Anton, Leonid, and I rode in one car. Stani took another with Iosif. The ride to the docks was quiet and painfully awkward. Neither I nor Anton had any particular desire to speak and potentially share details about our own secrets; Leonid didn’t speak English at all. Even when Stani had been near him, the bodyguard had still only spoken a few syllables to anyone other than his partner, usually in direct answer to a question or order from his superior. I chose to indulge in my new favorite pastime – contemplating a variety of different ways I could extract my revenge on Asher – while we drove through Kiev’s streets, in lieu of anything more productive. When we reached the docks, it was a pleasure to step out of the vehicle and stretch my legs.
Only a few seconds after we parked, Stani’s car pulled up beside me. He exited from the passenger’s side and his associate stepped out from behind the wheel. Overhead, the sky remained dark, except for the occasional pinprick of light. The entire area was as silent as the grave.
“This is it?” I asked Stani. My voice sounded odd in the still air.
“It is,” he answered. His eyes swept the area at a slow, suspicious pace.
“You sound confused.”
“It is…strange. There should be workers here, I think.”
He scratched at the back of his head, exposing the missing fingers on his left hand as he did so. “I am not sure. There are always shipments arriving here from Moscow,” he said. “This dock should be staffed with our people at all times.”
“You’re sure about that?”
Aside from the general creepiness of an abandoned area, my instincts told me nothing. The hairs on the back of my neck lay flat against the skin and no goosebumps crawled their way up the flesh of my arm. That meant very little, though. Asher had always been disturbingly capable of navigating around that unusual sense for danger. “Let’s assume there’s something going on here, then, until we’ve got a reason to think otherwise. Is there a…headquarters, I guess? Something like a command center?”
Stani thought about the question. “There should be a bookkeeping room,” he said finally.
“Do you know where that is?”
He shook his head. “This is not my area of expertise. I have never been assigned to work in Kiev before.”
If my senses hadn’t been on high alert, I would’ve missed the slight skip in his words. The pause was nearly imperceptible, but I’d keyed myself up and caught it: he was lying. I turned slightly to look at him and caught the tail end of yet another wordless conversation between Stani and Anton, communicated only with their expressions. A mental link clicked into place. “Is whatever history you two have going to be an issue?” I asked. “I’m a huge fan of not having things fall apart while we’re in the field.”
They exchanged another look before Stani shook his head. “It will not be a problem, of course.”
Anton cleared his throat. “Of course. Finding Asher is the most important thing.”
Not exactly lies, but clever misdirection. I would have pressed them on the matter, but the darkened docks stretched out in front of us. In one of the buildings I could see, or perhaps in one that I wasn’t yet aware of, we’d find ledgers about the smuggling operation. That meant the possibility of a lead to follow, in pursuit of my wayward ex-partner. On the list of priorities, the secret past of Anton and Stani ranked near the bottom. “If you get me killed…”
“That will not happen,” Stani said. He withdrew a pistol from his inside jacket pocket and clicked the safety off. Leonid took out a similar handgun, while Iosif revealed a compact submachine gun slung across his chest and hidden beneath his sportcoat.
I whistled without thinking about it. “You three came loaded for battle.”
The sound of a chambered round from out of my field of vision surprised me. I spun and prepared to roll away. Anton gave me a sheepish look as he lowered his own Makarov to point at the ground. He shrugged. “What?”
“You too? Since when do you carry a gun?”
“Asher is a dangerous person,” Anton replied in a soft voice. “It could be fatal to underestimate him.”
I couldn’t argue that point. They had been my words and, what’s more, they’d been absolutely true.
“You are not armed?” Stani asked.
“I am…not a gun person,” I answered. It was apparently my turn to sidestep a direct question. None of my temporary allies needed to know more about my past than they already did.
Stani pointed to Iosif and then to the car they’d arrived in. The bodyguard moved without a word to the trunk. He opened it to reveal a veritable smorgasbord of firearms and military hardware. “Take what you require,” he said. “Moscow will refill our operation supply as needed, when we are home again.”
Everything I knew about guns, I’d picked up by accident over the years. The sight of so many weapons gave me pause, but Anton’s words resonated within my head. Asher was terrifyingly dangerous, mentally speaking; he was also volatile, unpredictable, and playing a deeper game than I fully understood. All of that, in addition to the considerable grudge he carried, made my decision for me. After thirty seconds of careful examination, I picked up a gun like Stani’s and a bulletproof vest. The Kevlar went over my head and the gun remained clenched in a nervous, uncomfortable grasp. The other four men removed extra ammunition and protective gear for themselves. Anton added a sawed-off shotgun to his repertoire and threw its strap across his shoulder so that the butt of the gun bumped into the small of his back.
“Everybody ready, then?” I asked. My answer came in the form of grunts and silent nods.
