Chapter 33

Adrenaline flooded my veins, causing my hands to shake as I drew closer to the warehouse.  My senses, powered by fear and anxiety in equal measure, were on high alert.  I reminded myself once more that going into danger was my only chance at escape.  Even if I hotwired the car, I would only end up wandering aimlessly through the backroads without any idea of my actual location.  Assuming that Asher had chosen this warehouse as his base of operations, I could only assume that he’d taken steps to hire sufficient security.  Eventually, he would find out that I’d escaped his clutches and send more men to retrieve me.  If any of those men or women were sufficiently trained, my re-capture was a foregone conclusion.  If I was lucky, whoever he ordered to bring me back wouldn’t choose to use any lethal means of incapacitation.

I blinked swat from my eyes, tightened nerveless fingers around the purloined gun, and continued forward. The answers I needed were inside the warehouse along with, presumably, an armed hoard of armed thugs.  I tasked the majority of my attention to the problem of escape, and split a small part of my mind off with the instructions to ‘think like Asher.’  He’d picked this building, in this area, for a specific reason.  Even if I got away from my captors, I still needed to know what the next step in his plan was.  Otherwise, I could easily win this battle and ultimately lose the war.

With that completed, I turned my eyes back to the warehouse.  The floodlights around the building erased every nearby shadow, making certain that I had no darkness close enough to the walls to utilize.  I knelt next to a short tree, instead, far enough away from the lights that I was still effectively invisible.  Two men, patrolling the perimeter, came into view.  I counted seconds off in my head as the two men crossed paths, signaled to each other with a waved hand, and kept moving without pausing.  Two different men repeated the process, only a minute later.

“Four guards,” I murmured.  It felt right to speak my thoughts out loud, even though I was alone.  The distance between where I hid and the warehouse was large enough that they couldn’t hear me, but I still kept my voice low.  “That shakes out to one guard, per side of the building, with four different points of contact.”

It was a simple patrol path, but an effective one.  I mentally labeled the guards with numbers, drew a map in the air in front of me, and ran possible scenarios.  Each simulation turned out the same.  With a surprise rush, I might be able to take out Guard Number One.  That only gave me a minute of security before Two turned the corner and noticed his counterpart’s absence.  Two could raise an alarm, summoning Four to his aid, and the two of them would be able to converge on me while Three continued his route.

I mused over that for a bit.  The guards traveled a functional path, but not a perfect one.  No security was any smarter than the least intelligent person involved in its operation.  I needed one of the guards to break protocol.  I needed a distraction, I realized: something loud enough that a guard would feel compelled to leave their route to investigate.  I pinched the bridge of my nose and swept my vision over my surroundings, searching for any item that might help.  There weren’t many options: the car where I’d stashed my kidnappers, an unmarked delivery van, and a smattering of metal shipping containers strewn haphazardly across the grounds.

I started to dismiss them, and then stopped as an idea twinkled from the darkness of my mind.  A smile crept its way across my lips.

I crab-walked back to the car and opened the front passenger door.  A walkie talkie lay on the seat.  I took it and then closed the door gently.  From the trunk, I heard the occasional groan, but no sounds that indicated any concerted effort to open the latch from within.  The two men were packed in tightly enough that I couldn’t imagine either suddenly becoming flexible enough to find the release cord.  “Thanks,” I said to the men in a low whisper, tapping the walkie-talkie against the trunk’s exterior.  “But we’re just about even for that whole ‘drugging and kidnapping me’ thing, so there’s that.”

The Kid’s voice came from the trunk, weak and thread.  I couldn’t understand the words, but my intuition told me that what he’d said was supremely foul.  I chose not to ask him to translate.

I went from the car to the delivery van and tried to enter.  The front and rear doors were both locked, but the door to the storage bay wasn’t.  I eased it open and found that the delivery van was empty inside, save for a light covering of some white dust on the floor.

The shipping containers were only a few yards away from me.  I wondered idly why Asher had gone through the trouble of shipping anything directly to such a remote outpost, but that wasn’t important and I shelved the considerations for later.  I switched the walkie-talkie on and fiddled with the dials until I found a frequency that produced nothing but static.  The volume was low enough that I had to strain to hear it, and I already knew what to expect.  I gripped the volume dial between my index and my thumb and leaned out of the storage bay.  From the distance, I couldn’t clearly make out the details on the silhouettes pacing around the warehouse.  I weighed the merits of waiting, or drawing closer, but those options were dismissed out of hand in seconds.  I couldn’t afford to wait for a better time or maneuver into a better position.

I made a snap decision and twisted the volume dial to its maximum, performed a visual check on my angles and the distance, and then threw the walkie talkie as hard as I could into the metal shipping containers.  A shadowed figure near the warehouse jerked sharply as my projectile clanged against the hard metal, the sound of static amplified by the small space.  To my dismay, however, a second figure chose that exact moment to round the corner.  The first shadow waved to the second, and then both silhouettes came my way.  I closed the door to the storage bay, biting down my bottom lip to keep from swearing.

I couldn’t see when the two guards were close enough to check on my distraction, but I could hear them.  They were near enough that I could listen to their conversation and, in some stroke of serendipity, understand their words: they spoke English, albeit with two vastly different accents.

“…you heard from them, yet?”  They should’ve been here a while ago,” one voice said.

“I have not heard anything,” a second voice replied.  “They had better get here soon, though.  The boss is not in a good mood tonight.”

“Is he ever?”

They chuckled together, while my mouth went dry.  The boss was here.  Asher was here.  I’d had my suspicions, but the guards’ words confirmed it: this wasn’t just a way station.  This was his base of operations, while he was working in London, and he was here.  I could do more than just escape.  Given a long enough lucky string of things, I could potentially bring this entire game to a close right now.

“It’s too much trouble,” the first voice said, “dealing with his mood swings.”

“The pay is worth it,” the second voice said.

“This much trouble?  I don’t know about that.  Might be easier to just take what we’re owed and find some new clients?  Nothing against you, but…”

“Where would you go?”  The second voice asked.  “Where would you be able to hide out that he wouldn’t be able to find you?”

A delay of several seconds, followed by an awkward cough.  “I ever tell you where he found me?”  Another pause.  “Small town in Idaho.”

“Idaho?”  The second voice sounded confused and slightly unsure.

“United States,” Idaho clarified.  “Anyway, I was laying low after a botched hit.  Waiting for the cops to lose my trail, but they were closing in quick.”

“And then?”

“He pulled strings,” Idaho said.  “Sent me a letter, through my mother, offering me a passport out of the country in exchange for my services.”

“That is what happened to me,” the second voice said. “Perhaps not exactly, but close enough.  A letter, addressed to my real name delivered to my home in Johannesburg.”

“And now you’re here.”

“And now,” Johannesburg agreed, “I am here.  What is that saying?  If we are in for a penny…”

“…we’re in for a pound,” Idaho finished.

Silence.  I turned this new information around in my head, examining it from different angles.  These were recruits from America and South Africa, respectively.  That sort of recruitment was still, somehow, beyond what I’d thought him suddenly capable of accomplishing.  Even with the assistance of the mysterious Magi, I had to wonder why they had given him access to the sort of resources necessary to hire out of America’s heartland.  I found that it was becoming easier to start from the assumption that Asher’s reach was beyond my imagination, and to plan from there.

“Here it is,” Idaho said, from beyond the van’s closed doors.  “Found what was making that noise: it’s just a walkie, tuned to the wrong frequency.”

“Why would that be all the way out here?”  Johannesburg asked.

Pause.  “Good point,” Idaho said finally.  “Call it in.  Someone else can sweep the area; we’ve got to get back to our positions.”

I barely kept myself from groaning.  Armed guards were one things; intelligent armed guards were something else, entirely.  A perimeter sweep would find my kidnappers, broken and moaning from the trunk, even if it didn’t find me at first.

Based on the sound of the voices, they were just on the other side of the door.  I blew out a breath, shoved the door open, and leapt out, brandishing my gun like a madman.

I took in the visual of the two men in a flash, cataloging details in a single moment of adrenaline-fueled awareness.  Both men were fair skinned, although one was slightly tanner the other; both had closely cropped, blond hair.  One was shorter than the other by a head and he was the one who reacted to my appearance first.  He turned, a choked cry of alarm beginning to rise in his throat.  My chosen angle of attack had luckily been the right one. I fell onto the shorter man’s chest, burying both of my knees into his sternum. His torso absorbed most of the impact, giving slightly beneath my weight with a horrible cracking sound, but I still felt sore as I rolled off of his supine form and brought my own gun up in a single moment.  The taller man froze, his hand halfway to the gun at his side.

I was on the clock, now.  At best, I had a minute before someone noticed these guards’ absence.  I strode forward, drew back my arm, and whipped the butt of my handgun across the tall man’s temple.  His eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled to the ground.  I spared ten seconds to remove the walkies at both guards’ size before I sprinted back to the warehouse.  I reached one of the walls at exactly forty-three seconds.

I was prepared – or, at least as prepare as I could reasonably hope to be – to meet whichever guard came around the corner first.  None arrived.  I stayed where I was, tense and anxious, for another minute before I risked a peek around the corner.  There was nothing there, except for more darkness and, in the distance, a field of long-stemmed flowers I couldn’t quite make out.

I looked back at the delivery van.  Whatever Idaho and Johannesburg were up to now, they hadn’t alerted their compatriots to my presence.  Part of me expected an ambush at any moment, but that didn’t make sense.  I was only one man.  There wouldn’t be any need to marshal forces to bring me down; simple numbers would handle that just fine.  I didn’t have time to ponder the mysterious disappearance of the two guards, though.  The idea that I might, for the first time, simply be lucky didn’t sit well with me, but I wasn’t going to turn down a free gift.

I checked my nearest surroundings once more and then slipped inside the warehouse, via the oversized double doors.  The interior of the warehouse was a maze of featureless walls, decorated with even more of those featureless steel containers, identical in appearance to the ones I’d seen outside.  I turned my eyes skyward, almost immediately.  A single camera would invalidate any attempt at stealth.  I was shocked to discover that there weren’t any cameras in sight, at all.

My mind worked through the implications of that.  Without electronic security, the only way Asher could hope to keep this giant warehouse secure was through an army of hired help.  The chances of a successful infiltration, then, dropped considerably.  I pressed on, regardless.  Whatever would happen, would happen.  I refused to be caught complacent, though.

I stuck to the walls as I made my way through the warehouse, aiming for a raised office that overlooked the entirety of the floor.  There were shadows up there and what appeared to be a convenient nook where I might be reasonably safe.  And, if there were any salient information to be found, it would likely be up there.

I thought while I moved.  The guards outside – Idaho and Johannesburg – had all but confirmed the theory Sarah and I had been working under.  Asher was somehow capable of hiring international muscle.  It was worse than we’d thought, actually: his newfound influence wasn’t just limited to San Francisco and Russia, but even extended into the heart of America and Africa.  That would be a problem, but it seemed their loyalties were based out of greed and fear.  Greed for the money offered in exchange for their service and fear that they wouldn’t able to escape, if the situation turned sour on them.  They didn’t like their boss.  That wasn’t necessarily an opening, but it was something.  I just didn’t know what that was, yet.

I dodged past two guards on the way to the office, slipping from one side of the maze walls to another when I heard their booted footsteps approaching on the ceramic floor.  A third guard, with graying hair at his temples, lingered at the top of the staircase.  I hid behind a container, noting even more of the white dust on its sides, and waited for a cry of alarm from somewhere with every breath.  Idaho and Johannesburg had been injured, yes, but they weren’t secured.  And the two missing guards were still unknown elements.  Eventually, the aging guard moved away from the top of the staircase, went down the catwalk, and descended a second set of stairs.  Still, no alarm went up.

The path to the office was clear.  I moved to it quickly, taking the steps two at a time without making a noise.  When I almost to the door itself, I took note of the two silhouettes inside.  I knelt under the window, clenching the gun I’d stolen, preparing myself to use it on whoever came out of the room.  If one of the silhouettes was Asher, a single trigger pull would bring an end to years spent plotting my revenge.  If I did that, however, there was every possibility that he had set up the equivalent of a dead man’s switch.  “If I die, find and kill Sarah,” for instance.  It was the sort of thing he would do.  To say nothing of the fact that a gunshot would absolutely give away my presence to the warehouse’s employees.  Asher might die, but I wouldn’t make it out, either.

I was considering my options, when Asher spoke from within.  That was at least one suspicion confirmed.  “I’m wondering why I shouldn’t just have you killed,” he said.  “This place is kind of a secret.”

“It isn’t a very good one,” a woman’s voice answered.  It was calm and disinterested, seemingly a step apart from the conversation itself.  A second ticked by before my brain made the connection: Mila.  Asher was talking to Mila.

“Oh?”  Asher asked.  “What makes you say that?”

“I found it, didn’t I?”  Mila replied.  “And it wasn’t a huge amount of effort to do it.”

“Not killed, then, but tortured, maybe?”  He said it in an offhand tone, as if he’d asked her what she wanted for dinner.  “Just until you tell me how you managed you find your way here.”

“Threats are fun and all,” Mila said, “but they’re kind of a waste of time.”

I knew it was a bad idea, but I rose slightly and peeked in through the window.  Mila stood with her arms crossed beneath her breasts, while Asher paced a short path across the room.  “How is that, exactly?”  He asked.

“Go ask those guards you had outside of this place.”  Mila shrugged.  “Pretty sure they’ll tell you all about how threatening me works.  As soon as they can talk again, I mean.”

That answered the question of the missing guards, but it only made me more curious.  Why was she here?  If she wasn’t working with Asher, why had she shown up to the warehouse?”

Mila wasn’t finished speaking.  “I mean, if you’ve got to try it, go ahead.  Fragile male ego and all that.”  Her words were calm, but her tone seemed a little more engaged than before.

“No need for the bravado,” Asher said, with a dismissive flick of his hand.  “What is it you want…what’d you say your name was again?”

“Mila,” she said.  “I’m looking for someone.”

“Try a dating site.”  He burst out laughing at his own joke.  Mila did not as much as chuckle.

When Asher settled down, she continued.  “Word on the street is that you might know here to find him.”

“Word on the street?”  Asher parroted back to her.  “Does that mean we’ve got mutual friends?  Who said that I might know?”

“Trade secret,” Mila answered.  I could see the flash of her teeth, through the thin slits in the door’s blinds.  “My client prefers anonymity.”

“Professional integrity?”  Asher whistled.  “You don’t see that every day.  Well, will you at least tell me who it is you’re looking for?  Can’t turn you down if I don’t even know what you want, yet.”

“Devlin O’Brien,” Mila said.  “Heard you two worked together a while ago, and I figure you might have an idea where he’s at.”

I ducked back down and began an internal litany of swears.  She hadn’t poisoned, but she had been looking for me.  By name, no less.  Why?  Who else had an unresolved conflict with me?  I needed to sit down, apparently, and systematically go over every job I’d ever worked for anyone who might have been offended.

Asher barked out a laugh, without the faintest sliver of actual joy in the sound.  “You know,” he said in a hungry voice, “you and I might actually have something worth talking about.”

Chapter 32

Darkness gave way, grudgingly, to a slightly lighter darkness.  In the endless field of nothing, I couldn’t distinguish between outlines and shapes.  My brain simply refused to make sense of the lines and shadows before me.  Thoughts and words were a mishmash of directionless ideas.  My stomach twirled and flipped, bile rising into my throat as the seconds ticked away.  Any effort to think was derailed by a constant vibrating hum, like a third rail, that rattled my skull.

Slowly, my head began to clear. That meant I wasn’t dead.  Language returned first, and then memory.  I’d been at the gala, waiting for an opportunity to assess the crown’s security.  I’d met Mila, bonded briefly over our drinks, before she’d been called away for some professional obligation.  Then, an overwhelming urge to sleep had come over me and now, I was surrounded by an oppressive blackness.

Alarm was slow to build, through the fog and haze of my disordered thoughts, but it did build.  I remembered that I’d met Mila when she’d spilled my champagne.  After that, the drinks we’d shared had been picked out by her.  I hadn’t even noticed, though I should have known better.  All the paranoia and precautions in the world were no match for simple, human stupidity.

“Sarah?”  I croaked into the darkness.

There was no reply.

“Sarah, are you…”  I trailed off and reached up for my ear.  I vaguely remembered dislodging the earbud, just before I’d lost my balance completely.  If it had fallen free, then it was likely lost in the grass of the rotunda already, or tramped to bits by the feet of a dozen different socialites.  Either way, it was useless to me now.

I felt around, searching for something – anything – that might provide some information about my current predicament.  Beneath me, my fingers brushed against a rough fabric of some sort; in front, there was cold metal.  My brain struggled to work out the implications, the drug’s debilitating effect hampering any effort at rational thought.  When the answer did come to me, it pierced straight through the shadowy mist like a foglight: I was in a car trunk.  The constant hum pressing against my brain, then, was an engine as my kidnappers drove the car off into the night.

Instantly, my breath caught in my chest and pressure descended onto me like a physical weight.  Sweat beaded on my forehead and trickled down to the fabric beneath me.  Panic spread my head, burning away the miasma like hot sunlight, but I couldn’t afford to let my phobia run out of control.  I needed to escape and, to do that, I needed to think.  I had to control myself long enough to find freedom.

I took stock of my assets, while a part of my mind split off to work on what to do after I was free.  My hands weren’t bound.  I tried to move my legs and discovered that they weren’t tied together, either.  Perhaps I had been supposed to drink the entire glass of champagne, instead of only toasting with Mila twice.  The drugs might have been strong enough, then, to keep me unconscious for the entire ride.  Even if that had been the plan – and it seemed reasonable to assume that it was – it was still sloppy work to leave me unrestrained, just on general principle.  I was offended, professionally, even as I was elated, personally.

More memories resurfaced.  I’d never been sealed inside of a trunk before but I was a professional: I’d studied up on various escape methods, just in case.  Cars were typically equipped with emergency safety features these days, on the off chance that some innocent civilian found himself assaulted by thugs or murderers.  In case of this exact situation – or, more likely, one in which at least a single party wasn’t a criminal – a release cable was often installed inside the trunk.  I let my fingers travel across the surfaces around me, hoping for a little bit of luck.

