Chapter Ninety-Three

Alex was escorted to our room by no fewer than four large attendants, all of whom kept their eyes locked on the large German as he entered the suite, as though they feared some rash action on his part.  Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely sure whether or not those concerns were unfounded.  Alex’s daughter had been kidnapped, as a marker in the contest between Asher and myself, and I had actually seen the depths of his fury after his wife had died as unfortunate, collateral damage.  If Alex possessed even a fraction of that anger, he would very likely solve the problem of what to do with Asher before Sarah or I had a chance to discuss it further.

Alex would kill him, plain and simple.  He’d do it with his own hands, or with a gun, or he’d pull one of his countless strings to arrange for some sort of bombing.  That was the best case scenario, too, assuming that we could find some way to get Ally away from her captors without incurring any harm.  If something actually happened to her?  If she actually died?

I shuddered and shied away from contemplating that hypothetical any more than strictly necessary.  Alex took a seat next to Sarah – who, I noticed, closed her laptop just before my old friend was close enough to see anything that might be displayed there – and wove his fingers together in a penitent gesture.  “Why would he do this?” he asked, facing me.  There was a palpable quality of pleading in his voice and in the way his head hung at a slight downward angle.  “I have done nothing to him.  Why would he take my baby girl?”

My heart broke at the sight of Alex like that, but I forced steel into my spine and voice.  “It isn’t about you,” I said.  “Asher can’t find us and he hasn’t been able to stop us, so he’s simply cutting the knot.  Why bother hunting us down when he came make us come to him?”

“So that he can kill you?”

“Torture me first, probably.  I’ve got a whole folder full of documents that outline a variety of ways in which that torture might take place.  But death would almost certainly be waiting at the end of that particular line of thought.”

“He knows you,” Alex said.  “And you know him.  He thinks that you would go into a trap, fully aware that a betrayal would wait for you?”

“Even if he outright promised to double-cross me,” I replied, “I’d still go wherever he wanted me to go.  He’s got your daughter and he wouldn’t even have come after you if not for me.”

Sarah cleared her throat.  “Technically, he wouldn’t have come after Alex if not for the Lady.  He wanted my head on a stick, regardless of what happened with your prison sentence.”

“The Lady?” Alex asked.  “Who is this Lady?”

“Someone with an interest in what we’ve been doing in London,” I replied.

“And seemingly inexhaustible bank accounts,” Sarah added.  “She’s the mysterious figure who broke Devlin out of jail in the first place, for currently unknown reasons.”

The elevator dinged and the three of us turned to face it.  It opened and the two previously absent members of our core team – Mila and Michel – entered the suite.  Michel froze momentarily when he saw Alex, an unfamiliar face, seated across the counter from Sarah and me.  Mila strode forward without an instant’s hesitation, although her eyes did temporarily narrow down to thin slits and she pulled her broken arm closer to her torso as she walked.

“Who’s this?” Mila asked, perhaps a little too casually.  She took position against the back of the couch; close enough that she could put hands on Alex if he got out of hand, but far enough away that she wouldn’t seem to be violating his personal space.

I shook my head in her direction.  “An old friend.  Alex, meet Mila, our friendly neighborhood muscle.  Mila, this is Alex.”

Alex turned to face Mila.  My position allowed me to see the muscles in his shoulders tighten – probably as he realized what she’d been doing – but he relaxed a moment later and extended a hand.  “You are the person who has kept my friends safe?”

Mila nodded.  “For the moment,” she said, shaking the offered hand.

“Thank you for that.  I do not know what I would have done if something had happened to either of them.”  He noticed Michel, lurking quietly by the door.  “Or to any of you, even if I do not know you as well as Sarah and Devlin.”

I raised a hand to put a stop to any further formalities that might only serve to waste precious time.  “That’s Michel.  I mentioned him when we talked in Munich.”

“The cab driver?” Alex asked me.  Then, to Michel, he added, “You must be very confused by everything that is happening.”

“You could say that,” Michel replied.  His lips stretched into a slight, sarcastic smile.

“Alright, everybody knows everybody,” I said, drawing every set of eyes in the room back to me.  “With all that out of the way, we need to make sure we’re all on the same page.  The Lady dropped off documents for me last night, after I got out of Scotland Yard, and I think there are some things in there that we all need to know about.”

One of Alex’s eyebrows went up.  “You were arrested?”

“No.  Well, not really.  It’s…complicated.”

So, while I finished fine-tuning the stew I’d started earlier and doled out helpings to everyone in the suite, I went back over the story I’d pieced together from the files the Lady had given me.  Talking to Sarah first had given me a better idea of which parts of the story I could safely skip over and which might prove to be essential at a later date, but even pared down to only the necessary bits, it took me a decent amount of time to cover everything.  When I was done, each bowl of stew sat untouched on the counter in front of its owner.

Mila was the first to speak.  “You think he’s brainwashed, then?”

I considered my answer for a few seconds, blowing idly on my bowl to calm down its contents.  “He doesn’t feel brainwashed,” I said finally.  “Does that make sense?”

“Not really, no.”

“If the Magi had gotten into his head as thoroughly as they wanted, he wouldn’t have a personal grudge, would he?  Let’s assume he’s in London on official Magi business.  Why would he jeopardize that with a personal grudge?  Wouldn’t he be beyond that sort of thing?”

The barest corners of Mila’s lips turned down into a frown.  “Maybe.”

“Besides, this all started for me in Paris after he was sufficiently beaten down that the Magi let him out on his own recognizance.  They can’t possibly have had me as a target, seeing as I didn’t even know they existed and I was pretty low-key before this whole mess spiraled out of control.”

Sarah snorted.  “Low-key, he says.  As if being an art thief isn’t the sort of thing that’s eventually going to attract attention.”

I acknowledged that with a vague wave of my hand.  “Point taken.  But there are other burglars with better track records and less baggage.  Asher’s betrayal was absolutely guaranteed to make me want a little payback.  And that ‘little payback’ has resulted in god-only-knows how much trouble for Hill.”

“The crown,” Sarah said, counting off items with her fingers.  “We got Avis out of the manor house.  And you and Billy practically blew up one of his major processing plants.”

“Don’t forget about that warehouse,” Mila added.  “After I got Devlin out of there, I made sure that Asher wouldn’t be going back.  Of course, it would have been too easy if he’d stayed inside during that, but…”  She trailed off, shrugging.

Alex gave Mila a strange look for several long seconds before he turned his attention back to me.  “What are you saying, Devlin?”

“It’s like they tried to brainwash him,” I said, drawing conclusions just ahead of my words.  “But they either failed at it, or they didn’t go far enough.  Nothing we think the Magi have done so far leads me to believe that they’re the type to settle for half-measures.”

“I don’t know about that,” Sarah said.  “I mean, yeah, they’re terrifyingly thorough.  Using your own encounter with the Lady as a baseline, we can assume they could have pressganged him into whatever job they wanted.  They certainly had the leverage.”


“But they wouldn’t want a complete puppet, just like the Lady didn’t try to force you into taking the job.  Manipulate, sure; deceive, con, or otherwise influence, of course.  But you wouldn’t have been anywhere near as motivated or creative if she’d put a gun to your head.  You would’ve spent the whole time trying to find some way from under her thumb.”

“And I’m not doing that now?”

Sarah snorted again.  “Of course you aren’t.  You haven’t had the time, for one thing.  And, for another, you want to get your hands on Asher.  It’s in your best interest right now to work with her, so you can take advantage of her resources.”

“So you’re thinking that the situation might be similar for Asher?”

She shrugged.  “You know him better than I do.  But you already said that it doesn’t feel like he’s brainwashed.  I’m just offering a possible explanation.”

“Well.”  I blew once more on the stew and sampled a spoonful.  It tasted exactly as I remembered: rich and thick, flavored with countless vegetables and simmered to near perfection.  That taste reminded me of my mother and that reminded me of my father.  I pushed those thoughts back down into the hole where I normally kept them.  “The punchline is, Sarah and I both agree that everything Asher has done so far has been of his own free will.”

“Wouldn’t matter to me, either way,” Mila said.  She tried the stew and, after a second, gave me an approving nod.  “If he’s coming after you, he’ll find me standing in the way.  Hell, even if he isn’t coming, I feel like I owe him a long conversation just for getting Aiden involved.”  She tried, and failed, to hide the shiver that ran through her body when she said the mercenary’s name.

“And he has your daughter?” Michel asked Alex.

Alex’s entire body stiffened and he nodded once, sharply.  “He is holding her hostage.  This girl Avis and Devlin, in exchange for my Ally.”

“He won’t risk anything happening to her until he’s got the two of us,” I said quickly.  “I don’t think he’d hesitate to…uh…act, but he set things up like this for a reason.  Hurting Ally wouldn’t give him anything.  We could all go underground and…”  My words faded into silence as an idea occurred to me.

Sarah knew me well enough to pick up on the shift.  “You just thought of something.  What?”

“He’s rushing this,” I said.  “Why?”

“You have been carving chunks out of the operation here since you got off the airplane,” Mila pointed out.

“It isn’t his operation, though.  And the Lady believes that Hill’s trying to get the leverage he’d need to work without the Magi pulling his strings.  If Asher’s job is to keep the peace in the organization by taking out any upstarts in the machine, leaving us alone would be the best thing he could do.”  Another thought fell into place.  “Wait, no; he said that he had a plan.  He made a point to tell me that.  Antagonizing all of us hasn’t worked out well for him so far and I’m a much better improviser than he is.  Rushing us now doesn’t make sense.  Why now, and not before?”

We all thought about that in silence for a few minutes, absently eating the meal I’d prepared.  Sarah was right.  Out of everyone in the suite, I knew Asher the best, inasmuch as anyone could really get to know the man.  My arrival in Ukraine, at the trap he’d left for the Russians, should have thrown him off balance.  He could adjust his plans, move timelines up or down as necessary, and hire outside help to tilt things back in his favor, but it was still in his best interest to slow things down.

Nothing I’d read and nothing that I remembered about Asher’s predilections and personality – at least, his personality before the Magi’s torture – jived with the kidnapping of Alex’s daughter.  Of course, it was a move that would almost certainly work to incite me into immediate action.  If he couldn’t find me, Asher could be reasonably certain that I’d walk wherever he wanted, with the life of a teammate or a loved one at stake.

Except…Sarah was here.  He’d seen her at the Green Light gala.  Alone, I might have rushed into whatever trap he’d set up.  With Sarah in town, there would be a voice of reason stopping me from any hasty decisions.  To say nothing of Mila, who he also knew about.  If it came down to it, I had no doubt whatsoever that Mila would wrestle me to the ground and hogtie me if I willingly tried to throw myself onto Asher’s mercies.

I was missing something.  That wasn’t a new feeling.  I’d been missing something since the Lady’s unasked-for jailbreak.  But, now, I was missing something important and immediately relevant.  Some bit of information that might prove vital to getting my team out of the quagmire we’d managed to find ourselves stuck in.  Something that –

My head jerked up as yet another puzzle piece found its way into its proper place.  “He didn’t know about Alex,” I said.  I’d meant to say that in my own mind, but the words slipped past my lips anyway.

“What’s that?” Sarah asked.

“He didn’t know about Alex,” I repeated.  “Neither did the Lady, come to think of it.  They knew everywhere I’d gone, except for Munich.”

“Why would he take my child, then?” Alex asked.

“That wasn’t targeted.  I mean, it was, but not like you think.  Sarah was out of his reach or he would have gone after her.  You’re retired, you’re relatively easy to locate, and kidnapping your daughter would be an easy way to bait me into a trap.”  I blinked.  “No, wait.  That’s not right.  It’s more like…involving you like this, under the assumption that I’ve been keeping you in the dark is the sort of thing that would drive a massive wedge between us.  He doesn’t think you know anything about what’s been going on here.  He can’t know; the only time I’ve seen you in person is a blank spot in his information.”

“Does that give us anything we can use?” Sarah asked.

“I don’t know.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But it is something, and I’m not about to start turning down possible advantages right now.”

Everyone in the room nodded, almost in unison.

“’We’ve got a week, then,” I said.  “That’s when he’ll be expecting us to show up, respective hats in respective hands, to deliver Avis and myself.”

