Chapter Forty-Nine

Asher didn’t sit, at first.  He sauntered instead, allowing his fingers to dance across the back of a chair.  I kept myself from bolting through brute force of will.  Across the table, tension radiated from Sarah’s body like visible heat waves, although she did her level best to remain the absolute image of calm and poise.  Mila remained as she had been: imperturbable, level-headed, and focused.  In my peripheral vision, I noted that her hand was inching minutely closer to the concealing folds of her jacket pocket.

I broke the silent standoff.  “Didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Why’s that?”  Asher asked and, finally, took a seat directly opposite me.  His position led to his bodyguard facing Mila.  Something flickered in his eyes – Fear?  Respect? – and disappeared before I could identify it.

“Oh, I don’t know.  Last time I saw you, it seemed like you had your hands full.  Something about a fire, maybe…?”

His expression didn’t change for an instant.  “A little paperwork,” he said, “and a few couriers.  Little bit of product that will have to be replaced.  Business continues as usual.  You didn’t think that would be enough to really derail anything, did you?”

I had hoped as much, but I kept that disappointment to myself.  “What are you doing here?”

He beckoned with two fingers to the nearest waiter.  “Tequila,” he said, when the man drew close enough to hear him.  “Two…no, three.  Sarah, you drink tequila, don’t you?”

Instead of answering, she doubled the intensity of her glare.

“I’m going to take that as a yes,” Asher said and returned his attention to the waiter.  “Three shots of your best tequila, and a beer.  Doesn’t really matter which one.  Something in a bottle, though.”

“Of course, sir,” the waiter said.  He turned to leave.  Asher caught him by the elbow before he’d taken two steps.

“Smoking is allowed here, isn’t it?”

“I…I’m not sure, sir,” the waiter said slowly.

“I’m going to assume that it is, then,” Asher said, “and I’ll stop if someone important says something about it.”  He pulled a pack of cigarettes from a pocket and rapped it against his wrist.

“Sir, I…”

“You can leave now.”  Asher plucked an unlit cigarette from the pack and dismissed the waiter with a wave.  After a moment of hesitant consideration, he left.  The three of us sat there, staring at each other, until he returned a minute or two later with the shots and a bottled Newcastle.  As soon as they touched the table, the poor waiter scurried away and left us all with nothing except for awkward air and pregnant pauses.

“What do you want?”  Sarah asked.  Her voice was arctic.

“A lighter,” he answered and dug into his front pants pocket until he found one.  He lit the cigarette between his lips and blew a cloud of smoke that drifted to the left of my face.  “And a drink.  It’s been a busy day or two, as I’m sure you can imagine.”  The look on his face was, on the surface, innocuous.  I knew him well enough to spot the boiling rage beneath the surface, carefully contained by a façade of disinterest.

I picked up the shot glass and raised it in the air.  “To revenge,” I said.

Asher flashed a smile at me.  The expression was composed of approximately one hundred percent teeth and zero percent actual warmth.  “To revenge.”

Sarah raised her shot glass, reluctantly.

We drank and settled back into our chairs.  My eyes scanned every inch of Asher’s body for clues: a torn sleeve, a spot of powder on his collar, lipstick somewhere on his skin.  There was nothing.  He sat in what appeared to a brand new suit, from a high end designer.  He had no twitches that might reveal his agenda and, unlike Sarah and me, Asher was perfectly in his element.  The momentum was on his side and he knew it.

I decided against repeating the same question for the third time and waited for him to speak first.  It didn’t take long before he cleared his throat and threw both of his arms over the back of his chair.  “Can I be honest here?”

“For a change?”

He acknowledged the point with a slight incline of his head.  “I don’t know how you pulled it off – I mean, obviously I can draw some conclusions since Sarah’s here – but your work at the museum?  Impressive stuff, Dev.  Reminds me of the old days.”

I swallowed my nervousness and leaned even further into a persona: a version of myself, with more confidence and less outright fear.  “If the old days are so important to you,” I said, “maybe you should consider dropping this whole vendetta against me.”

“I can’t do that,” Asher said.  He paused and amended the statement a moment later.  “No, I can.  I don’t want to do that.  You only think you know what you did to me, back in St. Petersburg.  The reality is worse than you can even imagine.  You are going to pay for what you did to me.”

“What are you talking about?”  I asked.  “What did I do that would make any of this worth it?”

Asher started to answer.  Mila cut him off, speaking in firm tones that demanded our attention.  “Ma’am.  If you’d come with me, please?”

Sarah’s eyebrows came together, one raised slightly higher than the other.  “What?  I am not about to run away, as soon as things get a little dangerous.”

“Ma’am,” Mila said, more insistent now, “this situation is more than we expected.”

“And I can handle it just fine,” Sarah snapped.  “I don’t need you taking care of me.”

“I was hired for that exact reason,” Mila said.  She straightened her shoulders and rose to her full height.  Despite the fact that her full height wasn’t exactly impressive, she managed to project control.  “And I intend to fulfill that obligation.”

“You will do no such thing.”

