Chapter Forty-Seven

Traffic was sparse on the streets leading to the outskirts of the city and the Aston Martin, when there was sufficient space, possessed more than enough power to devour the miles.  The backseat was spacious enough for Mila, Sarah, and I to have a little elbow room.  Mila took the window seat facing traffic, Sarah sat in the middle, and I took position at the opposite window.  My heartbeat quickened a little at each passing car, but none fired bullets at the car as we sped down the road.

“Mila,” I said, without taking my eyes away from the road.  “What is this ‘Green Light’ thing? And be specific, if possible.”

“I only know what I’ve picked up,” she said.  “But the first thing is that it isn’t always called that.  I’m not even really sure it’s called anything, specifically.  The ‘Green Light’ bit is just to give you an idea of the…I guess, theme is the closest word.”

“Whatever we’re calling it, I still don’t know what Sarah and I are about to wander into.”

“Rich people eating rich food and talking about rich things.”  Mila shrugged.  “Someone gets picked to host a party for the elite’s elite.  That person is responsible for selecting a location, staffing it, providing food and drink, hiring discrete entertainment, and blah blah blah.  Involves a lot of blackmail and bribery, I’d guess.”

I filed that away.  Blackmailed employees, by and large, wanted a way off of the metaphorical barrel.  Bribed ones were harder to coerce, but the Lady might have sufficient resources to throw at a key individual if the need arose.

“What’s stopping the host from killing off any competition while they’re all under one roof?”  I asked.

“Two things.  First, the host is required to show up to the event in person and without any guards of his own.  If there’s any sign the host isn’t coming, then he loses major reputation points.”

“And the other?”

Mila smiled.  “None of the other real heavy hitters typically show up in person.  They send employees or assistants in their place.  So, in the event of a violent coup that’s actually successful, all you’d accomplish is killing off a group of middle men.  After which the organizations you’ve just mortally offended would have cause to rain down hell on everyone you know and love.”

Sarah cleared her throat.  “You’re saying we’re decoys.  Stand-ins, basically, so that the Lady doesn’t have to put herself at risk?”

“Pretty much,” Mila agreed with another slight shrug.  “I’d be surprised if anything like that happens, though.  Fifteen or twenty highly trained bodyguards in one room tends to dissuade anyone from getting trigger happy.”

“It still seems like a lot of risk,” I said.  “Why would anyone bother to come to something like this?”

“I’ve gathered that, at this level, cooperation is key,” Mila said.  “They can’t afford to trip over each other in their dealings and these occasional gatherings give them a time and safe space where they can discuss the finer points of their deals and alliances.  That’s only a part of it, though.”

I waited for her to finish her thought.  After a minute, I realized that she was deliberately holding out for dramatic effect and I resolved to wait until her patience broke.  Thirty seconds after that, I gave up.  “What’s the other part?”  I asked.

“Gloating, mostly,” she said, smirking just a little.  “Mind games, power plays, backstabbing, and the like.”

“They couldn’t do that via email, from a safe distance several countries away?”

“No offense,” Sarah cut in, “but you didn’t grow up with a lot of money, Dev.  Your experience in this arena is going to be a bit lacking.”

“Fair enough,” I replied.  “Explain it to me, then.”

“People who’ve had privilege their whole life, and who have literally no idea what it would be like without that power, get bored of it after a while.  That’s when you start jockeying for imaginary position in this game that only other foolishly rich people are playing.”  She raised her eyes from the tablet in front of her and met mine.  I suppressed a shiver at their intensity.  “It only matters if you’ve got something that no one else does.  Then you can lord it over the other person and know that you’re superior, even for just a little bit.  Doing something like that over the phone or a computer isn’t the same.”

“Gold star for Sarah,” Mila added.  She reached into her jacket pocket and I half-expected her to withdraw an actual gold star.  Instead, she removed a candy bar, unwrapped it, and began to eat it in large bites.

“Alright.  But why would anyone agree to serve as a stand-in?”

“If I had to guess,” Sarah continued, “these assistants have probably been with their respective employers for a long time.  It would take years to rise to the point where you’re trusted enough to represent someone at a gathering like this.  So, for them, the success of their employers is their own success.  They’re in competition with the other assistants and seconds…in their own way.”

“Except for us,” I said slowly.

“Except for you,” Mila said.  “You don’t really have a dog in their fight.  Whatever happens to the Lady’s position doesn’t mean anything to you.”

That was a possible angle.  I added it to the slim list of possible plays, which I mentally reviewed for unanswered questions.  “So, who are these people?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Mila said, around a bite of candy.  “I’m sure that some of them – most of them, probably – have public identities, but they don’t ever use them.  They’ve got nicknames and handles that they use for ease of communication.”

“What do we do if someone starts asking about deals or arrangements?”  Sarah asked.

“Lie?”  Mila suggested.  “Or dodge the question, whichever.”

Michel cleared his throat loudly and deliberately.  I looked out of the front window and saw it, rising from the horizon: a plain airplane hangar illuminated by at least four industrial spotlights.  Parked off to the side, a fleet of expensive and rare vehicles conglomerated.  A cloud of cigarette smoke rose from the mass of cars.  Michel whistled as we drew close enough for him to tell the makes and models.

If there were planes, I couldn’t see them.  One of the hangar doors was open, however, and two men with large flags stood outside.  “We’ll have to sort the rest of this out on the fly,” I said.  Now that we were on the scene, it was my time to shine.  “Michel, I want you to feed us anything you find out as soon as you can.”

“Of course, Devlin.”

“Mila?  If you’ve worked with some of these bodyguards in the past, it’s possible that their previous jobs might give Sarah a basis to find out where they’re – and by extension, their employers – from.  That doesn’t break confidentiality, does it?”

Mila scoffed.  “I didn’t work with them, I worked near them.  Or against them.  At any rate, talking about where they’ve been doesn’t break any confidentiality, no.”

“Great.  Sarah, can you –“

“Cross-reference any of the information that Michel and Mila give me with known subsidiaries of BMC, in case there’s a connection that might point us in the direction of this key?”  She gave me a saccharine smile.  “Why, yes, I believe I can do that.”

“I wouldn’t have said it like that, exactly,” I started, but demurred as Michel eased the car to a stop, parallel to a two-seater Maserati.  I checked my cufflinks and tie, while Sarah ensured her earrings weren’t going to fall out.  When we finished, she caught my eyes and nodded.  I returned the gesture.

Mila waited until Sarah and I were both out of the car before she stepped out on the opposite side of the vehicle.  Sarah threaded her arm through the crook of mine as we walked.  I raised an eyebrow at the familiarity but kept my thoughts to myself.  Mila slid into position behind us, smooth as silk and just as silent.  Two guards, both armed with assault rifles whose make I didn’t immediately recognize, stopped us at the nearest door.  “Invitations,” the wider of the two guards said.  His English was unaccented, blank in a disturbing way.

I fished the invitations from my jacket pocket with two fingers and passed them over.  The guard who’d spoken inspected them carefully for ten seconds and then waved some device over one of the invitations.  I held my breath, without really knowing why, until a high pitched beep came from the machine, accompanied by a steady green light.  The guard reset the machine and repeated the process with the second invitation.  When a similar sound and light activated, he pocketed the device and the invitations and then stepped out of the way.  “Welcome, sir.  Ma’am.”  He inclined his head to both Sarah and me.

Out of the available accents and personas, I opted for the simplest and most familiar.  When I spoke, I did so in my own voice, albeit with elevated diction and the haughtiest air that I could manage under the circumstances.  “Of course.”  I mentally counted to three and then affected a dramatic sigh.  “The door, then?”

The thin guard, who hadn’t yet spoken or made a move, jerked to attention.  He hurried to open the door into the hangar and lowered his head as we passed.  I turned enough so that I could see Mila behind me.  The action also afforded me a slim view of Michel, sharing a lighter and cigarette break with one of the other drivers.  “Let’s go, then,” I said.  “Duty calls and whatnot.”

Sarah removed her arm and strode purposefully past the guards, into the hallway beyond the door where neither I nor Mila could see her.  I hastened to join her, and heard Mila say something to the guards before she joined us.  The door closed behind us with a particularly ominous click.

I nearly bumped into Sarah after a few steps.  She’d stopped just inside the hallway, apparently.  I managed to change my momentum at the last instant, striking the wall with one shoulder instead.  “What are you doing?”  I asked her.

“Waiting for you,” she answered.  There was a hint of bite in her tone.  She removed what was either a very large phone or a very small tablet from her purse and pressed several icons in order.  The earbud in my ear popped once.  Mila wiggled a pinky in her own ear at the same time.  “Mila, I’m routing everything that Michel says to you.  I assume you can multi-task well enough to keep that from being a problem?”

“Occupational talent,” Mila answered.  “And if he says something important?  How do you want me to convey that message?”

Sarah bit her bottom lip in thought.  “Just suggest a bathroom break or something,” she said finally.  “Even if the facilities are occupied, we’ll have a few seconds where we can talk.  That’ll work, right?”

“Sure,” Mila said, “but that’ll leave Devlin all by himself at the table while we’re gossiping.”

“Shit, then.  That won’t work.”

I raised my hand.  “I’m standing right here, you two.  And, just so you’re aware, I’ve managed to keep myself alive for a very long time without any assistance from either of you lovely ladies.”

Sarah frowned.  “This isn’t really the time for your fragile masculine ego.”

“In all the years you’ve known me, have you ever known me to have masculine ego?  Really?”

Sarah and Mila exchanged a look, and then Sarah shook her head slowly.

“Exactly,” I said.  “Mila, you said these things are all conversation.  Posturing and discussions and international criminal trade agreements.  I can handle a few minutes by myself if you two need to discuss something.  Besides, any information you find out that Sarah needs helps us all in the long run.”

“He’s right,” Sarah admitted, after a moment.

I smirked.  “Often.  You make the plans, I take care of any on-the-fly decisions.  Information we gather now rests firmly in the ‘planning category.’  Anything that happens when we walk into this thing is ‘on the fly.’  So, Mila?  Does that work for you?”

She sighed.  “If you insist, fine.  But I will cause a serious incident if you get yourself into any more trouble like that warehouse.”  The expression on Mila’s face gave me the impression that she wouldn’t be dissatisfied with that outcome, should things come to a head.

“You have my permission to cause as much of an incident as you need to,” I said solemnly.  “Now, can we get back to the matter at hand?”  I bowed slightly and gestured for Sarah to walk down the hallway ahead of me.  She gave me a sardonic smile and accepted the invitation.

I admired her shape for a few seconds before Mila prodded me in the small of my back.  “Eyes up.”

“I know that,” I snapped and stalked off down the hallway before she could needle me any further.

She was right behind me, speaking directly into my empty ear.  “What happened there?  I know you two were married, but the divorce wasn’t covered in the file.”

It was a testament to my nerves that I was barely irritated at the existence of a file.  “It’s complicated,” I whispered back.

“These things are never complicated,” Mila said.  “Difficult, sure.  Impossible, even.  But the ‘why’ of it is usually pretty simple.”

There was truth in those words.  “This isn’t really the time,” I said.

“If your past is going to be an issue, or a threat to your safety in some way, then this is exactly the time.”  I nearly stopped to face her, but Mila’s inexorable movement pushed me forward.  She continued to speak in a low voice.  “Whatever caused you two to split up, professionally and personally, must have been pretty bad.  Tell me this: is it going to be a problem?”

I thought about Sarah’s actions over the past two days.  “It won’t be a problem,” I said.  I was pleased to find that I meant it, without reservation.

“I’ll take your word for that,” Mila said.  “For the moment.”  She straightened up and I felt her presence leave my immediate personal space.

I turned to look back at her and, in the process, took my eyes away from Sarah as she stopped once more.  This time, I actually did collide into her back.  Mila caught my arm and I caught Sarah’s, so that none of us found ourselves tangled on the floor.

“You have got to stop doing…that…”  My mouth went dry as I looked past her, at the spectacle in front of us.  The interior of the hangar – at least, this part of the hangar – had been transformed into a space that resembled nothing so much as an elegant ballroom.  The entire room was cast in a pale green light.  I looked up and saw a chandelier, complete with actual cameras, surrounded by a cone of green stained glass to provide the effect.

“Green light,” Sarah whispered.

Suddenly, I got it.  “Gatsby.  It’s the green light from Gatsby.”

Large round tables, adorned with shockingly white cloths and an assortment of floral decorations, were spread around the room.  Each table was far enough away from the others that eavesdropping would be difficult.  That would be made even more difficult by the presence of several dozen bodyguards, both male and female, standing watch like gargoyles over their charges.  The people seated at the tables spoke animatedly with their hands, and they smiled across their respective tables, but their eyes were universally narrowed in suspicion.  The room felt cold, in a way that had little to do with the temperature.

“Sir, ma’am,” a voice said from my right.  I jerked in surprise, pulling myself out of my amazement and back into the moment.  The speaker was a balding man, who spoke English with a vaguely Nordic accent.  “If you would please follow me to your table?”

Faces amongst the assemblage began to notice our arrival.  Some of the people at the tables closest to us turned and shot openly searching looks at us.  Others pointed and whispered to their compatriots.  We were, for the moment, the center of attention.  I swallowed nervously but kept that nervousness from my face.  Instead of shying away from the spotlight, there was only one way to turn this situation to my advantage.  I held out my arm for Sarah and she took the elbow graciously.  “Absolutely,” I said to the balding Nordic man.  “Lead the way.”

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Chapter Forty-Six

We worked in our respective rooms for most of the morning, with a brief break around noon where we ate room service in the living room.  Judging from her silence as she picked over the remains of a salmon dish, Sarah’s efforts to scrub the computer of any spyware weren’t going well, and I wasn’t having much success on my end, either.   After lunch, Sarah returned for another round with the Lady-provided system, and I returned to the room for several more hours until I couldn’t bear looking at a computer screen for another second.   I decided to migrate to the couch, chew mindlessly on a freshly delivered banana, and gaze out of the balcony window.

From where I sat, there wasn’t any possible way for a bullet to bridge the distance between the distant tree line and my forehead.  I scooted a little farther back, anyway.  I leaned back into the plush furniture and closed my eyes.  More ideas and questions than I could count crowded behind my eyelids: theories as to the Lady’s real endgame, what Asher wanted, the nature of the book, and so on.  I opened my eyes and realized, with a dull sort of surprise, that I’d removed one of the lock picks from my pocket.  My fingers expertly flipped it across my knuckles and then back again.  I watched the process for thirty seconds before I pocketed the lock pick again and stood up.

I was halfway back to my room when the elevator dinged.  I turned slightly to face the sound, while my brain processed the addition of new information.  Michel had called earlier to let us both know that he intended to take the Aston Martin for a long ride, ostensibly to familiarize himself with its workings.  Neither Sarah nor I believed that but, at the same time, neither she nor I cared.  It wasn’t really our car.

There was every possibility that Asher knew that we’d been behind the museum job – we were banking on that, in fact – but even his newfound resources would need time to pin down my location.  Adlai was a threat, but he was limited by his own rule-abiding nature.  There were forms to file, reports to submit, and oversight that would hamstring any chase he could mount.  It hadn’t even been twenty-four hours.  At best, he would only have been able to case the scene of the crime while his superiors danced their way through jurisdictional red tape.  My allies were accounted for and my enemies were limited in the damage they could cause.

So, I asked myself, who was entering the room?

I threw myself to the floor, scrambled behind the couch, and waited.  No noise came from Sarah’s room.  She’d probably donned her headphones as soon as the tedious mechanical labor started up.  There wasn’t any way to warn her without exposing myself to the intruder.  There was a chance – a slim one – that I might be able to surprise whoever was in the hotel room, if I was patient.  It had worked in Kiev and several times in London, after all.

The hotel’s living room was covered in a thick, soft carpet.  It made my sprawl bearable but it also muffled the sound of footsteps.  If I strained, I could barely make out what felt like the impression of a footstep, but I wasn’t sure enough to base any offensive or defensive action on those faint sounds.  I waited until the presence grew closer.  When it was on the other side of the couch, a smell reached my nostrils: not perfume or cologne, but something equally strong.  Soap, maybe?  The presence stopped where it was.

