Tag Archives: Stanislav

Part 6: Recap (1/2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

A little too well, perhaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 130 (Sarah)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mila chuckled.  “No.”

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

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

“What…what happened?”

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

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

But there had been the crash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that have to do with anything?”

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

“Is it that bad?”

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

Shit.  Shit, shit, shit.  Shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How will that – “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good,” Mila said.  “I like it.”

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

“That means that I should be going already?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Signal jammer,” Devlin said.

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

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

“Is he going to be a problem?”

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

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

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

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

“What is important?”

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

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

“Are you sure about that?”

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

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

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

“Go to Plan B,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 117 (Anton)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know what I mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the other?”

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

“Which way is he heading?”

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

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

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

“’course I trust them!”

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

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

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

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

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

“And if that happens?”

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

“What does that mean?” Stani asked.

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

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

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

Oui,” Michel said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That isn’t the quote,” Sarah said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s the plan.”

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

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

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

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

“You want us to what?”

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

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

“But…why?”

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

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

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 115

Compared to the excruciating days spent terrified about Ally, the three days it took for us to get everything into position went by surprisingly quickly.  There were no marked difficulties to speak of; no insane hurdles to clear or intractable individuals to bribe; no last minute complications, save for a little bit of legal red tape that Sophie alluded to.  Things went as smoothly as they possibly could have gone, all things considered.

While Sarah worked up a dozen different back-up plans, and Mila practiced her aim using her off hand, I spent my time trying – with varying degrees of success – to charm open a Maximus safe.  The Fortress would be far more difficult, with redundancies that I still knew nothing about, but I intended to tackle that problem with something resembling my former expertise in safe-cracking.  By the time Anton called to let me know that he, the Russians, and Billy’s people were ready to go, I had made it to about seventy percent of my previous skill.  I could have waited longer, practiced more.  In fact, I should have.  But there was no guarantee that Hill wouldn’t move up the timetable or, perhaps, simply grow tired with waiting for an answer.  And, of course, we had to move before Asher caught wind of Hill’s intended betrayal, lest my former partner throw our carefully timed flowchart into disarray by moving toward whatever goals he had in mind prematurely.

So, when I got that call, I told the satellite members of my team to wait for my signal, but to expect kick-off the following day.  Anton relayed the message and we ended the conversation.

Sarah happened to be working in the living room.  She glanced up from her screen as I tossed the phone onto the unoccupied loveseat.  “Anton?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s already got everything set up?”

“Sounds like it.”  I pinched the bridge of my nose, feeling a sudden weariness that I hadn’t expected.

“So.”  Sarah closed her laptop.  “We’re really doing this?”

“Sounds like it,” I repeated.  “Unless you’ve got another way for us to get out of this with our lives?”

“We could run,” Sarah suggested.  Her tone was light, but there was an undercurrent of force that belied her outwardly casual demeanor.

I blinked.  “We?”

“I mean…all of us.  Mila knows people we could hire for protection, if we needed to.  I can probably get most of the money out of my accounts, even the payment we got for the crown, and start up entirely new places to stash it.”

“And just leave Billy, Avis, and Neal to Hill’s tender ministrations?”  I shook my head.  “You aren’t serious.”

Sarah sighed.  “No.  No, I’m not serious.  I just…this whole thing can go wrong so easily.  It almost certainly will go wrong.  Nothing ever goes the way we plan.  And even if everything magically decides to unfold in exactly the way we think it will…”

“If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.”  I stretched until I felt a series of pops travel down my spine and crossed the short distance over to Sarah.  “I’m obviously not going to promise you that everything will be fine.  But I will say that I’m not going to let anything happen to our friends, if there’s something I might be able to do to stop it.”

She barked out a sharp laugh.  “That’s exactly what I thought you’d say.”

“I’m nothing, if not predictable.”

One of Sarah’s eyebrows arched upward.  “Then you must be nothing.  Your whole thing is random, wanton chaos.”

“Would you really want it any other way?”

She didn’t answer.  After a few seconds, she patted the cushion next to her.  Cautiously, I took that as an invitation and sat down beside her.

Sarah cleared her throat and spoke, her voice hitching a little bit at every third word.  “Did you ever think we’d end up here?  All of our history, all the jobs we pulled…do you think you still would have wanted to work with me, back at the charity job, if you knew it was all going to end up here?”

“In a heartbeat,” I answered immediately.  I didn’t even consciously form the words.  They simply sprang, unbidden and wholly formed, from my lips.  “If God himself had descended from the heavens and told me that it was going to lead to this circus, I still wouldn’t have hesitated for a second.”

Sarah put one arm up, around my shoulders, and then pulled me into a hug.  I froze for an instant.  It was the most intimate contact we’d had since that final, devastating argument, and the warmth of her body against mine sent my brain into a temporary state of stupefaction.  I recovered quickly, though, and returned the hug with just as much force.

The elevator dinged.  We broke away from each other, but we weren’t quite fast enough to reach opposite ends of the couch before Mila and Michel entered the suite.  I noticed that Michel was carrying a small caliber handgun now.  It looked like one of Mila’s, but I couldn’t really be sure.  Mila’s uninjured hand held about half of an unwrapped KitKat bar.

“Are we interrupting something?” Mila asked.  Her lips twitched slightly, not quite becoming a smirk.  Michel, at least, had the good grace to seem embarrassed.

