State of the Serial (An Author’s Note)

Well. That was a thing, wasn’t it?

A little over two years ago (maybe longer, who knows?) I wrote five hundred words based off of a writing prompt. This past Tuesday, I posted the last chapter of the serial that writing prompt became. One hundred and sixty-five chapters posted twice a week, at around the same time every week. Sometimes I missed up an update because WordPress decided to screw me, sometimes I fell asleep with the chapter written and didn’t wake up until an hour or two later. That’s not great, but it’s certainly not something that I’m about to flagellate myself over.

It’s done. I finished it. I finished it. There aren’t any words to really express how I feel right now.

I’ve never really done anything creative, except for writing, so I don’t know if this is a universal feeling or only one that authors can understand. But I had an idea and, helped along by an unflinching refusal to quit, I managed to craft a story about thieves in the modern age, criminals with codes of honor, and my personal analysis about what it means to be a family. Is this what parents feel like when their kid reaches eighteen? Is this how sculptors feel when they chip away the last little bit of imperfection? Do artists get this feeling when they’ve made the last stroke of the paintbrush?

I don’t know. I hope so. I really hope so. Because, trust me, it’s awesome.

One of the difficulties with my writing style is that I never know what I’m going to write until I’m writing it. I think I’ve talked about that before. Sometimes, I’ll try to scratch out an outline, but that never really works for me. If I want to know more about a character, I have to write that character into a situation and then sort…see what they do. How else am I going to learn organically what’s going to happen? Script everything out beforehand and then stick to things, even when it doesn’t feel like what the character would do?

That same…I don’t know if problem is the right word, so let’s go with ‘difficulty’…extends to my plotting, too. At no point in the process of this serial did I know, for certain, anything beyond the next two or three chapters. At least twice, I had to scrap whole tracts of work because they just didn’t feel right. There was a line, an electric current running through my story, and sometimes I didn’t realize that I’d lost the thread until five or ten chapters later. Oh well, into the bin they went. Back to the drawing board.

Two chapters a week, at about 3k words a chapter, is a fairly difficult schedule to maintain, I think. Granted, I know of both serial and traditional authors who put out higher word counts (I know of both serial and traditional authors who do considerably less, but quality matters more than quantity, obviously), but it was certainly a challenge for me. On more than a few nights, I just didn’t want to write my requisite thousand words. I did it anyway, for the most part. When I failed, I wrote twice as much the next night. Or, you know, I tried to.

I feel like a less stringent schedule wouldn’t have yielded these results. If I’d allowed myself to miss a single update, I would probably have talked myself into missing two or three. It wouldn’t have been long before I just wrote off the whole project and flitted over to the next thing (there are crime novels, westerns, and horror novels floating around in my head at any given moment). But I knew I’d set a goal and I wasn’t going to myself down.

Also, my girlfriend threatened violence on multiple occasions, should I decide not to finish “For Riches.” A little extra encouragement never hurt anybody.

And here’s the thing: there’s more. I’ve known that I’d have to break “Pickpockets, Cat Burglars, and Conmen” into three parts since about halfway through For Riches or More. As I’m typing this, at 12:35 and two beers in, I’m about five thousand words into the second serial, which follows the adventures of Devlin, Sarah, Michel, and Mila as they navigate the maze of alliances and rivalries that comprise the criminal underworld. But I prefer to have something of a buffer before I start posting things, in case I have to delete several chapters at once.

Here’s what I’m thinking. I want to take about two months off before I really launch into the second serial, but I also don’t want to lose the rhythm. I’m considering posting one chapter a week (maybe on the main blog, maybe over here, I’m not sure) dealing with side characters and their reaction to unfolding events. Call them “Interquels,” since they’re not quite interludes and not quite preludes. One of those per week gives me eight interquels before I feel comfortable revealing the new serial to the internet and all of its critics.

Also, I want to spend some time looking into turning the serial into six different ebooks for people who don’t like reading websites. If/when I get that figured out, I’ll update the main blog with relevant links, make a FB status, and tweet about it. So stay tuned for more news on that front.

I’ve got my own opinions on the story and I’m sure that any readers will have thoughts that aren’t the same as mine. Which is great, really. I want to hear them, I really do. Email me, leave comments, write reviews, throw tomatoes at me…almost all feedback is useful feedback, and I’m willing to take the destructive commentary if I get some constructive comments on the back end. Really, I’m just glad that you’re out there reading these words at all.

I’m done. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick around to see what I do next.


“Reyes Caza”, or “The King’s Hunt”

I could think through the mixture of anger and horror, but I couldn’t speak through it. My mouth opened and closed as I struggled to connect words and ideas.

Sarah stepped in, speaking where I couldn’t seem to regain the ability to do so. “You aren’t going to tell us what you’ve got against the Magi. Okay. I’m not thrilled about you keeping that from us, if we’ve apparently all become comrades-in-arms, but I can deal with it. I’ve still got questions, though. Is there anything else you’re going to keep to yourself?”

The Lady thought about the question for a few seconds. “Yes,” she said finally. “But I assure you, I will not withhold any information relevant to the current matter.”

“And you’re sure about that?”

“I am as sure about that as I am about anything,” the Lady said. “This is not a flight of fancy for me, Miss Ford. I have not recently decided to pit my will against the wills of the Magi. My own life has been mined for every tidbit of information that might prove useful and every possible avenue has been pursued to the fullest. I would not have directly involved myself otherwise.”

Sarah accepted that answer with a slight nod. “Why us?”

“A reasonable question. Perhaps an important question. But I fear the answer is far simpler than you would like.”

“Try me.”

The Lady accepted another refill on her wine glass from David before she spoke again. “I selected Emilia to be your bodyguard because she possessed the skills required for the position, as well as a certain…past that might resonate best with Mister O’Brien’s preferences.”

“You know about my past?” Mila asked. She shook her head a moment later. “Of course you do. How much do you know?”

“I know your real name,” the Lady replied. “And most of your actual history, without the pseudonyms you use to protect your loved ones. I have no intention of sharing those with anyone, even Mister O’Brien and Miss Ford, without your explicit permission.”

Mila crossed her arms, placing her uninjured hand close to the gun in her shoulder holster. “That’s generous of you.”

“Do not think of it as generosity. As someone with my own secrets, I respect your desire for anonymity.”

I was listening, even while my mind continued to connect pieces at lightning speed. I knew some of Mila’s past – or I thought I knew some of Mila’s past – but the revelation that she’d been specifically chosen because of her damage was…honestly not surprising. We’d been thrown together at a desperate moment and, despite the circumstances of our meeting, grown into something resembling friends. I probably wouldn’t have allowed myself to connect with a purely professional, invulnerable hulk of a protector. Mila would have defaulted into that persona with anyone else except for me.

We’d helped each other. That had been the design, of course, but it didn’t take anything away from our friendship.

At least, I hoped that it didn’t.

“That explains her,” Sarah said, calm and steady. I appreciated that she was able to compose herself, when I was clearly unable to take the lead. She was probably reeling from these revelations as much as I was, but our dynamic had always been based on our ability to operate as a duo, instead of two individuals. “What about the rest?”

Monsieur St. Laurents was not something I expected,” the Lady said. “But his instant connection with Mister O’Brien held promise and a dedicated driver is never something to be discounted. That being said, I was not the one who chose to involve him in events as they unfolded. You and Mister O’Brien made that choice, when you met with unexpected difficulties at the Museum of London.”

“Devlin made that choice because you’d pushed him into a situation where he had no other options,” Sarah said.

“There are always options. He could have surrendered to the police. He could have chosen not to go into the Museum at all, least of all in the wake of a literally explosive situation at one of Hill’s satellite facilities. You, Miss Ford, could have chosen to stay in America after the warning about Mister Knight’s intentions. Our choices have led us all to this place and it does no one any good to deny that.”

Surrendering to the police hadn’t really been an option, considering that some of the Museum security guards had been packing firearms, but that was irrelevant.

“As it happens,” the Lady continued, “I have been nothing but thrilled with Monsieur St. Laurents’ contributions to your efforts here. Had I thought to include a driver in the original profile, I could scarcely have chosen better than him.”

“I can agree with that,” Sarah said. “Go on.”

“You are, of course, wondering about why I chose you and Mister O’Brien,” the Lady said.

“You picked Mila because she matched with Devlin’s personality and you allowed us to bring Michel in because of their friendship. But that all depends on you using Devlin as your…what did you call it?”

“My champion.” The Lady smiled. “The term seemed poetic.”

“As your champion, then. So why the two of us?”

“I think it is supremely telling that you have so thoroughly entwined your own sense of identity with Mister O’Brien,” the Lady said. Sarah bit down on her bottom lip but didn’t look away. “I chose you for your skills, yes, your network of hackers, and because of your inability to resist a puzzle. The labyrinthine network of false names and shell companies that comprise the Magi’s more visible assets would be irresistible to you, Miss Ford, and I knew that you would be unable to resist the lure.”

“And? I know there’s a follow-up coming.”

“Indeed. I picked you because I could not get him, otherwise. And, before you take that as an insult or a slight to your skills, I chose him because I could not get you in any other circumstance.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The Lady turned to David and heaved a dramatic sigh. “Why do people insist on asking questions they could easily answer for themselves with the slightest effort?”

Sarah blew air out through her nostrils and drew herself up slightly.

I regained my capacity for speech before she could say anything. “Why both of us?” I asked.

“Because you are better as a team,” the Lady said in an exasperated tone. “You have a history of success against impressive odds and Miss Ford has a background in high society that has proven useful on more than one occasion. Having one or the other would not have been sufficient for my purposes. The fact that I could not have hired one of you without also bringing the other in was serendipitous.”

As far as I knew, Sarah had gotten involved with this entire affair because of the mysterious emails appearing in her inbox. Would she have joined me on the trip without that impetus?

“Why the two of us, specifically?” I asked, separating my private ruminations from my mouth.

“Who else would I have contracted to deal with Mister Knight except for individuals with personal knowledge and a possible advantage?”

My mental gears clicked along, searching for each puzzle piece’s proper place. “You wanted us to deal with Asher. But that only works if you knew Asher was going to be involved. How long have you been watching me?”

“Since before St. Petersburg,” she answered immediately. “Although it would be more accurate to say that I have been watching Mister Knight since before St. Petersburg. You rose in my estimations following the disastrous result of that particular job.”

That job had been years ago. “Why were you watching Asher before St. Petersburg?”

The Lady gave me a long-suffering look and said nothing.

I tasked my struggling mental gears to spin a little faster. “Asher’s trajectory in life went awry at St. Petersburg, when he tried to expose the Magi by…oh. Oh.”

“I think I will simply refuse to answer any similar questions,” the Lady said, “since you have proven yourself capable of figuring things out without my intervention.

Her point was obvious, but I spoke it aloud anyway, for the benefits of everyone else in the room and to prove myself capable. “Asher was going after the Magi, that night. Someone had tipped him off to their existence and, in typical Asher fashion, he’d gone after them without bothering to consult with me.”


“So Asher was your first choice?”

“I am nothing if unwilling to acknowledge my own mistakes,” the Lady said. “I freely admit that I thought a mastermind of Asher’s capabilities would prove more useful in this stage. However, he was captured by the Magi and turned to their purposes. As such, I required an agent of my own.”

