Category Archives: With Friends Like These

With Friends Like These – Recap

Devlin O’Brien, up-and-coming art thief, is in very serious trouble.  When his old friend, partner, and the mastermind of some of his greatest successes suddenly betrays him on a job, leaving him for the Parisian police, Devlin finds himself at the mercy of the justice system.  Without any hope of dodging the charges – for crimes that, in fairness, he had been about to commit – he is tried, convicted, and imprisoned with some of the worst criminals that Europe has to offer for nearly three years.  Only the mentorship of the gentleman thief, Patrick Lance, helps Devlin to keep his sanity while he was behind bars; only his innate ability to think on his feet keeps him alive.

Six months before the end of his sentence, Devlin is inexplicably broken out of prison, via the machinations of an unknown player who seems to know every one of the thief’s moves, even before he can make them.  Despite his best efforts to slip free of any unseen nooses or traps, Devlin falls short of the mark, and is approached by a messenger at a particularly vulnerable moment.  The delivery is not a set of instructions, nor a threat, but simply information: Asher’s location, from only a few days before the jailbreak.  With these new documents in hand, and a bevy of questions bouncing around in his head, Devlin sets off to find revenge for the botched Paris job.

His first stop is Munich, to retrieve a set of passports he’d never planned to use again.  His old friend, Alexander Jeager, helps him to infiltrate the beer hall where the passports are hidden; when things go sideways, it’s the younger Jeager, Ally, who assists Devlin in navigating the crowded ballroom of twenty-something fans, all set to the driving music of the band Tokio Hotel.  Difficulties notwithstanding, Devlin emerges from the tumult with a new passport in hand, a little extra spending money, and two new – if woefully unsuitable – allies, waiting in the wings.

From Munich, Devlin travels to Kiev, the location listed in his packet of information.  There, he encounters a face he hadn’t seen since the Paris job: Anton Levchenko, bombmaker and all-around chemical expert.  Anton, also betrayed by Asher and left in the metaphorical lurch, teams up with Devlin in pursuit of the rogue criminal, only to lead them both in the presence of a representative of the Russian mafia.  Stanislav Novikof – and his bodyguards/muscle, Leonid and Iosif – is hunting Asher on orders from his Bratva superiors and the foursome proceed to run the man down to the abandoned docks, where Russian goods are smuggled into the country…or so they believe.  In reality, they walk headlong into a “face-to-face” meeting with Asher and a lethal trap.  Quick thinking is the only thing that keeps them from catching a bullet to the brain.

Forced to accept the changing circumstances, and to acknowledge that Asher has made connections powerful enough to be a serious threat, Devlin leaves the Russians to their own devices and catches a flight back to America, to confront the one person he’d hoped to avoid for as long as possible; his ex-wife, Sarah Ford.  Sarah greets Devlin with an arctic reception, at first.  As she comes into new information of her own, as well as her first job offer in months, she becomes too intrigued by the developing mystery to simply walk away.  She browbeats Devlin into working with her once more, and the two set out to steal a crown from the Museum of London (for unknown reasons) for a client (of unknown identity), in hopes that it will lead them closer to stopping Asher before he gets too much influence to be controlled or confronted.

Scattered across the globe, changed by the passage of nearly three years, Devlin’s associates and allies aren’t the assets he’d hoped for.  At least, not anymore.  But with enemies appearing at every turn, anyone else could only hope to have friends as loyal as these.

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Chapter 25

The town car came back around eleven PM that night.  I’d spent the hours since Sarah’s departure in a state of agitation.  When the call to head downstairs came, I was glad for the opportunity to act.  It wasn’t until I was comfortably seated in the back of the vehicle that I remembered how much time Sarah had promised me: one day.  There were still seven hours left before that deadline, but I couldn’t in good conscience be upset at her for cutting the time short.  She’d tolerated my intrusion back into her life better than I had expected – though, not with the happiness I’d secretly hoped for – but it made sense that she’d want to get me out of the country and away from her as quickly as possible.

