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?”

“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.”

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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?”

“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 montecrist00@hotmail.com, 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?”

Yes.

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?”

Silence.

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.”

“Who?”

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.”

Chapter Ninety

I stared at the Lady in silent confusion and she returned the look evenly.  Although her clothing was different, she still wore the same effortless grace that I remembered from our first encounter.  When David started the limousine and eased it away from Scotland Yard, she leaned back in her seat and flashed a barely decent amount of leg at me.  I looked away immediately and, just as soon, realized that I’d probably failed some sort of test.

“So,” I said, as an opener.  “You’re the one who got me out of there?”

She raised an eyebrow.

“I mean, you pulled some legal mojo to get me away from Adlai before I could talk?”

The Lady smiled at that.  “If you had chosen to talk, Mister O’Brien, what exactly would you have told the man?  That you should, by all rights, still be behind the walls of La Santé in Paris, except for the intervention of a well-connected woman whose name you do not know?  Or perhaps that your ex-wife, who has thus far managed to remain out of Inspector Adlai’s crosshairs, has been assisting you in a not-inconsiderable crime spree these past weeks?”

Irritation climbed from the pit of my stomach up into my throat.  I forced it back down for two reasons.  One: the only things separating my throat from David’s meaty hands were a privacy screen and the Lady’s whims.  Two: she was absolutely right.

“I only ask,” I said, through gritted teeth, “because I don’t know if this is another thing I’ll owe you for.”

“Ah.  Well, then, the answer to your question is ‘no.’  I was not directly responsible for the…what did you call it?”

“Legal mojo?”

“Yes, that.”  Her smile deepened slightly, but only on one side.  The effect was off-putting.  “I was responsible for the action, but I find it distasteful to reveal myself in person quite so easily.  If you are looking for someone to thank for your extraction, might I recommend my associate?”

I blinked and turned to look at the opaque privacy screen.  “David’s a lawyer?  That’s what he does for you?”

“It is a service he provides,” the Lady said.  “Among others.”

Smart and physically imposing ranked low on the list of traits I wanted in a possible adversary.  I had enough enemies that could out-think and out-fight me; the possibility of adding another to the list made my mouth go dry.  I swallowed twice before I managed to ask another question.  “Why?”

“You’ll have to be more specific,” the Lady replied.

“Why did you get me away from the interrogation?”

“The reasons for my indirect action involve powers you are not yet fully aware of,” the Lady said.  “For the moment, let us simply agree that you are better suited for my purposes outside of jail, as opposed to locked away.”

I swallowed a third time and squeezed my eyes shut for almost ten full seconds.  I used that time to center myself.  She had caught me off-guard, again; there was a reason she chose to ambush me like that.  She wanted control: control of the setting, control over the situation, and control over what I thought.  The Lady had successfully claimed the first two things without any competition, but my mind was my own.

“I’m working on your job,” I said, on the eleventh second.

“Oh?  I did not realize that my task for you involved waking the ire of the London police department.”

“It doesn’t.  But if you want my team to take on Hill, we had to come up with some way to keep the police from getting in our way at every step.”

Your team?”  The Lady dipped two long, delicate fingers into a clutch by her side and removed a smartphone that resembled the one in my own pocket.  She bypassed the security and swiped at the screen a few times.  “This would include the Russians Stanisliav Novikof, as well as his lieutenants Iosif and Leonid, in addition to the bodyguard I hired for you?”

“Her name’s Mila,” I said.  My voice was just a touch shy of snapping at her and I could swear the privacy screen to my back inched down slightly at the high point of the sentence.

“If you honestly believe that she uses her real name,” the Lady said, “then I would be better served returning you to Inspector Adlai and trying my luck with one of your underworld associates.”

I opened my mouth, closed it, and opened it again before speaking.  “I’m just saying that she isn’t ‘your bodyguard.’  She has a name and Mila’s the one she’s using for right now.”

The Lady favored me with a smirk so soft that it was barely visible and a steady look.  I shrugged to hide the chill that ran through my torso and all the way down to my legs.

“Anyway,” I said.  “I know what I said: for right now, they’re my team.  And we’re doing what you want.  We got the key from the manor house and Sarah’s working on getting access to any information that might point us to Hill’s real identity.  As soon as we know that, we can start working on a plan to steal back the golden book.”

If the Lady hadn’t made a point of flaunting her knowledge over me at every turn, I would have felt more uncomfortable with the slight untruth I slipped into a wall of otherwise unassailable facts.  We were planning to go after Hill and the golden book.  We had stolen the ‘key’ from the manor house, just in front of Asher’s team of trained killers.  However, it wasn’t Sarah translating the information we’d managed to steal; it was the child Avis, and her friend/guardian Neal.  The idea of offering up a child to the Lady’s whims – whatever those might be – didn’t sit well with me.  My stomach churned at the very thought.

The Lady showed no sign at all of catching the lie.  “I cannot help but imagine that your efficiency would be negatively influenced by nearly a day and a half of jail-time.”

“Is time a factor now?  If you’d told me that to begin with, I might have turned this job down to begin with.  That was an option, wasn’t it?”

“It was.  It is no longer one.”  The Lady returned her smartphone to the clutch and pressed a button on the armrest.  A panel slid away from the back of my seat, revealing a steaming carafe.  “However, with the exception of the authorities you’ve managed to incite, you and your team are doing spectacular work thus far.”

I shifted my gaze slightly so that the carafe was easier to see in my peripheral vision.  “What’s that?  Some sort of drug that’ll knock me out and erase the last few minutes of my memory?  Truth serum?  Or is there some other pharmaceutical trick you have up your sleeve?”

“I don’t have any sleeves, Mister O’Brien.”

I scowled at her, still taking effort to keep the expression as polite as possible under the circumstances.  “You know what I mean.”

“Your grasp of figurative language never ceases to amuse me,” the Lady said, without the faintest trace of laughter on her face or in her bearing.  “Why would I offer you some sort of drug, when I could simply ask David to feed it you forcefully?”

She leaned over, flashing the pale skin of her cleavage at me and I flinched away instinctively.  The Lady reached past me, removed the carafe and a small teacup from the hidden cabinet, and poured herself a cup of the scalding liquid contained within.  “Coffee?” I asked.

“It has been a rather long night,” the Lady said.  “You haven’t had much opportunity to rest over the last twenty-four hours, or so my sources have led me to believe.”

