Category Archives: All The World’s A Game

The Mercenary

Kill her, the Passion whispered in his ear.  Hunt her down, tie her up, force her to submit.  Never let her leave you again.  Never let her HURT you again.

Aiden squeezed the bridge of his nose with two fingers and turned to look out of the window.  The Passion’s voice was getting harder to ignore, as of late.  He redoubled the strength of his mental barriers, internally reciting the words of his mother’s favorite poem, and even that didn’t have the same effect it once had.  Still, it gave him a few moments of relief from the presence and those seconds of space allowed him to think.

She was here, in London.  He’d been so close; closer than he’d been since she’d left his side, in the first place.  Only a single door had blocked his path, and she had still managed to escape.  He was as impressed by her ingenuity as he was angered by the evasion.  There was a certain allure to the chase, though.  Considering how close he was, Aiden was positive he could identify and follow any trail she left.  It was only a matter of time before he caught up to her again.  When he managed that, he knew he could talk to her, convince her that all was forgiven, demonstrate that her proper place was as a member of his team.

She abandoned you.  Abandoned everything you built for her, discarded the security you offered, and ran.  SHE RAN.

Movement might help.  It did, sometimes.  He stood, ignoring the subtle tremor in his left leg, and walked away from the window into the kitchen of his accommodations.  A slim folder lay on the counter, opened to reveal a single photograph and a note card filled with information.  The name of the target, how much money was being offered for the job, an accepted amount of collateral damage he was allowed in pursuit of his goal.  He read through it all for the fourth time since returning.   He saw nothing there that he hadn’t seen before.

On the surface, nothing about the job should have attracted her attention.  Emilia provided a very specific set of services, and nothing that took place at the manor house made sense given those skills.  In order to get past the manor house’s guards, a man had masqueraded as a German official who Aiden had personally made disappear, several months prior.  Someone had also penetrated the manor house’s security system and done serious damage to the network, even after the pretenders were barricaded within the little girl’s room.  According to the men he’d questioned after their escape, there had been at least three men, in addition to the child, who’d made their escape from the manor house during the gunfight.  One of those was, presumably, the driver of the tiny SUV who had managed to evade and exasperate Carlos’ attempts at capture.

Why had Emilia been there, with them?  She worked alone.  She always worked alone, since –

Since she cut you loose, shed you like dead skin, moved on to better things, the Passion hissed.  You should never have trusted her, never given her your faith, never let her get so close.

– since they’d parted ways.  Infiltration wasn’t her specialty.  Subterfuge wasn’t something Emilia used; it wasn’t even something she was particularly talented at.  She was a weapon, to be wielded against anyone foolish or unlucky enough to find themselves standing against the inferno of rage she kept inside her; she was an animal, to be unleashed as needed, to savage any target in her way.

She was his.

With that thought, he felt the shift.  It was familiar to him now; not exactly unpleasant, but unusual.  It was as though his consciousness shifted elsewhere and, in its place, the Passion took control.  Aiden swept out a hand, sending the folder and its contents fluttering to the ground.  That wasn’t enough destruction.  He took an empty bottle from a nearby table and hurled it against the far wall.  It shattered into shards and chunks of glass that rained down to the floor.  The rest of his actions were a blur, after that.  The Passion didn’t have any understanding about reasonable force, limitations, or control; it didn’t concern itself with self-harm or social mores.  It was only need and hatred, both directed at the same person: Thorn, Emilia, the woman who had left him after he had saved her.  The anger poured out of him, while the Passion howled vile curses and maledictions against her.  The Professional, shunted out of Aiden’s body, stood by, watching in silent disdain.

Are you done?  The Professional asked, after an unknowable period of time.  Is any of this helping?

Aiden spun and kicked a wooden panel hard enough to split it in two.  “You were mine!  You were just like me!  And you left!”

Then, the Professional said in an intent mental tone, how do we get her back?

Aiden paused, just long enough to catch his breath.  The brief cessation of outpoured rage was enough to allow the Professional control again.  The Passion coalesced into its regular form nearby: a small Maori boy, several years away from even his first tattoo.

Mine, it hissed.  The Passion’s lips moved without a sound; the words formed inside Aiden’s head without ever touching the air.  Mine.

Aiden sighed, exhausted from the outburst.  Those were becoming more frequent as the days turned into months.  If the doctors were right, the Passion would begin to hold greater sway over his actions as the illness progressed.  It was even possible that another phantom guest might appear, though Aiden personally thought that was unlikely.  The struggle between his professionalism and his passions wasn’t something new.  All the sickness really did was provide a visual representation for the parts of himself he tried to keep in check.

A knock came at the door.  Aiden jerked in that direction, reaching for his handgun as he did so.  The joints in his body ached at the sudden movement; he squashed the pinprick flare of pain with a brief effort of will.  “Sir?”  The speaker had an accent.  Aiden had never been good at identifying accents without additional information, but there were only two men who would dare to knock on Aiden’s door after an episode, and their accents were different enough that even he could easily deduce the speaker’s identity.

“Yes, Raphael?”

“It’s Carlos,” the voice said.  “Sir.”

Of course, it was Carlos.  Raphael was dead; fallen in a hail of bullets several years ago.  Aiden knew that.  It wasn’t that his memory was coming and going in unpredictable patches.  He was just tired.  The struggle for mental control had drained him and he’d misspoken.  That was all.

“Carlos, of course.  What do you need?”

“I…had a question, sir.”

