I wrote a quick note to Sarah, asking her to handle Michel’s side of things for the moment, and moved from the kitchen counter over to the couch. She passed me a tablet after a few seconds, without a word. She had opened a document containing the information the two of us had managed to cobble together about Mila. The file was depressingly thin. We knew her name – or, more likely, the name she’d chosen for herself – and I could personally attest to her combat skills. There were some speculations, written in a different font for ease, about where she might have worked in the past. That part was new; I looked over the list of ideas, trying to draw connections to jobs I’d been a part of or heard about.
Caracas. Barcelona. Honshu. Some of those locations sparked faint memories, but none came with a solid image. All that I knew for certain was that, if Sarah’s guesses proved accurate, Mila’s professional career had taken her around the world. Which wasn’t really surprising, if I gave it more than a few seconds of thought. The jobs I worked didn’t typically require physical security, but I’d met more than a few crew leaders who preferred the smash-and-grab to the carefully planned heist. They were the type of people who might find use of someone with Mila’s skillset.
Sarah tapped me on the shoulder and handed the slip of paper back to me, folded in half. I opened it and read her words: “leaving this in your hands, for the moment. will provide more information when i have it.” The earbud popped twice in my ear and I thought the line had gone dead. A heartbeat or two later, I realized what Sarah had actually done: removed Michel’s conversation from my ears, so that I could focus entirely on Mila. That also freed me up to speak to her without worrying Michel any more than was strictly necessary. I nodded to Sarah in appreciation, and navigated to a new page of the file.
“Mila,” I said out loud. “What are you doing?”
“Handling something,” she said back.
“Is this something that could be handled later? Maybe when you aren’t in the middle of an operation?”
“Obviously not, or I’d been doing it later, wouldn’t I?”
There were pictures in the file now. Crime scene photographs, gleaned from local newspapers and some police files. Each picture was accompanied by a tag at the bottom of the screen and those helped solidify the links I’d begun forming between Mila’s supposed previous jobs and the things I’d heard in the underworld. To my relief, I didn’t see any murder scenes in the pictures. I wouldn’t have necessarily been surprised if there had been, but what I did see was only marginally better. Instead of killing the victims, Mila had gone to work on them: fracturing arms, splintering bones, and generally reducing her competition to unconscious meat. It was the violence I’d seen at the warehouse, and again at the manor house, raised exponentially. These files weren’t the work of a calm, dispassionate professional; the only way a person could cause the kind of damage I saw would be if they were trying to hurt their opponent.
I shivered at the thought. “You’ve still got a contract with me,” I said, when I had my voice back under control.
“I have a contract with the Lady,” Mila corrected. “But that’s irrelevant, because I’m not breaking it. I’m allowed to take care of personal stuff. Unless you’re saying you want me off the team, then…”
I blinked. It hadn’t occurred to me that she might actively try to force me into a position where cutting her loose was the only real option. Our conversation hadn’t gone the way she expected…or had she wanted it to go badly? I didn’t know enough to draw a conclusion in either direction, and I resolved to take strides towards rectifying that problem.
“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “But you agreed to this plan. If something happens to Michel, then…”
“I’m not going for a joy ride,” she interrupted. “Nothing’s going to happen to Michel. Now, be quiet…I’ve got company, and I’d rather these two not know that I’ve got a little leprechaun in my ear.”
Irritation at the comment warred with amusement at its content. I went with silence, instead, and listened. Mila walked to one corner of the bar, next to a well-dressed man. The angle presented by the security camera wasn’t a good one, but it was better than nothing.
“Fancy seeing you here,” Mila was saying. Not to me, but to whoever her company was.
“We saw you at the gala,” a masculine voice responded. The words came out a little too quick, cut shorter than they would normally be, and the rhythm was off. Whoever the company was, he or she wasn’t a native speaker. It almost sounded like they’d learned English, but refused to practice the language until its cadences became second nature. What did that tell me?
“Work,” Mila said, with a little laugh. “You know how it is.”