I was almost entirely recovered by the time I found something metallic and braided with my left hand.  Anxiety had almost fully given way to fear by then, and the emotion pounded at the walls of my skull for attention.  With so little room to maneuver, I was only able to wrap three fingers around the cord.  I gripped it as tight as I could, ignoring the pain as the metal bit into my skin, and pulled.  Nothing happened.  I strained to add my pinky and tried again, my force bolstered by my growing desperation.  Something clicked this time and the now-unlocked trunk opened a centimeter.  Fresh air trickled in through the tiny gap.  I gulped greedily at the oxygen.  When I’d had my fill, I cautiously opened the gap wider.

There wasn’t much light outside and it took my eyes a bit of time to adjust.  We were traveling at a high speed down a highway, if appearances were any indication.  There didn’t seem to be any visible traffic behind us.  I considered jumping out of the car, but dismissed that idea almost immediately.  At this speed, that would be a death sentence.  Even if I survived the initial impact with the road, rolling with enough force to break bones, I certainly wouldn’t be in any position to go anywhere afterwards.  My captors would only have to turn the car around, drive back, and throw me into the trunk again before continuing on to our final destination.  In that scenario, I’d actually be in worse shape to deal with whatever fresh torments awaited me.

There weren’t any road signs to tell me where I was.  Worse, I didn’t yet know where I was headed.  I didn’t even know how long I’d been unconscious.  There were too many unknowns.  With the assistance of the sporadic street lights, I turned my attention to my immediate surroundings and gave them a more through once-over.  I was still wearing my pants, shirt, and vest, but the suit jacket was missing.  My cell phone was in the jacket.  Without the earbud, I couldn’t communicate with Sarah; without the phone, I couldn’t call for help, either.

I’d only had Sarah’s voice back for less than an hour and, already, the lack of the earbud felt like a missing limb.  I felt its pressure against the walls of my ear canal, even though I knew it wasn’t there.  I reflexively reached up and nearly hit myself in the eye with one of my cufflinks.  I stopped, mid-motion, and let out a stunned sound.  Sarah had specifically told me that the cufflinks were equipped with GPS trackers.

She’d be able to pinpoint my location, using the cufflinks.  Sarah might, in fact, have already activated the trackers.  But, when she found out where I was going, she could…do what, exactly?  My elation drained away as quickly as it had risen.  Whether she knew where I was or not, Sarah couldn’t rescue me.  She could perhaps arrange for a pick-up, assuming I was capable of eluding my captors long enough to contact her, but even that was a slim possibility.  Judging from the car’s speed, I was a good distance away from the city center and traveling farther away with every second.

I stowed that away as a possibility, and tried to get comfortable.  It wasn’t easy to do, while still using my knees to keep the trunk from closing completely.  I rubbed life back into my legs as I shifted in the small space.  The thin layer of carpeting did little to soften the metal beneath.  Each time I moved my head, a fresh railroad spike of pain shot through my thoughts.  Whenever the car hit a bump or divot in the road, that impact was transferred directly to my skeleton.  Still, I found what room I could, settled in, and waited.

The two voices spoke again, startling me.  They hadn’t said anything at all since just after I’d woken.  Earlier, their worlds had only been a single jumble of indistinguishable sounds.  Now, I could make out at least two separate individuals, both male.  The first asked a question in a deep, rumbling baritone.  After a moment, a slightly higher voice that sounded younger responded in the same language.  Baritone asked a second question, in short, sharp syllables.  A longer stretch of time passed before the Kid answered with a single word, in a language I did speak: “Asher.”

A chill lanced through my body at that.  Asher had found me, apparently.  I’d seen his scarred hand at the museum, just before the drugged champagne sent me spiraling into unconsciousness.  In hindsight, it made sense.  He’d have to case the museum as well, and it wouldn’t cost him anything to issue a general ‘watch out for this face’ message to his hirelings.  I should have sent Michel in to collect the intelligence, but it was too late for self-recriminations now.  I was captured.  The game, as it were, was up.

He’d elected to kidnap me, though, instead of just having me killed on the spot.  “Why?”  I mused aloud, careful to keep my voice lower than the steady hum of the tires as they sped down the highway.  I tried to consider the variables from his perspective.  If there were answers to be found, his headspace was as good a place to start as any.

The problem was that Asher’s mind worked on a different level than anyone I’d ever met.  It wasn’t that he was better educated than other masterminds – in fact, his formal schooling had come to abrupt end at some point during his ninth grade year – and he wasn’t more skilled with the actual, physical tools of the trade.  His value came from his odd perspective: the duality of his nature combined with a ruthless pragmatism.  To Asher, assets and targets alike were nothing more than chess pieces; pawns that he manipulated into position with a word here or a gesture there, without actually putting himself in danger.  His plans were far-reaching, elaborate affairs that scripted out countless different actions, all culminating in a single perfectly orchestrated heist.

The fundamental differences between us had been instrumental to our professional career.  Asher corralled individuals into his following his one clear path, eliminating every other possible option until they found themselves with no choice but to do what he wished.  I had terrible foresight, but I was capable of seeing virtually every option a person might take in the short term, and acting to capitalize on any openings that presented themselves.  Alone, we’d both had the skills to succeed as moderate thieves; together, we’d tackled private residences, museums, and auction houses and no one had ever stood a chance.

Still, I tried to think like him.  The kidnapping wasn’t his only move.  It probably wasn’t even his first, in this part of whatever game he was running.  It was too simple, too direct.  Somehow, drugging me at the gala was a part of some larger plan…but how?  After all, Asher had already managed to send me to prison in Paris, and I would likely have died there if not for Patrick’s intervention.  He nearly had me in Kiev, as well.  The sniper there made a credible attempt at cutting my career brutally short.  “What’s different now?”  I asked myself.  “Why try to kill me, then, and only kidnap me now?”

An answer occurred to me, although I doubted it was the correct one.  Sarah was different now.  She hadn’t been involved before.  If didn’t already know that she’d left San Francisco, he would inevitably find out soon.  His new sources were proving too competent.  From there, he would be left with two options to weigh: either Sarah was with me, or she’d gone dark all by herself.  And while I knew the truth, that uncertainty would still give her a fair amount of protection.

My thoughts ground to a halt and rewound through the previous few minutes.   Sarah was working with me, and there was a way for Asher to prove it: the cufflinks I wore were broadcasting a signal.  Presumably, some tech wizardry would be capable of tracing that signal’s destination.  Even if Asher wasn’t able to do that – and I wasn’t really sure about what someone could or could not do with wireless signals – the presence of the cufflinks at all would tip him off to Sarah’s presence.  After that, it would only be a matter of time before he closed all avenues of escape and slowly, painstakingly ran her to ground.

If there was some way to get her out of town, she could at least be safe for a little while longer.  Of course, that would leave me to my fate of punishment at Asher’s hands, but that was still a better option than letting him capture her as well.  Ideally, she would be able to leave before Asher found out that she was working with me on this one last job.  Without my phone or my earbud, I couldn’t send her a message.  I couldn’t reach out and warn her that Asher was, as always, a step or two ahead of us.

I thought over what my options were, with such vastly limited equipment, and then realized what I could to keep Sarah safe.  I plucked the cufflinks from my sleeves, looked at them for a long second, and then threw them out of the car.  They exploded in tiny pinpricks of sparks as they hit the highway.

I sank back into the trunk, still careful to keep the latch from closing again.  Asher would probably torture me now.  He was probably going to do that, anyway.  But, if Sarah couldn’t find a way to locate me before too long, I hoped that she would follow our old protocols and leave town with as little fuss as possible.  I could contact her if I managed to make it out of here, but that was entirely on my own shoulders now.  Whatever happened after the car stopped wouldn’t be able to blow back on her.

When the car finally did stop, an unknown amount of time later, I realized that I’d drifted off into my own thoughts for a while.  The cufflinks were almost certainly too far away for Sarah to accidentally stumble onto whatever building Asher was using, and that meant her search would be far enough away that Asher wouldn’t notice her performing one.  The Kid said something to his partner and a car door opened.  I lowered the trunk hood so that it was entirely dark inside once more, but kept the latch from engaging by the barest sliver of space.

I waited until I heard the key click into the trunk’s already-disengaged lock before I kicked up with all of my strength.  My timing was either excellent or just lucky.  The trunk flew open with my attack, digging into the flesh beneath a burly man’s thick, black beard.  He choked out a pained gurgle as I leapt free from the trunk and cast a panicked look at my surroundings.

In one direction, there was a warehouse surrounded by floodlights.  In another, I saw nothing but dark land underneath a starless sky.  I hesitated for a single heartbeat, torn between my choices.  There wasn’t any help to be found in either direction.  Without any point of reference, I had no chance of fleeing these men on foot and finding cover.  The warehouse wasn’t a good choice, either; whatever men he’d assembled were likely in position, and my explosive exit from the trunk would raise an alarm.

I took a third option.  Surprise had worked for me so far, and I intended to ring every last drop of utility from it.  The burly man was pushing himself up from the ground.  Blood stained his beard and his eyes blazed with fury.  I took two steps, jumped, and drove my skull down into his nose with a sickening crunch.  The impact drove his own head back, into the rear spoiler of the car.  He rebounded off of the car and slid to the ground in dazed, semi-conscious agony.

I wasn’t done yet.  I pushed off of the trunk to keep myself from colliding with the car, spun, and kicked the passenger door shut just as the second man attempted to open it.  He screamed as the door’s edge smashed his fingers into the frame, but the sound was muffled by the raised window.

That gave me an idea.  I pulled the door open again, just long enough for him to start to step out of the car, and then slammed it shut once more.  The window held, but the man did not.  The glass caught him, just above his right temple, and the light of awareness left his eyes.  I was worried that I might have accidentally killed him, and relaxed when I saw his chest still rising and falling, his eyes rapidly flitting around beneath his eyelids.  I waited for almost a full minute, but no guards came outside.

Neither man seemed capable of much anymore, except for the occasional wordless moan of pain.  I caught my breath and then pulled the man with the higher voice from the car by his feet.  He put up token resistance, but there wasn’t any fight in him.  It took a little effort to drag him over to trunk and throw him inside.  The bearded man was heavier; I was forced to struggle with his bulk for thirty or forty five seconds before I managed to get him into the trunk, as well.  Then, I checked both men for weapons.  The bearded man carried a medium caliber handgun in a shoulder holster, while his companion only had a collapsible baton.  I left the holster, took the gun, and slipped the baton into my pocket.  Armed now and riding high on adrenaline, I closed the trunk on both of them, and broke the key off in the lock.

A quick check showed that I had nine bullets in my weapon.  I clicked the safety off and looked at the warehouse.  No sound or movement came from the building, but I knew that wouldn’t last.  Eventually, someone would come outside to check on the car’s occupants.  Before that happened, I needed to find out where I was and find my way back to society.  I took a deep breath and went to meet the warehouse’s inhabitants, before they came out to me.

Chapter 31

Two attendants greeted me at the entrance to the rotunda.  I handed them my electronic invitation and gave them my fake name.  They repeated the same process as the previous guards before they stepped politely out of my way.  I inclined my head at them as I walked down into the gala proper.  As I proceeded, I began to assemble the physical identity of a German aristocrat with each step.

Sarah guided me to the party, through the earbud.  Even without her assistance, I would only have needed to follow the waist-high braziers, denoted with perfect white flowers.  I didn’t interrupt her, though.  At some point, she would obviously realize that I didn’t need the assistance but , until then, I intended to soak up as much of her voice as possible.

When I entered the actual rotunda, the beauty of the space took my breath away for a moment.  An explosion of color, in a variety of different flowers, ringed the area.  I panned slowly to take it all in.  Several people were already milling around, discussing very important things with other in polite voices.  They turned at my entrance, nodded, and returned to their conversations.

“You’ll want to wait until everyone’s here,” Sarah said.  “That’ll be your best chance to slip away, maybe find a physical port for me to access.”

“I have done this before,” I subvocalized.

“I’m just saying.”

I gave each cluster of people a longer look than strictly necessary, and Sarah began building a working dossier on the who’s who of the gala.  If the machine gun clicks of her fingers across her keyboard were any indication, she was working furiously on her end of the connection.  After a minute of that, I felt a presence behind me.  I turned and found myself nearly nose-to-nose with a tall and muscular specimen of English nobility.  A pretty girl who couldn’t be much older than twenty-three hung on his arm.  The Englishman stepped back from me and I spotted a slight, barely noticeable limp on his left side.

“Pardon me,” he said.  The words were perfectly civil, upper-crust Oxford English accent crisp with perfunctory politeness.  I immediately didn’t like him.  He was only an inch or two taller, but he looked down at me along the length of his nose in a gesture of pure condescension.  “Typically, I know all of the individuals who frequent these sorts of things, but your name seems to have escaped me.  I suppose you must be somewhat new to the area.”  His female companion covered her mouth with a hand and chuckled at some joke I’d obviously missed.  “Fairfax.  Surely, you have heard of me?”

“Lord Charles Fairfax,” Sarah elaborated after a moment.  “Low level nobility with an inherited title.  According to this, he’s got a bit of an addiction for fast cars and fast women, as well as a taste for the nose candy.”  I heard the sneer in her voice.  “Don’t know who the woman is, but I’d guess she’s just someone he’s trotting around town for appearances.”

I sent her a silent thanks for the information and drew together my disparate thoughts into a complete personality.  “Hubert von Ackerman,” I told the Englishman, easily slipping into the accent of a native German speaking his second language.

Lord Fairfax introduced himself in that same haughty tone.  “So, you are a German?”  He asked.  I started to answer, but he barreled on before I could get a word out.  “And where is Frau Ackerman this evening?  You simply cannot attend this sort of event alone; people will talk.”  The girl on his arm twittered once more.

“Devlin,” Sarah said in a clear warning.  “Leave him alone.  He’s got enough connections to the local underworld that he can make things difficult for you if he suspects something.”

I heard her words and promptly ignored them.  I focused all of my attention on the twit in front of me.  A public confrontation would draw the eyes of the few people already at the gala and the guests still finding their way into the rotunda would be able to watch it all play out.  That would have the unpleasant side effect of making me the center of attention and ruining any possibility of sneaking away later.  Clearly, I should do the smart thing: extricate myself from the conversation with as much grace as I could muster and simply avoid Lord Fairfax for the remainder of the night.  I reminded myself that, technically, he wasn’t even insulting me.  His unfounded pompous attitude was directed as Hubert von Ackerman, a constructed identity that literally didn’t exist beyond this room.  That thought didn’t keep my blood from rising at his tone and general air.

Frau Ackerman is occupied with the business,” I said.  “She is more skilled than me at the day-to-day operations.  Her beauty is not the only one of her skills.”  I gave the words just enough spin that Lord Fairfax’ companion realized she’d been insulted, but wasn’t quite sure how.

“And what business would that be?”  Fairfax asked.

I obviously didn’t have an answer for that.  A waiter approached me at that exact moment, and held out a glass of champagne.  I quickly grabbed the beverage and sipped, stalling for time.  It tasted different than I remembered, but three years with only prison wine had a way of resetting taste buds.  “My business?”  I repeated dumbly.

Sarah picked up the cue.  “Damn it, I’ve only got a few German subsidiaries available here.”  She typed something into her computer.  “Go with Halcyon Enterprises.  Import/export business, as far as anybody knows.”

I took another sip from the champagne before I spoke again.  “You have not heard of Halcyon Enterprises?”

“I have not, in fact,” Lord Fairfax said.  He gave me an indulgent little smile.  “But it can be difficult to keep up with each foreign start-up, I suppose.”

“That depends on your definition of little, Herr Fairfax.”

“Oh?”  Lord Fairfax asked.  “Perhaps I will hear something about your company’s value in this quarter’s financial papers.”

I could’ve asked Sarah to provide an actual number, but I doubted that it would really matter.  Lord Fairfax was like a hundred other smug pricks I’d met.  He considered the circumstances of his birth – a set of coincidences that had nothing to do with him, at all – to be more important than the work other people undertook to achieve similar results.  Sarah had spent the first three decades of her life learning how to navigate around people like that, without raising too many eyebrows or upsetting anyone.  I, on the other hand, had decided before my sixteenth birthday that pompous, unmitigated assholery simply could not be allowed to stand.

I straightened my back and stared straight into Lord Fairfax’ eyes.  He wilted slightly.  “Perhaps,” I said.  “But enough about me.  How is Frau Fairfax?”

The Englishman opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and sputtered something nonsensical in reply.  “Pardon me?”

I pressed harder.  “It is good to see that she does not mind your little dalliances,” I said, with a significant look at his companion.  “I had not thought the British were so liberated.  But you will have to excuse me.  I have never had the taste for these games.”

Lord Fairfax continued to sputter in indignant rage, trying and failing to form words.  I noticed a growing knot of people watching the exchange with poorly disguised interest.  I pivoted on my heels and strode away, before the British nobleman could come up with a reply.

Sarah was speaking into my ear within microseconds.  “What was that?”  She asked.

I sat down at an empty table and began to fiddle with my phone.  There weren’t any new messages, I just wanted something to do with my hands until I calmed down.  “He was cocky,” I said simply.

You’re cocky,” she shot back.  “How did you even know he was married?  I specifically did not tell you that.”

I sighed.  “Tan line around his left ring finger.  You only see that sort of thing with someone’s who been married for a while.”

“That was stupid,” Sarah said.  I noted that she sounded slightly amused, though.  “Why piss off people you might need later on?”

“I don’t like bullies,” I said, and shrugged.  A smile appeared on my lips after a moment.  “And let’s be honest, that was worth it, wasn’t it?”

“That was…”  Sarah sighed and trailed off.  “Whatever.  Now that you’ve just publically gotten into a sniping fest with one of the most familiar faces in the art scene, you’ve got to find some way to blend back into the crowd.  Unless you want people talking about you.”

My smile dried up and vanished.  “Okay.  In hindsight, maybe that wasn’t the best move.”

“You think?”  A handful of seconds passed before she relented.  “Give me another view of the room, and I’ll see who might be open to a new friend.”

I stood to do as Sarah asked and someone crashed into me from behind.  The champagne glass fell from my hand, its contents spilling out over the tablecloth.  Luckily, none of the liquid landed on my clothing.  I blew out a breath and turned to face whoever had knocked my drink away.

A tanned woman, a few inches shorter than me, stood there.  She wore a plain, though excellently cut, pantsuit and her hair was tied back in a tight ponytail.  Everything about her posture – her stance, the set of her shoulders, the easy grace in her movements – told me that she was in exemplary shape.  Her dark brown eyes met mine and I got the distinct impression that I was being mentally weighed.  I endured the inspection for a few seconds and then, apparently satisfied with what she saw, the woman gave me a slight smile.  “Sorry about that,” she said.  “You alright?”

