After the Warehouse (Emilia)

It took longer to finish up with the guards than expected; not too much longer, but enough time that she was feeling pleasantly sore up her arms and legs.  Emilia left the blazing wreckage of the warehouse behind her, happily astride a “borrowed” motorcycle, and headed toward the destination indicated by the text message.  The machine wasn’t particularly high powered, like any of the bikes she would have preferred to ride, but it wasn’t bad.  The one beneath her was probably a Triumph, maybe one of the 750CC models; not enough horsepower for her to really cut loose on the open highway.  In lieu of that razor’s edge of danger, she accelerated up to eighty miles an hour and let her mind drift back to the fight.  Memories weren’t as good at keeping her personal demons at bay, but these were at least good memories.  Much better than what she’d done for work over the past few years.

As of late, all of her time was spent waiting.  At the start, when she’d still had a name to make for herself, the contracts had been much more interesting.  There were always more fights to be had, more people who doubted the small Hispanic woman would actually be capable of backing up her calmly stated threats.  Those were the times she cherished: using her fists and feet to pound regret into anyone foolish to threaten one of her clients and ensuring their safety with her strength.  The fact that those bloody conflicts kept the beast inside her sated was a secondary matter, though not one to be ignored.

Of course, as her reputation grew, the nature of the jobs changed as well.  At this point, she was mostly expected to stand menacingly in one corner or another.  Her name acted as its own deterrent.  Most of the people who found themselves hired as security, or hitmen, or bagmen worked in a fairly small circle.  Her face was well known to most of them.  If Emilia took a job, it was generally accepted that target was essentially untouchable.

So, the melee at the warehouse had been the first real struggle she’d been able to enjoy in too many months to count.  It was possible, Emilia supposed, that the fire had been a little over the top.  Her instructions had been clear enough, though – “extract Devlin O’Brien from the warehouse, by whatever means you deem necessary” – and she didn’t think the guards would have let her get away without a suitably distracting catastrophe to deal with.  It was hardly Emilia’s fault that the client hadn’t specified what methods she could or couldn’t use, in pursuit of the stated objective.

This job was rapidly becoming more interesting than she’d expected or hoped for.  At first, she’d been tasked with simply serving as a shadow.  Emilia followed from a distance for the better of an hour, before the waiter had slipped something into a glass and offered it to the man.  She’d tried to stop Devlin from drinking the drugged champagne, but had apparently been too late.  Even then, she would have protected him.  She had tried to engage him in conversation, but a message from her actual client demanded her attention and pulled her into a different part of the museum at the critical moment.  She had a sneaking suspicion that the client had wanted Devlin to be kidnapped…but if that was the case, why had the orders changed from “shadow, and don’t be seen” to “retrieve him with all possible haste” as soon as the grab had already gone down?  It didn’t make sense.

It was, without a doubt, the most unusual arrangement Emilia had ever encountered.  This anonymous client had requested Emilia’s services specifically and paid – actually overpaid – for months of work, up front.  A dossier was forwarded to her, after the wire transfer went through, complete with several high definition photographs, a list of possible aliases, and the real names of Devlin O’Brien and the people he was most likely to work with.  Some of the names on that list were familiar to Emilia; an even smaller number of them were people whose company she…well, she didn’t enjoy anyone’s company, but their presences didn’t bother her.

She wasn’t paid to ask questions, though.  She was paid to protect Devlin.  So she hadn’t wondered too hard about the earbud laying in the grass, near the table where the man had sat.  She hadn’t prodded too far into the identity of the voice – probably Sarah Ford, if the information in the files was accurate – and she hadn’t put up any resistance to the idea of combining forces to retrieve Devlin from the man Sarah speculated was Asher.  In fact, the only reason she’d bothered speaking with Asher at the warehouse was to gather information that might help her in her job.

Not only had she made absolutely certain that Asher intended to kill Devlin at some point, but she’d also been able to get a glimpse at the man who appeared to the primary threat to her ward.  The discussion had been interesting, as far as those things went, but Emilia had approached it as a fact finding mission.  If she wasn’t literally being paid to interact with Asher, she doubted that they would find much to discuss with one another.  Even if she was available for work, she certainly wouldn’t have taken any contract he offered.  The way he looked at her was obvious and unashamed; she wasn’t interested in that sort of relationship with a client – or with anyone, really – and it only made things more difficult when the client assumed that her body, and not her skills, were for sale.

Besides, she really didn’t like him.

The entire encounter as a blur of motion and action to her, now.  She could feel the bruises on her bloodied knuckles as she eased the motorcycle up another ten miles an hour, savoring the tautness of her leg muscles and the vibrations of the engine against her thighs.  There had been too many guards, some of which had actual training instead of sheer bulk, for her to escape entirely unscathed.  That was just fine by her.  Without the possibility of real danger, she didn’t feel satisfied.  It didn’t feel satisfied.

Emilia drew closer to the appointed destination and, as she was easing the motorcycle to a stop, felt her phone vibrating from her jacket pocket.  Before she answered the call, she noted with more than a small amount of pleasure that her Aston Martin was parked nearby.  She allowed herself a thin-lipped smile: she owned several cars, using them differently as the job required, but this one was one of her favorites.  She parked the motorcycle in the vacant spot next to her car and answered the phone.  “Yeah?”

“My employer is pleased to see that you’ve accomplished your goal,” an impossibly deep voice said, from the other end of the line.  “And with a…minimum of collateral damage, according to reports.”

This was the same person who had contacted her for the job in the first place, then.  He wasn’t the actual client – the voice made that much clear with the references to his ‘employer’ – but he apparently acted with his or her full authority.  Normally, Emilia hated working with intermediaries, but the money was good enough that she could overcome that disdain.

“If your employer has a problem with my methods…”

“No,” the man interrupted.  “Not at all.  The loss of those narcotics was not inconsiderable, but the cost was acceptable, in exchange for Mister O’Brien’s safe return.”

“There were a lot of drugs in that place,” Emilia said.  “And this one guy is worth that much to you?”

“According to your contract, his life is always worth that much to you.”

It was a veiled reminder that she was still on the job.  It was also unnecessary.  Emilia had never defaulted on a contract, once accepted.  Her word was exemplary.  It was a matter of pride for her that she maintained that level of infallible reliability.  “If you thought I couldn’t do the job, you wouldn’t have hired me,” Emilia said.  “I’m supposed to keep him safe.  I got it.  But this isn’t how I work.  If I’m supposed to protect someone, I have to be able to do that.  You want someone who’ll let you use their ward as bait, you can go ahead and cut me loose.”

He didn’t reply for several seconds.  “That is reasonable,” he said, sighing heavily.  “My employer wishes for you to know that she has no desire to put you in that position again.”

“Meaning?”

“An opportunity to gather intelligence presented itself,” the man said, “and my employer felt certain that you would be capable of retrieving Mister O’Brien once that information was collected.  However, you will be free to protect him, as you see fit, moving forward from this point.”

“Should I expect more problems along the lines of tonight’s show?”  Emilia asked.

“You should take steps to be prepared for a variety of possible situations.”

“Is that from you or from your employer?”

Another pause.  “Both.”

Emilia nodded to herself.  If there might be more opportunities to really cut loose in the future, technically in service to the contract she’d been offered, that was a good thing.  Asher certainly hadn’t seemed like the sort of person who would give up on revenge for…whatever slight he imagined was worth all of this trouble.  It was a good thing that she hadn’t killed him, then; more conflict was always better for keeping it satisfied.

“So,” Emilia mused, “do I ever get to meet your employer and the holder of my contract?  Or am I just supposed to work anonymously?”  Either outcome would suit her fine.  She just preferred to know who was she was working for.

“My employer has decided to meet you in person,” the man said.  “Tonight, in fact.”  He did not sound pleased about that decision.

“Listen,” she said, “I’ve worked with people who like their secrets before.  I mean, not as much as your employer does, but six of one, you know?  You hired me for a couple of reasons, though, and discretion was one.”

“I am aware of your credentials,” the man said.  “If I had not personally done considerable research into your record, this offer would never have been extended.  That has nothing to do with my…discomfort.”

“And if I ask why, you probably aren’t going to tell me, right?”

The man said nothing.

Emilia used the time while he was silent to switch vehicles from the motorcycle – now that she was leaving it, the Triumph wasn’t all that bad of a machine – to the Aston.  Devlin had politely left the keys under the driver’s side floor mat, as though he’d known Emilia would be along to collect the car shortly.  She didn’t care for many things in the way that other people did, but the vehicle was nice.  Giving up the keys hadn’t been a particularly difficult decision, but she was still happy to see that he hadn’t decided to keep the Aston.

She herself behind the wheel and used the key to bring the engine to life.  Then, tired of waiting for the man to speak, Emilia took it upon herself to fill the void.  “So, what’s the deal with this guy?  He must be a big deal, if your boss is willing to go to these lengths just to keep him safe.”

“He is an essential part of unfolding events,” the man said.  “Events far beyond the petty squabbles he is aware of.”

“Does he know he’s a part of ‘unfolding events?’” Emilia asked.  “Or is he going to keep throwing himself into reckless situations, just hoping for the best?”

The man sighed again.  “If his previous experience is any indication,” he said, “the latter seems most likely.”  A voice, – soft, maybe feminine – said something inaudible from the other end of the line and the man spoke again, answering Emilia’s other question.  “And, no, he is not aware of his place.  Not yet.  I am assured that situation will be rectified, in part, shortly.”

Emilia glimpsed a wild thought, flittering through her mind, and took a shot at it.  “That’s where I’m meeting her tonight, then?  When she sends you to deliver whatever new information this is that Devlin needs?”

“Of course not,” the man said.  “You will be at that meeting, as well.  According to your previous employers, you work best when you are able to actually coordinate with your wards, correct?”

“Fair enough.  Am I going to have time to swing by my hotel, at least?”

“From your current location, you would have to go past the destination.  There isn’t enough time for detours.”

Emilia made an effort to conceal any nervous habits.  Alone in the Aston Martin, however, there was no one to see or hear as she cracked her bruised knuckles, one at a time.  Sam was in the hotel room, and had been there alone for hours longer than anticipated.  The job was paramount, though.  She’d picked a hotel that would probably see to it that Sam was taken care of until she returned.

“Your companion will be brought along, as well,” the man said.  “In keeping with your desire to stay close to your ward, new accommodations are being arranged for.  I thought it best to facilitate the transition, in order to make things as smooth as possible.”

Emilia was so relieved that Sam was being picked up that her mind nearly skipped directly over the fact that the man knew her exact location.  Was she bugged?  Or being tracked in one way or another?  Well, probably.  She wasn’t doing anything that she would have to hide, but the idea that someone required surveillance on her made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.  “Thanks for that,” she said, after a few moments.  Parsing her words was not easy for her.  It was so much simpler to speak your mind, but she’d learned that most people didn’t particularly enjoy that, and this man was doing her a favor.  “Keeps me from having to worry.”

“If I may ask a personal question?  This is from me, mind you, and not from my employer.”

“If you want, sure.  I’m an open book.”  Emilia wasn’t a very good liar, but she’d had a lot of practice telling that one.  It came out smooth and even, totally convincing even to her own ears.

“This…companion?  I was led to believe that you made an effort to remain as mobile as possible.”

“Mobile doesn’t mean disconnected,” Emilia said.  “Sam keeps me grounded.  What?  You don’t have anyone like that in your life?”

The man didn’t say anything and, in the background of the phone call, that soft feminine voice spoke again.  Emilia strained, but couldn’t catch the exact words being said.  “I suppose that makes sense,” the man said, after almost thirty seconds of silence.  “Your new destination will be sent to you, shortly.  We expect prompt arrival.”

“We?”  Emilia asked, but the line disconnected without offering an answer.  She looked at the phone for a few more seconds in thought.  The call had come from a blocked number, but there were ways around that.  Of course, anyone who was paranoid about their privacy would have taken that into account.  Besides, if the man’s ‘we’ was accurate, there was every possibility that she was about to meet the client anyway.  No reason to rock the boat.

She started up the Aston, relishing the familiar rumble of the powerful engine, and waited until the text with her new address came in: if her memory was accurate, she was headed to a hotel near the center of London proper.  If anyone else was driving, the train would have been quicker, but Emilia was still wound up from the warehouse fight.  She turned onto the highway once more, this time pointed in the direction of the city center, and floored it.  The Aston responded admirably.

When she was nearing the areas where there was an actual police presence, Emilia slowed back down to merely fifteen over the speed limit and switched on her police scanner.  It was a quiet night in London, by all indications, and that meant –

Uh, we are code five,” a scratchy voice said.  The quality of the scanner left much to be desired.  “En route to the museum now.  Does anyone know what’s going on over there?”

Not a clue,” another voice replied.  “Something about a robbery?  Gunshots?  Your guess is as good as mine.”

Emilia laughed openly and the sound filled the Aston.  There was little doubt that this was connected to Devlin.  The man had been kidnapped, been threatened with torture, barely escaped with his life, and immediately gone back to fulfilling the job he’d come to London to do.  Emilia very nearly found herself liking him, and she hadn’t even been introduced to his real personality.

This job promised to be fun, Emilia decided; the type of fun she found herself wanting more and more.  If she wasn’t so elated at the developing events, the thought that she wanted to commit violence more and more, as of late, would have made her think of Aiden.  As it was, she was too amused in the moment to do anything but look forward to whatever twists were coming next.

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Chapter 41

Police sirens approached us from the right and then continued on to the museum.  I remained flat across the back seat until I couldn’t hear them anymore.  “Devlin,” Michel said, “they are gone.  I cannot see them anymore.”

I gave it another two dozen seconds before I risked a quick peek up, into the rearview mirror.  I couldn’t even see the telltale lights of the police cruisers.  I sat up, wincing as soreness spread through my shoulder.  “Sarah?”

“It’s going to take them at least an hour to get back control of their network,” Sarah said.  It was an awkward feeling, hearing her voice through Michel’s speakerphone and my earbud.  “I could make it longer, but that’s going to require an active effort and it’s only a delaying measure.”

“And the guards are locked into the building without control?”

“Not only that, but the police are locked out.  Their resources are likely going to be tied up trying to gain entry, so that they can figure out what was taken.”

I considered the available options.  “Go ahead and disconnect,” I said as I eased into a more upright position.  “No need to risk anyone tracking down the signal.  An hour is more than enough time to disappear.”

“Track me down?”  I could taste the disbelief in her choice of words.  “This hack is routed through a half dozen different systems, with my own personal encryption.  If I want to keep those guards sealed away, I can do it almost indefinitely.”

“And I have the utmost faith in your ability to do so,” I said, “but we’ve been in over our heads every step of the way here.  Can you honestly tell me that you’re that sure someone can’t find a trail to you?”

Sarah went silent.  Then, she cleared her throat.  “Connection’s terminated.”  I breathed a sigh of relief.  “I opened a backdoor, though, so I can regain access, if I need to.”

“I don’t know why we’d need to go back into that deathtrap.”

“Devlin?”  Michel sounded unsure of himself.  He looked down to the phone in the passenger seat, made a note of something on its screen, and took a left turn.  The car choked and threatened to turn off entirely.  “What is it that you are involved in?  That I am involved in?”

“I’ll be honest with you here,” I said.

The line popped.  “What are you doing?”  Sarah asked.  I knew immediately that she’d excluded Michel from this part of the conversation.  “We still don’t know anything about his background.  You’re sure you want to risk exposing ourselves even more?”

She was right.  There were countless reasons to keep Michel out of the inner circle.  What we didn’t know about Michel vastly eclipsed the knowledge I’d gleaned from our interactions.  He was connected with Patrick in some way that I hadn’t yet uncovered, but that connection could easily have been criminal in nature.  If he had any soft areas in his personal life – a family, perhaps, or a child – the Magi, or Asher specifically, could use that to turn him against us.  He was clearly not a frequent participant in theft or high intensity jobs, as evidenced by the quiver running through his voice.  Fear was a vulnerability that we couldn’t afford, even at this early juncture.

He had saved me, though, by showing up precisely when I needed him.  And my instincts said that he was as trustworthy an ally as I could hope to find.  Plus, I’d learned my lesson about secrets years in the past.  The last one I’d kept had cost me my marriage.  I chose not to respond to Sarah, and spoke directly to Michel instead.  “There’s…this was never about a vacation.”

Sarah sighed, but didn’t complain.

“I am listening, mon ami,” Michel said.

“Asher – someone who sent me to jail and who’s been trying to kill me ever since I got out – is involved with some serious people.  Sarah and I call them the Magi.”

“As in the wise men?”

“Exactly like that, yeah.  We were…tipped off that Asher was interested in this crown, and we think it’s got something to do with the Magi.  So, obviously, we couldn’t let him get ahold of it.”

