Author’s Note: The Story Continues

Nothing too in-depth to post right now, except to say that I’ve officially started up Book Two over here and that I’ll be maintaining the same schedule on that serial that I kept on this one. So, if you’re reading this because you’ve reached the end of the team’s trials in London, worry not! There are always more places to go, people to con, and priceless artifacts to steal.

The Lone Star of Texas

For the third time in the last hour, he pulled his phone out of his suit jacket and pressed the power button. What he read on the display hadn’t changed much since his last check.

Date: March 14th, 2017. Time: 11:47PM. Temperature: 88°.

There were no new text messages or emails.

Texas was uncomfortable, even at the very best of times. For some reason, this March was positively sweltering. There was so much humidity rolling in from the gulf that he wasn’t sure if the moisture on his face even belonged to him. The string tie, he decided, had been a much better choice than anything more conventional. The classic Stetson on his head…less so.

“The things we do,” he muttered. There wasn’t anyone around to hear him. The wide stretch of prairie where he crouched was devoid of any other human life for miles around. Still, the sound of a voice, even his own, helped to keep him anchored. It was an old-school trick, but its age didn’t change its efficacy. After all, this was hardly the first time he’d been forced to hide in the bush, waiting for ungodly lengths of time.

He checked his phone again – 11:49, now – and sighed. The phone went back into his jacket. After a bit of rummaging, it was replaced by his last six inches of beef jerky, which he absently began to chew. The simple, repetitive action helped to clear his thoughts normally. Tonight wasn’t any different.

The meeting scheduled in the last eleven or so minutes was alleged to be one of the annual face-to-face chats between the heads of at least two major crime families. Every year, the location of said meeting changed, and it had cost him dearly to find out where this year’s meeting was supposed to be held. He could only hope that his expenditures would yield dividends when midnight struck. Otherwise, he would have wasted an entire trip back home and walked away with nothing to show for it.

Well, that wasn’t exactly true. He had uncovered several pliable individuals within two of those organizations and he hadn’t known about them before. With time, those assets could be developed, coerced, or encouraged to reveal even more secrets. Those secrets would inevitably be worth something to someone. They always were.

He smiled in the darkness. There was something poetic about that. Everyone acknowledged that he simply knew things, yet no one had the faintest idea how. They probably assumed that he had access to some superior bugging technology or that he blackmailed people or that he was the head of some as-yet-unknown faction preparing to reveal themselves and make a move. Powerful people always forgot about the little guys, though. He should know; hadn’t they forgotten about him, once upon a time?

His grin faded as, in the distance, a prairie dog raised a cry and other members of its species joined in. It wasn’t that the wildlife frightened him in any meaningful way; except where firearms were prohibited, he made a point to keep a Smith and Wesson in one boot and a Colt Police Special on his hip. The howls still bothered him, though, in a way he couldn’t quite name. He changed his position, grumbled, and eventually sat down in the dirt without any concern for his clothing.

In better times, he would have simply paid a local to do this sort of on-site eavesdropping or activated an embedded asset to report the conversation later, but these weren’t better times. Not anymore. Since the absolute destruction of Hill’s power base in London, followed by the public spectacle of his death shortly thereafter, every criminal business and enterprise on three different continents had gone into panic mode. Employee records were checked and double-checked; draconian password policies were implemented; those who had grown fat through theft, graft, or intimidation had hired small armies to protect themselves; and, perhaps most damaging to anyone in his trade, the pool of loose lips had dried up to a puddle, seemingly overnight.

On the bright side, the abrupt radio silence that the criminal underworlds had suddenly fallen into had, as a natural response, increased the value of rumors, secrets, and whispers. No one knew who or what had happened to Hill, but everyone was scared of something similar happening to them. Paranoia led individuals who had scorned his services before to offer ludicrous sums in exchange for the thinnest affirmation that their rivals were or were not planning an attack.

The collective increase in security hadn’t protected them from anything.

Six weeks after the London drug trade came apart at the seams, a gambling ring in southeast China had imploded. Literally millions of dollars vanished overnight and the people in charge of that enterprise found themselves without the protection their wealth had provided. As the powerful bankers disappeared into the bowls of their government’s secret prisons, mortgages and loans had either been mysteriously paid off or otherwise forgiven.

Five months after that, three African warlords who had been managing a moderately successful arms smuggling business abruptly opened fire on each other. Their forces had been devastated yet, when the dust settled, not a single one of the three could actually explain what had made them come to blows. Worse, without their small scale armies, they were powerless against the mob of oppressed citizens who miraculously got their hands on a cache of stolen weapons.

Someone was making moves, obviously, and it seemed like no one was safe. On the surface, the incidents in London, China, and Sierra Leone had nothing to do with each other. But, to someone with their ear to the pulse of the underworld, there was an eerie symmetry that couldn’t be ignored. All three of the organizations destroyed had made their millions or billions by trafficking in the pain and misery of an oppressed and exploited citizenry. And, as the people who had been in charge fell, that power had been restored to the people. It was almost noble, except that good people didn’t even know about the people who had been taken out.

It was a puzzle, without a solution. Who would be hit next? How? Could it be avoided? Could it be turned into an advantage? Questions coming from all corners, and there simply weren’t any answers to provide.

In less than two months, the information trade had become a seller’s market. He was happy about that, obviously. He knew perfectly well, however, that the bubble wouldn’t last indefinitely. Eventually, someone with more power than patience would make a move and he needed to know about that before anyone else. A few weeks of forewarning could mean the difference between emerging from the quagmire with new, powerful connections and ending up on the trash pile with anyone not fast enough or smart enough to get out of the way.

Thus, why he now found himself waiting at the Texas-Mexico border, sweating through his expensive clothing, checking and obsessively re-checking his phone.

He finished off the jerky and reached for his phone, intending to see how much longer it would take, but stopped when he saw a caravan of trucks speeding across the land only a few miles away. There was a dense cluster of tall plants about thirty yards away, closer to the caravan’s destination. It only took him a second of consideration before he gathered his gear and moved, one hand on his hat to keep it from falling off in his haste. He had just enough time to get himself properly settled and concealed before a second group of noisy motorcycles, traveling on a direct collision course with the force, became visible.

The lead SUV in the first caravan and the head motorocyle in the second stopped less than a thousand feet away from where he hid, signaling the rest of their respective packs to do the same. Armed men, at least two dozen on each side, spilled out onto the land, and took up protective positions like the well-trained matchstick men that they were.

He didn’t immediately recognize anyone among the security forces, but he did know the aged Albanian man who stepped down from one of the SUVs: Besnik Nikolla, patriarch of the Nikolla family. His clan was one of the largest in the country, although that was a relatively new honor. It was only through allying with powerful organizations in foreign countries, avoiding outright conflict, and brilliant maneuvering that they’d managed to crush or consume their nearby competition. Getting to the top of the hill came with its own challenges, unfortunately, and Besnik was currently in the middle of a power struggle with a young up-and-comer from within his own ranks.

Showing up in person, instead of sending an intermediary, sent a message: My power is in no danger; see, the troubles at home are not even worthy of my direct attention.

The man with the binoculars wondered if that was actually true. The upstart Fatos Nikolla was charismatic and ambitious. What he lacked in Besnik’s gift for strategy, he more than made up for in personality. Still, not showing up would have sent an even louder message, and no one was in any position to allow even the implication of weakness.

Besnik grudgingly accepted the aid of a guard, who helped him out of the SUV, while another man set up a wheelchair for him to use. They accomplished the transfer in short order and Besnik, breathing for the first time in a while without the aid of an oxygen tank, lit a cigarette. Another message, maybe, or simply his addiction overriding his common sense.

The rider of the head motorcycle got off of his bike, callously disdaining the use of a kickstand. A member of his own gang quickly stepped forward to catch the motorcycle before it could fall to the ground. The leader took off his helmet and dramatically ran a hand through his hair. He was immediately recognizable, as well. This was Matias Koski, the newest – for a given value of newest – leader of United Brotherhood, a Finnish motorcycle gang who trafficked mostly in drugs, with the occasional foray into smuggling.

The man with the binoculars hadn’t worked with Matias specifically, but the Finn’s reputation preceded him. Matias had butchered his way to the top of UB, leaving blood-soaked horror shows in his wake, and only emerged triumphant because no one else had the stomach for the violence he seemed to delight in. It was only a matter of time before someone took him out and, despite his preference to stay politically neutral, the man with the binoculars hoped that a change in leadership took place sooner rather than later.

Matias and Besnik stared each other down for a long time. The man with the binoculars looked away long enough to don a pair of headphones and to point his directional microphone in their general direction. At first, when he heard nothing except the sounds of the prairie, he thought that the device was defective. A moment later, Besnik sighed and the sound of it came through perfectly.

“Matias,” the Albanian said, by way of greeting.

“Besnik.”

They were silent for about thirty seconds. It was obvious what was happening. Neither crime lord would get into business with anyone without going through the effort of learning their language; at the same time, neither man would be willing to make the concession of using the other’s native tongue.

Finally, by unspoken agreement, they decided to use English, which almost everyone knew. “I do not have much time to spend here,” Besnik said. “You are new to this, but I traditionally discuss business grievances with whoever happens to be here as a representative of the United Brotherhood.”

Translation, from passive-aggressive to plain old aggressive: You’re just the newest flavor, while I have been doing this for some time. I do not expect that you will be doing this for very long, either.

Matias sneered, turned, and spat. “I suppose you can’t afford to be away from your businesses for very long. So many things can go wrong without a firm hand at the rudder to guide the ship, don’t you think?”

Translation: You’re in danger of losing power, and we both know it. I’ll survive you, old man, and I look forward to spitting on your grave.

The man with the binoculars hadn’t expected so much hostility between the two men. Sure, they represented completely opposite ends of the leadership spectrum, but the Nikolla family had profited alongside UB for at least thirty years. It didn’t make sense to antagonize a potential ally in a time of war.

Unless, he realized, they were both afraid that this meeting was only a pretext for an attack. Things were worse than he’d thought if even old alliances were being questioned.

“No need to worry about my house,” Besnik said. “If you do not have concerns, however, I have matters to tend to.”

Matias turned and said something in Finnish to his cohorts. Some of them chuckled, others didn’t. The man with the binoculars got the impression that, whatever Matias had said, it wasn’t funny in the traditional way. “Oh, I have concerns. Where is my share of the business from last quarter?”

“You have your share,” Besnik replied. He blew out a plume of cigarette smoke, designed specifically to hit Matias in the face. “Did you not understand the bookkeeping?”

“What I understand,” Matias sneered, “is that you sent less than half of what my organization normally takes. Did you think you could steal from us without someone noticing?”

Besnik gave his counterpart a long-suffering look. “If you are not actually an idiot, Kolski, then do not act like one. You and I both know that a large part of our business depended on trafficking product through London. We cannot do that until the underworld in that city settles into something resembling order again.”

“Hill’s operation wasn’t that complicated. Surely you could send some men in to control matters, set up a puppet in the short term?”

“I could, but that would be a stupid move. Unless you know who was responsible for bringing him down in the first place?”

The question was half-taunt, half-challenge. The guards on both sides of the meeting felt the tension sharpen. Weapons were lifted fractionally higher, stances widened, and it seemed like everyone held their breath, waiting for the reply.

Matias, despite his demeanor, wasn’t an idiot. He allowed the tension to stretch out for a second before he raised a hand and gestured for his men to stand down. They did so reluctantly and, a moment later, Besnik gave his men the same order.

“No,” Matias said, “I do not. We will have to make do with what you have managed to send us. However, we will have to change our arrangement, unless you can find a way to make up the difference in the next quarter.”

“We already have plans to extend into Colombia.” Besnik finished his cigarette and contemplated another for a second or two. Ultimately, he decided against it. “Hill’s fall was not without its upsides. He held contracts with several cartels who have some promising ideas about smuggling cocaine across country lines.”

Matias snorted. “Which cartels would those be? You can’t mean the Calis or the Morenos.”

“And if I do?”

“Both of those cartels were wiped out,” Matias said. “Months ago.”

The man with the binoculars perked up. This was news to him. He’d been busy, sure, but how could he possibly have missed something on that scale?

In his shock, Besnik didn’t even bother to pretend that he’d already known. “What? How?”

“The Americans,” Matias said, as if that explained everything. “They learned where the leaders would be and took them out at the same time, on opposite sides of the country. There wasn’t a chance for anyone to raise a warning. Without the heads of their families…”

“It was simple for the local government to sweep up the rest,” Besnik finished. “Who would do such a thing?”