Aiden swept a quick look around the room.  There was no real way of fixing the damage to the furniture, the walls, or the glassware.  He didn’t understand how he could have created so much wreckage but, at the same time, he was forced to admit to himself that he wasn’t really sure how long the Passion had been in control.  He decided, after a second spent considering the options, that it would cause more damage in the long run if he ignored Carlos or sent him away.  The image that Aiden – specifically, that the Professional – cultivated was that of a benevolent father figure.  If Carlos was struggling with doubts, it was important to control that problem before it grew into a festering sore that required more thorough solutions.  One spoiled apple, et cetera.

“Come in,” he said and stepped back, so that he stood almost in the center of the room.  That forced the ghostly image of the Passion back into a corner, but it wasn’t as though the phantom actually needed comfort.

Carlos entered, cautiously.  Aiden could see as the man’s eyes took in the devastation of torn upholstery and glass shrapnel.  It was obvious that he wanted to know what had transpired – there was almost no way the Passion had been silent during the episode – but training and conditioning kept him from breathing a word about what he saw.

“Yes?”  Aiden asked.  He was calm and controlled, each movement of his body specifically chosen to elicit the appropriate effect.  His voice, soft enough that it forced others to actually listen, was a skill he’d inherited from his father.  “How can I help?”

“It’s about…”  Carlos stopped and Aiden could practically hear the gears in the Spanish man’s mind grind to a halt, only to switch tracks and gradually work their way back up to speed.  He’d excised her name, at the last moment.  “It’s about the girl.  Our target, sir.”

“Yes?  What about her?”

“We…didn’t get her, sir.  Are we going after the people who managed to extract her before we got there?”

Find her.  The Passion was almost purring and every muscle in Aiden’s body, every fiber of his being, longed to do exactly that, in that moment.  Bring her back.  Force her to stay.  Never let her leave.

“We will,” Aiden said.  “When the time comes.”

“When do you – ?”

Aiden interrupted the man in that maddeningly soft voice.  “Do you know why we failed to retrieve the girl?”

Carlos blinked.  “Sir?”

“This was just a nine year old girl.  All of her guards were bought and paid for, even before we got on a plane.  This should have been the easiest retrieval of our lives.  So, tell me; what went wrong?”

Carlos opened his mouth, performed another of his obvious last second word swaps, and then spoke.  “Someone got there first,” he said.

“Indeed.”  Aiden stepped carefully over the ruined knickknacks scattered across the room’s floor and headed for a glass decanter of liquor that had somehow survived his rage.  He filled two glasses with the alcohol.  “Here.  Have a drink with me.”

It was a calculated gesture.  Aiden kept his teams small, on purpose; it was easier to maintain mystique and control, if your followers were kept relatively isolated.  He removed himself, even from them, by never relaxing in their presence.  It served to keep him as a figure above them.  By allowing Carlos to drink with him, Aiden was elevating the man to something like an equal, even if only for a moment.

It didn’t hurt matters that Aiden really wanted a drink himself.  He noticed, as he handed one glass over to Carlos, that his knuckles were torn and bleeding.  When had that happened?  How had he not noticed?

Kill the ones who stole her from you.  Murder them, make them suffer.  Take her.  Have her again.

Carlos accepted the offering and waited until Aiden raised his own glass in toast.  They clinked glasses softly and drained the containers in a single go.

“We failed,” Aiden said in that soft, fatherly voice, “because we didn’t know enough.  We were sent to retrieve the girl, but we didn’t know about the secret passage.  We didn’t know about the tunnels.  We didn’t know about this…other party, and their interest in the girl.”

Carlos nodded slowly, understanding the general idea.  Aiden hadn’t chosen him for his intelligence, but the man was reasonably quick at picking up concepts.  That made him an asset for the moment; it also meant that, eventually, Carlos would find himself in the unenviable position of being a liability.

Conquer, crush, kill, the Passion said.  This was an old, familiar recitation.  Dominate the weak. 

“I don’t intend to find myself in that position again,” Aiden said.  “The terms of our contract were perfectly clear.  Conveniently, there was no mention of a time constraint.”

“So, sir, you’re going to…?”

“Plan,” Aiden said.  “Use the resources at my disposal to uncover as much information as possible about the individuals in question.  Then, I will close off every avenue of escape, every hole they might choose to hide in, and close in.  The next time I see them will be the last time they are seen by anyone at all.”

One of the tricks he’d acquired over the years was nothing more or less than careful use of pronouns.  By using the plural earlier, when discussing their failure, he folded Carlos and himself into a single unit.  Doing so deflected the blame for any failures across all parties.  There were ways of exonerating himself, and those techniques would certainly be used at a later date, but it was important to make certain that Carlos understood he had a part in the failed job.

By using the singular now, Aiden isolated himself once more.  The disaster at the manor house was a shame that could be divided amongst the entire team.  The ability to succeed, the will and intelligence required to circumvent whatever obstacles cropped up in the future, the resources such an undertaking would require…all of those things, and more, belonged exclusively to Aiden.

“Even Thorn?”  Carlos’ lips turned down slightly into the beginnings of a frown as he remembered who Emilia had been, when they’d worked on the same team.

Their relationship, Aiden recalled, had always been antagonistic.  Of course, Aiden had wanted it that way; Emilia had emerged from the conflict with greater prestige and a higher place in Aiden’s eyes.  Carlos had apparently never gotten over the insult.

“Thorn poses a different dilemma,” Aiden said.  He poured two more drinks, but drank his own before Carlos had a chance to do the same.  “Her familiarity with my tactics creates a certain additional level of difficulty.  Not an unmanageable one, but still something that requires attention.”