We stopped at a traffic light.  A passerby paused to look at Michel’s cab and waved acrid smoke away from his face.  Michel offered a smile to the civilian and then frowned at me, through the rearview mirror.  “You are thieves,” he said softly.

There wasn’t any real point in denying the obvious.  “We are thieves,” I agreed.

“And whoever tipped you off…they are the ones who are paying you to steal that…?”  He glanced in the backseat and saw the crown, cradled to my chest.

“According to the offer,” Sarah said. “Although we still don’t know much about that party either.  At this point, all we’ve figured out is that someone wanted to get Devlin out of jail early, and that someone else is supporting Asher.  But even that’s just a theory.  Maybe the Magi decided to do both things, setting up Asher and Devlin in some sick battle royale.”

My eyebrow leapt.  “That’s a new one, Sarah.  When did you come up with that idea?”

“I’ve got a lot of ideas,” she replied testily.  “It’s just that none of them make any more sense than any other.  The probability of any single thing that’s happened to you, just in the past week, is astronomical.  But everything that’s happened, all at once?  Sprung from jail, pointed directly to the city where a Russian lieutenant and his enforcers were searching for Asher, routed back to America where I was conveniently enticed to come along, kidnapped in broad daylight, and then having to run a gauntlet of traps out of an Indiana Jones movie?”  Sarah stopped, caught her breath.  “Does any of this make sense to you?”

“You’re right.  This goes way past coincidence.”  Something about the way I’d said that struck a note in a corner of my mind.

“While you were infiltrating the museum, I got another email from the Puppetmaster.  That’s what we’re calling whoever arranged for Devlin’s jailbreak,” she added, for Michel’s benefit.  “Details for the drop, and numbered accounts where our payment will be deposited.”

“Can you set one up for Michel?” I asked.  “He’s a part of this job, now, so he should get paid.”

“No,” she said.  “Because, of course, there’s already one set up for him.  The message contained three numbered accounts, with our real names attached to each one.  I tried to check the financials for each, but every check I’ve run makes it seem like they’re entirely legitimate business accounts, with long histories of above board transactions.”

“You don’t think…?”

“No, I don’t.  Of course they’re fake.  I just can’t figure out how they were faked.  I could do something like this, if I had a lot of time to kill, but I wouldn’t.  There’s no point to this level of detail.  If Interpol was looking this deep into the history of even one of these accounts, then we made a mistake somewhere else.”

“Maybe someone’s just thorough?”  I offered.

“Thorough isn’t the right word,” she said.  “Meticulous sounds better.  Explicitly, over-the-top, meticulous.  It’s almost like a display of power.”

“How’s that?”

She’d said that last bit, almost as an afterthought.  At my question, she warmed to the idea and began to speak more rapidly.  “Alright, say you’ve got a ridiculous amount of information.  You know our real names, you know where our accounts are, but you need to let us know what you can do with that.  What do you do?”

“I would…”  The car hit a bump in the road, jostling my shoulder so that the ache flared back up.  I divested a portion of my attention to self-pity and returned to the question.  “I’d have to prove that I could find them where they felt safest, I guess.”

“Exactly.  So, for you, they break you out of prison ahead of schedule, just so that there’s no doubt about their reach.  And, for me, they hack into my email server and deposit a job offer in a place where I’m bound to see it.  Not all of my servers, though.”

“Right.  That would just make us go to ground.”

“This is just enough of a display to make us scared, but not enough to actually make us run.  And the accounts, with all three of our real names in plain English?”

I nodded.  “That’s to let us know that we’re being watched.  Michel’s new to all this, and all he did was drive the car.  No offense, of course.”

Michel waved away the apology from the driver’s seat.

“There’s something I don’t get, though,” Sarah said.

I’d come to the same conclusion.  “What about…are these comms secure?”

“It’s a dedicated line,” she said, “using proprietary technology that I built personally for equipment that isn’t even publically available.  So, it’s as safe as it can possibly get.  With the way things are going now, I don’t know if it’s safe enough, though.”  That admission stung her pride.  I heard that much in her voice.

“Ah.  Well, then.”  I couldn’t immediately come up with a way to express my thoughts that wouldn’t also tip my hand.  “Can we agree that this Puppetmaster isn’t omniscient?”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” she said.  “I don’t know how helpful that’s going to be, though.”

I shrugged to myself.  “Me either, but it’s better than nothing.”

“What is ‘better than nothing,’ Devlin?”  Michel asked.  He shifted his car down into a lower gear as we approached a roundabout.  “I fear that I am missing something.  I am missing quite a bit.”

“That would not be exactly wrong,” I said.

“I can tell you about the rest of it later,” Sarah chimed in.  “I’ll need you to drive back over here and pick me up after Devlin’s back at his hotel, anyway, and then we can talk in person.”

He nodded slowly.  I poked one of his shoulder blades from behind and, when he turned to face me, tapped an index finger against my ear.  It took him a second to get it, but I saw the light of understanding come on in his eyes.  He nodded once.

We passed a street lamp and I saw sweat trickling down the back of Michel’s neck in the sudden glare of light.  He reached a hand back to wipe at the moisture, seemingly without even paying attention to the action.  “Listen,” I said, “if this is too much for you, I understand.”

“Hell,” Sarah added, “this is getting to be too much for me, and I’ve been aware of things since before we targeted the crown.  After the drop, I can give you the account number and you can just disappear into the wind.  I’m sure we can find another driver for the rest of our time here.”

He scratched fervently at the nape of his neck.  I watched his mouth open, close, and then open again, without any words passing his lips.  “I…am unsure,” he said finally.  “There is a lot of information I did not know before.  I thought that this was something simple.”

“It’s never simple,” I said.  “If it starts looking too simple, then you’re being set up.”

“Ah,” Michel replied.  The two of us drove in silence for a good distance.  No sound came from Sarah’s side of the comms for a minute and then she busied herself with something on her computer.  Her typing was as rhythmic as ever, though the pace of her keystrokes was lower than I’d heard in a while.

“What’s happening at the museum?”  I asked, more to break the oppressive atmosphere than out of any real curiosity.

“Local police are still trying to get into the building,” Sarah answered, “while the guards are still trying to get out.  According to the scanner, they’ve got some wunderkind in their IT department, so it won’t take him all that much longer to re-open the ports and reverse the lockdown protocol.”  She laughed suddenly.

“What’s funny?”

“Well, it wouldn’t take too long, if there weren’t someone making it as much of a pain as possible.”

“You’re still connected?  Why are you doing that?”

I’m not doing anything,” she said.  “Helen left a bug behind before she disconnected.  It’s a fairly dumb piece of code.  All it can do is carefully and thoroughly shut every port that opens from outside of the network, as soon as it appears.  Excepting my own backdoor, of course.”

“Of course.  That can’t be traced back to you, though?”

“There isn’t, as far as I’m aware, any way to trace it back to Helen.  The program doesn’t require active direction on her part.  And even if it gets traced back to her, she doesn’t know my real name or what we were after.”

“Sarah,” I said.  “That sounds suspiciously like good news.”

“How are you so calm?”  The question erupted from Michel.  His eyes widened at the same time as my own, as though his voice was a surprise.  “How can the two of you joke with each other?  You are not worried?”

If I’d been less concerned with my routine post-job banter, I would have known to expect the outburst.  There were soothing platitudes I’d committed to memory in the past, a great many of which had been used to calm me down after my first handful of jobs.  None of them fit the moment, however.  I cleared my throat and spoke directly from my heart.

“I have no idea what’s going on,” I said to Michel.  “I haven’t had a clue since La Santé…since before that, even, when Asher left me all but gift-wrapped for the Parisian law.  Every conceivable thing that could go wrong has gone wrong.  And right now, I’m sitting in the back seat of a dying car – no offense – holding a crown that means something to a psychotic mastermind hellbent on revenge, while working in opposition to or at the pleasure of some mysterious figures capable of hiring muscle from all over the planet, apparently.  The only friends I’ve got right now are my ex-wife, who I haven’t worked with in years, and you.  You think I’m not worried?  I’m fucking terrified.”

The dead air in the car and over the comms was profound and absolute.

After a minute, I swallowed my spit and spoke again.  “But being terrified isn’t going to help me, is it?  I didn’t choose to get involved in this, and I’d be absolutely thrilled to not be in the middle of whatever the hell I walked into, but here I am.  I can either get played or I can be a player.  And I absolutely refuse to be played.”

Sarah spoke up, almost immediately.  “Seconded.”

I softened my tone.  “This is a thing that I’m caught up in.  Sarah can get you a new identity, and you can get out of this.  You don’t have to stay, if you don’t want.  That’s for you to decide.  Right now, all I need is for you to help us finish the job, okay?”  I glanced up and saw my hotel rising from the horizon in front of us.  “Can you do that?”

“I can do that,” he said, with a voice that spoke volumes about his doubt.  The car coughed and shuddered violently when he found an available space near the hotel’s entrance.  “I might need to use that money just to buy another cab,” he said.  It took me a second to recognize that he was joking.

Sarah must have heard the same thing in his voice, because she gave the joke a sharp laugh.  “If these numbers are right,” she said, “then you won’t be worrying about car payments for a while.”

“If you aren’t in London tomorrow,” I said, after I’d stepped out of the car and onto the curb, “I won’t hold it against you.  Trust me; you’ve already done more for me than I had any right to ask, and I don’t know that I’ll ever really be able to repay you.”

“I…okay,” Michel replied.  He nodded again, though this one was more to himself than me.

I touched a finger to my earbud.  “Sarah, I’m going off comms for the night.  Can you call me on the room phone after you finish up with the drop?”

“I think I can handle that,” she said.  She spoke again, just before I removed the tiny piece of equipment from my ear canal.  “Devlin?”

“Yes?”

“Good work tonight.  I’m…glad you made it out safe.”

“As it turns out,” I said, smiling broadly, “I’m fond of that outcome as well.”  She scoffed, but I heard the familiar note of laughter in that dismissive sound.  “Alright, checking out for the night.  See you in the morning.”  I nodded once to Michel, who offered a wan smile in return, and then removed the earbud.  I clicked it off and slipped it into my pocket.

The interior of the hotel was empty, save for a single employee manning the front desk.  His eyebrows lifted significantly as he beheld my new suit.  I walked past without comment and rode the elevator up to my floor, removing my tie and adding the mini-camera equipped tie bar to my pocket as I ascended.  In hindsight, a thousand gentler ways of speaking to Michel popped into mind, but there was nothing to do about it now.  Either he would decide to show back up at the hotel tomorrow morning or he wouldn’t.  Considering how dangerous things had already become, the best option might actually be for him to simply vanish in the wind.  It was absolutely the best thing for Sarah, whether she wanted to admit it or not.  I began to form a plan that would guide her out of the line of fire and into safety.

I was so distracted by my plotting that I stepped off the elevator, approached my room door, and almost didn’t notice the imperceptible space between my door and the jamb until my fingers wrapped around the door knob.  Even after noticing it, my own bodyweight worked against me.  I tried to stop myself from turning the knob; my bulk pushed the door open anyway.  I fell in a tangle of limbs, rolled, and I came up in a makeshift fighting stance.  Nothing moved in the hotel room except for me.

Seated in one of the plush chairs, sipping delicately at a glass of blood-red wine, a woman regarded me with a cool eye.  A hulk of a man stood at her shoulder, his massive arms crossed just under his breastbone.  And, looking out of the window onto the sleeping city of London, I recognized Mila’s distinctive build.  The lady spoke first, in a voice that reminded of cold knives; jagged icicles; and a wide variety of other beautiful, dangerous things.

“Mr. O’Brien,” she said.  “I believe the time has come for you and I to discuss matters…personally.”

Chapter 40

“Sarah.”  My stomach twisted into Escher-like knots and beads of sweat blossomed up and down my arms, but I kept my voice calm, level, and low.  “Please tell me that you can turn this off.”

“I’m trying,” she said, “but this doesn’t make any sense!  I’m in their network.  According to the museum’s own computers, everything is fine.  Nothing spiked, you didn’t trip anything, and there wasn’t any signal that could even activate a security grid.  It’s almost like…”  She trailed off.  “Oh.  Oh.”

“Oh?  That doesn’t sound like a very inspired ‘oh,’ Sarah.  I’m going to need a little more on that ‘oh’ and what it means for me, okay?”

“I can’t find any trace of that laser grid in the museum’s system, because it isn’t in the museum’s system.  And there isn’t a network signal to track down, because it isn’t wireless.”

I parsed that information.  I reached the same conclusion as Sarah in short order, but the absurdity was large enough that I still had trouble accepting it as reality.  “Someone actually went to the trouble of wiring a physical security system to a pressure plate, to protect this damn thing?”

“Unless you’ve got a better idea.  Nothing else explains the utter lack of documentation, does it?”

The angry red lasers rose and fell, changed direction, and intersected with each other at seemingly random intervals no more than a foot away from me.  Now that I was looking specifically for them, I could spot the tiny marks in the wall where laser pointers were concealed.  “Doesn’t really matter if it make sense,” I conceded.  “Can you turn it off?”

“How am I supposed to do that?  There isn’t a network to hack into.  Short of physically cutting the wiring – which is a bit difficult to do from here – there wasn’t any way for me to stop that trap from activating.  I could shut down the power to the whole museum, but even that might not work.  If I’d gone to the trouble of setting something like that up, you can be damn sure I’d give it a dedicated power source.”

The pulsing fear at the base of my skull, that primal need to escape that had kept me just ahead of the police for much of my career, had only grown stronger during my stay in La Santé.  I kept it under my control, barely, and spoke through clenched teeth.  “I’m running out of time.  Either I move now and every guard in the building knows exactly where I am, or I stick around until someone patrols by…and then every guard in the building knows exactly where I am.  So, I’m going to need you to come up with options.”  A tense second passed.  “Please.”

“I’m thinking, I’m thinking…can you turn so that I can get a better look at the laser grid between you and the gate?”

I turned, careful to keep my limbs as close to my chest as possible.  When the mini-camera was pointed directly at the gate, I stopped and waited.  The droplets of sweat grew to the size of large raindrops and crawled down my side and the back of my neck.  I took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly.  When that didn’t work, I repeated the process three more times, with similar results.  “Sarah?  I’m really starting to weigh the relative merits of just making a dash for it.”

“Give me just a few more seconds,” she said.  “I’m almost…”

“A few more seconds?”  I could feel the exact instant when my nerves slipped out my control.  “I don’t have a few seconds.  It’s got to be awfully comfortable knowing that you can just disconnect and skip town, but I will go to prison for this.  If not worse, considering the Magi are involved in this.  Or did you forget that it’s my actual skin in the game?”

As soon as the words passed my lips, I regretted them.  Years of partnership – even the events of that very night – served as clear evidence that Sarah was as much involved in this heist as I was, just on a different playing field.  I opened my mouth to apologize, but couldn’t seem to find an appropriate way to phrase my apology.

She spoke before I had a chance to.  “Got it!”

“Got what?”

“This isn’t ideal,” she said, “and there isn’t really a way to test it, but I might have a way for you to get out of that room.”

“I’m willing to listen to creative solutions.”

“You’re…”  Sarah hesitated.  “You’ll have to dance,” she finished finally.

“…what?”  I blinked, tapped the earbud with a fingernail, and shook my head.  “Did I just hear that right?”

“I think there’s a pattern,” she said, “and you could learn it yourself if you had the time.  But there isn’t time.”

“So, I’ve got to dance.  Through a security grid.”  I bit down on the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing out loud at the ridiculousness.  “Well, that’s not the craziest thing I’ve heard in the past week, is it?”

“It gets worse,” Sarah said.

“Of course it gets worse.”

“There’s a specific rhythm you’ll need to follow, with very specific footwork.  You already know the steps, though. At least, I hope you do.”

“Okay.  What’s the dance?”

Instead of an answer, Sarah played a familiar song through the earbuds.  I realized it instantly, and a memory played in my mind: the ballroom scene from the remake of Thomas Crowne Affair.  “Our wedding song?”

“You’ve only got a minute and change before the guard patrols back,” Sarah said, ignoring my protest.  “Get in position.  You’ll have to start immediately if you want to make it out of the exhibit with enough time to reach some cover.”

Despite the clammy grip of fear on my heart, despite the nearly audible click as precious seconds vanished, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.  The world as I knew it had clearly fallen away, replaced by a world where insanity ruled and everything was stacked specifically to dig at old wounds.  “Ready,” I said, out loud.

“Three…two…one…”

I started to dance.  Sarah’s concerns about my memory were unfounded; my feet knew what to do.  They’d never forgotten.  Since our split, I’d dedicated a part of myself to the simple task of blocking those memories out.  It was a relief to relax those guards, even if only for a few seconds.  I pivoted, backstepped, dipped, and spun through the lasers.  My eyes tracked their movements automatically as I made minute adjustments to the steps when one beam or another threatened to cross paths with my body.  When I reached the gate, thirty seconds after I’d moved away from the dais, I found that I didn’t want to stop dancing.