My eyebrows knit together for a moment as I thought my way through that statement.  “Sophie,” I said, after a moment.  “Sophie’s keeping you informed of our movements?”

“Sophie.  That would be the concierge at the Brooklands, I believe?”  The Lady continued without waiting for me to answer.  “She is incredibly talented at her job – truly, perhaps one of the most resourceful concierges in the greater London area – but she prefers to remain as hands-off as possible, when it comes to criminal activities.  She informed me that you had procured a vehicle, yes, but your activities beyond that were outside of her…shall we say, her realm of expertise.”

“Then how?”  I doubted that the Lady was the sort of person who would see the benefit of seeding sources among the downtrodden men and women in Billy’s Halfway House.

“I have spent a great deal of time and money preparing for this operation,” she said.  “I was aware of Hill’s operations, both legal and illegal.  When one of his plants suffered a tragic chemical accident, it occurred to me that there are very few people so brazen, so bold, or so unaccountably clumsy that they would dare to involve themselves in the affairs of a drug kingpin.  When Miss Ford’s name appeared in the register of guests at Scotland Yard, the rest was simple enough to piece together.”

I smothered the instinct to swear.

“Oh, calm yourself,” the Lady said.  “The program that you went to such lengths to plant in Scotland Yard’s system served multiple purposes.  In addition to the corruption of the files on your own crimes, several key minutes of security footage was irretrievably damaged.  Miss Ford’s identity remains a closely guarded secret, from nearly all interested parties.”

“Nearly all?”

She gave me that half-smile and, as if my body’s reactions were hers to toy with, I shivered.

“So.  What do I owe the privilege of your company to?” I asked, more so that I could come up with a better question than out of any real curiosity.

“Other than enjoying the opportunity to watch you squirm?”  The Lady sipped from her teacup of coffee.  “Your actions this evening have been incredibly loud and resulted in a disastrous amount of attention cast in your direction from the local authorities.  However, not every single thing you have managed to accomplish has been without merit.”

She dipped a hand into a larger bag on the floor.  I hadn’t noticed it there and, in virtually any other situation, I would have berated myself for the lapse in my attention.  As it was, the Lady consumed so much attention simply be existing that I allowed myself a pass.

When her hand came back into sight, she held a thick manila folder.  “While your driver was engaged in the extraction of any physical evidence, I decided to use the services of an occasional employee to remove some information of my own.”

“You have people inside Scotland Yard?”

“I do not have people,” the Lady said.  “But there are individuals who owe me favors and, on occasion, I call those favors in.  How else did you think I managed to arrange for your early release from prison?  How have I been able to keep track of you so absolutely since you absconded from Paris, information in hand?”

With great effort, I managed to maintain the expressionless mask.  Twice, since Paris, the Lady had missed things.  Thus far, she’d made no mention of Alex or his minor role in the drama so far.  And she seemed to be operating under the assumption that the ‘key’ was a formula or document, instead of a small girl with an intuitive grasp of impossibly complicated mathematics.  Neither of those facts provided me with an edge I could use to wiggle out from under her thumb, but the knowledge that she wasn’t omniscient led me to believe that it might be possible to fool her.  I didn’t know exactly how I might pull that off at a later date, but simply knowing that it was possible was a great boost to my mental state.

“What information did you need from Scotland Yard?” I asked.

“There were…questions that required answers,” she said.  “Not for myself, of course.”

“Then for who?  Your partner?  Or – what did you call him?  – your associate?”

The Lady laughed.  The sound surprised me, not least of all because it was utterly unexpected.  What shocked me the most was the genuine warmth in the laugh.  “David,” she said, “has never been particularly interested in the minutiae of grudges.  He does as I ask and, at least so far as I am aware, that is enough for him.”

She held the manila folder out to me.  I made no move to accept it.  “What is that?”

“Open it and see.”

I sighed, shifted uncomfortably under the weight of her steady gaze, and finally took the folder from her fingers.  I opened it and scanned the first page. Halfway down the sheet of paper, the temperature of my blood dropped by about twenty degrees.  “St. Petersburg,” I muttered to myself.  Then, to the Lady: “This is the police report from St. Petersburg.”

“Indeed.”  She swallowed another mouthful of coffee, as if the steaming hot liquid didn’t bother her in the slightest.  “Among other things.”

“Why would you want this?”

“Because I did not already have it,” she answered.  “And because I have realized that you will require all of the information available, if you are to stand even the slightest chance of completing your task.”

“I was in St. Petersburg,” I said, feigning disinterest.  “I don’t need to read the paperwork to remember what happened.  Asher and I were working a job and things went sideways.  I got out; he didn’t.  Fast forward a couple of years, lightly season with insanity, and you end up with an obsessive asshole who’s hell-bent on killing me. Not a real big mystery.”

The Lady sucked her teeth at me.  “I could entice you with promises of answers; I could offer you threats of danger in the near future.  Neither would suffice for my purposes and, more importantly, neither would be necessary.  You want to know what happened to Mister Knight to make him into the man he is today, almost as much as you wish to bring him to heel for his betrayal in Paris.”

She was right.  I knew it, and so did she.  I refused to give her the satisfaction of acknowledging that point, so I looked back at the top sheet in the manila folder instead.

“There were other reasons for my arrival,” the Lady said, after a few moments.  From her tone, I realized that she considered the matter of the manila folder closed.  “You mentioned a time constraint earlier.”

“I did.  You didn’t say there was going to be a timer running on this job.  Planning these sort of things take time.”

“As much time as you needed to arrange the theft of the barbarian crown?  Or as much time as you needed to forcefully assault the manor house and abscond with the key?  Or, perhaps, as much time as you and yours needed to organize the destruction of Mister Hill’s primary processing plant?”

I bit back several sharp words before they could touch air.  “Those were different,” I said.  “No one in their right mind would choose to work under those circumstances.”

“Ah,” the Lady said, ticking one long index finger back and forth in the air in front of her face.  “But I did not hire anyone in their right mind.  I hired you.  And, if my sources are correct, this is where you excel.  This, in fact, is one of the main reasons why I sought to contract your services in the first place.”

“Because I’m crazy?”

She nodded.  “Because you are resourceful.  I doubt you even realize the true value of your actions these past few days, but allow me to assure you: no matter how badly it seems things have gone, you and your team have done exemplary work under less than ideal situations.  For that, you have earned my genuine respect.”