“Which you aren’t going to do?” Michel asked.

“If I thought that would stop him from hurting Ally, I’d already be making plans to keep all of you clear from any backlash.  But it won’t, so no.  I’m not going to do that.”

“What are we going to do, then?”

I hadn’t really known what I would do until Michel asked that particular question.  Options and possibilities floated around in my head, making haphazard connections to other thoughts and breaking away as one complication or another rendered them impossible or unfeasible.  I didn’t have to look at her face to know that Sarah was watching me for a cue of some sort.  Mila, from her spot by the couch, wore a cloak of perfect calm, betrayed only by the slight tremor in her hands.  Alex sat next to me, as taut as piano wire, his hands clenching and unclenching in unconscious agony.

No one said anything.  The choice, apparently, was up to me.

That suited me just fine.  When Asher had decided to kidnap Ally, he had crossed a line far greater than the one he’d abused back in Paris.  It was time that I stopped nibbling at the edges of the problem and attacked it head on.

“That’s an easy one,” I said.  “We’re going to steal Ally back.”


Chapter Ninety-Two

The manila folder held more than just police reports.  Contained within, I found documents that detailed intercepted communications; alleged sightings of Asher all across Europe; treatises on torture, published by both reputable and less savory sources; blueprints for some sort of underground complex; and so on.  The information there provided a general framework for the events that might have transpired in Asher’s life after the explosion in St. Petersburg.  My personal knowledge of the man – his tastes, inclinations, the general attitude with which he approached fresh difficulties – allowed me to fill in any blanks, as I encountered them.

As much as I chafed under her yoke, I had to admit that the Lady had been incredibly thorough.  Clearly, the folder I flipped through represented more than our serendipitously timed distraction.  Some of the reports and documents had been translated into English, even the ones that would never have left the direct supervision of authorities with no need to do so.  Whenever I encountered a topic that I didn’t fully understand, an explanatory diagram would soon follow to provide, if not complete mastery, at least a basis from which to work.  Every single scrap of data has been collected, organized, and presented in a manner that seemed specifically tailored for me, and me alone.

The Lady had been busy.  Between pages, I wondered when she’d found the time to devote this much attention to such a complete profile on a single individual who should, by all rights, have barely registered on her radar.  Operating a criminal conspiracy at the scale of the Lady or the Magi must provide benefits in a variety of ways.

When I finished reading through all of the assorted documentation, I checked my phone.  Hours had passed and, consumed with the Lady’s ‘gift,’ I’d lost track of time.  The temporary consideration of a second read-through tempted me but a rumble that ran through my stomach like a nascent earthquake derailed that thought.  The documents could wait, I decided.

I left my room and walked into the kitchen, preparing to make either breakfast or a late lunch.  Sarah sat at the counter, working on something that I couldn’t see from my angle.  She had changed into a thin sweater and tied her brown curls away from her face.  With the still-rising sun beaming light into the room via the balcony window, her cheekbones were highlighted and every line of her face seemed to be more distinct and pronounced in a wholly appreciable way.

“What’d you find?” She asked, without preamble and with only a fleeting glance up to acknowledge who had entered the room.

“A lot more than I expected.”  I shook my head to clear away the unwanted wanderings of the more masculine parts of my mind.  “Not as much as I’d like.  Not yet, at least.  What’ve we got in the fridge?”

“I don’t know.”  She shrugged.  “Just call room service.  Or, if you want something a little classier, I would be very surprised to discover that Sophie can’t handle food.”

“And I would do that, if I wanted someone to bring me food.  I don’t want to do that.  What I want to do is cook.”  I opened the fridge and began rummaging around.  The fact that the cabinets and fridge were stocked with a variety of ingredients hadn’t seemed particularly odd before.  The Brooklands was a classy establishment, after all.  Now, I was beginning to suspect that the Lady had arranged for my suite, specifically, to be outfitted with the essential elements necessary for late night and early morning cooking therapy.

Sarah looked over the top of her laptop, weighed something in her mind, and then nodded once.  “Whatever you’re making, you mind if I have one, too?”

“Just because I’m cooking doesn’t mean you have to wait for me to finish.  I don’t even know what I’m going to do and I don’t know how long it’ll take.”

“I’m not starving,” Sarah said.  “Besides, we can talk while you’re working your magic.  You show me yours, et cetera.”

That mental image threatened to draw a smile out of me.  I suppressed it before Sarah had a chance to see even the faintest micro-expression on my face.  “It’s five o’ clock somewhere, right?”  I pulled a beer and several other ingredients out of the fridge without waiting for an answer, rummaged around in the cabinets for a few more, and topped it off by pouring coffee for myself into a cup that was large enough that it probably deserved its own space on the counter.

“So, you want me to go first?” Sarah asked.

I nodded and started searching for an apron.  “What’ve I missed?”

“I got into contact with Alex,” she said.  “Forwarded him the video.  He’s…understandably terrified, but I told him that…well, if Asher wanted to kill her, Allie would already be dead.”

“That doesn’t mean he isn’t going to do it anyway, even if I was crazy enough to hand Avis over to him.”

“Which is exactly what Alex himself pointed out.  The only way to deal with this situation is to get Allie away from him before he has the opportunity to do anything to hurt her.”

I located an apron – which read “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” and confirmed my earlier suspicions about the Lady’s involvement in the contents of my pantry – and started to work.  I splashed olive oil into a large cooking pot, switched one of the stove’s eyes on, and set the pan there to warm.  Another few seconds of searching followed before I found an appropriate chef’s knife.  I set to slicing mushrooms.

I kept talking while my fingers worked, expertly sliding the mushrooms along the cutting board and leaving neat, even slices of mushroom in the knife’s wake.  “It isn’t even about her,” I said.  “It’s barely about me.”

“What do you mean?”

I finished with the mushrooms and began peeling garlic cloves.  That wasn’t my favorite part of the recipe, as garlic had a tendency to bring tears to my eyes regardless of my emotional state or preparations, but there wasn’t really any substitute for good garlic.  “There isn’t anything solid in that file,” I said, “but I can guess at what happened after St. Petersburg.”

“You…you still never told me what happened there,” Sarah said.  “I mean…”

The sliced mushrooms and peeled garlic cloves went into the pan and started to simmer in the lightly heated oil.  “It’s way past the point where I get to keep secrets.  People have kidnapped, Alex’ daughter is in danger…the Lady had the right idea when she gave me that file.  If we’re going to get out of this alive, then we’ve got to share all of the information we’ve got.”

“You’re sure?  I want to know, obviously, but I don’t want to push.”

“You aren’t pushing, I offered.”  I wiped the knife clean and gave the rest of the ingredients – leeks, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and so on – a critical look.  “If what I’m thinking turns out to be correct, then we need to all be clear on this.  Where are Mila and Michel and the others?  I’d rather not have to go over this multiple times.”

“Neal took Avis out to pick up some new books.  I’m guessing they might have something to do with the information she’s decoding…or maybe she just got bored.”  Sarah shrugged.  “I don’t know for sure.  Michel’s burning off some stress at the racetrack.  Mila’s at the gym downstairs, cheerfully ignoring doctor’s orders and trying to work through her own personal physical therapy.  You want to wait for them?”

I considered that and then shook my head.  It wasn’t that I doubted the merits of any contributions that the others might be able to provide.  The events of the previous night alone had done more than enough to earn my faith.  What stopped me from sending a call downstairs was the simple knowledge that Sarah knew me, in a way that no dossier or fact sheet could duplicate.  She was far more likely to follow the intuitive leaps in the story I’d pieced together.

Also, I found myself unwilling to give up the familiarity of the moment.  Sarah, working on one of her computers, while I prepared food for the two of us.  It wasn’t an exact mirror of those happier days, before she and I had split ways, but it was close.

So, I told her what I’d learned in the past few hours, while I sliced and simmered.  I started with my own memories of the St. Petersburg job, with all of its fire and destruction and chaos.  Then, I went over it with the new information in mind, sharing my thoughts on what had probably happened to Asher after I’d left the country.  I didn’t gloss over the details of the various torture techniques discussed in the Lady’s documents: extreme isolation, sensory deprivation, prolonged physical discomfort, and simple beatings delivered by professionals who knew how best to hurt a man.

From there, we went over the confirmed sightings of Asher across the continent, flitting from one town to the next.  Everywhere he went, there was a brief uptick in the violence of the underworld, followed by a prolonged period of relative calm.  That had continued until he found me, after the divorce, and talked me into the run on the Museé d’Orsay.

The betrayal, and everything that followed after, had already been discussed at great length.  There was no new information on Asher’s movements after that, except for an intercepted email that confirmed Asher’s awareness of the grudge between Mila and Aiden.

By the time I finished, the kitchen was filled with the sweet scent of my recipe.  Sarah sat in silence, watching me for any sign that I still had more story to tell.  When she realized that I was finished, she bit down on her bottom lip for a long moment.  “Well,” she said, finally.


“Well,” she elaborated, “that almost makes me feel bad for him.  If you’re right, that is.”

“I freely admit that I might just be pulling all of this out of my own guilt complex,” I said, “but I don’t think so.  It explains too much: why he blames me for what happened, why he’s coming after the both of us with such fanatical focus, how the Magi got their hooks into him in the first place.”

Sarah nodded.  “I’m inclined to agree with your read on the situation.  I’d like to look over those files myself, just to make sure.”

“That’s fine, but…some of this stuff was pretty graphic.”

She gave me an incredulous look, but the expression wasn’t entirely without warmth.  “I think I’ll survive.”

I used a tablespoon to open the beer and poured it into the pot.  “So, does this change anything?”

Sarah blinked.  “Why would it change anything?  Asher’s still trying to kill you and Hill almost certainly has started harboring his own grudge against the individual who has busily been dismantling his operations in the space of about a week.”

“Yeah, but…I don’t know, he was tortured, Sarah.  That’s got to be seen as some sort of mitigating circumstance, doesn’t it?”

“I said I almost feel bad for him,” Sarah said.  “Not that I actually did.  Let’s assume that everything happened exactly the way you think it did.  If all it took for Asher to conclude that you had abandoned him or replaced him with me – and I honestly wasn’t even sure I liked you after the charity thing – then he was looking for a reason to turn coat.  Seriously, you?  If you’d had even the slightest hint that he might have been alive, the Magi would have had to kill you to get you to stop.  And you want me to believe he didn’t know that?”

Sarah’s voice was harder than I’d expected.  Almost as hard, in fact, as when she’d essentially banished me from her life.  I swallowed and thought carefully before speaking again.  “What I mean is this: he’s got his own version of events.  And, in his own mind, I’ve committed an unspeakable sin by leaving him to play the part of the Magi’s torture puppet for the better part of a year.  That isn’t the kind of thing he’s going to let go of.  Ever.”

“We already knew that.  Or suspected it, at least.”

“We didn’t know exactly what happened to him.  He sees this as a blood debt.  If we want to stop him from coming after us…”  I trailed off, inviting Sarah to finish the thought on her own.

She did so, out loud, instead of silently within her own mind.  “He has to die.  You’re saying we absolutely have to kill him?”

“I’m not seeing any other options here.  He wants me, he wants you.  Whatever game he’s playing with Hill requires Avis and I doubt Neal’s going to be forgiven for spiriting her away from the manor house.  Aiden was practically promised Mila, in addition to payment.  Michel might slip away, if he could be convinced to leave right now and never look back.”

“Which he won’t do.”

“Which he won’t do,” I agreed.  “So…I’m not seeing any other way out of this.  And even getting to the point where making that choice is a problem requires that we find a way to get Ally away from Asher and handle Hill, so that he can’t just use his own considerable connections to protect him.”

“I would say that we’ve got full plates here,” Sarah said, “but that seems like woeful understatement.”

I nodded in commiseration and returned the mushrooms, as well as a few other ingredients that I’d picked up from my mother when she’d be in a state to teach, to the pot.  “That’s what I’ve got.  What about you?”

“Well, your appearance at the police station, coupled with the sudden absence of any evidence that even remotely ties you to either the museum or the manor house, has led the police to drop any further investigation into your whereabouts.”

“That’s in the news?”

