Chapter Ninety-Four

My pronouncement was met with a wall of silence from the suite’s other occupants.  Sarah cleared her throat and spoke first.  “That’s all well and good,” she said, “but do you have even the slightest idea how you’re going to pull that off?”

“I…well…okay, no.  Not yet, at least.  But we’ve got time to think and, no matter how bad it seems, we’ve actually got the advantage.”

“And how exactly is that?  Asher and Hill – who are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same right now – have all the guns, the goons, and they’ve got Alex’s daughter, probably under lock and key with constant guards.”

I nodded.  “True, but we’ve got something that they want,” I said.  “And they want it so bad that they’re acting out of character.  Asher’s deliberately trying to force us to make a mistake, instead of just setting things up so that we walk into his trap.”

“Isn’t that what you’re going to do, anyway?” Michel asked.

“It’s not the same thing.”  I swallowed another mouthful of stew.  “We know he’s going to have something waiting for us.  That gives us an opportunity to put our own plan into motion.”

“The plan we don’t have,” Sarah said.

“The plan we don’t have yet,” I clarified.  “Have you analyzed the video he sent us for any sort of clues we might be able to use?”

“My hands were full dealing with the fallout from your little encounter with Adlai,” Sarah said, “but I can give it a once over.  Forensics like that aren’t really my strong point, though, and it isn’t like I know the area very well.”

“You can’t send it off to any of your contacts, either.  No telling who’s been conscripted by the Magi.”

“Or too scared to get themselves involved,” Sarah added.  Her lips parted, she paused, and then she continued speaking.  “Billy might be able to help.  If there’s something hidden in the background of the file – some sort of distinctive sound or a landmark – he, or one of his boys, might be able to pick it out.”

I bit down on my bottom lip and chewed it momentarily in thought.  “See if you can reach out,” I said, finally.  “Remember, we’ve got pretty good reason to think that Billy’s got a mole in his organization.  If either Hill or Asher finds out that we’re trying to find the building, he’ll probably just move Ally somewhere else and we’ll lose whatever window of opportunity we have.”

“Of course,” Sarah replied, as though I’d pointed out the most obvious fact in the world.  I bristled slightly at the tone, but my ego was soothed when she reached out and placed a hand on top of mine.  “I’ll keep it low-key, and I’ll make sure he doesn’t really know what we’re after.  What else?”

“Well, Asher is going out of his way to keep us on the back foot.  Historically, that hasn’t really been working for him, but it’s still good to keep our options open.  For right now, start running up plans to get out of the country in a hurry.  Alex, I’m assuming your contacts in London aren’t as solid as they used to be?”

“How did you know?” Alex asked.

“A little birdy told me that there was a huge upheaval in the underworld fairly recently,” I said.  “And we’re on the verge of another rebellion right now.  It would make sense if Hill started taking steps to solidify his power over the forgers and the people capable of moving things across borders, if only so that he can lock that sort of thing down.”

Michel walked past me and deposited his empty bowl into the sink.  “Why would he want to do that?”

“His current bosses have a great deal of power,” I said.  “If I had to guess, they’ve been exerting a lot of that to keep the Bratva from just sending down a full squad of hitters like Leonid and Iosif to sanitize the area.  If Hill’s going to break out on his own, he can’t risk word of any vulnerability getting out of the country before he’s had a chance to stabilize the situation.  Thus, no travel for the local underworld until they pay their dues, so to speak.”

“But what about Alex?” Michel pressed.  “He is not affiliated with this city’s criminal element, but he could carry word back to other organizations when he leaves through legal means.  Surely, Hill cannot stop the planes from flying.”

“Alex is a special case.  First, he’s retired.”

Was retired,” Alex chimed in.

I inclined my head slightly in acknowledgement of that point.  “Either way, no one really tries to stop his movements.  Hill isn’t going to be worried that Alex is going to talk, though.”

Michel was quiet for a few seconds while he worked through the implications of that and then reached the obvious conclusion.  “Because he is going to kill them,” he said, finally.

“Between Asher’s vendetta against me and the damage we’ve all been cheerfully causing to his well-oiled machine,” I said, “yeah.  Makes sense that he wants all of us dead.  It might even serve as his opening display when it comes to bringing all of the local, smaller drug lords into line, without using the Magi’s financial power as a crutch.  ‘See the thieves who tried to hurt me, watch their agony, blah blah blah.’  Something like that, anyway.”

Michel swallowed nervously.  “You are awfully calm about all of this, aren’t you?”

“Calm?”  I shook my head.  “Oh no, I’m furious.  But Asher almost certainly wants me furious, so that I overlook something or make a mistake.  So…”  I gestured vaguely at my own person.

“How do you do that?”

“Acquired talent,” I said.  “Herbs, berries…doesn’t really matter.  What does matter is that I can think, even though Asher is trying very hard to get me angry enough that I don’t really care about subtlety, tact, collateral damage, et cetera.”

“It’s a thing he does,” Sarah said.  “I’ve had years to puzzle over it and I gave up.  You probably aren’t going to figure it out in the next couple of days.”