“I am fine.  Although my champagne is not, unfortunately.”

The woman raised her arm and took a pull from a glass of beer.  “Well, let me get you another one, then.  My treat.”

“The drinks are complimentary,” I said.

“I’ll get you two, then.”

I laughed before I could help myself.  “I’m getting some weird feedback,” Sarah said into my ear.  “Go ahead and talk to her for right now.  I’ll let you know when I’ve got more information.”  The line clicked twice and she was gone.  Which I appreciated, truth be told.   It wasn’t terribly difficult to exchange small talk with a stranger, but it become much harder if I had to keep two different conversational tracks in mind.

“So?”  The woman hooked a chair from under the table with one foot, pulled it free, and sat down heavily upon it.  “How about it?”

I sat down as well, opposite my new drinking companion.  She gestured at a waiter, who approached long enough to deposit a fresh glass of champagne in front of me.  “Thank you,” I said.  “And you are…?”

“Mila,” she said.  “And you are Hubert, right?”

I nodded.  If my fake name was already spreading amongst the local movers and shakers, all the better for me.  I wasn’t about to complain about work being done for me.

“I gotta be honest,” Mila said.  “I was listening to you and Fairfax going back and forth, right at the entrance to the rotunda.”


“Oh, yeah.”  Mila leaned back in her chair, pointed her face to the ceiling, and barked out a sharp laugh.  “God, I can’t tell you how much he’s had that coming.  Such an asshole, and he’s got no reason to be.  So he was born into some money…what’s that mean, in the real world?”

In the same way that I’d almost instantly disliked Lord Charles Fairfax, I found myself warming to Mila.  It wasn’t as quickly or as absolute as with Michel, but she was certainly speaking my language.  The fact that I couldn’t openly agree with her appraisal kept my growing affection from getting too out of control.  While Devlin O’Brien wholeheartedly agreed with her assessment, the identity I was still constructing for Hubert von Ackerman wouldn’t feel the same.  “Without money,” I said, “what can a man do?”

Mila raised an eyebrow.

“Or a woman,” I amended.

“Without integrity,” she countered, ‘what good is money?  Cash goes away; integrity lasts forever.”

I nodded sagely.  I felt comfortable doing that; Hubert would probably agree with that sentiment.  “Perhaps.”

“So.  Money and integrity.  Which one’s worth more, in the end?”  Mila tilted her head, considering the question.  “What do you think, Hubert?”

I had my own answer.  Hubert, if he truly existed outside of my own imagination, would probably have an entirely separate one.  I decided to split the difference.  “They are both important in their own ways,” I said.  “Who is to say that one is more important than the other?”

“So you aren’t going to answer,” Mila said, with another loud laugh.  “Fair enough.  Then, this one’s to money.”  She raised her half-full beer bottle.

I hesitated for a second, but Mila made no move to lower her arm.  I couldn’t afford to let her draw any more attention to me than I’d already garnered, so I touched the rim of my champagne glass to her bottle and drank a quick toast.  “Thank you for the – “

“And this,” Mila continued, talking over me as easily as if I’d never spoken at all, “is to integrity.”  She lifted her bottle once more.

I repeated my earlier action a little quicker and finished the rest of my champagne as I did so.  It didn’t taste anywhere near as bitter as before.  The earbud clicked twice, signifying Sarah’s return, as I placed the empty glass onto a passing waiter’s tray.  “What did she say her name was?”  Sarah asked.

“Mila.”  I managed to get the woman’s attention and answer Sarah’s question at the same time.  My partner went to work, checking through the files at her fingertips. “You do not seem like the type to attend these things.  Not like…”  I made a vague gesture toward six or seven people, all clumping around the fuming Lord Fairfax.

“Art’s soothing,” Mila said, casually.  She spoke with an air of almost forced disregard.  “This isn’t what I usually enjoy, but it isn’t bad.  Also, free drinks.”  She finished the rest of her beer and half-placed, half-slammed the empty bottle onto the table.

“Devlin,” Sarah said, “See if you can get her last name.  Whoever she is, she isn’t prominent enough that a first name alone can provide any answers.”

“Your family,” I said, in Hubert’s accent.  “Is there where you gained your taste for the arts?”

Mila smiled.  The expression was more vulpine than joyful, curved almost cruelly and displaying too many of her teeth.  “My family doesn’t have a whole lot to do with my tastes,” she said.

“Still.”  I elected to double-down.  The worst thing that Mila could do was leave.  If that happened, it would be a setback – I would have to actually try to find some other socialites to use as cover – but it wouldn’t be traumatic.  “Perhaps I would know your family.  What was your last name?”

Mila started to answer.  The museum curator approached the dais and Mila’s phone beeped at that exact same second.  She sighed.  “Hold on.”  She removed the device from her jacket pocket and read whatever message was displayed.  A frown replaced the fox-like grin on her face for an instant, just before her features smoothed into an expressionless mask.

“Is everything alright?”  I asked.

Mila returned the phone to her interior pocket and sighed.  “Work,” she said, as though that one word explained everything.  “We’ll have to pick this up later.”

“Indeed,” I said, and meant it.  “Good evening, Mila.”

She rose and inclined her head to me.  “Good evening to you, Hubert.”

Mila added the equivalent of vocal italics to my fake name.  It took me a few seconds to realize what she’d done but, by then, she was gone.  “Sarah?”  I asked.  “Did you find out anything about her?”

“Nothing worthwhile,” she said.  “Without access to the museum’s internal network, I can’t track down who purchased the tickets.  Whoever she is, she doesn’t seem to have left much of a footprint in London.”

I looked at the empty glass of champagne on the table.  Its taste had been different than my first glass.  The glass I wouldn’t have dropped if Mila hadn’t chosen that exact moment to bump into my shoulder.  And, as if summoned by the trajectory of my thoughts, I felt a vague darkness begin to permeate the workings of my mind.  “I think I made a mistake,” I said.  The unexpected weight of my tongue and my lips’ reluctance to operate as ordered made the sentence into a garbled mess of stranded syllables.  I tried a second time, with slightly better results.

“Devlin?  What do you mean, you made a mistake?”

I attempted to lift the glass from the table, but it slipped from nerveless fingers and tumbled to the ground.  “I think…I…think…”  It wasn’t just becoming harder to speak; it was becoming harder to form coherent thoughts.  I felt so tired, all of a sudden.  In my peripheral vision, I could see as the museum curator stepped onto the center dais and began to speak, but I couldn’t seem to make sense of the sounds he made.

Sarah’s voice, however, never lost its clarity.  “Devlin!  Are you okay?  What happened?”

My fingers went up to my earbud.  I don’t know why, but the digits traveled there all on their own, without bothering for a consultation from the rest of my body.  I attempted to adjust the earbud into a more comfortable position, but that was work far too subtle for my deadening fingers.  Instead of adjusting the earbud, I only succeeded in dislodging it completely.  I watched as it fell to the ground in slow motion.

A figure approached me, from the other side of my peripheral vision.  It knelt next to me and laid a hand on my back.  I tried to protest, to cry out for help, but my tongue was too thick in my mouth now.  Speech was an impossibility.  And, even If I had been capable of croaking out a sound, the debutantes and socialites were so totally engrossed into whatever the museum curator was saying that they’d forgotten entirely about anyone who wasn’t doing the same.

“Shhh, shhh,” the figure said.  “It’s okay.  Don’t worry.  There’ll be plenty of time for conversation later.”

I lost control of my limbs completely at that point.  I slumped from a seated position to a full sprawl on the grass.  I could hear Sarah’s voice from just in front me; the dislodged earbud was still transmitting, although I couldn’t seem to remember the series of commands that force my lips to call for help.  Blackness seeped in from the edges of my field of vision.  The last thing I saw before it claimed me entirely was a burn-scarred, mottled hand reaching for my face.  Then, I slipped entirely into unconsciousness and saw nothing at all.

Chapter 30

With traffic, and a bad string of red lights, it took Michel nearly twenty-five minutes to navigate from Suzanne’s impromptu shop on Savile Row to the Barbican estate.  Large white letters of a black, curved wall marked the Museum of London as we drew nearer.  Valets and organizers were already buzzing around like ants, hard at work preparing the building.  Streamers, in a wide menagerie of colors, hung from end of the building’s entrance way to the other, while brass poles and velvet ropes were carried out from some room within the museum’s innards.  A mass of tourists and the occasional British family were making their way out of the building.  Most of the people paused briefly to gape at the growing spectacle.  Michel’s cab drew little notice as he found a spot near the building to stop the car.

“Before I forget,” he said, “Sarah said that she found something you might like to have.”  He reached over into the passenger seat, felt around for a moment, and then held a leather wrapped bundle back for me to take.

I lifted an eyebrow before I accepted the parcel and unwrapped it.  Inside, I found a complete set of aged brass lockpicking tools.  “I remember these!  These were my first lockpicks,” I said aloud.

I’d meant my sentence for Sarah but, in my excitement, I forgot that I was still in Michel’s car.  My jaw clamped shut, but it was too late.  Michel turned fully around from the driver’s seat to look at me.  “Why would you have a set of lockpicks at all, hmm?”

“They’re sentimental,” I covered quickly.  “Something my father left me before he disappeared.”  I was becoming talented at telling the literal truth, as of late, without actually saying anything of meaning.

“Ah,” Michel said.  His tone made it clear that he didn’t believe me.  “Devlin.  Whatever you and Sarah are truly in London for…is this a thing that I should be worried about?”

“Should you be worried?”  I repeated.  “Not at all.”

“No, no, you misunderstand, mon ami.  I am offering my assistance.”

I raised an eyebrow and started to respond, but Sarah’s voice cut into my earbud before I could form a single syllable.  “What’s happening, Devlin?  What are you two talking about?  I can only hear your side of the conversation.”

I obviously couldn’t answer her, without revealing that I was wearing an earbud.  I picked my words carefully, hoping to convey as much meaning to Sarah as I could.  “I appreciate the sentiment, Michel, but why?  Assuming that you’re right, and that I may be in town for something a little risky, you aren’t involved.  Patrick only wanted you to help me out a little bit, back in Paris.  You driving Sarah and me around for the past day is already more than I have a right to ask you for.”

“You do not have to ask,” Michel protested.  “That is my point.  If you are a friend of Patrick’s, then you are a friend of mine.  If you are like family to him, then you are like family to me.  What sort of person would let their family go into danger alone, if they could help?”

I sized up Michel, for the third time in less than a week.  I still didn’t know much about him, except that he’d been helpful on two separate occasions, exactly when I’d needed the assistance.  There was a slight charm to his mannerisms that was equally off-putting and endearing, but I couldn’t be sure how much of that attitude was simply an affectation.  My instincts told me that he was trustworthy enough for the sort of work we’d used him for, thus far, but pulling him entirely into the fold was a different matter altogether.

“Listen,” I said.  “Let’s just say, for right now, that there are things I can’t tell you.  Maybe after I get back from this gala, I can tell you a little bit more.  I just can’t deal with that right now, okay?”

Sarah cleared her throat deliberately.  “Devlin,” she said into my ear, “what exactly are you promising him?”

“If you insist,” Michel said.  “Sarah has my phone number.  I assume that one of you will call me when you are finished here?”  A measureable amount of warmth was gone from his voice.  It was replaced, not with anger or disappointment, but with something that sounded remarkably like sadness.

“One of us will be in contact, yeah.”  I opened the car door and stepped outside.   I took two steps towards the museum, paused, and turned back around.  Michel rolled down the passenger window with an unspoken question written on his features.  “Try not to draw too much attention, if you can manage that,” I said.  I didn’t know why the words came to my lips.  A foreign car would stand out slightly on the streets, but not enough that it would warrant more than a second glance.  My intuition told me that it was an important warning to give, however, and I had long since learned to trust my intuition.

Michel tilted his head at the odd request, but nodded his assent.  “Okay, Devlin.  I will see you later tonight, then.”  He rolled up the passenger window and pulled away.

When he was gone, I turned my back to the museum and spoke directly to Sarah.  “Either we’re going to have to let him know what’s going on,” I said, “or we’ll have to find another method of transportation while we’re here.”

“I didn’t want to use him as transportation in the first place,” she pointed out.  “You’re the one who insisted he could be trusted, because of your ‘mutual friend.’  I only went along with it.”

“True.  But we do need allies.  What do you think of him?”

Sarah was quiet for a few moments.  “I think he’s keeping secrets,” she said finally.

“So are we.”

“Point, but that’s not what I’m saying.  His secrets might be the sort that are going to cause problems in the future.”  Sarah opened a can of soda from her end of the line.  “What do you think about him?”

“I like him,” I said immediately.  “I liked him when we first met.  But I also liked Asher, and we see how that turned out.  You said you were going to run a background check on him?”

“I did.”

“What’d you find out?”

She entered a command into her computer with a series of sharp keystrokes.  “He’s been driving that cab for the last couple of years, since his father died.  Little bit of trouble with the law – parking violations, bit of petty larceny, and conning the occasional tourist – but nothing that landed him anything worse than a fine and a sharp slap on the wrist.  His encounter with you was his first real brush with any serious criminal activity.”

I blew out a breath and closed my eyes for a moment.  “Check out his family,” I said finally.  “There’s a connection between his father and a Patrick Hardy, I think, and I want to know what it is.”

“I thought you trusted him?  You’ve never doubted your instincts before.”

That was true.  When my safety was the only thing on the line, extending some trust cost me very little and the possible dividends were huge.  Sarah was a part of this, though.  I’d already dragged her into my troubles.  If anything happened to her due to a mistake on my part, the guilt would devour me from within.  “Better safe than sorry,” I said out loud.

“I’ll get that worked up while you’re in the museum, then.  Speaking of which…”

I put any thoughts about Michel or Patrick out of my mind.  “Speaking of which,” I repeated, “you said you needed me to do some calibrations?”

“I need to make sure there aren’t any dead spots in the museum’s interior,” she said.  “Plus, I’ve got a new program that automatically notes any wireless streaming, which will help immensely with identifying the cameras.  On your end, though, I just need you to walk through the museum once.  Shouldn’t be too difficult, but I did want to get that handled before the guests started showing up en masse.”

“As you wish,” I said.  Sarah snorted with amusement.  I crossed the streets, pushed my way through the crowd of exiting tourists and into the museum.  A pair of security guards started toward me, but I held out my cell phone with the electronic invitation already open.  One guard passed a gadget over my phone and then stepped politely out of my way.

“You’ll find the event in the rotunda,” Sarah said, “although you aren’t going there at the moment.  The crown will be in the Roman exhibit.  Just make your way over there, casually, and I’ll log the cameras as you pass them.  And while you’re doing that…”


“I’ve got good news and bad news.  Well, good news and neutral news,” Sarah said.  “Which do you want?”

I moved to one side, so that a red-haired woman in an elegant black evening gown could go past me, before I answered.  “With that set-up?  I’ll go with the neutral news.”

“The firewall,” Sarah said bluntly.  “For some reason, the museum’s internal network is using a private key encryption system, which is hilariously unnecessary for…”

I cleared my throat.

Sarah sighed and tried again, with different vocabulary choices.  “It’s a very secure system, and I’m having more trouble getting into it than I should.  I’ll have to outsource some of this work.”

“Thank you for the Layman’s explanation,” I said.  “What’s making it so difficult this time?”

“I wish I knew,” Sarah replied.  “This a public building, but I’ve hacked mansions with weaker electronic security than this.”

I paused at a pillar in the middle of the museum’s floor to read a map printed on it.  According to the map, I was currently on the museum’s first floor.  There were two floors above me, and a basement level.  My current floor possessed two exits: the one through which I’d entered and another, through the Barbican theatre at the back of the building.  There was another exit on the second floor, too.  I made a mental note of the layout and commented all of the salient details to memory.

“You said this crown isn’t even worth that much, didn’t you?”  I asked.

“It isn’t, relatively speaking.  It certainly isn’t going to pull that high of a price on the open market.  It’s a one-of-a-kind item.”

“So, any fence that got their hands on it wouldn’t be able to move it without melting it down first,” I said.  “And if you’re going to melt it down anyway, you might as well just go for an easier mark or something with a higher return on investment.  But if Asher can’t sell it, what does he even want with it?”

“I still don’t have an answer for that,” Sarah said.

“I know, I know, I’m just thinking out loud.”  I closed my eyes and visualized the growing web of connections and conflicts.  “We’ve got a recently unearthed crown that everybody seems to want: Asher, maybe the Magi, definitely the Puppetmaster.  The financial value of said crown can’t be all that high, considering its rarity and how easily the police would be able to track down anyone who bought or sold it.”

“I’m following,” Sarah said.  “What’s your point?”

I continued, speaking the words aloud as they occurred to me.  “There is also some heavy duty network security in place, far in excess of what this sort of building should actually have.  It almost seems like someone is going to great lengths to steal this crown, while someone else is going to great lengths to keep this particular museum safe from any motivated individuals.”

Sarah mulled that over for a few seconds.  “If Asher had those capabilities, he wouldn’t have needed the Russian mob to go into Limassol.”

“It probably isn’t the Puppetmaster or the Magi, either.”

“People do want to steal things from themselves, occasionally,” Sarah pointed out.  “Insurance fraud and whatnot.”

“If that’s what the Puppetmaster had in mind, you’d already have the encryption key for this network, wouldn’t you?  If someone wanted to cash in on a theft, they’d make sure the theft went off without a hitch.”

Neither of us said anything for a long time.  Sarah finally spoke the obvious conclusion aloud.  “Another player?”

I started to agree, but stopped when a thought hit me.  “We’re assuming there’s three different Magi, right?  How many many criminal enterprises do you know of that didn’t ultimately fall apart because of infighting?”

“That’s a possibility,” Sarah mused.  “The right hand’s trying to limit what the left hand is capable of.  That doesn’t make things any clearer, though.”

“No,” I agreed, “but it’s something.  Anyway, you said there was good news, too?”  I asked Sarah.

“Since we’re already on the topic,” she said, “I was researching the Magi while you were getting fitted by Suzie.”

“You found something?”

“No, not those Magi; the original biblical ones.”

“Alright,” I said.  I started walking again, following an arrow that pointed me in the direction of the Roman artifacts.  “Tell me about them.”

