Category Archives: After The Warehouse

After The Warehouse (Adlai)

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 did.”

“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.

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After the Warehouse (Asher)

Asher rested in the lavish sitting room, scratching idly at the burn scars that twined up his right arm.  It wasn’t that the marks hurt.  According to some of the best doctors he could hire, those nerve endings had been seared to death, back in St. Petersburg.  Pain there was an impossibility now and even the phantom twinges that had plagued him in the days immediately after the accident had long since disappeared.  No, his fingers found their way into the blackened flesh whenever he felt…well, not nervous, but anxious.  Since the disaster in St. Petersburg, and the ensuing nightmare, times of stress of or excitement triggered the habit.  He was only vaguely aware of his actions; at the moment, he was too deep into his thoughts to discern or even care which of the two triggers was responsible for his agitation.  There were costs to be evaluated, values to be assessed, and decisions to be made.

He was glad that he’d stuck to the protocol of watching the crown before making his move.  The surveillance at the museum was customary procedure for any operation, and even though Asher had fully intended to subvert his own security detail, appearances had to be kept up. The drugs had come from his men, just in case she decided to make an appearance, even though the chances of that happening were vanishingly low.  He didn’t know what she looked like, or what her name was, or…well, anything at all, except that some mysterious woman was working against the interests of the Magi, but there was still a slim possibility that she might let her guard down.  The fact that she was technically an enemy didn’t bother Asher so much, but disrupting the Magi’s operations before Asher had a chance to put his own plans into action would force the timetable in a way he wasn’t fully comfortable with.  So, in a way, the mysterious woman was his enemy; at least, in so much as removing her from the field would make his own goals easier to achieve.

When Asher’s men reported that Devlin had arrived at the gala, however…oh, that had been too much serendipity to ignore.  Asher arrived at the only reasonable conclusion after a few minutes of thought:  Devlin was clearly the mysterious woman’s agent, which explained his mysterious freedom from prison several months ahead of schedule.  It was possible, then, that his old friend might actually have information about the mysterious woman.  Capturing him would remove an obstacle in the way of a successful heist later on, it opened up an additional avenue Asher could use to chip away at the monolithic task he’d set for himself, and it would be fun.

Asher had thought that leaving his former friend in prison for three years would calm the seething hatred inside his belly; he’d been wrong.

Things had gone…wrong, at some point.  Asher still didn’t know exactly what happened, although he intended to dedicate several hours to piecing together the fuckup that had allowed Devlin to free himself.  Still, the warehouse he’d chosen was suitably isolated that it shouldn’t have been a problem.  At worst, the interrogation would be delayed for a few hours while Asher’s men combed the countryside until Devlin was discovered and brought back.  That wasn’t ideal, but it was a reasonable deviation from the hasty plan he’d constructed.  Asher had built considerably more room for error into this plan, accounting for Devlin’s extraordinary ability to foul up even the most finely tuned machine through simple virtue of his presence.

What he hadn’t expected was Mila, if that was even her real name.  Even his most extravagant estimates hadn’t provided for the appearance of someone with her particular skill set.  The guards he’d assembled fell like children, the warehouse – and its entire stash of drugs – were lost to a fire she had somehow managed to start, and Devlin managed to escape from what had been an almost perfect trap.

There were few things that Asher hated more than perfection spoiled.  The idea that he’d had so many things in place, only to fall apart at the last possible second, galled him.  He closed his eyes and bit down on the inside of his lip until a trickle of blood filled his mouth.  That always calmed him, ever since his first days on his own.

Besides, he reminded himself, the attempt at Devlin’s life had been a spur of the moment addition to the plan.  The fundamental goals were unchanged.  The larger strategy, the months of planning and waiting, hadn’t yet been ruined.

“Excuse me, sir?”  A slightly unsure voice from Asher’s right.  Not exactly timid or shy, so much as on unfamiliar ground.  Asher opened his eyes and looked to his right to see a dark skinned man who was not one of Asher’s inner circle.  “I was told to deliver a message.  If you aren’t too busy, I mean.”

