the irrational surge of anger that rose within my belly.  “There were other factors,” I managed to say, through clenched teeth of my own, “and we didn’t have a lot of choice here.  Besides, you can’t think that Hill would have let Billy take shots at him indefinitely.”

Chester had nothing to say to that, so he glared at me instead.  I put him out of my mind and focused on the more civilized individuals around the conference table.

“How have you – how did you put it? – stay ahead of Asher and this Hill for so long?” Alex asked.

“Luck,” Sarah and I answered, at the exact same time.

I didn’t have to turn my head.  I could practically feel Mila’s smirk against the side of my face.

I cleared my throat.  “Luck,” I repeated, “and the fact that we had resources that neither of them knew about.  Mila was in place to rescue me from the warehouse; Neal was already going to sneak Avis out of the house and no one expected Sarah to drive up and save the day like Racer X; we happened to have a better plan at the processing plant than they did; and…”  I trailed off, unwilling to say anything more about the Lady’s involvement at Scotland Yard.  “…and we got enough of a lead on law enforcement that they couldn’t really do anything to me, even when I was sitting in their interrogation room.”

Sarah lifted an eyebrow.  “Racer X?”

“I couldn’t think of anyone else,” I admitted.  “But it fits, right?”

She rolled her eyes.

“You have also,” Sophie said, in a soft voice that somehow carried throughout the room, “had the benefit of my assistance, thus far.”

“Thus far?” I asked.

“I realize that your…experience with my services are new,” Sophie said and I almost missed the slight hiccup in her voice.  She’d been about to point out that we hadn’t been the ones to hire her, but she must have felt the same unspoken prohibition against mentioning the Lady in front of anyone who she hadn’t personally vetted.  That, or she was simply following my lead.  Either way, I was glad that she’d exercised discretion.  “But I make a point not to involve myself in anything explicitly illegal.  It is how I have managed to stay in business thus far and I do my best not to cross that very clear line.”

“Okay,” I said slowly, “but you’re fine with only technically breaking the law?”

“How am I supposed to know why you require so many different vehicles, picked up in so many different locations with a maximum of secrecy?” Sophie asked.  She assumed an expression of angelic innocence.  “The sum total of my job as your concierge is to ensure that you have access to those things you require, so long as those things do not jeopardize my position within the Brooklands or my standing in the eyes of the local constabulary.”

“But you know…no, you know what? Nevermind.  Are you saying that you’re willing to help us, as long as we can give you some plausible deniability?”

“What would I have to deny?” Sophie asked.  “Surely you do not intend to do anything that would break the law, after all.”

“Of course,” I said, barely keeping myself from rolling my eyes up into my skull.  “We’ll keep that in mind.”

“Could we not do that?” Ally asked.

“Do what?”

“Call the police,” she clarified.  “He has kidnapped a little girl.  Surely that is something that the police can’t ignore.  There must be someone looking for her.”

I paused, mid-thought, and realized that I hadn’t asked Avis a single question about her family.  I hadn’t even thought to question Neal about it.  That realization made me feel a little sick inside.  Sure, she had only been with us for a day or two before Ally’s kidnapping consumed our attention.  And, sure, she’d been occupied with decryption for most of the time.  But I couldn’t treat my team members as important beyond all reasonable measure and also use Avis like she was nothing more than a tool.

That was how Hill had treated her.  It was how the Magi has used her, too.

“I don’t know if there’s someone out there looking for her or not,” I said, swallowing a little bit of bile that climbed into my mouth.  “If Avis has been working with the Magi and with Hill for long enough to encrypt that entire golden book, it’s a safe bet that her parents aren’t in the picture anymore.  We certainly can’t wait for the police to get involved, either way.”

“Besides,” Sarah said, “Hill told us, pretty much straight up, that he’s got the police in his pocket.  Or at least he’s got a few key policemen on his personal payroll.  If we’re going to get her out of there before Hill gets what he needs from her, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

Michel tilted his head.  I gestured for him to share his thoughts with the rest of us.  “Inspector Lane said that there someone undercover in Hill’s operation, no?”

I thought back.  The night when Michel had encountered Adlai and Lane had been rife with excitement and terror, in equal measure, so the details of the conversation at the sports pub had slipped my mind.  “I think so.  Isn’t that the only reason Adlai bought your story about being a police officer?”

Michel nodded.  “Is that something we could use?”

I weighed the possibilities while I used a neat little device on the table to order several pitchers of water, a bucket of beers, and some vodka for the Russians.  As an afterthought, I added six Diet Cokes to the order and a bottle of wine.  I didn’t know what kind of mood Sarah was in, but it would be easier to return something she didn’t want, instead of ordering the wrong thing to begin with.

With that finished, I turned my attention back to Michel.  “Probably not,” I said.  “If he’s got his fingers into the police department, it stands to reason that he already knows about whatever undercover agents the law managed to place in his operation.  Hell, he was probably involved in hand-picking the guy they sent.  That’s a no-go.”

“And killing him is out of the question?” Stani asked.

I raised a hand before Mila could chime in with support for that idea, but not before Chester pushed back from the table and jumped to his feet.  “My boss is being held by that maniac, mate, and I’ll be buggered if you think you can just sacrifice him for your own business, got that?”

“It is hardly our fault your boss was captured,” Stani said.  “But Asher is a bigger threat, as well as this Hill, if I am not mistaken.  The smart thing would be to kill him, before he can get his hands on the information in the book.”

“And if you hadn’t brought your fight into our city, maybe things could have kept on as they were, eh?  You think about that?”  Chester was getting more and more heated by the second.

Stani seemed perfectly calm in the face of that explosion.  Iosif and Leonid, however, reacted like someone had electrified their seats.  Hands vanished into their jackets and dull metal glinted in the fluorescent lighting of the conference room.  Mila moved closer to me, Sarah rolled her chair back from the table, and Michel gaped openly at the spectacle.  Anton started to reach out with both hands, palms facing both sides of the approaching conflict, while Alex took his daughters into his arms and turned his back slightly to the melee.