Sarah shook her head.  “I’m still in their system.  This won’t last for very long, though.  I didn’t have the time to write a program that would avoid detection forever, but it should stay in place until the next update or the next time someone in their IT department looks at the code, whichever comes first.  Adlai sent a very strongly worded memo about the file corruption, by the way, so I’m expecting the IT department to get involved pretty soon.”

“Well, being able to monitor law enforcement was too much to ask for,” I said.  “We couldn’t have things get any easier for us.”

“Beyond that,” Sarah said, ignoring my attempt at levity, “I’ve set up some basic communications to keep in contact with Billy and the Russians.  They know enough about what’s going on here that I thought it might be best to keep them handy, just in case we come up with something that involves them.”

“Leonid and Iosif might be able to provide backup for Mila, if we need muscle,” I said.  “Although if it comes to needing muscle, something else has probably gone horribly wrong, but that’s how it goes.”

“Exactly my thoughts.  But, as you’re so fond of saying…”

“Better to have it and not need it,” I recited, “then to need it and not have it.  Okay.  Anything else?”

“Other than my absolute terror that we’re going to screw this up somehow?”

“Right.  Other than that.”

“Well, no.  It’s been pretty quiet on my end of things, which does not make me feel good.”

I checked the pot before crossing the kitchen so that I could stand on the other side of the counter from Sarah.  “We can do this,” I said softly.  “I’m not expecting it to be simple; I’m absolutely not expecting things to go the way we think they will.  But we can do this.”

The fact that I was breaking my own superstitions did not escape Sarah’s notice.  “Don’t say that,” she snapped immediately.

“I’m saying it,” I continued, “because I believe in us.  In you, and in Michel, and in Mila.  I’m even willing to say that the Russians and Billy’s guys might be useful, when it comes right down to it.”

“I don’t have the slightest idea how we’re going to play this,” Sarah said.  “And that’s my thing.  Do you have some secret plan you’re reluctant to share with the class?”

“Not a clue,” I said.  “But we’ll figure out…something.  We’re going to save Ally, take down Hill, and settle things with Asher, one way or another.”

Sarah opened her mouth to say something and was interrupted when the room phone rang.  She and I exchanged confused looks before I crossed the room to answer.  “Hello?” I said cautiously.

“Afternoon,” Sophie’s cool professional voice said from the other end of the line.  “I trust that your experience here at the Brooklands is still satisfactory.”

I mouthed Sophie’s name to Sarah before responding.  “Everything’s perfect, Sophie,” I said.  “But we’re kind of in the middle of a conversation right now.  Was there something you needed?”

“Ah…”  Sophie seemed uncharacteristically hesitant for a moment.  “As it happens, you have a guest.”

My hand tightened around the receiver of its own accord.  “A guest?  We don’t have guests, Sophie.  I thought that much was clear.”

“As did I,” Sophie said, “but this particular guest is very…insistent that I allow him up to your rooms.  He asked you for by name, in fact.”

I started to reply, but paused.  By name?  We weren’t using our real names and if Asher had knew where we were, he would have probably sent some goons to camp just up the street that could ambush us whenever we left the hotel.  “Has this guest said anything about what he wants?”

Before Sophie could answer, I heard a deep voice bellow in the background.  “Let me through!  If I must beat you all to reach that elevator, so help me God, that is exactly what I will do!”

I blinked in confusion.  That was Alex’ voice.  It had only been a few hours since we’d even learned about what Asher had done.  “Soph, can you put him on the phone?  And if you could see to it that anybody downstairs conveniently forgets about this afternoon’s disturbances, I’m sure my, uh, account will cover drinks for everybody involved.”  It stood to reason that the Lady could afford to handle a few bribes.  If not, she could bill me for the difference at her earliest convenience.

“Of course, sir.”

There was a bit of shuffling and a few German words that sounded like curses – it was very difficult to tell the difference – before Alex spoke into the phone.  “Devlin? Is that you?”

“Don’t say my real name!” I snapped.  “God, that’s the last thing we need.”

“I…I am not myself,” Alex said.  “When I heard what Asher had done, I used my contacts to get here as soon as possible.  I must get her back!”

“And that’s exactly what we’re going to do, Alex,” I said.

“Then I will help!  Whatever you need me to do, I will do it.  Asher will pay for this.”  There was an unmistakable note of true rage in his voice and I’d never heard anything like that from Alex before.

“That’s what we’re thinking, Alex.  Trust me.”

“Then we must find him.  What do we do first?”

I thought for a moment.  “Tell Sophie that I said it’s okay for you to come up,” I said.  “I’m thinking we start things off with a late breakfast.”

Part 4: Recap

After the problematic extraction of “the key” – actually a preteen girl named Avis, as well as her friend/handler Neal – Devlin O’Brien and the rest of his team soon discover that their exploits in the London countryside have garnered the attention of the London Metropolitan Police and, in a spectacularly unfortunate turn of events, Adlai Neetipal, Devlin’s own personal nemesis.  With his name and face publically displayed on the news and the noose slowly tightening around his neck, Devlin and Sarah decide that they must first tackle the problem of the police before turning their attention fully towards whatever challenge lies around the next corner.

First, he must find a way to steal an authorized identification card, from someone with the clearance necessary to enter Scotland Yard and retrieve or destroy any incriminating evidence.  Sarah works her networking magic to ensure that Adlai’s superior, Inspector Lane, will be at a specific location at a very specific time and, as Devlin’s face is the one on display, Mila and Michel take point on the initial leg of the operation.

The plan is deliberately uncomplicated.  Michel is to pour shots down Lane’s throat, until such time as Mila is capable of lifting and copying the man’s identification card.

Immediately, the framework of that plan falls to ruin, when Mila and Michel discover that Adlai himself has joined Lane at the bar.  Instead of calling things off, however, Michel musters the resolve to follow through with the approach.  With Devlin in his ear to guide the conversation, Michel deftly navigates past any conversational traps planted by the Indian agent.  Even Mila’s unplanned detour – leaving her ward momentarily for a hasty discussion with the Japanese twins that Devlin calls The Things – doesn’t cause too many ripples.  At least, until Adlai discovers the miniature camera on Michel’s lapel.

Some fast thinking, faster fingers, and a touch of a silver tongue manage to derail Adlai’s suspicions.  Michel manages to convince both the agent and his Superintendent that he is a police officer, planted undercover in Hill’s organization.  A quick call from Lane luckily provides confirmation that at least one officer is, in fact, working to derail the operation from the inside.  Using that serendipitous knowledge as a basis for his new cover identity, Michel is able to distract Lane long enough for Mila to do her work, and then beat a hasty escape before any questions can be asked that might compromise his true goal.

Before the night is out, though, Devlin receives a terse phone call from associates he had not expected and was not prepared for: Stanislav Novikof, the Russian Mafioso, and his two lieutenants.  Stani requires Devlin’s presence in the slums of London, for some task that might potentially provide illumination to the mystery of the Magi, the ephemeral crime lords that seem to be providing Asher with both support and considerable firepower.

Mila cannot be contacted, for some reason, and Michel is incapacitated by one too many celebratory shots.  Sarah’s physical presence is completely out of the question, so Devlin goes to meet the Russians alone.  The meeting is supposed to take place within a local black market, an impoverished pocket of commerce and activity within the world of the downtrodden and destitute.  Devlin meets the Russians and, after a short conversation, discovers that Stani now suspects that he is involved with the Magi and might actually be working on their behalf.  The unexpected arrival of Mila, walking the black market for her own mysterious reasons, doesn’t help matters.

Devlin temporarily diffuses the situation long enough for the group – consisting now of Devlin, Mila, Stani, Leonid, and Iosif – to head towards their true destination: a building constructed of black stone, standing tall and unbowed within the poverty of the black market.  Inside, they meet a man with ties to Hill, the Russian mafia, and to the people who seek shelter in his Halfway House, who introduces himself simply as Billy.

Billy makes a request of Devlin’s team that might help all parties involved.  A processing plant in the area is run by Hill and serves as a cover for his drug smuggling.  Inside, a special type of plastic can be transmuted back into pure cocaine.  Billy wants to sabotage the plant entirely, by replacing the treated plastic with a special version.  This version, when subjected to extreme heat, will produce extreme quantities of toxic smoke, forcing a shutdown of the processing plant and hobbling Hill’s efforts.

In exchange for leading this raid, Billy offers to answer any question that Devlin has about the man. The opportunity to deal another blow to Hill – and, by extension, Asher – is too much for Devlin and Sarah to turn down.  With the addition of James and Chester, two of Billy’s men, they set off for the factory with a hastily constructed plan and no real idea of how badly things could go wrong.

The approach goes perfectly.  The infiltration, with Sarah’s crucial long-distance assistance, goes perfectly.  In fact, everything goes wonderfully until Devlin and Mila reach the center of the operation, where the chemical process is supposed to take place.  Then, and only then, do they discover that the product contained in the loading area is common baking soda, not cocaine.  And the center of the plant does not harbor the mechanism for transmuting plastic into cocaine.  For some reason, nothing is the way it should be.

Instead of a successful raid, Devlin and Mila discover that they have walked themselves directly into a trap.

With law enforcement on the way, summoned by a deliberately triggered alarm, and Aiden’s group of cutthroat mercenaries even closer, Devlin makes the call to finish with the plan.  Instead of relying on a scheduled chemical process to activate Billy’s fake plastic, he uses two of the chemicals located within the plant to forcibly create a fire that will provide cover for his escape.  The fact that the factory is not up to safety standards, and the localized reaction results in a massive conflagration instead of a controlled burn, comes as a surprise to everyone in the building.

Chaos rains from the sky around them, as Devlin and Mila, as well as Stani and his lieutenants, search for a way out of the burning factory.  A path out, via the loading bay, is provided by Sarah, but the presence of Aiden’s man Carlos complicates matters.  In complete defiance of Devlin’s wishes and fervent requests, Mila takes it upon herself to do her job: protecting Devlin from harm, no matter the cost.  She stays behind, firing blindly into the fire to distract Carlos until Devlin and the Russians can make it to the relative safety of Billy’s Halfway House.  Devlin watches, transfixed, as the building tears itself apart and Mila is lost to the blaze before the toxic fumes he has inhaled drag him away from the world of the conscious.

When he wakes again, Devlin is surprised to see that Sarah has left her command post at the Brooklands.  She informs him of his injuries and informs him that Mila survived the explosion at the processing plant and is now held at Scotland Yard, awaiting further questioning.  Devlin rallies and marshals his wits for an impassioned speech, only to learn that Sarah and Michel have already decided on the only appropriate course of action.  Mila is one of theirs.  Where the previous twenty-four hours had been bent wholly to the task of removing Devlin from beneath the watchful eye of the police, now they must go directly into the dragon’s lair to retrieve their teammate before things can find a more disastrous path to follow.

Billy, and a few more men in his employ, join them for the initial approach on Scotland Yard.  Billy engages with several workers and a foreman, working on the reconstruction of the building, and provides Sarah with access to a working set of blueprints.  Michel uses the stolen identity card, as well as a falsified uniform, to gain access to their internetwork.  With all that done, Sarah readies herself to do something she has not done since joining forces with Devlin, so many years ago: she must go into the field, to provide a distraction for Adlai that he cannot ignore, so that Michel is able to steal, destroy, or corrupt anything that might provide the police with any solid basis for further investigations into Devlin or his allies.

But Adlai is not interested in Sarah’s stories and he shows no weakness to the Ford name.  With time running out, and fearing that Sarah might be compromised, Devlin takes it upon himself to sever the complicated knot.  He presents himself to the agents, prepared to match wits with the man who has hunted him for nearly a decade.

The conversation between Adlai and Devlin is civil, yet charged with a terrifying energy.  Their ideals clash in violent exchanges.  Just when Devlin is convinced that he will be forced to spend even more time in jail – only thirty-six hours, instead of the two and a half years inflicted on him by Asher – he is rescued by the intervention of a mysterious figure.  Within seconds, he discovers the identity of that savior: David, the giant who stood like a sentinel over the shoulder of the Lady in the Black Dress.  She greets him as he exits the police station, gives him a thick file of information pilfered from the clutches of Scotland Yard during his operation, and leaves him with a few cryptic words: “Your friends will be the death of you.”

