“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.”