I watched the confrontation play out with a mixture of morbid interest and blank fear.  If Asher’s presence was the only necessary component to destroy our coalition, then we were doomed already.  Asher and his bodyguard also paid strict attention to the argument as it escalated.  A ghost of a smile danced across his lips.

“Ma’am, I…”

“Fine, then!”  Sarah stood in one swift, clumsy motion.  Her chair fell to the floor and she made no effort to pick it back up.  She stalked off toward a cluster of bodyguards.  Mila looked at her leave and then looked at me.

“Go,” I said, under my breath.

“I won’t hurt him,” Asher chimed in.  “Not here, at least.  Too many eyes, and it isn’t worth the political fallout.”  He raised the index and middle fingers of his right hand.  They were burned, like the rest of his arm.  “Scout’s honor.”

Mila glared at him for a long second, but Sarah was covering the distance quickly.  Mila narrowed her eyes – first at Asher, then at me – before she followed.

I was thrilled that Sarah would have protection, if things did go south.  That left me without a bodyguard, however, and Asher’s man was looking more threatening as time passed.

Almost as if he could read my thoughts, Asher turned to his bodyguard.  “I think there was someone else who wanted to speak with you.”

“Sir?”  The bodyguard asked.  Just the one word was enough for me to guess at his nationality: Irish.  Probably an attempt on Asher’s part to needle me.  An attempt that was working.

Go away,” Asher clarified.  “I’d like to talk with Devlin alone and you just…looming makes that impossible.”

His bodyguard clearly didn’t have the same professional scruples as Mila.  As soon as he understood the nature of Asher’s suggestion, he vanished into the room like a ghost.

“It’s so hard finding good help,” I offered.

“Probably,” Asher conceded, “but money gives you a much larger hiring pool.  If I could have gotten Mila, I would have paid almost any amount of cash.  That is one hell of a woman.  How did you get her to sign up with you?”

“My natural charm,” I said, forcing a smile.

“Lucky you, then.  If you’re into that sort of thing.”  He took an extraordinarily long puff from his cigarette and held the smoke for a long time.  Just when I thought he couldn’t hold his breath for another second, Asher exploded with breath and mist, mixing and pouring out into the room’s air.  “So.  Just the two of us.  Who would’ve thought it’d end up like this?”

My earbud popped and Sarah spoke into my ear.  “Devlin.  Michael says there’s something going on out there.  That’s why Mila pulled me out.”

I couldn’t directly respond, so long as Asher sat in front of me with his slow-burning cigarette.  “What are you going to do?”  I asked slowly, picking my words with exquisite care.

“Me?”  Asher took a puff and blew a cloud of shapeless smoke into my face.  I resisted the urge to cough.  “Right now, I’m just waiting.”

His answer was important, but it wasn’t the one I’d actually wanted.

“He insists that it’s something I have to see with my own eyes,” Sarah said.  “I can go – Mila said she’ll stay with me, so Asher can’t take a shot while we’re separated – but that’s going to leave you alone with him longer.”

“Okay.”  I let the silence stretch out between Asher and me.  If Sarah moved to check in with Michel, Asher needed to be distracted.  His attention was obviously, demonstrably fixated on me; I could use that and turn myself into a lightning rod.  “Let’s do this, then.  Get it all out.  I’m not planning on having this conversation with you again.”

Sarah understood, after a second.  “I’m muting my microphone, but leaving yours active.  If he does anything, we won’t be far away.”  The line popped and went dead.

“Oh?”  Asher chuckled.  “Since when did you start making plans?”

“You pick up things behind bars,” I replied. I mirrored his relaxed posture and took a lengthy drink of my Guinness.  When I returned the glass to the table, nearly a third was gone.

An expression of exaggerated approval appeared on his face.  “Well, that explains the success of your little job at the museum.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“If you really don’t,” he said, “then you’re either stupid or blind lucky.  And we both know that neither of those things are true.”

I gave him my very best poker face.

“You don’t want to talk about it?”  He shrugged and took another drag from his cigarette.  “Fine.  I’ll do the talking.  Here’s what I know.  You escaped prison early.  Obviously, you had another identity that I didn’t know about stashed away somewhere in Paris and you used that, and some money, to get a flight to Kiev.  From there, you and Anton and whatever mobster the Russians sent to run down my trail tracked me down to the docks.”

“Which was what you wanted,” I said, out loud.

“Well, I wasn’t expecting you, no.  The Russians, on the other hand…?  I knew, sooner or later, that I’d have to deal with them.  Still do have to deal with them, actually, so thanks for helping them slip out my little trap.”  The sarcasm was thick enough that I felt it on my skin, like oil.  “After you managed to handle my sniper, you ran back home to warn Sarah that I was coming for her.  Seeing as she’s here in London, I assume she decided it was safer to go on the offensive than to play keep away.  How’s that so far?”

I was impressed, as always, by the amount of information he’d assembled in so little time.  More important, however, were the pieces of knowledge he didn’t have.  He knew that I’d gotten out of jail early, but not that I’d been sprung by agents of the Lady.  He didn’t know anything at all about Germany; that was a hole that he and the Lady shared, apparently.  “It isn’t bad,” I allowed, after a sip of beer.

