Chapter 102

“The doctor, Sophie,” I snapped.  “Get the doctor.”

Her mouth opened and closed several times, producing nothing except for dead air.


Sophie blinked, visibly pulling herself back together, and then gave me a sharp nod.  “Of course.  Brandon, help this gentleman into the suite.  I will be right back.”  She frantically pressed a button on the elevator’s interior console until the doors slid shut.

The bellhop – Brandon, apparently – did as he was ordered and managed to get Billy’s man out of the hallway and into the suite.  With effort, Brandon dumped the wounded man onto one of the couches.  Sharp gasps of surprise and horror came from the table where my team sat.  The wounded man groaned and listed from a seated position into a slump across the length of cushions.

“What’s your name?” I asked the man on the couch.  For the moment, I ignored the half-dozen questions coming from the table, focusing instead on the man in front of me.

The man coughed, sending flecks of crimson blood onto the otherwise pristine furniture in the process.  “Name’s Peter,” he said, between racking gasps for breath.

“Alright, Peter,” I said, “I need you tell me what happened.  Exactly what happened.  Can you do that?”

Peter didn’t say anything for several seconds.  He spent that time gathering his thoughts and struggling to regain some measure of composure.  The blood seeping through his shirt into the fabric of the couch made it difficult to even look at the man, but I forced myself to stay calm and focused.  The terror I felt flooding into my veins could be dealt with later, when there wasn’t a man on death’s door seated on my couch.

“Was an ambush,” Peter said finally.  “Went to the tube to keep an eye on that girl, but…”  He coughed.  “…they was waiting for us.  Not at first, but a few stops down the line.  Happened too quick for me to do nothing about it.  Just…came out of nowhere, yeah?  Four men with clubs, rushed us as soon as we stopped.”

“Where’s Billy?”

“They took ‘em,” Peter said.  “Two of them grabbed him straight out of his chair and dragged him off.  One of them worked on me, and the other took the man who was with the girl.”

“Neal?” Sarah asked.  She had recovered enough from her shock to form questions, moving from the table over to the loveseat nearest the couch where Peter half-sat, half-lay.  “You’re talking about Neal?”

Peter made a non-committal noise.  “Don’t know his name,” he said.  “Never asked.  But they knocked him out while the girl was screaming, then took the whole lot of ‘em somewhere else.”

The brittle calm I’d been holding on to shattered under this new information and a torrent of increasingly vile swear words poured out of me before I could help it.  In my peripheral vision, I noticed Ally blanching slightly at my choice of language, but I couldn’t spare the attention to worry about her delicate sensibilities.

For the moment, Sarah was more in control of herself than I was.  She took the lead in questioning Peter without needing to be asked to do so.  “How did you get here?”

“They wasn’t worried about me,” Peter said.  “Wasn’t worried about leaving any evidence behind, neither.  Billy dropped his phone when they took him and I got this address out of it.”

Sarah’s eyebrows drew closer together.  “This address?  How did Billy know where we were?”

Peter shrugged.  A fit of coughs robbed him of speech for the next six or seven seconds.

Somehow, I managed to haul my thoughts away from vitriol and back into the land of the thinking.  “He would have had us followed,” I said.  “But we wouldn’t have noticed his people.”

Sarah considered that before nodding slowly.  “Who looks at the people on the side of the road?”  It was a rhetorical question, and I didn’t have any desire to answer one of those at the moment.  “Jesus, we’ve been off of our game this entire time.”

“We can’t worry about that right now,” I said.  “Peter, is there anything else you can tell us?  Anything at all?”

“I don’t…don’t know what’s going on here,” Peter replied.  “Head’s all full of bloody fog, yeah?”  Then, he groaned again and lapsed into silence, slumping even further down.

It didn’t take a medical professional to realize that Peter was in bad shape. “Mila,” I said, “are you still with us, over there?’

As I spoke, I took my eyes away from Peter’s supine form and cast them in Mila’s direction.  The bodyguard sat at the table, one hand still on the hidden weapon at the small of her back.  Her eyes flitted all across the room, taking in everything they beheld with the cold professionalism of a trained killer.  “This could be a trap,” she said in a cold voice.

“If it was a trap,” I countered, “we’d already be in trouble.  Asher hasn’t been following us.  Either he wanted us to get away, in which case he wouldn’t risk blowing his cover…or he doesn’t want us to get away, and we’d have gotten an RPG through the balcony by now.”

Both Alex and his daughter edged slightly away from the balcony at that.  Michel stayed where he was, mouth hanging open at the scene in front of him.  Mila gave me a slight, grudging nod.  “What about Hill?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But I do know that this man might be the only lead we’ve got right now.  Did you learn anything about field medicine while you were…uh…”

She saved me from continuing by jumping from her chair and rushing over to Peter’s side.  “Alex, keep an eye on the elevator.  Sarah, I need you to get bedsheets for me.  And duct tape, if you can find some.”

“Duct tape?” Sarah repeated.  “Why would I have duct tape?”

“Find something!” Mila shouted back.  “Until your concierge gets back with a doctor, it’s entirely possible that this man’s going to pass out from blood loss.  If that happens, you aren’t getting anything out of him.”

Sarah sucked in a sharp breath, but she hurried away to find the sheets and duct tape.  Anton joined her after a moment.

“Just in case you can’t fix him,” I said to Mila, “what can we do to get information out of him right now?”

Mila thought about that for a few seconds.  Then, with an absolutely placid expression, she slapped Peter across the face with an open hand.  The sound reverberated through the room and Peter’s eyes snapped open.

“That works,” I said.  “Peter, I need you tell me more about what happened.  Details are important, okay?  Anything you remember might be the difference between finding Billy alive or dead.”

“But,” Peter began in a dazed voice, “they didn’t want him dead.  Couldn’t have…barely even touched him, except for when they pulled him out of the chair.”

Peter began to drift away again.  Mila raised a hand, as if to slap him back into awareness once more, and I waved her down.

“They didn’t hurt him?” I asked.  “Did they say anything when they came?”

“Didn’t say nothing,” Peter said.  A second passed before he shook his head, clearing away some of the fog that had to be clogging his brain like ethereal spiderwebs.  “No, wait…that ain’t right.  Said he knew why they were there.  Told him that, uh….”

“What did they tell him?”  I pressed.

“Said someone wanted to see him again,” Peter said.  “Said it was past due.  Why’d they say that, though?”

I was about to try a different tactic, when Sarah and Anton returned with sheets and a tube of superglue.  “I couldn’t find any duct tape,” Sarah said, offering both items to Mila.  “Will this work?”

Mila grimaced.  “He won’t be happy about it in the morning,” she said, then shrugged with one shoulder.

She set to work without another word, tearing the sheets into shreds and directing each of us where each strip should be placed and how tightly the knots should be tied.  Mila handled the work of applying super glue to cuts and gouges on Peter’s body.  She pressed the sides of each wound together with a steady hand and drizzled the adhesive over the skin, then pressed them together until each injury stayed shut.  Blood continued to leak out of Peter but there wasn’t anything we could about that.  In stunned silence, all of us – Mila, Anton, Michel, Sarah, and I – worked to keep Peter was bleeding out in front of us.

The work continued with Mila calling out tasks at sporadic intervals until Sophie returned with a doctor in tow.  The dark-skinned woman took one look at the tableau in front of her – Peter sprawled on the couch, five novices administrating triage, while Alex and Ally watched in shock from their table – before he briskly ordered all of us away.  With her bag of tricks, the doctor began treating the most serious of Peter’s wounds, undoing what we’d done to keep him alive and conscious as she went.

While the doctor did her job, all of us retreated to the table.  “What the hell do you think is going on here?” I asked the table, in a lowered voice.

“Asher…he must have known,” Alex said.  “This thing with Ally…it must have only been a diversion.  Something to keep you away from the little girl while his men moved in to take her.”

That had been the first idea in my head but, hearing it spoken aloud by Alex, I found myself shaking my head in disagreement.  “No.  No, that can’t be it.  If he knew where Ally was, he wouldn’t have needed the trap in the first place.  He could have just arranged to have our attention somewhere else.  Besides, he’d have to know where we’re hiding out, wouldn’t he?”

Alex considered that for several seconds before offering me a reluctant nod.  “Perhaps.”

“You said that he has been leading us around?” Michel asked.

“That’s what it looks like,” I said.  “Hell, that’s what it feels like.”

“Kidnapping Ally was a bold move, then,” Michel said.

“How so?”

“If he knew that you would come, and he knew that you would find a way to get away, why would he do it?  That would only make sense if he wanted you to figure out what he was doing.”

I blinked.  Something might have been lost in translation there, but the general thrust of Michel’s thought made it through.  Assuming that Asher had been guiding us through the process of attacking Hill at strategic points, there still wasn’t any satisfactory explanation for kidnapping Ally.  There was even less of a reason for a sudden attack on Billy.  If we were right, Asher didn’t even care about Neal and Avis.  His goal was something else, something that we hadn’t yet deciphered.

“And,” I said out loud, “even if he really did want Avis, what reason would he have to leave Billy alive?”

“Leverage?” Mila offered.

“Leverage for what?” I shot back.  “Billy’s sphere of influence isn’t all that considerable, even in the areas where he’s strongest.  Asher deciding to bet on Hill makes more sense.”

“What about the Lady?” Sarah asked.

That thought warranted a few more seconds.  The idea that the Lady had been playing us from the beginning had occurred to me on more than one occasion.  And, after the requisite seconds had passed, I reached the same conclusion as I had a half dozen times before.  “Doesn’t make sense, either.  She’s had too many opportunities to take us out and she hasn’t taken any of them.  When I was in Scotland Yard, she wouldn’t even have had to do anything except leave me alone, but she went through the trouble of exposing David, just to get me out.”

“We still don’t know what she really wants,” Sarah said.

“True.  But whatever it is, I’m confident it’s something that she needs us to get for her.”  Sarah gave me a questioning look.  “Trust me.  You’d understand if you met her.  If she was trying to lead us into temptation, we wouldn’t even have begun to see her plan.  What’s happening here positively reeks of Asher.”

She hesitated.  “I’d agree with you,” she said, slowly, “but he’s been running circles around you this whole time.  All of us.  How do we know this isn’t more subterfuge on his part?”

I stood up and began to pace.  There wasn’t much distance between the table and the nearest wall, so I traversed the distance twice before speaking.  “We don’t,” I said.  “That’s been the problem with everything we’ve done so far.”

“What do you mean?”

“We don’t know anything.”  A brief flash of anger urged me to clear the table with a single violent sweep of my arm.  I suppressed that.  “Everyone has more information than we do.  Asher’s had years to set up whatever he’s working on, and he’s working with the support of the Magi.  I think.  We’re in Hill’s territory.  Hell, I’m almost positive the Lady has more intelligence than she’s offering, and that doesn’t make any sense at all.  Why would she hire us to steal the book and Avis, then deliberately kneecap us right out of the gate?”

Everyone thought about that question in silence.  While we found ourselves in isolated contemplation, Sophie’s doctor finished working on Peter.  The wounded man’s eyes were open now, but they weren’t focusing on anything in particular.  Without waiting to be asked, the doctor moved over and gave Ally  quick examination.  Her injuries were mostly cosmetic.  Asher – or his men, I wasn’t sure – hadn’t done anything to the girl that required anything other than bandages and bedrest.  From there, the doctor looked at Mila.

Mila gave her a steady look and then, slowly, shook her head.  “I’m fine,” she said.

“You need to have that arm looked at,” the doctor said.

“I’m fine,” Mila repeated.

The doctor’s eyes narrowed.  When Mila showed no sign of surrendering the point, the doctor sighed and began to pack up her supplies.

“Doc?” I asked.

She stopped, a stethoscope in one hand and a vile of some medicine in the other.  “Yes?”

“How long do you think he’ll be unconscious?”  I gestured to where Peter lay.

The doctor cast an appraising eye at Peter’s form.  “That depends on a lot of factors,” she said, finally.

“Do you think you could get him awake right now?  He can sleep for as long as he needs to later, but I still need answers now.”

The doctor placed the items in her hand into bag of tricks, then removed a fistful of tiny white packets.  She tossed those to me and I caught them in the air.

“Smelling salts,” the doctor said.  She stood up and started to move towards the elevator.  “He’ll wake up for a little while, but you have to let him sleep.  I don’t want to come back up here in a day or two, only to find out that you’ve worked him to death.”

“Will do, Doc,” I said.  “Thanks.”

The doctor gave me a cursory nod and pressed the call button for the elevator.  A few seconds later, she stepped inside and disappeared.

“Why not kill Peter?” I asked aloud, when I was sure that the doctor wouldn’t reappear.  “If Asher’s in his endgame, he’s got no reason to leave any witnesses alive.”

“Unless he really is leading us around by the nose,” Sarah pointed out.

“Sure.  But Peter didn’t tell us anything that points us in any given direction.  We’re exactly where we’d be if Peter hadn’t shown up at all.”  I walked over to the couch, prepared to use the smelling salts on Peter.  “He’s got to know something else.”

Before I could place one of the packets underneath his nose, Peter’s eyes focused sharply on me.  “I…kept this,” he said, in halting fragments.  He turned over so that he was laying on his back and fished around in his shirt pocket.  It took him a few tense seconds to find the object of his search.  “Here.”

He handed me a small item, sheathed in hard plastic.  I didn’t recognize its weight or shape at first; when I held it up to the light, I understood what I held.

Sarah, of course, knew what it was immediately.  “A USB drive?  What good is that?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I tossed the drive to Sarah.  Her eyes widened and she began fumbling with her tablet; Mila snatched the object out of the air and placed it gently on the table in front of Sarah.  I pretended not to notice Sarah’s moment of blind panic.  “You tell me.”

Sarah put aside the tablet and retrieved a laptop, instead.  She went through a series of customary checks that involved things like “creating a virtual space” and “disconnecting from the cloud servers” before inserting the USB drive into a tiny slot on the left side of the keyboard.  She waited a second and then began typing commands into the system.

The rest of us waited impatiently.  After five minutes of the steady clicking of Sarah’s nails against her keyboard, I couldn’t stand the tension any longer.  “What is it?”

