Chapter 13

The flight was uneventful, and I spent the time coming up with increasingly creative methods of getting even with Asher. I lost track of the hours and was legitimately surprised when a polite voice came over the intercom and informed us that we’d reached Kiev.  I exited the plane, passed through security without incident, and entered the main lobby of the Ukranian airport.  There, I found an unoccupied bench and parked myself, searching the people nearest me for anyone who might be Alex’ friend and my potential ally.  I waited for a half hour, until a large clock set into an arch’s keystone showed that it was a little past midnight.

“Well damn,” I said to myself in a soft voice.  “That’s going to make things even more difficult.  Goodie for me.”

I retrieved the phone from my pocket and scrolled idly through its applications.  For the most part, there was nothing surprising about its contents; Skype, Facetime, and Kik were displayed at the center of the first screen, with a variety of games on the next page.  I used my thumb to swipe to the third screen.  A large calendar appeared there.   A handful of events were set in the next few days: book club meetings, drinks with some friends Jules had made, and an appointment with a German language coach.  After a moment of thought, I decided to clear the calendar entirely.  I hoped that it wouldn’t affect the backed-up copy, stored in some ephemeral cloud of data that I’d never quite understood.  I swiped two screens to the left, past the main display, and over to one I hadn’t seen yet.

On the third screen, I saw more apps that I’d never heard of.  Some looked like unfamiliar mobile games, two appeared to be music streaming services, and one – right at the center of the bunch, and larger than the rest – was a shortcut to a translation program.  I pressed down on that icon.  A microphone took the place of every other icon and began to pulse.

“Good morning?”  I said into the phone.

Gutentag,” the phone said back to me.

“Can you translate anything?”

A couple of seconds ticked by.  “Können Sie alles zu übersetzen?”

I whistled.  The sound attracted the attention of an older woman.  She shot me a look, and I shrugged at her until she continued on her way.  “Google Translate for the jetsetting crowd,” I said.  “Not bad.”  A symbol at the top right of the screen caught my eye, and I pressed it.  A drop-down menu of options appeared.  Another click, and a short list of alternate languages took up the entire display.

“English, French, German,” I read out loud, “Spanish, and…Chinese?”  I paused.  “Why Chinese?”

The phone did not provide an answer.

I sighed and closed the translation program entirely.  “Of course there’s no Ukranian, but it’s better than nothing, I guess.”

I looked around the terminal again.  A few people glanced at me, the strangely dressed man talking to himself, and gave my bench a wide berth.  I turned my eyes back to the phone and searched through the entire list of apps installed on the phone until I found the Maps program.  While it opened and located me through some satellite system, I dug out the envelope I’d received in Paris.  The picture of Asher fell to the ground.  I left it there and fished around until I found the small slip with latitude and longitude coordinates.  The phone beeped to let me know it had accurately identified my location, and I typed the numbers into the search box.

The map zoomed out briefly, showing the whole of Kiev, before it zoomed back in at a specific location.  A list outlining a series of instructions appeared after another moment, presumably leading me to the specific location of the coordinates.  According to the directions, that spot was at least twenty minutes away from the airport, by car.  I didn’t even want to think about the necessary multipliers, if I decided to travel on foot.  I also carefully avoided considering the inherent danger in spending that much time exposed and with limited mobility.  Ukraine wasn’t bad, per se, but Kiev wasn’t the sort of place where I wanted to feel any more vulnerable than I had to.  Asher was here – had been here, at any rate – and he would have left a veritable minefield in his wake if he thought, even for a moment, that someone might be coming after him.

I looked up from the phone.  A third sweep of the room still showed no one familiar.  I pushed myself off of the bench and went off in search of a conversion window.  Alex had said the rate would be less than ideal at an airport, but even just a few bills of currency that could actually be spent here was better than a wallet filled with useless Euros.  I practically walked into a sign which directed me further away from the terminal to a healthy, but dwindling, line of tourists and travelers, all waiting to change their currencies into something more palatable to the Ukranian market.  I joined at the back and waited patiently.  Prison lines had done wonders for my ability to endure boredom.  When it was my turn, I dropped a messy handful of Euros to the counter.

The lady at the counter arched an eyebrow at me.

“Sorry,” I said.  “Do you, uh…speak English?”

She nodded, without lowering her eyebrow even a single millimeter.  “I do.  Can I help you?”

“I needed these changed into…”  I rifled through my memory.  “Hryvnia?  That’s what you use here, right?”  I looked at her nametag, intending to use it to ease this transaction.  The name was a series of consonants in strange places and distinctly lacking in vowels.  I decided against butchering her name and fell silent instead.