“Here’s what I don’t know, though.  How’d you know to go to Kiev in the first place, Devlin?  Why go after the crown?”

“Assuming that I actually know a thing about this crown – which I don’t, of course – why in the hell would I answer your questions?”  I finished the beer and slammed the glass on the table with enough force that silverware rattled to the floor.  “You tried to kill me twice.  You threatened to kill Sarah.  If it weren’t for your jolly green giant lurking in the background, I’d strangle you to death right here.”

He sighed.  “Strictly speaking,” Asher said, “I tried to kill you once.  I tried to torture you here.  And bravado, Devlin?  Really?  Even if the rules for these things didn’t explicitly forbid violence, you and I both know you aren’t a killer.”

“Neither are you,” I pointed out.

Asher shrugged his indifference at me and stubbed out his cigarette into the tablecloth.  The fabric turned black and released a foul thread of smoke into the air.  “Not directly, no.  That’s why I hired him.”  His eyes flashed suddenly with the promise of violence.

For a second, I was absolutely sure that Asher would throw caution to the wind and order his bodyguard to kill me on the spot.  I wasn’t armed and the few martial skills I’d acquired in prison wouldn’t do me any good against a trained killer with at least fifty pounds and six inches worth of advantage.  Wherever Mila was, it would take a miracle for her to return in time.  My expression nearly broke.

I remembered, just before the fight or flight instinct took over, that Asher had spoken of a plan.  He was taunting me, yes, but he didn’t seem tangibly furious about the museum job.  Whatever he wanted, we hadn’t fully derailed it yet.  His machinations involved the Magi and their power, so far as I’d seen, had no discernable limits.  He wouldn’t risk that much influence over revenge.  I hoped.

My smile widened and I took a risk.  “Bravado, Asher?  Really?”

He met my eyes for thirty seconds.  Then, he laughed and shook his head ruefully.  “This is more fun anyway, don’t you think?  Two old friends, locked in mortal combat over a past betrayal?  The movie almost writes itself.”

“I didn’t betray you,” I said immediately, a rote response that came out before I’d even consciously considered it.

“I don’t know about that.”  He unbuttoned and pulled up his sleeve, revealing the burn scars in all their horrible glory.  “I’ve got a few sore spots that beg to differ.”

“I thought you were dead, Ash.”  Without meaning to, I slipped into the affectionate nickname.  He didn’t complain or seem discomfited by its use.  If anything, the fact that it came so easily to my lips bothered me.  “What should I have done?  Dug around in the hot coals of the building your bomb set on fire?”

“You should have HELPED!”  I flinched away at the sudden increase in volume.  Individuals at other tables took notice of our conversation and, without openly appearing to, started to pay closer attention.  Asher shook his head several times, rolled his shoulders, and slowly returned the sleeve to its intended position.  “You should have helped,” he repeated in a calmer tone.  “So, just know that what happens next?  This is on you.”

The earbud popped.  “Devlin, we need to go,” Sarah said.  “The other drivers noticed a shift in the local traffic.  It took a while for us to piece it together, but I think Asher’s planning on putting his men on every road.  According to Michel, the other drivers think so, too.  He’s trying to box us in.”

It was a neat plan, but I didn’t hope for a moment that it was the only one he had in the works.  Still, it wouldn’t do to fall into an avoidable trap.

I stood up without warning and smoothed a wrinkle from my jacket.  “This has been fun,” I said, “but I’m pretty tired and dealing with your revisionist bullshit isn’t high on my list of priorities.”

“I’ll have Michel pull the car around.  We can leave as soon as you get here,” Sarah said.

Asher sighed.  “One of your team found out about the tails, then?  I knew that it was a risk – satellites being as ubiquitous as they are nowadays – but I still had to try.”

I added another item to the list of things Asher didn’t seem to know about.

“Go ahead and run.  Just know that I’ll be seeing you,” Asher said.  “Soon.” The menace returned to his voice, magnified and intensified into pure malevolence.

“Not if I see you first,” I replied.

I left the table with Asher seated at it.  Neither he nor his bodyguard made any move to follow me.  On the way out, I caught the eye of the Texan.  He touched two fingers to his forehead at my passing.  The party’s guards allowed me to pass without comment, and I found myself outside without speaking a single word to another human being.  That allowed me to mull over the brief conversation with Asher and its implications.  I discovered, as I slid into the backseat of the Aston Martin, that I actually was tired.

“Here.”  I dug the paper the Texan had given me from my pocket and handed it to Sarah.  Another item fell to the floor of the car: the business card of the efficient young woman from the hotel.

Sarah passed the card to Michel.  “This is the address.  Time’s a factor, but we don’t want any trouble with the local law.  Especially not while Adlai’s in town.”

“Of course,” he said with a nod.  “Discretion is my middle name.”

“Dev,” Sarah asked, turning to me, “what’re you thinking?”

“I’m thinking,” I said as I picked up the business card and began to play with its edges, “that things are really about to get interesting.”

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