The first thing I heard was the distinctive hum as several dozen industrial lights switched on at the same time. A moment after that, a high pitched siren began to warble through the factory. And a few moments after that, the sound of boots reached us, even behind the protective and muffling steel door. There were more people than I’d expected in the hallway, however. I tried, and failed, to keep count; at a conservative estimate, there were at least a dozen guards rushing from various points to respond to the alarm, probably more.
Mila didn’t seem particularly bothered by the uproar but, in fairness, she didn’t seem particularly bothered by anything. She held her handgun parallel to her thigh, its barrel pointed down, and kept her finger aligned with the side of the weapon. She was ready for combat, but not actively courting it; I approved of that wary stance, even as I felt a deep unease at the sight of her crouched like some large cat.
“Remind me why this plan is supposed to work?” Mila asked. Her voice was pitched so that I could catch the words over the cacophony, but not so loud that anyone outside of the room would hear a thing. “I thought we were trying to avoid letting Hill know we were here?”
“It’s complicated,” I said, at the same slightly exaggerated volume.
“Doesn’t seem that complicated,” Mila replied. “Set off a building-wide alarm and kick a hornet’s nest full of armed guards. Makes perfect sense to me, and I’m just the muscle for hire.”
I shot her a sidelong glance and Mila, without the faintest hint of shame, lapsed back into tense silence.
If she had actually been interested in the answer, I could have explained the process to her. The alarm and the guards were things Sarah and I had prepared for, and we’d anticipated a certain amount of chaos as soon as the alarm went off. Without sufficient time to case the establishment and perform the necessary due diligence – discovering guard rotations, identifying possible weak points in the social structure, preparing multiple escape routes – Sarah had elected to repurpose an old plan that had served us well on more than one occasion.
If we couldn’t stop a response to our incursion, and we couldn’t predict how severe that response might be, there was only a single viable option remaining: utter bedlam. Panic caused people to react in predictable ways and it took an absurd amount of training to override those primal ‘fight or flight’ instincts. My experience with Hill’s men at the manor house had taught me that, no matter how well funded these goons were, none of them were what I would charitably call ‘well-trained.’ Given an obvious target – provided courtesy of Sarah’s access to their security system – the men stationed inside the factory would rush directly to the problem area, hoping to solve the issue through brute force and a simple numerical advantage.
“Trust me,” I said to Mila. Then, to Sarah, I added, “Tell me what you see.”
A few seconds passed while Sarah input a series of commands into her computer. “Most of the guards are headed to secure the southern exit,” she said. “Just like I thought they would.”
“And the rest?”
“Just a skeleton crew, split into three groups. A couple guys stayed behind to secure the security room, but they’re in a room across the way.”
“Trying to ambush anyone who makes a move on the actual system,” I commented. “Not a bad plan.”
“It’d be a better idea if they hadn’t chosen a room with an electronic lock,” Sarah said.
“So you can lock them in?”
“I could turn the heat up and sweat them out of their tactical gear, if I wanted to,” Sarah replied.
“Ah.” I felt uncomfortable suddenly, but the feeling passed after only a single ridiculous moment. “What about the other two groups?”
“Moving to secure the priority targets, of course. I’m tracking targets moving to…looks like Loading Area B, and some are splitting off into the deeper parts of the factory.”
“Well, that lets us know where they’re actually processing the fake plastic at,” I said. “Connect me to Stani, please and keep an eye on the traffic outside of this room. I need to move as soon as possible.”
“Check and check,” Sarah said.
I waited for the two beeps before speaking again. “You’re looking for Loading Dock B,” I said. “It’s just a skeleton team guarding the area, but that’s where the processed product should be.”
Over the comms, Stani relayed my words to Iosif and Leonid in Russian. “Okay,” he said to me, in English, when he was done speaking to his comrades. “And you will be…?
“Getting Billy’s sabotage in place. If you cause enough of a fuss, no one should realize we were already inside the factory. Hit it hard and fast, get the product, and get away as quick as you can. We’re looking at a twenty minute timetable, at the outside, before local law enforcement comes to check out the alarm.”
