Girl out of Jersey

Juliana knew more about her husband’s past than he thought she did, although not as much as she believed. She’d grown up with cousins and uncles that had experienced the revolving door of the prison system: out just long enough to realize that cons didn’t have options other than falling back into the game again. In college, she’d personally suffered through a two year long cocaine binge and only barely kept that addiction from ruining her life. Alcohol and peer pressure had pushed her into more than a few inebriated shoplifting experiences. She knew the signs of a guilty conscience,of a man trying to pretend his way into being better, of someone trying to cut off a part of their past.

What she couldn’t know, she guessed at or crowd-sourced. Many conference calls had been spent tossing ideas around, discussing “hypothetical” scenarios with her girlfriends and trying to piece together the parts of her husband’s life that he refused to discuss. Her family thought she was writing a screenplay, as if she could possibly commit any more to the role of “dedicated, but ultimately bored housewife.” But the truth – that Alex was lying to her, possibly lying to her quite a lot – would invite too many questions, too many unasked for opinions, and too much scrutiny of her relationship.

The simple truth was this: she loved Alex and he loved her. Hell, Jules even loved Ally, his daughter from another marriage…most of the time. Sure, Alex sometimes seemed to drift away mid-conversation, as if his thoughts had suddenly become unmoored. And sure, there were other times when he looked at her with such intensity that it was like being looked through. And sure, sometimes he wept in his sleep and murmured the name Johannah like a mantra.

But they were happy, most of the time. Everyone, even Johannah herself, had a little darkness in their past. No one lived like a saint forever. If Alex wanted to keep those secrets to himself…if that was the price she had to pay for nine good days out of ten…well, it was hardly a choice at all.

That was how she comforted herself and soothed her own concerns in the past. Now, however, it had been a full week since Alex’s abrupt departure and it wasn’t love she felt rising up into her throat like lava. It wasn’t affection that gripped her heart like a vise. Alex was gone and, for no reason she could name, Jules wasn’t sure if he was coming back.

On the morning of the eighth day, she realized that she could no longer keep her emotions safely contained behind the stormwalls. Instead of collapsing into a heap of tears and sobs, Jules did the next best thing: she called her mother.

Sofia Bianchi, matriarch and undisputed ruler of the Jersey Bianchis, answered the video call on the third ring. Despite the distance, the connection was rock solid. Jules could see that Sofia was trying something new with her makeup, that her steel gray hair was shorter now than it had been, and that she’d lost a worrying amount of weight.

That last bit was more concerning than anything else, but she kept the thought to herself. If there was anything that would set Sofia off, it would have to be anything that could possibly be construed as pity. She’d been a strong enough woman to make her way to America from the Old Country and to tame the wild stallion who had fathered her children. A little weight loss wouldn’t even have factored into her mind as something to be concerned about.

“Honey!” Sofia puckered her lips and blew an air kiss across the airwaves. “What are you doing? I thought we weren’t scheduled for another one of these video chats until…uh…”

“Next Friday,” Jules said. “Yeah, Ma, I know. But I just needed to clear my head about some things. You aren’t busy, are ya?” It didn’t take long for the Jersey to creep back into her voice.

‘Someone threw a football at full speed from off-camera. The projectile came within an inch of some precariously placed glassware before Sofia snatched it from the air with the speed of someone half her age.

“Aldo!” Sofia shrieked. The tone of voice brought back painful memories of wooden spoons. “You better get your little friends out of here, or there’s gonna be hell to pay, ya hear me?”

Jules shuddered. She remembered being on the receiving end of similar tongue lashings and was all too familiar with the “hell” that might follow after it. “I can call you later,” she began, “if you’re busy.” Even as she said the words, Jules felt like her chest would explode or cave in if she didn’t unburden herself twenty minutes ago.

Sofia dismissed the suggestion with a wave of her hand. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Nothing more going on here that I can’t take care of by myself. Not like I’m not used to doing everything around this house, after all. You go on, tell me what’s on your mind.”

Now that the opportunity had gone, Jules found that she couldn’t quite figure out how to start. Years of half-truths and misdirection, deflected questions, and late nights spent wondering what her husband might possibly be hiding after so many years…it was just too much to dump on one person. Especially if it turned out that Alex had a perfectly legitimate reason for keeping his cards so close to his chest. It wouldn’t take much for Sofia to turn against the German; she hadn’t liked Alex to begin with, simply because he’d taken Jules away from Jersey and her family.

She decided to approach the problem from an oblique angle. “How’s Dad? He can’t help you out with the boys?”

Sofia rolled her eyes, deliberately exaggerating the action for effect. “Your father left for work about an hour ago, allegedly.” She made very large air quotes around the last word.

“Where do you think he really is?”

“The bar,” Sofia said. “He’s been working at the docks for about a year today, so the boss probably took him out to get good and drunk. Bet he’ll come stumbling back in here around midnight, smelling up the whole house and stumbling into anything not smart enough to move out of his way.”

“You aren’t mad?”

“Why would I be mad?” Sofia glanced at something off-screen for an instant and, without a single word, managed to convey an entire world’s worth of danger. Whoever had been the target of the look fled the scene, judging from the slamming door that Jules heard a moment later. “He works hard to put a roof over my head and he damn sure didn’t have to take in Donna’s kids when she split. If he wants to take some time to blow off his steam, I’m sure as hell not going to get in his way.”

Jules pondered that for a moment. In the beginning, she had asked Alex where his money came from. He wasn’t wealthy, in the sense of private jets and yachts, but they lived extremely comfortably. He had explained that he’d come into quite a bit of money and made several wise investments. From those investments, he’d made others and, eventually, developed a healthy nest egg.

She hadn’t believed a word of that, but she’d smiled politely and resolved to find out the truth of the matter eventually. Only she’d fallen in love and, after the marriage, the matter ceased to be as important to her as it had once been.

Was Alex just tired of working so hard to take care of a family? Had he just needed some time to blow off steam?

Or was he simply tired of taking care of this family?

The insecurities made no sense, of course. He’d been willing to give up his entire life to be with her, save his daughter. The fact that they’d moved to Germany had been her decision. But knowing that she was being irrational didn’t actually make her feel any better.

“Is something going on with Alex?” Sofia asked.

Jules’ surprise jolted her out of her darkening thoughts. “What? What makes you say that?”

“Three things,” Sofia said, raising a corresponding number of fingers. She lowered them as she made her points. “One, you got that thousand-yard, wistful stare as soon as we started talking about your father who I know isn’t your favorite person. Two, I normally can’t get you to stop talking about how wonderful your German is, but you haven’t said a thing about him since we started talking. And three…well, I know my girl. So why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you? What’d he do?”

“He didn’t do anything, ma, it’s just…” Jules struggled momentarily to put her thoughts into words. “You ever think that there might be more to dad than you know about? Like, maybe he lived a whole ‘nother life before you two met?”

Sofia snorted. “Mario Bianchi never did anything except drink too much and knock up yours truly one night. I’ve known him since I came over here on a boat and he’s never changed.” She paused. “Why, do you think Alex is keeping something from you?”

“Ma, I know he’s got his own secrets. He’s got a nineteen year old daughter that grew up without a mother, but no one ever talks about what happened to her? Of course he’s not telling me everything. That’s not the problem.”

“What is the problem, then? What’s got you so bothered?”