I was prepared to leap out of cover, banking on the shock of my dynamic entry, when the presence cleared its throat and spoke.  “How long are you planning to hide back there?”

My eyebrows drew together.  I peeked my head out from behind the couch.  “How did you know where we were?”

Mila, dressed in a pair of khakis and a button-up shirt, unscrewed the cap from a water bottle and drank deeply from it before she answered.  “Call it a lucky guess.”

I left the couch’s shadow and moved across the room to an empty recliner. “I could have attacked you,” I said.

“You could have,” she allowed, “but that really wouldn’t have gone well.”

“That’s a…gracious interpretation.”  Having seen her fight, I was pretty sure I would have been lucky to walk away from any confrontation.

She inclined her head slightly.  “I’m working on my graciousness, actually.”

I raised an eyebrow. I could have bantered with her for another hour, but, at that moment, Sarah left her room and walked into the hallway, muttering to herself.  “Who builds a motherboard specifically to put an actual hardware backdoor into a computer?  There’s suspicious and then there’s…”  She stopped when she noticed Mila.  “Uh.  Hi?”

“You must be Sarah,” Mila said.

Sarah perked up slightly, as she recognized the voice.  “Oh.  Um…you’re the one who got him away from Asher?”

“The one and only.  Mila.  Or Emilia, if you prefer.”

I frowned.  “Which one is it?”

“Neither,” she said, “but one’s as good as the other.”

Sarah still wore confusion on her face, but she was recovering.  I decided to ask the only really important question while Sarah’s mind was still rebooting.  “So.  Let’s get right to it.  Can we trust you?” I asked Mila.

If Mila was offended, she gave no sign of it.  “The terms of my contract were very specific.  My services are paid for until such time as your business in England is finished, and I receive my orders – not really the right word, but it’s the closest one that I know – from you, not the chick who’s paying the bill.”

“And if we decide to do something that goes against what the Lady wants?”

“I keep you and Sarah from dying.  That’s my only job.”

Jealousy spiked irrationally in my chest.  Mila seemed so at ease with the situation.  “Is this sort of thing normal for you?”

Mila snorted instead of answering.

With an effort, I kept myself from trying to communicate non-verbally with Sarah.  Even if Mila wasn’t sure what a momentary look meant, she would still log it and work to uncover its meaning.  The best course of action was to simply not give her anything to work with.  “How did you find out where we were?  Honestly?”  I asked.

“GPS tracker in the wheel well of that Aston.”  She shrugged.

“You put a tracker on your own car?”

“I’ve got trackers on every car I own,” Mila said.  “And I’ve also got hidden cameras on every property I frequent.  People expect you to spy on them.  They don’t expect you to spy on yourself.”

“Why didn’t you just ask the Lady for directions?”

“Why ask for information you can discover on your own?”  Mila countered.

I smiled at that.  It sounded like something I would have said.

Sarah cleared her throat.  “So,” she said in a tone that did not sound pleased at all, “is there anyone else you want to bring into this?”

“I’m not the one who brought her in,” I replied.  “But yeah, I think this is a good idea.  I was going to suggest hiring someone to act as personal security, anyway.  You saw what happened at the gala, and I’ve only been here for a couple of days.  How bad do you think this is going to get before it’s all over?”

There was an edge to Sarah’s voice.  “Exactly my point.  This is going to be hard enough without the addition of a possible spy to the team.”

Mila had been picking at something underneath her nails.  “One,” she interrupted, extending an index finger.   “I’m not a spy.  There wasn’t an explicit confidentiality agreement in the contract, but it’s implied.”

“Not even to the contract holder?”

“My confidence is with the person I’m protecting, not whoever’s sending the money.  Two,” she raised a middle finger to join the extended pointer without waiting for me to reply, “I accepted a contract.  That means I’m going to protect you, whether you want me to or not.  That part, you don’t get a say in.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Mila rolled her shoulders.  “It means this: if you tell me to go, I’ll leave.  But then I’ll just linger in the lobby.  Whenever you go out, I’ll tail you.  I’ll be an unholy problem, because I’m not good at the covert stuff, but my job is keeping you from dying.  Everything else comes in a distant second, so long as I’m under contract.  Clear?”

In any other setting, Sarah would have appreciated the fastidious adherence to protocol.  Right now, she only scowled at her.  “Anything else?”

Mila’s ring finger rose and joined the other two.  “Sam.”

“Sam?”

Mila unzipped the duffel bag over her shoulder and a fluffy white head poked out.  The cat that I’d seen the previous night blinked huge, baby blue eyes at me and Mila began to stroke absently between his ears.

“I’m allergic,” Sarah protested immediately, stepping away as she spoke.

Mila didn’t blink.  She took her hand away from Sam’s head and dipped it into a side pocket.  A moment later, she drew out a bottle of pills and lobbed it in Sarah’s direction.  “Medication.  Prescription strength.”

“You can’t put the cat in a kennel or something?”  Sarah asked.

Sam,” Mila said, stressing her pet’s name,  “doesn’t do well in kennels for long periods.”

Sarah’s frown deepened.  The displeasure did interesting things to her lips and I looked away before I had a chance to really start imagining things.

“Anyway,” Mila pressed on, “you don’t know anything about what you’re walking into.  You two have been here for, what?  Two days?  And Devlin was already within a couple of inches of death.  I can either follow behind you and be a hassle; or I can stay with you and be an asset.  Your call.”

“Fine,” Sarah spat out, after a minute of tense glowering.  “I don’t know where you’re going to stay, though.”

“The couch is fine.”  Mila lowered the duffle bag, kicked off her shoes, and stretched out across the cushions.  Sam climbed out of the halfway unzipped opening and up onto the couch, nestling himself into the bend in her body.  “But don’t you guys have something to get dressed for?”

I glanced at the clock and saw that it was already nearing six o’ clock.  “Shit,”  I muttered.  “Sarah, we can pick this up later.”

“You can bet we will,” she said, as she hurried into her room.

I typed out a quick message to Michel, using the burner phone: “Getting ready now.  Details to discuss.”  I read it over once before I sent it and headed off to get ready for the Green Light party.

The room’s closet contained choices.  After several years of limited options, and a few days’ of wearing whatever clothing happened to be available, the novelty of a fully stocked closet was staggering.  There were ties of all colors, tie bars and monogrammed cufflinks, a rainbow of Oxford button-down shirts, socks, shoes, and other assorted accessories.

In honor of the theme, I wore a pale green silk tie, kept flat with a platinum and gold tie bar against a jet-black button down shirt.  My pants and suit jacket were also black as midnight, but my socks peeked out from under the cuffs to reveal a hint of lime in contrast to the majority of the suit.  Solid gold cufflinks completed the ensemble, providing a unifying note and a reference to the otherwise easily ignored tie bar.  I gave the assorted jewelry a moment of serious thought before I selected a platinum watch with gold numbering.

I ran a hand through my hair and regretted that I hadn’t thought to get a haircut.  I brightened slightly when I realized that, in all likelihood, there was someone on staff who could handle that for me after we got back.

Assuming, of course, that we made it back at all.

It took forty minutes before I was satisfied with my appearance.  “You ready, Mila?” I asked, stepping out of the bedroom and back into the main area.

She stood in the center of the living room, cinching a black neck tie tight.  “Just about,” Mila said.

I stepped farther into the room and saw Michel standing just to the side of Mila.  He looked at her in open awe.  I chuckled to myself.  “I wouldn’t get too attached, Michel,” I said.  “Mila’s all about the business.”

“Can I not still appreciate beauty?”  He asked.

“Just don’t get your hopes up, is all I’m saying.”

Mila ignored the brief conversation.  She finished with her tie, checked the lengths of her sleeves, and nodded once in self-affirmation.  “The color’s a nice touch,” she said when she finally turned to take in my appearance.

I made a dismissive sound.  “Anybody could look good with that closet to choose from.  It’s not the same as…”

The door to Sarah’s room opened.  I turned, instinctively, at the sound.  My eyes became wide as pie plates; my breath caught in my chest; and my heart skipped a beat, fixed itself, skipped once more, and then decided to go into utter freefall.

She was dressed in a single piece of radiant emerald green fabric.  It was either silk or chiffon.  Her neckline sported a dazzling array of gemstones which glittered in the light.  There was every possibility that those stones were actually diamonds.  The chance that Sarah could be carrying at least ten thousand dollars in jewels against her bare skin seemed absolutely plausible and, more than that, absolutely correct.

Aside from the gems on her dress, she wore no necklace or bracelets that might distract from her.  Even her earrings were little more than small silvery beads.  Her nails matched the shade of her dress.  She’d pinned her wild curls up with two golden chopsticks; those, in turn, matched the buckles on her low-heeled, open-toe pumps.  I could see the spot, just above her left ankle, where her first tattoo had lived before the laser removal operation.  Her eyes were hidden behind a pair of new glasses, but the color in them still shone out from her face.

She noticed me noticing her and shifted uncomfortably.  Her left hand crossed over her right and I knew that, if it were possible, her cheeks would be turning a shade of red.  “What?”  She asked defensively.

I cleared my throat several times until words began to form in my mind again.  “Well.  I, uh…well.”

What?”  Sarah asked again.  “What is it?”

“I think he’s trying to say you look good,” Mila chimed in.  She was in the process of securing a handgun beneath her jacket.

I nodded.  “That dress is…it’s a great dress.”

Sarah shifted her weight from one foot to the other.  “I figured ‘green’ was an appropriate color, considering the invitation.”

“We’ll match,” I said.  Words were becoming easier.  “That might be good.”

She nodded and then opened her clutch.  From within, she produced another nearly invisible black earbud, examined it briefly, and extended it to Mila.  “If you’re working with us, then you’ll need to be on comms, too.”

Mila regarded the equipment with a mixture of bemusement and skepticism.

“What’s the problem?”  I asked.

“My job is to protect you,” she said.  “I’ll do that to the best of my abilities, regardless of what you want.  People don’t typically like to work with the babysitter.”

I thought.  “You can’t stop us from doing something, right?  I mean, you can’t just drag the two of us out of London?”

“I could,” Mila said, shrugging, “but I’d rather not.  There’s nothing stopping you from coming right back after I leave, and that just makes for more work in the long run.”

“And if I go into danger?  You’ll protect me, even if you hate that I’m doing it?”

She nodded.

“Well, then, I don’t see any problem at all,” I lied.  Or exaggerated.  The details were fuzzy, even to me, but I wasn’t sure how Mila’s contract would hold up to an actual field test.  At the same time, I had little to no options.  “You know what we’re doing.  You know who we’re going after.  If you try to slow us down, you’ll only make things more dangerous for us.  The easiest thing to do is to help us finish what we’ve got in mind here, so that the three of us can leave.  And you can go off to whatever your next job is.”

“I figured you were going to say that,” Mila said.

“And?”

In response, she reached out and took the earbud from Sarah’s fingers.  “The sooner we get this started, the sooner we can all go home.”  She began to play absently with a spot between Sam’s ears.  The cat purred and nestled his head into Mila’s palm.

Sarah entered a command into her smart phone.  “Check, check.”  I suffered from the unpleasant sensation of hearing her voice from her own lips, as she was less than a yard away from me, and also through the earbud.  I could see that Michel and Mila underwent similar discomfort.  The line popped and went dead again.  “Alright, we’re linked up.  I’m going to keep Dev and I muted from each other, so there’s no feedback.  Michel, you’re on recon.”

He raised a hand.  “What is that, exactly?”

“If what the Lady said is true, there are going to be a lot of powerful people at this thing.  That means personal drivers, and powerful people tend to not like new people,” Sarah said.  “Their drivers are likely the same people who’ve been ferrying them around for years.  You can’t work for someone that long and not pick up some juicy details.  Michel, I want you to see what you can sneak out of them.  Any information is better than nothing.”

“Is there anything in particular I should ask about?”

“Nothing I can think of.  Asking about the Magi is too heavy-handed.  I’ve already sent people running for the metaphorical treehouse by phrasing a question the wrong way, but maybe you can tease out some other details we can work with. ”  Sarah considered a half-finished can of Diet Coke on the table.  She touched two fingers to her fresh lipstick, sighed, and abandoned the can where it sat.

Michel looked at her and, almost imperceptibly, flicked his eyes in my direction.  I shook my head and took a step back.  “This is Sarah’s territory.  I don’t work well from a position of…well, safety for lack of a better word.”

Mila snorted violently.  “No one’s ever really safe.”

“From a vantage point, then,” I conceded.  She nodded and I continued, speaking to Michel.  “I’m good on the ground; she’s good from here, in the planning stages.  If she says you should interrogate the drivers, then that’s what you should do.”

“Ah,” he said, “oui, Monsieur…er…Madamoiselle Ford.”

“It’s Bennett now,” she corrected.  I knew she’d caught his deference to me.  I could only hope that she’d appreciated my reaction to it.  That argument was an old one, and it wasn’t one I was looking forward to having again.  “No way to know who’s listening from this point on.”

“Bennett, then.”

“Mila,” Sarah said, turning slightly to give our new bodyguard her own set of marching orders.

“I’ll shadow the two of you,” Mila interrupted.  She shrugged one shoulder at the annoyed look Sarah shot her.  “I told you that you wouldn’t like my methods.”

Sarah sighed and checked her smart phone again.  “Fine.  Do you know anything at all about what we’re about to walk into?”  Sarah asked.

“I’ve heard rumors,” Mila said.

I thought about that.  “What exactly is it?”

She was quiet for a few seconds, weighing the question and how to answer.  “These Magi – great name, by the way – are international badasses, right?”

I nodded.

“Imagine a room filled with other people in that league, who don’t have your interests at heart.”

“It’s that bad?”

“Probably worse.”

“What else do you know?”  I asked.

Mila rolled her shoulders and neck before she answered.  “Enough to know this is a terrible, no good, very bad idea.”

I smiled, despite myself.  In my peripheral vision, I could see that Sarah’s expression lightened as well.  “Nice reference.”

“I do what I can,” Mila said, faking a curtsy for effect.

My attention went back to Sarah, who had thrown herself back into some project on her smart phone.  “And what’s our plan?”

She looked up.  “Step one: infiltrate this party.  Step two: try to not die.  Step three: really, seriously, try not to die.  That about sum it all up?

I swallowed a lump of anxiety.  “Yep,” I said.

“Glad to hear it,” she said.  “Now get your stuff.  Michel, bring the car around.  Mila…do whatever you do.”  Sarah hesitated and a shadow of a smile played at the corners of her lips.  “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

Chapter Forty-Five

Sarah and I rode to the Brooklands Hotel in the backseat of the surprisingly roomy Aston Martin.  Michel drove us through London with an ear-to-ear grin plastered on his face.  Seeing his own unabashed joy lifted my own spirits.  Sarah upgraded the equipment she was carrying, choosing a laptop from the trunk of Michel’s long-suffering taxi, and busied herself with several digital conversations at once.  I glanced over to her screen once and saw no fewer than five windows blinking at her for attention.  A cursory scan made my eyes cross slightly in confusion.  Each window was filled with technical jargon, long strings of alphanumeric information, and code names I’d never heard before.  I decided that she would tell me about anything interesting and turned to look out the window.

When we reached the hotel, my eyes widened.  The building itself was elegantly designed and expansive.  The Aston Martin didn’t stand out against the field of Bentleys, Ferraris, and Corvettes.  Each car that I saw made one point eminently clear: this was a place of opulent wealth, and the people who chose to spend their time here wanted everyone to know exactly how much money they could throw around.  Running literally through the hotel, underneath an elevated length of building, I spotted an empty racetrack.

I was used to temporary, somewhat shabby residences.  Most of my professional life had been spent in one or another.  Technically, I held the deed to my father’s property in Ireland and Sarah was the owner on record for several houses across the West Coast but, as those houses were all well-documented and easily discovered, we had rarely stayed there.  Sarah used an automated script to keep up with various taxes and upkeep – or, at least she’d done that before we’d parted ways – and I never asked about the details.  I honestly never cared.  The only reason I kept the land in Ireland was because it’s what my mother would have wanted.