Carlos tipped his glass and emptied it a second time.  “She was working with them, sir,” he said.  “Whoever got to the girl before us…they did it with Thorn’s help.”

Traitor, the Passion growled.  She is a traitor.

“I am aware of the work she has done since our…parting,” Aiden said.  He bared his teeth in an expression that Carlos would almost certainly read as a grin, but was closer to a grimace in reality.  The idea that she would take the skills he had painstakingly taught her and to protect with them was…disquieting.

There were plenty of opportunities for violence in that field, though.  There was something important in that tidbit.  No matter what she did, she wouldn’t ever be able to truly walk away from what they’d done together.  She’d never be able to change who she was, now.

Even her new name represented that.  Names, Aiden had found, told more about the person than most expected.  A name wasn’t just a method of identifying oneself to others; it was a way to frame one’s own self-identity.  The names he used for the warring aspects of his personality – the Professional, for the mercenary who’d inflicted violence in more than two dozen countries; and the Passion, who enjoyed the carnage for its own sake – were proof enough of that.  When Thorn had chosen her new name, she’d elected for something meaningful in her native language.  Emilia Espina Durante: the enduring thorn that protects.

She was Thorn now; she would always be Thorn.

My Thorn, the Passion rumbled in agreement.  Mine.

“I am certain, however,” Aiden continued, “that she can be convinced to…forego the path she’s chosen.  When I manage to remove the influences of whatever criminals she’s take up with, there will be time enough to identify and solve whatever concerns keep her from my side.”

Relaxed slightly by the alcohol and by the intoxicating presence of his leader, Carlos forgot himself for just an instant.  “Bitch doesn’t deserve a second chance, if you ask me.”

As soon as the sentence left his mouth, he regretted what he’d said but, by then, it was too late.  The Passion was too close, still too strong, and it rushed back into Aiden’s body.  He had Carlos by the throat in an instant; an eyeblink later, the Spanish man was bent backwards over the counter, his head a millimeter away from the glass decanter.  There were broken shards all over the space, and they bit into the skin on Carlos’ cheek.  Aiden doubled the pressure until Carlos cried out.

“That is my place to decide,” he growled, through painfully gritted teeth.  “Not yours.  I am the one who assembled this team; I am the one who trained you, taught you, gave you purpose.  I am the one who rescued you.”

“Of…of course, sir!”  Carlos practically screamed the words.  Even pressed against the counter by Aiden, he was too well trained to fight back.  That was the type of sin that led to a fatal resolution.  None of Aiden’s acolytes ever dared so much.

Except for Thorn, the Professional said.  He lounged in the corner where the Passion had been, wearing the guise of Aiden’s own father.  Why did that happen?

“We will bring her back,” Aiden said.  “And you will remember your place.”

He didn’t need to finish that thought with any threat.  Carlos nodded his agreement, adding another couple of cuts to his cheek, until Aiden relented.  The hot flash of rage dimmed enough for the Professional to reassert control.

Aiden stepped back and allowed Carlos to collect himself.  “Yes, sir,” the Spanish man said after a handful of seconds.  He went to attention and snapped off a quick salute.  “If that’s what you want, sir, then we will make it happen.”

Blood trickled down from Carlos’ cheek.  There was no way he didn’t notice the warm, wet sensation on his skin.  He made no move to wipe it away.

“Dismissed, soldier,” Aiden said.  He turned away from Carlos without another word.

“Sir, yes, sir!”

Because his back was turned, Aiden couldn’t actually watch Carlos leave, but he listened as the man’s boots crunched across the broken glass on the floor.  When he estimated that Carlos was at the door, he raised his voice slightly.  “Carlos.”

“Sir?”

“Send Mikhail in,” Aiden said.

“Yes, sir!”

There were two more crunches and then Carlos was gone.

Aiden counted to thirty before he relaxed.  Two outbursts in less than twenty minutes was a new record.  The medication wasn’t working as well, anymore.  He recited two of his mother’s favorite poems in his head, but the Passion still pressed against his thoughts.

Eventually, he would need to up the dosage.  There were side effects, but Aiden didn’t have any illusions about his lifespan: he wouldn’t be around long enough for the side effects to do much more than inconvenience him.  For now, in lieu of an ability to actually quiet the Passion, he closed his eyes and allowed an actual smile to crease his lips.

“I’ll be seeing you soon, Thorn,” he said to the air.

On that, both the Professional and the Passion agreed.

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The Drug Lord

The room felt dirty.  The air around him was stale and heavy with old cigarette smoke; an odor of sweat, overcooked meat, and general detritus floated like a fog around their table; and, most galling of all, a jukebox in one corner insisted on playing some low-rent cover by a band whose name he couldn’t be bothered to remember.

Without a doubt, it was the worst establishment he had been forced to endure in his entire life.  And yet, here he was.

“This is unacceptable,” he said to the man seated across from him.

“What?  Is slumming it that unpleasant?”

Slumming,” he said, accenting the word like it was something vile, “would be giving a bit too much credit to this…this…” He twirled two fingers in a vague approximation of a circle, indicating their surroundings.

“I don’t know about that,” the other man said.  “Spent a lot of my life in places just like this.  I mean, not just like this, but pretty close.”

“Imagine my surprise.”

If the man across from him took offense, he didn’t show it.  “You’re the one who wanted to meet up with me.”

“Indeed.  I assumed that you would have selected a rendezvous point with something approximating class, however.”

