“I’d like to see them try,” Mila said. Her voice was mild, almost disinterested, but I recognized it for the warning sign that it really was.
I put my hands up, palms facing the man in the wheelchair. “Whoa there. How about we slow down on the threats for a second here? Is this the welcome you put out for everyone, or are we just special?”
“With the clothes you’re wearing and the way you talk?” He settled his forearms on the armrests of his wheelchair as he examined us. “Don’t look hungry or desperate enough to be in this part of town. Stands to reason, then, that you’re here looking for something. Might be that you found it, mate.”
I didn’t know enough about the man and this makeshift cafeteria/mall. From the street outside, I’d expected difficulties but not outright hostility. My mind scrambled to make connections, to draw some conclusion from the miniscule amount of information available to me, and I realized exactly how it must feel to be on the receiving end of a sudden verbal attack.
Stani and his goons were visible to my left, barely in my peripheral vision. They didn’t seem threatened by the men holding them but, at the same time, they weren’t taking any action. Presumably, they realized that any violence now would ruin our chances of getting answers. Since Iosif’s and Leonid’s skillsets were both limited to conflict, and Stani’s talents skewed more towards intimidation than conversation, that left this part of the interaction up to me.
I could only hope that Mila had drawn the same conclusion.
“I’m not a man without principle, though,” the man in the wheelchair said, before I could formulate an angle of attack. “Used to be that men judged me on sight, thinking themselves twice the man I was. I wouldn’t want to do that to no one that didn’t deserve it, you understand?”
I gave the man a flat look.
After a moment, he snickered. “Twice the man, eh? You get it? ‘cause of this whole situation?” He gestured at his legs, concealed beneath a gray, threadbare blanket. “Come on, you got to admit that was a good one, yeah?”
He chuckled to himself for a good fifteen seconds before I cleared my throat and spoke. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to laugh or…?”
“Laughing at life’s about the only way to keep sane, innit?” He lifted one hand from the armrests and waved it dismissively at the men holding us. They let go immediately and stepped back into their hidden positions beside the door.
“I’m guessing that was the right answer?” I asked, massaging the spot on my upper arm where the steel grip had been.
“Wasn’t looking for a particular answer,” the man said. “Wanted to see what you’d do. ‘course I noticed those pieces your friends got hidden under their coats. Couldn’t miss the ones they got in their hands. If they wanted to make a thing out of it, would’ve gotten right messy, but you kept the lady and the gentlemen from getting into any mischief right at the start.”
“I didn’t exactly keep her from anything,” I said quickly. There wasn’t any point in flicking Mila’s metaphorical nose, if possible. “She just decided to let me handle the talking.”
“Same deal with these three?” The man tilted his head and gave Stani’s group a quick onceover. “Don’t look like the type to hold back without a damn good reason. They’re Russian, if I’m not mistaken?”
Iosif was closest to the man in the wheelchair. Instead of answering, he turned his head to Stani. The short Russian took the signal as a request for assistance and answered immediately, taking two steps forward so that he was nearly next to me. “Da, I am Russian. What is it to you?”
“Years back, I used to work with some Russians,” the man in the wheelchair said. “Tough blokes to get along with, but bloody fantastic when it came to smuggling. Now, you wouldn’t happen to know any of them, would ya?”
“If you aren’t just blowing smoke,” I said, “we actually might have found what we were looking for. My…uh…friends and I heard from a little bird that we might be able to find someone who knows a little something about the trade in these parts. That wouldn’t happen to be you, would it?”
“If there’s someone else,” the man said, “I haven’t met him. What’s your interest?” His eyes narrowed slightly as he asked the question and, for the first time, I felt a shrewd wariness practically coming off of the man in tightly controlled waves.
I elected to use the truth, rather than a lie that might fall apart and cost me what little goodwill I’d somehow managed to earn. “We’ve each got our own issues with someone in the area, but we can’t do anything about him while he’s being protected.”
“Protected? By who?”
“I don’t know his real name,” I said, “but we’re calling him Hill for right now. Does that ring a bell?”
The wariness sharpened into anger, as sudden as a storm cloud. It passed an instant later, quick enough that I almost wasn’t sure I’d seen it in the first place. “There’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time,” he muttered, more to himself than to me.
“So you know him?”