“Well, that’s new,” I muttered.

Michel turned away from the road for the first time since we’d left the previous hotel.  “This is not a normal thing for you, then?”

“Hardly,” I said.  “Usually, I – we – try to stay under the radar.  Relatively cheap rooms for short jobs, established safe houses for longer excursions.”

“There’s a sort of logic to this, though,” Sarah said.  At some point, she’d closed the laptop and placed it back into her carrying case.  “Everyone who stays at this sort of place is going to be burning money.  One more group wouldn’t raise any alarms.”

“And it isn’t unreasonable to think that we aren’t the only people with something to hide here,” I said. “White collar criminals would love a hotel like this.  I’d bet there are more pseudonyms in use here than actual names.”

Sarah held up one of the hotel keys.  “Did she tell you what names we’d be under?”

I shook my head.  “I didn’t think she was going to actually move me into a cushier place, so I didn’t think to ask.”

She sighed.

I gave her a thin smile.  “No reason for that.  I don’t think she’d go through the trouble of getting us new wheels and new digs, just to throw us to the wolves now.”

“We’ll see,” Sarah said in reply.

I was proven correct almost immediately.  After Michel reluctantly handed the keys over to a valet, we entered the hotel and were promptly greeted by an insufferably cheerful young blonde woman.

“Ah.  You would be Mister and Missus Benett?”  She asked, practically bouncing on her feet.

I looked at Sarah and Michel, and then back at the young woman.  “Yes?”

“I was told to expect your arrival,” the woman said.  “This is your first time at the Brooklands, I believe?”

“Sure,” I said.  “Let’s go with that.”

“If you’d be so kind as to follow me, then, I would be happy to show you around the facilities.”

“Maybe another time,” Sarah interjected.  “I’d like a chance to see the rooms, first.”

“You mean the suite, ma’am.”

“Pardon?”  Sarah raised an eyebrow.

The perky woman didn’t miss a beat.  “You said ‘rooms,’ Missus Bennett, but you and your husband have one of our premier suites for your stay with us.  Top floor, of course, with an accompanying balcony that provides a delightful view of the property.”

I blinked.  “Well, then, could you show us to that?”

“Of course.  And your driver?”

If he was offended by that assumption, Michel didn’t show it.  His eyes were riveted on the racetrack.  “I will stay down here,” he said, “if you do not mind.”

“Perhaps you could show him what’s going on out there?”  I gestured in the direction of the track.

Michel’s eyes lit up.

The woman gave him a look.  “Absolutely,” she said, in a tone that contained entire volumes worth of cool professionalism.  “Would you care for anyone to bring in your luggage?”

“Not just yet,” I said.  “Let’s see the room before we deal with those particulars.”

The woman nodded and walked over to the elevator.  Sarah and I followed her, while Michel lingered in the lobby, gazing at various fixtures in awe.

After the doors closed, the woman spoke without turning to face us.  “You’ll find your new documentation in your respective living quarters,” she said.  I noticed that a great deal of warmth had drained from her voice all at once.  “And I’ve been informed that there has been a wide breadth of clothing options provided.  All tailored, of course.”

The shift was surprising, but not entirely unexpected.  “Is this customary service for all of your guests?”

The woman glanced back at me, over her shoulder.  “There are services we provide only for our most distinguished guests,” she said in a soft, conspiratorial voice.

I deliberately left enough of a conversational gap that Sarah could leap in and ask whatever questions she wanted.  She said nothing.  I shrugged and waited out the rest of the elevator ride with only my thoughts and theories for company.

The elevator announced our arrival with a high-pitched ding.  The woman gestured for us to enter ahead of her.  Sarah hesitated, so I took the lead.  After I had been inside for a minute, without difficulty or danger, she joined me.  The hotel employee brought up the rear.  The elevator shut and returned to the lobby almost immediately, leaving the three of us alone in unfamiliar surroundings.

The suite was, in a word, extravagant.  On one side, I could see the balcony she’d mentioned, looking out at the treeline and the parking lot.  I noted with pleasure that there weren’t any tall buildings that could conceal a sniper.  I looked around until I found the hotel employee, who had taken up a position just barely inside the room.  “Which room is mine?”

She pointed.  “That way, Mister Bennett.  And Missus Bennett, your room is across the hall.”

The Lady had explicitly referred to my divorce from Sarah, so the names weren’t an oversight.  The fact that she’d arranged for separate rooms confirmed that much.  So, the fact that she’d picked false identities for us as husband and wife was just another of her nose-tweaks.

Sarah opened her mouth and closed it, without saying anything.  She walked instead to her room and disappeared inside.  I covered the distance to the door opposite hers and entered.  Inside, I saw the regular amenities expected of a high end hotel room.  On the nightstand, there was a slim folder.  I opened it and found all of the paperwork that came with a new identity: passport, driver’s license, credit cards, and so on.  I opened the nightstand’s single drawer and located a brand new wallet and a set of brand new lockpicks.  The cards went into the wallet, the passport into the drawer, and the lockpicks into my pocket before I went to check out the closet.

My capacity for shock had been greatly diminished in the previous few days, but the sight of a closet full of suits, with different colors and cuts, gave me pause nonetheless.  I removed one from its hanger and ran a finger down the lapel.  The fabric felt like wool, or a mixture of wool and cotton; breathable, but warm enough for the lower temperatures of England in the early winter.  I checked inside one of the shirts for a label and found none.  Not just tailored suits, then, but bespoke ones.

“You couldn’t have given me one of these before I paid Suzie?”  I asked the quiet room.  A second ticked by before a possibility occurred to me.  Suzie had only been in town because of a previous job.  The idea that the Lady had planned all this, down to the room and the clothing, before Sarah and I caught a flight into London to begin with was apparent.  I wasn’t sure, however, if the suits were another display of her power or if she was simply being solicitous.  I pulled out a drawer, found a pair of jeans and a t-shirt to wear instead of my day-old suit, and decided that I really didn’t care.

After I changed, I went back into the hallway.  Sarah was leaning against the door frame of her own room and the hotel employee who’d shown us to our room was nowhere to be seen.  Sarah watched me search the room before she cleared her throat and spoke up.  “I asked her to leave,” she said.  “There’s a card by the phone with her personal cell number, if either of us need anything that isn’t already here.”

“What do you think of the place?”  I asked.

“It’s probably bugged,” she replied.  “But, seeing as the Lady’s proven herself pretty capable of keeping track of us no matter what we do, that’s not as big of an issue as it should be.  You had a closet full of clothes in there, right?”  Sarah pointed at my closed door.

I nodded.  “There were lockpicks in the nightstand, too.  I’d be willing to bet that there’s a full set of gear in various drawers.”

“That makes sense,” Sarah said.  She opened the door back into her room.  “Look what she left for me.”

I followed Sarah.  She hit the light switch as she passed it.  Without that, the room was mired in almost impenetrable darkness.  There were no windows to allow ambient light into the space.  I thought back to my own room and realized that there were also no windows there, either.  Several articles of clothing – shirts, dresses, skirts, and blouses were thrown haphazardly on the bed.  I glanced at them briefly and, when my eyes flicked back up, I saw what Sarah had wanted me to see.  Set against the back wall, where a window would normally have been, an expansive bank of monitors glowed with electric light.  White letters flew by against a black background on at least six different monitors while a powerful fan churned air around inside the room.

“I’ll spare you the technical details,” she said, in answer to my unasked question, “but this is top of the line.  Higher than top of the line.  I gave the specifications a quick once-over, and they are…impressive.”

“What’s it doing now?”

It’s not doing anything,” Sarah answered.  “I’m running every anti-viral, anti-spyware program I know of to find every single byte of data she installed on this computer before she gifted it to me.  When this is finished, I’m going to take it apart and put it back together one piece at a time.  Anything that doesn’t belong – anything that I think might not belong – is getting thrown out.  After all that, I’ll reinstall the operating system and start from scratch.  I still won’t use it for anything sensitive that she doesn’t already know, but it’s better than anything else I’ve got at the moment.”

I approved of her paranoia and, at the same time, was absolutely sure that it would all be for naught.  I’d only been in the Lady’s presence for a short time, and what I didn’t know about her vastly outweighed the knowledge I’d gleaned, but she struck me as the type of person who expected circumspection.  Either she’d already planned a method of surveillance that Sarah and I would miss or she hadn’t bothered with it at all.

She obviously already other means of keeping tabs, anyway.  She’d tracked me out of France under an identity I’d literally stolen, to Kiev on an alias I hadn’t used in years, and to London.  As long as we were in the hotel room that she paid for and supplied, the most likely assumption was that she had eyes on us, in one form or another.

“So, how long are we staying here?”  I asked.

Sarah checked her smart phone before she answered.  “I don’t think we’ve got much of a choice.  While you were checking out your room, I got a bank notification.  The credit card that I used to book your previous room was tagged as stolen.  All funds are frozen until the bank has a chance to ascertain the circumstances surroundings its use.”

“She torched those identities?”

Sarah shook her head.  “Adlai.  I don’t have any idea how he’s moving this fast, but it is what it is.  I could use another account to reserve that room, or another one somewhere else, but that’s just going to open up more information to the Lady.  Which I’m pretty sure she’d be fine with.”

I considered that and nodded.  “Safe houses?”

“Same principle,” Sarah said.  “We don’t know how she’s tracking you and, until we do, I’m not about to lead her to any other safe houses she doesn’t already know about.  If she found you, then both identities are blown, and I’m not about to give her anymore.”

There was a slight edge to the words.  I doubted that anyone who didn’t know Sarah well would have caught it, but I did know her.  “So, you’re not okay with working under someone’s practically omniscient supervision?”

Sarah let a sarcastic laugh escape her lips.  “Hell no, I’m not okay with it.  The better part of my life has been spent making sure that I don’t have to answer to a single soul.  I’m hard at work trying to get out from underneath her thumb, but I’m not going to talk about it while we’re…well, I’m obviously not going to talk about it right now.”  She gestured vaguely at the walls.

“Ah.  Well, then,” I said.

“I’m going to change into something a little more comfortable,” Sarah said.  I bit back a smirk with a fair level of success.  “And then I’ve got a full day’s worth of work before this system is usable again.  What about you?”

“Mind if I borrow one of your laptops?”

She raised an eyebrow, but handed me a messenger bag without a verbal comment.

“What’s that look supposed to mean?”  I asked.  “I can read, you know.  I’m going to check in on the available information about the museum job, maybe see if I can figure out where Adlai’s getting his information from.  Do you still have that log-in information for Interpol?”

“Unless someone closed the backdoor, sure.  That account doesn’t have the sort of privileges you’d need to monitor an active investigation, though.”

“That’s fine.  I really just want to see where he’s been.  It’s a little too coincidental that he ended up in London, just after I got back to work, don’t you think?”

Sarah blinked.  “You think he might be working for one of the other players?”

It was my turn to shake my head.  “No, he’s too much of a straight arrow.  If someone hinted that they knew about a crime in progress, in the past, or in the future, Adlai would arrest them on the spot until they told him everything.  I don’t think he’s in on this, at all.  Or, at least not in the way that everyone else seems to be.”

“What, then?”

“Maybe he got onto someone’s radar during one of his cases,” I suggested.  “And that person, who might know about the history between Adlai and me, sort of…steers him in this direction.  If I get back to work and I pull it off, then Inspector Javert is right here to track me down.  If I don’t, no harm.”

“The Lady?”

“Or Asher.  Or the Magi.  There’s a lot of options here.  But someone could be using him as a weapon against us.”  I hefted the messenger bag and the laptop contained within.  “Thus, the research.”

The computers behind Sarah beeped and the screens reset to entirely black, instead of only mostly black.  She dug into a different bag for pen and paper, wrote down a long string of numbers and letters, and handed the paper to me.  “That’s the log-in information.”

“What happens if I get caught?”

She shrugged.  “Worst case scenario, someone realizes what you’re doing and figures out that you’re logged in as someone that doesn’t actually exist.  They’ll just revoke the rights, but still, try not to go digging too deep.”

I held up two fingers.  “Scout’s honor.”  I ducked as a pillow sailed overhead.

“Good.  Now, go away,” Sarah said.  Her attention was already fixated on the computer, as it booted back to life.  She cracked her knuckles.  “We’ve both got work to do, don’t we?”

Chapter Forty-Four

The local news buzzed with discussions on the daring heist by morning.  Guards from the museum offered conflicting stories to anyone who’d listen.  Some said that the museum had been infiltrated by a team of highly trained professionals; others swore that the incursion had been the work of a single individual.  There was no news at all, however, of the actual object I’d stolen.  It seemed as though the crown had been wiped entirely from the public memory.  As far as anyone knew, the museum’s security had failed woefully at actually stopping an unlawful entry, but they’d succeeded magnificently at thwarting the actual heist.

My wounded pride stung slightly at the lack of acknowledgement.  The police were investigating the job but, as there was no official record of anything being stolen, a general air of laissez-faire radiated from their representative during the press conference.  I watched the proceedings from my hotel room.

“Constable Pickens!”  A fresh-faced reporter waved a recording device in the air.  I sipped from my coffee and listened.  “Are there any leads in the investigation?”

The constable, a bulldog of a man complete with drooping jowls, sighed heavily before he answered.  “The scene of the crime, if it can be called that, is currently under investigation,” he said.  “Any and all available leads will be pursued to the fullest extent of our capabilities.”

The pert reporter wasn’t willing to let his moment of glory pass without another question.  “Is there any concern that this may be the first in a series of thefts and home invasions?”

“A single event hardly represents a trend,” Constable Pickens answered.

“Is that a no, then?  Are you saying that there is no cause for concern among the general populace?”

“I am saying,” the constable stressed the word, “that there is not enough information available to leap to any one conclusion.  The citizenry of London would do well to lock their doors at night, to be careful of who they invite into their homes, and to be circumspect at all times.  However, there is no evidence at this time to suggest that this was anything other than an isolated incident.”

The reporter opened his mouth to ask yet another question, but the constable motioned for quiet in the room.  It took him a complete minute to bring a measure of order to the rowdy press.  I finished my coffee and refilled it from a nearby carafe during the process.

The constable started to speak again.  “All that being said, all crimes involving art theft or supposed art theft are investigated jointly by the Metropolitan police,” he laid a hand on his chest, “and Interpol.”

The coffee in my stomach turned to solid ice.  “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered to the television.  “You have got to be kidding.”

“Interpol has sent a representative, to assist in the investigation,” Constable Pickens finished.  He held out an arm to the side, gesturing at an offscreen figure.

“Come on,” I said to my empty hotel room.

When Agent Adlai stepped into the camera’s view, I wasn’t even surprised.  Of the literally hundreds of possible inspectors who could’ve have been sent, the fact that Adlai, of all people, would be chosen was just perfect irony.  The history between the two of us ran deep.  His pursuit of me had been a high-stakes game of cat and mouse, at first.  I didn’t realize how deadly serious he took his job until one night in Zurich when he’d nearly put a bullet into my knee.  After that, I made it a point to stay so far ahead of him that he could, at his considerable best, only catch the whiff of my presence as I absconded from whatever heist I’d just pulled off.

Constable Pickens left the podium and Adlai took his place, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, tugging at his suit jacket in a way that told me it was a recent purchase.  “You should see a tailor, Adlai,” I muttered.  “I know a really good one.”

He cleared his throat, twice.  “We have employed the services of some of the best crime scene investigators,” he said, without any preamble, “and await their findings.  The perpetrators of this crime will be captured, make no mistake.”  Adlai looked nervously at Constable Pickens.  Pickens nodded, and Adlai hurried back away from the podium.  Instead of disappearing from the camera again, he took a place in the background and found a spot on the ground to stare it.

“Agent Adlai,” the constable said, “has an impressive closure rate at Interpol.  His assistance in this matter is invaluable and will help immensely in our search for the thief or thieves who broke into the Museum of London.”