“Indeed,” a woman said, as she sidled around to Mila’s other side. The accent was similar to the first in all the right ways. A split second passed before I connected the disparate facts into a solid theory: Mila was talking to the twins we’d seen at the gala, and that I’d glimpsed in the bar.
“So,” Mila dragged out the vowel, “what brings you into town?”
“Work,” the man said. For lack of a better name, I mentally tagged him as Thing One.
“You know how it is,” Thing Two – his sister, maybe? – added.
The Things chuckled and they did it in sync with each other. Creepy.
“What is it that you need from us?” Thing One asked.
Thing Two followed immediately in his wake. “We have never been friends.”
“Only enemies,” Thing One said, agreeing with his sister.
“Not enemies,” Mila said. “We’ve worked opposing jobs, sure, but I’ve never had a problem with the two of you specifically. And I’m guessing that you’re off assignment right now…?”
She left the question open, inviting them fill the space with an answer. The Things’ reply took a while to come. “Our business in the area has concluded, yes,” Thing One said.
“Did you come to hire us?” Thing Two asked. “That would be…”
“Interesting,” Thing One finished, for his twin.
“I’m not free to do that,” Mila said, “and I’ve never been in the market for my own muscle, anyway.”
Mila cleared her throat. “I’ve got questions. The two of you have always been more involved in the underworld side of things, so I figure you might know more about…things than I do.”
“This information,” Thing One said, “is worth something to you?”
Silence over the earbud for a long time until Mila, eventually, nodded once in agreement.
Thing Two started speaking again. “How much are these answers worth to you?”
“I’ve got money,” Mila said. “If that’s what it’ll take, we can work something out.”
“Not money,” Thing One said. “That is too…” He paused, apparently searching for the right word.
“Transient,” Thing Two supplied, in a smooth voice.
“Yes, transient. Perhaps favors?”
Mila considered that suggestion and made a soft, almost inaudible sound. The earbuds were sensitive enough that I could hear it, but it had probably been too soft for the Things to catch. “Depends on what kind of favors you’re talking about.”
“Your assistance,” Thing One said. “There are times when we find ourselves in need of additional hands.”
“Your hands would be most helpful,” Thing Two added, emphasizing the pronoun.
“I’m not going to break a contract for you,” Mila said. “You understand that, right?”
The Things laughed in unison again. “Of course not,” Thing One said. “Your…honor is well-known. We would not ask you to betray that.”
“If you did not have this thing,” Thing Two said, “we would not be having this conversation at all.”
Mila sighed. “If I’m not under contract, and you aren’t doing anything that requires I break my word, then…fine, I’ll take that deal. One favor, in exchange for some answers.”
“What if we do not know the answers?” Thing One asked.
On cue, his sister spoke the next sentence. “Does this invalidate your part of the bargain?”
“No,” Mila said. “I’ll do the favor, so long as you give me your word you’ll actually try your best to get me the answers I’m looking for.”
“So easily?” Thing One’s voice sounded perilously close to laughter once more, but he managed to keep it restrained to a slightly elevated pitch. “This is hardly an equitable arrangement for you.”
“I’m aware,” Mila said. The words came out clipped. “One favor, in exchange for some questions.”
“Ask your questions,” Thing One said. “We give you our word that we will do our best to give you the answers you seek.”
“Agreed,” Thing Two said.
“What do you know about Aiden?”
Both Things inhaled sharply at the name and their body language – at least, the details I could make out with such poor resolution – became less predatory and more nervous. “Is…is he in play again?” Thing Two asked.
“We should leave,” Thing One added. “If Aiden is here, we should not be. You should not be.”
“I’d be surprised if anyone wanted to get out of town more than I do,” Mila said, “but that’s not a possibility right now. So I’ll have to settle for information I can use to avoid him until I can put a couple of continents between the two of us.”
Silence. This stretch of wordless time somehow managed to possess an ominous quality that I could feel over the comms line.
The Things had a quick conversation with each other in Japanese. After a minute of that, Mila coughed theatrically. “Do you know something or not?” She asked.
“We…know a little,” Thing One said.
“Not much,” his sister said.
“I’m trying to figure out what he’s doing in town,” Mila said. “Who hired him, what he’s been doing, that sort of thing. Does this ‘little’ bit of information you have skew in that direction?”