“Oh, I know him alright. Bastard’s the reason…” He trailed off, then shook his head violently, as if he could physically shake the thoughts away. “Nevermind. Boys, stand down. Me and the fellas – and the lady, of course – are going to talk for a bit.”
The men behind us didn’t move back to their waiting positons by the entrance. I opened my mouth to point that out when I saw movement against the far wall, by the cafeteria section. One of the shabbier looking men, clad only in the remants of what must once have been a coat and jeans, shuffled back toward the food. His shuffling escape wasn’t quick enough to keep me from noticing the glint of metal in his waistband.
A visual sweep from one side of the room to the other revealed several more seemingly homeless, destitute men and women concealing weapons. Some had handguns, while others held what looked like hunting rifles and knives. We were outnumbered in here by a factor of three or four, easily, and the man in the wheelchair had successfully kept me from noticing how bad our position actually was. And he’d done it by making a joke.
He noticed my eyes widening and allowed himself a miniscule smile. It was a mere shadow of what I’d seen before, when he’d been laughing entirely to himself, but it still appeared genuine. “Like I said. Could’ve gotten messy. Now, pick up the pace; I’ve got strategy to discuss tonight.”
“We can wait,” I said, trying to be courteous. Of course I couldn’t actually afford to wait, but an hour in either direction probably wouldn’t hurt things too much.
“The strategizing can wait.” He spun the wheelchair around to face in the opposite direction and started wheeling away.
I chanced a look at Mila and at Stani’s crew. Four sets of blank, confused eyes met my own. I started to follow the wheelchair and the man it carried deeper into the…whatever the building actually was. My first guess – that it would be a crack house of some sort, or perhaps a whorehouse – was clearly wrong. I could have described it as a base of operations, but even that seemed lacking. The closest word that came to mind was…some sort of halfway house?
But that didn’t make any sense. I shelved the thought, for later consideration when there was more information available, and followed after the man in the wheelchair.
Two beeps, and then Sarah was speaking softly into my ear. Mila’s head tilted slightly and I assumed that she was in on the communications, as well. “Are you thinking that this guy’s on the level?”
Stani, Iosif, and Leonid were trailing behind us to watch the homeless individuals lurking in darkened corners. I didn’t think we had anything to worry about, but their distance allowed me to answer Sarah’s question without having to whisper. “I think he knows more about what’s going on in this city than we do,” I said. “Maybe he’s just playing it up for effect, but it’s still a lead.”
“Why would Stani want you to come here for this?” Sarah mused, as much to herself as to me. “If the Russians already have a connection with the previous powers, bringing on a new player wouldn’t serve any purpose.”
“Assuming that it was me he wanted to bring along,” I said.
“Don’t forget: Stani thinks that I have the Lady’s backing. Maybe he’s trying to orchestrate a power play and he needed someone with a little more oomph.”
“A little more than the Russian mob?”
Mila shook her head, and then visibly realized that Sarah couldn’t see the gesture. I allowed myself a smile at that action, remembering how many jobs it had taken me to adapt. “If Hill’s as entrenched as you two think,” she said, “the Bratva can’t make an open move against him.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“I forget that neither of you really deal with the underworld any more than you have to.” Mila sighed. “You were at the Green Light gala. Any type of overt move is going to bring a corresponding level of force. Maybe the Bratva win, maybe they lose. Either way, business is going to come to a crawl while that’s going on, and nobody wants that to happen.”
“Makes sense,” Sarah said. “In the legitimate world, corporations try to keep the power plays under wraps because it shows weakness to any potential predators.”
“You make it sound like the Wild West,” I said.
“Not the Wild West,” Sarah replied. “More like the jungle. Kill or be kill, eat or be eaten.”
“Glad to see one of you understands,” Mila said in a sarcastic whisper.
“You realize,” I said, “that the microphone picks up and amplifies everything you say?”
“Oh? I hadn’t realized.”
The man in the wheelchair reached the table and gestured lazily at the people congregated around it. They dispersed reluctantly, shooting suspicious looks in our direction as they withdrew to one of the long cafeteria-style tables set against the wall. They were far enough away that they wouldn’t be able to overhear any conversation, but no so far that they couldn’t take action if the Russians or Mila decided to make an aggressive move.
