“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?”

“Essentially.”

“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.”

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