Chapter Seventy-Four

“Still no word from Mila?”  I asked.

“Not yet,” Sarah said.  There was a pregnant pause over the line before she spoke again.  “I wish you’d waited until I could have found her.”

“No time.”  I felt a brief, ludicrous moment of amusement as I realized how often I’d said the same thing in the past weeks.  The thought amused me more than it should have.  “You know about Anton, but these other Russians?  Not the type to wait peacefully.  If I leave them alone in London, there’s every possibility that they start shooting now and escalate this whole situation.”

Sarah made a noise that I couldn’t immediately translate.  It was somewhere between grudging acceptance, frustration, and disappointment.  “At least you agreed to wear the vest,” she said, finally.

I ran my fingers across the surface of Suzie’s handiwork.  It would have been incredibly pretentious to wear the full suit to a meeting with three men I’d already met before, but Sarah had insisted on the extra protection provided by the carbon fiber.  While I’d resisted on general principle, her argument had won out in the end.

Of course I wouldn’t ever admit it, but I was rapidly coming to appreciate the vest’s presence.  The area where Stanislav had indicated resembled a war-torn country more than a first world nation.  Through the window of my car, I watched the scenery transition from urban civilization to devastation.  The stately buildings transformed into dilapidated slums; the fashion choices shifted from colorful finery into thin, drab attire that couldn’t possibly manage to keep the cold away; and, most important of all, the aura of my surroundings changed.  A lifetime spent in the underworld had honed my instincts to a razor’s sharpness and every nerve in my body was sending up alarm sirens now.

This was not a good place.  I wouldn’t have wanted to be here in the full light of day, and I certainly didn’t want to be here in the dead of night.  But, the Russian hadn’t really left me a choice.

“Mmmhmm,” I said to Sarah.

She didn’t reply, but I could practically feel smug satisfaction through the earbud.

Sophie’s driver, an older man with a thick Liverpool accent, kept his eyes forward as we rode.  Except for a few words at the Brooklands, he hadn’t said anything and he hadn’t asked a single question.  While a part of me appreciated that silence – there was enough on my mind, without having to add some lie that explained my midnight travels – a larger part, surprisingly, wished that Michel had been able to accompany me.  The Frenchman’s general demeanor, somehow, would have been able to lighten the mood.

He was unconscious and drunk, though.  Even if he could have been sobered, there was no telling how Stanislav and his muscle would react if I brought another person to the meeting.  Mila would, perhaps, have been an acceptable substitute.  Even if not, there was very little chance that any of the Russians would actually have been able to do anything to stop her from being there.  Michel was a different matter.  While I would’ve preferred him to the stoic, professional driver, leaving him at the Brooklands was the right move.

Knowing that didn’t make me feel any better.

The driver, finally, came to a stop and unlocked my door.  “Sir,” he said, “we have arrived.  Will you be needing me to wait here for your return?”

I touched one finger to the earbud, just to let Sarah know that I wasn’t speaking to her anymore.  “No idea how long I’ll be gone,” I said.

“My services were purchased for the entire evening.  If you have a need, I can make myself available into the morning, if necessary.”

I considered that for a second and then shook my head.  “No, I should be fine.  I can call Sophie when I’m ready to be picked up.  Take the night off, enjoy the paid vacation.”

“Very good, sir.”

He made no move to exit the car and open my door for me.  I took a mental note about that, exited on my own, and surveyed my surroundings.

I stood at the mouth of an alleyway, stretching between two oversized apartments.  Clotheslines hung between the two buildings and articles of clothing – shirts, jeans, at least two pairs of unmentionables – dangled in the slight breeze that whipped through the alley.  I turned slightly so that my coat could stop the wind and saw a small, but growing crowd of late teens and early twenty-somethings glaring openly in my direction.  Some of these would likely be legitimately disenfranchised men and women, parents who struggled to put food on the table for their children; others were probably pickpockets and muggers.

I responded to the crowd with a subtle shift in my posture.  It wasn’t a stance that provoked or challenged the onlookers.  Despite my experiences in prison, I really couldn’t win any fight if it didn’t start as an ambush.  Instead, my shoulders straightened and I imagined a metal rod running down my spine.

I’m not prey, that stance said.  Find someone else.

After a few seconds, the crowd began to disperse.  More than a few eyes flickered in my direction as they moved on.  I kept up the act until I was alone, then relaxed slightly.  “Well,” I said, “this promises to be a fun night.”

“How bad is it?”  Sarah asked softly.

“I wouldn’t buy real estate in the area,” I said

There was a brief moment of hesitation.  “Because you’d buy real estate anywhere?”

A grim, brief smile stretched across my lips.  Gallows humor at its finest never failed to break the tension.  “Anyway.  I’m at the drop point.  I guess I’ll move around on foot until I find Anton and company?”