“Stop that!” I snapped and was surprised when all parties involved actually did as commanded.  “This is exactly what Hill’s hoping for, my God.  Are you seriously going to spend this entire week at each other’s throats?”

“I didn’t want to work with you,” Chester spat, “and I sure as hell don’t want to work with them.  If it comes down to it, I can get the fellas together and we’ll break Billy out of there on our own.”

“You really think that’s how it would play out?” I asked.  “Hill has trained mercenaries working for him.  You remember what Mila did at the processing plant?”

The look Chester gave me was answer enough.

“Yeah,” I pressed, “like her.  What exactly do you think you’re going to be able to do if you run off without a plan other than possibly piss Hill off badly enough that he kills Billy just to save himself the trouble?”

“Sure, he’s got resources,” Chester said, after a few seconds, “but he doesn’t have all the information.  You think he’s the only with eyes and ears out there.  You have any idea how much our people can watch, if no one’s even looking for them, do ya?”

I blinked.  “Information?  Like what?”

“We know where his safe-houses are, know what his cars look like.  We can figure out where he’s keeping Billy and get him out of there before Hill has a chance to do anything.  You didn’t think about that, did you?”

“Hill specifically said that’s he’s keeping Billy close to him.”  A headache began to press against the inside of my skull.  I pushed back, burying it somewhere where it couldn’t bother me for the moment.  “Although…you can watch his men’s movements?”

“He’s trying to hide what he’s doing,” Chester continued, oblivious to the first part of what I’d said.  “But doesn’t matter how many cars he’s got moving around, we’ll figure out what he’s hiding.  If we can’t get Billy, we’ll just take something that he wants just as much.”

James looked less than convinced, but he didn’t speak up to contradict Chester.  I respected that, as much as it irritated the nonsense out of me.

“And you’d let the girl die?” I asked Chester.  “Because she’s just something you’d be willing to let go, so long as you can save Billy?  He asked me not to give Hill anything, even if it meant dying, and here you are ready to give Hill everything he wanted.  You’d hand him your entire operation if you went after him like that!”

Chester slammed his fists against the table.  The sound made most of us in the room jump in surprise.  “I need a fag,” he announced.  “C’mon, James.”

Instead of pushing past Sophie, Chester and James used the alternate entrance.  I thought they might be leaving, until I glimpsed a cloud of smoke drift past one of the windows.

“And I,” Stani said, “will go check on that vodka.  I think it will be good to stretch my legs.  Iosif, Leonid?”

The two Russians gave their assent without speaking a word.  The three of them stood up and walked out of the room.  A moment later, Anton sheepishly got out of his seat and joined them.

I turned to Sarah.  “Multiple cars,” I said. “Are you thinking what I am?”

She nodded.  “It’s a shell game.”

“What is a shell game?” Ally asked.  She wriggled out from her father’s protective grasp.

“Generic term,” I said.  “As long as he keeps the target in motion, it’s impossible to figure out exactly which car to follow.   And even if we get it right once, he can always just switch cars at one of the safe-houses, where we can’t follow.  It’s a damn good strategy.  Almost impossible to crack if the opposition is doing it right.”

“Only ‘almost,’ though?” Michel asked.

“With time,” Sarah said, “we could figure out the pattern, if there is one.  But that’s the one thing we don’t have.  As it is, we’ll have to be spend most of our effort keeping Chester from barking at everyone who looks at him the wrong way.”

“And Stani,” Alex added, “does not seem like the type of person who works well with others.  Are you certain you can trust him to follow whatever plan you come up with?”

Until that moment – literally, until Alex asked the exact question – I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to take down Hill, eliminate the threat Asher posed, and rescue Billy, Avis, and Neal from the clutches of the enemy.  But as Alex finished speaking, I could almost sense a shape beginning to appear from the misty confusion of my mind.  Unfocused, undefined, but still…it was an outline.

An outline was something that I could work with.

“Can’t get these personalities to work together,” I mused aloud.  “Well.”

“Well, what?” Sarah asked.

“Well,” I repeated, “there might be something we can use there.”

Chapter 102

“The doctor, Sophie,” I snapped.  “Get the doctor.”

Her mouth opened and closed several times, producing nothing except for dead air.

Now!”

Sophie blinked, visibly pulling herself back together, and then gave me a sharp nod.  “Of course.  Brandon, help this gentleman into the suite.  I will be right back.”  She frantically pressed a button on the elevator’s interior console until the doors slid shut.

The bellhop – Brandon, apparently – did as he was ordered and managed to get Billy’s man out of the hallway and into the suite.  With effort, Brandon dumped the wounded man onto one of the couches.  Sharp gasps of surprise and horror came from the table where my team sat.  The wounded man groaned and listed from a seated position into a slump across the length of cushions.

“What’s your name?” I asked the man on the couch.  For the moment, I ignored the half-dozen questions coming from the table, focusing instead on the man in front of me.

The man coughed, sending flecks of crimson blood onto the otherwise pristine furniture in the process.  “Name’s Peter,” he said, between racking gasps for breath.

“Alright, Peter,” I said, “I need you tell me what happened.  Exactly what happened.  Can you do that?”

Peter didn’t say anything for several seconds.  He spent that time gathering his thoughts and struggling to regain some measure of composure.  The blood seeping through his shirt into the fabric of the couch made it difficult to even look at the man, but I forced myself to stay calm and focused.  The terror I felt flooding into my veins could be dealt with later, when there wasn’t a man on death’s door seated on my couch.

“Was an ambush,” Peter said finally.  “Went to the tube to keep an eye on that girl, but…”  He coughed.  “…they was waiting for us.  Not at first, but a few stops down the line.  Happened too quick for me to do nothing about it.  Just…came out of nowhere, yeah?  Four men with clubs, rushed us as soon as we stopped.”

“Where’s Billy?”

“They took ‘em,” Peter said.  “Two of them grabbed him straight out of his chair and dragged him off.  One of them worked on me, and the other took the man who was with the girl.”