Sarah’s voice brought me back to the moment.  “That was perfect,” she said in a slightly breathless voice.  “The guard’s on the way back to you.  Thirty-three seconds.”

I pulled the gate closed once more and, after it locked with a soft click, hurried across the hallway to a darkened alcove.  The shadows around the nearest alcove were deep enough that I had trouble picking it out at first.  I slipped into concealment, until my right shoulder touched a wall, and held my breath.  I couldn’t turn my head in such tight quarters and all I could see was a black expanse.

“Here he comes,” Sarah said.  “Approaching from the south, right on schedule.”  The silence from her side of the comms stretched in excruciating, glacial seconds.  “And…there he goes,” she said, just when I thought that I’d go mad from the waiting.  “You should be clear for the next five minutes.”

I eased out of the alcove and glanced cautiously in both directions.  The hallway, further into the museum and leading out to the lobby, was clear.  I let out my held breath and dug my thumb into the offending itch.  “Well, that was fun,” I said.  I’d meant it sarcastically but, suddenly, I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t being entirely serious.

“I don’t know that I’d qualify that as fun,” Sarah replied.  “You’ll take the same path back out.  Stop off in that office, wait for the guard to pass, and then make your exit.”

“Can you get Michel on the line?”  I asked.  “I’m going to need a ride out of here, and I’d rather not have to wait for a cab.”

Sarah hesitated.  “Give me a second,” she said finally.

I moved back into the shadows and waited until the line popped, letting me know that Sarah had connected the call into our communications.  “Michel?”  I asked

Oui, Devlin,” Michel’s voice came in.  “How are things at the gala?”

“Considerably more exciting than I’d expected,” I said, as I crept away from the exhibit.  “You wouldn’t be able to give me a ride back to the hotel, would you?”

“You have perfect timing, mon ami,” Michel replied.  “I was having dinner at a restaurant, not very far from the museum, but I am finished now.  I could be there in…ten minutes, perhaps?”

“Hold on a second, okay?”

I couldn’t verbally give Sarah the signal to mute his line, but the pop in my ear let me know that she’d come to that conclusion on her own.  “What’re you thinking?”

“Sarah,” I asked, “you said that the guards don’t change rotations for the rest of the night?”

“Not according to their duty rosters, no.”

“Could I hide out in that office until Michel’s almost here, then?”

She considered that.  “It isn’t a bad plan.  That would give me a chance to get a better look at those documents, at least.”

“Alright, then.”  The line popped once more, bringing my French friend back on the line.  “Ten minutes should be fine.  I can meet you at the café across the street.”

“I am on the way,” Michel said.

I started to say something, but stopped.  My instincts told me that something was wrong.  I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was bothering me.  The pressure plate, complete with its own dedicated security system, was the sort of thing that only a very paranoid person would think of.  Someone that paranoid would probably take even more steps to ensure the safety of the crown.  Perhaps even setting up a security system for the sole purpose of luring any possible thieves into a false sense and security, only to –

Every light in the museum switched on, at the same time.  The light was so abrupt and blinding that I recoiled from it instinctively, almost dropping the crown in the process.  A millisecond later, a shrill howling alarm went off that lifted every hair on my arms and set my nerves on high alert.

What?”  Sarah’s voice was louder, by virtue of the earbud, than the alarm itself.  “God damn it!”

My legs took off in a dead run without any input from my conscious mind.  I spoke into the comms as I ran.  “How did I trip the alarms?”

“You didn’t!  That pressure plate under the crown must have been set up to manually trigger the museum’s own security system.”  There was a burst of frenzied typing from her end of the line.  “And to dial out to the police, too.  On another damn hard line.  Who the hell has a wired phone anymore?”

“Devlin, Sarah?  What is going on?”  Michel’s voice was filled with concern.  “What are you talking about?”

“Absolutely nothing about this job is what it seems like,” I said, to Sarah.  I took the next corner without slowing and banged one shoulder against a wall as I changed direction.  “And I am really beginning to revisit my stance on guns, as it pertains to Asher for putting me through all this.”

“Guards, ahead of you!”  Sarah snapped.

“Guards?  What guards?”  There was so much confusion in Michel’s voice that I would have laughed in almost any other situation.

I skidded to a halt, just as two guards appeared at the end of the hallway.  The surprise in their body language mirrored my own.  I recovered first and pushed off of the nearest wall, heading in the opposite direction at top speed.  I caught a glint of metal in the corner of my eyes.  I rounded the corner I’d just cleared as, just over my head, paint exploded from a bullet that only missed me by inches.

“They’re shooting at me, Sarah,” I said.  I gave up on any pretense of controlling my adrenal surge and let it flow freely through my limbs instead.  “I need an exit, and I can’t use the lobby anymore.  What else have you got for me?”

“I don’t…what…”  Her ability to deal with the unexpected was taxed now.  I berated myself for missing the signs.

I stopped for just a second, and knelt behind a display case, so that I could catch my breath.  “Sarah,” I said, injecting every ounce of calm I still possessed into my voice, “I need you to be my eyes.  You’ve still got the cameras, don’t you?”

She inhaled audibly. “I…I’ve still got them.”

“If I’m about to run into anyone, give me a heads up.  Michel, I don’t know what you’ve got to do, but I need you here now.”

I couldn’t imagine the shock he was feeling, but there must have been steel in him.  I heard him lean into the horn of his car and several other horns responded in kind.  “I am hurrying,” he said.  “I do not know what is going on, but I am hurrying.  You will be at the café?”

“Wait!”  The word came from Sarah’s end of the line in a single, sharp sound.  Several rapid-fire clicks came over the line.  “I’m sending you an address, Michel.  Go there, and then wait.  Devlin, you’re going to have to go through a different part of the museum, out to the theatre.  Do you remember how to get there?”

“Past the people with the guns?  Because I am not a fan of the people with the guns.”  I stopped and thought.  “Guards don’t even carry guns in England!”

She didn’t comment on my realization.  “I can pull some of them away from you, but not all of them.  If there’s one or two in the way, you’ll have to handle that on your own.”

“How are you going to pull them away?”

“You said it yourself.”  I thought I heard a shadow of a smile in her voice.  “I’ve got the cameras.”

“False trail?”

“False trail,” she said.

“False trail?”  Michel asked.  From his side of the comms, tires squealed and horns blared their displeasure.  “What is this false trail?”

I started to run in the direction of the theatre.  Sarah explained when, after twenty seconds, I said nothing.  “These feeds were still running,” she said, “it’s just that I intercepted what they saw and what the guards saw.  Now that they know Devlin’s in the building, there’s no point in pretending everything’s just fine.  Instead…”  She typed a command into her computer.

Voices reached my ears from the other end of the hallway.  They stopped, spoke in thick Cockney accents, and then went in the opposite direction.

When Sarah spoke again, she sounded positively triumphant.  “Instead, I can show them exactly what they’re looking for.  Which still isn’t the truth, but it gives them something to chase after.”

“I do not…zut alors, I do not understand what it is that you are saying,” Michel said.

I interjected before Sarah could continue her explanation.  “She can put up video of me running through the hallways,” I said, “except away from the theatre.  Even though they’ve got to know their system’s been subjugated, people fall back on familiarities when they’re stressed out.  If their cameras still look like they’re working, then there’ll be someone who trusts them implicitly.”

Sarah picked up the thread.  “But not everyone.  If we’re lucky…well, nevermind.  Devlin, you’re coming up on the theatre now.  Michel, where are you?”

I could almost hear the gears in the Frenchman’s mind clicking and grinding as he forced them to work, despite the unimaginable strain of this new information.  “I am almost there.  Perhaps five more minutes?”

“The police are on the way to the museum,” she said.  “They aren’t concerned with some speeding or traffic violations.  Can you get there in three?  Or two and a half?”

The tiny engine in his car whined as he forced it to even higher RPMs.  “Oui, mademoiselle,” he said.  “I will make it.”

I entered the theatre.  My lungs ached from lack of oxygen, but I didn’t slow my pace.  There were two guards in the aisles.  My arrival, clad in a bespoke suit of fine fabric, sprinting in a dead heat away from the museum proper provoked something like a blue screen in their minds.  They froze for an instant; powered by panic and terror, I did not.  I crashed into one with my shoulder and knocked him to the ground.  My momentum helped me and I rolled back up to my feet, just as the other guard reached for a collapsible baton.  I kicked him once on the inside of his thigh and then reversed my own attack with a diagonal elbow strike to the back of his neck.  He followed his partner to the carpeted floor.

The theatre door opened behind me.  I didn’t waste a second checking on either of the two unarmed guards I’d dropped.  I ran like a madman to the exit.  I heard a lone voice yell something at me.  The words were English but, in my haste, my brain refused to translate the sound into anything intelligible.  The door was only a couple of yards away.  I reached and opened it, just as the sound of a gunshot echoed through the acoustically enhanced space.  Something pushed into my shoulder, giving me an extra boost, and I tumbled out of the theatre into open air.  Michel’s cab, smoke pouring from beneath its hood, screeched up ahead of me.

“Devlin!”  Sarah yelled into the comms.  “Devlin, are you hurt?”

I yanked the back passenger door open and threw myself and the crown into the seat.  Michel slammed his foot down and the car began to accelerate.

“Sarah,” I gasped out.  Every muscle in my body hurt. “Lock them in.”

“What are you…oh!”  She keyed a command into her computer.  “Lockdown’s initiated.  Now, are you okay? I saw one of them shoot at you, just before you made it outside!”

I rolled over, so that I could face the ceiling of the car and sucked down oxygen greedily.  My shoulder, in particular, hurt much more than my abused and overworked legs.  I reached a tentative hand up to touch the area and pulled the fingers away instantly as they brushed against something hot.

“Good news,” I said, between hungry gulps of air.  “Suzie does great work.”

Chapter 39

“I’ve got the layout on my screen,” Sarah said.  “I can’t tell your exact location without the cufflinks, but with the security feed and the mini-camera you’re wearing, there’s enough information to work with.  Head over to the ancient history section.  I’ll keep an eye out for any guards and alert you if they change their rotation.”

“Yes ma’am,” I whispered back.  The smile tickled at the edge of my lips.  I kept it from my face and voice by only the barest margin.  I checked the lobby once more with a quick peek from around my cover before I started to creep through the darkened museum, clinging to each hiding place for a few seconds.  I made it all the way across the lobby, to a long hallway, without any incident.

“It’s quiet,” I said.  Then, after a lengthy moment where I tried my best not to finish the thought, “Too quiet.”

Sarah groaned.  “It’s a big building, and most of the guards are on patrol around the actual art work.  This crown isn’t the only traveling exhibit here.”

“So, what’re we looking at?  Even spread of guards throughout the area?”

“No,” she said, and I heard the frown in her voice.  “Some areas are better protected than others, some barely get visited.”

“I’m going to guess that the crown belongs to that first category.”

Sarah sighed.  “You would not be wrong.”

I shook my head and shrugged.  “Wouldn’t be any fun otherwise, I guess.  Am I clear for this hallway?”

She didn’t answer for a moment.  I listened as she searched the camera feeds, via an intricate rhythm of clicks and taps.  “Clear for one and a half minutes.  There’ll be a staff office on your left.  Keycard lock, but I’ll open it when you get there.”

I hurried forward, into the hallway.  The Museum’s exterior lights fell behind me and dimmed to tiny pinpricks of illumination.  In the darkness, I strained my eyes in search of the office door; at the same time, I counted down from ninety and spared a glance up every third second in case one of the guards decided to break from tradition.  I knew, academically, that Sarah would warn me if that happened, but those instincts were hardwired.  At seventy-five seconds, I saw a glint of metal approaching.  As I drew close enough, a red light attached to a card reader set into the wall appeared.  The light turned green and a click came from the door’s locking mechanism, just as my hand touched the doorknob.  I slipped inside and closed the door behind me.

“Hold there for three minutes,” Sarah said.  “You didn’t see him, but there’s a guard coming up on the room now.  His path takes him down to the lobby, where he’ll linger for a bit, and then he goes back up to his original post.”

I glanced down.  If there was a gap between the door and its frame, it was too tiny for me to see.  Experimentally, I removed the pocket flashlight.  I covered it with my hand and clicked it on.  “Pull up the feed from right outside this room,” I said.

“Done.  Why?”

I moved my hand away from the flashlight’s bulb for a second, covered it again, and then repeated the maneuver.  “Did you see that?”  I asked.

“See what?  Was I supposed to see something?”

“No, you were not.”  I relaxed minutely and let the pocket flashlight illuminate the room, as best it could.  “You said three minutes, right?  I think I’m going to look around, then.”

“Go for it,” Sarah said.  “But don’t forget: two and a half minutes.  Otherwise, you’ll have to wait out another patrol.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem.”  I pivoted and let the flashlight pan across the room.  It was a relatively small space, with two chairs and a low desk in the center of the room.  A diploma hung on the back wall.  I focused the light on the plaque for a moment, committing the name on it to memory, and then went back to the desk.  Its top was cluttered and covered with a mess of folders and documents.  I took three steps forward – which encompassed nearly all of the space available for movement – and plucked one of the papers off of the desk.  The information on the single sheet of paper consisted of spreadsheets that detailed the arrival and departure dates for some of the museum’s traveling exhibits.  I picked up another piece of paper and its contents were essentially the same, although the names changed.

I went through five more pieces of paper like that, giving each document three or four seconds of my attention before I reached for another, before Sarah stopped me.  “Wait,” she said.  “Pick that one up again?”

I hadn’t been paying any particular attention to the paperwork and it took me a bit to find the specific sheet she wanted.  I pointed the flashlight at it so that I could read what it said.  “What is it?”

“Hold it a little lower.”  I complied and brought the piece of paper down so that the tie bar faced directly at it.  “Well, that isn’t good,” Sarah said after a couple of seconds.

“What?”

“Third line from the bottom,” she said.

My eyes traveled down the page until I reached the entry in question, third from the bottom.  At first, it seemed like more of the legalese and financial jargon I’d begun to ignore.  Then, I noticed what Sarah had seen at first glance; in the space marked for “sender,” someone had written the letters BMC in black pen.  I read on, eager to see what our mysterious Magi had sent to the Museum, but the remainder of the information was encrypted with an arcane series of letters and numbers.

“You’re in their system,” I said to Sarah.  “Can you find out what exhibit this is supposed to be?”

“I’m looking now,” she answered.

I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose.  “So,” I said, mostly to myself, “Asher’s supposedly working for the Magi, but he’s also planning a robbery at a museum they’ve already…I don’t know what the word is.”

“Infiltrated?”  Sarah suggested.  “Compromised?”

“Either one works,” I answered absently.  My thoughts had begun to test connections at high speed, firing through possibilities in a split second.  None seemed to fit the information I’d managed to gather over the last few days.  Even the small section of my brain that I’d specifically tasked to think like Asher failed to provide a suitable answer.  “It doesn’t matter, though.”

“It doesn’t?”

“If he wants it, then I want to get it first.  If that’s all we know, that’s enough for me right now.  Anything that helps him to get even the tiniest bit more power is something that I really do not want him to get his hands on.”  I paused.  “What, do you think we should stop?”

“No!”  Her answer caught me off guard with its sharp immediacy.  I blinked and she tried again, calmer.  “No, I don’t.  You’re right.  If it’s something he thinks is going to help him in whatever he’s got planned, then I don’t want him to get it, either.  It’s just…”

I finished for her.  “It’s just that you can’t figure it out.  There’s a puzzle to unravel, and you hate not being able to understand what’s going on.”

“There’s so much going on here that we don’t understand, Dev,” Sarah said.  “Russian bank jobs.  Assassins.  The drug trade.  There aren’t a lot of things that worry me, and even fewer that scare me.  But these Magi…they’re scary, Dev.  Really scary.”

Privately, I agreed with her assessment.  Asher’s planning made him a serious threat, even without the added benefit of a veritable army of hired goons.  The addition of a considerable amount of wealth only raised that danger alert to a fever pitch.  I didn’t say any of that out loud, though.  I’d already resolved to get Sarah away from me, as fast as possible, to save her from whatever hell Asher was now capable of raining down.

So, out loud, I said, “It’s one job.  We pull this off, he comes to us, and then we can wash our hands of the whole thing.”

“If you say so.”  Sarah’s voice quivered slightly.  I’d never heard anything like this from her before.  I didn’t like it, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it from here, in an office inside of the Museum of London.  “Damn, you missed the window.  You’ve got another four minutes before you’ll get another chance.”

“I’m not in a rush, am I?”

“No.”  She checked something on her computer.  “No rush.  They wrote up a duty roster, and put it into the network.  They don’t change their rotations for the rest of the night.”