This was going to be delicate work. If she said too much or even implied too much, Sofia would almost certainly demand that Jules come home. As vulnerable as she felt, Jules would probably go. “Do you think people can change, ma? Like, really change?”

“Your father only drinks two or three times a year now,” Sofia said. “That was a hell of a change from his weekly binges. And I never would’ve thought that you’d leave us all to go overseas with someone you met at the market. Seem like pretty damn big changes to me.”

“Not like that,” Jules said. “Something bigger than that. Like…not just change what you do, but change who you are.”

To her credit, Sofia didn’t rush to an answer. She gave the question a good bit of thought before replying. “I think they can,” she said, “but only if they really want to. It’s always easier to keep doing the same things than it is to really look at yourself in the mirror.”

“But if you had…something worth changing for? Then it might be possible?”

“I guess so.” Sofia lowered her voice. “This is about Alex’s past? Whatever it was that he won’t talk about? You think it’s got something to do with how his first wife died?”

Jules hesitated before nodding, just once. She could feel the tears building and she tried to keep them from falling onto her cheeks.

“You don’t think he did it, do you?”

“No! Ma, of course I don’t think that!” Jules shook her head, glad that the action gave her an excuse to look away from the screen for a few heartbeats. ‘That’s crazy, ma, you’ve gotta know that. Alex is a good man.”

“Then what?”

“I think that…I think that maybe he used to run with a bad crowd,” Jules managed to say. “A dangerous crowd. Not by choice or anything like that. But it feels like he might have been involved in some stuff that might…it might not have gone away. It might not be over.”

Jules didn’t say anything for several long seconds.

When it became clear that her daughter wasn’t going to answer the question on her own, Sofia gave her some gentle prompting. “Do you think he didn’t let that part of his past go?”

“I don’t think his past has let go of him,” Jules said in a whisper. “I don’t know if it’s ever going to.”

Sofia lit a cigarette. “Let me tell you something, honey,” she began, “and you listen good.”

Jules nodded.

“Now, you know I never liked that Alex with his fancy clothes and his accent and all that. Man comes to Jersey just long enough to sweep my baby girl off her feet, then he flies across the world with you in tow?”

“Ma, I told you that’s not what -”

Sofia raised her hand to cut off any further explanation. “And you know I wish you came home more. Lord knows your father misses you. Hell, you haven’t found the time to visit with the boys since they started school and you know how much they look up to you. I’d love it if you came back here, set down roots with your family instead of going so far away. But I’m gonna put all that aside, because I know when my girl needs her ma, okay?”

Jules pushed back the tears for the second time as she prepared herself for whatever rebuke Sofia was preparing for the absent Alex.

“Do you still love him?” Sofia asked.

Jules blinked. “Do I…what kinda question is that, ma?”

“Well? Do you?”

“Of course I do!”

“Good. Because I’ll tell you this much. No matter how I feel about him personally, I can promise you one thing: Alex for damn sure loves you. Now, I don’t know what he might’ve been into in the past. Hell, he might have been a whole different person back in the day. But the man I met? That man would walk over broken glass if it’d make you smile. If he’s got to choose between his past and coming home to you, it wouldn’t even be a question.”

It was the longest string of praise Sofia had ever spoken about Alex. It might well have been the only nice thing she’d ever said about him at all.

Jules felt the tears coming for the third time. She would’ve let them fall, and been glad to do so, if the front door hadn’t opened downstairs.

Sofia Bianchi needed reading glasses to help the kids with their homework and she used a cane to go up the three steps to her front porch, but her hearing was as keen as it had ever been. “Were you expecting someone?”

Before Jules could answer, she heard the voices. A booming male voice, cheerful and boisterous came first, saying something in German; a moment later, a voice with a much higher pitch responded in the same language. She would’ve known the voices anywhere.

“Ma, I think that’s him. I…I gotta go, alright?”

“You sure, honey? You gonna be alright?”

“I think so,” Jules said. She nodded twice; once for her mother and once for herself. “Yeah, I think so. Thanks, ma.”

“You want to thank me?” Sofia asked. “Find the time in your busy schedule to visit your aging mother. You know I won’t be around to dispense the wisdom forever.”

Jules smiled. This, too, was familiar: the patented Bianchi guilt trip. “Yes, ma, I hear you. I love you, you know that?”

“You wouldn’t know it from how you act,” Sofia said. She smiled a little, softening the rebuke into something more like gentle needling. “I love you too, baby. Give Ally my love.”

“Not Alex?”

One corner of Sofia’s mouth turned down slightly. “I know what I said. Now get out of here!”

Jules terminated the connection and sat in the room for a few seconds. She didn’t head downstairs until she was certain that she wasn’t going to burst into tears at a moment’s notice.

She saw Ally first. Alex’s daughter had entered the pubescent phase of “you’re not my real mother” at twelve and decided to stay there for the next seven years. The relationship between stepmother and stepdaughter was supposed to be difficult, according to the self-help books Jules had read, but the animosity Ally threw her way hadn’t appreciably weakened in almost a decade. She readied herself for some veiled insult or disrespect.

Ally practically chirped when she saw Jules at the top of the staircase. “Ah! We thought that you might have been out on the town.”

“I was just using the computer,” Jules said. “Your father told me that you went out on vacation with your friends. You’re back already?”

“The trip was…not as much fun as you would think,” Ally said. Jules heard the hesitation in her voice and almost asked for more information. The memory of her own activities at nineteen stopped her from poking that particular bear. “So Papa came to get me.”

“Oh? Well, it’s good to have you back home.”

“It is good to be home.” Ally opened her mouth to speak, closed it after a second, then opened it again. “I realized something while I was, uh…away.”

“What’s that?”

“I have not been fair to you, have I?”

Jules stared at Ally for a long time. “What?”

“You have been nothing but good to my father and me. And I have been…” She paused and considered her words. “I have been a bitch. And I am sorry for that.”

First, Sofia had praised Alex’s dedication to his family; now, Ally was apologizing for years of teenage angst?

“It’s, uh…it’s okay,” Jules said, even as she privately wondered whether or not she was in a dream.

“It is not okay,” Ally said. “But I will try to be better.”

Before Jules could say anything else, Ally bounded up the stairs and planted a kiss on her cheek. Then, she ran off to her room and closed the door behind her.

Jules remained where she stood for about thirty seconds before she shook her head and filed the incident away for later examination. Something must have happened on Ally’s “trip” to account for such a drastic change in personality, but Jules wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. She headed downstairs to find her husband.

She found him in the kitchen, tying his favorite apron on and checking the fridge at the same time. He was so engrossed in the search that he didn’t hear her enter.

Jules cleared her throat. “I just had the weirdest talk with Ally. Did she tell you what happened wherever she -”

She didn’t get to finish the sentence. Alex jerked his head out of the fridge, blinked, and then bulldozed across the room to sweep her up into a tight bear hug. Alex was a big man and he hadn’t let the passage of years rob him of his strength. He lifted her as easily as if she didn’t weigh anything and spun her in a tight circle.

“Jules! Oh, it is good to see you again!”

Jules tried to wriggle her way out of the hug without any success. Failing at that, she tried another tack and managed to extricate herself enough to speak. “It’s only been a week,” she said, between gasps for oxygen. “You have business trips that last longer.”

“Ah, but it felt like so much longer,” Alex said. “And I missed you, my love. I missed you so much.”