She looked up from the screen.  “These are the files Avis was working on,” she said.  “Not just that…this might be everything she’s been working on since we got her out of the manor house to begin with.”


Sarah nodded.  “Looks that way.  I’ve got balance sheets, ledgers, some personnel records.  There are even names of local suppliers and corrupt officers that can be bribed to look the other way when shipments come in.”

“Okay…anything else?”

“Nothing that I can…”  She stopped speaking.

“What is it?”  She didn’t immediately answer.  “Sarah, what else is there?”

“One of Hill’s associates is listed here.  It looks like just a low level contact, for when Hill has to move among the elite.”

“Who?  We might be able to find out something important from whoever that is.  Infiltrate his circle of friends or just plain blackmail them into telling them what we need.”

Instead of answering, she turned the laptop around so that the screen faced all of us gathered around the table.  The picture displayed there was immediately familiar.

Michel, Alex, and Ally lacked the appropriate context, though.  “Who is it?” Ally asked and, for the moment, I forgot that the girl should be on a flight far away from London by any reasonable measure.  “Do you know him?”

“Lady and gentlemen,” I said, in a profoundly resigned voice, “allow me to introduce our new target: Lord Charles Fairfax, Baron of Berekley.”


Chapter 101

After returning the train to its stable, we changed vehicles three different times and took a circuitous route around the greater London area until we were absolutely sure that Asher had not somehow managed to follow us.  Then, and only then, did we allow ourselves to exhale a collective sigh of relief and return to our base of operations in the Brooklands.

Alex clung to Ally with all of the not-inconsiderable force in his arms, thrilled beyond words to have her safely back and terrified that something might manage to steal her away again.  Ally allowed her burly father to embrace her with only a modicum of complaint, still clinging to some semblance of dignity in the face of the ordeal she’d just escaped.  I expected that mask to crumble as soon as she was away from so many strangers.  That would only be natural.

When we reached the hotel, Sophie greeted us with the formality and civility that I’d come to associate with the concierge.  The only emotion she allowed to reach her face was a barely raised eyebrow when Ally stepped out of the car.

“Shall I arrange for medical treatment, then?” Sophie asked smoothly.  Even as she spoke the words, her eyes flitted down to her tablet, while her fingers began to type.

“I’d appreciate that,” I said, smiling.  Sophie did not return the expression, but I hadn’t really expected her to.  “And you’ve got someone to pick up those cars?”

“Of course.  I believe those particular vehicles were scheduled for a deep cleaning today, as it happens.”

Translation: any evidence of our presence in those cars we’d abandoned would be eradicated.  As far as I knew, Sophie’s cars weren’t linked to any crimes, and we hadn’t technically done anything that would attract the attention of the law again.  Still, leaving as small of a footprint as possible was just good tradecraft.

“I think you might be right about that,” I said, out loud.  “Our friends are going to be staying here, by the way.”

“Ah.  And how long will they require accommodations?”

“A day or two,” Sarah said, before I could answer.  I gave her a look, which she blithely ignored.

Sophie started the process of acquiring a room for Alex and his daughter.

Ally shifted her weight from one foot to the other in the temporary silence that followed.  I watched her visibly struggling with another question, before she plunged forward and spoke.  “You knew him?” She asked her father.  “The man who took me…both of you knew him?”

Alex and I shared a look, then nodded.  “A long time ago,” I said, “yeah.  I knew him.”

“What did he want with me?  I heard him say something about a girl, but…”

“It’s…complicated,” I said.  “Let’s just say that he wanted to get to me, and you were the only way he was able to do that on short notice.”

“And this is…about what you used to do?”  Ally’s question was directed at her father.

Alex sighed.  “Unfortunately.  That is why I left that life behind.  It is too dangerous for a man with children and a…a wife.”

The slight hiccup might as well have signaled a fog horn to me.  I knew the story Alex was tiptoeing around.  I did not, however, know whether or not he had gotten around to telling Ally the truth about her mother’s death.  I certainly didn’t want to be the one who broached that topic, so I kept my mouth shut.

Sarah stepped into the conversational gap before things could grow too awkward.  “Let’s talk about this upstairs.  Devlin’s right; I think a celebratory meal is in order.”

“And, after that?” Alex asked.

“After that,” Sarah said, “you get your daughter on a plane, I’ll arrange for Julianna to meet you in some as-yet undisclosed country, and the three of you can lay low until we get a chance to finish things here.”

Alex’s jaw dropped open.  It worked up and down in silence for a few seconds before he regained the power of speech.  “He stole my daughter!  And you want me to let him get away with it?”

“You just said that it’s too dangerous to bring your loved ones into this game,” Sarah said.  “As far as Asher knew, you weren’t active and he still came after Ally.  We both know he’s going after Jules next.  The best you can do is get somewhere out of sight so that he can’t use you or your family as leverage again.”

Alex stammered out an incoherent response.

I raised my hands, drawing eyes back to me.  “We can discuss all of this over food,” I said.  “And out of sight, preferably.”

“I second that,” Mila said.  “Sam needs to be fed, anyway.”

“Sam?”  Ally asked.  “Is he another one of your old friends, papa?”

I laughed again.  This time, Mila allowed herself to crack the barest smile as well.  “No,” I said, “not a friend.  Come on.  You’ll understand when you see him.”

Upstairs, the feline Sam was overjoyed at Mila’s return…or, more accurately, as overjoyed as a lethargic furball could be.  He jumped off of the couch and sauntered over to his owner, rubbing his bulk against her leg and purring like a jackhammer.  Mila picked him up and stroked between his ears.

“This,” she said, “is Sam.”

“Can I…can I pet him?” Ally asked, hesitating a little bit with each word.

Mila nodded, so Ally approached Sam and held out a tentative hand.  The cat sniffed her fingers, seemed to give the matter deep contemplation, before ultimately tilting his head slightly with an air of deep sufferance.  Ally found an acceptable spot behind one ear for her fingers to work and Sam started up his jet engine impersonation once more.

“Alright, then,” Sarah said, when we were all seated around the dining room table.  There wasn’t any food on the table, but several of the alcoholic drinks we’d purchased over the last week found their way into glasses and cups.  Anton deigned to drink something other than vodka and even Ally had a short glass filled with a dark lager.  “It’s five o clock somewhere, isn’t it?”

“It might as well be five o’clock here, if you’re asking me,” I said.  “Here’s to cheating failure yet again.”

We all raised our glasses in salute and drank a toast.

“I cannot believe that worked,” Michel said, lowering his glass back to the table.

“Neither can I,” I admitted.  “I wouldn’t have thought to do the thing with the explosives, Anton.”

The Ukrainian shrugged.  “It is not the sort of thing that people think about,” he said.  “But what can destroy a wall can also destroy a floor.  It would not have worked so well if you had not been able to tell me exactly where to put the detonators.”

I pointed my glass at Sarah.  “That one wasn’t me.  She was the one who marked the area.”

Sarah inclined her head, in acceptance of my praise.  “True.  But you’re the one that actually got us all into one area.  How did you know Asher would keep talking to you?”

“I didn’t.  But I didn’t have a whole lot of other options, so I figured…might as well go with what works.”

“Keep talking until whoever your victim happens to be decides to give up and let you have your way?” Sarah asked, with a slight smile on her face.

“If it ain’t broke.”  I swallowed another mouthful of beer and Ally, seated across from me, did the same.  Alex gave her an odd look, too fleeting for me to read the subtext.

“But the gun…what if you had guessed wrong with the gun?” Ally asked.

In a flash of sudden understanding, I decided not to tell Ally about exactly how much guesswork had gone into the operation to rescue her.  It wouldn’t do her any good to know exactly how close to gruesome death we’d all been, and it certainly wouldn’t help Alex to possess even the slightest knowledge about the assumptions we’d made.  A single mistake would have been sufficient to derail everything.  If I had missed a cue by five or ten seconds; if Anton had not been able to come up with an explosive compound that pierced the rock floor without destroying it entirely; if Asher had been willing to lose his life, so long as he got ours in exchange…

“Sarah knew what she was doing,” I said, out loud.

Sarah didn’t need to look at me to understand my thought process.  “Asher has tried that trick on other people before,” she lied.  The smoothness of that deception surprised me; historically, her ability to prevaricate had always been subpar, before we’d split ways.  “Besides, we had a few other options in mind, just in case he decided to get creative.”

“I…I would be dead if you hadn’t saved me,” Ally said.  I noticed, after a moment, that she’d directed that sentiment entirely to me.

“Your father is a friend,” I said.  “And there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for a friend.  Besides, you and I have history now.”

She blinked in confusion.

“If not for you,” I continued, “I might not have gotten my passport out of that beer hall.  Without that, I wouldn’t have made it to Ukraine and…well, no need to think about what have happened.  Let’s just say that you might have saved your own life.”

That logic was circuitous, but it couldn’t hurt to bolster the girl’s self-esteem.  A light dusting of positive deception would do her good.

“But that would not have worked without all of you,” Alex rumbled, pulling our eyes away from each other with the intonation.  “And it would not have happened at all, if not for Asher.”  He spoke the name like it was the foulest sort of curse.

Sarah placed her half-empty drink down on the table.  “You can’t do this,” she said, discarding all flowery language in favor of the blunt truth.  “You want it too bad, Alex.”

“Of course I want to make him pay.”  Alex’s voice, deep at the best of times, dropped into a barely indecipherable growl.

“And you don’t think that’s what he’d want?” Sarah asked.  Alex hesitated at that.  “Every time we’ve beat him so far, we did it by going after his target in a way he couldn’t anticipate.  Devlin hit the museum while Asher was dealing with a fire; we managed to get away from the manor house with Avis and Neal through sheer audacity; and to get your daughter back, we stole a train, and then dropped through the floor itself to get away before he could react.  But if you’re angry?  You’ll run straight at him, and he’ll pick you apart.  What’s more: you know I’m telling the truth.”

Alex stared at Sarah over the lip of his glass and said nothing for a long time.  When he finally spoke, there was an unmistakable note of resignation in his voice.  “Perhaps.”

“There is no perhaps,” Sarah said.  “Devlin, would you please tell him that I’m right?”

“Wait.  What’d you say a second ago, Sarah?” I asked.


“When you were telling Alex how we keep beating Asher.”

One of Sarah’s eyebrows twitched upward.  From their seats, Mila and Michel leaned closer as well.  “Did you think of something?” Michel asked me.

I let my thoughts travel back a few seconds, running over Sarah’s words.  We had beaten Asher on multiple occasions: we’d gotten to the crown first, extracted Avis from the manor house, escaped Interpol’s noose, and dealt a serious blow to Hill’s operations.  Except…none of those actions had actually damaged Asher at all, had they?

“We got distracted,” I muttered.

“Say again?” Sarah asked.

“I said that we got distracted.”  My palm came up and slapped against my forehead.  “Damn it, we’ve been on defense this whole time.”

“I do not understand,” Michel said.

Sarah’s lips worked without sound, as she ran through our actions in London.  I had faith that she would eventually come to the same conclusion, so I turned my attention to Michel and Mila, instead.  “Everything we’ve done has only hurt Hill, so far.  Asher hasn’t had any skin in this game.  Sure, he’s been pulling strings to keep putting obstacles in our way, but why would he care if Hill loses a storage warehouse or a processing plant?  It isn’t his business, after all.”

“That’s what the Lady wanted you to do,” Mila said.  “Take down Hill so that you can get a clear run at your former friend.”

“Yes, but that still doesn’t explain why Asher took Ally.”  I stressed the words to make their importance unmistakably clear.  “That doesn’t fit with everything else that’s been going on.  He’s harried us, kept us on our heels, but he hadn’t done anything aggressive before this.  Not directly.”

“He did try to kill us in Kiev,” Anton pointed out.

“No.  He tried to kill you, Stani, and his gruesome twosome.  Since then he’s been strictly hands off.”

Sarah looked up.  “Maybe we’re damaging his plan somehow?  Whatever he’s got in the works that involves Hill might be in danger of falling apart.  That’s a possibility, right?’

“It is, but…that still doesn’t make sense.  Why would he bother making us the offer?”  Another thought dropped into place.  “He could have just given the order to shoot us after we dropped through the floor, but he didn’t.  Why?”  The answer occurred to me a moment later.

When the moment of realization hit her, Sarah’s eyes grew wide.  “He’s been drawing us out, hasn’t he?”

I bit back a swear, in deference to Alex’s daughter.  “How the hell didn’t I see this?”

“I still don’t see it,” Mila said.

Alex had been quiet during the exchange of ideas.  Now, he cleared his throat.  “I can only make guesses, of course, but think about this.  If he had not drugged Devlin at the museum, would you have exposed yourself so soon?”

Mila shook her head.

“And you,” Alex continued, shifting his gaze over to Michel, “would not have gotten involved at all if the crown had not been equipped with the secondary alarm system.”

“I…”  Michel started, then stopped.  “I do not know.”

“Anton, you and your comrades would still be overseas, following Asher’s trail, if Devlin had not discovered him here in London.  I would still be in Germany, as would my daughter.”

“And I’d still be in San Francisco,” Sarah breathed.  “My God, this…this must have been his plan.”

With that, I began to see the full shape of things.  Asher’s taunting, the deliberately inflammatory move of hiring Mila’s worst nightmare as a hitter, the way that every difficulty seemed to involve yet another member of my multi-national team.  We were all here, in one place, and all that we’d accomplished was a systematic disruption of business for the local drug kingpin.  Nothing that would inconvenience Asher personally.  But, still…

“Still,” I said out loud, “I don’t understand why he’d want us all here.  What would he have to gain by doing that?  And since he didn’t get it, why would he just let us get away?”

“He wanted the girl, didn’t he?” Mila asked, but she didn’t sound entirely certain.  “Trade you and Avis for the girl.  He needs her to decrypt that book.  I saw his eyes; that part wasn’t a lie.  Whatever’s in there is something that he needs.”

A deep sense of unease and dread dropped over my thoughts like a thick blanket.  “Okay,” I said slowly.  “But does anyone know where Avis and Neal are?”

Dead silence filled the room.