I nodded. “Infested, by the way.”

“What?”

“We were trying to find the right word for what the Magi are doing?”  I reminded her.  “Infested.  A museum they’ve already infested.”

“That’s a…sobering thought.”

That line prompted several seconds of awkward silence.  I cleared my throat after the tension grew too thick for me to bear.  “Any luck on tracking down the exhibit that the Magi sent here?”

She cursed softly.  “No.  Well, not really.  I can track down the manifest easily enough.  That leads me to a database where each item here is catalogued and tagged with an ID number.  The identification number, however, leads to a dead end.  Basically, according to their shipping records, there is nothing in their warehouse that matches the ID number.  Even though you’ve got the paperwork right in front of you.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

“How, exactly, does that make sense?”

“If you were a part of some shadowy criminal organization, would you want to leave your information in a computer system where any suitably skilled and motivated individual could peek at your activities?”

“They can’t have expected this to happen,” Sarah said.

“Of course they didn’t,” I replied.  “But this isn’t necessarily the kind of thing you have to start practicing all of a sudden.  If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s a standing policy against storing too much detail electronically.  There’s got to be a paper trail; just the one warehouse probably handles enough money that the logistics are a nightmare.  But there doesn’t have to be a digital paper trail.  It’s easier to protect a single file cabinet than an entire network, right?”

“Then why would that document just be out in the open?  Shouldn’t it be behind lock and key somewhere?”

“If it’s important, you’re right.  It should be.”  I mused over that in silence for a few seconds.  “No system is any stronger than its weakest link, though.  The best security in the world is useless if you hired an idiot who just leaves the information in plain view.”

Sarah coughed in surprise.  “I told you that, back in Brussels.  You actually remembered that?”  She asked.

“I do pick up information every now and again, you know.”

“Well, imagine my surprised face.”

I smiled to myself in the darkness.

“Alright,” Sarah said, quickly returning to her professional role and voice.  “Five seconds and then the hall’s clear.”

I clicked off the tiny flashlight and stood with my hand lightly touching on the office’s doorknob.  “Call it.”

“Three.  Two.  One.”  Silence for two more seconds.  “Alright, go now.  You’re heading straight down until the wall, then right.  You’ll see the crown’s exhibit.”

I opened the door with as much delicacy as I could manage, stepped into the hallway, and pulled the door shut behind me.  The soft click as the lock re-engaged was, in the comparatively silent hallway, like a gunshot.  I tensed, prepared to run at the first word from Sarah.  She said nothing and, after five incredibly tense seconds, I fast-walked to the end of the hallway.

Each camera I passed drew a nervous glance from me.  While their lens still turned in synchronized rhythm, occasionally pointing directly at me, no alarm went up and no guards rushed to my position.  “Can you do something about that?”  I asked Sarah.  “Make them…I don’t know, point somewhere else?”

There was another camera less than two yards away from me.  It swiveled suddenly, fixing me in its gaze.  I froze.  The camera’s lens stared at me for two seconds, before it turned to the left and then to the right.  I realized, after a panicked second, that the camera was shaking its lens, providing a silent no to my request.  Over the comms, Sarah began to giggle.

“Really?”  My heart was still pounding in my chest.  “Because this is a good time for practical jokes?”

She tried to answer, but her laughter kept her from forming words.  I stayed angry at her poor comic timing until I reached the end of the hallway and turned.  By then, I’d relaxed and privately started to chuckle as well.  Sarah’s practical jokes were simply an outlet for nerves.  If she was anxious enough to play with the cameras for a quick laugh, then it was absolutely for the best that she release that energy before she made a mistake.

It also reminded me once more of the old days, but I banished that wistful recollection the instant it reared its head.  I could reminisce later, after the crown was safely out of Asher’s reach and Sarah was free to wait out the remainder of his war in safety.

I saw the exhibit for the crown before I was close enough to actually see the crown itself.  I walked up to the gate cautiously.  “Time?”  I asked.

“Four minutes, thirty-two seconds and counting,” Sarah said.

The gate was kept shut with a slightly modified tumbler lock.  If I’d had more time to plan this job, or greater liquid resources, I would typically have just bought a copy of the key from an underpaid security guard.  As it was, I spent one minute fiddling with the lock before it popped open.  Privately, I gave myself a pat on the back for not breaking yet another lockpick.  “Anything special I should know about?”

“According to their own network, no.  Three minutes, thirty seconds.”

There was nowhere in the exhibit room to hide.  I could see that much at a glance.  A small alcove across the hall offered the smallest measure of concealment, though.  Moving quickly, I could grab the crown and retreat to the safety of the alcove until the guards patrolled away and gave me an open path to freedom.  I slipped through the barely opened gate and took long steps to reach the crown.  It was surrounded by paintings, cave drawings, and various other artifacts of a bygone age.  I ignored all of them.

The crown was only five long strides into the exhibit room.  Just inches away from the dais, I took a second to examine the object I was about to steal.  It wasn’t remarkable in any way that I could see.  There were no jewels encrusted into its surface and, from what I could remember, nothing noteworthy about the time period historically.  It wasn’t exactly worthless, but it wasn’t something that Asher would have looked twice at.  Obviously, there was more to the crown than what it appeared to be.

There was no point considering its true value at that moment, though.  I hesitated for a second and then plucked the crown from its dais with two fingers, holding my breath as I did so.  Nothing happened.

I waited ten more seconds before I turned to go.  “Huh,” I said.  “That was…”

“Devlin!”  Sarah snapped.  “Don’t.  Move.”

My muscles locked where they were.  “What?  What is it?”

She didn’t answer, at first.  The normally frantic pace of her typing accelerated so much that it sounded like machine gun fire.  When she finally spoke, I recognized the distance in her voice; that of someone speaking to themselves aloud.  “Nothing from their personal network,” she mumbled.  “Their system is under my control, and every exterior port should be jammed from Helen’s DDOS.  Cameras are clean, guards are on regular rotation.”

“Sarah,” I said, injecting as much calm into my voice as I could muster.  The crown hovered an inch off of the dais, but I wasn’t sure if replacing it would help matters.  “What is going on?”

“There was an electrical surge, as soon as you picked it up.  I just can’t figure out what it was from.  That amount of wattage normally accompanies very large energy expenditures suddenly coming online all at once, but I can’t figure out where it came from.”  She slammed her hands down on her desk in anger or frustration.  The sound nearly made me jump in surprise.

“I’ve…got an idea,” I said carefully.  Using my free hand, I dug into one of the jacket’s secret pockets until my fingers found the aerosol spray can.  I pulled it free with two fingers and, when it was firmly in my grasp, turned the nozzle away from me.

“What are you…”  Sarah trailed off.

I pressed the nozzle down with my index finger.  The mist from the spray can drifted delicately to the ground.  Three inches away from the floor, the white fog revealed an angry, ethereal red line.  As I watched, the red line moved away from me, out of the revealing mist.  Sarah inhaled sharply over the comms while I turned in a tight circle, my finger forcing more and more of the aerosol spray into the room.  When I’d turned three hundred and sixty degrees, my situation was clear.  A moving laser grid had sprung up all around me, visible only through the light dusting of mist from the tiny can.  I tried to find a pattern for five seconds before I realized that I simply wasn’t capable of parsing that much information.  Fear mixed with adrenaline and nerves was a poor booster for analytical thought.

“Shit,” I said.  “Just…shit.”

Shit,” Sarah agreed.

 

Chapter 38

We decided to leave the Aston Martin at the station, after several minutes of tense debate.

Sarah maintained that the car was entirely too distinctive.  It was a flashy vehicle, she said, and holding onto it only increased the likelihood of a possible tail.  Also, it was apparently Mila’s personal car.  Neither Sarah nor I had the foggiest idea of her true intentions or goals, and we couldn’t rule out that the strange woman was working against us in some way.

My position centered on the fact that it was just too cool to simply abandon.

Sarah won.  “Check the trunk before you go” she said, while I mouthed silent goodbyes to the Aston.

‘Why?”

“Check it and find out for yourself.”

I found the appropriate button to open the trunk and exited the car to check its contents.  Inside the storage space – which thankfully did not trigger any phobic reactions beyond the ones I’d long since grown accustomed to – I saw one familiar item and one I’d never seen before: my suit coat from the gala and an all-black travel bag.

“When Mila picked up your earbud from the grass,” Sarah said, “I told her to the grab the coat, too.  Figured you might like to have that back.”

I pulled the garment on.  Between Asher’s successful kidnapping attempt, and unsuccessful bid to torture information out of me; Mila’s surprising and fortuitously timed intervention; and the seat-of-our-pants job that Sarah and I intended to pull on the Museum of London, my clothing choices ranked at the bottom of any reasonable list of priorities.  All those issues aside, I couldn’t deny that I felt more complete, more capable of dealing with the coming challenges, with the coat on.

“Thanks for this,” I said.  “Seriously.  And the travel bag?”

“A…variety of goodies that I managed to pull together at the last second.  I met Mila at a station along the way and gave her anything I thought might help.  I didn’t know what she’d need to get you back from Asher, so it’s sort of a grab bag, honestly.”

A collection of gear was inside the bag: an older set of obsolete lock picking tools, latex sheaths to conceal my fingerprints, a collapsible mirror, two miniature containers of pepper spray, a pocket flashlight, and an aerosol can filled with compressed air.  I shifted the contents of the bag around and found an object at the bottom of the travel bag that I didn’t recognize.  “What’s this?”  I asked, lifting the item and holding in front of the tie bar so that Sarah could see it.  The object was disc shaped, with wires wound around its surface, attached to a series of metallic bindings.  There were two buttons on its surface.

“That’s hard to explain,” she said.  “Technically speaking, it’s a localized EMP.  Press both buttons at the same time, count to five, and then let them go.  I won’t go into the technical details, but when it goes off, anything electronic within about thirty feet gets fried.”

Should fry, you mean?

“No, it works.  I built it myself.”

I considered what I held in my hand.  “What’s the downside?”

Sarah hesitated for a moment.  “The problem is that I couldn’t figure out a way to shield anything from the EMP burst, including your communication device, and I couldn’t lower the range.  A huge section of a building suddenly going dark is a fairly big signal that something untoward might be going on, so I just scrapped the whole idea.”

“When did you build this?”  I asked.  “You didn’t have anything like this when we were…”  I trailed off.  It was still too difficult to discuss the past.  What I had lost – what I had ruined– was too fresh in my thoughts.

Sarah must have felt the same, because it was a long time before she answered.  “I got bored,” Sarah said finally.  “It passed the time.”

“Well, anything that might give me an edge,” I said.  “What do I do with this thing?”

“It should fit underneath the jacket, over the sleeves of your shirt,” she replied.  “Put it on your left arm, just in case.  It shouldn’t be possible to accidentally trigger it, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

I removed the jacket so that I could fit my arm into the contraption.  “And you’re sure this works?”  I asked.  “You tested this yourself?”

“Who else could I ask?”

It was an innocent question, perhaps even a sarcastic one, but it still stung.

“It’s going to bother me if I let this pass without comment,” Sarah said suddenly.  “So just…just let me get this out, okay?”

I had no idea what I had said or done, but I nodded anyway.  “Uh…okay, sure.  Go for it.”  I crossed the parking lot, travel bag over my shoulder, and headed to the train platform.  The train back to the heart of London waited; men and women were boarding and I couldn’t afford to wait for the next one.

“What you said before,” Sarah said, “about me needing to prove myself?  I don’t think you really understand what it’s like being me.  And I’m not about to get into all of that tonight.  Let’s just say that ‘proving myself’ is just a part of who I am.  The idea of you thinking that you have to protect me is…uncomfortable.”

None of this was new information.  The block on Sarah’s shoulders made her volatile and irritable on bad days; on good days, it drove her to become an inescapable force of nature.

She wasn’t finished, though.  “If we’re going to do this – if we’re going after Asher – then we have to be partners.  Like we used to be, before…you know, before.  I’ll try not to get upset when you go off-script, but you can’t decide to cut ties and go it alone again.  Not like you did tonight.  Asher was going to kill you.  How do you think it makes me feel, knowing that you’d rather go through that alone instead of asking for help?”

It was a rhetorical question.  At least, I was reasonably sure that it was rhetorical.  Even if it wasn’t, I didn’t have an answer available, and so I let silence spread into the gap after Sarah’s words.

After a minute, Sarah spoke again.  “We’ll handle this museum job, first.  But if you can’t figure out a way to work with me again, instead of going it alone at every opportunity, then I’m going to have to go.  I can’t…I won’t watch you kill yourself.  Do you understand?”

Every word she spoke pulled at my heart.  I’d heard those words, or something similar, over three years ago at our last conversation.  They didn’t hurt any less now than they had that evening.

She was right, of course.  I knew that much.  It wasn’t fair of me to ask for help, but cut her out when things got dangerous.  Protecting her from the fallout of my own actions was one thing; excluding her when things got dangerous relegated her to a satellite position.  From there, it was only reasonable that her ire would rise and rise until she eventually burst from impotent frustration.

If I had only sent a letter, or an email, or a message via Alex.  If I hadn’t shown up in San Francisco, there was a chance that she might have simply ignored the mysterious email that persuaded her to come to London.  She could’ve moved to some quiet country town where Asher couldn’t find her.  She could have lived out the rest of her life without my meddling presence, without being dragged back into the muck of the underworld she’d left behind.

The solution to the conundrum was obvious: I had to cut her loose.  After the crown was in my possession, I’d have the advantage over Asher.  He would have to come to me and, while he was fixated on my movements, Sarah would be able to slip away, using his distraction as a smokescreen.  There had to be identities she hadn’t used yet.  There were probably accounts I’d never heard about.  Sarah could have a chance to live.  This whole situation with Asher was my mess.  I could clean it up without involving her any further.

“Okay,” I said, after an eternity of silent contemplation.  “Okay.”

I boarded the train and rode until I reached the station nearest to the Museum of London.  No one gave my passing a second glance, but my nerves were on high alert.  I couldn’t help but to carefully examine every person I encountered, for fear that Asher was still somehow keeping an eye on me.  No attack came, which was nice.

When Sarah finally spoke again, the shock of her voice jolted me out of my seat.  “Got it!”  She paused.  “I think.”

Several pairs of eyes were on me.  I settled back into my seat, waving an apologetic hand above my head as I did so.  When I felt that no one was tracking me anymore, I spoke.  “Got what?”

“Access to the museum’s network,” she replied.  “And…there goes their firewall; I’m in.”

“How’d you get in?  And keep the explanation layman friendly, please?”

“Heaven forbid I use words too big for you,” Sarah said.  I smiled at the gentle shot.  “I got help.  Without getting too technical, their firewall was heavy duty.  I put out a job request to some of the online community and an old associate tasked a few dozen of their zombie computers to just brute force the damn thing.”

I tired, and failed, to decipher her meaning.  “I know that, technically, zombie isn’t a big word, but…”

Sarah chuckled.  “Systems they’ve already compromised.  The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s kind of like a flash mob.  Difficult to trace where the attack came from, when there are so many people doing the same thing.  The signal actually came from…”  I heard several rapid clicks.  “…one HelenOfTroy.  And, before you ask, he or she is probably not actually working from Greece.”

My joke thwarted, I shifted tracks.  “Did Helen break in with a Trojan Horse?”

Sarah groaned.

“Alright,” I said, after sparing a moment to bask in the glory of my terrible pun, “show time.  What can you do with that access?”

The train came to a stop.  I pushed my way through the sparse groups of people riding the train at that hour.  The Museum was within easy walking distance of the stop and I set off a quick pace.
“I’m working on administrator privileges, right now,” Sarah said.  “I should have those within a couple of minutes.  Until then, I can track camera feeds, but I can’t alter or erase them.”

“At least I won’t be going in completely blind.  What else?”

“Well, for the low price of my personalized stockbroker program, Helen agreed to provide a little cover for my intrusion.  As soon as I can get admin rights and a remote desktop to work with, Helen’s going to slam the server with information requests.  That’ll keep anyone from coming into the system in my wake.  Unless someone awfully skilled comes looking, the whole attack will just seem like some thrill seekers trashed a network for the amusement factor.”  She went quiet for a second.  I assumed she’d just now heard her own words.  “I’m still going to cover my tracks, of course.  Just in case.”

“Right,” I agreed, “Just in case.”

“If the guards use a method of communication that requires the internal network, I can track it,” Sarah said, changing the subject from her verbal faux pas, “but I can’t do a thing about landlines or walkie talkies.  If you run into someone, they can still call for help.  At that point, all I could do is put the place on lockdown.”

“After I get out of the building, I hope,” I said.

“I was on the fence about that, actually,” Sarah shot back.  “Let’s see how things play out.”

I laughed out loud, still walking down the sidewalk to the Museum.  “Ha ha.”  I over-enunciated the syllables for effect.  “Very funny.”