Reporters exploded in a flurry of shouted questions.  I switched the television off and stewed in silence while I finished my second cup of coffee.  With that done, I placed the mug gently down on the table, paced a good distance away, and then screamed my frustration to the ceiling as loud as I could.

“One break!  Just one!  I really don’t think I’m asking for all that much here, God.”  No divine voice replied, so I continued.  “Is this a test?  Is there some incomprehensible divine reason that every single thing that could go wrong has gone wrong?”

Silence within the room.  I considered stalking back to the table and slapping the coffee mug, but I stopped myself before I could take two steps.  Instead, I walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge.  Surprisingly, an unopened bottle of Jameson was nestled on the bottom shelf between two six packs of Guinness.  One of the two six packs was missing a beer; presumably, the one I’d downed after the lady in the black dress had left my room the previous night.  She’d left them as presents, apparently.  I weighed the merits of a liquor drink this early in the day.  The decision was taken out of my hands when a knock came at my door.  I closed the fridge and walked back to open the door.

Sarah stood in the hallway, wearing a light green sweater and a black leather jacket over a pair of form fitting jeans.  I kept my eyes fixed firmly on hers, trying very hard not to notice the impressive curves on display through the tight sweater.  “So,” she said.  “What are we going to do?”

Sarah strode into the room without waiting for an invitation.  Michel followed behind her.  Sarah took a seat in the same chair where the lady sat, while Michel leaned against a nearby wall.  I sat down on the couch.  “There’s food in the kitchen,” I said.  “Tomato and cheese omelet, with some hashbrowns.”

“You made it?”  Sarah asked.

“Habit,” I said, shrugging.  “If you’re hungry…”

She was already up and moving to the kitchen.  “You haven’t answered my question,” she said a minute later, seating herself and digging into the plate of food.

“Well, that depends.  Which do you want first: the good news or the bad news?”

She winced.  “I hate when you do that.  There’s never good news.”

“So…?”

“Good news,” she said.  “I might as well start on a positive.”

I chose my words carefully.  “Asher is not going to have as free of a hand as we feared.  There are…individuals…who could provide a pretty sizable speed bump to anything he ends up trying to do in London.”

Sarah parsed that.  “And the bad news?”

“Did you check the news on the way over here?”

She shook her head.

“Adlai,” I said.  Just that one word.

Her expression sank without anything more than that.  “How did he even get here this fast?”

I shrugged.  “If I had to guess, he was probably already here.”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

Saw him?”  I thought back.  “I haven’t seen him in a while, for obvious reasons.”

“Do you think he’s still holding that grudge?”  I gave her a significant look, and she raised her hands in mock surrender.  “I’m just asking.”

Michel cleared his throat, loud enough that it drew Sarah’s and my attention.  “Is Adlai another of your former friends, Devlin?”

“That would require a very loose definition of ‘friend,’ I think,” I replied.  “He’s been in a major part of my life, but we just keep missing each other.  Mostly because he’s a bloodhound of an investigator and I spend a great deal of my life committing various crimes.”

“Ah.”  To his credit, Michel’s voice was a lot calmer than I would have expected.

“He absolutely will not leave the museum job alone until he knows what actually happened,” I said.  “If I were a betting man, I’d say that someone is covering up the whole thing, though.  I don’t know why they’re doing it, but…”  I stopped, mid-sentence, as a thought occurred to me.  “…but I’m pretty sure that he’s going to get to the bottom of it.”

Michel caught the change in tone.  “And that helps us?”

Sarah perked up.  “It could.  You’re thinking about bugging him?”

“There are things he’ll be able to uncover that we simply don’t have the resources for,” I said.

“How would we do that?”  Michel asked.

“I’ll need to know exactly where he is,” Sarah said, “and somehow connect to his network long enough to install a virus.”

I nodded thoughtfully.  “Could any of your online contacts do that?”

Sarah shook her head.  “They could, but they’re not going to.  Adlai’s reputation is enough of a deterrent that anyone who doesn’t have to be here is going to stay the hell away from London.”

“That’s good, I guess.  Fewer fingers in the pot, and all that.”

“It’s ‘cooks in a kitchen’,” she corrected absently.  “Who puts fingers in a pot?”

I could see in her eyes that she’d already begun to think through the logistical problems of locating Adlai.  I left her to that and turned to Michel.  “How’re you holding up?”

He scratched at his stubble.  “To be honest, this is…very complicated.”

“Listen.  You can walk whenever you want,” I said.  “The Lady was clear on that.  If you don’t want to be involved, she isn’t going to make you stay.  You can take the money from last night’s job and disappear.”

Sarah’s eyes flicked in my direction.  “The Lady?  Is that what we’re calling her now?”

I heard the capitalization in her voice and, retroactively, realized that I’d done the same thing moments before.  “It fits, I think.  Besides, she wasn’t a big fan of the previous nickname.  If we’re going to be working for her, at least for the time being, we might as well not deliberately upset someone who knows our real names.”

“You know, I wasn’t a big fan of it either,” Sarah admitted.  “So, that puts us…where, exactly?  This Lady on one side and the Magi on the other?”

“No.”  I shook my head.  “Whatever is going on is not something I want to be in the middle of.  This is us on one side and Asher on the other.  Anything going on with the Lady or the Magi is incidental.  All we’ve got to do is get the key, then the book, and we get a clear run at Asher.”

Sarah scoffed.  “Because everything’s gone exactly as planned so far?”

I acknowledged that with a shallow dip of my head.  “Anything else, we handle on a case-by-case basis.”  I looked back at Michel.  “So?  You’re absolutely sure you want in?  Last chance to walk away.”

He hesitated and then nodded, once, very slowly.  “I am in,” he said.

A part of me hoped Michel would take the opportunity to make himself scarce, but not a very large part.  I knew with absolute certainty that Asher wouldn’t fail in his machinations, without outside intervention.  The only thing that could throw them out of alignment was the addition of an unexpected wrench and I intended to be that wrench.  To that end, I needed a team.

Guilt, fear, and anxiety swelled inside my head, but I kept those emotions from my face.  I bottled up my doubts and threw them into the emotional equivalent of an incinerator.  Moving forward, a moment of hesitation could be fatal.  I needed to be in the moment.  If I wanted to see the other side of this whole affair, the job required nothing less.

When I felt my mind settle, I gave Michel a quick nod. “Alright.  In for a penny, et cetera, et cetera.”

He raised an eyebrow at the saying but didn’t comment.  “What is our next move?”

My eyes flickered over to meet Sarah’s.  The envelope was still on the table, where I’d left it the previous night.  I slid it over to her.  “What can you tell me?”

Sarah examined the documentation and then used a tablet to track the invitation’s coordinates.  Michel and I pushed in closer so that we could see the screen, as well.  The location, when it finally displayed, appeared to be nothing but a featureless stretch of flat land.  “Doesn’t look like much,” Sarah said.

I adopted a southern accent.  “Could the Lady have invited us to a good ole fashioned barn raisin’?”

Sarah chuckled.  “This is just Google Earth,” she said.  “Anything built in that area after the camera car went through wouldn’t show up here.  There’s a project we started a few years back, though, that usually has more up-to-date information.”

“We?”

Sarah moved from the couch to a deep armchair.  “The community, for lack of a better word.  Up to date visuals are worth their weight in gold, after all.”

“What exactly do visuals weigh, anyway?”  I asked, almost immediately.

She responded by throwing a pillow at my head.  “Looks like they’ve been keeping it running in my absence,” she said, without looking up from the tablet.  “It’s going to take a while to find the latest images.  This,” she waved the tablet lazily through the air, “isn’t strong enough to handle the usual decryption software.  So I’ve got to remotely access my actual computer and use that one to encrypt my login info.”

“I’m going to pretend that you said something – anything, really – that made sense, nod, and just wait until you’re ready to share with the class,” I said.

“Good plan.”  While the information loaded, she pulled another burner cell phone from her messenger bag and tossed it to me.  “Try not to lose that one, please,” she said as I snatched the phone out of the air.

I placed a hand over my heart.  “I’ll do my best not to get kidnapped again.”

Sarah scowled.

“Why does it matter?”  I asked.  “These are burners.  They’re supposed to get thrown away.”

“When you’re done with them, sure.  But every time you drop one, I’ve got to get an entire new set.  Otherwise, someone could just pick up yours and have mine and Michel’s phone numbers.  And with those…”

“They might be able to get a signal on where you are.”  I sighed.  “Alright, sorry.  I’ll hold onto this one.”

“Much appreciated.”

I shifted my weight slightly so that I could slip the phone into my pants pocket.  I stopped, however, when the device encountered resistance.  “Oh!”

Sarah looked up.  “What?”

“Last night, while the Lady was here, I got two messages,” I said.  “They came in on the sniper’s phone.”

She leapt up.  “You forgot about that?”

“It was kind of a stressful night.”  I fished out the sniper’s cell phone and unlocked it with my thumb.  There were two unread messages.  I opened the first one and read it out loud.  “Devlin.  Did not have any other number to reach you.  Information on Asher’s locations/goals.  Respond soon.”

“That’s all?”  Sarah asked, when I didn’t continue.

“It’s only the first one, but yeah.”

“Who was the sender?”

“Blocked number,” I said.

“It wouldn’t be hard for me to find out what phone number was blocked,” she said, “but, if it’s a burner, that’d just be a waste of time.”

“Let’s see what’s behind door number two.”  I opened the second message.  A single grainy image of a seated, tired-looking man greeted me.  A large tilted triangle took up most of the picture’s available real estate.  “It’s a video,” I said to Sarah and Michel.

“Play it,” she said in a low voice.

“You’re sure?”

“If it’s a threat, it’ll be better if we know now,” Sarah pointed out.  “Not knowing isn’t going to fix the problem.”

I pressed play.  Water dripped arythmically from a leaky pipe, directly onto the forehead of the seated man.  Without the large triangle blocking my view, I could see that he was bound to the chair with a prodigious amount of duct tape.  A voice spoke in Russian.

“If you will not help us,” Sarah translated the language easily, “then we have no further need for you.”

The bound man looked up.  I recognized him as the sniper Anton, Stanislav, and I had injured back in Kiev.  On the heels of that realization, I knew who was speaking.  “That’s Stani,” I said.

Michel tilted his head in confusion.  “Is he an ally?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted.

On the screen, the sniper spoke.  The difference between Russian and Ukranian was slight enough that I often couldn’t tell the two apart.  Sarah, conveniently, knew both languages.  “It was only a job,” she said, two seconds behind the video.  “I did not ask for details.”

Stani spoke again.  Sarah provided the translation after he finished.  “You would have found out some leverage.  Now, I want that leverage.”

The sniper looked directly into the camera and then away.  “I do not know anything.”

“Then,” Stani said in an overly casual tone, “we will have to let you go.  Is that what you’d like?  To face up to your employer and let him know that you failed at killing a single unarmed American?”

“I’m Irish,” I muttered under my breath.  Sarah gave me a sharp look and I shrugged.  “I’m just saying.”

On the video, the sniper considered Stani’s threat.  I watched as the fight left him, breath by breath.  His shoulders sagged in and he lowered his head.  “He wants the key.”

“What key?”  Stani asked.

“To the code,” the sniper said.  “He stole the book for a Mister…Mountain?  Mister Mound?”  He tried to shrug, but the gesture was difficult with his arms lashed to the chair.  “I was supposed to meet him in England.”

“England.”  Judging from the shaky camera, Stani began to pace.  “England is a very big place, comrade.  You must know more.  London?  Birmingham?  Manchester?”

“I do not know more,” the sniper said.  “Perhaps it was in London.  Or near London.  That is what I heard.  Asher kept many secrets.  I was just a hired killer.”

“Now,” Stani said, “you will be a hired killer for us again.”

“I…I…”

Stani shushed him with a long, sibilant sound.  “We will not hurt you.  Not,” he added after a moment, “unless you do not cooperate.”

The video stopped.  I stared at the static image, complete with the return of the tilted triangle, for fifteen seconds before I began to type a reply.  When I was done, I passed the phone to Sarah.  “If you’re going to judge me for drinking early,” I said, walking into the kitchen to retrieve the Jameson, “feel free.  If not, however…”  I opened a cabinet, retrieved three short glasses, and returned to the living room.

Michel reached out for one, even before I’d opened the bottle.  Sarah read the message I’d sent, threw the phone back to me, and then took one of the remaining two glasses.  “Are we at all worried about giving the Russian mafia someone to torture?”

“That sniper tried to kill me,” I replied.  “His welfare isn’t ranking particularly high on my list of concerns.  Besides, I don’t think they’d actually do anything to him.  Stani’s under orders to get Asher for the Limassol job; if that sniper can help with that, he’ll work with him.”

I poured three fingers of whiskey each into the glasses.  We drank deeply from them without a toast.  Sarah grimaced slightly as she swallowed.  “I hate whiskey,” she said in a pained voice.

“Don’t drink it, then?”

She glared at me over the lip of her glass and took another swallow.

“What message did you send, Devlin?”  Michel asked.  He drank his whiskey without comment and without much expression, save for a tightening across his brow.

“I gave them one of my email addresses and said I’d keep that phone charged.  They can call or write if they find out anything else.”

“Will that be enough?”

“Of course not.  But it’s a little more than the ‘absolutely nothing’ we’ve got so far.”  I faced Sarah.  “How much longer, do you think, until you’ve got access to images?”

She retrieved her tablet.  “Here.”  I moved so that both Michel and I could see the screen.

A non-descript building was displayed there.  A long stretch of tamped down grass ran from the building off into the distance.  There were no signs of life that I could make out.  “Is that it?”  Michel asked.

“Looks like it,” I said.

A knock came at the door.  The sound surprised all of us, and we all reacted in our own ways.  Sarah let her liquor tumble to the floor and cringed away from the door slightly.  Michel’s stance dropped a good six inches and his hand went around to the small of his back.  I prepared to throw the tablet, at the first sight of a hostile head.

“Pardon, sir,” a deep voice said from the other side of the door.  “A letter was delivered for you this morning.”

“Leave it at the door,” I called out.

“Apologies, sir, but my instructions were very clear.”

I exchanged a look with Sarah.  If this was an attack, it was an exceedingly polite one. “And,” I said, “your instructions from me are even clearer.”

“Sir, I…”  The man outside the door faltered.  “Of course, sir.  And the car?”

“What car?”  I asked.

“The car that was delivered this morning, sir.  It came at the same time as the letter.”

I blinked and then crossed the room to the window.  Its view looked down into the street below.  My eyes were attracted to a familiar shade of electric blue.  My mouth dropped slightly open.

“That’s Mila’s car,” I said out loud.  “The one I, uh, borrowed to get away from the warehouse.”

“Do you think…?” Sarah asked.

Snippets from last night’s conversation with the Lady flickered in my mind.  “She did say that she was going to arrange for better accommodations.”

“Meaning?”

“Can’t get around in style in a car that’s barely holding on to life.”  I paused.  “No offense, Michel.”

“None taken, mon ami,” he answered.  I noticed that his eyes were glued to the car.  His face was pressed so close the window that each puff of breath contributed to a cloud of condensation.

Contented, for the moment, that this wasn’t an elaborate trap on Asher’s part, I crossed the room in sweeping, bold steps and threw the door open.  A short man with a serious mustache stood in the hallway, clutching an envelope to his chest. “Sir, I apologize.  I…”

I cut him off with a curt gesture.  “The letter, please?”

He handed it over.  I found a bill of some denomination in my pocket and gave it to the man.  I closed the door before he could say anything in thanks and tore open the envelope.  Three magnetic cards fell to the floor.  I left them there while I removed a sheet of paper.  The letterhead at the top of the page read “Brooklands Hotel.”  There was a short message written in an evenly spaced, painfully precise script: “Your new accommodations.  Dress for the occasion.”

And, under that, the familiar symbol of interlocking triangles that I was beginning to associate with the Lady.  She had stationary.  At the bottom of the envelope, I found a set of car keys.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” Sarah said.  “Who’s it from?”