“It will be done,” Stani said.
The line beeped twice, and then I heard Sarah’s voice. She wasn’t exactly calm, but the words were possessed of that same vital force and focus that I’d fallen in love with so many years ago. “I’ll tap into the police frequencies that I know about,” she said, “but there’s no way of knowing if they started operating on something new since the last time I was here.”
“Whatever you can do will be enough,” I assured her. “I need Chester and James now.”
It took a few more seconds for the lines to connect than before. Sarah must be multitasking several screens’ worth of information now, if the simple task of switching connections was taking her a noticeable amount of time. I found myself idly wondering exactly how many cameras she had displayed on her screens back at the hotel room.
The telltale beeps came over the comms, just in time for me to hear Chester swearing under his breath. He spoke to me before I had a chance to form any thought into a coherent sentence. “You there, mate?”
“I’m here,” I replied. “There’s your signal. I want the two of you to pull back a bit, and make sure that Mila and I are going to have a clean exit.”
“And trust you with the loot?”
“I don’t want the drugs, Chester.” With great effort, I kept myself from snapping at him in pure irritation. “Billy and I made a deal, and I intend to honor that. Neither you nor James have the expertise required to infiltrate the base without making a fuss, and you aren’t trained.”
When subtlety and charm failed to work, I was always willing to fall back on blunt facts. The fact that Mila herself wasn’t really a subtle presence did not escape my mind; neither did I forget that Stani and his two hangers-on were untested elements. I just kept my realization of those facts out of my voice.
“Alright,” Chester conceded, perhaps fifteen seconds later. “How do you expect us to keep your flank clear, if you don’t want using guns, then?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me; I’m going out of my way to make sure that you don’t have to deal with the majority of the guards, and you’re complaining because you don’t get to shoot the one or two you might have to deal with.”
“It’s not that,” Chester said, “so much as the fact that I don’t trust anyone what says they can do what you said, if I can’t see it with me own eyes.”
Which wasn’t a terrible point to make, even if the idea came from general distrust. Without Sarah working her magic on the other end of the connection, this raid would have been over very quickly. “Trust me, or don’t trust me,” I said, “but we don’t have the time to argue about this.”
A few more seconds passed before he grunted. “Fine,” Chester said, “but every bit of the goods had better be there, or else..”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure you would do something very painful. Blah blah blah. I’m cutting you off, so that I can focus on this.” The dull roar of repeated heavy footsteps outside of the door was thinning. “Keep that exit clear. I’ll call when we’re on the way out.”
Sarah severed the line for me. “It looks like you’re clear,” she said, hesitantly. “Might be a few more guards lurking somewhere that I can’t see, though. The security feeds don’t provide full coverage.”
“Wouldn’t want to accidentally make a videotape of your illegal activities, after all,” I said. “Especially not when you can’t be sure how secure your systems are.”
“I’ve been wondering about that, actually,” Sarah said.
“Hill has to know you’re working with a hacker by now. Between the museum job and the manor house…”
“He doesn’t know I’m involved in this raid, though,” I pointed out.
“At this point, if I were him, I’d start expecting you to pop up like the Kool Aid Man at every possible moment. You’ve barely been in London for a week, after all, and you keep showing up to throw him off of his game.” She paused. “Plus, Asher knows you. This doesn’t seem right.”
“What’re you saying?”
Sarah sighed and changed topics. “I don’t know what I’m saying. Nevermind, don’t worry about it now. We can talk it out later.”
“I’m sure, yeah.” Pause. “Alright, there’s no more movement in the aisles. I’ll lock the mobilized guards out of the building, but you’ve only got…maybe fifteen minutes to switch out the plastics.”
I nodded to myself. “Got it. Mila?”
Mila returned my nod and then threw the steel door open, checking left and right for any surprises. There were none. Following Sarah’s guidance, we navigated through the brightened aisles, weaving back and forth between the silent industrial machines. It took less than three minutes, moving at double speed, to reach a crossroads. Down one aisle, a sign labeled ‘Loading Dock B’ hung prominently from the ceiling. The occasional sounds of conflict were barely audible, if I strained my hearing to the limit. I ignored that path and turned instead to my left.
