Chapter Seventy-Three

We celebrated our small victory a little too much that night.  Sophie acquired several bottles of wine for Sarah, a full case of Guinness for Mila and me, and some French liquor I couldn’t pronounce for Michel.  Even Sam got in on the action: his owner had stopped on the way back from the bar to pick up treats for the enormous feline.

As we drank into the night, I savored the sense of relief that came from a job well done.  The difficulties and surprises of the evening notwithstanding, we had managed to come together as a cohesive unit and pulled off a fairly difficult con on an incredibly difficult mark.

Adlai would likely follow up on every single thing that Michel had told him.  That was good.  Sarah could hide anything that outright contradicted Michel’s story and, through some arcane script I made no effort to understand, push her own falsified information higher on the lists of search results.  That way, we could prime the pump, so to speak.  Adlai would already be on edge, his ears perked up for any mention of Hill; when we eventually planted direct evidence that linked the drug kingpin to the shootout, the museum job, and the unrest in the underworld…that might be the spark that set the whole operation ablaze.  I’d suffered through Adlai’s attentions firsthand, and the man was not someone who was easily ignored.

As such, Michel was forced to endure a barrage of congratulatory backslaps, steadily increasing in force as we became more and more inebriated.  He pretended to be upset at the attention, but there was a tangible glow to his skin.  He was overjoyed to have been useful, if I was reading him correctly.  And why shouldn’t he be?  His performance would have been spectacular, under the circumstances, if he’d been a trained infiltrator.  For a neophyte?  It was just shy of miraculous.

“That look in Adlai’s eyes?”  I said, widening my arms too quickly.  Some beer spilled over the lip of my glass and Sam greedily rushed to lick the carpet clean in that area.  “I wish I’d thought of faking an undercover identity before now!”

“You have not done this?”  Michel asked.  “Why not?  It…well, it was not easy, but if you had more time to plan?”

I shook my head.  “Wouldn’t have worked.  I don’t have the bearing for it.  I’m the least cop-like person you’re ever going to meet.”

“It’s true,” Sarah said.  She sipped at her wine in an approximation of class.  The empty bottle behind her on the counter made it more difficult to take the act seriously.  “I’ve seen him try before, just trying to trick rival crews into going after other targets.  It’s hilarious. Besides, this isn’t really the sort of thing people do.”

“Normally,” I said, “you try to stay as far from the law as possible.  This is kind of a unique situation.”

Mila scoffed from the couch.  “Unique, he says.”  She held out a treat between two fingers until Sam finished with the carpet and made his way up to sit beside her on the couch.  “That’s not an understatement at all.”

“It’s a gift of mine,” I said.  “Anyway, the point is that we pulled it off.  Really, Michel pulled it off.”

Sarah and I raised our glasses to him and, after a feigned sigh, Mila did the same.  Michel coughed, bowed his head, and followed suit.

“It was nothing special,” he said.  “You and Sarah did most of the work.”

Sarah scoffed.  “I’ve only known a couple of people who could do what you did, with as little planning, and all of them had years of experience as grifters.  You’ve got a real talent.”

I retrieved another beer from the dwindling supply and moved to the love seat, across from Mila.  “There are a couple of tricks you ought to know,” I said.  “In case you want me to show you some things later, I’m more than willing to.  I mean, there’s really no telling when we’ll need you to be the face again.”

Michel tried, and failed, to conceal his enthusiasm at the prospect.  “Of course,” he said, nodding eagerly.  “Whenever you think would be a good time, I am more than willing to learn.”

“It isn’t going to be now,” I said, as I unsealed the beer and took a long pull at it.  “I’m not planning on doing anything other than relaxing and savoring the glow tonight.  We can deal with whatever comes next after a good night’s sleep.  Sound fair?”

Michel answered by refilling his own glass of liquor.