“I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count.”  Sarah’s eyes narrowed and she sighed.  I passed her one of the key cards.  “We might need to make a little day trip.”

She reached out for the bottle of whiskey.  “Michel, you want another one, too?”

“No, no,” he said.  Almost sheepishly, he peeled himself away from the window.  “Wherever we are going, do you…do you think I could drive?”

Chapter Forty-Three

“If only it were that simple,” the lady said.  She motioned toward the manila folder.  I lifted it from the table, but didn’t open it.  “This is a complicated matter, and the nature of these complications require additional explanation.”

“Isn’t that just the worst?”  I asked, running a finger along the folded edge of the envelope.

“Quite.”  She pursed her lips and shot a pointed look at the folder.  I sighed and unsealed it, to reveal a black and white photograph of a splendidly suited man, frozen in the act of pointing out something.  His back was facing the camera, and the shot had been taken from a good distance, but the warehouse in the background of the image was immediately recognizable: the place where Asher had intended to torture me.

“For the moment,” the lady said, “we shall refer to that man as one Mister Hill.”

“That’s probably not his real name, is it?”

The lady shrugged.  “You might not be wrong.  For our purposes, let us proceed as if it were.”  She paused momentarily.  “You apply too much value to names, Mister O’Brien.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said.  “How else am I going to address this guy’s Christmas cards?”

“The value of a given name is that it functions as a method of identification.  In that capacity, one name is as good as any other, yes?”

There were too many discarded aliases in my past to entirely discount her point.  I had friends in the business whose names I still wasn’t sure I actually knew.  “Fair enough,” I said.  “But you still aren’t going to tell me your name?”

She half-smiled.

“Not even a fake one?”  I persisted.  “Just so that I don’t have to call you the Puppetmaster, anymore?”

The smile faded.  “I would prefer something a bit more dignified, but choose whatever you’d like.  Returning to Mister Hill, however?”  Her voice went up at the end, as though it were a question, but the looming presence of David added a measure of finality to the lady’s suggestion.  “You and Miss Ford are already aware of the thriving drug trade here in London, I believe.  Your temporary difficulties earlier this evening took place at one of the warehouses that facilitate the purchase and sale of various narcotics.”

“Where Asher took me, you mean.  Yes, Miss Ford and I are aware.  Your point being…?”

“That particular warehouse was only one of many, located in various areas on the outskirts of London.  Mister Hill is the individual in charge of that enterprise,” the lady said.  “Or, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that he is in charge of maintaining its functionality.  For the most part, the drug trade runs itself.”

“Is that your business?”

The lady motioned for David to pour her another glass of wine.  “I am many things,” she answered.  “One of which does involve the drug trade, yes.  My revenue stream is considerably more diverse than simply that.”

I added that piece of information to my thin mental file on her.  “So what’s your problem with Mister Hill, then?  Rival organization, perhaps?”

“Yes,” the lady said, “and no.  If you would allow me the opportunity to finish explaining what I require of you, without further interruption, this would go considerably smoother.”

I was learning things about her, based solely on her reactions, but they weren’t the sort of things I could use.  She expected a certain measure of respect, but wasn’t used to actually having to fight for it.  That much was obvious from her brusque demeanor and the “back to business” attitude she wore like jewelry.  From that, I could surmise that she’d been involved in the underworld for a long time, but had somehow managed to grow her power without direct confrontation.  Under normal circumstances, I would have needled her until she slipped up and revealed a key detail, but the memory of her frostbitten eyes gave me pause.  Instead, I nodded and waited for her to continue.

She took a long drink from her wine glass.  “As I was saying, Mister Hill’s control over the local drug trade is only a hair shy of absolute; there will always be low level dealers and pushers struggling over the scraps, of course.  The largest portion of the profits available, however, flow from the streets of London directly into Mister Hill’s pockets.  From there, they move into the hands of…other interested, well-connected parties.”

“The Magi, you mean.”

She gave me a curious look.  “The Magi?”

“Don’t play dumb,” I said.  “Whoever is behind BMC is the same party that’s backing Asher – Mister Knight, if you’d rather – and they’re also in charge of Mister Hill, right?  That’s what you’re trying to say?”

“Ah,” the lady replied.  “I hadn’t considered that particular sobriquet, but it seems oddly fitting.  The Magi it shall be, then.  Yes, Mister Hill’s domination of the London drug trade continues and is facilitated by the largesse of the Magi.”  She gave me a brief half-smile as she spoke the name.

“We figured that much out,” I said.  It wasn’t an entirely true statement, but Sarah and I had guessed as much previously.  I didn’t see any particular need to reveal what we had and had not confirmed already.

“Money has a corrupting influence on many people,” the lady said. “Mister Hill is no exception to that rule.  His employment under the Magi has been lucrative for many years, but he has recently decided that he deserves more of the profit in this endeavor.  To that end, he has undertaken several procedures that would allow him the leverage to remove himself from under their thumb.  Among other things – fraudulent bookkeeping, hiring unsavory types to serve as a personal bodyguard – he has moved to acquire the cover identities and real names of integral pieces in the drug trafficking network.”

“He’s working for the Magi, but he didn’t know who else is working for them?  How did he get his supplies?”

“Secrecy is perhaps one of the most valuable weapons an individual can wield,” she said.  “With sufficiently paranoid obfuscation, a person can remove themselves from the public eye and make themselves too elusive for reproach.  Knowledge is power, Mister O’Brien.  You would do well to remember that.”

I digested what she’d said and looked at the next photograph, a picture of a large golden book covered in elaborate designs.

“Your former associate removed that from a vault in Limassol several months ago.  Which, I believe, you were already aware of.”  She waited for me to signal my understanding before continuing.  “Through information gleaned from several different sources, it has come to my attention that the Magi required a physical record of those they employed.  The largest reason for that decision was organizational.  It is difficult to maintain a network of any real size without a record.”

“And,” I finished for her, “it serves as a paper trail.  If any of their employees try to hurt the Magi, there’s documentation with enough information to bury them as well.  Mutually assured destruction.”

“Americans are so fond of that phrase,” she said.  I noted her word choice.  “Effectively, however, you are correct.  By keeping their employees separate and maintaining a forced silence on intercommunication, the Magi ensure that no one individual gains enough knowledge to lay claim to the drug trade here.”

“Which Mister Hill wants to do.  So, he needs the book?”

“He has the book,” the lady corrected.

“And you want me to get the book away from him?”  I asked.  “So that you can seize the same assets that Magi used in London to get so rich and powerful?”

“Financially speaking,” she said, “I desire very little.”

I scratched my temple, to conceal the motion as I wiped a bead of sweat from my forehead.  “Point taken.  So, you want to hire me to steal the book from Mister Hill?  How does that connect back to Asher?”

She seemed to consider her wording.  “Mister Knight has acquired resources, both in money and in men,” the lady said.  “With those, he intends to extract a measure of revenge against you for leaving him in St. Petersburg and against Miss Ford, for becoming your confidante.  Neither you nor she is equipped for a prolonged battle.  You do not know the local element well enough to hire them to your service and, even if you did, the Magi – and, by extension, Mister Knight – are simply capable of providing larger sums of money.”

“If this is a pep talk,” I said, “you are clearly out of practice.”

The lady ignored the comment.  “By impeaching Mister Hill’s integrity in the eyes of the Magi, you could easily remove a formidable obstacle in your path to Mister Knight.”

I winced when she said ‘easy.’  I added another individual to the growing list of people who simply didn’t understand irony or jinxes.  “It’s in London?  The book, I mean.”

She hesitated before answering.  “I believe so,” the lady said, “but I am not entirely certain where.”

I waited for her to elaborate.  When she didn’t, I removed the third item from the envelope: two slips of paper, with holographic lettering that read: “Green Light.”  Those two words were followed by GPS coordinates, a time, and the date.  “And these are?”

“Those, Mister O’Brien, represent a chance to acquire that most useful of weapons for your own arsenal.  One you will need if you intend to combat Mister Knight: knowledge.”

The skin up and down my arms tingled.

“In the same way that you and yours occupy a realm beneath the notice of the average civilian,” the lady said, “there is an entire world of conflict that exists above your capacity to notice.  What you now hold is a…shall we say, a pass into the world.  You’ve already taken note of the coordinates.  On that date, you and another ally of your choosing will be able to glimpse the stars, as it were.  In doing that, you will have the chance to pinpoint the exact location of what I require and what, ultimately, will prove essential to your struggles with Mister Knight.”

“This is where I can find Hill?  He’s got one of these invitations, too?”

“Yes, among others.  Your task at that particular event, however, is to discover the location of the second piece of the puzzle.  The book is only one of two parts.”

I placed the envelope and its contents back on the table.  “It’s in code.”

“Quite.”  She leaned in and, without thinking about it, I mirrored the gesture.  “That is the job, in its entirety.  First, find the key to deciphering the code.  Secure that before anything else.  Following that, identify the location of the book and acquire that, as well.”

“Oh, that’s all?”  I asked.  Sarcasm leaked into my voice.  “You seem to know everything about everyone, lady.  You can’t just tell me where the key is?  Or where Hill’s hiding out?  Seems like that would make it a lot easier for me to get the items you want.”

She seemed vaguely uneasy.  “You fail to understand the magnitude of this matter, Mister O’Brien.  Mister Hill has spent a staggering amount of capital to ensure his secrecy in all but the most dire of circumstances.  The only other individuals with knowledge as to his whereabouts or movements operate in a tier several levels above you.  Thus, your invitations.”

The first thought that popped into my mind was petulant.  I nearly told the lady to leave my hotel room, hulking bodyguard/assistant in tow, so that I could prepare for Asher’s inevitable visit.  I didn’t have the time, nor the desire, to involve myself in power plays between the idle rich.  I licked my lips and parted them in preparation to speak.  My second thought stopped me cold, however.  “You said that this is dangerous.  You weren’t referring to Hill, specifically, were you?”

“No.  In strictest point of fact, you have been in a great deal of danger for several years now.  Moving forward now will increase the threat, but remaining where you are will not in any way alleviate the forces that Mister Knight is arraying against you. Thus, my decision to procure a guard of sorts for your activities.”

Mila finally turned away from the window.  “That’s me.”

It was difficult to turn my attention away from the lady’s luminous beauty, but I managed.  “You were watching me at the museum?”

“That was the job, yeah.  And,” she added, after a moment’s thought, “I like the art.  It’s soothing.”

“So that’s your part in all this?  Her go-to bodyguard?”

Mila laughed.  The sound seemed utterly alien to the tense atmosphere in the hotel room.  “God, no.  I’m hired help, same as you.  I’ve just got a different skill set, is all.  You handle the thefts, and I make sure you get home in one piece, more or less.”

“How long have you been keeping me safe?”  I asked.

“I was waiting for you in Kiev,” Mila said.  “I’ve been following you since, trying to keep you out of danger.  When that fails, I do what I can to keep danger away from you.”  One hand was out of sight, stroking something I couldn’t see; the other clenched into a tight fist in plain view.

My skills must have severely atrophied, if three people had been tailing me for the better part of a week without me knowing.  One part of my thoughts rebelled against the idea that I needed coddling; the much smarter portions of my brain realized that I had only barely managed to stay alive this long. “And this danger?” I asked, turning back to the lady.   “It scares you, too?”

Her expression sharpened to a point and David uncrossed his arms.

I powered on before either of them could interrupt.  “If it didn’t, you could just ask…whoever is supposed to be at this ‘green light’ yourself about the names.  This feels like someone who’s making an active effort to avoid direct confrontation.”

The lady looked away from me for the barest flicker of an instant.  When she turned her eyes back, the expression on her face was blank and featureless.  I was worried that I’d overstepped some invisible boundary with my observation, that she would have me killed for the audacity of speaking the truth as I saw it.  David moved forward and I tensed, preparing to run.  She stopped him with a light touch on his waist.  “No.”

He stopped immediately.  “Ma’am?”

“I cannot hire an individual who relies largely on instinct, and then punish that same individual for exercising the very skills I require,” she said to David.  Then, to me, she sighed and said, “Very well.  The answer to your question is ‘yes.’  Exposing myself would be detrimental to my long-term goals.”

“Exposing yourself?  What’s that supposed to mean?”

The lady glanced up at David, who moved back to his position behind her shoulder reluctantly.  “In your chosen profession,” she said, “anonymity is key.  The perfect heist is one in which no one realizes anything has ever been stolen, yes?”

I nodded.

“Although you and I operate on vastly different levels, the principle is the same.  The organization providing resources to Mister Knight is an inarguable fact of the landscape, shrouded perpetually in secrecy and shadows.  To that end, their agents are equally obfuscated.  If I wish to compete with them, then I must do the same.  The only way to fight an idea is to become one; in order to overthrow an organization that lives in shadow, one must reside in shadow, as well.”

Her words weren’t wrong.  There were thieves I’d only heard about, men and women who systematically erased any trace of their real identities and guarded the information that remained like a dragon guarded its treasure.  Those thieves, however, had been caught or killed eventually, betrayed by the people they worked with.  “A person can’t live like that,” I said.  “Not indefinitely.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “I beg to differ.”  The lady finished her glass of wine.  I expected David to refill it once more, but he plucked the glass from her fingers instead.  She gave no indication of surprise at the change in his actions.  “I would ask after your commitment to this job, but I see in your eyes that you have already decided to accept the task.  Unless I am mistaken?”

I could have lied.  There wouldn’t have been any point.  Instead, I negotiated.  “You’ll leave Sarah out of this,” I said.

“I will do no such thing,” she replied, immediately.  “The decision to participate in this job rests entirely in her hands.  If she wishes to continue working with you, that option will remain available to her.  If you wish to cancel her involvement, then you should do so with your own words.”

I knew Sarah well enough to realize that was an impossibility.  “I want answers, then.  If I pull this off, then I want to know exactly what Asher’s involved in.  I’m not about to suffer through a variety of shots from Asher, whenever he feels like it, without more information.”

“Mister O’Brien,” the lady said.  She raised a hand solemnly, although the amused twinkle in her eye never faded.  “I promise that, at the successful conclusion of this job, you will have an absolute understanding of the situation.”

“And if you’re lying?”

She lowered her hand.  “Lying is the weapon for those who cannot use the truth effectively,” she answered.  “I have no need to lie.”

Despite the considerable wealth of anecdotal evidence in my past, I believed her.

The lady watched my expression for a long moment and then stood.  She cast a disparaging eye at the room around us.  “Moving forward,” she said, “you will require more…suitable accommodations.”

“Professional courtesy?”

“Necessity,” she replied.  “An agent in my employ requires a certain level of class.”

The lady turned and gave David a significant look.  In response, he removed the blackberry from his jacket pocket and busied himself with something for two full minutes.  When he finished, he nodded to her once and said, “Ma’am.”

“Excellent as ever, David.”  The lady moved away from her seat and David produced a cloth, which he rubbed across every surface that her bare fingers had touched.  She noticed me watching David and gave a slight smile.  “Fingerprints, Mister O’Brien.  Surely, you understand.”

“Oh, of course.  Can’t be anything less than an absolute ghost, could you?”

The lady either ignored my sarcasm or simply didn’t notice it.  The four of us waited while David wiped her fingerprints away from every surface in the room and then gave her a short, sharp nod.  “Mister O’Brien,” she said.  “I hope that this business arrangement will be profitable for both of us.”

“Profit isn’t really my top concern,” I said.

“Survivable, then.  For you,” she said, smiling her incongruous smile, “not for me.”

I started to reply, but found my mouth suddenly dry once more.  The lady moved, her long legs flashing through the long slit in her black dress, towards the door.  David followed her.  He didn’t even spare a glance at me, as he passed.  They left without another word.

Mila didn’t speak until they were gone.  “I’ve got some personal things to take care of,” she said finally.  “But I’ll catch up with you a little later.  If you could at least try to stay out of anyone’s sights until then, I’d appreciate it.”

