The four of us stood in the empty bar and stared at each other. I wasn’t quite sure how best to start the brainstorming session and it didn’t seem that anyone else was interested in taking the first step. While I thought over what little I knew, a part of my mind detached to analyze the mounting tension in the room. There was history between Anton and Stani, that much was painfully obvious, but I couldn’t guess at what it might be. Stanislav struck me as the archetypal company man, if the ‘company’ was a criminal syndicate. His bravado told me that he’d probably been promoted a little too quickly through the ranks, but his two goons worked well with him. I weighed the merits of insinuating a little mistrust into that team dynamic, but shot that idea down before its wings could fully unfurl. Sabotaging a possible asset before its worth could be fully vetted was a rookie move, and I couldn’t afford to be a rookie, so long as Asher was in the wind.
Anton was, as far I knew, a self-taught expert in explosives. He had spent countless months learning what went boom and to what degree by himself in a backwater Ukranian city. After he’d reached the age of majority, he’d left home – or been forced out, I was never really sure – and decided to make a living with the skills he’d acquired. It must have been tough, working under the judgment of his peers, but he’d somehow made enough of a name for himself that he earned a reasonable living building small devices for heists, robberies, and occasional legitimate demolition work.
I frowned as I realized that I simply didn’t have enough information. That was becoming a depressingly common situation. Whatever the root cause of Stani’s animosity was, I couldn’t possibly guess at its nature, and it wouldn’t take very much to derail the already fragile game I was playing. Without knowing what their issue was, I couldn’t hope to avoid triggering any long-buried landmines. My best bet was to tread carefully and to stay aware of every exit.
Iosif and Leonid kept to themselves. They spoke to each other in hushed whispers, one or the other occasionally chuckling at a joke. The two men simply looked very similar to each other, with the exception of their hairstyles. After a few moments, I noticed that Iosif stood with his right hand over his left, while Leonid’s hands rested in the opposite position. It was such a small detail that I doubted I’d notice it in the heat of the moment, but it was better than nothing. Neither Russian nor Ukranian was programmed into Jules’ handy translation app, so if I needed to communicate with either of the bodyguards, I would have to defer to Stani or Anton. If Stani gave an order to take me out, I wouldn’t know until the guns came free.
I had exactly one thing to use as leverage: the photograph, hand-delivered to me right after I’d been sprung from La Santé, with the inverted triangle watermark. My natural demeanor, coupled with the mystery surrounding the symbol, had led Stani to believe that I’d been sent to Kiev on behalf of some illusive criminal figure. I had not cleared up the misunderstanding; in fact, I had leaned into it and the specter of the unknown puppetmaster was apparently so frightening that Stani’s bosses, this Sovietnik, had offered me his services in the pursuit of Asher. I’d made a professional career of tiptoeing across fine lines, or simply ignoring boundaries entirely, but the idea of misleading the Bratva or potentially upsetting an individual or organization so powerful that even the Russian mafia instantly knuckled under at the mere suggestion of their involvement was…risky. I had no other options, though.
“Tell me what you know,” I said to Stani. The beginning was as good a place to start, as any. “You said Asher owes the Bratva money?”
Stani shook his head. “No, not money. This is a matter of blood.”
My eyebrows climbed.
Stani turned and Leonid removed a large smartphone from his jacket pocket. He handed it over to Stani, who navigated through menus while he spoke. “Asher was given the use of several men for an operation. That operation went…poorly.”
He handed me the smartphone. A video file was displayed on the screen. I pressed play and watched through an exterior traffic camera as Asher, unlit cigarette dangling from his lips, led a group of low level soldiers into a building with old stone columns and carved gargoyles. “Where is this?” I asked.
“A branch of Cyprus Central Bank, in Limassol.”
The name sounded familiar. “That’s a mafia bank, isn’t it? One of your own?”
He shook his head. “Not every branch. That bank was filled with money from rival organizations. The job was to clear out only the assets of our rivals. Asher would receive twenty percent of the cash; the rest, we would use to fund attacks on these other organizations.”
I kept watching. The team of soldiers went into the bank with military precision. The view switched from an exterior camera to one inside the building’s lobby. The men spread out and covered each guard, leaving three men and Asher to locate the bank manager. Asher found the man, huddled amongst the rest of the bank’s customers, and jammed a handgun into his face. The manager removed a key from a lanyard, hidden beneath his shirt, and Asher went into the back of the bank. There were no cameras there, I assumed, because the view didn’t switch to track my former partner as he went on. I could see, however, when an explosion blew smoke and debris from the vault out into the lobby. Smoke and dust filled the air.
“He blew the vault,” I said out loud. “That’s new for him. Why get the key from the manager, if you’re just going to blow the vault? Hell, why go in to the bank at all when you know there’s going to be people there?”