“You know as much as I know,” Matias said. Then, he sneered again. “Well, less than me, apparently.”

The Albanian let that insult pass without comment and Matias, surprisingly, didn’t press the advantage. “Did anyone escape the clean-up?”

Matias fished out a smartphone from his riding leathers and navigated through it in silence for a few seconds. When he found what he’d been looking for, he tossed the phone over to Besnik. Despite the man’s age, he snatched it out of the air easily.

“What is this?” Besnik asked.

“Security footage. Most was too corrupted, but there were a few stills. The other cartels have been passing this around to anyone with connections overseas.”

The man with the binoculars barely kept himself from cursing out loud. From this distance, there was no way that he could possibly see what image was on the screen. He allowed himself a second of fury before he forced him to refocus on the conversation.

Besnik examined the phone for several seconds, silently contemplating whatever it was that he saw there. Then, without warning, he lobbed the phone back to Matias who fumbled it from one hand to another for a second or two before he got a solid grip on it. “Three people,” the Albanian said. “When did the Calis or the Morenos start working with Americans?”

Matias shrugged. “Maybe the woman vouched for them?”

The man with the binoculars blinked slowly. Three people…an American and a woman…that meant something. He just couldn’t put his finger immediately on what.

Then it hit him. The Morenos, more so the Calis, would refuse to work with anyone who wasn’t also Hispanic. And he’d seen a group of three people, one of them American and one of them Hispanic, not too long ago. In London, in fact, just before the Hill situation had gone critical. What had their names been, though?

He couldn’t remember. It was possible that he’d never known, in the first place. People tended to use pseudonyms at events like the Green Light Gala.

The rest of the conversation between Besnik and Matias was boring, compared to the conversation about the Calis and the Morenos. He propped the directional microphone against a rock and connected its output cord into a recording device. He could go through it later, when he was comfortable. For right now, the man with the binoculars felt that he needed to take a second to process what he’d just heard.

It was possible that he’d come across the information that everyone in the global criminal underworld wanted more than anything else. He might be the only one who could connect the dots, if only he could find out a little bit more.

The Texan pushed his Stetson up, wiped his forehead clean of sweat, and smiled broadly into the night. If knowledge was power – and he truly believed that it was – then he was only a few breadcrumbs away from the equivalent of a nuclear payload.

He wondered, before he began gathering his equipment, how much someone would be willing to pay for that?

The Mind At Work

There were few things Dr. Leslie Bridges hated more than a client who refused to tell the truth.

After leaving school, Leslie had made her name as a sort of “Psychologist to the Stars” and she’d profited greatly in the process. Wealthy men and women had the same problems as poor people, essentially. They were just able to pay much higher prices for her services and, of course, for her discretion.

If someone had given Leslie a dollar for every tabloid that offered to purchase private recordings and conversations, she would probably have moved up several tax brackets in the last three or four years alone. Secrets were a currency in the reality of the richest one percent; rumors were worth even more. Leslie hadn’t known that going into the business, but she certainly knew it now.

Still, no matter how much cash she was offered to break confidentiality, no matter what assurances were made to protect her anonymity, Leslie adhered to a strict code of professionalism. No amount of money anyone could offer would convince her to break that code. So long as her clients weren’t planning on committing a crime – even then, she really only cared about violent crimes, as the richest people in America often found themselves entangled in white collar crime of one flavor or another – her lips remained sealed.

They trusted her, which is why they kept calling. Should that trust ever dissolve, Leslie’s business would fall apart as quickly as it had sprung up.

So, it was impossibly frustrating to deal with a client who committed wholeheartedly to absolute fabrications, wasting precious minutes that both of them couldn’t really afford to spare.

Although…that wasn’t entirely true. Leslie was paid exorbitantly by the hour. If a client wanted to spend those hours weaving fairy tales, it wasn’t her problem. She would still reap the benefits of referrals, her fame would spread, and the office would continue to turn ridiculous profits annually. Already, she found herself thinking about bringing someone else into the practice, if only she could find someone in town that she could trust.

It wasn’t professional ethics that piqued her nerves, Leslie realized, while her client continued to spin lie after lie. In this specific instance, it was a personal connection. She cared about her clients, generally speaking. This particular client, however, represented a relationship that went beyond simple business. The link wasn’t anything that would raise eyebrows or bring an ethics board down on her head. It was deeper and, at the same time, simpler than that.

She’d known Sarah Ford since the woman’s childhood, after all.

“…so we’re handling some international business,” Sarah was saying. “It shouldn’t take us too long, but I didn’t want to miss an appointment.”

Leslie tuned back into the conversation. “That hasn’t stopped you in the past, Sarah,” she said. “I could check the official records, but I’m fairly certain that you’ve missed six of our last ten appointments.”

Sarah grimaced. “I think it’s seven, actually. Nothing went wrong with the trust fund, did it? I can wire you money for the absences, if you need me to.”

Leslie raised a hand, so that the webcam could see it. “The fund’s working perfectly, thanks. You’re ahead on your payments, same as always. That isn’t the problem.”

“What’s wrong, then?”

Leslie tapped her upper lip for a few seconds, carefully composing the next thought. Sarah probably wasn’t going to cut off contact, but it wouldn’t be proper for Leslie to even risk that. She’d tell her doctor what was really bothering her when she wanted to. A little prompting, however, couldn’t hurt.

The fact that ‘a little prodding’ would amount to a potentially offensive assault was just one of those things her professional intuition supported.

“How long have we been working together?” Leslie asked.

“Seven years, give or take. Why?”

“When we started our sessions, I made you a promise. Do you remember what it was?”

“Of course I do,” Sarah said. “You promised that, regardless of your relationship with my parents, our sessions were entirely private. That you’d never tell anyone what we talked about, even if my mom or dad put pressure on you.”

“Exactly. And I meant that. You do know that I meant that, don’t you?”

“I never doubted it.” The connection wasn’t perfect, but Leslie thought she saw Sarah’s expression darken and turn suspicious for an instant. “What are you getting at?”

“I only say that, so that I can say this.” Leslie took a deep breath, stalling and building up the moment, so that her next sentence would have the maximum effect. “Why are you fucking with me right now?”

Sarah blinked.

“I talk to your parents outside of the office on a regular basis,” Leslie continued, “so I can say with absolute certainty that you aren’t overseas dealing with the family business right now. As far as they know, you’re still running your investment business out of Los Angeles. Your father, specifically, tried his level best to convince me that it would be in your best interest to come home.”

“Did you agree with him?”

Leslie shook her head. “Without knowing more about the dynamic there, I’m not really willing to advise you in one way or another. And don’t change the subject.”

“I…wasn’t changing the subject…”

Sarah had always been a bad liar. She’d gotten considerably better in the past ten months, but Leslie was a trained psychologist, with years and years of experience piercing through masks. “Yes, you were. Look, if you want to use a metaphor to talk about what’s really bothering you, that’s fine. I can adapt. But you aren’t even doing that. There’s something on your mind and, whatever it is, it’s got you so shaken that you can’t even allude to it.”

Sarah pressed her lips together and stayed silent.

The ‘bad cop’ routine had rocked Sarah out of the rhythm of her falsehoods. Leslie switched to ‘good cop,’ so that she could coax the truth out with a softer touch. “I want to help you, Sarah. You know that I do. But I can’t do that if you aren’t going to tell me the truth. Or at least some version of the truth.”

Leslie couldn’t exactly announce that she wasn’t concerned with the legalities of Sarah’s activities. That would almost certainly violate ethical guidelines. She could only hope that Sarah would read between the lines and understand.

Sarah looked sheepish on her end of the video call for several seconds. Leslie had just enough time to wonder if she’d pushed too hard when her client cleared her throat and began to speak. “I wasn’t lying about, uh…being away on business. I may have exaggerated when I said that I was working on behalf of the family.”

Progress, even if it was slow progress, was better than nothing. “What are you doing, then?”

“You remember when I settled down in Los Angeles, a few years ago?”

Leslie nodded. She’d worked with the Ford family, in one fashion or another, for almost two decades. Sarah hadn’t taken advantage of her services until she’d come home from overseas.

“Well,” Sarah continued, “I guess you could say that I started my own little side business while I was away. Before I started…you know, talking to you.”

“Okay. What sort of business is it?”

“A non-profit,” Sarah said, a little too quickly. “Except for operating expenses, virtually every dime is used to help people in need.”

Leslie jotted down some notes in her blue notebook. When her clients had particularly stringent privacy requirements, she made sure to keep even the notes from her appointments in a single, specific location. The blue notebook, during the few hours each day where it wasn’t in her hand or in her direct line of vision, lived in a safety deposit box, rented under a false name. Leslie knew that she was paranoid about the notebook falling into the wrong hands, but she was comfortable with that paranoia. People would spend small fortunes to acquire the information her clients revealed. Spending a little bit of her money to ensure that those secrets were kept safe only seemed reasonable.

“I’m not surprised that you went into charity work,” Leslie said. “You’ve been very interested in that sort of thing since college, haven’t you?”

“That was the first time I really learned how bad it can be for other people,” Sarah replied. “Before that, I just sort of figured that…you know, other people would handle it.”

“And you felt they weren’t doing that?”

Sarah’s eyes narrowed. “They were hardly even trying,” she said. “You know how much money from your average charity actually goes to the stated cause? Almost none. They pocket donations, bill themselves as non-profit organizations, and then pay their CEOs millions. Meanwhile, the peole who really need help barely get the minimum required.”

Leslie had not, in fact, known that. All her life, she’d conscientiously donated to several charities. Now, she figured, those charities would need some deeper analysis.

“Your non-profit is different?”

“I give the money to the people who need it,” Sarah said. “No red tape, no bureaucracy. It’s not like I’m going to need the extra salary.”

Leslie nodded. “And that’s what you left Los Angeles for? Your non-profit,I mean?”

Sarah lapsed into silence again. Leslie settled down in her chair, content to wait until her client was willing to elaborate. It only took a few seconds. “Yes and no. There were…issues with the business that needed my attention. So I decided that I could afford to take a little vacation. You know, knock out those problems and stretch my legs a little bit.”

“Do you often find that you need to stretch your legs?”

Sarah hesitated, then nodded. “How much of a first world problem is that? Even if my family wasn’t rich, I’ve acquired a considerable personal fortune. I can afford to just leave my job to fly around the world whenever I want. But here I am, complaining about feeling cramped in my apartment.”

“That isn’t ridiculous,” Leslie said. “Not everyone is cut out for a sedentary life. Your father spends his vacations tackling mountains; your mother lobbied for a position on every social board that would accept her.”

“And my sister,” Sarah added sourly, “is busily establishing herself as the best pediatric surgeon in the country. So it’s good to know that I’m too restless to deal with simply enjoying life in the lap of luxury.”

Another line of notes went into Leslie’s notebook.

“Are you comparing yourself to your sister?” Leslie asked. “Because we’ve spoken about that before.”

Sarah reached off-camera for an instant before pulling a soda back into frame. She popped the top as she sighed; the two sounds mingled with each other over the connection. “I know. I know. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling…I don’t know. Does ungrateful sound like the right word for that?”

“I wouldn’t go that far.” Leslie tapped a pen against the desk for a handful of seconds. “If anything, I’d say that you’re just feeling unfulfilled. Wealth for its own sake might not matter to you. It’s possible that you need some sort of…perhaps ‘noble purpose’ is the closest phrase? I imagine that’s why you started your non-profit, right?”

“…yeah, let’s go with that.”

Leslie recognized a half-truth when she heard it.

“You said yes and no, when I asked if that’s why you went overseas,” Leslie said. “What was the other reason? The one that I suspect you don’t want to talk about?”

Sarah bit down her bottom lip. “I, uh…well…” She took a deep breath, visibly steeling herself, and rushed through the next sentence without allowing herself time to rethink it. “I’m having to work with Devlin again.”

Leslie barely kept herself from whistling in surprise. She waited until her expression was firmly under her control before she spoke. “That would be the same Devlin that I’m thinking of?”

“Yes, the same.” With the information finally out, Sarah’s expression softened. She wasn’t being entirely honest, but she had at least moved into territory where she didn’t feel it necessary to control every single thought or expression. “He was the person who brought the…problems…to my attention, in the first place.”

“And that requires you to work with them, after being alerted?”