She used both of her hands to lift something off of the window sill.  My jaw, already sore from dropping so much in the space of a single conversation, fell again.  The item she’d been stroking wasn’t an item; it was a large, puffy white cat.  “And that’s yours?”  I asked.

“I prefer to think of Sam as a partner,” Mila said pointedly.  “He isn’t just a possession.”  It was more emotion than I’d heard from her yet.  “Don’t do anything stupid.”  She took the cat and left the room, as well.

I waited five minutes before I lifted the bottle of Guinness and drank deeply from it.  I didn’t use the phone to call Sarah until the bottle was empty. “Well,” I said, when she answered.

“Devlin?”  Sarah asked.  “What are you calling for?”  Before I could answer, she barreled forward.  “I just got another email.  There’s a new job.”

“Yeah,” I said.  The image of the lady, black dress and long legs, eyes like liquid nitrogen, flashed in my head.  “About that.”

Chapter Forty-Two

Panic shot through me like a bolt of lightning.  The lady watched me with a cool, discerning eye and didn’t shift an inch from her position. She wore a form-fitting black evening gown speckled with tiny jewels across the neckline. Her nails were a brilliant shade of red, which matched the twists and curls of her voluminous hair.  An oversized emerald glittered from her ring finger. It caught the light as she raised her glass of red wine and emptied it. She held the glass out to the side and the giant behind her, without missing a beat, refilled it from a bottle with a French label. The lady inclined her head to him, without taking her eyes away from me, and he stepped back into the shadows without a word.

“Well?” She asked, in an accent I couldn’t quite place.  One corner of her lips turned up slightly. “I would imagine that, after your stressful evening at the museum, you’d prefer to take a seat.”

Somehow, the alarm bells in my head found a higher volume. I struggled to keep the shock from my expression. “Who are you?”

“What I am,” she said, “is in a hurry.  Sit or don’t sit; either way, make up your mind.”

I considered the situation. Here I was, in a room that Sarah had rented for me under a psuedonym. And here they were, two people I’d never seen before and one I clearly knew nothing about, seemingly perfectly at ease in my personal space. The lady had thrown my real name out casually, disdainfully.  When that hadn’t led to her desired outcome – whatever that outcome might have been – she’d followed it up with a reference to the job I had only just finished.

Knowledge was power and, as an opening display, she’d made a devastating first move.

The man was large enough that it pushed the constraints of reality.  Where her eyes were cold and intelligent, his were entirely impassive.  His hands were the size of basketballs and his arms bulged beneath the fabric of his expertly tailored suit.  I thought, but wasn’t sure, that the outline of a handgun was visible under his jacket.  He didn’t quite glare at me, so much as he cast an unflinching gaze in my direction.  The expression wasn’t a threat.  It was closer to an unspoken promise: “I can hurt you.”  An involuntary shiver traveled up my spine at the thought.

Mila’s back was turned to me.  She faced the window, looking out on the city itself.  Most of the room’s lights were off, and my visibility was limited in the dimness, but her hand seemed to move rhythmically against something on the window sill.

Calling for help wasn’t an option.  I’d logged off of the comms line and the earbud was now in my pocket.  I held little illusion that this lady, her pet giant, or Mila would allow me to remove the bud, slip it into my ear, and then politely ask Sarah to send over armed assistance.  I was, for all intents and purposes, alone.

I could always run away.  That strategy had worked well for me in the past.  A willingness to leave an unfavorable situation, coupled with a distinct lack of foolish masculine ego, were valuable assets in the field.  There were only a few feet between where I stood and the door.  I weighed the chance of a successful escape. The lady was seated, her legs crossed provocatively at the knee, with a large glass of wine held inches from her lips.  Her heels were several inches long and the carpet beneath my feet was soft; if I fled, and she gave chase, she’d only trip and fall to the floor.  A quiet voice in my mind, distinct from the alarm sirens blaring at full volume, told me that she wasn’t likely to move at all.  The giant, however, kept his eyes on me, almost daring me to act.

He was large, but I’d learned a long time ago that size was not mutually exclusive with speed. I gave myself even odds.  With a little luck, I could reach the hallway.  From there, a dash to a stairwell would allow me to open some distance.  I would at least be able to slip the earbud back in and call for a ride away from the hotel and to safety.

But, the lady had already found me once.  I didn’t know how she’d managed it, but there was no point in denying objective facts.  If I ran now, it was very possible that I would only lead her to Michel or Sarah.  I needed more information before I made any decision; without that, any move I made – every move I could possibly make – carried the risk of opening myself up to further harm.

Neither the lady in the black dress or her bodyguard made a single threatening move towards me.  Mila didn’t even turn to acknowledge my presence.   I made the call, nodded to myself, and sat opposite the lady.

“Excellent,” she said with another slight half smile.  “Would you care for a drink?”

“Wine’s not my thing,” I said.  I continued to examine every inch of the lady for any clue to work with.  Her dress was elegant, with a thigh-high slit that displayed a great deal of her legs.  I swallowed hard at the sight.  Years in prison had not been kind to my libido.  She noticed my gaze and shifted, just enough, so that the display of legs verged on indecent.  I looked away.

She took another long drink from her wine glass.  “Which is a shame, of course.  But, I expected as much.  You prefer…Guinness, I believe?”

As she spoke, the giant produced a bottle of Guinness.  He stepped past her and placed the drink on the table between the two of us, close enough that I could reach it if I stretched.  I glanced at his face and a glimmer of recognition twinkled in the back of my mind.  He moved back to the shadows before that flash of a thought crystallized into anything solid.  I took the bottle from the table with two fingers.  It was still cold.

“You know an awful lot about me,” I said.  I returned the beer to the table.  The memory of my most recent drugging was strong enough that I had no desire to drink from an already opened beverage.  “I’m going to assume you aren’t about to introduce yourself and I’ve already made Mila’s acquaintance.  Who’s the giant?”

“David, you mean?  He is my second.”

“David?  The opposite of Goliath, the actual biblical giant?”  I raised an eyebrow.  “That can’t be his real name.”

She tilted her head slightly at the question.  “That is a singularly unique take on a fairly common name, Mr. O’Brien.  You haven’t been particularly religious since your eighteenth birthday, so you can imagine my surprise that you would leap immediately to that allusion.”

My jaw dropped instantly.  “How do you…”  I stopped myself from finishing the question.  This was just another blatant display of power and knowledge.  She’d been doing that from the instant I’d walked into my hotel.  If she knew my full name, it wasn’t that large of a stretch to imagine that she’d done thorough research on my life before I became a criminal.  My mother’s death was a matter of public record.

She read my expression flawlessly.  “I have, of course, done a great deal of research on you.  I am nothing, if not thorough.”  She held up her free hand and the giant – David, until more information could be gathered – placed a smartphone in her palm.  The lady used her thumbprint to unlock it and scrolled through a list.  “Your relationship with your mother is well documented, as is your marriage and divorce from Miss Ford.  David, how much information do we have on the cab driver?”

He cleared his throat.  I expected him to answer the question with another wordless gesture.  He surprised me by speaking, instead, in a deep voice.  “Thirty-two years old, native Parisian.  Abandonment issues.  Sexually promiscuous, but on good terms with most of his past lovers.”

She held up the phone.  He stopped speaking and took the smartphone back.  “As you can see, Mr. O’Brien, I am very well informed.”

I knew what she was doing.  Now that I’d calmed down enough to look at the situation rationally, the lady’s play was transparent: frighten me with an absurd amount of knowledge, lead me to believe that she was effectively omniscient, and make me more likely to acquiesce to whatever her demands were.  Knowing that academically, however, did little to decrease the visceral effect of the display.  I swallowed twice to moisten my suddenly dry mouth and throat.  “What do you want?”

“To talk.”

“About what?”

“Business, Mr. O’Brien.”  She leaned back in the chair and drank deeply from the wine glass.  “Always, business.”

“I’m a little overbooked at the moment,” I said.  “Surely, you understand.”

“Are you referring to your dispute with Mr. Knight?”  The lady asked.  “Or your soon-to-be completed association with that relic you stole tonight?”

“Ah,” I said intelligently.  “Well.”

Clouds passed away from the moon outside of the window and, for the first time, light streamed in.  I was able to get a better look at the lady.  She was absolutely gorgeous.  I couldn’t deny that much.  The half-smile on her lips was alluring and off-putting, in equal measure.  I found my eyes traveling down the length of her dress, but halted as a memory of an attractive redhead from the Parisian ice cream shop flashed in my mind.  A moment later, another memory – now, of a tourist with thick red hair standing outside of an airport kiosk – presented itself.  “You’ve been following me,” I said.  “I saw you in Paris and again when I got into London.  Why?”

“I was beginning to wonder how long it would take you to reach that conclusion,” the lady answered.  “Now, follow that train of thought to its end.”

I glared at her, even as my mind continued to work.  The giant, David, was familiar.  I closed my eyes for an instant before I remembered him as well.  “And he’s the one who gave me the information on Asher’s whereabouts.  That would make…you’re the Puppetmaster?”

The lady’s eyebrows drew close together.  She frowned slightly, but only on one side of her mouth.  “If that’s the name you and your ex-wife have assigned to me, then yes.  I am the person who arranged for your premature release from prison.  I am also the individual who hired you to…liberate the crown. ”

“So, this is what?”  I asked.  “You threaten my life so that you can get out of paying what you offered?”

“Why would I do something like that?”  She seemed genuinely upset at the idea.  “The money has already been wired to the accounts, as specified.  What I came to say, Mr. O’Brien, is that any future business dealings between the two of us proceed on a foundation of proven skill.  Your work with the unexpected developments at the museum were impressive.”

“What did you want with the crown?”

“Nothing at all,” the lady said.  She finished her wine and David refilled it instantly.  The rhythm between the two was daunting.  She didn’t glance at the glass and he was in motion before she raised it high enough for him to pour.  The simple routine spoke of hard-won synchronization.  “Its value was based solely on the interest of other parties.  Circumventing the security measures protecting it was the primary purpose of your involvement.  Personally, I couldn’t care less what happens to it.”

“But…why?”

“As I’ve said, Mr. O’Brien.  Business.”

I took a deep breath.  The tension of the situation had pushed me past fear and into the realm of inappropriate anger.  David’s muscles provided an excellent reason to stay as calm as possible, however.  I wrestled my rising temper to the ground before I spoke.  “And what business is that?”

“I have a proposition for you,” she said.  “Before we get into that, though, please verify that the payment has arrived in your account.  I’d like to make several things clear before I proceed.”

David removed a phone, as well as a slip of paper, from his interior pocket and tossed them both to me.  I caught the device and, a moment later, snatched the paper from the air.  Several numbers and letters were written in two lines on the slip.  The phone was the one I’d lifted from the Ukranian sniper.  As it touched my hands, the phone vibrated and a new message appeared on the front screen.  I accessed the phone’s browser, carefully keeping my expression neutral, and went to the site indicated.  The touchscreen gave me a little trouble when I entered in the long strings of characters as both identification and password.

When the account information appeared, my jaw dropped slightly.  I couldn’t help it.  Sarah hadn’t told me exactly how much the job had been worth.

I looked at the number and the zeroes that covered a good portion of the screen, before I slipped the phone into my pocket.  I didn’t look at the message I’d received.  I could wait until after my guests were gone to do that.  “Okay.”  I rammed every ounce of composure I owned into the word.  “What’s the point of this?”

“I’m simply making it clear the sums I’m willing to provide for work well done,” the lady said.  “And, if you’ll remember, the crown meant absolutely nothing to me personally.”

The phone vibrated once more in my pocket.  “You went through all the trouble of springing me from prison, just so that I could steal something you don’t care about?”  I shrugged.  “It’s your money, I guess.”

“Please, Mr. O’Brien.  I’m well aware of your talent for problem solving and your ability to multi-task your way through several issues at the same time.  Do so now, and save us both the time of these pointless interludes.”

That old familiar anger rose again.  She was right, though.  I didn’t have to think about the question; the answer had already occurred to me.  “It was an audition,” I said.  “A test, to see if I could handle whatever your real goal is.  Right?”

“Indeed,” the lady replied.  The accent continued to gnaw at me.  On certain words, she sounded distinctly Baltic.  On others, the accent shifted to French, upper-class British, even German.  “I’m glad to see that your reputation wasn’t entirely ill-deserved.”

“Reputation?”  I asked, and immediately regretted it when that corner of her lips rose once more.  I shook my head.  “Nevermind.”

“There is an item that I wish to acquire,” the lady said.  “I’d like for you to acquire it for me.”

Another job?  Something else that you don’t particularly care about?”

An emotion flickered across her face.  It vanished too quickly for me to decipher, but its simple appearance was enough.  “No,” she said cautiously.  The half-smile disappeared.  “This…item…is of considerable importance.”

The glimpse beneath her façade emboldened me.  Whatever this was about, it meant more to her than she was willing to let on.  “If it’s so important,” I asked, “why not get it yourself?  Or send your personal Bigfoot, if you can’t be bothered to handle the matter personally?”

“There is a fair amount of danger inherent in said acquisition,” the lady said.  “I am, as you can imagine, reluctant to expose myself to that sort of danger.”

“And you want me to do it for you?  I don’t even know your name.”

She didn’t take the bait.  I didn’t think she would, but there was always a small hope.  “I don’t expect you to do it simply out of the kindness of your heart.”

“And if I say no?”  I tried to hide my instinctive nervous swallow with a cough.  I smirked for effect, despite the growing pit in my stomach.  “You’ll kill me?”

“Mr. O’Brien,” the lady said.  The temperature in the room dropped several degrees as she impaled me with a humorless, steely glare.  “I assure you.  You do not wish to test that theory.”

David was easily two hundred and fifty, maybe three hundred pounds.  He looked at me, not as a person, but as an obstacle to be removed if necessary.  He moved and the outline of a large caliber handgun clarified in the moonlight.  Even without that, he could easily strangle me to death with his gigantic hands or pummel me to death in short order.

I’d personally seen Mila go on the offensive, leveling several men who were heavier, stronger, and taller.  Even though she still hadn’t turned around to face me, it would be foolish of me to forget about her presence.

Despite their presence, in that moment, the lady in the black dress was by far the most dangerous person in the room.  I stayed quiet and tried very hard not to make eye contact.

“But no,” she continued, after her threat had a chance to hang in the air between us.  “This task will likely require your absolute best.  For that, I need your willing cooperation.  Anything less will be insufficient.  If you choose not to accept this assignment, I will be forced to move onto yet another, less qualified and untested, individual.”

“You know,” I said, “the typical strategy is to downplay the dangerous part of the job.  That way, I don’t’ know what I’m getting into until I’ve gotten into it.  What possible reason could make me take a job that’s so bad you’ll openly tell me how bad things are going to be?”

“A truly absurd amount of money,” she answered immediately and with perfect ease.

That gave me pause.

While I floundered to form the appropriate words, she accepted a manila folder from David and placed it on the table in front of me.  “So?  Will you accept the job?”

My mouth opened and closed for several seconds before I found the words.  “I’ve got my own issues to worry about,” I said.  “You aren’t going to threaten or hurt me and mine if I turn this down?”

She shook her head.  “You are free to leave, whenever you wish.”

I stood, watching David for any movement or threat.  There was none.  “Then, as interesting as that sounds, my plate’s a little too full for me to take on outside work.”  I stood up and started toward the door.  It struck me as supremely unfair that I was being forced to leave my hotel room, but any escape with my limbs intact was a good escape in my book.

“And if I told you that Mr. Knight is a key player in the unfolding events?”  The lady’s voice rose from behind me, almost musical.  “That, by your involvement, you could deal a not inconsiderable blow to the organization protecting him?”

I froze.  I knew bait when I heard it.  I turned back around and my eyes met the lady’s.  That half-smile was on her face again but, aside from that, every inch of her had turned to resolute stone.  She was deadly serious.  I looked down at the manila folder, inhaled long and slow, and then sat back down.  “What’s the job?”

