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?”

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