“Devlin,” Mila said in a quiet, intense voice. Somehow, she seemed to be watching both of the Russians with equal focus. “I repeat: what are you doing here? Why aren’t you in the hotel?”
“My associates here requested a meeting,” I replied, stressing the word to the breaking point.
“And you decided that tonight would be the best time for that? Considering everyone who’s currently doing their level best to put neat little holes in you?”
“I didn’t decide anything,” I snapped. “And I wouldn’t be out here, unprotected, if someone answered their phone.”
From my angle, I could only see the back of her head, but I could have sworn that Mila twitched slightly at that.
“What are you doing here?” I asked her again.
“Business,” she answered. “Personal business. I assumed that you would be smart enough to stay somewhere safe until I got back.”
My eyes went from the nape of Mila’s neck, over her shoulders, to the three Russians: Iosif and Leonid, the aim of their weapons changing from Mila to me and back again, in a protective stance around Stanislav. For his part, the shorter man watched my conversation through narrowed eyes. He didn’t give the order for his men to fire but, at the same time, he also didn’t tell them to stand down.
“I didn’t expect this to be a dangerous meeting. I thought that we were all working toward the same goal, here.” I deliberately raised my voice so that Stani could hear.
“How’s that working out for you?” Mila asked.
“Not well,” I admitted.
The five of us stood there, locked into position, while the destitute and impoverished flowed around us, giving the conflict a wide berth. The tension was almost unbearable but I knew that simply acting wasn’t an option. Making the wrong move would easily send this détente spiraling into open gunfire. I didn’t want that and, unless I’d badly misread Stani so far, he didn’t want it either.
“So?” I asked the Russian. “Can we talk about this like professionals? Or are you going to let this end in bloodshed, when Asher is so close?”
“You were supposed to come alone,” Stani repeated.
“And you weren’t supposed to be an idiot,” I countered. “I’m willing to start over if you are.”
A few more seconds stretched by. Finally, an eternity later, Stani lifted two fingers and then let them fall. Iosif and Leonid reluctantly lowered their guns but did not holster them. Mila assumed the same posture.
I carefully stepped around Mila, so that I could look Stani in the eyes. “Alright. Now, did you actually have something or was this all just part of your plan to get me alone?”
Stani scowled back at me. Clearly, he wasn’t fully convinced that I wasn’t playing some long game. In fairness, I wasn’t convinced that the Lady hadn’t somehow maneuvered me into a position where I’d have to betray the Russians, but I certainly wasn’t going to let him know that.
“Who is this?” Stani asked, pointing with his diminished hand at Mila.
“A friend,” I said. Then, turning to face her fully, I added, “I think.”
There was no mistaking Mila’s guilty twitch this time.
“And she can be trusted?”
“She’s under contract,” I said, as if that explanation alone was sufficient. “Mila isn’t going to start any trouble unless someone else starts it first. Case in point.”
Stani considered that silently and, while he thought, the tide of bodies drew tighter around us. The men and women who hadn’t moved far since the brief standoff still gave us almost a yard of space and the others – the ones who had been in other areas of the black market or who had been asleep, drugged, or otherwise insensate – followed that cue.
“Come,” Stani said, finally.
He turned on his heel and moved deeper into the market. Iosif turned immediately, while Leonid continued to face me for a few tense seconds before he followed suit.
I waited until he was three yards ahead before I started to walk in that direction. I felt Mila’s presence beside me, and I spoke to her under my breath as we went. “Personal business?” I asked. “Now?”
“I’m allowed personal time,” she said.
“I’m not saying that you aren’t,” I said. “We cleared that up already. But it isn’t that you wanted to take some time to clear your head. It’s that you lied about where you were going. What if something had happened at the hotel?”
“I spoke to Sophie before I left. I’m not so far away that I couldn’t have gotten back, and that suite’s got a private elevator. I’m not saying nobody could get in; I’m just saying that nobody could have gotten in before I got there to stop them.”
That may very well have been true. I hadn’t really thought about the security measures the Brooklands might provide, but it stood to reason that the Lady wouldn’t go through the trouble of hiring a bodyguard, only to put us in the equivalent of the Holiday Inn, with regards to protection. “This is about the Things, isn’t it?” I asked.
“The…” Mila was quiet for a second, connecting the reference to reality. “You mean the twins.”
“Yeah, them. That’s the business that pulled you out in the middle of the night?”
Mila sighed. “Here. Look at this.”
She passed a folded slip of paper over my shoulder. I missed a step, shuffled to keep upright, and then opened the note. A long word that I didn’t recognize was printed there in neat block letters, along with the date and a specific time.
“Flurpitine,” I said the word out loud. It didn’t sound like any language I’d ever heard. In fact, it sounded like a drug. “Are you really out here getting high?”
Mila barked out two sharp laughs from behind me. “The twins gave me that, at the bar.”
