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.”
“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.
“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?”