Mila yawned, stretching both arms over her head, and stood from the couch.  The steady stream of catnip treats had reduced Sam to a puddle of his former self; he could only manage a weak mewl as his owner gently moved him to another cushion.  “I’m going to check on Neal and Avis,” she said.  “Make sure that they haven’t had any problems, so far.”

“Really?”  I asked.  “This late?”

“If they’re asleep, then I’ll just drop by again tomorrow morning.  But if you’re going to insist on tying your safety to theirs, I’m for damn sure going to make sure that they aren’t being followed.”

“According to Sophie, they haven’t even left their suite!”

Mila shrugged.  “Call me paranoid.”

I would have, if I hadn’t consumed the better part of a twelve pack already.  As it was, I managed a vague wave in her direction.  “Fine,” I said, in a decent rendition of a bored royal.  “If you have to.”

Sarah dug into a bag on the counter for one of her burner phones, but Mila waved her away.  “I’ve got my own.  I’ll just charge it in their room and you can call me on it.  You do have my number, don’t you?”

“Courtesy of the Lady,” Sarah said.  I noticed with no small amount of amusement that she slurred the words.

“Well, alright, then,” Mila said.  “I might take a walk afterwards.  Clear my head and all that.”  She moved to the door and left before we could respond to that.

Michel and I went through another drink each, while Sarah nursed the remainder of her bottle of wine.  Eventually, the Frenchman’s eyes began to droop and he took himself downstairs to the room Sophie had provided for him.  That left Sarah and I, both incredibly drunk, alone in our suite.

“So,” I said.

There was another bottle of wine on the counter.  Sarah gave it a long, silent look.  “So.”

The moment hung in the air between us, thick with possibilities.  What those possibilities actually were eluded me, but I could still feel them.  Thousands of unspoken words teetered on my lips: things I could say or could have said, before that final sundering of our relationship.  I considered them for a half second and then, mentally, looked away.

“What do you think about all of this?”  I asked, instead.

Sarah’s eyebrows drew a millimeter closer and she blew air out through her nostrils.  “You really want to talk about our situation right now?”

“Because we’ve had a lot of opportunities so far?”  I swallowed a mouthful of beer.  “When we aren’t running like hell from one threat or another, we’re explaining the basics to a group of relative rookies.  I’d prefer to just relax, sure, but that’s not really in the cards right now.”

Her lips parted to reply before she hesitated for a moment.  She shook her head, clearing away whatever half-formed thought she’d been on the verge of speaking, and then met my eyes.  “I think we’re screwed,” she said.

“That’s…optimistic,” I replied.

“I’m serious here,” Sarah said.  “Think about it.  We’ve got the Lady on one side.  The Magi on the other.  Asher and Hill working towards whatever the hell it is they’re after, just floating around in the middle.  Aiden and his team coming after Mila like she stole something from them.  And, now, you’ve managed to get Adlai involved in this whole mess.”

I fought back the urge to defend myself and nodded once, instead.  “Your point?”

“My point,” Sarah said, “is that this isn’t what we do.  This isn’t how we play things.  Give me the time to set up surveillance, collect some intelligence, make a plan and I’m good at this.  I’m good, Devlin.  But playing everything by the seat of our pants, just guessing at what we should do next?”

She didn’t provide the answer to her own question, so I spoke into the silence that followed.  “What you’ve pulled off so far is amazing,” I said.  “And I couldn’t have asked you to do any better.  I know this isn’t what you want to do, so if you – “

“And then there’s that!”  The increase in her volume caught me off-guard.  If the stunned expression that appeared on Sarah’s face was any indication, she was as surprised by the outburst as I was.  “And then there’s that,” she repeated in a quieter voice.

“And then there’s what?”

“You know what,” Sarah slurred.  Earlier, I hadn’t noticed how the alcohol was affecting her diction.  Now, it came through loud and clear.  “I just…I just can’t deal with you being like that.  Like you are.”

I blinked twice, unable to parse what that was supposed to mean.