“The difficulties I mentioned? They’re the sort of thing he specializes in. I’m really not sure I could have handled things without him.”

Leslie waited.

Sarah sighed. “He and I started the non-profit together, in the first place,” she admitted.

That made no sense at all.

When they’d first started their sessions, Devlin had been the only thing on Sarah’s mind. It took weeks before Sarah had been able to mention anything other than her ex-husband and Leslie, trained psychologist that she was, didn’t believe for an instant that Sarah had ever gotten over the man. From what she’d been able to gather, the relationship between Sarah and Devlin had kept itself afloat on pure passion, long after their fundamental incompatibilities should have driven them apart.

As far as Leslie knew, Devlin had come from a poor family; Sarah was a Ford, with all of the financial benefits that name implied. A purely sexual dalliance would have been one thing, but for her to marry him had been ludicrous. They had nothing in common.

Or did they? It was possible that Sarah was keeping salient details to herself. She clearly thought that something about her overseas business was worth sabotaging sessions over. Maybe that unknown thing was the link between Devlin and her client?

She didn’t know. She couldn’t know, unless Sarah opened up.

Leslie jotted down a short phrase – not even a complete sentence, just an unformed question – in the notebook.

“When you say that he specializes in this area,” Leslie began, “what exactly do you mean?”

Sarah’s eyes flickered away momentarily. “He has a…history in art acquisition.”

“For auctions and things like that?”

“Things like that, yeah.”

Leslie didn’t miss the subtle evasion. She logged that in her memory, not the notebook.

“So you’ve been working with your ex-husband again. How has that been going?”

Sarah sighed. “Exhilarating? Confusing?”

“It isn’t surprising that you’re experiencing conflicting emotions,” Leslie said. “Devlin was a big part of your life for a long time. Finding yourself in close proximity to him again would almost certainly stir up feelings that you haven’t had a chance to deal with yet.”

“Tell me about it,” Sarah said, snorting derisively. She took a sip from her soda and speared a small piece of cooked meat with a fork.

Leslie hadn’t noticed the food before. Sarah must have been ignoring it during the earlier part of the session and, with the field of vision so limited, it had escaped her attention. Leslie obviously couldn’t know how the food tasted, but it looked delicious. The small sound of pleasure that passed Sarah’s lips seemed to confirm that hypothesis.

When had Sarah learned how to cook?

Leslie added that question to her growing list and asked another. “How long do you think you’ll have to work with Devlin?”

“It’s difficult to know for sure,” Sarah said. “There are a lot of…complicated transactions that need to be handled.”

“I’m sure that your mother could put you in touch with someone equally versed in art, if you -”

“No!” Sarah’s reply was sharp and sudden. Leslie kept her expression placid until her client sighed and elaborated. “No, I can’t do that. I don’t want my mother to know about this side business of mine. Or anyone in my family, really.”

“And why do you think that is?”

“I just want to have something that’s mine,” Sarah said. “As soon as mom and dad get involved…as soon as my sister gets involved…then it’s just another subsidiary of Ford Enterprises. That’s not what I want. That’s the opposite of what I want.”

“Does your business have to include him? Could you make it easier on yourself by, I don’t know, offering to buy him out? Or selling you interest in the business to him, so that you can start one of your own?”

At first, Sarah didn’t respond. “He’s an important part of what’s going on,” she said, slowly. “And I don’t think I’d want to do this with anyone except him.”

Leslie almost smiled in understanding. The knowledge that Sarah would retreat into herself, refusing to acknowledge her own feelings through sheer force of will, was all that kept her face unreadable.

Whatever had brought Devlin and Sarah together in the first place hadn’t been enough to keep them together. By the time she’d come to Leslie, Sarah had been a recent divorcee. No amount of coaxing or psychiatric artistry had been able to reveal many details about the split, except for one: he had broken her trust in a manner so profound that she couldn’t imagine herself staying with him for another day.

In Leslie’s experience, that level of hatred usually came with a commensurate level of passion. It wouldn’t take much motivation to turn that anger into something more…difficult to comprehend. It was no wonder, then, that Sarah was having difficulties.

“Ah. Well, then. Has this prolonged exposure made anything more clear for you? We’ve talked before about your problems with accepting help.”

“I’ve got more help than I know what to do with,” Sarah grumbled. “We ended up having to take on a…well, I guess you’d call them a sort of driver.” She paused. “And a bodyguard.”

“A bodyguard?” The exclamation was out of Leslie’s mouth before she could stop it.

“Well…yeah,” Sarah said. “I’m still a Ford, even if I don’t want that name attached to what I’m doing; having protection is just common sense.”

“Correct me if I’m mistaken, but didn’t you resist your father’s efforts to assign you a detail in the past?”

“I did, but this is…different. It’s not even like having a bodyguard, so much as a close friend who carries a gun. It really isn’t that big of a deal.”

True, but heading into countries where personal protection was a necessity, instead of a luxury, was not common sense in the slightest. “You’re still out of the country, right? Can I ask where you are now?”

Sarah pursed her lips. “You can,” she said, “but I’d rather not say. Is that important?”

“No, I guess it isn’t. Can I guess where you’ve been, though? Or are you not comfortable giving me that information?”

“Oh, um. Nowhere that’s going to require a military intervention. London, Paris, Macau.” Sarah’s computer made a sound. She checked a message which Leslie couldn’t see and sighed audibly. “And Freetown, apparently.”

West Africa? What could Sarah possibly be doing in West Africa that related to a mysterious charity that no one had heard of yet?

Leslie almost asked the question. She couldn’t think of anything in West Africa that might warrant the attention of someone with Sarah’s status other than conflict diamonds and the arms trade. Surely, she wouldn’t be dabbling in waters so dark and deep. Even the thought of Sarah Ford elbow deep in some of the worst humanity had to offer was laughable.

She didn’t get to ask, though. Through the connection, Leslie heard a door open. Sarah eyes snapped onto something off-screen. “Don’t you knock?”

“I did knock,” a male voice replied, “but you didn’t hear me. You got the email too?”

“I did. But I can’t really talk about this right now, Devlin. I’m on a call.”

“Oh! Oh, I didn’t know. Uh…sorry for interrupting, seriously. Whenever you’re done, though, Mila and Michel are working up a list of what we’ll need for -”

Yes,” Sarah said, stressing the word to its breaking point, “we can talk about that later.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” Devlin said. He must have retreated because, after another second or two, Leslie heard the door close again.

Sarah took a moment to compose herself before she turned her attention back to Leslie. “Sorry about that.”

“Problems with your charity?” Leslie asked.

“Just an opportunity to do good work,” Sarah replied.

Surprisingly, Leslie’s bullshit detector didn’t go off at that.

A fluffy white cat leaped up onto the desk with Sarah. She idly scratched behind its ears while she spoke. “I’ve got to go, Doctor Bridges. Duty calls and all that. But I hope I can make it to our next session. This has been…helpful. I think.”

She had a cat, too? Of all the things she’d heard and seen in the last hour, the presence of a pet still shocked Leslie. Sarah hated animals and, by and large, that feeling was reciprocated by the animal kingdom.

“It’s always a pleasure,” Leslie said out loud, relying on muscle memory and long habit. “And, remember, if you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to reach out.”

Sarah nodded, gently pushed the cat out of the way, and closed the connection.

Leslie sat in her office, still and silent, for five minutes. She’d left the session with far more questions than she’d come into with and she really couldn’t see how she’d helped Sarah with anything. Her professional career had brought her into contact with many different people and honed her ability to identify when things simply weren’t adding up.

Piecing together Sarah’s story was like trying to do arithmetic with musical notes. Leslie wasn’t missing details or clues; she was missing context. She was certain that things would make perfect sense, if seen through a particular lens. The problem was that she had no idea what sort of lens that was.

Her phone went off, reminding her that another client was due in five minutes. Leslie used two of those minutes pondering Sarah and her peculiar session. Then, with the last three minutes, she systematically tore every piece of paper she’d written on and fed them into her shredder.

Better safe, Leslie thought, than sorry.

The Duality of Human Nature

While the Yakuza lost millions, Akumi Sato stood atop the Sunshine 60 and looked out across Tokyo Bay. The air was crisp and a chilly wind carried the strong smell of sea air, but the weather wasn’t bad for early February. Even if the temperature dropped into bitter lows, she wouldn’t have moved from the rooftop. Sunrise, as seen from such heights, was one of the few indulgences she allowed herself. The beginning of a new day, the opportunity to leave behind everything that had come before and start anew…it was hard to imagine anything better than that.

She thought about checking the time, but decided against it. Akumi had developed a sense for this, over the years. It wasn’t that she could necessarily feel the sunrise coming. It was the anticipation, however, that she’d grown to understand. The feeling rose in her chest, swelling and growing with every breath, until she could barely stand it. Then, and only then, the sun would creep just above the horizon, spilling warm red-orange light over the water.

Ruining that feeling would be an unconscionable waste.

Instead, Akumi removed a small flask from her suit jacket and downed a shot of whiskey; not enough that the liquor made her cough, but just enough that the liquor burned on the way down. Sake would have been more traditional, obviously, but she’d never really cared much about tradition. The whiskey was cheap American swill, which suited Akumi just fine. She wasn’t feeling particularly classy this morning.

It had all started the previous night. Her task, passed down through various intermediaries, was the sort of thing she’d done dozens of times. Errands from the bosses, usually run-of-the-mill busy work, rarely led to anything exciting. Most people simply bent the knee when a black-suited gangster showed up at their doorstep, paying whatever taxes or tithes were due, without any sort of argument. A little bit of revenue off the top was hardly worth a person’s life or livelihood, after all.

The Yakuza had a reputation to uphold, in general, but the twins were the face of that reputation. When people whispered about the consequences for disobedience, it was the twins they visualized. When someone got out of line and needed to be taught a lesson, it was the twins who took care of that ‘education.’ Virtually all disputes and negotiations came to a screeching halt when either of the twins showed up. Both of them, in one place, made even the Yakuza higher-ups nervous.

So, Akumi hadn’t been expecting trouble when she’d gotten her marching orders. Foreign interests attempted to extend their reach without the proper courtesies every couple of months. It usually didn’t take more than a chat – along with a broken bone or three, in the worst case scenario – to convince an interloper to reach terms with the local power.

Last night had been a far cry from ‘the usual.’

Things had gone badly, almost from the start. The newcomers had been hostile and aggressive, sure, but they’d also seemed desperate. Instead of respect or wariness, Akumi had found herself confronted by a strike team of paranoid, heavily armed men intent on selling their wares and spoiling for a fight. At the first mention of terms, the men had decided, through some unspoken means, to attack. She’d been outnumbered fourteen to one and they’d caught her flat flooted. It should have been a slaughter.

And it had been. In the process of demonstrating exactly how she’d become one of Japan’s premiere enforcers, Akumi nearly ruined her favorite shirt and irreparably damaged a new switchblade. It took her almost a full hour in the shower to wash off the blood after she’d finished.

Violence on that scale was her prerogative, but it also necessitated a report to the nearest area boss. Someone had to make bodies disappear, bribe law enforcement, and generally see to it that the general public didn’t catch a glimpse of how seedy the underworld could be. So, after making herself presentable, Akumi had driven to a nearby gambling den and endured an exhaustive tongue-lashing from a man whose name she couldn’t be bothered to remember. He’d railed against her presumption, talked at length about the difficulties of managing the docks, and ranted until Akumi’s eyes glazed over.

How were his shortcomings her problem? The bosses had sent her to solve a problem and she’d done it. This middleman could take it up with his superiors, if he thought his case strong enough, but Akumi knew that he wouldn’t do that. She existed outside of the traditional organizational structure, which technically gave the area boss authority to chastise her. In practice, there was nothing stopping her from punching him in the face and doing whatever she pleased, so long as she enforced the oyabun’s will.

By the time the area boss finished his rant, the time for sleep had long since passed. So, instead of journeying back to her apartment, Akumi had decided to greet the sunrise, in hopes that it might lift her spirits.

So far, it was working. Not by a lot, but anything was better than nothing.

Akumi was about to take another drink from her flask, when the rooftop door opened behind her. She tensed, muscles tightening in case of an attack, but relaxed when she realized the familiar presence of her guest. Some auras a person just recognized, as easily as they knew their own hands.

“You turned your phone off,” the newcomer said.

“Not off. It’s on silent.”

“And what if someone needed to speak with you?”

“I imagine they’d find a way to get in touch,” Akumi said. “And here you are, little brother. Seems like I was right.”

