Chapter 136

“You know,” Asher said, “it never ceases to amaze me how often you find yourself in police custody.  And I didn’t even have anything to do with it this time!”

“After a while, you start to miss the familiar embrace of law enforcement,” I replied.  “You should give it a try sometime.”

He laughed.  “No, I think I’ll leave that entirely up to you, old friend.  Why don’t you have a seat?  It can’t be comfortable standing up, what with those injuries you went and got for yourself.”

In truth, I’d only intended to stand up for a little bit.  My ribs were already sending up the preliminary pulses that let me know I was going to be in serious pain before too long and my head was beginning to swim.  Still, I forced myself to feign comfort and balance.  I’d be damned before I let Asher see me in a moment of weakness.

“Seems to me like you’re absolutely desperate for some of the state’s hospitality,” I said, keeping my back to Asher so that he wouldn’t be able to see my gritted teeth.  “You do realize you’re standing inside of Scotland Yard, don’t you?”

I glanced at the two-way mirror, just in time to see Asher’s shoulders drop back into place from a dismissive shrug.  “There are benefits to working with my current employers.  One of which was a clean slate, criminally speaking.  As far as these delightful alphabet agencies are concerned, I have never committed a crime in my life.  It’s actually shocking how much you can get away with, so long as you have a clean record while you’re doing it.”

“Like walking into a police station, in the middle of an interview?”

“Ah.  No.  It was a one-time pass, so that I’d be free to move across borders without raising an alarm.  The…”  He trailed off, racking his brain for some memory.  “Ah!  The Magi…that’s what you called them, right?  Well, the Magi were very clear about the terms of my contract, for lack of a better word.”

“And those terms were?”

In the mirror, Asher pulled out the seat previously occupied by the dark-skinned detective inspector and sat down at the table.  He steepled his fingers in thought momentarily before answering.  “Basically, that they had no intention of stepping in for me every time I made a mistake.  I was…let’s say that I was encouraged to be circumspect.”

“And yet,” I said, “here you are.”

“Here I am,” he agreed.

A muscle in my leg spasmed involuntarily.  It wasn’t a very large spasm, but it was enough that I relinquished my pretense of autonomy and returned to my seat, opposite Asher.  He gave me a searching look and I returned the nonverbal volley with an examination of my own.

He wasn’t dressed as richly now as he had been at the Green Light Gala, but he wasn’t bumming it either.  What he wore now seemed like a reflection of his cocky, confident demeanor: slacks in an understated reddish color, dark brown boots, and a white Oxford button up with the neck open.  The exposed skin at the base of his throat was marred with burns, similar to the ones twining up his arms.  Beneath the scars, an intricate tapestry of tattoos was barely distinguishable.

He’d told me what some of those tattoos meant, long ago when we used to be friends.  I couldn’t remember now.  I suspected that he’d probably take steps to replace the artwork at his earliest convenience; whatever their meaning, Asher had been very serious about his tattoos.

As I thought about that, a question occurred to me.  Since Asher seemed to be in a talkative mood, I asked it out loud.  “Why didn’t you ever do anything about those?”  I gestured vaguely at his arm and exposed neck.

He shrugged again.  “It barely ever hurts anymore,” he said.  That wasn’t quite an answer.  I waited a few seconds and he elaborated of his own volition.  “My employers suggested that I keep the scars, as a reminder.”

“A reminder of what, exactly?”

A shadow crossed over his expression, dimming the self-assured light in his eyes for just a moment.  I remembered the tortures I’d read about in the Lady’s file and instantly regretted the question.  Asher let out a long breath and visibly regained control of himself before answering.  “Negotiations.”

Neither of us said anything for nearly a full minute.  I wondered where the dark-skinned detective inspector had gone.  Unless the coffee shop was in Colombia, it shouldn’t have taken him anywhere near this long to retrieve two cups.

“What’re you doing here?” I asked into the silence.

“I wanted to talk,” Asher replied.

“We tried that.  If I remember correctly, you drugged and kidnapped me.”

He gave me a rueful smile.  “Seemed like a simple way to make contact.  Besides, you managed to get away after causing a staggering amount of collateral damage.  No harm, no foul?”

I wasn’t going to acknowledge that question with an answer.  “And then you tried to have us followed after the Gala.”

“You weren’t exactly going to tell me where you were going,” he said.  “And I had to find out what you knew.  Thanks for leading me to the little girl, by the way.  I had suspicions that something was going on out there, but since you’re the one who got the information from the Texan…”

“Shame you didn’t actually get the girl, though.”  He was entirely too calm, too steady.  The Asher from previous encounters didn’t seem to be present and that was who I needed to speak to.

