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.”

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