“No need to go searching,” Sarah said.  “I’m sending directions to your phone; just follow the tiny electronic voice’s directions.  Turn the camera on, too, while I’m thinking about it.  And, Devlin?  Take care of yourself.”

“Like I haven’t been doing that for the past – “  I cut myself off before the sentence could reach its natural conclusion and simply switched the button camera on.  The past few years of my life had spent in prison; before that, working with a variety of lesser talents in the wake of Sarah’s departure.

When she’d left, Sarah had made certain I would have no choice but to take care of myself.  I wasn’t quick enough to completely stop the surge of emotions that threatened to rise within me – some always slipped through – but I kept the majority of the feelings under control.

Sarah must have realized what had happened.  She didn’t finish the thought, though, and I appreciated that more than I could have articulated.  Again, not that I would ever speak that sentiment out loud.

A soft beep let me know that the promised instructions had arrived and I set off to follow them without another word on the matter.  The path led me through the alleyway I’d stopped in front of, winding around another tenement, and down the street a good ways until I entered into a clearing.  There weren’t any roads there, but that didn’t mean the area was isolated.  Instead of cars and mopeds, the way was populated with a teeming throng of people: men and women, their ages varying all the way up to their eighties and down to no more than fourteen, vying for attention.  From the scant protections afforded by ramshackle stalls, they hawked goods of dubious quality to any passers-by and even to other sellers.  I saw one man offering a fistful of food stamps in exchange for a heavier coat, a pair of children huddled together under a worn blanket behind him; another couple, rendered nearly senseless through drug use, reached out with shaking hands for any change someone might be willing and able to spare; a woman who couldn’t have reached the upper end of nineteen, smiling invitingly and beckoning to the men and, on occasion, the women as well.

“A black market,” I whispered to myself.  “This is…”

Sarah, watching through the tiny camera I wore in place of a coat button, choked back her thoughts.  I knew what she would have said, anyway.

This was her issue.  I had gotten involved in crime due to a rough childhood, a lack of options, and a surprising aptitude for the work.  Michel’s father had apparently initiated him, deliberately or not, and I’d merely finished the job.  Mila…Mila was a mystery.  I couldn’t imagine that a comfortable, happy life could give birth to anyone so shockingly proficient in violence.  And, if what she’d told me about Aiden was true, something in her past had damaged her to the point that the part time cult leader, part time mercenary had been able to worm his way into her mind.

That wasn’t Sarah’s story.  She’d grown up the scion of a rich, powerful family; been afforded every opportunity and privilege; and, truth be told, could have easily lived a life of luxury by doing nothing more than not screwing up too terribly.  That was the life her sisters had chosen.  It was the life her parents had wanted for her, and the ones they thought she was living.  It was how she herself had been, until her first encounter with truly stark poverty.

She’d changed, then.  It had been subtle, at first, but inexorable.  Before a few years had passed, she was siphoning funds away from corrupt charities and funneling it into the accounts of foundations that really tried to make a difference.  When that had failed to be enough, she’d started creating her own foundations, under a variety of pseudonyms.  It was like emptying the ocean with a thimble, but she still tried.  That’s what I’d liked about her when we’d first met.

It was one of the reasons I’d fallen in love with her in the first place.

This wasn’t the time for that, though.  I hardened myself to the abject suffering and assumed the assertive body language again.  “We can’t help these people right now,” I said, pushing through the hands that grasped at my coat.

“I’m aware,” she said in a tight voice.  “Not right now, at least.”

“What do you think we’ll be able to do?”

“I don’t know.  Something.  Anything, if it’ll make this better.”

I heard two things in her voice: hope and resignation, in that order.  “Taking Hill down will help,” I offered.

That wasn’t quite a lie, but it was an incredibly optimistic interpretation of the truth.  Eliminating the local drug kingpin would slow the flow of product into the impoverished portions of London, for a time, but it would never eliminate it.  Addicts would find drugs, one way or another.  These areas – the black markets that inevitably sprouted from the city, given time to propagate – would always exist.

Sarah knew that.  She still took the exaggeration for what it was: an admonition to stay on task.  “You’re coming up on the exact target,” she said.  Something in her voice told me that she wasn’t done with this particular black market, yet.

“Sarah…”

“I’ve got to step away for a second,” she said, cutting me off neatly.  “You can handle this, right?”

I heard the signature two pops in my ear before I could form a reply.  Unable to talk her down, I simply sighed instead and continued forward.

I walked to the center of the black market, navigating around and through knots of customers and sellers.  The center of the market was worse than its fringes: fewer people trying to sell things, and more beggars.  I carefully kept my camera pointed away from those wretches and swept my vision around the area until I spotted a familiar figure, shorter than most.

I approached Stanislav, keeping my hands out of my pockets.  He noticed me before I was within arm’s reach and took a small step back.  Iosif and Leonid melted out of the crowd and took up flanking positions around him.

“Stani,” I said, stopping a few steps short.