“I thought so.”  Sarah cleared her throat and I felt the change in the timbre of the conversation.  “What kind of an approach are you thinking about?”

There was a closed café across the street from the Museum.  I reached an empty table, leaned against it, and closed my eyes.  The street the sound of passing cars faded first to background noise and then, eventually, to silence.  In my mind’s eye, the layout of the museum – at least what I’d been able to see before Mila’s distraction – stretched out in front of me.

It took a moment to get into the right headspace.  It had been nearly three years since I’d needed to access that particular part of my brain.  When the sensation of arrival hit, it was like a physical rush: sweet as sugar and twice as addictive.  Even my guilt about Sarah’s involvement disappeared.  With my eyes squeezed shut, there were only two things that mattered in the world: my team and the job.  A shark-life smile crept, involuntarily, across my lips.

“I counted eight guards at the gala,” I said.  Even my voice sounded different to my own ears: clipped, more assertive, focused.  “How many do you see on the feeds?”

There was a brief pause, punctuated by the staccato rhythm of Sarah’s fingers flying across her keys.  “Difficult to get a solid count, but it looks like at least sixteen.  Only eight of them are anywhere near the crown on a regular basis.”

I heard the change in her voice, too.  We were professionals again.  At least, for a little while.  “That’s a lot for a night shift,” I said.

“Their network security was a lot for a museum,” Sarah replied, with the equivalent of an audible shrug.

I acknowledged that with a slight nod – one that she obviously couldn’t see but that I knew she’d simply understand – and moved onto the next point.  “Where did they actually put the crown, after they were done showing it of?”

More clicking.  “Museum staff moved a lot of the other artifacts from around the same time period, as well as the crown itself, to its own gallery.”

“Can you open the door?”

“The electronic one, I can handle.  There’s a gate, too, but it’s a basic tumbler lock.  You shouldn’t have any problem getting past that.”

Finally, the tiniest bit of luck.  “Anything else?”

“Two cameras, on complimentary schedules.  I’m creating a loop of about fifteen seconds right now and I’ll switch the feed over to them as soon as I have the rights.”

If anyone else was managing the operations side of the job, I would have doubted their ability to handle their tasks on such short notice.  This was Sarah, though, and the idea of questioning her proficiency in any way was too absurd to consider.  “Alright.  That’s all, then?”

“The guards seem to be on a weird rotation.  When you reach the gallery, you’ll have to get through the gate, grab the crown, and make yourself scarce in about five minutes.  Maybe less.”

“Still,” I said, opening my eyes, “it’s hardly the strictest timeline I’ve worked under.”

There were a few cars approaching from the right, so I waited until I couldn’t see their taillights before I hurried across the street.  A high curved wall hid me from the eyes of anyone still within the building.  When I reached the side of the street closest to the museum, I lingered for about thirty seconds, leaning against the wall with one foot propped up.  If I looked too suspicious, it would be only too easy for some concerned citizen to call the police.  It was difficult to feign casualness, with my heartbeat pounding like war drums in my head, but I pulled it off.

When I felt that I’d spent the appropriate amount of time waiting, I hazarded a peek around the wall and up the gentle incline that led up to the museum.  I could make out one camera directly over the entrance, sweeping slowly from left to right.  Its angle would give security a good view of anything more than a few yards away, but it was too high to provide a visual of anything directly underneath it.

I checked the street and sidewalk again, in both directions.  I was clear.  I walked as casually as I could manage, both eyes fixed firmly on the camera, counting the seconds as it reached one end of its path, stalled for a moment, and then began to swing in the opposite direction.  It reversed direction three times before I grasped the timing.  At the end of its fourth journey, when its lens was pointed as far away from me as it would be, I accelerated into a sprint.  The incline added an extra degree of difficulty to the run, but I made it to the museum’s entrance with a good three seconds to spare.  I flattened myself against a wall to catch my breath, and then turned to the door.

The door was locked, of course, but it was a basic lock.  Presumably, the people in charge counted on their security guards, their cameras, and their alarm system to protect them and had skimped on the door lock itself.  I knelt and used my lock picking tools to apply the right amount of pressure to the right tumblers.  The process went slower than I remembered.  I swore when one of the picks snapped.

“Seriously?”  I muttered to myself.  “Of all the skills to forget, this is the one you choose?”

I shook my head and rolled my shoulders until they loosened.  I tried again and was more successful that time.  The door’s lock opened with a barely audible click.  I took the time to survey the museum’s lobby before I actually pushed the door open.  Only a few lights were switched on, which cast the interior in an eerie mix of light and shadow.  I let my vision un-focus, sacrificing detail for a slightly enhanced ability to note movement.  There was none.

I blinked, returning my vision to normal and entered the museum.  As soon as I felt the cooler air, I cast around for something to hide behind.  There was a pillar a yard or two from my position and I threw myself at it.  In the darkness, I found a deep enough shadow to melt into easily.

I was out of practice, out of shape.  This was a museum I’d never infiltrated, and my knowledge of the architecture was sorely limited.  I only carried the bare minimum of the gear I’d painstakingly assembled over the years.  On her end, Sarah was working without a net, navigating layers of electronic security at frenzied speed.  The most stressful job I’d pulled in years had been a simple retrieval of my own property.  And, still looming behind us, was Asher; his presence added a dire weight to every decision.  My heart thundered in my chest, dumping adrenaline, fear, and anxiety into my system in one confusingly intoxicating cocktail.

I couldn’t help it.  I smiled, wide and honest, to myself in the darkness.  This felt like coming home.

“Devlin?”  Sarah’s voice only added to my smile.  “I’ve got the admin rights, finally, and the cameras are blind.  What’s your status?”

I wrestled my amusement back down.  I knew the danger of the game I was playing, and I knew the stakes.  I could self-acknowledge that laughter was an inappropriate reaction to the stress of the moment.  When I felt certain that even Sarah wouldn’t be able to hear the suppressed smile in my voice, I cleared my throat.  “I’m in.”

Chapter 37

The rain started again, as I guided Mila’s Aston Martin down the back country roads.  It wasn’t a harsh storm, by British standards, but it was enough that I found myself conflicted.  On one hand, I hoped that the warehouse burned to the ground behind me, robbing Asher of whatever influence his stash of drugs bought for him.  On the other hand, Mila was still there.  There had to have been enough men stationed to handle one person, even one with the surprising level of skill Mila had displayed earlier.  The thought that Asher’s men might have simply left Mila to burn to death wasn’t exactly implausible.

“Any word?”  I asked Sarah.  The Aston Martin came equipped with Bluetooth, and Sarah had worked some long distance magic to transfer her voice to the car’s speakers.

“Not yet,” she said.  “I called emergency services, but that warehouse was out there.  It’ll take the nearest fire department a pretty good while reach it.”

“You’re monitoring your communications?”

“I’m monitoring their communications,” Sarah repeated.  She hesitated for a moment before she continued.  “She seemed like she knew what she was doing, Devlin.”

She was right, of course.  Mila had definitely been more prepared for violence than I had been; without her timely arrival, my fate at Asher’s hands was a foregone conclusion.  She had rescued me and that imbalance made me feel the guilt of abandoning her even more keenly.  The logical realization that I couldn’t have helped didn’t assuage the feeling.  My emotions were involved, spinning themselves into a frenzy, as I reminded myself of two simple facts.  No matter how skilled she was, fire would suck the oxygen away from Mila’s lungs just as quickly as it would to anyone else; and, no matter how many men she incapacitated or killed, it would only take one lucky shot to end it all.

“You’ll let me know as soon as you hear something?”  I asked.

“Of course.”

The Oakwood station was a little more than five miles away, as I turned out.  Neither I nor Sarah spoke much, except when she occasionally corrected my course.  For the most part, I was alone with my thoughts.  It wasn’t until I drew within visual range of the station that I actually allowed myself to process the information I’d gathered in the warehouse.  Admittedly, it wasn’t much, but it was more than I’d had before my kidnapping.

“Sarah?”

Judging from the accelerating keystrokes, Sarah finished something on her end before she answered.  “Yes?”

“You mentioned the shipping manifests earlier.  What was wrong with them?”

Sarah cleared her throat.  “Asher’s manifests, you mean?”

I nodded, remembered for the billionth time that she could actually see me, and spoke out loud.  “Those, yeah.  I said that they were drugs, you didn’t believe me…why was that?”

“There was…it was too much,” she said softly.  I listened to her work, as she pulled up the relevant files on her computer.  “Even making a conservative guess, that warehouse was big enough to provide drugs to a lot of people.”

“How many people are we talking about here?”

“There…isn’t really an appropriate scale of reference,” she said.  “See, you’re American.”

I immediately, instinctively, started to protest.  “You know that I’m – “

“Alright, alright, fine.  You’re not American.  But you grew up there, and so did I.  So, when we think about drugs, we think about the small time pushers on street corners and the occasional family-led operation.  At worst, we’ve got what the media tells us about the Mexican drug cartels.”

I politely neglected to mention that I had, in fact, worked at the behest of a cartel operative once, in a purely nonviolent capacity.  “I’m following you, so far.”

“That’s not how things are here.  A couple of years back, I read through a report on this and…”

I interrupted.  “Why were you reading a report on the British drug trade?”

“I get bored, okay?  Anyway, I read a report and the police here don’t make any real effort to control the spread of drugs.  They only confiscate, like, one percent of the product moving through the country.  Maybe more, maybe less, but the overall quantity of available product is immense.  Hardly anyone between the ages of eighteen and thirty isn’t doing one drug or another.  As a result, there’s a frankly ludicrous amount of money for anyone who manages to break into the business.”

“And with money,” I finished, “comes the connections to make sure that you don’t get prosecuted.”

“Exactly.  And you said the warehouse was full of cocaine?”

“In fairness,” I said, “I didn’t check the crates.  But there was white powder in a delivery van outside, white powder near some of the crates, and Asher mentioned that drugs were involved.  I sort of made a leap.”

“That’s strange,” Sarah mused.

“Why?”

“London traffics mostly in crystal meth.  Cocaine is more of a…”  She trailed off and her fingers hammered out a staccato beat.  “Crack cocaine is fairly profitable out in Glasgow, but not the powdered stuff.”

“The warehouse was definitely holding something illegal,” I said.  “Asher certainly had enough guards, and they weren’t from the area.  I heard Russian accents, British ones, even a guy from the States.”

“So our theory that he was hiring from Russia, picking up the dregs that settled to the bottom with the USSR fell apart is kiboshed.  Fantastic.”

An idea occurred to me.  “He said he had to finish an audit.  But the men there didn’t seem to know him very well.  I heard some of them talk earlier, and they’re at least aware of their boss’ temperament.  If Asher was actually in charge of all those drugs, wouldn’t his men be more used to him?”

“Probably, unless…”  Sarah stopped, swallowed audibly, and started again.  “Not if he wasn’t stationed there.”

“Okay,” I said, “you lost me.  Take that one from the top.”

“That’s because you never paid attention to anything that didn’t involve high priced art or impossible odds,” Sarah replied.  I bristled at first, before the gently chiding tone in her voice dawned on me.  “The IRS, for instance, doesn’t audit every single taxpayer.  There isn’t enough time, money, or motivation for that sort of thing.”

“I’m still with you.”

“What they do, instead, is to look for irregularities and zero in on them.  Filed too much or too little this year?  Expect a visit from your friendly neighborhood agent, to go through your books with a fine toothed comb until they finger out where the glitch came from.”

That was easy enough to wrap my head around.  Sarah’s explanations had always tended toward the excessively technical, but this was a change I could get used to.  “Go on.”

“Imagine the same thing, but with drugs.  You’d have to have a bookkeeping system of some sort; that’s just too much money moving around to not have one.  But there’s a problem coming from one of your stations.  Maybe the budget isn’t getting split the way you want, maybe there are lower profits than statistically possible.  Whatever; either way, if you’re the person in charge of things, what do you do?”

“I’d send someone to check the books, of course.  So, you’re saying Asher’s the equivalent of the tax man?”  The image of him in a cookie cutter suit, his elaborate tattoos and burn scars peeking out from beneath Oxford cuffs, coaxed a slightly delirious chuckle out of me.

“I don’t know if your average tax man is capable of hiring snipers and moving them across borders,” Sarah replied.  That poked a neat hole in my amusement.  “Asher doesn’t work for the IRS, though.  We’re still assuming that he works for, or with, an international organization with frankly absurd amounts of power.  If they’re moving product at the levels you’re talking about, the amount of money could make by just pretending things are fine, even when they aren’t, would be more than enough to fund his revenge plan against you for whatever happened in St. Petersburg.”

“It’d also be a hell of a lot more dangerous,” I said.  I blinked, re-thought that sentence, and then spoke again.  “Except that whoever is actually in charge of the local operation would serve as a delightful scapegoat.”

“If whatever the Magi are paying Asher is so good that he’d rather turn down the opportunity to just set up the local guy than risk it, that would make the actual manager really worried.  Let’s call him…Special K for right now.  The last thing he or she would want is for the Magi to start raining fire, and the quickest way to do that is to appease the auditor or to make him disappear.  In this case, that’d be Asher.”

I took me a bit to catch up to her line of thinking.  “Which isn’t happening.  In fact, the men seem to be following Asher’s orders.  That would mean…what, exactly?  That even the low level hired help is more afraid of the Magi than they’re greedy?”

“Or both,” Sarah said triumphantly.  “Asher told you he was making a play for power.  If he can find out the exact nature of Special K’s financial irregularities, assuming that’s why he’s here, then Asher can strong-arm the local trade entirely.  If he does that and ups the pay for the local guards, then the goons get more money and don’t risk the wrath of the Magi.  All they’ve got to do is not help their current boss, if things go completely sideways.”  She was past excited; Sarah had gone all the way around to positively thrilled.  The tension of the developing situation and the unanswered questions that still lingered had her hooked.

“And the crown?’  I asked.  “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“I don’t have any ideas about that part.  Maybe he’s just trying to supplement his income a little on the side; maybe he’s just bored.  You know him better than me.  What do you think?”

I didn’t answer immediately.  The section of my mind I’d re-tasked back at the warehouse was still quietly whirring away, churning over the ideas presented and reaching at possible connections.  Asher had never really been particularly concerned about money.  He accepted it, of course, and he rarely turned the opportunity to make more of it, but it wasn’t the driving motivator in his life.  I’d worked with some of the greediest thieves in the business, before I joined up with Asher.  Almost without fail, they reached a little too far and found themselves overextended, and on the wrong side of prison bars.

Asher wasn’t like that.  “No,” I said.  “The crown has to be a part of it.  I don’t know how, but it is.”

Silence, from the other end of the line.

“There’s more going on here,” I continued.  “Whatever Asher’s planning, we still haven’t seen the shape of it.  It might start with this Special K – and we’re going to have to come up with a better name than that – but it isn’t going to stop there.  It’s too direct.  Too much of a straight line from point A to point B.  We’re missing something.”

“We’re missing a lot,” Sarah said.  “We can just add this to the list.”

I nodded, once more forgetting that she wasn’t actually in the car with me.  It was a habit I’d picked up years ago, before our relationship turned personal, and its return was bittersweet.  It felt good to have her voice again.  It felt right.  I hadn’t realized how keenly I’d felt its absence during my time in Asher’s warehouse until that exact moment.

“Devlin,” Sarah said.  The excitement in her voice was still there, but it was now buried behind steel and resolve.  “We are going to talk about you throwing those cufflinks away.  Maybe not now, but eventually.”

The warm feeling of nostalgia evaporated in the face of that thought.  I sighed.  “No, let’s go ahead and get it out now.  I’d rather not having that hanging over me.  You’re mad that I tossed the cufflinks because I was trying to protect me, and you hate that, right?”

“I don’t understand what the hell you were thinking.  You got drugged, in front of a room full of witnesses, and your first move was to…do what, exactly?  Throw yourself on your mercy?  Die a heroic death?”

“That wasn’t…”

“Well, what you did do was get rid of the only way anyone at all could possibly have found out where you were, removing any chance at all of help.  It’s a damn miracle that Mila was there!”

“I was thinking about you,” I snapped, feeling my temper rise in my chest.  “You’ve got your issues with being protected and I get that.  I’ve made an active effort to be delicate about that, but that isn’t going to change the fact that I don’t want bad things to happen to you if I can help it.  And trust me: whatever Asher had planned would definitely qualify as bad things.  If it were Alex, I would have done the exact same thing.  Asher wants to hurt me and the fastest way to do that is to go after the people I care about.  So, if there’s anything I can do to keep you safer, even just the tiniest bit safer, then I’m going to do it.”

“I don’t need your patronizing protection, Devlin!  I’m a big girl, and I can take care of myself.”