I wasn’t sure if I could reasonably blame her for my misfortunes since that disaster. Asher had chosen to come after me, just as I’d chosen to work with him after Sarah left me.

“How?” Michel asked. It had been his first time speaking in a while and the sound of his voice caught me off guard.

The Lady finished off her wine and passed the empty glass to David. “How what?”

“How would we do this thing?” Michel clarified. “You have more money. You have more influence. If you have not been able to defeat the Magi before this, why do you think that we will be able to?”

“The Book, to begin with,” the Lady said. “Contained within its pages are the names and cover identities of the Magi’s operatives. Not all of those operatives, mind you, but enough to constitute a powerful start. In the wake of Hill’s betrayal, their organization is destabilized and uncertain. Strike at one, and that individual is likely to reveal clues leading to the next chain up the ladder.”

Michel acknowledged that answer even as he doubled down on his original question. “And after that? Another chain, another link separated? Where does it end?”

The Lady turned to me. “Mister O’Brien,” she said, “do you remember what we discussed at our first meeting?”

I did. “Vaguely. What were you talking about, specifically?”

“The Magi are secrets and shadows,” she said. “Lies within misdirections within rumors. It has taken me a lifetime to a reach a point where I felt even halfway as secure about the secrets of my past. I cannot imagine that they would have done any less.”

“So we hurt their underlings to force them out? Is that really what you had in mind?”

“What I have in mind, Mister O’Brien, is for you and your team to unravel their organization one string at a time,” the Lady said. “And, if you follow all of those strings to their natural conclusion, I intend for you to give me the information that will finally allow me to take my revenge.”

“And that is?”

“Their names, of course.” She rolled her eyes. “I could not care less about the enterprises here, or in France, or in the southernmost reaches of Africa. Your defeat of Hill was suitably public that it aligns with my own goals, yes, but I would not have been overly bothered if you’d acquired the Book and left him ensconced within his bubble of delusion. All that I care about is learning the Magi’s true names. Everything else is academic.”

Their names. She wanted their names. That was insanity, to a level I could scarcely comprehend. Before Sarah and me, the Magi hadn’t even had a collective name. The idea that we would somehow be able to get our hands on their real names was absolutely absurd.

Or was it? We’d accomplished more in the past weeks than I would have thought possible. Was stealing a single morsel of information from an international shadow any more impressive than robbing an estate when said estate owner knew to expect us? Was it any crazier than kidnapping an unwilling little girl from the lap of luxury for her own safety?

“You have a plan. We wouldn’t be sitting here if you didn’t. What is it?” I asked the Lady.

“You do not have the Book, but I will see to it that you have access to the names and dates written within as soon as Avis finishes decrypting its contents. Using that, you can begin to apply pressure to all of the Magi’s assets. They are compartmentalized and kept in the dark about the true nature of their masters, but each one will likely know at least one other name.”

“And on and on up the chain,” I finished for her. “Leading to what, exactly?”

“The Magi, of course. With my resources and the protection I can offer you, I feel confident that you will be able to uncover their identities.”

“And then?”

“And then I will destroy them,” the Lady said. There was a hunger in her voice, paired with a desperate need. “I will root them out of their hiding places and see to it that they pay for all of the death they have caused. And, when I have finished ravaging their lands and properties…when their power has been scattered to the winds…I will see to it personally that they die screaming.”

I swallowed nervously. “They’ve been in the shadows for years,” I said. “Decades. Maybe even longer than that. How are we supposed to find out who they really are after they’ve had so much of a headstart?”

“Creativity,” the Lady said. “Ingenuity. Luck. Whatever assets you can bring to bear, you must bring to bear. Without their names, I can do nothing except forestall the inevitability of your demise. You must understand the nature and scale of the conflict you find yourself in.”

And I did. The Lady had manipulated us into a position where we represented the greatest active threat to the Magi’s powers. They would come after us, or allow others to come after us, until we were no longer an issue.

I looked at my team, an unspoken question obvious on my expression.

Mila spoke first. “Aiden’s still out there,” she said. “As soon as he heals up from what Michel here did to him, he’s going to come after us.”

“Figured as much,” I said. “What’s your point?”

“The longer I’m with you, the more of a danger I represent. If you’re going to get involved with this mess, you’ll have enough bullets coming your way without adding whatever trouble Aiden can throw your way.”

“I hear what you’re saying. I just don’t care. Do you want to handle your problems alone or do you want help?”

Mila considered the question for longer than I would have thought necessary before baring her teeth in a fierce grin. “I think I’ll want some help.”

“Excellent.” I turned to Michel. “What about you?”

“I would not want to be the type of person who abandons their friends,” Michel said. “And I am already too involved to back out now. If you need me, I am coming with you.” He paused. “If you do not need me, I will still be there, for whenever you change your mind.”

We exchanged a look, conveying sympathy and solidarity in the blink of an eye. When that moment was over, I looked to Sarah. She still appeared stunned by everything the Lady had sprung on her, which was reasonable. What wasn’t reasonable were the subtle hints of defiance written all over her face, overtaking the shock more and more with every passing second.

“You don’t have to ask,” she said. “If you’re going, I’m going.”

Even though I’d expected that response, my heart still lifted in triumph when she said it. I kept my expression as close to neutral as possible and faced the Lady. “You wanted to push us into a corner,” I said. “Fine. We’re in a corner. And we’ll do what you want, because we don’t really have a choice. But…”

“You have conditions,” the Lady said. She stood up, while David began to wipe down every surface her bare fingers had touched. “Why am I not surprised?”

“We’re the team you wanted,” I said, “so this is what you’ve got to deal with.”

“Fine. What conditions do you have?”

“First, we do this our way. You don’t give us assignments; you just pass on information. We’ll decide who we want to go after, and when, without you pressuring us in one direction or another.”

The Lady nodded. “I hadn’t intended on micromanaging you. Your success here has more than proven your abilities.”

“Second, you have to keep us in the loop on everything, whether or not you think it’s relevant.” I raised a hand before the Lady could protest. “Your past is your past. I don’t care about where you came from. But if you hear something that might prove useful, you pass it on immediately.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then you exposed yourself to danger for no reason,” I said, “because you were too secretive to share potentially vital information. If that’s how you want to play it, then let us know now. Sarah can see to it that we disappear in less than a day. Maybe the Magi find us, maybe not, but they’ll definitely find you.”

The Lady weighed her options for several seconds before nodding again. “That seems fair. Anything else?”

“If we need to talk to you, we need a way to get in contact with you. This magical appearing act isn’t going to work, long term.”

She smiled. “Trust me, Mister O’Brien. If you ever need to talk to me, I will be there.”

A familiar frisson of nerves ran up the length of my arm. I ignored it.

The Lady stood up and walked past me, aiming for the door into the hallway outside. Except for David, who kept pace with his mistress, no one moved. At the door, she stopped and turned to look slightly over her shoulder. “Find their names, Mister O’Brien. I hope you realize the importance of this task.”

I did, of course, but she continued to elaborate.

“My protection is not without limits. A time will come when you must face the Magi’s wrath without my aid, if you allow things to proceed without arresting their inevitable momentum. Find their names, Mister O’Brien, and deliver those names to me so that I can render unto the magi that which they deserve.” She opened the door. “Your lives quite literally depend on it.”

The Lady and David let that sentiment hang in the air for a second before they left, closing the door behind them.

A moment later, Sarah’s phone beeped. She checked it in some kind of a daze.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“An email,” she said, “from Avis. There are five names written here, along with financial information and pseudonyms. I guess the Lady wants us to get right to work.”

I gave each member of my team a searching look.

Mila appeared as steadfast as ever, but I could see past the façade now. There was a fragility there, hidden behind layers of forced apathy and emotional disconnection.

Michel was terrified. He was only barely keeping it together, but he was maintaining his control. I doubted I could have done as much in a similar situation after my first job.

And Sarah…Sarah looked beautiful, perplexed, and intrigued all at the same time. She was biting into her bottom lip while she read the phone in her hand and I couldn’t bear to look at her without feeling a pressure building in my heart.

I looked away from her and let my focus relax so that I could see all of us at the same time. A soft meow caught my attention and, a second later, Sam prowled out from a particularly deep shadow and leapt up into the chair where the Lady had been seated.

“Well,” I said. “What next?”


-End Book One-


“Gambit della regina,” or “The Queen’s Gambit”

“That’s insane,” Sarah whispered. “Interpol agents are thoroughly vetted at every possible level. Every criminal database in the world is at their disposal. There’s just no way for the Magi to get one of their moles that high in the organization.”

“Moving forward,” the Lady said, “I would recommend that you relax your previous definition of what is or is not possible. With sufficient resources and motivation, you would be surprised to learn exactly what one can accomplish.”

“Surprised?” I asked. “Try terrified.”

The Lady shrugged. “Either works, I suppose.”

I forced myself to think. It wasn’t an easy process, but I managed it. Inspector Lane was working for the Magi. What did that mean, long-term?

One: Any investigation that threatened to unveil one of the Magi’s international fronts was corrupted from the very beginning. Lane had enough influence to steer investigators away from the real targets and, potentially, to shift their focus onto upstart operations.

Two: Using the manpower and resources at Interpol’s disposal, they would be able to keep a finger on the pulse of local underground communities without directly involving themselves. Promising recruits, law-abiding or not, could be identified early and isolated. A few moments of lost tape during an interrogation could easily lead to an entire subsumed industry, given enough time.

Three: In the event of a failure in the system, a law enforcement officer of Lane’s rank could simply disappear troublesome individuals. That hadn’t been the case this time, because Hill’s actions had pushed the Magi to publicly deal with him, but there was no way of knowing how many arrests were never reported or how many bodies had been disposed of. Lane had worked in law enforcement for a long time and had overseen cases on virtually every continent.

“What about Adlai?” I asked. “Is he…you know, working for the Magi?”

The Lady shook her head. “Your instincts regarding Inspector Adlai are entirely accurate and wholly justified. He remains as loyal to the oaths he took as a monk would be to a vow of silence.”

She sounded slightly piqued at that. I wondered if she’d tried to suborn him at some point.

“Who else? Are they absolutely everywhere? Who else do we know that’s working for the Magi?”

The Lady picked her words carefully. “As of this moment, with the information I have at my disposal, it seems safest to assume that no one outside of this very room can be trusted, unless you would be willing to trust a given individual with your life. Literally.”

Shit. There were a lot of criminals I’d worked with who I liked, some that I was even rather fond of, but the list of people I trusted with my life was vanishingly small. Obviously, Sarah, Michel, and Mila; the last two had proven themselves countless times over the past few weeks and there wasn’t even a question about trusting Sarah. I could add Alex to that list, but I wasn’t going to. Bringing him into this would be selfish to the extreme.

Outside of that, though? I liked Anton. He and I worked well together. But he’d returned from Russia with Stani without ever explaining what had transpired to force him into the Bratva’s employ. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the Russians had goals that conveniently ran parallel to ours. That was fine and dandy, when allies were in short supply, but a time might come when we were on opposite sides of a conflict.

Could they be working for the Magi, as well? Maybe they didn’t know that their orders came from one of the Magi’s puppets and they were simply carrying out the Magi’s whims unwittingly. Or maybe the manipulation was taking place on an even higher level, moving politicians and captains of industry like marionette strings, steering all of us like pawns into conflicts we weren’t even aware of.