“We were just talking about our collective insanity,” Sarah replied smoothly.  “Seeing as every one of us has decided to leap cheerfully off a cliff tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”  The not-quite smirk fell away from Mila’s face.  “Everything’s in position?”

“As much as it’s going to be,” I said.  “Michel, the vehicles you needed aren’t going to get placed until later, after I let Sophie know to set that up.”

The Frenchman nodded.  “I have worked on the route these last few days.  I know it, backwards and forwards.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“What about your friends?” Mila asked.

“Alex and his daughter are going to stay here at the start of it,” I said.  “When we’ve got Hill suitably distracted, that’ll be the best time for them to get out of the country.  There’s a train that’ll get them out of the immediate area and then he can use some of his friends to handle the rest of the trip back to Germany.”

“And you’re sure he’s going to use that train?”

“About as sure as I am about anything else that’s been going on lately.”

“So.”  Mila shifted her weight and started to scratch idly at the bit of exposed skin just above her cast.  “This is it.”

“One way or another, yeah.”

“I feel…”  She hesitated.  “I feel like you should…I don’t know, like you should say something.”

The absurdity of that sentiment, coming from Mila of all people, sent a wave of chuckles through all of us in the room.  Even Mila smiled a little and shook her head.

“I didn’t really have a rousing speech planned,” I said.  “We’ve been up against insane odds for a couple of weeks and we’ve come out ahead.  At least now we know who we’re up against and we know what we’re after.”

“This is easily the craziest job I’ve ever tackled,” Sarah said.  She moved closer to Mila and Michel, which had the side-effect of bringing her nearer to me.  Our fingers nearly touched on the couch.  “But I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever worked with who could have pulled off the things we did.”

I nodded.  “Sarah’s right.  Basically, what I’m trying to say is this: if I ever find myself up against a psychotic ex-partner who’s out for my blood and a fratricidal drug kingpin, while also struggling to fulfill the whims of a mysterious woman and her pet giant, you guys are the team I’d want for the job.”

“That is…very specific,” Michel said, his smile widening.

“I thought you’d like that.  Mila, is that enough, or should I start in on the Braveheart?”

She finished off her KitKat bar and crumpled the wrapper in one fist.  “I guess that’s what I should’ve expected.  It’ll do.”

“Fantastic.”  I cracked my knuckles.  “Everybody, finish up with whatever preparations you need, and then get some sleep.  Kick-off is tomorrow, 3:30 PM.”

A round of nods went around the room and then, with nothing else that needed to be said between us, we all went our separate ways.  I returned to my own bedroom, where the Maximus waited to taunt my inabilities.  Both invigorated and terrified by the knowledge that there was no more time for practice, planning, or second-guessing, I attacked the safe for another two hours before I finally slumped against the door and slept.

I awoke to bustle and fuss outside of my room.  The safe hadn’t been a comfortable bed, as my back was happy to declare, but I pushed through the discomfort.  A quick trip to the shower helped to clear away the lingering traces of mental fog and then I found myself back in my bedroom, staring into my closet.  The Lady had accommodated any possible sartorial requirements I might have, so long as I was infiltrating high society.  She had not been so efficient or fastidious when it came to more covert options.  Sophie could probably have arranged for something in black with only a few moments of notice, but…

Moving quickly, I dressed myself in the same suit I’d worn to the museum gala, so many nights ago; the one that Sophie had created, specifically for me.  The fit was impeccable and the surprisingly breathable vest provided an additional layer of safety.  What led me to choose that suit over something more practical, however, wasn’t its cut or its stylings.  Sophie was, in a way, a part of the entire London affair.  Bringing her work along with me felt right.

Besides, it wasn’t as though I planned to do very much sneaking.  If I were seen, at any point, it wouldn’t exactly matter what I was wearing.  No quantity of all black turtlenecks would do a thing to keep me concealed in broad daylight.

When that was finished, I slipped all of my usual toys and gadgets into their appropriate places and stepped out into the hallway.  Sarah left her own room at the same time and nearly bumped into me.

“Oh!”  She stepped back quickly, performing a quick dance to keep any of the electronics in her arms from falling to the ground.  “I was just about to get you.  Is that…is that what you’re wearing?”

“There’s a distinct lack of options,” I said.  “And I figured there was something to be said for the dramatic effect.”

Her lips puckered and twisted up for a second, then eased back into a subtle smile.  “I like it.”

A smile appeared on my own face.  “Everybody else is ready?”

Mila stepped into view from just out of sight, blocking the entrance to the hallway.  She wore a tight shirt and jeans, with holsters around one thigh; crisscrossed between her shoulder blades, so that guns hung to either side of her in easy reach; and at the small of her back.  A duffle bag was slung over her shoulder.  “I’m good to go, if you are.”

I gave her equipment a skeptical look.  “Planning on starting an international incident today?”

She didn’t smile at the little joke.  “You know who’s going to be there,” she said.  “I’d rather have something I don’t use, then need something I left at home.”

“Good point.  Did you find one for me?”

She knelt, unzipped the duffle bag, and dug around inside of it for a few seconds.  She emerged before too long and held out a weapon, in its own holster.  “This is a Ruger,” she said.  “Easy enough for beginners, which you clearly are.  If you pull this, be prepared to use it.”

I took the gun and examined it.  “Looks like something Bond would use.”

Mila ignored that.  “There’s a key for the safety,” she said, as she located and passed that to me, as well.  “Make absolutely sure the safety is off, if you end up needing the gun.”