The lady, whose name remained an unpronounceable enigma, narrowed her eyes before she took the bills from the counter and put it into a counting machine.  As the machine did its work, she looked back at me.  “You are American?”

I shook my head and attempted a smile.  It felt wrong, even as I stretched my lips to form the gesture.  “Irish,” I said.  “But I get that a lot.”

She tutted at me.  The machine dinged at her.  She turned, checked the figure, and then began to pull multi-colored bills from a drawer somewhere out of sight.  The attendant’s exasperation was palpable and I felt a little uncomfortable just being near it.  When she gave me the bills and a receipt to sign, I took a second to remind myself which name this passport was under, and then I wrote “Carl Gugasian” on the bottom line.

I started to leave the airport, but some instinct stopped me.  Instead of walking to the exit, I turned another ninety degrees to the right, until I faced a small kitsch stand, covered in sunglasses and burner cell phones for illicit communications.  Behind the stand, doing his best to remain concealed from any of the airport’s numerous cameras, I recognized a face.  I strode over to him, concealing my own face with a series of strategically timed pivots and head-tilts.  When he finally did recognize me, his eyes widened to saucers and he began to backpedal away from me.  I caught up and grabbed hold of his shirt before he had a chance to move very far.

“You,” I growled.  “Where’s Asher?”

“I…I do not know,” the man said.  He was taller and heavier than me, but he lacked the benefit of anger and surprise.

“You don’t know?  You were there, Anton.  You and Asher left me there to rot, dammit.”

“What?”  I pulled harder on his shirt and Anton cried out slightly, more from shock than any actual pain.  Two security guards turned in the direction of the sound and started towards us.  I immediately released his shirt and raised my hands in surrender.  One of the guards continued forward, reaching for a baton at his side; his partner stopped him with a quick shoulder squeeze, and the two returned to their posts.  The first guard shot looks at me every now and again as he left.  I gave him my best innocent smile and then returned my attention to Anton.

“You didn’t know?”  I repeated.   “You expect me to believe that?”

“It is the truth!”  He glanced nervously to the left and right.  There were just enough people in the terminal that he had no chance of a quick, clean getaway.  Trapped, he turned back to me.  “Asher told us all that you had escaped before any of us.  I did not know you had been captured until…”  He stopped, worked his way through my previous sentences.  “Asher left you there?”

“He tased me,” I spat out, anger rapidly building in my chest.  In a disconnected way, I was aware that Anton was probably telling the truth.  He wasn’t a con man or a thief.  If he’d had anything to do with Asher’s betrayal, my simple presence would have shaken the truth from him.  Still, I let my anger vent out on him.  It was better than keeping it bottled up inside.

Anton’s eyes grew wider and his face paled.  His mouth worked open and shut and not a single sound escaped it.  When he finally did find his words, there was a surprising hint of steel beneath his voice.  “So, I am not the only one he abandoned, then.  That bastard.”

I blinked and felt my outburst’s momentum fade a little.  “What’re you talking about?”

Anton looked around again.  I stepped away from him and he led me to a relatively secluded corner.   When he was satisfied that no one was close enough to hear his words, he scowled at the ground.  “He assembled a team recently.  He offered cash up front, provided transportation from where we were.   Asher promised us all – everyone on the crew for the Paris job, except for you – that he knew of a job that would pay us all well.  We spent two months planning, and another getting into position.  But, after we pulled it off, he took all of the money and…”  Anton wiggled his fingers in the air.

“How long ago was that?”

“Perhaps…six months ago?”

I had the picture in my hand before I was even aware of the thought forming in my head.  I looked past the map coordinates to the date and timestamp at the bottom right of the photo.  The timeline didn’t fit perfectly, but it made sense that Asher would be on the run if he’d decided to abscond with the spoils from a job.  What didn’t make sense was his enduring presence in Kiev.  I showed Anton the picture.  “You think he’s on the run from your team?  Are you guys looking for him to?”

Anton shook his head.  “I do not know what my ‘team’ is doing,” he said.  “They…parted ways with me, afterwards.  It was only because of the money that they would work with someone who is…”  He trailed off, suddenly awkward in a way that had nothing to do with fear.

I made the necessary logical leap instantly.  Anton was a homosexual, in a country that was notoriously unforgiving of homosexuality.  It was only through my record of successful heists and Asher’s forceful personality that a crew of native Ukranians had accepted Anton into their ranks in the first place, even though the man’s work was consistently top notch.  Anton was notoriously uncomfortable discussing his sexuality, however, and I wasn’t going to drag him into a public discussion if it wasn’t necessary.  “If he’s running from them, it’d make sense for him to kick rocks, but…why stay in Ukraine?  What was your cut of that job supposed to be?”