“Why would you tell us this? Why would you put that on us?” My volume was rising, due to stress and anxiety. Paranoia threatened to choke me as it bubbled up from the pit of my stomach, up into my throat.

“Because, Mister O’Brien, it is important that you realize both the stakes and the gravity of our situation,” the Lady said. “And so that you understand the true value of the Book.”

“What could possibly be worth antagonizing a group with as much power as you’re implying?”

“A list, of course. You knew that much. You simply lacked the frame of reference to appreciate what it was a list of.”

I blinked, mentally glimpsing a flicker of an idea through the fog of paranoia. “You aren’t serious.”

“I usually am,” the Lady said.

Mila realized what we were talking about, at almost the exact same time as Sarah. Michel put it together a moment after the rest of us. “A list of their moles? All of them?”

“No. Not quite. That would be a treasure far beyond my ability to express. Simply possessing something like that would be enough to warrant the Magi’s full attention and the undivided strength of their forces, just to ensure that you wouldn’t speak of its existence. And trust me when I say that I am not exaggerating in the slightest.” She placed her empty wine glass delicately on the arm of her chair, balancing it so that it stayed there when she took her hand away. “But even an incomplete list is quite literally invaluable. So much so that its existence was kept secret and it was hidden away within an obscure branch of a relatively unimportant bank, encrypted with a key that the strongest supercomputer couldn’t break with hundreds of years at its disposal.”

“You really didn’t care about Hill’s operation, did you?”

“The damage you’ve dealt to the Magi is not measured in dollars, so much as in reputation. A highly favored agent, placed in control of a lucrative operation within the heart of London, lost his finances, his name, and ultimately control over the operation he had been instrumental in establishing. That he suffered this lost on a truly public scale is damaging to the Magi’s pride, even if they are able to keep control over their agents with a display of strength like the one I’ve just shown you.”

“That’s a very long answer for a very short question,” I said.

The Lady smiled. “Fair enough. I did not care about Hill’s operation, no, but I was very much interested in its destruction. Does that answer suffice?”

“Not really,” I said. “What are you planning to do with the Book? Even if it only has a hundred names like Inspector Lane’s in it – people highly placed in government, law enforcement, politics, whatever – then holding onto it is like picking up the pretty rocks at Chernobyl. Are you going to blackmail them? Use the Book as leverage to get some sort of concession out of them?”

“No,” she replied, “for several reasons. First, the Magi do not bargain. They would consider such an action to be beneath their dignity and would likely respond with fire and brimstone at the mere suggestion. Two, they have nothing that I desire.”

I interrupted her before I could realize exactly how bad of an idea that might be. “Nothing? Everybody wants something.”

The Lady seemed mildly irritated that I’d spoken over her. “Is that so? Tell me, Mister O’Brien, what do you want? What do your companions want?”

I looked at my team, one at a time, asking myself if I really knew what they wanted.

Michel wanted to belong, to fit in, to be a part of something.

Mila…did Mila want forgiveness or absolution? I wasn’t sure. She probably wasn’t sure, for that matter.

Personally, I hated bullies and people who thought themselves superior because of an accident of birth. Hill fit into that category neatly. Everything I heard about the Magi made me think of them in the same way. The Lady was…different, somehow. She undoubtedly considered herself above us – and, in all fairness, was probably correct in doing so – but it didn’t feel like something that had come about from her birth. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was about her behavior, but I would’ve sworn on a stack of bibles that the Lady had earned her power by doing some very unpleasant things for a very long time.

And Sarah? What did she want? Why had she come back with me from America and helped me to dethrone a kingpin? Why was she still staying?

I didn’t know and I couldn’t ask.

So, I looked back at the Lady and said nothing. After about twenty seconds, she nodded. “Yes,” she said, “you understand now. Not all things that one desires are physical. I have more money than I could use in a half dozen lifetimes and the comfort that such money can purchase. I will spend tonight traveling in the height of luxury to a country whose name I doubt you could pronounce and, from there, I will resume my travels around the globe, asserting pressure when necessary and using a soft touch when that would be more beneficial. I have lived a full life and, in that life, done much of what I have wanted. The Magi,” she repeated, “have nothing that I want.”

Her voice went up at the end of her speech, a clear aural marker that she wasn’t quite finished speaking. I waited for her to continue before realizing that she wanted me to prompt her. I smiled a little at that. Even the Lady, at the height of her mystery and intrigue, had a little bit of the showwoman in her. “There’s a ‘but’ coming,” I said.

“Not a but, but a third reason why the Magi will not bargain with me for the Book and the secrets it contains. Because they do not know that I have it and, if everything goes according to plan, they will not have the time to discover that it has not slipped quietly back out of existence.”

That was important, but it wasn’t an answer. “Why do you want it for yourself? It’s no good if you just keep it locked away. You might as well have left it with the Magi to begin with.”

“I will not reveal that I possess it, of course,” the Lady said, “but that does not mean that we will not make use of it. You asked me what I desire. I would think that obvious, considering what you have achieved this day.”

“Revenge.” The realization struck me like a blow, crystallizing in a flash of pure intuition. From me, to Asher; from Billy to Hill, even if the circumstances of that revenge had probably been more lethal than Billy would have wanted. And, ultimately, from the Lady to the Magi. “You want revenge. You don’t care about bargaining with them because you plan on destroying them.”

“Would you have been willing to put aside your animosity towards Mister Knight, given any amount of incentive? Could you have allowed such an egregious breach of faith to go unpunished?”

I didn’t answer, because she didn’t need me to. The answer must have been written all over my face.

“So all of this,” I said, gesturing at our surroundings, “was in pursuit of revenge? You used us to topple Hill, manipulated my anger towards Asher, so that you could get your hands on something to use in your war against the Magi?”

“We all use each other,” the Lady said. “You were paid well for your efforts and, unless I am mistaken, Mister Knight is no longer a factor. Everyone received what they wanted from our arrangement, no?”

“What did they do to you?” I asked. “Every time I find out more about the Magi, I feel like I need to get even farther away from them. They’ve got hands in everything. What could they possibly have done to you that you’d prefer suicide to just letting things go?”

She locked eyes with me. It was only for an instant but, in that instant, I glimpsed a twinkle of long suppressed pain in her expression. I could imagine that tiny twinkle as an iceberg, stretching deeper and deeper out of sight, until it filled the Lady up with nothing but anger and the all-consuming desire for revenge. I’d only had two and a half years to nurse my feelings about Asher’s betrayal. How long had the Lady been planning this? How much money had been spent, not counting the exorbitant accounts in our new numbered accounts? How many people had she put into the field to get all of us into this bedroom, at this exact moment?

The Lady looked away. “They have done enough,” she said. “Let us leave it at that, for the moment. My own reasons do not have any bearing on what comes next for us.”

“You keep saying us,” Sarah said. “I’m getting the feeling that you aren’t referring to you and your giant.”

The Lady took a second to regain her composure for she spoke again. “Of course not. Think about it, Miss Ford. If the Magi were willing to risk exposure to destroy someone who simply planned to flout their authority, what would they do to a group that openly defied them?”

I blinked. “You’re talking about us. The four of us, right here. Because we were the ones who took down Hill, before he had an opportunity to actually try his little coup, right?”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Mila said. “Hill was going to go rogue. The Magi knew he was going to go rogue. So they’re going to come after us for doing their dirty work for him?”

“They will come after you for several reasons,” the Lady said. “That will be one of them, yes. Hill was operating with their full authority and protection when you tricked him into revealing himself. As such, to any other parties underneath the Magi’s aegis, Mister O’Brien and Miss Ford now represent a threat that cannot be ignored. If Hill could be defeated, who is to say that a cartel won’t be next on their list? And what purpose would one have to continue working for the Magi, if the illusion of safety has been stripped away?”

That wasn’t true. I knew that wasn’t true and so did the Lady. But we were both also aware that the truth of the situation wouldn’t matter. If the Magi didn’t actively take steps to eliminate us, other parties would.

“You put us in danger,” I said. The coldness of my voice surprised me. “You put us in their path, so that you could get your damn Book. And now my friends are at risk because of your issue with the Magi. Is that about it?”


“Then why didn’t you put yourself in the line of fire?” I stood up in a rush and David, moving just as quickly, stepped closer to the Lady. Mila took a half-step forward, so that she was just behind my left elbow. I only took peripheral notice of either person. My attention was focused entirely on the Lady. “You think that you can just push us around, use as like disposable chess pieces in your game? Why didn’t you take the risk? Why didn’t you get into a fight with the Magi, instead of hiding behind us?”

The Lady watched me impassively. Except for her slowly blinking eyes, she went entirely still. “Mister O’Brien,” she said, “I am at risk now. Perhaps more than I have ever been.”

“I don’t even know your name,” I spat out. “If we get captured or killed, all we can do is point them at some bank accounts that probably won’t link anywhere. Or maybe I could tell my torturer that I’d been manipulated by a woman in a black dress. Is that what you mean by risk? That your description might get out?”

Sarah touched my elbow. “Devlin,” she said, “I think she’s right.”

“How? How could she possibly be in the same danger as us?”

“The Magi are shadows, right? Just ghosts in the machine that manipulate events so subtly that no one ever notices they’ve done anything at all?”

I nodded, still furiously glaring at the Lady.

“Their hands were forced,” Sarah continued. “I don’t think that’s something they’re used to, but they had to act quickly to ensure that Hill wasn’t secreted away beyond their reach. That isn’t subtle. If anything, it’s clumsy.”

“Relatively speaking,” the Lady agreed. “It is still an impossibly dense knot with an impossibly thin thread. But it is a thread and that is more than they have ever left before.”

“So we helped her by exposing them,” I said. “How does that do anything other than put us in the crosshairs?”

“We wouldn’t have been involved at all without the information that she gave you,” Sarah said. “The photo of Asher, the information on the crown, the invitation to the Green Light gala. All of that came from her and there aren’t that many people who could possibly have known everything.” She directed her next question to the Lady. “Am I right so far?”

The Lady gave Sarah an impossibly subtle nod. “I do not reveal myself to anyone, save David. I have not spoken to any other living soul as we are speaking – which is to say, without intent to deceive or mislead – for virtually my entire adult life. In choosing you as my…let us say champion in this matter, I have revealed myself as well. If you fall, so do I. Although much later and, presumably, in a much worse way.”

The wheels in my head clicked into place. I wasn’t a particularly skilled chess player, but I knew some of the terms. “The Magi were planning to use Asher against someone…against you, even if they didn’t know who their enemy was. In response to that, you picked someone to use as your own agent: me.”

“All of you,” the Lady said. “Some were unplanned, but you have performed magnificently and each of you has become an essential part of events.”

The Queen’s Gambit. A symmetrical opening, where both sides moved their pawns into position. In that scenario, though, the player with the greatest risk was Black who, by mirroring his or her opponent’s moves, removed protection from the Queen.

The Lady was watching me. I didn’t bother to hide the expression of dawning realization from my ace. When she saw that, she gave me a sad smile. “Exactly, Mister O’Brien. From this point on, it seems that we – all of us – are in this together.”


“Premier Geste,” or the First Move

“Who the hell are – “ Sarah began, stepping forward and raising the tablet in her hand to point at the Lady in her seat.

I reached out to catch her arm before she could step fully into the room, but I moved a little too late. My grasp fell a few inches short and she breezed forward, unimpeded. She stopped an instant later when a massive hand closed around her wrist and visibly tightened.