“It…it is good that you can still do this,” Alex said.  Everyone, myself included, shifted their attention over to him.  “I know that Asher will do anything to hurt you, and I…I cannot do the things I could so many years ago.”

“Alex, I…”

He waved me into silence.  “With the two of you working together again…I think it is possible that we can do this.  Whatever it is that we need to do.”

Sarah and I exchanged a glance.  That unreadable shadow passed behind her eyes again, and I decided to forego any effort to read into it.

“We’ve figured out trickier situations in less time,” Sarah said.  “As long as Devlin can keep a clear head in the moment, and I can get a view of all of the pieces in play…”

“If we could get an idea of everyone involved in this, we would have known better than to get involved in the first place,” I said.

“You mean you wouldn’t have gotten me involved,” Sarah corrected me, without missing a beat.  I managed not to flinch away from that piercingly accurate read.  “Ignoring the fact that I wouldn’t have let you get yourself killed, no matter what our personal issues are.”

“And the two of you are very sweet,” Mila said, yawning.  “But I’m pretty sure there are other things we’ve got to deal with, aside from your romantic drama.”

I shook my head to clear it.  “Let’s go over everything we do know.  Maybe that’ll give us a better grasp on the situation.  Anyone who thinks of something, feel free to chime in as we go.”

“How far back are we taking this?” Sarah asked.

“As far back as necessary.  Information is going to be the deciding factor, and we all know that.  What do we know, what does Asher know, what don’t we know, and what doesn’t he know.  Let’s hear some ideas.”

“He did not know the Lady had broken you out of jail,” Michel volunteered.

I clapped my hands and beamed at Michel.  “That’s something decent to start with.  For someone who spent so much effort arranging a setup, you’d think he would keep an eye on my whereabouts.”

“And he didn’t know that you visited me,” Alex said.

“I’m thinking he didn’t have any idea at all where I was until I popped up in Ukraine.  He was visibly surprised to see me there, with the Russians.”

Sarah pushed her empty bowl of stew away.  “Do you think we should ask them to contribute?”

“We couldn’t get them to do that without giving them our own information in exchange.  I’m not saying that’s a terrible idea, but Stani and his pair of merry men aren’t on our side.  They just happen to be working against the same enemy.”

“Anton’s a friend, though.”

“True, but I don’t even know where Anton is.  I didn’t see him at the Halfway House, either before we blew up the processing plant or after.  Stani said that he’s in the area, and that he was safe, but all that means is that he might be a very good liar that I haven’t figured out how to read yet.”

“Okay.”  Sarah nodded a few times, affirming some idea that she hadn’t yet shared with the rest of us.  “What else?”

We thought about that question in silence for about a minute.  After that, I stood up, gathered the empty bowls, and returned them to the sink one by one.  With that finished, I returned to my seat across from Sarah.  “No more bright ideas from any of you?”

“Nothing concrete,” Sarah said.

“That folder the Lady gave you only confirms what I already knew,” Mila said.  “Aiden didn’t track me down, but Asher knew that getting him into town would throw me off of my game.”

I thought back to Mila, silhouetted by the explosion at the processing plant, and wondered what she would look like on her game.  Then, I remembered what she’d done to the warehouse I’d been drugged and dragged to, and decided that I didn’t want to see ‘serious Mila’ at any point in the near or distant future.

“He…” Michel began.  He swallowed nervously and started again.  “It does not seem like he knows where we are, or what we are doing, until we have already done it.”

I frowned.  The Lady’s habit of appearing exactly where I was, exactly when her presence would be most disconcerting, had given me the idea that the Magi were capable of the same thing.  However, following the conclusion that Asher had not expected me to be out of prison, it stood to reason that my whereabouts were a blind spot for him in general.

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.  “The Lady keeps tabs on us just fine.”

“You keep using her concierge,” Sarah said.  “Don’t get me wrong; without Sophie, we’d have been captured and killed days ago.  But she isn’t working for us.  Also, Mila.”

“I keep your secrets,” Mila said, a heartbeat after Sarah finished speaking her name.  “Just because she’s paying the bills, that doesn’t mean I’m going to start betraying a contract I took to protect the lot of you.”

I suppressed a smile.  Up to this point, Mila had maintained a laser like focus on the task of protecting Sarah and me.  Unless I was mistaken, that was the first time she’d implied that she was willing to extend that same protection to our entire group.  How much of this change was due to genuine warmth and how much came from any lingering guilt about her relative efficiency – considering the broken arm and ribs – was a mystery, but it was still a heartening thing to hear.

I made an intuitive leap and landed at a thought that seemed to make sense.  “Adlai…Adlai wasn’t here for me.  Not at first, I mean.  But as soon as I finished the job at the museum, he was front and center, leading the chase.  That’s too fast, even for him.”

Alex stood up and started to pace, forcing himself to burn off as much excess energy as he could manage in the suite’s relatively confined space.  “What do you mean?”