Kira Sato walked right up to the edge of the Sunshine 60, so that Akumi could see her twin in her peripheral vision. They shared the same nose and cheekbones, inheritances from their father, but the similarities ended there. Where her eyes were dark, almost black, Kira’s were a pale brown. He kept his hair short, in that traditionally masculine style, while hers fell to the small of her back when she let it down. He wore a heavy coat, its collar fringed with fur like a wolf’s pelt; dark jeans, probably purchased from some local designer; and each finger sported a fashionable ring. Akumi wore a plain black pantsuit and no outerwear at all.

She couldn’t see it beneath his coat, but Akumi knew that he’d be wearing a 100 yen coin on a chain, as close to his chest as possible. It was the exact match for the one she hid beneath her plain white shirt. Neither twin had taken off their medallion since their mother’s death and neither twin was likely to take it off before their own demise.

“I heard what happened,” Kira said. He took out a pack of cigarettes, lit one, and blew a cloud of smoke out into the open air. “I should have been there.”

“It shouldn’t have gone like that. There wasn’t anything worth dying over, but they seemed very determined to die anyway.” Akumi shrugged. “No one would’ve thought we both needed to get involved, which is probably why you weren’t summoned.”

“Still.” He took a long drag on his cigarette. “How bad was it?”

“Fourteen men, semi-automatics. Small room, though, and they didn’t really come prepared for a fight. Plus, I’m pretty sure they were scared out of their minds. I mostly just let them shoot themselves and then cleaned up after they ran out of ammo. Almost ruined a shirt, I guess.”

“What shirt?”

Akumi grimaced. “The embroidered one.”

Kira turned to look at her and groaned. “That was an original, sister, and it was an Ochuben gift. Why were you even wearing that on the clock?”

“I wasn’t on the clock when I got the call,” Akumi said. A wicked thought occurred to her and she barely kept the smirk from her face. “I was on a date, you see, and I didn’t really have an opportunity to get back to the apartment to change, so…”

Kira held up his hands and stepped back. “Point taken. Please, please don’t go into any more detail.”

“You asked.”

The twins lapsed into comfortable, familiar silence. It was hard to be uncomfortable with someone as close, Akumi mused.

The sun began to rise. Kira finished off his cigarette, but he didn’t start a second one.

“He wants to talk to you,” he said, without preamble. “Well, us.”

“Who? The guy from the gambling den? What’s his name again?”

“That would be Machii-san,” Kira said. “I don’t understand how you can’t remember these things, sis.”

“I don’t understand why you bother,” Akumi retorted. “But you seem to enjoy it, so…”

Kira acknowledged that with a little smile. “Fair enough. Machii-san isn’t thrilled with the mess you left at the docks, but he knows better than to make a fuss about it.”

“Who, then?”

Him,” Kira said, and his inflection stressed the one syllable to the breaking point.

That made Akumi stand up straighter. “Goto-san?”

Kira nodded.

“About the docks? How did he even find out about that so quickly? Why would he even care?”

“I don’t think it’s about last night,” Kira said. “I got the phone call an hour ago. No one said anything about the docks, so you’re probably in the clear about that.”

Akumi pursed her lips for a few seconds. “You should probably change. You know how Goto-san is about proper decorum.”

“I do and I would, if there were any time.”

“We can stop by my apartment. After we got back from London, you left some suits there.”

Kira shook his head. “Goto-san­ isn’t in Ginza. He’s here.”

“In Tokyo?”

“In this building. He rented out the restaurant. All of the advisers are here, too.”

Akumi turned away from the sunrise and stared at her twin for several long seconds. The advisers rarely convened in the same place and they never did that outside of their strongholds. Goto-san made a point to avoid meetings, in case of an assassination attempt. If the heads of their family were breaking with longstanding tradition, something big must be going on.

The twins left the rooftop, Kira naturally falling a half step behind his sister, and took the elevator down to the 58th floor. As soon as they stepped into the restaurant, Akumi could feel the tension in the atmosphere. She walked into the main room and saw twelve men in identical suits seated around a long rectangular table. At the head of the table, a slightly overweight man in a black kimono surveyed his advisers like a king staring out over his land. Which, in a very real way, was an accurate metaphor.

Yoshinori Goto was old-school Yakuza, handpicked by the previous boss and groomed for years to take over the position when it became necessary. He lived by an unimpeachable code of honor and, accordingly, had ruled as head of the family for nearly three decades without incident. His businesses were as prolific as they were successful. From local gambling dens and street corners, Goto had expanded into politics and banking. He was integral to the infrastructure of Tokyo as the subways and the electric grid.

Goto broke off a conversation with the adviser to his right – Takumi-san, if Akumi’s memory served her correctly – when the twins came into sight. Kira and Akumi both bowed.

Finally, you arrive,” Goto said. “It took you long enough to get her, Kira.”

One of Goto’s strangest quirks, in complete defiance of his adherence to tradition, was a selective use of the proper honorifics. Most people who talked to him semi-regularly got used to it. Akumi certainly had.

Kira, apparently, had not. The corner of his mouth twitched downwards minutely before he answered. “Had I known you needed her immediately, I would have been back sooner.”

“The matter was important enough that I wouldn’t allow you to change,” Goto said. “You could have assumed that time was a factor.”

“My apologies, Goto-san,” Kira said, bowing once more.

Goto waved a hand, casually dismissing the matter. He turned his attention to Akumi. “Tell me, how much do you know about our operations in Macau?”

Thankfully, Akumi actually knew an answer to that question. “In order to expand our revenue from gambling, we came to an agreement with the Triads over our profits. More traffic leads to more money for both parties, Goto-san.

“Exactly correct. I knew there was a reason you were my favorite.” He said it with a little twinkle in his eye, but Akumi wasn’t sure if she was serious or not. He was well past the age where sex could be a motivation and he’d never made a move; still, it was safer not to roll the dice on that.

“Is something wrong in Macau?” Kira asked.

The advisers started murmuring around the table. Goto raised one hand from the table and silenced all of them.

“Yes,” he said. “As far as my advisers have been able to confirm, it seems as though our money has been stolen.”

“How much money?”

“All of it,” Goto replied. He gave that pronouncement room to breathe, so that it had the proper effect on the stunned twins. “Several million in liquid funds, as well as a great deal of capital we’d intended to use for development of some more legitimate businesses.”

Akumi swallowed nervously. She’d seen Goto furious only three times. Once, he’d broken a table in two and thrown both halves through the window. Once, he’d sentenced three traitors – three low level dealers who’d been caught cheating at cards – to summary execution. And, once, he’d strangled a man to death with his bare hands.

He wasn’t furious now. That was more concerning than any outward sign of emotion.

Kira shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “We can be on the next flight to Macau, Goto-san. We’ll find your money.”

“While I would like to have my money back,” Goto said, “I am less concerned with that than I am with finding the thieves who stole it in the first place.”

“Would you prefer us to deal with them ourselves?” Kira asked. “Or would you like to handle them personally?”

“I am…interested,” Goto said.

“Interested, Goto-san?”

“Whoever stole from the Triads didn’t know they were stealing from us,” Goto clarified. “If they had knowingly done that, I would happily send the two of you to bring them to justice. But it seems as though the Triads are not the only victims.”

Akumi’s brain made a connection. “The fight at the docks? Was that connected to the theft in Macau?”

Goto looked at an adviser, who nodded after checking a tablet in front of him. “Potentially, yes. There have been several high profile thefts in the past few months. It has made many people very desperate. In order to stay solvent and ahead of their debts, some organizations are reaching out farther than wisdom or caution would allow.”

Kira made eye contact with his sister for just an instant. It only took a heartbeat for the message to come across clearly. A familiar face in London had piqued their interest, right before the drug empire imploded, seemingly overnight. It wasn’t exactly the same, but there were key similarities. Large amounts of money disappearing…an agent or agents who worked from the shadows to accomplish impossibly large tasks…the downfall of an organization that had profited, primarily, on the suffering of others.

The other message contained within the instant of eye contact was stark and clear: Say nothing. Akumi didn’t understand why her twin would send that thought, but she trusted him implicitly. He would have some reason for keeping details to himself; she merely had to trust him and play along.

The communication didn’t last long enough for anyone else in the room to notice. Even after fifteen years, Goto continued to underestimate the connection between the twins. To him, and to everyone else, they were a highly effective pair of enforcers, trained and empowered to act more or less on their own orders.

To Akumi, they were a single organism, operating with two distinct bodies.

She spoke, without betraying the slightest hint that she’d been communicating with her twin. “What would you like us to do?”

“I’m giving you access to a discretionary account,” Goto said, “and relieving you of any of your regular duties. I want you to go to Macau, find whatever trail remains of these thieves, and locate them for me. When you’ve done that, I will give you further orders. Do you have any questions?”

“None, Goto-san,” Akumi and Kira said, at the exact same time. They bowed, also in unison, and left the restaurant.

They didn’t say anything else until they were safely on the elevator.

“I’m thinking about London,” Kira said. “You don’t think she could be involved in Macau, do you?”

“I’ve never been certain that she had anything to do with London,” Akumi replied. “It isn’t how she operates. Emilia has always been a fighter, not a thief.”

Kira considered that. “I can only accept so many coincidences. Aiden and his men were involved with the drug lord in London. He was robbed, even if the official reports do not show that, by someone capable of disappearing into the wind. And Emilia happened to be in London while all of this was going on. You don’t think it’s a bit strange?”

“Of course it’s strange. I just don’t know if it’s strange enough to act on.” That wasn’t quite true. After a few seconds, she relented and elaborated. “It is…likely, fine. Although I still don’t know why she’d be involved with thieves, it stands to reason.”

“Do you have any way to reach her?”

Akumi shook her head. “According to my contacts, she disappeared after London. No new contracts, no jobs. I could ask Goto-san to have someone hack into her finances.”

“No…no, if she is trying to disappear, she won’t be using those accounts anymore.” He thought silently while the elevator plummeted a few more floors. “Macau is probably the best lead we’ll have.”

Another handful of seconds ticked away.

“Kira?”

“Yes?”

“Why didn’t you want me to tell Goto-san about this?”

“I…don’t know,” Kira admitted. “It feels like…something else is going on. Something bigger than Goto-san was telling us. Maybe even bigger than he realizes.”

Now that he’d spoken the thought out loud, Akumi realized that she felt the same. Emilia had always been a creature of habits. For her to break with tradition and become a thief? There must be a reason for a change like that.

Akumi intended to find out what that reason was.

The twins reached the bottom floor, crossed the lobby, and stepped out into the early morning. Sunrise was well underway, warming the pavement and casting a burnt light across the sleeping city. As they walked, she removed the flask from her pocket and held it up, angled slightly so that her arm pointed behind her. Kira took it, unscrewed the top, and took a long pull before passing it back. Neither he nor she said a word; they performed the action in perfect synchronization, as if it had been something planned and not an intuitive understanding of the other.

Akumi took one more look at the horizon – not as beautiful as it would have been from the rooftop, but still gorgeous – before she turned and strode toward a waiting limousine.

It was a new day and Akumi couldn’t wait to see where it would lead.

The Arm of the Law

Cameron Lane – formerly an Interpol superintendent, now a man on the lam – could hardly believe how far he’d fallen.

It had seemed so simple at first. No matter what his superiors said, an end to crime was never going to come. As long as people were jealous, greedy, envious things with the means to do so, there would always be crime, drugs, and murder. He could imprison a million suppliers, hunt down a million serial killers, and bring an end to a million different arms deal, but it still wouldn’t matter. Someone would always be there to be up the slack, to fill the vacuum left behind when one powerful figure fell. It wouldn’t ever stop.

So, when the envelope arrived in his mail slot, he’d suppressed his confusion and accepted it as another way to play the game. Any information that would allow him to save lives was worthwhile, even if he held no illusions about the source of that intelligence. Someone wanted him to be pawn in a larger game and Lane, disillusioned by the passage of time and the release of at least a dozen true monsters, was willing to play along. As long as he could bring down the real bad guys, Lane was willing to dirty his honor. It was, after all, a cost worth paying. What was his personal moral code compared to the lives of the innocent? Hadn’t he sworn an oath to protect those that needed protection?

More information had come, always delivered to his lodgings, and Lane made a name for himself with every bust. The truly dangerous criminals – the insane, vicious, unhinged sons and daughters of bitches – were taken off of the streets. In his heart, Lane knew that he was only furthering the interests of some other party. He had every intention of turning his attention and the increased power of his position to bringing down his unknown benefactor, eventually. But the time was never right. Excuses followed after excuses, a line of justifications a mile long and growing, and Lane found himself depending more and more on the envelopes.