Oddly enough, I felt as though she were telling the literal, unvarnished truth.  My profession didn’t typically afford me a great deal of praise, either from clients or teammates, and every instinct I possessed told me that the Lady wasn’t in the habit of doling out idle compliments.

“So,” I said, “you respect what we’ve managed to pull off so far or maybe you just respect that we’ve been able to do anything at all without having the faintest amount of time to plan.  Fine.  You know what you’re actually after; why don’t you tell me what it is, so that we can start taking the time to come up with something that doesn’t end up literally exploding in our faces?”

“Multiple reasons,” the Lady said.  “For the moment…let us say that you do not yet have the proper frame of reference to appreciate my motivations.  Even if I were to tell you my true goal, you would fail to grasp the true import.  Please, do not think that I am insulting you; it is simply a matter of position.”

“You’re just going to leave us in the dark, then?”

“For now.”  She gestured at the manila folder in my lap.  “Although I am willing to provide answers when the time is necessary, as I have already proven.  Do not overly concern yourself, Mister O’Brien.  As soon as the time arrives, I will tell you exactly what I have been positioning you for.”

With that said, the Lady fell silent.  I spent five minutes in quiet contemplation before I opened my mouth to say something.  At that exact moment, the car lurched to a stop.  I hadn’t been paying attention to the momentum of the vehicle and the sudden deceleration surprised me.

“We have arrived,” the Lady said.

“The Brooklands isn’t anywhere near this close to Scotland Yard,” I said.

“No, it isn’t.  However, it would hardly do for me to be seen in your company at a location so thoroughly connected to your falsified identities.  Appearances must be maintained, of course.”

“Of course,” I said.  I meant to inject the words with a heavy dose of sarcasm, but I managed only light sardonic humor.  The Lady’s presence was intimidating, but her appearance threatened to lull me into a potentially dangerous stupefaction.  Which, I assumed, was almost certainly the reason for her attire and body language.

“In keeping with that, it is important that you understand: David cannot risk being seen in connection with you at any other point, so long as you are engaged in London,” the Lady said.  “Already, it is possible that he has risked too much, and if my operations in this area were more extensive, I would not have allowed him to involve himself in the first place.”

Allowed, instead of ordered?  That implied the giant had taken it upon his own initiative to step in on my behalf, which did not fit with the image of the man I’d cobbled together from our two previous encounters.

I nodded at the Lady, while my mind continued to mull over that possible nugget of information.  “No more get of jail free cards, then?”

“Nothing is free, Mister O’Brien,” the Lady said.  “But, in answer to the question you meant to ask?  No.  Any additional encounters with the authorities must be resolved in whatever way is most expedient to you, your team, and your available resources.  I leave the details up to you and yours.  Unless I’m mistaken, they should be arriving shortly.”

“You’re just going to leave me?  After all the trouble your personal jolly Green Giant went through to get me out of Scotland Yard?”

“I have no intention of allowing any of your associates to tail me,” the Lady said.  “Although I suppose I should offer points for ambition.”

I bit down on my bottom lip, and said nothing for several seconds.  The Lady made no move to indicate that I should leave the limo.  Eventually, I took it upon myself to open the door and stepped out.  We were in a particularly isolated portion of an unused parking garage.  There were no cars that I could see or hear in the vicinity, but I didn’t doubt that she knew more about Sarah’s location than I did.

I turned to close the door, clutching the manila folder tight to my thigh.  As soon as it clicked shut and locked, the car window rolled slowly down.  The Lady gave me a serious look, those dangerous eyes glittering over the rim of her teacup.  “I have invested a great deal into you, Mister O’Brien.  See that I am not disappointed.”

The limo started to pull away and finally, my brain clicked over a question she’d alluded to, but never quite answered.  “Wait!  You said there’s a time constraint.  Why?  What changed?”

The car didn’t stop, but her voice floated back to me through the cracked window.  “Your friends,” she said, “will be the death of you.”

I stared after her for a long while, watching as her limousine turned a corner and disappeared, mulling over what she might have meant by that cryptic farewell.  Even after Sarah arrived in her mobile command center, even after Michel wrapped me in a warm embrace, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Lady’s cold eyes and colder words hinted at some darker twist we’d yet to discover.

Chapter Eighty-Nine

“I don’t even know why I’m here,” I said, still clinging to the whinier version of myself as cover.  “Will someone just tell me what’s going on?”

Adlai’s hands tensed for a second before relaxing slightly.  “I do not find your little act amusing, O’Brien,” he said.  “You and I both know why you are here and what you have done.”

“I haven’t done anything!”

“Very well, then,” Adlai said.  “Excuse me while I retrieve the information on each and every one of your crimes.  The list is quite substantial, or I would have done so before coming in to this…interview, to begin with.”

He started to stand and I held out a hand to stop him without even thinking.  Sarah had been very clear; if Adlai accessed the files that she was corrupting, the entire process would be a non-starter.  His attention had to be kept away from any computer that might provide him with an opportunity to ruin our plans.  For the moment, the only way to keep his eyes firmly on me was to play his game.

“Let’s say,” I began, “that I hypothetically know what you’re talking about.”

“Hypothetically.”

His intonation made it clear that he didn’t consider my choice of vocabulary as valid, but I wasn’t talking for him at the moment.  The one-way glass might conceal a cadre of police officers and prosecutors, waiting with baited breath for me to misspeak.

I gave Adlai a nod.  “In fact, let’s assume that whatever conversation you want to have is preceded by an invisible ‘hypothetically.’  I’d hate for someone to get the wrong idea about our chat, or to start thinking that I’m confessing to crimes that I obviously don’t know anything about.”

Adlai tapped two fingers against the side of his left leg in thought.  I watched him silently, hoping I’d read him correctly.  I knew from miserable firsthand experience that his slavish adherence to the law made him the kind of opposition best handled from a distance of several hundred, or thousand, miles.  But it wasn’t his faith in the legal system that brought him back into my life, time and time again.  For some reason I couldn’t understand, Adlai treated our relationship as a personal affront to his sensibilities.

It was that personal angle that I hoped to take advantage of.  A good police officer would have left the room, regardless of my protest.  In fact, a good police officer probably wouldn’t have entered the interrogation room without as much evidence as he could lay his hands on, and he certainly wouldn’t have sent away any corroborating witnesses.  To my reckoning, Adlai was a superlative officer of the law: fastidious and exacting in a way that had, on more than occasion, convinced me that the man would have made an excellent thief.