Despite his mood, Asher still enjoyed the deference that his men treated him with.  He held no illusions about the reasons for that deference – the Magi paid Asher very well and provided him with an extensive budget to use for recruitment – but he didn’t allow that fact to spoil the feeling.  “What is it?”  Asher asked the man.

“The silent alarm at the museum, sir.  Someone just tripped it.”

That was interesting.  “How long ago?”

The man checked his watch.  “Almost a minute, exactly.  What would you like us to do?”

Someone else was stealing the crown?  Who could…Asher smiled to himself.  Devlin, of course.  “Put the place on high alert,” he said, “and call the police.  We can’t have anyone stealing from our gracious benefactor, can we?”  He gestured at the extravagant surroundings.

The sitting room was lavishly appointed; a necessary consequence of his host’s social station.  It wouldn’t do to be a part of the British nobility and not decorate every inch of available space in opulent, utterly useless splendor.  Where Asher sat now was so far away from the squalor of his childhood and early adolescence that he almost laughed at the juxtaposition.  He restrained himself to a tight smile.

The dark-skinned man appeared to be more than a little nonplussed by Asher’s flippant attitude, but he hurried away to do as ordered.  Asher turned back to his musings, alone in the sitting room once more.

If Devlin stole the crown, that freed up Asher’s own men from engaging in the theft, and provided a convenient scapegoat.  It wasn’t as though Asher needed to humiliate his host personally; all that he needed was to begin the process of greater scrutiny and skepticism.  The loss of the crown, coupled with the absolute destruction of an entire warehouse full of product, wasn’t enough to destabilize his power entirely, but it was enough to get the ball rolling.  And, if Devlin and Mila – and, now that Asher really thought about it, Sarah was almost certainly involved as well – were players in a game they didn’t understand, their actions could probably be directed in a way to further his own ends.  It would just require additional planning.

An idea came to mind, like a stroke of lightning.  The bolt navigated through the inner workings of the elaborate plan he’d been constructing, ever since the Magi let him out to enact their will on an unsuspecting underworld, and fit perfectly into place.  In a fit of irony, Asher realized that this idea might never have come to mind if not for Devlin’s own words.

He removed a phone from his pocket and dialed a number.  The line rang several times before it was answered by a rough voice, belonging to a man who insisted that his given name was Damian.  “Yeah, boss?”  Damian spoke English like a language; Asher knew for a fact that he was actually from South Florida.

Less respect from these men, but they’d earned a fair amount of latitude.  These were the men he’d hired personally, using his own finances, or who had shown the ambition Asher required from anyone in his inner circle.  Subterfuge was difficult stuff, even for the sternest of men; it became harder when your allies and enemies changed at a given moment.

“Our man in the National Central Bureau is still in place, correct?”  Asher asked.

“Far as I know, yeah.  Why?”  Damian asked, in reply.

“I’m thinking that an old friend works better when there’s opposition to struggle against.”

The man on the other end of the line hesitated, confused.  “And we want him working better?”

“For right now, yes.  Have our man send up an alert that one Devlin O’Brien has been spotted in London.  While you’re at it, get some of our local assets to start up rumors, connecting him to the museum job.”

“The museum job?  We didn’t…are we going in early?”

Asher shook his head, purely for his own benefit and because he’d been sitting still for entirely too long.  “That plan has been discarded,” he said, “in favor of one that offloads the trickiest parts of our operations here to another player.”

Damian grumbled.  “We stayed on the timeline you gave us,” he said.  “You’re the one who decided to change the plan, Ash, and –“

“Do not call me that!”  Asher’s voice came out in a furious rush, syllables as sharp as the edge of a sword.  The vehemence shocked Damian into silence; the ferocity even surprised Asher himself.  He inhaled slowly through his nostrils, tasted the blood still trickling from the small cut in the inside of his lip, and calmed himself.  “I know what I did, and I know what was and wasn’t your fault.  You’ll still get the bonus, as if you’d done the job.  Do you understand the other instructions I’ve given you?”

