I turned around slowly, only to find that every other person in the bar had fallen into a shocked silence. Every eye that met mine quickly turned to face a wall, or the floor, or a forgotten drink. Everyone, myself and Anton included, was completely still. It was suddenly so quiet that I could hear my own breath. Behind us, a metal shaker fell from the bartender’s nerveless fingers. Sweat beaded on my brow and crept down my cheek.
The man who had spoken stood in front of me, both hands concealed in his pockets. He was a little shorter than me, maybe five foot four, and he wore a black suit, without a tie. The top two buttons of his shirt were undone to reveal a mat of curly, black chest hair. I looked past him to the two men who flanked him. They were larger than him by several inches, and also clad in black suits, although there was a slight difference in the cut. I assumed that their clothes were off-the-rack, while their boss splurged on the finest attire. He seemed to be aware of my examination; he simply waited, silent, as I drew my own conclusions.
I cleared my throat. A dozen suitably devastating openings sprang to mind. I opted instead for simplicity. “So.”
“So,” the man replied. “You are looking for Asher, too.” There was a noticeable pause between each word, like someone who hadn’t quite mastered the language.
“Guessing you are too?”
“You could say that,” the man said. He raised a lazy hand and twitched a finger at one of the two men who’d entered the bar with him. The bodyguard sported a thick, jet-black beard with eyes to match. He stepped forward and started toward me. I flinched as he came within arm’s reach, but he passed by me and approached the bar instead. I turned slightly to see him in the corner of my eyes. The man pointed at the bartender and then held up three fingers. I couldn’t see what the bartender was doing without turning my back to this newcomer, but I heard bottles rattle together and the sound of three heavy glasses being placed on the bar’s counter.
The short man snapped his fingers. My head swiveled back to him. “What is your business with Asher?” He asked.
“Long story,” I said, forcing myself to at least sound calm, even if I didn’t feel that way at all. “Lot of twists and turns. Really, it’s very complicated.”
The man’s lips curled into a thin, unamused smile. “Simplify it.”
“Stanislav,” Anton began. “There is more going on than you – “
“Mat,” the man spat out from between clenched teeth. Wild anger leapt into his eyes and his gaze bored into Anton with such ferocity that the bomber actually seemed to shrink a few inches. “Do not speak to me.”
Anton’s mouth dropped open, but he made no more sound. Stanislav glared at my guide with pure, molten hatred for several long, tense seconds. He exhaled slowly, lowering his head and closing his eyes. When he looked back at me, the cocky expression had returned, but I could see the cracks in the façade now. I filed that interaction away. Anton’s sheer presence had brought a violent rage out of the mobster. There was the possibility of some unknown angle there. “So, that’s your name?” I asked, deliberately drawing attention back to me. “Stanislav?”
The man turned his eyes and then, eventually, nodded once.
“That’s kind of a mouthful,” I said. “Any chance you’ve got a nickname?”
“Americans,” he said and rolled his eyes.
“That’s a no, then? Guess I’ll just call you Stani, then.”
Stani motioned at the man who was still barely visible at the edge of my peripheral vision. The burlier man returned carrying three glasses of clear liquor. “Call me what you like,” he said. “You will not be speaking for very much longer, at any rate.”
I didn’t doubt for a moment that this Stani would follow through on it, if given the opportunity and sufficient motivation, but it said a lot about him that he felt the need to speak the threat out loud in the first place. I’d worked with more than a few dangerous people. The people I’d learned to fear the most were the ones who treated violence as an unpleasant side-effect of doing business. The hitters and mob bosses I’d come in contact with had never bothered dangling the possibility of harm. It was simply a given.
“You will answer my questions,” Stani said. “Why are you looking for Asher?”
I considered my words carefully. “He…owes me,” I said finally. “For services rendered. I’m here to collect.”
“Shame that you will not be able to do that.” He took one of the three glasses from his man. “Drink?”
I blinked. “You’re offering me alcohol at the same time as you’re threatening torture?”
Another note went into the mental file. “That’s not drugged, is it?”
Stani answered by taking a large mouthful of liquor from a random glass and swallowing it.
I reached out and the large, silent man handed me both of the glasses. I passed one over to Anton, who took it with shaky hands. I took a sip from the glass while I thought of my next move and regretted it immediately. “You can ask me whatever you want,” I said, trying to hide my disdain for the drink. “But threatening me isn’t a really good way of making friends.”
“Who told you of this bar?”
I took the picture from my pocket and handed it over to Stani. He looked at it for less than a second before his bushy eyebrows rose about a foot. He held the picture up, so that the bald man behind him could see it. A similar moment of shock appeared on the bald man’s face, before he turned to the rest of the bar. “Zalyshaty!” His rumbling baritone echoed in the tiny space.
The command acted like a trigger. Every man inside the bar scrambled to their feet and fled the building. I heard the bartender slam open a door into the kitchen and then, a few seconds later, another door that led outside. It took thirty seconds, if not less, before Anton and I were alone with Stani and his two goons.