“Got it.”  It took me a few tries to position the holster just right beneath my suit jacket and the added weight at my side still felt odd when I finished.

“Michel’s downstairs.  Car’s already running.”

Sarah, Mila, and I rode the elevator down and exited the Brooklands through the lobby.  Not only did I see the car that we’d arranged through Sophie, but the concierge herself stood a few feet away from the idling vehicle.  She shifted her weight from one foot to the other until she saw us, at which point her posture became immaculate and stiff.

“Soph?” I asked.  “Everything okay?”

“Everything is fine, Mister O’Brien,” Sophie said.  She took a deep breath before continuing.  “I simply wanted to take this opportunity to, uh…wish you the best of luck in your activities today.  Your stay here at the Brooklands was an…interesting experience.  If you ever find yourself in London again, I would be happy to provide suitable service.  Assuming, of course, that you, uh…”

I rescued her from any more stuttering with a vague gesture.  “That almost sounds like you like us,” I said, “and that’s what I’m going to take it to mean.”

“Ah.”  She sighed and deflated slightly.  “Yes.  Well.  If you require anything else, you only have to contact me.”

“I don’t think we’ll need you anymore today,” I said.

“Still.”  She seemed to consider something and then stepped forward to take one of my hands into both of hers.  “Anything at all I can do to help, don’t hesitate to ask.”

It was, perhaps, the most genuine emotion I’d seen from Sophie in our time at the Brooklands.  I shook her hand.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Very good, then,” Sophie said, as we separated.  The expression on her face told me that she had something else to say, but she shook her head and left without speaking her thoughts aloud.

The three of us piled into Michel’s car and he pulled away without wasting a single second.  We’d been on the road for ten or fifteen minutes before he said anything.  “Do the others know what you plan to do?”

“You mean Anton, the Russians, and Billy’s gang?”  I shook my head.  “No reason to tell them.  They aren’t involved in any of the sensitive bits, beyond the stuff with the bombs.  As long as they can keep to the schedule, their part will go perfectly.”

“And if you find yourself needing their assistance?”

“If I need their assistance, it’ll be too late.”

Michel accepted that answer with a grim tightening around his lips and a soft grunt of displeasure.

The rest of the trip passed in complete silence, save for the steady click of Sarah’s keyboard as she worked.  I considered several conversation starters and dismissed each and every one of them.  There simply wasn’t anything left to say.  The time for words had ended; now, it was the time for frenzied, panicked action.

Michel eased the car to a complete stop when we reached the staging area.  Sarah’s specialty van waited in a parking spot nearby.  She put the finishing touches on one of her programs and closed her laptop.  “This is my stop,” she said and opened the door to step outside.

I reached out and put a hand on her elbow.  She went still.  “See you on the other side,” I said softly.

“Yeah.  See you on the other side.”

She exited Michel’s car and walked across the parking lot until she reached her van, then disappeared inside.  A moment later, my earbud popped twice and came to life.

She cleared her throat before speaking.  “Can everybody hear me?”

Oui.

“Yeah.”

Those answers came from Michel and Mila.

“Same as ever.”

That one came from me.

Da,” Stani’s voice said over the comms.  “You are in position?”

“They’d better be,” Chester’s voice said in reply.  “Put every man I could ahold of on this.  If they ain’t even where they’re supposed to be, then – “

“We’re all in position,” Sarah said, neatly cutting Chester off before he could work up a head of steam.  “We all know what we’re supposed to do.  That’s my part, handled.  Devlin?”

I inhaled and exhaled several times, willing my heartbeat to steady itself.  The effort proved unsuccessful, so I just accepted the wild variance and focused on stilling my thoughts instead.  That went better.

Mila and Michel looked at me from the front of the car.  They were waiting, too, although what they were waiting for could not have been any more different.

I let the still air over the comms hang there for a few more seconds.  When I spoke again, things would get insane, unpredictable, and dangerous.  No matter how thoroughly we had checked and double-checked every aspect of the plan, Sarah and I both knew better than to assume we’d stick to every detail…or, honestly, any detail beyond the vaguest beginning steps.

I thought of Avis and Neal, of Billy, of Asher.  I thought about my old friend and his vendetta against me.  I thought about the Lady with her ice-chip eyes.

Then I cleared my throat.  “Sarah,” I said.  “Start the clock.”

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.”

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.

Chapter Eighty-Two

I noted, in a detached sort of way, that there were fewer flames than I would have expected.  The heat crawling out of the HVAC center wasn’t my greatest concern; it was pressure that attempted to keep me pressed against the wall.  A violent cough ripped itself out of my throat as I pushed myself back to my feet, shaking my head in an effort to think clearly again.  “What?”  I asked.

“Hill wasn’t keeping up with the proper precautions,” Sarah said, in a terse voice.  “It’s technical, but the details don’t matter.  You have to get out of that factory right now.”

I heard truth in those words and, using the adrenaline I’d been tapping for fifteen minutes, managed to stand up again.  Mila was slumped against the opposite wall.  A steady trickle of blood came from a wound on the back of her head, but she was awake.  Her eyes tracked me as I lurched forward and grabbed her wrist in both of my hands.  She used one of her hands to push off of the wall while I pulled.  We were both on our feet and rushing back down the hallway at top speed within a few seconds.