“Neal?” Sarah asked.  She had recovered enough from her shock to form questions, moving from the table over to the loveseat nearest the couch where Peter half-sat, half-lay.  “You’re talking about Neal?”

Peter made a non-committal noise.  “Don’t know his name,” he said.  “Never asked.  But they knocked him out while the girl was screaming, then took the whole lot of ‘em somewhere else.”

The brittle calm I’d been holding on to shattered under this new information and a torrent of increasingly vile swear words poured out of me before I could help it.  In my peripheral vision, I noticed Ally blanching slightly at my choice of language, but I couldn’t spare the attention to worry about her delicate sensibilities.

For the moment, Sarah was more in control of herself than I was.  She took the lead in questioning Peter without needing to be asked to do so.  “How did you get here?”

“They wasn’t worried about me,” Peter said.  “Wasn’t worried about leaving any evidence behind, neither.  Billy dropped his phone when they took him and I got this address out of it.”

Sarah’s eyebrows drew closer together.  “This address?  How did Billy know where we were?”

Peter shrugged.  A fit of coughs robbed him of speech for the next six or seven seconds.

Somehow, I managed to haul my thoughts away from vitriol and back into the land of the thinking.  “He would have had us followed,” I said.  “But we wouldn’t have noticed his people.”

Sarah considered that before nodding slowly.  “Who looks at the people on the side of the road?”  It was a rhetorical question, and I didn’t have any desire to answer one of those at the moment.  “Jesus, we’ve been off of our game this entire time.”

“We can’t worry about that right now,” I said.  “Peter, is there anything else you can tell us?  Anything at all?”

“I don’t…don’t know what’s going on here,” Peter replied.  “Head’s all full of bloody fog, yeah?”  Then, he groaned again and lapsed into silence, slumping even further down.

It didn’t take a medical professional to realize that Peter was in bad shape. “Mila,” I said, “are you still with us, over there?’

As I spoke, I took my eyes away from Peter’s supine form and cast them in Mila’s direction.  The bodyguard sat at the table, one hand still on the hidden weapon at the small of her back.  Her eyes flitted all across the room, taking in everything they beheld with the cold professionalism of a trained killer.  “This could be a trap,” she said in a cold voice.

“If it was a trap,” I countered, “we’d already be in trouble.  Asher hasn’t been following us.  Either he wanted us to get away, in which case he wouldn’t risk blowing his cover…or he doesn’t want us to get away, and we’d have gotten an RPG through the balcony by now.”

Both Alex and his daughter edged slightly away from the balcony at that.  Michel stayed where he was, mouth hanging open at the scene in front of him.  Mila gave me a slight, grudging nod.  “What about Hill?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But I do know that this man might be the only lead we’ve got right now.  Did you learn anything about field medicine while you were…uh…”

She saved me from continuing by jumping from her chair and rushing over to Peter’s side.  “Alex, keep an eye on the elevator.  Sarah, I need you to get bedsheets for me.  And duct tape, if you can find some.”

“Duct tape?” Sarah repeated.  “Why would I have duct tape?”

“Find something!” Mila shouted back.  “Until your concierge gets back with a doctor, it’s entirely possible that this man’s going to pass out from blood loss.  If that happens, you aren’t getting anything out of him.”

Sarah sucked in a sharp breath, but she hurried away to find the sheets and duct tape.  Anton joined her after a moment.

“Just in case you can’t fix him,” I said to Mila, “what can we do to get information out of him right now?”

Mila thought about that for a few seconds.  Then, with an absolutely placid expression, she slapped Peter across the face with an open hand.  The sound reverberated through the room and Peter’s eyes snapped open.

“That works,” I said.  “Peter, I need you tell me more about what happened.  Details are important, okay?  Anything you remember might be the difference between finding Billy alive or dead.”

“But,” Peter began in a dazed voice, “they didn’t want him dead.  Couldn’t have…barely even touched him, except for when they pulled him out of the chair.”

Peter began to drift away again.  Mila raised a hand, as if to slap him back into awareness once more, and I waved her down.

“They didn’t hurt him?” I asked.  “Did they say anything when they came?”

“Didn’t say nothing,” Peter said.  A second passed before he shook his head, clearing away some of the fog that had to be clogging his brain like ethereal spiderwebs.  “No, wait…that ain’t right.  Said he knew why they were there.  Told him that, uh….”

“What did they tell him?”  I pressed.

“Said someone wanted to see him again,” Peter said.  “Said it was past due.  Why’d they say that, though?”

I was about to try a different tactic, when Sarah and Anton returned with sheets and a tube of superglue.  “I couldn’t find any duct tape,” Sarah said, offering both items to Mila.  “Will this work?”

Mila grimaced.  “He won’t be happy about it in the morning,” she said, then shrugged with one shoulder.

She set to work without another word, tearing the sheets into shreds and directing each of us where each strip should be placed and how tightly the knots should be tied.  Mila handled the work of applying super glue to cuts and gouges on Peter’s body.  She pressed the sides of each wound together with a steady hand and drizzled the adhesive over the skin, then pressed them together until each injury stayed shut.  Blood continued to leak out of Peter but there wasn’t anything we could about that.  In stunned silence, all of us – Mila, Anton, Michel, Sarah, and I – worked to keep Peter was bleeding out in front of us.

The work continued with Mila calling out tasks at sporadic intervals until Sophie returned with a doctor in tow.  The dark-skinned woman took one look at the tableau in front of her – Peter sprawled on the couch, five novices administrating triage, while Alex and Ally watched in shock from their table – before he briskly ordered all of us away.  With her bag of tricks, the doctor began treating the most serious of Peter’s wounds, undoing what we’d done to keep him alive and conscious as she went.

While the doctor did her job, all of us retreated to the table.  “What the hell do you think is going on here?” I asked the table, in a lowered voice.

“Asher…he must have known,” Alex said.  “This thing with Ally…it must have only been a diversion.  Something to keep you away from the little girl while his men moved in to take her.”