He lowered her to the floor again. Jules smoothed an invisible wrinkle out of her shirt before speaking again. “What brought that on?”

Alex looked like he might pick her up again, although he restrained himself. “I saw a few old business partners when I went to pick up Ally,” he said. “And I learned some things that reminded me how lucky I am to have you.”

He wasn’t telling the whole truth. That much was obvious. Jules didn’t know everything about Alex, but she knew enough to tell when he was evading.

Instead of letting the deception pass without comment, she stepped closer to him and lowered her voice. “Is it over?”

Alex went completely still. His smile withered and died on his face. “What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know. But whatever it is…whatever it was…is it over now? Finally?”

For a second, Jules was certain that he was going to lie again or that he’d tell a half-truth. He surprised her by taking a deep breath and visibly steeling himself. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it is over.”

She didn’t bother to stop the relief from flooding into her expression. “Will you ever tell me about it?”

“One day,” Alex said. “Maybe, if you really want to know. But not today.”

“Why not today?” Jules asked. She didn’t really care about the answer anymore. Alex had come home and, if he was to be believed, the ghosts of his past hadn’t come home with him. She loved him and he loved her. That wasn’t the only thing that mattered, but it did count for a lot. The rest, she was willing to give him on faith.

Alex clapped his hands together. “Because today we celebrate!”

This time, when he picked her up, Jules squealed in delight and allowed herself to enjoy the moment.

Advertisements

The Gentleman Thief

Over the years, Patrick Lance had lost more than a few friends. But he’d never “lost” anyone quite like he’d lost the Irishman.

The Irishman hadn’t seemed the type to try for an escape. As a first time resident of the French prison sentence and someone who, inexplicably, had proven utterly incapable of picking up the language, he’d been isolated…except, of course, for Patrick and the coterie of elderly thieves that he still considered friends. There had been no visits, no phone calls, no whispered conversations in dark corners. For nearly three years, the Irishman had waited for the day when he would be free to chase down the traitor whose betrayal had consigned him to La Santé.

But escape? No, never escape. Not a single word on that subject ever passed his lips.

Yet, he had escaped. In the early hours of the morning, about six months before his sentence would have legally ended, one of the prison guards had opened the Irishman’s cell door and simply…let him go. Or, more precisely, the guard had insisted that he leave the cell, and there hadn’t been any indication that ‘no’ would have been an acceptable answer.

Poor Hugo’s shattered jaw served as proof of how serious the guard had been.

There had been no alarm raised in the prison, no chaotic rush of guards attempting to catch their wayward charge before he could make it into the city proper. For all intents and purposes, the Irishman simply vanished.

On a whim, Patrick had spent a favor and contacted a friend on the outside. Asking Michel to keep an eye out hadn’t cost Patrick too terribly and, he thought, it was really just a token gesture. Nothing had been likely to come of it.

Two days later, Michel had disappeared too.

That had been more surprising than the Irishman’s vanishing act. Michel was a cabdriver, a local through and through. As far as Patrick knew, Michel hadn’t even left the city in years. Since the boy’s father had evicted him for his sexuality, Michel had taken on the responsibility of making sure that he worked, ate, and had somewhere to sleep. When Patrick had gotten arrested for the diamond job, Michel had taken over ownership of his small apartment. There had never been any talk of moving out, of getting a place on his own merits. He was cautious, a little sheepish, and far too much like an overgrown child to go very far on his own.

But, still, he was gone, as thoroughly as the Irishman was.

Patrick tapped every resource, called in every favor, and contacted every friend who had somehow managed to escape the long arm of the law. He found nothing, heard nothing, discovered nothing at all. It was like the Irishman had walked out of La Santé and straight off the face of the Earth, taking Michel with him.

If the Irishman had run straight at his rival without concern for subterfuge or stealth – a rival who could have spent years preparing for an inevitable showdown – it was more than likely that he’d simply been killed. That didn’t explain Michel’s absence, but the cabbie might have fallen in with the Irishman and followed him to their mutual fate. Michel was something of a follower.

That didn’t feel right, though. Some half-formed idea gnawed at Patrick’s mind, denying this simplest solution for no reason other than pure intuition. It was that same niggling intuition that kept him up nights, staring at the walls or the ceiling or the floor, attempting to make sense of a puzzle without pieces. That was why he was still awake, looking blankly at a book that he wasn’t reading, when one of the guards rapped his baton against the bars of his cell.

Monsieur Lance?” The guard waited for Patrick to respond. It was a courtesy extended to very few inmates. Most wake-up calls were performed in close quarters, with far more pain than politeness. Patrick had been a resident of La Santé for many years now, however, and most of the inmates and guards respected him for his old-world sense of honor and geniality.

Patrick lay in the darkness of his cell for several seconds, weighing whether or not he should respond to the summons. Courtesy won, in the end. If the guard was willing to show a little bit of civility to an inmate, responding in kind was the least Patrick could do.

“Yes, I’m awake. What is it?”

“You, uh…you have a visitor?” The guard’s voice betrayed his own uncertainty and doubt.

Patrick felt the same uncertainty, magnified by a factor of two or three. Everyone that he considered a friend or ally was either dead, in prison alongside him, or otherwise incapacitated. He’d never settled down and started a family. Any former lovers had long since distanced themselves from him. It had been almost six years since his last visit and even that had only been from a former teammate intent on finding an alleged fortune that Patrick legitimately hadn’t hidden.

If anything, Michel was his only real connection to the outside world and Michel was gone.

Patrick sat up in bed. “Did this visitor give you a name?”

A few moments of silence passed, presumably while the guard checked for an answer. “Vincent,” he said finally. “Vincent Peruggio. I might be mispronouncing that.”

It took another heartbeat or two before Patrick’s mind made the connection. Vincenzo Peruggio, not Vincent, had stolen the Mona Lisa back at the turn of the century. The theft was famous in the underworld for its brazenness, if not its artistry. Instead of an elaborate plan, Vincenzo had simply walked into the Louvre and taken the Mona Lisa off of the wall. It was a scheme that could only ever worked the one time, and Vincenzo had only pulled it off because no one else would have thought it possible.

But Vincenzo had to be dead by now and, even if he wasn’t, Patrick had never come in contact with the man. No one outside of the Italian underworld ever had, as far as he knew. If this visitor wasn’t the legendarily foolish and lucky thief, then who was using his name now? Was it a message? Some sort of code that he should recognize?

There wasn’t any real way to know, Patrick realized, but his curiosity had been roused. Ignoring the protests from his knees, he stood up and walked over to the door. “Well, let’s not keep Monsieur Peruggio waiting.”

Patrick spent the walk assembling a list of people who might want something from him. The fake name implied someone with a secret to keep, for starters. That might have been a client from the old days with a public face. Perhaps a child of someone he’d worked with who had a grudge to bear. Or maybe he’d misjudged one of the women he’d spent time with before falling afoul of the law. Simone had always been particularly fond of him, even after learning about his real occupation.

While Patrick’s thoughts traveled back to pleasant nights spent with the limber, energetic Simone, they reached the visiting area. A row of desks, uncomfortable chairs, and telephone receivers waited for him. At this angle, he couldn’t see who waited for him on the other side of the bulletproof glass, except for a pair of dark hands. Manly hands.