The toxic fumes from Billy’s fake plastic shards continued to spread through the building, expanding at a ridiculous speed to fill every cubic inch of space.  I hadn’t asked Sarah what the side effects of inhalation might be, but I suspected that I wouldn’t like them.  It didn’t matter, though; I still needed to breathe, both to speak and to power my bruised body through the twists and turns of the processing plant.  “I need an out, Sarah!”

“I’m looking!”

While she worked, I turned my attention to Mila.  With effort, she was keeping pace with me.  “What happened to Carlos?”

“I don’t know!”  Mila yelled back.  “He’s probably making his own escape!”

I started to reply, but another explosion shook the building at that exact moment. The sudden bloom of fire ripped the oxygen away from me and any words I planned to speak died on my lips.  Another wave of overwhelming pressure hit us from behind and I barely managed to grab onto one of the machines to my left.  Almost immediately, I realized that not all heat necessarily came with a visible indication; the metallic surface of the machine was hot enough that I could practically smell my palms burning.  I jerked my hands away and kept my balance through sheer force of will.

In addition to the original explosion, fires had begun to spread through the factory.  Tongues of flames leapt from one machine to the other, crawled along the ceiling in parallel lines, and dripped to the ground like raindrops.  The path ahead of us came to life in an instant.  Mila and I backed away from the fires, intending to turn back, but that way was blocked as well.

“Sarah?”  My words were surprisingly calm, considering our situation.  A miniscule part of my mind congratulated myself for that.

“Uh…take a left from where you’re at,” she said.  “I don’t know how long that path’s going to stay clear, so you have to hurry.”

Neither Mila or I wasted even a single split-second.  She was a little faster than me, but I was less than inch behind her as we hooked a left and dashed down the aisle.  At the end of that path, Sarah provided more directions and we followed those like our lives quite literally depended on it.

While we ran, I found myself analyzing our situation and drawing conclusions.  The reduction in breathable air, caused by the fire, was intense enough that I legitimately feared asphyxiation.  At the same time, it was possible that the vacuum was responsible for my continued good health.  Without an in-depth understanding of the chemical reaction I’d started, I couldn’t know what concentration of fumes I could safely inhale.  Since I could barely breath at all, my concern shifted from possibly toxic gases to a general breathlessness.  I wasn’t sure if that was better, but it was at least a familiar problem.

“Devlin?”  A voice asked, from less than a few feet away.  I pulled myself out of my thoughts and noticed the Russians standing at an intersection ahead of me.  Stani gave me a look that was something between astonishment and bewilderment.  “What has happened?”

Gradually, I came to a stop and bent in half, gasping greedily at the scant amount of oxygen available.  “Complications,” I managed to say.

“I don’t know how long you’ve got until the entire building comes down around you,” Sarah said.  “The route I had in mind is…not an option, anymore, but I think Carlos and whoever else came with him are leaving.”

A cough shook my entire body before I could respond.  “You think?”

“There’s kind of a lot going on,” Sarah shot back.  “We can figure out the next step after I get you out of this death trap.”

“No complaints here,” I croaked out.  “Where…what do you…”

I coughed again.  In the haze of smoke and the general chaos of the fire, I couldn’t be sure if there was blood mixed into the drops that flew from my mouth.  My breaths, which had been difficult before, became impossible.  I felt my temples pounding and could not, for the life of me, remember exactly why that pain was there.

Mila held out an impatient hand, gesturing wildly at Stani to pass over his coat, which he did after a moment.  She balled the garment up and pressed it to the back of her head.  “Devlin’s not doing well,” she said.  “Sarah, where do we go from here?”

I listened to Sarah’s answer, as if it dealt with someone other than me.  She sounded…panicked?  Concerned?  There was a nervous beat of emotion in her words that I had difficulty placing.  “The loading bay,” Sarah said.  “Get to the loading bay, I can open the door and let you guys out.  But if the network goes…”

She didn’t finish the sentence.  She didn’t have to.  Mila and Stani helped me to my feet and, with their help and the assistance of Iosif and Leonid, we began to pull ourselves through the aisles.  Sarah didn’t need to provide directions; the Russians had just left the loading area, and they apparently remembered the way.

At some point along the way, I succeeded in pushing the mental fog away long enough to form a few valid thoughts.  “James?”  I asked, without prelude or preamble.  “Chester?”

“They should have gotten away by now,” Sarah answered.  “Stani’s group got caught by the fire, but Billy’s guys had a clear path out of the building.”

“How far until the – “

I cut myself off as a man stumbled into the path in front of us.  It wasn’t difficult to see that he was in bad shape.  His chest should have been ventilated, judging from the holes peppering his shirt, but it seemed most of the shrapnel and debris had been stopped by some type of concealed body armor.  The occasional shard had found flesh, on his shoulders, his legs, and his face.  Each breath seemed to cause him pain and a mixture of blood and spit came from his lips with each exhale.  One of his arms was bent at the wrong angle, a flash of white bone standing out amidst the field of scarlet blood; the other hand held a gun, pointed in our direction.

It wasn’t a handgun.  It was too long to be a handgun.

Carlos’s eyes widened as he saw us.  Instead of making any attempt at convincing Mila to join him, however, he opened fire with the assault rifle an instant after he recognized our group, pouring bullets into the aisle like he held a firehose instead of a firearm.  Using the split second of notice my adrenaline soaked senses provided, I tugged at Mila and Stani and pulled them out of the aisle, so that they collapsed onto me in an undignified heap.  Iosif and Leonid took cover in the shadow of a machine across the aisle from us.