Iosif took point, flanked by Leonid. They moved like professionals, ghosts in the darkness of the docks. When one swept their gaze to the left, the other stepped into their blind spot and did the same for the opposite side. All that Anton, Stani, and I needed to do was follow in their wake, stay low, and keep our aural footprint to a minimum. After twenty minutes of searching empty buildings and finding nothing but uninhabited space, it became very clear that our precautions were, at best, redundant. The docks were empty.
“This is wrong,” Stani whispered, maybe six inches away from my ear.
I nodded. “Do you know how many people normally worked this shift?”
“I do not. If I were forced to guess, I would say…ten or fifteen of our people. Perhaps more and perhaps less.”
“So ten, maybe fifteen, people just up and disappeared? You’re right, then. There is definitely something wrong.”
We continued forward. The possibility of violence had begun to form, the instant that Leonid revealed his employer’s stash of illegal firearms. It had only grown sharper and more intense as we checked and cleared building after building. Now, it was like a raid siren in my ears, screaming its warning at full blast. I couldn’t ignore it, exactly, but I relegated the sensation to my mental backburner. Danger was a given; it wouldn’t do me any good to allow that fear to dominate my thoughts. If Asher said he was going to make me pay for abandoning him back in St. Petersburg, then that was exactly what he would endeavor to do. To avoid that, I had to find him now and I had to put him somewhere he couldn’t hurt anyone else. It was that simple.
I had no idea how to go about accomplishing that, of course, but the prospect of revenge in the near future bolstered my spirits.
We moved through the abandoned dock for another fifteen minutes before Iosif held up a clenched fist. I recognized the signal and froze where I was. Stani and Anton, flanking me on either side, did the same. He pointed to a small trailer ahead of us, just on the waterfront. The walls were covered in a thick sheen of rust and the windows had been, more or less, blacked out. The yard, such as it was, was nothing more than a small square of neglected grass and dying flowers. One half of the building was painted a grayish tone; the other was covered in garish graffiti that I couldn’t make out.
None of those details mattered, though, and they hadn’t been responsible for Iosif’s sharp warning signal. The front door of the trailer was slightly ajar. Light was visible through the small space between the door and the doorjamb. It was the first sign of life that we’d seen since entering the Docks to begin with.
Stani stepped in front of me. As he passed, I caught a glimpse of his eyes. There was no uncertainty in him now. He gave orders in a low, barely audible voice to Iosif and Leonid. They nodded their assent and then he turned to me. “They will cover the entrances. We will go in and see what is inside. Perhaps we can end all of this tonight.”
“I wouldn’t count on that,” I said. Despite the tension of the moment, I barely kept a wry grin from crossing my face.
Stani didn’t grace my comment with a reply. He pointed with two fingers and his men, their training suddenly undeniable, moved out. Iosif peeled around the building to the right like a shadow and, a moment later, Leonid covered the ground between where we stood and the trailer’s front door. When they were in place, Stani checked the chamber of his weapon and motioned for Anton and me to do the same. Anton did so with the ease of someone who’d spent long hours practicing. My weapons experience, on the other hand, boiled down a few hasty sessions with my favorite bodyguard, whenever her contracts had coincided with my own jobs. I could point the gun; I could squeeze the trigger; and, God willing, I could put a bullet into whatever or whoever was attacking me. But the minutiae remained firmly out of my grasp. Anton had to help me with the slide, while Stani watched with an expression I couldn’t quite read.
When our weapons were squared away, Stani raised an open hand to the sky. I counted internally. I reached ten and Stani’s hand balled into a fist. Iosif leaned back and delivered a kick to the door that nearly took it from its hinges. He rushed inside, followed by Stani and Anton. I brought up the rear. Our vanguard came into the small space with his gun up, forming a straight line from his shoulder to the end of the barrel. He looked left, then right, in easy, smooth motions; seeing nothing worth his attention, he moved into the next room.
Leonid took a little longer to join us. The sound of a heavy impact, followed by another, came from his door. There was a slight delay before he simply shattered a window with the butt of his gun and entered through the remnants of glass and metal. He performed the same check as his partner and then, after acknowledging Stani with a single word, continued deeper into the trailer.
Two minutes passed before both Leonid and Iosif returned to the central room. Stani asked them a question and Leonid replied with a short sentence. Stani turned to me. “It is empty,” he said.
My emotions at that development were a jumble of relief and disappointment. I kept them from my face. “Alright. Let’s check the trailer, see if this is where they keep the books. Any clue’s better than nothing.” I started forward and stopped, as the tip of my shoe rolled slightly over something on the floor. I looked down and picked up the offending object. It was a cigarette. I stiffened in shock.
“What is that?” Stani asked, and then he understood. His eyes widened and the grip he maintained on his Makarov tightened enough that I thought I heard the skin stretch over his knuckles. “He was here.”
“Looks like,” I said. “Let’s see if we can find out where he went.”