“Where did you get this?” Stani asked. “Tell me. Now.”
I clutched at the opening for dear life. ”That’s not how this works. You want information from me, you’ve got to give me something, too. Quid pro quo.”
Stani tipped his own drink up and drained half of it in one go. “Sit.” He pointed at an abandoned table. I took a seat after he did; Anton stood behind me, on my left, and Stani’s two goons flanked him on either side.
“What is your name?” He asked.
“Devlin. What’d you see in that picture?” I didn’t understand what leverage I’d suddenly been granted, but I knew that I had to use it before it ran out.
Stani slapped the photograph down on the table between us. “What do you know of this?”
I’d looked at the photograph every hour or so since its delivery, but I leaned over the table and examined it once more. Nothing about the photo leapt out at me, although I could definitely tell that Asher had visited this bar specifically. “I don’t see what you’re talking about.”
“Here,” Stani said. “This symbol.”
I noticed it a split second before Stani said the words. It was barely visible against the dark background of the picture and I’d missed it because I hadn’t been specifically looking for it. Now, inspired to give the slip of paper a more careful examination, I could see the small ghost-like circle at the bottom right of the picture. An elaborate symbol, three stylized interlocking triangles, was set as a watermark there. My first instinct was to answer honestly, but I caught myself before a single syllable could pass my lips. Whatever it was, Stani was confused enough by its presence that he’d entirely forgotten about threats and violence. “What do you know about it?” I asked and leaned my weight onto the table.
He glared at me, searching my expression for some hint or clue. Seconds passed before he gave up on that tactic. “This picture was sent to us,” he said. “We do not know from where. With this same symbol on it, in the same place.” He pointed again the triangles.
“I’m listening,” I said.
“There is nothing more to say. My superiors are…interested in the identity of the sender.” He ran a hand through his hair and I realized, for the first time, that Stani was missing the pinky and ring fingers on his left hand. The digits ended at the second and third knuckles, respectively, and I could tell from the scar tissue that the injury was several years old. When he noticed my attention, Stani quickly hid his hand beneath the table.
“I guess that information would be pretty interesting, wouldn’t it?” I was painfully aware of the very real possibility that I could overplay my bluff. There were answers to be had, however. Whatever party had sprung me from prison had involved Stani and his organization, as well. I couldn’t afford to ignore even the faintest glimmer of a lead. “Who are your superiors? Who do you work for?”
The bearded bodyguard stepped closer to Stani’s side and dipped his hand into his jacket. I didn’t need to see the glint of metal to know what he was reaching for. Stani raised his hand without turning to face the bodyguard, and made a fist. The goon stopped and Stani exhaled slowly. “Bratva.”
I barely kept myself from whistling in amazement. I knew more about the mysterious puppet master now than I had before, but what I’d learned was far from heartening. The Bratva were, in essence, the Russian mafia. I’d made a point of giving any organized crime syndicates as wide a berth as possible during my career, but what I’d heard about the Russian mafia had been composed of blood, death, and misery. People who acted against the interests of the mob found themselves in the crosshairs of an organization staffed with former KGB agents, Spetznaz trained killers, and a healthy amount of plain murdering psychopaths. If Stani was a lieutenant in the Bratva – and I guessed that he most likely ranked a little lower than that – then that meant my guardian angel was playing games with the sort of enemies who made people disappear.
Worse than that, the sight of the inverted triangles had shocked Stani so badly that he was actually deferring to me. I hadn’t needed to verify my identity and he hadn’t wanted a passcode or phrase. As soon as he’d seen the picture, his entire demeanor changed. Whoever had sprung me from jail and arranged for my extrication from Paris wasn’t just connected, then; to cow an agent of the Bratva, that person had to be seriously, frighteningly powerful.
I swallowed hard as the implications settled into place. I had more to worry about than Stani and his armed goons, now. If I said the wrong thing or upset my benefactor in some way, there was every possibility that I could spend the rest of a very short life in a dark hole somewhere. I immediately regretted showing him the picture in the first place. I could probably have talked my way out of the situation before; now, I was committed. I couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. “Okay then,” I said. “Now, tell me what you know about Asher. Where can I find him?”
“We do not know,” Stani said. “I was sent here to locate him and bring him back to Moscow, for a…reckoning. “
That was promising. Anything that could turn the Bratva from a possible enemy into a tentative ally was a good thing. “I don’t see why we can’t both get what we want,” I said. “You want Asher. I want Asher. Why not go after him together?”
“It is…” Stani started and then stopped. “Our dispute with Asher is a matter of professional etiquette. He must be made to pay for what he has done.”
“After I get what he owes me,” I said, “you can have him. Whatever debt he’s built up, you can get it from him however you want. Deal?” If Stani’s behavioral shift was any indication, I probably could have demanded Asher on the strength of the mysterious benefactor’s sigil. A proposal of equality, then, should seem like the offer of a lifetime. It was a chance for Stani to return Asher to his superiors and probably acquire a promotion of some sort in the process.
“I will have to speak with my superiors,” Stani said, after a few seconds.
