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.”

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