Sarah took a drink from her soda and swallowed audibly.  “As it turns out, there isn’t actually a direct reference to the number or names of the wise men that went to visit Jesus.”

“Where’d the names come from, then?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Sarah said, “but the number part is more important for this idea of mine.  According to scripture, the Wise Men brought three gifts to the manger where Jesus was born.  Three gifts equals three people.”

“Sounds like simple math to me,” I said.  “What’s the controversy?”

“There’s a surprising amount of debate amongst theologians, actually.  According to Eastern Christian tradition – say, Oriental Orthodox – there were as many as twelve different Magi, none of whom are actually named.”

I stopped again.  “Twelve?”  I repeated.  “There could be twelve of these super-mysterious criminal overlords?”

“There could be, but I don’t think so.  See, they used the initials BMC: Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar, the traditional names used in Western Christian tradition to refer to the Magi.  Which maybe tells us something about the people we’re probably going to be pissing off in the near future.”

“Which is?”

“Those names, and the idea that there were only three Magi, are distinctly a part of Western tradition.  Not Eastern.  So, if our mystery men and women picked those names…”

I picked up the thread.  “Then we can assume they’re Western Christians.” I started to walk again.  A guard looked in my direction but, apparently satisfied with the cut of my suit, continued a slow visual sweep of the room.  The regular civilians were all but cleared out now, in preparation for the evening’s festivities.  “That does narrow it down…to the tune of half the planet’s population,” I muttered.

“About ninety percent of Christians worldwide ascribe to the Western school of thought,” Sarah corrected me.  “That shakes out to a little over a third of the population, not half.  And that’s two-thirds of the population we don’t have to worry about.”

I sighed.  “Sorry, Sarah: the stress of all this is just starting to get to me.”

“You?  Stressed?  Perish the thought.”  She laughed her golden laugh and I instantly felt a little better.  “I didn’t suddenly develop paper-thin skin, Devlin.  If you’ve got to unload on someone, I’d rather you get it out of your system now, rather than making a mistake in the field.  Don’t start treating me like I’m too delicate to handle your outbursts.”

I stuck my tongue out at Sarah’s disembodied voice.  One of the only remaining families in the building – an American one if the wife’s star spangled fanny pack was any indication – faced an abstract painting and discussed it in low tones.  Their only child noticed my extended tongue and took it as a personal insult.  He returned the raspberry with gusto.

“Devlin,” Sarah asked, “why is that child teasing you?”

“No idea,” I said.  I turned away, just before the boy’s father chastised him for making faces in public.  My burner phone beeped and buzzed in my pocket.  I removed it and looked down at an alarm labeled ‘gala opening’ in large, blinking red letters.

“I connected our calendars,” Sarah explained before I could ask.  “Just in case you forgot.”

“I’m literally standing in the museum,” I said.  “How could I forget?”

“I set that up before you went in, obviously.  Besides, it’s still useful as a reminder.”

I deliberately searched for a reflective surface.  When I found one, I arched my eyebrow, knowing that Sarah could see the expression through the mini camera.

Anyway,” Sarah said.  Her fingers clicked across the keyboard.  “I’ve got a count on the cameras now.  The guards are moving downstairs, which is where you should be headed, too.”

“Ah, well.”  I used the mirror to adjust my tie knot.  “If it weren’t for the guards, who would protect all the bigwigs from us scary entrepreneurs?”

“Is that you’re calling us now?”  Sarah asked.  “Entrepreneurs?”

I shrugged and started back toward the rotunda.  “We are in business for ourselves, aren’t we?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “I kind of liked ‘wealth redistributors.’  That one had a nice ring to it.”

“You hated that one!”

“Well, it grew on me.”  She popped open another Diet Coke and fizz filled my ears for several seconds.  “Now, go find out why everybody wants to redistribute this crown so damn much.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.  With great effort, I kept myself from locating another mirror and snapping off a salute to the command. Inappropriate humor was my go-to weapon against fear and nervousness; as I headed toward the rotunda, to throw myself back into the job I hadn’t done in nearly three years, I felt like a heaping doze of levity was in order.

I kept my head down, instead, and prepared to work.

Chapter 29

I met Michel in the hotel lobby, a little after nine the following morning.  I folded a newspaper in half and used it to conceal my face from any possible cameras outside while Michel hurried to open the rear passenger door for me.  “Alright,” I said, settling into my seat, “about this suit…”

My voice dwindled away as I turned to face Sarah.  She’d changed from what she’d worn on the flight into something more appropriate for suit shopping: a forest-green dress, presumably cut from something thick enough to keep her warm, and a pair of black stockings which led down to her black closed-toe shoes.  A dark blue overcoat finished off the ensemble.  Her legs were crossed so that the toes of one foot brushed against my calf.  She noticed the contact at the same moment I did, and moved slightly to break the connection.

Sarah bit down on her bottom lip at my open amazement.  “Most of the things at the safe house aren’t in season,” she said, by way of explanation.  “And we didn’t really spend a lot of time in England, anyway.  Especially not during the rainy months.”

“Which would be every month?”

She chuckled.  “The cold rainy months.”  She cleared her throat and Michel eased away from the hotel, into traffic.  “Can you take us to Savile Row, please?  Devlin is in need of some new attire.”

“How long do we have?”  I asked.

Sarah produced a tablet and checked its display.  “Twelve hours, give or take, until the red carpet.”

“And how exactly are we getting a suit made in that amount of time?”

“As it turns out,” Sarah said, “your favorite tailor happens to be in town.  If it’s for you, I’m sure she can handle a rush job.”

“That’s going to be expensive.  Can you afford to move that much money around without raising any eyebrows?”

“First, I’m not paying for it.  You are.  I reactivated some of your old accounts, and the shell companies we used to hide transactions, last night.  If Asher already knows you’re in play, there really isn’t reason I should keep them mothballed.”

There were risks there, but she was probably right.  “That’s our timetable for tonight, then?  Twelve hours to get a new suit, so that I can attend this showcase?”  I left out the rest of the sentence, in deference to Michel.  He seemed content in the front of the cab, humming some song to himself, but I still didn’t want to risk letting anything about our true purpose in town slip.

“Sounds about right,” Sarah said.  She winked.  “Exciting, isn’t it?”

“That’s one way of putting it, I guess.”  I nestled even deeper into the uncomfortable backseat and closed my eyes in thought.  The clicks and beeps from Sarah’s tablet let me know that she’d returned to her work.

When I opened my eyes again, we’d reached our destination.  Even if the street sign hadn’t been prominently displayed, I would have known from the sudden increase in class.  Instead of the more casual attire I’d seen near my hotel – tourists, mostly, in featureless coats, caps, and scarves – the people outside of my window now wore knee length overcoats atop sharp suits.  We slowed and passed store fronts filled with a rainbow of colors.

“Sarah?”  Michel asked.  “Which shop is our destination?”

“You can go ahead and stop here, actually,” Sarah said in reply.

Michel obliged, after a brief search for a parking space.  “My day is free,” he said, “so I can return to pick the two of you up from here after you are done with your shopping.”

“No need for that.  Devlin will be the only one getting a suit made today, actually.  But if you could stay here for a minute or two, that’d be great.”  Sarah hoisted a backpack from the floor and exited the car before Michel could agree one way or another.

He looked up into the rearview mirror and met my eyes.  I shrugged in reply.  “Thanks again,” I said.

“It is no problem.”

I smiled and joined Sarah outside.  Our umbrellas kept us hidden from any cameras on the street, but they did nothing to stop the judging eyes of the men and women on the street around us.  Men and women alike milled around the two of us.  Occasionally, one would shoot my attire a critical glance, while Sarah received nods of subtle approval.  I ignored their examinations as best as I could; meanwhile, Sarah seemed to preen a little more with every polite compliment.

“Where is she?”  I asked.

Sarah inclined her head graciously to an older couple before she answered me.  “This way.”

She led me down the street, past two shops with lineages dating back decades, and turned into an alley a little bit away from where Michel was parked.  Even in the early morning light, it was difficult to see too far down the space.  I knew my eyes would eventually adjust, but it wasn’t a long enough walk for that to happen.  We reached a blank, wooden door set into the side of the building after only a dozen seconds.  Sarah knocked twice on the door, paused, and knocked three more times.  Several moments later, someone repeated the signal from the other side of the portal.  The lock clicked open and the door hinges creaked as someone opened it from within.

I was standing directly in the path of the door.  Past experience had taught me to widen my stance in preparation, but I was out of practice.  When Suzanne Taylor speared out of the darkness, the assault still caught me off balance and threatened to topple me over.

“Devlin, you naughty rascal, you!  Where have you been?  I haven’t seen you in quite a bit of time, I haven’t!”

I looked to Sarah for help.  She stepped away, raising her hands so that her palms faced me, and tried to hide the smile on her face.  I turned down to look into Suzie’s mess of tangled brown hair.  “Be happy to tell you the story, Suzie, just as soon as I can breathe again.”

Suzie tightened her embrace for a moment before she released me.  “Oh, of course, of course.  Come on in out of the rain, you poor boy.  And you too, Sarah!  Come on, then!”

She moved enough that Sarah and I could navigate around her into the back room.  When we were all inside, Suzie shut the door and locked it once more.  She managed to find a light switch in the darkness, with an ease that spoke of muscle memory, and light flooded the room.  With my visibility now increased farther than the tips of my fingers, I saw swaths of fabric neatly folded and set out on multiple tables around me.  An ancient sewing machine sat at the head of one of the fabric tables.  Suzie bustled across the room, clearing half-finished shirts from chairs, and brought them over to us.  She planted herself atop one before she spoke again.

“Well, now,” Suzie said, “it’s quite a pleasure seeing the two of you again, isn’t it?  Why, when Sarah sent me a message, I was just overjoyed to be in town when you happen to be need my assistance.”

“Good to see you too,” I said.  “It’s been too long.”

“I was so sorry to hear about your loss,” Sarah added.  “Rufus was a special person and the world’s a worse place for his absence.”

That was news to me.  Suzie’s husband, Rufus, had been sick before I’d gone to jail.  To hear that he’d passed on while I was behind bars bit deep.  “He was the best sort of person,” I said.

“Aye, he was that and more,” Suzie agreed.  A wistful look came into her eyes.  “God rest his soul.”

“How are you doing with that?  Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, no, don’t you worry yourself about me,” Suzie said.  She wiped at the corners of her eyes with her collar.  “Keeping busy helps, and it’s what my Rufus would’ve wanted me to do.  Now, let’s not talk about my troubles; Sarah told me that you’ll be needing a new suit?”

The speed of that subject change gave me mental whiplash.  I blinked, switching my train of thoughts from one track to another, before I replied.  “I’m attending a gala at the museum and none of my other suits are available.”  In all honesty, I didn’t even know at which safe houses I’d left most of my finer clothing.  Sarah probably knew, but the twelve hour timetable ruled all of those out as possibilities.

“And they wouldn’t fit you right anymore,” Suzie said.  She poked at my stomach and I recoiled, a little self-consciously.  “Nothing to be ashamed of, dearie; wouldn’t be right if a man didn’t grow a bit in the midsection as he gets older.  And Sarah, will you be needing a dress, too?”

Sarah shook her head.  “Today’s all about Devlin, I’m afraid.”

Suzie nodded once and her eyes, while still warm with joviality, grew a little sharper.  “Now, will this gala be for your own enjoyment and will it be a work outing?”

She knew, of course.  While Rufus and Suzie lived their lives on the right side of the law, neither had ever possessed any illusions about the nature of their clientele.  “Business,” I said.

“Ah.  And when will you be needing this suit by?”

“Tonight, if possible.”

Suzie whistled, long and low.  “That’s going to be a wee bit of a problem, isn’t it?  It’d take me at least a whole day to make anything worthwhile.”

Sarah cleared her throat.  “What’s it going to cost to get him into a suit tonight?”

Suzie pursed her lips and tapped them in thought.  “I’ve still got the old measurements from back in the day, which would count down a bit on time.  There are other customers ahead of you in line, though.”

“Liar.  If you had any other customers, you wouldn’t even have replied to my message,” Sarah said.  “But if you can’t handle the deadline, I’m sure your competitors would be happy to take the money.”

“Sweetie, I have no other competitors.  Unless you’re talking about those tailors up the street that turn out suits for the local tourists.  Quality costs, my dear.”  Suzie narrowed her eyes.  “Ten thousand, and I can have it done by seven.”

Ten thousand?”  Sarah and I asked, in unison.  Sarah continued speaking, while I recounted the payouts from my last successful jobs in my head.  “A bespoke suit runs for four, maybe five thousand.  Doubling that cost is ridiculous and you know it.  Six thousand, five hundred.”

“Eight thousand,” Suzie countered.  “And if that’s too much for you love, we might have to simply settle for catching up on old times.”

“Seven thousand.”

Suzie smiled.  Sarah did the same.  Both women’s eyes were steely, in complete contradiction to the warm expressions on their faces.  “Well, you are friends of the family.  So, we’ll say seven thousand, five hundred and call it even?”

Sarah considered the price tag – as though the money would be coming from her accounts – and nodded.  “Seventy-five hundred, then.”

Suzie shook Sarah’s offered hand.  “It’s always a pleasure doing business with you.”

“Devlin can pay you after the work’s delivered,” Sarah said.  “Sound fair?”

“Delivered?”  Suzie repeated.  If you want a suit by tonight, I’m going to need to work on him right here, actually in the shop until everything gets fitted just right.”

I raised my hand.  “Do I get a say in this?”  No one paid me any attention.

“That’s fair,” Sarah said to Suzie.  “I’ll leave him with you, then.”

“I do have my own opinions about things,” I pointed out to no one in particular.

Sarah turned back to me.  “This is for you.”  She placed the backpack on a clear space, between two piles of colored fabric.  “Just leave it alone until Suzie’s finished, though.”  She pivoted on her heel and was gone before I could reply.

Suzie watched my ex-wife go and then spun on me.  “Well?  What’re you waiting for?  Strip!”

I did exactly that.  Suzie poked and prodded at me for hours, and I endured the inspection with as much grace as I could imagine.  She and her husband were quite simply the best tailors I’d ever met or worked with.  If a small amount of discomfort – in addition to seventy-five hundred dollars – was the price I had to pay for work at her caliber, I was willing to do exactly that.

At some point in the process, after I’d lost track of the passage of time, Suzie paused.  “Devlin?  You never answered my question earlier; where have you been for so long?”

I waited until she removed a tape measure from my inner thigh before I answered.  “Prison.  A job I was working went sideways and I ended up serving almost three years behind bars.”  My teeth ground together, seemingly of their own accord.

Suzie gasped.  “But you’ve always been so careful about your work.”

“The fact that things went badly had very little to do with me,” I said in a soft voice.

Suzie picked up two bolts of fabric from a nearby table.  One was a deep, rich crimson; the other was a lighter, almost bubble-gum shade of pink.  She raised both to her eyes, sucked her teeth, and returned the crimson fabric to the table.  “Who was it, then?”

“Suzie, listen, it’s…”

“Who was it?”  Her tone was a touch sharper now.  “You are one of my very favorite customers and anyone could do that to you isn’t anyone that I want to work with anymore.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “That’s all you’re going to do?  Refuse to make suits for whoever it is?”

“That’s all that I’ll do.  I’m just a wee little seamstress.  But I can’t help what some of my other customers might do, in exchange for a little discount here and there.”  Suzie gave me a beatific smile.  “That would be entirely out of my control, wouldn’t it?”

There were possibilities there.  Suzie’s broad network of scoundrels and rogues would inevitably intersect with Asher’s.  A distraction at a critical moment could prove invaluable.  “I’ll tell you,” I said, finally, “but you’ve got to promise to be discreet.”

“I am the very soul of discretion.”

“I’m serious here, Suzie.  If things go badly here, I don’t want any of this to blow back on you.”

“Badly?”  She folded the pink bolt of fabric over her arm.  “What are you on about?”

I sighed and told her the story while she worked.  It took me longer to cover all of the salient details, while still being careful to omit any mention of the Magi than expected; by the time I finished talking, Suzie was almost done with her tinkering.  “It’s a bloody shame,” she said, “you two boys going to war with each other.  You were thick as thieves, if I remember correctly.”

“He left me to rot in prison for three years.  Things change.”

“Fair enough, I suppose.  But…hmm.”  She pursed her lips and considered my appearance.  “Wait there.”  Suzie strode across the room and out of sight, through a barely visible door.  She was gone for a full minute and, when she returned, a vest was draped over her arms.

“Three pieces?”  I asked.  “Really?”

“It’s civilized,” she said.  “And the vest really helps with the whole visual.  Now, put this on.”

Her tone brooked no argument.  I added the vest to my ensemble.

Good,” she said, emphasizing the syllable with a decisive nod.  “Now, step down from there and tell me what you think.”

I stepped down and examined myself in the mirror.  It had been a very long time since I’d needed something made with as much care, though, and wearing it felt more right than anything I’d done since leaving prison.  The suit was cut from a high quality blend of cashmere and wool, cut so that it hugged my torso without suffocating me.  My pink silk tie was the only article that wasn’t specifically created for me, but it matched perfectly with the thin pink highlights that outlined my suit coat and the equally dazzling shade of bubble-gum that comprised my lining.  And, I had to admit, the vest did add a certain elegance to the outfit.

While I’d put on a little weight in prison, my feet were the same size as they’d been during our last appointment.  Suzie handed me a pair of black Oxfords with raised insoles while I admired her work.  “Can’t have you ruining my work with a pair of factory made shoes, now?”  She asked.  I smiled and accepted the gift without comment.

I turned and examined myself from a different angle.  “Can I be honest here?”

“If you say you doubted me,” Suzie said, “I’ll be tempted to double the price on principle.”

“Well, then, I won’t say that, then.  But this is incredible.”

“Good work is its own reward, dearie.”  She paused.  “Money is always nice, though.”

I laughed, still marveling at my own reflection.  Seventy-five hundred dollars was a high price tag for a suit, even a bespoke one; for one of Suzie’s masterpieces, it was a bargain.  “I’ll have the money transferred, as soon as I get back to a computer.”

“No rush.”  She bustled across the room and began to tidy up the scraps of fabric that had fallen to the floor.  “I’ll be leaving town tonight or tomorrow, traffic depending, and I won’t be able to check any accounts until I’m back in Wales.  Just see to it that the payment does arrive, yeah?”

“Absolutely.”  I slipped my cell phone into one of the interior jacket pockets, straightened my double Windsor knot, and nodded once more.  “I might throw in a little extra, for the speedy work.  I assume you won’t mind?”