Even at his age, he still felt a stab of disappointment.

“You’ve got ten minutes,” the guard said. He gestured for Patrick to walk forward and took up a position near the door; close enough to intervene, if necessary, but far enough away to provide him with a semblance of privacy. A purely token gesture since the conversations were recorded and mined for even the slightest hint at secrecy, but still a nice gesture.

Patrick acknowledged that gracefully and strolled over to the indicated desk. He eased himself into the chair before looking at the man across from him.

Michel, dressed in what looked like a very expensive suit, smiled back.

Before Patrick could say anything, Michel placed an index finger over his lips and winked. He removed the receiver from its hook, waited for Patrick to do the same, and then spoke into the line. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Ten years?”

“About that long,” Patrick replied, dumbfounded. Thankfully, he was still capable of fabricating a story on short notice. “I hardly recognize you, uh…Vincent.”

Michel shrugged and his expression turned rueful. “I hardly recognize myself. A lot has happened since the last time we saw each other.”

He seemed different. Two months ago, Michel had possessed a unique flavor of charm, engaging without being overly intrusive, but there had always been an air of reluctance in every action. Every action was measured, every sentence carefully chosen to ruffle the fewest feathers, each step just the right length to avoid committing to any one direction.

He’d reminded Patrick of a lost puppy almost, although he would never have spoken that thought out loud.

Now, though…now, he seemed like a man with a goal, someone with an objective. He sat upright in his chair, when he once would have slouched, and made fierce eye contact with Patrick. He even sounded older, in a way that two months didn’t quite explain.

“I did not expect a visit today,” Patrick said. “Is everything alright with…” He deliberately trailed off, so that Michel could fill in whatever details he wanted to.

Michel waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Everything is…well, not fine, but it is as good as can be expected. But I needed to make a trip back here, to Paris.”

“Did you need something from me?” There were some stashed valuables that Patrick had managed to secret away. He couldn’t imagine why Michel would possibly need them, but it wasn’t as though Patrick could make any use of them himself.

“No, no! You have done more than enough for me already.”

“Then, do you mind if I ask what brought about this visit?”

“It has been a long time since we talked,” Michel said. “I wanted to see if you were alright and to ask if there was anything I could do for you.” He paused for a moment and his eyes briefly unfocused. “Also, there is someone else who insists on letting you know that he’s okay.”

Patrick’s mind leaped, immediately, to the Irishman, but that was nonsensical. No one who managed to escape from La Santé would voluntarily return to the scene of the crime. That wouldn’t just be arrogant; it would be astoundingly idiotic. The prison kept records of each inmate. Even if they hadn’t caught the Irishman before, there had to be some sort of system to recognize him if he returned.

Michel tilted his head and watched Patrick as he thought, a slow smile spreading across his lips. He lifted his eyes slightly, so that he was looking at one of the cameras in the visiting room. “I think that it has been long enough,” he said, in English.

Before Patrick could even begin to ask himself why Michel had switched languages, he heard a crackling sound behind him: the guard’s walkie-talkie, most likely. Patrick turned slightly in his chair to see the man.

The guard lowered the volume on his walkie-talkie down before speaking softly into it. A voice responded. While Patrick couldn’t make out the words, he recognized the tone: imperious, commanding, and without room for debate. The guard looked down at the walkie-talkie before, impossibly, leaving the room without saying another word.

Patrick blinked. Guards didn’t leave prisoners alone. They just didn’t. Not even the favor he’d accrued through years of good behavior wouldn’t have convinced someone to give him free reign. He started to voice that thought out loud, if only to see if it made more sense to hear the words instead of simply thinking them, when the door on Michel’s side of the glass opened.

The Irishman entered the room, striding from the door to the table in long, confident strides. He wore a pair of khakis, a long-sleeved shirt made from some heavy material, and a black windbreaker to protect against the temperature. He smiled at Patrick as he approached.

“Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” Devlin said, taking a seat next to Michel. He radiated absolute confidence and comfort, seemingly unaware of the camera pointed directly at him.

In his surprise, Patrick forgot about the subterfuge entirely. “You…you…you came back? Why?”

“When Michel told us who he wanted to check on, I rushed through my own errands so that I didn’t miss an opportunity,” Devlin said. “I’ve got to admit, you look better than I even wanted to hope.”

You came back,” Patrick said, ignoring Devlin’s cavalier attitude. “They record these conversations! Someone will watch this tape and realize what happened!”

“Let’s just say that I’d be very surprised if anyone watched this tape, ever. Surprised and very disappointed.” He looked away for a moment. “Sarah, can you kill these feeds, please?”

Patrick opened his mouth to ask a question. He closed it again when he realized that, judging from Devlin’s tone and the pitch of his voice, there was someone else listening to their conversation.

That guess was borne out a moment later when Devlin tilted his head and listened intently to someone that Patrick himself couldn’t hear. “Yes, I know that. Obviously, I know that. I was just thinking that it would have made all of us look a lot cooler.” Silence, while the third party replied. “Well, not now, no. It’s going to be a whole thing.”

“Who are you talking to?” Patrick asked.

Devlin rolled his eyes. “Women,” he said, as if that explained every question Patrick had asked himself in the past two months.

Something clicked above him and Patrick glanced up. A camera pointed directly at him on his side of the glass with a tiny red light next to the lens. As he watched, the red light dimmed, switched to green, and then turned off entirely.

“There we go,” Devlin said. For a moment, Patrick wasn’t sure who the Irishman was talking to. “Sorry about that. Apparently, it’s rude of me to just ask for things. There’s some kind of protocol I’m supposed to follow.”

“She did have a point,” Michel said. “You could have been more polite about it.”

“I wasn’t trying to be rude,” Devlin protested. “I was just trying to have a moment. Am I allowed to have a moment?”

Michel shrugged. “Apparently not.”

Devlin sighed. “And that, in a nutshell, describes the entirety of my life.” He shook his head and refocused his attention on Patrick. “Sarah would like me to thank you for looking out for me while I was locked up in here.”

“Sarah?” Patrick asked. He realized, in a distant sort of way, that he’d been asking a lot of questions and receiving no answers in response.

“She’s the reason that the three of us can have this conversation without getting the authorities involved,” Devlin said. He paused, squinted, and spoke again. Patrick guessed that he was speaking to this Sarah again. “I don’t know for sure what she did and neither do you. I’m sorry if I interrupted your busy day of watching soap operas and playing video games.”

Michel let out a low whistle.

“What?” Devlin asked.

“I think,” he said, “that you are going to pay for that comment, sooner or later.”

Devlin gave the cabdriver – former cabdriver, Patrick thought, because that occupation no longer seemed to apply to Michel – a sad nod. “I was going to pay for it anyway. Might as well get my shots in while I can.”

Michel considered that for a few seconds, then shrugged. “It is your funeral.”

Anyway,” Devlin said, focusing entirely on Patrick, “we don’t have to worry about someone paying attention to this particular conversation. There’s a lot of technical details that I’m sure Sarah would love to outline, but the essential point is that we are, for all intents and purposes, by ourselves.”

Patrick didn’t understand that. He had more questions now than he’d had during the two months when Devlin and Michel had vanished off the face of the planet but he realized, in an oddly detached sort of way, that he wasn’t likely to ever get all of the answers. So, instead of seeking further clarification, he simply nodded. “If you say so. Where have you been? What have you been doing?”