“Yeah…yeah, boss.  Sure thing.  Anything else?”

Asher considered the question.  Adding Interpol into the mix would shake things up, but Asher was technically on the side of the angels.  At least, so far.  He could use Devlin and his crew as a lightning rod to attract the attention of both his host and Interpol – who were going to get involved at some point, eventually – and maneuver the other pieces into position without any eyes on him.  However…there was still one element that he didn’t fully understand.   “Look into any bodyguards who go by Mila,” he said finally.  “She’s involved, and I don’t know enough about her yet.  Fix that for me, okay?”  He phrased it as a question, but there was no doubt as to the true nature of the statement.

“Got it.  Gettin’ on that right now, boss.”

Asher disconnected the line without bidding Damian farewell.  There wasn’t enough time to waste on pleasantries; his host was entering the sitting room finally.  Asher leaned back into the plush couch and assumed a posture of utter nonchalance.

Hill’s real name was supposed to be a secret, but it had been the work of a few minutes to finagle the information out of one of his personal bodyguards.  Loyalty, it seemed, truly had a price.  The Englishman was sophistication incarnate, clad in a fine silk dressing robe and slippers that made no sound as he crossed the room.  His hair was immaculately maintained and even the peppering of gray around the edges only added to Hill’s distinguished air.  He took a seat opposite Asher and gestured at one of the servants who’d accompanied him into the room.  That servant disappeared and, a moment later, returned with a tray sporting only a single cup of steaming liquid.  Hill pointedly took a sip from the tea and did not offer one to Asher.

Asher deliberately scratched himself in an indelicate location.  That was part of the plan, as well – it was so much easier to convince people to underestimate you, if they already thought you were inherently beneath them – but it also felt good to disrupt the moment.  Two birds, et cetera.  “You wanted to see me?”

Hill took another delicate sip of tea before he answered.  “Please explain how you managed to lose an entire warehouse full of product and quite possibly the services of several men I would much rather not replace, all in a single night?”

“Unexpected developments,” Asher said, honestly enough.  “Managed to finish the audit, though, so there’s that.  It’s not really all that useful, seeing as all that product’s gone, but you’ll at least be able to prove that you weren’t skimming profits.”  He paused.  “Or I could prove that you were skimming.  That’s up to you, isn’t it?”

If Hill was upset by the threat, he didn’t show it.  Asher had to admit: he liked that about the English.  Those stiff upper lips weren’t simply the stuff of legends.  “You understood what you would find when you went there,” Hill said.  “And you have already been compensated.  Don’t attempt to renegotiate our arrangement, after the fact.  And, I notice that you did not answer my question.”

“What happened,” Asher said, “was an opportunity.  If we can use this new crew of thieves as scapegoats, think about how much product you can make disappear from the registers.  The more money you don’t have to account for, the more money we both make.  Sounds good to me.”

Asher made a correction to himself: three birds, one stone.  He was well aware of Hill’s true goals – one didn’t rise to the position of regional drug lord under the Magi’s reign without an unsafe amount of ambition – but it was too early in the plan to reveal that knowledge.

Hill weighed that, then nodded.  “And this business at the Museum of London?”

Asher shrugged.  “What business would that be?  My men should be positioned as guards, just like you asked.”

“It was robbed,” Hill said, after another drink of tea.  It occurred to Asher that the tea might be a little stronger than simple tea leaves could manage.  “And the only thing the thieves took was the crown I had personally vouchsafed.”

“Sorry for your loss,” Asher said, shrugging once more.  “Blame it on the same thieves that destroyed the warehouse, call it a day.  Whoever you were protecting the crown for will have additional motivation to take them out, and it provides another layer of cover.”