Stani didn’t answer. I turned my attention back to the silent video. It seemed that the Russian muscle was as surprised by the explosion as me; their heads snapped to the vault. For several seconds, nothing happened. Something pierced the cloud of dust and one of the soldiers fell to the ground. The remaining two abandoned their marks and turned their guns to the vault. Another one of the men went down before he could do much more than place his finger on his weapon’s trigger. The third man managed to squeeze off a burst of brilliantly lit gunfire before he went down, too. Asher stepped out of the smoke, aimed up at the lobby camera, and fired a bullet into the lens. The video stopped there.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The explosion was not planned,” Stani said. “Asher used the noise and disturbance as a distraction. All six of our men were killed and left in Limassol.”
I whistled. “That’s a hell of a betrayal. I’m guessing he cleaned out the bank by himself, then?”
I blinked. “What? He killed an entire squad of Russian soldiers and didn’t take the money for himself?”
“He took a little,” Stani admitted. “My superiors believe it was to cover expenses and arrange for travel out of the country. But, besides that, he took only one thing: the contents of a single safety deposit box.”
I tapped an index finger against my bottom lip. “Who owned the box?”
“According to the records, that box did not exist. With considerable effort, my superiors were able to identify its owner from those that worked at the bank. The owner was registered as an M. Balthazar.”
“And where is this M. Balthazar?”
Stani shrugged. “We do not know. We were hoping to…persuade Asher to explain that to us.”
“Let me think for a second.” The story kept growing in layers and complexity; I had even less of an idea what was going on now than I had before coopting the services of Stani and his men. Asher’s assault of the bank had been textbook. It didn’t make any sense for him to turn on the Russian soldiers, though. Twenty percent of a bank job was likely to be a considerable sum; higher in value, though, was the favor of the Moscow branch of the Bratva. Using that, Asher would have had a link into any number of more lucrative jobs and a deep roster of potential assistants for any personal assignments he chose to pull off. He’d already penetrated the vault; all that he’d needed to do was escape with the resources from the bank, and Asher would have been home free.
So why would he blow all that to kill off his entire team, anger the mafia, and only leave with the contents of a single safety deposit box?
“You thought that Asher could lead you to your enemies?” I asked. “What enemies? What organization were you robbing?”
Stani was silent. Leonid and Iosif shifted nervously behind him. “It is…complicated,” he said.
“There is a…group, perhaps, that is attacking the assets of my superiors,” Stani said, reluctantly. “Efforts to identify and eliminate these aggressors have not been successful.”
“And you thought he could lead you to this other organization? Why?”
Stani gestured for his smartphone. I handed it back to him and he clicked his way through to the gallery of photographs. When he found the one he wanted, he held it up so that I could see it.
It was a picture of a short note, handwritten in impeccable cursive. The writing was direct and left no room for interpretation: “Send two million US dollars to the following bank account, each month. Disobedience will be met with repercussions.” At the bottom of the letter, there was another symbol, distinct from the one on my own photograph. This symbol was three interlocking triangles as well, but the points of the shapes pointed up instead of down. There was no signature.
I examined the symbol for several seconds. “So, this is…what, exactly?”
“We do not know. But, just before we received this message, there was an explosion at one of our…facilities. Twenty-five men, and at least a million dollars in illicit funds. There was only one survivor. He drew this symbol in the hospital, before he died.”
My head swam with questions. I sat down, closed my eyes, and thought. The difference between the symbols, one inverted and the other upright, told me that yet another player had entered the game. Or, perhaps, had already been in the game to begin with. Some organization had freed me from prison and pointed me in the direction of Asher. Another group, who seemed to prefer outright violence to coercion, was threatening the Russian mafia – actually running the equivalent of a protection scheme against them – with alarming effectiveness. The possibility of a double blind – that there was actually only a single organization manipulating situations so as to conceal their true involvement – occurred to me. If that were the case, though, why would the metaphorical left hand have aimed me to take out a tool in the metaphorical right?
Stani continued speaking. “Asher promised us that he would be able to give us information as to this group’s identity, so that we could strike back. He had a branding on his back that matched the symbol. Our interests were aligned.”
“But then he double-crossed you.” I leaned back in the chair and opened my eyes. “He does that a lot, as it turns out.”
“That is all I know,” Stani said. “My superiors wish to locate Asher; your superior also wishes the same, no?”
I hesitated for a second, confused by the breadth of secrets piling up before my very eyes, before I nodded. “I’ve got to come up with some names here,” I muttered.
“What?” Stani asked.
“Nothing. Anyway.” I pinched the bridge of my nose and focused past the glut of unanswered questions. “We’ve got the satellite image that says he was here pretty recently. Could he have gotten out of the country?”
