Two of Billy’s people brought over a small platter of food and some glasses of water from the cafeteria region of the building – which I had begun to think of as the Halfway House – and set them up on the table in front of us. He waited patiently until they withdrew, nibbled around the edges of some burnt toast, and took a sip of water before he spoke. “What do you want to know?”
“It’s that simple?” I considered the food on the table before breaking off a small piece of toast for myself. “You’ll just tell me whatever I want to know? Just like that?”
Billy extended an index finger and ticked it back and forth like a metronome. “Now, I didn’t say any of that, did I? I’m only asking what you want to know. Never said nothing about actually telling you.”
I’d spent a long time in the underworlds of one city or another, but this black market and the Halfway House were new territories. Judging from the deferential treatment that Billy received, he was in some sort of leadership position here. I didn’t see anyone else giving orders or even hinting at commands, so it was very possible that he was the authority in the area.
My nose wrinkled of its own accord as I chewed over that thought. Billy hadn’t actually given any orders since my team had entered the Halfway House. Sure, he’d gestured and implied his desires, but he hadn’t needed to explicitly command anyone to do anything. It wasn’t fear, then, that motivated his followers and the black market that swelled just outside of the Halfway House made it clear that they didn’t wait on him out due to any particular sense of greed.
In fact, at the farthest edges of my peripheral vision, I could see that some of the individuals at the cafeteria tables were sharing with others. No one pushed or jostled for a better place in line; there were no fights or arguments that I could see; and, most surprising of all, some of the homeless or indigent men and women were smiling.
Whatever the story was, it promised to be an interesting one. “Alright,” I said to Billy. “Tell me what you want, and we’ll see if we can work something out.”
“I want the same thing you do,” Billy said.
“And that is?”
“Answers.” Billy dipped his toast into a small lake of baked beans and took a bite. “Way I see it, you four are out of your element and you’d need one hell of a fantastic reason to come all the way out to my corner of creation this late at night. So you answer my questions, and I’ll answer yours.”
“Within reason,” I said immediately. Just as I’d been unwilling to volunteer the names of my companions, I had no intention of agreeing to a blanket honesty pact. Some things I intended to keep secret for my own protection; other things simply weren’t my stories to tell.
“Within reason,” Billy agreed, grinning slightly as he spoke. “Of course. Now, seeing as I’m the host, seems only right that I should let you have the first go at this. Ask your question.”
I thought for almost a full minute about which question to lead with. Each answer I received would allow me to better focus the questions that followed, so this first question was perhaps the most important one.
The rest of my party seemed content to let me take the lead. Mila seemed content to relax in her chair, sipping occasionally from her water, and somehow watching everyone in the room and no one in particular at the same time. Stani looked nervously at his surroundings; Iosif and Leonid seemed equally uncomfortable, but they masked that discomfort by shooting stern looks in every direction at regular intervals.
As I was rapidly coming to realize, this interaction was entirely on my shoulders.
“Whatever you ask,” Sarah said in my ear, “I can help you with any follow-ups.”
Her voice came as a shock, and I kept myself from actually jerking through force of will. She’d been silent for so long that I had, for a single moment, forgotten that Sarah was involved in this meeting, inasmuch as any of the Russians or Mila was. That thought comforted me and, with my nerves put slightly at ease, I was able to come up with a first question.
“What’s your relationship to Hill?”
Billy finished off a piece of toast and then reached for another. None of my group followed suit, although I did notice Iosif giving the bacon a soulful, longing look. “That’s complicated,” Billy said, after several very long seconds.
“I’ve got time.”
“Figured you might,” Billy said, smiling ruefully. “Let’s call him a…former business partner, then.”
I gave Billy my best ‘patient, but still waiting’ expression.
He sighed, drained half of his remaining water, and then started to talk again. “Hill and I started out as low level dealers, pushing product to the good men and women of our fair city,” he said. “Time went by and we eventually got enough backing to make a move on the throne.”
“The throne?” I lifted an eyebrow. “Who was in charge before you and Hill?”
“You only get one question,” Billy said, in a close approximation of a schoolteacher’s voice. “And don’t interrupt. Anyway, we made our move and managed to get the local dealers and pushers under our control before too long. Hill wanted to stay out of the spotlight, so I stepped up to be the personality, while he handled the, uh, back of house business.”