“Uh,” Sarah said, “Devlin? Who is this?”

I locked eyes with the Lady. “An old acquaintance who is going to let you go any second now.”

“David? Please, release Miss Ford. I’d prefer her unharmed, if possible.”

“Ah,” the giant David said, a second later. He released Sarah’s wrist and, instead of stepping back into the shadows by the door, moved across the room and take up position behind the Lady, just to her right. He made no effort to hide the gun, visible beneath his suit coat.

“It was you, then?” Sarah asked. “You’re the one that hired us? Devlin’s mysterious Lady in the Black Dress?”

“You’ll have to excuse David,” the Lady said, completely ignoring everything that Sarah had said. She took another drink from her wine glass. “He is somewhat…hmm. Let’s say that he is somewhat protective of me and leave it at that, yes?”

I stared at her, unwilling or unable to force myself to step into the room with her. Even from the hallway, I could feel her cold calculation against my skin. It wasn’t anything as simple as an examination. The Lady was weighing me with her frigid eyes, deciding exactly how much I was worth and whether my continued good health was essential to her plans.

Mila broke the spell. She coughed, deliberately louder than necessary, and pulled back her own jacket to reveal the gun holstered there. “I’m a little protective of my charges, too,” she said. “Touch her again and I’ll show you exactly how protective.”

The Lady let a single second stretch out for what felt like hours before she spoke again. “Emilia,” she said, “surely you wouldn’t risk biting the metaphorical hand that feeds you.”

“You hired me to protect them. You didn’t specify who I was, or was not, supposed to protect them from.”

“And if I decided to change the terms of your contract?” The Lady didn’t seem irritated, so much as interested or curious. “What would you do then?”

“The terms are the terms. Tell your guard dog to back off or he and I are going to have some unpleasant words.”

The Lady considered that for a moment before she leaned back and laughed. The sound was perfect, like a single crystal floating in the air. It rang with a note of genuine amusement, supported by absolute self-confidence and serenity. Just as quickly as it had appeared, the laugh ended, leaving all of us in the silent room with nothing but our thoughts for company.

“Very well,” the Lady said. “I certainly did not go through all of the effort of arranging this face to face meeting just to see whether you or David would win in a confrontation.”

“It’d be me,” Mila said. “Just saying.”

The Lady shrugged one shoulder. The fabric of her black dress shifted at the movement. I forced myself to focus on her eyes, instead of glancing down at the pale perfect skin of her shoulder and the gentle curve of her neck. “We have a great deal to discuss,” she said, “and not an exorbitant amount of time to discuss it in. Would you prefer exchanging subtle barbs or finally acquiring the answers that I’m sure you’ve all been seeking?”

That did it. I stepped into the room before the thought fully formed in my head. As soon as I’d taken the first step, I found the rest were easier. I walked until I was standing within two or three yards of the Lady. David growled at this presumption, but he didn’t move to stop me. “Avis and Neal; where are they?”

“Are you certain that you’d like to hear this conversation?” The Lady asked, directing her question at Michel. He was wavering in the doorway, visibly unsure of what he should do. “You have heard more than I would generally prefer, and you have seen my face, but none of this is sufficiently damning. Yet.”

“I can go?” Michel asked. “You would simply let me leave?”

“Of course. The payment for a job well done has already been deposited in the numbered account I used for the museum heist, along with an additional bonus for the danger you found yourself in. Ask your compatriot Mister O’Brien: I am not in the habit of pressganging individuals into my service.” She paused and the ghost of a smile touched the corners of her lips. “Not under these circumstances, at least.”

Michel thought about that for a second or two. “But, if I leave now, then…”

“Then what happens next is none of your concern,” the Lady finished for him. “Not because of any prohibitions I would lay upon your friends but, I suspect, from their own desire to keep you as far removed as possible. It is dangerous to simply know some things, Monsieur St. Laurents.”

Michel pursed his lips in thought for another second and then nodded once, in affirmation. He stepped into the room and closed the door behind him.

Less than a month ago, I would have groaned at Michel’s decision. I wanted to protect him – I wanted to protect all of my friends – and I couldn’t do that if they kept putting themselves next to me in the crosshairs.

That’s what I would have thought a month prior. When the door clicked shut behind Michel, however, all I felt was a fierce pride.

“About that question,” I said, speaking around the lump in my throat. “Avis? Neal? Where are they?”

The Lady raised an eyebrow at Michel but, when she spoke, she answered me. “Gone. Obviously.”

“I sort of figured that out. Where did you take them?”

“Somewhere safe.” She finished her wine, seemed to consider the empty glass for a moment, and then held it out to her side. David moved to refill it without exchanging a word with his mistress. “You have done an exemplary job seeing to her safety, don’t get me wrong. But the forces that will begin pursuing her in the near future are far more than you would be able to outwit with anything so simple as fake names.”

“I promised her that I’d keep her safe,” I said. “That we’d keep her safe.”

“And she will be kept safe, Mister O’Brien. You have my word on that.” Pause, sip. “I require the girl’s abilities for a relatively short period of time, after which she and her companion are free to do as they please. I will see to it that they are compensated for their trouble here in London, as well as any difficulties they may face in the process of translating the Book into something more readable.”

“How am I supposed to know you aren’t just saying that?” I asked. “I’m pretty sure Hill promised the world to the girl, too.”

I,”, the Lady said, “do not answer to any masters. If I say that a thing will be done, then it will be done.”

The proclamation landed with the force of a ringing church bell. I decided to take her at her word, rather than prod her ego or potentially insult her.

“What do you want, then? If you’ve already got the girl and the Book, you should be done with us, shouldn’t you?”

“I promised answers at the beginning of this,” the Lady said, “and I keep my promises. You lack the proper perspective to truly understand the import of what you have done here.”

“And that means…?” Sarah asked. She’d recovered from her shock at David’s appearance and was apparently defaulting to sass.

Sass was good. I could work with sass. I’d given the Lady a fair amount of lip on our first meeting and she hadn’t ordered her personal giant to snap my neck. If Sarah was sarcastic, we were at least operating on familiar territory.

“What that means, Miss Ford, is that it falls to me to enlighten you. Now, if you will stop attempting to exorcise your inferiority issues by baiting me into an argument, I can get on with what I’ve come here to say.”

Sarah jerked back like the Lady had reached across the table and slapped her. “I don’t…what are you…”

The Lady sighed. “I do my homework, Miss Ford. A great deal of resources – both financially and in terms of simple manpower – went into the decision to choose your ex-husband for this particular engagement. Surely, you didn’t think I would hesitate at acquiring your psychiatrist’s notes, when your involvement was a foregone conclusion?”

Sarah opened her mouth to reply, thought better of it, and closed her mouth again.

The Lady wasn’t playing games on this outing, then. She’d come for a specific goal and the scant dredges of patience she’d shown earlier were gone.

“Okay,” I said, hoping to take the attention from Sarah, “answers, then. How much did you know?”

“About what?” The Lady retorted. “Be specific.”

“Did you know that Hill was actually Fairfax? You as good as told me that he was using a pseudonym when you hired me to begin with.”

She considered her answer. “I had my suspicions. I was aware of the elder Fairfax’s true identity, despite his attempts to use the lower class as a sort of smokescreen. With that in mind, the symmetry of Fairfax – or Hill, if you prefer to continue using that moniker – playing a similar role did occur to me.”

“And you didn’t think that was something I should have known? We could’ve taken the fight to him weeks ago, before he had a chance to fort up.”

“That would only have worked if my guess had been correct,” the Lady said. “If not, all you would have accomplished is revealing yourself to an adversary without being in a position to strike. Which, as it turns out, you managed to do anyway.”

I wanted to fire off a snappy retort, but none came to mind. Besides, she was right. Knowing her suspicions wouldn’t have helped. If anything, I would probably have discounted those suspicions on the strength of my introduction to Fairfax at the museum. I’d thought of Hill and Fairfax as two different people which had, somehow, been an asset in the long run. Without learning both sides of the man’s personality, I wouldn’t have been able to walk him into that final trap.

“And Avis? Did you know that she was your key?”

“No. That was a surprise. There was no particularly way for me to know anything about the Book and so I could not hazard any guesses as to what form the key might take. That you were able to retrieve her, without actually knowing what it was that you were searching for, was a particular stroke of genius. Otherwise, everything might have fallen apart before it had a chance to truly begin.”

David lowered his head to whisper something into the Lady’s ear. The little bit of movement took me by surprise. It wasn’t that he was doing anything threatening or dangerous. I had just never seen him move a muscle without receiving some verbal or nonverbal cue from his mistress.

She listened to him, nodding occasionally as he made some point I couldn’t catch. The words that I was able to make out – from a combination of lip reading and sharp hearing – weren’t in any language that I spoke, or even one that I’d heard. When he finished, David straightened his back and went back to his position as a silent sentinel.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“David feels that I am being unnecessarily cold,” the Lady said, “and, in this situation, I agree with his thoughts. I am not immune to the young Avis’ plight, nor to the extraordinary efforts you undertook to rescue her. Had you saved the girl and lost the key, I would not have been displeased with your efforts. It was nothing but pure luck that allowed you to accomplish both worthy goals in a single blow.”

I noticed that she’d used Avis’ first name, instead of calling her Miss Williams or something equally distant. That meant something, even if I didn’t have the context to know exactly what it meant. Also, the fact that David had taken it upon himself to correct the Lady and that she had listened was important, too. Their relationship, so far, had seemed like an employee/employer sort of thing. But he was smarter than he looked – I remembered that from our first meeting – and held enough esteem in the Lady’s eyes that he felt comfortable making suggestions.

The Lady’s style of leadership was more likely to incentivize creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking, even if it could potentially create dissent down the line. If she was going to allow David to correct her in public and to vocally credit him with making a good point that she herself had overlooked, then she must not have felt the interruption would do anything to her aura of control.

She was right about that. If anything, I saw her in an even more impressive light. If one was willing to be an absolute nightmare, it was easy to maintain absolute control over one’s subordinates. At least, up until they revolted. But, in order to remain flexible and approachable, control depended on more than simple fear. It depended on respect.

I didn’t vocalize any of my thoughts. The tiny exchange between her and David was a glimpse into their dynamic and, potentially, the first clue that there was a human being beneath her splendor and mystery. I planned to keep that tidbit of information as close to my chest as I could manage.

“Did you know about the mole?” I asked. “That it was James?”

The Lady blinked in elegant slow motion. “I knew that there was a mole in the elder Fairfax’s underground organization, of course. There are moles in many such organizations, at various levels. There are far too many players in the game, especially at your level.”

The subtle accent on ‘your’ had a vaguely condescending lilt to it.

She continued. “That being said, I had ruled out the actual guilty party myself. Mister Vidoc – I use this name for convenience, as I am sure you’ve figured out that he was using a pseudonym – had no contact with Hill prior to a few weeks ago. I personally verified that information. As a result, I made an erroneous judgement call.”

“Why would the Magi bother with placing an asset in something as low level as Billy’s Halfway House?”

“The Magi have assets everywhere, Mister O’Brien.”

“Were they holding someone hostage?” Michel asked. “Is that why he worked for them? What will happen to his family, now that he is dead?”