“I didn’t want the girl,” Asher shot back.  “That was Hill.  Or Fairfax, sorry; I forget that you finally figured out what his real name is.”

That was interesting, but not immediately salient.  We’d already guessed that Asher and Hill probably had different goals, if not directly contradictory desires.  “And then you had my friend’s daughter kidnapped.  Remember that?”

“It was only a few days ago,” he said mildly.  “And that wasn’t about you.”

“Fine.  Okay.  Let’s play.  You want to talk?  You could have done that anytime you wanted.”

“Not really,” Asher said.  “Not the way I wanted to talk, at least.  There were always other people there, getting in the way.  The goons at the warehouse, all of those uptight pricks at the Gala, Alex and his weepy daughter…I just wanted a chance for the two of us to sit down.  No interruptions, no distractions.”

“And now is when you chose to do that?  In the middle of police headquarters?”

He smiled.  “I’m a sucker for a captive audience.  No pun intended.”

Since joining up with Sarah, I’d barely ever worn a watch and I didn’t have one on now.  In hindsight, it had been a mistake not to take extra precautions.  As it was, I had no idea what time it was or how much longer I’d need to stall him.

“Why’d you do it?” I asked my old friend.  “No pretense or bullshit, either.  We worked together for years and then you turned on me.  You had to know that I thought you were dead.”

“Honestly?”  Asher waited until I gave him a slight nod.  “There was a time when I thought you knew the truth.  Or…well, maybe not knew the truth, but suspected.  I spent a lot of time tracking your movements, checking in on you whenever possible, just to find the proof that you’d just discarded me.”

I shivered at the thought of Asher secretly keeping tabs on me.  I don’t know why the thought bothered me as much as it did.  The Lady was clearly capable of tracking me, no matter what steps I took to throw her off of my scent, and Asher knew me well enough to predict what he couldn’t simply ferret out.  Still, the idea was profoundly uncomfortable.

He continued his explanation.  “But then I looked into the official reports from the job.  You couldn’t have known.  There just wasn’t any way for anyone to guess that I’d been taken hostage by an international cabal of criminal overlords.”  Asher laughed ruefully.  “Hell, it happened to me and even I think it’s ridiculous.”

“So why then?  Did they make you do it?  We could have figured out a way to get you out from under their thumbs.”

Asher shook his head.  “Just because I figured out that you didn’t know the truth doesn’t mean that I forgave you.”

“Forgave me for what?  I didn’t do anything!  You were the one who changed the plan at the last minute!”

He shrugged.  “But you were the one who replaced me with Sarah.”

I blinked at that.  “What exactly did you want me to do?  Spend the rest of my life in mourning?”

“Just a little bit of time before you took on a new partner would’ve been nice!”  Asher snapped, raising his volume several levels in a heartbeat.  He slapped one palm down on the table and the impact was painfully loud in the small interrogation room.  “As far as you knew, I was barely cold in the grave before you started up with her!”

He’d brought that up before.  It didn’t make any more sense this time, but it was clearly something he believed dearly.  I didn’t understand what he meant and I realized, just before I could ask him what he meant, that it wasn’t something I was ever going to understand.

Asher must have come to the same conclusion.  He inhaled and exhaled several times and calmed himself back down.  “This isn’t what I wanted to talk about.”

“What, then?”

“Professional curiosity,” he said and tilted his head.  “One thief to another: how’d you do it?”

I pretended not to know what he was talking about.  “Do what?”

“Don’t play dumb,” Asher said.  “Hill had you dead to rights.  His mole compromised your beloved Sarah’s communications.  He installed secret cameras that even I only found out about in the last few hours.  He had more men, more weaponry, more preparation…and you somehow got the Book out of that estate, right under his nose.  So, come on.  What was the trick?”

I whistled a low note.  “You didn’t figure it out?  You, the brilliant mastermind, couldn’t guess what the missing piece was?”  It was very important that I not confirm anything, but I felt confident that the jab at his ego would be enough to galvanize him into really thinking about the problem.

Asher narrowed his eyes in thought for several seconds and assumed an expression I’d seen countless times before.  “Billy’s men were too far away to help,” he said, mostly to himself, “and Sarah was neutralized from the start.  There was the bodyguard, but Aiden kept her occupied until your Frenchman managed to pull her out of the fire at the last minute.  The little girl and her keeper couldn’t have helped you, but…”  His eyes widened as he sucked in a single, sharp breath.  “Alex?”

Instead of responding, I merely smiled.

