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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.