“This is me patronizing you!  God, this is ridiculous!  Did you hear me getting upset when Mila stepped in and handled the fighting?  Do I get upset when you handle all of the planning?  No!  And you know why that is?”

She didn’t answer.

I was picking up a good head of steam.  There were still several minutes before the train arrived, and most of the commuters waited nearer to the platform.  I wasn’t worried about my voice carrying, but I didn’t want to yell at Sarah.  I struggled to modulate my voice to a more reasonable volume.  “Because I’m not driven by this frankly insane desire to prove myself to anyone who’ll listen.  You are amazing.  Seriously, ridiculously amazing.  But you can’t do everything.  And you’re just as vulnerable to bullets as the next person.  And with whatever unpredictable plan Asher’s got in the works, you’re probably even more vulnerable.”  Something clicked in my mind.  I felt a piece slip into its proper place, and the puzzle became a little clearer.

I could hear Sarah breathing angrily over the comms.  I didn’t actually hear the telltale pop of another soda, but I knew I must have missed it in my tirade.  “What did you think I’d do?”  She asked in a soft voice, which caught me off guard.  “Skip town and just leave you to Asher, just so that I could get a head start?”

“That’s what I hoped you would do, yeah.  Just because I was stupid enough to get caught, doesn’t mean you should suffer, too.”

“Let me make this much clear, Devlin,” Sarah said.  “I would never have left you there.  If Mila hadn’t been there, I would’ve found another way.  So, the next time you’re thinking about trying the heroic solo act, think again.”

Mila was another angle I needed to consider.  I’d successfully put most of my concern into a box, but Sarah’s casual mention brought those feelings back to the surface.  “What are we going to do about her?  And her employer, whoever that is?”

Sarah sighed.  “Add it to the pile of things we don’t know anything about.  It’s getting pretty damn difficult to make a plan, when I don’t even know all of the movable parts.”

Another piece clicked into place.  I blinked.  “Say that again.”

“What?  I was working on a lot of different plans to get to the crown.  But we don’t know anything about Asher.  Now, we don’t know anything about Mila.  All we’ve really got is pure speculation and it’s impossible to come up with any solid ideas, when there are so many things we don’t know and probably a ton more things that we don’t know we don’t know.  If that makes sense.”

I took a second to parse through that grammatical labyrinth, but I understood what she meant.  “What time is it?”

“It’s a little after eleven, local time.  Why?”

“And the gala?  It’s over by now?”

“Ended an hour ago.”  Judging from the barely audible creak, Sarah leaned back in her chair. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking,” I said, “that we go for the crown.  Tonight.”

She didn’t say anything at first.  When she did speak, nearly thirty full seconds later, her voice was loaded with incredulity.  “You want to do what?  Asher knows you’re here, and he knows you were at the gala.  You barely escaped with your life less than a half hour ago!”

“Exactly,” I said.  My heartbeat quickened in excitement.  The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up, as my brain accelerated to its full, breakneck speed.  “Whatever that warehouse was, Mila set the damn thing on fire.  Asher wasn’t planning for that, because how could he?  He’ll have his hands full there and he still doesn’t know that you’re in town.  There are things that we know that he doesn’t.”

“And he’s got a whole mess of information about the Magi, about Special K, and about this whole tangled knot of a problem!  Information we’re still grasping it.  WE don’t even know why he wants the crown in the first place!”

“We don’t need to know why he wants it,” I said.  “Just know that he wants it.  It’s an important piece in whatever plan he’s working on, or he wouldn’t be wasting the time and manpower to scout the museum.”  I was speaking as quickly as the thoughts popped into my head, and I slapped my forehead when I actually considered what I’d just said.  “That’s how he found me.  He had surveillance on the museum.”

“That makes sense, sure, but I don’t see why you’re suddenly feeling suicidal.”

I ignored the comment.  “If Asher wants the crown, if it’s somehow a part of him getting even more power and influence than he’s already throwing around, then I want to get it first.”

“Devlin.  I barely got a count on the guards when you were there earlier.  I don’t know the security rotations.  Their firewall is still not letting me in.  I need another day, probably two, before I can come up with a plan.”

“That’s the perfect part,” I said.  “Asher plans.  You plan.  In perfect situations, with enough time on your side, it makes the two of you damn difficult to outthink.  I don’t plan; I act.  That’s how you got me away from the warehouse, and that’s how we can get ahead of him.  If we don’t go right now, before he can come up with a counter strategy and put traps in place, we’ll lose whatever tiny advantage we managed to eke out.  I can do this, Sarah.”

“Devlin, I…”

We can do this,” I stressed the pronoun, investing it with as much of the energy coursing through my body as I could.

At first, she said nothing.  I leaned the bulk of my weight against the Aston Martin’s steering wheel and sighed.

“Okay,” Sarah said, finally.  I perked up at the word.  “Okay.  What do you need me to do?”

Chapter 36

I hit the ground, hard, just as the warehouse’s emergency lights flickered to life. In the greenish cast, I could see that Mila was already in motion, spearing through the air like a black-suited missile at the Neanderthal.  She disregarded her gun entirely, opting instead to drive her fists in precise strikes against the musclebound man’s torso: the kidneys, liver, and solar plexus, in that order.  She weighed half as much as the Neanderthal, easily, and he was tall enough to make her height almost childlike, but Mila apparently hadn’t gotten that memo.  Her attacks drove him back – either from surprise or actual pain, I couldn’t tell – until his back was wedged into a corner.  Mila spun and swept her foot in a vicious arc, ending just above the man’s prominent eyebrow.  Skin split and blood started to pour.

“You’re a big boy, aren’t you?”  Mila asked, with a grimace.  An instant later, I amended the thought: she wasn’t grimacing.  Mila was smiling.

Neanderthal returned the grin, his own blood staining his teeth, and cracked his knuckles.  The machine gun pop of his joints set my nerves on edge and I realized that I was holding my breath.  I started to get back to my feet, to help Mila against the giant.  There were still entire volumes of information about Mila that I didn’t have, but I knew that she’d helped me out of a bad place, and I wanted to repay the favor.

I needn’t have worried.  With Neanderthal’s ability to maneuver handicapped, the fight was over in seconds.  I attempted to follow the exchange of blows, but Mila and the Neanderthal were too close to one another.  All that I could actually be certain of was the moment when Mila planted her foot and used leverage to flip Neanderthal to the hard ground.  She dipped one hand into her jacket and drew her gun with blurring speed.  Then, she fired down into the man’s kneecap and ensured that he wouldn’t have the chance to come back for another round.

“Devlin?”  Sarah’s voice asked, in my ear.  “What’s happening?  I’m blind in there.”

I wasn’t sure how to answer that question.  The entire debacle, from the moment Mila had thrown me the earbud, had taken less than a minute.  I still hadn’t been able to fully wrap my head around this new wrinkle, and Mila’s shockingly accurate portrayal of an MMA fighter wasn’t helping matters.  It took me a few seconds to remember that Neanderthal hadn’t been the only guard in the room.  I whipped my eyes away from Mila and Neanderthal’s quivering, moaning form and looked to the other corner, where Scarface had been positioned.

“Uh,” I said to Sarah, “it isn’t good.”

His gun was pointed at me, not Mila.  That seemed profoundly unfair.  Mila’s own weapon came up to point squarely at his chest.  Scarface glanced over to her and spoke, without moving the barrel to the actual threat in the room.  “You’re what?”  He asked Mila.  “The muscle?”

“Yes and no,” she replied.  “It’s complicated.”

“Way I heard it, you don’t like complicated.”

Mila shrugged with one shoulder, without affecting her aim in the slightest.  “I don’t, but the money’s right.”

“Might be my employer could pay better,” Scarface said, in an entirely reasonable tone.  I was dumbstruck by how casual they both were, while still fully prepared to use their guns.  “Whaddya say?”

Mila shook her head.  “I’m under contract,” she replied.  “I don’t break contract.”

Scarface grunted.  “I can respect that.”

“So,” Mila said.  “What’re we going to do about this?”

“My job’s to keep him from leaving.”  Scarface nodded in my direction.  “Got to stop anyone who tries to get him out; got to make it so that he can’t leave on his own, if it comes to that.”

“And if neither of those options works out?”  Mila asked.  “You kill him?”

It was Scarface’s turn to shrug.  “Don’t know.  Didn’t ask.”  Slowly, he moved the barrel of the gun away from me and pointed it at Mila.  “Nothing personal.  Business is business.”

She nodded sagely at that.  “It sure is.”

A silent second passed before they rushed at each other.  Neither fired their weapon.  Instead, they met in front of the door, underneath the currently malfunctioning camera.  The fight was short, but brutal.  Mila scored hits to Scarface’s kneecaps and ribs, using what appeared to be superior flexibility to hit the man at unexpected angles.  Scarface, meanwhile, simply compensated by using his superior strength and bulk to keep her from retreating.  Whatever Mila’s angle was, she was clearly a well-trained professional operator; her skills ranked up there with some of the best I’d ever seen in the underworld, and I’d seen quite a few.

When it ended, the final exchange was almost anticlimactic in its brevity.  Scarface threw a straight punch; Mila ducked under the blow, switched her stance in a quick blur of movement and lashed out with a hard counter to his jaw.  It was a good hit, judging from Scarface’s reaction.  Mila stepped in, pivoted off of her planted foot, and drove an elbow back into his solar plexus.  Air wheezed out of Scarface and, to his credit, he tried to recover, but Mila moved onto the next step of her combination.  She unwound in the opposite direction, sweeping Scarface’s legs out from under him, and then drove a fist into his nose as he fell.  Either the impact from her final punch or the collision with the hard floor finally did it.  Scarface didn’t stand back up after he hit the ground.

Mila inhaled slowly and let the air slowly trickle out.  “I needed that,” she said to herself.  Then, she turned her eyes to me.  “What’re you still doing here?”

“I…what did…what?”

Mila sighed.  She took several quick, deliberate strides over to me and bodily pulled me up off the floor by my shirt.  “You.  Need.  To.  Go.”  She released me and I landed hard, jarring my knees with the impact.  “Here.”

She threw something at me, which I snatched from the air on instinct.  I looked down to find myself holding a set of car keys.  “I don’t even know where I am,” I managed to say.

“A little over five miles out of the Oakwood station,” Mila said.

“Oakwood?”

Sarah provided the answer.  “I know where it is.  If you can get outside, I can tell you where to go.”

“How are you going to do that?”

“You’re still wearing your camera, idiot,” Sarah snapped.  “It isn’t perfect, but it’ll have to work.”

I started to protest, but looked down and caught the glint of metal from the tie bar on my chest.  “You saw all that?”

“Yes, Devlin, I saw all of that.  But because someone decided to be a hero, I didn’t actually have a way of tracking you down.”

Mila cleared her throat.  “I’m sure this conversation would be thrilling, if I could hear both sides, but the guards in this building aren’t going to just wait until you finish chatting.  You figure out what you’re doing?”

I nodded slowly.  “I…think so, yeah.”

“Then go!”

I started toward the door, but stopped just before I turned the knob.  “What about you?  How’re you going to get out of here?”

Mila flashed a toothy, feral grin at me.  “Let me worry about that.”

I shivered like captured prey for a long second.  Then, I mentally shook myself back to my senses and left the room, going into the warehouse proper.  In the glow of the emergency lights, the stacked crates seemed utterly alien.  Sarah spoke before I had a chance to feel appropriately overwhelmed.  “Mila plugged me into the security system here, while she was upstairs,” she said.  “Your decision to try and fight your way out actually gave her the opening.  I’ve got the building schematics up on my screen now; go up three rows, then take a right.”

I started forward at a speed just below a full sprint.  It wouldn’t do me any good to run headlong into one of the armed guards, unprepared.  “How do you know her?”  I asked.

“Mila?”  Sarah hesitated before continuing.  “I don’t.  I mean, I didn’t.  After you got grabbed at the gala, I guess she found the earbud.  From what she said, she knew I needed her help to get you away from Asher.  She’s the one who knew that he took you to…whatever this is.”

“You don’t know?”

“I can see that it’s a warehouse,” Sarah said.  “But I didn’t have audio.  Why, did Asher say?”

“It’s a distribution center,” I said.  “If I had to guess, I’d say maybe for cocaine or heroin.”

“Oh.  Take this left, and then head straight.”  Sarah’s voice caught and I could almost hear as her mind mentally rewound over what I’d said.  “Wait, what?  Drugs?”

“That’s what he said to Mila, yeah.”

She typed something into her computer.  “I’m looking at the shipment manifest for this place,” she said, “and this can’t be drugs.  Not on this scale.  There’s at least a couple thousand kilograms of product, if my math is right.  Maybe more.”

I reached the end of a long stack of containers, peeked around the corner to ensure that I wasn’t going to walk into a trap, and then continued forward.  “I heard it with my own ears.  I don’t anything about how many containers there are here, or how much product is in it, but he said that he’s here to audit the warehouse.  Maybe that’s what he’s here to find out?”

“Maybe he was lying?”  Sarah suggested.  “Trying to impress Mila?”

“He is a gloater.  It’s possible, I guess, but he wouldn’t lie about something like this.”  I slowed for a moment and re-ordered my thoughts.  “Mila just volunteered to help you?  Threw herself into danger, trying rescue someone she didn’t know for someone she hadn’t even met?”

“It makes about as much sense to me,” Sarah said.

“But…what was in it for her?”

I’d meant the question rhetorically, but Sarah answered anyway.  “I don’t know,” Sarah said.  “But she volunteered to help and that’s what she did.  What else was I supposed to do?  Turn down her assistance because it might be suspect?”

“You did perfectly,” I assured her, “but I thought you would…you know…”

“Take the opportunity to run?”  There was an unmistakable note of danger in her voice.  “Is that really what you thought I’d do?”

“It’s what I thought you should do,” I said.

“Well, I didn’t.  We’re a team on this, aren’t we?”

There were probably times when it was appropriate to be overcome with emotion.  Fleeing a drug warehouse filled with armed guards, under the direction of my psychopathic ex-partner, was probably not one of those times.  That didn’t stop me from getting a little choked up, anyway.  “Sarah, I…listen…”

Devlin!”

I’d let my emotions distract me and my vigilance, dulled by the minutes I’d spent running through the featureless warehouse, had lapsed.  I was almost at the warehouse’s oversized opened doors but, standing in front of them with their weapons raised and pointed directly at me, two guards stood watch.  I didn’t recognize one of them, a man with shockingly white hair and dark eyes, but the Kid was a memorable figure.  He held his gun with one hand and kept the palm of the other hand pressed to the base of his jaw.

My chest, and therefore the tie bar, pointed directly at them.  “Devlin…” Sarah began.  Concern and the beginning chords of panic threaded through her voice.

I didn’t reply to her.  Instead, I raised both hands slowly and made eye contact with the Kid.  “No reason for this to get violent,” I said.  “Honestly, this isn’t even my fault.  I’m just as surprised at all this as you are.”

The Kid shot a quick look to his partner and then returned his eyes to me.  “I should kill you,” he managed to say.  It took me a moment to piece the labored syllables together into words, and then a sentence.  Wherever he was from, English was not the Kid’s native language.  “Should say that you tried to escape.”

“Or you could not do that,” I suggested.  I offered a weak, halfhearted smile after an instant of thought.

The Kid, and his white-haired partner, communicated something without saying a word.  They both raised their guns higher.  I saw the Kid’s finger begin to tense on the trigger; my own muscles clenched in response as I prepared to throw myself to one side.  Sarah said nothing, at all.

A millisecond before the Kid or the white-haired man could fire their guns, I felt the oxygen in the room ripped away from me.  Behind me, in the direction of Mila and the room, an explosion bubbled and erupted.  I felt the flames’ heat licking at my back as a sudden conflagration burst from somewhere deep within the warehouse.  I gasped for air, as did the two guards in front of me.  “Devlin!”  Sarah snapped in my ear.  “Move now!”

I did exactly that.  Both guards looked first at the fire spreading across the building behind me.  With their eyes elsewhere, I had a few good seconds to act before they returned their attention to me.  I took the three steps between me and the white-haired man in a single gigantic leap, skidded slightly as my feet touched ground once more, and hit him in the chin with a brutal haymaker.  The impact probably hurt me as much as it hurt him, but I’d prepared myself for the pain.  I followed it with another, slightly weaker, punch from my offhand and then threw a straight aimed directly for the wrong side of his elbow.  The joint didn’t give way entirely, but it bent enough that the gun dropped from his hand.  Powered by adrenaline, I snatched the weapon from the air as it fell, and squeezed the trigger.  A bullet found its way into the white-haired man’s unguarded foot, spraying up bone shards and blood over the floor.

