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.”
“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.”