Asher took that as an answer.  “But that would mean…oh!  Oh, that is elegant.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” Asher said.  “Hill wanted you to get onto the estate, so that he could figure out how you did it and stop anyone else from trying the same trick after he finished taking over the drug trade entirely.  So, you went in and sprang his trap, but…but you didn’t know it was a trap.  I’ve looked over the footage and he should have captured you when you were in the bedroom.  Unless…”

“Hill,” I provided helpfully, “has never met Alex.  He’s never even seen him.  But Alex happens to know several people from all walks of life.  For instance, a great deal of the people of the service industry – waiters, bartenders, butlers – are all pretty easily accessible, if you know someone who can make the right introductions.”  I added a subtle accent to the most important word in the sentence.  It was just enough that Asher would catch what I was referring to and not so much that anyone else would have been able to understand my meaning.

“And Alex would be the type of person who knows absolutely everyone.  He got himself hired, when Hill was scrambling to fortify in preparation for your intrusion, and no one bothered to look too deeply into his past because the timeline was too tight.  So he followed Hill’s orders right up until he gave the command to cut off communications to and from his bedroom.  At which point, you were safe to pass the Book off to him.  And he could get away easily, because no one would think to stop one of their own especially since Hill was already planning to send people to round up your team.”  Asher sat back and whistled in amazement.  “Did I get it right?”

I kept my face expressionless but, internally, I marveled at the way Asher’s mind worked.  I hadn’t even given him a clue, yet he’d pieced together every level of the plan on pure instinct.  The ability to navigate through labyrinthine plans so easily was as frightening as it was impressive.

Of course, he hadn’t gotten everything right.  I appreciated that he was willing to give Sarah and me the credit for every single angle, but the reality was far simpler.  Alex hadn’t told anyone about his intentions to infiltrate the estate before us.  I hadn’t really had an opportunity to talk to him since he’d surprised me in Hill’s bedroom.  The conversation we’d had in the room, during the short period of time when all communications and cameras had been temporarily blocked, focused more on the immediate details that we needed to know.

One: Someone had betrayed the team and, with that mole’s help, Hill was able to listen in on our communications.

Two: Coleman, who had learned his trade under someone who owed Alex a favor, was working with the police.  He had been collecting evidence for months, carefully copying bits and pieces at a time so that Hill wouldn’t have any idea what was going on.  Our arrival, and the subsequent upheaval we’d caused in Hill’s business, had provided him with the cover he needed to start going after the more incriminating evidence.  When Hill moved into the final phase of his plans, he’d been forced to include Coleman and kidnapped his family to ensure his compliance.

Three: Hill had prepared multiple layers of redundancy, specifically designed to ensure that I couldn’t possibly leave the house with the Book.  Moreover, there were men in place to capture or kill my entire team, whenever Hill gave the order.

The last point was something I’d figured out on my own, but Alex’s confirmation forced me to become creative.  In the moment, I’d cobbled together a workable outline and Alex had agreed.  While I took the briefcase out of the room, going out of my way to be as visible as possible to any cameras along the way, Alex secreted the Book itself off of the estate and made it to Sarah.  The idea had been for her to hear the news in person, as opposed to over the compromised channel.  Judging from the way the police had arrived, armed and ready for combat, I could only assume that he’d impressed upon her the direness of the situation.  As soon as she was aware of the hidden cameras, she would have been able to pinpoint their network and take them over.

After that, the police showed up and swiftly detained Hill’s entire force of hired goons.  Without the use of his cameras, he’d been blind to the events happening outside of the estate.  My presence in front of him, so obviously protecting the briefcase that he thought contained the Book, was additional distraction to keep him figuring out the truth before it was too late.

The strategy had relied more on dumb luck and divine intervention than brilliant intuition, but I wasn’t going to disillusion Asher.  Besides, it was important that he think he’d figured it all out, but for him to not think too far ahead.  If he followed that train of thought to its conclusion, it was possible that he’d figure out the final twist before he made that last, fatal mistake.

So, out loud, I said, “That’s a great story.  It’d be amazing if someone actually pulled that off.”

“I remember the days when I was the clever one,” Asher said.  He stubbed out the remains of his cigarette and lit another one.  “I guess you really did learn something in prison, didn’t you?”

The reminder of my time in La Santé struck a nerve.  My hands balled up into fists under the table and I willed myself to stay calm.  Patience was key.  “Thanks again for that.  Really appreciated my time in Crime Academy.”

Asher chuckled to himself, as if he hadn’t heard a word I’d said.  “Alex, though.  I cannot believe I took my eye off of him.  Not that I would’ve stepped in, even if I had figured it out beforehand.  Hill was planning to cut me off, literally, as soon as he got what he wanted.  But you already know that.”