“Seventy-five thousand dollars, US,” he answered immediately.  I got the impression that he reminded himself of that number often.

“Split between how many?”

Anton counted on his fingers.  “Six, plus Asher.  Why?”

I crunched the numbers in my head.  “Little over a half million, and he’s stayed in the same country where he’s pissed off a lot of the local underground?”  Wheels began to spin as I worked through the problem.

“Oh!  There was a bonus, also.  Another five hundred thousand US dollars, to be split amongst all of us.”

That new piece of information stuck in my mental gears and ground them to a halt.  There was a lot a person could do with a million dollars anywhere, especially in Ukraine where the economy was less than stellar.  It was certainly enough to purchase a fake passport and enough of a history to disappear entirely.  I adjusted my thinking and a possible solution appeared to me almost instantly.  “He wasn’t just running from you,” I said.  “Someone else is after him.  He ever say anything about owing people money?”

“Asher was…it would not surprise me to find that he was in debt,” Anton answered.

If he owed money to some of the more unsavory elements in the area, Asher wouldn’t have stayed in Ukraine for neither love nor money, if it was within his power to leave.  A suitably well-connected cartel, though, could easily arrange for his passport to be blocked and blacklist him from all available methods of obtaining new paperwork.  Without documentation, and deep in debt with the most dangerously unbalanced sorts of people, the likelihood of Asher escaping the country dropped to nearly zero.  That was good for me and, paradoxically, terrible at the same time.  If Asher owed some powerful mover or shaker, their claim would supersede my own.

“Of course,” I muttered, ignoring Anton entirely for the moment.  “Because it’s never easy.  Why would someone even send me the damn picture, if it’s just a set-up?”

“What are you saying?”  Anton asked.

Distracted by my own sudden, foul mood, I quickly summarized the events of the last few days to Anton.  Midway through the story, he was forced to take a seat as the details began to jumble together into a thoroughly unbelievable story.

“That is…”  His voice faded into silence.  He shrugged, incapable of finding the right words.  I mirrored the gesture, for the same reason.  “What are you going to do?”

“I’m not about to let Asher get off the hook for Paris,” I said.  “Even if it means I’ve got to cut a deal with whoever he owes money to.  And there’s someone out there who pulled an awful lot of strings to get me here, even if I did decide to go off book for a little bit of it.  I want to know who that is, and what they want.  Only way to do that is to see this out.”

Anton heaved a heavy sigh.  “I…think I might be able to help you with that,” he said.

“Oh?  How’s that, exactly?”

“You said that your friend Alexander would arrange for a contact for you here?”  He gave me a weak smile.  “That is me, I believe.”

“You?”  I blinked three times.  “What?  How do you even know Alex?”

“We have worked together once or twice before.  Small jobs, but…”  He shrugged again.

For what felt like the millionth time, I marveled at Alex’ massive web of connections.  “Is there anyone he doesn’t know?”  Anton tilted his head at the question, and I waved dismissively at him before he answered.  “Alright, then.  I believe you didn’t have anything to do with sending me down the river in the first place.  And you’re looking for Asher, too?”

“I am.  He owes me money, as well.”  Anton hesitated for a split second.  “Although, I do not have the same resources you seem to.”

“Maybe you can figure out where I’m supposed to be headed, then.”  I took the phone from my pocket, navigated back to the map screen, and passed it over to Alex.

He scrutinized the coordinates and the map for a few seconds before he said something that sounded extremely vile in Ukranian.  He handed the phone back to me.  I waited as he stewed over what he’d seen for a long time.  “That is…not a good place,” he said finally.  “It is not safe for me, at all, but it is also not safe for you.  Or Asher, for that matter.”

I gave him an impatient look until he decided to continue.

“There is a local group that resides there.  At a small bar with a very large back room.  I have avoided going there for many years.”

“You think they might be the people Asher owes money to?”

Anton took a second before he nodded.  “If not, someone there will almost certainly know who he does owe.  It is just…”

“Just what?”

“Nothing,” Anton said, a hair too quickly. “We should go.  It is already late, but there might still be customers in the front of the bar.”

“We want there to be customers there?”  I asked.  “Why, exactly, do we want civilians if the conversation’s probably going to be about business?”

“We do not want civilians,” Anton answered.  “We will want witnesses.”  The simple sentiment sent a fresh wave of chills down my spine.  He started to move to the exit and I, after a quick reaffirmation, followed my guide out to his waiting car.

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