Then, they’d stopped coming. In their place, Lane began to receive requests. Although, they weren’t quite requests. Even if the missives didn’t explicitly threaten him, Lane wasn’t an idiot. He knew when he was being blackmailed. The subtext practically screamed at him: do what we say, or all of your cases can be overturned; your name can be ruined; all the good you’ve accomplished can be undone.

At first, it hadn’t been too bad. A dealer, allowed to walk; a folder, misfiled and lost in the endless stacks of documents; an informant, intimidated into silence. He could almost feel the dirt piling onto his soul, but he told himself that it was worth it. He had done good, and the tiny amount of bad he was doing wasn’t anywhere near enough to balance the scales.

And the envelopes kept coming, albeit at a slower pace. For every one request, he received a folder of information that he could use to bring down some powerful member of the underworld. Then, for every two requests. Then, for every three. The scales were still balanced in favor of the good he was doing, though. He reminded himself of that every night before he fell into a fitful, restless slumber.

When the requests became more serious – a murder weapon wiped clean of fingerprints; a drug raid, derailed at the last critical moment; an investigation, botched – Lane realized what was happening. In his deepest, truest heart, he’d always known what was happening. If he resisted his mysterious benefactor-turned-master, everything would come apart at once. His life, at least as he knew it, would end. And, maybe, that was enough. His reputation had been wholly unearned, after all. Losing it all at once might be the only way for the man to keep his soul in one piece.

But the good he’d managed to eke out was too much to throw away. He’d saved too many lives, protected too many innocents, to throw it all away.

Two years after the first envelope arrived at his doorstep, Lane committed the first murder of his life. Not self-defense, but cold-blooded murder.

It wasn’t the last.

Now, after the latest instruction from his unseen masters, Lane had taken a torch to everything in his life to a crisp and he felt only the barest traces of shame. His pride had long since been burned to cinders and discarded; that was a necessary development, if he wanted to keep his sanity. Where an honorable man had once stood, Lane had become the worst type of criminal: self-serving, cowardly, and motivated only by the need to survive…even if he could only survive for another day.

At the moment, Lane hid in a dark parking garage, just outside of Oslo. Traveling directly from one point to another – by foot, of course, because the trains and planes were obviously being watched – the trip from London would only have taken two weeks. With occasional stops to dilute his trail, however, Lane had spent the better part of a month making his way to Norway. He’d built a safehouse in the city proper and taken steps to keep it stocked, for this exact moment. From the first kill, Lane had known that this day would come. He’d prepared accordingly.

The shoes on his feet were tattered shadows of the finely crafted shoes he’d worn in London. Miles and miles of walking had taken their toll, in blood. His clothes were worn and reeked of too-old sweat. Filth of a dozen unnamed sources formed into thick clots in his hair. More than anything, he wanted to sleep and every inch of his body spoke to how badly he needed rest.

But, no matter what his body did, Lane’s mind remained as sharp as it ever was. He mastered the desires of his bones and blood, turned that pain into focus, and stared out at the land in front of him from the parking garage.

A lack of police cars was a good sign. It wasn’t a great sign – Interpol had, on more than one occasion, used local vehicles to mask their approach – but it was better than the alternative. If his former colleagues had spent the last month searching for his body, it would be another few weeks before they realized that Lane’s bones weren’t in the wreckage. From there, it would taken even longer to discover the truth: he’d been compromised…no, that he’d compromised himself years ago…in pursuit of justice. By throwing himself into the chase Lane had, ironically, turned himself into the kind of person he himself would have hunted.

But that was hours away. Days away, perhaps. The upheaval in London would be more than enough to draw Interpol’s eye. By the time they finished sorting through the mess, Lane would have reached the safehouse. He could change his face, his name, and his accent. There were a variety of fake passports accumulated for this very purpose. Throwing everything away wasn’t ideal, obviously, but it didn’t mean that his entire life had to end. Just the life he’d spent decades building should be enough of a price to pay. For his hubris, for his belief that he should be able to bring down criminals no one else ever had, pride seemed an apt price.

The safehouse was located on the outskirts of the city: a squat, nondescript building that he’d purchased under a false name. Lane waited until nightfall before approaching, carefully watching his surroundings for even the faintest hint of a shadow. When he was sure that nothing was out of the ordinary, he slipped inside and began gathering the materials he’d need to disappear.

While he collected documents – false passports, credit cards, the necessary elements for disguise – Lane thought back to who he’d been, not so long ago, and how he’d ended up here. The downhill spiral wasn’t difficult to understand. In the beginning, he’d been an aspiring agent with nothing but the best of intentions. As time passed, and the envelopes kept coming, he’d chosen fame instead of honor. That fame had elevated him to the rank of Superintendent. It might, in fact, have helped him to rise even higher in Interpol’s hierarchy, if his masters hadn’t needed to dispose of London’s drug kingpin in such a public manner.

He’d flown too high, Lane realized, and this was merely the end of that particular fairy tale. Nothing came for free. Everything had a price. He was simply paying his now.

It didn’t take him long to locate his falsified paperwork. On his last visit to the safehouse, Lane had taken steps to ensure that everything would be close at hand, in case he needed to make a quick escape. With the documents in his possession, Lane would be able to disguise his tracks amid a field of similar footprints. By the time anyone in law enforcement could unravel the knot of dead-ends, he could be living a different life, under a different name.

Maybe, after he burned down the safehouse and discarded his old identity, things would be different. Maybe, with a second chance, he’d be a better man.

It took him thirty minutes to lay hands on everything essential. When he’d tucked the last document away into his satchel, he paused for an instant. The weapon he’d carried as an Interpol agent was one of the many things he’d discarded back in London and he hadn’t been able to replace it yet. He’d stashed a weapon here some years ago – the same gun, in fact, that he’d used to commit the first unforgivable murder – and that would suffice for the next few days. He could discard it when he made it to the airport.

Lane strode into a bedroom at the far end of the safehouse and dropped to one knee. The gun was underneath the bed, if he remembered correctly. He placed one hand on the floor, to steady himself, and the other on the mattress. Before he could lift it, though, he heard a soft, lightly accented voice.

“Why would you do this?” Inspector Adlai asked.

In all fairness, Lane should have been surprised. He’d done everything right: kept an ear to the ground for official movements, followed every rule for counter-surveillance in the book, and scattered more false trails than he could remember in his wake. There shouldn’t have been any way for Adlai to find him here.

But he had. Of course he had.

Lane didn’t stand up, but he also didn’t reach for the gun underneath the mattress. He spoke to Adlai without turning to meet the man’s eyes. “Would you believe me if I said I didn’t see this coming?”

He received the telltale click of a gun being chambered in response. “Why?” Adlai repeated.

“Because I wanted to do good,” Lane sighed. He couldn’t think of any reason to be dishonest now, when the game was so thoroughly up. “Because I thought I would be better at that with some help than I was without it.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Adlai said. “There were years of arrests, a lifetime spent administering law and order, and you threw it all away for…for what? For money? For power?”

“I have power,” Lane said, snorting at the idea. “And money’s never been a big motivator for me. Sure, I was paid well, but that wasn’t the point.”

“What was it, then? Why would you commit this crime?”

“How’d you find me?” Lane asked abruptly.

Adlai was silent for a long time. “As soon as I realized that no one could escape that explosion without pure luck or forewarning, I tasked some resources to examining the wreckage, square foot by square foot.”

“But you had to organize that off-the-books,” Lane said. “Otherwise, I would have caught wind of it.”

“Yes. Off the books.” Adlai seemed uncomfortable, just at admitting how he’d maneuvered around the law instead of serving it. “When I knew for sure that you had not died, I reopened your old files. There was an authorized shooting – the first of your career – in this city. It seemed like a good place to start.”

“But this particular hovel? It’s not like there’s a shortage of poor people in town.”

“I made a guess,” Adlai said. “My gut led me here. And here you are.”

“Good gut.” Lane’s shifted his weight and pivoted slightly so that he could see Adlai out of the corner of his eyes. “You asked why I did what I did? Because I had to.”

“Lies,” Adlai spat out instantly. “You always have a choice. You did not have to do anything”

“Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I just tell that to myself that I didn’t have a choice because it’s easier.”

“Easier for you? Easier for you to manipulate the system, to use it to protect your illegal activities?”

“Easier for you,” Lane shot back. He turned to face Adlai fully now, still keeping one hand underneath the mattress only a few inches away from the hidden gun. “You’re still young. You still think that there’s always a right way and a wrong way to live life, that everything is black and white. It’s not that simple in the real world.”

A muscle twitched in Adlai’s face. It wasn’t a big tell, as tells went, but Lane was an experienced interrogator.

“Oh, did something change? Did you have some kind of a revelation, then? Finally growing up to see how the real world works?”

Adlai shook his head, but the motion was slow and uncertain. “I…understand that there is a game to be played. That you cannot always be both just and effective. But there are limits, Lane. There have to be limits.”

Lane snorted. “You think I don’t know that? But think about many people I put away! How many murderers, slave traders, and drug dealers would be out on the street if I hadn’t cut a deal?”

“How many people have you killed?” Adlai asked. “How many lives have you taken because someone else told you to?”

The rebuke hit Lane like a slap in the face. His eyes flickered over to one corner of the small room and landed on a bookcase. Not every book on the shelves contained coded information, but most of them had a little bit concealed within. If someone were able to piece together every tidbit, all of the little clues collectively amounted to a history of his life since the first envelope. Names, dates, case numbers…everything that anyone could need to destroy Lane, contained in one safe location.

It had been his insurance policy, in case his unseen masters turned on him. Or, in a perfect world, if Lane found himself in a position to take down his puppeteers without incriminating himself.

He might have been able to use the information, still, but the current situation had robbed him of the desire to get revenge on the people who’d ruined his life. Burning everything had been his plan to discard that part of his life. His only concern was the present. He couldn’t hope to think about the future, when it had suddenly become so uncertain.

“Too many,” Lane answered and sighed. “Far, far too many.”

“What happened?”

“I saw a shortcut and I took it. Didn’t think about where that shortcut was leading me until it was too late.”

“And Hill? Why did you kill him?”

Lane considered his options before answering. He wasn’t under any obligation to keep answering Adlai’s questions. There wasn’t anything stopping him from drawing his gun. He might even be able to get a shot off. From what he’d seen in Adlai’s file, the agent hadn’t broken any marksmanship records.

What kept him from that was a sudden, visceral urge to unburden himself. For years, he’d kept the story of his secret masters to himself. Now, maybe, here was someone who might be willing to listen. Someone who might be able to help, where Lane himself was powerless to do so. Of course, no one knew better than Lane how far his masters would go to keep their identity secret.

“You don’t want to know,” Lane hedged. “Trust me.”

Why?”

Lane made up his mind. Adlai was a better man than Lane had ever been; if anyone could face up to the temptation his masters had offered him, it was the younger agent. “Orders. It wasn’t for me.”

“Orders from who?”

Lane shrugged with one shoulder. “Someone with influence,” he said. “Someone with power. I don’t know who.” He tilted his head in the direction of the bookcase.

“What is that?”

“Information. It’s all I know about…them, but maybe it’ll be enough to help you.”

Adlai swallowed hard. “Do you have anything else to say for yourself?”

Lane thought about that question for a long time. “I’m sorry that I let you down,” he said finally. “But I’m not sure that I wouldn’t do the same thing all over again. I did a lot of good. If the cost of all that good is my own soul, then…I’m not sure that it was a bad trade.”

An odd type of peace came over Lane in that moment. He realized that, in effect, he’d just passed on a great burden to Adlai, but he thought the agent could potentially handle the stress. He didn’t have any of Lane’s ego to cloud his judgment and, according to every scrap of paper in his file, Adlai was a truly noble and honorable man. He might very well be able to avoid the corruption that Lane’s masters seemed to exude.

Or maybe he wouldn’t. Everyone had pressure points. If they were able to find Adlai’s, would they be able to turn him into their weapon, just as they’d done with Lane? He didn’t know. He didn’t really care. It was no longer his problem.

If Adlai knew where to find Lane, it was only a matter of time before the rest of Interpol showed up as well.

“Who knows where you are?” Lane asked.