The ride didn’t take long.  I felt the car stop, but couldn’t see outside through its black tinted windows.  The driver opened my door and I stepped outside into a sea of lights and sound.  San Francisco, or at least the portion that we were in, was fully alive.  I hadn’t been in America since the split.  It felt good to hear random snippets of conversation and to actually understand what was being said.

The area where we’d stopped was not, however, the airport.  It wasn’t even a bus station.  A titan of a building, countless stories of reflective surfaces and cold steel, grew from the street in front of me.  “Is this the part where you put two in my head?”  I asked the driver.  At the same time, I estimated the weight and height difference between the two of us.  It was possible that Sarah’s hireling had been co-opted by Asher and his backers; if this man moved, I wanted to be ready to intercept.

The driver turned to me and offered a confused smile.  “Pardon me, sir?”

“Nevermind.  Where are we?”

“Miss Parker asked me to pick you up from the Victorian, sir, and to bring you here.”

“Why?”

He shrugged.  “She didn’t say.  Would you like me to wait for you, sir?”

“You’re on the clock right now?”

Color crept into his cheeks.  “No, sir.  I am…working freelance for the evening.”

“Making money on the side, eh?”  I laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Well, nobody’ll hear it from me.  Why don’t you go blow off some steam somewhere while Miss Parker and I work this all out.  Just don’t go too far away; if one of us needs you, we’re going to need you quick.  Okay?”

I didn’t intend to, but the stress on Sarah’s pseudonym came through before my brain had a chance to clamp down it.  If the driver noticed the verbal italics, he didn’t comment on them.  “Sir?  Are you sure?”

“Go for it.  No reason you can’t have some fun while the two of us hash all this out.”

He looked for a moment as though he would speak again; then, he thought better of the idea and nodded instead.  “Miss Parker has my cell number.  Please, call whenever you’re ready.”

The driver walked down the sidewalk.  I watched him until the crush of people obscured him from view, and then turned back to face the building.  It was…impressive.  It stretched at least ten stories into the sky, composed of glass and steel, in a very utilitarian style.  International companies belonged in a structure like it, not individual citizens.

I winced, a split second after the thought passed through my mind.  I didn’t actually know that Sarah was single.  She’d received offers, even while we were still dating.  At this point, she’d spent four years single, and I struggled to believe that she hadn’t accepted one of the many propositions in the meantime.  That was my fault, though.  I had no place to get upset about it, so I steeled myself and entered the building.  Just inside, I saw a board with names listed in alphabetical order.  The first half of the nameplate was filled with corporations.  I recognized a few of the names, from looking over Sarah’s shoulder while she purchased the latest and greatest hardware for her network of state-of-the-art systems.  I ignored those and traced a finger down the names until I found “Bonnie Parker” listed on the seventh floor.  An elevator dinged nearby and I stepped inside, just as a businessman in a tailored Italian suit stepped out.

He looked at me once, without seeming to really notice my presence.  Then, as the shabby nature of my own clothing caught his eye, his look sharpened into curiosity.

I spoke before he could.  “Walk of shame.”  Not entirely untrue, from a certain arcane perspective.

He considered that for a moment, shrugged, and went on his way.  I rode the elevator up to the seventh floor and found Sarah’s room, at the end of a blind hallway.  I knocked on the door and, less than a second later, she opened it.  She still wore the same jeans, but the red top had been discarded.  Now, I could see her t-shirt: a picture of a young Michael Caine throwing a punch, with the caption “Knock ‘Em Dead.”  Her wild brown hair was pulled out of her eyes and held in place by a blue and red hair tie, although curls still spilled out of their containment with her every move.

“Uh…nice place,” I said, for lack of anything better.

She snorted.  “I want to show you something.”  Sarah walked away, leaving the door open and her invitation/command hanging in the air.

I stepped into the condo after her and used a few seconds to examine the room.  The action was purely reflexive: in any situation where I found myself on someone else’s territory, the first move was always to scope out possible exits.  Rationally, I knew that a seventh floor apartment left very few options for a quick getaway that didn’t involve the front door, and the search was over before it really had a chance to begin.  The place was a mess of haphazardly tossed clothing and scraps of paper with Sarah’s meticulous handwriting peppered every inch of available space.  A smell – burned food, perhaps – lingered in the air.  I cleared my throat.  “What’re you showing me?”