It is not until some time later, safely ensconced within the protective walls of the Brooklands, that Devlin remembers the ignored calls and missed text messages from his old friend Alex in Berlin.  While he listens to those messages, an email arrives from an anonymous source, whose identity is quickly made clear: Asher, reaching out to taunt his former partner just a little more.

Instead of attempting to run down Devlin, Asher has also elected to cut the knot and take the shortest path to his goal.  Why search for his former partner when the kidnapping of Allie, Alex’ only daughter, will accomplish the same goal?

Now, Devlin finds himself faced with an even more impossible task than any he has faced thus far.  How can he steal Allie away from Asher’s clutches, without exposing his team to even greater risk?  Is there a way to turn events away from their inevitably disastrous conclusion and to pull success from the clutches of almost certain defeat?  If one man can go from most wanted to exonerated in a single night, might it also be possible to go from defense to offense?

He does not know.  What he does know is that he will have to find new reserves of intelligence and cunning, lest his alleged crimes against Asher finally come calling for a price too expensive for anyone to pay.


Third Sighting

“I’ve got a job opportunity for you, if you’re interested.  The pay’s good and, all things being equal, the targets aren’t the sort of people who’ll put up much resistance.  At least…most of them aren’t.  But the only trouble you’re likely to encounter is probably the sort you’ve been looking for, if my sources are correct: a certain bodyguard-cum-hitman, hired to protect a former acquaintance of mine.  I’m only concerned with the leader of this little group.  I want him alive, if at all possible.  If you have to kill him…well, things happen, but there’s a bonus if you can bring him only slightly bruised.  I assume you’ll want the girl.  I leave any other parties that might be at the scene up to your own discretion.  Previous recommendations lead me to believe that witnesses won’t be a problem.  Further information is attached to this email, Aiden, and I look forward to doing business with you.”

~Email sent from, intercepted via Stingray unit on November 29th, 2016.  Attempts to trace message’s source or to determine the intended recipient failed, due to an implanted virus that resulted in several thousand dollars’ worth of equipment being forcibly decommissioned.  Case file remains open; however, orders from the district chief have mandated that the investigation has a lower priority.


After a certain point, Asher decided that levels of pain were a purely academic distinction.  The human body could only take so much abuse before the mind simply shut down any further input, perhaps in an effort to protect sanity.  Beyond the moment when shock commandeered his senses, Asher was able to clinically assess the damage being caused to his body with the detachment of a surgeon.  There, a neat incision designed specifically to allow the injection of some sort of liquid fire into the veins on his right thigh.  There, the dislocation of yet another finger, completing the set of mangled digits.  There, the exact instant when his lungs threatened to burst from sheer agony, when arms descended into the bucket of freezing water to haul him back up for another breath of oxygen.

His torturers were apparently skilled beyond measure, though.  Asher was never allowed to spend too much time analyzing his own injuries from a great mental distance.  When the pain no longer had any effect on him, he would be led from whatever chamber of hell the day had called for, back to a simple cot in a room with four, blank metal walls.  Some sort of meal always waited for him atop a knee-high desk, the room’s only unnecessary decoration.  The contents or ingredients used to prepare that meal were unclear.  Asher suspected that, even if he had been able to muster the willpower to care, none of the man who carried him to and from his newest prison would tell him what food he shoveled into his body at the end of each session.  It was possible that they didn’t even know, themselves.

An hour or so after eating would be spent staring into the middle distance, creating elaborate mental constructions, drawing lines in the air to connect one idea to another, and concocting intricate heists on buildings that didn’t exist for items he knew nothing about.  This was the only part of his cycle that he enjoyed, inasmuch as he enjoyed anything.  What happened to his body was out of his control.  He could no more resist the men who dragged him off to his daily tortures than he could will himself to disappear through the walls themselves.  The men, and occasionally women, who held the implements used to cut, bludgeon, and assault him showed Asher no mercy whether he cried out or stared up at them with flat, stoic eyes.  But he could control his mind and he threw himself into the process of building fortifications around his thoughts with absolute abandon.

Eventually, he slipped into unconsciousness.  Sometimes, this happened after he had finished with his day’s mental exercises; other times, exhaustion forced itself onto him without his consent.  Mostly, he saw nothing but blackness while he slumbered.  That reminded him of his time in the pit, when the darkness had threatened his sanity.  Perhaps one cycle out of five, he dreamed about the world outside of the complex he was now trapped within.  Those dreams ranged from his time on the Street, to the underworld connections who might have played a part in his capture, and even included variants of the disastrous job in St. Petersburg.  In those visions, the reality of that event changed to suit his whims: he escaped before the burning beam of wood fell in his path; he told Devlin about his plan and, together, the two of them had managed to contrive a way to slip the noose his captors had set for him; he was just fast enough that, when the beam fell from the rooftop, it crushed his skull and left him dying on the floor of the mansion where he’d been hiding.

That last dream came more frequently than the others, as Asher’s time at his captor’s mercy grew longer and longer.

Inevitably, however, he awoke to find himself still in the sterile metal room, still unable to see any possible escape from the complex that seemed to hold limitless, fresh nightmares.  The men came with their dead eyes and their tightly-pressed lips; they half-dragged, half-carried him out of his room and down to a specific chamber set aside for the day’s ordeals.  And the cycle began again.  And again.  And again.

After enough of these, Asher realized several important things.

One: whatever purpose his captors had in store for him, it obviously required his continued good health.  They clearly had no problem inflicting atrocities on him in the short-term, but nothing that the white-coated men and women did to him left any permanent damage.  The liquid fire was gone from his veins in a few hours; the fingers were always carefully put back into place after enough time had passed; they allowed him enough time to catch his breath before dunking back into the ice-cold water.  He couldn’t be sure, but Asher suspected that a separate team of medical professionals – or maybe even the same people who had caused the damage in the first place – slipped into his room at night to make sure that he remained healthy enough for another go-round in the torture carousel.

That didn’t tell him anything useful, but it was still something that might prove instrumental at a later time.

Two: there was no answer he could give, either to the men who held him down or the ones who did the cutting, that would end the anguish.  If his captors wished for him to agree to their demands, that would have been simple enough.  Asher would have cheerfully screamed any vow of loyalty they asked for until his throat bled, after even the first few cycles, when the professionals hadn’t been quite so creative with their choice of trauma.  No matter what he said, though, they kept working with their scalpels, their syringes, and their tiny hammers.

If the people in charge didn’t want him to say anything, that implied they wanted him to do something, instead.  What that might be eluded him, despite many cycles spent turning that problem around in his newly, oddly flexible mind.

Three: despite what he’s told the digitized voice, back in the pit…despite what he’d honestly believed to be true…Asher still had some hope.  It wasn’t that he believed Devlin would find some way to infiltrate Asher’s prison and free him from his captors.  That was so unlikely that it was closer to a fantasy than any real, plausible idea.  But Asher still believed that when he was free – and he truly believed that a point would come when he’d endured enough suffering that the people in charge would see fit to release him back into the world – he would be able to find Devlin again.  It might take some fast-talking to convince him back into the game, but the knowledge of what Asher had suffered through would likely serve as enticement.

The two of them could confer on the matter.  Asher, with his gift for long-term planning, and Devlin, with his talent for spur-of-the-moment improvisation, would form a team capable of dismantling the operation.  Then, Asher would be free to spend many long nights introducing his captors to the same brand of hospitality they had shown him thus far.

Thus, it was only a matter of endurance.  At the beginning of each cycle, Asher reminded himself that things might get better, eventually.  They would get better.  He only had to hold on.

He clung to that belief, cycle after cycle, until the day when the men dragged him out of his room and led him back to the pit.  Except for a primal fear that clawed up from his belly, Asher found that he looked forward to a day spent in isolation.  As torture, forced solitude paled in comparison to some of the more esoteric experiences that had been inflicted on him.  He was surprised when the men did not carry him all the way to the back of the pit, where the single chain and manacle lay, but instead dropped him midway between the door and the dark television screen.  The men left without a word, as they always did, and Asher was alone.

He knew to expect the voice, even before it spoke.  “Look.”

The television screen flickered and came to life.  Asher did as he was told, moving closer to the television so that he could see what image his captors had contrived for today’s newest agony.  He was surprised to discover that it was some horrible picture or video – several possibilities came to mind as soon as he considered that as a possible tactic – but was instead a fairly banal still image of some city at night, with occasional streetlamps providing dots of light on into the distance.

No…not a still image, but a video.  A soft breeze carried occasional bits of trash or scraps of paper down the visible street.  The resolution wasn’t good enough for Asher to actually see a printed date on any of the paper scraps, but he was able to see enough that he recognized that the language on each torn sheet was English.

“Why are you showing me this?” Asher asked.  Where before his voice might have been filled with derision and sarcasm, most of that had been beaten out of him.  Now, he sounded weary to his own ears.  “What’s this supposed to do?”

The digitized voice did not answer, and Asher assumed that his captors wouldn’t have chosen this particular torment without a very good reason, so he fell silent and watched the screen again.  It didn’t take very long before he saw what he had most likely been intended to see.

Devlin dashed into view on the screen.  He was dressed in a traditional tuxedo, holding a long tube underneath his arm.   It looked like the sort of canister he used to transport any genuine or counterfeit artwork that he needed to move without raising alarm.  Asher hadn’t found much use for them, personally, but that had always been Devlin’s arena.

This,” the voice said, “is the world, as it is.

Asher sighed.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

Live footage.  A charity ball, infiltrated by your former friend and ex-partner, was burgled tonight.”

So, Devlin had stolen some painting from the rich and powerful.  Asher smiled for the first time in what felt like forever.  Of course, Devlin was still working.  “Did he get one of yours?”

No.  An attempt to soothe the conscience, from one of our peers.  Our assets are more secure, as you are well aware.”

“Why do you want me to care about this?” Asher asked.  “Obviously, you’re doing this for a reason.  What lesson am I supposed to learn?”

From isolation, you lost hope.  From torture, you gained fear.  From this…

The voice trailed off.  On the screen, a second figure became visible from beyond the edge of the camera’s range.  Judging from the height and the frizzy mane of brown curls, Asher guessed that it was a woman.  From their body language, even considering the terrible quality of the video footage, he could see the attraction between Devlin and the unnamed newcomer.  The smile on his face froze, turned brittle, and shattered into pieces in the space of only a few heartbeats.

It was not burgled alone,” the voice said.  “Devlin’s new partner, one Sarah Ford.”

Asher barely heard the words.  He moved closer still to the television, until his nose tingled from the static electricity.  The video didn’t have the option for sound, but when she threw her head back, Asher knew that it was from laughter.  Devlin looked at her in a way that even he probably wasn’t aware of.  Asher had seen it often enough, usually before his partner – his former partner – ruined a plan for some girl.  Except it seemed different on the screen.  Countless miles away, Asher could almost feel the difference.

You have been replaced, Mister KnightJust this evening, the two worked far better than you and he ever did.  Imagine that: someone you thought of as a friend, whether you admit that to yourself or not, has once more betrayed you.”  Pause.  “At least you did not have to play the betrayer again, this time.”

A haze descended on Asher, pushing in from the edges of his vision, and cast a blood-red filter over everything he saw.  The taste of copper filled his mouth and he realized, in an absent and unfocused sort of way, that he was biting fiercely into the flesh of his inner lip.  While the experience wasn’t exactly comfortable, he’d grown far too familiar with pain over his time in the pit and its adjoining complex.  In fact, that very familiarity – the sharp bite of incisors, the metallic blood as it flooded across his tongue and into his cheeks – brought his mind away from the edge of fury.  It returned him to the pit, in the first days, when the occasional shift in the wrong direction or uncomfortable stretch had sent a twinge through the damaged nerves and muscles in his body.  Without those, the darkness of the pit had been so absolute that Asher might very well have forgotten that he existed at all.

“Why are you showing me this?”  Any weakness, any anger, or even the slightest hint of emotion was gone from his voice now.  He heard the change and would have marveled at the subarctic chill, if he’d been in a mind to do so.