Mila, specifically, wasn’t a concern. Assuming that she kept to her word – despite the matter of withholding information earlier, she’d done nothing to imply that she would outright lie – she would only fight if either she or I was threatened. The man in the wheelchair had very carefully avoided making any intimations toward violence. The Russians, however, were a different matter. Their endgame was ostensibly capturing Asher, but I doubted strongly that the powers in charge of the Bratva would be so involved in the pursuit of a traitor, without other possible angles to play. There were more pieces in play and it would be foolish to believe that I could see the whole field, yet. Stani’s goals were almost certainly different than my own; it was even possible that they were directly antithetical.
“Go on, then,” the man in the wheelchair said, “have a sit.” He waved a hand expansively at the now abandoned chairs. “Way I see it, you’ll be wanting some answers, eh?”
I took a seat opposite the man in the wheelchair and, very deliberately, placed both of my hands on the table in plain view. Until I knew more, I intended to do everything possible to minimize the possibility of seeming like a threat. “That’s about the gist of it,” I said.
Mila took a seat to my left and the Russians filled in at other spots along the table’s perimeter. “So,” the man in the wheelchair said, “you’re in charge of this ragtag bunch?”
“I wouldn’t say that. How about we just stick with ‘spokesman’ for the moment?”
“Fair enough,” the man in the wheelchair said. “Wouldn’t want to accidentally offend the lady, now would we?”
“The lady,” Mila interjected, “is perfectly comfortable with whatever terminology he chooses. You, however, should probably just stick with using my name.”
I shot her a look and Mila didn’t even have the decency to shrug her indifference back at me.
The man in the wheelchair barked out a laugh, however, and raised his hands in surrender. “I didn’t mean nothing by it, trust me! And I would use your name, just as soon as you’d tell me what it is.” He left the thought open.
“You show me yours,” I said, after a moment. “Maybe I’ll show you mine.”
He laughed again. “Careful and diplomatic? I think I could get to like you.”
The man in the wheelchair let out a long, dramatic breath. “Well, then, allow me to introduce myself.” His voice grew louder, each word more carefully enunciated, and the accent softened until it was almost imperceptible. He was playing for the audience, I realized. “Name’s William but, round here, most just call me Billy.”
“Billy?” I repeated.
“A simple name for a simple man,” Billy said. “And yours?”
My first name wasn’t necessarily common to the area, but it wasn’t uncommon. Giving it to this man wouldn’t cost me too much position and I wasn’t certain that Stani or the other Russians wouldn’t accidentally let it slip at a later point in the conversation. I was using my real name an uncomfortable amount, as of late, but there wasn’t really anything I could do about that. “Devlin,” I said.
“And your friends?”
That was more than I was willing to offer. Let Mila and the Russians make up their own minds as to whether or not they wanted that information floating around the London underworld.
After twenty seconds of stilted silence, Mila stepped forward. “Emilia,” she said. “Call me Mila. Everyone else does.”
“Ah, Mila,” Billy said. He seemed to be savoring the sound of the name. “Pleasure to meet you. Is that another gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”
Mila gave him a thin smile. “Can’t it be both?”
“Oh, I do like the lot of you,” Billy said. He clapped his hands together and leaned back in the wheelchair. “Been quite a while since I met anyone who caught me off guard. This lot’s pretty predictable, all said.”
“This lot?” I turned so that I could look once more at the building’s interior. Most of the people who had been sitting outside of my direct field of vision had found other things to occupy their attention: food, mostly, although more than a few were not engaged in fervent conversation. There were still some who watched my group with wary eyes, but their hands weren’t hidden within folds of cloth or openly displaying weapons. “I would imagine they aren’t particularly surprising.”
“Not a wit,” Billy said. “But they’re the ones what took me in, so it is what it is.”
“Took you in?” I made eye contact with Billy over the table, and he held the contact with a surprising amount of force. “I’m guessing Hill had something to do with that?”
“Not at all,” Billy replied. He bared his teeth in an approximation of a smile. It reminded me more of a rictus than anything. “He’s the reason I lost my business, my home, and my legs. But, he didn’t have nothing to do with these kind people taking me in as one of their own. That was all on my own.”
I leaned forward, more attentive now than I had been before. This had the sense of betrayal about it, and that was a feeling I now had an intimate understanding of. “I think you ought to tell me that story from the beginning. Something tells me we might be able to help each other out.”