The room felt dirty. The air around him was stale and heavy with old cigarette smoke; an odor of sweat, overcooked meat, and general detritus floated like a fog around their table; and, most galling of all, a jukebox in one corner insisted on playing some low-rent cover by a band whose name he couldn’t be bothered to remember.
Without a doubt, it was the worst establishment he had been forced to endure in his entire life. And yet, here he was.
“This is unacceptable,” he said to the man seated across from him.
“What? Is slumming it that unpleasant?”
“Slumming,” he said, accenting the word like it was something vile, “would be giving a bit too much credit to this…this…” He twirled two fingers in a vague approximation of a circle, indicating their surroundings.
“I don’t know about that,” the other man said. “Spent a lot of my life in places just like this. I mean, not just like this, but pretty close.”
“Imagine my surprise.”
If the man across from him took offense, he didn’t show it. “You’re the one who wanted to meet up with me.”
“Indeed. I assumed that you would have selected a rendezvous point with something approximating class, however.”
“So now you want me to be high profile? Any of the places you frequent would have us on a dozen cameras before we got a table. And that’s not even taking into account all of the people you’d have to talk to: valets, waiters, probably the cook, if your dietary choices tonight are any indication.”
The ‘dietary choice’ in question wasn’t a meal, so much as a few pieces of wilted lettuce thrown on a plate and topped with unevenly diced tomatoes. He hadn’t touched a bite since he’d ordered it. “I’m certain you wouldn’t understand this,” he said, “but the privacy of those locations is above reproach.”
The man across the table threw his head back and laughed. “And I’m sure you wouldn’t understand, but those people I mentioned? For a couple hundred extra dollars, they’d be more than happy to connect the dots between the two of us.”
The man across the table took a long drink from his beer. “So. What’d you want to meet about?”
“Your latest requisition. I have questions about the necessity.”
“I was under the impression that you wanted plausible deniability, in case our bosses get wind of what you’re planning.”
“What we’re planning.”
The other man shrugged and took another drink. “Fine. What we’re planning. Anyway, I thought you didn’t want to know what I did or how I did it.”
“Not questions, then. Concerns.”
“What’s bothering you, Hill?”
That wasn’t his real name, but it was the one he’d grown accustomed to. He’d been using it for years, but it wasn’t usually something people said to his face. The men and women who pushed drugs at the street level weren’t the sort he personally spoke with, after all. “I’ve had my own sources look into the efficacy of this…Aiden?” He deliberately left the sentence open.
“His efficacy is unblemished. Any job he’s ever accepted, he’s accomplished. What more could you want than a perfect success rate?”
“Less collateral damage would be ideal,” Hill said. “When I’ve claimed this business as my own, I would prefer to leave as much infrastructure in place as possible, so that the transition of power is seamless. A rogue element with a proven record of instability endangers that goal.”
“You aren’t wrong, but you also aren’t thinking creatively.”
“Oh?” Hill forgot himself momentarily and took a small sip from the glass in front of him. Regret descended on him before the liquor made it down his throat. Whatever the bartender had poured, calling it scotch should have been classified as a criminal act. He allowed a minute grimace to cross his face as he forced himself to swallow. “Enlighten me as to your…creative interpretation, then.”
“Anywhere Aiden’s team goes,” the other man said, “bodies show up. That’s going to equal police attention and general property damage, sure, but it also equals cover. As long as the cops are looking in his direction, they aren’t paying attention to the moves you’re making in the underworld.”
Hill added the unspoken corollary in his head: the people in charge won’t be watching you as closely. He couldn’t entirely ignore the merits of that. Anything that bought him a few inches of extra space to maneuver into a better position was a good thing. Whoever the people in charge were, they possessed resources that made Hill’s war chest look like a child’s piggy bank. If they discovered his plans prematurely, death was the best possible outcome. Just by sending this man – Asher, he thought, with disdain even finding its way into his mental voice – the people in charge had sent a message. It was only sheer luck that Asher’s goals had coincided with Hill’s own.
“The police aren’t going to be a problem,” Hill said, after several seconds spent in quiet consideration. “Certain individuals in key positions are fond of the product I provide.”
“They can’t all be drug addicts,” Asher said.
“Not all,” Hill admitted. “Some merely have loved ones that are.”
Asher whistled, leaned back in his chair, and finished off his beer. He raised two fingers into the air to signal the bartender for another one. “Blackmail? That’s a little rougher than I’d expected from you, Hill.”
“One does what one must,” Hill replied. “How much is this mercenary going to charge for his services?”
“Not as much as you’d think,” Asher said. “His regular rate is…hefty, but I’ve got a feeling that there are some considerations in place that might lead to him working for less.”
Asher accepted a second beer from a passing server before he answered. “Plausible deniability, remember?”