To demonstrate the most fundamental truth, Mister Knight.  Something you have learned before, but apparently forgotten.

“And that is?”

No one will help you.  No one will save you.  Your only path is to seize power where you can, to protect yourself from harm by allying yourself with those greater than you, and to be useful.  Do you understand?”

And he did.  Asher finally, truly did.  He pushed the red haze of anger away from his mind with a brief exertion of will and forced himself to stand, facing the television with its frozen image of Devlin and his new partner.  “What do you want me to do?”

Ah,” the digitized voice said.  “Now, you are ready.

Asher didn’t move.  He waited in patient silence for the voice to continue.

We require the services of one who can move in circles too…illuminated for our direct intervention,” the voice said, after a few seconds.  “One such as yourself.

“You’ve got goons,” Asher replied.  “Doctors and torturers, too.  And you’re obviously capable of strategizing.  What do you need from me?”

Our goons, as you say, are assets.  Meat for the machine.  It is far too simple to hire men and women who will dance at our orders, shoot who we want shot, and so on.  We require an active agent.  Someone with initiative, creativity, intelligence.  And we would have you be our right arm.

A part of Asher’s mind considered bargaining for considerations, but the rest of him shut that idea down before it had a chance to grow any larger than a barely visible twinkle of a thought.  He knew he’d take whatever his captors offered.  He had nothing else in the world except for them, now. “When do I start?”

You must be better trained.  You lack the fundamentals of one who would act on our behalf.  But soon, Mister Knight.  Soon.”

Asher wasn’t sure how he knew the moment when the digitized voice left the room, but he felt its absence as keenly as he’d felt the darkness of the pit so many lifetimes ago.  He stayed there, staring at the frozen image for three whole minutes, unmoving except for the blinking of his eyes and the steady beating of his own heart.  Then, he turned back to the face the wall where he’d been chained.

Already, the illusory cards danced in front of his vision.  He could see them as they formed a ground level of ideas, thoughts, suppositions, and plans that could be narrowed down until he finally reached the peak of perfection.  He pruned some thoughts and encouraged others for several seconds until the door leading into the complex slid open behind him.

He didn’t resist when the men came to drag him back to his cell.  In fact, he helped them, as much as his body allowed him to.  The sooner he met the goals of his captors, the sooner they would release him into the world again.  He was eager for that to happen.

Devlin hadn’t come.  No, he’d been too busy with his new partner to look for Asher, or even to properly grieve for his alleged death.  So, Asher would have to come for him.

When the door to his cell slammed shut, leaving alone in the sterile metal box, Asher allowed himself to smile again.  It was the second time that expression had appeared on his face since St. Petersburg.  Oh, he’d come for Devlin.  And, after that?  His captors would do to remember their own advice.

Seize power where you can, the digitized voice had said.  And that was exactly what he intended to do.

He lay there on his tiny cot, staring up at the ceiling and smiling like a ghastly skull, as the house of cards danced and danced, until sleep and its comforting darkness finally took him.


Second Sighting

“I was only there to withdraw some money from the company account, I swear!  It’s totally legitimate…a lot of business do it, you know?  And then they came in, like…like something out of a military show.  They started yelling at all of us and said that they weren’t after us, that they just wanted the money.  So we lay down on the floor and waited because I’m not some kind of hero, right?  But then their leader – I remember he had burn scars on his arm, horrible burn scars – went into the vault for a while.  I don’t know what he wanted there.  I’ve been branch manager for the last five years and there’s no cash in that vault.  It’s just safe deposit boxes back there.  Anyway, he went to the vault and when he came back out…something exploded back there, and we came back out he just started shooting his own team!  I’ve never seen anything like it.  It’s just lucky I got out of there alive.”

~Eyewitness testimony from an unnamed individual following a robbery at the First Bank of Limassol on May 5th, 2013.  This report, as well as other sworn testimonies, were compiled by Interpol Agent Neetipal Adlai, due to suspicion of connections to a prior case.  Noteworthy because, according to bank managers and an exhaustive audit of inventory, nothing was stolen.


In short order, the pit became Asher’s entire life.  Awake, he stared into the darkness, feeling the unpleasant sensation of his mind slipping away like oil over water.  When his body demanded it, he closed his eyes, even though there was no discernible difference.  He did not dream.  The first few times that he woke, after that initial night, Asher experienced several heartbeats of nightmarish terror before his memory reasserted itself.  That passed after the fourth waking.  Following that, the difference between consciousness and blissful unawareness lost all meaning to him.

Without any means to track the passage of time, Asher released his grip on specifics.  He decided that ‘day’ was whenever he was absolutely sure that he was awake; in contrast, if he was not quite sure if the blackness that threatened to rob him of his senses was the pit or merely his own eyelids, that was ‘night.’

Each ‘morning,’ he woke to find a tray of some food, just within reach of his free hand.  He obviously could not see what was in the tray.  It might have been poison.  Part of Asher hoped that it was poison.  But if the people who had captured him wished for his death, there were simpler ways, he decided.  So, he pulled the food closer and ate mechanically, not tasting anything that he put into his mouth.  He chewed, swallowed, tore at some mystery meal, and chewed again.  It wasn’t enough to keep the knives of hunger pains from digging into his belly but, whatever it was, it was enough that he doubted starvation was a concern.

On the fifth ‘day,’ Asher began to talk.  He had sat quietly for many nights, staring solidly in a single direction as though he could force illumination into the pit by sheer force of will.  Internally, a never-ending recitation of three words – “Devlin is coming.  Devlin is coming.” – had kept him from losing all hope.  Now, he spoke out loud.

“I never thought things would end like this.”  Asher wasn’t sure if he was speaking to himself or to his captors.  It didn’t matter, either way; no reply came from the walls around him, except for his own voice turned back on its owner.

“I thought it would be someone from the Street,” Asher continued, surprising himself.  He hadn’t thought of the Street for years.  Since he’d managed to claw his way out of that life, away from the gangs and the midnight violence, the dangerous neighborhood where he’d first cut his teeth had remained an area of his life that required no analysis or thought.  It was easier not to think about the things he’d seen.  It was better.

“Made a lot of enemies, getting out the way I did.  A lot of matones with long knives and long memories that got something to prove.  Little kid like me, getting away with as much as I did?”  He laughed to himself.  “Yeah, they would have come for me, if they could have found me.  Guess they couldn’t.  Unless one of you people are cashing in for what I owe them?”

Silence.  Asher tried to count the seconds, timing them to the beating of his own heart, and lost track.  He tried once more, without any greater success.

“Didn’t think so,” he said.  “That’d be too neat.  Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and blah blah blah.  No, you guys must be something different.  Nothing like the idiots and assholes I fleeced for thousands.”  He paused, gathering his thoughts like scattered rags.  “You probably know all about that, don’t you, though?  I figure anyone involved in all the things I found out about – probably more than that – makes a point to look up everybody they come in contact with.  And this pit…you were planning on this.  So you know what I did to get off the Street.  You know who I hurt.”

He waited, without any real hope, for a response.  When none came, he shifted and bumped his knee against the now-empty tray.

“You want me to apologize?” Asher asked.  “You want to me say that I’m sorry for what I did and who I did it to?  ‘cause I won’t.  I’m not going to pretend that he wouldn’t have turned on me, just as soon as it was convenient.  It’s not like we were friends.  We worked the alleys together, sure, but he had connections.  Knew people in the right places.  It was only a matter of time before someone picked him up and then what?  You think he would’ve come back for me?  You think he would have risked a spot in one of the gangs, just to help out some snot-nosed kid with quick fingers?”

Still, no answer.  In a way, Asher found that he appreciated the silence.  He was aware that his captors were probably listening to every word he said, but that didn’t bother him so much.  If they were looking at him with judging eyes, he couldn’t see them; if they were offering words of pity or condemnation, he couldn’t hear them.  The only thing he saw or felt or heard was the darkness, the feel of cold stone against the patches of unblackened skin on his arms, and the echo of his own voice.  It wasn’t peaceful, but it was…

Asher blinked.  His position had changed.  His foot had been outstretched earlier and, now, it was curled up underneath him.  When had that happened?  How had that happened?  He extended his leg cautiously until his foot bumped against a tray.  He hooked it and brought it close.  A brief, cautious examination with the fingers on his free hand informed him that the tray was loaded with food once more.

He must have fallen asleep, without realizing it.  Unconsciousness had fallen on him like a heavy blanket, smothering his thoughts too quickly for him to even realize.  Was this the first time?  If not, how many other times had it happened?  It might not be the sixth ‘day,’ at all.  It could be the sixteenth.  Maybe the sixtieth.

How long had it been since he’d seen daylight?  There had been a voice that spoke to him on the first ‘day.’  When had that happened?  Asher tried to piece together some semblance of time and, unsurprisingly, failed.

Asher faced the darkness and sighed.  He reset the counter in his head to zero.  In his mind, the same litany – “Devlin is coming.  Devlin is coming.” – continued, but even in his isolation, Asher could feel that the tiny voice was somehow weaker than it had been before.




Devlin didn’t come.

‘Days’ passed and no one came.  Asher was alone with only his thoughts and the creeping certainty that he was losing his mind.  He tried to keep a firm grip on his internal wanderings, but most of his early attempts proved fruitless.  As soon as he started to feel the shape of things, it slipped away, draining away as sleep or distraction interrupted any attempt at musing or consideration.

His memories of the Street were the only memories he shared with his captors.  He vowed not to give them anything more.  They had his body, after all.  They were making a solid attempt to steal away his mind.  He would not give them his story, as well.

Eventually, he discovered one technique that allowed him to slow the steady seepage of intellect and reason, even if he couldn’t completely stop it.  Asher planned.  He had no target in mind but he didn’t lack for imagination.  He imagined a goal – a vault, a priceless work of art, some poorly guarded stash of precious gems – and constructed elaborate obstacles.  How would he break into a house in the Hamptons, if the busy season was fast approaching and the target residence was protected by a Safe Core system?  What if an original Picasso was sequestered behind several redundant layers of security in a private residence in Vaxholm, while a rival crew was competing for the same score?  If fifty thousand dollars in Samurai Bonds were being transported from Sao Paolo to Miami, what tricks would be needed to replace the bonds with worthless paper while in transit?

And so on, and so on.  He built the plans step by step in his head, placing each step delicately on top of the one before like an elaborate house of cards.  When sleep fell on him and swept away everything he’d done, Asher started over from scratch, correcting earlier mistakes as he went.  When each plan was absolutely perfect, without any flaw or failing that might be exploited, he destroyed the house of cards himself and started with a new idea.

This kept his mind as sharp as could be expected, but he couldn’t completely stop the damage.  He was able to assess his own mental state, in a detached sort of way, and realized that he was losing the ability to remember certain things.  Other bits of knowledge remained, but it became more difficult to retrieve them when necessary.  He transposed names in his mind, forgot places, and lost the thread more times than he could count.  When this happened, he discarded the plan and started from scratch again.  He got better at it.  It became easier to size up an imaginary problem, to see the movable parts within the machinery, and create an outline as he practiced.

He had a lot of opportunity to practice.

When Asher started to hallucinate, it was almost expected.  The appearance of a long ribbon of light, shifting and sliding from one shape to another as it danced across the pit, only confirmed what he already knew.  He tried to ignore the dancing ribbon as he constructed his elaborate house of cards, but the luminescent string wove its way between the cracks on each level, and disrupted his ability to focus.

After several aborted attempts to build a plan without any cracks that the line could find its way into, Asher started to create schemes that deliberately allowed room for the light.  He incorporated it, in all of its unpredictable capriciousness, into the plans.  It only took him a few tries, and a few more ‘days,’ before he succeeded in making these new accommodations.  None of the other hallucinations – shapes of various sizes, balls of squiggly lines like dirt rolling off of Pig-Pen, patches of pure white that blanked out his ability to see the shape of his own creations – caused him any more trouble than the first, unplanned-for mental intruder.

Still, he had no visitors and the digitized voice didn’t speak again until several ‘days’ later, while Asher was struggling with a complicated mental extraction.

Hope,” the voice said, without preamble, “is a fickle thing.”