Sarah waved a hand in the air, dismissing her previous sentence and wafting the trails of the thought into vapor.  “Nevermind, nevermind.  What I’m saying is that we’re out of our depth here and, since walking away isn’t much of an option, we’ve got to stick around and untangle everything ourselves.”

“Ergo,” I said thoughtfully, “we’re screwed.”

“Exactly.”

We sat silent for a minute, each contemplating the reality of our position in the privacy of our own minds.  “You think this is the best plan?”  I asked, finally.

Sarah was quiet for another handful of seconds.  “I think it’s the best we can do right now,” she said.  “Without knowing more, I can’t really come up with a way to get us out from under the proverbial gun.”

“Metaphorical,” I corrected, without thinking about it.

Really?”

I shrugged.  “I’m just saying.”

After that, we lapsed back into thought.  The expression on Sarah’s face was unreadable and, after a minute or two spent trying to decipher what the slight twitch at the corner of her lips might mean, I focused on my own considerations.

She was right, of course.  We had abandoned jobs in the past over fewer complications than we currently faced and I wasn’t optimistic enough to believe that we’d reached the end of our problems.  There were too many enemies and, in the case of Adlai, virtuous adversaries arrayed against our ragtag team at the moment.  The plan to turn Interpol’s attentions to Hill was a good one for many reasons, not least of which was the way it would turn an obstacle into an asset.  But pulling that job off would require skills (which we didn’t all possess), expertise (which we didn’t have time to instill in our team members), and exquisite planning (which we didn’t have time to do).  As it was, Sarah and I could only hope for the best and act under the assumption that the best would never come.  That was not the best state of mind to begin operating under, but it was the only thing we could do under these circumstances.

A sudden, surprising flash of anger at the Lady welled up within me.  My proximity to Sarah had weakened my emotional walls and, with the alcohol pumping through my veins, I wasn’t able to rebuild the fortifications in time to keep myself from actually sneering at the mental image that came to mind: the Lady, with her giant David, tasking my friends to throw themselves into the meat grinder.  We had financial support, and that was a godsend, but what we needed was information.  Information, I assumed, that the Lady would not be willing to give.  There were games being played that I knew nothing about and questions that required answers.  Who was the Lady?  Why did she want to unseat Hill from his position as the drug kingpin of London?  What was Asher’s ultimate goal, beyond seeing devastation visited upon my life and the lives of those I cared about?

No answers came from the darkness of my mind, where I’d set several thought processes to run more or less automatically.  I looked at Sarah and started to speak my thoughts aloud.  The phone rang before I managed to form a single word.

We looked at each other, confused and slightly stupid from the alcohol, for a long second before Sarah moved and began to search for the ringing phone.  There were two phones on the counter in front of her, just behind the recently emptied bottle of wine.  She checked those and neither turned out to be the culprit.  A cursory visual sweep around the room located the device: the phone I’d liberated from Asher’s hired gun back in Kiev, which lay on the coffee table.  I was closer, so I laboriously got to my drunken feet and lurched across the room to answer.

“Hello?”  A thick, distinctly Russian voice asked, even before the phone was against my ear.  “Hello, are you there?”

There was some shuffling from the other end of the connection, punctuated by sharp words in one of those languages I couldn’t understand.  I swallowed before I spoke.  “Yes,” I said, “I’m here.  Stani, right?”

Da.”  A second or two passed before he continued.  “You are still in London, yes?”

“Hadn’t planned on leaving,” I said.

“Good,” Stani said.  “That is good.  There is…much that we should discuss.”

I turned to mouth something to Sarah – perhaps to ask if there was some way she could silently listen into the call, in case Stani said something in Russian that might prove useful – and found that she’d taken that initiative all on her own.  She nodded at me as she slipped the earbud into place.

“We can set something up soon,” I told Stani.  “Early tomorrow, maybe.”

