There was a specific order to the work; if things weren’t done in the same order, every time, the shrine just felt off. Neetipal Adlai missed the relative simplicity of the shrines back home. All he’d had to do was wake up before the thriving city, make his way through the streets and back paths of Nashik, and deliver his customary offering – a loaf of bread, split between the gods Vishnu and Ganesha, and a burnt hunk of meat for Rama – before the citizens clogged the thoroughfares with their bright colors and their noise. There had never been any question of him accidentally placing a statue inappropriately higher than another; he didn’t worry about the proportional distances between the two primary Gods and his chosen Avatar; and, most galling of all, there was never the possibility that an overzealous maid might ruin his work, either by accident or design. That time felt impossibly long ago to him, now, even though it had only been a decade since he’d left to join Interpol.
At the same time, there was something appreciable about the setup. When his assignments sent him to another city in a foreign country, Adlai knew exactly what to do. Even before he went to whatever hotel room his superiors had arranged for him, Adlai found the nearest bakery and purchased several of their finest loaves of bread. The more recently it had been prepared, the better. He had no desire to risk offending his gods by providing a subpar offering. Beyond that, finding the best possible bread was just something he always did. In ten years, he hadn’t forgotten to make the bakery trip, and it was a key element in the order of things; Adlai always appreciated doing things in their proper order.
After that, he went to his room and began his ritual of cleaning and preparing the southernmost corner of the room. It wasn’t enough to simply wipe down every surface, vacuum the carpet until it was spotless, or to burn the sticks of incense he kept in his pockets for just such an occasion. Adlai had to prepare himself, as well. His stress and anger from the job needed to be wiped clean from his thoughts, just as the presence of previous hotel occupants needed to be removed from the shrine’s space. He couldn’t afford to let what had transpired before affect his decisions in the future. His father taught him that, before the incident, and Adlai clung to that mantra like a life raft. Only those words, and the routines he’d established to deal with the chaotic nature of his profession, kept him strong and true.
When the space was clear of debris and his heart was clear of doubts, Adlai unpacked the statues. These were items that he’d only managed to keep safe by secreting them away, changing the location where he hid them every single time he went to an airport. The measures he undertook to ensure that all three arrived in one piece, undamaged, went past precaution into the realm of paranoia. Adlai was aware of that, but that knowledge didn’t bother him. He’d given up so much when he left India to pursue the law – to find justice, if such a thing even existed anymore – that he simply refused to lose the only three links to his country. So, he treated them with the respect artifacts of their religious value deserved. That was just the right thing to do.
The statues weren’t all the same size; Vishnu was slightly taller than Ganesha, and Ganesha was considerably heavier than either Vishnu or Rama. The inconsistency bothered Adlai, but it was a needling sensation he’d had plenty of time to grow used to. He assembled them in a particular order, each statue positioned with the same proportional distance from the next. Vishnu was the farthest back and higher than the other two, so that he was the most visible. Then came Ganesha and, lowest of all – though still elevated above the floor itself – Rama formed the end of the line of gods. Adlai carried a small foldable table, with the appropriate platforms already built in, in case the hotel room didn’t have any knickknacks that he could repurpose to fit his needs. He’d purchased it during one of his first assignments and somehow managed to hold onto it for so long that it, too, felt like an essential artifact in the ceremony. More often than not, even if Adlai didn’t strictly need to use the table, he did so anyway.
After all of that – the bakery, the cleaning, the careful placement of the statues – Adlai prayed.
The prayer was different in every city. At times, he prayed for the gods to guide him to the perpetrators of some vile, unspeakable crime; other times, he pled for the wisdom and skill to navigate a political landscape that was oftentimes directly inimical to his goals. It could be short enough that his incense stick couldn’t fully burn down or long enough that even the lingering trails of smoke and scent had vanished completely. No matter what he prayed for, and no matter how long he knelt before his personal shrine, he ended each supplication the same way: peace, in the native tongue he was so rarely able to speak to anyone else. Peace, repeated nine times, three each for the gods he worshipped. Peace, for the world he lived in, the world beyond, and the souls lost and struggling in between.
Then, and only then, Adlai allowed himself to work.
This trip wasn’t any different than the ones before, or the ones that would inevitably follow. Adlai went through the entire routine, enjoying the long minutes of familiar routine; when he was finished with his prayers, he went to the unassuming desk in the center of one wall and opened his laptop to read over the relevant files once more. His superiors had assigned him to London, ostensibly because a particularly successful drug and weapons trafficking ring had begun to grow too powerful for Interpol to officially ignore. Years of instinct, coupled with countless hours slogging through office politics led Adlai to a different conclusion: the powers-that-were were being pressured to make a token response. Any operation that grew to the size his documents implied almost certainly had the ear of important people in the local government. Whatever he uncovered, there was little to no chance of action being taken. He would investigate, draw connections, interrogate suspects, write a report…and then watch as the paperwork fell between the cracks or was willfully disregarded.
