The reaction from my allies was instant and dramatic. It was also woefully useless. Anton leapt in surprise closer to Stani, who took a short step away from the computer, one hand dipping closer to his holstered weapon. Leonid drew his own handgun, a high caliber with a barrel like a mineshaft, and pointed it at the screen. Iosif did nothing at all, aside from widening his eyes in shock and surprise.
Asher’s eyes witnessed all of this and his cocky smile didn’t budge an inch. After a brief rush of adrenaline accelerated my heartbeat into the triple digit range, I managed to meet his smirk with a fake one of my own. “Me? Prison? You must be getting your information a little behind schedule.”
“Must be,” he said, agreeably. “I’ll have to look into my sources, I suppose. Decide whether or not their information is still worth keeping them around.”
Stani said something to his bodyguards in Russian.
Asher laughed. “You can try that if you want,” he said, “but it’s just going to be a waste of time. What do you think, Dev?”
I bristled at his use of the shortened nickname, which was probably the only reason he’d done it in the first place. With effort, I kept the smirk plastered on my features. “Think about what?”
“Ah, yes. I forgot that you don’t speak the language. Really, you have got to start working on that. Hell of a failing for an erstwhile international thief, don’t you think?” I ignored the jibe and waited for Asher to continue. His smile dimmed slightly at my non-reaction. “Your suited friend there was suggesting that his associate should search the immediate surroundings. Seeing as I can so obviously observe what you’re doing, I suppose he believes that I must actually be close to you.”
I shook my head. Without turning, I addressed Stani. “He’s right. Just because he’s on the screen now, doesn’t mean he’s anywhere nearby. If I had to bet, I’d say he’s out of the country already.”
Asher clapped his hands together. “Ten points for intelligence, Dev! Glad to see your time as a ward of the French state didn’t rob you off your smarts.”
“Far from it,” I shot back. Despite my focused exertion of willpower, my cheeks were growing hotter with each passing second. My hands clenched into fists at my side. “In fact, if you want to tell me where you’re at, I’ll be more than happy to demonstrate exactly what I learned in La Santé.”
“Tempting, but I’ll have to pass. If you want to have that chat in person, you’ll just have to pick up the pace, won’t you?”
I narrowed my eyes and glared at the computer screen; Asher’s expression remained lightly amused. Now that I was looking, I could see the tiny red light at the top of the computer screen that indicated the web camera. “You never used to be all that tech savvy,” I said after a moment. “Picking up some new tricks?”
He shrugged. “I’m not as skilled as your lost Lenore, no, but it seemed like a useful skill to learn. I saw what she was capable of, same as you. What, you don’t like?”
“It isn’t bad. Little clumsy with the bait, though.”
“It caught you, didn’t it?”
The back-and-forth was familiar. It was easy to fall back into the pattern, although my own shots were laced with anger. I knew, academically, that there were three other people in the room with me and the computer monitor, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about their presence. In my mind, there was only Asher and me.
“Fair enough,” I said. “So. What do you want?”
He adopted an innocent, beatific expression. “Me? What makes you think I want anything from you?”
I walked over the desk and picked up the forged ledger. Each number was written with a precise hand, exactly in its appropriate place. I held it up to the camera. “You went to a lot of trouble to get me here. You’re saying you did all that just to gloat?”
“If you’ll remember,” he said, “I wasn’t quite expecting you to be here with the Russian boys. Your presence is something of a surprise. Not an unpleasant one, of course, but certainly not one I’m unprepared to take advantage of.”
Leonid said something to Stani. He replied to his guard in a terse voice and then switched back to English, in order to address Asher. “What did you want from me, then?”
“Your name is…Stanislav, right? That’s what your friend there calls you.”
My Russian was so weak as to be nonexistent, but even I could tell that neither Leonid nor Iosif had said the syllables that formed Stani’s name since the computer switched on. I was fairly sure that no one had said his name since we’d entered the trailer.
Stani noticed that as well. His lips sealed tight and pressed tighter into a tight pale line.
Asher’s smile deepened and turned a little sinister. “Not your mooks there, of course. I’m referring to Anton.”
Stani’s taciturn expression shattered in an instant. His eyes turned to saucers. I looked away from the computer fully to take in the sudden shift with more of my attention. Anton’s face mirrored the Mafioso’s, down to every minute detail: shock, mute horror, and a slowly dawning realization that Asher knew something they dearly wished he didn’t.
“Oh, you haven’t told him yet?” Asher giggled, so clearly pleased with himself that I wanted to reach through the monitor and wipe the Cheshire grin from his face with my bare knuckles. “You’ll like this, Devlin, seeing as you’re such a huge proponent for the redeeming quality of love and all that. The story goes that Stanislav there actually grew up in Kiev. Spent the first eighteen years of his life here, even after he got involved with the mafia. And can you guess who his very best friend was, all those years ago?”