That had been the first idea in my head but, hearing it spoken aloud by Alex, I found myself shaking my head in disagreement.  “No.  No, that can’t be it.  If he knew where Ally was, he wouldn’t have needed the trap in the first place.  He could have just arranged to have our attention somewhere else.  Besides, he’d have to know where we’re hiding out, wouldn’t he?”

Alex considered that for several seconds before offering me a reluctant nod.  “Perhaps.”

“You said that he has been leading us around?” Michel asked.

“That’s what it looks like,” I said.  “Hell, that’s what it feels like.”

“Kidnapping Ally was a bold move, then,” Michel said.

“How so?”

“If he knew that you would come, and he knew that you would find a way to get away, why would he do it?  That would only make sense if he wanted you to figure out what he was doing.”

I blinked.  Something might have been lost in translation there, but the general thrust of Michel’s thought made it through.  Assuming that Asher had been guiding us through the process of attacking Hill at strategic points, there still wasn’t any satisfactory explanation for kidnapping Ally.  There was even less of a reason for a sudden attack on Billy.  If we were right, Asher didn’t even care about Neal and Avis.  His goal was something else, something that we hadn’t yet deciphered.

“And,” I said out loud, “even if he really did want Avis, what reason would he have to leave Billy alive?”

“Leverage?” Mila offered.

“Leverage for what?” I shot back.  “Billy’s sphere of influence isn’t all that considerable, even in the areas where he’s strongest.  Asher deciding to bet on Hill makes more sense.”

“What about the Lady?” Sarah asked.

That thought warranted a few more seconds.  The idea that the Lady had been playing us from the beginning had occurred to me on more than one occasion.  And, after the requisite seconds had passed, I reached the same conclusion as I had a half dozen times before.  “Doesn’t make sense, either.  She’s had too many opportunities to take us out and she hasn’t taken any of them.  When I was in Scotland Yard, she wouldn’t even have had to do anything except leave me alone, but she went through the trouble of exposing David, just to get me out.”

“We still don’t know what she really wants,” Sarah said.

“True.  But whatever it is, I’m confident it’s something that she needs us to get for her.”  Sarah gave me a questioning look.  “Trust me.  You’d understand if you met her.  If she was trying to lead us into temptation, we wouldn’t even have begun to see her plan.  What’s happening here positively reeks of Asher.”

She hesitated.  “I’d agree with you,” she said, slowly, “but he’s been running circles around you this whole time.  All of us.  How do we know this isn’t more subterfuge on his part?”

I stood up and began to pace.  There wasn’t much distance between the table and the nearest wall, so I traversed the distance twice before speaking.  “We don’t,” I said.  “That’s been the problem with everything we’ve done so far.”

“What do you mean?”

“We don’t know anything.”  A brief flash of anger urged me to clear the table with a single violent sweep of my arm.  I suppressed that.  “Everyone has more information than we do.  Asher’s had years to set up whatever he’s working on, and he’s working with the support of the Magi.  I think.  We’re in Hill’s territory.  Hell, I’m almost positive the Lady has more intelligence than she’s offering, and that doesn’t make any sense at all.  Why would she hire us to steal the book and Avis, then deliberately kneecap us right out of the gate?”

Everyone thought about that question in silence.  While we found ourselves in isolated contemplation, Sophie’s doctor finished working on Peter.  The wounded man’s eyes were open now, but they weren’t focusing on anything in particular.  Without waiting to be asked, the doctor moved over and gave Ally  quick examination.  Her injuries were mostly cosmetic.  Asher – or his men, I wasn’t sure – hadn’t done anything to the girl that required anything other than bandages and bedrest.  From there, the doctor looked at Mila.

Mila gave her a steady look and then, slowly, shook her head.  “I’m fine,” she said.

“You need to have that arm looked at,” the doctor said.

“I’m fine,” Mila repeated.

The doctor’s eyes narrowed.  When Mila showed no sign of surrendering the point, the doctor sighed and began to pack up her supplies.

“Doc?” I asked.

She stopped, a stethoscope in one hand and a vile of some medicine in the other.  “Yes?”

“How long do you think he’ll be unconscious?”  I gestured to where Peter lay.

The doctor cast an appraising eye at Peter’s form.  “That depends on a lot of factors,” she said, finally.

“Do you think you could get him awake right now?  He can sleep for as long as he needs to later, but I still need answers now.”

The doctor placed the items in her hand into bag of tricks, then removed a fistful of tiny white packets.  She tossed those to me and I caught them in the air.

“Smelling salts,” the doctor said.  She stood up and started to move towards the elevator.  “He’ll wake up for a little while, but you have to let him sleep.  I don’t want to come back up here in a day or two, only to find out that you’ve worked him to death.”

“Will do, Doc,” I said.  “Thanks.”

The doctor gave me a cursory nod and pressed the call button for the elevator.  A few seconds later, she stepped inside and disappeared.

“Why not kill Peter?” I asked aloud, when I was sure that the doctor wouldn’t reappear.  “If Asher’s in his endgame, he’s got no reason to leave any witnesses alive.”

“Unless he really is leading us around by the nose,” Sarah pointed out.

“Sure.  But Peter didn’t tell us anything that points us in any given direction.  We’re exactly where we’d be if Peter hadn’t shown up at all.”  I walked over to the couch, prepared to use the smelling salts on Peter.  “He’s got to know something else.”

Before I could place one of the packets underneath his nose, Peter’s eyes focused sharply on me.  “I…kept this,” he said, in halting fragments.  He turned over so that he was laying on his back and fished around in his shirt pocket.  It took him a few tense seconds to find the object of his search.  “Here.”

He handed me a small item, sheathed in hard plastic.  I didn’t recognize its weight or shape at first; when I held it up to the light, I understood what I held.

Sarah, of course, knew what it was immediately.  “A USB drive?  What good is that?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I tossed the drive to Sarah.  Her eyes widened and she began fumbling with her tablet; Mila snatched the object out of the air and placed it gently on the table in front of Sarah.  I pretended not to notice Sarah’s moment of blind panic.  “You tell me.”