Hill heaved a dramatically heavy sigh.  “That isn’t the point.  My organization will have refunded the cost of the crown before opening bell tomorrow.  The issue is my reputation amongst the local elite.  I’ll probably have to attend the bloody Green Light gala now, just to shake the right hands and smile at the right people.”

Asher perked up internally.  Exactly as planned.  “You can always send me, if it’s that big of a deal,” he said, feigning indifference.  “This wasn’t entirely my fault, but I can kiss whatever asses need kissing if it’s going to keep things smooth on your end.”

Hill’s eyebrows drew closer together.  “One wonders why you are suddenly so amenable.  Perhaps you intended to form new alliances at the gala, only to use them against me at a later date?”

Asher’s own eyes hardened and met Hill’s.  When he spoke, he was careful to do so in the most polite, coldest tone he could manage.  “If I wanted to destroy you,” he said, “I wouldn’t require the assistance of any of your local elite.  I don’t work for you.  My connections are more than enough, without bothering to slum it.  Anything I do here that isn’t going to my and your superiors is a kindness.  Understand?”

That threat succeeded where the first failed: Hill backed down.  He tried to save face by sniffing at the air and lifting his shoulders a millimeter.  “If you’re offering, I suppose I see no problem with it.  You’ll have to make new assurances to those who doubt my ability to keep my word, of course, and see to it that all parties are kept appeased.”

“I’m pretty sure I can handle that.”

“Then,” Hill said, rising from his couch, “I’ll make the necessary arrangements.  You can see yourself out?”

The Englishman was gone before Asher could reply.  Asher, for his part, weighed the merits of some constructive vandalism and was only stopped when his phone rang.  He answered it as he stood and walked to the exit.  “Yes, Damian?”

“You asked for information on a bodyguard named Emilia?”

“Yes, I remember.  It was less than ten minutes ago.  You’ve already got something?”

Damian told him what he’d uncovered.  A fierce grin appeared on Asher’s face as this new information found a place in the elaborate plan, shifting until it found its perfect place.  Oh, yes, he could use this.  His fingers dug into the blackened, dead skin of his forearm once more.

Devlin.  Sarah.  Emilia.  Hill.  He could use them all.

After the Warehouse (Emilia)

It took longer to finish up with the guards than expected; not too much longer, but enough time that she was feeling pleasantly sore up her arms and legs.  Emilia left the blazing wreckage of the warehouse behind her, happily astride a “borrowed” motorcycle, and headed toward the destination indicated by the text message.  The machine wasn’t particularly high powered, like any of the bikes she would have preferred to ride, but it wasn’t bad.  The one beneath her was probably a Triumph, maybe one of the 750CC models; not enough horsepower for her to really cut loose on the open highway.  In lieu of that razor’s edge of danger, she accelerated up to eighty miles an hour and let her mind drift back to the fight.  Memories weren’t as good at keeping her personal demons at bay, but these were at least good memories.  Much better than what she’d done for work over the past few years.

As of late, all of her time was spent waiting.  At the start, when she’d still had a name to make for herself, the contracts had been much more interesting.  There were always more fights to be had, more people who doubted the small Hispanic woman would actually be capable of backing up her calmly stated threats.  Those were the times she cherished: using her fists and feet to pound regret into anyone foolish to threaten one of her clients and ensuring their safety with her strength.  The fact that those bloody conflicts kept the beast inside her sated was a secondary matter, though not one to be ignored.

Of course, as her reputation grew, the nature of the jobs changed as well.  At this point, she was mostly expected to stand menacingly in one corner or another.  Her name acted as its own deterrent.  Most of the people who found themselves hired as security, or hitmen, or bagmen worked in a fairly small circle.  Her face was well known to most of them.  If Emilia took a job, it was generally accepted that target was essentially untouchable.

So, the melee at the warehouse had been the first real struggle she’d been able to enjoy in too many months to count.  It was possible, Emilia supposed, that the fire had been a little over the top.  Her instructions had been clear enough, though – “extract Devlin O’Brien from the warehouse, by whatever means you deem necessary” – and she didn’t think the guards would have let her get away without a suitably distracting catastrophe to deal with.  It was hardly Emilia’s fault that the client hadn’t specified what methods she could or couldn’t use, in pursuit of the stated objective.