Asher paused in his contemplations, maintaining the shape of his imagined plan through force of habit.  He said nothing.  In fact, he didn’t trust his voice not to rasp or fail him.  He hadn’t spoken aloud in a very long time.

When one has hope, one can endure anything.  Any method of torture, all attempts at manipulation…hope can bolster the strength of will needed to survive, intact.”  Pause.  “Do you have hope, Mister Knight?  Do you still believe you will be freed by any means, except by our will?

He thought about that, even though the answer sprang to his lips immediately.  Did he have any hope?  Did he even possess the capacity for it anymore?  His time in the pit had stretched on long enough that time no longer held any serious meaning.  He slept, ate, diagrammed in his mind, and slept again.  Isolation had taken more than his freedom; it had taken more than even his mind, as he feared; it had taken his humanity.  Without human interaction, chained to a wall in a dark hole by mysterious masters, Asher had become nothing more than a machine.

And Devlin…Devlin hadn’t come.  His partner and the closest thing to a friend anyone like Asher was likely to ever have in his life had left him.  He had probably fled the country inches ahead of the authorities in St. Petersburg, abandoning Asher in the devastation left behind at the scene of the botched heist.

Asher wasn’t sure if he could really hold that against him, though.  The fire had been like a ravening animal, consuming everything it touched with wild abandon.  If not for the intervention of his captors, Asher would likely have died.  If that had happened, Devlin would have made the right choice: better to run and have a single member of their partnership survive than to throw both lives away.  The fact that Asher had been captured was something that neither of them could have planned for.

Asher swallowed twice and tried his voice.  It was rough and uneven, but the word was still clear.  “No.”

The digitized voice didn’t speak for a second and, somehow, the silence carried a smug quality.  “The worst things that we do,” the voice continued, “we do to ourselves.  Hope bolsters the spirit, strengthens resolve, and yet…its absence brings only the truest despair imaginable.  Wouldn’t it be easier to not have hope, at all?

The tone and inflection of the voice – difficult to distinguish correctly due to the vocal effects that served to mask it – sounded rhetorical.  Asher responded anyway.  “Is this all you’re going to do?  Talk    at me until I die of boredom?  Get to the point already.  What do you want from me?”

We have already told you this.  Your services, Mister Knight.  We require your services.

“For what?  Clearly, you have power.  You’ve got knowledge.  You’d have to have sources, if you could figure out my target and lay a trap for me.”  He shifted his weight, relieving the pressure on his shackled wrist by a barely perceptible fraction.  “What do you need me for?”

Silence.  Then, “The nature of our business requires anonymity.  The benefits that this provides far outweigh any perceived deficiencies.  However, deficiencies do exist.

Asher turned that around in his head, examining it from different angles until an answer clicked into place.  “You can’t act publicly,” he said.  “So you need someone to go into the field for you?”

That is essentially correct.

He laughed, aiming for sarcasm and landing a little short of the mark.  The sound came out choked and halting, instead.  “And for this, you needed to kidnap me, lock me up into a pit for God knows how long, and leave me to lose my fucking mind?  What the hell makes you think I’ll do anything for you?  You honestly don’t think I’d rather die to help the assholes who chained me up in here?”


Asher blinked at that blunt response.  He gathered what remained of his wits, preparing to lob a scathing comeback at his captors, when something clicked in the wall behind him and the shackle around his wrist fell open.  His position – slumped with his back against the pit’s rounded wall, his free hand supporting a little bit of his weight – saved him from falling to the ground, although he did slip slightly.

A very dim light came on from somewhere above him.  Even the faintest bulb was much more than his eyes were used to after so many ‘days’ in pure, abject blackness.  Asher shielded his eyes with his previously shackled hand for three minutes before he risked looking at his surroundings.

The pit, as he could now see it by the dim light from above, looked very similar to how he had imagined it in his mind.  The space in front of him was completely empty, save for the empty tray where his food had been.  His prison wasn’t a perfect circle, however.  While the wall he leaned against was rounded, the area across from him went deeper into the building…wherever or whatever ‘the building’ was.  At the farthest end of this indenture, Asher saw a television screen.  Atop that, the clear, bulbous shape that Asher recognized as a camera lens pointed in his direction.

We are aware of what you would and would not prefer to do.  That is irrelevant, however.  You will provide us with your skills and, in exchange, we will bring an end to your suffering.”

Asher spoke before the thoughts had a real chance to crystallize in his mind.  “So you’re just going to keep me locked up until I give you what you want?  Why turn the lights on, then?  Why go through all that whole speech about hope and despair?”

Instead of an answer, an unseen door slid open near the television screen at the far end of the pit’s indenture.  No less than four burly men entered the pit through the open door and stalked across the room to Asher.  He struggled to stand upright, perhaps to resist or to escape – though he was willing to fight for his freedom, he was fully aware that his condition wouldn’t have allowed him to make a final stand for any length of time long enough to matter – but his body betrayed him.  Two men stood on opposite sides of him, slipping their hands into his underarms and hauling him up until his toes were barely brushing against the ground beneath them.

Despair is first,” the digitized voice said.  “And the easiest.  In order to forge true compliance, there is another step.

“And what’s that supposed to be?” Asher asked, even though a growing pit in the bottom of his stomach told him what the answer might be.

Horror,” the voice replied.  “Fear, unlike anything you have experienced before.  We have taken away what you wished for before.  Now, we will make you wish for relief.”

The men began dragging him forward.  He struggled weakly against them and was unable to do much more than tire himself out.  They said nothing, even while he kicked at their shins and scratched at their faces.  They were like machines.  They were, essentially, what Asher had nearly become in his own isolation.  That realization, and the dawning horror that came on its heels, followed him as they carried him out of the room and into the light.

The light was far worse than the dark could have dreamed of being.


First Sighting

“On September 18th 2009, the suspect Asher Knight (also known as William Chess, Charles Bishop, and Richard Jameson, among other aliases) was seen in the vicinity of Vasilevsky Island. Local authorities moved in to arrest the suspect, but lost him in the southern district.  Attempts were made to reestablish contact, but officers were diverted by a large explosion near the area twenty minutes later.  Emergency services managed to contain the fire, although severe damage was done to several historic buildings before the situation was handled.  By the time law enforcement was able to enter the area again, the suspect was nowhere to be found.”

~From Police Private Pyotr Drugov, translated into English.  Filed on September 19th, 2009 in the Vasileostrovsky District Station


It wasn’t that the burns on Asher’s arms, face, and upper chest hurt.  The fact that they didn’t hurt was what concerned him.  He knew very little about medicine – no real profit in that knowledge, unless you counted the occasional sale of pharmaceutical goods to interested parties – but he’d seen a documentary once about burn victims.  There was a misconception that third degree burns, in keeping with the raw damage they inflected to skin and muscle, caused an impossible amount of pain.  According to the documentary, that simply wasn’t true.  It was possible, in certain cases, that enough damage could be caused that the nerves themselves would sizzle and die, leaving the victim to feel nothing at all from that region.

Asher felt nothing at all.  He was glad that there wasn’t any pain interfering with his ability to think, even as he was horrified to contemplate what that lack of sensation might actually mean for him in the future.

He tried to get his bearings, but the absolute blackness pressing in on him from all sides made that impossible.  Instead, he turned to his thoughts and traced back through his memories for the third time since he’d dragged himself back to consciousness.

He remembered changing the plan, at the last instant.  Devlin had been in place, ready to steal the Faberge egg while the police were busy dealing with a visible, though ultimately harmless, fire.  Asher’s sources had informed him that his actual target, a stately and fairly typical mansion in the area, was uninhabited.  Without letting his partner know, Asher had doubled the explosives.  He had thought to slip away from his lookout spot while Devlin was busy lifting the goods, acquire some of the information he’d been seeking for the last year or so, and leave without tipping anybody off.  He’d planned on informing Devlin when there was actually something to talk about, after all.  Honestly.

Things had gone wrong, then.  The targeted explosion had worked as planned; what hadn’t been expected was the synchronous explosion in Asher’s own hiding place.  After wasting precious seconds in stunned bewilderment, Asher had managed to make it down from the third floor lookout and nearly reached the streets before a flaming support beam fell from the sky and crushed Asher, breaking bone and singing flesh the whole way.  There had been pain, then, as flames spilled over his body like a tidal wave of liquid agony.  He had only endured a few seconds of that before, mercifully, his mind had simply gone blank and unconsciousness came to save his sanity.

Then, an unknowable amount of time later, he’d woken up here.  Wherever here was.  He couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear or smell anything.  All Asher knew was that he was alone, he was suffering grievous injuries, and that his good hand was chained to a wall behind him.  His fingers traced along the cuff, back down the length of chain, and touched stone at the end of the line.  Aside from that single tactile snippet of information, Asher Knight knew nothing at all about his predicament.

“I hope you’re enjoying the show!”  Asher’s voice came back to him almost immediately, from every possible angle except from above.  He guessed that he was in some sort of room, identical on all sides, without a ceiling.  A box, perhaps, or some sort of pit.  A well, maybe?  He added that bit of information to his small mental list.

“I’m guessing you’re the people I’ve been looking for, huh?  So, does this mean you aren’t happy about what I did to your mansion?”

No answer.  Asher hadn’t really expected one, but that wasn’t why he was talking.  Put simply, the silence was getting to him.  He had no way of knowing how long he’d been knocked out or even how long he’d been awake.  Except for his words and his heartbeat, it was like the world had come to an end.  Even the occasional drip as his own blood fell to the ground was muffled.

“Well, I’ve got to say that I’m not enjoying your hospitality so far,” Asher continued.  “If what I’ve been hearing is correct, you’ve got to have something a little more welcoming for your guests.  Unless you treat all of your guests like this…but I guess you don’t have all that many social callers, do you?”

Still, nothing.  Asher shifted his weight, careful not to bump the dead flesh on his arms against any unseen obstacles and to keep his shirt from brushing against the burned skin on his chest.  He thought for several seconds – at least, it seemed like several seconds, but there wasn’t any way for him to know – about his next words.  Those thoughts took the form of questions.

Question: Why would his targets have captured him alive?  If he or she or they wanted to keep their identity secret, it would have been simple to leave him trapped underneath the burning support beam.  In fact, it would have been almost too easy to rig the entire outpost to explode, simply burying Asher and all of his inquisitiveness in one fell swoop.

Answer: Asher’s death hadn’t been the point, or the goal.  For whatever reason they wanted him alive and they wanted a suitable distraction while they took him.

Question: Why bother with a trap, then?  Asher and Devlin took commissions.  It wasn’t difficult to contact them through the underworld, so long as you knew the right contacts.  Or, if they wanted to…procure his services without paying, it wouldn’t have been very difficult to black-bag him off the street one day.  He wasn’t like Devlin, who insisted on doing good deeds out of some inexplicable desire to ‘be a good person.’  Asher lived in the underworld.  He ate, slept, and breathed it in.

Answer: They didn’t want Devlin and they didn’t want him to know Asher had been taken.  They wanted it to look like he had died.

“Is that it?” He asked out loud.  A moment later, he realized that he hadn’t been speaking out loud before.  Those were just his thoughts, internal and unknowable.  How had he made that mistake?  “You wanted me by myself, so you set this little trap to catch me?  Well, shame that I went and got myself so damn wounded, isn’t it?  You’ll have to either let me out or let me die; either way, you might have overplayed your hand, eh?”

No,” a digitized voice said.  “We haven’t.”

At first, Asher thought that his mind had somehow imagined the voice.  He used his good hand to feel along the wall, slumping against it when he felt comfortable that he knew his general shape, and sighed.

Asher Knight,” the voice said.  “We believe you to be a singularly rare individual.

He blinked, although there wasn’t any difference between the darkness of the room and the darkness of his own eyelids, and sat upright.  “Who’s there?”

Parties interested in your abilities,” the voice said.  “Individuals with power and influence, who seek to use your skills to their own ends.

Asher laughed.  The sound came up from him, completely out of nowhere, and its volume grew until the small pit was filled with it.  “You want to hire me?” He managed to gasp out, between laughs.  “That’s what this is about?”

Of course notWe are capable of hiring whomever we please.  We wish to…utilize you.”