Stani cleared his throat. Billy and I both turned to look at the Russian, who had thus far managed to remain completely silent. I hadn’t heard his voice since before we’d entered the Halfway House. “That was when you were working with my superiors?”
“You mean, when I was making business deals with the Bratva?” Billy shrugged. “I don’t remember the exact year. If my recollections are accurate, then the previous kingpin was in talks to do something similar. More product smuggled into the country equals more product that can be sold equals more money. Our operation here didn’t have the scope to start streamlining production yet, you see?”
I nodded, and motioned for him to continue. Through the earbud, I listened to Sarah as her fingers drummed an allegro beat into the keyboard. I wasn’t sure what information she hoped to uncover, but I trusted to her ability to ferret out something, eventually.
“Anyway,” Billy said. “Like I said, Hill never had the proper disposition for making deals, so we agreed that I’d be the face of our little conglomerate. I handled all the negotiations with foreign powers, while he took care of the industrial side of things back home. Situation worked out lovely that way, for a good time.” His expression darkened, as his thoughts traveled back through his memories.
“But then he got greedy,” I supplied, after a few moments.
“That’s a bit of an understatement, considering,” Billy said, gesturing weakly at his legs. “Long story short, he made a play for power and I didn’t see it coming. I ended up on the business end of a baseball bat before everything was finished with, and Hill got the power he was after.”
“Why didn’t he kill you?” I asked.
“You did hear me when I said you only get one question?” Billy countered.
I settled back into my chair and drank some water. “What’s your question, then?”
“I know what I’ve got against the bastard,” Billy said, “but you’re something new. He doesn’t even let that fake name get out of his organization, if he can help it. But three Russians coming into my establishment along with the two of you? What’ve you got against him? Did he screw you over, too?”
I took a few seconds to choose exactly the right words. I liked Billy, but I didn’t trust him. There was every possibility that he might betray my motivations to Hill, or to Asher, or – heaven forbid – to the Magi themselves. Attempting to dethrone the local drug lord had already proven itself to be an undertaking of unimaginable difficulty; if the Magi decided to involve themselves or their considerable financial base directly, “difficult” would quickly become “impossible.”
“We don’t have a specific problem with Hill,” I said, carefully. “But he’s got someone on the payroll that we do have issues with. So long as Hill’s providing cover for this person…”
Mila cleared her throat, drawing all of our eyes to where she sat. She had somehow managed to locate a large chocolate bar and was nibbling around one corner absently. “I don’t have a problem with him,” she said, between bites. “Well…I don’t like him, but the problem is yours, not mine.”
“Thanks for that,” I said to her. “Good to know that you’re in my corner.”
“I am who I am,” Mila said, without the faintest trace of shame.
Billy’s eyes narrowed minutely as he examined Mila and me with a slowly dawning shrewdness. I realized, with more than a small amount of chagrin, that I’d been taken in by Billy’s accent. He spoke like someone from the working class and the general décor of the Halfway House served to reinforce that delusion. The reality, however, was that the circumstances of his birth had absolutely nothing to do with his intelligence. If his story was to be believed, this was a man who had forged a stable organization within the chaotic underworld and maintained his power until he’d been betrayed.
“Ah,” Billy said. “Got it.”
I didn’t know exactly what it was that he suddenly ‘got,’ but I suspected that it was information I wouldn’t have wanted him to have. “My turn. Why didn’t Hill kill you?”
“Because he’s an utter bastard, is why,” Billy said. “After the, uh, incident with the baseball bat, Hill made sure to get me the proper medical care. Obviously, there wasn’t nothing they could do about my legs, but he didn’t spare any expense.”
“Sentimentality?” Mila asked. She didn’t quite scoff, but I could hear it in the tone of her voice.
“Dominance,” Billy corrected.
I could draw connections between those dots without Billy explicitly outlining what must have happened. “He keeps you alive as an example,” I said. “Someone he trots out whenever one of his employees starts getting the idea that maybe he could run the business better.”
“Not quite,” Billy said. “But close enough. He goes out of his way to keep his men in the dark, and he hires stupid, so he probably isn’t concerned with that aspect of it. Personally, I think he did it just because he wanted to see me suffer.”