I wondered how much information Asher had managed to ferret away from Hill before we’d assaulted the estate, but I kept my mouth shut.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Asher asked suddenly.  He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial volume.  “Sometimes, I think killing Alex’s wife is the worst mistake I ever made.  He was just too useful in the field, but…ah well.  Mistakes were made, I guess.”

All of the moisture in my mouth dried up.  My heart skipped and stuttered several times.  “What was that?” I asked, in a dangerously low voice.

Asher blinked and mild confusion spread across his face.  “What?  That I killed Alex’s wife?  I mean, I didn’t do it – I just hired the men and sent them to Florence – but I think that’s kind of a moot point.”

The relevant memory came flooding back.  The job in Florence and the mysterious crew of gunmen who’d appeared out of nowhere.  That crew’s odd behavior: ignoring the prize and focusing their attention entirely on a group of thieves who hadn’t done anything to garner that type of violent reaction.  The death of Jules, Alex’s first love and the mother of his child.

“That was you?”  I swallowed several times, so that my next question would be perfectly clear.  “Why?  Alex never did anything to you.”

“It wasn’t about him,” Asher said.  “It was about you.  Or Sarah, really, but what was the difference at that point?  I’d just gotten control of my first hit team – the Magi were keen to get my feet wet with some sort of operation – and I wanted to see how good they were.  Apparently, they worked just fine, but I didn’t have the information network that I have now.  No one told me that you were bringing another woman along and I didn’t give clear enough orders.”

“You sent a team of hitmen to kill Sarah?  My wife?”  The red haze of fury began to seep in around the edges of my vision.

Asher seemed to not notice as the atmosphere in the interrogation room changed.  “Would’ve been nice, if it’d worked out.  After everything went down, and I used my second team to get rid of the other guys before they could talk, I decided to go with a more elegant route.  Something you wouldn’t see coming and couldn’t just run away from.”

It took every ounce of willpower not to throw myself across the table and strangle Asher where he sat.  He’d killed my friend’s wife, he’d kidnapped her daughter, and he’d tried to kill Sarah.  And he sat across a metal table, smirking to himself as though it was just a pleasant memory for him.

What kept me from committing murder on the spot and consigning myself to a lifetime behind bars was a single thought: Gotcha.

“Why are you telling me this?”  I asked coldly.  Then, I shook my head before he could answer.  “So that I’ll have something to think about while Hill’s torturing me to death?”

“Oh, Hill’s not going to get out of prison anytime soon,” Asher said.  “I’m sure his lawyer’s already been to see you.  Probably told you that Hill was going to walk away from everything, due to some ethereal connections, right?”

I gave him a short nod.

“As it turns out, Hill was so distracted dealing with you that he forgot all about me,” Asher said.  “The blackmail he was going to use on the Chief Inspector seems to have mysteriously changed hands in the interim.  I don’t even have to threaten to publicly expose his nasty cocaine habit.  He is more than willing to corrupt himself even further, if it means sticking it to Hill.”

If the Chief Inspector had been in Hill’s pocket, Coleman’s one-man undercover act had been doomed from the beginning.  Hill had probably known about his butler’s activities the entire time.  That explained why he’d gone for the more aggressive route of threatening Coleman’s family, instead of simply buying him off.

“So you’re giving me something extra to chew over while I go back to prison?” I asked.

Asher shook his head.  “Been there, done that.  I’ll have to keep you here for a couple of days, while I go and take care of your crew before they can get their feet under them.  I’ll take special time with Sarah, of course.  But, after that, I think the charges against you will disappear too.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“Because you are so much fun,” Asher said, in a voice that reminded me of grandmothers and pinched cheeks.  “It’d be easy to beat you now, when you’re already captured, but that isn’t really giving you a sporting chance, is it?”

He stood up and walked across the room to the door.  Just before he touched the doorknob, I cleared my throat.  “You know what your problem is?” I asked.

Asher stopped and turned back around.  “I figured we’d have plenty of opportunities to talk, after I finish getting rid of any obstacles, but…sure, why not?  What’s on your mind?  What’s my problem?”

I took in a deep breath.  It was difficult to put all of my anger away, but I managed it.  “Let me see if I’ve got all this right.  You were captured by the Magi after the job in St. Petersburg and they convinced you to start working for them.  You were their enforcer, right?  The hammer they used whenever someone in their organization got out of line?”

The cocky look on his face dimmed slightly.  “I wouldn’t call what they did convincing.”