“No!”  The word came out sharp and hard.  I flinched away from the phone in my hand in shock and, in the corner of my eye, saw that Sarah jerked slightly, as well.  “No,” Stani repeated, that abrupt force suddenly absent from his voice.

“Not tomorrow?”  I asked.  “When?  This is sort of a time sensitive situation.”

“Tonight,” Stani said.  He said something in Russian, presumably to his goons Iosif and Leonid.  Sarah grabbed a sheet of paper from a pile of discarded printouts, flipped it to the blank side, and began scribbling down a transcription.  I’d have to read that later.

“Tonight?  Tonight’s not a good time,” I said.  “We just had a tough night of our own, Stani.”

“It is tonight,” Stani said, “or not at all.  I have uncovered something that could prove critical to what you and I are doing.”

Through the fog of inebriation, it took me a bit to decipher his meaning, but I did eventually decipher it.  “This is about Asher?”

“Perhaps.  It is important that we move quickly, however.”

“Why don’t you just handle it and fill me in later?”  I asked.  The possibility of letting potential information slip through my fingers was almost physically painful, but I wasn’t in the right headspace at the moment.  Going out in this state would only do more harm than any good I could possibly accomplish.

“I was…told not to act without you,” Stani answered, after a moment.  It seemed that the admission stung him.  There was another burst of Russian, a pause, and then an answer in a different voice.  “This is…what did you call it?”

“A time sensitive situation,” I said slowly.

Da, that.  I will send you directions.”

He hung up before I could say anything else in protest.

I stared at the phone in my hand and then lifted my eyes up to meet Sarah’s.  “That bit of Russian at the end?”  I asked.  “What was that?”

“Weapons,” Sarah said, in a voice so low that it might as well have been a whisper.  “He was talking about weapons.”

I slapped the heel of my hand against my forehead and bit back a particularly virulent swear.  “That’s exactly what I didn’t want.”  Hastily, I patted myself down: I still had the burner phone, a set of lockpicks, a wallet with one of Sarah’s false identities, and various other accoutrements.

“What are you doing?”  Sarah asked.

“What does it look like I’m doing?”  I countered.  “If Stani’s loading up for war, I’ve got to get down there and stop him before he does something drastic enough that I can’t fix it later.”

“In your state?”  Sarah lurched suddenly toward me.  I took a half step forward, ostensibly to catch her, but she righted herself.

“Adrenaline goes a long way to sobering someone up,” I said, drawing from long experience in the matter.  “Call Mila, let her know to meet me downstairs.  If something goes down, she’ll at least be able to keep me from getting in too far over my head.”

Sarah looked like she wanted to protest further but she dialed Mila’s number into her phone without a word.  She sat like that for several seconds, dismay gradually creeping its way into her features.  She lowered the phone from her ear, dialed the numbers again, and waited.

“No answer?”  I asked.

“No answer,” she confirmed.

“That’s…a problem,” I said.  The last time I’d gone out without Mila, I’d almost become a torture pet for Asher.  At the same time, I couldn’t very well start depending on the fighter to protect me every time I left the hotel.

“Let me just – “ Sarah began.

“I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time,” I said, cutting her off.  I almost continued, but I caught myself before I had a chance to speak any damning words that might bring the wrath of the universe down on my head.  “You think I should wake up Michel?”

My answer came, not from Sarah, but from the sniper’s cell phone.  It vibrated in my hand, notifying me that Stani’s directions had arrived.  I glanced at them for less than a second.  Sarah would handle the actual navigation.  What interested me was the second text message.  Instead of coordinates, this message was a short, simple directive: “Come alone.”

I blinked, feeling the alcohol begin to seep its way out of my system, replaced by dawning anxiety and trepeditation.  Sarah stood up from the counter, walked over to where I sat, and plucked the phone from my hand.  When she read the words there, her expression quickly began to mirror my own.

“I guess that answers that question,” I muttered, to no one in particular.

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