This job was rapidly becoming more interesting than she’d expected or hoped for.  At first, she’d been tasked with simply serving as a shadow.  Emilia followed from a distance for the better of an hour, before the waiter had slipped something into a glass and offered it to the man.  She’d tried to stop Devlin from drinking the drugged champagne, but had apparently been too late.  Even then, she would have protected him.  She had tried to engage him in conversation, but a message from her actual client demanded her attention and pulled her into a different part of the museum at the critical moment.  She had a sneaking suspicion that the client had wanted Devlin to be kidnapped…but if that was the case, why had the orders changed from “shadow, and don’t be seen” to “retrieve him with all possible haste” as soon as the grab had already gone down?  It didn’t make sense.

It was, without a doubt, the most unusual arrangement Emilia had ever encountered.  This anonymous client had requested Emilia’s services specifically and paid – actually overpaid – for months of work, up front.  A dossier was forwarded to her, after the wire transfer went through, complete with several high definition photographs, a list of possible aliases, and the real names of Devlin O’Brien and the people he was most likely to work with.  Some of the names on that list were familiar to Emilia; an even smaller number of them were people whose company she…well, she didn’t enjoy anyone’s company, but their presences didn’t bother her.

She wasn’t paid to ask questions, though.  She was paid to protect Devlin.  So she hadn’t wondered too hard about the earbud laying in the grass, near the table where the man had sat.  She hadn’t prodded too far into the identity of the voice – probably Sarah Ford, if the information in the files was accurate – and she hadn’t put up any resistance to the idea of combining forces to retrieve Devlin from the man Sarah speculated was Asher.  In fact, the only reason she’d bothered speaking with Asher at the warehouse was to gather information that might help her in her job.

Not only had she made absolutely certain that Asher intended to kill Devlin at some point, but she’d also been able to get a glimpse at the man who appeared to the primary threat to her ward.  The discussion had been interesting, as far as those things went, but Emilia had approached it as a fact finding mission.  If she wasn’t literally being paid to interact with Asher, she doubted that they would find much to discuss with one another.  Even if she was available for work, she certainly wouldn’t have taken any contract he offered.  The way he looked at her was obvious and unashamed; she wasn’t interested in that sort of relationship with a client – or with anyone, really – and it only made things more difficult when the client assumed that her body, and not her skills, were for sale.

Besides, she really didn’t like him.

The entire encounter as a blur of motion and action to her, now.  She could feel the bruises on her bloodied knuckles as she eased the motorcycle up another ten miles an hour, savoring the tautness of her leg muscles and the vibrations of the engine against her thighs.  There had been too many guards, some of which had actual training instead of sheer bulk, for her to escape entirely unscathed.  That was just fine by her.  Without the possibility of real danger, she didn’t feel satisfied.  It didn’t feel satisfied.

Emilia drew closer to the appointed destination and, as she was easing the motorcycle to a stop, felt her phone vibrating from her jacket pocket.  Before she answered the call, she noted with more than a small amount of pleasure that her Aston Martin was parked nearby.  She allowed herself a thin-lipped smile: she owned several cars, using them differently as the job required, but this one was one of her favorites.  She parked the motorcycle in the vacant spot next to her car and answered the phone.  “Yeah?”

“My employer is pleased to see that you’ve accomplished your goal,” an impossibly deep voice said, from the other end of the line.  “And with a…minimum of collateral damage, according to reports.”

This was the same person who had contacted her for the job in the first place, then.  He wasn’t the actual client – the voice made that much clear with the references to his ‘employer’ – but he apparently acted with his or her full authority.  Normally, Emilia hated working with intermediaries, but the money was good enough that she could overcome that disdain.

