Everyone went their separate ways to handle their separate tasks about an hour later. We spent the time sipping idly at some alcoholic drinks that appeared at the door and discussing various problems as they came up. Nothing concrete was decided but I felt that the time was still well-spent. Most of the people on my growing team knew Sarah and me well enough to trust out judgment when it came to jobs…although those jobs hadn’t been performed under the threat of death, so much as temporary imprisonment. I preferred to work with familiar associates, whenever possible, and to stack my team with tested talents if I couldn’t have friends.
I wasn’t being afforded that privilege this time.
Stani and the Russians took their marching orders from overseas, and he made certain that I knew where his loyalties lay. If the higher-ups in the Bratva decided to pull the plug on his operations in London, I wasn’t sure what he’d do. My instincts told me that he’d toe the line, pack up his equipment, and leave for Russia with Iosif and Leonid as soon as possible. He might even go so far as to take Anton with him, whether the Ukrainian wanted to go or not.
If that was going to happen, I preferred that it happen now, as opposed to later when we were too deep into the plan to start covering unplanned-for absences. I could adapt like few others I’d worked with, and Sarah knew me well enough to leave room in her plans for some improvisation, but if we lost two potential heavy hitters and our bomb-maker, things were going to go very badly for all of us remaining.
And then there was Chester. I trusted that he cared about Billy. Sarah had said something about his family a few days ago – medical bills, maybe? – but I couldn’t remember the details. Whatever tied him to Billy was strong enough that I trusted Chester to do whatever he thought best to retrieve Billy before Hill could kill him. Problem was, Chester’s idea of “what’s best” varied wildly from my own. If we could have spared the time and resources, I would have asked Sarah to keep an eye on him whenever possible, just to ensure that he didn’t get impatient and decide to go off-script at a particularly vulnerable moment. Of course, we didn’t have the time or the resources, so I was left crossing my fingers and hoping that Chester didn’t suddenly decide to handle things on his own.
So, the hour we spent drinking and talking was essential, in that it began to glue us together as a team, instead of a group of individuals with our own reasons for going after Hill and Asher. The connection wasn’t as solid as I would have liked – I doubted that Chester had a particularly strong connection with anyone, for instance, and Stani was still too wary about even looking in Anton’s direction for too long – but it was something. In lieu of a convenient team-building cruise for all of us to take, that little spark would have to do.
After the Russians, Anton, Chester, and James left the conference room, Sarah took Ally upstairs to start combing through the files from Hill’s estate. Michel left, at Sophie’s direction, to retrieve the BMW from the parking garage with one of her bellboys. Mila lingered for a few more minutes before she went upstairs as well, ostensibly to catalog her available weaponry and to find something suitable for me, a relative neophyte, to start carrying on my person.
Alex and I were alone in the room, then. We sat in…well, it wasn’t entirely a comfortable silence, but it wasn’t unfamiliar. He reached across the table and pulled the last two beers out of a bucket. He opened both of them with quick, deft movements, and then offered one to me. I accepted it and took a long pull at the bottle. Alex did the same.
“I have known you a long time,” he said, in a solemn tone.
I nodded. “Years. I think you might have been one of my first partners, actually.”
Alex chuckled and downed more of the beer. “What is it that we were trying to steal, again?”
“Some jewels, I think. There was a Brazilian model who’d got her hands on a Harry Winston.”
“Ah!” He leaned back in his chair, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Yes, I remember now. You were so young, then.”
I mirrored his posture. “I wasn’t that young.”
“Oh, you were,” Alex said. “But you would not think so. You thought you knew more than anyone else on that job and you were not shy about letting people know that. It was endearing…like watching a little puppy bark at a Great Dane.”
My pride sufficiently stung, I struggled to keep my cheeks from filling with color. The effort was only moderately successful. “You must be thinking of a different job, Alex. The one I’m thinking about was about to fall apart because the mastermind didn’t take Carnival into account.”
“Oh no,” Alex said, “do not misunderstand me. You did know more than anyone else on that team. There were mostly older people, like me, who either did not know enough about the modern age to do our jobs or who chose not to adapt. That is a problem with much of our…community?”
“Community works.” It was rare for Alex to not know the right word, but I had no problem providing a little assistance if necessary. “What do you mean, though?”
“We get stuck in our ways. It is easier to continue doing what has always worked than it is to change with the times. You have never had a problem with that. It is, perhaps, one of your best traits.”
“Only one of them?”
Alex smirked for a moment, before his expression smoothed into sober seriousness again. “You are also a little too sure of yourself and you take on more than you should. First, this thing with Asher, even though you knew he had made powerful friends. Then, you found yourself in bed with this Lady of yours, going after someone on his home territory, where he is all of the advantages. You are a thief, Devlin, and yet you went into a trap to rescue my daughter.”