The Kid could have tried to shoot me.  I was distracted with the white-haired man, and my back was turned.  With the fire rapidly spreading to encompass the warehouse’s ceilings, and the screams of other guards as they hurried to contain the blaze, there were even odds on whether or not a blindside would have been successful.  If he had chosen to pull the trigger on his semi-automatic handgun, the conflict would probably have devolved into a rolling ball of limbs and violence.  He was trained and armed, but a new sort of desperation rushed through my veins and pushed me on.

He did not do that.  Instead, he looked at the white-haired man.  He looked at me.  And then he raised his hands, his weapon dangling unused from an index finger, and fled back into the warehouse proper.  I watched him go.

Sarah broke the silence first.  “That was…”

“Odd,” I finished.  Overhead, a beam splintered and fell free from the ceiling.  The noise of its impact shook me free from the moment.  “What is she thinking?”

“I don’t know what she’s thinking,” Sarah said back.  “But, whatever her plan is, it probably doesn’t include you burning to death, does it?”

I exited the warehouse in a hurry, and didn’t encounter any additional guards as I searched the grounds, pressing the unlock button on Mila’s car keys.  I had traveled entirely around the warehouse and was near the back when I finally heard the chirp of a car alarm switching off.  Mila had arrived in an electric blue Aston Martin, complete with a push button start.  I hit the button with one thumb and the car hummed to life.

“Damn,” Sarah said.  “That is a nice car.”  She cleared her throat and went back to ‘business mode.’  “I’ve got a basic idea of where you are, but you need to get to a sign or something so that I can get an exact location.  After that, I can guide you to the Oakwood station.”

I hesitated for a moment and turned back around.  The warehouse was fully on fire now.  Orange and red fingers of flame crawled up the length of the walls, and lit the surrounding countryside.  “What about Mila?  I can’t just leave her in there.”

“What are you going to do?”  Sarah asked.  “Go back into the ant’s nest she stirred up and pull her from the fire by yourself?  You aren’t a hero, Devlin.  If anything, she is much better equipped to deal with whatever the hell is going on inside there.”

That was true.  Still, I lingered at the driver’s side door.

“She went in there willingly,” Sarah pressed.  “So she knew what she was doing when she decided to spring you.  I don’t know what her endgame was, but I don’t think she’d do that if she didn’t have at least an idea on how to escape.  Do you?”

I didn’t know a thing about Mila; in fact, I knew less now than I had before I’d met her.  Any expectations or assumptions I’d made, she’d already proven grievously false.  She wasn’t working for Asher, obviously; based on the absolute destruction she’d initiated at the drug warehouse, she wasn’t working for Asher’s bosses, either; but she’d alluded to a job.  Was I the job?  Was destroying the warehouse the job?  There wasn’t any way to figure that out, with the scraps of information I had.  But I was fairly certain of at least one thing: she could take care of herself.

“We’ll see her again,” I said, more to convince myself than answer Sarah’s question.  “She’ll have a way out.”

“That’s what I thought.  There’s nothing to you can do for her now, though, so get in the car.

I looked once more at the fire, just as another booming explosion ripped through the warehouse.  I got into the car, tossed the keys into the passenger seat, and drove away with orange flooding the rearview mirror as I did so.

Chapter 35

Asher gave me a smug smile and held it there for a few seconds before he turned back to his men.  “Make him comfortable,” he said, the poisonous smirk audible in each word.  “I’ll finish the audit and then join you downstairs.”

“When will I be able to finish my employer’s business with him?”  Mila called down.

Asher scoffed.  “Yes, yes, you can deliver your package, but not yet.  This work has got to be done.  I assume you can afford to wait a little longer?”

She shifted her weight and scratched at her cheek.  “That’s fine,” she said after a moment.

“Excellent!”  He pivoted and began to stride back to the staircase and the overlooking office.  Mila went back into the room after another second.

The guards half-carried, half-dragged me through the rows of containers.  My arms and legs were uncooperative, and it took a concentrated effort to keep from slumping into a boneless heap in the guards’ arms.  Occasionally, one would hit me across the face without any provocation or warning.  Each slap stung, more than they actually hurt, but the sharp impacts did keep me from falling into unconsciousness.  My mind began to work properly at some point along the way.  Wheels spun as my thoughts kicked into activity, motivated by the physical weight of fear pressing down on my bruised shoulders.

We reached a nondescript side room, invisible from the front entrance, before too long.  Two guards came from behind me.  I recognized Sandy, but the second man kept his face turned away from me.  Sandy unlocked and opened the door with one hand; his other gripped his jaw as if it might fall to pieces at any moment.  His glare bored into me, blazing with incandescent hate.  Scarface joined the two men at the door and turned the eyes of a hardened professional to examine me.  He motioned to the guards after he came to some conclusion.  They heaved me into the room, and barely kept my face from hitting the stone floor with both hands.  The door shut and clicked behind me, letting me know that I was now locked in.

It took three tries before I could stand without teetering for balance.  When I was on my feet again, I swept my eyes across my room and promptly despaired.  There was nothing here that I could use as a tool or a weapon, except for a single chair placed exactly in the center of the available floor space.  I pushed lightly on the chair.  It didn’t budge.  A closer inspection revealed four thick bolts driven straight into the floor at the bottom of each chair leg.  Without a screwdriver or an electric saw, there wasn’t any viable way for me to remove the bolts.

The room itself consisted of four off-white walls, without any distinguishing features, save for the single door I’d been thrown through.  A bare bulb hung only a couple of inches away from the high ceiling, out of my reach, flooding the space with light.  Above the door, moving from right to left in a slow rhythm, a lone camera kept track of my movements.  I couldn’t see the men standing outside of the door, but I could their boots scuffling as they moved into position.

Exhaustion and delirium were making me feel a little loopy.  I started talking to myself before I was even consciously aware of what I was doing.  “Whatever will he do?”  I asked, in a low murmur.  “Our charming thief finds himself trapped, alone, without any supplies or support.  What magic will he work to escape this latest death trap?  Find out next time!”

In my mental state, and rapidly approaching the outermost limit of my capacity to handle stress, a part of me almost expected cheesy fifties serial music to be piped in from some speaker.  My proclamation was only met with more of that same uniform silence, however.  Aside from my own voice, the only sound inside of the room was the whisper of the camera’s motor, and the soft click as it reached the end of its track and reversed direction.

For a dozen minutes, I managed to distract myself with increasingly farfetched ideas about escaping.  Perhaps Sarah would hire an army of local thugs to sweep the London countryside until they found the warehouse.  Or, as my rambling mind went even farther afield, maybe Asher would have a change of heart and release me.  That was technically possible.  Or perhaps the Magi, those nameless and faceless criminal figures, would issue an order of protection for me.  I couldn’t imagine a possible reason why that might happen, but fantasies didn’t require justification.

With each second that ticked away, my delusions withered and died.  Sarah wasn’t coming.  Asher wasn’t going to change his mind.  The Magi probably didn’t know of my existence, and they certainly weren’t going to involve themselves in a personal squabble that was essentially already dealt with.

Surprise, as a weapon, was gone now.  The guards knew exactly where I was and, thanks to the unblinking eye of the camera, could follow whatever movements I made within the room.  My borrowed gun was gone and the collapsible baton had been lost at some point during the scuffle by the double doors.  I had no way of communicating with the outside world, no method of convincing anyone inside the warehouse to change sides, and I didn’t even know exactly where I was.  Any possible advantage I’d possessed had been stripped away.  Any leverage I might attempt to use would be useless.

At thirteen minutes, I accepted the situation for what it was: I was trapped and there wasn’t any plausible series of events that included my continued well-being.  Asher had won.  I wasn’t even sure if I’d managed to do anything more than slightly inconvenience him.  Whatever game I’d been caught up in – whatever game Sarah had been enticed to join – had claimed me as its first casualty.

Without consciously thinking about it, I touched two fingers to an earlobe.  When I felt the gentle pressure of my fingertips, and did not hear Sarah’s reassuring voice in my ear, I let that hand fall limp to my side.  Throwing the GPS-enabled cufflinks from the trunk had been the right choice.  I’d been sure of as much when I’d made the call, but I was absolutely positive now.  Without the signal to back-trace, Asher wouldn’t be able to find her safe house for a while.  As it stood now, I was his only source of information.

I had no doubts that he’d manage to get that information out of me, either.  Given an unlimited amount of time, a seemingly limitless cache of resources, and a fiendishly inventive mind driven by a lust for revenge, Asher would eventually break me.  At that point, I’d tell him whatever he wanted to know in exchange for just a few seconds of peace.  I intended to hold out for as long as possible, though.  I could only hope that Sarah took what time I could give her as a head start and disappeared.  That possibility, and that possibility alone, gave me a miniscule amount of comfort.

I looked up at the camera.  “What do you want, Ash?”  I asked the empty air.  “What are you expecting to get from me?”

The camera did not answer.

Isolation was his first tactic, then. I’d suffered plenty of isolation during my extended stay at La Santé.  By leaving me alone with nothing but my own thoughts for company, Asher ensured that I’d be forced to imagine what torments awaited me when he finished his ‘audit.’  Already, I felt some of my deepest fears nibbling at the edges of my conscious mind; fears that Asher, in his capacity of my former confidant, was perfectly aware of.

Prison had toughened me in that regard, but extended periods of time without human contact was something the mind simply wasn’t built to withstand.  What I’d learned in La Santé would buy me time – would buy Sarah time, I reminded myself – but I would only last for so long.  I would waver and, in that moment, anxiety and terror would rush in all at once.  That was when Asher would show up, only to inflict those horrors on me until my resolve shattered and my secrets spilled out of me.

I collapsed into the lone chair and stopped that line of thought.  Thinking like that was exactly what he wanted.  That much would inevitably happen sooner or later, but I had no intention of succumbing to the tactic so easily or so quickly.  I wrenched my thoughts away from fatalistic imaginings and considered the two people who held my fate in their hands, instead.

Asher was the easiest part of that puzzle: he was motivated to claim revenge on me, for the disastrous job in St. Petersburg.  His hate for Sarah was also a known factor.  In his rage, he blamed her for taking me away from him.  I’d known that he didn’t like her very much, even before he betrayed me in Paris, but I’d underestimated the temperature of that disdain.

I didn’t know why he felt that she’d taken me away from him – Sarah and I hadn’t started working together on a permanent basis until several months after he’d disappeared – but it was what it was.  I doubted that Asher would be willing to reconsider his position now.

The mysterious Mila was a wild-card.  I knew absolutely nothing about her and, judging from the conversation between her and Asher, my ex-partner possessed just as much information.  I was aware that her employer had tasked her with some delivery and that she had found me, even after Asher’s kidnapping, to fulfill her job.  That spoke to a disturbing level of competence and a single-mindedness that I probably would have found admirable, in other circumstances.  As it was, she was yet another mystery added to a pile of unanswered questions that was already far too tall.

The door’s lock clicked.  I tensed and gripped the arms of my chair with white-knuckle intensity.  The knob didn’t turn, though.  After a moment, a voice came from the walls of the room.

“You’re aware that you’re under surveillance?”  Asher’s voice asked.

I said nothing in response.

“I’m going to take that as a yes.  This camera has a directional mic, it’s pointed right at you, and there’s really not reason for you to not answer.  If it makes you feel better, go right ahead, though.”

“You know I’m not going to tell you anything,” I said, after a moment, directing a molten glare at the camera.

“False bravado?  Prison really does change a person,” Asher said with a little laugh.  “You do realize that you are going to tell me whatever I want to know, although I appreciate that you’ve got to grandstand a bit.”

“What do you want, Asher?  What are you playing at?”

Asher ignored the question.  “There are two men stationed outside of the room, Devlin.  Both armed with…”  Silence for a moment, and the distant sound of rustling papers.  “…AO-38s and Makarov sidearms.”

“Couldn’t afford the AKs?”

“These guns are just as reliable,” he responded, “and just as good at putting large numbers of bullets into soft targets.  Like, say, your stomach, where you’d have a slow, lingering death from bleeding out to look forward to.  Or your kneecaps.”

I swallowed hard.  “What’s the point?”

“My point, Devlin, is that you should stay right where you are while this door opens,” he said.  “Any sudden movements and someone might get a little trigger-happy.  Which would be a shame, just an absolute shame.”

I considered his words and decided, after less than a second, that he wasn’t bluffing.  Moreover, it served me no good at all to try my luck at this juncture.  There was virtually no chance of a heroic, last minute escape.  A bullet in my kneecap reduced those odds to exactly zero.  I increased the pressure on the arms of the unoffending chair and stayed put.

The door opened.  Scarface was the first man through.  An assault rifle lay flat against his chest and his kept his finger on the trigger guard.  He entered without taking his eyes away from me and then took a position in one corner of the room.

A guard I hadn’t yet seen entered after him.  This newest member of Asher’s “goon security force” was built like a truck, with a thick brow and a shaved head.  There was a gleam in his eyes as he came through the door.  He turned that gaze to me, and I recognized the glint for what it was: sadism, pure and simple.  I’d seen more than a few convicts with that look in prison.  This was a man who would enjoy witnessing the torture Asher had in store for me, just as much as he would enjoy crippling me if I gave him even the slightest excuse.

He must have seen understanding in my own expression.  He approached me, his index finger twitching minutely toward the trigger of his own assault rifle.  “Yes,” he said in a nearly impenetrable Slavic accent.  “Try.”

I didn’t move an inch, not even to shake my head in the negative.

The bald man – who I mentally named ‘Neanderthal’ – leered closer to my face and smiled.  His teeth were uneven and yellowed.  His breath reeked of week-old cigarettes and stale beer.  I clamped down on my revulsion to keep from recoiling.  I was concerned that Neanderthal would shoot me anyway, simply for the pleasure it might bring him.

Scarface cleared his throat from the corner.  Neanderthal turned toward the man, baring his teeth in frustration.  “You have your orders,” Scarface said.  He spoke English well, but each word was a little too deliberate for it to be his first language.  “Follow them.”

Neanderthal stood straight up and, for a moment, I thought he might actually attack Scarface on the spot.  Miraculously, he gave the scarred man a tiny nod and retreated to an opposite corner of the room.

The third person through the door wasn’t Asher.  It was Mila.  She still wore the same pantsuit from the museum gala, but a significant bulge under her coat told me that she’d added a weapon to the ensemble.  I looked away from Neanderthal.  Mila closed the door behind her and turned to face me.  I met her eyes evenly.

“Hubert,” she said simply.

“Mila.”

She came within a yard of me, utterly at ease.  “So,” she said.  “This is complicated.”

“Oh?  We met under false pretenses, you hunted me down after I disappeared from the gala, and now you’re here to deliver a message from some mysterious employer before Asher has free reign to torture me.”  Her eyebrows climbed a fraction at that.  “I was listening in.  I know what you’re here for.”

“You really don’t understand,” Mila said.  “I’ve got a contract.  I do what the contract says.”

Whatever it says?”  I turned and spat a mouthful of blood onto the floor.  I realized, as I did it, that the action gave the impression of defiance.  In reality, I just needed to clear the blood away so that I could speak without impediment, but I wasn’t about to throw away the benefit of perception to clarify.  “Must be nice to not think for yourself.”

Mila shrugged.  If she was offended, it didn’t show in her expression.  “It has its ups and downs,” she admitted.  “Usually, it helps keep things from getting too complicated.”

“Let me uncomplicated things even more, then,” I said.  “Whatever your employer wants from me, they’ll have to get ready for a long wait.  Asher won’t let you get anything from me until he’s done, and he’ll have to pull every syllable from me, kicking and screaming.”

“While that isn’t my particular style,” Mila said, “it does seem like your friend intends to do exactly that.  And he isn’t going to stop until you tell him everything you know and everything you’ve even guessed about her.”

“If he thinks I’m going to tell him…”  I paused.  That didn’t make sense.  Sarah’s civilian life was a matter of easily accessed public record and Asher already knew all about her criminal career.  “Wait.  What?”

Mila continued.  “And after he’s finished, he’s going to kill you.  Then he’s going to kill your friend at the computer, and then he’s going to make it his personal mission to find and kill her, too.”

“Her?”  I asked.  “Who’s ‘her?’”

Mila reached up to her cheek and scratched at it again.  “Already?”  She asked.  “That was fast.”

I mirrored her gesture, scratching at my own cheek in confusion.  “What are you talking about?”

“I’m not talking to you,” Mila said, offhandedly.  Then, she spoke again. “Impressive.  I suppose that means it’s time for me to do my job.”

I forgot myself and leaned forward.  Neanderthal rumbled a sound of disagreement, and took a half step forward.  “Your job?  What’s your job?”

“My delivery.”  Mila dug into her pants pockets and, after a moment, drew out a set of car keys.  She lobbed them in my direction and they fell to the ground just in front of where I sat.  Then, Mila reached up to her cheek again.