“Ah, Monsieur St. Laurents,” the Lady said. “Always the humanist. The Magi have no interest in harming Mister Vidoc’s family, as he is no longer of any use to them. Since there is no power to be gained through their deaths, his estranged wife and both of his children will remained unharmed.”

“That is why he was so frightened? What drove him to…”

The Lady tilted her head for several seconds before understanding dawned on her. “Ah. I see what you mean. You have been operating under a similar error in judgement, which is only reasonable based on your perspective. Mister Vidoc was not afraid for himself; he was afraid for his friends, the young Mister Owens and the elder Fairfax.”

“Afraid for them? Why would he be afraid for them?”

I answered, instead of the Lady. She’d confirmed my suspicions, in a roundabout way, and explained exactly why she’d offered Michel a chance to leave the room in the first place. “Because if the Magi thought that Billy and his gang had even the slightest idea that they existed – if, for instance, James had been taken alive and interrogated – they would have come down on the Halfway House like a plague of locusts. Every witness and everyone who might have been a witness would have been killed.”

“Yes,” the Lady said. Her full red lips thinned to a nearly invisible line and her voice was tight with suppressed emotion. “That is exactly how they operate. By forcing his friend’s hand, Mister Vidoc ensured that Mister Owens and the elder Fairfax would live to see the end of the year.”

Silence. There really wasn’t anything to be said, in the face of that statement. I knew that everyone else in the room was thinking their way through the implications. Sarah and I had known about the Magi. We’d been the one to name the mysterious group. Michel and Mila, though, had been kept mostly out of the loop. By sitting in on this conversation, any hint of innocence had been taken away from them. If the Magi came down, they came down on all of us now.

“What about Hill?” Sarah asked. Since the Lady had slapped her down with the psychiatrist comment, she’d been quiet. “He knows more than James did and Interpol has him.”

The Lady’s eyebrow ticked minutely upwards. “Do they? David, if you could please bring up the latest information on Hill’s whereabouts?”

David pulled out his phone and began to work.

The Lady continued speaking while David searched. “Hill was attempting to throw off the Magi’s yoke, to break free of their control, and he would have managed a small amount of success if not for your intervention. It would not have been as thorough or as conclusive as he hoped, however. The Magi would have swiftly stepped in to crush him beneath their heel for his presumption and things would have continued much as they already had.”

“Right,” I said, “but they already suspected that much, right? Or else they wouldn’t have sent Asher to audit the organization to begin with.”

“Correct. But it was important that they wait until he made his move to sweep in. The effect would have been greater if the other cogs in their machine could see how effectively they destroyed Hill for his arrogance. By maneuvering him into the clutches of law enforcement, you effectively took that option away from them.”

“Okay,” I said slowly. “What are they going to do now, then?”

“Make a larger statement,” the Lady said. “Something more grandiose and large enough that their power remains unquestioned, despite the risks that such a public spectacle might open them up to.”

“You’re being evasive. What is going to happen to Hill?”

David cleared his throat. “I’ve found a relevant station, ma’am.”

“Put it on the television, if you please,” the Lady said to him.

The four of us – Sarah, Michel, Mila, and myself – shared a look before we turned as one to face a large television mounted on the wall behind us. The screen came to life a moment later. A news reporter was reporting on something, his body language quick and furtive, but the sound was off.

David turned up the volume so that we could listen to the report. “…four cars burning on the M1, with several dozen more impacted by the sudden and unexplained explosion,” the newscaster was saying. “Reports indicate that many injured are being removed from the area, although paramedics have revealed that at least one individual died in the initial blast.”

The image on the television changed to an aerial view of the M1, where we could see thick black smoke climbing up from the scene of an explosion. Paramedics and police officers were on scene, hurriedly trying to evacuate any civilians from the area, on the off-chance that something else might blow up.

My mouth was completely dry. I swallowed several times to moisten it and was only marginally successful. “They killed him,” I said finally. “They killed him like that? People are going to have questions! They just committed a terrorist act!”

“I do not believe it will be recorded as such,” the Lady said. “And I feel that you will come to the same conclusion, if you calm yourself and think about what this means.”

I was finding it difficult to think calmly. A public assassination like the one on the screen was terrifying in its scale and its implications. The Magi didn’t have to send Asher into Hill’s organization, if they were bold enough to simply execute him on national television.

“One body,” Mila said. A slight tremor in her voice told me that even her calm had been disturbed by the news report. “They only found one body. That’s going to be Hill?”

“In all likelihood,” the Lady replied.

“Devlin,” Mila said, without looking away from the screen, “didn’t Adlai say that Inspector Lane was taking custody of Hill?”

“Yeah, he did, but what does – “ I stopped. “But there’s only one body. That means Lane’s either injured or he got out of the car before the explosion happened.”

“How would he know to leave the car,” the Lady asked, “before an explosion happened? Who would even know to suspect such a thing?”

I swallowed once more. “He wouldn’t. Not unless he was the one who set the bomb up to begin with.” I turned away from the television and stared at the Lady. “He was a high ranking Interpol agent, with a long history of drug busts and takedowns. Adlai looked up to him, and he’s the farthest thing from corrupt I could imagine. Are you saying that he was…surely you don’t mean that…”

I couldn’t finish the thought. It was too horrifying of a prospect and my brain simply refused to connect the doubts. There were connections and there were connections. Surely, some things must be beyond the reach of even the most powerful criminal cabal.

The Lady had no such problem. “They have assets everywhere, Mister O’Brien,” she said simply. “Everywhere.”


Chapter 141

Despite Billy’s every attempt to wheedle more information out of me – begging, pleading, threatening – I steadfastly refused to say another word about the Magi to him.  Sarah, Michel, and Mila were equally tight-lipped.  Finally, angry at our collective silence, he told his men to wrap James’ body up into a convenient floor rug and left the Brooklands in a state of mixed emotion: fury, because someone he’d considered a friend was dead and we weren’t providing any answers; apprehension, because there was every possibility that he had even more moles in his organization that he simply hadn’t rooted out yet; and terror, because he knew less now than he had before coming to the Brooklands, except that now, his people were dying.

A part of me longed to tell him everything I knew.  If I’d been in his shoes, I would’ve wanted to know.  A force that could turn a friend into an enemy or push someone into an act of cold blooded murder was a force I would’ve pitted myself against, in sheer ignorant defiance.  In fact, I’d just finished doing something similar for a little girl I barely knew.

Sarah would have called that streak of nobility dangerous and idiotic.  She would have been right.

After he left, I asked Sophie to remove James’ chair from the conference room.  She showed a brief flash of shock when she saw the bloodstain but she recovered quickly.  The offending chair and all trace of the blood was gone within twenty minutes.  Ten minutes after that, an efficient team of maids cleared away all of the food and drink and left the four of us alone in the room with nothing but our thoughts.

Sarah spoke first.  She’d used the time since Billy’s departure, while we waited for Sophie to do her work, to center herself.  There was only a slight quaver in her voice now.  “That didn’t make sense,” she said.

I nodded.  “You’re right.  As soon as you shook him up, he started throwing out all kinds of micro expressions.  He’d been working within Billy’s organization for a long time; I guess he’d assumed that stoic posture as an excuse to be generally unreadable.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.  He shouldn’t have gone for his gun.  Moles don’t commit murder for causes.  They work for other people.  They lie, they cheat, they steal.  But they aren’t brave enough to kill.  Certainly not for masters who aren’t in a position to help them anymore.”

“I knew what you meant.  I was just…being delicate about it.”

Sarah shook her head.  “Being delicate isn’t going to solve anything.  Whatever happened here is something that we’ve got to figure out.  What pushed James into what he did?  What did he think he had to gain?  Hill is in prison and Asher is on the way.  I’ve personally disrupted every account I could find and the police will put a freeze on everything else before too long.  So why did he go for the gun?”

“I should’ve killed him myself,” Mila said in a moody tone.  She’d moved so that her back was to a wall and there were two guns on the table in front of her.  “Can’t believe he got the drop on me.”

“That isn’t helping anything either,” I said.  “You’re injured.  I’m injured.  We just went through hell to pull off what we did and it’s a miracle that any of us even made it back to the Brooklands, let alone all of us.”

“Working while injured is my job,” Mila shot back.

“And, in the future, I’ll be more than happy to let you fire high caliber weapons with broken fingers,” I said, “but for right now?  Either stop talking or be useful.”  The tone was sharper than I would normally have used.  Coddling Mila wouldn’t do any good.  If anything, she’d reject to the implication that she was suddenly too damaged to handle criticism.

Michel spoke up.  “Devlin, surely you cannot – “

“No,” Mila interrupted.  She took a deep breath.  “No, he’s right.  I can work through my issues when things calm down.  Thanks.”

“Anytime.  So?  Any thoughts on what just happened?”

She was silent for a few seconds, while she thought over the events of the last hour.  “James must have wanted to die,” she said finally.  “I don’t think he ever planned to kill Sarah for outing him.  He didn’t even want to get away.”

“What makes you say that?” Sarah asked.

“Because I was in the room.  Slower than normal, sure, but that wouldn’t have stopped me from putting him down.  If he wanted to kill you, he should have tried to kill me first.  Then, while the rest of you were panicked, he could have taken both you and Devlin out and fled.”

“Except for Chester and Billy,” I pointed out.  “And the rest of Billy’s gang waiting outside.”

Mila acknowledged that point with a slight bob of her head.  “True.  But Billy doesn’t carry a gun and Chester wasn’t going to shoot him.”

“Uh, Mila,” Michel said tentatively, “Chester did shoot him.”

“That was a reflexive thing.  The way he was shaking, repeating the same idea over and over like he was trying to convince himself of something?  Typical behavior from a first time shooter.  He’s never killed before and he certainly didn’t mean to do it tonight.”

“Then why did he do it?”

She shrugged.  “All of that emotion these two stirred up – anger, betrayal, doubt, fear – just made a perfect environment.  Chester saw a gun and he reacted.  I’d bet he’s regretting it now, but he’ll probably work his way back around to a justification before too long.”  She turned to Sarah.  “Sorry, but you didn’t work your way into his good graces enough that he’d kill to protect you.”

“Good to know that I don’t have to add anyone to my Christmas list,” Sarah said sourly.  “Anything else?”

“Off the top of my head?  Nothing worthwhile.  Give me some time to think about it and I might be able to come up with more.”

“We still do not know who he was really working for,” Michel said.  “If he was not working for Hill this entire time, who put him into Billy’s organization to begin with?”

I gave him a meaningful look.  “You know who put him there.”

Silence.  We all knew who James’ real masters had been.

“Alright,” Sarah said, after the tension grew thick enough that I could practically feel it against my skin, “let’s say that…they…were the ones who put James in a position where he could inform on Billy.  Why?  Billy’s gang wasn’t even a major factor in London, let alone on an international stage.  How?  He couldn’t have been paid for his work.  And if he was paid, where’s the money?”

“He told Chester that he had a family.  These rich and powerful types love to use loved ones as leverage,” I said.

“And I told you that he doesn’t have a family!”  I stared at her.  A moment later, she raised her hands in apology or surrender.  “Sorry.  Feeling a little tense right now.  What I mean is this: there isn’t any record of him having a family.  Not any that are still alive, at least.”

“What did you find?  Anything that might shed some light on this situation?”