Hill was connected, ambitious, and vindictive, apparently. Those were three traits that I suspected Billy might be downplaying. It wasn’t encouraging, but any information was useful information.
As if on cue, Sarah spoke into my ear. “I’m looking into records for assaults in the area, but the data pool is too large. If I know who Billy is, maybe I can find out who Hill is, too. I’ll let you know when I’ve got something to go on.”
I scratched at the stubble on my chin and tapped my index finger against the earbud in acknowledgement, at an angle that should have concealed the action from Billy.
“My turn again, isn’t it?” Billy asked. He continued, without waiting for a reply. “This person you’re after; what’d he do to you?”
“Each of us has our own problems with the man,” I said. “That’s a lot of questions you’re asking.”
“I didn’t ask about what he did to these four, did I?” David wheeled himself slightly backwards so that he could settle both elbows on the table and use the cup of his palms to support his chin. “What’d he do to you?”
“We used to work together. Had a job trying to, uh, acquire some artwork. He…betrayed me,” I said. Frost practically wafted into the air with each word, and my blood ran a little colder. “Set me up and then hit me with a Taser when I wasn’t paying attention.”
“I assume that this acquisition wasn’t the legal sort?”
“I spent almost three years in prison because of that bastard,” I said. “Tried, charged, and convicted of robbery, and spent all that time in La Santé.”
Billy winced. “I’ve heard stories. It’s as bad as they say?”
“I don’t know what they say, but it was pretty damn bad if you ask me.”
“Ah,” Billy said. “Liberating, isn’t it?”
Billy smiled, and there was a hint of genuine warmth in the expression. Not a lot of warmth, but enough. “Knowing what it is that you’re after,” he said. “Most of us just go through life bouncing from one day to the next, lying as we tell ourselves that we know what we’re doing in life. But when you’ve got something like you and I have?”
He laughed and, suddenly, I began to understand how Billy had been able to forge a coalition between the drug dealers in London’s underworld. He wasn’t just pretending to be affable; this was a man who might actually be a nice guy.
The fact that he was nice, however, didn’t mean that he wouldn’t order his men to start shooting if I crossed a line in my questioning. He might just feel bad, afterwards.
“It doesn’t feel like something to be happy about. I’d just as soon take care of my business in town and leave,” I said, mindful once more of the Magi’s many listening ears. “The longer I’m here, the more time Hill has to mobilize some sort of counter to our plans.”
“Plans you haven’t quite figured out yet, I take it?”
I shrugged and smiled back at Billy. “Not your turn.”
Billy leaned back in his wheelchair and twirled two fingers lazily in the air, the universally understood sign for ‘go on, then.’
My mind was trying to form connections between the information I had and the information I needed. There were too many gaps to do much more than make wild guesses, unfortunately, and the stakes were too high for sheer guesswork. A wrong move could result in jail time for any of my team, at best; at worst, Hill and Asher and any other agents of the Magi might decide to implement a more lethal form of punishment. What I needed, even more than answers, was some sort of angle I could play.
Sarah provided the next question. “Billy’s got this area pretty much under his control,” she said in my ear. “Why? How?”
“Billy,” I said, scratching at my stubble as though the idea had come to me on its own, “how’d you get this whole area to follow your orders?”
“That’s pouring it on a bit thick,” Billy said. “I don’t give orders around here, see.”
His point was difficult to believe at that exact moment. A small child, who couldn’t have been much older than Avis, hurried over to the table and replaced Billy’s empty glass of water with a full one. He tousled her hair with one hand, eliciting a brief giggle, before she retreated again. I raised an inquisitive eyebrow at her back and then turned the expression back to Billy.
“It’s a bit complicated,” Billy said, after a couple of seconds. “See, these lovely people don’t have access to the sort of basic necessities that other people just take for granted. After Hill and I had our falling-out, I used a few of my connections to find a little place to call my own. And, so long as I’m here, I figure I might as well help out as much as I can.”
“How exactly do you help out?”
Billy shrugged. “Food, for the most part. A couple of warm beds, and a roof for when it’s raining.”
“When isn’t it raining?” Mila asked.
Billy laughed. “Fair point, that.”
