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.

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