Another burst of Japanese between the twins before Thing One spoke in English again. “Aiden has not worked much in the past months,” he said. “After your…disagreements with him, he and his crew went to ground. We did not even realize he was working again.”
“There’s a new member of his team,” Mila said. “He had to get him from somewhere. Do you know anything about that?”
“Mikhail,” Thing Two said, with obvious distaste. “Yes, we have heard about him.”
“Carlos and I have history,” Mila said. “What’s Mikhail do? That might be help me to figure out what he’s after in town.”
I refrained from saying anything into the comms. Mila knew perfectly well what Aiden wanted from his trip to London. She also knew – or at least suspected – who had hired the mercenary. With the exception of this latest question, everything she’d asked so far had been redundant. I made a mental note to examine the conversation later, with Sarah’s help, for any hidden context that I might be missing. Nothing about this felt right. I was missing vital context; I could feel the absence of some important piece in my chest.
It wasn’t a complete waste of time, though. While Mila’s decision to go off-mission wasn’t ideal, it did afford me an opportunity to get a better feel for the intricacies of the underworld, as it related to hired muscle. It was much more openly antagonistic than the network of thieves and conmen I worked with, but that antagonism was moderated by a sort of professional respect. Mila had said something along those lines in the manor house, before things went sideways, and I could hear how that respect played out. The Things didn’t necessarily like Mila, but they did regard her well enough to comment on their feelings without any subterfuge or double-speak. More importantly, they were willing to come to an agreement with her and share their information, in exchange for an unspecified promise of future assistance.
They worked with favors. There had to be some way to use that.
Thing One started speaking, and I automated my train of thought, shifting most of my conscious attention back to the conversation. “Mikhail is a…”
“Physician,” Thing Two said.
She provided the word before her brother had an opportunity to stumble over the word choice. She had covered a gap in translation two times, in perhaps the last five minutes. That had to mean something…I just didn’t know what and didn’t have the mental resources available to figure out an angle. I shelved that thought for later review.
“Yes,” Thing One said, “a physician.”
“Field medicine?” Mila asked. “Battlefield stuff?”
“No,” Thing Two said. “Perhaps pharmacist would be a better word.”
I tagged my previous thought with a note: Thing Two apparently had no problems with English. Pharmacist was at least as difficult a word as ‘physician’ or ‘transient,” but she’d pulled it without the slightest hesitation. Perhaps she’d been taught the language earlier in life, or Thing One simply wasn’t as good with different tongues. If the latter case turned out to be true, I could hardly judge him: I’d been in a French prison for nearly three years, and I still barely spoke the language.
“A pharmacist?” Mila asked. The tone implied that she hadn’t directed the question to either of the Things. “Why would he need a pharmacist?”
“Perhaps he is sick?” Thing One suggested.
“Because drugs are tough to get when you’ve got the sort of firepower Aiden’s got?” Mila shot back.
“We do not know why he needs the pharmacist,” Thing Two said. Her voice displayed no signs of offense at Mila’s snappy retort. “Only that Mikhail has a history as one.”
“A drug dealer,” Thing One said. “Prescription medication, in addition to personal concoctions.”
“Is that disgust I’m hearing from you?” Mila asked. “Drug dealers are part of the business. It isn’t like we’re exactly good people.”
“Mikhail sold to children,” Thing Two said.
“Oh.” Pause. “Well, fuck him, then.”
One of the numerous phones I’d begun to collect since Paris vibrated on the table in front of me. I had become so engrossed in the conversation between Mila and the Things that, for a moment, the reality of my location had slipped my mind. The vibration against the table’s surface shook me back out of my head. I grabbed the phone – the one Alex had given me before I’d left him in Munich – and saw that Alex was calling.
I silenced the call and tossed the phone onto the love seat. I could call him back later, or text; he’d understand if I missed a phone call or two while working.