Devlin shared a look with Michel for a heartbeat. Communication passed between the two men in that instant of eye contact, without either man uttering a single sound.

“That’s complicated,” Devlin said finally. “It’s honestly better if we don’t tell you everything. You’ll be safer if you don’t have all of the details.”

“Or any of the details,” Michel added.

Patrick snorted. “I am an old man in prison. Whatever is going on, I am certain that I would not be in any danger. If someone wanted to hurt me, they would only have to wait until my age finishes me off.”

“Is there anyone you still care about?” Devlin asked, all traces of jocularity wiped from his expression. The sudden change caught Patrick off guard. “Not necessarily in here, but out there? Any children, family members, loved ones?”

If there were any children, the mothers had chosen not to tell Patrick about them. He felt a little bitter at the possibility, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it now. His parents had died sometime ago, disappointed that their beloved only child had turned to a life of crime, instead of using his potential for more lucrative – by which they meant ‘legal’ – pursuits. There were some friends who hadn’t known about his life of crime, Patrick supposed, but they were few and far between.

“There are some people,” Patrick admitted, “but they are innocents. They are upstanding citizens, for whatever that is worth. Completely removed from the life we live.”

“That wouldn’t matter,” Devlin said. “Not even a little bit. And if those people have people they care about, then an entire family could be in the line of fire.”

Michel was the closest thing to a son that Patrick had ever had. But he was apparently neck deep in whatever was going on, judging by his body language. Devlin had a strong personality and it made sense that he was more likely to take the lead in conversations. But Michel wasn’t carrying himself like a subordinate. With the occasional glances to each other, the silent conferences conveyed only by eye contact, it seemed like Michel was something closer to a partner.

From anyone else, on almost any other day, Patrick would have dismissed the darkening of his own thoughts as paranoia. However, despite his personal commitment to limiting violence whenever possible, he had known dangerous men and women in his lifetime and worked with a few of them. He knew fear well enough to recognize it in the eyes of someone else.

Michel and Devlin were holding it together admirably. Michel, in particular, showed more control than Patrick had ever seen from him before…but that made sense, in a way. Whatever these two and the unseen “Sarah” had been up to in the past few months must have been intense enough to put some steel in the man. Whatever the cause, he bore up under the strain of some invisible weight with poise and confidence and that same surety was matched by Devlin’s serious, focused eyes.

But both men, no matter their posturing, were terrified of something.

He cleared his throat to get rid of the sudden lump. “Is what you are doing that dangerous?”

Devlin nodded. “More, probably.”

“Why would you do it, then? If this Sarah can hack into La Santé, surely you can disappear and find other means of making money?”

“Money’s not the problem,” Devlin said, with more than a little sourness in his voice. “And we’ve thought about vanishing before, trust me.”

“Why get involved at all, then?”

“For my part…well, let’s just say that nothing comes for free. If someone’s going to go through all the trouble of arranging an early release from prison, then…” Devlin trailed off and spread his hands wide, inviting Patrick to finish the thought.

He connected the dots immediately, chastising himself for not thinking of that obvious solution to begin with. If you needed someone to take on a suicide mission, it never hurt to amass some leverage against them first.

“And you, Michel?”

“Because my friends might need me,” Michel answered, smoothly and immediately. For all of the fear simmering beneath the surface, he didn’t show an ounce of hesitation at the question.

Although he desperately wanted to counter that, it was impossible for Patrick to attack an idea as simple and noble as loyalty. Even if he could have found a way to chip away at it, he wasn’t really sure that he wanted to.

“Are you sure?” He asked the question in French.

“Of course,” Michel replied, in the same language. “Or…I am as sure as I can be.”

“Is this the life you want to live?”

“I think that it is the life I was meant to live.”

Again, another sentence so straightforward that it defied any possible rebuke. Patrick wondered who’d taught Michel how to do that.

Devlin tilted his head to one side and listened to an unseen, unheard voice for a handful of seconds. “How much longer?”

Silence.

“Okay, can you ask Mila to bring the car around?”

More silence.

“Oh, hi, Mila; didn’t know you were on the line. We’re coming out in a second.”

Another stretch of silence, shorter than the previous ones.

“If you don’t stop jinxing us, I swear I’m not taking you to my favorite ice cream shop.” He focused his eyes on Michel. “Time to go. Did you have anything else you needed to say?”

Michel swallowed and coughed to clear his throat. “No, I do not think so,” he said, using English, so that Devlin could understand. “Patrick, I just wanted to let you know that I am okay…that we are okay.”

“How long do you think it will be until you are finished with…whatever it is that you’re doing?”

Devlin snorted. “If we’re lucky, a couple of months. So, seeing as we obviously aren’t, who knows?”

“And when you are done?” Patrick asked. In the corridor behind him, he heard someone rapping a nightstick against the walls. Whatever makeshift errand had pulled him away from the room, it had obviously run its course. “When it is over, will you be able to tell me what was going on, then?”

It was Michel who smiled first, devilish and wicked, and answered the question. “When we are done,” he said, “you’ll be able to see for yourself. Everyone will.”

With that bold pronouncement, Michel stood up from the table. Devlin joined him. Both men said their goodbyes quickly and rushed out of the room, just before the guard returned.

The man was in the middle of spinning his nightstick by the handle when he saw Patrick, seated alone and looking blankly at the unoccupied visitor section. “Where did your friend go?”

“He had…business to attend to,” Patrick managed to say. Then, his mind re-engaged and he elaborated for no reason other than simple habit. “We knew each other before I started…all of this.” He gestured at his prison attire to illustrate his point

“Ah,” the guard said, as though he understand everything from that one sentence. “Are you ready to go, then?”

Patrick gave the question a lot more thought than it really required. Was he ready to go? Or was there something worth hanging on a little longer for? A story, perhaps, from a friend finally grown into himself?

“Take me back to my cell,” Patrick said. “I think that I am looking forward to the next time my friend can visit.”

Part Six Recap (2/2)

After a painful hello, Sarah and the rest of the team settle down with Devlin to discuss the day’s events at the Brooklands. The first order of business for the brave thief is a frank discussion with Alex and his daughter about the ambush that had killed Johannah.

Both father and daughter struggle to come to grips with this new reality. The idea that Asher could have been so petty, so motivated by revenge, that he would commission a hit against unarmed and innocent targets is a bitter pill to swallow. The knowledge that Johnnah’s death was nothing more or less than a complete accident is even more difficult to accept. But, with Asher finally brought down by his own arrogance, there is at least a little hope that healing can begin and the family torn asunder by one tragic death might finally begin to reconnect.

Sarah provides Alex and his daughter with the identification they’ll need to get back to their own country without incident and Devlin, growing increasingly angry with every second spent dwelling on his own thoughts, encourages them to leave immediately. The final task he has in mind will require his full attention.

Devlin barely has enough time to shower and change into more comfortable clothing before he and Sarah lead their team downstairs, to a conference room where Billy and his men are celebrating. Upon Devlin’s request, Billy dismisses the majority of his men, except for his two most trusted lieutenants. Chester and James take positions on either side of their leader; Sarah and Devlin share a spot at the opposite side of the table, while Michel and Mila flank them.