“If it’s for the suit, that’s always an absolutely lovely thing to do,” she said.  “If it’s for the shoes, though, I’ll be offended that you couldn’t take a gift for what it was.”

“I was thinking a thousand extra for the rush job.  This can’t have been easy.”

“I won’t take a dollar over five hundred,” she countered.  “It was good to see you again, and I was worried about you.  Plus, I rarely get the chance to try anything fun anymore.”

“Five hundred, then,” I said, quietly deciding that I would tip at least seven hundred and fifty dollars.  Her largesse was a kindness, but good work deserved good pay.  If she really didn’t want the money, she could always return it at a later date.

“You’re off to the Museum of London now, then?”

“That’s the plan.  Just doing a walk-through tonight.”

Suzie raised a questioning eyebrow.  I reminded myself that while Suzie often worked with the criminal element, she wasn’t a thief herself.

“Just checking out the security,” I explained.  “Identifying where the cameras are, counting guards, that sort of thing.  That’s why Sarah didn’t need a dress, too.  She doesn’t really do that sort of thing, if she can help it.”

“A lot like Asher in that way, isn’t she?”

I’d considered the similarities between the two, privately, and I nodded at the suggestion.  “A little.”

“Ah.  Well, then, you be safe.  Don’t get into any trouble, okay?  It’d be a shame if we had to go another three years between appointments.”

“I’m always safe.”  I turned away from the mirror to face her.  “Didn’t you know?”

Suzie stuck her tongue out at me.  “Don’t forget that pack Sarah left for you,” she said.

I actually had forgotten about it.  The pack was within arm’s reach of where I stood.  I pulled it over to me and peered into its depths.  Inside, there was a small earbud, a golden tie bar, and a pair of monogrammed cufflinks.  I smiled and attached the cufflinks first.  The letters matched the pseudonym she’d selected for the two of us, back in America.  I slipped the tie bar into place and, with those two things handled, slipped the small earbud into my ear.  I felt around for an instant for the miniscule button that turned the device on.  It beeped twice to let me know I’d at least managed to properly activate the earbud.

“Devlin?”  Sarah’s voice came over the comms, as clear as it ever had been.

“I’m here,” I said.  “What’s with the toy chest?”

“I picked up some new toys in San Francisco,” she said.  “I thought they might turn out to be useful, so I grabbed some things before we left.  First up: bone conduction earbuds.  Small enough to fit in your ear, and your voice is carried through the little bones in your skull.  If you’re whispering, the equipment still picks up the vibrations.”

“I thought you were out of the game,” I whispered, just to test.  “Why keep up with this sort of technology?”

“Just because I wasn’t stealing things, that doesn’t mean I lost interest in these wonderful toys,” she said.  There was genuine glee in her voice, and that excitement put a smile on my own face.  “Next up: those cufflinks have built-in GPS trackers.  I can keep an eye on your general location, so long as you’re wearing those.”

“And the tie bar?”

“Mini-camera, so that I can follow along with what you see.  Until I can get into the Museum’s security system, I won’t be able to keep an eye on your movements.”

“Well, I’m all kitted out then, aren’t I?”

She was quiet for a moment.  “I’m not going to send you in there just to get picked off because you didn’t have the right gear.  There are some calibrations I’ll need you to do when you get to the gala.  I’m thinking you should get there a little early, see if you can find a computer so I can shortcut my way past their firewall.  Michel should be on the way to pick you up right now.”

“Alright, then.  I’ll check back in when I’m in position.”

The communications line beeped twice and Sarah’s voice was gone.   Suzie stopped in the process of cleaning.  “That’d be your cue to leave, then?”  She asked.

“Indeed, it is.  I’ll see you around, Suzie?”

“Sooner rather than later, I hope.”  I started to leave.  I made it two steps away before Suzie wrapped her arms around me, from behind.  The hug was unexpected, but I accepted her warmth without complaint.  She released me after a few seconds.  “Go on, then.  Handle your business.”

It had the distinct feeling of a benediction, rather than a farewell.  I took it as such and bowed my head for a moment.  When I looked back up, Suzie had returned to her clean-up, so I left the back room and started the process of getting myself in the right headspace for the work I hadn’t done in so many years.

Chapter 28

I used the phone I’d borrowed from Alex to call him as soon as I was in my hotel room.  The line rang twice before he answered.  “Devlin?”

“One and only,” I said back.

“It is good to hear from you!  I heard from some friends that some violent things happened in Kiev recently, and I feared the worst.”

“Things got a little out of hand,” I said.  “But nothing I couldn’t handle.”

“But you would not be calling me, if you did need me for something.”

I hesitated.  Drawing Alex back into the mix would be selfish and it could easily endanger his life.  I resolved the dilemma by reminding myself that Alex wasn’t a target of Asher’s revenge and, after all was said and done, asking him for a little bit of information wasn’t exactly like asking him to be involved.

“I’ve got a job,” I said.

“You are working again?  Did you find Asher in Kiev?”

“Yes, and no.  I found him – or rather his internet connection – but I don’t know where he is, at this exact moment.”

“Then why are you taking on new work?”

I filled him in on the bare details, leaving out most of the information Sarah had uncovered in her searches and omitting entirely the existence of the Magi.  The less Alex knew about them, the better.

“So,” I said, when I reached the conclusion of my hasty summary, “I was wondering if you could contact a few of the locals.”

“As a distraction?”

“That, and for a timing run.  Nothing that would get them in serious legal trouble: just a quick blitz so we can test response time and the like.”  I paused.  “Wait, do you even know anyone in London?”

“Yes, Devlin,” he said, in the tone of a patient, smirking father, “I do know some people that work in London.  How many will you need?”

“No idea yet.  Sarah’s working on finding an event so that I can do a walk-through.  Can you just get in touch with your people, Alex, and I’ll get back to you when I know more about what I’m going to need?”

“Of course, of course.”

We didn’t speak for several awkward seconds.  “Alex?”

“Is there something else you needed?”

“No, I…I, uh, was just wondering how things are going between you and Ally?  Did you tell her the truth about…you know?”

Alex sighed.  “It has been difficult to find the right time,” he said.  “But we have talked about some things, yes.  She knows more than she did when you were here…not quite as much as she would like to know.”

“And she’s okay with that?”

“For the moment.  It is possible that she might call you to ask for more information than I would like to give.”

“She’ll be wasting her minutes,” I said.

But if she does call you…?”

“I’ll tell her that her father loves her very much, and could she please stop poking into situations that could easily end up with a great deal of death and carnage.”

“Maybe not in those exact words,” Alex said, disapproval heavy in his voice.

“I can soften it up a bit for her delicate sensibilities,” I said.

More silence.  “How dangerous is this thing you are doing?” Alex asked.

“It’s just an infiltration and a quick grab.  Sarah’s contacts can get her into the museum’s network, and I just need to figure out the guard’s schedule.”

“Okay,” Alex said.  “But you did not answer my question.  How dangerous is this thing?”

It was a direct question and, without lying, there was no way to avoid answering it.  “Asher’s dangerous,” I said, picking my words carefully.  “Anything involving him is always going to have that as a factor.”

“And this crown?  How do you know that Asher is looking for it, as well?”

“The client.  He, she, or they passed a hint to Sarah, and we worked it out from there.”

“Is this a buyer I would know?”

I shrugged.  “The offer was anonymous.  But you do not need to worry about that.  Just get me a list of the locals who you think might be up for a quick bit of keepaway with the authorities.”

“Alright.  Is this phone number safe to use?”

“No,” I said after a little consideration.  I gave him the number to my burner cell phone, instead.

“You’ll throw away the phone I gave you, then?”

“I think I’ll hold onto it, actually.  Might come in handy having more than one phone line.”

“I will trust your intuition on that.”

“Fair enough.  Be safe, Alex.”

“You as well, Devlin.”

I hung up the phone.  It wouldn’t take Alex long to rouse the usual element.  I checked that item off of my mental checklist and rolled off of the bed, towards the hotel phone.  A small window was propped up near the handset.  My stomach, intent on voicing its displeasure, growled angrily for my attention.  I hadn’t eaten a full meal since Munich, nearly two full days ago, and the hunger was beginning to become a problem.  I reached for the menu, just as the burner cell rang.  I sighed and took the call, instead of ordering food.

“Good, you’re still awake,” Sarah said.

“No ‘hello,’ no ‘how are you doing’, no greeting of any kind,” I replied wearily.  “Manners cost nothing, you know.”

Anyway.  I just got another email from our Puppetmaster.”

The dazed, distracted feeling vanished in an instant.  “What’s this one say?”

“I’ve got to go back a little bit before it’ll make sense.”

“Because any of this makes sense?”

“…point, but listen.  I just found your opening: a charity showing for the local bigwigs and heavyweights, with the crown as its centerpiece.”


“Tomorrow night,” she said.  I heard the unmistakable fizz of an opened soda from her end of the connection.  “Tickets are – were – exclusive.”

“Were?  What does that mean?”

“By the time I found out about the gala, they were all sold out.”

I bit the inside of my lip.  “I can just go in as a waiter, right?”

“You could, but that’s…not going to be necessary.  This new email already came with a digital invitation.  It showed up right after I found out there weren’t any more tickets for sale.  Literally right after.  I mean, within seconds.”

“That’s awfully coincidental,” I said.  I stood up and started to pace to the other side of the hotel room.

“My thoughts exactly.  But I’ve checked this system top to bottom.  Cut every connection, wiped every hard-drive, and reinstalled each program after running it through every virus program I could think of.  It’s clean.”

“So, we just assume that the Puppetmaster happened to find out exactly what we needed, at the same time we found out we needed it?”

“I’m not saying that,” Sarah said.  She hesitated, which gave her next words an undeniable flair of drama.  “I’m just saying that someone’s trying to be very helpful, but doing it in a way that seems custom-designed to make us uncomfortable.  Like an elaborate power play, so that you and I never forget who’s actually running the show.”

I considered my options: wait-staff was a possibility, but it would limit me to the back rooms.  I couldn’t walk in and out of the scene as I’d done in Munich; at an intimate gala, my presence would be noticed more easily.  “I say we use them.  If someone wants to help, no matter how they’re going about it, I say we let them.  I’ve got enough enemies, as is.”

“I guess so.”  Pause.  “And it’s ‘we,’ by the way.”


We have too many enemies.”

I didn’t quite know how to reply to that.  I was saved when a tinny chirp came from the bedside table.  I directed a blank look at the bed itself for a full second before I realized where the sound originated: not Alex’ phone, but the device I’d lifted from the Ukranian sniper.

“What’s that?”  Sarah asked.

The bottom of my stomach wobbled and threatened to fall entirely away.  The phone rang six times before it stopped entirely.

“Did you figure out the code to that phone I brought you?”  I asked Sarah.

“It sort of slipped my mind,” she admitted.  “I can handle that tomorrow.  Why?”

The phone chirped again, but only once.  I walked back to the table and saw that a new text message had been delivered.  The sender’s identity was blocked, but the text itself was short enough that it could be displayed without unlocking the phone.

I know it’s you, Devlin.  Answer the phone.

I blinked.  “We might have a problem,” I said.

“Devlin, what are you talking about?”  The phone, as if on cue, began to ring again.  Alarm crept into Sarah’s voice, on the heels of understanding.  “Don’t answer that.”

“It won’t stop until I do,” I said.  “Or it will stop, and…whoever is calling will just pick a more direct method of communication.”  I didn’t need to pretend that the caller’s identity was a mystery; Sarah knew it, as well as I did.

“If that’s the case, then –“

I picked the phone up with my free hand before Sarah could finish her thought and pressed the green button marked ‘Answer.’

“Devlin!”  The voice on the other end of the phone was almost chipper.


“You are proving very difficult to get rid of,” Asher said.  “If it weren’t so irritating, I’d probably a little impressed.”

“Only a little?”

“What’s he saying?”  Sarah asked in my other ear.  I couldn’t say anything out loud; instead, I switched Asher’s line to speaker phone and turned the volume all the way up.

I missed some of what Asher was saying.  “…only stands to reason that you’d continue to find ways out of these little traps, I guess.   It’s mostly my own fault that you’re still running around.  That sniper was just a local hire.  If I’d gone top-shelf – maybe one of the better trained Russians or a Blackwater merc – this could be all over.  But what fun would that be?”

“You think this is fun, Asher?”

“Two old friends, now at odds with each other in a globetrotting adventure.  Action!  Treasures!  Women to woo, and countries to conquer!”  I imagined him gesturing wildly as he spoke.  “This is the stuff legends are made of.”

“I’m not feeling particularly legendary,” I said.  “I’m feeling like strangling you to death with my bare hands.  Probably a lot of people who’d walk a little lighter if I did it, too.  I could let some of them know you’re working on your own, and see how things go for you after that.  Or I could get the law involved.  What do you think Interpol would say if I handed you over to them?”

“Most of my enemies don’t like you, either,” Asher pointed out.  “And Interpol?  Don’t make me laugh.  Agent Adlai would have you in handcuffs before you could get a word out.”

I clenched my teeth, but he’d called my bluff accurately.  Any member of the underworld who was capable of calling down lethal fury wouldn’t appreciate me anymore than Asher.  And calling Interpol with a tip on Asher would only result in my own imprisonment.  I had no desire to find myself behind bars again so soon.

I don’t have any enemies,” Sarah said.  I squelched the nervous rioting in my belly with a reminder that Asher couldn’t hear her.  “And I could easily set up something anonymous to point the law at him, if we only knew where he’s at.”

That deserved further consideration.  Sarah could handle that, and more.  Asher was well aware of her capabilities.  If he hadn’t mentioned them as a possibility, it was possible that he didn’t actually know Sarah was directly involved. I cast my eyes across the room.  There wasn’t a notepad in sight, but there was a pen on the dresser.  I snatched it up, along with the menu, and began to scribble notes in the margins.

“You’re awfully cheerful for someone whose plans are falling apart,” I said.  I crossed the fingers on one hand, hoping that his need to gloat was greater than his common sense.  Or, barring that, that his common sense was greater than his need to see me destroyed.  Poking his ego ran the very real risk of goading him into another direct attack on my life.

My gamble paid off.  “You think my only plan was to get rid of you?  Try to keep that ego of yours in check, Dev.  There’s bigger things in play than just you.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not,” he snapped back.  “When all the little matchstick men fall into place, taking care of you and your ex-wife will be child’s play.”

I wrote ‘bigger player’ onto the menu.  “You’re bluffing, Asher.  If you had that much pull, you wouldn’t have bothered setting a trap for me in Kiev.  You could have just had me killed in prison.”

“I could have, sure.  But then we wouldn’t get to play.  And, for all of your other failures and inadequacies, you’ve always made such a good playmate.  Never good enough to win, of course, but no one’s perfect.”

“Way I remember it,” I taunted, “things didn’t go your way back in Russia.”

“That’s because you ran away!”  Anger flared up in his voice, so hot and sudden that I jerked away from the phone reflexively.  “You left me there to die!

Silence.  Then, Sarah’s voice, whisper-soft: “What happened there?”

“But.”  Asher was instantly calm once more, placid and mocking, as if his outburst had never happened.  “But, that’s in the past.  I’ve got big things on the horizon, Dev.  Big things.  You and the little lady don’t really register on my radar at the moment.  That’s what I wanted to tell you.  Let her know that I’ve got an eye on everything she does from that lovely condo she’s leasing under that fake name, and that I’ll be coming to pay her a visit, soon enough.  Got all that?”

I wrote down what he said, underlining ‘Irene Adler’ several times.  We weren’t using that set of identities, but it was good to know which covers he’d figured out.  “That’s not all you called for, Asher.”

“What makes you say that?”  Straining my ears, I could hear a distant plane engine from Asher’s end of the phone call.  I wrote ‘airport’ down.  The menu was filled with writing now, and I flipped it over to a relatively clean side.

“Because I know how you think, Ash.”

“You have no idea how I think, Dev,” he fired back.  “Trust me.  But, in this case at least, you are right.  I called for two reasons.  The first was to let you know that I’m taking Sarah out of my crosshairs for the moment.”

“And the other?”

“An invitation: come after me.  We’ve got a score to settle and, while I’m not going to sidetrack myself from much more important things, it’d be fun to find out if you’ve still got what it takes.  Before I crush you under my heel, of course.”

“Of course.”  I added that, in its entirety, to my growing list of notes.  “And if I win?  You’ll back off from Sarah?”

“If you beat me, then you’ll have much bigger problems to worry about than what happens to that rich bitch who divorced you.”

I wrote ‘bigger problems’ and circled it.  After a moment, I added a question mark.  “I’ll be seeing you, Ash.”

“Sure will, Dev.  You sure will.”

He disconnected.  I listened to dead air for ten seconds, marshalling my thoughts.  Then, I placed the sniper’s cell phone on the ground and ground it to pieces beneath my heel.  When I finished, I picked through the electronic innards until I found what looked like a sim card and snapped that in half.

“Devlin?”  Sarah asked.  “Are you still there?

“One second.”  I walked over to the room’s mini-bar and selected a mini bottle of rum.  I unscrewed the top and drained the bottle in one go.  “Okay.  How much of that did you hear? “

“I was taking notes while he talked,” Sarah said.  “It seems like he was mostly grandstanding.”

“That’s Asher for you.  But, he was a little too cocky this time.”  I retrieved my sheet of notes.  “For one thing, I don’t think he knows you left America.  Whatever you did is working; he’s under the impression that you’re still working out of that condo.”

“How did he know you were in America?”

“The aliases we used weren’t particularly clever, Sarah.”

“Good thing those names aren’t actually connected to anything important.”  She stopped, audibly clicking her teeth together.

The names were linked to our wedding certificate.  She must have realized what she’d said as soon as the words passed her lips.  I opened my own mouth and shut it, twice, before I found my voice again.  “It’s fine.  I know what you meant.”


I kept talking, before she could say anything else and make the moment any more awkward.  “He doesn’t know about that job offer, either.  At least, it doesn’t seem like it.  I don’t think he’d risk taunting us, if he knew we’re going after the same target.”

“But since we do know what he’s after, that puts us ahead of him?”

“It puts us ahead of where he thinks we are.”  I looked down at the menu.  “But there’s more to this, Sarah; I could tell that much.”

“More?  Like what?  Another job after this one?”

“Maybe,” I said.  “Maybe not.  He said that he’s getting more influence, and that he’s angling for some major power grabs.  This crown might just be the first step.”