Carlos was yelling something in Spanish, but I couldn’t make out the syllables over the roar of the fire and the steady pops from his gun.

“The security system is completely down,” Sarah yelled into the comms.  “I can’t see anything that’s happening inside.  I need you to tell me what’s going on!”

Whatever effects the toxic cloud was supposed to cause, I had begun to feel them enough that I could feel my ability to rationalize slipping away.  The Russians covered their mouths with shirt sleeves and tried to breathe sparingly, but it was too late for me to do anything like that.  I’d been at ground zero, when both explosions caused the plan to quite literally blow up in my face.  The tiny portion of my mind that had, so far, continued to note details with a clinical detachment drew the logical conclusion: if I didn’t escape, and soon, there wouldn’t be any need to worry about permanent side effects.

A chunk of cement broke free of the ceiling overhead and dropped to the ground between us and Carlos with a momentarily deafening thud.  I struggled to force my limbs to cooperate, hoping to take advantage of the brief break in gunfire, but my numb legs refused to do much more than twitch.  The beginnings of a headache pressed against the inside of my temples.

“Sarah, we need an exit!”  Mila, helping me to my feet and supporting the majority of my weight with her much smaller body.  I don’t know how she managed it, but she carried me forward and covered the path in front of us with her weapon held in the other hand.

“I’m looking for one, but I can’t…there isn’t any way to make sure that you aren’t going to get caught by the fire!”

“Figure it out, then, and figure it out fast!”

“Uh…according to the blueprints, there’s an exit just two turns ahead.  Maybe a few dozen yards, if something else doesn’t go wrong along the way.”

Mila grunted inarticulately in response.  She moved, as if to redistribute my weight across her shoulder, but stopped when Iosif and Leonid both stepped up and took me from her.  The two Russians were, collectively, strong enough to simply lift me from my feet and carry me, at double speed, towards the exit.  The plant continued to fall apart around us, in chunks of increasing size.  At one point, we were forced to navigate around boulder of rebar and cement that fell within mere feet of our group.

Eventually, we saw open air and the moonless night ahead of us, through an open loading bay door.  With most of the fire behind us, Iosif and Leonid stopped for a quick handful of seconds to catch their breath.  Stani’s eyes were growing watery, but he gave me a quick examination anyway.  When his hand touched the small of my back, his expression turned stony.  His hand, when he withdrew it, came away wet and red.

Something was wrong.  I knew that much, even if I couldn’t seem to figure out exactly what was amiss.  It wasn’t Carlos’ appearance; while surprising, we could have dealt with that.  It wasn’t the fire of the secondary explosion.  Those had been a shock, but why would my smoke-choked mind be wasting processing power on facts I already knew?

There had been an original timeline.  A concern that Sarah and I both shared, dealing with our group’s ability to infiltrate the processing plant before…

The cops.  I dug deep within myself for focus, felt something shift in my chest that most certainly was not supposed to move, and forced words out.  “How long…until…the cops?”

Sarah gave an answer, but it was lost as Carlos picked his way through the rubble and opened fire on us once again.  Except for the vans, there was no cover available and the Russians practically dragged me behind one of the vehicles while Mila returned fire in short, controlled bursts.

The sound of sirens reached my ears, providing an answer to my question, during a brief lull in the gunfire.  A simple break-in, as we’d planned, might only have brought a token police force to investigate.  A full-scale explosion at an industrial plant, however?  That would bring police, ambulances, fire trucks…there was no chance of making a clean escape from the factory now.  Too many eyes would be on the scene and too many questions would be asked.

“Local law will be on the scene in maybe two minutes,” Sarah said.  “You’ve got to get moving!”

Of course, that wasn’t a possibility.  Whatever damage the initial explosion had done to my body, it had been enough to ensure that I wasn’t going to move very far or very fast anytime in the near future.  Sarah couldn’t see the grave expressions the Russians wore – I must have lost the camera at some point during the mad dash to freedom – but I could, and I knew what those faces meant.  We had lost.  The game was up.

A surprising depth of anger swelled from deep inside of me, complimented by the pounding inside my skull.  We had made it so far and accomplished so much.  The idea of losing here, because Hill’s fake corporation hadn’t kept up with safety protocols, was infuriating.  I slammed my fist into the side of the van, ignoring the brief flash of pain when my knuckles connected with the metal.

And then I stopped, the pain of my wounds, my dizziness, and my confusion disappearing for a single instant.  I hit the van again, this time with my palm, and an answer crystallized as if from thin air.  I kicked weakly at Stani until he focused his eyes on mine, then I flicked my vision to the van’s driver side door.  It took two repetitions of that before he understood what I intended.

He gave quick orders to his goons in Russian.  Iosif opened the door just wide enough that he could slip inside and started to hotwire the vehicle; Leonid half-pulled, half-carried me to the vehicle’s back doors.  I used some of the last dredges of strength I possessed to help him get me into the back of the van.  I struggled into an upright position against a tiny wall of white baking powder.  Stani leapt in next to me a moment later, and spat out a few more words that I couldn’t understand.

The car sputtered and came to life around us.  From my position, I couldn’t see anything other than the open air, but I could still hear.

“You’ve got to get in there,” Sarah said.  Not to me, but to Mila.