“I’ve known Ally since she was a kid,” I said quickly. “I wasn’t about to let Asher use her as bait and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let her hurt her.”
“And I will owe you for that, as long as I live,” Alex said. “But that is not my point. What you have been doing here is impressive beyond all measure. Without any time to plan or to even catch your breath, you have nearly hamstrung a kingpin in the center of his power. That is nothing to be ashamed of.”
I took a small drink of beer and swished the liquid in my mouth for a few seconds before swallowing. “What are you trying to say, Alex?”
He didn’t speak for a few seconds and I could feel him sifting through the English language for the right words. “You are taking on too much responsibility,” he said carefully.
“It isn’t like I’m asking for this, Alex. Most of this is being put on my shoulders for me. I can’t just walk away from something that’s this obviously wrong.”
He nodded. “That does not change the facts. You are taking on too much and, so far, you have been able to find a way to pull off these impossible jobs. But your luck will not last forever, Devlin.”
Silence. I cleared my throat after a moment or two. “I know that’s a possibility.”
“It is not a possibility,” Alex said, stressing the word to its breaking point. “It will happen. At best, you will end up back in jail again for…I do not even know how many laws you have broken or what the charges would be. At worst, this Hill might simply kill you, Sarah, and everyone you know. Or perhaps Asher would get his hands on you. I cannot imagine what tortures he has in store for you.”
I could. The files I’d received from the Lady were still fresh in my mind’s eye. “So what do you think I should do, then?”
He threw his hands up in defeat. “I do not know,” he admitted. “You have always been better at that than me.”
“Well, thanks for pointing out all the various ways this could go horribly wrong, Alex. Certainly perked me right up.”
There weren’t any more beers to partake of, but Stani had graciously left the bottle of vodka in the center of the conference room table. Alex plucked it off of the table with two fingers and lifted an eyebrow in my direction. I gave him a vague gesture of assent – fully aware that I’d eventually regret drinking whatever rotgut vodka the Russians preferred – and Alex filled the only remaining glass on the table with the clear liquid.
“You’re not drinking?” I asked, reaching out for the glass.
Alex scooped the glass back in his direction and replaced it with the remaining bottle of liquor. “I am not driving anywhere tonight and neither are you. You will have too much to do in the next few days to really relax. I cannot help you figure out the best plan, but I can still be a friend.”
“By giving me the worst hangover known to man?” I asked, but I couldn’t hide the smile stretching across my face. I lifted the bottle and Alex touched its side gently with his own glass. We both took a long swig and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Stani hadn’t ordered paint thinner. Well, it was either that or Sophie had elected to provide him with something more suitable for the Brooklands. Either way, it felt like swallowing a soothing stream of slow-burning fire, instead of pouring broken glass down my throat.
Alex noticed the pleased expression on my face. “Surprised?”
“We’ve both had drinks with Russians before,” I said. “Let’s not pretend you weren’t ready for this to knock you on your ass.”
“I am a German,” Alex replied, affecting a lofty bearing and thickening his accent noticeably. “You Americans have no tolerance at all.”
I scowled at that and took another swig of liquor. Alex followed suit. “How’s Ally doing?” I asked, after we’d had a moment to enjoy each other’s company.
“She is…doing better than I would have thought,” Alex replied. He rose from the table and started to pace, sipping from his drink sporadically. “I think that I am more unsettled by what Asher did than she is.”
“Maybe. But she is her mother’s daughter, down to the soles of her feet. You were not there when she found out what I do…what I did, that is.”
“You never told me about how that happened, no.” I waited until he settled back into his seat to continue. “I figured you’d tell me about that whenever you were ready.”
“It is no great story,” Alex said. “I made a stupid mistake and she managed to pull the whole story out of me after a few hours. But do you know what I thought was most interesting? She was not mad…well, she was very angry that I had lied to her, of course. But she was not mad about what it is that I did for money. She was worried for me, but she accepted my line of work almost too easily.” He paused, finished his drink, and poured himself another. “Sometimes, I wish she had not been so accepting.”
Even with my limited understanding of normal familial relationships, it wasn’t hard to see what was really scaring Alex. He was a stalwart and steadfast friend, no doubt about that, but his greater concern was his daughter. Ally was his last living reminder of his first wife and she was in the line of fire through no fault of her own. The similarities to the disaster in Venice – a loved one who stumbled into our line of work and, unprepared, found themselves cut down by bullets meant for those of us who’d chosen to do the work we did – had to be terrifying for him.