“The book,” Sarah said.


“The book was the first step,” she clarified.  I waited for her to elaborate.  “That bank job in Limassol was public and it was loud.  Whatever’s in that book, he risked a lot to get his hands on it.  It’s got to be critical to whatever he’s planning.”


“You can’t see me shrugging,” she said, “but just know that I am doing it as hard as I possibly can.”

Her reaction to danger was flippant disregard; one of many things I regretted giving to her during our time together.  It only served to reinforce my solid belief that the safest place for Sarah would be anywhere that I wasn’t.  That much was becoming clearer by the second.  I couldn’t tell her that, though.  She bristled at even the slightest hint of coddling; if I told her that I was worried about her, the best case scenario would be a huge fight.  At worst, she might very well decide to go off on her own.


“I’m here, sorry.  Just thinking.”

“Well, get your head in the game.  What was that sound in the background, near the end of the call?”

“It sounded like a plane,” I said.

She thought about that in silence.  “Did you hear anything else?  Announcements, for instance?  Any other voices?”

“Nothing.  Just him and a plane in the distance, but still close enough that I could hear it.”  I weighed a few possibilities in my head.  “Can you get a list of private hangars in the area?”

“Sure, but do you really think that’ll help?  All that information is a matter of public record.”


“So, from everything you’ve told me about Asher, he doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’d even make a phone call near a hangar, if it could be easily tracked.  Either he’s at one that isn’t listed anywhere, or he isn’t even in the country.”

“Hmm.”  I traced my letters on the menu.  “That’d be too much to hope for, I guess.”

Sarah was quiet for a stretch.  “What was with you threatening to get Interpol involved, by the way?  You’re here to steal something, too, and it isn’t like Adlai doesn’t have enough of a grudge against you.”

I grimaced.  “I’m aware of that, but…”  A thought hit me like a fist.  “But that’s not the point, is it?  If these Magi are so powerful, it stands to reason that they could get Asher out of any legal trouble I could get him into, right?”

“That…is probably true.”

“But that’s not what he said.  He told me that it’d be as bad for me as it would be for him…meaning that it would be bad for him, too.  See what I’m getting at?”

She did, after a brief pause for her to work through the same leap I’d made intuitively.  “They aren’t covering for him?  If he gets himself in trouble with the law, he’s on his own?”

“That’s what I’m thinking.”

“That’s one way to take him out of play, then,” Sarah said.

“What is?”

“Get him sent to jail.  Preferably, somewhere dark where he can’t get in contact with anyone who might owe him a favor.”

“I was just talking, Sarah.  I wouldn’t actually do it.  There’s a code.”

“Which he broke, when he set you up for three years in La Santé,” she pointed out.

I said nothing in reply.  I didn’t have anything to say to countermand that very rational argument.

After nearly thirty seconds of silence, Sarah sighed into the phone.  “It’s something to think about.  We’ve got other things to take care of before that becomes a pressing issue.”

“Things like what?”

“Well,” Sarah said, “you can’t go to the museum gala in what you brought.”  There was a note of undisguised glee in her voice.

“It doesn’t really seem like the right time for…”

She cut me off.  “It is.  If Asher already knows you’re on the field, so to speak, we can relax some of the restrictions on your mobility.  If anything, we can use you to keep his eyes off of me.  So, this is the smart move on that front, too.  I’ll have Michel pick me up tomorrow, and then we’ll swing by and get you.  Expect a call around…oh, let’s say nine.”

I picked at my shirt.  Sarah was right, of course.  One of the key elements in any recon job was blending in.  In these clothes, I’d be too much of an obvious outsider at the museum gala.  “Fine, fine.”  I faked a sigh for my own benefit.

“Oh, cheer up,” Sarah said.  “When was the last time you got a new suit?”

Chapter 27

It was raining in London, to the surprise of absolutely no one.  After we disembarked, Sarah and I purchased two umbrellas with a little bit of US currency she had with her.  Sarah picked a blue and white striped one, which matched the lettering on her t-shirt and the coloring of her light jacket.  I selected a plain black one.

“All things considered,” she said, “this weather is probably a good thing.”

“Oh?  Care to explain why that is?”

“Cameras.”  I followed her gesture to one of several cameras inside the terminal.  “The CCTV network here is ridiculous.  Hundreds, maybe thousands, of individual cameras keeping track of…well, everything.”

“And this is where we think Asher is?  Nothing like an elevated chance of arrest and imprisonment, when we’re already worried about outright assassination attempts.”

“The feeds don’t actually help the police all that much, since there’s too much information for someone to actually sort through.  Crime happens all the time; if they started cracking down on everything – even if they were capable of it – people would just start vandalizing the cameras whenever they saw one.”

“But that’s not going a problem for someone looking for the two of us, specifically,” I said.

Sarah nodded.  “Probably not.  What I’d do is focus on the feeds from bus stations, airports, and ferries.  If I was lucky, I could catch you right when you got into the country, and just track you from there.”  She chuckled.  “In fact, that’s pretty much what I did do.”

“I count it as a small miracle that they don’t know we’re coming, then.”


The rest of that thought rang clear in the pregnant silence.  When our enemies became aware of our plan, the bulk of their attention would fall on me.  Sarah would be removed from the field; her assistance worked best with several degrees of separation from any ongoing jobs.  That was the best possible version of events, actually.  Asher’s desire to hurt her only existed as a necessary step in his revenge scheme against me.  “How do you want to play this after we get out of the public eye?”

“I’ve got a nice hotel room set up for you under a newly formed LLC.  I stayed there a few times with my family, so their system has been thoroughly subjugated.  As long as you head to the room and don’t make a fuss, I should be able to spoof any cameras you appear on.”

“And where will you be?”

She continued forward, careful to keep her face angled away from each camera she passed.  “You remember that high rise we used on the Fisher Job?”

I searched my memory.  When the appropriate image clicked into place, my jaw dropped open.  “But I love that one!”

“So do I,” Sarah said.  “But there’s only the one bedroom, and I need the space for my equipment.  It’s already linked into enough local networks for a museum job.”  She turned slightly to look at my crestfallen expression.  “You didn’t think we’d be sharing a room again, did you?”

I ground my teeth together to keep a sharp retort from my lips.  “It’s probably for the best, anyway.”

“Glad to see you’re so forward-thinking.”  Sarah’s voice vibrated with scarcely-restrained laughter.  Part of me smoldered at the exile she’d sentenced me to; another part, far larger than the first, longed to hear that laugh out loud.

We stopped again at a pre-paid cell phone stand, just in front of the exit.  Sarah waited patiently for a willowy redhead in front of us to select a basic flip phone from the offerings; when Sarah’s turn came, she bought two mid-range smartphones and gave one to me.  I slid it into my jacket pocket, which bulged with the new device and the two I’d acquired in Munich and Kiev, respectively.

Outside of the airport, I saw a familiar face. Michel waited there, smoking a cigarette against the front passenger door of his car.  I froze for an instant, spun, and pushed Sarah back through the doors.  “What are you – ?”

I shushed her.  The abruptness worked and surprised her into silence.  “Why is he here?”  I muttered to myself.

“Why is who here?”

I leaned out of cover long enough to catch another quick peek.  “It’s the driver who picked me up in Paris, right after someone delivered Asher’s whereabouts to me on a platter.”

Sarah peeked out, as well.  “From France?  That’s…”

“Impossible?”  I suggested.  “Unlikely?”

“I was going to go with ‘highly improbable.’  Why would a French cab driver be in London?”

“That does seem to be the question.”

“Do you think he’s following us?”

The driver, Michel St. Laurent, was halfway through his cigarette.  His cap was pulled low over his eyes and his head was pointed away from the airport proper.  Nothing in his body language suggested that he was doing anything other than what he appeared to be doing.  “I…don’t think so, no.  But this is weird, right?”

“I think we’ve left weird a fair bit behind us,” Sarah said.  “What do you want to do?”

I started to respond, but Michel took that choice away from me.  He flicked the rest of his cigarette away, pushed away from his car’s hood and started toward the entrance.  I tried to move before he could lay eyes on me, but the crowds of travelers chose that exact moment to part.  My eyes met his and his expression lit up with recognition.  “Guess we’ll play this by ear,” I murmured as Michel doubled his speed to the two of us.

Monsieur Devlin!”  Michel wrapped me in a fierce bear hug and kissed both of my cheeks.  I’d feared something a little more violent than the effusive greeting and I was nonplussed for a few precious seconds.  “What a coincidence it is to see you here!  How have things been, my friend?”

“It’s, uh, been kind of a rough week,” I said.  “Probably going to get worse before it gets better, I think.  What are you doing here?”

He removed a ticket from his jacket pocket and waved it in the air in front of his face.  “I felt that it was time for a vacation,” he said, “and I have always enjoyed London.”

Sarah stepped closer and whispered directly into my ear.  Her voice sent a wave of chills down my spine.  “Coincidence?”

Michel noticed Sarah’s presence, seemingly for the first time.  I watched as he slipped into the consummate Frenchman role: suave, sophisticated, and charming.  “And you would be, Madame?”

Mademoiselle,” she corrected, automatically.  She looked at me, and I nodded.  Her unspoken request for confirmation was odd, but far from the most important question at the moment.

Mais oui,” Michel said, “Mademoiselle, then.”

I cleared my throat with a little more force than strictly necessary.  “Well.  My…friend and I have to be going,” I said.  “It was a pleasure seeing you again, of course.”

“Of course,” Michel agreed, smiling.  “But, if you are going to need a cab, why would you not simply ask me to assist you?  For no charge, seeing as we are friends, after a fashion.”

“You’re just going to drive us around London, for free, without even knowing what we’re doing?”  Sarah asked.  She made no effort to keep the suspicion from her tone.

“I enjoy driving,” Michel replied.  “Besides, it would be difficult to find a taxi in this weather.  Unless there is some reason why you would prefer some other driver?”  He looked wounded at the idea.  Michel’s emotions so easily read that it almost felt like cheating…unless, of course, that was what he wanted me to think.  I’d only had my feet on British soil for a few dozen minutes and I was already seeing enemies around every corner.

Sarah looked past Michel into the rain and sighed.  “He’s right.  Every cab that pulls up is gone in seconds.  Plus, there’s the matter of my card…”

Our cards.  The subtext was clear: free transport was better than using one of the new accounts, and she’d used the last of her paper money for our umbrellas.

“It is up to you, of course,” Michel said.  A little enthusiasm had gone out of him, but he maintained a cheerful expression.  “But I did promise our mutual friend that I would help you, if I could do so.”

Deliberately or not, Michel had played the right card.  II still trusted Patrick.  There was a growing list of reasons why I shouldn’t trust anybody, but I refused to let myself be overcome by paranoia.  I’d already gone through the doubt and second-guessing, when I’d first met Michel, and decided to trust him an ally.

Patrick wouldn’t have sent help, if he didn’t trust that help himself.  At least, that’s what I told myself.  Michel was still looking at me, expectantly.  I nodded once.  “Alright, sure.  We shouldn’t need your help for too long, but anything’s better than trying to catch a cab in the rain, right?”

I could feel Sarah’s eyes on the back of my neck.  “You’re sure?”  Her voice was so low that I could barely feel its whispers against my skin.  I turned slightly, so that one of my hands was hidden from Michel’s eyes and gave her the ‘okay’ signal.  She sighed, releasing a hot wave of air that raised hairs in more places than the breath actually touched.  “If you say so.”

Bon!”  Michel exclaimed.  His eyes swept across the ground.  “You do not have any luggage with you?”

“No,” Sarah said, “we’ve already got some things here.  What about you?  You’ve already got your own stuff loaded in the cab?”

Mais oui, mademoiselle,” he answered.  “I am ready to go, whenever you are.  I am at your service.”  He reached out for her hand and she reluctantly gave it to him.  He laid a delicate kiss on the backs of her fingers.

Sarah kept a straight face.  “So, you met Devlin back in Paris, correct?”

“Indeed, mademoiselle.

“Hmm.  Well, I guess you should get the car started?”  Her voice went up, as though it were a question, but every line of her body language made clear that her sentence was a command.

Michel blinked and nodded.  “I will be waiting outside, then.”  He left the airport and I watched him hurry through the milling crowds back to his cab.

When he was gone, she stepped forward next to me.  I turned reflexively to face her and found her eyes boring into mine.  “You trust him?  With what we’re getting into?”

“I don’t really know him,” I admitted.  “But I do trust that mutual friend he mentioned.”

“How’d you meet this ‘mutual friend,’ then?”


Sarah’s mouth opened, hung like that without any escaping sound, and closed slowly.  I felt a swell of appreciation for her discretion.  She hadn’t asked me about my time in La Santé yet and, while I was sure that I’d eventually have to tell her what happened, this wasn’t the time.

Sarah sighed.  “Fine.  But I don’t know this mutual friend, and I don’t know Michel.  I’ll have my sources run a check on him when I’m all set up.  Just in case.”

I felt vaguely offended.  I’d vouched for Michel, as Patrick had done first, but I decided again to keep my mouth shut.  If Sarah didn’t trust me, it wasn’t as though I could reasonably blame her.  “Fair enough,” I said, instead.  “So?  What do we do now?”

“We need a plan.”

“Yes, we do.”  She settled into her seat and ran a hand through her wild hair.  “Got any ideas?”

“I’m going to need a chance to scout the museum,” I said.  “I haven’t been in there in a long while.  No telling what new security measures they’ve got in place.  We’ve got…what, two weeks before the crown moves?”

“About that long.  Why, what’re you thinking?”

“Just trying to put myself in Asher’s head,” I answered, ignoring the shiver that ran through me at that proposition.

Sarah stood silent for a few seconds, chewing absently on a fingernail.  “I’ll play devil’s advocate here.  Maybe that’ll help.”

I shrugged.  “It’s worth a shot.”

“Alright, then.  What would you normally do, if Asher wasn’t a factor?”

“If I were working without opposition, I’d take my time to scout the place.  Maybe try to turn one of the guards to help the entry and exit, collect information on the layout…you know, the usual.”

“Ah,” Sarah said, raising a finger.  “Asher has had all that time.  We’ve got no way of knowing how long this job’s been scheduled for him.”

“It can’t be that long.  The crown just got there fairly recently.  Any measures they’ve got in place are going to be relatively new.”

She lowered the finger.  “Good point.  Go on.”

“If I were working alone, I’d have to contact the local element for supplementary skills.  But if you were my partner, in this hypothetical job, I’d just have to get you looped into the internal network.  Then you could handle most of the electronic stuff without it becoming a huge issue.”

“Does Asher have access to someone who can do what I do?”

No one can do what you do.”  I said it without thinking.  Sarah didn’t react negatively to the flattery, though, and she didn’t say anything about it, so I kept going before the brief pause grew too awkward.  “But, no, I don’t think so.  He had some basic stuff in Kiev – webcams and motion sensors – but nothing really high tech.”

“Still.  We shouldn’t assume that he can’t just hire someone.”

The likelihood of anyone approaching Sarah’s skill level was so minute that it barely warranted consideration, but her advice was good in a general sense.  “For the purposes of this thought experiment, sure.  He can keep his crew small – just him and his hacker – so that he can get in and out with a minimum of fuss.”  I paused, as a thought occurred to me.

“What is it?”

“Asher doesn’t do ground level jobs,” I said.  “He’s never done that, if he can help it.  He’s a lot like you.”

Sarah arched an eyebrow.  “Oh?”

“Not in a bad way,” I said quickly.  “But neither one of you likes to actually be in the thick of it.  If he could find any way at all to stay somewhere safe while he organizes things, he’ll take it.”

“So, what does that tell us?”

I chewed over that new consideration.  “He’ll want a perch,” I said finally.  “Somewhere near the Museum, so that he can call audibles as the job develops.”

Sarah gave me a blank look.

“Change the plan,” I explained, with a dramatic sigh.  Sarah took a perverse pride in having absolutely no knowledge of athletic references.  “Three plus years, and you still haven’t learned a thing about your country’s sport?”

“I prefer chess,” she said.  “And, in three years, have you managed to pick up any other languages beside English?  Maybe the one you should know, considering your parents?  Or French, seeing as you were a guest of their largesse for all that time?”

My jaw snapped with an audible click.  That…was a fair point.

Anyway,” Sarah said, “you mentioned something about a perch?”

“That’s not the really important bit,” I said.  “We don’t have the manpower to search every possible location he could be working out of.  What it does mean is that Asher would absolutely have to work with the locals.  Or bring his own team in from parts unknown.  Either way, it means we’ve got time.  He can’t have made a plan already, and he won’t work it alone if there’s any possible way to avoid it.”

“And you’re sure about that?”

“Absolutely.”  She narrowed her eyes.  “I’m serious.  Absolutely sure that he won’t do this without a team; I’d bet my life on it.”

“You’re betting my life on it, too,” she said.  But her expression lightened enough that I knew she believed me.  “How much time do you think we’ll have before he makes his move?”

“His plans were normally incredibly complicated.  Traps, and blind alleys, and double agents.  Spy games, basically.”  I did a few quick calculations in my head.  “Without seeing the setup of the museum, I’d guess it would take him maybe a week to get everything in position, regardless of the resources he can bring to bear.”

“Then we’ll cut that in half, and assume we’ve only got three, maybe four days,” Sarah said.  “Better we make our own move before he gets in place.  Then we don’t have to worry about his plans; by the time he puts his pieces into motion, we’ll already have the crown.”

“That’s a good plan and all, but I still need to do a walk-through, at least.”

“I’m working on that,” she said.  “There’s got to be some kind of showing for the crown.  I’ll put some feelers out in the community and see what I can find out.”

“And until then?  What should I do while you’re waiting for invitations and the like?”

“I don’t know.  Take a shower, maybe?”

I blinked and fell silent for a long time.  “That wasn’t entirely called for,” I said finally.

“Oh, Devlin; it’s called for.”

With great effort, I managed to maintain an otherwise straight face as I sniffed at the air.  Instantly, my nose wrinkled.  “The last few days have been…kind of a blur.”

“Mmmhmm.”  Sarah looked supremely unimpressed at the explanation.

Michel honked the car horn, scattering a few Brits away from his vehicle, and flashed his lights.  “What do you want to do about him?”

“For now, we use him for a ride.  I’ll see if any of our getaway drivers can get into London without raising suspicion but, until then, we need transportation.”