“So now you want me to be high profile?  Any of the places you frequent would have us on a dozen cameras before we got a table.  And that’s not even taking into account all of the people you’d have to talk to: valets, waiters, probably the cook, if your dietary choices tonight are any indication.”

The ‘dietary choice’ in question wasn’t a meal, so much as a few pieces of wilted lettuce thrown on a plate and topped with unevenly diced tomatoes.  He hadn’t touched a bite since he’d ordered it.  “I’m certain you wouldn’t understand this,” he said, “but the privacy of those locations is above reproach.”

The man across the table threw his head back and laughed.  “And I’m sure you wouldn’t understand, but those people I mentioned?  For a couple hundred extra dollars, they’d be more than happy to connect the dots between the two of us.”

“Perhaps.”

The man across the table took a long drink from his beer.  “So.  What’d you want to meet about?”

“Your latest requisition.  I have questions about the necessity.”

“I was under the impression that you wanted plausible deniability, in case our bosses get wind of what you’re planning.”

“What we’re planning.”

The other man shrugged and took another drink.  “Fine.  What we’re planning.  Anyway, I thought you didn’t want to know what I did or how I did it.”

“Not questions, then.  Concerns.”

“What’s bothering you, Hill?”

That wasn’t his real name, but it was the one he’d grown accustomed to.  He’d been using it for years, but it wasn’t usually something people said to his face.  The men and women who pushed drugs at the street level weren’t the sort he personally spoke with, after all.  “I’ve had my own sources look into the efficacy of this…Aiden?”  He deliberately left the sentence open.

“His efficacy is unblemished.  Any job he’s ever accepted, he’s accomplished.  What more could you want than a perfect success rate?”

“Less collateral damage would be ideal,” Hill said.  “When I’ve claimed this business as my own, I would prefer to leave as much infrastructure in place as possible, so that the transition of power is seamless.  A rogue element with a proven record of instability endangers that goal.”

“You aren’t wrong, but you also aren’t thinking creatively.”

“Oh?”  Hill forgot himself momentarily and took a small sip from the glass in front of him.  Regret descended on him before the liquor made it down his throat.  Whatever the bartender had poured, calling it scotch should have been classified as a criminal act.  He allowed a minute grimace to cross his face as he forced himself to swallow.  “Enlighten me as to your…creative interpretation, then.”

“Anywhere Aiden’s team goes,” the other man said, “bodies show up.  That’s going to equal police attention and general property damage, sure, but it also equals cover.  As long as the cops are looking in his direction, they aren’t paying attention to the moves you’re making in the underworld.”

Hill added the unspoken corollary in his head: the people in charge won’t be watching you as closely.  He couldn’t entirely ignore the merits of that.  Anything that bought him a few inches of extra space to maneuver into a better position was a good thing.  Whoever the people in charge were, they possessed resources that made Hill’s war chest look like a child’s piggy bank.  If they discovered his plans prematurely, death was  the best possible outcome.  Just by sending this man – Asher, he thought, with disdain even finding its way into his mental voice – the people in charge had sent a message.  It was only sheer luck that Asher’s goals had coincided with Hill’s own.

“The police aren’t going to be a problem,” Hill said, after several seconds spent in quiet consideration.  “Certain individuals in key positions are fond of the product I provide.”

“They can’t all be drug addicts,” Asher said.

“Not all,” Hill admitted.  “Some merely have loved ones that are.”

Asher whistled, leaned back in his chair, and finished off his beer.  He raised two fingers into the air to signal the bartender for another one.  “Blackmail?  That’s a little rougher than I’d expected from you, Hill.”

“One does what one must,” Hill replied.  “How much is this mercenary going to charge for his services?”

“Not as much as you’d think,” Asher said.  “His regular rate is…hefty, but I’ve got a feeling that there are some considerations in place that might lead to him working for less.”

“Considerations?”

Asher accepted a second beer from a passing server before he answered.  “Plausible deniability, remember?”

Hill considered whether or not to press Asher harder, but decided against it in short order.  There were other matters, aside from the matter of payment, that bothered him.  He reached into an attaché case and withdrew a manila folder.

“What’s that?”  Asher asked.

Hill opened the manilla folder on the table and flipped through a few pages.  “Cruzfeldt-Jacob Disease,” he read.  “This mercenary you’ve hired is dying, Asher.”

“We’re all dying,” Asher said.  “He’s just…doing it a little quicker than the rest of us.”

Hill replied with a flat, unamused look.  “I’ve had someone look into the disease, and the symptoms as it progresses.”

Asher sighed, reached out, and took the paper from Hill’s fingers.  “I’ve taken steps to make sure his performance isn’t going to be affected, in addition to other measures I’ve put in place, on the off chance that something does go terribly wrong.”

“Just as you were certain that the situation at the museum would be handled?”  Hill asked.

A flash of irritation flickered across Asher’s face. “That was…unfortunate.”

“Unfortunate?  The inroads I’ve worked to build are in ruins, now.  Your trip to the gala only served to reopen the lines of communication with the other players.  Trust needs to be reestablished.  More importantly, respect has to be earned again.”

“And as soon as you’re the sole owner of this thriving drug empire, you’ll have all the time and resources to do exactly that,” Asher said.  He leaned in and lowered his voice conspiratorially.  “These are setbacks, Hill.  You had to know it wasn’t going to be easy, or else someone else would have tried it first.”

“Others have tried.”