“Just come on.  Out on the balcony.”

I did as ordered, making a special effort to avoid looking down over the edge.  Instead, I kept my head and eyes level and looked out.  The city was beautiful.  From seven stories up, more of the twinkling city lights were visible, although the light pollution ruined the night sky and drowned out the stars themselves.  The night was unseasonably warm, so I removed my blazer and draped it over one hand.

“I love coming out here,” Sarah said.  “Just to get away from things.  I spend most of my time in the computer room, obviously.”

“Obviously,” I replied.  I had no idea where she was going with this line of conversation, but I was willing to give her some rope to get there.

“When I first moved out here, after…”  Sarah cleared her throat and her eyes flickered in my direction.  I turned slightly to face her, and her eyes slid away from me.  She continued her thought, as though the verbal hiccup hadn’t happened at all.  “I thought this place had the best view of the city.  Had to overpay like you wouldn’t believe, but I got it.”

I turned my eyes fully away from the city and looked at Sarah’s profile.  Her expression was wistful, her lips slightly parted.  I shifted nervously in place.  “It’s just a place,” I said.  “After I deal with the Asher situation, it’ll still be here.”

“I know that.  You think I don’t know that?  It’s not the view, Devlin; it’s the normality.  This was supposed to be my chance to start from scratch as an honest citizen, without the Ford name hanging over my head or all the underworld baggage that I got tied up in.”

I faked a cough.  “I don’t think this condo really qualifies as a normal one.”

Sarah chuckled.  The noise was sweeter for how unexpected it was.  “Fair point.  But it was a start.  It was supposed to be a start.”

“It still can be,” I said.  “This isn’t going to take forever.”

“That’s not my point, Dev.”

It felt oddly exhilarating to hear the nickname from her lips.  My heartbeat accelerated and I felt a little heat creep into my cheeks.  “What is your point, then?”

“You wouldn’t get it,” she said.

“I’m pretty good at understanding things, Sarah.”

“No, you aren’t.  Not with this.  This is one of those things you just wouldn’t get.”  She sighed and faced me.  “I got an email.  From your Puppetmaster, I think.”

The heat drained away and was replaced, in an instant, by a deep chill.  “What?  What did it say?”

“I’ll show you.”  She left the balcony.  I followed after her, through the condo and into a room at the end of a long hallway.

One of her computer set-ups was stored inside the room, clicking and beeping as it worked through some calculation.  Three monitors – Sarah’s preferred number of screens – glowed with a faint blue tinge, as she took her place in an extravagant chair.  Both the right and left screens were blank, except for the starry background she’d selected.  All available real estate on her center screen was monopolized by a page filled with numbers and letters.  She minimized it as I approached, and opened her email server, in its place.

“This,” she said, “showed up after I dropped you off at the Victorian.  Or…well, I don’t know exactly when it showed up, but it wasn’t there when I left and it was here when I got back.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a job request.”

I blinked.

“You heard me.  Somebody’s trying to hire me for a job.  I can only imagine they’re going to want to hire you, too.  The timing’s a little too suspect, otherwise.  I haven’t gotten a serious request in a year, if not longer.”   She rolled her chair out of the way, so that I could get close enough to the screen to read the message.  It was a simple email, stripped bare of frills or ostentation.  I finished and stood back.  Sarah watched my expression patiently.  “Well?”

“You can’t take it,” I said instantly.  “You definitely have to leave town now.”

The bemused look on her face sharpened into the warning signs of indignation.  “I don’t have to do anything, Dev.”

“They got into your server, Sarah.  If someone can do that, then…”

“Then they can find where I live, sure.  But, according to you, Asher already knows that.  If this was him, do you really think he’d tip his hand by sending me a message first?”

