Stani phoned his superiors and they made the necessary arrangements on their end so that I would have a business-class ticket in whatever name I desired at the international airport. I requested that they use the name I’d flown in under; the same name that Sarah and I had used at our wedding. I’d personally watched her write a program to monitor the usage of certain names – although I hadn’t understood the fine technical details, at the time – and I was certain that she’d extended the reach of that program to cover any of our previous aliases. I could only hope that she took the signal as a flag of truce and didn’t, for instance, mark the identity as a wanted terrorist, purely out of spite.
We went first to a local clothing store. So late at night, the shop was closed, but a terse phone call from Stani brought the owner, bleary eyed and stumbling, from his home. I purchased new clothes with the remainder of the money Alex had lent me. The outfit he’d given me back in Munich was far too large for me to begin with and the encounter at the docks had left the outfit soaked in my sweat. When I peeled it off of my skin in exchange for a pair of khakis and a long sleeved shirt, I breathed a small sigh of relief. Things had started out of control, and spiraled farther off into insanity over the past three days. It felt good to have a grasp on at least one thing in my life.
“What do you think?” I asked Anton.
“It is not bad,” he said, hesitantly. “But does it really matter right now?”
“It’s been a…long time since I’ve seen her. I figure the least I can do is look my best. If you had to go see the love of your life, wouldn’t you want to –?” I stopped mid-sentence.
Neither Anton nor Stani moved for a long time. Finally, Stani spoke up. “You should see a tailor, if you wish to really stand out.”
I didn’t miss the way his back stiffened or how he pointedly avoided looking in Anton’s direction. “Time’s kind of a commodity, or I would.”
He shrugged. “It will do, then.”
“I think,” Anton said suddenly, “that I will go now.”
“What? Why?” I asked.
“You will go to see your ex-wife to warn her about Asher, no? And Stani will deliver that sniper to his superiors, so that they can see what information can be…coerced from him?” Both Stani and I nodded. “Then I will help, as well. Asher must have worked with someone. He is only one man.”
I thought about that and then nodded. “No matter how much money he’s suddenly got to throw around, he’s still got to hire them from somewhere or someone. Unless he’s just pulling trained snipers off of the street, I mean.”
“Perhaps I can find out something – anything – about where his money comes from. Or, maybe who it is going to. After all,” he shrugged and offered a weak half-smile, “everybody needs a bombmaker, no?”
It was a sound idea. I couldn’t have stopped Anton from doing whatever he pleased – at least, not without a physical confrontation – but I realized with some shock that he was asking for permission. “Alright,” I said. “But keep in touch. Use that email address I gave Stani if you find out anything.”
“Of course,” Anton answered. He inclined his head to me. Then his eyes met Stani’s; they held the contact for five seconds before Anton averted his gaze and ducked out of the room.
Stani saved me from the awkwardness by simply changing the subject outright. “What will your employer think of tonight’s events?”
“I don’t know,” I said, honest as a saint for once. “But it’s my problem to deal with. Whatever happens from this point on, it’s going to be on my head to fix it.”
He scratched his thin growth of facial hair in thought and nodded in commiseration. “My superiors feel the same. It would have been very bad for me to return home without something to show for the effort.”
“That hired shooter’s got to be worth something.”
“Perhaps. We will see, I suppose.”
We went back to the car. Leonid sat in the backseat, examining the bullet wound in his partner’s shoulder. Blood soaked the upholstery, but Leonid didn’t appear worried. “Is it bad?” I asked Stani, as we got into our own seats.
Stani shook his head. “It is a flesh wound. After the airport, we will go to a local doctor and have it taken care of.”
“Are you going to wake him up like you did that shop’s owner?”
He gave me a slight smile. “This doctor is a…coworker. Our business will not be unexpected.” He started the car and began to drive.
It wasn’t a long trip back to the airport, but it passed by in the blink of an eye. Adrenaline had kept me awake, at the bar and later at the trailer, but it was rapidly draining away now and I felt hollow without it. My eyelids grew heavy and it took all of my focus to stay awake. I didn’t realize we’d parked until Stani cleared his throat.
“Already?” My own voice sounded sluggish to my ears.
“Yes. Your flight back to the States leaves in…” He checked his watch. “Fifteen minutes. You should not have trouble with security, if you move quickly.” He took several bills from his inside jacket pocket and held them out for me.
I was in no position to turn down assistance, so I took the money without a second thought. “Got it.” I forced myself out of the car, dragging my feet slightly. “I’ll keep you informed about anything I find out while I’m there.”
Stani nodded. “I will do the same.” He paused. “Devlin?”
“Be safe. When the rich fight, it is the poor that die.”