“They should be back by now,” I said.  “Sarah, call Billy?”

She retrieved her phone with shaking fingers and dialed a number.  She held the phone to her ear for several seconds before taking it away and staring at me.  “No answer.”

“Try Neal.”

She started to do that, but stopped when a clear ding came from the elevator.  Tense as we were, every person in the room practically jumped out of their seats at the sudden noise.  Mila’s uninjured hand slipped to the small of her back, where the handle of a small handgun was barely visible.

I stood up and waved everyone, except Mila, back into positions of readiness before walking across the room on soundless feet.

“Sir?”  Sophie’s voice, a little strained and breathless.  I relaxed fractionally.

“We’re a little busy, Soph,” I said.

“I understand that, but…”

I rounded the corner so that I could see into the elevator.  There, I saw Sophie and a male bellhop, carrying what looked like nothing so much as a bloodied pile of rags.

I blinked twice before the reality set in.  It was not a bloody pile of rags; the bellhop supported the weight of a person.  Even as that thought rocked me, the man managed to raise his head and I recognized him: Billy’s man, the one who had pushed his wheelchair off, so that there would be a third party keeping eyes on Avis and Neal.  There was no Billy in sight.

“Sophie, what the hell?”

The concierge seemed, for the first time, entirely unable to articulate a perfectly poised response.  Some of the man’s blood had gotten onto her otherwise spotless suit and a violent tremor ran from the tips of her fingers all the way up to the top of her scalp.

Billy’s man swallowed with an obvious effort before he spoke.  “They found us,” he managed to croak out.  “Don’t know how, but…they found us.”

Chapter 100

Mila’s bullet took Asher in the shoulder, forcing him to drop the phone from fingers that, for a moment, refused to obey his commands.  The report of the pistol shocked all of the guards and, in the instant of frozen confusion, I crossed the intervening space in three long strides, grabbed the gun, and moved behind Asher with surprising grace.  He struggled, ignoring what must have been searing pain in his wounded shoulder, until I placed the barrel of the little handgun to his forehead.  Then, he went still.

“Neat trick,” he said, under his breath.  The words were for me, and me alone.  “How’d you pull it off?”

“I figured you’d have some way to hurt Ally, if things went wrong,” I replied.  “Whatever it was, you’d want to be able to trigger it remotely.  And that equals radio signals.”

He followed that lead to its logical conclusion.  “Ah.  Signal jammer.  I wouldn’t have thought of that.”  Slowly, so as not to force me into any movement, he clapped his hands together.  “Not bad…not bad at all.  You do realize, however, that there are at least ten different people in this room who would be more than happy to kill you if I gave the word, don’t you?”

The guards in the room had recovered from their temporary daze.  Their guns were raised once more, trigger fingers within millimeters of the triggers.  Half of the men pointed those weapons at me; the other half maintained a steady watch on Mila.  Thin tendrils of smoke spread lazily from the barrel of her handgun.  Sarah moved closer to Mila, her eyes flickering up to survey the room and then back down to the tablet in the crook of her elbow.

“I’m aware,” I said.  “But you aren’t the guy who’ll commit suicide, even if it means getting revenge.  I know that much about you.”

“So you’re threatening me now?  What are you going to do, Devlin?  Shoot me and then hope you can fight your way past all of my men?  Because there are a lot more than these ten holed up here.  Jamming the signal temporarily isn’t going to stop them from coming to ask some very serious questions about who started firing guns.”

Asher wasn’t lying.  Even as he spoke, burly men with long assault rifles began pounding up the staircase leading into the dormitory.  They came through the door into the room, blank expressions on their face as they surveyed the scene, and then spread out to take up strategic positions around the perimeter.  As they did that, Mila and Sarah inched closer to where I stood until a half circle of armed and angry goons faced my tiny group, the captive Ally, and Asher.

“Tell them to stand down,” I growled.

“Or what?  You’ll shoot me?”  Asher laughed.  “What possible reason do I have to do anything you want me to?  If you kill me – and you aren’t a killer, Devlin, don’t pretend – these gentlemen will punch neat little holes in all of you.  If you let me go, then I’ll just be able to do it myself.  The jammer was a nice move, but what’re you going to do now?”

The sarcastic edge in his voice, coupled with the certainty that Asher was only a second or two from actually smiling, managed to temporarily shatter my calm.  I pressed the barrel harder against his forehead, until a grunt of pain escaped his lips.

“You needed me to drop the phone,” Asher continued, “because your trick doesn’t work twice.  Or it doesn’t work for long.  Just tell me if I’m getting warm, okay?”

“Shut up, Asher,” I said.

“I don’t think I’m going to do that,” he said back.  “So.  Sarah was able to come up with jamming technique on the fly, just to stop me from sending the signal to the gun.  Now you’ve got it pointed at my brains and even if I could send that text now, it wouldn’t do me any good.  So, this…this is a stalling technique?  You’ve got something else in the works?”

I pressed my lips together, but couldn’t stop myself from giving Sarah a significant look behind Asher’s back.  She responded with the barest possible lift of a single shoulder before returning to her work.  In my pocket, the phone vibrated once more.  I couldn’t exactly check it, though.

Asher was still talking.  Whatever focus he’d intended to spend on undermining Mila’s focus, he now turned fully to me.  “You were right, by the way.  I’m not about to commit suicide-by-thief…especially when I don’t have to do anything other than wait.  Eventually, your Hill is going to figure out that things haven’t gone exactly according to plan here.  Then he’ll send in the type of people who’ll just start opening fire into this dorm, trusting that it’ll all work out eventually.  The girl might have given them pause, but…well, you thought the best idea would be to keep her far away from here.”

“I’m not seeing that as a bad idea,” I said.  Asher knew my buttons too well for me to fully ignore him.  If that wasn’t an option, then, I would simply have to engage in verbal combat.  We were still running on a timer and things would fall apart remarkably quickly if Asher’s prodigious mind was given enough leash to figure out every detail before we could put them fully into place.

“And I’m not saying you’re entirely wrong.  But keeping her somewhere else does have the unfortunate side effect of putting her outside of your protection…whatever that protection is worth, I mean.”

“Who said I left her alone?”

“The guard from the manor house?  What was his name…Neal, right?”  Asher snorted.  “You’ll excuse me if I don’t treat the threat of a new hire as something worthy of my full attention.  We only need the girl alive; what shape she’s in is debatable.  Considering the information she’s got access to, Devlin, killing her when we’re done might be the humane thing to do.”

“Humanity,” I said.  “From you?”

“The people I’m working for would torture and kill her to get what they want.  Especially now that she’s gone rogue.  At least she was kept happy at the manor house, until you decided to go be a hero.”

“You had people coming to kill her,” I said.  “If I hadn’t decided to save her, she’d already be in a shallow grave somewhere.”

“It’s only been a few days,” Asher replied.  “She’d probably be in a dark room by now, decrypting every last bit of information before she, uh…had an unfortunate accident.”

“Information’s what you want?  Maybe the information in that golden book of yours?”

The stunned silence that came from Asher was both gratifying and exhilarating.  Even when we’d been partners, it was a rare verbal jab that stunned him into silence.

“How…”  He trailed off, swallowed audibly, and started again.  “How do you know about that?”

“You aren’t the only one with contacts,” I said.  I nearly referred to the Lady as a ‘friend’ or ‘employer,’ but decided against either of those options at the last second.  The former took far too many liberties with the relationship between the mysterious black-clad woman and myself; the latter would have given away more to Asher than I was willing to risk.

“That book is more important than you could possibly know,” Asher said, after several seconds of silence.

“Connections, supply chains, corrupt men and women who can be paid to look the other way.”  I faked a yawn, directly into Asher’s ear.  “Big deal.”

“You…you really don’t know anything, do you?  How the hell did you get this far if you are this absolutely ignorant about what you’re playing with?”

There was a surprising lack of mocking in his voice now.  No…Asher sounded entirely serious.  Earnest, even.  The sharp change in tone was enough to give me a moment’s hesitation.

“You know what they did to me,” Asher continued, lowering his voice even farther.  I had to strain to catch the words.  “But you don’t know.  You can’t know.”

“But you got out, Ash.  The Magi let you go and you could have come to me.  I don’t know what they’ve got you doing, but we could have found a way out.”

We?”  He laughed, and the sound was filled with bitterness and derision.  I almost recoiled from it.  “Me, you, and the missus?  You expect me to believe that you would have worked with me ever again, if she didn’t want you to do it?”

I blinked.  “What?  What are you talking about?”

“I saw you with her,” he said.  “Leaving the benefit, in love with each other.  You were practically skipping, you were so happy.  You wouldn’t have given that up just to throw your lot back in with me.”

My mind supplied the relevant memory a heartbeat later.  I’d had my suspicions about what the Magi might have shown him to convince him that I’d moved past him, but the reality was still staggering.  “The benefit?  That was the first time we’d even seen each other, Ash.  You…that’s what you thought happened?”

“You’re saying it isn’t?”

“You’re damn right I’m saying it isn’t!”  At my raised voice, the half circle of guards tensed.  Mila, who had kept her eyes on a constant swivel, looked sharply at me.  Sarah jerked and, finally, looked up from her tablet.  We shared a moment of eye contact and she nodded imperceptibly.

“It…it doesn’t matter anymore, does it?” Asher asked, resignation thick in his voice.  “We could back and forth over this all day, but it’s in the past now.”

“It isn’t in the past,” I snapped.  “You kidnapped Alex’s daughter.  You sent me to jail and then you tried to kill me in Ukraine.  You did all that less than a month ago, Asher.  Hell, you drugged and dragged me out the museum two weeks ago!”

“You didn’t leave me a choice!”

Silence.  From above, I heard the subway car from before start to ease its way away from the station.  I felt its acceleration in the soles of my feet, as the vibrations started again.

“I tried to keep you out of this,” Asher said, in a quiet voice.  “But you didn’t leave me any options, Devlin.  If you’d stayed in jail, then…you wouldn’t have to be here for this.”

I tried, and failed, to wrap my head around the mental gymnastics required for that sentiment to make even the slightest amount of sense.  “You betrayed me.  You set me up, hit me with a Taser, and left me for the police because you wanted to keep me safe?  Asher, when I say this, I want you to know that I’m not kidding: you are insane.  You need help.”

Sympathy welled up inside of me, almost against my will.  Despite everything he’d done to me…despite everything he’d threatened to do to Sarah and Michel and Mila…despite the very real risk he posed to my friends and families, I felt sorry for him.  His upbringing on the Street was a mystery that I was unlikely to ever fully comprehend, but whatever happened there had been enough to prejudice him against the very idea of true friendship.  I’d thought that he might have learned something about it during our partnership, but this conversation sharply disabused me of that notion.

“What I need, Dev,” Asher said, “is for you to stop with this whole charade.”  He inhaled slowly.  I couldn’t see his face, but the tension in his muscles told me that the mask of cocky smugness, or arrogant self-possession, was sliding back into place on his features.  “You made your choice.  I made mine.  And now, here we are.”

Two more vibrations from my pocket.  Sarah took a tiny step closer to Ally and, in a motion so slight that I nearly missed it even while specifically waiting for it, drew a small circle on the screen of her tablet with one thumb.  Then, she tapped her fingernail against the back of the tablet six times, without looking at me.

“So?” Asher asked.  “What’s it going to be?  Either you kill me now and all of you – Alex’s precious girl included – get to go down in a glorious hail of bullets.  Or you let me go, we finish our deal as discussed, and…well, they’ll still die anyway.  But at least that way, you can tell yourself they have a chance.”

“You don’t have to do this,” I said.  There had been a moment when I’d felt my old friend, just beneath the surface of the madman held hostage at the barrel of a stolen gun.  “This doesn’t have to go down like this.”

“Yes,” Asher said, “it does.  Honestly…how else did you think this was going to end?”

He fell silent once more and, this time, he showed no intention of speaking again.  I stood there, gun to the temple of a former friend, with the power of life and death literally at my fingertips.

Asher’s words – at least, the words of the real Asher, underneath the posturing and bravado – rang with an uncomfortable note of truth.  If he was under the thumb of the Magi, then he could no more slip his bonds than I could find a way to trick the Lady.  Even without that, though…even without that, I realized, Asher had lost too much to find his way back after a simple conversation.  Some of it had been lost before we’d even met; more had steadily eroded every time he’d felt the need to lie about some detail on a job; and the Magi had painstakingly, carefully, scoured out the last of it during weeks of inventive and effective torture.  The man in front me wasn’t the one I’d known.  Not anymore.

Sarah’s thoughts on the matter played on a loop in my head.  Asher couldn’t be allowed to live.  He was too much of a danger, even operating under whatever limiters his situation had.  Unhampered, and motivated by the delusional belief that I had somehow betrayed him by moving on after his apparent death, the only way my friends could hope to survive would be to go so deep underground that even the memory of light became a faint dream.  Michel could never go home, never return to his life in France.

Sarah…Sarah could never go home.  Not really.  As long as Asher was out in the world, free to harass and harry her at his convenience, she’d be forced to live life on the run.

“Untie her,” I said, in a cold voice.

“Why?  So you can all die on your feet?”

Untie her,” I repeated, pressing the barrel of the gun into Asher’s temple with a little more force.

He sighed, but fiddled with the knots on Ally’s bonds until the ropes fell to the floor.  She stood up, tore the gag from her mouth, and then open-hand slapped Asher with enough force that the crack of it reverberated through the space.

“You…you…”  She couldn’t wrestle her thoughts back under control.  Emotion – fear, anger, disgust – rolled off of her in nearly visible waves.  Stammering incoherent rage was apparently all that she could muster.

“Yes,” Asher said.  He reached up and touched a spot on his lip, where a small blossom of red blood had appeared.  He wiped the blood away with a thumb and then popped that same thumb into his mouth.  “Yes, me.”

“Come over here, Ally,” I said.

The girl gave Asher a look, as if she were considering a second strike, before she kicked the chair out of the way and came to my side.  An uncomfortable amount of adoration was plainly apparent on her face, directed at me, which I wisely chose to ignore.

“Should I be picking out some final words?” Asher asked.  Not quite taunting, but a far cry from serious.