The primary issue, as Devlin sees it, is how quickly Hill was able to mobilize and counter their plans. It happened at the processing plant, which would have been enough of a problem. But the fact that he had known the exact time of their attack, had in fact planned for it, implies more than temporary lapse in judgement or a moment of loose lips. For that much information to leak, someone in Billy’s organization would have to be a mole.

Unfortunately, Devlin has no way of proving his suspicions. Without discussing the matter, he passes the bluff over to Sarah, trusting that she will find a path between the truth and exaggeration that rings true enough to shake something loose.

She begins by elaborating the main problem with Hill’s intelligence. The drug lord simply could not have listened to her communications without either the services of a superlative hacker, capable of penetrating Sarah’s electronic defenses, or he would have needed one of her earbuds with an active connection to her network.

Sarah tells Billy that her equipment has certain proprietary technology: upgraded bits and pieces that no other earbud on the market would have any need for. In order to keep her improvements from filtering out into the wider criminal underworld, she makes sure that each earbud has a specific signature. That way, if one goes missing, she’ll be able to identify and brick the gear before anyone else has an opportunity to reverse engineer it.

With every transmission tagged, Sarah continues, it would only be the work of a few seconds to determine whose earbud Hill was using to eavesdrop on their plans. Whoever gave Hill access to to their communications would have to be the mole.

She looks across the table at the three men. Billy, freshly released from imprisonment by his own brother; Chester, brash and angry, even when those emotions were weaknesses and liabilities; and James, steady and reliable.

After a minuscule signal from Devlin, Sarah looks directly at James and asks him why he chose to betray everyone’s trust.

Every person in the room, except for Devlin and Sarah, stare in shocked silence at James. Of anyone, his treachery is the most surprising possible outcome. Had the signal come from anyone other than Devlin, Sarah would have doubted it; but it was from him and she trusts him without hesitation.

Exposed in front of his friends and “family,” James defaults to a position of innocence. He only cracks when Sarah threatens to retrieve all of the audio from his earbud – a boldfaced lie, delivered with the sincerity of a saint – that he cracks and admits his wrongdoings. The team manages to get him to admit to the crime of leaking information to Hill but, before they can uncover how long he’s been playing both sides, James takes drastic action and attempts to simply kill Devlin and Sarah. They’re only saved by the instinctive actions of Chester, their greatest critic and least likely savior, when he draws and fires without thinking.

Prior to his last ditch efforts, James admitted to working for someone…not Hill, but someone higher. For the team, there’s only one entity higher than Hill with skin in the game. Their theories are confirmed in short order when they head upstairs, the entire London affair finally put to bed, and discover the Lady in Avis’ room.

She invites them to make themselves comfortable and keeps the promise she made to Devlin so many days ago, at the beginning of the job. For their success against impossible, unimaginable odds, the team has earned the most precious of rewards: the truth.

***

Devlin and Mila respond to the Lady’s arrival as casually as possible. Sarah and Michel – who have never seen the mysterious Puppetmaster in person – react with more surprise. David, the Lady’s personal giant, steps forward to protect his mistress until Mila issues a sober, serious threat. The terms of her employment leave no room for misinterpretation and, even if they did, her time as a member of a healthy team of compatriots and comrades has caused a change in the stoic bodyguard. Devlin, Sarah, and Michel are her charges and no one – not the Lady, not David, not anyone – is going to put them in danger.

The Lady seems delighted at this development. She calls David off and begins to explain.

While she knew much of what was going on in London, she did not have all of the information. Fairfax’s double identity – as both a nobleman and the kingpin “Hill” – slipped past her as did the connection between Hill and the beggar’s king, Billy. The fact that her much-desired key turned out to be a living child also proved to be a surprise. And, although she was fully aware that someone in Billy’s organization was a mole, she had no particular idea who it might be. Now, with the knowledge of the mole’s identity, she suggests that he essentially committed suicide. Not to protect himself, necessarily, nor to protect the family he mentioned in his last moments.

His suicide, the Lady theorizes, was specifically to protect the very people he betrayed. His masters, the Magi, would have razed the Earth in order to keep him from talking.

When Devlin points out that Hill would likely know even more about the Magi’s operations than a lowly informant, the Lady responds by having David turn on the television. A breaking news report tells the team that an explosion on the M1 has brought traffic to a standstill while emergency services sought to uncover the cause of the detonation.

The central car – the one that went up in flames – is the same one that Hill was traveling in. The Interpol agent assigned to supervise the transfer, Agent Lane, has disappeared. Escaping an exploding car before it explodes leads everyone in the room to the same conclusion: Lane, Adlai’s mentor, must also be working for the Magi.

Sarah can barely wrap her head around the implications of such a highly placed operative. Devlin does better, but not much. The sheer scope of the Magi’s operation, previously intimidating, must truly be gargantuan if a senior Interpol agent is underneath their ethereal, criminal thumb.

The Lady ignores their stupor and presses on. The Book she wanted – the Book that Devlin and his friends risked their lives to acquire – contains a list of names, like Lane’s and Fairfax’s. People of influence and power in the real world who owe their success to the Magi are enumerated within, along with bank accounts and potential soft spots. It isn’t a complete resource containing every agent in every cover, but it is enough that the simple fact of the Book’s existence makes it as dangerous to possess as radioactive materials.

In a just and intelligent world, the Lady would destroy the Book immediately and forget that it ever existed. The team would leave London and find somewhere nice where they could lay low until they were certain the Magi weren’t waiting to string them up as an example. They would be able to spend their acquired wealth in peace and security.

In this world, however, she has other plans. Wronged by the Magi at some point in her distant past, the Lady wants nothing so much as revenge. To that end, she wants to use the names contained within the Book as a first step towards the greater goal of finding out the true names of her enemies. Without the cloak of secrecy they’ve used as protection for an unknown amount of years, the Lady intends to drag the Magi out in the light of day and destroy them.

To that end, she needs Devlin, Sarah, and their team.

Since the prison break in London, the Lady had guided Devlin and Sarah so that they would find themselves in this position. By attacking the business of a duly appointed agent of the Magi – and therefore, attacking the Magi themselves – the team has made themselves targets for the organization. Without the Lady’s protection, it’s only a matter of time before they are captured, tortured, and gruesomely murdered. Even then, the Lady’s resources can only provide a temporary cover and, by using them, she risks exposing herself as well.

Her champions chosen, the Lady puts all of her chips in for one last bet: that Devlin, Sarah, Michel, and Mila – a group of criminals, riffraff, thieves without any particular distinction before this affair – will be able to do the impossible.

“Find their names,” the Lady tells them before she leaves them to ponder their new predicament. “Your lives quite literally depend on it.”

Truer words had never been spoken.

Devlin has been played, manipulated, and positioned like a game piece. His friends, both new and old, have gone into deeper darkness than ever before and emerged safe. He has new allies and new enemies, although he isn’t quite sure who belongs to which category. Up to his neck in troubles he could never have imagined, he knows that the only way around the impossible situation is through.

The team – Devlin O’Brien, Sarah Ford, Emilia Durante, and Michel St. Laurents – have been made pawns by forces far more powerful than they. But there’s no rule that says pawns can’t become powerful in their own right, given time to grow and a reason to do so.