“Others haven’t succeeded,” Asher stressed.  “Think about it.  You’ve already got the book.  You were able to purchase what you needed from the information broker, so it’s only a matter of time before you have the key to decrypt everything.  Once that’s done, you’ll have the power.  What’s a little bit of misfortune now, considering how much you stand to gain?”

Hill knew he was being manipulated.  The idea that Asher actually considered himself capable of out-thinking Hill was laughable, but the appearance of fallibility was important.  So long as Asher considered himself ahead in their little game of words, he’d grow complacent.

Complacency had brought down better men before.

A lifetime spent as a minor nobleman, constantly looked down on by people who considered themselves his betters, had drilled that lesson into his head.  When he started in the business, running a minor operation with superlative efficiency, he’d seen other dealers fall by the wayside because they’d stopped striving, stopped pushing the limits of what they could do.  Hill didn’t have that problem.

There were heights that he’d yet to attain, and he knew that those heights were meant for him.  His was a noble line, destined for greater things than laboring as an employee of any faceless, nameless individuals.  He would take over the local operation, entirely, and then he could begin the process of infiltrating himself into other criminal enterprises.  Already, he’d managed to muscle his way into the arms smuggling trade, despite a vigorous effort by the Bratva to control their territory.  As soon as he had the names of the drug suppliers, he’d be able to grow even more.

Asher had been a lucky accident.  When he’d arrived at the behest of the people in charge, ready and willing to wield the authority they had given him, Hill had considered simply having him killed.  The criminal underworld was a dangerous place; accidents happened all of the time.  But Asher had proven that he possessed more than a small amount of talent at organization, planning, and personnel management.  It had been his plan to use the Bratva as cover, in order to steal the golden book from Limassol, and he’d actually managed to pull it off.  In fact, in an advisory capacity, Asher had helped to smooth over some of the more difficult or troublesome aspects of the drug empire.  He wasn’t what Hill would have expected from anyone with so many tattoos and scars, but people could be surprising.

“Acceptable,” Hill said, finally.

Asher nodded.  “That’s what I thought.  Now, was there anything else you needed?”

“What is your plan for locating the decryption key?”

“They’re keeping a girl at that house, “Asher said.  “Don’t know why, but it’s obviously got to be important or they wouldn’t go through the trouble, right?  I figure I’ll have Aiden go in, using an extraction of the girl as cover, and let him look around until he finds something we can use.”

“And if he finds nothing?”

Asher shrugged.  “Then we interrogate the girl.  Like I said, she’s got to know something.”

Hill sniffed slightly at the air in disdain, and immediately regretted it as the odor made its way into his nostrils.  “Interrogate?”

“Torture.”  Asher drank half of his remaining beer in one go.  “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing.”

“That doesn’t bother you?”  Hill asked.  “The idea of torturing a little girl for information that she might not even have?”

“I’m not thrilled about it, no,” Asher said.  “But I didn’t make it this far only to let a little squeamishness get in the way of achieving the goals I’ve been working towards for years.”

There was a stretch of silence, accompanied by an unspoken challenge.  Hill felt the moment in the air, but he couldn’t bring himself to rise to it.  When one corner of Asher’s lips twitched upward, Hill realized he’d lost a point.  The knowledge brought bile into his throat and he immediately went on the offense.

You didn’t make it this far,” Hill mused aloud, repeating Asher’s words.  Every conversation was essentially a duel, and he’d lost on that exchange; the fact that this uncultured man was a point up on him was galling.  “Not we.  This has been an operation planned in painstaking detail for almost a decade by me, but you’re concerned about the costs you’ve incurred?  What could you possibly have lost?  I am the one paying for the assets you’ve frankly wasted; I am the one whose business is suffering during this transitional period.  You have done nothing.”

It was Asher’s turn to sit silent.  The perpetual smirk on his lips dimmed slightly and a little heat crept into his eyes.

Sensing an opening, and eager for an opportunity to reestablish his superiority, Hill pressed harder.  “Understand this: I will be successful in this, with or without you.  I have been willing to tolerate your insubordination, your attitude, and your general lack of proper decorum because it has been tempered by success.  If you cannot find some way of dispensing with this new wrinkle, I will simply find another who can.”  Hill smiled, showing too many teeth in the process.  “Perhaps I will see if this Devlin can be hired to do what you obviously –“

He didn’t get to finish the thought.  Asher slammed both palms down on the table, and then swept his arms to one side, sending plates crashing to the floor.  His nostrils flared and the intensity of his gaze grew to a heat that made even Hill uncomfortable.  “You have no idea what I’ve paid for this,” Asher hissed, between gritted teeth.  “And you should understand this:  I am more than capable of handling Devlin.  I am the only one who can, or will, deal with that particular problem.  Am I clear?”

Nearly all of the men in the bar, save for one or two that were too drunk to be aware of their surroundings, were staring at the two of them.  Aside from the appalling music still playing on the jukebox, there was almost no sound in the place; just Asher’s heavy breathing and Hill’s own heartbeat in his ears.

The glare directed at him forced Hill to privately acknowledge that his position in life wouldn’t provide him with any cover, should Asher simply decide to attack him.  He was armed, of course, but there was no guarantee that he’d be able to draw the tiny gun he carried at his ankle before Asher reached him.  He wondered if Asher would risk everything in the moment, just to vent his anger, or if he was capable of focusing on the longer term goals.

