She said nothing as I took a place next to her in the backseat. The driver entered from his door on the side of the car. A moment later, the engine hummed to life and we pulled away from the curb. My eyes went first to the opaque partition between the backseat and the front; then, after a moment of hesitation, to Sarah’s face. She was stone still, a gargoyle in dark jeans and a blood-red button down shirt. Her eyes met mine and bored into me, searching for…something. I found a spot on the floorboard to examine instead of withstanding that examination any longer than strictly necessary.
“Hi?” She repeated. “That’s all you’ve got to say for yourself?”
“I, uh…thought I’d have more time to think of something clever, honestly.”
Somehow, her expression darkened further. I imagined her eyes piercing through my torso, before Sarah flayed me alive with nothing more than her palpable disdain. “What the hell are you doing here, Devlin?”
“That’s kind of a long story.”
“Oh? Is it? Well, let me tell you about why I’m here.” She leaned forward and folded her hands together in her lap. “Imagine what it would be like if you had built a life for yourself. Started a business, maybe, or just made some good investments. Maybe both. You had things in your past that you’d rather not think about, but you were moving on.”
I winced. I’d expected anger from her, but the reality was more painful than I’d thought possible. Still, it was nothing less than I deserved. “I didn’t know that you…”
“So,” she continued, ignoring my interruption, “you’re starting to make something of yourself. And then, out of nowhere, you get an alert telling you that a name you’d forgotten existed is flying into your town. And you just know – you know it like you know your own name – that it’s going to be trouble. Can you imagine that, Devlin?”
“Because that’s what I’m going through. So, go ahead and tell me: what the hell are you doing in my town?”
Facing up to my own emotions had never been easy for me, with the exception of anger. That had always been second nature. Pressed to the seat with the sheer force of Sarah’s scathing sarcasm, I defaulted to that old standby before my higher brain functions had a chance to engage. “I’m here for you,” I said. It took effort, but I forced myself to meet her eyes. “I know that what we had is gone, and I know I’m probably the last person you want to see here, but I’m here to save you.”
She blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s Asher. He’s coming after you.”
Her expression transformed in an instant. Anger turned to confusion. “What? Why?”
“He’s trying to hurt me,” I said, “and the best way to do that is to hurt you.”
Several seconds ticked by in silence. I heard car horns outside, but the windows were tinted a deep, impenetrable black and I could see nothing except for the blank surface. Finally, Sarah cleared her throat and leaned back into her seat. “Start from the beginning.”
I did as she asked, going back to Asher’s betrayal at the Museé, on through my retrieval of our passports in Munich with Alex’s daughter. When I finished recounting the events in Kiev, she sat immobile for a long time. “Sarah?”
“I’m thinking,” she said. A moment later, she sighed and lowered her face into her hands. “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Someone – maybe one person, maybe a whole organization – decided that you should get out of La Santé ahead of schedule, but they didn’t tell you what they wanted in exchange?”
“Until they sent me that photograph,” I said, and then paused. “I never said I was in La Santé?”
She raised her face. “I knew where you were.”
“How did you know that?”
“I…keep track of things. Anyway, that’s not really the point.”
I knew her tells, and I’d long since learned the minute signs that she was embarrassed. I wisely decided not to press the matter. “Okay. But, yeah, that’s pretty much how it happened.”
“And they knew your size already? When you got to the parking lot, I mean.”
“Not just that.” I thought back to that first day. “Whoever it was, they knew enough about me to know which car I’d pick. Left the keys in the ignition and everything.”
“Or they just left keys and suits in every car,” Sarah said. Her lips turned slightly up at the idea before she shook her head. “That’d be insane, though. Not that it isn’t already insane, but…so, after that, you went to Munich to get back the passports? Our passports?”
I shrugged. “What else could I do? Whoever was out there, they’d already given me a name they could track. I couldn’t keep using that without leaving a trail.”
“Fair enough. And then, when you went to Kiev?”
“I thought I might be able to catch him off-guard, but that trap was already in place. I just had the bad luck to set it off,” I said. “But now he knows where you are. He couldn’t wait to tell me that much. That’s how I knew to come to San Francisco.”
“How could he know that? You said he works with hired help normally, didn’t you? Where’d he get the money to hire the kind of resources it’d take to track me down?”
“Hell if I know. I went to jail for a few years and, when I came out, Asher had all sorts of connections, with people I’ve never even heard of.”
“That organization he was working for, when he went to Moscow? With the three triangles?”
“The three that pointed up, yeah.” I showed her the notepad I’d filled on the flight. “This other symbol means…I don’t know what it means, actually. Might be the organization that sprung me in the first place.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “So, Asher is trying to make you pay for what happened in St. Petersburg and to do that, he’s working with this one shadowy organization. The…” She checked the notepad. “Trinity?” Her nose scrunched up slightly in distaste.