Sarah put aside the tablet and retrieved a laptop, instead.  She went through a series of customary checks that involved things like “creating a virtual space” and “disconnecting from the cloud servers” before inserting the USB drive into a tiny slot on the left side of the keyboard.  She waited a second and then began typing commands into the system.

The rest of us waited impatiently.  After five minutes of the steady clicking of Sarah’s nails against her keyboard, I couldn’t stand the tension any longer.  “What is it?”

She looked up from the screen.  “These are the files Avis was working on,” she said.  “Not just that…this might be everything she’s been working on since we got her out of the manor house to begin with.”

“Decrypted?”

Sarah nodded.  “Looks that way.  I’ve got balance sheets, ledgers, some personnel records.  There are even names of local suppliers and corrupt officers that can be bribed to look the other way when shipments come in.”

“Okay…anything else?”

“Nothing that I can…”  She stopped speaking.

“What is it?”  She didn’t immediately answer.  “Sarah, what else is there?”

“One of Hill’s associates is listed here.  It looks like just a low level contact, for when Hill has to move among the elite.”

“Who?  We might be able to find out something important from whoever that is.  Infiltrate his circle of friends or just plain blackmail them into telling them what we need.”

Instead of answering, she turned the laptop around so that the screen faced all of us gathered around the table.  The picture displayed there was immediately familiar.

Michel, Alex, and Ally lacked the appropriate context, though.  “Who is it?” Ally asked and, for the moment, I forgot that the girl should be on a flight far away from London by any reasonable measure.  “Do you know him?”

“Lady and gentlemen,” I said, in a profoundly resigned voice, “allow me to introduce our new target: Lord Charles Fairfax, Baron of Berekley.”

Part 4: Recap

After the problematic extraction of “the key” – actually a preteen girl named Avis, as well as her friend/handler Neal – Devlin O’Brien and the rest of his team soon discover that their exploits in the London countryside have garnered the attention of the London Metropolitan Police and, in a spectacularly unfortunate turn of events, Adlai Neetipal, Devlin’s own personal nemesis.  With his name and face publically displayed on the news and the noose slowly tightening around his neck, Devlin and Sarah decide that they must first tackle the problem of the police before turning their attention fully towards whatever challenge lies around the next corner.

First, he must find a way to steal an authorized identification card, from someone with the clearance necessary to enter Scotland Yard and retrieve or destroy any incriminating evidence.  Sarah works her networking magic to ensure that Adlai’s superior, Inspector Lane, will be at a specific location at a very specific time and, as Devlin’s face is the one on display, Mila and Michel take point on the initial leg of the operation.

The plan is deliberately uncomplicated.  Michel is to pour shots down Lane’s throat, until such time as Mila is capable of lifting and copying the man’s identification card.

Immediately, the framework of that plan falls to ruin, when Mila and Michel discover that Adlai himself has joined Lane at the bar.  Instead of calling things off, however, Michel musters the resolve to follow through with the approach.  With Devlin in his ear to guide the conversation, Michel deftly navigates past any conversational traps planted by the Indian agent.  Even Mila’s unplanned detour – leaving her ward momentarily for a hasty discussion with the Japanese twins that Devlin calls The Things – doesn’t cause too many ripples.  At least, until Adlai discovers the miniature camera on Michel’s lapel.

Some fast thinking, faster fingers, and a touch of a silver tongue manage to derail Adlai’s suspicions.  Michel manages to convince both the agent and his Superintendent that he is a police officer, planted undercover in Hill’s organization.  A quick call from Lane luckily provides confirmation that at least one officer is, in fact, working to derail the operation from the inside.  Using that serendipitous knowledge as a basis for his new cover identity, Michel is able to distract Lane long enough for Mila to do her work, and then beat a hasty escape before any questions can be asked that might compromise his true goal.

Before the night is out, though, Devlin receives a terse phone call from associates he had not expected and was not prepared for: Stanislav Novikof, the Russian Mafioso, and his two lieutenants.  Stani requires Devlin’s presence in the slums of London, for some task that might potentially provide illumination to the mystery of the Magi, the ephemeral crime lords that seem to be providing Asher with both support and considerable firepower.

Mila cannot be contacted, for some reason, and Michel is incapacitated by one too many celebratory shots.  Sarah’s physical presence is completely out of the question, so Devlin goes to meet the Russians alone.  The meeting is supposed to take place within a local black market, an impoverished pocket of commerce and activity within the world of the downtrodden and destitute.  Devlin meets the Russians and, after a short conversation, discovers that Stani now suspects that he is involved with the Magi and might actually be working on their behalf.  The unexpected arrival of Mila, walking the black market for her own mysterious reasons, doesn’t help matters.

Devlin temporarily diffuses the situation long enough for the group – consisting now of Devlin, Mila, Stani, Leonid, and Iosif – to head towards their true destination: a building constructed of black stone, standing tall and unbowed within the poverty of the black market.  Inside, they meet a man with ties to Hill, the Russian mafia, and to the people who seek shelter in his Halfway House, who introduces himself simply as Billy.

Billy makes a request of Devlin’s team that might help all parties involved.  A processing plant in the area is run by Hill and serves as a cover for his drug smuggling.  Inside, a special type of plastic can be transmuted back into pure cocaine.  Billy wants to sabotage the plant entirely, by replacing the treated plastic with a special version.  This version, when subjected to extreme heat, will produce extreme quantities of toxic smoke, forcing a shutdown of the processing plant and hobbling Hill’s efforts.

In exchange for leading this raid, Billy offers to answer any question that Devlin has about the man. The opportunity to deal another blow to Hill – and, by extension, Asher – is too much for Devlin and Sarah to turn down.  With the addition of James and Chester, two of Billy’s men, they set off for the factory with a hastily constructed plan and no real idea of how badly things could go wrong.

The approach goes perfectly.  The infiltration, with Sarah’s crucial long-distance assistance, goes perfectly.  In fact, everything goes wonderfully until Devlin and Mila reach the center of the operation, where the chemical process is supposed to take place.  Then, and only then, do they discover that the product contained in the loading area is common baking soda, not cocaine.  And the center of the plant does not harbor the mechanism for transmuting plastic into cocaine.  For some reason, nothing is the way it should be.