My finger went from the trigger guard to the trigger itself.  A part of me itched to squeeze the trigger.  That would end the threat of Asher.  We could let the cards fall where they wanted after that.

A larger part, however, couldn’t bring myself to take a life.  Least of all, the life of someone I’d once considered a friend.

“Go,” I said, pushing Asher away from me, closer to the staircase that led up into the dormitories and his waiting throng of armed men.  I made sure to keep the gun pointed at him, though.  Mila kept Asher in her sights, as well.

Asher stumbled forward a few steps before he caught himself.  With a gesture, one of the men positioned nearest him removed a second handgun from a hidden holster and passed it to Asher.

“Well.  I guess this is how it ends, then,” Asher said.  “I’ve got to admit.  Even when things were good…even when we were taking on the hardest jobs…I always knew it’d go down like this.”

I stepped closer to Sarah, without moving my eyes away from Asher’s, and smiled.  “You have no idea how right you are.  Ally, bend your knees for me.”

She blinked.  “What?”

My phone vibrated three times and, one second later, the floor beneath our feet exploded, shooting chips of rock and metal in every direction.  I wrapped an arm around Ally’s shoulder, holding her close to my body.  Sarah pressed herself to my other side and Mila adjusted her aim as we fell down one floor, out of the dormitory and down to the station itself.

There, the gleaming subway train we’d borrowed from its stable waited.  Michel was nowhere to be seen, and Anton had moved away from the blast zone before detonating the ring of explosives he’d planted in a vague circle around our location.  Alex, however, rushed into the cloud of dust and debris, tearing Ally away from me and pulling her into a bear hug that lifted her from her feet.

“My girl!  Oh, my girl, you are safe!”

“Not quite safe,” Mila said.  She glanced up at the circle of open air above us.  There, in the dormitory, Asher and his men coughed and spat out mouthfuls of congealed dust.  “Maybe you can have the touching reunion somewhere else?”

Alex nodded, not bothering to hide the ecstatic smile on his face.  He pulled Ally out of the cloud of dust and ushered her into the waiting subway car.  Sarah looked at me, nodded once, and then moved to join them.  Mila and I lingered there for a moment longer, until Asher peeked over the edge and down.

“This isn’t going to change anything,” he called down.  “I’m still going to see you again.  You know that, right?”

I took note of the fact that he was talking, rather than ordering his men to fire blindly down on us.  That meant something.  I wasn’t sure what, but I knew it meant something.  I turned to hurry into the subway car, which was already beginning to back out of the station, back towards its stable where a car waited with fake license plates – another gift from the invaluable Sophie – without bothering to reply.

Those final words haunted me.  I’d only stalled Asher.  A reckoning between the two of us was still brewing on the horizon and, sooner rather than later, I knew that I’d have to make a final decision with regards to my old friend.

I didn’t speak those thoughts out loud, though.  Instead, I clung to Sarah as Michel guided the stolen subway train out of the Hostel and back towards whatever safety distance might provide.


Chapter Ninety-Nine

For several precious seconds, the sound of blood pounding at my temples blotted out any trace of conscious thought.  My hands, clenched tight into fists, squeezed even more blood from the tiny half-moon cuts made by fingernails.  I noticed, without any particular concern or desire, Sarah’s sharp intake of breath and the small rattling that came when Mila shifted from her casual posture into one more suited for action.  A red haze descended over my field of vision, erasing everything except for anger from my mind.

They were waiting for me to act.  This display had been meant to provoke me into an error.  While Asher couldn’t know precisely what we had planned, he was familiar enough with me to realize that I wouldn’t have come to the meeting without some trick up my sleeve.  So, instead of waiting for me to spring my trap on him, he’d set up this show to play on my known emotional vulnerabilities.  Show me Ally, daughter of my oldest friend, beaten and cowed; show me a gun positioned within inches of her forehead; show me the fate he had in mind, hoping that I would react before I stopped to think.

It made perfect sense, in a Machiavellian sort of way.  Subtlety was a tool for those with time.  But Asher had time…didn’t he?  This whole situation was of his design.  Every string that could be pulled had been pulled so that we had no choice but to show up when and where he wanted.


Except he didn’t have the girl, Avis.  In my immediate fury at Ally’s kidnapping, I hadn’t allowed myself the opportunity to think through his requests.  He might have been able to find and kill me at his leisure, if he’d simply waited for me to make a mistake.  Everything Asher had directly done to me, so far, and been designed to force me out of hiding.  Eventually, I would have made some miscalculation.  That much applied to every thief who insisted on working the type of jobs I did.

But he hadn’t waited.  He had pushed, he had teased, and he had manipulated me into tackling tasks of ever-increasing intensity and risk.  Each time I’d emerged…well, not victorious, but undiminished.  So, here, he made his final play.  What I saw in front of me was more than Ally, bound and gagged, a phone call away from death…no, what lay in front of me was proof positive of Asher’s final desperation.

He needed the girl, as much as he’d needed the golden book from Limassol.  It was even possible that he required Avis more than he desired my own death.  Asher must be under tremendous pressure from someone higher up than him.  Hill, perhaps…maybe even the Magi themselves.  The specifics didn’t matter, so much as the conclusion I drew from the room: I had leverage.

Not much leverage.  Probably not enough.  But it was still something.

With effort, I froze myself to the scene, dousing every twinge of guilt and fear in a thick layer of liquid nitrogen focus.  As I did so, I felt the fire in my veins cool and frost over; my thoughts began to return themselves to some semblance of order; and the red filter receded back, clearing my vision.  The pressure in my chest eased just enough that I could draw in a single, shaky breath.  Then, another.

Asher watched the process with interest, then confusion, and finally – although he tried his best to conceal his fingers as they roamed up and down his burnt arms – concern.

“You are insane,” I said, marveling internally at the calm steadiness of my voice.  “Absolutely insane.”

“I prefer to think of it as creative,” Asher replied, “or suitably motivated.  Are you suitably motivated, Devlin?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”  I looked away from Asher and made eye contact with Ally, instead.  “Don’t try to say anything, okay?  I’m going to get you out of here, Ally.”

Asher whistled sharply, drawing my attention back to him.  “That’ll be an impressive trick,” he said, when he was sure that I was focused entirely on him.  “If you try to move her, I press send on this phone, and…”  He trailed off.  His hands closed into tight fists and then, slowly, expanded until his palms faced with me, fingers splayed as wide as they could go.

“And if I take that phone?” Mila asked.  I could have kissed her in the moment.  I doubted that she would have sounded any more involved if it had been someone she legitimately cared about – Sam, maybe? – but her cool professionalism helped me to get a tighter grasp on my own.  “And…oh, let’s say the arm along with it?”

“Other than you being in position of a very used arm?  Well, I imagine these men would be interested in having a serious discussion about killing off their most reliably overpaying client.”

“This is you, then?  Not Hill?”

Asher blinked before he answered.  “Oh, yes: Hill.  No, Hill has nothing to do with this.  He’s got his own problems to deal with right now, I believe.  Something about a ‘major part of his operation’ and OSHA.”  He shrugged.

I shrugged back.  “Sounds like a tough beat for him.  Convenient that it frees you up to take care of old debts, isn’t it?”

“Also, new ones.  Never kill two birds with one stone when you can get three, as they say.”

The wheels in my mind ground through the thick layers of ice I’d deliberately cooled them with, forcing me to consider the situation from every imaginable angle.  Asher wasn’t the type to lie about what might trigger the gun.  So, getting the phone itself away from him was the first priority.  Mila could handle that.  But, if she took long to get the device out of his hands, there was every possibility that he might be able to trigger it anyway.  Even if we stopped that, neither Sarah nor I stood any chance in a confrontation with ten armed men who were ready and waiting for conflict to break out.  A frontal assault would likely end in at least five deaths: Sarah, Mila, Ally, and myself…getting Asher out of the picture didn’t strike me as a good deal.

The timer in my pocket was still counting down.  By now, Sarah’s program should have found a way to use the derelict subway station as a starting point for a hostile takeover of the systems used to power subway rails.  We didn’t want or need complete access to the entire database – names, social security numbers, and addresses fell outside of our purview on this operation – but Sarah had assured us that a quick backdoor would allow her to reroute the electricity from a lesser used station long enough to get Michel’s train started.

It was probably already on the way, come to think of it.  We were operating on an unforgiving timeline, however, and it was important that any issues be resolved as soon as possible.

“So?” Asher’s question pulled me out of my thoughts.  “Here’s your girl.  Where’s mine?”

“You didn’t say anything about hurting her,” I said.

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t, either.”  He removed a cigarette from behind his ear, lit it, and then blew a steady cloud of smoke directly into Sarah’s face.  She coughed once before realizing that he’d only done it for effect.  After that, she resolutely refused to so much as blink.


“Alex’s kid…she’s got a little bit of spirit to her,” Asher said.  “And seeing how this little get together wouldn’t have worked if I’d taken any, uh…more permanent measures, I had to give a few of my men here permission to get rough.”

I couldn’t help but look at Ally again.  She was a woman – no, a girl – who had only received confirmation about her father’s criminal past less than two weeks prior, and she’d still found it in her to fight back against Asher and whatever goon squad he contracted to kidnap her.  A thought occurred to me, in that moment: if Asher could try to get under my skin, there wasn’t anything stopping me from trying the same thing.

“So she gave you that little scratch there?”  I gestured at a thin red line underneath Asher’s ear.  It wasn’t bleeding, but the coloring led me to believe that it wasn’t an old wound.  “You’re losing your touch, then.  Or maybe you can just can’t afford to hire decent help these days.  Don’t worry, man…I hear it happens to a lot of guys your age.”

The cocky smile on Asher’s lips froze around his cigarette for a second or two, then eased back to life.  “You’re stalling.  Why is that, I wonder?”

Oh well.  It hadn’t cost me anything to try.  “Because I enjoy the pleasure of your company so much.  I’m not stalling; I’m just trying to figure out what the hell you hope to get out of all this.”

“I’m not about to monologue, Devlin.  You think I read all those Bond novels, only to miss the primary rule of confrontation?”

“And that is?”

“Always leave them wanting more,” Asher said.  “Now.  I want the girl.  When I have her, I’ll let you say your goodbyes to the beautiful missus, before Mila escorts her and this little bitch out of my sight.”

“How do I know you’ll keep up your end of the bargain?”

“You don’t.”  I’d expected something a little more florid, so the blunt nature of that reply gave me a moment of pause.  “But if you don’t want to make the deal, go ahead and leave.  You can call Alex and let him know exactly why his daughter died screaming.”

My poker face didn’t slip for a heartbeat, even as I secretly exulted in Asher’s inadvertent admission: he didn’t know where Alex was.  As far as he knew, my friend was still in the dark.  How much Asher knew about Alex’s involvement had been a dark spot.  Too much information would have compromised at least one angle of the plan, possibly more; so long as he was in the dark, we could still proceed as we’d discussed before leaving the Brooklands.

“I want to talk to my friends,” I said.

“Friends?  Devlin, it’s your ex-wife and someone you hired to keep me from just putting a bullet in your head.  Calling them friends is drawing it a little thick, don’t you think?”

I gave him a stony gaze, instead of any verbal reply.

Asher heaved a heavy, dramatized sigh.  “Fine.  I assume you’ll want some privacy so that you can work out the details of whatever half-cocked plan you’ve got in mind?”

He gestured at his men, who moved into flanking positions behind Mila, their weapons pointed at the ground but still ready, without waiting for an answer.  Asher walked past the men, smoking the remainder of his cigarette and flicking ashes all across the dormitories without any concern for possible fire hazards.

I made a signal of my own, motioning Sarah and Mila back from where Ally sat.  As I moved to join them, I made an effort to keep my back facing the closest men.  “I need Alex,” I murmured under my breath, taking great care to keep any movement of my lips as minute as possible.

The earbud clicked twice.  No sound came from it for the first few seconds, and I nearly asked Sarah if she had made some mistake, but a soft cough answered that question for me.  “You there?”

“Devlin?” Alex’s voice was eager and the anticipation in the one word was enough that the hair on my own arms stood on end.  “Is everything okay?  Is Ally okay?”

“She’s fine.”  I gestured with my hands, for effect.  As far as anybody behind me knew, I was talking softly to Sarah and Mila.  “Ally’s here and she’s alive.”

Danke Gott,” Alex breathed out.

I didn’t know the language, but the sentiment contained in his words was impossible to misinterpret.  “He’s got more men than we planned on,” I continued, “but we shouldn’t have to change anything here.  Are you in position?”

“…not yet.  I will be there in time, though.”

“You’re sure?  Because if we need to move things around…”

“Devlin.  I will be there.”

“Alright, then.  Sarah, link him into Michel’s line.  They’ll have to coordinate on their own.”

Sarah’s deft fingers inputted the command with a few sharp motions and the earbud beeped twice, then went dead in my ear.

“I’ve got the access we need,” Sarah whispered to me, when only Mila and I could hear her.  “Rail’s active, so Michel and Anton should be on the way.”

I gave her a miniscule nod.  “They’re on time?”

“A little late,” she admitted, “but Michel can make it up without raising suspicion.  I can’t slow down the other thing without seriously getting attention.  Not to mention, screwing things up for us.”

“That should be fine, though?”

Sarah hesitated, just a hair too long for my comfort.  “It should be fine, yeah.”

“How much longer do I need to stall?”

While I wouldn’t remove the encrypted smartphone in Asher’s presence, Sarah’s tablet was something he’d already seen and likely dismissed.  It wasn’t at all strange, then, for her to swipe through a few apps until she reached the appropriate one.  At this distance, neither Asher nor any of his men would see anything other than the gestures, anyway.

“Five minutes,” Sarah said, in that same barely audible whisper.  I might not have been able to understand the words, if I hadn’t learned how to read her lips mere weeks into our professional relationship.  “No way of knowing how long it’ll take Anton to come up with the right sort of explosive, though.”

“Deal with that when we get to it,” I said.

Mila shifted her weight from one foot to another.  She had been so still since entering the dormitories that my eyes were automatically drawn to the slight adjustment in position.  “And me?”