“So that he can perforate that van as soon as they start to leave?”  Mila replied.  “Not a chance.  I’ve got a job to do here.”

“You have to leave,” Sarah insisted.

There was a brief exchange of gunfire that drowned out any sentence either Mila or Sarah might have spoken.  Then, “Get him out of here!”

Stani touched two fingers on his whole hand to the earbud and I was reminded that he was also listening to the conversation.  He searched my expression for some sign of what to do; finding nothing there except what must have been blank, rapidly spreading confusion, he made up his mind.

He said two words to Iosif before lowering his voice and speaking directly to me.  “Hold on to something.”

The back of the van was remarkably devoid of any hand holds, so I grabbed onto Leonid’s arm as Iosif whipped the van into motion.  It was a not a vehicle designed to take corners well, but he managed to pull it out of a momentary fishtail and point it in the proper direction.  This had the effect of allowing me a brief view through the van’s swinging back doors.

Mila stood, facing into the fire and chaos of the processing plant, firing both of her guns into the flames.  Every line of her body stood in clear, sharp defiance.  She threw caution to the wind and sent rounds flying in Carlos’ direction, without bothering to take cover.  He fired back at her, but his aim lacked any precision.  At least one bullet pierced the wall above my head and another managed to find its way into Stani’s arm.

“You…don’t have…do this…” I managed to cough out.

Mila turned from her tableau of fire and devastation for an instant and actually smiled at me.  “Feed the cat, will you?”

Something ruptured within the factory and the explosion that came from its depth made the first two seem like firecrackers in comparison.  Everything tilted.  I watched as a pipe ripped its way free from the wall and swung with awesome force into Mila’s midsection.  She was lifted into the air, just as a fireball of biblical proportions issued forward.

The ensuing tremor caused Iosif to lose control of the van once more.  My grip on Leonid’s arm had been too weak to do much more than provide comfort; as soon as the rear of the van swung wide, I lost hold and flew the short distance through empty air until my skull connected with the opposite wall.

Fire trucks and ambulances were pulling up to the plastics plant in large numbers.  I saw as the police took up the perimeter, securing a zone we had somehow managed to escape.  I saw as the plant grew smaller and smaller.  I made it for a few more seconds, perhaps half a minute, before my injuries, the smoke inhalation, and my own bone-deep exhaustion became too much to bear.  I closed my eyes, and slipped into unconsciousness where I saw nothing at all.

Chapter Eighty-One

It was a testament to the seriousness of the situation that Stani limited himself to only a few choice Russian swear words.  He couldn’t have been pleased to discover yet another member of my team inserted into this job, after his explicit instructions, but he was apparently a professional.  There wasn’t time to start an argument about his terms or my flexible adherence to them.  Instead, he spoke a few sharp words to Iosif and Leonid before speaking directly to me.  “A trap?  What do you mean?”

“Hill couldn’t have known that we were going to be here.”  I wasn’t exactly answering the question.  There were so many disparate puzzle pieces to fit into place and my mind sped up until those shards started to fall together.  “That wouldn’t make sense.  The fact that I’m here is dumb luck.”

“What?  I do not understand what you are saying.”

Sarah spoke next, providing the counterpoint to my own thoughts.  “Hill must have leaked information to someone in Billy’s organization,” she said.  “Something that made the prospect of a raid tonight too attractive to pass up.”

“So we’re just trapped in the net, on accident?”  I barked out a sharp, humorless laugh.  “Of course.  That’s just our luck.”

“What do you want to do?”  Sarah asked.  “Aiden is only a couple minutes out.  He’ll beat the cops here by a good margin.”

I squeezed my eyes shut, calculating variables at high speed.  “Link us all up.  I need to redirect Chester and James, if we’re going to get out of this in one piece.”

The comms beeped twice.  “Devlin,” Sarah said, “the lines are all live now.”

“What’s this?”  Chester asked.  “Who’s that on the line?”

“Operations,” I said.  “Listen, we don’t have time to go over the details of this right now.”

“You had another man in the wings?”

“I had another teammate, yes, but that’s really not the point right now, Chester.”

“All this time you was pretending to know more than you really did, and you was really hiding another person out there somewhere.”  Chester clearly had no intentions of letting the point drop.  I hadn’t expected to find myself appreciating Stani’s adherence to protocol, but the situation provoked an appreciative feeling in my stomach.  “What else are you hiding, eh?”

“Oh.  My.  God.”  Sarah enunciated each syllable with precise, deliberate care.  “There are trained mercenaries on the way to the processing plant, armed to teeth and more than willing to kill, and you’re going to get hung up on the fact that the new guy didn’t tell you every single thing he had up his sleeve?”

Chester sputtered something incoherent over the line.  For my part, I decided that silence was the best option.  While Sarah took on Chester’s ego, I might be able to form some sort of haphazard plan to get us all through the next few minutes without any additional bullet holes.

“Every single one of you has secrets,” Sarah continued.  “You’ve got medical debt up to your eyeballs, Chester, and if it wasn’t for Billy’s help, there’s no chance you’d be doing anything other than rotting in the modern day equivalent of debtor’s prison.  But you don’t hear me calling you out for not fully disclosing your entire financial situation, do you?”

I took in her words with a small sliver of my conscious attention and wondered idly when she’d found the time to research Chester.  The rest of my thoughts were occupied with reconstructing the factory’s blueprints, adjusting timelines, and allowing for the very real possibility that I was, finally, too far over my head.