That was one of the most draining aspects of his job, and it was one that he’d never fully grown accustomed to. Adlai considered the merits of another prayer – this time, for patience and sanguinity – but his cell phone vibrated before he made up his mind in either direction. He answered without really looking at the caller ID. There were only a few people who knew the number to his Interpol phone, after all.
“This is Inspector Adlai,” he said in a crisp, professional tone. It took a little more effort to inject the appropriate amount of respectability into his voice, but that effort helped to hide the traces of his accent that had managed to survive, so he didn’t mind.
“Adlai, I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for hours! Where’ve you been?”
The voice was distinctive and immediately recognizable. “I was…preparing myself for the day, sir.” It was often easier to hedge his wording than to explain his religion to a superior.
Despite Adlai’s first impressions of the man, however, Superintendent Lane was considerably more aware of things than people gave him credit for. “Oh, that’s right; you’ve got your whole ritual to take care of before you get started, isn’t it?” Lane didn’t wait for Adlai to reply before he barreled on. “Ah, well, now that you’ve got that out of the way, that means we can get right to work!”
“I had planned to do that, sir,” Adlai said. “You said that you were trying to call me? May I ask what you needed?”
“Two things,” Lane said. “One, I wanted to touch base, see where your head was at. I’ve been keeping one eye on that situation here in London, and it’s been getting trickier and trickier by the day.”
Adlai blinked. “Here in London, sir?”
“Of course, laddie! Where else did you think I’d be with a case this big on our plates?”
“I thought that, uh…” Adlai stopped, squeezed his eyes shut, and counted to ten. Another trick he’d picked up from his father. “I thought that you were busy with the crime family in Beijing, sir.”
Lane barked out a laugh. “That was all smoke and no fire. Couple of kids got ahold of some guns, decided they’d start shooting up things awfully close to the border. The locals mostly had it taken care of by the time I got there; nothing left for us but the paperwork and the cleanup.”
“So you came to London?”
“Of course I did! This was my case,” Lane said, “long before it crossed your desk. You didn’t know that?”
“I…did not, sir.”
“Drop the sir,” Lane commanded. “If we’re going to be working together, might as well get comfortable. I don’t stand much on ceremony between colleagues.”
“Working together?” Adlai barely managed to keep himself from appending the honorific. Instead, he said it in his head. If his superior wanted him to forego the proper terms of respect, Adlai was willing to at least pretend. He wouldn’t actually do what Lane asked of him, though. It was too inappropriate to even consider.
“You didn’t think they sent you all the way out here just because, did you? I’m the one who asked for you. Petitioned for it, actually. I saw the work you did over in Dubai with those jewel thieves; down in Sierra Leone with that human trafficking business; and even followed that whole mess in Venice a couple of years back.”
That memory made Adlai’s back stiffen. He had been so close, but something had gone horribly wrong in Venice. A masterpiece of surveillance and planning, gone to waste in a hail of gunfire and the intervention of the Italian National Police. By the time the dust had settled, Adlai’s quarry had vanished into the wind. He’d arrested the shooters, brought an end to the chaos and disorder their activities caused in the Italian city, but he still didn’t know what had gone wrong.
Lane was still talking. “I figured I needed a man like that to help me out with my drug ring problem. So, I started sending requests – formal requests, mind you – to the National Office, until they finally decided it was easier to give me what I wanted. So, here you are.”
Adlai took several seconds to process that. He’d never worked with Lane before, although nearly everyone in Interpol had heard stories about the man. According to reports, he was a crass, borderline insubordinate man who thumbed his nose at the organizational structure. He made far more enemies than friends and, as far as Adlai was concerned, it was only his frankly impressive arrest record that kept him from an ignominious posting in Estonia. Instead, Lane was frequently sent to deal with the most troublesome cases that came Interpol’s way.
His earlier assumption – that his assignment was simply a way of covering their political bases – had been entirely off base. If Lane was working the case, and his request for Adlai’s assistance had been granted, then it was worse. He was actually expected to solve the case, or he’d go down alongside the disagreeable Scotsman.
“Thank you,” Adlai said, surprising himself even as the words passed his lips. “For the opportunity.”
“Opportunity?” Lane repeated. “You serious? I pretty much sentenced you to a slow career death, and you’re thanking me?”
“I do this job so that I can make a difference,” Adlai said. “If my career is to end, I would rather have it do so while I am at least trying to do good.”