He was also, however, a human being.  It took him less than ten seconds to decide to walk back across the room, pull his chair from under the table, and seat himself opposite me again.

Adlai steepled his fingers once more and turned his eyes to me.  The look on his face hit me like a well-thrown punch.  “Let us say that.  What do you have say for yourself?”

“About what?”

“You have stolen,” Adlai said, “you have broken into houses across Europe, and you have been complicit in widespread panic and destruction.”

“I have not,” I protested.  Then, a moment later, “Hypothetically speaking, of course.”

“You think that I did not keep up with your trail of destruction?” Adlai asked.  “What led to your incarceration while in Paris, then, if not a firebomb that left several neighborhoods in darkness for two days?”

“That wasn’t…okay, that wasn’t exactly me.”

“Oh, of course not,” Adlai said.  A mirthless laugh escaped his lips.  “It is never you.  You are just unlucky enough to always been in the wrong place – the wrong city, or the wrong country perhaps – at exactly the right time.  It is a coincidence that so many items of value disappear when you go on vacation, is it not?”

“Items of value?  You mean paintings and jewelry…things like that?”

Adlai gave me a nod.

I snorted back in derision.  “Those things don’t have any real value.  Having a Renoir doesn’t help feed anybody, but it does look damn good when you’re having thirty of your closest friends over for a fancy dinner party.   An original Castellani is only good for one thing: looking good around the neck of a dilettante whose father or husband or pool boy has more money than they know what to do with.”

It occurred to me that Sarah’s family owned several Castellanis and at least one Renoir; I elected to keep that information to myself.

“And you are such a good person,” Adlai asked, “that you do not care about the value of these things?”

“If I did anything you’re accusing me of, you think I did it for the money?”

Adlai gave me a second sharp nod.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.  What’s something you think I’ve stolen?”

“Four and a half years ago, one Vermeer from the private collection of Nathaniel Romanov.”  He didn’t have the files in front of him, but he provided an answer without even pausing to check his memory.  I must have been on his mind more than I’d let myself admit.

“Something like that would go for…”  I pretended to think, while actually racking my brain to recall exactly how much Sarah had been able to negotiate for that particular piece.  If my memory wasn’t failing me, that had been a commissioned job and we’d voluntarily taken a pay cut on the deal, in exchange for future considerations in the area.  “Let’s say twenty million.”

“If you add a zero to that number,” Adlai said, “you would be closer to the truth.”

“Really?  Two hundred million?  Vermeer’s actually go for that much?”  Apparently, I’d taken a larger pay cut than I’d realized.  No wonder the client had been so effusive about referring further work our way.  “Well, even if it were just the original number.  You don’t think a man can live his entire life off of twenty million dollars and live comfortably?  And you’re implying that I’ve been involved in other thefts like that, right?”

Adlai parted his lips, probably to rattle off a list of my other successes over the years, and I waved him into silence.

“So, any one or two of those jobs could pay for a lavish life of luxury, don’t you think?  Why would I continue stealing these things, opening myself up to greater and greater risk every single time, if I’d already gotten away with a small fortune?”

“Then why?  Why would you do the things you have done?”

I opened my mouth to answer, then froze as I realized I didn’t have an easy answer to that question.  I had, on previous occasions, spent some much needed time in self-reflection on that very point: what drove me to steal, why I chose the targets that I did, and why I simply didn’t leave the business entirely.  I’d spent a lifetime on the edge of capture, evading police forces and private investigators across the globe by nothing more than the skin of my teeth; I’d worked with some particularly distasteful individuals who performed unsavory tasks for unsavory people; and, though it was painful to admit, I’d unwillingly sacrificed my marriage to the job.

And I had not, for the life of me, been able to identify why I continued to go through it all.  After the divorce, I’d only been attempting to chase down that feeling I really only felt when Sarah was pulling strings from a safe location.  But before that?  Even before I’d started working with Asher and well before I’d met and married Sarah…I couldn’t put my finger on a single, solid answer.

“Why?” I repeated to Adlai, giving myself more time to think and also ensuring that he wouldn’t leave the room before I answered.  “Because it’s fun, I guess.  No one really gets hurt.  The marks have all of their property ensured, so it isn’t like they’re actually money.  And they get a great story to tell when they meet up for drinks on top of the Eiffel tower, or whatever else it is that fabulously rich people do with their spare time.”

“You do not think you hurt anyone?  What about the law?  Does that mean nothing to you?”

“The law isn’t a person,” I said, immediately.

“It is important,” Adlai shot back.  “Just because you personally enjoy flaunting the law, that does not mean you are some sort of Robin Hood figure.”

I barked out a laugh.  “When did I say I was some sort of noble thief, out to help the people?  Anything I stole – hypothetically – I either kept or sold.  Mostly sold.  I don’t really see the point of holding onto extravagant paintings, and it isn’t like I find myself entertaining a lot of people, what with the relatively short period of time I spend in a given country.”

“So you admit that you are just a thief!” Adlai cried out, triumphant.

“I did not admit any such thing,” I said.  “But, if what you’re saying turned out to be true, then yes.  I would be a thief.  I’m not under any illusions about that.  But seriously?  Can you honestly tell me that I’m the worst criminal that’s had the displeasure of your attention?”

“That is not the point,” Adlai said.  “A crime is a crime; it does not matter if you think that your crime is somehow less of what it is.”

I blinked and searched his expression for any hint of dissemblance.  There was none to be found.  “You’re serious?  You actually think that art theft is bad as every other crime?”

The stony stare he directed my way served as answer enough.

“What kind of cases do they have you working, Adlai?  You don’t deal with murderers, or rapists, or human trafficking?  I’m serious, here.  Are you, like, in the welterweight division as far as Interpol goes?”

“Welterweight?”  His eyebrows drew closer together in thought for a moment.  “What is that supposed to mean?”

“What I mean,” I said, “is that you’re out of your mind if you think that what I allegedly do is anywhere near as bad as a whole hell of a lot of crimes I can name off the top of my head.”