“Someone had to tip him off that I was in town,” I said.  “Someone who Adlai trusted had to let him know that I was in town.  Otherwise, he would have stayed focused on whatever job he was originally here to tackle.”  A flash of memory – Adlai freezing during our conversation, checking his phone, and then rushing out of the room – seemed to confirm my supposition.  “The bad guys must have someone on the inside of Scotland Yard.  Maybe even Interpol, but that seems unlikely.”

“So, Billy’s operation has a mole and they might have infiltrated the police,” Sarah summarized.  “None of which helps us in the slightest.”

“At least it gives us an idea of what they can do.  The police link might have been responsible for pushing Scotland Yard into pursuing me.  If Michel’s right, and Asher can’t keep track of my movements right now, it makes sense that they’d want to put as many eyes on the street as possible with a very good reason to report any sightings.  Whoever found me wouldn’t even have to be on the criminal payroll.”

“But that is over with?” Alex asked.

“It should be,” I said, “but I wouldn’t place any bets on that.  Even if someone’s pulling Adlai’s strings – hell, even if he knows that’s happening – he still isn’t going to let me get away with a crime if he thinks he can get me arrested for it.”

Alex paused to lean on his weight on the counter, just to Sarah’s right.  At some point during our conversation, Sam had found a way up there and he prowled over to sniff Alex’s meaty knuckles.  “Still, if we know where he is getting his information from, perhaps we can feed some false knowledge back to him?  Hide your movements in plain sight?”

“That is a possibility,” I said.  “Definitely something to think about.  Anything else?”

Sarah cleared her throat.  “This isn’t anything yet, but Avis promised to have something solid for me to look at it later today.  Balance sheets, shipping manifests, maybe some banking accounts.  There might be something in there we can use.”

I nodded.  “That’s it, then?”

Several seconds passed in complete silence, without even the slightest change in the expression of my comrades.

I pushed away from the counter.  “Alright, then.  Sarah, do you mind sitting on the Avis thing?  Anything she finds might help us figure out who the hell Hill actually is, and that’s the sort of thing I’d want to know sooner rather than later.”

“Why would I mind?”  She gestured at her laptop and, beyond that, the room where her elaborate computer set-up lived.  “This is where I can be the most help.”

“You’d be amazing wherever you were,” I said, without allowing my brain an opportunity to check in on the words leaving my mouth.  I realized what I’d said a heartbeat later but, instead of backpedaling, I chose to barrel forward and hope that she wouldn’t have tracked the sentence.  “I’m thinking we should go pay a house call to Billy.  He might have some perspective on what’s going on that we’re overlooking.  He knew Hill, after all, and I know Asher.  Between the two of us, we should be able to get some sort of idea about what’s coming down the pipe.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“I’m not sure about anything,” I admitted.  “But I am sure that there’s nothing that can go wrong with Billy that wouldn’t have gone worse otherwise.”

“Alright.  Who’s going with you?”

“Michel, you can drive.  Alex…look, I’m not sure that it’s a great idea to have you on the front lines of this, but I’m not about to say that you can’t come with us.”

He cracked his knuckles, one at a time.  “That is a good idea.”

“So, that’s Michel and Alex.  Mila?”

“Billy owes me some answers,” she said.  “I owe favors now, just so that I could get in the general vicinity of someone who might be able to tell me what I want to know.  We took care of his job at the processing plant and I want those answers.”

She didn’t say Aiden’s name, but I could hear it on her lips all the same.  A quick look around the room revealed that Sarah and Michel had come to the same conclusion.  Just as I wasn’t silly enough to deny Alex access to the unfolding drama, I had no desire to stand between Mila and her…relationship with Aiden.  Besides, the mercenary had been hired by Asher, probably for the sole purpose of unsettling our bodyguard.  Anything we learned about him might give us an opening to take him off of the board at a later date.

“That puts everybody with me,” I said to Sarah.

“Neal’s still downstairs with Avis,” she pointed out in response.  “He might not be as good at the protection thing as Mila, but he’s got a gun and he knows how to use it.  If someone sends trouble my way, I can get in touch with Sophie and slip out…well, this suite doesn’t have a backdoor, but you know what I mean.”

“Let’s get started, then.  We’ve got a week to come up with some plan to get Ally away from Asher and, if we can figure out some trick that lets us pull of both, to take down Hill.  Time’s a wasting, people.”

I crossed the room to the door and felt the presence of my three traveling companions at my back.  We didn’t say a word to each other in the elevator, or in the car, or as we drove down the street to meet with Billy, our sole contact with the local underworld.  I considered breaking that silence several times along the way, but decided not to at each juncture.

My reasoning was simple.  For all of our planning, we were still operating under the assumption that Asher was acting rationally.  Of course he wouldn’t kill Ally before taking his shot at capturing Avis and me; that wouldn’t make sense.  Of course we could anticipate his next moves, even without knowing his actual goal.

The reality was simpler and bleaker than that.  With the torture he’d endured at the hands of the Magi, it was entirely possible that Asher wasn’t sane anymore.  If that was true, then there was no amount of forethought that would grant us a peak into his mind.

If that was true, it was possible – just possible – that we might already be too late.

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