“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”