This newest wrinkle, this…Devlin was a distraction.  There was a relationship between Asher and Devlin, and relationships rarely made for clear-headed decisions.  A private investigator, hired out of Hill’s personal funds, turned up a record of jobs the two had pulled years ago, but nothing since Devlin had gone to jail for a botched theft.

After everything was finished here, perhaps, he could ask for details.  It wouldn’t change much – he fully intended to kill Asher as soon as he’d played his part in the transition of power – but an unanswered question would nag at him, if left alone.

The tension lasted for a full minute before Asher, mercifully, looked away.  The man closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, visibly regaining his calm.  When he opened his eyes again, the smirk was back in place.  A thin trickle of blood was visible at the corner of Asher’s mouth.  “You aren’t the only one with something at stake in this,” he said.  “That’s all I’m saying.”

“Acceptable,” Hill said, hating the quiver in his voice as he spoke.  “Those were the only things we needed to discuss, unless you have some other problem that requires my intervention?”

“Nothing at the moment,” Asher said.  He raised a hand and one of the servers approached.  “Two shots, please.  Tequila, if you’ve got it.”

Hill suppressed a grimace.  “You might as well order paint thinner.”

“If you can’t handle it,” Asher said, “I’ll take both.”

Another challenge, then.  “Bring the shots,” he said to the server.  To Asher, he added, “I will pick the location next time we need to meet.”

“Fair’s fair,” Asher said.  His beer had managed to remain on the table, despite his outburst, and he finished it off in one pull.

The server hurried away and returned just as quickly with two shot glasses.  She set them both on the table and retreated.  “It’s a tradition,” Asher said, pushing one of the shots over to Hill.  “Something from…a long time ago.”

“Tradition?”  Hill echoed.  “Getting inebriated was something you planned for?”

“You take a shot now,” Asher said, ignoring the verbal barb.  “When we finish the job, we meet up and take another one.  Book ends, you see?  And it gives you something to look forward to.”

“You did this in the past?”

“More times than I can count.  It’s just a little superstition.”

Hill shrugged.  Tradition was something he understood, even if it involved something as vile as tequila.  “Is there something I should say?”

“See you on the other side,” Asher said.  He raised his glass and locked eyes with Hill.

“On the other side,” Hill repeated.  He met Asher’s gaze, cool enough now that Hill wasn’t concerned for his physical safety.  There was intelligence behind the eyes, and ambition.  Asher was planning something.  Hill would simply have to be prepared for it.

They drank the shots and Hill was pleasantly surprised to find that he did not hate the taste of the liquor as it burned its way down his throat.

“See?”  Asher asked.  “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“Not at all.”

Asher was still watching him, still weighing him.  Hill would absolutely have to arrange for some personal protection, until he was able to dispose of his ‘ally.’  He looked away from Asher’s steady stare, down to the empty shot glasses on the table.  He might purchase a bottle of tequila for the estate, he decided.  He would be drinking it alone, but that was something he’d simply have to deal with.

Tradition was tradition, after all.

The Concierge

“I simply must have front row tickets, you see.  Their live performances are wonderful, almost transcendent…or so I’ve heard.  I can’t be so close to one without getting to see it in person,” the guest said.  “You understand, right?”

Sophie, who had seen the band in question on a number of occasions, did not understand, but she nodded anyway.  “Of course, ma’am.  I would be happy to assist, however I can.  Was there a particular evening that you had in mind?”

She was already typing, even as she mechanically spoke the words.  Her mind traced through a series of connections – favors owed, enticements she could offer, leverage she could use – going all the way back to the band itself.  This wasn’t the first time a guest had needed last minute tickets; it wasn’t even the first time this month.

“Well,” the lady on the other side of the desk said, “my husband and I have business in Milan tomorrow – very important business – so tonight would be the only time we’re available…”

She kept talking; Sophie tuned her out with a faint twinge of irritation.  Why did guests always try that?  Men and women alike both name-dropped celebrities and discussed ‘exotic’ locations, as if it would impress her.  She’d been working at the Brooklands for years, and her position as head concierge afforded her access to luxuries that few people even knew about.  What did the wealthy, powerful, or influential think they could offer her that she couldn’t acquire on her own?

She finished the message to the band’s manager and sent it off, just as an email appeared in her own inbox.  Not the inbox she used to coordinate her staff at the Brooklands; no, this one had come to her other account.

Received, the message read.  Ten clean passports, ten Cayman bank accounts, five network infiltration specialists, three personal security experts, one shipping container.  Payment delivered.

Sure enough, her phone beeped and Sophie didn’t have to check the display to know what it would show.  The materials and personnel she’d redirected weren’t inexpensive, and she required a commission for her work in navigating through the paperwork, connecting interested parties, and ensuring that the multiple transactions took place without incident.  She would well paid for the work she’d done.

She typed out a quick reply, without bothering to involve her brain in the process.  Happy to be of service, she wrote.

Out loud, she said, “I don’t want to make any promises, ma’am, but I should be able to pull some strings and get you and your husband into the show.  If you’d like, I can have those tickets sent up to your room as soon as they’re available.”

“Well,” the woman dragged out the syllable, then lowered her voice to a conspiratorial volume.  “My husband doesn’t exactly have to know that I’m going to the concert, does he?”

“One ticket would be easier to acquire,” Sophie said.  Which was true, but only a purely technical sense: it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to get as many tickets as she desired.  It wasn’t her money that she was spending, after all.

Another message appeared in her private inbox.  Police presence at airport is heavier than expected.  Bribe?

Apologies, she wrote.  I have a strict policy of not interfering with the efforts of law enforcement.