If this was indeed a trap with Aiden positioned to capture anyone attempting to raid the facility, the guards we’d forced out of position weren’t going to return.  Fewer bodies roaming the halls of the factory, gunning for our heads was a good thing, sure; but, Aiden’s men were trained and disciplined.  I wouldn’t have complained about some dissension and chaos in the ranks that I could manipulate.

“You don’t know nothing about me,” Chester was saying.  “And don’t pretend like you do, love.”

“Here’s what I know,” Sarah said.  “I know that your sister is suffering from a cocktail of diseases that are going to require at least three more surgeries and I-don’t-even-know-how-much treatment.  I know that you only got into this business a few months ago.  And I absolutely know that you do not have the experience to deal with the absolutely staggering shit-storm that is coming your way.  So you can either get with the program and follow whatever play Devlin calls, or you can continue to throw tantrums every single time that things don’t go exactly your way.  Your choice.”

Silence.  The miniscule fraction of attention I’d tasked to pay attention to Sarah’s diatribe practically cheered.  The rest of me was in the final steps of discarding unfeasible options and adjusting the few choices that remained until they had the highest possibility of success.  Those percentages weren’t high, by my reckoning, but there were considerably better than our chances if Mila and I stayed trapped within the lab.

“It’s game time, Chester,” I said.  “Pick your side.  Things are about to go very bad, very quickly, and I need to know where you’re going to come down on all of this.”

Precious seconds ticked away.  “Fine,” he said, finally.  “What do you got in mind?”

Chester’s ability to follow orders was far from a definite quantity, but there really wasn’t time to negotiate for a more enthusiastic response.  Mentally, I tagged him as ‘unreliable,’ and reworked the plan in my head to have a little more wiggle room.  “If Aiden was on call to deal with a break-in, then I’m assuming he took steps to close off any other avenues of escape.  That’s what he’d do, right, Mila?”

She nodded mutely.  The death grip she maintained on her weapon seemed to be tightening, and her knuckles stood out beneath taut skin.  Mila was making an effort to hold it together.  Whether or not that effort would be successful was another variable I couldn’t calculate around.

“What’re you thinking?” Sarah asked.

“I’m thinking…I’m thinking that we need some breathing room,” I said.  Then, barely an instant after the words passed my lips, a solution finally presented itself.  “Breathing room.  That’s how we can get out of this mess?”

“What are you…”  Sarah trailed off, as she worked through the disparate clues and reached the same conclusion.  “You really think you can pull that off in time?”

“Not in the slightest,” I replied.  “But I’m not seeing a lot of other options right now.  If Anton was here, that would make things easier to pinpoint.”

“You’re standing in the middle of a laboratory,” Sarah pointed out.  “Give me a second, I’ll find something that’ll work.”

The line beeped twice as she muted herself; my connection with the other two groups was still live, though.  I could hear Stani fervently muttering to his companions and, while Chester was silent for the moment, his breaths were ragged and loud.

“I need to know you’re going to be okay here,” I said to Mila.  “This is going to be close enough, and I absolutely cannot have you freeze.”

She did not reply.

I almost reached out to jostle her shoulder, but thought better of it at the last minute.  There was no telling how Mila might react to unexpected physical contact, especially when Aiden’s impending presence already had her on edge.  “Mila!”

She blinked twice, hard, and then focused on me.  “I’ll be okay,” she said in a small voice.

Sarah unmuted herself.  “Alright, I need you to look around the room for me.”

Without questioning, I began to turn in a slow circle, allowing the camera I wore to survey the room.  The beakers and containers were each marked with a different, unpronounceable Latin name; those meant nothing to me, so I refused to spend any mental processing power on them.  “There!  The, uh…magnesium phosphide.  Black bottle, on the second shelf to the left.”

“Got it.”  I hurried over and pulled the black bottle off of the shelf.  “What else?”

“Red phosphorous,” Sarah said.  “I didn’t see it already, but…”

“I’ve got that one,” Mila cut in.  She extended a shaky hand and pulled down a clear bag of what looked like red sand.

“You need to move.  I’ll give you directions.  The HVAC center isn’t far, but you’re going to have to time this perfectly.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said, moving to the door.  Mila was just a touch slower getting into motion and I felt my concern for her grow a proportionate amount.

“What do you need us to do?”  Stani asked.

“For right now, I’d suggest stalling, but that’s the sort of thing that’s liable to end up fatal to someone.  Probably you.”

Stani did not disagree, which raised my estimation of him another notch or two.  This was a man willing to deal with unexpected complications in the heat of the moment and someone capable of accepting an outside assessment without any unnecessary ego.  “Then what?”

“Assuming Aiden has secured the perimeter in ways we didn’t expect and can’t see,” I said, “the only way out is through him.  The alarm went off at the southern entrance, but you guys got into a fight at the loading bays.”

“He’ll pick one,” Mila said, “and cover the other area before he starts his sweep.”

“Good to know.  Sarah can tell us how he decides to enter.  Stani, I need you and Billy’s guys to rendezvous inside the building.  Mila and I can draw Aiden deeper into the plant before we drop off the plastic.”

“You are still planning on this sabotage?”

In a less serious situation, Stani’s absolute bewilderment would have made me smile.  As it was, I only bared my teeth in a fierce, feral grin.  “Billy’s got answers that we all need.  Pulling this off is the sort of thing that gets us deep in his favor.  Besides…Hill is really starting to piss me off.”