Instead of a successful raid, Devlin and Mila discover that they have walked themselves directly into a trap.

With law enforcement on the way, summoned by a deliberately triggered alarm, and Aiden’s group of cutthroat mercenaries even closer, Devlin makes the call to finish with the plan.  Instead of relying on a scheduled chemical process to activate Billy’s fake plastic, he uses two of the chemicals located within the plant to forcibly create a fire that will provide cover for his escape.  The fact that the factory is not up to safety standards, and the localized reaction results in a massive conflagration instead of a controlled burn, comes as a surprise to everyone in the building.

Chaos rains from the sky around them, as Devlin and Mila, as well as Stani and his lieutenants, search for a way out of the burning factory.  A path out, via the loading bay, is provided by Sarah, but the presence of Aiden’s man Carlos complicates matters.  In complete defiance of Devlin’s wishes and fervent requests, Mila takes it upon herself to do her job: protecting Devlin from harm, no matter the cost.  She stays behind, firing blindly into the fire to distract Carlos until Devlin and the Russians can make it to the relative safety of Billy’s Halfway House.  Devlin watches, transfixed, as the building tears itself apart and Mila is lost to the blaze before the toxic fumes he has inhaled drag him away from the world of the conscious.

When he wakes again, Devlin is surprised to see that Sarah has left her command post at the Brooklands.  She informs him of his injuries and informs him that Mila survived the explosion at the processing plant and is now held at Scotland Yard, awaiting further questioning.  Devlin rallies and marshals his wits for an impassioned speech, only to learn that Sarah and Michel have already decided on the only appropriate course of action.  Mila is one of theirs.  Where the previous twenty-four hours had been bent wholly to the task of removing Devlin from beneath the watchful eye of the police, now they must go directly into the dragon’s lair to retrieve their teammate before things can find a more disastrous path to follow.

Billy, and a few more men in his employ, join them for the initial approach on Scotland Yard.  Billy engages with several workers and a foreman, working on the reconstruction of the building, and provides Sarah with access to a working set of blueprints.  Michel uses the stolen identity card, as well as a falsified uniform, to gain access to their internetwork.  With all that done, Sarah readies herself to do something she has not done since joining forces with Devlin, so many years ago: she must go into the field, to provide a distraction for Adlai that he cannot ignore, so that Michel is able to steal, destroy, or corrupt anything that might provide the police with any solid basis for further investigations into Devlin or his allies.

But Adlai is not interested in Sarah’s stories and he shows no weakness to the Ford name.  With time running out, and fearing that Sarah might be compromised, Devlin takes it upon himself to sever the complicated knot.  He presents himself to the agents, prepared to match wits with the man who has hunted him for nearly a decade.

The conversation between Adlai and Devlin is civil, yet charged with a terrifying energy.  Their ideals clash in violent exchanges.  Just when Devlin is convinced that he will be forced to spend even more time in jail – only thirty-six hours, instead of the two and a half years inflicted on him by Asher – he is rescued by the intervention of a mysterious figure.  Within seconds, he discovers the identity of that savior: David, the giant who stood like a sentinel over the shoulder of the Lady in the Black Dress.  She greets him as he exits the police station, gives him a thick file of information pilfered from the clutches of Scotland Yard during his operation, and leaves him with a few cryptic words: “Your friends will be the death of you.”

It is not until some time later, safely ensconced within the protective walls of the Brooklands, that Devlin remembers the ignored calls and missed text messages from his old friend Alex in Berlin.  While he listens to those messages, an email arrives from an anonymous source, whose identity is quickly made clear: Asher, reaching out to taunt his former partner just a little more.

Instead of attempting to run down Devlin, Asher has also elected to cut the knot and take the shortest path to his goal.  Why search for his former partner when the kidnapping of Allie, Alex’ only daughter, will accomplish the same goal?

Now, Devlin finds himself faced with an even more impossible task than any he has faced thus far.  How can he steal Allie away from Asher’s clutches, without exposing his team to even greater risk?  Is there a way to turn events away from their inevitably disastrous conclusion and to pull success from the clutches of almost certain defeat?  If one man can go from most wanted to exonerated in a single night, might it also be possible to go from defense to offense?

He does not know.  What he does know is that he will have to find new reserves of intelligence and cunning, lest his alleged crimes against Asher finally come calling for a price too expensive for anyone to pay.

The Concierge

“I simply must have front row tickets, you see.  Their live performances are wonderful, almost transcendent…or so I’ve heard.  I can’t be so close to one without getting to see it in person,” the guest said.  “You understand, right?”

Sophie, who had seen the band in question on a number of occasions, did not understand, but she nodded anyway.  “Of course, ma’am.  I would be happy to assist, however I can.  Was there a particular evening that you had in mind?”

She was already typing, even as she mechanically spoke the words.  Her mind traced through a series of connections – favors owed, enticements she could offer, leverage she could use – going all the way back to the band itself.  This wasn’t the first time a guest had needed last minute tickets; it wasn’t even the first time this month.

“Well,” the lady on the other side of the desk said, “my husband and I have business in Milan tomorrow – very important business – so tonight would be the only time we’re available…”

She kept talking; Sophie tuned her out with a faint twinge of irritation.  Why did guests always try that?  Men and women alike both name-dropped celebrities and discussed ‘exotic’ locations, as if it would impress her.  She’d been working at the Brooklands for years, and her position as head concierge afforded her access to luxuries that few people even knew about.  What did the wealthy, powerful, or influential think they could offer her that she couldn’t acquire on her own?

She finished the message to the band’s manager and sent it off, just as an email appeared in her own inbox.  Not the inbox she used to coordinate her staff at the Brooklands; no, this one had come to her other account.

Received, the message read.  Ten clean passports, ten Cayman bank accounts, five network infiltration specialists, three personal security experts, one shipping container.  Payment delivered.