Sarah pulled up a document on her tablet.  “James Vidoc was born in Burford, England to a pair of loving French immigrants.  His father died when he was twelve, in a chemical fire; his mother died fifteen years later when her car went off of a cliff.  He left town and started working temp jobs for a while.  Eventually, he fell off the radar and he doesn’t show up on any public records again until he was pulled in for a few minor possession charges.  That’s probably just before he started working with Billy.”

She showed me the tablet.  Displayed on its screen was a picture of James, taken by a prison photographer.

Something tickled at the back of my thoughts.  I focused on that feeling and, gradually, it crystallized into a memory.  “Vidoc?  That’s his last name?”

Sarah nodded.  “Why?”

When I’d been in La Santé, there had been precious little to do.  Storytime with Patric helped to pass the days but, when he was unavailable or tired, I’d taken to reading whatever translated works the prison library had.  “Vidoc was an author,” I said.  “A French author. He was a criminal who ended up becoming the Chief of Police in Paris for a while.  I read his memoirs.”

“Vidoc’s not an uncommon French name, either,” Sarah said, but she sounded uncertain.  “It’s not the most common, but it’s not what anyone would use for a pseudonym.”

“Maybe.  But it says right here that Burford’s population is only thirteen hundred people.  What do you think the odds are of anyone from a town that size making their way to London?”  The thoughts were connecting faster and faster.  I followed the chain as far as it led.  “And another thing.  A chemical fire and a car accident?  A car accident that took the car off of a cliff?  Was she near a large body of water when this accident happened?”

Sarah’s eyes widened.  “Yes,” she whispered.  “And I’ll answer your next question before you even have to ask it: the car was never found.”

“If there was a car,” I said.

“What are you implying?” Michel asked.  He hadn’t made the same leap, but he was sensitive enough to pick up on the sudden foreboding atmosphere in the conference room.

“James Vidoc,” I said, “doesn’t exist.  He never existed.  Everything about him is fabricated.”

“But that’s…that’s…”  Sarah struggled to find the right words for a moment.  “Do you understand what that kind of forgery entails, Devlin?  Creating an entire identity from scratch isn’t easy.  Faking a history is harder.  But to fake police documents, medical examiner reports, newspaper articles, and bank accounts tracing back for a lifetime?”

“No,” I said.  “But I’d be willing to bet that the Magi do.”

“Devlin.  They ran his fingerprints.”

There wasn’t anything to say to that.  Sarah understood, probably better than me, what that detail meant.

“Is that something you could falsify?” Mila asked.

“Me, alone?  No.”  Sarah wasn’t bothering to protect her ego anymore.  The possibility that someone was capable of technical wizardry at that scale had destroyed any hint of pretense.  “With other people to change documents and erase files, in real-time?  Maybe.  But I’m not sure.”

“And James…?”

“If what Devlin is suggesting is true – and I’m not willing to say that it’s even possible – then someone completely altered every record relating to a James Vidoc in every law enforcement database between here and the other side of Europe.”  She swallowed.  “And that still doesn’t answer why anyone would go through that much trouble.”

“I don’t know.  That scares the shit out of me, though.”

“Me too.”

We all fell into a contemplative silence.  Michel moved, without making a sound, and found a bottle of liquor that Sophie’s maids had overlooked.  He didn’t speak as he raised the bottle to his lips and took a long drink from it.  “You use false names,” he said.  “This name is more thorough.  What is the difference?”

“There are still people who know that I’m not some German businessman,” I said.  “You knew the truth.  Sarah did, obviously.  Asher, Mila, Alex…I didn’t become someone else.  I was just pretending.  According to Billy, James lived with them.  He’s spent years as someone who he might not have been.  There are police records.  Assuming those aren’t faked, he’s been at this for at least a decade.”

Mila reached out and took the bottle from Michel’s fingers.  “And there’s nothing to say, one way or another, that the police records aren’t faked.  Or coerced in some way.”  She took a long pull at the liquor, as well.

“And if that’s true, then we’re back to square one.  Square zero, really.  Everything we know about James might be a lie.  But we don’t have anything else to go off of.”  I desperately wanted a go at the liquor myself, but I suppressed the urge.

Sarah did not share my compunctions.  She plucked the bottle from Mila and took a long drink.  Then, after a moment, she repeated the process.  “All we know for certain is that he was so scared of what might happen to him that he chose effective suicide instead of facing them again.  We don’t know why he was in Billy’s organization, why he was tasked to help Hill after working against him for so long, what they were holding over him, how many more people they have in similar positions…”  She trailed off.

I picked up the thread for her.  “And we don’t know what they want.”

Neither Sarah or I were using our name for the mysterious string-pullers and puppet-masters.  Those two syllables – the Magi – seemed to have taken on a mystical feeling and I had no desire to see what happened if I spoke it out loud too many times.

Sarah’s phone beeped.  The sound startled all of us to different degrees.  “It’s Avis,” Sarah said, when she calmed down enough to check her phone’s display.

“Why is she texting you?  How is she texting you?”

“I dropped off a phone earlier,” Sarah said, “while you were in Scotland Yard.  The idea had been to make sure we could contact her if we had to…you know.”

“If we had to break you out of jail again,” Mila said.  Sarah shot her a look and Mila shrugged.  “What?  Was I not supposed to tell him what you had in mind?”

Sarah crossed her feet at the ankles beside me.  We were sitting close enough that I could feel the movement.  “Anyway,” I said, trying my best to divert attention away from Sarah before she lashed out in embarrassment, “what does Avis have to say?”

“She says that she’s found something in the Book that we might want to see.”

“No elaboration?”

“None,” Sarah said.  “But, all things considered, do you think it’d really be safe for her to send out that kind of information over the cell network?”

Sarah’s phones were encrypted.  She’d told me so herself.  I didn’t understand the technology, but I knew how fastidious she could be about her privacy when the situation called for it.  There would precautions built on top of precautions, redundant defenses within more redundant defenses, all for the sole purpose of ensuring that no one could possibly find a way to eavesdrop on our conversations.

“No,” I said.  “All things considered, I’m not sure it’s safe for us to even have that kind of information.”

There was no denying the summons, though.  Sarah’s curiosity had been whetted.  No matter the danger, she was going to follow the trail of clues to its end.  And where Sarah went, I went, too.

She led us out of the conference room and to our private elevator.  It was spacious enough for all of us to fit without unnecessary crowding.  I noticed that Sarah kept a tight grip on the bottle of liquor.

The ride up to Avis’ room was shorter than the ride to our suite.  We reached our destination before I’d had a proper amount of time to really shed the feeling of dread from downstairs.  Something still felt wrong, like I was missing some obvious clue or overlooking an important detail by virtue of my own shortsightedness.

The elevator doors opened onto an empty hallway.  I’d never actually been to Avis’ room, so I let Sarah lead the way down the hallway until we reached an ordinary – at least, ordinary for the Brooklands – door.

“Avis,” Sarah said, “we’re here.  What did you have for us?”  She knocked twice on the door.

The door swung open.

A hole formed in the pit of my stomach.  My heart dropped through that hole and disappeared into a pit at the soles of my feet.

“Avis?” Sarah called out.  I could hear the fear in her voice.

Mila pulled out a gun and stepped into the room.  The rest of us crowded in behind her.

My time at the Brooklands had been spent in only two locations: the conference room downstairs and our penthouse suite at the top of the building.  Still, I knew that their less expensive rooms probably had more furniture than the barren scene I saw in front of me.

There were only two pieces of furniture in the room.  A coffee table crafted from some exquisite and probably exotic type of wood was a few feet past the doorway.  There was a cell phone resting on that table and, next to that, a nearly full bottle of dark red wine.  Just beyond that coffee table, there was a deep, comfortable-looking chair.

Seated in that chair, the Lady looked at all of us with an expression that made me feel like an ant underneath a child’s magnifying glass on a hot day.  She raised a glass to her flawless lips and downed half of that glass’ contents.

“I was beginning to think,” she said, that alluring accent shifting with each syllable, “that you were never going to figure it out.”


Chapter 140

Chester jerked away from James and his jaw dropped in disbelief.  Billy controlled his expression marginally better, in that he only began to stare.  “What?  That can’t be right.”

James, however, met the accusation with a disturbing amount of calm.  “You must have got it wrong,” he said in that low rumble.  “Maybe you should run that program again?”

“I’ll be the first to admit when I might have made a mistake,” Sarah said.  I privately disagreed with that sentiment, but wisely kept those thoughts to myself.  “But not this time.  There were only so many earbuds that I didn’t have under my direct control.”

“I didn’t even have one,” James countered.  “You gave it to Chester, remember?”

“Well, it sure as bloody as hell wasn’t me!” Chester’s voice was filled with something approaching panic.  “She’s the one making the accusation.  You ever think that your encryption whatever-you-called-it isn’t as good as you thought?”

I ignored Chester and focused on James, instead.  “Chester doesn’t have a motive to do it,” I said, “and I honestly don’t think he even has the ambition.  Billy helped him get the money to save his sister and that was enough.  The thought of betraying him for a chance at something better wouldn’t even have occurred to him.”

As I was talking, my mind was beginning to draw connections, outlining what must have happened before we’d even entered London.  I didn’t have all of the details, and I probably never would, but it was easy to imagine the conversations that could have taken place in dark rooms or darker alleys.  Everyone spoke the language of money and poor people spoke it better than most.  A lifetime struggling to survive at Billy’s Halfway House would have been more than enough to soften anyone’s resolve.  From that point, a suitably large cash offer for something as harmless as a little shared information would be difficult to resist.  And, after making that mistake once, every request of increasing severity would become harder and harder to say no to.

But was that really true?  I didn’t know for certain.  It could have been blackmail or some other form of coercion.

“But you, James?” I asked out loud.  “I look at you, and I see someone who’s thinking.  Never talking any more than you have to, only ever answering direct questions so that you don’t accidentally reveal more than you want to.  And you’ve been perfectly placed since we joined up with you guys to pass intelligence on to Hill.  But why?  That’s what I want to know.”

“Can’t tell you what I don’t know,” James said, “seeing as I didn’t do what you’re accusing me of.”

“It’s funny,” Sarah said.  “I looked into both of you, as soon as we crossed paths.  Chester was easy to figure out, all things considered.  But I couldn’t find much about you.  Name, National Insurance number, former addresses.  Nothing too out of the ordinary, but also nothing to explain why you were caught up with Billy and his lot.”

“Not hard to figure out,” he said immediately.  “Had a bad string of luck.  Lost my house when my parents died and I ended up with Billy.  Worked my way up from there.”

“That’s true,” Billy said.  “He’s been with me, almost since the beginning.”

“Isn’t that exactly where you’d want to put an inside man?  At the very beginning of things, when he could take an active hand in the way an organization grew, while still knowing all of the infrastructure?”

Billy’s expression turned doubtful.

Chester was not so easily unsettled, though.  “That’s my mate,” he said, “and he’s not a bloody grasser.  He helped save your life at that plant!”

If I hadn’t badly misread him, James had also put my life in danger at the plant first, so that particular debacle wasn’t earning him any points in my book.  “Look at it this way.  How many people knew about the plant in the first place?  Who did Sarah and I talk to about the estate job?”

“We had to get all of our men in position to detonate those bombs,” Chester countered, as though he’d scored a great point.  “One of them could be the leak.”