I decided, with only a hairsbreadth of a second’s worth of thought, not to mention Mila’s impairment.  She kept her broken arm tight against her ribs, as though the cast itself might serve as some kind of weapon.  Seeing as she’d incurred that energy in the process of saving me from Aiden’s mad driver Carlos, I couldn’t quite squelch the feeling of responsibility and guilt that threatened to damage my calm whenever I noticed it.  The last thing I needed was for her to feel like she had something to prove.

“Stay alert,” I said.  “Same as Asher knows I’m planning something, I don’t think for a second that he doesn’t have a dozen tricks in store.”

Mila nodded.

I turned back to Sarah.  “Where’s Billy?”

She checked the tablet in the crook of her arm.  “He should be on the train with Neal and Avis,” she said, after a moment.  “You want to check in with him?”

I considered that possibility for a few heartbeats before deciding against it.  “No need.  He’s just got to keep an eye on those two and make sure they don’t decide to do something stupid.  If they go off mission, then he’ll contact you.  You told him how to get your attention?”

“Of course,” Sarah said.  “His earbud is off for the moment, but if he does the double-touch, it’ll automatically alert me.”

I looked over my shoulder.  Leaning against the far wall, Asher had lit another cigarette.  He took long drags off of the cigarette with the air of someone without a care in the world.  Anyone else might have believed the posturing, but I’d seen his little tell earlier.  Of course, I couldn’t let him know that I’d seen the tell; doing that might cause him to trigger whatever traps he had in wait prematurely.

“What a web, what a web,” I muttered, under my breath.

Sarah lifted an eyebrow.  “What?”

“Nothing, nevermind.  You ready to get back into this?”

She nodded.  A moment later, Mila did the same.  I led my group back across the empty space until we stood only a foot or two away from Ally.  Asher, after finishing off his smoke and stubbing the cherry to death against one of the dormitory’s stone walls, joined us.

Asher favored Sarah with a thin smile, as he took up position behind Ally’s chair.  “You get all of your final goodbyes out of the way?  Set up a last will and testament…for whatever good that’ll do you, I mean.”

She returned the smile with one of her own.  “Meaning?”

“Meaning,” Asher said, “that I hope you don’t think this is going to be the end of it.  Sure, I’ll let you walk out of here right now.  Not exactly sure what your little bodyguard would be able to do, considering her condition, but I’m patient.  I can wait until she’s off payroll before I come after you.”

“For what?” Sarah asked.  “No, wait; forget I asked.  The fact that I’m talking to a lunatic slipped my mind for a moment.  My bad.”

“I think it’s a decent question,” I said.  “I’ve read the file on you, Asher.  I know – at least, I think I know – what happened to you after St. Petersburg.  But all this?”  I gestured at our surroundings.  “If all you wanted was revenge for something I didn’t even do, why would you go through all this trouble?  Getting in bed with Hill, dragging us all across London…what’s the point?  What’s the endgame here?”

Asher sucked his teeth.  “I can’t believe you’re still calling him that.”

“Who?  Hill?”

“The kingpin allegedly known as Hill, sure.  With everything you’ve been doing, you still haven’t figured out what his real name is?”

My heart skipped a beat.  “You know his real name?”

“Among other things.  I don’t – how did you put it? – get into bed with just anybody, you know.”

Behind me and to the left, Sarah tapped her fingernail against the back of her tablet.  One click, pause, one click, pause, and then a third click.  I translated that nonverbal signal into English: three minutes.  No…not three minutes.  Thirty seconds.

As if on cue, the walls began to rattle.  Asher glanced up at the ceiling, as flakes of dust and concrete rained down.  “Problem with an underground base,” he said in a conversational tone.  “The subway makes it difficult to keep anything clean.”

“Little loud, too, isn’t it?”  The volume of the passing train steadily increased as it drew nearer, shaking the walls and floors.  I had to raise my voice.  “Couldn’t pick a better location for this?”

“Nothing I can’t wait out,” Asher said.

One sharp click from behind me.  I didn’t have to turn to see Mila shifting into a ready position at the sound.  My own muscles tensed beneath my shirt, preparing themselves to explode into action.  Every second was important.

“These are your men, then?  Not Hill’s?”

My phone vibrated in my pocket.  Time was up.  I couldn’t risk looking at Sarah for confirmation.

“It’s surprising what you can do when you’ve got money to throw around.  Of course, they don’t get paid until I get what I want, but my word is worth a surprising amount as of late.”

“So they need you alive, then?  I mean, if they want to get paid.”

“Just the way I prefer my muscle,” Asher said.  “Can’t take too many precautions when you’re dealing with such untrustworthy criminal types.”

I smiled.  It was the first genuine smile I’d found myself wearing in almost a week, and it felt good.  The stress of the past seven days – the fear, the doubt, the anxiety – poured out of my body in a single, sharp laugh.

“Good.  Mila?  Shoot him in the knee.”

She drew her gun.  Asher, without changing expression, slipped a hand into his pocket.  “Very funny, Devlin.  But we both know you aren’t brave enough to risk anything like that if Alex’s kid is in danger.”

“You said it yourself, Asher.  No matter what I do, you’re not going to leave any of us in peace.  At least this way, I can make sure that the smallest amount of people are in danger from you.”

Ally’s eyes, already as wide as dinner plates, grew to the size of small beach balls.  I tried to convey my thoughts to her in a moment of eye contact; judging by the panicked breaths and the fervent glances she shot to the gun at her temple, my efforts were in vain.

The train continued overhead.  The vibration and the accompanying noise let me know that it was almost in position, directly overhead.  Exactly as planned.

Asher removed his phone, his thumb poised directly over the send button.  “Last chance to stop bluffing,” he said.  The frigid chill in his voice lowered the temperature of the dormitory by several degrees and I forced myself to lock eyes with him.

“No deal,” I said.  “Mila, if he presses that button, put a bullet in him.  In fact, put several in him.”

“Can do.”  She shifted her weight.  Something about that small movement was enough to let the guards in the room know that she was serious.  They reacted at varying speeds, but their actions ultimately were the same: they raised their weapons up to their shoulders or into proper shooting stances, every barrel in the room save Mila’s pointed directly at my group.

Asher paid them no mind.  He shrugged, and the subtle movement of his shoulders was meant for me and me alone.   “Her first, then.  Then, Sarah.  Aiden can do whatever he wants with Mila and the girl…well, she’s not as big of a problem as I thought she’d be.”

He raised the phone until it was level with his head, then pressed the send button.  Mila closed one eye and squeezed the trigger on her relatively small caliber handgun at the same time.

The train above stopped; something below shook with considerably more force; and I, terrified of a miscalculation that might lead to all of our deaths, exploded into action.


Chapter Ninety-Eight

“You know,” Asher said in a conversational tone, as we made our way down into the depths of the London Underground, “he really wanted to be here for this.  He might very well have literally killed for the opportunity.  But, alas, the body and the heart don’t always agree on what’s going to happen.”

It took me a few heartbeats to realize that he was talking to Mila, rather than to Sarah or me.  I caught the insinuation that Aiden wasn’t feeling particularly well, though, and added that to the growing mental file of suppositions and guesses.

Mila didn’t reply for several seconds.  When she did, only a single word passed her lips.  “Shame.”

“There’s a lot of confusion, so I was wondering if you might be able to clear a few things up for me,” Asher said.  “When you started working with Aiden, did you already know you were going to end up working under him?  Or was that just something you hoped for?”

The innuendo there was deliberately obvious.  It was just as obvious, in fact, that Asher was trying to get under our collective skins.  I had enough experience with the man to understand what he was playing at and Sarah, bless her heart, was naturally resistant to that sort of manipulation.  Mila was…an unknown quantity.  She maintained a constant air of disinterest, but I’d learned enough about her in the past two weeks or so to understand that she was the type of person who bottled up feelings instead of properly processing them.  In the field, that ability would typically make her a reliable asset, unlikely to be distracted by errant thoughts when work needed to be done.  A point would ultimately come, however, where her ability to compartmentalize failed and she was forced to confront the weight of emotions she’d been ignoring for God only knew how long.

I became aware of the similarities between the two of us almost immediately and dismissed that epiphany almost as quickly.

Asher was still speaking.  I tuned back into his words and blocked out any thoughts about my submerged emotional state.  “He’s attractive and all that, I guess, if you’re into that sort of thing.  Brooding, damaged, charismatic as all hell.  But still.  You were…what, sixteen?  Seventeen?  And it wasn’t long at all before you fell into bed with him, willing and able to service him in whatever manner he required, so I’m just asking – “

Mila cut him off.  “You do know that I’m going to kill you, right?”

“Is that so?”  Asher turned back and gave Mila an artificial smile.  “You certainly wouldn’t be the first person to make that particular threat.”

“Not surprised,” Mila said.  “But I can promise you one thing.”

“And that is?”

“I’ll be the last.”

Silence fell over our assorted group.  Asher continued picking his way down the steps into the Underground and I continued to follow him into the depths.  Already, the sounds of life above ground had faded into a mishmash of non-distinct noises.  If the path down had been any narrower, my claustrophobia might very well have been triggered, but the staircase was just wide enough that I could travel down without feeling trapped or ringed in.  The bare bulbs, placed at even intervals on the walls, helped a little bit.  Not enough that my nerves weren’t thrumming like taut guitar strings with each step, but just enough that I could function.  For the moment.

Apparently, failing in his attempts to rile Mila up – at least, to rile her up so that she’d be distracted – didn’t phase Asher in the slightest.  He continued speaking, with his eyes facing forward.  “I’ve got to admit, I’m more than a little curious, Devlin.  What exactly do you think you’re going to be to pull off here?”

“Getting Ally away from you, for starters,” I said.

“And Mila?  Your personal bodyguard isn’t going to be a whole lot of good, seeing as you’re going to turn yourself over to my tender ministrations, will she?”

We had discussed this part of the story enough that I answered smoothly, without even the faintest trace of hesitation.  “She’s here to make sure you don’t renege on your deal.  Something smells even a little bit fishy, and she gets to indulge herself.”

“I’ve got men in places you haven’t even begun to consider,” Asher said.  “You really think that one little girl is going to be enough to stop me if I decide to just snatch you and your precious Sarah right now?”

“Maybe not,” I admitted.  “But she’s more than good enough to kill you.  And I guess that’ll just have to be enough, won’t it?”

At this, he actually stopped and turned to face me.  We locked eyes for a long moment, electric lines of invisible tension springing into life between us.  Asher broke eye contact first, resuming his trek down into the darkness of the Underground at a slightly faster pace than before.  The gap between us widened even further, as I slowed my own descent.

“I need Michel,” I said, under my breath.

Sarah was close enough that she heard the words.  It wasn’t uncommon for her to carry a tablet whenever she was away from her computer system, so it hadn’t looked out of place for her to have one now.  With a few deft motions, she entered the requisite command and connected my earbud with Michel and Anton.

The first thing I heard was laughter.  It was jarring for that sound to be piped directly into my ears, at the same time as I happened to be stolidly marching into darkness.  I cleared my throat to make certain that both men knew I was on comms and to give them a moment to compose themselves.

Anton spoke first.  “Who is this?”

“It’s Devlin.  We’re moving into the base now.”  Crisp and business-like was the appropriate tone to take.

Silence for one or two beats, before Michel said, “We are in position.  How long until this train becomes active?”

I glanced at Sarah.  “Three minutes,” she murmured, barely moving her lips.  “The Trojan is still infecting the relevant bits of the intranet.”

The timeline was the only part of what she said that made sense to me.  She would have connected herself to Michel and Anton, at the same time as linking me in, so there wasn’t any need to repeat her words.  “There you go.  Remember to stay on the timeline.  We don’t want to blow the wall early and risk tipping him off.”

Oui.  And…how are things there?”

From where I stood, I was able to see the top half of Asher’s body, while the lower half disappeared into the gloom of the Underground.  He started to whistle, deliberately off-key and louder than necessary.

“Strained,” I said.  “Sarah will let you know if anything changes.”

There was a tangible hope that the situation wouldn’t spiral too much farther out of our control, but it went unsaid.  A point came when additional prayers or well-wishes only served as meaningless words; that point had passed nearly a full week ago.

Sarah disconnected Michel’s line from mine and we walked the rest of the way into Asher’s domain, leaving the world of sunlight at our backs, until the only light we could see at all were the sporadic lamps installed on the walls of the staircase.  My claustrophobia shifted into a higher gear and I began to wonder exactly how deep into the earth we would have to travel, just as the path opened up into a wide chamber of stone and metal.

“The Hostel,” I whispered, so softly that no one else should have been able to hear it.  In my momentary awe, I forgot about the bone-conduction microphone and the fact that Sarah would be able to hear anything I said, regardless of the volume.

The Hostel – or, at least, its entrance – looked exactly like a dozen other subway stations I’d visited in twenty different countries.  The rails were empty, of course, and both tunnels leading out of the area were boarded up but, aside from those two details, I wouldn’t have considered the area out of place.  With its paint touched-up and the signs updated to match the current century, it could very well have been a station that warranted a decent amount of traffic.

According to the information Sarah had been able to dig up, supplemented by anecdotal stories from Billy, this particular station had closed decades ago, specifically because it brought in less money than it cost to maintain it.  I found myself wondering whether the authorities in charge of that decision would have forked over the extra cash, if they had known what sort of people would eventually come to take up residence in the underground fortress.  Lives might have been lost during the bombings of World War I, sure, but the officers who’d used this abandoned station would probably have found other places to hide.

Asher would almost certainly have come across some other suitable location for his criminal work, as well.  That fact cast a long shadow over any further idle musings.

There were two men standing at either side of a rusted metal door, each armed with an assault rifle and a sidearm.  One of the men looked vaguely familiar.  At our approach, he tightened his grip on the rifle and made as if to raise it.  His eyes were fixed on a spot behind me and he unconsciously lifted one corner of his lips, baring his teeth like a wolf at Mila.

“Keep it in your pants,” Asher said.  He walked right up to the snarling man and laid a burned hand on his shoulder.  “They’re here on actual business, this time.  Besides, you don’t want to get between her and the guy who’s already called dibs.”