Part 6: Recap (1/2)

At the eleventh hour, with every possible disadvantage stacked against them, Devlin, Sarah, and their team of misfits and malcontents approach an impossible job: breaking into a mansion owned by the elusive and dangerous Hill to save the girl Avis, her companion Neal, their erstwhile associate Billy, and the golden Book responsible for the chaos and madness that has plagued them during their struggles in London. Every asset is tapped, every ally contacted, and every potential plan checked and re-checked, in hopes of mining even the remotest opportunity at success, in the face of almost certain failure.

It begins with the Russian mafioso Stanislav and his Ukrainian cohort/ex-paramour Anton. An explosion specifically designed to create more fear than damage, crafted with the aid of Anton’s bombmaking expertise, creates an atmosphere of uncertainity and doubt in Hill’s poorly trained men. That window of confusion is then capitalized on by the native Brits, Chester and James, to waylay a single vehicle in the elaborate shell game perpetrated by their opponent. With that piece taken out of play and replaced by one of their own – namely, an identical car driven by the Frenchman Michel – the team is able to find their way past the first layer of Hill’s defenses, by relying on the natural propensity of frightened people to close ranks and rely on trusted security whenever possible.

Devlin and his bodyguard, Emilia, emerge from the trunk of their Trojan horse on the other side of Hill’s cameras and security systems. Together, they infiltrate into the mansion itself, keeping to the shadows to avoid detection, and searching for any sort of security hub that Sarah might be able to subvert to their own ends. Instead of locating that, however, it doesn’t take them long before they stumble upon a secret corridor leading down, beneath the mansion. There, they find Neal, beaten and bloodied.

Despite enduring considerable abuse, Hill’s former employee maintained the presence of mind to track his surroundings. As a result, he alone is able to lead Devlin and Emilia straight to the room where Avis is being kept. After a brief conversation, and a heartfelt reunion between the girl and her unlikely friend, Devlin makes a judgment call: Emilia is to go with Avis and Neal, protecting them as they make their way back out of the mansion and into Michel’s waiting getaway car. Emilia protests, asserting that her primary job is the protection of Devlin and Sarah, but he convinces her that this plan, more than any other, has the highest chance of success. Reluctantly, she agrees, and the three slip away to find their own way out of the mansion.

At the same time, Devlin’s former partner turned bitter rival, Asher Knight, enters the building with a retinue of armed men intent of hunting down the man he once called ‘friend.’ With Sarah guiding him, Devlin desperately hides himself within Hill’s master bedroom. Within that very bedroom, concealed behind a false dresser, he finds a safe; within that safe, he hopes, he might find the Book that has catalyzed so much trouble for so many people.

His time behind bars and the advances in technology aren’t enough to keep him from cracking the state-of-the-art vault and retrieving the item of his search. However, just as he readies himself to secret the Book away from Hill’s custody, an ominous click sounds behind him and his comms, as well as the miniature camera he wears to give Sarah eyes on the scene, go dark.

At first concerned, then gradually growing panicked, Sarah opens a line of communication with Michel. The Frenchman isn’t at an angle where he can truly see into the building, although he does remember seeing the silhouette of two men in Hill’s bedroom, just before the radios went quiet. With a rapidly diminishing pool of options – the Russians are on the outside of the estate, Michel’s contribution to the plan will only work so long as he remains unobtrusive, and the Brits are notoriously difficult to keep in line – Sarah goes with her gut, fumbles the connections momentarily, and calls for Mila to return to the building and save her ex-husband.

Mila, however, has issues of her own. Only a few yards away from freedom, she is stopped and forced to confront Aiden, the man who trained her, mentored her…and, ultimately, broke her.

Aiden tries firs to seduce Mila away from her wards, promising a return to glory and an inevitable promotion to his place at the head of their mercenary outfit, when his illness finally takes his life. When delicacy and charm do not work, something snaps in the man’s demeanor and he attacks her like a wild animal. The battle between the two trained fighters is more than simply physical and, at a critical moment, Mila realizes that she cannot kill Aiden without proving his philosophically correct. She hesitates to pull the trigger and Aiden, sensing blood in the water, attempts to provoke her by shooting Avis instead.

Michel, listening in due to the mishandled transfer of open lines, interrupts Aiden’s attempt at murder with the back end of his car. The mercenary, already wounded, is knocked through a window and into the mansion proper. Without waiting to see whether he will emerge again, Avis, Neal, and Emilia all pile into the getaway vehicle and prepare to escape the mansion for good.

Sarah accelerates the timeline for their escape, funneling their enemies in specific directions, and activates the Russians and Brits outside of the estate to provide even more misdirection. At that exact moment, Devlin’s comms come back online. He explains that the signal was jammed and that revelation lays bare exactly how stark their situation has become…how stark, in fact, it had always been. If Hill knew to have a signal jammer, then he already knew their frequency. If he knew that, then it was possible he had been listening to them in real time, all from the very start.

With nothing left to do but improvise, Devlin tells Sarah to activate Plan B, which she is reluctant to do. Only after he explains his reasoning, correctly pointing out that the alternatives involve their grisly deaths, she relents and sets things into motion.

Plan B, as it turns out, begins with a phone call to the London Metropolitan Police Department.

***

After dealing with the unexpected arrival of someone specifically equipped to block his communications, Devlin decides to make moves. He retrieves a suitcase – the very same one contained within Hill’s personal safe – and leaves the room. With Sarah in his ear and helped by a generous helping of luck, he manages to avoid encountering any of Hill’s or Asher’s men as he makes his way downstairs.

A little too well, perhaps.

He realizes, just before walking into a trap, that the path is almost too clear. If Hill was capable of intercepting their communications, it would only be reasonable to assume that he knew exactly where Devlin was and how he would plan to make his escape. Therefore, if Devlin’s route is clear, then it is probably clear for a reason. What reason that might be eludes the intrepid thief and, with no other real option, he takes a deep breath…and walks straight into the noose that Hill had laid out for him.

Inside the dining room, the grand table where Hill revealed himself to be the seemingly weak nobleman Fairfax is gone. In its place, there is only Hill and his bastard older brother, William Fairfax, literally chained into his wheelchair, with a gun pressed to his temple. Reflexively, Devlin pulls out his own weapon, borrowed from Emilia, and the two men stare each other down for seconds that feel like an eternity.

For only the second time since meeting, and the first time without outside interruption, Hill speaks to Devlin in his true persona: ruthless, sadistic, and solely focused on increasing his power no matter the cost to anyone around him. Hill reveals the truth behind his agenda, explains why he effectively challenged Devlin and his team to come after him, their friends, and the Book.

First: by using a known enemy, especially one who has proven so frighteningly proficient at improvisation in the face of the certain doom, to stress test his defenses, Hill plans to make his home into an impenetrable fortress so secure that no other thief would be able to steal from in the future.

Second, and more importantly: antagonizing Devlin’s team into increasingly spectacular displays runs the risk of attracting the attention of Hill’s mysterious masters, the Magi. When the Magi inevitably take notice of the chaos in London, the manner in which their finances in the area have been disrupted, Hill will be able to use Devlin and company as scapegoats, to ensure that no suspicion falls on him. If the Book should happen to go missing at the same time by, say, pure happenstance, then no blame could fall on him.

Of course, both of those outcomes depend on retrieving the Book from Devlin in the first place. Hill demands that Devlin sacrifice the suitcase and its contents. If not, Hill promises to kill not just Devlin…he will give the order to his men to execute Sarah and Devlin’s entire team. In that moment, to illustrate his point, Hill unveils the full depth of his surveillance. Cameras, pointed at Sarah’s supposedly safe staging area, well away from the estate; ears, in the form of the communications system that Sarah worked so tirelessly to protect; live-streaming video as Devlin’s friends struggle to find a way out of Hill’s death trap.