The reply came quickly, and the client forgot to even pretend towards civility.  Help, it said, or we’ll point the finger at you.

Unlikely, she typed.  But please, feel free to contact me again if you require any other assistance, outside of that earlier restriction.

She didn’t expect to get a response to that one.  Criminals were a lot like the nouveau riche, in a way.  Both classes of people expected to shock her into compliance or awe, as if she didn’t live her life in the presence of those things every day.  Sophie hadn’t been frightened of legal punishments since her second year as an underworld fixer.  She certainly wasn’t about to start being frightened now.

Part of that security came from fastidious attention to detail.  She almost never broke the law, technically, although she did skirt around it on a regular basis.  So long as the client didn’t tell her that, for instance, they intended to use ten pounds of plastic explosives to blow off a vault door, it wasn’t exactly her responsibility.  She couldn’t be held accountable for what a legitimate businessman did if, hypothetically, two new employees were sent to collect protection money.  A container of Sudafed might have legitimate uses in the hands of an energetic entrepreneur; Sophie didn’t know, and didn’t care, if that might be the case.

It wasn’t her job to help her clients in whatever pursuits they might imagine.  All she did was provide them with the best available equipment and personnel, using the same courtesy and alacrity that she provided when working with the latest heiress at the Brooklands.  At any given moment, she was working on two or three things at a time: clearing out a tee time at the Wentworth Club for a group of American businessmen; renting a limited edition McLaren for an Italian playboy past his prime; and arranging the purchase of twenty crates of the latest in Chinese RPGs.

“You see,” the woman said, “I might have met someone.  Nothing serious, of course, just something a little…spicy.  It was his idea to go to this concert, in the first place.”

“Oh my,” Sophie said, forming her lips into a scandalized expression.  She resisted the urge to yawn.  “So, two tickets, but you’d prefer it if your husband didn’t know.”

“Quite, quite,” the woman said.  Color crept up into her cheeks.  “This man is…something different than anyone I’ve ever met before.  So young, so vibrant.”

She continued on with the description and Sophie, paying the conversation the bare minimum of attention it required, nodded at the appropriate points.  The band’s manager was taking longer to reply than normal.  He might simply be backed up with preparations for his secret show and Sophie, understanding the amount of effort that went into that sort of thing, would normally be content to let him work at his own pace.  This woman wouldn’t stop droning on, though.  As if this was the first affair that she’d ever had.  It certainly wasn’t the first affair Sophie had been forced to hear about; it was if these women wanted someone to hear about their dalliances.

Sophie only wanted her to go somewhere else, so that she could focus on her other tasks for the day.

She sighed a moment later, considering what the rest of her work day would look like.  She would be arranging proposal photographers and dead drops with about the same frequency, but neither activity seemed particularly challenging.  She’d done so many things over the years that even the less legal aspect of her work was becoming routine.  Predictable.  Boring.

An email came into her Brooklands inbox.  She exited the illicit server, expecting to see confirmation of her request from the band, and was surprised to find an address she didn’t recognize at the top of the unread messages.  She clicked it open.

I trust, the email said, that the account I provided was sufficient for the purposes?

Sophie raised an eyebrow.  The Brooklands maintained a fairly robust spam filter, in order to keep the servers safe from any twenty-something with an internet connection and too much free time.  Apparently someone had found a way through.  She deleted the message and made a mental note to contact IT.

“You won’t believe how I met him,” the woman said.  “It was on one of those nude beaches in France, you see.”

Sophie covered her mouth, ostensibly in shock; in reality, the earlier yawn had found its way out.  “You don’t say, ma’am.”

The woman nodded in excitement.  “My husband was busy with work, just like he always is, and…”

Another email, now to the criminal server.  This was an address she recognized, so Sophie opened it.

I was pleasantly surprised at your efficiency.  We should discuss further business.

A flashing icon at the bottom of the screen told her that the client wanted to start a live chat.  She clicked the chat window open.

From BigBrother1986:  What percentage of costs do you require as payment?

Sophie puzzled over the other’s username for a few seconds, before its significance occurred to her.  George Orwell.  She smiled at that.  Someone had a sense of humor, apparently.

From Morrigan01: Five percent, payable upon completion of our business.

From BigBrother1986:  Completion being defined as…?

That gave Sophie a moment of pause.  The job assigned to this account was something new.  For one thing, the original request hadn’t included any specific details.  Instead, a list of possible aliases and a portfolio’s worth of photographs had been delivered to her, followed by a banking account number and, in place of a signature, a symbol of three interlocking triangles pointed down.

Sophie had booked the penthouse suite at her hotel in anticipation, and the couple had arrived, but they’d only stayed in the room for a few hours.  And a little bit after that, the man had called to request a cottage of all things.  Sophie handled the transactions, purchasing the land from a widower looking to travel, and furnished it with technology and supplies redirected from a few subsidiaries and former clients in the area.  After that, there had been no new requests and she had assumed that payment would be forthcoming.

From BigBrother1986: You might find the news enlightening, if you’re unsure how best to answer.

Sophie looked up, past the woman who was currently in the midst of a graphic description of what a younger man enjoyed, to one of the televisions hanging in the lobby.  The sound was off, but the closed captioning was on.

“…a sleepy lakeside village in the countryside,” the newscaster was saying, “under siege in tonight’s top story.  According to local sources, police services are now investigating reports of gunfire and car chases in…”

Sophie blinked, and then opened a new tab and navigated to the station’s website.  One of the top links contained a series of theories and speculations about the crime; each one was terribly wrong.  That was to be expected, though.  He didn’t have access to the same information as Sophie.  The “sleepy lakeside village” corresponded neatly with the address of the cottage she’d purchased, only a few days ago.