Another thinly veiled reference to Aiden.  I forced my mind to work out the implications, revising my earlier opinion of his motivations.  Asher wasn’t just casting out random lines.  Something about Mila’s presence had him rattled, and he was channeling that nervous reaction into a concentrated effort to shake her out of her comfort zone.  I couldn’t imagine why he would be so bothered by the presence of a known element.  Mila was, for the moment, my bodyguard.  It stood to reason that I would demand the same protection for any of my team.  He’d seen us at the Green Light gala.  Hell, Asher had even taken deliberate steps to involve Aiden, probably for the sole purpose of inducing catatonia in Mila whenever possible.

Yet another question, then, to add to the pile of growing unanswered ones.  I filed the information away and promised to examine it again at a later date.  Assuming that the catacomb-like tombs in the Hostel released me from their grips long enough to have a later date.

If his words had any effect on Mila, she kept that to herself and maintained a rock-solid, absolutely impenetrable poker face.  Asher knocked on the door in an irregular rhythm – two knocks, pause, two more knocks, pause, three knocks, pause, and then one final knock – before the sound of sliding deadbolts and locking mechanisms came from the other side.  In the dead air of the underground, the noises were haunting.  I allowed a shiver to run down my arms, raising the hairs on my arm, but kept my expression as neutral as I could manage.

He entered the corridor beyond the door first.  I followed after him, then Sarah, and Mila brought up the rear.  I risked a glance back to see her as she passed between the two men, one of whom still hadn’t relaxed, even if he held himself back from openly starting a fight.  He gave Mila a long, slow examination from top to bottom, before offering a sickeningly lascivious smile.

“I’m going to make you pay for that one,” Mila said.  She spoke with the same air as someone ordering fast food or outlining a grocery list: simple fact, without any need for emotion.  “Picked a bad day.”

The man’s lip twitched upward again, but he kept himself from speaking.  I took an unconscious mental snapshot of the man: tall, with broad shoulders and a weak jaw.  He could have been anywhere between twenty and forty, although the thinning brown hairline led me to believe that he was closer to the latter.

When we were through, and into the corridor, Asher led us down another claustrophobia-inducing hallway.  At regular intervals, open metal doors displayed men lounging or reclining while they waited for action.  I counted fifteen before I gave up and tallied Asher’s available forces somewhere between ‘considerable’ and ‘a shit-ton.’

In tight quarters, able to use the landscape to force confrontations on her terms, Mila might have been able to carve a wide enough swath through the men to guarantee us an escape…if she wasn’t injured.  As it was, and as convinced as I was about her dedication, I doubted her physical ability to meet that many armed combatants and make it out alive.  If the processing plant was any indication, she would likely take that trade – her life for ours – but I wasn’t even sure if that would be enough to get us out of any confrontation.

A quick glance at Sarah, just before Asher led us up a short set of stairs into another part of the Hostel, showed me that she had come to a similar conclusion.  One of the contingency plans had relied on Mila to give us a few minutes of cover, in the unfortunate event of a catastrophe.  It had been as low on the list of contingency plans as humanly possible, or so we thought.  Seeing the forces at Asher’s command pushed the ‘shoot them all and let them God sort them out’ plan directly off of the lineup.

We reached the dormitories, where another ten men stood sentinel.  Half of that number faced the stairway up directly, their weapons held at varying states of readiness.  The other five milled around the space – which was wider than I would have thought, all things considered – with their eyes alert and every inch of their body language vibrating with scarcely contained energy.  Asher walked past all of his men with barely a second glance.  Some were forced to deviate from their routine to move out his way.

“When I was a kid,” he said, still forging his way deeper into the dorms, “I didn’t have a lot of creature comforts.  No point in getting a television if you aren’t sure where the power’s coming from in a day, or a week, or a month, you know?”

He paused, turned back to face us, and flashed me another of his insincere smiles.

“Well,” he continued, “you might know, Devlin.  But I doubt Sarah has a lot of experience with true poverty.”

“I’ll be happy to escort you back to that lifestyle,” Sarah shot back.  I could barely see her in my peripheral vision, but even that scant image was enough to convey the unmitigated hatred radiating from her.

“Thanks, no thanks,” Asher said, laughing.  “Anyway, that wasn’t my point.  Even though I wasn’t ever able to really watch a lot of television, it was incredibly easy to get my hands on books.  I had to teach myself how to read English first, but after that?”  He shrugged.

“Get to the point, Asher,” I said.

He shook his head.  “Always in such a rush, aren’t you?  I get that improvisation is your M.O., and it works for you, but it couldn’t possibly hurt to take a little bit of time out to really appreciate what people are saying, would it?”

Instead of favoring him with a verbal response, I leveled my best malevolent glare.

As it turned out, my best wasn’t enough to even make Asher falter.  “Bond novels,” he said, with a great deal more gravity than that simple pronouncement required.  “Ian Fleming’s original works, right?  Casino Royale, Thunderball, Moonraker…the classics.  But here’s the thing: I never really found myself empathizing with Bond.  He’s this perfect white male figure.  Athletic, intelligent, great with the women, always ready with a quip in hand.  How’s a poor Latino from the Street going to find anything in that to connect with?”

A subtle shift in his intonation conveyed the capital ‘S.’  I’d heard Asher mention the Street before, and he’d even shared the occasional story from his time there when he was blackout drunk, but the amount I didn’t know about that time in his life far eclipsed the scraps I’d been able to piece together over years of partnership.

“But the others?  His…adversaries?”  Asher whistled again.  “Oh, I could see their points.  Wanting to make a little money off of the misery in the world and trying to blackmail a few American fat cats…those, I understand.  So, while everybody else was busy fighting over the role of Bond in their little pretend games, I wanted to be one of the villains.  If you can call them that, anyway.  They were the ones with the real power.”

“They all lost,” I said.  “So if you want to emulate them, you go right ahead.”

“They lacked context,” Asher replied.  “They didn’t know they were living in a world where the hero always wins.  But the real world doesn’t have that caveat, does it?”

He extended both arms and turned in a slow circle.

“So,” he said, amplifying his voice and forcing an insidious excitement into the words, “how do you like my lair?  I’ve always wanted one and then situations happened to collide in such a way that I actually got what I’ve always wanted, ever since I was a little kid.  Dreams really do come true.”

I couldn’t help but to look closer at my surroundings.  The Hostel didn’t seem particularly inspiring, or like something that would really have earned more than the barest glance from Asher under normal circumstances.  He was clearly proud of it, however.  There might be something I could use there.

“You were getting to a point?” I asked.  “All this, just to point out that you’ve lost your mind?”

Asher sucked his teeth.  “It’s all part of the drama, Devlin.”  He turned and gestured at two men, standing near the back of the room.  They parted, revealing an area that their bulk had thus far concealed, and I felt the breath almost literally ripped away from me.

Seated in a plain metal chair, Ally was gagged and bound with more knots than I could count.  Her brown hair was dirty and matted; her skin – at least, the skin that I could see – was bruised in places; and dried red flecks were visible on her cracked lips.  While they had already been wide, her eyes stretched open even farther when she saw me, then flickered to her left.  I followed them and saw an elaborate contraption atop a tripod: a cell-phone, duct-taped to some sort of wiring connected to a Beretta 92 pointed directly at Ally’s temple.

“The point,” Asher said, his smug voice filling the silence that followed his dramatic reveal, “is that I had to have a little death trap in place.  Sorry, but I just couldn’t help it.”


Chapter Ninety-Seven

The six days that followed were, in my conservative opinion, the longest six days of my life.  They were longer even than the two and a half years spent behind the walls of La Santé; longer than the years after Sarah and I parted ways in the most gut-wrenching way imaginable; longer than the years in my childhood, dragged in my mother’s wake from one temporary home to another.  Before those six days, I thought I knew something about patience.  While working, I’d spent weeks casing establishments and months perfecting the ideal approach to a mark.  I’d learned entire personal routines, down to the very second, so that every individual aspect of a plan could proceed without the slightest hiccup.  I imagined, in my own naïve way, that I understood what it meant to wait.

I was wrong.

The difference between those times in the distant past, when lives weren’t at stake and abandoning the job was always an option that could be kept in mind, and the six days that came after our conversation at the disused subway car was easy enough to identify: Alex.  Alex spent every waking minute pacing from one side of our Brooklands suite to the other, when he wasn’t obsessively watching and re-watching the short video Asher had sent to us.  Whenever he called home to check in with Julianna, Sarah and I sat only a room away and listened to the half-truths and misdirections he used to keep her from worrying.  From what we gathered, he hadn’t told her exactly what had happened to Ally, but the version of events he laid out couldn’t possibly remove the anxiety that threaded every word that passed his lips.  I couldn’t hear what Julianna said on her end of the line but, if the false tone of soothing in Alex’s voice was even the barest indication, she was as terrified for Ally’s well-being as Alex was…even if she didn’t know the true source of the threat.

The first day was spent in negotiation with Avis who, unsurprisingly, demonstrated a marked reluctance at putting herself within arm’s reach of Hill and Asher again.  Neal agreed with her, as we’d expected.  Sarah and I had been forced to outline the plan to both of them several times, in isolation and together, until the girl had consented to at least make an appearance.  Extracting even that concession had required a personal vow of safety from Mila.  I doubted that either Avis or Neal truly appreciated the lengths that Mila would go to, in order to keep the child safe, but I’d seen her truly at work before.  I couldn’t fully shake the mental image of her wreathed in flames, still firing madly into an inferno to provide a cover for my own escape.

It took Anton two days to extricate himself from the watchful eye of Stani and his goons.  We held a quick meeting at a café located several crucial miles away from the Brooklands and informed him of our general plan.  He asked few questions, except to make sure that Asher hadn’t yet hurt Alex’s baby girl, and then promised to be at the location we named at the appropriate time.  I didn’t ask him where he would get the supplies for an explosive of unknown strength and he did not offer that information.  Professional courtesy provided a measure of faith in Anton’s skills and resourcefulness; a shared terror between the two of us went the rest of the way.

After that meeting, there was nothing to do but plan, evaluate, and re-plan.  A dozen approaches were discarded every few hours, only to be replaced by another dozen which we all took turns picking apart until every constituent part had been reduced to shredded ideas and half-formed concepts.  Alex tried to provide objective commentary at first; after three days of Mila’s banal, morbid comments, he gave up on the process and resigned himself to burning out every ounce of nervous energy he could through pointless exercise and – in what he presumed, incorrectly, to be isolation – broken crying jags.  Even Mila, as detached from emotion as she always seemed to be, seemed affected by the sounds.  The rest of us possessed no such defense against such pure heartbreak.  By the fourth day, a running soundtrack of music provided a backdrop to our work, and offered Alex another level of sound to mask his sorrow.

Sarah and I worked together on more than just the plan.  With the sporadic outbursts of tears from Alex, the mood in the suite veered sharply into depressive.  Sarah and Asher had, by and large, been the only long-term partners I’d ever worked with, but I knew enough about team psychology to realize that an air of misery would make us sluggish and decrease our ability to react to any unknown obstacles…obstacles which I expected would be considerable.  So, the two of us forced ourselves to keep up a light banter of chatter and pop-culture references, drawing the others – Mila, Michel, and occasionally Anton – into our conversation through sheer force of will.

Our efforts weren’t entirely successful.  The notes were a little too sharp or too flat; the comic beats fell just a touch too quickly or a hair too late; the smiles and laughs were just the tiniest bit too wide.  But, it was still something other than tension and anxiety and the fear that ran through each of our bodies like blood and thrummed with each beat of our heart: the fear that would not be smart enough, or quick enough, or clever enough to finagle Ally out from underneath Asher’s nose without losing a member of our team to something unforeseen.

On the sixth day, Mila and I performed another sweep of the area, riding the subway in both directions to make certain that we understood our time table.  We said nothing to each other for most of the trip, except for a brief exchange of words while we waited for the subway at Piccadilly Station.

“Hell of a thing,” Mila had said.  For once, she had not been holding any sort of candy or food.

“Yeah,” I had replied.

“I want to kill him.”

There hadn’t been any need to ask her who ‘he’ was.  “Yeah.”

“Think you’ll stop me?”

After almost two full minutes of thought and consideration, I had decided not to answer.  The reconnaissance mission had proceeded without any additional comment from that point.

On the seventh day, we all rose early and prepared ourselves in different ways.  For my part, I put on the bulletproof vest from Suzie and loaded each of my pockets with as much gear as I could carry without jangling.  Sarah copied several essential programs onto her tablet and passed out earbuds and encrypted smartphones to each member of the team who might find themselves confronted by one of Asher’s goons.  Michel, who had been practicing both his train-handling skills and some advanced driving techniques, put on the outfit he’d worn when I’d first met him.

Mila removed the sling she’d been using to hold her cast in place and secreted at least six different handguns in various locations on her person.  While I’d made an effort to keep my extra baggage concealed, she had given the process only the faintest hint of care.  At the time, that had made perfect sense.  She was a known element to Asher and it would have been stranger if she hadn’t been armed.

It did not occur to me until later that, if Asher intended for me to disappear into some dark hole, the presence of a bodyguard at all would seem unusual.

Then, girded for war in our own particular ways, we all spent a silent moment in thought and prayer, hoping against all reason that we might be able to pull off this exchange with a minimum of bloodshed…or, if bloodshed was inevitable, that we might ensure that only deserving blood was spilled.

There had been no way to know the future, no trick of intuition or insight, that might have shown us the drastic error in our thinking.  The questions we had not asked – in fact, the questions we had not even thought to ask – remained hidden behind a wall of our fears and doubts.

So, when we left to execute our plan on the seventh day, it turned out that we could have used at least another twenty-four hours.  In hindsight, that might have made all the difference.


At precisely eight-thirty on the seventh day, Sarah received an email from Asher detailing his location and the terms of the prisoner exchange.

“Wherever it is that you’re holed up, you’ve got an hour to make it over to 171 Strand,” the email read.  “Bring the girl and make certain that you’re also there, Devlin.  I’ll meet you out front and show you in.  Can’t wait to catch up.”

The message had been ‘signed’ with an emoji, adding just a touch more absurdity to the situation.