“Unless you decided to act like a bigger idiot than you actually are,” I snapped, “none of your men should have known we exist.  And they certainly wouldn’t have access to one of Sarah’s earbuds.  Honestly, Chester, you cannot be this dense.  You wouldn’t have made it this far if you were.  Was there ever an opportunity where he could have gotten your earbud without you realizing?  Did it ever move overnight, even though you knew for a fact that it was on the nightstand, for instance?  That never happened?”

Chester glared at me and then, slowly, the suspicion shifted away from me and over to James.  “You found the earbud after the processing plant thing went sideways,” he said.  “Told me it’d been under some rubble. Why’d you go back to look through the rubble?”

“Seriously?”  James leaned back and crossed his arms.  “I went back to see if there was anything worth salvaging.  Some of the product, maybe.  I don’t know.”

“But you found an earbud?”

“Those aren’t indestructible,” Sarah chimed in.  “You could probably break one by stepping on it.  Exactly where did you find it, James?  When did you even have the time to look?”

“Chester,” James said.  “You know me.  Whatever she thinks she knows, it’s wrong.”

He was talking more than normal, letting anxiety slip into his words.  A fear reaction was normal, even for an innocent party.  We needed more.

“You’ve been caught,” I said, stressing the operative word as much as possible.  “Hill’s been taken down and so has Asher.  Whatever he had on you – if he had something on you – is gone now.  There isn’t any illegal monolithic empire waiting in the wings to fall down on you if you break ranks.”

The veins on Chester’s neck stood out a little.  Not much, but enough for me to guess at what emotion he was feeling.

“Wait…was that it?  Was it that simple?” I asked.

James said nothing.

Billy cleared his throat.  “What are you talking about?”

I mused aloud, letting my mind free associate its way through the problem.  “Hill was going to move up in the world.  Asher already had his connections, and he was in a position to profit no matter who won. But if Hill graduated to controlling larger portions of the European market, that would leave a vacancy here.  Someone would have to step into that role.”  James glanced up for an instant and my eyes caught his.  “Someone who’d proven himself loyal, capable, and willing to backstab their friends in exchange for a little more power.  That’s exactly the kind of person who Hill would appreciate.”

“You’re not wrong,” Billy said.  Unconsciously, he rubbed one of his paralyzed legs.  “But…no, it couldn’t be James.  It couldn’t be.”

There wasn’t enough hard evidence.  Billy and Chester had an unknown amount of years working side by side with James.  I could plant doubt, but not enough to actually matter.  There was too much trust between the three of them.  Suspicion and vague hints weren’t going to be sufficient.

“The earbuds never really stop recording,” Sarah said casually.  “They just don’t transmit all of the time.  Even when they’re off, there’s a small charge that keeps them ready for reactivation.  There’s an easy way to figure this out.  Chester, let me see your earbud.  I’ll go through its history and then we’ll know for sure.”

I blinked.  Sarah hadn’t told me about that feature.  Frantically, I went through my memory, wondering if I’d ever made any particularly embarrassing admissions when I thought she couldn’t hear me.

Then I looked at Sarah’s face and the tiniest corner of her mouth quirked down.

Chester shrugged.  “If it gets James clear of this bloody nonsense, here you go.”  He reached into his pocket and fished out the earbud, moving as if to toss it onto the table in front of him.

Before the tiny black piece of electronic equipment could touch the surface of the table, James moved.  Despite his size, he was frighteningly quick.  He snatched the earbud out of the air, perhaps an inch or two before it would have landed.

“What’re you doing?” Chester asked his friend.  “Let her have the damn thing and then we can focus on finding out who the real leak is.”

“It…”  James stopped, swallowed, and started again.  “It wasn’t for Hill.”

What wasn’t for Hill?”

“He wasn’t involved in all of it,” James continued.  “Not the whole time.  Not until just before this lot came here and started stirring things up.  But then they gave him my name and he started using me for information.”

Chester looked as if he couldn’t quite understand the words coming out of James’ mouth.  “What are you talking about, mate?”

James kept on talking.  His voice was calm and controlled, like he was discussing the weather instead of revealing the depths of his own treachery.  “You don’t understand,” he said.  “You can’t understand.  I didn’t have a choice.”

Billy spoke next and there was frost on every syllable.  “So you gave me bad intelligence.  Let me send good people – people that only wanted to help – into a trap.  Helped my brother keep me hostage and risked the lives of every man and woman who you’ve been working side by side with for years.  Is that about the size of it?  What possible excuse could you have?  You didn’t have a choice, James?  You could have come to me!  We could’ve figured it out!”

That sentiment struck an eerie chord in my memory.  It sounded perilously like the conversation I’d had with Asher, back at Scotland Yard.

“So you were going to take Hill’s spot, then?” Billy continued remorselessly.  “You were going to finish the job my brother started, I guess: kill me and run London while Charles moved up in the world.  Tell me if I’m wrong.”

“It isn’t even my fault!” James yelled back.  “If it hadn’t been for them, things would’ve been fine.  Asher would have taken over, instead of Hill, and he didn’t even care about you.  Everything would have worked out, except…except…”

“I can’t believe I ever trusted you,” Billy said.  The condemnation hit James like a physical blow.  He rocked back from the force of it.  “I should have left you in the gutter where I found you.”

James tried and failed to meet the anger in Billy’s eyes.  “Chester,” he said, “you’ve got a family, too.  You understand what kind of pressure someone can put on you.”

Chester’s expression had changed from shock to suspicion.  Now, it seemed as though he were verging dangerously close to sympathy.

“He used your earbud,” Sarah said.  “You were the one who would’ve taken the fall for it.”

“Is that true?” Chester asked James in a near whisper.  “Were you setting me up to take the fall for you?”

James looked at Chester, then Billy, then back to Chester.  He deflated slightly, as whatever self-justification he’d used to sleep at night evaporated under the simple question from his friend.  Then, with a malevolence smoldering in his eyes like hellfire, he turned to Sarah.

His hand vanished under the table and I knew, instantly, what was going to happen.  Revealed as a traitor, there was only one thing James could do.  There wasn’t any chance to spin things, at this point.  He was finished with Billy’s gang.  All he could do was make sure that we paid for ruining his plan.

The barest sliver of metal cleared the edge of the table, glinting with an evil light.  Mila wouldn’t be fast enough.  The injuries from the processing plant coupled with the damage Aiden’s beating had given her weren’t enough to sideline her, but they were sufficient to slow her down by a second or two.  Michel was out, as well.  Given an opportunity for his adrenaline to mount, he might have pulled something off, but there wasn’t going to be time.

Sarah’s eyes widened.  Some flash of intuition must have warned her because she started to bring her tablet up to her chest like a shield.  She was moving in agonizing slow motion, though, and the tablet might not have been enough to actually stop the bullet.

In a moment of ludicrous clarity, I regretted changing out of the suit with its bulletproof vest.  Still, I never stopped to think about what I did next.  I threw myself to the side, knocking her out of the way with my own body, just as a sound like thunder rang out in the comparatively small room.

My shoulder hit the ground first, but that particular pain had been such a constant companion that I scarcely felt the new flare up.  There weren’t any new screams of agony from my battered body, though.

That was shock, probably.  The bullet wound in my leg had hurt worse, although the one I’d just taken to the gut should have caused much more damage.

“Devlin?”  Sarah asked in a quavering voice.  “Are you okay?”

I wanted to laugh.  I had just thrown myself in front of a bullet for her. ‘Okay’ wasn’t really a word that applied to the situation.  Dazed, I reached down to feel the extent of my injury.

I felt nothing.  No bullet hole or injury existed, no matter how fervently I patted down my body.

“I’m…fine, I think?”  The statement came out as a question.

Cautiously, I got back to my feet.  Mila was standing with a gun in her uninjured hand.  Michel hadn’t quite fled behind her, but he was in a position where he could attack or flee with equal ease.  The gun in Mila’s hand was ready, but no smoke twined out of its barrel.

Instead, the thin trail of dark gray vapor came from the weapon in Chester’s hand.

James was slumped in his chair and a red stain was slowly spreading across the front of his shirt.  I stared at the body in horror for several long seconds.  Finally, I cleared my throat and spoke around the lump that had formed there.  “Did you…is he…?”

Chester spun on me and pointed the gun in my direction.  “No!  You…don’t move!”

Billy put his hand on top of Chester’s.  “Don’t do it,” he said in a soothing voice.  “This isn’t on them.”

“He was…he was my friend and I…I…”  Chester couldn’t finish a sentence.  He let out a shuddering breath and let his hand fall to the table.  The weapon clattered out of his loose grasp.  “I didn’t think, I just…I just…”

“I didn’t think that he’d…” Sarah began.  She stopped as a full body tremor made her shiver.  “I didn’t think that he’d try to kill me.”

Even though I had seen the move coming a split second beforehand, I didn’t understand the action entirely myself.  James had lost a lot, but he hadn’t seemed suicidal.  He’d seen Mila in action.  He had to have known that she would have killed him a heartbeat after he pulled the trigger.

“What are you going to do with him?”  The question came from my own lips, surprisingly steady.

“Can’t leave him here,” Billy said, equally calm.  “Get your concierge to keep any civilians out of the way, and I’ll…I’ll get my men to get him out of here.”  He paused.  “We’ll see to it that’s he buried.  I…I didn’t know that he had any family.”

“Neither did I,” Sarah said.  “There wasn’t anything about a family in his records and I was thorough.

James began to tremble in his seat.  Billy wheeled himself closer and wrapped an arm around his lieutenant.  “I can’t believe it was him,” Billy said.  “I just can’t believe it.”

“He was scared,” I said.  I wasn’t talking to anyone in the room, just airing my thoughts as they occurred to me.  “Not angry.  He was scared.”

“Of what?” Billy asked.  “What could he have been so scared of to risk his life – our lives – like that?”

“Not what.”  I pulled myself out of my thoughts and spoke, not to Billy, but to Sarah and my team.  “Who.”


Chapter 139

After downing some food from room service, Sarah and I told Alex to take his daughter and leave the country.  His involvement in the chaos over the last weeks was minimal but I didn’t even want to chance anything else going wrong before they were safely back in Germany.  He conceded to the request with only a token amount of resistance.  He had a lot to think about, I knew, and a lot of unresolved anger to process.

I wondered whether he thought life in prison was a suitable punishment for Asher, after what he’d done.  I wasn’t sure if a suitable punishment even existed.  Still, confinement would have to do for the moment.

Sarah suggested that I take a shower before confronting our personal Benedict Arnold.  Mila agreed with that assessment and Michel, in his own subtle way, made it clear that bathing wouldn’t be a terrible idea.  So, I washed off as quickly as possible, and changed out of my custom suit into a pair of comfortable jeans and a polo shirt.  Then, feeling more like myself, I led us all into the elevator and down to the conference room where our new allies waited.

We paused at the door.  “Are you ready for this?” I asked Sarah.

She sighed.  “Not really, but what other choice do we have?”

“Should we…I don’t know, practice?”

“What good would that do?  You don’t know what’s going to happen any more than I do.”

“Fair enough.  So…play it by ear?”

Sarah nodded.

Michel opened his mouth to say something.  Mila stopped him with a raised hand.  “No, they aren’t going to tell us what they’re talking about.  No, they didn’t have a chance to discuss any of this yet.”  She grinned.  “Yes, this is all somehow going to work out.”