“Devlin.”

“Where’s Anton?”

A wave of emotions flashed over Stani’s face: far too many for me to identify in the split second before he returned to the impassive mask.  “Not here, for now,” he said.  “But my superiors insisted on bringing him with us here, to London.  His experience with Asher might prove useful.”

“You’re still running him down?”  I asked.

“There is a trail,” Stani said.  “Or there was one.  We have not been able to find him, and there is no evidence that he has left.  And then, there is the fact that you are here.  That is an odd coincidence, no?”

Tension sprang into existence, hot and vibrating with potential energy.  The meeting spot made a little more sense now.  Stani didn’t know about Sarah, of course.  To his reckoning, I was isolated at this black market.  He and his men could dispose of me without much protest from the impoverished and criminally disinterested people around us.

Extreme practice kept the sudden anxiety from showing on my expression.  “I had my own leads to follow,” I said.  “Good ones, apparently, since we all ended up here.”

Stani’s lips drew into a tight line for a few seconds.  “According to Anton,” he said slowly, the accent thickening with each word, “you and Asher were once very good friends.”

“We were.  The prison sentence sort of strained that relationship.”

“It is not impossible that the two of you are working together,” Stani said.  “That your efforts are only a…what is the word? Ah: a smokescreen.  People will do many things for money.  Working with a former enemy is not much of a stretch.”

The urge to laugh at that absurdity warred with my anger at the very concept.  “You must not have talked to Anton much about me, then.  Money’s not going to motivate me to do anything, least of all start working with a known betrayer.  Besides, you were with me when Asher tried to have us all killed.”

“Perhaps that was merely part of the lie?”  Stani scratched at his stubble.  “Or perhaps you changed your mind after that.  Money is not the only way a man can be purchased.”

Defense wasn’t working.  Something had gotten under his skin since last we’d seen each other, and he was now convinced that I was working against him.  With more time, or less of a buzz, I could have tried to ferret out the truth.  Neither of those things were in great abundance, as of late.

Offense it was, then.

“If you think I’m suddenly the enemy,” I said, taking a step closer to Stani, “you should probably do something about it already.  You’ve got me outnumbered and outgunned.  If this is really how your superiors want to play it, take your shot.”

Stani didn’t move, but Iosif did.  The larger Russian’s hand dipped lower, toward his waistband, but Stani gestured lazily and Iosif froze.

“You realize what my men would do to you?”  Stani asked.  “For an opportunity to bring Asher back to my superiors, there is no end to the amount of pain we would inflict on you.”

“For the opportunity to bring Asher down, I’d be willing to see how serious you really are.”  I paused for effect.  “I’m sure my employer would find it interesting, too.”

Stani blinked.  “Is that a threat?”

“I came here in good faith,” I said.  “We’re both after the same person.  For different reasons, sure, but that fact is what it is.  If you want to make this a competitive relationship, we can do that.  So long as you’re sure that your bosses are going to have your back…and that my employer wouldn’t be able to deal with them after she finishes up with the person who betrayed a functional working relationship on a hunch.”

Iosif’s eyes flickered up, away from me, and over to his partner.  Leonid didn’t turn his head, but I could sense, more than actually see, the way his shoulders tightened.  Apprehension was good.  Fear was better.  Anything that gave them a moment of a hesitation bought me another second to spin more stories.  Already I’d banked heavily on my relationship with the Lady and I was a long way from sure that she’d do anything to help me if I died here.  My continued activity was important to her long term plan – whatever that was – but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t simply replace me, if I overstepped my own abilities.

The fact that she’d hired a bodyguard for me and my team was already –

It was my turn to blink in shocked surprise.  Stani noticed the change in my posture and, caught off guard by the abrupt shift, lapsed into a sort of confused concern.  “What?  Why are you looking at me like that?”

I wasn’t looking at him.  My field of vision, while it did include the diminutive Russian, was focused over his shoulder.  The target of my interest turned, drinking from a bottled water, and noticed my attentions.

“Mila?”

“Devlin?”  The bottled water lingered near her lips and trembled slightly.  “What are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here?”  I countered.  “We’ve been trying to find you for over an hour!”

“I, uh…”

The moment of uncommon uncertainty interested me, but Stani and his team were already moving.  Iosif and Leonid pulled large caliber handguns from their jackets, while Stani produced a long knife as he stepped into the protective shadow of the two.  Around us, the black market patrons peeled back and left a wide circle of empty space.  There was a marked lack of fear in their movements; a calm part of my mind rationalized that they were used to violence in these places.

“You said that you would come alone!”  Stani roared at me.

“I did come alone!”

Mila, a millisecond after Iosif twitched in the wrong direction, was on the move, as well.  She took quick steps and stepped in front of me.  Twin guns appeared in her hands, one trained on each of the large Russians.

“Okay,” I said, raising my hands in a placating gesture.  “I…I can explain this.”

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