Of course, we had already figured out his hiding place and were already in position, but there wasn’t any reason to let him know that.  Keeping him in the dark about what we did and did not know was an essential part of the plan; it allowed us a decent cushion of time when we could move without any concern that he might already be moving complications into position, to separate or otherwise inconvenience us.

Therefore, Sarah, Mila, Alex, and I left the Brooklands nearly an hour and a half before that email arrived.  We took a car, provided by Sophie, and made the trip through fairly miserable traffic with almost thirty minutes to spare.  Then, we’d taken up position across the street from the street-level entrance to the unused Aldwych station and waited.  We had only been there a few minutes before Billy met us there.

Michel and Anton had left even earlier, and traveled across the city to the stabled train, until Sarah was in a position to activate their third rail.  She’d offered some technical mumbo jumbo that involved the “metropolitan intranet” and “penetrating their firewall” before I’d given her the widely understood signal for my waning interest: dramatically loud snoring.  She’d worked in silence on some program after that.

While Michel and Anton were on comms – by mutual unspoken agreement, it had been decided that every member of the team should be equipped with the means to call for assistance, if necessary – Sarah had kept their lines muted from the rest of us.  Occasionally, a shadow of a smile touched her lips at something either the Frenchman or the Ukrainian said.  The third time she smirked, I raised an eyebrow at her.

“They’re getting along,” she said.  When my eyebrow did not decrease its elevation in the slightest, she elaborated.  “They’re really getting along.”

I blinked.  “Oh.  Well, good for them, I guess?  Stani’s probably not going to be thrilled about that development.”

“Well, I don’t think they’re planning on taking out a full page ad, if and when they decide to see each other outside of…this.” She gestured vaguely at our surroundings.

“That…is probably a very good point, actually.”

We sat on benches facing the entrance to Aldwych Station – according to additional research, the specific name for the building I looked at was the Strand – in silent thought for a few more seconds.

After enough time that my own imagination threatened to become a hated enemy, I cleared my throat and asked, “How are Neal and Avis doing?”

“Riding the rails, just like we discussed,” Sarah said.  “Avis wanted to finish working on one of the documents I stole from the manor house, so she looked at the layout before she left to time everything perfectly.”

“The layout?  What layout?”

“Of the Underground.  The entire London Underground.”  Sarah rolled her eyes and shook her head at the same time.  “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but she figured out exactly what trains to ride and at what time to get into position exactly when we need her there in, like, a second.”

I let out a low whistle.  “How exactly did she do that?”

“According to her, it’s just a pattern.  One pattern’s as good as any other.  From there, just a quick glance at the official schedule and…”  Sarah shrugged and gave Billy a sidelong glance.  “Anyway, that’s a thing.  They’ll be in motion as long as we need them.”

“And Billy?  What will you be doing?”

The wheelchair-bound man laid a hand on his chest and winked at Sarah before answering.  “l’ll stay one train behind them, just in case things go badly.  Don’t want to get too close, on account of the possibility that one of Hill’s men might spook.  That’s bloody unlikely, though.”

“Better safe than sorry,” I said.

Sarah nodded.  “What he said.”

“Alright, alright.”  Billy raised both hands in surrender, then gestured with two fingers at the man he’d chosen for today’s excursions.  “Let’s get to it, then.  See you lot on the other side, eh?”

Billy’s man wheeled him off down the sidewalk and I followed him with my eyes.

Mila, silent by her own decision through the last minute review, shifted her weight and rolled her good shoulder.  “Incoming,” she said, in an absolutely bland voice.

Her tone was so casual that I almost didn’t pay any attention to her words.  The part of my brain that hadn’t quite left ‘high alert’ mode, however, prodded the greater part of my thoughts.  “Incoming?  What?  Who?”

Mila tapped me on the arm and directed my attention to my left, approaching from the opposite direction from the one Billy had left by.  A man in resplendent finery who I did not immediately recognize was heading straight for us.  I blinked, racking my memory for a name that matched the face.

Sarah, surprisingly, made the connection first.  “What is Lord Fairfax doing here?”

Lord Fairfax….it took me another few seconds to dredge the appropriate memory from storage.  The low level nobleman I’d met at the gala, just before I’d been drugged by Asher and hauled away.  I stood up from the bench, carefully reconstructing the false identity of Hubert von Ackerman as I did so, and was ready to face him exactly as he reached us.

Although I didn’t plan on using this identity past London, simple professionalism rebelled at the thought of offering up a possible name stuck in my throat.  I decided to take the offense and get rid of Fairfax before Asher came out of the Strand to greet us.

“Lord Fairfax,” I said, affecting the accent of a native German forced to use a language he didn’t particularly care for. “How good to see you again.”

For someone who had seemingly been walking straight toward us, the expression on Fairfax’s face read as pure surprise.  He took a few seconds to compose himself, looking past us momentarily, before he spoke.  “Ah.  Von Ackerman, was it?  After your abrupt departure from the museum gala, I assumed that some manner of business had demanded your attention.  I had not expected you to even be in the city any longer.”

“Unfortunately,” I said, drawing myself up to my full height – which, unfortunately, was still a few inches shorter than Fairfax – and trying to look down my nose at the man, “a prior entanglement did require a bit of a personal touch.”

“One hopes that everything has been successfully resolved?”

“Not quite.  I have high hopes that we will reach a satisfactory conclusion to this particular dilemma in the near future, however.”

Fairfax sniffed at the air, as if something foul had reached his nostrils.  “And your companions?”

It was only with great self-control and the constant reminder of the upcoming operation that I kept myself from swinging at Fairfax.  The way he looked at Sarah was equal parts condescension and undisguised lust.  I had no right to get upset about that – she was free to be ogled by whomever she desired – but that didn’t stop the fire from flooding into my veins.

“Sarah Ford,” she said, standing and offering her hand.  “A business associate of Hubert, you might say.”

“Ah, yes,” Fairfax said.  “You did look rather familiar.  I believe I read something of your family in a tabloid the other day.  Scandalous, I dare say.”

The smile on Sarah’s face was brittle enough that a stray breeze might have cracked into a thousand pieces.  “My family does enjoy a great deal of press coverage.  One of the reasons I have chosen to work in other markets, for the time being.”

“And how is the import business doing?”

I blinked twice before I remembered the rest of the cover story.  “Halcyon performs as well as it ever has,” I said.

“What is it that you Americans say?  Smooth sailing, yes?”

It took a second before I realized that he was talking to Sarah, and not to me.  She fielded the question with a barely noticeable twitch at one corner of her mouth.  “Smoother, perhaps, than it has ever been.  What is it that you do, Lord Fairfax?”

“A bit of this, a bit of that,” he replied with an airy wave of his hand.  “The family business requires most of my attention these days.  Constant interruptions in the supply chain, difficulties securing supply…nothing unusual.  Or, at least nothing I expect will continue to be problems for very long.”

As he spoke, he took his phone from his jacket pocket and typed out a quick message without taking his eyes away from either Sarah or me.

“And your companion from the other night?  If I may, where might she be this morning?”

Fairfax rolled his eyes.  “Long term partnerships are such a hassle.  I prefer to remain flexible, instead of tying myself to a single prospect, even when that prospect has proven itself to be an…unsuitable match.”

I checked my watch and concluded that I didn’t have the time to fence words here.  Of course, I couldn’t leave the area, but there was nothing stopping me from offending Fairfax enough that he left of his own volition.

He surprised me, however, when he returned his phone to a pocket and dipped his head slightly.  “If you’ll excuse me, yet another complication has arisen.  I fear I must take care of this personally.  Good help is so terribly difficult to find.”

“I wouldn’t say that.  A solid team is often the foundation to any successful business deal, in my opinion.”

“Hmm.  Well, to each their own.  One hopes I might be able to call upon you at some point, Herr Ackerman.  Perhaps a discussion of our different philosophies could prove…enlightening.”

I nodded, more to hurry him along than out of any real curiosity for a peek into his mind.  “Of course.  I will be in contact when my current situation is in hand.”

“I look forward to it.”

He left, without ever saying a single word to Mila.  That was understandable, though.  My false identity was a person of importance and Sarah’s last name alone guaranteed her a seat at virtually any table she desired.  As far as Fairfax was concerned, Mila might as well have been invisible.  She would rank so low in his eyes that he would barely register her as a being worthy of even the barest sliver of his attention.

“I really hate that man,” I said, when Fairfax was too far away to overhear.

“He is kind of an ass,” Sarah agreed.  “But it isn’t like you haven’t dealt with snootier people before.”

“True.  But usually they’re paying me.” I shrugged and dismissed Fairfax from my thoughts.  Maybe when we finished with Asher, I might spend some time coming up with a way to deflate the Lord’s overinflated ego, but every square millimeter of mental real estate needed to stay on the task at hand.

Asher left the Strand ten minutes before the appointed time.  He noticed us immediately, but made no move to walk across the street.  Instead, he smoked two cigarettes down to the filter before sauntering across the street.

He came close enough that I could have punched the smug expression off of his face and into the gutter.  To keep myself from doing that – and blowing the operation before it even had a chance to begin – I dug my fingernails into my palm.  Blood welled up there and dripped down the street.

“Well,” he said, by way of greeting.  “You’re early.”

“I’m motivated,” I said through gritted teeth.

Asher smiled, showing too many teeth, and extended both of his arms in a welcoming gesture.  “No hug for your old pal?”

“Let Ally go and I’ll be happy to show you exactly how I feel about you.”

“So butch,” Asher said.  He mimed a heart breaking.  “Prison must have done a number of you, eh?”

I glared at him.

He turned his attention to Sarah.  “I don’t know if I got a chance to tell you this,” he said, “but you looked absolutely ravishing in that dress.  You know, the one you wore the Green Light gala?  Where did you manage to find something so magnificent on such short notice?”

“I have friends,” Sarah said.  “Something you find yourself in very short supply of, I’d imagine.”

“Friendship is a lie,” Asher said.  The mask of good humor cracked and I caught a glimpse of burning rage beneath the surface.  “Who needs friends when you can have money and power, instead?”

Sarah bared her teeth at him.  The expression was closer to a feral growl than any indication of warmth.  “I’ve had money and power.  Those aren’t hard to get, if you’re patient or you’re lucky.  But friendship?  That requires loyalty.  You do remember what loyalty is, don’t you?”

“You,” Asher said, waving an extended index finger in Sarah’s direction, “are not the person who gets to talk to me about loyalty.  First, you entice poor Devlin here away from his partner, his compadre, his friend.  And then you leave him high and dry at the first little argument the two of you have?  Over what?  A lie.”  He barked out a laugh.

“Enough, Asher.”  I was surprised at the firmness in my own voice.  “You want to do this?”

“Fair enough.  Where’s the girl?”

“Safe.  And she’s going to stay safe until I’m sure you aren’t just fucking with us.”

He shrugged.  “Fine, fine.  Let’s get this over with, then.  Follow me.”

Asher turned on his heel and walked back across the street.  I let him get a few feet ahead of me before turning to Sarah.  She answered before I could even phrase the question in my mind.  “Yeah.  Everything’s in place.”

I nodded and reached a hand into my pocket.  I didn’t need to withdraw the phone in order to activate the stopwatch I’d set before leaving the Brooklands.  The slight vibration let me know that the countdown had started.  Then, with precious seconds literally ticking away out of sight, I led Sarah and Mila into the Strand, down the stairs, and into the heart of Asher’s power.


Chapter Ninety-Six

“You want to steal a train.”  Sarah’s words, precise and clipped, implied a question.  Her tone, however, made her disbelief unmistakably clear.

“Of course I don’t want to steal a train,” I said.  “I want to, uh…borrow a train.  We’ll give it back.  What would we even do with one outside of London?”

“I don’t even know what you want to do with this one.”

Sarah and I – as well as Michel, Mila, Billy, and the man he’d brought to push his wheelchair – stood outside of a squat building, in the City of Westminster, looking at the steel frame of a 1972 Stock train.  The train, aged and wizened as it was, stared back at us.

Alex was conspicuous by his absence.  It had taken all of the persuasiveness I possessed and a great deal of Sarah’s charm to convince Alex that forty-eight hours without sleep made him a liability.  He was resting in the Brooklands, now, while we moved onto the reconnaissance phase of the job.

“Explain,” Sarah said, after a few seconds.  “Slowly.”

“This track,” I said, pointing down the line, towards the dark tunnel that marked an entrance into the Underground, “runs all the way into Aldwych Station.  That station is used for location filming, like King’s Cross, except that it’s an older disused platform.  But, because movies sometimes need to use trains to get certain shots, someone in authority decided to keep this particular machine stabled here.  The tracks are kept in workable condition.”

“So you want to take this train from here,” Sarah pointed at the stable, “and drive it down to there.  You don’t think that’s the kind of thing that might tip Asher off?”

I shook my head.  “Ah, but the Hostel is still underground.  Any train is going to sound the same: loud, distracting, but ultimately something you’d have to learn to ignore, assuming you set up base in the area.”

“How are you going to move it?”

“If you can redirect some electricity to this third rail,” I said, “that should be enough to get a little bit of momentum.  From there, Michel just has to keep it from going literally off the tracks.”

Sarah pursed her lips.  “Okay.  And the escape?”

That’s the best part.”  I beamed at her.  “With a little bit of manual operation, it’s entirely possible to reconnect this dead track to the Piccadilly line.”

“So we use the train to get into platform five,” Sarah said.


“Disembark and find our way into platform six.”

“Uh huh.”

“Figure out where Ally’s being kept and contrive some way to get her away from Asher without getting either her or ourselves killed.”


“And then sneak an entire subway train away from platform five again, by connecting it to one of the busiest lines in London so that we can use it as a distraction.”

I nodded.  “Yeah, that’s about the size of it.”

A dry chuckle came from Mila.  I didn’t know how she managed to produce the noise, considering that her mouth was occupied by an oversized Cadbury Egg, but she pulled it off anyway.  She bisected the candy with her incisors and swallowed fully half of it in one go.  “You’ve got to admit,” she said, around the other half, “it isn’t even the craziest thing he’s thought of this week.”

“And,” Billy added, “you’ve got to appreciate the artistry of it.”