Adlai raised the gun so that it pointed straight at Lane’s face. “I wanted to see you alone, at first. To see if you had anything that might explain what you’ve done.”

Lane shrugged again. “How long until backup arrives?”

“Six hours,” Adlai answered. “Maybe less.”

That meant no more than an hour before armed men came rushing into Lane’s now-compromised safehouse. No matter. There was only one thing left for him to do and he could accomplish that well before any other agents saw him.

“Don’t trust anyone,” Lane said. “No matter how honorable they seem, you can’t trust anyone. If you want to find out why – if you really want to know – you’ll have to be paranoid. Anyone could be working for them, Adlai. Anyone. And believe me: if they find out that you’re after them, they’ll find leverage against you. They’ll make you into their tool.”

“I took an oath,” Adlai said. “Nothing would make me break that oath.”

“Then they’ll kill you,” Lane replied, his voice flat and sober.

Adlai rocked back at that, a little stunned with Lane’s bluntness. He recovered quickly, though.“You will tell everyone what you’ve told me,” he said. “Back at headquarters, where you can be properly debriefed and interrogated.”

Lane laughed, but there wasn’t any real joy in the sound. “I’m not going back to headquarters, Adlai. Let’s be honest; you knew that before you showed up.”

“You are under arrest, Cameron Lane,” Adlai said. His voice quivered slightly.

Lane shook his head. “No,” he said, “I’m really not.”

He plunged the hand underneath the bed and wrapped his fingers around the gun’s grip. He pulled it free, falling slightly backward and brought the gun up to aim at Adlai.

For an instant, the two men made eye contact. Lane read fear in Adlai’s eyes, mingled with befuddlement and horror. But, overlaying all of those emotions, Lane saw confidence. Yes, maybe…just maybe…Adlai could pull off what Lane had failed to do. He certainly hoped so. If he could hold onto any hope about anything at all, the thought of his masters falling to a sort of protege fit the bill.

Lane aimed his shot above and to the right of Adlai’s head and squeezed the trigger. The bullet buried itself into the ceiling, missing Adlai by almost a half foot, exactly as Lane planned.

He didn’t hear Adlai’s gun off, fired in retaliation, but he did see a dazzling flash of light and felt an impact in his chest, to the left of his sternum.

Cameron Lane died in a hovel, surrounded by books filled with a record of his misdeeds, a bullet hole from a trusted subordinate lodged in his heart. He had been an honorable person once; he’d been a criminal and a stooge; he’d been a murderer. But, at his last moments, he was simply a man who wore a slight smile, with a single thought repeating through his darkening mind.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

Girl out of Jersey

Juliana knew more about her husband’s past than he thought she did, although not as much as she believed. She’d grown up with cousins and uncles that had experienced the revolving door of the prison system: out just long enough to realize that cons didn’t have options other than falling back into the game again. In college, she’d personally suffered through a two year long cocaine binge and only barely kept that addiction from ruining her life. Alcohol and peer pressure had pushed her into more than a few inebriated shoplifting experiences. She knew the signs of a guilty conscience,of a man trying to pretend his way into being better, of someone trying to cut off a part of their past.

What she couldn’t know, she guessed at or crowd-sourced. Many conference calls had been spent tossing ideas around, discussing “hypothetical” scenarios with her girlfriends and trying to piece together the parts of her husband’s life that he refused to discuss. Her family thought she was writing a screenplay, as if she could possibly commit any more to the role of “dedicated, but ultimately bored housewife.” But the truth – that Alex was lying to her, possibly lying to her quite a lot – would invite too many questions, too many unasked for opinions, and too much scrutiny of her relationship.

The simple truth was this: she loved Alex and he loved her. Hell, Jules even loved Ally, his daughter from another marriage…most of the time. Sure, Alex sometimes seemed to drift away mid-conversation, as if his thoughts had suddenly become unmoored. And sure, there were other times when he looked at her with such intensity that it was like being looked through. And sure, sometimes he wept in his sleep and murmured the name Johannah like a mantra.

But they were happy, most of the time. Everyone, even Johannah herself, had a little darkness in their past. No one lived like a saint forever. If Alex wanted to keep those secrets to himself…if that was the price she had to pay for nine good days out of ten…well, it was hardly a choice at all.

That was how she comforted herself and soothed her own concerns in the past. Now, however, it had been a full week since Alex’s abrupt departure and it wasn’t love she felt rising up into her throat like lava. It wasn’t affection that gripped her heart like a vise. Alex was gone and, for no reason she could name, Jules wasn’t sure if he was coming back.

On the morning of the eighth day, she realized that she could no longer keep her emotions safely contained behind the stormwalls. Instead of collapsing into a heap of tears and sobs, Jules did the next best thing: she called her mother.

Sofia Bianchi, matriarch and undisputed ruler of the Jersey Bianchis, answered the video call on the third ring. Despite the distance, the connection was rock solid. Jules could see that Sofia was trying something new with her makeup, that her steel gray hair was shorter now than it had been, and that she’d lost a worrying amount of weight.

That last bit was more concerning than anything else, but she kept the thought to herself. If there was anything that would set Sofia off, it would have to be anything that could possibly be construed as pity. She’d been a strong enough woman to make her way to America from the Old Country and to tame the wild stallion who had fathered her children. A little weight loss wouldn’t even have factored into her mind as something to be concerned about.

“Honey!” Sofia puckered her lips and blew an air kiss across the airwaves. “What are you doing? I thought we weren’t scheduled for another one of these video chats until…uh…”

“Next Friday,” Jules said. “Yeah, Ma, I know. But I just needed to clear my head about some things. You aren’t busy, are ya?” It didn’t take long for the Jersey to creep back into her voice.

‘Someone threw a football at full speed from off-camera. The projectile came within an inch of some precariously placed glassware before Sofia snatched it from the air with the speed of someone half her age.

“Aldo!” Sofia shrieked. The tone of voice brought back painful memories of wooden spoons. “You better get your little friends out of here, or there’s gonna be hell to pay, ya hear me?”

Jules shuddered. She remembered being on the receiving end of similar tongue lashings and was all too familiar with the “hell” that might follow after it. “I can call you later,” she began, “if you’re busy.” Even as she said the words, Jules felt like her chest would explode or cave in if she didn’t unburden herself twenty minutes ago.

Sofia dismissed the suggestion with a wave of her hand. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Nothing more going on here that I can’t take care of by myself. Not like I’m not used to doing everything around this house, after all. You go on, tell me what’s on your mind.”

Now that the opportunity had gone, Jules found that she couldn’t quite figure out how to start. Years of half-truths and misdirection, deflected questions, and late nights spent wondering what her husband might possibly be hiding after so many years…it was just too much to dump on one person. Especially if it turned out that Alex had a perfectly legitimate reason for keeping his cards so close to his chest. It wouldn’t take much for Sofia to turn against the German; she hadn’t liked Alex to begin with, simply because he’d taken Jules away from Jersey and her family.

She decided to approach the problem from an oblique angle. “How’s Dad? He can’t help you out with the boys?”

Sofia rolled her eyes, deliberately exaggerating the action for effect. “Your father left for work about an hour ago, allegedly.” She made very large air quotes around the last word.

“Where do you think he really is?”

“The bar,” Sofia said. “He’s been working at the docks for about a year today, so the boss probably took him out to get good and drunk. Bet he’ll come stumbling back in here around midnight, smelling up the whole house and stumbling into anything not smart enough to move out of his way.”

“You aren’t mad?”

“Why would I be mad?” Sofia glanced at something off-screen for an instant and, without a single word, managed to convey an entire world’s worth of danger. Whoever had been the target of the look fled the scene, judging from the slamming door that Jules heard a moment later. “He works hard to put a roof over my head and he damn sure didn’t have to take in Donna’s kids when she split. If he wants to take some time to blow off his steam, I’m sure as hell not going to get in his way.”

Jules pondered that for a moment. In the beginning, she had asked Alex where his money came from. He wasn’t wealthy, in the sense of private jets and yachts, but they lived extremely comfortably. He had explained that he’d come into quite a bit of money and made several wise investments. From those investments, he’d made others and, eventually, developed a healthy nest egg.

She hadn’t believed a word of that, but she’d smiled politely and resolved to find out the truth of the matter eventually. Only she’d fallen in love and, after the marriage, the matter ceased to be as important to her as it had once been.

Was Alex just tired of working so hard to take care of a family? Had he just needed some time to blow off steam?

Or was he simply tired of taking care of this family?

The insecurities made no sense, of course. He’d been willing to give up his entire life to be with her, save his daughter. The fact that they’d moved to Germany had been her decision. But knowing that she was being irrational didn’t actually make her feel any better.

“Is something going on with Alex?” Sofia asked.

Jules’ surprise jolted her out of her darkening thoughts. “What? What makes you say that?”

“Three things,” Sofia said, raising a corresponding number of fingers. She lowered them as she made her points. “One, you got that thousand-yard, wistful stare as soon as we started talking about your father who I know isn’t your favorite person. Two, I normally can’t get you to stop talking about how wonderful your German is, but you haven’t said a thing about him since we started talking. And three…well, I know my girl. So why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you? What’d he do?”

“He didn’t do anything, ma, it’s just…” Jules struggled momentarily to put her thoughts into words. “You ever think that there might be more to dad than you know about? Like, maybe he lived a whole ‘nother life before you two met?”

Sofia snorted. “Mario Bianchi never did anything except drink too much and knock up yours truly one night. I’ve known him since I came over here on a boat and he’s never changed.” She paused. “Why, do you think Alex is keeping something from you?”

“Ma, I know he’s got his own secrets. He’s got a nineteen year old daughter that grew up without a mother, but no one ever talks about what happened to her? Of course he’s not telling me everything. That’s not the problem.”

“What is the problem, then? What’s got you so bothered?”

This was going to be delicate work. If she said too much or even implied too much, Sofia would almost certainly demand that Jules come home. As vulnerable as she felt, Jules would probably go. “Do you think people can change, ma? Like, really change?”

“Your father only drinks two or three times a year now,” Sofia said. “That was a hell of a change from his weekly binges. And I never would’ve thought that you’d leave us all to go overseas with someone you met at the market. Seem like pretty damn big changes to me.”

“Not like that,” Jules said. “Something bigger than that. Like…not just change what you do, but change who you are.”

To her credit, Sofia didn’t rush to an answer. She gave the question a good bit of thought before replying. “I think they can,” she said, “but only if they really want to. It’s always easier to keep doing the same things than it is to really look at yourself in the mirror.”

“But if you had…something worth changing for? Then it might be possible?”

“I guess so.” Sofia lowered her voice. “This is about Alex’s past? Whatever it was that he won’t talk about? You think it’s got something to do with how his first wife died?”

Jules hesitated before nodding, just once. She could feel the tears building and she tried to keep them from falling onto her cheeks.

“You don’t think he did it, do you?”

“No! Ma, of course I don’t think that!” Jules shook her head, glad that the action gave her an excuse to look away from the screen for a few heartbeats. ‘That’s crazy, ma, you’ve gotta know that. Alex is a good man.”

“Then what?”

“I think that…I think that maybe he used to run with a bad crowd,” Jules managed to say. “A dangerous crowd. Not by choice or anything like that. But it feels like he might have been involved in some stuff that might…it might not have gone away. It might not be over.”

Jules didn’t say anything for several long seconds.

When it became clear that her daughter wasn’t going to answer the question on her own, Sofia gave her some gentle prompting. “Do you think he didn’t let that part of his past go?”

“I don’t think his past has let go of him,” Jules said in a whisper. “I don’t know if it’s ever going to.”

Sofia lit a cigarette. “Let me tell you something, honey,” she began, “and you listen good.”

Jules nodded.

“Now, you know I never liked that Alex with his fancy clothes and his accent and all that. Man comes to Jersey just long enough to sweep my baby girl off her feet, then he flies across the world with you in tow?”

“Ma, I told you that’s not what -”

Sofia raised her hand to cut off any further explanation. “And you know I wish you came home more. Lord knows your father misses you. Hell, you haven’t found the time to visit with the boys since they started school and you know how much they look up to you. I’d love it if you came back here, set down roots with your family instead of going so far away. But I’m gonna put all that aside, because I know when my girl needs her ma, okay?”

Jules pushed back the tears for the second time as she prepared herself for whatever rebuke Sofia was preparing for the absent Alex.

“Do you still love him?” Sofia asked.

Jules blinked. “Do I…what kinda question is that, ma?”

“Well? Do you?”

“Of course I do!”