A fresh swell of rage and hate rose up in me. Of course Asher would have chosen this angle to attack me. He must have learned about the attack that had killed Alex’s wife at some point. It wouldn’t have been difficult information to uncover, even for someone without his enhanced resources. The Underworld communities of a half dozen cities had been humming with the news for months afterward. So, he must have decided that the best way to completely derail Alex would be to put him in the same state of mind, hoping that my friend would respond irrationally.
Honestly, I was more than a little impressed that Alex was holding it together as well as he was.
“And Ally seems more than a little interested in this business,” I said. “It might just be a passing thing. She finds it interesting because this is a very immediate in-your-face situation, but it’ll pass when she really has a chance to think about it, you know?”
“She has been digging into my past since her mother died. I do not think this is the sort of thing that will pass.”
“Well…I don’t know, man. Is there something I can say to her? Something I can do to make her understand that this isn’t a life of glamour and excitement?”
“She has been kidnapped, nearly blown up, and she is now helping Sarah to find a stolen child. If she does not understand that things can get dangerous in this field, then she never will.”
Again, I found myself with no idea what I could say. Most people who worked in the Underworld made a point not to form any connections that could be used against us. My relationship with Sarah – at least, the purely physical component – hadn’t been unheard of, but even that was rare. Emotions complicated the gears of even the most finely tuned crew. It only took one person who held a grudge and a second of delay to make up the difference between capture and escape. It took even less time than that for a crush to endanger the entire team. A marriage? That was pure insanity. We’d only survived through the years by being smarter, better prepared, and luckier than anyone else.
Alex had been married and fathered a child. That was a level of familial involvement that simply baffled me. After his wife’s death, I’d assumed he’d retreat entirely from the various Underworlds, but here he was, dragged back into the game. And there now the added threat – near certainity, if I was being honest with myself – that his daughter would follow in his footsteps.
“Another?” I asked, offering to fill his half-empty glass.
Alex gave me a weak smile and nodded.
“If she’s with Sarah, she’ll be fine,” I said. A moment passed. “She should be safe.”
“And if she isn’t?”
“She will be,” I said, with a great deal more confidence than I actually felt.
Alex apparently knew me well enough to slice directly through that half-hearted line of BS. “You cannot make that promise, Devlin.”
“Okay. Fair enough. But I promise to do everything in my power to keep her as far out of the line of fire as possible. Can I make that promise?”
He searched my face. I could have smoothed my expression into something stern and believable, but I elected to leave my real emotions there in plain sight. I couldn’t know how much Alex wanted to keep his daughter safe, but I felt a keen need to protect Sarah. Voicing that sentiment in front of her would probably result in her giving a shoulder as cold as an Ice Age, but I could privately admit that to myself. No matter what she said and no matter what she believed, Asher’s vendetta against her was simply an extension of his anger to me.
I’d brought her into this and I’d be damned if I couldn’t get her back out of it alive. Her, and Michel, and Mila…all of them. Each and every single person who’d thrown their lot in me with me on this doomed job were here only because of my relationship with Asher. It was my responsibility to fix this. I intended to do exactly that.
Eventually, Alex nodded, satisfied with what he saw in my face. “And I will do my best to help you.”
“From here,” I said immediately. “Or from wherever Sarah decides to set up her mobile station.”
Alex looked back at me, his gaze even and almost serene.
“We already talked about this, Alex. You stay out of the field. Whatever we end up doing, Mila’s going to insist on staying with me. That would leave Ally and Sarah undefended. That’s what I need you to do. Sure, help with the planning, but you have to stay physically out of this. Agreed?”
The serenity on his face dimmed. “I understand,” he said slowly.
“Good. That’s at least one thing I don’t have to worry about.”
Alex cleared his throat. “If you do not finish things with Asher,” he said in a deliberate voice, “I will. You understand that?”
I blinked. “Have you ever…you know?”
“There is a first time for everything.”
I added another item to my growing list of impossible tasks: handle Asher, before Alex could do anything to him that would take him away from his family. How I would handle that was a complete mystery, but if I was going to create a string of miracles in the next week, adding one more wasn’t the worst thing.
There was little else to say between Alex and me. We sat in the conference room until we finished the bottle of vodka, the remainder of Sarah’s wine, and the last dregs of some sweet liquor that Michel had seemed to particularly enjoy. Then, feeling tipsy and rapidly approaching drunk, we left the conference room and went to our separate suites. Alex, I assumed, was going to pass out from exhaustion. He’d been running on adrenaline for far too long.
I, on the other hand, laid in bed for at least another two hours, tired but unable to sleep. Fragmented images of possible horrific ends floated into and out of focus through the miasma of inebriation. A thousand different ways for things to go horrifically wrong occurred to me and even when I finally found sleep, the only possible way out that occurred to me still had at least one casualty.