Using the tablet Sarah had given me, I entered the name “Mikhail” and “drugs” into a search engine she’d helped develop. The underworld consisted of individuals with vastly different skill sets and navigating between strata was difficult, at the very best. I’d used the engine to find Anton, back when I’d first had need of his explosive expertise; it was how I’d learned Asher hadn’t died in St. Petersburg; and, now, I used it to double check the information that the Things had given Mila. If there was something to find about Aiden’s newest hire, Sarah’s search engine would be able to dredge it up, and then we could all go over the details in relative safety.
The search engine began to work, digging through an unknowable amount of information contained within the deepest corners of the Dark Web, and I left it to its work. Mila was talking again. “Wait. You said that Aiden hasn’t been working lately, but you kept up to date on his newest hires? Why?”
“We make it a point,” Thing One said, “to be aware of his activities.”
“And,” Thing Two added, “we stay far, far away. You would be wise to do the same.”
Having seen Aiden for only a few moments, I understood why these professional hitters would be cautious of him. Judging solely from the inflections the Things were using, caution was drawing it lightly; they devoted effort to just avoiding the man. That knowledge was chilling enough that I upgraded Aiden’s mental ranking from “scary man who frightens professional killers” to “scary man who frightens professional killers, and should be avoided at all costs.”
Even as I did that, I was absolutely certain that we hadn’t seen the last of him. If he was working for Asher, Hill, or the Magi – and I was becoming increasingly certain that those were three distinct factions, instead of one large enemy to be dealt with – we’d have to deal with him in order to take a run at the golden book.
“Anything else?” Mila asked.
A few moments of silence passed. “Nothing comes to mind,” Thing One said.
“That’s more than I knew, at least. When are you going to want to call in this favor?”
Thing Two made a sound. It wasn’t quite a chuckle or a cough. If pushed to label it, I would have said that she purred. “We will let you know.”
“Assuming,” Thing One said, “that you survive your business in London. We will be…leaving the country. Immediately.”
“If something goes wrong,” Mila said, “it won’t end with me dead. At least, not if Aiden gets his way.”
Thing One pushed the remainder of his drink over to Mila. She downed it in one go.
“Let us hope, then, that he does not,” Thing Two said. “Be safe, Mila.”
Mila didn’t say anything in reply, as they took their leave. A solid thirty seconds passed before she spoke at all. “I’m assuming you got all of that?” Mila asked. There wasn’t anyone nearby, so I assumed she was talking to me again.
“This whole conversation is backed up in a few different locations,” I said. “What I didn’t catch, we can go over later. You want to explain why that conversation was so important that you’d risk going off-mission when Michel needs you?”
“Not really.” Pause. “The twins have gone up against Aiden’s team before. It didn’t go well for them, so I figured they might be keeping track of his movements. So long as I’m working for the Lady, I can’t risk contacting anyone in the underworld that might be working for the Magi.”
“So you trust them?”
“Not at all,” Mila said. “But I can tell when they’re lying and when they aren’t. They know more than they’re saying, sure, but the tip they gave me was the truth.”
The tablet beeped to let me know that its search was finished. A quick glance showed me a list of posts about Mikhail’s work, his back alley business dealings, and a variety of prescription medications he’d arranged to have stolen or redirected. “Seems like it,” I said to Mila.
“I would have waited until later, but the twins never stay in town for more than a week after a job. It was now or never.”
I let out a breath. “Fine. We can talk about it later.”
Mila switched her camera back on. I could still see Michel in the corner of the camera’s field of vision. She hadn’t gone far from where the Frenchman still sat. “Or not,” she said. “There’s really nothing to discuss, after all.”
I raised a hand in the air and motioned to Sarah. She understood the vague gesture – bringing the two my index and middle fingers together slowly – correctly and, two pops of the comms later, we were all connected again.
“Michel,” I said. “How are things going?”
Even as I spoke, I glanced up at the television screen. There, on Michel’s camera feed, I watched as Adlai reached across the table to Michel. His hand went straight to the button camera that Michel wore and plucked it from the Frenchman’s shirt, bringing it up to his eye. Then, lowering it slowly, the look in his eyes sharpened to a point.
“Ah,” Adlai said softly. “I believe there might be more to you than just a simple cab driver, hmm?”