The word choice sent a wave of chills down Asher’s arms.  He felt the hairs rise right up until they reached the elbows.  After that, the feeling stopped dead.

He quickly catalogued the question she’d come up with and discarded half of them without a second thought.  Information was important.  So long as his captors were talking, Asher might be able to pull some tidbit of knowledge from what they chose or did not choose to say.

“What do you mean, ‘you haven’t?’  You haven’t what?”

Overplayed our hand.  You will not die.  Your injuries are terrible, but they will not cause sufficient damage to limit your function.”

“Without surgery?  Whoever you are, you’ve got a highly overrated sense of my invincibility.”

The digitized voice chuckled.  It seemed as though there was more than one voice in that sound, each laugh providing an eerie counterpoint to the others.  “We do not need your body, Asher Knight.  It is your mind we require.  We have worked from the shadows for decades and none living have ever heard more than the barest whisper of our presence.  And yet, you have managed to uncover more than we thought possible.  We would have the mind capable of that, and we would have it our disposal.”

Asher had never been so displeased to be correct in his entire life.  He’d heard the stories, of course; everyone in the underworld had a ghost story or two when it came to the illusive string-pullers and deal-makers who ran things from their crystal tower on high.  He and Devlin operated at a tier above the average thugs, who spent their time breaking into gas stations and liquor stores for rent money; appropriately, there were always tales about criminals who had managed such staggering successes that they could effectively go legit.  They invested, financed, and profited from activities that took place both in the light of day and the shadows of night.

Of these figures, there was always one group that pickpockets, cat burglars, and conmen alike never spoke directly about.  Sometimes, there was only one person at the helm of an international organization; sometimes, it was a family operation; sometimes, it was as many as twelve, forming an Illuminati-like council that orchestrated what crimes happened to what people and at what time.  There hadn’t been any solid information to uncover, Asher discovered, because there was no solid information to be had.  Whoever they were, and however many of them existed, no one knew more than one solitary, simple fact: it was best to look away, to keep quiet, and to do your absolute best to avoid notice, lest one of the ruling elite take an interest in your activities.

Asher had been fascinated with the story and, while working on an impressive string of heists with his partner, begun to compile the stories into a single, more-or-less cohesive whole.  The work had been harder than anything he’d done before.  There were more theories about them – where they were based, how they operated, how much power and capital they actually wielded – than facts, but his curious mind had found a way to piece something workable together.  A sale of modified assault rifles here, cross-referenced with the announcement of a highly profitable HIV treatment there, contrasted with an oil spill in this body of water…and so on, and so on.  Over time, he had started to see the shape of things, even if the vast majority of events eluded him.  That general impression had led him to St. Petersburg, to the unassuming mansion where he had thought one of the ruling elite might be headquartered.  The Faberge egg next door had only been a useful cover to entice Devlin to come along.

And Asher had been right.  Amazingly, disastrously, he had been right.

“You think I’m just going to do whatever you want?” Asher asked, out loud.  At least, he thought it was out loud.  “Why, exactly, would I do that?”

We can be very persuasive.”

“Torture?”  Asher barked out another sharp laugh.  “I’ve been dealing with threats like those since I was ten.  I’d die before I gave up.  Especially, now that I know you people actually exist!”

Torture?”  The digitized, multi-part laugh came again.  “Why would we do that?  We will simply allow you time to…truly consider your options.

“I don’t think I’ll be spending too much time thinking it over,” Asher said.  “I can’t have been unconscious long enough for you to get me out of Russia.  Probably not even out of St. Petersburg.  If I had to guess, if you set up this trap just for me, you would’ve built some sort of tunnel connecting to the mansion I blew up.  Hope that wasn’t too expensive, by the way.  Am I right so far?”


Asher wasn’t sure if that was because he’d guessed correctly or if the digitized speaker had simply left, but he chose to err on the side of optimism and continued.  “If you didn’t have the good sense to move me as far away from this neighborhood as possible, then you might as well pack it in, boys.  My partner is…well, he isn’t the brightest son of a bitch, but he is the most determined person you’re ever going to have the displeasure of going up against.  And he will move heaven and earth to get me back if he even suspects that something might have happened.”

As he spoke the words, Asher was somewhat surprised to find that he actually believed them.  It was common knowledge in the underworld: if you took a job with Devlin O’Brien, he would take that temporary partnership as seriously as if you’d sworn a blood oath.  He absolutely would not betray any of his teammates, even when clinging to his childlike sense of loyalty made things worse for him.  That was how he acted with one-offs.  Asher and Devlin had been working together for years now and they made an exemplary team.  In fact, Asher might almost consider the man…

Well, not a friend.  Asher didn’t make friends.  Connections like that turned poisonous, given enough time.  It had happened too many times in the past for any reasonable person to ignore.  But Asher liked Devlin.  He would consider him an acquaintance whose company he did not totally detest.  That was ll.  Of course.

He shook his head violently.  His mind had started to wander there.  He asked himself, for the fourth time, how long he’d been in this pit.  How long, Asher wondered, before Devlin came to retrieve him?

Your partner,” the digitized voice said, “is not coming.  As of this moment, he is working through back channels in search of a passport that will get him out of the country.  Your firestorm has caused quite the stir in the local police and the Russians are not known for their kindness to strangers, terrorists, or criminals.”

“Devlin didn’t leave,” Asher said, without sparing an instant to think about the sentence before it passed his lips.  “He wouldn’t do that.  If I’m here, he’s coming for me.  And if he’s coming for me…”  He whistled.  The note cracked and died in the still air.  “You have sowed the whirlwind, pal.  Trust me on that.”

He is not coming,” the voice repeated.  “No one is comingYou are alone, Asher Knight, and you will eventually come to understand that.  You.  Are.  Ours.”

“What do you even want with me?”  Asher was mortified to hear the pleading, sour note in his own voice, but it came out all the same.

You have proven skilled in certain areas.  Identification, pattern recognition, and lateral thinking.  We would have you turn those skills onto another.”


Silence.  Then, “We will speak laterEnjoy this opportunity to reflect.”

“Wait!” Asher waited, but no answer came back from the digitized voice.  “I want answers!”  Still, nothing.

So, isolation.  Asher would almost have preferred physical torture.  It wasn’t as though the nerves on his arms would report any further damage done to them.  But mental torture was…in a word, terrifying.  Everything that could be taken from him was taken him from in his childhood: his home, his parents, his pride.  Everything except his mind.  That was his, and his alone.  These tactic threatened to strip away even that final stronghold; it threatened to take away his personality.

He’d only been alone for seconds – had it only been seconds? – when he felt the pressure of the darkness against his skin again.  He shrunk into himself on instinct, reverting to the fetal position he’d used to avoid so many beatings before he came of age.  It had been years since he’d felt genuine fear and the reaction of his youth came to him.

“Devlin’s coming,” he whispered to himself, wincing as his teeth nipped at the soft flesh of his inner lip.  “Devlin’s coming.”

The salty taste of blood filled his mouth as he waited, alone, in the darkness.


Chapter Ninety-One

Between the two of them, Sarah and Michel filled me on the details of our incursion as he drove us back to the Brooklands.  Apparently, the arrival of David had thrown a great many things in disarray.  Several key individuals found themselves pulled away from otherwise sensitive areas to deal with the complaints he raised.  The conspicuous absence of those officers, in conjunction with the placement of an incredibly lax clerk at the evidence desk, made the task of planting evidence almost too easy to be believed.  After that, he’d made a hasty retreat and met up with Sarah at the van.  Billy and his men made their own exit, following a hearty round of recriminations for the construction crew.

Michel been listening to our brief conversations, both before my conversation with Adlai began in earnest and after he’d left momentarily to check on whatever other problem had bothered him.  According to both him and Sarah, the moment when the line died hadn’t been triggered on their end of things.  Sarah had tried to call me back, but she was stopped by the arrival of an unmarked limousine that crowded into their space and risked drawing attention to the oversized van.  As soon as they began moving the vehicle to a less visible location, Sarah had received an email with map coordinates and a ticking clock.  Realizing the signature of the lady at work, she’d instructed Michel to drive to the indicated location which, of course, turned out to be exactly where I stood when they pulled up.

I had my own suspicions about how things had managed to play out perfectly.  The Lady wasn’t ever going to provide confirmation, in either direction, but it seemed likely that the clumsy, inattentive desk clerk who had allowed Michel to slip past him was probably one of the assets she’d mentioned in the limousine.  That same person would then have been able to remove the files on Asher after Michel left.  If worse came to absolute worst, it wouldn’t be too difficult for the Lady to throw the Frenchman under the bus in order to keep her asset securely placed within Scotland Yard.

When I shared that thought with Sarah, she shook her head.  “That doesn’t sound like her.”

“What doesn’t?  The thought that she’d use our difficulties to get herself into a better position?”

“Well, no, that sounds exactly like her.  What I meant, however, was that she doesn’t keep people in place after she’s done with them.  After she broke you out of La Santé, that guard couldn’t ever go back to work in the prison.  At least one other inmate would have been able to prove that he’d been involved in a crime.”

“Two other inmates,” I corrected.  “Patrick might not have seen anything, but he heard enough to provide evidence.  If it had come down to it.”

“Exactly.  She burned that asset, because leaving him in place left a link that might be traced back to you.  And from you…”  Sarah trailed off.

I nodded, coming to grips with her unspoken conclusion.  The Lady had said it herself: even if I wanted to talk, it wasn’t as though I possessed enough information to be a threat to her.  At best, I might manage to inconvenience Asher.  Perhaps even cause serious damage to his plans, if the stars aligned.  But I’d be breaking my own arm, figuratively speaking, if I threw that punch.

“You think she really is protecting me?” I asked Sarah out loud.

“Obviously,” Mila drawled.  She’d been silent for most of the ride, simultaneously nursing her broken arm and trying to pet Sam as he rubbed his voluminous white fur into her face.

“Not just you,” Sarah replied, shooting a look Mila’s way.  “If I had to guess, I’d say that the clerk who let Michel get past him is going to move somewhere very far from London for the foreseeable future.”

“What the hell is she really after?” I asked myself out loud.  “She’s burned assets in the French prison system and a highly placed person in the London Metropolitan Police Department that I know about.  She’s provided a blank check so that we can get whatever resources we deem necessary and managed to secure the services of someone uniquely capable of acquiring these things almost immediately.  This can’t be just about the local drug trade.”

Sarah tapped an index finger against her bottom lip for a few seconds.  “No, it probably isn’t.  But she doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’s going to leave dangling threads to her plans that we can just pull until the whole thing comes apart in our laps.”

I knew as much about knitting as I did Russian: not quite nothing, but just enough to be really dangerous to myself if left without adult supervision.  I got the metaphor, though.  “Maybe there’s something in here?”  I held up the folder.

Instead of reaching out to take the documents from my hand, Sarah narrowed her eyes at the folder.

“What?” I asked.  “You’re the one who thinks she’s actually protecting us, in her own twisted way.  What’s so scary about a few pieces of paper?”

“Nothing,” Sarah said.  “But…are you sure you don’t want to go through that on your own, first?”

I blinked.

“Since this whole thing started, you’ve been incredibly dodgy about what happened in St. Petersburg and I haven’t pushed.  I’m not going to start now, unless you feel that whatever went down between the two of you is something that might affect the job.  Do you think that?”

My thoughts traveled back to that night.  The memories returned with such force that I could practically smell the smoke from a half dozen small fires; I could feel the cobblestones beneath my thin-soled shoes as I ran to the nearest safe house and began to the exhaustive process of slipping out of the country without alerting any authorities to my departure.  Even knowing for a solid fact that Asher was okay, that he’d survived the blaze – not unharmed, but burn scars were a comparatively small price to pay for your life, I thought – I still felt guilty for leaving him there, in the first place.

Slowly, I pulled the folder back to my chest.  “I don’t know,” I answered honestly.  “I can look through these when we’re back at the hotel.”

“And you’ll tell me if you find anything important?”  Sarah’s tone was soft enough that I knew she wasn’t making a demand, but insistent enough that I couldn’t easily ignore it.  “Promise?”

“I promise.”

Mila groaned and, struggling under the weight of the hefty feline, managed to push Sam off of her chest.  “If the two of you are done staring soulfully into each other’s eyes,” she said, “we should figure out what we’re going to do about my contract.”