“If your employer has a problem with my methods…”

“No,” the man interrupted.  “Not at all.  The loss of those narcotics was not inconsiderable, but the cost was acceptable, in exchange for Mister O’Brien’s safe return.”

“There were a lot of drugs in that place,” Emilia said.  “And this one guy is worth that much to you?”

“According to your contract, his life is always worth that much to you.”

It was a veiled reminder that she was still on the job.  It was also unnecessary.  Emilia had never defaulted on a contract, once accepted.  Her word was exemplary.  It was a matter of pride for her that she maintained that level of infallible reliability.  “If you thought I couldn’t do the job, you wouldn’t have hired me,” Emilia said.  “I’m supposed to keep him safe.  I got it.  But this isn’t how I work.  If I’m supposed to protect someone, I have to be able to do that.  You want someone who’ll let you use their ward as bait, you can go ahead and cut me loose.”

He didn’t reply for several seconds.  “That is reasonable,” he said, sighing heavily.  “My employer wishes for you to know that she has no desire to put you in that position again.”

“Meaning?”

“An opportunity to gather intelligence presented itself,” the man said, “and my employer felt certain that you would be capable of retrieving Mister O’Brien once that information was collected.  However, you will be free to protect him, as you see fit, moving forward from this point.”

“Should I expect more problems along the lines of tonight’s show?”  Emilia asked.

“You should take steps to be prepared for a variety of possible situations.”

“Is that from you or from your employer?”

Another pause.  “Both.”

Emilia nodded to herself.  If there might be more opportunities to really cut loose in the future, technically in service to the contract she’d been offered, that was a good thing.  Asher certainly hadn’t seemed like the sort of person who would give up on revenge for…whatever slight he imagined was worth all of this trouble.  It was a good thing that she hadn’t killed him, then; more conflict was always better for keeping it satisfied.

“So,” Emilia mused, “do I ever get to meet your employer and the holder of my contract?  Or am I just supposed to work anonymously?”  Either outcome would suit her fine.  She just preferred to know who was she was working for.

“My employer has decided to meet you in person,” the man said.  “Tonight, in fact.”  He did not sound pleased about that decision.

“Listen,” she said, “I’ve worked with people who like their secrets before.  I mean, not as much as your employer does, but six of one, you know?  You hired me for a couple of reasons, though, and discretion was one.”

“I am aware of your credentials,” the man said.  “If I had not personally done considerable research into your record, this offer would never have been extended.  That has nothing to do with my…discomfort.”

“And if I ask why, you probably aren’t going to tell me, right?”

The man said nothing.

Emilia used the time while he was silent to switch vehicles from the motorcycle – now that she was leaving it, the Triumph wasn’t all that bad of a machine – to the Aston.  Devlin had politely left the keys under the driver’s side floor mat, as though he’d known Emilia would be along to collect the car shortly.  She didn’t care for many things in the way that other people did, but the vehicle was nice.  Giving up the keys hadn’t been a particularly difficult decision, but she was still happy to see that he hadn’t decided to keep the Aston.

She herself behind the wheel and used the key to bring the engine to life.  Then, tired of waiting for the man to speak, Emilia took it upon herself to fill the void.  “So, what’s the deal with this guy?  He must be a big deal, if your boss is willing to go to these lengths just to keep him safe.”

“He is an essential part of unfolding events,” the man said.  “Events far beyond the petty squabbles he is aware of.”

“Does he know he’s a part of ‘unfolding events?’” Emilia asked.  “Or is he going to keep throwing himself into reckless situations, just hoping for the best?”

The man sighed again.  “If his previous experience is any indication,” he said, “the latter seems most likely.”  A voice, – soft, maybe feminine – said something inaudible from the other end of the line and the man spoke again, answering Emilia’s other question.  “And, no, he is not aware of his place.  Not yet.  I am assured that situation will be rectified, in part, shortly.”

Emilia glimpsed a wild thought, flittering through her mind, and took a shot at it.  “That’s where I’m meeting her tonight, then?  When she sends you to deliver whatever new information this is that Devlin needs?”