“He could be useful,” I said.  “It would save us the time of having to bring in someone else and hoping that they aren’t plants.”

“I’m not sure that he isn’t a plant,” Sarah pointed out.  “We leave him out of this until I get my background checks back.  Agreed?”

I gave a reluctant nod.  Sarah returned the gesture, in a curt motion, and left the airport without any further discussion.  I followed in her wake.

The vehicle hummed to life and Michel pulled us out into traffic.  “Where am I taking you?” He asked.

Sarah pulled up a map on her tablet.  “You know the city?”

“As well as anyone can, mademoiselle.  I spent several years here, with my uncle.”

“Just Sarah will be fine,” she said.  “And we’re headed to Gomersal Park, on Moor Lane?”

Michel kept his eyes on the road and nodded his assent.  We rode in silence through the London city streets, the heavy absence of sound punctuated only by Sarah’s fingers flying across her keyboard.

We reached my stop before too long: an extravagant hotel surrounded by green space and open air.  A valet waited at the front of the building for the car to stop.  Michel parked the car and exited, lighting up another cigarette as soon as he was in the open air.

“I’ve got my work laid out,” Sarah murmured to me under her breath.  “What’re you going to do?”

“I can probably get a few locals to fall in line, if I need to.  We could use them for distractions or false flags, maybe.”

She tilted her head.  “Elaborate, please?”

I lowered my voice, just in case Michel was eavesdropping.  His attention appeared to be fixed on an attractive young woman entering the hotel, though.  “If Asher finds out that you skipped town – and he will, just as soon as he gets around to ordering a hit on your condo in San Francisco – then he’ll have to assume his entire plan is compromised.  It isn’t, obviously, but he wouldn’t want to risk that we knew too much.  We can force that change if we send some people on a blind run at the museum.”

“If we do that, any recon we manage will be useless.  They’ll just change the protocols.”

“I didn’t say it was a good plan.  Just that it was an option.”

Sarah sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose.  “See what you can pull together on short notice, but don’t actually make any promises or hire anybody, okay?  You’re right; it’s better that we have that option in case we need it, rather than needing it and not having it.”

“Always be prepared?”  I smiled, without meaning to.  “Somebody’s Girl Scout training is showing itself.”

“Two months, Devlin.  It was two months.  Are you ever going to let that go?”

“I will let that go,” I said solemnly, “exactly as soon as it stops being funny.”  The call and response was familiar.  I had more lines to speak, but they wouldn’t fit into the new dynamic of our relationship, so I lapsed into silence.

The valet, a fresh-faced British boy with a messy crop of brown hair, stepped up to my side of the car.  I rolled the window down.  “Good morning, sir,” the valet said.  “If I could assist with your bags?”

“No bags,” I said back, as I got out of the car.  I turned back to Sarah.  “And I will see you later in the day…?”  I trailed off.  She had handed me my passport mere seconds before I’d needed to use it, back in America, and I had simply forgotten to look at it in the time since.  Clearly, I was out of practice, and I’d chosen a terrible time for my relative atrophy to kick in.

“Of course, Hubert,” Sarah said.  “I simply must finish with my duties for the day first, though.”  I marveled at two things.  She had effortlessly switched to an upper class British accent, without blinking an eye.  And, without giving away the information, she’d let me know which names we were using during our time in London.

The accompanying name to the Hubert identity came quickly to the forefront of my mind.  “I look forward to seeing you soon, then, Janice,” I said, in a mimicry of Sarah’s upper class affectations.

The valet watched the exchange without speaking.  He stepped away from the car, closer to his stand, and waited there patiently for another car to approach.

Michel’s eyebrows were elevated, almost to his scalp line.  Of course he’d heard the fake names.  That probably wouldn’t surprise him, though; after all, he at least knew that I hadn’t wanted anyone in Paris to know about me.  “Ah, Monsieur…Hubert,” Michel said in a low voice.  “That is…quite the woman, no?”

I kept myself from looking at Sarah and maintained a vocal volume that, I hoped, would keep my ex-wife from hearing me.  “Trust me.  I am well aware.”

Sarah sat up and looked through the window at both of us.  “Michel?  There are engagements that require my attention.”  Now that she was in character, every line of her body radiated imperiousness.

“Of course,” he answered.  He gave me an unreadable look, and then walked back to the driver’s door.  Just before he opened it, he looked over the top of the car.  “Quite a woman.”

He shifted the car back into drive and pulled away from the hotel, leaving me standing in front of the building alone.  Three separate phones rested in my pockets, along with a filled wallet and fake paperwork.  I checked their locations separately, looked wistfully at the taxi as it retreated into the distance, and then sighed.  I turned and walked into the hotel, plans already beginning to take root in my mind.

Chapter 26

For the second time in under twenty-four hours, I found myself on an international flight.  Which made this the third – or was it fourth? – time since I’d been broken out of jail.  ‘Jet lagged’ was rapidly becoming my default state.  At least Sarah had elected to purchase first class tickets on British Airways – using a numbered account she’d linked to the identities she’d chosen – so I was struggling to adapt to the changing time zones in relative comfort.  Granted, any plane cabin at all ranked low on my list of preferred locations, but it was luxurious enough that I quickly accepted the circumstances for what they were.  It still hadn’t been a full week since I’d left La Santé and any surroundings that weren’t gray brick and cold metal felt like heaven on earth.

Sarah used the airplane’s wireless internet to activate the fail safes she’d installed during our past partnership.  Her slightly obsolete computer systems needed to be activated in such a way that they didn’t automatically connect with any of her compromised servers; online contacts needed to be notified that Sarah had re-entered the game, and was seeking help from the criminal underworld; and, absurdly, groceries needed to be ordered.

When I’d asked about that last detail, Sarah had shrugged and given me a slightly embarrassed look.  “Diet Coke is hard to get over there,” she’d said.  I’d let the matter drop without further questioning.

Trapped in a steel tube thousands of feet above the Earth, there wasn’t much I could do to prepare, however.  I used the free time to go through Sarah’s version of the conspiracy file, adding the new information she’d uncovered/been handed to the growing web in my head.  BMC – perhaps an abbreviation of Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar, the three biblical Magi – was allegedly a major player in the underworld: guns, drugs, soldiers, and pretty much every other unsavory element of the underworld could be connected to them in one form or another.  They had some common goal with Asher, presumably; I couldn’t begin to guess at what the nature of that connection might be, but it went a long way towards explaining his sudden access to snipers and how he’d found Sarah.  Either on his own initiative, or perhaps under the orders of one of the Magi, Asher had stolen a golden book from Limassol and betrayed the Russian mafia to do so.  And he was either already tasked to do something to the barbarian crown or he would be in the near future.

All of that information was good, but it wasn’t good enough.  I knew what Asher ultimately wanted – revenge against me – but I didn’t know enough about his new resources to hazard a guess as to how he’d go about getting that.  I didn’t know what stake BMC had in our personal war and I still hadn’t uncovered the vaguest bit of information about my own mysterious proprietor.  Whoever had arranged for my jailbreak and provided me with the first breadcrumb on the trail to Asher was still a shadow, pointing Sarah and me like guided missiles, without providing any context for the job.

I read the files twice: once to get a general idea of the information at our disposal now, and once more to identify the gaps where my intuition would have to work harder.  With the second read-through finished, I sighed and sat back in my chair, passing a weary hand over my eyes.

Sarah finished with some task on her computer and watched me.  I endured her quiet examination for a minute before I cracked my fingers and opened one eye.  “What?”  I asked.

“You look different,” she said.  “Bigger.”

I didn’t feel different, but I knew what she meant.  “There isn’t really a lot to do in prison,” I said.

“So that whole working out thing…?”

I shrugged.  “For a given value of ‘working out.’   I didn’t get a whole lot of cardio in.”

Sarah digested that with a couple of wordless nods.  Her eyes flickered down from mine and paused briefly as she took in my newly developed biceps and upper chest.  I sat up a little straighter, suddenly self-conscious.  Sarah’s teeth showed for an instant as she bit down on her bottom lip, and then she turned her eyes away.  “What do you think?”  She asked, gesturing to the tablet next to me.

“I think we need something more substantial to go on,” I said.

“No bursts of intuition, no wild leaps that somehow make everything better in the end?”

“Not from this information, no.”  I drummed my fingernails against the armrest.  “I could make guesses, sure, but they wouldn’t be any good.  Things could go too many different ways right now.  I’d rather focus on the one thing I know we can handle, and let everything fall into place after that.”


“Meaning,” I mimicked her tone without meaning to, “that the crown seems to be the key to a lot of things right now.  We know the client wants it and we’re assuming that Asher’s going to want it, as well.  Maybe the Magi want it, and they’re just using Asher to get to it.  If we get it first, though, everyone has to come to us.”

Sarah blinked.  “Your plan is to turn us into living bait?”

“Not bait.” I took a sip from my water bottle.  “Right now, there are too many players and we don’t really know what any of them want.”

“And this focuses all of these other players – Asher, the Puppetmaster, the Magi – onto one thing?”  Sarah asked.

“Exactly.  It’s better than trying to play a game where we don’t know the rules, don’t know who’s playing, and don’t really know what the victory condition is.”  I stopped my fingers until Sarah nodded, upon which point I returned to my drumming.  “We need more people.”

“How big of a team are you thinking?”

“Small,” I said, a little too quickly.  Sarah arched an eyebrow.  “The more people we have to coordinate, the more noise we’ll be making.  I’d rather not get the Magi’s full attention, if there’s any way to avoid it.”

“Caution?  From you?”  She struggled to keep a laugh from bubbling out of her at the idea.

I rolled onto my next point before the dam could rupture.  “Who do we know that we can trust?”

The eyebrow climbed higher.  “I’m assuming you mean ‘trust’ in the most flexible possible sense?”

It wasn’t a shot at me.  I could tell that much from the faint smile that still played at the corner of her lips.  That didn’t make the words sting any less and it didn’t stop the surge of guilt that bubbled just below the surface of my thoughts.  I swallowed the rising ball of emotion and kept my expression thoughtful.  “Okay.  Not trust, per se.  Do we know anyone who is more than likely not on the Magi’s payroll?”

“Devlin.  We didn’t even suspect an organization like these Magi existed until a few hours ago.  So how could we possibly know who is or isn’t playing for the other team in this?”

I didn’t have an answer for that question.  Something in Sarah’s eyes told me that she wanted me to have a solution, though, and I didn’t want to pass any of my doubt onto her.  “Who’s available, then?  Let’s start with that.”  That wasn’t exactly a deflection, and it was entirely honest to boot.

Sarah tilted her head slightly to one side before she clicked her mouse several times and opened something on her laptop.  “Give me some names and I’ll see what they’re up to.”

“Just like that?”

“I keep track of a lot of things,” Sarah said.  “Where people are, what they’re doing.  Just because I’m not a part of the underworld anymore doesn’t mean I want to be completely ignorant of what’s happening.”

“Alright,” I said slowly, trying to decipher Sarah’s interest in the workings of the criminals she’d chosen to leave behind.  No solution came to mind immediately, so I relegated the problem to my mental backburners.  “You remember Melanie?”  I asked.

“I do.  She was good, back when we worked the job on the Ivory Coast.”

I was capable of disappearing into crowds fairly easily, but Melanie had cultivated that skill into an art form.  On more than one occasion, even when I knew she was in the room, I’d lost track of her.  “What’s she doing now?”

Sarah typed the name into her computer.  She frowned a moment later.  “Out of the game,” she said.

“She isn’t…?”

Sarah shook her head before I could finish the thought.  “No, nothing like that.  Her mother died about eight months back.  Melanie put out the word that she was taking time to care for her little sister and that she wasn’t to be contacted for any jobs.”

“Oh.  Well, that’s…good, I guess?”  I shrugged.  “It’s better than the alternative.”

“Armand might be useful,” Sarah suggested.  “If you’re looking for someone to play the ghost.”

Armand had never been one of my favored associates, although his talent was undeniable.  My problem with him stemmed from his unending pursuit of Sarah, when she’d still been my wife.  Every job we’d worked together, he found some reason to be alone with her.  “I mean…he’s good, but how much do we really know about him?”

Sarah responded with an utterly flat look.  She wasn’t buying my weak attempt at dismissal. “Personal feelings notwithstanding, do you think he could do the job?  And do you think we could trust him not to turn on us?”

I sighed.  “Might as well see what he’s up to,” I said.

She entered the name and checked the screen.  “Prison,” she said, when the information came back.  I tried very hard not to smile at the news.  “Captured about a year after you.  And he won’t be out until…”  Sarah’s eyebrows climbed slightly.  “…quite a while.  Apparently, Armand made some powerful enemies.  Not quite as powerful as the ones you’re picking up, but the Spanish prime minister did not look kindly on Armand’s relations with his daughter.”

“Oh well.”  With great effort, I successfully did not fist pump at that news.

Sarah’s expression darkened for an instant, but only just an instant.  She had to look away before a growing smile could take away any of her seriousness.

“Um,” I said.  “Well.  Damien, maybe?  He handled the pressure pretty well when things went sideways in Macao.”

She checked.  “Prison.  Actually, in Macao.  Guess he liked it too much.”


Sarah looked up.  “Which Stephanie?”

“Oh, uh…Adams?”

“She…got married.”  She couldn’t keep the wonder from her voice.  “To a middle school gym teacher, if you can believe it.”

“How did that happen?”

“He was apparently the mark’s older brother,” she said.  “Stephanie ran into him during recon and the rest just sort of played out from there.  I actually got an invite to that, but…”

“I thought she was gay?”

It was Sarah’s turn to shrug.  “Apparently not.”

“Stephanie Marlotta, then?”

Sarah shook her head after a quick check.  “Dead.  Got between some Yakuza representatives and the Hell’s Angels, trying to play them against each other for a better deal on some merchandise.”

I bit the inside of my lip.  Stephanie Marlotta was a wild card.  The idea that she had angered two incredibly dangerous criminal organizations wasn’t a shock.  I liked her, but she had never really known when to walk away and when to push.

“Anyone else?”  Sarah asked.

I racked my brain.  Without any intel on the barbarian crown we were targeting, I had no real idea what roles we would or would not need to fill.  “Someone to work with the locals, in case we need our tracks covered.  Dante’s good at that.”

“Dante was good at that.”

“Is he…?”

“Dead, too.”  She didn’t provide any elaboration.

I forced myself to make a vague sign of sadness.  All signs pointed to Dante’s involvement in the seedier side of the criminal world: drugs, guns, and human trafficking.  His death wasn’t a great loss.  “Eric?  The, uh…the one with the lazy eye?”


“What about the other one?”

“Went to prison for racketeering,” she said.  “Some of his unhappy customers got ahold of him behind bars, and…”  She trailed off.

“Amanda?”  Sarah twirled an index finger in our personal signal for ‘more information.’  I couldn’t quite remember Amanda’s last name, though, and it wasn’t a terribly uncommon first name.  “With the legs?”  I said, finally.

Sarah’s eyes narrowed, but she said nothing out loud about my descriptor.  She typed the name – presumably changing ‘with the legs’ to Amanda’s actual last name – and waited.  Her expression darkened further and she typed something else into the laptop.  A full minute passed before she sighed and moved the laptop to the empty seat beside her.  “She’s either dead or she’s in prison.  Or she retired.  I’m…not really sure.  It isn’t easy keeping tabs on a forger.”

Of course, the same skills that would make her an asset were an absolute pain when she didn’t feel like – or wasn’t capable of – working.  “Well, damn.”

“And Alex is…?”  Sarah left the ending off, leaving me to fill in the rest of her question on my own.

I started to answer, but an attendant chose that exact moment to appear near our seats.  “Sir, ma’am.”  She nodded politely at Sarah and me, in turn.  “Is there anything I can get for you?”

“Diet Coke for the lady,” I said, without really thinking about it.  As soon as I spoke the words, I realized what I’d done.

Sarah gave me a curious, unreadable look.  “And a banana split for the gentleman,” she said after a moment.

The attendant wrote down both orders.  “Will that be all?”

“For now,” I said and the attendant left.  When she was out of earshot, I turned my attention fully back to Sarah.  “I could’ve wanted something else.”

“This flight has a first class menu,” Sarah said.  “Steaks, seafood, dishes so exotic that I haven’t even tried some of them.  And yet, there wasn’t even the slightest doubt that you were going to get the split.”

I glanced down at the menu in my lap.  “They also have bananas foster,” I pointed out.  “So there.”

I savored the temporary lull in the conversation, the old jokes and rhythm coming easily to me.  Sarah spoiled the mood – probably on purpose – by bringing us back to the moment.  “So.  Alex?”

“He’s dealing with his own problems,” I said.  “We aren’t in such a bad place that we’ve got to get him fully involved again.  If we need to, maybe we can talk about it, but right now?  If anyone deserves a retirement, it’s him and his family.”

Sarah met my gaze for a long moment.  “It doesn’t seem like avoiding the problem is going to help him.  Don’t you think he’d move on faster if he could finally get some answers?”

“Does anyone ever really move on from something like that?”

She didn’t have a ready answer for that.  “I looked into it, you know,” Sarah said, after the silence grew too thick to bear.  “Nothing active, but I just kept an eye on things, hoping that something might shake itself out given enough time.”


She shook her head.  “Nothing.  But now, I’m thinking that there are a lot of Russians showing up in all this.  Way too many for it to be entirely coincidental.”  She counted points off on her fingers.  “Asher starts working with the Bratva, only to betray them in Limassol so that he can get away with that book.  Then, on an entirely different job, he betrays Anton, which brings him back in contact with Stani in Kiev.  And if you go in the other direction, back into the past, a Russian hit squad came after us in Florence, armed for warfare and we still don’t know anything about what that was about.”

“You don’t think Asher was responsible for what happened in Florence, do you?”

Sarah tapped an index finger against her bottom lip.  “I think that we don’t know enough yet to rule out any possibility.”

“That’s more of a reason to keep Alex out of it, then,” I said.  She parted her lips to reply and I talked before she could form words.  “Trust me on this.  Alex is good where he’s at right now.  If Asher, or these Magi, had something to do with what happened to his wife?”  I shook my head and my fingers, which had been drumming more or less autonomously, skipped several beats when the plane shuddered.  “At best, it might not be terrible.  At worst, we’d have a loose cannon in the field.”

“So, this is it, then?”  Sarah asked.  “We’re going into this alone, without backup or even proper intel?”