That explained why she’d turned off her camera before approaching them. The solution to that mystery only brought another question to mind: what other information was she withholding?
Was there even anything I could do to ferret out those secrets, if Mila was intent on keeping them to herself?
Two pops in my earbud forced me to shelve those concerns. Through the line, I listened as Sarah settled back into place. “Sorry, I had to…”
I turned slightly, so that my button camera and, by extension, Sarah could see Mila.
Sarah’s words faltered. “Um,” she said. “What’s Mila doing there?”
“Funny you should ask that.” I fished around in my pocket for a spare earbud. When I found one, I floated it back to Mila. “We were just getting to that part, I think.”
“I step up away for one second, I swear,” Sarah muttered, mostly to herself. “Can someone fill me in on what I missed? From the beginning, please.”
My side of the story only included the past few minutes, most of which had been spent talking Stani and his men down from the metaphorical edge. Mila’s tale was far more interesting.
After leaving the hotel, she had apparently disassembled her phone to confound any effort to track her before she’d set off to run down the strange word and whatever connection it might have with Aiden, her own personal bogeyman. That path had led her to the houses of a few former clients with more substantial connections to the local underworld. According to Mila, she hadn’t needed to employ anything beyond implied threats to get those answers. The freshly skinned knuckles on her right hand made that hard to believe. Regardless, each name had her to another until she had, ultimately, found herself in this neighborhood’s black market.
“And here we are,” Mila finished. “One big happy family.”
“Sarah?” I asked.
“I’ll look into it,” she said. “I’m guessing it isn’t recreational, but I’m still looking at a a long search. If I had more to go on, maybe…”
Mila interrupted Sarah’s train of thought with a single word. “Aiden.”
“What about him?”
“The twins said that his newest hire – Mikhail, right? – was more than just a drug dealer.”
I followed that thread back to the relevant memory. “Thing One called him a pharmacist,” I said. “Or Thing Two. Whichever one was female?”
Mila gave me a tight, thin-lipped smile. “Exactly. So, maybe that drug’s something pharmaceutical, then?”
Sarah heaved out a sigh, even as the familiar sound of her fingers accelerated to their machine gun pace. “This is still going to take some time. I’ll have to sift through research journals, generic names, et cetera, et cetera.”
“But you can find it?” I asked.
“If it exists,” Sarah answered, “I can find it.”
“Glad to hear it,” Mila said. She took an extra-long step so that she stood slightly in front of me and then stopped. “I think Devlin’s pal might have something to show us.”
She was right. Stani, Iosif, and Leonid had stopped pushing their way through the crowd. Now, they stood in front of a…shack wasn’t quite the right word, even if it had the right feeling. The building was made of jet black stone, scarred with pockmarks and missing the occasional chunk from its surface. A cloud of smoke hung around the entrance and I noticed, almost absently, that every second or third person that passed in front of the building shot a jealous glance in its direction. Some people went in, and some people came out, but everyone found a reason to look.
In this black market, the building was probably the equivalent of a luxury residence. Assuming, of course, that it was someone’s home. As I took a few seconds to consider the traffic, I discarded that idea. This was a business, just like every other ramshackle stall and corner, but the difference between this building and the ones that populated the square was painfully stark.
“Stani almost shot me just for running into Mila,” I said to Sarah.
“He almost tried, you mean,” Mila added, casually, and shrugged.
I ignored that. “Point is, he probably won’t take too kindly to knowing there’s a third party involved in this, even if you aren’t technically here.”
“What about Anton?” Sarah asked. “He knows about me; he might be able to smooth things over if it gets heated, right?”
“Anton doesn’t know you’re involved,” I said. “I trust him, as much as that sort of thing goes, but not the people he’s working with. Besides, he wasn’t even with them earlier.”
Sarah digested that in thoughtful silence for a few seconds. “You think he’s alright?” She asked, finally.
That worry had crossed my mind; I had just banished it to the back of my thoughts immediately. Sarah’s question brought that fear back, in full force. “I hope he is,” I said. “But I can’t get distracted by that right now. Whatever it is that Stani wants to show me required weapons, and he was nervous enough about it that he almost ordered his goons to shoot me.”
“You need to stay focused,” Sarah said. It wasn’t a directive on her part; just a confirmation. “I’ll stay quiet, but I’m not going anywhere. If something goes wrong…”
“I’m here,” Mila said. She sounded offended at the implication that a situation might arise that she couldn’t handle. “I got a good read on those Russians. The caliber of their guns is probably higher than their IQ; Devlin’s in good hands.”
“Glad to hear it,” Sarah said. “Going silent, then, while I try to run down this drug.”
Two pops, and she was gone.
I rolled my neck until I felt the muscles there loosen appreciably. “Alright. Let’s see what’s behind door number one.”
I covered the distance between where we stood and where Stani waited, without waiting for a response from Mila. She fell in step, less than a foot behind me.
“This,” Stani said when we drew close enough to hear him, “is what we are here for.”