What had originally only been intended as a diversion now felt subtly different to me.  I’d been on the run from Adlai for more years than I could count and, all things considered, I honestly felt that it was something purely professional on both of our parts.  Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog, taking shots at each other all day long, only to drop the act after the cameras switched off.  Even if the small matter of my dubious relationship with the law didn’t matter, it wasn’t likely that I’d want to spend a lot of time with the man, but I could respect his work ethic and dogged tenacity.

Listening to him now – actually seeing him, face to face – gave me the impression that it wasn’t just professional for him, and it certainly wasn’t just a personal vendetta.  The worst thing I’d ever done to Adlai specifically hadn’t done much worse than ruin a suit and cost him a few frequent flyer miles.

“What did I do to you?” I asked him, foregoing the fiction of my innocence.  It wasn’t going to convince Adlai of anything, and Scotland Yard didn’t have enough to hold me, anyway.

“You…what?  You did nothing to me.  You have broken the law, and that is enough.”

“That’s enough for the way you’ve been chasing me for years?  Let me ask you a question: what about the real bad guys?  Do you have the same level of obsession with them?”

“I will catch any criminal,” Adlai said.  He spoke robotically, as if he was repeating something he’d committed to memory a long time ago.  “The law is not something to be played with.”

“And that seems right to you?  You have to understand how absurd you’re being.”  An idea occurred to me.  It might be possible to accomplish two things at once, if I spoke carefully.  At the moment, there wasn’t any way to check what information had and had not been released to the public, and I didn’t want to provide any of these delightful law enforcement officers with more solid legal footing.  “You’re international, so maybe you heard about a bank robbery a few months ago?”

Adlai nodded before he could stop himself.  “Was that you, as well?”

“From what I heard, people died there. You know I wouldn’t play things that way.”

He didn’t betray any emotion but, after a few seconds of thought, his head inclined slightly in acknowledgement.  “What does that have to do with you, then?”

I could have named Asher.  Adlai’s focus on me had been like a laser, so I wasn’t sure if he was even aware of Asher’s existence, but I could have done it.  It might even have worked.  There was every possibility that it might even be enough to put pressure on Hill and Asher’s plan.  What stopped me wasn’t common sense, but simple ego.  I wanted to catch him on my own.  Handing him over to the police before I’d had a chance at a long, long conversation with Asher didn’t sit well with me.

“It doesn’t,” I said, after a moment.  “I mean, not really.  But there’s…someone out there who is killing people, threatening innocents, and you think that’s the same as me?  Compared to that, I’m the good guy.”

Adlai slammed his fist onto the table.  The action exploded out of nowhere and I jerked away from him instantly.  “You are a criminal,” he said.  “I am the ‘good guy.’  I am the one who is trying to preserve the law!”

“Not like this you aren’t,” I shot back.  My own temper began rising up from the pit of my stomach and I made no particular effort to hold it down.  “If you’re going to focus all of your resources on catching me, instead of going after the real monsters, then you’re as good as helping those assholes get away with actual murder.  I can help, Adlai; I’m trying to help, but I can’t do that if I’ve got to deal with you on my tail every second of every day.”

“So, this is your angle?” Adlai asked.  “Convince me of some spectral threat and make yourself out to be some sort of hero?  I thought that you were not the Robin Hood type.”

“I’m not,” I said.  “But I’m far from the worst person in the field right now, and you have got to know that.  What brought you here, in the first place?  It certainly wasn’t the break-in at the Museum of London and the whole situation at the manor house isn’t something that would involve Interpol.  Your superiors sent you here to deal with something, but you got distracted by the possibility of catching me.  How, exactly, is that acting in the pursuit of justice?”

An interesting thing happened to Adlai’s eyes.  They narrowed first, and locked onto me with malevolent force, as if he could somehow will me out of existence.  Then, they widened slightly at the corners.  I recognized that micro-expression: a piece of some puzzle had fallen into place within his mind.

“What is it?” I asked.  “What are you thinking?”

“No,” Adlai said.  It took me a moment to realize that he was talking to himself.  “No, that isn’t right.  But…how else…?”

Without more information, I couldn’t help him proceed further down his train of thought, nor could I stop him.  I didn’t even know which option would be better for me and my team.  So, instead of interrupting, I sat quietly and watched Adlai for any sign that might help me make the best decision.

Lost in a sudden torrent of thoughts, it was like the agent had forgotten entirely about my presence.  He removed a smartphone from his pocket and checked something on the screen.  Then, shaking his head slowly, he closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose, and looked a second time.

“When,” he asked, finally, “did you arrive in London?”

Before answering, I considered the mental odds of him managing to run down the fake identities Sarah and I had used to enter the country.  On a given day, at least a hundred thousand passengers went through Heathrow.  I was safe to answer that question.  “Maybe two weeks ago.  Why?”

“That was before the museum was robbed,” Adlai mused.  “But…”

“But what?”  When he didn’t answer, I leaned forward and rested my weight on the table in front of me.  I could sense that he was close to a revelation, even if I had no idea what that revelation might turn out to be.  “Are you just going to sit there and be deliberately inscrutable?”

“I will be back,” he said.  Without giving me the opportunity to say anything that might keep him inside the interrogation room and away from any computer, Adlai rushed out of the room.  He left the folder, filled with documents on the table in his haste.

I bit back a sharp curse and checked my phone.  I’d managed to keep Adlai in the room for maybe ten minutes.  Sarah’s ability to function at the top of her game on short notice wasn’t as pronounced as my own, but she wasn’t someone to be discounted.  My faith in her was validated when, only a second or two after Adlai left me to my own ruminations, the encrypted cell phone in my pocket vibrated.  I fished it out and answered the incoming call.

“Good, there isn’t a delay on these things,” Sarah said, without preamble.  “I wasn’t sure, and there isn’t really a way to check.”

“Ah yes,” I said, “the dreaded delay.  Worst thing ever when it happens to…what are you talking about, again?”

“The camera, idiot.”  In my peripheral vision, the solid red light blinked on and off several times, signaling Sarah’s control over the equipment.  “There aren’t any networked microphones, and the resolution is terrible, but I’ve been watching to see if we needed to step directly in.”

“That would defeat the entire reasoning behind my current predicament, Sarah.  What’s the deal with Mila?”

“She’s here,” Sarah said.  “Looking a little perturbed that we came after her, but she’ll get over it.”

“What happened?”

“I…honestly don’t know,” Sarah admitted.  “Neither does she.  They just came in, uncuffed her, and said that she should make an effort to stay reachable for the next few days.  I’ll be honest, I’ve never been arrested; is this something that happens a lot?”