I acknowledged that point with a small incline of my head.  “Fair.  Didn’t mean to diminish whatever they did to you.  But, my point is that you were being used by the Magi when you came here.  They must have gotten wind of Hill’s impending betrayal, so they sent you down here to sort everything out.”

“There were rumors,” Asher said.  “I was supposed to figure out exactly what was going on.  I didn’t realize exactly how far along he was until I saw how much power he’d managed to consolidate.”

“That’s when you decided to play both sides, wasn’t it?”  I asked.  “If Hill pulls off his coup, you’re in a good position to backstab him later.  If things go sideways, you could deliver the last blow and rise a little bit in the eyes of your handlers.”

Asher winked at me.  “And then you showed up.  That was a stroke of pure luck.”

“You didn’t ever want to beat me, did you?  As soon as I came into town, you were just stringing us along, hoping that we’d be able to cripple Hill for you.  Right?”

“You’re a force of pure, unfiltered chaos,” Asher replied.  “With someone to draw out the flowchart, you are inexhaustible.  I knew that you’d throw yourself at Hill like a living torpedo until either you or he went downAnd I was personally betting on you.”

I ignored that ‘compliment.’  “So, what now?  You’re going to take over the drug business, now that Hill’s out of the way?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Asher lied, “but I’m sure my employers are going to give me some kind of a promotion.  I did orchestrate the downfall of a broken cog in their machine, even if I had to use you like a pawn to do it.”

“This was all a setup,” I said.  “Ever since you figured out we were here, we’ve just been following your marching orders.”

“Don’t feel bad about it.  I’m just better at this than you.  You had to know you could never beat me.”

I nodded.  “You’re right.  I never could beat you.  You were always better at seeing the angles, predicting what someone would do.  Like…oh, knowing that someone wouldn’t be able to resist gloating after pulling off a trick like this?”

The question hung in the air for a few seconds.  “What’re you saying?” Asher asked, after a long silence.  “That you expected me to come here?”

I circled back around to an earlier point in the conversation.  “You just admitted to murder,” I said, “and you’re sitting in a police station.  What makes you think you’re just going to walk out of here?”

“Weren’t you listening?  With the blackmail I stole from Hill, to say nothing of the dirty cops that are absolutely infesting this building, I’m untouchable.  If I get arrested…if I so much as get a traffic ticket, every single corrupt pig in this place is going down with me.”

“Doesn’t sound like a terrible loss,” I countered.  “You just gave a confession, Ash.  Did you not notice that while you were enjoying your ego trip?”

“Who’s going to take the word of a thief?” Asher asked.  “I’ll see to it that you don’t go to jail for this – I’ve got my own plans – but that’s as far as it goes.  There’s no one in the room but me and I own the overwhelming majority of the police outside this door.  The ones I don’t have dirt on report to people who I’ve got dirt on.  I’m bulletproof, Dev and it’s all thanks to you.  So thanks.  I don’t think anyone could’ve taken Hill down like this, except for you.”

“And no one,” I said, “could have beaten you but you.”

The door opened.  Asher pulled his hand back from the knob in surprise.  The dark-skinned detective, who I was irrationally pleased to see, cut an imposing figure in his tweed suit coat and dark pants.  “Where do you think you’re going?”

Asher gave the man a skeptical look.  “I’m leaving,” he said, “and I think your boss will agree with that.”

The dark-skinned detective stepped aside.  Neetipal Adlai, Interpol’s most dogged and incorruptible agent, stood in the man’s shadow.  He raised an eyebrow and, lifting one hand from out of sight, dangled a pair of handcuffs that gleamed in the light.  “I do not think you will be going anywhere.  Premeditated murder is a very serious crime in Italy and, considering your confession, I think it will be a long time before you go anywhere.”

“Life in prison,” I added helpfully.  “No chance of parole.  Just in case you were thinking about gaming the board.  And, unless I’m mistaken, Hill didn’t have any contacts in Italy, right?”

Asher stared at the two men in silence before turning back to face me.  I met his eyes for a moment, then flicked my gaze in the direction of the two-way mirror.  Asher followed my gaze, sighed, and covered his face with his palm. “Of course,” he said.  He was speaking out loud, but I felt confident that he wasn’t actually talking to anyone in the room.  “No one who works in London would dare to arrest me.  But a confession where an Interpol agent could hear me?”

I leaned back and smiled.  He hadn’t been talking to me, but I felt like answering anyway.  “That’s your problem,” I said.  “You stopped thinking like a thief, Asher, and you started thinking like a mark.  And a mark…well, I can always beat a mark.”

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