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.”

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