“Not in my experience, no.  But, I’ll be honest: the last time I dealt with the police in any meaningful fashion, they ended up throwing me in jail.  I might be a little biased.”

“We can figure everything out from the safety of the Brooklands,” Sarah said.  “We’ve just go to figure out a way to get you out of there.”

“You want to walk back into Scotland Yard and destroy the only reason I’m sitting in this predicament in the first place?  Adlai doesn’t have anything on me, and we aren’t in America, where he could just lock me up for forty-eight hours because he’s having a bad day.”  Pause.  “He doesn’t have anything on me, does he?”

“Not anymore,” Sarah assured me.  “Those files are corrupted beyond repair.  He’ll realize something happened, but there’s not a lot he can do about that.”

“That’s what I’m saying.  There’s no reason to come in, guns blazing, when I’ve only got to wait out this interview.”

Silence from Sarah’s end of the comms for several seconds, punctuated by the rapid fire clicking of her computer keys.  “As it turns out, Adlai can’t put you in jail for forty-eight hours, but there’s nothing stopping him from a solid thirty-six.  Maybe even longer, if he can find a magistrate who’ll listen to whatever he’s got to say.”

I blinked and resolved to learn more about the various legal statutes of any country I planned to rob.  “Still, it’s only thirty-six hours.  Avis is still working on decrypting the documents and we don’t even know who or where Hill actually is yet.  All we can do is wait anyway.”

A noise outside of the room drew my attention to the door.  Sarah, presumably watching through the low resolution camera, must have seen my head swivel around.  “I think I’ve got an idea.  Just in case it doesn’t work, don’t worry about the phone.  If someone other than you tries to use it, it’s only going to wipe the hard drive.”

“Good to know, Sarah,” I said, just as the door opened and Adlai stepped back into the interrogation room.  “Talk to you…”

The line disconnected suddenly.  Sarah protecting the line, perhaps?  I shrugged and, when I looked up, expected to see suspicion in Adlai’s eyes.  He would almost certainly realize that I was somehow responsible for corrupting the files in his system, even if he couldn’t prove it.

What I saw instead was closer to frustration and it wasn’t directed in my direction, at all.

“What is it?”

“Your…lawyer,” Adlai said, forcing the word past his lips like they tasted foul.

I stared back at him.  “My what?”

“You heard me.  Your lawyer is insisting that we either release you or formally charge you.  Scotland Yard does not have the manpower to pursue an investigation right now, with the disaster at the processing plant – I am confident that you know all about that – and other situations that have cropped up over London in the past few weeks.”

“So you’re letting me go?”

“I am allowing you to a brief moment to collect yourself,” Adlai said.  I could see how much it killed him to play by these rules, and I understood that feeling in a vague sort of way.  Someone higher up had probably forced his hand and Adlai, despite being incredibly accurate about the state of affairs in London, hadn’t been given a choice.

I tried not to gloat as I stood up.  “Well, I enjoyed our talk.  And I’m serious; you should really take some time to think about everything.  Know what I mean?”

He glowered at me and the temperature around the man seemed to drop five or ten degrees.  “And you should remember that I am not fooled by your lies.  You will make a mistake, and I will be there to catch you.”

“I make mistakes on a daily basis,” I replied.  “So, what you’re saying is that we’ll see each other sooner rather than later.”

“Yes.”  A thin smile spread across his face.  “Sooner, rather than later.”

I walked out of the room, taking great care not to bump into Adlai and technically find myself charged with assault.  Back in the general office, there wasn’t any lawyer that I could see.  I made my way downstairs in a hurry, wondering idly how Sarah had managed to arrange a lawyer in the few seconds she’d had available.

That answer came when I exited Scotland Yard and found myself confronted by a black stretch limousine that seemed conspicuously out of place in the early morning light of London.  As large as the car was, it was dwarfed by the man standing next to the rear passenger door.  The giant David looked coldly at me for several seconds before he opened the door and motioned for me to step inside.  I swept my eyes across the surrounding area first and saw that Sarah’s mobile work station was gone from the area.

David gestured a second time, more forcefully.  I stepped into the limo, for fear that he might simply throw me into the limousine.  Seated opposite me, wearing a white wool dress decorated with twining lengths of black vines and flowers, sat the Lady.  She appraised me with eyes as sharp as knives and, before the door closed and locked me into the back of the limo with her, I found myself wondering whether thirty-six hours in prison would really have been so bad.

Chapter Eighty-Eight

What happened next could most charitably be described as a circus’ worth of activity, contained within the storm wall of a particularly chaotic whirlwind.  The two officers at the front desk first blinked at me, then at each other, before realization dawned on them.  From that point, it took only a single phone call and two words – my name – to bring several burly men rushing into the lobby, both by elevator and the stairs.

There were benefits to my hasty decision, I realized, as men in uniforms began ushering me upstairs, to the nearest interrogation room.  Primarily, I’d turned myself in, rather than waiting for the law to locate me on their own.  I was only listed as a person of interest, in connection to the museum robbery and the shootout at the manor house.  Just because the owners of the Rose and Thorn had described me well enough to produce a passable sketch, the police still didn’t have enough hard evidence to actually place me under arrest.  Of course, it would still be preferable to remove or otherwise impugn even that sketch, but any port in a storm would have to do.

Another unexpected positive angle occurred to me a moment later, when we reached the second floor and I was ‘escorted’ into a featureless room, marked by a wall mounted camera and double-sided mirror.  I was in England, and the police in England didn’t carry weapons typically.  That wasn’t an immediate benefit – I doubted anyone would try to shoot a surrendering suspect, just because – but it was still something worth keeping in mind.  It wasn’t as though I could defend myself, so it was comforting to at least be able to minimize the amount of threats I had to concern myself with.

When I was comfortably seated in the interrogation room, the officers left me seated there in isolation.  The space itself reminded me of the room where Asher had stashed me, back at the warehouse, before he’d been able to enact whatever dastardly tortures he’d intended.  The double sided mirror was a change.  While I’d only been forced to endure one prison sentence of any appreciable length, I’d spent more than my fair share of time seated in rooms exactly like that one, so I waved casually to whoever was watching from the other side of the glass.  A table was also bolted to the floor in front of me, with a little divot and bar combination designed to restrain anyone in handcuffs.  I was not cuffed – at least, not yet – but my wrists began to ache in anticipation of that inevitable conclusion.