Part 2: Recap

Devlin O’Brien’s life grows more complicated with every passing hour.  Ever since his former partner Asher Knight betrayed him on a job, situations have conspired to keep him on the back-foot for entirely too long.  First, there was the jailbreak he never asked for, in Paris; then, the impromptu infiltration of a German beer hall; then, he was forced to work with the Bratva lieutenant, Stanislav Novikof, and the bomb maker, Anton Levchenko, to slip away from an attempted assassination in Ukraine.  All of those trials paled in comparison to his trip back to America, where he had to warn, and ultimately join forces with, his ex-wife Sarah Ford.

Together, they resolve to steal a specific crown from the Museum of London, before Asher can do the job himself.  In doing so, they hope to flush out the madman and to disrupt whatever plans he has in motion.  To accomplish that, though, they need transportation and a base of operations.  The transportation problem solves itself as soon as they touch down in London, when Devlin encounters the French cabdriver he’d met back in London: Michel St. Laurents, recently in the city on a vacation from Paris.  The cab driver cheerfully offers himself as a taxi, and the pair decide, after a brief discussion, to keep the more sensitive details of their business to themselves.

Devlin attempts to lay out some preliminary plans with Sarah, when he reaches his hotel.  Their meeting is interrupted by a phone call from Asher himself.  Threats are made, on both sides, and vague references to Asher’s master plan are dropped.  Sarah and Devlin manage to piece together some weak theories from Asher’s phrasing and word choice, but nothing concrete enough to actually use.  The night’s only tangible benefit comes in the form of a single ticket to the museum’s opening gala…a perfect opportunity for a first look at the museum’s security system, provided by the same mysterious benefactor that arranged the jailbreak, pointed Devlin at Asher like a gun, and provided just enough information to entice Sarah back into the game.

The following day, Michel drives Devlin out to Savile Row, where he commissions a new suit, in order to look the part when he attends the gala.  Suzie Taylor, his longtime friend and tailor, provides him with a masterwork and, after some consideration, throws in a vest for good measure.  Properly attired, Devlin’s next destination is the museum itself.  With the help of some new toys, the surveillance goes perfectly.  Sarah sets to work infiltrating the museum’s surprisingly robust network security, while Devlin schmoozes with the local movers and shakers.

Things proceed more or less as planned – barring a brief encounter with a brusque noble, followed by a literal run-in with an unsettlingly disconnected woman – until Devlin’s sight begins to grow blurry.  It is only just before he fully loses consciousness that he realizes what must have transpired: poison.

Waking sometime later, Devlin manages to free himself from the trunk of a car, only to discover that he doesn’t know where he is or how to get back to London.  The only landmark in sight is a large warehouse.  Without any other choice, however, Devlin chooses to go into the warehouse.  More trickery ensues, leading to the revelation that the warehouse serves as a massive repository for drugs, before Devlin gets close enough to discover his whereabouts.  He is stopped by a familiar voice: not just Asher, but also the girl from the gala.  Mila aggressively negotiates with Asher for a chance to see Devlin before whatever horrors will be visited on the Irishman in the future.  Just as she wins, Devlin is discovered by one of the warehouse’s guards.  Despite his best efforts, he is captured once more and carried to a windowless room, watched by an unblinking camera.

When Mila visits him in his captivity, Devlin expects the worst.  He is shocked when, for reasons he cannot fathom, she returns his lost earbud while Sarah, active at her end of the connection, shuts off power to the warehouse lights.  Devlin barely has enough time to consider his next step.  The unusual woman frees him in a whirlwind of violence and, with Sarah in his ear, Devlin manages to reach the nearest train station.  Instead of going into hiding, though, he decides to use this rare advantage and moves to steal the crown that very night.

The heist proceeds well enough, until Devlin accidentally trips an unknown alarm system.  As the window of time to escape grows thin, Sarah is forced to include Michel into their plan and to count on his skills as a driver to provide Devlin with a getaway.  The Frenchman performs perfectly under pressure and Devlin leaves the museum with his life…and with the crown.

With the job finished, the trio part ways for the night, to recuperate and to figure out their next step.  At least, recuperation had been the idea.  Exhausted and drained, Devlin opens his hotel room door, only to be confronted by the giant from Paris; the woman who’d saved his life, Mila; and someone new.  An elegant lady with flame red hair and graceful legs, wearing a pitch black dress.

When he decided to undertake this one last job, there was no way for Devlin to anticipate the weight of leadership.  As situations spiral further out of control, and the stakes escalate ever higher, it’s all that he can do to point his chin to the sky, despite the weight of the crown he’s taken upon himself and all the responsibilities that come with it.

 

After The Warehouse (Adlai)

There was a specific order to the work; if things weren’t done in the same order, every time, the shrine just felt off.  Neetipal Adlai missed the relative simplicity of the shrines back home.  All he’d had to do was wake up before the thriving city, make his way through the streets and back paths of Nashik, and deliver his customary offering – a loaf of bread, split between the gods Vishnu and Ganesha, and a burnt hunk of meat for Rama – before the citizens clogged the thoroughfares with their bright colors and their noise.  There had never been any question of him accidentally placing a statue inappropriately higher than another; he didn’t worry about the proportional distances between the two primary Gods and his chosen Avatar; and, most galling of all, there was never the possibility that an overzealous maid might ruin his work, either by accident or design.  That time felt impossibly long ago to him, now, even though it had only been a decade since he’d left to join Interpol.

At the same time, there was something appreciable about the setup.  When his assignments sent him to another city in a foreign country, Adlai knew exactly what to do.  Even before he went to whatever hotel room his superiors had arranged for him, Adlai found the nearest bakery and purchased several of their finest loaves of bread.  The more recently it had been prepared, the better.  He had no desire to risk offending his gods by providing a subpar offering.  Beyond that, finding the best possible bread was just something he always did.  In ten years, he hadn’t forgotten to make the bakery trip, and it was a key element in the order of things; Adlai always appreciated doing things in their proper order.

After that, he went to his room and began his ritual of cleaning and preparing the southernmost corner of the room.  It wasn’t enough to simply wipe down every surface, vacuum the carpet until it was spotless, or to burn the sticks of incense he kept in his pockets for just such an occasion.  Adlai had to prepare himself, as well.  His stress and anger from the job needed to be wiped clean from his thoughts, just as the presence of previous hotel occupants needed to be removed from the shrine’s space.  He couldn’t afford to let what had transpired before affect his decisions in the future.  His father taught him that, before the incident, and Adlai clung to that mantra like a life raft.  Only those words, and the routines he’d established to deal with the chaotic nature of his profession, kept him strong and true.

When the space was clear of debris and his heart was clear of doubts, Adlai unpacked the statues.  These were items that he’d only managed to keep safe by secreting them away, changing the location where he hid them every single time he went to an airport.  The measures he undertook to ensure that all three arrived in one piece, undamaged, went past precaution into the realm of paranoia.  Adlai was aware of that, but that knowledge didn’t bother him.  He’d given up so much when he left India to pursue the law – to find justice, if such a thing even existed anymore – that he simply refused to lose the only three links to his country.  So, he treated them with the respect artifacts of their religious value deserved.  That was just the right thing to do.

The statues weren’t all the same size; Vishnu was slightly taller than Ganesha, and Ganesha was considerably heavier than either Vishnu or Rama.  The inconsistency bothered Adlai, but it was a needling sensation he’d had plenty of time to grow used to.  He assembled them in a particular order, each statue positioned with the same proportional distance from the next.  Vishnu was the farthest back and higher than the other two, so that he was the most visible.  Then came Ganesha and, lowest of all – though still elevated above the floor itself – Rama formed the end of the line of gods.  Adlai carried a small foldable table, with the appropriate platforms already built in, in case the hotel room didn’t have any knickknacks that he could repurpose to fit his needs.  He’d purchased it during one of his first assignments and somehow managed to hold onto it for so long that it, too, felt like an essential artifact in the ceremony.  More often than not, even if Adlai didn’t strictly need to use the table, he did so anyway.

After all of that – the bakery, the cleaning, the careful placement of the statues – Adlai prayed.

The prayer was different in every city.  At times, he prayed for the gods to guide him to the perpetrators of some vile, unspeakable crime; other times, he pled for the wisdom and skill to navigate a political landscape that was oftentimes directly inimical to his goals.  It could be short enough that his incense stick couldn’t fully burn down or long enough that even the lingering trails of smoke and scent had vanished completely.  No matter what he prayed for, and no matter how long he knelt before his personal shrine, he ended each supplication the same way: peace, in the native tongue he was so rarely able to speak to anyone else. Peace, repeated nine times, three each for the gods he worshipped.  Peace, for the world he lived in, the world beyond, and the souls lost and struggling in between.

Then, and only then, Adlai allowed himself to work.

This trip wasn’t any different than the ones before, or the ones that would inevitably follow.  Adlai went through the entire routine, enjoying the long minutes of familiar routine; when he was finished with his prayers, he went to the unassuming desk in the center of one wall and opened his laptop to read over the relevant files once more.  His superiors had assigned him to London, ostensibly because a particularly successful drug and weapons trafficking ring had begun to grow too powerful for Interpol to officially ignore.  Years of instinct, coupled with countless hours slogging through office politics led Adlai to a different conclusion: the powers-that-were were being pressured to make a token response.  Any operation that grew to the size his documents implied almost certainly had the ear of important people in the local government.  Whatever he uncovered, there was little to no chance of action being taken.  He would investigate, draw connections, interrogate suspects, write a report…and then watch as the paperwork fell between the cracks or was willfully disregarded.

That was one of the most draining aspects of his job, and it was one that he’d never fully grown accustomed to.  Adlai considered the merits of another prayer – this time, for patience and sanguinity – but his cell phone vibrated before he made up his mind in either direction.  He answered without really looking at the caller ID.  There were only a few people who knew the number to his Interpol phone, after all.

“This is Inspector Adlai,” he said in a crisp, professional tone.  It took a little more effort to inject the appropriate amount of respectability into his voice, but that effort helped to hide the traces of his accent that had managed to survive, so he didn’t mind.

“Adlai, I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for hours!  Where’ve you been?”

The voice was distinctive and immediately recognizable.  “I was…preparing myself for the day, sir.”  It was often easier to hedge his wording than to explain his religion to a superior.

Despite Adlai’s first impressions of the man, however, Superintendent Lane was considerably more aware of things than people gave him credit for.  “Oh, that’s right; you’ve got your whole ritual to take care of before you get started, isn’t it?” Lane didn’t wait for Adlai to reply before he barreled on.  “Ah, well, now that you’ve got that out of the way, that means we can get right to work!”

“I had planned to do that, sir,” Adlai said.  “You said that you were trying to call me?  May I ask what you needed?”

“Two things,” Lane said.  “One, I wanted to touch base, see where your head was at.  I’ve been keeping one eye on that situation here in London, and it’s been getting trickier and trickier by the day.”

Adlai blinked.  “Here in London, sir?”

“Of course, laddie!  Where else did you think I’d be with a case this big on our plates?”

“I thought that, uh…”  Adlai stopped, squeezed his eyes shut, and counted to ten.  Another trick he’d picked up from his father.  “I thought that you were busy with the crime family in Beijing, sir.”

Lane barked out a laugh.  “That was all smoke and no fire.  Couple of kids got ahold of some guns, decided they’d start shooting up things awfully close to the border.  The locals mostly had it taken care of by the time I got there; nothing left for us but the paperwork and the cleanup.”

“So you came to London?”

“Of course I did!  This was my case,” Lane said, “long before it crossed your desk.  You didn’t know that?”

“I…did not, sir.”

“Drop the sir,” Lane commanded.  “If we’re going to be working together, might as well get comfortable.  I don’t stand much on ceremony between colleagues.”

“Working together?”  Adlai barely managed to keep himself from appending the honorific.  Instead, he said it in his head.  If his superior wanted him to forego the proper terms of respect, Adlai was willing to at least pretend.  He wouldn’t actually do what Lane asked of him, though.  It was too inappropriate to even consider.

“You didn’t think they sent you all the way out here just because, did you?  I’m the one who asked for you.  Petitioned for it, actually.  I saw the work you did over in Dubai with those jewel thieves; down in Sierra Leone with that human trafficking business; and even followed that whole mess in Venice a couple of years back.”

That memory made Adlai’s back stiffen.  He had been so close, but something had gone horribly wrong in Venice.  A masterpiece of surveillance and planning, gone to waste in a hail of gunfire and the intervention of the Italian National Police.  By the time the dust had settled, Adlai’s quarry had vanished into the wind.  He’d arrested the shooters, brought an end to the chaos and disorder their activities caused in the Italian city, but he still didn’t know what had gone wrong.

Lane was still talking.  “I figured I needed a man like that to help me out with my drug ring problem.  So, I started sending requests – formal requests, mind you – to the National Office, until they finally decided it was easier to give me what I wanted.  So, here you are.”

Adlai took several seconds to process that.  He’d never worked with Lane before, although nearly everyone in Interpol had heard stories about the man.  According to reports, he was a crass, borderline insubordinate man who thumbed his nose at the organizational structure.  He made far more enemies than friends and, as far as Adlai was concerned, it was only his frankly impressive arrest record that kept him from an ignominious posting in Estonia.  Instead, Lane was frequently sent to deal with the most troublesome cases that came Interpol’s way.

His earlier assumption – that his assignment was simply a way of covering their political bases – had been entirely off base.  If Lane was working the case, and his request for Adlai’s assistance had been granted, then it was worse.  He was actually expected to solve the case, or he’d go down alongside the disagreeable Scotsman.

“Thank you,” Adlai said, surprising himself even as the words passed his lips.  “For the opportunity.”

“Opportunity?”  Lane repeated.  “You serious?  I pretty much sentenced you to a slow career death, and you’re thanking me?”

“I do this job so that I can make a difference,” Adlai said.  “If my career is to end, I would rather have it do so while I am at least trying to do good.”

Lane was silent for a while, before he spoke again.  “Glad to hear you say that,” he said, finally.  “I figured you’d be one of the few who’d look at it like that.  Anyway, for the time being, we’re as good as partners…except you’ve got to be the one doing the actual on-the-ground investigation.  You alright with that?”

“That would suit me fine,” Adlai answered.

“Excellent!”  Lane clapped his hands together, judging from the sharp snap of sound.  “Let’s get right into it, then.  No reason to waste time, letting the grass grow under our feet.  We’ve had some new developments and…have you had a chance to look over the file, yet, or should I call you back later on?  You had your thing to take care of.”

That was more consideration than Adlai ever received, regarding his personal habits.  It was so jarringly unexpected, coming from Superintendent Lane, that Adlai’s thoughts skipped momentarily.  “I read over what we knew on the plane,” he said.

“Well, I’m hearing rumors that the recent spike in traffic is because our drug kingpin is getting ready for a big move.  Don’t know what it might be, yet, but that’s still something.  Got any thoughts?”

Adlai hadn’t heard those rumors, but he did have thoughts.  He opened his mouth to voice them and stopped, as a notification appeared at the bottom of his screen: a new email, delivered to his personal address.  He double-clicked it open and skimmed the contents.  It didn’t take long; there weren’t many words written there.

“Adlai?”  Lane asked.  “You there?”

What he had read was impossible, Adlai decided.  Interpol covered nearly two hundred countries, and there were even more places that he might have decided to go in the interim.  Besides, as far as Adlai knew – and he’d made an active effort over the past two and a half years to keep track of the details – he should still be in prison.  But this email had come from Interpol’s own servers, routed directly to him by someone in the local office.  The name written there was clear and undeniable.

“Sir?”  Adlai asked tentatively.  “Have there been any recent thefts in the area?  Nothing drug related; art, perhaps?  Or jewelry?”

“That’s an odd question,” Lane said.  “There’s always robberies, in one form or another.”

“What about any thefts that seem…”  Adlai struggled to find the right word for a moment.  “…impossible?  Things taken that a thief couldn’t possibly have gotten to, for instance.  Or maybe a dramatic robbery of some sort?”

“Nothing lately,” Lane said.  “Why?”