“Go, then.” I leaned back in the chair and sipped at the liquor. It still burned like acid, but booze was booze. “We’re not going anywhere.” I gestured at Anton. He started at the motion, surprised to be included.
Stani nodded and stood from the table. “Come,” he said to the two bodyguards. They turned on their heels and followed him outside of the bar. I saw him pull a flip phone from his pocket and begin to dial a phone number.
When the door closed, I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. “Guess this is a thing I’m doing now,” I said to myself.
“Devlin,” Anton said, in a near-whisper, “what is going on?”
I pointed at the chair next to me. When Anton sat, I pulled the chair close to him and leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “Play along. I don’t know where this is going to go, but you have got to act like I know what I’m doing.”
I shook my head. “Not a clue. What do you know about that symbol?”
“Nothing. I have never seen it at all. What do you know?”
“I already told you that; someone is pulling strings to get me…somewhere to do something, and I don’t know who they are or what they want. Apparently, they’ve got connections with the Bratva, which is just thrilling.”
“And you are lying to them?” Anton’s eyes widened. “Stani is…not stable, Devlin. He will kill you if he finds out that you are not being truthful with him.”
“Well, there’s really not a lot I can do about that now,” I countered. “At least this way, I’ve got a chance, and that’s better than nothing. Besides, maybe I’m not lying?”
Anton gave me a blank look.
“Whoever is doing all this went to a lot of trouble to get me here,” I said. “Maybe they didn’t know when I’d get here, and they damn sure didn’t know what name I’d be using, but this was where they wanted me to be. Why go through all that trouble, just to have me offed by some mafia punk who worked his way up to middle management? As far as I know, and as far as you know, I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing here.”
“We should go,” Anton said. He tilted his head in the direction of a door set into the back wall. “Before this gets any more complicated.”
“It’s plenty complicated already. Stani’s a local heavy, right?”
Anton shook his head. “Not local. Not anymore, at least. He moved to Russia when he…how did you say it…moved to ‘middle management.’”
“He’s probably got connections here, though. I wouldn’t get to the airport without tipping someone off.” A thought struck me, fired like a lightning bolt from the background static of my mind. “How do you know Stani?”
The blank look in Anton’s eyes was replaced first with surprise and then shame. Color filled his cheeks. “It is…”
The door opened again. Stani entered the room again and Anton fell silent. He hurried to vacate the chair, but I reached over and forced him to remain seated. “What’d your bosses say?”
“Sovietnik has authorized me to assist you in your search for Asher,” Stani said in a stiff voice. He did not return to his seat as he glared at Anton.
I didn’t know what Sovietnik was, but they apparently had enough authority over Stani to force him to work with me. On the one hand, I didn’t really want the help. My best bet for continued survival was to lose Stani and his men before I said or did the wrong thing. On the other hand, though, there were two massive bonuses that stopped me from dismissing him outright. One: Anton’s knowledge of the area was limited and his connections to the local underworld were tenuous, at the best of times. Two: the last thing I needed was for Stani’s bosses, this Sovietnik, to decide to torture me in pursuit of answers I honestly didn’t have.
After a moment, I amended the list and added a third item: Stani was, despite his attitude, my single best source for information on the mysterious puppet master. My involvement had come from nowhere, without context or prelude. Stani’s reaction and the willingness of his superior’s to work with a relative unknown told me that the relationship between my guardian angel and the Bratva ran deep.
“That’s acceptable. There are conditions, though.” I waited just long enough for Stani to open his mouth before I spoke again. The trick worked wonders for keeping people off balance and, as a power move, its utility was staggeringly underrated. “No taking any violent initiative. Everyone wants to find Asher, but I’d rather avoid bringing the law down on us if we don’t have to. If he’s here, I get him first. After that, he’s all yours. Or Sovietnik, whichever.”
“That’s not all,” I said. “I don’t know what the deal is between you and Anton here, but he has been…hired as my local guide. An insult to him is an insult to me, and an insult to me…” I trailed off and let Stani finish the thought on his own.
Something passed between Anton and Stani. The glare, from Stani’s end, intensified and then faded into a merely sullen look, as opposed to the unabashed antagonism. In my mental file, under the folder titled “Stanislav,” I added a question mark and resolved to speak to Anton about the matter at the earliest opportunity.
“Good. Sooner we find Asher, the sooner the two of us can leave you all to your business.” I pointed to the two bodyguards.
“These two talkative gentlemen have names? I’d rather not call them Things 1 and 2.”
“Iosif,” Stani said, jerking a thumb at the bald man. “And this is Leonid.”
“And can they answer questions themselves?”
“Their English is very bad. If you would prefer to use Russian, then…”
“No. That’s fine. Can they at least understand what I’m saying?”
Iosif, the one on the right, nodded. A moment later, Leonid did the same, scratching at his dark beard.
I finished off the rest of my drink. Stani’s remained, half-empty, on the table. “Alright then,” I said, in a false tone of joviality.
“Let’s get started, then.”