Other than the minor benefits and environmental changes that I’d noted, nothing particularly heartening came to mind.  I had absolute faith that Sarah, once she was able to leave the building without bringing legal attention to herself or the Ford family at large, would be able to erase any digital footprint that might exist.  As I was in the process of deliberately leaving very large physical footprints, however, I didn’t hold out much hope for my own situation.

One minute into my lonely considerations, the encrypted cell phone I’d taken from the car began to play the opening chords from ‘Cruel Summer.’  My eyebrows crinkled together for a few seconds before I understood the joke.  Before answering, I looked up at the camera, mounted high on the wall opposite me, so that it was nestled into a corner.  The indicator light was dark, but that didn’t mean anything.

I leaned back in my chair, waved once more to the invisible watchers on the other side of the double sided glass, and pressed the ‘Answer Call’ button on the phone.  “Hello?”

“Devlin, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Sarah hissed at me.  “You think we went through all this trouble, just so that you could turn yourself in the first chance you get?”

“Glad to hear you made it home safe,” I said.  I couldn’t assume that the police weren’t recording everything that went on the interrogation room while they left me alone to stew over my own thoughts.  Sarah would understand any slight dissemblance I chose to use.  “It was touch and go for a little bit there, wasn’t it?”

“That’s not the point,” Sarah said.  “I could have figured something out.  Even if not, there’s nothing Adlai could have done to me, other than decide to treat me with more suspicion the next time we encountered each other.  And I wasn’t exactly planning on there being a next time.”

“How’s the family?” I asked.  “You haven’t talked to them in a while, yeah, but you know what they say.  Blood is thicker than water and all that.”

Sarah was quiet for a few seconds.  When she spoke again, the razor’s edge of anger wasn’t quite gone from her voice, but it was least blunted by audible concern.  “Fine.  I’ll acknowledge that.  But do you have any plan, at all, to get out of there?  Or were you just going to hand yourself to Adlai with a bow, hoping that Hill and Asher don’t have people in the prison system specifically to deal with loose ends?”

It was my turn to think in silence.  The beginnings of a plan were beginning to crystallize in my mind, but I couldn’t exactly convey the steps to Sarah while someone might be watching or listening to every word I spoke.  “It’s kind of a long story,” I said, finally.  “I’m clearing up a misunderstanding right now.”

I didn’t speak for a few seconds, as if Sarah were asking me some question.

“It’s complicated,” I said, after an appropriate amount of time had passed.  “But I’m pretty sure it’ll go away as soon as they figure out they’ve got bad information.”

Sarah sucked in a sharp breath.  “You want to me to erase the files, while you’re there?”

“I’m about to talk to whoever’s in charge now,” I said.  “No telling how long it’ll take, but it’s not like I’ve got anything better to do.”

“I can get Michel into the evidence room.  The ongoing construction, coupled with the amount of officers moving in and out of the building tonight, is going to make that easier than expected.  You want all of the digital information gone too?”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Sarah didn’t say anything for a second or two.  “I could do that, but that’s only going to let Adlai know for sure that you’re working with a hacker.”

“Say that again?” I asked.  “I didn’t understand that.”

“I said…oh, you know what I said.  What I mean is that I can corrupt the files, instead.  Same difference, but at least there’s the outside possibility that it was something that happened naturally.  You think that’ll work?”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding at the camera and the double sided mirror in turn.  “Yeah, that sounds like it could work.  When do you think you’ll get here?”

“I don’t have complete access yet, but…no, nevermind.  Listen, I’ll get in.  I don’t know how I’ll let you know, but I can do it.”  She paused.  “You’re going to have to keep Adlai from pulling up the files, though.  I can’t change anything if the files are open.  His entire focus has to be in the room, with the two of you.”

At that, the door to the interrogation room swung open with such force that it bounced off of the wall and came to rest at a forty-five degree angle.  I turned in my seat to see Adlai storming into the room, flanked by a dark-skinned man in a travel-worn tweed jacket and thin red tie.

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” I said to Sarah.  “I’ll have to call you back, though.”

I hung up before she could respond and assumed a posture of absolute innocence.  Adlai took up position in one corner of the room, under the presumably inactive camera, while the dark-skinned man turned the chair opposite me around so that he could lean his weight across the back.  He was a big man, and the chair wasn’t meant to be used like that, but he made it work.  Barely.  He placed a thin, tan folder on the table between us, as well as a steaming cup of what smelled like cheap coffee, and locked eyes with me.

“Mister O’Brien,” the dark-skinned man said in a rich baritone.  “We’ve been looking for you.”

“I just saw that on the news,” I replied, widening my eyes to convey a suitably confused wariness.  “I was out of the area on, uh, business.  I came down as soon as I heard.”

“And what sort of business are you involved in, Mister O’Brien?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Could you un-complicate it for me, then?” The dark-skinned man scratched at a thick layer of stubble and gave me a rueful sort of smile.  I imagined that smile had lulled any number of criminals into a false sense of security before.  It might very well have eased a little of my own tension, if Adlai hadn’t been perched in the corner, watching me like a hawk sizing up the best angle to pounce on its next meal.

“Acquisitions,” I said, honestly enough.

Adlai barked out a sharp laugh at that.  When the dark-skinned man turned slightly, Adlai raised both of his hands and signaled that he didn’t have anything to say.

The dark-skinned man returned his attention to me.  “Ah,” he said calmly, loading the single syllable with a surprising amount of subtext.

“What’s this about?” I asked.

“Well, there’s been more than a few spots of trouble in London, these last few days,” the British detective said.  “And my associate here seems to think that you might know a bit about that.  You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that trouble, would you?”

“I don’t even know what trouble you’re talking about,” I protested.

The dark-skinned detective opened his folder and removed several photographs.  Carefully, as though the pictures might be damaged by his large hands, he spread them out across the table so that I could see each one.  When that was done, he pointed at the picture farthest to my left.  “A couple of days ago, we got an anonymous tip to examine this area outside of town.  Do you know what we found?”

I recognized the landscape in the picture, but there was nothing else there except for the smoky ruins of a building.  It looked considerably different in the full light of day.