Immediately, she began the process of selling the property to another client, who had been looking for somewhere to lay low.  There was virtually no chance of someone tracing it all the way back to her, but she had never been accused of lacking the proper amount of paranoia.

In the midst of that, her phone beeped.  She glanced down at it, distracted by her work and the lady’s continued presence, and froze.  The number on the display had a lot of zeroes.

From BigBrother1986: I trust this payment is sufficient?

Some quick and dirty math – recalling how much she’d spent on the cottage and clothing, then calculating how much she should have made for the job – provided Sophie with a number that was five times smaller than the amount her accounts had just received.  The cottage hadn’t been cheap, but it also hadn’t been a mansion.  The SUV was a secondhand purchase; the clothes had been delivered to the Brooklands, already tailored to fit; and Sophie had only needed to hire a team of technicians to install the computer system that had mysteriously been sent to the Brooklands in pieces over the past week.  Nothing about what she’d done necessitated so much money.

From Morrigan01: Five percent is more than enough.

From BigBrother1986: Work well done is work worth paying for.  Your regular fee, plus an enticement.

From Morrigan01: An enticement for what?

From BigBrother1986: Your continued assistance.  I suspect your guests will require additional aid throughout their time in England.  It would be appreciated if you would continue to provide the level of service you have thus far demonstrated.

Sophie understood what that meant.

From Morrigan01: I don’t break the law when assisting my guests in whatever activities they do, or do not, conduct.

From BigBrother1986: I’ve seen to those who break the law, Sophie.  Your job would only be to provide them with the tools to do so.

Sophie’s heart leapt up into her throat.  The first email, delivered to her Brooklands address, made sudden and terrifying sense.  Someone from the underworld knew who she was.  The layers of protection Sophie used to insulate her civilian identity from her criminal one were painstakingly thorough and she added new defenses as techniques were developed or defeated.

For someone to contact her by name was unheard of.  It was horrifying, the possibilities of retribution for failure something she hadn’t really considered until that exact moment.  It was the nightmare scenario: a situation she had planned for, outlining a series of checkpoints and fake names, so that she could disappear before a dissatisfied client could find her or force her to give up her sources.

It was…intriguing.

From Morrigan01: I am unfamiliar with working under these conditions.

From BigBrother1986: Life is often unfamiliar.  Will you take the job?

Sophie mused idly at the prospect but, even as she did that, she knew she’d say yes.  The amount of money the client had transferred into her accounts simply to entice her was staggering.  Besides the money – perhaps more important than the money – Sophie was interested.  She’d worked at the behest of powerful people before.  There was an air of mystery and danger around these proceedings that she’d never encountered before.

From Morrigan01: Are there any restrictions you would care to outline?  Spending limits, equipment requisitions…anything of that sort?

From BigBrother1986: Your guests will have a better idea of their requirements than I will.  If a problem arises with the funding, simply open a line of communication and I will see to it that the problem is rectified.  Until such point, you should endeavor to provide the best service you possibly can.

A blank check, in essence.  A smile tugged at the corners of Sophie’s lips, but she kept it from her face.

From BigBrother1986: Of course, it wouldn’t due for you to attempt any sort of subterfuge.  Your skillset is impressive, Miss Morgan, but not irreplaceable.

From Morrigan01: I wouldn’t dream of it.

From BigBrother1986: Excellent.  I take that question as a tacit agreement on your part, then.  Did you have any further questions?

From Morrigan01: Would you prefer that I keep you up to date on what services and equipment I acquire for my guests?

Several seconds passed.  Three dots appeared next to BigBrother1986’s name and stayed there for so long that Sophie started to think a reply wasn’t coming.  She tuned back into the lady’s conversation.

“Of course, this isn’t the sort of thing I do,” she said.  It seemed that she hadn’t even noticed Sophie’s preoccupation.

“Of course not,” Sophie said.  “It’s simply one of those things.”

“Exactly!”  The woman clapped her hands together in excitement.  “Finally, someone who understands.  It isn’t about the sex or even that he makes for such delightful arm candy, it’s just…”

A soft ding let Sophie knew that another message had arrived.

From BigBrother1986: An asset closer to the situation would provide a clearer picture of events, yes.  Any assistance you provide will, of course, be remembered.

Sophie wasn’t able to start a response to that before BigBrother1986 logged off.  Almost immediately, five new emails appeared in her Brooklands inbox, all of them from the band’s manager.  According to the time stamps, they’d been sent within a minute of her first message.  It took her a moment to understand what had happened.

BigBrother1986 had somehow blocked her inbox from receiving new messages, presumably to make certain that Sophie’s attention was entirely on the conversation.  That was a neat trick, but wholly unnecessary.  The mystery client had claimed her attention from the start.

Sophie printed out the tickets and allowed the smile she’d hidden to appear on her lips.  Using a blank sheet of paper to conceal them, she slid both tickets across the desk to the woman, who secreted them away like nuclear launch codes.

“I would never do this,” the woman said.  “I know how much of a stereotype I am, and how silly it all is, but, it’s just that it’s…”  She trailed off.

“It’s something exciting,” Sophie said.

“Yes!  It’s something I’ve never done before and I just can’t help myself!”

Sophie’s smile turned secretive.  “Trust me, ma’am.  I understand exactly what you mean.”