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.”

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2 thoughts on “Chapter Ninety-One”

  1. Next time on “For Riches or More:”

    Asher has played an aggressive move this time, perhaps bringing him into direct conflict with our heroes for the first and potentially final time. Will the information delivered by the Lady provide the edge Devlin and Sarah so desperately need, in order to emerge victorious and rescue their friend’s child? How will Hill react to this aggressive move on Asher’s part? And what does the Lady truly want, beyond the battle between former partners?

    All this, and more, in Part Five of our story: “Noblesse Oblige.”

    (This Friday marks the start of the interludes for this part. If you like what you see, go ahead and show me some love at TWF right here: http://topwebfiction.com/vote.php?for=for-riches-or-more)

    Like

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