“How can you afford all of this?” I cut in, before Mila could distract Billy from his answer. He was providing more than I’d asked for. I wasn’t sure if that was deliberate or if he was simply warming to the topic, but I wanted to ride that swell as long as possible.
“Connections, of course,” Billy said. “Just because I’m not in business with Hill anymore doesn’t mean I suddenly lost all of the professional relationships what got me this far in the first place.”
“You’re still dealing?”
“Facilitating,” Billy said, carefully applying stress to the word. “I figure that people are always going to want drugs; if I can make the process a little more streamlined and a little less dangerous, what’s the harm?”
“And Hill just lets you run a black market under his nose?”
“He doesn’t let me do anything,” Billy said, “so much as he doesn’t care enough to get directly involved.”
“How do you get your product?”
Billy started to answer and then stopped, as if suddenly realizing how much intelligence he was giving away for free. “Got me on gabbing on for a bit,” he said slowly. “Haven’t really been able to talk about this with anyone for a while. This lot doesn’t care how the product gets here, just that it’s here. But you owe me a couple of questions…tell you what, though. How about I narrow it down to just one, and we call it even?”
My ears perked up. “One question for the four I just asked you?”
“It’s kind of an important question,” Billy said.
“Go for it.” I kept my voice level but, internally, I sensed that Billy might be close to tipping his hand. The angle I’d been looking for might not be so hard to uncover, after all.
“My supply line’s been stretched a bit thin as of late,” Billy said. “Hill’s been muscling into the smuggling trade, putting his people in charge of shipments instead of relying on the Russians like we’d been doing before he ousted me.”
Stani grunted. It was the first sound I’d heard from him in a while. “There is one mystery solved,” he said in an undertone. At first, I thought he hadn’t meant for anyone to hear him, but I realized after a moment that he’d spoken in English. He looked up from the table and made eye contact with Billy.
“Vertical consolidation.” Billy nodded to himself. “Cut back on the amount of money going out to other parties, and use that to corner the market. Basic economic principles at work.” He gave me a small, rueful smile.
“Makes sense,” I admitted. Hill wasn’t the first person who had tried to use legitimate business practices in conjunction with underworld ruthlessness. He was, I had to admit, much more successful than most.
“I still don’t know exactly where he’s getting the capital from,” Billy continued, “but that’s neither here nor there. As you can see, my mobility has been a bit hampered since my last encounter with Hill and, while I don’t think this lot’s the sort to betray me, they don’t really have the skills I need to get my little business back on its feet.”
“And what skills are those?”
“I’m thinking that your skills might be what I’m looking for, actually. A thief might be just the sort of person we’ve been waiting for.”
I leaned forward, placing my elbows on the table. “You’ve got my attention. What’s your question?”
“Hill’s got an operation running, not far from here. His shipments get processed and trucked off to other distribution centers, so that he can keep the city in his chokehold. I was thinking that maybe some of that product might be better served in the hands of a legitimate man of the people, such as myself. And I was wondering if maybe you’d be up for a bit of light thievery tonight, before Hill’s men have a chance to get that product out onto the street.” He gestured at the map stretched across the table. “He’s already on the back foot after something happened to one of his other warehouses, and I’m thinking the loss of product here might be worse for his credibility than anything else.”
“Devlin,” Sarah said in my ear. “We do need to get some of Hill’s drugs, if we’re going to implicate him to Adlai and the rest of Interpol. This isn’t the way I’d want to do it, but we’d have to find another way to run down a pure stash otherwise.”
With Billy and the Russians seated around me, I couldn’t exactly answer her. I couldn’t even ask for advice. Instead, I met Mila’s eyes for a moment, before turning to Billy. “I’ve got questions of my own,” she said. “If he decides to help with your situation…”
Billy raised one hand into the air and placed another over his heart. “Swear on me mother’s eyes,” he said, thickening the accent for effect, “I’ll answer whatever questions you’ve got. I suspect there were other reasons for your late night slumming expedition, after all.”
Mila didn’t look away from Billy but I saw one shoulder climb minutely in the barest possible shrug. “Let me answer your question,” I said to Billy, “with another question.”
“Alright then. What is it?”
I allowed a slow, fox-like smile to creep across my lips. There were so many metaphorical birds in the air and here I was, presented with a single stone that could very well bring them all tumbling down. “When do we get started?”