While Devlin listens to the enumerations of his problems, a burst of intuition warns him of an incoming attack. He barely manages to avoid the butler Coleman’s initial assault. It doesn’t take Devlin long to realize that Coleman is being forced to assist Hill, but that knowledge doesn’t help him in the ensuing scuffle. He loses the suitcase, first, and ultimately even his own gun. It’s only through a last minute attack, throwing caution to the wind, that Billy manages to disarm his older brother, although not before Devlin suffers a wound to his upper thigh that removes any chance of evading further attacks. Spitefully, Hill disdains the use of his own weapon and retrieves the gun that Devlin entered the room with before throwing open the suitcase, triumphantly and pompously revealing that he has obtained…

…nothing at all. The suitcase is completely, utterly, impossibly empty.

Infuriated by this sudden, unexpected turn of events, Hill rails impotently at Devlin, who is content to merely laugh at the latest development. When Hill turns Devlin’s own gun on the thief and attempts to execute him, he is stymied once more. The gun has been unloaded. After speeding through the stages of grief, Hill attempts to pressure Coleman – the butler, now armed with Hill’s original weapon – to kill Devlin. Just before the butler works up the nerve to squeeze the trigger, Sarah speaks into Devlin’s ear and the thief plays his final card: he knocks five times on the floor and makes eye contact with Coleman.

The butler taps one finger against the side of his gun twice, completing the signal. Then, he turns his gun to point at Hill, instead.

Forcing himself upright, Devlin explains to the dumbfounded Hill that Coleman’s family has been rescued from his clutches. Furthermore, the forces he’d planned on using to murder Devlin’s team have mysteriously all disappeared. The live-feed was actually a fabrication, masterminded by Sarah from her mobile command center; the comms chatter, faked for Hill’s benefit. Every weapon that Hill believed he had against Devlin and his team has been disarmed, removed, or otherwise proven to be false. And the final insult? Coleman, loyal butler for most of Hill’s life, has been working with the police in order to bring down the drug lord, once and for all.

Enraged beyond belief, Hill rushes at Devlin and tries to kill him with his bare hands. It’s only through the timely arrival of the police, phoned not too long ago by Sarah herself, that Hill is stopped from committing at least one murder. Unfortunately, the police arrest Devlin for breaking and entering, at the same time that they put Hill in handcuffs for his litany of crimes.

At the hospital, during a brief stop where the worst of his injuries can be treated, Devlin receives an unexpected visitor. Hill’s lawyer, a slimy man who practically reeks of corruption, sidles into the room and informs Devlin that Hill has every intention of dodging any and all charges thrown at him. His tendrils extend to the highest levels of the Metropolitan Police. And, as soon as Hill gets out of police custody, he intends to make Devlin’s suffering his highest priority.

When the lawyer leaves, Devlin tells the police that he’s ready to talk, but only if he can do so at Scotland Yard. The request is granted and, after a quick discussion with an inspector, Devlin finds himself alone in the interrogation room.

And then, exactly as Devlin had known, Asher enters the room.

***

Through all the madness and the mayhem, Devlin and Asher have found themselves face-to-face several times. Via Skype in Ukraine, just before a hired sniper perforated the trailer by the docks; in the warehouse outside of London, after Devlin had been drugged and kidnapped; at the Green Light Gala, where they’d fenced with words and wit, immersed within the most elite criminals in Europe; and, most recently, in an abandoned subway station, where Asher had threatened the life of Devlin’s oldest friend. But it is only here, seated across from each other in the heart of the London police system, that Devlin O’Brien and Asher Knight finally have the opportunity to talk.

After an opening salvo between the two men, the conversation turns deathly serious when Devlin finally asks Asher why, of all things, the genius mastermind blames his friend and former partner for the abuse suffered at the hands of the Magi. Without an audience to bluster for, caught off guard by the blunt simplicity of the question, Asher finally admits the truth. He doesn’t blame Devlin for the mistakes that led to his capture and torture; he is, however, jealous of how quickly Devlin and Sarah met, fell in love, and married each other. In his mind, it seems, Devlin replaced his friend without a second thought and that, more than anything else, pushed Asher into his vengeful vendetta.

In exchange for an honest answer, Asher asks Devlin how, exactly, he managed to remove the Book from Hill’s estate, directly under the man’s nose. Devlin plays coy, only dropping the scantest hints, and Asher guesses at the rest on his own. With the anarchy at the estate – stolen cars, fistfights between trained mercenaries, the arrival of the armed wing of the police – every eye was squarely on Devlin and his known team of associates. Therefore, it was child’s play for Alex to slip in, disguised as one of the guards. Alex’s connections among all walks of life put him contact with Coleman and, through the butler, he discovered the truth about the police’s inside man and about Hill’s ultimate plan. During the comms blackout, Alex had met and warned Devlin. Together, they had formed a last ditch plan and, by necessity, kept it entirely off of comms until such time as Sarah was able to circumvent Hill’s techniques. While Hill faced down Devlin, Alex had been free to leave the building with the real prize.

In awe of how effective this simple act of misdirection was, and temporarily less guarded than normal, Asher lets slip a nugget of information that turns Devlin’s blood cold: years ago, when the Magi felt comfortable allowing their newest plaything a bit of free rein, Asher used his first hit squad in an attempt to kill Sarah. Instead of accomplishing that goal, however, that squad was responsible for the death of Alex’s wife, Johannah.

Even when confronted by a furious Devlin, Asher shows no remorse for his actions. The failure of the squad to kill Sarah, he says, only motivated him to become more creative in his twisted pursuit of ‘justice.’

Stunned by the cavalier attitude of the man he once considered a friend, Devlin can just barely find the words to point out that Asher has admitted to a capital crime while inside of a police station. Asher shows no concern at this. He informs Devlin that, during the theft of the Book, Asher pulled off his own coup: every bit of blackmail and leverage that Hill had amassed during his time as London’s premier crime lord changed owners. With those secrets safely in his pocket, Asher knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that no London police officer would dare arrest him.

Devlin, despite the rage pumping in his vein, allows himself a thin smile and unveils his last trick. Where the London police would falter to arrest someone with so many connections, Interpol would not. Almost as if summoned, Agent Neetipal Adlai enters the room, having listened to the entire conversation with his own ears and immediately arrests Asher for murder in the first degree.

In an eerie echo of the tense conversation that preceded it, Devlin and Adlai end up on opposite sides of the interrogation table once more. This time, however, Adlai surprises the intrepid thief. According to Coleman, their man on the inside of Hill’s operation, Devlin’s assistance was instrumental in bringing down the drug lord. What’s more, there has been no official report of anything having been stolen. As far as the police are concerned, Devlin isn’t guilty of a single crime with regards to the events at Hill’s estate.

“You are a criminal,” Adlai tells his enemy, rival, unexpected comrade-in-arms, “but you are not the bad guy today.”

With those words, Adlai leaves Devlin alone in the interrogation room to consider how dramatically things are changing. Then, with no one stopping him anymore, he leaves the police station as well. There is still one final piece of business that demands his attention.