“S-silence!” Stani’s voice thundered in the small space. I winced, but resisted the urge to cover my ears.
Asher continued, undeterred. “Now, we both know about Anton’s…proclivities. And,” he dragged the syllable out, “we both know that people with his predilections are not exactly welcomed in the Russian sector of our beloved underworld. So, tell me, Dev. What conclusions can you draw from this?”
It took five seconds for an idea to surface, and another five before my mind connected the appropriate dots. My eyes traveled from Stani’s furious expression, down to his left hand and its missing fingers. “You two?” I asked. With the pieces laid out in front of me, it made perfect sense. The odd quality of their interactions fit with ex-lovers. Stani’s explosive anger in particular resembled too many deeply closeted people I’d encountered on various jobs over the years; instead of accepting themselves, they turned that hatred outward. Anton, openly gay if not comfortably so, was a perfect target for that explosive rage.
Stani averted his eyes from mine instantly, before I could read anything in his expression. Anton met my searching gaze, blinked slowly, and then carefully turned so that his eyes faced in the opposite direction of the Mafioso.
“Isn’t that just darling?” I faced the monitor again. Asher was still on the screen, alone in whatever room he occupied at that moment, with a sadistic smile plastered on his face. “A tale of forbidden love set against a backdrop of crime and brutal homophobia! Really, it’s quite the tale.” He lowered his voice and looked past to me, to Anton. “Personally, I think you can do better than someone who’d throw you to the wolves, the second someone takes the very small step of cutting off two fingers. What’s love, if not sacrifice?”
The room was silent. Iosif and Leonid said nothing, but their body language pulled slightly away from their leader. I had to remind myself that they understood English, even if they couldn’t speak the language themselves. I cleared my throat, to break the mood settling into the tiny space. “Why’d you do it, Ash?”
“Why’d I do what, exactly? It’s been a very busy couple of years since you had that unfortunate incident at the Museé. Why did I…decide to spill the beans about Stani’s checkered romantic past? Because it was interesting, of course. Why did I…betray Anton and his crew? Because I didn’t want to share! Or do you mean, why did I set you up back in Paris?” The joviality left his voice. His eyes thinned to slits. “Because you already know exactly why that happened.”
I recognized that as the false lead that it was, so I sidestepped the bait. “Why’d you take the safety deposit box?”
Asher exhaled and closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them again, the rage was gone from his bearing. “My own reasons,” he said. “It would be entirely too difficult for me to explain, at the moment. Sufficed to say, what I recovered was well worth the lives of those poor criminals.” He paused and tapped a finger against his bottom lip. “Why, I suppose I should arrange to send some sort of flowers to their families, shouldn’t I? Anton, do you happen to remember if those soldiers you loaned out to me had families? Wives, kids, that sort of thing?”
Stani did not look up.
“Oh well. I suppose I’ll just have to look them up myself. I’m not a monster, after all,” he said, with a look that resembled nothing so much as a well-fed cat. He turned his attention back to me. “Speaking of which, Dev, I do have something that I think you might be interested in.”
He pivoted slightly so that he faced off-camera and said something in Russian. A voice answered from off-screen, the pitch rising at the end of the sentence. Asher replied sharply and jabbed an index finger to punctuate his point. No reply came from the other voice. Seconds passed and then the image on the screen changed from Asher to what looked like a live feed.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Oh, just wait,” Asher’s voice replied.
I waited. The monitor showed me a regular intersection. I squinted and could barely make out the word “Haight” written on a street sign. The other sign was too pixelated for me to decipher. People came into and left the intersection, in cars, on bicycles, or simply on foot. The scene was pedestrian, to say the least. I opened my mouth to say something to that effect, when my blood froze in my veins. I recognized one of the people there, waiting patiently for a street light to change.
“Sarah,” I whispered aloud.
The feed switched off and Asher returned to the monitor. “Exactly! I’m going to be honest with you here; it took a ridiculous amount of effort to track her down. Your girl – well, your ex girl – covered her tracks with a paranoia that I almost feel I should applaud.”
My mouth worked open and shut for several seconds before I found my voice. “What do you want?”
“From you? Nothing at all,” Asher said. “I’d planned for you to find out about all this when you got out in a few months. Maybe an all-points bulletin to the community. If I could’ve found you, I might have just sent an envelope with a picture of her broken body, so that you’d be all alone when you found out. But this? This is so much better.”
