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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