Sarah’s eyebrows drew closer together while she considered the name before she, probably deciding that she didn’t have anything better offer, accepted the sobriquet I’d landed on. “Okay, Trinity. And Trinity’s got enough influence to outright threaten the Russian mafia into doing what they want. But there’s this other group, the…Puppetmaster? Who might be working against Trinity, maybe, or they might be an entirely different group that has nothing to do with the whole situation.”
“It’s possible,” I admitted. “But I don’t think so.”
“Why not? Asher’s made a lot of enemies in the past. Just in this last year, he pissed off you, the Bratva, and presumably the organization he’s working for in the first place. There could be a lot of people who want to catch him, and they don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.”
“I know that, but…” I trailed off, unable to find the right words.
“But it doesn’t feel like that.”
Sarah bit down on her bottom lip in thought. “Let’s say you’re right. What’s your role in all of this, then? Why get you out of prison just to send you after Asher if he’s got the sort of connections you’re talking about?”
“That’s what I want to know,” I said. “But don’t worry about any of that. It’s my problem. This is all my fault, and you got caught up in the middle of it through no fault of your own.”
“Devlin.” Sarah’s voice lowered slightly. It forced me to abandon my careful examination of the black window and lean in to hear her. “What, exactly, happened in St. Petersburg?”
I saw the fires again, as brilliant and vivid as they’d been that night. Phantom screams echoed in my ears and I felt heat on my fingertips. I shuddered involuntarily and pushed the memory as far away as I could. “I…don’t want to talk about that.”
“Fine.” It was obvious that she wasn’t pleased with my non-answer. “Whatever happened, was it enough to justify sending Asher off on this revenge bender?”
“Apparently,” I said. “Which is why I came here, to warn you. He knows where you’re living and I don’t doubt for a moment that he’d send someone to kill you. You need to get out of town and lie low somewhere. At least until I can get ahold of him and stop all of this.”
“How are you going to do that?”
I took in Sarah’s appearance: exactly as beautiful as the last time I’d seen her, even with her bed-hair rampaging out of her control. My answer came unbidden to my lips, and I spoke it aloud with the absolute conviction of the fanatic. “I’ll do whatever I have to.”
Sarah sighed. “What, you’re just going to hunt down all of them? This Trinity, the Puppetmaster, Asher…I need a diagram to keep all this in mind.”
“If you promise to get out of town, you can have mine.” I offered her the notepad.
She did not reach out to take it. “I can’t just leave, Devlin. I’ve got connections here. People will miss me if I just disappear.”
The bottom of my stomach evaporated in an instant. “People? So, you’re…?”
It took her a second to understand my implication. The temperature in the car dropped a few degrees as she turned a glacial stare in my direction. “That isn’t really any of your business, is it?”
“No, you’re right, it isn’t,” I said, while I smothered the sudden impulses to find and hurt someone. My time in La Santé had changed me more than I wanted to admit, even to myself. “But if there’s…someone…you should get them and get out of town. Can you do that for me? Please?”
Sarah sat there for another long stretch. “This is just like you,” she said, finally.
“Whenever you’ve got a problem, you always bring it to my doorstep. Now, I’ve got to pack up and leave town, just because you’ve got a problem with Asher over something that happened years ago? Something you won’t even tell me about?”
“I didn’t bring this to your doorstep, Sarah! Asher wants to hurt me, and he’s always wanted to hurt you, ever since we teamed up to begin with. He sees it as…I don’t know, some kind of betrayal that I didn’t drop everything the second he showed back up. Whether I came here or not, even if I’d stayed in prison until the end of my sentence, he was still coming for you. You think he tracked you down in the last three days?”
“You expect me to believe that you only came here because you were worried about me? With our past?”
That brought me up short. I choked down another outburst and picked my words carefully. “What I did doesn’t change how I feel about you,” I said. “Even if it did, we were partners for a long time. That means something to me.”
“It didn’t mean enough, though, did it?”
I grit my teeth. “If you want to just hurl abuse at me, that’s fine. I earned it, and I’ll take whatever you’ve got to dish out. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a madman with access to a disturbing amount of resources who knows where you live. All I’m asking you to do is to get to somewhere safe. After that, you don’t ever have to talk to me again, if you don’t want to.”
She tilted her head. “And you’re going to do what, exactly? You went through all that effort to slip your patron, so you’re not getting any help from that quarter. And, without that, it’ll just be you up against Asher and whatever resources he can throw at you.”
I hesitated before I spoke again. We had managed to reach the part of the conversation where I asked Sarah for help, in the most indirect ways imaginable. Whether she would help or simply hang me out to dry was up in the air, still. “I’d need access to an account. Not a big one; just enough to get around while I’m looking for leads.”
Sarah sighed, but there was a difference in her bearing. “Of course you do. Any other favors you want from me? Not that you deserve them, but still.”
“Another passport would be nice. This one’s got…a history. If he didn’t think to look for this identity yet, he’s going to get around to doing that, sooner or later.”
She rolled her eyes and passed a weary hand over her eyes.