“No reason,” Adlai said back, a little too quickly.  “You asked for my thoughts on the drug traffic?”

“I did.”

“I’ve looked at some of the financials we’ve been able to monitor,” Adlai said.  “If this is a prelude to a larger move, I don’t quite understand who or what this…drug kingpin…is planning to move against.”

“That’s what I thought.  But I’m getting this from some fairly reliable sources.  Not real eager to start ignoring what I hear from people who’ve got a reason to keep track of that sort of thing.  What if…”

Lane trailed off, just as a second notification flashed at the bottom of Adlai’s computer screen.  He didn’t need to open this one to guess at its contents; the subject header provided him with enough information to make an educated guess.  He used his login information to access Interpol’s database of incarcerated criminals, instead.  “Did you receive this message, too?”

“Sure did,” Lane said.  “Robbery at the Museum of London.”

“What was stolen?”

Lane was quiet, while he read through the email that Adlai had only skimmed.  The Superintendent probably had more information available at his fingertips.  “Looks like…”  The Scotsman paused.  “I don’t know.  The guards inside are using their phones to communicate with the authorities, but the police haven’t been able to get in to ascertain what happened.  Whole place went on lockdown and no one can get around it.”

While Lane spoke, Adlai navigated through the labyrinthine database and searched for a single name.  When his computer returned with the answer to his query, Adlai was barely even surprised.  Somehow, despite being caught redhanded with stolen goods, Devlin O’Brien had been granted an early parole.

Except…Adlai had been checking in, every week, since his nemesis had been arrested.  A parole hearing wasn’t on the books; it wouldn’t be on the books, for at least another six months.

His heartbeat speeding up, sweat appearing on his forehead in tiny beads, Adlai realized several things in rapid succession.

One: everything he understood about the situation here in London was fundamentally flawed.  It wasn’t that his intelligence was wrong.  But, if Devlin was in the game, that made the knowledge Adlai possessed insufficient.  Devlin wasn’t involved in the drug trade, as far as Adlai knew.

Two: It had been nothing short of divine providence that had led him to London, at this time, on the exact day when Devlin performed one of his signature heists.  That made Lane an agent of the gods, even if he turned out to be an unwilling or unaware one.  Adlai was not in the habit of refusing aid from the gods.

Three: He would have to pray again.  These prayers would be dedicated to the avatar he’d chosen for himself.  Rama would hear Adlai’s prayers for strength, for the courage to pursue justice, and for the wisdom to catch the one man who had managed to escape him at every turn for nearly a decade.

Adlai almost smiled at that thought.  He kept the amusement under control, reminding himself that justice was supposed to be impersonal, and opened the email containing the robbery’s details.  It was going to be a long night, apparently.

After the Warehouse (Asher)

Asher rested in the lavish sitting room, scratching idly at the burn scars that twined up his right arm.  It wasn’t that the marks hurt.  According to some of the best doctors he could hire, those nerve endings had been seared to death, back in St. Petersburg.  Pain there was an impossibility now and even the phantom twinges that had plagued him in the days immediately after the accident had long since disappeared.  No, his fingers found their way into the blackened flesh whenever he felt…well, not nervous, but anxious.  Since the disaster in St. Petersburg, and the ensuing nightmare, times of stress of or excitement triggered the habit.  He was only vaguely aware of his actions; at the moment, he was too deep into his thoughts to discern or even care which of the two triggers was responsible for his agitation.  There were costs to be evaluated, values to be assessed, and decisions to be made.

He was glad that he’d stuck to the protocol of watching the crown before making his move.  The surveillance at the museum was customary procedure for any operation, and even though Asher had fully intended to subvert his own security detail, appearances had to be kept up. The drugs had come from his men, just in case she decided to make an appearance, even though the chances of that happening were vanishingly low.  He didn’t know what she looked like, or what her name was, or…well, anything at all, except that some mysterious woman was working against the interests of the Magi, but there was still a slim possibility that she might let her guard down.  The fact that she was technically an enemy didn’t bother Asher so much, but disrupting the Magi’s operations before Asher had a chance to put his own plans into action would force the timetable in a way he wasn’t fully comfortable with.  So, in a way, the mysterious woman was his enemy; at least, in so much as removing her from the field would make his own goals easier to achieve.

When Asher’s men reported that Devlin had arrived at the gala, however…oh, that had been too much serendipity to ignore.  Asher arrived at the only reasonable conclusion after a few minutes of thought:  Devlin was clearly the mysterious woman’s agent, which explained his mysterious freedom from prison several months ahead of schedule.  It was possible, then, that his old friend might actually have information about the mysterious woman.  Capturing him would remove an obstacle in the way of a successful heist later on, it opened up an additional avenue Asher could use to chip away at the monolithic task he’d set for himself, and it would be fun.

Asher had thought that leaving his former friend in prison for three years would calm the seething hatred inside his belly; he’d been wrong.

Things had gone…wrong, at some point.  Asher still didn’t know exactly what happened, although he intended to dedicate several hours to piecing together the fuckup that had allowed Devlin to free himself.  Still, the warehouse he’d chosen was suitably isolated that it shouldn’t have been a problem.  At worst, the interrogation would be delayed for a few hours while Asher’s men combed the countryside until Devlin was discovered and brought back.  That wasn’t ideal, but it was a reasonable deviation from the hasty plan he’d constructed.  Asher had built considerably more room for error into this plan, accounting for Devlin’s extraordinary ability to foul up even the most finely tuned machine through simple virtue of his presence.

What he hadn’t expected was Mila, if that was even her real name.  Even his most extravagant estimates hadn’t provided for the appearance of someone with her particular skill set.  The guards he’d assembled fell like children, the warehouse – and its entire stash of drugs – were lost to a fire she had somehow managed to start, and Devlin managed to escape from what had been an almost perfect trap.

There were few things that Asher hated more than perfection spoiled.  The idea that he’d had so many things in place, only to fall apart at the last possible second, galled him.  He closed his eyes and bit down on the inside of his lip until a trickle of blood filled his mouth.  That always calmed him, ever since his first days on his own.

Besides, he reminded himself, the attempt at Devlin’s life had been a spur of the moment addition to the plan.  The fundamental goals were unchanged.  The larger strategy, the months of planning and waiting, hadn’t yet been ruined.

“Excuse me, sir?”  A slightly unsure voice from Asher’s right.  Not exactly timid or shy, so much as on unfamiliar ground.  Asher opened his eyes and looked to his right to see a dark skinned man who was not one of Asher’s inner circle.  “I was told to deliver a message.  If you aren’t too busy, I mean.”

Despite his mood, Asher still enjoyed the deference that his men treated him with.  He held no illusions about the reasons for that deference – the Magi paid Asher very well and provided him with an extensive budget to use for recruitment – but he didn’t allow that fact to spoil the feeling.  “What is it?”  Asher asked the man.

“The silent alarm at the museum, sir.  Someone just tripped it.”

That was interesting.  “How long ago?”

The man checked his watch.  “Almost a minute, exactly.  What would you like us to do?”

Someone else was stealing the crown?  Who could…Asher smiled to himself.  Devlin, of course.  “Put the place on high alert,” he said, “and call the police.  We can’t have anyone stealing from our gracious benefactor, can we?”  He gestured at the extravagant surroundings.

The sitting room was lavishly appointed; a necessary consequence of his host’s social station.  It wouldn’t do to be a part of the British nobility and not decorate every inch of available space in opulent, utterly useless splendor.  Where Asher sat now was so far away from the squalor of his childhood and early adolescence that he almost laughed at the juxtaposition.  He restrained himself to a tight smile.

The dark-skinned man appeared to be more than a little nonplussed by Asher’s flippant attitude, but he hurried away to do as ordered.  Asher turned back to his musings, alone in the sitting room once more.

If Devlin stole the crown, that freed up Asher’s own men from engaging in the theft, and provided a convenient scapegoat.  It wasn’t as though Asher needed to humiliate his host personally; all that he needed was to begin the process of greater scrutiny and skepticism.  The loss of the crown, coupled with the absolute destruction of an entire warehouse full of product, wasn’t enough to destabilize his power entirely, but it was enough to get the ball rolling.  And, if Devlin and Mila – and, now that Asher really thought about it, Sarah was almost certainly involved as well – were players in a game they didn’t understand, their actions could probably be directed in a way to further his own ends.  It would just require additional planning.

An idea came to mind, like a stroke of lightning.  The bolt navigated through the inner workings of the elaborate plan he’d been constructing, ever since the Magi let him out to enact their will on an unsuspecting underworld, and fit perfectly into place.  In a fit of irony, Asher realized that this idea might never have come to mind if not for Devlin’s own words.

He removed a phone from his pocket and dialed a number.  The line rang several times before it was answered by a rough voice, belonging to a man who insisted that his given name was Damian.  “Yeah, boss?”  Damian spoke English like a language; Asher knew for a fact that he was actually from South Florida.

Less respect from these men, but they’d earned a fair amount of latitude.  These were the men he’d hired personally, using his own finances, or who had shown the ambition Asher required from anyone in his inner circle.  Subterfuge was difficult stuff, even for the sternest of men; it became harder when your allies and enemies changed at a given moment.

“Our man in the National Central Bureau is still in place, correct?”  Asher asked.

“Far as I know, yeah.  Why?”  Damian asked, in reply.

“I’m thinking that an old friend works better when there’s opposition to struggle against.”

The man on the other end of the line hesitated, confused.  “And we want him working better?”

“For right now, yes.  Have our man send up an alert that one Devlin O’Brien has been spotted in London.  While you’re at it, get some of our local assets to start up rumors, connecting him to the museum job.”

“The museum job?  We didn’t…are we going in early?”

Asher shook his head, purely for his own benefit and because he’d been sitting still for entirely too long.  “That plan has been discarded,” he said, “in favor of one that offloads the trickiest parts of our operations here to another player.”

Damian grumbled.  “We stayed on the timeline you gave us,” he said.  “You’re the one who decided to change the plan, Ash, and –“

“Do not call me that!”  Asher’s voice came out in a furious rush, syllables as sharp as the edge of a sword.  The vehemence shocked Damian into silence; the ferocity even surprised Asher himself.  He inhaled slowly through his nostrils, tasted the blood still trickling from the small cut in the inside of his lip, and calmed himself.  “I know what I did, and I know what was and wasn’t your fault.  You’ll still get the bonus, as if you’d done the job.  Do you understand the other instructions I’ve given you?”

“Yeah…yeah, boss.  Sure thing.  Anything else?”

Asher considered the question.  Adding Interpol into the mix would shake things up, but Asher was technically on the side of the angels.  At least, so far.  He could use Devlin and his crew as a lightning rod to attract the attention of both his host and Interpol – who were going to get involved at some point, eventually – and maneuver the other pieces into position without any eyes on him.  However…there was still one element that he didn’t fully understand.   “Look into any bodyguards who go by Mila,” he said finally.  “She’s involved, and I don’t know enough about her yet.  Fix that for me, okay?”  He phrased it as a question, but there was no doubt as to the true nature of the statement.

“Got it.  Gettin’ on that right now, boss.”

Asher disconnected the line without bidding Damian farewell.  There wasn’t enough time to waste on pleasantries; his host was entering the sitting room finally.  Asher leaned back into the plush couch and assumed a posture of utter nonchalance.

Hill’s real name was supposed to be a secret, but it had been the work of a few minutes to finagle the information out of one of his personal bodyguards.  Loyalty, it seemed, truly had a price.  The Englishman was sophistication incarnate, clad in a fine silk dressing robe and slippers that made no sound as he crossed the room.  His hair was immaculately maintained and even the peppering of gray around the edges only added to Hill’s distinguished air.  He took a seat opposite Asher and gestured at one of the servants who’d accompanied him into the room.  That servant disappeared and, a moment later, returned with a tray sporting only a single cup of steaming liquid.  Hill pointedly took a sip from the tea and did not offer one to Asher.

Asher deliberately scratched himself in an indelicate location.  That was part of the plan, as well – it was so much easier to convince people to underestimate you, if they already thought you were inherently beneath them – but it also felt good to disrupt the moment.  Two birds, et cetera.  “You wanted to see me?”

Hill took another delicate sip of tea before he answered.  “Please explain how you managed to lose an entire warehouse full of product and quite possibly the services of several men I would much rather not replace, all in a single night?”

“Unexpected developments,” Asher said, honestly enough.  “Managed to finish the audit, though, so there’s that.  It’s not really all that useful, seeing as all that product’s gone, but you’ll at least be able to prove that you weren’t skimming profits.”  He paused.  “Or I could prove that you were skimming.  That’s up to you, isn’t it?”

If Hill was upset by the threat, he didn’t show it.  Asher had to admit: he liked that about the English.  Those stiff upper lips weren’t simply the stuff of legends.  “You understood what you would find when you went there,” Hill said.  “And you have already been compensated.  Don’t attempt to renegotiate our arrangement, after the fact.  And, I notice that you did not answer my question.”

“What happened,” Asher said, “was an opportunity.  If we can use this new crew of thieves as scapegoats, think about how much product you can make disappear from the registers.  The more money you don’t have to account for, the more money we both make.  Sounds good to me.”

Asher made a correction to himself: three birds, one stone.  He was well aware of Hill’s true goals – one didn’t rise to the position of regional drug lord under the Magi’s reign without an unsafe amount of ambition – but it was too early in the plan to reveal that knowledge.

Hill weighed that, then nodded.  “And this business at the Museum of London?”

Asher shrugged.  “What business would that be?  My men should be positioned as guards, just like you asked.”

“It was robbed,” Hill said, after another drink of tea.  It occurred to Asher that the tea might be a little stronger than simple tea leaves could manage.  “And the only thing the thieves took was the crown I had personally vouchsafed.”

“Sorry for your loss,” Asher said, shrugging once more.  “Blame it on the same thieves that destroyed the warehouse, call it a day.  Whoever you were protecting the crown for will have additional motivation to take them out, and it provides another layer of cover.”

Hill heaved a dramatically heavy sigh.  “That isn’t the point.  My organization will have refunded the cost of the crown before opening bell tomorrow.  The issue is my reputation amongst the local elite.  I’ll probably have to attend the bloody Green Light gala now, just to shake the right hands and smile at the right people.”

Asher perked up internally.  Exactly as planned.  “You can always send me, if it’s that big of a deal,” he said, feigning indifference.  “This wasn’t entirely my fault, but I can kiss whatever asses need kissing if it’s going to keep things smooth on your end.”

Hill’s eyebrows drew closer together.  “One wonders why you are suddenly so amenable.  Perhaps you intended to form new alliances at the gala, only to use them against me at a later date?”

Asher’s own eyes hardened and met Hill’s.  When he spoke, he was careful to do so in the most polite, coldest tone he could manage.  “If I wanted to destroy you,” he said, “I wouldn’t require the assistance of any of your local elite.  I don’t work for you.  My connections are more than enough, without bothering to slum it.  Anything I do here that isn’t going to my and your superiors is a kindness.  Understand?”

That threat succeeded where the first failed: Hill backed down.  He tried to save face by sniffing at the air and lifting his shoulders a millimeter.  “If you’re offering, I suppose I see no problem with it.  You’ll have to make new assurances to those who doubt my ability to keep my word, of course, and see to it that all parties are kept appeased.”

“I’m pretty sure I can handle that.”

“Then,” Hill said, rising from his couch, “I’ll make the necessary arrangements.  You can see yourself out?”

The Englishman was gone before Asher could reply.  Asher, for his part, weighed the merits of some constructive vandalism and was only stopped when his phone rang.  He answered it as he stood and walked to the exit.  “Yes, Damian?”

“You asked for information on a bodyguard named Emilia?”

“Yes, I remember.  It was less than ten minutes ago.  You’ve already got something?”

Damian told him what he’d uncovered.  A fierce grin appeared on Asher’s face as this new information found a place in the elaborate plan, shifting until it found its perfect place.  Oh, yes, he could use this.  His fingers dug into the blackened, dead skin of his forearm once more.

Devlin.  Sarah.  Emilia.  Hill.  He could use them all.