I blinked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It is a Russian saying. It means…” He thought about his words for a moment. “I am afraid that you and I – maybe even Asher – are small pieces of something larger.”
“Pawns, you mean.” Someone had sprung me from jail and pointed me at Asher, like a weapon. Someone else, probably not the same puppetmaster who’d provided me with an escape, was providing my former partner with considerable resources. It stood to reason that Asher’s proprietors had their own demands of his skills and time. “Pawns are the first pieces to go, by and large.”
Concern from the Russian was unexpected, and it took me a second to process his sincerity. “You too, Stani.”
Stani had been right: at the sight of my passport, I found myself fast-tracked through the security line and customs. As with my entry into the country, only a few hours earlier, my lack of luggage sped the process up even more. I made it the terminal with a good five minutes to spare before it took off. My seat had plenty of leg room and I was one of only five people in the cabin on that particular flight. The regular amenities were there, of course: privacy screen, flat-screen television, plenty of room for the luggage and carry-ons I didn’t have. I concerned myself with nothing beyond the electronic panel at the side of the seat, which laid my seat back until it was nearly horizontal and the additional pillows one of the attendants gracefully provided. Before the flight was ten minutes out of the international airport, I was fast asleep.
The reclined seat was the closest thing to a bed I’d had access to since La Santé. It was hard to believe that I’d barely been out of prison for three days. I hadn’t slept during the other flights and jaunts, so much as I’d closed my eyes and simply stopped thinking for a while. Rest felt like a divine gift and I fell into the black nothingness of slumber with almost greedy abandon. I woke three hours later, just long enough to leave the plane when it landed for a brief layover in Greece. I purchased a gyro at a stand, ate it mechanically, and then found two adjacent seats by my second terminal. There I slept for another two hours, uncomfortable in the metal seating, before the flight all the way to San Francisco began boarding. I dragged myself up, onto the flight, into my seat, and fell once more to sleep.
The flight from Athens to San Francisco was scheduled to take nearly eleven hours. I didn’t wake up for the first four. Even when I was awake, it took an entire hour and a half, as well as a comically large cup of coffee, before I was capable of forming coherent thoughts. I spent the last five and a half hours, considering the situation with Asher and his mysterious backing organization. Twenty minutes into building my mental map, I asked an attendant for a pen and a notepad.
There was a greater game being played. I knew that much in my bones. What I didn’t know, however, were the particulars: what was expected of me, what Asher’s goals were, or how the various players I’d encountered so far fit into the grand scheme of things. I started to draw a diagram on the notepad, beginning at the bottom. I wrote my own name, circled it, and then added a question mark.
“What do you want with me?” I asked the paper and, by extension, the mysterious puppetmaster who floated out there in the ether somewhere.
I drew lines and added additional names: Asher, Stani, and Anton. Asher’s name was written on the opposite side of the page from my own and followed by three question marks. Stani’s and Anton’s names appeared under a small header that read “Bratva.” I gave the paper several minutes of serious contemplation before I added Alex to the sheet, with a small “J” under his name. His first wife had been killed by Russians; I would never be able to forget that day, as long as I lived. I didn’t think there was a connection between Asher’s newfound affinity for the Russians, but I couldn’t afford to rule anything out. I left Ally’s name off.
There were five names on the list now. I went back and added explanatory text beneath the lines. Asher and I were connected by our previous partnership and his homicidal, obsessive desire to make me pay for the events of St. Petersburg. Alex and I were friends and had been for years. Stani worked directly for a wing of the Russian mafia, based out of Moscow, and he had some history with Anton. Asher had taunted them with the implication of a romantic relationship, and neither man had denied his claims. I closed my eyes and, unbidden, the image of Stani’s mutilated hand materialized in my mind. As far as I knew, Alex and Asher barely knew each other, and their relationship had ended long before the ambush in Italy. Stani and his Russian superiors had sent Asher to steal something from a rival organization’s banks, but his betrayal had left them holding the metaphorical bag.
I paused. “You’ve got your own men now.” I tapped my pen’s tip against Asher’s name. “So why go to the Russians for soldiers, if you’ve got your own?”
I wrote the question underneath Asher’s name, in shorthand, and went back to clarifying the connections. I’d worked with Anton a few times in the past, but not enough that Asher would specifically target the Ukrainian. At the same time, my former partner was driven now by desires I couldn’t begin to understand, and I decided not to rule out the possibility.
The names on the paper, and the lines that linked them all together, gave me nothing to work with that I hadn’t already known. I’d hoped that seeing it all in ink in front of me might trigger some realization; none came. I drew the three upright triangles that had appeared on Asher’s letter at the top of the page, went over them several times so that the ink was thick, and circled it. Inside the circle, I wrote “Trinity” and drew a line down to Asher’s name. For lack of a better title, Trinity would have to work as the name of Asher’s mysterious backers. Next to that, I drew the same symbol but inverted, circled it, and wrote “Puppetmaster.” That bubble was connected to my own name.