Lane was silent for a while, before he spoke again. “Glad to hear you say that,” he said, finally. “I figured you’d be one of the few who’d look at it like that. Anyway, for the time being, we’re as good as partners…except you’ve got to be the one doing the actual on-the-ground investigation. You alright with that?”
“That would suit me fine,” Adlai answered.
“Excellent!” Lane clapped his hands together, judging from the sharp snap of sound. “Let’s get right into it, then. No reason to waste time, letting the grass grow under our feet. We’ve had some new developments and…have you had a chance to look over the file, yet, or should I call you back later on? You had your thing to take care of.”
That was more consideration than Adlai ever received, regarding his personal habits. It was so jarringly unexpected, coming from Superintendent Lane, that Adlai’s thoughts skipped momentarily. “I read over what we knew on the plane,” he said.
“Well, I’m hearing rumors that the recent spike in traffic is because our drug kingpin is getting ready for a big move. Don’t know what it might be, yet, but that’s still something. Got any thoughts?”
Adlai hadn’t heard those rumors, but he did have thoughts. He opened his mouth to voice them and stopped, as a notification appeared at the bottom of his screen: a new email, delivered to his personal address. He double-clicked it open and skimmed the contents. It didn’t take long; there weren’t many words written there.
“Adlai?” Lane asked. “You there?”
What he had read was impossible, Adlai decided. Interpol covered nearly two hundred countries, and there were even more places that he might have decided to go in the interim. Besides, as far as Adlai knew – and he’d made an active effort over the past two and a half years to keep track of the details – he should still be in prison. But this email had come from Interpol’s own servers, routed directly to him by someone in the local office. The name written there was clear and undeniable.
“Sir?” Adlai asked tentatively. “Have there been any recent thefts in the area? Nothing drug related; art, perhaps? Or jewelry?”
“That’s an odd question,” Lane said. “There’s always robberies, in one form or another.”
“What about any thefts that seem…” Adlai struggled to find the right word for a moment. “…impossible? Things taken that a thief couldn’t possibly have gotten to, for instance. Or maybe a dramatic robbery of some sort?”
“Nothing lately,” Lane said. “Why?”
“No reason,” Adlai said back, a little too quickly. “You asked for my thoughts on the drug traffic?”
“I’ve looked at some of the financials we’ve been able to monitor,” Adlai said. “If this is a prelude to a larger move, I don’t quite understand who or what this…drug kingpin…is planning to move against.”
“That’s what I thought. But I’m getting this from some fairly reliable sources. Not real eager to start ignoring what I hear from people who’ve got a reason to keep track of that sort of thing. What if…”
Lane trailed off, just as a second notification flashed at the bottom of Adlai’s computer screen. He didn’t need to open this one to guess at its contents; the subject header provided him with enough information to make an educated guess. He used his login information to access Interpol’s database of incarcerated criminals, instead. “Did you receive this message, too?”
“Sure did,” Lane said. “Robbery at the Museum of London.”
“What was stolen?”
Lane was quiet, while he read through the email that Adlai had only skimmed. The Superintendent probably had more information available at his fingertips. “Looks like…” The Scotsman paused. “I don’t know. The guards inside are using their phones to communicate with the authorities, but the police haven’t been able to get in to ascertain what happened. Whole place went on lockdown and no one can get around it.”
While Lane spoke, Adlai navigated through the labyrinthine database and searched for a single name. When his computer returned with the answer to his query, Adlai was barely even surprised. Somehow, despite being caught redhanded with stolen goods, Devlin O’Brien had been granted an early parole.
Except…Adlai had been checking in, every week, since his nemesis had been arrested. A parole hearing wasn’t on the books; it wouldn’t be on the books, for at least another six months.
His heartbeat speeding up, sweat appearing on his forehead in tiny beads, Adlai realized several things in rapid succession.
One: everything he understood about the situation here in London was fundamentally flawed. It wasn’t that his intelligence was wrong. But, if Devlin was in the game, that made the knowledge Adlai possessed insufficient. Devlin wasn’t involved in the drug trade, as far as Adlai knew.
Two: It had been nothing short of divine providence that had led him to London, at this time, on the exact day when Devlin performed one of his signature heists. That made Lane an agent of the gods, even if he turned out to be an unwilling or unaware one. Adlai was not in the habit of refusing aid from the gods.
Three: He would have to pray again. These prayers would be dedicated to the avatar he’d chosen for himself. Rama would hear Adlai’s prayers for strength, for the courage to pursue justice, and for the wisdom to catch the one man who had managed to escape him at every turn for nearly a decade.
Adlai almost smiled at that thought. He kept the amusement under control, reminding himself that justice was supposed to be impersonal, and opened the email containing the robbery’s details. It was going to be a long night, apparently.