“You’re damn right,” Sarah added, from her end of the line.

“I…okay,” Stani said.  “How will we know where to go?”

I paused at that.  Sarah couldn’t relay directions to me and direct both of the other groups, at the same time.  That hesitation lingered for a few more critical seconds before I made the call.  “Sarah, which way is the HVAC center?  Generally speaking.”

“From where you are?”  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  “Two lefts and a right.”

“Alright, I can remember that.  Can you coordinate the two others, so we can make our escape at the same time?”

Sarah weighed her answer for a moment before responding.  “I assume you don’t want me distracting you?”

“It would be nice not to split my attention, yes.”

She sighed.  “Hurry up, then.  I can only watch so many things at once, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for yourself.”

“Roger that.”  The comms went silent and I motioned to Mila.  “Come on.”

We rushed out of the room at top speed, careening to our left without bothering to slow down, and my right shoulder collided with one of the industrial machines.  I used the brief flash of pain as motivation and pushed myself down the aisle with Mila less than a step behind me.

Left, down another path populated on both sides by machines like the ones I’d seen earlier.  Another left, and the scenery changed from machinery to what seemed to be a line of offices.  At the end of that aisle, we took the right and entered into a hallway that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an office building, but was an odd juxtaposition against the backdrop of industrial chic.

It took less than two minutes to cover the distance, and we slowed in the hallway to examine the title plates bolted in place beside the sporadic doors.  Mila spotted the correct nameplate first, on the left side of the hallway a few yards away.

The earbud beeped twice.  “Devlin!  They’re coming your way!  Three mercs, split up so that they can cover more ground.  You’re about to run into-”

Before I could do much more than process Sarah’s words, a door at the far end of the hallway flew open, practically tearing itself from its hinges.  I hurled myself to the right, on pure impulse, a split second before a loud report issued through the enclosed space.  Mila took cover as well and squeezed off three rounds.

“Dev!  There aren’t any cameras in that hallway; I can’t see what’s going on!”

I couldn’t spare the breath to answer Sarah’s plaintive cries.  Instead, I looked across the hallway at Mila, crouched behind a protrusion in the wall.  She met my eyes and I was struck by how wide her pupils were.  The terror in every quivering inch of body language woke a similar fear in me.  I tried to push that fear down, to wrestle it back into submission with the years of training and the ice-cold focus I typically clung to while on the job, and was only partially successful.

“He wouldn’t want me to kill you!” A voice called out, and my panicked mind catalogued and identified the accent without any conscious decision to do so.  South American – Brazillian, maybe? – male, perhaps in his late twenties.  It wasn’t Aiden at the end of the hallway, then; this was Carlos, the driver.

Carlos kept talking.  “You know how much he misses you, Thorn,” he said.  “Just come out, and the two of you can talk this out.  Don’t you want to talk this out?”

Mila didn’t respond, but I could practically see the words hovering at the edge of her lips.  She extended her gun an inch or two into the hallway and fired off another three bullets.

I risked a glance out at the same time.  Carlos ducked out of the doorway as the rounds struck the frame and wall, but he didn’t fire back.  The first salvo must have been pure instinct, then.  If Aiden wanted Mila alive, then Carlos couldn’t risk firing blindly into the hallway.  That was something I might be able to use.

When I looked back at Mila, I saw that her mind had followed a similar track.  She fired the last three rounds without any effort to aim and, with her other hand, gestured at me.

“Sarah,” I whispered, “open every door in the place.”

I dashed across the hallway without waiting for a reply, scooping up the magnesium phosphide and red phosphorous on the floor by Mila as I passed, and slammed a shoulder into the door marked ‘HVAC.’  Mercifully, it was an electronic lock, and Sarah opened it as my body collided into the metal.  I stumbled into the room, lost my balance, and nearly cracked the container of magnesium phosphide as I fell.  The air smelled…not stale, precisely.  Heavy, in some way I couldn’t quite identify.  My mind tracked that information, filed it away, and refocused on the task at hand.

“What do I do?”  I practically screamed into the earbud.

The pace of Sarah’s typing had accelerated to the point where it sounded more like a single, constant hum than individual keystrokes.  “Just mix them together, and throw it anywhere.  You’ll only have a few seconds before…”

I unscrewed the top from the magnesium phosphide before she could finish that thought and dumped the red phosphorous into the jar.  Then, I dug a fistful of Billy’s plastic shards from my pocket and added those to the now-smoking concoction.

In the hallway outside of the room, someone – Mila, judging from the distinctive sound of her smaller weapon – fired several times.  I glanced in that direction without thinking, and almost missed the next Sarah said.

Shit, the precautions!  That factory hasn’t passed the regulations for – “

I did miss whatever Sarah said next.  I turned to run and, behind me, the mixture of magnesium phosphide and red phosphorous did exactly what Sarah and I had planned for it to do: it exploded, consuming the fake plastic, and creating a cloud of noxious fumes that spread through the small room as if it had a mind of its own.  On the heels of that, however, another explosion triggered in the very air around me.  The force of that second explosion picked me up off of my feet and threw me forward, out of the room, and into the opposite wall in the hallway with enough force that my bones rattled and, for a second, I lost track of my surroundings.

“-dust explosion!”  Sarah’s voice, disconnected from any sense of space or time.  “You have to get out!  You have to get out now!