Immediately upon entering the conference room, I saw that Sophie had taken Alex’s simple directive and gone completely overboard with it.  The long table running down the center of the room was overflowing with food and drink.  There were cooked hams and turkeys, more bottles of liquor than I could count at a glance, and an assortment of finger foods available for the taking.  Billy’s men were voraciously attacking the fare, focusing mostly on the liquor.  The scene reminded me of a nature documentary I’d once been forced to watch about piranhas and their feeding habits.

That was good, though.  Sophie’s typically overblown zeal ensured that my quarry would be in an amenable mood and, therefore, unlikely to realize what we had in mind until too late.

Billy sat at the distant point of the table.  He wasn’t partaking of the food or drink as we entered.  Instead, he seemed withdrawn and uncharacteristically moody.  The effect of his sulk was only magnified by the bruises visible on his skin like spots on a leopard.

He looked up and the gloom surrounding him lightened a little.  “Well, look who it is!”  He forced exuberance into his voice, but very little of that emotion found its way onto his face.  “Boys, take a good long look at our conquering hero.  In just a few weeks, he managed to do what we’ve been trying to do for years.  Give ‘em three cheers, eh?”

The horde of men tore themselves away from the feast in front of them and, raising whatever glasses were close at hand, roared out three cheers for me.  I accepted them with a slight nod.  “How’re you feeling?” I asked Billy, when the noise died down and the men returned to their drinks.

“My brother kidnapped and threatened to kill me,” Billy said, “just before he went completely off the deep end and tried to kill you with his bare hands in front of me.  So I’m feeling bloody lovely, of course.”

His accent sharpened and slipped, seemingly at random.  He was either more emotional than he was letting on or he’d had more than his fair share of liquor before we’d made our way downstairs.  Probably both.

“Physically, I mean,” I said.

He shrugged one shoulder and winced in pain.  “I’ll live.  I’ve had worse beatings from schoolboys.  Charlie always did hit like a girl.”  Pause.  “Present company excluded, I mean.”

Mila raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms underneath her breasts, but she didn’t say a word.

“There are some things we need to talk about,” I said.

“Can it wait?” Billy asked.  “I think my boys need a little bit of time to celebrate before we get down to the business of figuring out what to do with that whole empire my brother was so intent on ruling.”

“No,” I said, “it really can’t.  It’s about what happened at the estate today.  The longer we wait to have this discussion, the worse it’s going to be.”

Billy accepted that enigmatic statement with ease.  “Alright, then.  Chester, James; leave that mess alone and get over here.  The rest of you, take a bottle for the road, and take a walk!”

The two men, chief lieutenants in Billy’s organization and local heroes in their own right, detached themselves from the mass of drunks with some difficulty and headed in our direction.  They took up seats on either side of Billy: Chester seated on his right while James deposited himself to Billy’s left.  Then, all three men looked expectantly at me.

I turned my gaze to the table’s setup while the lower ranked men followed Billy’s order and slowly filed out.  There was a seat at the head of the table, opposite Billy, and more than enough chairs to accommodate my team.  There was only a single problem with the arrangement.  I took one of the surprisingly heavy chairs and dragged it across the floor, until it was directly next to me, then gestured to Sarah.  “After you.”

She seemed delighted by the gesture and made a curtsy in response.  “Such a gentleman,” she said.  “If prison taught you manners like this, you should go more often.”

“It’s called jail before conviction,” I countered.  “And I didn’t even go to lockup tonight, so let’s not be premature.”

Mila and Michel exchanged a look before taking seats of their own.

“What’s so important that you needed to talk about it right now, then?” Billy asked, when we were all settled in place.

I decided to dispense with as much formality, pomp, and circumstance as I could get away with.  These accusations required a certain amount of delicacy, I knew, but that didn’t mean I had to waste time before making them.  “This isn’t the first time a plan of ours has gone sideways,” I said.  “I mean, certainly not the first time in my life, but it isn’t even the first time it’s happened in London.  It’s the second time, in fact, that Hill caught us flat-footed and unawares.”

Using the nickname for Billy’s brother came naturally.  I’d only known him by that moniker for the vast majority of my time in conflict with him, so it was difficult to reprogram my brain.  Billy graciously didn’t correct me.  “I was thinking about that myself,” he said.

“Let’s go over both of those situations, then.  Just so we’re all perfectly clear.”  I took a deep breath.  Presentation was key, here.  “The processing plant was a trap.  The whole thing was just an excuse to get us in one place, so that Hill could have his hit squad pour bullets into the building.”

“I remember,” Billy said.  “I’m not that old.”

“The problem, though, is that he couldn’t have known when you were going to find out about the plant.  Without that knowledge, he couldn’t have anticipated when you’d attack.  And he obviously didn’t have time to adjust his plan for our intervention.”

“What’s that mean to you?”

“That he has a mole in your organization,” I said, “but that said mole didn’t have an opportunity to warn Hill that you’d changed plans.  Agreed?”


Chester cleared his throat with a great deal more noise than was strictly necessary.  “What’re you getting’ at?”

“I’m painting a picture,” I replied, through gritted teeth.  “It’s all going to make sense in a little bit.  I promise.”

He looked as though he had something else to say, but he lapsed into sulky silence instead.

I gestured for Sarah to pick up where I’d left off.  “Then there’s this whole business with Hill’s estate. There was absolutely no way for someone to intercept my communications without hiring someone as good or better than me, and giving that person days to take apart my encryption protocols.  The only way, then, that Hill and his men would be able to listen in on our conversations was if they had an exact copy of an earbud or receiver already using those protocols.”

“You said something about that before the police came crashing in,” Billy said.  “And your friend’s the one who found about the mole, yeah?”

Chester leaned forward in his chair, eager to hear what I had to say next.  Even James, normally stoic to the point of muteness, seemed interested.

“Yes and no,” I said.  “My friend learned that there was a mole, from Coleman.  But Coleman didn’t actually meet the guy, so he couldn’t give us a name.”

Chester let out an explosive breath.  “What’s the point of all this, then?  We already know all of this.”

Billy nodded his agreement.  “Soon as we get a second to catch our breaths, I’ve got plans to go through the organization from top to bottom until I find out who was playing both sides.  Can’t run the business with that kind of a leak.”

“About that,” I said.  “There can’t really be a business, Billy.  Hill’s going down and Asher’s going to see to it that the infrastructure is unusable, at least in the recent future.  Even after Interpol leaves town, trying to run anything as big as Hill’s enterprise is just going to be asking for trouble.”

If Billy could have used his legs, he would have stood up in sudden outrage.  As it was, he slapped his palms down on the table.  “You could’ve said something about that before!”

“I didn’t know about it before,” I said.  “Asher’s being vindictive, which I could probably have predicted, but even I didn’t know that he’d be willing to burn everything to the ground rather than let anyone else have it.”

“And the people I’m looking out for?”  Billy asked.  “What am I supposed to do to help them?”

“Hill went to a lot of trouble to make his businesses seem legitimate,” Sarah said.  “My guess is that he expected a lot of attention on how he ran things.”

Privately, I thought that the scrupulous and overzealous attention to detail was a result of his employment by the Magi, but I kept that thought to myself.  The less Billy, Chester, and James knew about the Magi, the better it would be for everyone involved.

“It wouldn’t take much to use those shell companies,” Sarah continued, “and to turn them into something that actually made money.”

Billy tilted his head.  “How?”

“You’d have to launder all of the liquid cash he’s had stashed away,” she said.  “That’s not going to be easy, but it is doable.  There’ll be a scandal when it comes out that he was the head of the drug ring, which hurts your reputation, but there’s another story that can be spun out this that could turn things your way.”

“Which is?”

“Think about it,” I interjected.  “One brother, born to privilege, falls into a life of crime; the other, the product of an illicit love affair, rises to restore his family’s honor.  It’s got potential.”

Billy thought about that for several seconds.  “I never wanted to be a Fairfax,” he said finally.

“What you want has very little to do with what you are,” I countered.  “But it’s just something to think about.  You could help your people – give them jobs, rebuild the devastated areas where your Halfway House is, clean up some of the brute crime – and you wouldn’t have to run the risk of police intervention.”

“That’s rich coming from you,” Billy said, but there wasn’t any malice in his voice.  “A thief telling me to go straight?”

“I’m full of contradictions.  Some would say it’s my best trait.”

I could feel Sarah roll her eyes.

“Anyway.  That’s not what I wanted to talk about.  Coleman couldn’t get a name, true.”  I paused for dramatic effect.  “But we figured one out on our own.”

Silence, deep and profound, fell over the room.  Sarah and I hadn’t rehearsed this bit – there hadn’t been any time – so Michel and Mila were both in the dark, as well.  Michel looked rapt with curiosity and Mila appeared slightly more interested than usual.

James was the first person to speak, surprisingly.  “Well?  Who is it?”

I didn’t answer him.  This was Sarah’s show, now.

She started her speech by tapping a few keys on her cell phone.  I was in a position to see that she’d been pressing random buttons, but Billy, Chester, and James were not.  “I make a habit of not bothering to reveal every single technical detail of my equipment to anyone,” Sarah said.  “Devlin doesn’t care about the specifics, for one thing, and he’s really the only partner I’ve had.”

A tremor of pleasure went through my body at her use of the word ‘partner.’

She continued speaking.  “The technology I used to construct the earbuds is proprietary.  A lot of it is guesswork, honestly.  And I’ve had plans to sell some of it legitimately, just to shore up my own profile.  Anyway, the point is this: each earbud is marked.”

Two truths and a lie.  Maybe two lies.  It was possible that Sarah intended to market some of her technology.  We hadn’t really talked about anything financial in years, even before our divorce.

“Marked?” Chester asked.  “What’s that mean?”

“It means that every transmission coming from a given earbud has a certain signature, so that I could make sure that one earbud wasn’t transmitting as another,” Sarah said.  “If someone let Hill use one of my earbuds to copy the protocols, they’d also copy the signature.  When I realized that Hill was listening in our communications, I immediately went back through every transmission, so that I could find out who the mole was.”

She fell silent and allowed the tension in the room to build to an almost painful level.  I could barely keep from grinning, personally.  Unlike the rest of her family, Sarah had never been one for long speeches.  Despite her relative inexperience, however, she was doing a masterful job of bullshitting.

Despite my enjoyment, I had my own job to do.  I looked across the table, reading micro expressions on the faces of all three men, searching for some sort of sign.

Sarah kept right on vamping.  “It wasn’t easy.  All of the transmissions coming out of Hill’s estate made it difficult to find the exact frequency.  That’s why I didn’t say anything at first: I wasn’t sure yet.  While Devlin was somehow contriving a way out of Scotland Yard, I had programs running to filter and identify.”

“Oh, come on!” Chester said.  “Don’t make us bloody wait forever!  Who the hell is it?  Who’s the mole?”

One of the men across from me moved, lowering their chin and tucking it in maybe a half of a millimeter.  It was such a minute gesture that most people would have missed it.  To me, searching their faces with something approaching desperation, it was as obvious as a lighthouse on a clear night.  I made a subtle gesture with two fingers where Sarah could see it.

Sarah turned her head a millimeter in my direction and raised an eyebrow.  I nodded.  “Alright then,” she said, shifting her attention back to the three men at the other end of the table.  “I’ll get to the point.  James…why’d you do it?”