The dark-skinned detective continued, taking my silence as an answer.  “Right around here, you can see the foundation of what looks like a very large building.  But you don’t see the building itself because it was burned to the ground.  I personally went through some records and there’s no mention anywhere of a building out there.  Of course, if someone wanted to build anything that far out of town, there really wouldn’t be any way to know, would there?”

He pointed to the next picture in line, and I was more familiar with that than the landscape.  “Isn’t this that crown that was on display at Museum of London?”

“Indeed it is,” the dark-skinned detective said.  “Or, it might be more precise to say that it was the crown.  It was stolen from the museum.”

I wasn’t quite playing a character, but I still modified my reactions to fit with a hypothetically innocent person.  To my estimation, most people wouldn’t particularly care about the theft of artwork or jewelry, so long as it didn’t affect them personally, so I only gave the picture a skeptical look and shrugged with one shoulder.  “When did that happen?”

“To the best of our forensic estimation,” the dark-skinned detective said, “it seems like the theft took place around the same time as this building – whatever it was – burned to the ground.”

“What does any of this have to do with me?”

Instead of immediately answering, the dark-skinned detective took a long drink from his tiny Styrofoam cup of coffee.  “Good behavior,” he said, finally.

The quizzical expression that came to my features wasn’t faked in the slightest.  “What?”

“Good behavior,” the dark-skinned detective repeated.  “You were paroled early in France, for good behavior.  Is that right?”

I blinked several times, contemplating how to answer.  It said a lot about the last few days that I wasn’t terribly shocked to discover the Lady’s ability to manipulate events extended to changing public record.  Adlai would almost certainly have been keeping tabs on my prison sentence, so erasing me from the system entirely would have set off red flags.  By adjusting the date of my release, however, the Lady had done just enough that I could move around Europe without setting off alarms at every airport or checkpoint.

“I made a mistake,” I said, picking my words carefully.  “And I paid for that mistake.”

“And what mistake was that?”

My not-quite character assumed a more aggressive posture and tone.  “You’ve got my record.  You tell me.”

The dark-skinned detective raised his hands, palms facing me, in the universal sign of surrender.  “No need to get hostile,” he said.  “Just trying to understand everything.  What can you tell me about this?”  He pointed at the third picture: the manor house, swarming with police officers, techs, and forensic analysts.

“A post-modern take on Downton Abbey?” I asked.  “I’m here on business, yeah, but none of that business requires me to spend any time with lords or ladies.”

“Just…what was it?  Two days ago?  Three?  Anyway, a few days ago, there was a major incident at this location.”  The detective tapped an index finger against the photograph.  “Guns and everything.  Unlike Americans, we take guns very seriously here in England.”

I rolled my eyes.  “I’m not American.”

The detective raised an eyebrow.  “Sure about that?”

“Both my mother and father are Irish,” I explained, “and that’s where I was born.  I grew up in America, which isn’t the same thing.”

The detective jotted down some notes on that and I instantly rejected the clarification.  It wasn’t likely to amount to anything – my mother had been buried a long time ago and the whereabouts of my father remained a mystery I couldn’t bring myself to care about – but it was the principle of the thing.

“My apologies about that,” the detective said, when he finished writing.  “Now, you say you didn’t have any business to be up in this area?  Can you explain this, then?”

He pointed at the third picture, which was not a photograph at all.  It was the sketch I’d seen on the news.  I pretended to examine it for several seconds before I shrugged again.  “It’s someone who looks like me, I guess?  What’s your point?”

“We’ve got a witness – two, actually – who can put you in town right around when this shootout was happening,” the detective said.

“If you have two witnesses who can do that, I’ll be impressed,” I countered, “seeing as I wasn’t there.  And even if I was, and you could prove it, all that would do is prove…what, exactly?  That I was traveling somewhere?  That’s not illegal, is it?”

“Not unless you’re carrying weapons,” the detective said.  “You aren’t carrying weapons, are you?”

“I was searched before they brought me up here, so you already know I’m not.  Look, do I need to call a lawyer?  Or a barrister, or whatever you call them over here?”

The detective tilted his head at me.  “I don’t know.  Do you?”

“If you don’t get to the point soon, I think I very well might have to.”

“I’m getting to that.  Now, can you tell me what you see here?” The detective pointed at the final picture in the lineup.  “Just a couple of hours ago, this factory went up in smoke.  And I suppose you wouldn’t happen to know anything about this?”

“Who do you think I am?” I asked.  “I mean, seriously; what do you think I do?  I’m in acquisitions.  Why would I blow up a factory?”

“That’s a very good question,” the detective replied.  “Now, I’m just getting up to speed on this case, but my friend here is convinced that you know more about what’s going on than you’re letting on.  And I’ve got to tell you; from all appearances, this is a very smart man.”

“Well,” I said, directing my voice to Adlai.  He still hadn’t spoken, but it was important that I keep his attention inside of the room.  It wouldn’t take much before he decided to check on my files and, in doing so, make it impossible for Sarah to finish with her work.  “Do you talk for yourself?”

Adlai’s eyes narrowed.

“Because if you did,” I continued, “I’d ask you why you’re letting this fine detective do all the interrogation himself?  If you’ve got questions, ask them with your own lips.”

Still nothing.

“If I was involved with any of the things you’re showing me,” I said, “why in God’s name would I turn myself in?  Why wouldn’t I just hide until this all blew over?”

For several seconds, Adlai continued to watch me silently and I repeated my last question in the vaults of my own mind.  Hiding would have been a fantastic plan, if Asher’s presence wasn’t forcing my team and me to take increasingly reckless actions.  Then, jarring me from my ruminations, Adlai spoke.

“Detective Inspector,” Adlai said, in his soft and lightly accented voice.  “If you could leave the two of us alone.”

“You sure?” The dark-skinned detective gave me a dubious look.

Adlai didn’t take his eyes from me for a heartbeat.  “I am positive.”

The detective – detective inspector, actually – pushed away from the table.  He took his cup of coffee, but left the photos spread across the table.  “Good luck, mate,” he said to me and then stepped out of the room.  The door closed behind him with a loud, ominous click.

Adlai walked from his corner to the chair where the detective had sat.  He turned the chair back to its proper orientation, sat, and neatly stacked all of the pictures up before returning them to the thin, tan folder.  He placed the folder to his right with its edge flush with the edge of the table.  Adlai steepled his fingers and then wove them together in a penitent fashion, watching me over his knuckles with hunter’s eyes.

“So,” he said, finally.  “Here we are.”