“It is possible,” Stani admitted.
“No,” Anton said. He had barely spoken since Stani and his goons had come into the bar. “I was also looking for him, due to the last job we worked together. If he flew out of town, then I would have heard something about it.”
Stani sneered. “Because the other criminals in this town would bother to inform you of anything?”
“Reign it in,” I said, injecting just the right amount of calm menace into my voice. It worked. Stani raised his hands in surrender and took a step away from the table. “Anton, go on.”
“I have family here who…do not know what I am,” he said. “Some of them still talk to me. I could not keep him from leaving Kiev if he wanted to, but I think I would have heard about it.”
“So you’re saying he’s still here?”
Anton nodded. “I believe he has gone to ground in Kiev somewhere. I do not know where, though.”
“Or why Kiev, specifically,” I added. “He could’ve taken a lot more money and gone anywhere in the world, but he ripped off the Russians and then came to their backyard. There’s got to be a reason for that.”
“What,” Stani asked suddenly, “does your employer want with him? If you do not mind me asking, I mean.”
I answered immediately. “He’s a rogue element, and he’s got to be stopped. Simple as that.”
For the first time since he’d entered the bar, Stani gave me a genuine smile, albeit one tinged with sadistic glee. “Then our interests are aligned, as well. And if things should not go as planned, at least I will not have to look very far to…settle the score.”
“Uh, sure. That works,” I said.
“Well, then. Where should we begin our search?”
I’d worked with Asher long enough that I knew his habits and tendencies; at least, I knew them as much as anyone possibly could. Randomness ran deep in his nature, and that made him difficult to track and even more difficult to anticipate. Still, there were some consistencies. When it occurred to me, I slapped my forehead. “Cigarettes,” I said. “He’ll need cigarettes.”
“There are many places for a person to buy cigarettes here,” Anton said.
“Not just any brand. He prefers uh…Sobrev something. Or something with an S.”
“Sobranie?” Stani suggested.
I snapped my fingers. “Yes! That. Where could he get those?”
Stani discussed the matter with his bodyguards for a minute. I waited impatiently. “There is a smuggling operation on the outskirts of Kiev,” he said to me, finally. “Our cigarettes are brought into the country there, at the Podil port.”
I looked to Anton for translation. “Not far,’ he said. “Thirty, thirty-five minutes.”
“Asher’s addicted to those. If he’s here, you can bet he made sure he could still get some of his usual brand. That’s where we should start looking. Stani, how many men do you have with you here?”
Stani looked at Iosif and Leonid, who looked back at him. He turned back to me and shrugged.
“What?” It was too absurd for words and I sputtered for a few seconds until I regained control of my faculties. “Asher killed six of your trained soldiers, and they knew where he was. So your bosses sent you and two hitters to bring him back, when he’ll have the element of surprise?”
“He is only one man,” Stani protested.
“He’s one man who’s already escaped the Bratva and who’s apparently got connections with some real heavyweights. I’m going to need for you to start taking him a little more seriously. I promise, if you underestimate him, you and your men are going to end up catching a bullet. Got it?”
Stani gave me a stiff nod. Presumably, Leonid and Iosif understood as well; they nodded, too.
I took a deep breath and released as much of the anger as I could. “I’m just saying. Until we know what he’s playing at, we can’t be too careful. Do you know where your operation is here, specifically?”
Stani pulled up a map on his phone and nodded.
“Alright. We’ll check at the docks first, and then we’ll fan out to the nearby houses. If he didn’t already skip town, then he’ll be lying low or someone there will have seen him. Asher came to Kiev for a reason, gentlemen. If I had to guess, I’d say it was the same reason he blew the bank job for a single box.” I thought. “Might be the same reason he left you guys out to dry too, Anton?”
“And the reason he betrayed you, as well?” Anton asked.
My expression darkened. I felt the frown creep across my face and my eyebrows draw closer together. “No. That’s for other reasons. He and I have history that…predates what happened in Paris.”
Stani stood up straighter. “Paris?”
“Don’t worry about that. Sufficed to say, everyone here is suitably motivated to finding Asher, and no one more than me.” I cracked my knuckles, one at a time. “We’ll search every house we find, one at a time. Question everybody who might know something. Can you call in for more reinforcements?”
“I…maybe. They would not arrive until much later, if at all.”
“Make the call anyway. Better to put some feelers out and find out we’re on our own, than to just assume there isn’t any help coming.”
Stani looked uncomfortable, but he nodded. He spoke to his bodyguards in short Russian sentences; they turned and walked out of the bar. A moment later, their cars roared to life outside. “Whenever you are ready,” Stani said.
I looked down at the picture and traced the odd symbol with an index finger. “Time for some answers, old buddy, old pal.”