Between Puppetmaster and Trinity, I drew a two sided arrow and, underneath that, added seven different question marks. “What did I get myself into?” I amended the thought after a moment. “What did you get me into?” I tapped the Puppetmaster’s bubble.
I closed my eyes again. There were too many questions to ask and far too many angles to consider. I didn’t have enough information to make an intelligent decision in either direction. In virtually any other situation, I would have done the smart thing: disappear like smoke in the wind, and simply wait until one party or another decided to make a move. But if Asher was involved, and if he suddenly had access to the type of resources he’d need for an international operation, then Sarah was in danger. I hadn’t gotten her into the game, but I had connected her to Asher. If anything happened to her that I could stop, that would be my fault and I was not willing to deal with the possibility of her getting hurt on my account.
I didn’t harbor any hope that she’d be happy to see me. Our last fight had made her feelings perfectly clear. All I needed to do was to warn her. She had the skills to disappear and she certainly had access to the necessary resources. As soon as she was safely out of the crosshairs, I could return my full attention to dealing with the threat Asher constituted. With the support of the Bratva, it was entirely possible that I might even accomplish something.
At some point, I fell asleep again. I didn’t realize I’d done it until an attendant gently nudged me back awake.
“Sir?” Her voice was cautious. “We’ve landed, sir.”
I blinked sleep from my eyes and vague shapes eventually coalesced into the form of a young woman. “Already?”
“Yes, sir. Would you like some assistance to help you out of the plane, sir?”
“No, I’m fine.” I turned the notepad so that its writing was hidden against my leg. “What time is it?”
“Six AM, local time,” she said.
I groaned, but rose from my seat. “Thanks for the wake-up,” I said. “Mind if I keep the pen?”
“Of course not, sir. Are you…” She hesitated. “Are you sure you’re alright, sir? If you don’t mind me saying so, you seem a little…out of sorts?”
“Just going to see the ex-wife. I imagine she’ll have all sorts of things to say when she sees me again.”
“Oh.” She opened her mouth to add something else, decided against it, and plastered a customer service smile on her face instead.
I disembarked without another word. As soon as I entered the terminal, the doubts and questions that I’d wrestled with on the flight over vanished and were replaced, almost instantly, with a crushing anxiety. It was ridiculous that, with everything else going on, the thought of seeing Sarah again after four years dominated my thoughts, but there it was, pressing against the walls of my skull. I tapped the notepad against my leg as I walked toward the exit, passing through the requisite security checkpoints without really noticing them. Silently, I ran through a dozen different opening lines.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Fancy meeting you here.”
I discarded them all with a pained grimace. Years spent in the underground, navigating through precariously worded arrangements with dangerous individuals; just as much time working the field, conning CEOs and heiresses out of their money; and a full year in a hellhole of a prison where the wrong word could have earned me a shiv didn’t offer a single insight as to how I should approach the situation. She’d kicked me out; she’d made it perfectly clear that she had no desire to ever see me again, in any conceivable context; and yet, here I was, back in America looking specifically for her. I hoped, somewhat counter-productively, that my search for her would take a few days. That would give me the time I needed to find the right way to speak to her again.
I was so lost in my own nervousness that I nearly missed the driver, waiting patiently by the front of the airport. He held a sign that read “Barrow” in large, block letters. I blinked at the same time as my heart began to skip every other beat.
“Barrow?” I asked, as I approached the driver. “Clyde Barrow?”
“Yes, sir,” the driver said. He lowered the sign. “Are you…?”
“Yeah. I think that’s for me.”
“Ah. Very good, sir. If you would follow me? Your limousine is waiting outside.”
I narrowed my eyes, but followed the driver outside. If this was a trap, I had no real way to escape it. Whoever had sent the driver for me knew the name on my passport, and it was the only one I had access to. I barely had enough money to survive for a day in San Francisco, and I couldn’t leave the country again. Someone wanted to see me and there was nothing I could do, except to grant their wish.
The limousine wasn’t a limo, in the stretchy sense of the word. A Lincoln town car sat at the curb, glistening in the early morning light. The driver went to the rear passenger door. I tensed, prepared to flee at the first sun of danger. He opened the door. My jaw dropped.
“I, uh…I…” My grasp of the English language evaded any attempts to pin down actual words and I opted for disconnected syllables, instead.
“Get in the car.”
Sarah glowered at me from the backseat. “Get. In. The damn. Car.”