His tone was conversational, polite in a way, even as he spoke of murdering Sarah. My own temper rose from deep in my chest, melting the ice in my arteries, and it took every ounce of will I could muster not to rip the monitor to shreds with my bare hands. “I’m going to find you,” I said, from between clenched teeth. “I will kill you if you so much as touch a hair on her head. She’s got nothing to do with this.”
“Doesn’t she, though? The way I see it, if it hadn’t been for her, you and I could’ve worked past that whole misunderstanding. Jobs go bad, after all. No harm, no foul. But you just left me out in the cold, after I…” He stopped, shook his head. “But that’s a different story. One I fear you will never actually get to hear.”
“Leave. Her. Alone.”
“It’s so cute that you think you’ve got any sort of say in this, Dev.” Asher tilted his head. “I do have a question for you, though. How exactly did you get out of prison? Who should I thank for this delightful windfall of an opportunity?”
Thankfully, my brain continued working, despite the red haze that had descended over my body. Asher knew as much about my mysterious benefactor as I did; that was to say, he knew nothing at all. “I’ll tell you that,” I said, bluffing with everything I possessed, “just as soon as you call off your goons.”
“I don’t want to know that much. However you did it, I’ll just have to arrange for someone to pay that person a visit after I figure it out on my own. Honestly, it’ll probably be more fun this way.”
A thought occurred to me. It probably would’ve struck me sooner, if not for the dull burning rage simmering beneath the surface and blocking out most of my rational thought functions. Asher was good, but the scale of his actions the past few months – just the actions I knew about, and I assumed that there were more I wasn’t yet privy to – was beyond anything he could pull off without support, infrastructure, and manpower. “Who’re you working for?”
“I’m not working for anyone,” Asher hissed back at me. He ran the scarred hand across his scalp and calmed himself before he continued. “But I am working with a few partners, who would prefer not to be named.”
“They’ll probably be pretty upset that you even tipped us off to their existence, won’t they?” I searched for the smug smile and found it again after surprisingly little hunting. “If you touch Sarah, if you so much as look at her the wrong way, I will make it my mission to hunt you down and make you suffer.”
He sighed. “Alright, well, now I’m bored. Empty threats don’t amuse me anywhere near as much as actual promises. You’ve got no resources to speak of, Dev, and your only allies are two ex-lovers who can’t admit their feelings for each other, and two goons that are swiftly starting to realize that they threw in with the wrong metaphorical horse.”
Asher was giving away more information than he realized, which surprised me. He didn’t know anything about Alex, apparently, or he would have included him in the summary of my assets.
“And, even if you were somehow capable of accessing the funds you’d need to challenge me and my backers, it’s really something of a moot point,” he said.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Think about it, Dev. This was just a trap, and you’re already inside the trailer, exactly where I wanted you to be. Why would I bother talking to you at all?” He bared his teeth at the camera. “I’m stalling, you idiot.”
The image changed again. Instead of the live feed, the number thirty was displayed in large block font. “I suppose I’ll have to amuse myself with the memory of your horrified expression. Shame I couldn’t be there in person, though.”
“Later, Dev. Or…well, probably not later, but you get what I mean.”
There was no reply. I faced the other three men and saw identical expressions of shock on their faces. Then, a single long beep came from the computer. I turned back, just as the number changed from thirty to twenty-nine.
“Go!” I was on the move, even as the order passed my lips. “Get out!”
The next twenty seconds were a blur of tangled limbs as we all fought our way out of the small trailer, tripping over each other in our haste. I made it out first, followed closely by Anton and Stani. Leonid and Iosif brought up the rear. I beat a path as far away from the trailer as possible for five more seconds, before I lost my balance and slid the last few inches behind a heavy metal crate.
I counted down the last five seconds in my head, as the other men found barricades of their own nearby. At the end of my internal countdown…nothing happened. I went through another ten seconds before I hazarded a peek over the container. The trailer was where it had been, and in the same condition.
“What is it?” Stani called out.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “If he was going to kill us, there should have been a bomb, but…”
I reminded myself that Asher worked in diagonals. He treated every situation as a hypothetical opponent, and he almost never attacked in a way that anyone expected at first. If the countdown had made me think bomb, and flee the trailer, then there almost certainly was not a bomb. After all, why have a countdown to warn us at all?
“If there wasn’t a bomb, then…” Asher had backers. He’d spoken to someone off-screen during our exchange and the tone of voice implied that he’d been in a position to give orders. He’d put a hit out on Sarah from the safety of a computer screen located, presumably, somewhere other than where she was.
My thoughts ground to a halt. He’d put out a hit. Asher had hitmen on his payroll.
“Get down!” I yelled, as the first sniper round found Iosif’s shoulder.