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…

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.

“Why?”

“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.

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