It took very little searching to find the ledger. It was located in the farthest room from the front door, in a small office lit by a bare overhead lightbulb. A relatively new computer sat on the desk, next to the ledger. “What should I look for?” Stani asked.
“Dates,” I answered immediately. I channeled Sarah and Asher, as I tried to approach the situation with the same level of foresight they usually had. “When the last shipment came, how many cigarettes were on board, and how many were sent out and reported as sold. That’ll let us know when he was here; at least, assuming that he just stole his smokes wholesale and didn’t buy them from a supplier.”
“If he was here after his betrayal, then no supplier in the area would provide him with anything,” Stani said.
I snorted. “Because smugglers are the type of people who adhere to organizational structure and rules. Can you find out those things or not?”
Stani didn’t answer with words; instead, he turned his eyes to the walls and began to search. Iosif and Leonid stepped outside of the room, on either side, with their guns still held in ready hands. Anton stood nervously next to me. He’d placed his gun on the desk and begun to wring his hands nervously. I didn’t know how to comfort him and so I didn’t try. I looked around the room, instead. There were several cigarettes of the same brand scattered across the floor of the tiny records room. If Asher had purchased these smokes from the smugglers, or simply stolen them, there was something to be said about the number of cigarettes within the small room. I’d only located a single butt in the common area, which could easily be attributed to simple laziness. Asher didn’t always make an effort to find the nearest receptacle, if he was one of his manic planning phases. But, inside this rat cage, there were cigarettes scattered across every conceivable surface. I saw ash on the back of the computer, on the rolling chair, and the floor beneath the desk.
“He was here for a while,” I said out loud. “Why, though?”
Stani looked up from the ledger. “I…do not know,” he said slowly. “Everything appears to be exactly as it should have been. Goods came over to Ukraine from the motherland, were examined, signed for, and sent to the next station. There are no discrepancies or errors in the paperwork.”
I couldn’t control the defeated sigh. “So, we’ve got nothing?”
“No,” Stani said quickly and shook his head. “There is no such thing as a perfect smuggling operation. It is as you said. The workers will always take away even more of it to make some money on the side. The dockhands will skim product from the top of shipments to sell to their friends.”
“Sounds like the kind of thing that Bratva should be cutting down on.”
“If I could,” Stani said. I blinked. Stani had never used the first person in a conversation with me, ever since he’d met at the miserable bar in the area. “But my superiors feel that it is an acceptable loss. This is different, however. As far back as three months ago, every single report that left this dock was perfect, exactly as it should have been. That does not happen.”
“He faked the report, then? But why?”
“Perhaps to cover his involvement?” Anton offered.
Both Stani and I shook our heads. I spoke first. “Not like this, he wouldn’t. If this place starts running too well, all of a sudden, the higher-ups back in Moscow were going to send someone to check things out sooner or later. If he was trying to hide, this was like sending up a flare, specifically to attract the people he’s trying to avoid.”
“This is a good thing, then? A mistake that we can work with?”
“It is a mistake,” I said, but I felt suddenly unsure. “Except it’s such an obvious screw-up. It could only have worked for a few months before someone figured out that that something was wrong at the docks.”
“What are you saying?”
“I don’t know.” I paced out of the room and thought. The Asher I knew was a tactician and an expert at attacking problems in unusual ways. He routinely thought several steps ahead of whatever the current problem was and he’d only ever been caught off guard by a gross deviation from his plans. Avoiding the attention of the Russian mafia would be difficult, if not impossible, for most people I’d worked with. Asher wouldn’t have betrayed them at all if he didn’t already have a plan in place to help him disappear.
“What are you playing at, Ash?” I asked myself aloud. “What’s the next step?”
A noise came from the office. When I returned, I saw all three men clustered around the desk. “What is it?” I asked.
“This.” Stani moved aside. In the single minute since I’d left the room, nothing had moved except for the computer. The machine was quietly booting up.
“Did you turn it on?”
Everyone shook their heads. The bottom of my stomach dropped a few inches and the hairs on the back of my neck began to rise. Without explaining myself, I spun and looked at the shelves surrounding us. Countless ledgers adorned the shelves. My eyes skipped over them, not really paying attention, until they landed on a bound stack of papers with the word “oktyabrya” written on the spine.
“What’s that say?” I asked, pointing at the ledger.
Stani leaned over. “October. Why?”
“And the one on the desk?”
Anton picked up that one and examined its spine. “Also, October.”
I tore the ledger from the shelf. A small wireless camera looked back at me. “We didn’t follow his trail here,” I said. “He led us here.”
The computer switched on. A moment later, a small window appeared and stretched across the scene. I watched as the program dialed a phone number, although I knew what was coming next. I wasn’t disappointed. Ten seconds after the program attempted to make a connection with an exterior system, it succeeded, and a familiar, smirking face met my eyes.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Asher said, from behind the screen. His eyes twinkled in what appeared to be genuine amusement and surprise. “Aren’t you supposed to still be in prison, Devlin?”