“What about it?” I asked.

“I’ll be honest here.  I’ve never had a job I couldn’t finish.  You two aren’t the ones paying the bill, but even the Lady doesn’t see fit to uphold her end of the deal, I won’t hold it against anyone.  It’s my fault I ended up like this.”  She wiggled her broken arm at me, taking great care to not jostle it too much.

I took a moment to consider what Mila was saying.  The absurdity of her offer was so great that I laughed before I could stop myself.  She glowered at me for several seconds before I managed to get myself back under control.  “You’re not quite that lucky,” I said, between little tremors of giggles.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means,” Sarah said, picking up when it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be able to speak on my own, “that you don’t get to blame yourself because someone doesn’t know when to call it quits.”

I laid a hand over my chest in mock chagrin.  “You wouldn’t be referring to yours truly, would you?  Because, unless I’m sorely mistaken, you agreed that going after Hill’s property was also a good idea.  Surely you aren’t trying to shift the blame for that debacle solely onto my shoulders.”

“I…wasn’t…okay, fine.  I’m just as guilty as you are.”  Sarah did not look as though as she felt particularly guilty, although her eyes did flick over to where Mila sprawled across the floor of the van.

“I swear, the two of you are the worst clients I’ve ever had,” Mila said.  “I can’t fight like this.  It’ll heal, sure, but I’m useless until then.”

“You wouldn’t have been injured at all if you hadn’t been protecting me in the first place,” I said.  “And you certainly wouldn’t have ended up in prison if Sarah and I had taken the time to work through exactly what we planned to do.”

“That’s my job,” Mila insisted.  “And, since we’re talking about my arrest, it is absolutely not your job to look after me.”

“You’ll excuse me if I disagree with that point.  For the moment, you’re a part of my team.  And anyone who I consider a partner is my responsibility.”  Without looking away from Mila, I felt Sarah’s eyes on me.  I revised my previous assertion.  “They’re our responsibility.  We look out for each other.  I’m not going to let you throw yourself into the fire to save any one of us, unless you’re willing to accept that I’ll do the same for you.”

“As will I,” Michel said, from the front of the car.

“And so will I,” Sarah added.  “Sorry, but you’re in this for the long haul.  Unless you’re saying you genuinely want out because of…other reasons.”

She didn’t have to say Aiden’s name.  It hung in the air like a foul stench, unspoken and rancid.

“I don’t want anyone to jump into this half-hearted,” I said.  “That’s something the Lady said back before we even went to retrieve Avis, and I happen to agree with her on that point.  So, if you want to leave because you actually don’t want to be here, then…well, then go.  But if this is just you trying to draw our enemies off based on some suicidal idea of ‘protection,’ then forget about it.  I’m not dropping your contract.”

Emotions flickered across Mila’s face at high speed, too fast for me to catch and identify.  I recognized some of them, though, and they were enough that I was able to get a better read on the woman.  She’d mentioned her troubled past and the nature of her relationship with Aiden before, but I hadn’t understood then what she meant.

I softened my voice.  “This isn’t going to be like…it was,” I said.  “I want you with us on this.  You’ve been through tougher situations in just the past seventy-two hours than I’ve encountered in the last two decades, and you’ve been amazing the whole way.”

When Mila spoke, she did so in a nearly inaudible voice.  “Why do you want me?”

I started to answer.  Michel beat me to it.  He turned slightly, not quite taking his eyes away from the road and said, “Because you are one of us.”

Just that.  He didn’t elaborate on the point and he made no effort to be any more convincing.  He only spoke that one sentence, those five words, and left it at that.  I was in a position to see the gradual change, the hardening of will that took place behind Mila’s eyes.

“You’re all idiots,” she said, finally.  “I don’t know what you expect me to do when Hill and Asher start throwing trained fighters at us and I’ve only got the one good arm.”

“I don’t know,” I said, forcing a breezy tone into my voice.  “We’ll figure something out.”

Mila had a very good point but, at that moment, acknowledging that would have been disastrous.  I guessed that she’d been given some sort of painkiller at the hospital which hadn’t knocked her out, but was having the effect of lowering her defenses.  Otherwise, I doubted I would have been able to read anything at all from the slight downcast to her eyes, the way she held her broken arm at a protective angle across her chest, or the minute adjustment to her shoulders that made her seem ever so slightly smaller than she already was.  Individually, she’d shown minor signs of her secret thoughts before but taken as a hole, I could see the truth for the first time since I’d met her.

She was scared, but it wasn’t the very reasonable fear of conflict or violence that I would have expected from anyone else.  It wasn’t even the fact that Aiden was in London and gunning for her, although that certainly played a part in it all.  Mila was afraid of being left behind.

How I’d managed to miss that for so long was a testament to my exhaustion.  Every effort to pull away or distance herself from the group was nothing more than a self-defense mechanism.  The transient nature of her jobs kept her from forming any relationships she might regret leaving behind.  She didn’t want to owe anyone anything, because she feared that they might one day use that against her.

I wasn’t sure about all of that, but most of it made sense.  One thing I was positive about, however, was that Mila would react badly if I so much as spoke my guesses out loud.  I resolved to talk more about it with Sarah at a later time, when she could help me fine tune my broad strokes into something more concrete.

We rode the rest of the way back to the Brooklands, mulling over the events of the last twenty-four hours.  I texted Sophie when we weren’t far out and, when we arrived, Mila was greeted with a very large man who wordlessly offered to help her out of the van.  She scorned the assistance at first.  After a moment of thought, she consented to allow the man to carry Sam – who had since fallen deeply asleep – up to her room.  I extracted a guarantee that she’d remain in her rooms, recuperating, until we had a chance to figure out the next step in our plans.  She gave me her assurances with obvious reluctance, but I could have sworn I saw a twinkle of some appreciative emotion in the corner of one eye before she left.

Michel took the van to an underground parking garage, where Sophie promised to find a space removed from any security cameras.  I suspected that he really wanted an opportunity to tinker with his and Sarah’s new toy.

Sarah and I went back to our suite.  She went to her computer room for a few minutes and I started to make a late breakfast before my thoughts finally turned back to the Lady’s mysterious farewell.  “Your friends will be the death of you.”

My friends, for a given value of the word, were the only reasons I was still alive.  Stanislav, Iosif, and Leonid had been instrumental in drawing off the majority of the guards at the processing plant, even if it had turned out to be a trap.  Without Mila, the whole operation would have been blown at the manor house.  Michel hadn’t even been part of the underworld when he swooped in to save me from the debacle at the museum.  Hell, I probably wouldn’t even have been able to retrieve my false passport, if it hadn’t been for –

I stopped, the spatula in my hand frozen an inch above the skillet.  The last day had been a blur of activity, rushing from one place to the other, orchestrating conversations from miles and miles away.  I closed my eyes, ignoring the smell of cooking food that wafted up from the stove into my nostrils, and thought back.

I’d missed a call while Mila and Michel were gladhanding Adlai and his boss.  That had been at the beginning of the night.  Later, while the Russians, Billy’s men, and I were planning our run on Hill’s processing plant, I’d noticed a voicemail message.  Both of those things had been put into a distant room in my mind, filed away so that they wouldn’t get in the way of immediate necessities.  Now, triggered by the Lady’s visit and warning, they returned in full force.

“Sarah?” I called out.  “What did you do with that phone I got from Alex?”

She didn’t reply.  I turned the stove down and walked a short distance down the hallway, intending to knock on her door and pull her away from whatever work she was engrossed in.  She surprised by throwing open the door just before I could knock.  Her eyes were wild with anxiety.

“You’ve got an email,” she said breathlessly.

“From who?”

“Asher.  It went to one of your old addresses, but I have a program that checks all of those sporadically.”

I blinked and a cold feeling began to settle into the pit of my stomach.  “How long ago?”

“The program checks every morning, at the same time.  I don’t know when this email was sent, but I only just pulled it out of the inbox.”

Delicately, I pushed past Sarah and took a seat at her computer setup.  The email in question wasn’t a text message but, instead, simply an attachment at the bottom of an untitled message.

I gave Sarah a questioning look and she nodded.  “I scanned for viruses, so you’re fine.”

I clicked the attachment open.  It was less than a second before a window opened up to fill the entire center monitor.

In the image, Asher sat casually in a metallic, armless chair.  He was smoking one of his cigarettes as he looked straight into the camera.  He stayed like that for several long moments, before he finally spoke.

“If you’re seeing this email,” he said, “then you’ve somehow managed to stay alive longer than I expected.  Which is an impressive feat, I’ve got to admit.  Kudos to you.  He clapped sarcastically, careful not to burn himself with the lit cigarette.

He let that stretch out lazily for a while before he continued.  I recognized the theatre at work in this play; recognition didn’t make the tight knot of dread in my stomach any lighter or easier to bear.  “If you aren’t seeing this, then I guess I went to a lot of trouble for no reason.  Not that this is very difficult,” he gestured at the camera, “but getting everything in place for this little film wasn’t…well, okay.  It wasn’t difficult, but it was more effort than I really felt like sparing just to make a point.”

A sound came from off camera.  Asher looked in that direction, smiled pityingly, and then turned back.

“You have something I want, Devlin,” he said.  “Two things, actually.  I want the girl, of course, but you must have realized that.  I would say that you can have her back after I’m done – I know you’ve got such a soft spot for abandoned children – but that’d be a lie.  Because I also want you.  I’m done playing these cat and mouse games.”

“Sarah,” I said, without looking away from the screen.  “I need to look at Alex’s phone.  Now.”

She lingered for the space of a heartbeat before she began rummaging through a disorganized box nearer to the door.

“You’re probably thinking about how you’ve got me right where you want me,” Asher continued, and he was right, up to a point.  It was eerie that even a recording could be so capable of reading me.  “Oh, I bet you and that bitch are thinking up amazing ideas about you’ll lure me into a trap, so that you can finally bring all of this to a close.  Which is why I went ahead and took certain precautions.  Just a…just a little something to ensure that everything goes according to my plan.”  He walked off camera and began dragging something into view.

“Devlin,” Sarah said, from behind me.  “Catch.”

I turned enough to see the phone coming and snatched it out of the air in a swift grab.  I bypassed the security and saw that, where once there had been one message, I now had at least ten.  Each and every one of them was from Alex.  I picked the most recent one and, as my dawning horror coalesced into a physical mass, read it out loud.  “Ally is gone.  Do you know what has happened?  Has she contacted you?”

Sarah’s mouth formed into a perfectly round ‘O.’  She pointed wordlessly to the screen.  I turned back to face it, even though I already knew what I would see there.

Gagged and tied to a chair very similar to Asher’s, my oldest friend’s only child sat, held captive by my former partner.  Asher leaned his arms over the back of her chair.  “You’ve got things to take care of.  I get that.  So I’ll give you one week from today.  If I don’t see you and the girl by then, then Ally and I get to have a long discussion about the nature of friendship and debts owed.  Because, one way or another, I will get what I’ve earned.”  He stubbed out his cigarette and flicked it in an arc up and over the camera.  “See you then.”

The video ended.  I stared at the blank screen for a full minute, then another.  By the third minute, the cold pit in my stomach had melted away in the torrent of a fury unlike anything I’d ever felt before.  I stalked out of the room, back down the hallway, and grabbed the folder on Asher that the Lady had delivered earlier.

Sarah stopped me before I could go into my bedroom.  “What are we going to do?”

With great effort, I managed to force the hurricane of emotions down far enough to speak through clenched teeth, although I kept my face pointed firmly to the floor.  “You’re going to call Alex and let him know what’s going on.  He’ll want to know what’s going to happen next.”

“And that is?”

“I’m getting some information,” I said, holding up the manila folder.  I noticed absently that the skin on the back of my knuckles was taut and the hand itself was vibrating with anger.  “I can’t afford to play this fast and loose.  Not when Ally’s in danger.”

“And after you finish reading that?” Sarah asked.  “What then?”

“Asher said it himself.”  I looked up.  I don’t know what Sarah saw in my face but, whatever it was, she jerked nearly a foot away from me.  “He’s going to get what he’s earned.”