“Of course not,” the man said.  “You will be at that meeting, as well.  According to your previous employers, you work best when you are able to actually coordinate with your wards, correct?”

“Fair enough.  Am I going to have time to swing by my hotel, at least?”

“From your current location, you would have to go past the destination.  There isn’t enough time for detours.”

Emilia made an effort to conceal any nervous habits.  Alone in the Aston Martin, however, there was no one to see or hear as she cracked her bruised knuckles, one at a time.  Sam was in the hotel room, and had been there alone for hours longer than anticipated.  The job was paramount, though.  She’d picked a hotel that would probably see to it that Sam was taken care of until she returned.

“Your companion will be brought along, as well,” the man said.  “In keeping with your desire to stay close to your ward, new accommodations are being arranged for.  I thought it best to facilitate the transition, in order to make things as smooth as possible.”

Emilia was so relieved that Sam was being picked up that her mind nearly skipped directly over the fact that the man knew her exact location.  Was she bugged?  Or being tracked in one way or another?  Well, probably.  She wasn’t doing anything that she would have to hide, but the idea that someone required surveillance on her made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.  “Thanks for that,” she said, after a few moments.  Parsing her words was not easy for her.  It was so much simpler to speak your mind, but she’d learned that most people didn’t particularly enjoy that, and this man was doing her a favor.  “Keeps me from having to worry.”

“If I may ask a personal question?  This is from me, mind you, and not from my employer.”

“If you want, sure.  I’m an open book.”  Emilia wasn’t a very good liar, but she’d had a lot of practice telling that one.  It came out smooth and even, totally convincing even to her own ears.

“This…companion?  I was led to believe that you made an effort to remain as mobile as possible.”

“Mobile doesn’t mean disconnected,” Emilia said.  “Sam keeps me grounded.  What?  You don’t have anyone like that in your life?”

The man didn’t say anything and, in the background of the phone call, that soft feminine voice spoke again.  Emilia strained, but couldn’t catch the exact words being said.  “I suppose that makes sense,” the man said, after almost thirty seconds of silence.  “Your new destination will be sent to you, shortly.  We expect prompt arrival.”

“We?”  Emilia asked, but the line disconnected without offering an answer.  She looked at the phone for a few more seconds in thought.  The call had come from a blocked number, but there were ways around that.  Of course, anyone who was paranoid about their privacy would have taken that into account.  Besides, if the man’s ‘we’ was accurate, there was every possibility that she was about to meet the client anyway.  No reason to rock the boat.

She started up the Aston, relishing the familiar rumble of the powerful engine, and waited until the text with her new address came in: if her memory was accurate, she was headed to a hotel near the center of London proper.  If anyone else was driving, the train would have been quicker, but Emilia was still wound up from the warehouse fight.  She turned onto the highway once more, this time pointed in the direction of the city center, and floored it.  The Aston responded admirably.

When she was nearing the areas where there was an actual police presence, Emilia slowed back down to merely fifteen over the speed limit and switched on her police scanner.  It was a quiet night in London, by all indications, and that meant –

Uh, we are code five,” a scratchy voice said.  The quality of the scanner left much to be desired.  “En route to the museum now.  Does anyone know what’s going on over there?”

Not a clue,” another voice replied.  “Something about a robbery?  Gunshots?  Your guess is as good as mine.”

Emilia laughed openly and the sound filled the Aston.  There was little doubt that this was connected to Devlin.  The man had been kidnapped, been threatened with torture, barely escaped with his life, and immediately gone back to fulfilling the job he’d come to London to do.  Emilia very nearly found herself liking him, and she hadn’t even been introduced to his real personality.

This job promised to be fun, Emilia decided; the type of fun she found herself wanting more and more.  If she wasn’t so elated at the developing events, the thought that she wanted to commit violence more and more, as of late, would have made her think of Aiden.  As it was, she was too amused in the moment to do anything but look forward to whatever twists were coming next.