“You’ve got four guards in a room across from the lab,” Sarah said.
“Can you lock them in?”
“Done and done. I don’t have any visuals into the lab itself, though; there’s every possibility Hill stationed someone there.”
“If he did,” Mila said, “it won’t matter for very long.”
“Take it slow,” Sarah advised. “That’s all I’m saying. The more noise you make, the higher the probability that Hill figures out something is wrong and starts thinking outside of the box.”
That made sense, but something about the way Sarah said the words gave me a moment of pause. “Hill hasn’t thought outside of the box, so far,” I said slowly.
“What’s that?” Sarah asked.
The half-formed idea retreated back into my subconscious when I tried to examine it further. “Nothing,” I said. “Lock the doors and walk us in.”
Keeping low, Mila and I crept down the aisle, past the room where – according to Sarah – four guards hadn’t yet realized they’d been effectively neutralized, until we reached a pair of swinging doors. I pushed one open, while Mila handled the other, and the two of slipped inside as quiet as shadows.
Past another set of doors, we reached the lab itself. Beakers and glasses of various sizes, and filled with concoctions in a rainbow of colors, were scattered across shelves and countertops. I saw graduated cylinders filled to the brim with clear liquid, discarded latex gloves, and more than one abandoned machine with some inscrutable purpose. Two computers hummed softly while their attached monitors shed a bluish light that tinted the room. Lining the farthest wall, at least four different recycling containers were plainly visible.
I saw all that in an instant, but none of those details interested me. It was what I didn’t see that sent alarm bells screaming through my head.
“There’s no one here,” I said.
“I said that there’s no one here,” I repeated. “No plastics to switch out, no technicians performing a procedure in either direction. The lab is empty.”
Sarah was quiet for a few moments as she digested that. “Then why would the guards come to protect an empty room?”
“I don’t know, Sarah, but…” I stopped. The idea from earlier returned and hit me with a staggering, awful force. “How did Billy find out about this shipment?”
“You never asked,” Sarah said. “Hill’s organization probably isn’t perfect, and this plant isn’t very far from Billy’s place anyway. Why?”
A chunk of ice formed in my gut and the hairs on the nape of my neck stood straight up. “Sarah, connect me to Stani.”
“Just do it!” I snapped at her. I rarely raised my voice, let alone to Sarah. Even Mila gave me a shocked look.
The line beeped twice. “Stani, can you hear me?”
“Da, I hear you very well,” the Russian replied. “What is it?”
“Are you still at the loading bay?”
“We have sent the guards into retreat,” Stani replied, with a hint of a laugh in his voice. “They put up barely any fight at all. We are just about to drive the van out of this plant and back to Billy.”
“Check the back of the van,” I said.
I could almost feel the confusion coming from his end of the connection, but he relayed the order in Russian to one of his men. There were a few seconds of tense silence, punctuated by a rattle as either Iosif or Leonid threw the van’s door open.
“It is here,” Stani said. This time there was no mistaking the glee in his voice. “It is all here.”
Mila tapped me on the shoulder and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“Can you, uh…check it?” I asked Stani. “Just to make sure.”
“We do not have much time for this,” he said, “but if you insist…”
More Russian from him. Several seconds ticked away before someone replied to Stani. “What?”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Iosif says that this is not cocaine,” he replied. “This is baking powder.”
“Shit!” I started to pace around the empty lab, heedless of my volume. “Shit, I should’ve seen this coming!”
“What are you talking about?”
I ignored the Russian. “Sarah, pull up the exterior cameras and tell me what you see.”
The line beeped twice as she unmuted herself. “The regular traffic, mostly, and…” She trailed off, and those few moments of silence were more damning than anything she could have said. “And an Audi.”
“An Audi?” Stani asked. Then, a moment later, “Who is speaking? Who is that?”
Sarah spoke directly to me, disregarding Stani’s complaints. “The license plate matches up. How did Aiden get here so fast? You’ve only been in the building for a couple of minutes!”
“This isn’t a raid,” I spat out, furious with myself for missing the signs. “This is a trap.”