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.