Sure enough, her phone beeped and Sophie didn’t have to check the display to know what it would show.  The materials and personnel she’d redirected weren’t inexpensive, and she required a commission for her work in navigating through the paperwork, connecting interested parties, and ensuring that the multiple transactions took place without incident.  She would well paid for the work she’d done.

She typed out a quick reply, without bothering to involve her brain in the process.  Happy to be of service, she wrote.

Out loud, she said, “I don’t want to make any promises, ma’am, but I should be able to pull some strings and get you and your husband into the show.  If you’d like, I can have those tickets sent up to your room as soon as they’re available.”

“Well,” the woman dragged out the syllable, then lowered her voice to a conspiratorial volume.  “My husband doesn’t exactly have to know that I’m going to the concert, does he?”

“One ticket would be easier to acquire,” Sophie said.  Which was true, but only a purely technical sense: it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to get as many tickets as she desired.  It wasn’t her money that she was spending, after all.

Another message appeared in her private inbox.  Police presence at airport is heavier than expected.  Bribe?

Apologies, she wrote.  I have a strict policy of not interfering with the efforts of law enforcement.

The reply came quickly, and the client forgot to even pretend towards civility.  Help, it said, or we’ll point the finger at you.

Unlikely, she typed.  But please, feel free to contact me again if you require any other assistance, outside of that earlier restriction.

She didn’t expect to get a response to that one.  Criminals were a lot like the nouveau riche, in a way.  Both classes of people expected to shock her into compliance or awe, as if she didn’t live her life in the presence of those things every day.  Sophie hadn’t been frightened of legal punishments since her second year as an underworld fixer.  She certainly wasn’t about to start being frightened now.

Part of that security came from fastidious attention to detail.  She almost never broke the law, technically, although she did skirt around it on a regular basis.  So long as the client didn’t tell her that, for instance, they intended to use ten pounds of plastic explosives to blow off a vault door, it wasn’t exactly her responsibility.  She couldn’t be held accountable for what a legitimate businessman did if, hypothetically, two new employees were sent to collect protection money.  A container of Sudafed might have legitimate uses in the hands of an energetic entrepreneur; Sophie didn’t know, and didn’t care, if that might be the case.

It wasn’t her job to help her clients in whatever pursuits they might imagine.  All she did was provide them with the best available equipment and personnel, using the same courtesy and alacrity that she provided when working with the latest heiress at the Brooklands.  At any given moment, she was working on two or three things at a time: clearing out a tee time at the Wentworth Club for a group of American businessmen; renting a limited edition McLaren for an Italian playboy past his prime; and arranging the purchase of twenty crates of the latest in Chinese RPGs.

“You see,” the woman said, “I might have met someone.  Nothing serious, of course, just something a little…spicy.  It was his idea to go to this concert, in the first place.”

“Oh my,” Sophie said, forming her lips into a scandalized expression.  She resisted the urge to yawn.  “So, two tickets, but you’d prefer it if your husband didn’t know.”

“Quite, quite,” the woman said.  Color crept up into her cheeks.  “This man is…something different than anyone I’ve ever met before.  So young, so vibrant.”

She continued on with the description and Sophie, paying the conversation the bare minimum of attention it required, nodded at the appropriate points.  The band’s manager was taking longer to reply than normal.  He might simply be backed up with preparations for his secret show and Sophie, understanding the amount of effort that went into that sort of thing, would normally be content to let him work at his own pace.  This woman wouldn’t stop droning on, though.  As if this was the first affair that she’d ever had.  It certainly wasn’t the first affair Sophie had been forced to hear about; it was if these women wanted someone to hear about their dalliances.

Sophie only wanted her to go somewhere else, so that she could focus on her other tasks for the day.

She sighed a moment later, considering what the rest of her work day would look like.  She would be arranging proposal photographers and dead drops with about the same frequency, but neither activity seemed particularly challenging.  She’d done so many things over the years that even the less legal aspect of her work was becoming routine.  Predictable.  Boring.

An email came into her Brooklands inbox.  She exited the illicit server, expecting to see confirmation of her request from the band, and was surprised to find an address she didn’t recognize at the top of the unread messages.  She clicked it open.

I trust, the email said, that the account I provided was sufficient for the purposes?

Sophie raised an eyebrow.  The Brooklands maintained a fairly robust spam filter, in order to keep the servers safe from any twenty-something with an internet connection and too much free time.  Apparently someone had found a way through.  She deleted the message and made a mental note to contact IT.

“You won’t believe how I met him,” the woman said.  “It was on one of those nude beaches in France, you see.”

Sophie covered her mouth, ostensibly in shock; in reality, the earlier yawn had found its way out.  “You don’t say, ma’am.”

The woman nodded in excitement.  “My husband was busy with work, just like he always is, and…”

Another email, now to the criminal server.  This was an address she recognized, so Sophie opened it.

I was pleasantly surprised at your efficiency.  We should discuss further business.

A flashing icon at the bottom of the screen told her that the client wanted to start a live chat.  She clicked the chat window open.

From BigBrother1986:  What percentage of costs do you require as payment?

Sophie puzzled over the other’s username for a few seconds, before its significance occurred to her.  George Orwell.  She smiled at that.  Someone had a sense of humor, apparently.

From Morrigan01: Five percent, payable upon completion of our business.

From BigBrother1986:  Completion being defined as…?

That gave Sophie a moment of pause.  The job assigned to this account was something new.  For one thing, the original request hadn’t included any specific details.  Instead, a list of possible aliases and a portfolio’s worth of photographs had been delivered to her, followed by a banking account number and, in place of a signature, a symbol of three interlocking triangles pointed down.

Sophie had booked the penthouse suite at her hotel in anticipation, and the couple had arrived, but they’d only stayed in the room for a few hours.  And a little bit after that, the man had called to request a cottage of all things.  Sophie handled the transactions, purchasing the land from a widower looking to travel, and furnished it with technology and supplies redirected from a few subsidiaries and former clients in the area.  After that, there had been no new requests and she had assumed that payment would be forthcoming.