Sarah gave both of them a positively baleful look.  “Your commentary is greatly appreciated,” she said, in a tone which seemed to carry a great many emotions, none of which were appreciation.  She turned back to me.  “So, excepting the considerable number of flaws that I can’t even imagine yet, there are some obvious holes in your plan.”

“I was hoping you might be willing to help us figure out the fine points,” I said.  “This is, after all, your area of expertise.”

“Train robbery – literal train robbery – isn’t anybody’s forte, but let’s not get into that right now.”  She sipped from a can of Diet Coke in thought before she spoke again.  “Alright.  What do we do if Asher decides to move her?”

“I don’t know why he would.  If he was going to keep her in motion, he would have been doing that from the start.  Either you set up perfect mobile protections – redundancies, route changes, decoys, and so on – or you fortify a single location.  You don’t do both.”

“Okay.  And how do we find out where she is, specifically?  Billy, you said the Hostel used to house immigrant workers?”

He nodded.  “Yeah, that’s what I heard.  Don’t know anybody who could confirm that.”

“That’s fine.”  Sarah entered a few quick commands onto her tablet and pulled up a rough schematic.  “I couldn’t find an actual blueprint of the area online.  The best I could come up shows several different rooms on the first level and some dormitories above that.”

“The dorms would be our best bet,” I said.  “He’ll probably keep his men in the other offices, to seal off any avenues of entrance, should things go wrong.”

“And when things go wrong,” Sarah said, “that’s going to be how they keep us from getting back to the train.  Assuming everything goes perfectly up to that point.”

That thought bore further consideration.  After a few moments of thought, I perked up.  “What if we can pull them away from the dorms?”

“How would you do that?”

“Asher’s going to be at the exchange,” I mused aloud.  “That’s almost guaranteed to happen.  And he won’t want to miss the moment where I hand myself over.”  With only a slight vocal hiccup, I managed to keep myself from revealing anything about Avis.  I wouldn’t mind Alex knowing about her, but we would all be better off if Billy didn’t have any more details than necessary.

“So you provide enough of a distraction that he calls for backup which, ultimately, only serves to clear the path to Ally?”  Sarah gave a begrudging nod.  “That might work.  I’m sure you could be sufficiently irritating, if it came down to it.”

“With a smile on my lips,” I agreed.  “Problem, though: there’s no way to be absolutely sure he’ll be at the Hostel any other time than the exchange.”

Sarah took a second to process that and to work through the next few steps.  “And if we try to move the time of the exchange, Asher’s going to realize that we’ve got something in mind.  Which will probably lead to him moving the location.”

“Or killing the girl and cutting his losses,” Mila said.

Everyone turned to look at her.  Michel’s expression was pure horror; Billy’s and Sarah’s faces both creased into stricken shock; and I couldn’t muster any particular emotion other than frank disbelief.  Billy’s man, however, merely seemed disinterested.

Mila calmly unwrapped another Cadbury egg.  This time, she tore a large part of it instead of attempting to consume it in one bite.  “What?  We’re all thinking it.”

“We weren’t yet,” I said, “but you do make a good point.  Asher’s going to assume that we’re planning something.  This idea is crazy enough that it’s not the sort of thing he’d see coming, but if he starts thinking that he might have been out-played, he’ll just change the terms of conflict.  Either by changing venues or by escalating it to a point where we can’t think clearly.”

“Escalating?” Sarah asked.  A heartbeat later, her eyes widened.  “You mean Julianna?”

“Or Suzie, maybe.  Your family has considerable personal protection, so they’re probably beyond his reach, but I want to stress probably here.  If Hill’s involved, that’s a pretty decent amount of power that might be used to bribe a few guards.  If he’s doing this with the Magi’s backing?”  I whistled.

“And if he’s doing it on his own?”

“If he’s doing it on his own,” I said, “that just means he’ll get more creative, even if he can’t necessarily go bigger.  Either way, the last thing we want to do is alter the terms, especially if we have even the slightest idea how to cheat them as they stand.”

Sarah let a vague, noncommittal sound rumble its way out of her throat.  “If we can’t change the date of the exchange, we’ll have to get it absolutely perfect the first time.  Any mistakes and…”  Instead of finishing that thought, Sarah gestured in Mila’s direction.

“I know.  But I’m not seeing any other options.  Anything subtler might not make it into or out of the Hostel in time.  Anything less subtle runs the very real risk of giving him enough time to counter what we’re doing.”

“Hmm.”  Sarah drummed her fingers across the surface of her tablet, then used her thumb and index fingers to zoom in on a particular part of the map.  “What about this wall?  It isn’t connected to anything load-bearing, but it could provide a little bit of extra assurance.”

I examined the portion of the map that Sarah had highlighted.  “Between the canteen and these offices?  How would that help?”

“Additional distraction.  Plus, we wouldn’t have to get past the guards.  If we could just get into one of the offices and blow out a few walls, we’d have a clean shot to the ramp right here.”  She slid her finger along the diagram until she reached a part of the map labeled ‘track level.’

“Billy, you said that the Hostel was used as a bomb shelter?” Mila asked.

“Yes mum, I did.”

“So it stands to reason that the walls are not the sort of flimsy things that can be easily destroyed?”

Billy nodded.

Mila turned to Sarah.  “Do you have any particular expertise in explosives?”

Sarah shook her head.

“Do you?” Mila asked, shifting her attention over to Billy.

“Not my area, no,” Billy replied.  “Possibly someone at the House, but I’d be shocked, to say the least.”

“Well, I don’t,” Mila said.

I tilted my head and lifted an eyebrow at that.  “Something you aren’t an expert with?”

“My Farsi’s also a little rusty,” she replied, a touch more defensively than I would have expected.  “And I couldn’t carry a tune in a barrel.”  I raised my hands in the signal for ‘I surrender,’ and she sighed.  “Someone else on the…team handled the explosives, when I was still working with Aiden.  My skills lay in other areas.”

A few moments of pregnant silence passed without comment from any corner, until I cleared my throat.  “Well, I know someone who might be able to help.”

Sarah drew the appropriate connections within a heartbeat.  “Anton?  You’re sure you want to get him involved?”

“He’s trustworthy,” I replied.  “And he already knows that Alex has a kid.  He isn’t about to be invited to their house for Christmas dinner, but he’s close enough to Alex that he’d want to help.”

“If you pull him into this, though…how sure are you that you aren’t going to get the other Russians – Stani and the other two – involved, too?”

I hesitated before replying.  “I’m not sure.  But you think the explosives are a good idea?”

Sarah took a few moments before responding with a single, sharp nod of her head.  “Yeah.  Yeah, I really think they are.  If we’re doing this, then we can’t risk wasting time dealing with anyone that we don’t absolutely have to deal with.”

Internally, I noted the change in her tone.  She was onboard with the idea, if she’d already moved onto the process of strengthening the general outline.

“Then we’re going to need an expert.”  My thoughts travelled back to St. Petersburg: to fire, and screams, and many long nights of shallow sleep.  “This isn’t the kind of thing we want to wing.”

Sarah considered that for a second or two before she gave her assent.  “Alright.  Do you have some way to get in contact with him that isn’t necessarily going to alert the Russians?”

“There’s an email address, I think, but I don’t remember it.”

She waggled her tablet at me.  “Pretty sure I can find it from this.  Give me a second.”

Sarah set to work digging through the vast network of email addresses and fake dot-coms she’d built over the years.  While she did that, the rest of us stood around awkwardly.  “So,” Billy said, shifting his weight so that he faced Mila.  “I put out some feelers about this ‘flurpitine’ thing you’re looking into.”

She immediately perked up, a third Cadbury egg slipping free from her fingers as she whirled on Billy.  “What?  What’d you find out?”

“Nothing for certain, you see.  It’s hard to get anything concrete when all I’ve got is a name, without the faintest bit of bloody context.”  He waited, hoping that someone would take that blatant conversational bait.  When we all let it dangle there, untouched, he gave Mila a slight smile and continued.  “Seems a man with some distinctive burn scars has been pushing some of the local dealers to get into the pharmaceutical game.”

“Asher’s getting the drugs?” I asked.  “Why would the Things have known about that?”

“I don’t know anything about Asher, except for what you told me,” Billy said, “but I did start wondering why the sudden increase in activity in that market.  Now, back when I was working side-by-side with Hill, there’d be some high rollers who had their particular choice of drug.  Usually something high-end or designer that wasn’t normally available, so we’d have to work a little harder to get our hands on it, see?”

“I’m following,” Mila said.

“Now, no one had any interest in flurpitine before a couple days ago, maybe a week.  All of a sudden, everyone’s being put on high alert to horde any of it they can get their hands on.”

“What changed?”  I wondered aloud.  Then, an instant later, “Aiden changed.”

“Aiden?”  Billy’s lips twisted into an off-center pout.  “That the guy who came after you lot at the processing plant?”

“Uh…yes and no.  Let’s settle on ‘involved in the processing plant,’ and leave it at that for right now.  The story gets complicated.”

Billy shrugged.  “Fine by me.  Anyway, I let my curiosity get the better of me.  I don’t have a lot of contacts left outside of the city – Hill made a point to take care of the ones he knew about when we ‘parted ways’ – but there’s still a few who like me enough to take a call.  And they said there’s been a string of business like that, all across Asia and Europe.  Sudden interest in flurpitine, then it dies off.”

“Is he moving?” Michel asked.  “Aiden, I mean.”

“He is a mercenary,” I said.  “It would make sense.  Wherever he goes, there’s got to be a specific supply of that particular drug.  But why?”

While there had been other things on my mind at the time, I vaguely recalled what Sarah had told me outside of Scotland Yard the previous night.  In addition to its uses as a pain reliever, there had been some early clinical trials that suggested it might have some ability to combat the symptoms of Mad Cow Disease.  My knowledge on the specifics of that particular illness was vanishingly small, but it certainly sounded like something no one – least of all of a mercenary whose life often depended on the ability to make split second decisions and on their martial prowess – could afford to leave untreated.  The idea, however, that Aiden was suffering from a chronic illness, the likes of which could trigger a national panic by its mere mention, was absurd.

Although, my life had been nothing but absurd since the Lady had deigned to lay her hands on it.

“He might be sick,” I said.  “Sarah was looking into it earlier.  Aiden might be suffering from something…chronic.  If he is, there’s a chance that he’s taking the drugs on a regular basis to stave off the other effects.”

“You think he is self-medicating?” Michel asked.

“He might have been doing that before he decided to recruit Mikhail,” I said, then remembered that Michel hadn’t been on comms during the original meeting with Billy at the Halfway House in the middle of a black market.  “Sorry, that’s the guy Mila didn’t recognize, back at the manor house.  Who, as it turns out, might be…I don’t know, his doctor?”

Mila turned and impaled me with the force of her gaze. “What does he have?”

“This is just an idea.  I’m not even sure if it’s possible –“

“What,” she repeated, “does he have?”

I sighed.  “Mad Cow.  I think.  Maybe.”

A dozen emotions flickered across her face, too fast and too varied for me to do more than track every third change.  Tension melted into fury into satisfaction into, paradoxically, grief.

The calm, emotionless mask settled back into place, however.  “Oh,” she said.  “What are the symptoms of that?”

“She would know more than me,” I said, hooking a thumb in Sarah’s direction.  “Ask her to give you a rundown when we’re back at the hotel.”

Mila nodded, without saying another word, and Sarah chose that moment to raise her voice.  “Alright, well…alright.”

I gave our bodyguard another few seconds of consideration before I turned to Sarah.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Stani wasn’t lying when he said that Anton was busy,” she said.  “He was collecting supplies, in case he needed to make something go boom.  When you met up with Stani and his crew, he just sort of waited for other orders.”


She shrugged.  “It’s hard to get tone out of email, especially when you’re talking to a non-native speaker, but I get the impression that he’s working with Stani.  Like, as a partner.”

The word choice there threatened to bring a ghostly smile to my lips, but I smothered it.

“Anyway,” Sarah continued, “as soon as I told him what happened, he said that he’s in.  The problem, though…”

“Problem?  Another problem?  Imagine that.”

She gave me a withering, fake smile.  “The problem is the lack of blueprints.  I can’t find any information online about how strong the walls are, what they’re made of, which ones are load-bearing and which ones aren’t.  And, if I can’t find them, then I can’t tell them to Anton.”


“He’s in,” Sarah said, “but he’s got to come with us.  He can use the train to store whatever tricks of the trade he’s going to need to blow a hole into the wall without dropping the entire damn train system on our heads, I guess.”

“And Stani won’t miss him?”

She shrugged.  “We’ve got a couple of days to figure out to sneak a train into a disused train station, steal our friend’s only daughter back, and then get out without starting a mass panic.  Whether or not Stani’s feelings get hurt because we borrowed his bomb-maker ranks very low on my ‘concern’ scale.”

“That is…a very valid point.”

“He’s going to be there,” Mila said.

That pronouncement brought another blanket of silence over all of us.  There wasn’t any need to ask who ‘he’ was.

She kept speaking.  “If this is part of Asher’s plan, and he’s expecting you to try something, then you’ve got to know he’s going to take special precautions.  Aiden is…a very special precaution.  And I…”  She trailed off there.

“I’m not going to lie and say that I’m not worried about,” I said, “but I don’t doubt that we can figure something out.  You don’t even have to come; if someone starts shooting, we’re probably all screwed anyway.”

Mila’s eyes came to life, blazing with pure vitality.  “If you’re going in, I’m going in.  That’s my job.”

I raised my hands to placate her.  “Alright, then.  So that makes…what?  Me, you, Sarah, Michel, and Anton?”

Billy and his men moved slightly away from us.  “Glad to see you aren’t including me too, mate,” he said.  “I’ve got other things to take care of and early suicide isn’t on the to-do list, is it?”

“Fine.  The five of us, and we’ve got one week to get the timing on this down to an absolute science.”

Somewhere far away from us, carried to our ears by the wind and favorable acoustics, the sound of a train leaving its station came wafting over the landscape.  Its timing seemed both poetic and prophetic.

“Now leaving for Crazy Town,” I said in a soft voice, more to myself than to my comrades.  “All aboard.”