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.