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?”
“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.”
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.