From BigBrother1986: You might find the news enlightening, if you’re unsure how best to answer.

Sophie looked up, past the woman who was currently in the midst of a graphic description of what a younger man enjoyed, to one of the televisions hanging in the lobby.  The sound was off, but the closed captioning was on.

“…a sleepy lakeside village in the countryside,” the newscaster was saying, “under siege in tonight’s top story.  According to local sources, police services are now investigating reports of gunfire and car chases in…”

Sophie blinked, and then opened a new tab and navigated to the station’s website.  One of the top links contained a series of theories and speculations about the crime; each one was terribly wrong.  That was to be expected, though.  He didn’t have access to the same information as Sophie.  The “sleepy lakeside village” corresponded neatly with the address of the cottage she’d purchased, only a few days ago.

Immediately, she began the process of selling the property to another client, who had been looking for somewhere to lay low.  There was virtually no chance of someone tracing it all the way back to her, but she had never been accused of lacking the proper amount of paranoia.

In the midst of that, her phone beeped.  She glanced down at it, distracted by her work and the lady’s continued presence, and froze.  The number on the display had a lot of zeroes.

From BigBrother1986: I trust this payment is sufficient?

Some quick and dirty math – recalling how much she’d spent on the cottage and clothing, then calculating how much she should have made for the job – provided Sophie with a number that was five times smaller than the amount her accounts had just received.  The cottage hadn’t been cheap, but it also hadn’t been a mansion.  The SUV was a secondhand purchase; the clothes had been delivered to the Brooklands, already tailored to fit; and Sophie had only needed to hire a team of technicians to install the computer system that had mysteriously been sent to the Brooklands in pieces over the past week.  Nothing about what she’d done necessitated so much money.

From Morrigan01: Five percent is more than enough.

From BigBrother1986: Work well done is work worth paying for.  Your regular fee, plus an enticement.

From Morrigan01: An enticement for what?

From BigBrother1986: Your continued assistance.  I suspect your guests will require additional aid throughout their time in England.  It would be appreciated if you would continue to provide the level of service you have thus far demonstrated.

Sophie understood what that meant.

From Morrigan01: I don’t break the law when assisting my guests in whatever activities they do, or do not, conduct.

From BigBrother1986: I’ve seen to those who break the law, Sophie.  Your job would only be to provide them with the tools to do so.

Sophie’s heart leapt up into her throat.  The first email, delivered to her Brooklands address, made sudden and terrifying sense.  Someone from the underworld knew who she was.  The layers of protection Sophie used to insulate her civilian identity from her criminal one were painstakingly thorough and she added new defenses as techniques were developed or defeated.

For someone to contact her by name was unheard of.  It was horrifying, the possibilities of retribution for failure something she hadn’t really considered until that exact moment.  It was the nightmare scenario: a situation she had planned for, outlining a series of checkpoints and fake names, so that she could disappear before a dissatisfied client could find her or force her to give up her sources.

It was…intriguing.

From Morrigan01: I am unfamiliar with working under these conditions.

From BigBrother1986: Life is often unfamiliar.  Will you take the job?

Sophie mused idly at the prospect but, even as she did that, she knew she’d say yes.  The amount of money the client had transferred into her accounts simply to entice her was staggering.  Besides the money – perhaps more important than the money – Sophie was interested.  She’d worked at the behest of powerful people before.  There was an air of mystery and danger around these proceedings that she’d never encountered before.

From Morrigan01: Are there any restrictions you would care to outline?  Spending limits, equipment requisitions…anything of that sort?

From BigBrother1986: Your guests will have a better idea of their requirements than I will.  If a problem arises with the funding, simply open a line of communication and I will see to it that the problem is rectified.  Until such point, you should endeavor to provide the best service you possibly can.

A blank check, in essence.  A smile tugged at the corners of Sophie’s lips, but she kept it from her face.

From BigBrother1986: Of course, it wouldn’t due for you to attempt any sort of subterfuge.  Your skillset is impressive, Miss Morgan, but not irreplaceable.

From Morrigan01: I wouldn’t dream of it.

From BigBrother1986: Excellent.  I take that question as a tacit agreement on your part, then.  Did you have any further questions?

From Morrigan01: Would you prefer that I keep you up to date on what services and equipment I acquire for my guests?

Several seconds passed.  Three dots appeared next to BigBrother1986’s name and stayed there for so long that Sophie started to think a reply wasn’t coming.  She tuned back into the lady’s conversation.

“Of course, this isn’t the sort of thing I do,” she said.  It seemed that she hadn’t even noticed Sophie’s preoccupation.

“Of course not,” Sophie said.  “It’s simply one of those things.”

“Exactly!”  The woman clapped her hands together in excitement.  “Finally, someone who understands.  It isn’t about the sex or even that he makes for such delightful arm candy, it’s just…”

A soft ding let Sophie knew that another message had arrived.

From BigBrother1986: An asset closer to the situation would provide a clearer picture of events, yes.  Any assistance you provide will, of course, be remembered.

Sophie wasn’t able to start a response to that before BigBrother1986 logged off.  Almost immediately, five new emails appeared in her Brooklands inbox, all of them from the band’s manager.  According to the time stamps, they’d been sent within a minute of her first message.  It took her a moment to understand what had happened.

BigBrother1986 had somehow blocked her inbox from receiving new messages, presumably to make certain that Sophie’s attention was entirely on the conversation.  That was a neat trick, but wholly unnecessary.  The mystery client had claimed her attention from the start.

Sophie printed out the tickets and allowed the smile she’d hidden to appear on her lips.  Using a blank sheet of paper to conceal them, she slid both tickets across the desk to the woman, who secreted them away like nuclear launch codes.

“I would never do this,” the woman said.  “I know how much of a stereotype I am, and how silly it all is, but, it’s just that it’s…”  She trailed off.

“It’s something exciting,” Sophie said.

“Yes!  It’s something I’ve never done before and I just can’t help myself!”

Sophie’s smile turned secretive.  “Trust me, ma’am.  I understand exactly what you mean.”