Hill considered whether or not to press Asher harder, but decided against it in short order. There were other matters, aside from the matter of payment, that bothered him. He reached into an attaché case and withdrew a manila folder.
“What’s that?” Asher asked.
Hill opened the manilla folder on the table and flipped through a few pages. “Cruzfeldt-Jacob Disease,” he read. “This mercenary you’ve hired is dying, Asher.”
“We’re all dying,” Asher said. “He’s just…doing it a little quicker than the rest of us.”
Hill replied with a flat, unamused look. “I’ve had someone look into the disease, and the symptoms as it progresses.”
Asher sighed, reached out, and took the paper from Hill’s fingers. “I’ve taken steps to make sure his performance isn’t going to be affected, in addition to other measures I’ve put in place, on the off chance that something does go terribly wrong.”
“Just as you were certain that the situation at the museum would be handled?” Hill asked.
A flash of irritation flickered across Asher’s face. “That was…unfortunate.”
“Unfortunate? The inroads I’ve worked to build are in ruins, now. Your trip to the gala only served to reopen the lines of communication with the other players. Trust needs to be reestablished. More importantly, respect has to be earned again.”
“And as soon as you’re the sole owner of this thriving drug empire, you’ll have all the time and resources to do exactly that,” Asher said. He leaned in and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “These are setbacks, Hill. You had to know it wasn’t going to be easy, or else someone else would have tried it first.”
“Others have tried.”
“Others haven’t succeeded,” Asher stressed. “Think about it. You’ve already got the book. You were able to purchase what you needed from the information broker, so it’s only a matter of time before you have the key to decrypt everything. Once that’s done, you’ll have the power. What’s a little bit of misfortune now, considering how much you stand to gain?”
Hill knew he was being manipulated. The idea that Asher actually considered himself capable of out-thinking Hill was laughable, but the appearance of fallibility was important. So long as Asher considered himself ahead in their little game of words, he’d grow complacent.
Complacency had brought down better men before.
A lifetime spent as a minor nobleman, constantly looked down on by people who considered themselves his betters, had drilled that lesson into his head. When he started in the business, running a minor operation with superlative efficiency, he’d seen other dealers fall by the wayside because they’d stopped striving, stopped pushing the limits of what they could do. Hill didn’t have that problem.
There were heights that he’d yet to attain, and he knew that those heights were meant for him. His was a noble line, destined for greater things than laboring as an employee of any faceless, nameless individuals. He would take over the local operation, entirely, and then he could begin the process of infiltrating himself into other criminal enterprises. Already, he’d managed to muscle his way into the arms smuggling trade, despite a vigorous effort by the Bratva to control their territory. As soon as he had the names of the drug suppliers, he’d be able to grow even more.
Asher had been a lucky accident. When he’d arrived at the behest of the people in charge, ready and willing to wield the authority they had given him, Hill had considered simply having him killed. The criminal underworld was a dangerous place; accidents happened all of the time. But Asher had proven that he possessed more than a small amount of talent at organization, planning, and personnel management. It had been his plan to use the Bratva as cover, in order to steal the golden book from Limassol, and he’d actually managed to pull it off. In fact, in an advisory capacity, Asher had helped to smooth over some of the more difficult or troublesome aspects of the drug empire. He wasn’t what Hill would have expected from anyone with so many tattoos and scars, but people could be surprising.
“Acceptable,” Hill said, finally.
Asher nodded. “That’s what I thought. Now, was there anything else you needed?”
“What is your plan for locating the decryption key?”
“They’re keeping a girl at that house, “Asher said. “Don’t know why, but it’s obviously got to be important or they wouldn’t go through the trouble, right? I figure I’ll have Aiden go in, using an extraction of the girl as cover, and let him look around until he finds something we can use.”
“And if he finds nothing?”
Asher shrugged. “Then we interrogate the girl. Like I said, she’s got to know something.”
Hill sniffed slightly at the air in disdain, and immediately regretted it as the odor made its way into his nostrils. “Interrogate?”
“Torture.” Asher drank half of his remaining beer in one go. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing.”
“That doesn’t bother you?” Hill asked. “The idea of torturing a little girl for information that she might not even have?”
“I’m not thrilled about it, no,” Asher said. “But I didn’t make it this far only to let a little squeamishness get in the way of achieving the goals I’ve been working towards for years.”
There was a stretch of silence, accompanied by an unspoken challenge. Hill felt the moment in the air, but he couldn’t bring himself to rise to it. When one corner of Asher’s lips twitched upward, Hill realized he’d lost a point. The knowledge brought bile into his throat and he immediately went on the offense.