“The accounts and the passports are mine too,” I pointed out. “But as soon as I finish dealing with Asher, I’ll give control back over to you, if that’s what you want. I’m not here for the money.”
“There’s a…phone, too.” I fished the sniper’s locked cell phone out of my pocket and passed it over to her. “The sniper in Ukraine had that on him. I don’t know if there’s anything I could use on there, but it’s locked, so….”
She snatched the phone from my hand in a sharp movement, her long fingers catching the phone with expert ease. I’d taught her that sleight-of-hand technique and an unreasonable surge of pride welled up within me at her practiced usage. “You want the company card too, while you’re at it?” She asked. Sarcasm, cruel and biting, seethed in each syllable.
“Sarah.” Without thinking, I reached out for her hand. She snatched it away. The action sent another stab of regret through my heart, but I managed to keep the agony from my face. “As soon as I finish dealing with Asher, I’ll give control back over to you, if that’s what you want. I’m not here for the money.”
“I know that. You think I don’t know that?” Her eyes narrowed to slits for an instant, and then relaxed into a look of resignation. “But it wasn’t about me, either.”
I searched myself and found, to my dismay, that there wasn’t an answer to her unspoken accusation. Whatever I said, she would refute and deny. I ran the risk of irritating her beyond her limits if I pushed my own point any further. Besides, there was an element of truth in what she said. My mistake had been motivated by a lot of things and there was nothing I could say or do that would convince her how deeply I regretted it.
Sarah banged on the opaque partition; after a moment, it slid down and revealed the driver at the wheel. “Take us to the Red Victorian,” she said.
“Of course, ma’am.”
The partition slid back up. Sarah took out a smartphone out of a small clutch and began to navigate through its menus. “I’m putting you up at a bed and breakfast for a night,” she said, without looking up.
“Why would you do that?”
“Because you need a shower,” she answered immediately. She glanced up and her eyes softened slightly. “And because I don’t want you under my feet while I’m working. I’ll arrange access to one of the Cayman accounts for you and see which identities are still viable.”
“Sarah, I – “
She talked over me. “And I’ll see what I can do about this phone. If there’s anything on it, then I’ll print you a copy.”
“That’s great and all, but what you really need to do is get out of town. Everything else can wait.”
“That’s easier for you to do than me,” she said. “I’ve got a business to worry about, and that requires a little more notice than simply disappearing overnight. Algorithms have to be written to cover my absence, I’ll need to hire a double for any appearances I need to make, and I’ve got a pet to take care of now.” She bit down on her lip at the last item. “And my main setup is located here. If you want me to find out anything, this is where it’ll have to be. After that, I’ll go to ground until this all blows over.”
I noticed that, in her listings of things to handle, Sarah had conveniently failed to mention the presence of another person. “So, there isn’t anyone else?” I asked, before I could stop myself.
“Anyway,” she said, layering sarcasm and stress on the two syllables. She finished with her phone and returned it to her clutch. “This shouldn’t take more than a night, Devlin. I appreciate you coming to warn me, I really do, but you being here is…dangerous for me. In a lot of different ways.”
I didn’t understand what she meant by that. Asher’s men had already tracked her down. She wasn’t in any more danger by my presence, than she was without it. If anything, she was considerably safer, since Asher would likely prioritize my own death and give her a little extra time to make an escape if he made his move. Instead of sharing my thoughts, I opted for a sincere look of gratitude. “This is so much more than I expected, but thanks, Sarah.”
“Don’t thank me,” she said. “Listen…this doesn’t mean we’re on good terms again. What we had is gone, understand?”
I nodded. “I do.”
The town car slowed and then stopped. I heard as the driver made his way around the car to my door. When he opened it, I saw that we were now in front of a tall, cinnamon red building. “The Red Victorian” was written across the front in large white letters. A couple sat at a café table, only a few feet away from where we sat.
I turned. “Yes?”
“You’ve got to leave town after this,” Sarah said.
I’d thought my heart had reached the bottom of my stomach. Something opened up in me, and my heart sank even further, past the soles of my feet and came to rest beneath my shoes. “I know.”
“It isn’t that I…” She stopped and shook her head. “Nevermind. I’ll handle this for you, but then you’ve got to skip town. I’ve done too much just to lose it to a vendetta between you and Asher. Even worse, between this Puppetmaster and Trinity.”
“I get that. Really, I do.”
“Just show them your passport,” she said. “They’ll show you where the room is from there. I’ll have someone pick you up to take you to the airport in the morning.”
I stepped out of the car and started toward the front door. I made it two steps before I stopped and turned back. “Sarah, I’m…I’m sorry.”
She met my eyes for less than an instant. My notepad, covered in scribbles and half-formed ideas, sat on the seat beside her. Her driver closed the door and went back to the driver’s side. He pulled the town car away from the curb and back into traffic with a brief tip of his hat to me. I stood alone in front of the Red Victorian, doing everything in my power not to notice the happy couple eating a meal near me. Then, defeated in every way that mattered, I pivoted on my heel and went into the building.