That’s when I realized what I’d been missing.  Mila wasn’t touching her cheek; she was touching her ear. She plucked a nearly invisible item from her ear canal, wiped it clean on her coat, and then tossed the item to me.  It landed directly in my lap and I picked it up without pausing to consider.  My jaw dropped several inches as I examined the item.  It was my earbud, or at least one identical in construction.  I looked back up at Mila.  She had turned away from me and was facing the camera now.”

“Target acquired,” she said.  “Let’s call this phase one.  Moving onto phase two, now.”

Both Neanderthal and Scarface raised eyebrows.  From their positions, they didn’t see what I did.  When Mila finished speaking, the tiny red light underneath the camera dimmed and went out.  Mila nodded once, confirming that the camera was now inactive, and rolled her shoulders.  “Devlin,” she said.  “You should put that in.”

I hurried to comply.  “Hello?”  I said into the empty air.

Sarah’s voice replied, through the earbud.  “Devlin!  You’re okay!”  A pause.  “You’ve got to get down, right now.”

It took my brain several seconds to start functioning at an appreciable level.  Even then, incomplete sentences and disconnected phrases were the most that I could manage.  “What?  I don’t…what is going on?”

“Get down!”  Sarah yelled.

Then, the warehouse lights switched off and I was plunged entirely into blackness.

Chapter 34

I knew the smart move: sneak away from the elevated office, in search of some other corner to hide myself in.  Asher and Mila couldn’t talk to each for the rest of the night.  Eventually, one or both of them would leave to attend to whatever business they had.  If I could remain patient, and concealed, an opportunity to infiltrate the room would eventually present itself.  I could find some point of reference, use that to extrapolate my position, and steal a car from one of the unconscious guards.  If circumstances forced it, I could even hotwire the delivery van.  From there, I could find my way back to London proper.

Some other spot in the warehouse – any other spot in the warehouse – gave me a chance at secrecy.  With secrecy, came the possibility of escape.

Something kept me rooted to the spot, though.  Yellow light glowed from within the room and I stayed close enough that it warmed my skin.  I couldn’t figure out exactly why I was so reluctant to leave, even though staying went against every bit of knowledge I’d acquired over the years through painful trial and error.  Some twinkling instinct froze my limbs and, instead of leaving, I listened.

“I really don’t think we do,” Mila said.  “If you know where he is, tell me.  If you don’t, I’ve got other leads to run down.”  She paused.  “Unless you were planning on getting in my way?”

“I’m trying to extend an olive branch,” Asher said.  “Find some way for us to work together.  There’s no need for all the posturing.”

“Who’s posturing?”  I noted the absolute confidence in Mila’s voice.  Asher wasn’t small; the tattoos on his arm that the fire hadn’t scarred beyond recognition were the sort a person acquired, when that person grew up around the most violent Mexican gangs; and he generally gave off the impression of someone who knew how to handle themselves in a fight.  Mila was shorter than him, considerably lighter, and possessed proportionately shorter reach.  Judging by the implicit threat in her words, none of those disadvantages mattered to her at all.

“Well, alright, then,” Asher said, agreeably.  “Here’s the thing, Mila.  I might know where he’ll be, but I’m not really in the mood to go handing him over to you.  Do you need him in one piece?  I might be able to finagle some information out of him…hypothetically, at some point in the unspecified future.”

I don’t need him,” Mila said.  “My employer does.  Couldn’t tell you why or for what.  And let’s be honest here: I wouldn’t tell you, even if I knew.”

Asher sighed.  “That falls under your confidentiality clause?”

“That’s a factor, sure.  But I really just don’t like you.”

I peeked up, through the window, just in time to see one of the silhouettes place a hand over their heart.  “Your disdain wounds me.  Pierces me straight to the core.”  Asher straightened and continued to speak.  “If we’re baring our souls here, I should probably admit that I’m not particularly fond of you, either.”

“Oh?”

“You’ve got this whole air of superiority thing that probably does wonders at playing up the mysterious badass vibe, but I’m not falling for it.  You aren’t better than everybody else in the world, no matter what you might think.”

“I’m not better than everyone else,” Mila said. “Just you.”

“You don’t even know me,” Asher hissed, a hint of fire poisoning his voice.  A second passed before he spoke again; the venom was gone entirely, as though it had never been there at all.  “Your professionalism is noteworthy, though.  How much does it cost to hire you to do…whatever it is that you do?”

“You couldn’t afford me.”

“I don’t know about that,” Asher said, dragging out the last syllable for effect.  “I’ve got a surprising amount of liquidity, as of late.”

Below, on the warehouse floor, two guards met at an intersection and spoke to each other.  I pressed myself flat against the wall to the side of the door.  After a moment, their conversation stopped and they continued on their routes.  I let a brief sigh of relief pass my lips and decided to creep to the other side of the office.  The older guard would return at some point, after all, and I had no desire to contend with yet another one of Asher’s goons.  I went down the length of the wall, ducking beneath the window that looked in on the office, and found another nook.  From there, I couldn’t follow the movements of Asher’s and Mila’s silhouettes but, in turn, they weren’t going to glance out and see me.  I went back to listening.

“I’m on a job, at the moment,” Mila said, “and my employer isn’t really the type to tolerate moonlighting.”

“Neither is mine,” Asher replied in a sage voice.  I took a mental note of that fact: he was in the employ of someone, presumably the Magi.  “Wouldn’t it be so random if we were actually working for the same person?”

My blood’s temperature went down about a dozen degrees.

“Not particularly likely,” Mila said.

“Well, have you ever met your employer?”  Mila said nothing and Asher cleared his throat after a few seconds of stony silence.  “See, the people I’m working for – I mean, with – take secrecy a bit too seriously, for my tastes.  Manipulating people from the shadows, proxies, cat’s paws and the like.  But what’s the point of amassing power if you can’t let everyone know you’ve got it?”

“Not everyone is interested in measuring their manhood in front of the whole world,” Mila pointed out in an entirely placid tone of voice.

“Not everyone has manhood to measure,” Asher replied, “but those people can just make do with a lot of sarcasm and attitude, I guess.  Anyway.  Enough chit-chat.  I need to know what you’re going to do with Devlin – that is, if I even know where you might find him – before I tell you anything.”

“I have something to deliver,” Mila said.  “My employer was…insistent that he receive this package.”

“Whatever it is, I don’t really think he’ll be in any shape to make use of it for very long,” Asher said back.  “I’m assuming that, as soon as you make your delivery, you’ll have fulfilled your duties, though?”

“More or less.”

Asher sighed.  “Fine, then.  He should be here, soon enough.  Give him whatever message your employer has for him – not that it’ll matter – and then you can be on your way.”

“Just like that?”  Mila asked.  “What’s in it for you?”

“I’ve waited years for a face-to-face with him; another couple of minutes won’t hurt.”  Another mental note was added to my growing file: he wasn’t happy with his position within the Magi’s organization.

Mila sucked at her teeth.  “Fair enough.”

“Excellent.”  Asher clapped his hands together.  “For now, I’ve got other stuff to take care of.  Drug shipments don’t deliver themselves on time, after all.”

My mind skipped over that new wrinkle, gears grinding painfully to a halt.  The white powder in the back of the delivery van suddenly made sense.  Asher wasn’t just in town for the crown; he had gotten himself involved in the local drug trade.  I looked down at the warehouse floor and the dozens upon dozens of metal containers in sickened awe.

Involved was an understatement.  If each container held a few kilos of uncut product, there was a staggering level of wealth contained below where I knelt.  My hands began to shake at the implications.  I clenched my hands into tight balls at my side.

“It’s not Asher,” I whispered to myself.  “It’s the Magi.  He doesn’t have this much influence.  He couldn’t.”

The words didn’t make me feel any safer.  The drug industry didn’t just make money; it printed out reams of the stuff.  Even in the legitimate world, money was the next best thing to power.  It bought influence and connections for anyone lucky enough or capable enough to claim enough.

In the underworld, its value was incalculable.  And Asher was dealing now, as a means of getting his hands on enough money to accomplish his goals.  Removing even a moderate drug lord was a hassle of extraordinary proportions.  There were lieutenants to contend with; enforcers to evade or incapacitate; corrupt police with their arms buried in dirty money up to their elbows, manipulating the legal system for their own purposes.  Anyone who profited from the drug trade – and there were a lot of people who did that – had a vested interest in maintaining their steady stream of income.

In a lot of ways, the drug trade resembled legitimate businesses’ worst aspects.  Adversarial organizations were bought out, asphyxiated through lack of income, or crushed under heel.  Only the most cutthroat operators, the ones with nerves of steel and hearts of black ice, survived long enough to ascend to the top of the heap.  Getting there was only half the battle, of course; after rising to the top, one had to be willing to fight to secure that position.

My mouth went bone-dry.  I simply didn’t have the resources to compete with an operation on this scale.  I’d only barely managed to stay alive over the past week and, if what I saw below me was any indication, Asher hadn’t even grown serious yet.

Mila spoke again.  “What do you want him for?  Or is that privileged information?”

“My issues with Devlin are personal, not professional.  As you can see I’ve got that side of things well in hand.”  The sound of an opening drawer reached me.  “Who knows?  Maybe one day you’ll decide that the pay might be good enough to come work for me.  After you finish whatever your current assignment is, of course.  I wouldn’t dream of trying to purchase your services, otherwise.”  Sarcasm dripped from every word as it left his mouth.

Mila’s reply came out immediately.  “And if not?”

“That’d be up to you,” Asher said.  “You could stay out of my way and hope that none of your clients find their way into my crosshairs.  Or, I guess you could try and stop me.  That way, you’d get to find out exactly how much power I’m talking.”  He let the threat hang in the air for a second.  “Your choice.”

“Big talk for a drug pusher.”

“Mila, you don’t really think that selling a little cocaine here and there is really all I’m capable of, do you?  You took out a few guards outside; do you think you could handle ten?  How about twenty?  What about a sniper or two?”  He barked out a sharp laugh.  “Just tonight, I managed to grab Devlin from fifty miles away, in the middle of a museum gala.  What else do you think I could do with a revenue stream this size?  Or with a dozen?”

I forced myself to breathe normally and to push my imagination into a darkened corner, where it couldn’t provide any more vivid mental images.  “Speaking of…”  I heard the sound of touchtone keys as someone – Asher, I was guessing – entered a sequence of numbers into a phone.  There was no sound from inside the room for about thirty seconds.  “That’s strange,” he said.  “They should have been here by now.”

A sudden instinct grabbed me by the throat, circumventing that nameless feeling which had kept me from leaving the area already.  I needed to go somewhere else and I needed to do it now.  I started to move and, in my haste, forgot to check my corners.  The older guard was back at the staircase, having completed what I took to be a circuitous patrol path, and he saw my head peek out from my alcove by the office.  Our eyes met for an instant that stretched on into eternity.

He moved first, opening his mouth and yelling in a language I recognized, but couldn’t translate.  “Lui é qui!”  He jabbed a finger at me and reached for his sidearm with his other hand.  I moved without thought and covered the distance in a rush of rapid-fire steps.  The Italian guard managed to free his gun, but couldn’t aim before my shoulder caught him in the solar plexus.  It wasn’t a hard hit; I’d lost too much momentum scrambling to my feet by the office.  But, the guard was precariously positioned at the top of the staircase and my attack was enough to tip him in the wrong direction.  His arms wind milled, the gun slipping from his loose grasp and clattering to the floor below, as he reached for a handhold.  I added a weak kick, pushing him farther away from the handrail and he fell.  His head connected with the fourth step down, with a crunch that made me cringe.  Blood formed from a new wound on the back of his skull, staining the stairs red and dripping to the floor in soupy strands.  His eyes fluttered open, unfocused.

I took the stairs two at a time, careful not to slip in the pooling blood.  I still nearly lost my balance at the bottom.  Above me, the office door slammed open and Asher issued commands in a ringing voice.  “There!  He’s right there!”  I resisted the urge to look back.  There were too many obstacles ahead of me – rows of identical containers, sharp ninety degree turns, and an unknown number of armed mooks – and I couldn’t spare the time.

I thought while I ran.  Asher had given me something to work with, but not much.  I was fifty miles, give or take, away from London.  I could hotwire the car I’d arrived in, if I had a few seconds to work, and simply drive in a given direction as far as possible.  That might work out in my favor, and it might not, but staying in the warehouse with Asher and his men was a nonstarter.  I’d have to roll the dice and hope for the best, instead of remaining in a situation that was guaranteed to have an unhappy ending.

All around me, guards were mobilizing in pursuit.  I heard them over the containers, speaking to each other in three or four different languages, organizing into a search party with alarming speed.  They knew this building and its layout better than me, and there were more of them.  My only advantage was speed.  I poured on more, clipped my shoulder against the metal corner of a container, and kept moving.

I reached the massive double doors before too long, somehow managing to avoid any encounters with the guards.  Asher was still screaming commands from his perch by the office.  I noticed, in a distant sort of way, that Mila hadn’t done anything to help or hinder his efforts.  I wondered momentarily if that was by design, or if her employer had given her specific instructions to that effect, and the unanswered question caused a quick hiccup in my thought processes.  I stumbled slightly and tried to catch myself, while still pumping my legs; the resulting conflict in orders resolved itself when I fell to the ground.  I tasted blood in my mouth as I pushed myself back to my feet.

When I looked at the door again, the bottom fell out of my stomach.  Three men, each one easily twice my size from shoulder to shoulder, were moving into position in front of me.  They were panting with exhaustion, but their eyes were alert and focused solely on me.  The guard at the center of the trip stood a little behind his cohorts, pointing a black handgun in my general direction.  The other two held batons at the ready.

The baton wielders approached while the gunman kept his distance.  I could tell immediately that neither man was used to working with a partner.  Their steps were deliberate, but they shot glances to each other with each foot fall.  I acted on their uncertainty and, when their eyes were momentarily not on me, launched myself at them.  One of the two, a dark-skinned man with sand-brown hair, jerked in surprise as I speared in his direction.  His counterpart, a shorter man with nearly black eyes and a scar that ran all the way up his left cheek, reacted instead with violence.  The scarred man’s baton hit me across the shoulder blades, mid-leap.  Lines of pain lanced through my body as the hit connected.  I continued forward, missing Sandy’s abdomen by virtue of a poorly aimed jump, and hit his thighs instead.  The effect was, more or less, the same as I’d intended: he and I went to the ground in a mass of struggling limbs, sweat, and swears.

My stolen handgun slipped from my grip, but managed to get a hand around Sandy’s baton.  I disengaged and swung blindly, dumping every ounce of muscle into the blow as I could manage.  There was resistance for a brief instant, and then something cracked.  Sandy howled in pain and pushed away from with frenzied strength.  I prepared to lunge at the scarred guard next, but he moved first and drove a steel-toed boot into my stomach.

The pain across my shoulder blades vanished in a tidal wave of exploding nerve endings.  I saw stars, then blackness, then Sandy’s face as he struggled back to his feet.  He kept one hand on his jaw as he kicked me again in the belly with a vicious, sadistic anger.  Scarface leaned down and swung an oversized, hairy hand at my head, catching me squarely in the temple.

For a moment, unconsciousness threatened to pull me under.  I heard more boots stomping towards me, but my concern was vague and unfocused.  Those three hits had completely taken the fight out of me.  I was limp as someone – Scarface, probably, or perhaps a newcomer – dragged me to my feet.  Each blink could have been measured in minutes, or hours, instead of split seconds.  When my senses slowly began to function properly again, I struggled weakly against the guards.  That only served to earn me a sharp, open-handed slap from someone who, judging by the pinprick of moisture that I felt on my cheek, had chosen to wear sharp rings.

My field of vision was a blurry mess of shapes and colors, so I couldn’t see when Asher approached.  Blood – either mine or Sandy’s, I wasn’t sure – ran down into my eyes or I closed them against the salty fluid.  They weren’t any good, anyway.  Even though I couldn’t see him, my ears still functioned fine.  “I’d ask how you got away from my men,” Asher said, “but we’ll have plenty of time to talk about it later.  No sense in rushing this.”

I tried to say something as clever as it was devastating.  What actually came out of my mouth was just a garbled bastardization of his name.

“Relax, Devlin,” Asher said.  His words were soothing, but the tone was mocking.  “Relax.  I want to make sure you’re in tip-top shape before our chat, okay?  It isn’t anywhere near as much fun if you can’t feel anything.”

“And me?”  A voice asked from behind Asher, somewhere higher up.

“Oh, I didn’t forget about you,” Asher called back.  He lowered his voice before he spoke again, now pitched so that only I could hear it.  “Oh, and Devlin?  I’m not the only who wants to have a chat with you.”

I opened my eyes a sliver.  Looking past Asher, I could barely make out Mila’s distinctive stance, up by the office.  I tried to say something, to ask her what her game was, but my lips refused to form the appropriate syllables.

“Rest up, old friend.”  Asher spat out those last two words.  “You’ve got a long night ahead of you.”