“Good. Because I’ll tell you this much. No matter how I feel about him personally, I can promise you one thing: Alex for damn sure loves you. Now, I don’t know what he might’ve been into in the past. Hell, he might have been a whole different person back in the day. But the man I met? That man would walk over broken glass if it’d make you smile. If he’s got to choose between his past and coming home to you, it wouldn’t even be a question.”

It was the longest string of praise Sofia had ever spoken about Alex. It might well have been the only nice thing she’d ever said about him at all.

Jules felt the tears coming for the third time. She would’ve let them fall, and been glad to do so, if the front door hadn’t opened downstairs.

Sofia Bianchi needed reading glasses to help the kids with their homework and she used a cane to go up the three steps to her front porch, but her hearing was as keen as it had ever been. “Were you expecting someone?”

Before Jules could answer, she heard the voices. A booming male voice, cheerful and boisterous came first, saying something in German; a moment later, a voice with a much higher pitch responded in the same language. She would’ve known the voices anywhere.

“Ma, I think that’s him. I…I gotta go, alright?”

“You sure, honey? You gonna be alright?”

“I think so,” Jules said. She nodded twice; once for her mother and once for herself. “Yeah, I think so. Thanks, ma.”

“You want to thank me?” Sofia asked. “Find the time in your busy schedule to visit your aging mother. You know I won’t be around to dispense the wisdom forever.”

Jules smiled. This, too, was familiar: the patented Bianchi guilt trip. “Yes, ma, I hear you. I love you, you know that?”

“You wouldn’t know it from how you act,” Sofia said. She smiled a little, softening the rebuke into something more like gentle needling. “I love you too, baby. Give Ally my love.”

“Not Alex?”

One corner of Sofia’s mouth turned down slightly. “I know what I said. Now get out of here!”

Jules terminated the connection and sat in the room for a few seconds. She didn’t head downstairs until she was certain that she wasn’t going to burst into tears at a moment’s notice.

She saw Ally first. Alex’s daughter had entered the pubescent phase of “you’re not my real mother” at twelve and decided to stay there for the next seven years. The relationship between stepmother and stepdaughter was supposed to be difficult, according to the self-help books Jules had read, but the animosity Ally threw her way hadn’t appreciably weakened in almost a decade. She readied herself for some veiled insult or disrespect.

Ally practically chirped when she saw Jules at the top of the staircase. “Ah! We thought that you might have been out on the town.”

“I was just using the computer,” Jules said. “Your father told me that you went out on vacation with your friends. You’re back already?”

“The trip was…not as much fun as you would think,” Ally said. Jules heard the hesitation in her voice and almost asked for more information. The memory of her own activities at nineteen stopped her from poking that particular bear. “So Papa came to get me.”

“Oh? Well, it’s good to have you back home.”

“It is good to be home.” Ally opened her mouth to speak, closed it after a second, then opened it again. “I realized something while I was, uh…away.”

“What’s that?”

“I have not been fair to you, have I?”

Jules stared at Ally for a long time. “What?”

“You have been nothing but good to my father and me. And I have been…” She paused and considered her words. “I have been a bitch. And I am sorry for that.”

First, Sofia had praised Alex’s dedication to his family; now, Ally was apologizing for years of teenage angst?

“It’s, uh…it’s okay,” Jules said, even as she privately wondered whether or not she was in a dream.

“It is not okay,” Ally said. “But I will try to be better.”

Before Jules could say anything else, Ally bounded up the stairs and planted a kiss on her cheek. Then, she ran off to her room and closed the door behind her.

Jules remained where she stood for about thirty seconds before she shook her head and filed the incident away for later examination. Something must have happened on Ally’s “trip” to account for such a drastic change in personality, but Jules wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. She headed downstairs to find her husband.

She found him in the kitchen, tying his favorite apron on and checking the fridge at the same time. He was so engrossed in the search that he didn’t hear her enter.

Jules cleared her throat. “I just had the weirdest talk with Ally. Did she tell you what happened wherever she -”

She didn’t get to finish the sentence. Alex jerked his head out of the fridge, blinked, and then bulldozed across the room to sweep her up into a tight bear hug. Alex was a big man and he hadn’t let the passage of years rob him of his strength. He lifted her as easily as if she didn’t weigh anything and spun her in a tight circle.

“Jules! Oh, it is good to see you again!”

Jules tried to wriggle her way out of the hug without any success. Failing at that, she tried another tack and managed to extricate herself enough to speak. “It’s only been a week,” she said, between gasps for oxygen. “You have business trips that last longer.”

“Ah, but it felt like so much longer,” Alex said. “And I missed you, my love. I missed you so much.”

He lowered her to the floor again. Jules smoothed an invisible wrinkle out of her shirt before speaking again. “What brought that on?”

Alex looked like he might pick her up again, although he restrained himself. “I saw a few old business partners when I went to pick up Ally,” he said. “And I learned some things that reminded me how lucky I am to have you.”

He wasn’t telling the whole truth. That much was obvious. Jules didn’t know everything about Alex, but she knew enough to tell when he was evading.

Instead of letting the deception pass without comment, she stepped closer to him and lowered her voice. “Is it over?”

Alex went completely still. His smile withered and died on his face. “What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know. But whatever it is…whatever it was…is it over now? Finally?”

For a second, Jules was certain that he was going to lie again or that he’d tell a half-truth. He surprised her by taking a deep breath and visibly steeling himself. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it is over.”

She didn’t bother to stop the relief from flooding into her expression. “Will you ever tell me about it?”

“One day,” Alex said. “Maybe, if you really want to know. But not today.”

“Why not today?” Jules asked. She didn’t really care about the answer anymore. Alex had come home and, if he was to be believed, the ghosts of his past hadn’t come home with him. She loved him and he loved her. That wasn’t the only thing that mattered, but it did count for a lot. The rest, she was willing to give him on faith.

Alex clapped his hands together. “Because today we celebrate!”

This time, when he picked her up, Jules squealed in delight and allowed herself to enjoy the moment.

The Gentleman Thief

Over the years, Patrick Lance had lost more than a few friends. But he’d never “lost” anyone quite like he’d lost the Irishman.

The Irishman hadn’t seemed the type to try for an escape. As a first time resident of the French prison sentence and someone who, inexplicably, had proven utterly incapable of picking up the language, he’d been isolated…except, of course, for Patrick and the coterie of elderly thieves that he still considered friends. There had been no visits, no phone calls, no whispered conversations in dark corners. For nearly three years, the Irishman had waited for the day when he would be free to chase down the traitor whose betrayal had consigned him to La Santé.

But escape? No, never escape. Not a single word on that subject ever passed his lips.

Yet, he had escaped. In the early hours of the morning, about six months before his sentence would have legally ended, one of the prison guards had opened the Irishman’s cell door and simply…let him go. Or, more precisely, the guard had insisted that he leave the cell, and there hadn’t been any indication that ‘no’ would have been an acceptable answer.

Poor Hugo’s shattered jaw served as proof of how serious the guard had been.

There had been no alarm raised in the prison, no chaotic rush of guards attempting to catch their wayward charge before he could make it into the city proper. For all intents and purposes, the Irishman simply vanished.

On a whim, Patrick had spent a favor and contacted a friend on the outside. Asking Michel to keep an eye out hadn’t cost Patrick too terribly and, he thought, it was really just a token gesture. Nothing had been likely to come of it.

Two days later, Michel had disappeared too.

That had been more surprising than the Irishman’s vanishing act. Michel was a cabdriver, a local through and through. As far as Patrick knew, Michel hadn’t even left the city in years. Since the boy’s father had evicted him for his sexuality, Michel had taken on the responsibility of making sure that he worked, ate, and had somewhere to sleep. When Patrick had gotten arrested for the diamond job, Michel had taken over ownership of his small apartment. There had never been any talk of moving out, of getting a place on his own merits. He was cautious, a little sheepish, and far too much like an overgrown child to go very far on his own.

But, still, he was gone, as thoroughly as the Irishman was.

Patrick tapped every resource, called in every favor, and contacted every friend who had somehow managed to escape the long arm of the law. He found nothing, heard nothing, discovered nothing at all. It was like the Irishman had walked out of La Santé and straight off the face of the Earth, taking Michel with him.

If the Irishman had run straight at his rival without concern for subterfuge or stealth – a rival who could have spent years preparing for an inevitable showdown – it was more than likely that he’d simply been killed. That didn’t explain Michel’s absence, but the cabbie might have fallen in with the Irishman and followed him to their mutual fate. Michel was something of a follower.

That didn’t feel right, though. Some half-formed idea gnawed at Patrick’s mind, denying this simplest solution for no reason other than pure intuition. It was that same niggling intuition that kept him up nights, staring at the walls or the ceiling or the floor, attempting to make sense of a puzzle without pieces. That was why he was still awake, looking blankly at a book that he wasn’t reading, when one of the guards rapped his baton against the bars of his cell.

Monsieur Lance?” The guard waited for Patrick to respond. It was a courtesy extended to very few inmates. Most wake-up calls were performed in close quarters, with far more pain than politeness. Patrick had been a resident of La Santé for many years now, however, and most of the inmates and guards respected him for his old-world sense of honor and geniality.

Patrick lay in the darkness of his cell for several seconds, weighing whether or not he should respond to the summons. Courtesy won, in the end. If the guard was willing to show a little bit of civility to an inmate, responding in kind was the least Patrick could do.

“Yes, I’m awake. What is it?”

“You, uh…you have a visitor?” The guard’s voice betrayed his own uncertainty and doubt.

Patrick felt the same uncertainty, magnified by a factor of two or three. Everyone that he considered a friend or ally was either dead, in prison alongside him, or otherwise incapacitated. He’d never settled down and started a family. Any former lovers had long since distanced themselves from him. It had been almost six years since his last visit and even that had only been from a former teammate intent on finding an alleged fortune that Patrick legitimately hadn’t hidden.

If anything, Michel was his only real connection to the outside world and Michel was gone.

Patrick sat up in bed. “Did this visitor give you a name?”

A few moments of silence passed, presumably while the guard checked for an answer. “Vincent,” he said finally. “Vincent Peruggio. I might be mispronouncing that.”

It took another heartbeat or two before Patrick’s mind made the connection. Vincenzo Peruggio, not Vincent, had stolen the Mona Lisa back at the turn of the century. The theft was famous in the underworld for its brazenness, if not its artistry. Instead of an elaborate plan, Vincenzo had simply walked into the Louvre and taken the Mona Lisa off of the wall. It was a scheme that could only ever worked the one time, and Vincenzo had only pulled it off because no one else would have thought it possible.

But Vincenzo had to be dead by now and, even if he wasn’t, Patrick had never come in contact with the man. No one outside of the Italian underworld ever had, as far as he knew. If this visitor wasn’t the legendarily foolish and lucky thief, then who was using his name now? Was it a message? Some sort of code that he should recognize?

There wasn’t any real way to know, Patrick realized, but his curiosity had been roused. Ignoring the protests from his knees, he stood up and walked over to the door. “Well, let’s not keep Monsieur Peruggio waiting.”

Patrick spent the walk assembling a list of people who might want something from him. The fake name implied someone with a secret to keep, for starters. That might have been a client from the old days with a public face. Perhaps a child of someone he’d worked with who had a grudge to bear. Or maybe he’d misjudged one of the women he’d spent time with before falling afoul of the law. Simone had always been particularly fond of him, even after learning about his real occupation.

While Patrick’s thoughts traveled back to pleasant nights spent with the limber, energetic Simone, they reached the visiting area. A row of desks, uncomfortable chairs, and telephone receivers waited for him. At this angle, he couldn’t see who waited for him on the other side of the bulletproof glass, except for a pair of dark hands. Manly hands.

Even at his age, he still felt a stab of disappointment.

“You’ve got ten minutes,” the guard said. He gestured for Patrick to walk forward and took up a position near the door; close enough to intervene, if necessary, but far enough away to provide him with a semblance of privacy. A purely token gesture since the conversations were recorded and mined for even the slightest hint at secrecy, but still a nice gesture.

Patrick acknowledged that gracefully and strolled over to the indicated desk. He eased himself into the chair before looking at the man across from him.

Michel, dressed in what looked like a very expensive suit, smiled back.

Before Patrick could say anything, Michel placed an index finger over his lips and winked. He removed the receiver from its hook, waited for Patrick to do the same, and then spoke into the line. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Ten years?”

