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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”