“We’ve done it before,” I pointed out.  “And we made it out of those situations in one piece.  I’ll try and coordinate with the locals, discreetly, and you can keep up with contacts on your side of the fence.”

“Mmmhmm.”  Sarah did not sound convinced.  She retrieved her laptop from the neighboring, empty seat.  “I suppose I should get started on that, then, shouldn’t I?”

I could recognize the end of a conversation as well as the next person.  Sarah busied herself with work, sending messages out into the internet at top speed, while I sat there, lost in my own musings.  I barely noticed when the attendant returned, carrying Sarah’s soda and my ice cream.  For appearances, I took two small bites of the desert while Sarah was watching.  As soon as she returned her focus to the laptop, however, I put the spoon down on the side of the plate.

Sarah wasn’t wrong.  There were too many truly powerful players and their presence was raising the stakes too high, too quickly.  If Sarah hadn’t involved herself…but, honestly, I had to have known that she would never be able to turn down a mystery.  Even without the job offer from the mysterious Puppetmaster, Sarah would have involved herself in this matter, one way or another.  Puzzles, especially ones without a beginning or a viable end, were a drug for her.

I shouldn’t have told her anything about the Puppetmaster.  In doing so, I had made myself responsible for her personal involvement in the unfolding intrigue.  If anything happened to her, I was responsible for that, as well.  I needed to get this museum job over with, as quickly as possible, and handle the Asher problem.  After that, Sarah could return to her life of safety, comfortably removed from the trouble that my life brought to her doorstep.  I started to form a plan to that effect, skipping over the huge tracts of blank variables, while the plane carried us across the ocean.  By the time it landed, I had managed to come up with something workable.  The ice cream Sarah ordered for me had melted into a soupy mess: just two halves of a single banana, floating like twin icebergs in the center of the dish.

With Friends Like These – Recap

Devlin O’Brien, up-and-coming art thief, is in very serious trouble.  When his old friend, partner, and the mastermind of some of his greatest successes suddenly betrays him on a job, leaving him for the Parisian police, Devlin finds himself at the mercy of the justice system.  Without any hope of dodging the charges – for crimes that, in fairness, he had been about to commit – he is tried, convicted, and imprisoned with some of the worst criminals that Europe has to offer for nearly three years.  Only the mentorship of the gentleman thief, Patrick Lance, helps Devlin to keep his sanity while he was behind bars; only his innate ability to think on his feet keeps him alive.

Six months before the end of his sentence, Devlin is inexplicably broken out of prison, via the machinations of an unknown player who seems to know every one of the thief’s moves, even before he can make them.  Despite his best efforts to slip free of any unseen nooses or traps, Devlin falls short of the mark, and is approached by a messenger at a particularly vulnerable moment.  The delivery is not a set of instructions, nor a threat, but simply information: Asher’s location, from only a few days before the jailbreak.  With these new documents in hand, and a bevy of questions bouncing around in his head, Devlin sets off to find revenge for the botched Paris job.

His first stop is Munich, to retrieve a set of passports he’d never planned to use again.  His old friend, Alexander Jeager, helps him to infiltrate the beer hall where the passports are hidden; when things go sideways, it’s the younger Jeager, Ally, who assists Devlin in navigating the crowded ballroom of twenty-something fans, all set to the driving music of the band Tokio Hotel.  Difficulties notwithstanding, Devlin emerges from the tumult with a new passport in hand, a little extra spending money, and two new – if woefully unsuitable – allies, waiting in the wings.

From Munich, Devlin travels to Kiev, the location listed in his packet of information.  There, he encounters a face he hadn’t seen since the Paris job: Anton Levchenko, bombmaker and all-around chemical expert.  Anton, also betrayed by Asher and left in the metaphorical lurch, teams up with Devlin in pursuit of the rogue criminal, only to lead them both in the presence of a representative of the Russian mafia.  Stanislav Novikof – and his bodyguards/muscle, Leonid and Iosif – is hunting Asher on orders from his Bratva superiors and the foursome proceed to run the man down to the abandoned docks, where Russian goods are smuggled into the country…or so they believe.  In reality, they walk headlong into a “face-to-face” meeting with Asher and a lethal trap.  Quick thinking is the only thing that keeps them from catching a bullet to the brain.

Forced to accept the changing circumstances, and to acknowledge that Asher has made connections powerful enough to be a serious threat, Devlin leaves the Russians to their own devices and catches a flight back to America, to confront the one person he’d hoped to avoid for as long as possible; his ex-wife, Sarah Ford.  Sarah greets Devlin with an arctic reception, at first.  As she comes into new information of her own, as well as her first job offer in months, she becomes too intrigued by the developing mystery to simply walk away.  She browbeats Devlin into working with her once more, and the two set out to steal a crown from the Museum of London (for unknown reasons) for a client (of unknown identity), in hopes that it will lead them closer to stopping Asher before he gets too much influence to be controlled or confronted.

Scattered across the globe, changed by the passage of nearly three years, Devlin’s associates and allies aren’t the assets he’d hoped for.  At least, not anymore.  But with enemies appearing at every turn, anyone else could only hope to have friends as loyal as these.

The Florence Job, Part 3 (Sarah)

From my safehouse, I could watch practically all of Florence.  Security cameras and CCTV cast a wide net across the city and my system tracked that information, catalogued it, and provided me with a wealth of useful information. Of my three wide angle computer screens, one was dedicated entirely to a mosaic of tiny camera feeds, following the people of Florence as they scurried away from the Palazzo.  I saw, with crystalline clarity, the firefight in the front courtyard.  With this much access, there was very little I didn’t know and even less I couldn’t find out.

And yet, where Alex and Devlin were concerned, I was utterly blind.  So, I clung to the tiny voices in my ear while I entered commands into my main system.

“Alex!”  Devlin’s alarmed cry sent a fresh wave of tension through my body.  I jerked and knocked a half-full can of Diet Coke to the floor.  The soda popped and fizzed as it seeped into the carpet.  “Get down!”

There was nothing I could do from here.  My impotence had never felt so crippling before.

“Sarah!”  Devlin shouted.  I snapped to attention as he said my name.  “Second shooter!”  My worst fear, confirmed in an instant. Through my earbud, I heard Devlin’s heavy breaths and a muffled cry of pain.  I slammed my palm down onto the keyboard, sending several conflicting signals down the abandoned military frequency the gunmen were using, and that I’d gained access to.  An impossibly loud screech of static screamed back at me, amplified by my speakers.  I could only imagine what it would sound like, point-blank in someone’s ears.

I heard nothing for twenty seconds.  Then, Alex spoke up.  I could only hear him through Devlin’s line.  “You saved my life.”  Then, a moment later.  “Johannah!  You are safe!”

Alex’ wife was too far away for any reply to reach me, via Devlin’s microphone.  I let out my breath in relief and keyed up a blueprint for the Palazzo on the screen farthest to my right.  There were countless entrances and exits into the maze-like structure; one spot in particular was the source of a mishmash of conflicted radio traffic.  Without anything else to go on, I took a leap and assumed that my friends were in the vicinity of that knot of signals.  I clicked on the nearest exit, and my computer began to map out a path.

If I hadn’t been looking at the signals at that exact second, I would’ve missed it.  Even with my attention fully on the screen, the addition of another source nearly slipped past me.  Devlin had counted five men chasing after Johannah.  Three had been occupied with the local police in the Palazzo’s courtyard; only two remained outside, still involved in that ill-advised fight.  Devlin had, through some combination of dumb luck and sheer stupidity managed to put one of the gunmen down in the underground.  If Alex’ words of thanks were any indication, the fifth gunmen had been taken care of, as well.

But no one had ever said there were only five men in the crew; only that Devlin had seen five.

The thought stole my breath and, with it, my voice.  I reloaded the same command I’d used only a few seconds ago, but before my finger could press down on the Enter key, I heard it: that distinctive crack of a gun going off.  A second later, echoed between Devlin’s line and the gunmen’s own, a shattered, heartbroken scream of pure, wordless pain.

“Dev!  Dev, what’s happening?”

The sound of movement came back as answer, followed by a wordless struggle of some kind.  I waited nervously, hands trembling with a ferocity I’d never experienced before.  I gripped the edge of my desk to steady them.  After an eternity, Devlin spoke.  “Sarah?  Sarah, are…are you there?”

“I’m here!”  I jerked forward too quickly and nearly threw myself out of my chair.  “What happened?”

“There was another shooter,” he said.  “A sixth one.”

“Is everyone okay?”

He went quiet.  I thought, but wasn’t sure, that I heard soft sobbing from somewhere near him.  “It’s Johannah,” he whispered finally.  “She’s…”

My blood chilled.  “What’s wrong?”

He trailed off.    “The sixth man’s down,” Devlin said.   His voice was shaky and weak.  Part of that was from pain, I was sure; the rest of his uncertainty was out of character, and it only magnified my own concern.  “But he got Johannah.”

“How bad is it?”  I asked, dreading the answer before it came.

He was silent again for a long stretch.  “I need an exit,” he said, after what felt like years.  “And emergency services.”

I didn’t waste a second on a reply; instead, I launched myself into my work.  The Palazzo’s blueprints were already up and my computer was about halfway through plotting an exit course.  “Is your phone still on?”

“It’s on,”

“Sending you the blueprints now,” I said and hit the relevant button.

“And EMS?”

I checked.  The firefight in the Palazzo’s courtyard had scattered the civilians and sent them to ground, but not all of the innocents had moved quickly enough.  There were several reports of wounded bystanders being rushed to area hospitals or receiving some basic treatment wherever they were.  “It’s…they’ve got a lot to deal with right now, so…”

“I need an ambulance,” Devlin said.

“I’ll do what I can,” I said in response.  I found an unassigned ambulance several blocks away and cut into its system.  It was a few seconds’ work to change its direction and reroute to the Palazzo’s exit.

I worked with the ease of practice and the panicked speed of instinct.  My attention was focused entirely on my little earbud.  Without cameras in the Palazzo’s interior, Devlin’s words were my only source of information.  I hit the mute button on my end, so that the sounds of my panicked, nervous breaths didn’t drown out his soft words to Alex.  I keyed the volume up to its maximum so that I could hear Alex, as well.

“It’s going to be okay,” Devlin said.  “She’s going to be fine.  We just have to get her outside.”

“This is…this is my fault,” Alex moaned.

“It’s no one’s fault, except the bastards who came after us,” Devlin said.  “But we’ve got to get through this right now, Alex.  Sarah’s got help coming and we’ll get Johannah patched up and then we can figure out what to do next.”  Pause.  “You do have help coming, right Sarah?”

I unmuted my line.  “Got an ambulance coming your way, but it’s…it’s not going to be there soon.  You’ll be out before they make it.”

“Soon as we get out,” Devlin lied to Alex, “there’ll be an ambulance there.  We’ll get her inside and they can take care of her, okay?”

Alex said nothing at first and then, barely audible even through my amplified system, he started to sob.  “There is so much blood, Devlin,” he whispered.  “So much.”

“She’ll be fine,” Devlin repeated.  He paused for an instant.  I knew his tells, had spent countless hours since we’d met poking fun at that single deadly moment when a mark could see when he was lying.  “She’ll be fine.”

He didn’t say anything else.  Neither did Alex.  I heard their heavy breaths as they moved, slow and ponderous, through the maze of the Palazzo’s interior.  With nothing else to do, I selected the nearest camera feed to the exit and maximized it on my left screen.  It showed a walkway, empty of foot traffic, and the Arno River.  Orange light marked the setting of the sun, its rays dying even as they glittered off the surface of the rover.

I lost track of time, waiting for them to emerge into the open air.  At some point, the cops at the Palazzo’s courtyard received the backup I’d sent their way.  One of the two remaining shooters had been wounded and the last one standing surrendered to the authorities.  I pressed the “record” button on my communications system, linked into the shooter’s own radio, and listened to his voice.  My Russian was weak, but I could identify the language from just a few words.  He spoke first in his mother language, absent of any telling regional accent, and switched to English when the local police reached him.

When the police took the final shooter into custody, I saved the conversation and filed it away.  Devlin’s intuition was, and always had been, formidable.  He might have been able to make some wild leap of logic.  For my part, I still had no clue who had sent a hit squad after us.

When Devlin, Alex, and Johannah emerged into the setting sunlight, I sat up, straight as a rod, in my chair.  The two men half-walked, half-limped out of the Palazzo with Johnannah carried aloft between them.  She slumped weakly, her feet dragging against the ground.  I zoomed the nearest camera in as much as possible.  Details blurred into incoherence, but I could see a distinct dark spot around her abdomen.  It covered all of her stomach and reached up to just below her breasts.  Something dripped from her shirt and stained the ground below her.

“Sarah?”  There was a small delay between Devlin’s voice and the corresponding movement, as he lifted his head and searched for the camera he knew I’d be watching through.  The effect was slightly unsettling. “Need that ambulance.”

I turned and pulled up the ambulance’s GPS and swore, loudly.  “It’s…stopped.  Traffic accident at an intersection.  It’s trying to find a way around, but…Devlin, how bad is she?”

“Alex,” Devlin said carefully.  A moment later, I saw him reach across Johannah to Alex’ shoulder.  “We’ve got to go a little farther.”

Alex nodded.  They started to move when Johannah stirred and coughed.  Blood fell from her lips.  “I am tired,” she said, and I heard her words as clearly as if she’d spoken them directly to me.  “Can I…can I rest for a bit?”

“Don’t let her rest,” I said to Devlin.  I minimized the blueprints for the Palazzo and did a quick search for ‘gunshot wounds.’  A field of responses appeared.  I clicked the first one open and skimmed the advice it presented.  “If she falls asleep, she won’t…it won’t be good.”

“We’ve got to keep going,” Devlin said.  “Just a little farther, okay?”

They started to move.  Their progress was excruciating, but they kept at it.  Step by lurching step, the three of them made their way down the walkway.  I was forced to switch my viewpoint camera to one farther down the street, at a greater distance from them.  When I zoomed in farther, I only saw them as shapeless blurs.  Alex sobbed, close enough to Devlin that I could hear the sound, as well.  Devlin said nothing about it.  I watched them and felt tears on my own cheeks.

They walked for five minutes before they stopped again.  Devlin and Alex eased Johannah to the abandoned street.  “What are you doing?”  I asked Devlin.  “If she rests, she’ll die, dammit!”

“She’s…”  Devlin stopped, his voice choking to silence in his throat.  “She’s not going to make it.”

“You’ve got to keep going,” I said.  I heard myself growing frantic, and I didn’t care.  “It’s not that far.  You can make it there!”

“No,” he said.  “No, we can’t.  She can’t.”  I watched on the screen as he turned to Alex.  “Alex, I’m so sorry.”

“Johannah?”  Alex pulled his wife close to him, held her to his chest.  “Johannah, can you hear me?”

I had to strain to hear her words.  “Yes, I…I can hear you.”

“I should not have brought you here,” Alex said.  “I should not have brought you into this danger.”

“It was…my choice,” she said.  There was an obvious effort to her words.  It broke my heart to hear it.  “I…I love you, Alexander.”

Even the shapeless blur of colors on my screen hurt to watch.  I could see sadness in every pixel as it shook with tears; I couldn’t imagine what Devlin felt like, watching the tragedy unfold in front of him.  I pressed a button and the audio switched to my speakers.  Heartbreak filled my room.

“Johannah, I…”  Alex stopped.  “Johannah?  Johannah!”

Devlin spoke.  His voice was clearer to me, and it was thick with unshed tears.  “Alex, I…”  Silence.  There was no need to finish that thought.

I reduced the zoom on the camera so that I could make out the distinct shapes of Alex, Devlin, and Johannah.  Devlin rose to his feet and stepped away from the couple.  The tiny speck that signified Alex leaned across Johannah and didn’t move.

“Devlin, is she…?”  I asked.

“We don’t need that ambulance,” he said, and it was answer enough.

I rerouted the ambulance to the front of the Palazzo, too dazed to form thoughts.  Seconds turned to minutes and those minutes stretched into forever as I watched Alex mourn his wife’s passing.  I waited, respectfully silent, through the hardest five minutes of uselessness since my first job.

“Tell me you got something on these bastards,” Devlin said.  His voice sounded…different.  A heartbeat later, I understood: anger.  Not even anger, so much, but fury.  It burned beneath Devlin’s voice, like boiling magma, and he was struggling to keep it under control.

“A recording of some conversation,” I said.  “They’re Russian, I think.”

“Me too.  One of them seemed to know who I was.”

“What do you…what can I do, Dev?”

He didn’t answer.  Together, he and Alex lifted Johannah from the street.  They carried her out of the main thoroughfare and back to the Palazzo.  There, they had privacy.  No one entered the Palazzo and no one left it.  A gondola passed by but, at that distance and with no reason to pay special attention, its boatman ignored the two men and the strangely shaped object they carried.

When they reached the entrance back into the underground, Alex spoke.  “I want to kill them,” he said.  His voice vibrated with rage and grief in equal measure.  A chill down my arms and raised goosebumps on my flesh.

“So do I,” Devlin said back.

“Good,” Alex said.  Then, he let his wife slip to the ground and followed her down.  On my feed, I saw him fall to his knees over his body and raise his head to the sky.  His scream, wordless and raw, shattered my own heart to pieces.  When he wept, I wept with him.  And when he stood again, minutes or hours later, I arranged for a local clean-up crew to retrieve Johannah’s body and deliver her back to Munich.

“We’re going to get them, right?”  I asked Devlin, after I finished with the only thing I could help with.  “They aren’t just going…we aren’t going to let them get away with this, are we?”

“Oh we’re going to get them,” he said back.  “And we’re going to make them bleed for this.”

Alex said nothing, at first.  When he did speak, he sounded empty, hollowed out, drained of the vitality he’d radiated every moment I’d known him.  “I want…”  He stopped, swallowed, started again.  “I want to go home,” he said.  “I want to see my daughter.”

Devlin was quiet for a long time.  “Let’s get you home, Alex.  Sarah and I can take care of it from here.”

“No!”  Alex’ shape turned sharply to face Devlin.  “Do not do this without me. Someone killed my wife; I want to know who.”

“Okay, then.  We’ll take care of…things back in Munich,” Devlin said, “and then we’ll figure this out together.”

Alex nodded, and both he and Devlin turned to look out across the river Arno.  The sun set across the water.  Light danced across the surface, beautiful in its own way, but I didn’t – couldn’t – appreciate it.  I kept my comm line muted as I wept, and wept, and wept.