“You didn’t make it this far,” Hill mused aloud, repeating Asher’s words. Every conversation was essentially a duel, and he’d lost on that exchange; the fact that this uncultured man was a point up on him was galling. “Not we. This has been an operation planned in painstaking detail for almost a decade by me, but you’re concerned about the costs you’ve incurred? What could you possibly have lost? I am the one paying for the assets you’ve frankly wasted; I am the one whose business is suffering during this transitional period. You have done nothing.”
It was Asher’s turn to sit silent. The perpetual smirk on his lips dimmed slightly and a little heat crept into his eyes.
Sensing an opening, and eager for an opportunity to reestablish his superiority, Hill pressed harder. “Understand this: I will be successful in this, with or without you. I have been willing to tolerate your insubordination, your attitude, and your general lack of proper decorum because it has been tempered by success. If you cannot find some way of dispensing with this new wrinkle, I will simply find another who can.” Hill smiled, showing too many teeth in the process. “Perhaps I will see if this Devlin can be hired to do what you obviously –“
He didn’t get to finish the thought. Asher slammed both palms down on the table, and then swept his arms to one side, sending plates crashing to the floor. His nostrils flared and the intensity of his gaze grew to a heat that made even Hill uncomfortable. “You have no idea what I’ve paid for this,” Asher hissed, between gritted teeth. “And you should understand this: I am more than capable of handling Devlin. I am the only one who can, or will, deal with that particular problem. Am I clear?”
Nearly all of the men in the bar, save for one or two that were too drunk to be aware of their surroundings, were staring at the two of them. Aside from the appalling music still playing on the jukebox, there was almost no sound in the place; just Asher’s heavy breathing and Hill’s own heartbeat in his ears.
The glare directed at him forced Hill to privately acknowledge that his position in life wouldn’t provide him with any cover, should Asher simply decide to attack him. He was armed, of course, but there was no guarantee that he’d be able to draw the tiny gun he carried at his ankle before Asher reached him. He wondered if Asher would risk everything in the moment, just to vent his anger, or if he was capable of focusing on the longer term goals.
This newest wrinkle, this…Devlin was a distraction. There was a relationship between Asher and Devlin, and relationships rarely made for clear-headed decisions. A private investigator, hired out of Hill’s personal funds, turned up a record of jobs the two had pulled years ago, but nothing since Devlin had gone to jail for a botched theft.
After everything was finished here, perhaps, he could ask for details. It wouldn’t change much – he fully intended to kill Asher as soon as he’d played his part in the transition of power – but an unanswered question would nag at him, if left alone.
The tension lasted for a full minute before Asher, mercifully, looked away. The man closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, visibly regaining his calm. When he opened his eyes again, the smirk was back in place. A thin trickle of blood was visible at the corner of Asher’s mouth. “You aren’t the only one with something at stake in this,” he said. “That’s all I’m saying.”
“Acceptable,” Hill said, hating the quiver in his voice as he spoke. “Those were the only things we needed to discuss, unless you have some other problem that requires my intervention?”
“Nothing at the moment,” Asher said. He raised a hand and one of the servers approached. “Two shots, please. Tequila, if you’ve got it.”
Hill suppressed a grimace. “You might as well order paint thinner.”
“If you can’t handle it,” Asher said, “I’ll take both.”
Another challenge, then. “Bring the shots,” he said to the server. To Asher, he added, “I will pick the location next time we need to meet.”
“Fair’s fair,” Asher said. His beer had managed to remain on the table, despite his outburst, and he finished it off in one pull.
The server hurried away and returned just as quickly with two shot glasses. She set them both on the table and retreated. “It’s a tradition,” Asher said, pushing one of the shots over to Hill. “Something from…a long time ago.”
“Tradition?” Hill echoed. “Getting inebriated was something you planned for?”
“You take a shot now,” Asher said, ignoring the verbal barb. “When we finish the job, we meet up and take another one. Book ends, you see? And it gives you something to look forward to.”
“You did this in the past?”
“More times than I can count. It’s just a little superstition.”
Hill shrugged. Tradition was something he understood, even if it involved something as vile as tequila. “Is there something I should say?”
“See you on the other side,” Asher said. He raised his glass and locked eyes with Hill.
“On the other side,” Hill repeated. He met Asher’s gaze, cool enough now that Hill wasn’t concerned for his physical safety. There was intelligence behind the eyes, and ambition. Asher was planning something. Hill would simply have to be prepared for it.
They drank the shots and Hill was pleasantly surprised to find that he did not hate the taste of the liquor as it burned its way down his throat.
“See?” Asher asked. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“Not at all.”
Asher was still watching him, still weighing him. Hill would absolutely have to arrange for some personal protection, until he was able to dispose of his ‘ally.’ He looked away from Asher’s steady stare, down to the empty shot glasses on the table. He might purchase a bottle of tequila for the estate, he decided. He would be drinking it alone, but that was something he’d simply have to deal with.
Tradition was tradition, after all.