“Are you going to tell me what this is?” I asked.
“I only know what my superiors saw fit to tell me.” Stani looked nervously around, even though no one was paying noticeable attention to our small group. In fact, after the brief standoff from only a few minutes ago, people were actively trying not to look at us. “Many years ago, before the Bratva established themselves in this country, there was a man who was…an associate. We provided the product and he sold it to others. Eventually, that arrangement became unnecessary and the Bratva moved into a position of partnership, instead of simply being the supplier.”
“Many years ago? How long ago are we talking about?”
Stani shrugged his answer back at me.
“Okay,” I asked, “what happened to shake things up?”
“We do not know,” Stani said. “One day, the man we worked with simply stopped replying to our messages and messengers. Eventually, another man – this Hill, I suppose – assumed the same role, and we resumed operations from that point.”
I nodded in understanding. There were benefits to the life I’d chosen, but those benefits came with steep tradeoffs. It wasn’t uncommon for an underling to start feeling ambitious before making a play for greater power, and that power couldn’t be acquired so long as their previous employer continued to draw breath. If Stani’s story was true – I didn’t think he was lying, although I did have my doubts about whether or not he was simply wrong – the transfer of power had been so smooth that the Bratva hadn’t noticed. That part was surprising.
“The history lesson is appreciated,” I said, “but what’s that got to do with us, right now?”
“Some of our local soldiers heard a rumor in the streets about a man operating a small business from this black market. Nothing large enough to warrant an official response, but still substantial enough to be noticed. With a little more effort, and the assistance of the sniper you so kindly provided for questioning, the truth came to light.”
“It’s the guy?” I asked. “The guy your superiors used to work with?”
“Wait, wait, wait.” I held up both hands in front of me, palms facing the small Russian. “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. There was a guy who ran this town before Hill, but he’s still alive?”
Mila sniffed at the air and I turned, reflexively, at the sound. “Seems like poor planning,” she said. “Why leave a possible competitor alive, if you can help it? Especially one who’s just going to start up the same business, right under your nose?”
“We do not know,” Stani said. “I do not know. That is why we are. If there is anyone who knows what this Hill is doing or how it relates to Asher, it would be this man.” He gestured at the building.
I looked at Mila. She answered my unspoken question with an even gaze and, instead of replying verbally, checked the slide of her still-unholstered weapon. Stani nodded approvingly at this action and then walked inside. I allowed my imagination a moment of frozen anxiety, picturing all of the ways this situation could spiral further out of control, before I steeled myself and entered the building, as well. On
Judging from the building’s exterior, and the general state of disrepair evidenced by the sprawling black market, I’d expected more of the same inside. Perhaps nothing more than people drugged to gills, sprawled across the floor like morbidly animate carpets. Or a more condensed version of the shops I’d seen outside, with higher quality wares for sale…for a commensurately higher price tag. Maybe even a whorehouse, for those whose need so drastically outweighed their means that no other options remained.
I saw none of those.
The building’s interior was still dirty, of course. The desperation inherent to places like this seeped into the very soil and affected everything it touched. But it was less dirty, less miserable than I’d expected. To one side, several long tables were populated by shabby men and women who rested, spoke to each other in low voices, or huddled over steaming bowls of some sort of stew. Across from that, a makeshift bar had been cobbled together from several shipping pallets, where a jauntily dressed man in clearly secondhand clothes filled dirty glasses, mugs, and thermoses with liquor and booze. A banner hung across the back of the room, but it was so tattered that the symbol it had once borne was indecipherable.
Underneath that banner, an older man, hair graying and thinning at his temples, hunched over a table. A group of other people clustered around him, some standing while others sat a little higher than the graying man, pointing at what looked like a map stretched out before them. I couldn’t make out what they said from this distance, but their body language made it clear: this was an important thing. Presumably, then, the graying man was the person Stani had come here looking for. Even if he wasn’t, it stood to reason that he might know more details that could prove useful.
I took a step forward to say something and realized, even before the first hand gripped my shoulder like a steel vice grip, that I had forgotten to check for security. I froze, anticipating an attack of some sort, but none came. The hand on my shoulder was firm, but not unkind. A quick glance behind me showed that Mila, Stani, Iosif, and Leonid were restrained by similar men in similar postures.
The graying man at the table looked up and noticed us. He gestured easily for his crowd to disperse and then slid back from the table and came over to us. He didn’t walk across the distance. I hadn’t noticed before, but I could see now that he hadn’t sat lower; he was in a wheelchair.
As he wheeled himself toward us, men and women alike parted to allow him passage. They did this, not with fear, but with a semblance of…was that respect?
“Well now,” the graying man said when he drew close enough to see us. He peered at our attire, eyes flickering over the guns some of my party held in clenched hands, and nodded once in affirmation of some unspoken thought. “Seems like this is something new in my little part of paradise. Care to explain before my men have to ask questions the hard way?”