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.
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.
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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”