“About that long,” Patrick replied, dumbfounded. Thankfully, he was still capable of fabricating a story on short notice. “I hardly recognize you, uh…Vincent.”

Michel shrugged and his expression turned rueful. “I hardly recognize myself. A lot has happened since the last time we saw each other.”

He seemed different. Two months ago, Michel had possessed a unique flavor of charm, engaging without being overly intrusive, but there had always been an air of reluctance in every action. Every action was measured, every sentence carefully chosen to ruffle the fewest feathers, each step just the right length to avoid committing to any one direction.

He’d reminded Patrick of a lost puppy almost, although he would never have spoken that thought out loud.

Now, though…now, he seemed like a man with a goal, someone with an objective. He sat upright in his chair, when he once would have slouched, and made fierce eye contact with Patrick. He even sounded older, in a way that two months didn’t quite explain.

“I did not expect a visit today,” Patrick said. “Is everything alright with…” He deliberately trailed off, so that Michel could fill in whatever details he wanted to.

Michel waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Everything is…well, not fine, but it is as good as can be expected. But I needed to make a trip back here, to Paris.”

“Did you need something from me?” There were some stashed valuables that Patrick had managed to secret away. He couldn’t imagine why Michel would possibly need them, but it wasn’t as though Patrick could make any use of them himself.

“No, no! You have done more than enough for me already.”

“Then, do you mind if I ask what brought about this visit?”

“It has been a long time since we talked,” Michel said. “I wanted to see if you were alright and to ask if there was anything I could do for you.” He paused for a moment and his eyes briefly unfocused. “Also, there is someone else who insists on letting you know that he’s okay.”

Patrick’s mind leaped, immediately, to the Irishman, but that was nonsensical. No one who managed to escape from La Santé would voluntarily return to the scene of the crime. That wouldn’t just be arrogant; it would be astoundingly idiotic. The prison kept records of each inmate. Even if they hadn’t caught the Irishman before, there had to be some sort of system to recognize him if he returned.

Michel tilted his head and watched Patrick as he thought, a slow smile spreading across his lips. He lifted his eyes slightly, so that he was looking at one of the cameras in the visiting room. “I think that it has been long enough,” he said, in English.

Before Patrick could even begin to ask himself why Michel had switched languages, he heard a crackling sound behind him: the guard’s walkie-talkie, most likely. Patrick turned slightly in his chair to see the man.

The guard lowered the volume on his walkie-talkie down before speaking softly into it. A voice responded. While Patrick couldn’t make out the words, he recognized the tone: imperious, commanding, and without room for debate. The guard looked down at the walkie-talkie before, impossibly, leaving the room without saying another word.

Patrick blinked. Guards didn’t leave prisoners alone. They just didn’t. Not even the favor he’d accrued through years of good behavior wouldn’t have convinced someone to give him free reign. He started to voice that thought out loud, if only to see if it made more sense to hear the words instead of simply thinking them, when the door on Michel’s side of the glass opened.

The Irishman entered the room, striding from the door to the table in long, confident strides. He wore a pair of khakis, a long-sleeved shirt made from some heavy material, and a black windbreaker to protect against the temperature. He smiled at Patrick as he approached.

“Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” Devlin said, taking a seat next to Michel. He radiated absolute confidence and comfort, seemingly unaware of the camera pointed directly at him.

In his surprise, Patrick forgot about the subterfuge entirely. “You…you…you came back? Why?”

“When Michel told us who he wanted to check on, I rushed through my own errands so that I didn’t miss an opportunity,” Devlin said. “I’ve got to admit, you look better than I even wanted to hope.”

You came back,” Patrick said, ignoring Devlin’s cavalier attitude. “They record these conversations! Someone will watch this tape and realize what happened!”

“Let’s just say that I’d be very surprised if anyone watched this tape, ever. Surprised and very disappointed.” He looked away for a moment. “Sarah, can you kill these feeds, please?”

Patrick opened his mouth to ask a question. He closed it again when he realized that, judging from Devlin’s tone and the pitch of his voice, there was someone else listening to their conversation.

That guess was borne out a moment later when Devlin tilted his head and listened intently to someone that Patrick himself couldn’t hear. “Yes, I know that. Obviously, I know that. I was just thinking that it would have made all of us look a lot cooler.” Silence, while the third party replied. “Well, not now, no. It’s going to be a whole thing.”

“Who are you talking to?” Patrick asked.

Devlin rolled his eyes. “Women,” he said, as if that explained every question Patrick had asked himself in the past two months.

Something clicked above him and Patrick glanced up. A camera pointed directly at him on his side of the glass with a tiny red light next to the lens. As he watched, the red light dimmed, switched to green, and then turned off entirely.

“There we go,” Devlin said. For a moment, Patrick wasn’t sure who the Irishman was talking to. “Sorry about that. Apparently, it’s rude of me to just ask for things. There’s some kind of protocol I’m supposed to follow.”

“She did have a point,” Michel said. “You could have been more polite about it.”

“I wasn’t trying to be rude,” Devlin protested. “I was just trying to have a moment. Am I allowed to have a moment?”

Michel shrugged. “Apparently not.”

Devlin sighed. “And that, in a nutshell, describes the entirety of my life.” He shook his head and refocused his attention on Patrick. “Sarah would like me to thank you for looking out for me while I was locked up in here.”

“Sarah?” Patrick asked. He realized, in a distant sort of way, that he’d been asking a lot of questions and receiving no answers in response.

“She’s the reason that the three of us can have this conversation without getting the authorities involved,” Devlin said. He paused, squinted, and spoke again. Patrick guessed that he was speaking to this Sarah again. “I don’t know for sure what she did and neither do you. I’m sorry if I interrupted your busy day of watching soap operas and playing video games.”

Michel let out a low whistle.

“What?” Devlin asked.

“I think,” he said, “that you are going to pay for that comment, sooner or later.”

Devlin gave the cabdriver – former cabdriver, Patrick thought, because that occupation no longer seemed to apply to Michel – a sad nod. “I was going to pay for it anyway. Might as well get my shots in while I can.”

Michel considered that for a few seconds, then shrugged. “It is your funeral.”

Anyway,” Devlin said, focusing entirely on Patrick, “we don’t have to worry about someone paying attention to this particular conversation. There’s a lot of technical details that I’m sure Sarah would love to outline, but the essential point is that we are, for all intents and purposes, by ourselves.”

Patrick didn’t understand that. He had more questions now than he’d had during the two months when Devlin and Michel had vanished off the face of the planet but he realized, in an oddly detached sort of way, that he wasn’t likely to ever get all of the answers. So, instead of seeking further clarification, he simply nodded. “If you say so. Where have you been? What have you been doing?”

Devlin shared a look with Michel for a heartbeat. Communication passed between the two men in that instant of eye contact, without either man uttering a single sound.

“That’s complicated,” Devlin said finally. “It’s honestly better if we don’t tell you everything. You’ll be safer if you don’t have all of the details.”

“Or any of the details,” Michel added.

Patrick snorted. “I am an old man in prison. Whatever is going on, I am certain that I would not be in any danger. If someone wanted to hurt me, they would only have to wait until my age finishes me off.”

“Is there anyone you still care about?” Devlin asked, all traces of jocularity wiped from his expression. The sudden change caught Patrick off guard. “Not necessarily in here, but out there? Any children, family members, loved ones?”

If there were any children, the mothers had chosen not to tell Patrick about them. He felt a little bitter at the possibility, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it now. His parents had died sometime ago, disappointed that their beloved only child had turned to a life of crime, instead of using his potential for more lucrative – by which they meant ‘legal’ – pursuits. There were some friends who hadn’t known about his life of crime, Patrick supposed, but they were few and far between.

“There are some people,” Patrick admitted, “but they are innocents. They are upstanding citizens, for whatever that is worth. Completely removed from the life we live.”

“That wouldn’t matter,” Devlin said. “Not even a little bit. And if those people have people they care about, then an entire family could be in the line of fire.”

Michel was the closest thing to a son that Patrick had ever had. But he was apparently neck deep in whatever was going on, judging by his body language. Devlin had a strong personality and it made sense that he was more likely to take the lead in conversations. But Michel wasn’t carrying himself like a subordinate. With the occasional glances to each other, the silent conferences conveyed only by eye contact, it seemed like Michel was something closer to a partner.

From anyone else, on almost any other day, Patrick would have dismissed the darkening of his own thoughts as paranoia. However, despite his personal commitment to limiting violence whenever possible, he had known dangerous men and women in his lifetime and worked with a few of them. He knew fear well enough to recognize it in the eyes of someone else.

Michel and Devlin were holding it together admirably. Michel, in particular, showed more control than Patrick had ever seen from him before…but that made sense, in a way. Whatever these two and the unseen “Sarah” had been up to in the past few months must have been intense enough to put some steel in the man. Whatever the cause, he bore up under the strain of some invisible weight with poise and confidence and that same surety was matched by Devlin’s serious, focused eyes.

But both men, no matter their posturing, were terrified of something.

He cleared his throat to get rid of the sudden lump. “Is what you are doing that dangerous?”

Devlin nodded. “More, probably.”

“Why would you do it, then? If this Sarah can hack into La Santé, surely you can disappear and find other means of making money?”

“Money’s not the problem,” Devlin said, with more than a little sourness in his voice. “And we’ve thought about vanishing before, trust me.”

“Why get involved at all, then?”

“For my part…well, let’s just say that nothing comes for free. If someone’s going to go through all the trouble of arranging an early release from prison, then…” Devlin trailed off and spread his hands wide, inviting Patrick to finish the thought.

He connected the dots immediately, chastising himself for not thinking of that obvious solution to begin with. If you needed someone to take on a suicide mission, it never hurt to amass some leverage against them first.

“And you, Michel?”

“Because my friends might need me,” Michel answered, smoothly and immediately. For all of the fear simmering beneath the surface, he didn’t show an ounce of hesitation at the question.

Although he desperately wanted to counter that, it was impossible for Patrick to attack an idea as simple and noble as loyalty. Even if he could have found a way to chip away at it, he wasn’t really sure that he wanted to.

“Are you sure?” He asked the question in French.

“Of course,” Michel replied, in the same language. “Or…I am as sure as I can be.”

“Is this the life you want to live?”

“I think that it is the life I was meant to live.”

Again, another sentence so straightforward that it defied any possible rebuke. Patrick wondered who’d taught Michel how to do that.

Devlin tilted his head to one side and listened to an unseen, unheard voice for a handful of seconds. “How much longer?”

Silence.

“Okay, can you ask Mila to bring the car around?”

More silence.

“Oh, hi, Mila; didn’t know you were on the line. We’re coming out in a second.”

Another stretch of silence, shorter than the previous ones.

“If you don’t stop jinxing us, I swear I’m not taking you to my favorite ice cream shop.” He focused his eyes on Michel. “Time to go. Did you have anything else you needed to say?”

Michel swallowed and coughed to clear his throat. “No, I do not think so,” he said, using English, so that Devlin could understand. “Patrick, I just wanted to let you know that I am okay…that we are okay.”

“How long do you think it will be until you are finished with…whatever it is that you’re doing?”

Devlin snorted. “If we’re lucky, a couple of months. So, seeing as we obviously aren’t, who knows?”

“And when you are done?” Patrick asked. In the corridor behind him, he heard someone rapping a nightstick against the walls. Whatever makeshift errand had pulled him away from the room, it had obviously run its course. “When it is over, will you be able to tell me what was going on, then?”

It was Michel who smiled first, devilish and wicked, and answered the question. “When we are done,” he said, “you’ll be able to see for yourself. Everyone will.”

With that bold pronouncement, Michel stood up from the table. Devlin joined him. Both men said their goodbyes quickly and rushed out of the room, just before the guard returned.

The man was in the middle of spinning his nightstick by the handle when he saw Patrick, seated alone and looking blankly at the unoccupied visitor section. “Where did your friend go?”

“He had…business to attend to,” Patrick managed to say. Then, his mind re-engaged and he elaborated for no reason other than simple habit. “We knew each other before I started…all of this.” He gestured at his prison attire to illustrate his point

“Ah,” the guard said, as though he understand everything from that one sentence. “Are you ready to go, then?”

Patrick gave the question a lot more thought than it really required. Was he ready to go? Or was there something worth hanging on a little longer for? A story, perhaps, from a friend finally grown into himself?

“Take me back to my cell,” Patrick said. “I think that I am looking forward to the next time my friend can visit.”

A novel by Lawrence Limehouse