I paused and considered that.  “He might,” I said, feeling slightly petulant.  There was every chance that Asher would send a taunting message, but only if it were a part of some larger scheme.  He hadn’t revealed himself to me until he’d needed to keep me stationary while his sniper got into position.  “OK.  No, he wouldn’t.  But I still don’t know whether the Puppetmaster is on my side, or just against Asher and his handlers, whoever they are.”

“About that.”  Sarah clicked one of three attachments at the bottom of the email, and the previous spreadsheet filled with numbers appeared on the screen again.  “What does this mean to you?”

“Without any context?”  I skimmed across the information.  The numbers displayed were frighteningly large, and being moved across legitimate and illegitimate companies in alarming quantities.  Some of the names I recognized; others, I’d never seen before.  “Looks like a shell company,” I said finally.

“Looks like several shell companies,” Sarah corrected.  “I asked a…friend for help.  He couldn’t get me any answers, so I went looking on my own.”

“So?  Who’s this…”  I squinted at the top of the spreadsheet.  “…BMC?”

“They’re nobody,” Sarah said.  “At least, not that I can find.  But some of these other companies they’re ‘doing business’ with?  They have paper trails.  Nearly all of them are just shell companies.  The intricacy here is…it’s more than I’ve ever seen.”

“And you got this from whoever hacked your server?”

Sarah nodded.

There was a light that leaped into Sarah’s eyes when she got excited or intrigued.  When we’d worked together, it had been one of the many things I’d fallen in love with: that joy she felt whenever a problem piqued her interest and drew out her full potential.  She was better, even on her worst days, than most organizers, planners, and computer specialists I’d encountered.  When she was in the zone, focused and interested, Sarah left them all in the dust by a mile.

At that moment, she wore that glimmer like a cloak of diamonds.  It glittered in her eyes and she vibrated with tense, electric energy.

“What else?”  I asked.  I squelched the voice in my mind that warned me against drawing her any further into my troubles.

Sarah minimized the spreadsheet and opened a video file in its place, talking while she manipulated the windows’ positioning.  “Most of those companies are overseas, of course, in countries with some fairly severe privacy laws.  The locations I could track down are probably fake.  Every breadcrumb leads to another breadcrumb, and every one of those breadcrumbs just ends in a dead end if I follow the trail long enough.”

“Could you have done the same thing?”

“I could, but there really wouldn’t be a point.  It’s a maze of connections, just between any three names on that balance sheet.  Add in the totality of them, and it’s absurd.  And to tie all those into a single, overarching company?”

I looked back at the screen and, instantly, recognized what I saw.  “Where’d you get a copy of the bank job?”

“Came in the email.”

“What else did you get?”

“One thing at a time,” she said.  “Here, watch.”

Sarah pressed play.  The first few minutes of the video played out as I remembered: Asher and his crew subduing the people inside the bank, the explosion, the billowing smoke, and then the deaths of six Russian thugs.  I started to say something, when the image changed to a second video that I hadn’t seen.  In it, Asher held a decorated book of some kind under his arm.  He cradled it to his chest before he left the vault and, presumably, the bank.  “What was that?”

“The book or the video?”

“Both, I guess.  In that order.”

“I don’t know what the book is.  I was actually hoping you might have a clue.”

I shook my head.  “Never seen anything like it.  Did you ask any of your contacts?”

“My contacts don’t really know a lot about art,” she said.  “That’s more your area of expertise.  As to the second question, I’m assuming it’s exactly what it looks like.  I did have a relative expert check the validity of the footage.  It’s real.  Or, at least it hasn’t been altered.”

“Why didn’t the Russians show me that footage?”  I asked, and stopped, mouth open as realization hit me.  “They didn’t have it.”

Sarah clicked her teeth in agreement.  “It does make sense, doesn’t it?  But who might have had a reason to install a second, secret camera?”

We said the answer at the same time.  “The Puppetmaster.”

The two of us sat there, bathed in blue light, for a while.  Beyond her undisguised joy at a mystery to be solved, I couldn’t read anything in Sarah’s expression.  For my part, I felt the old familiar sensation creeping up on me.  My instincts told me that we were on the right track, but that we were missing a vital element of the puzzle.  Sarah moved before I did, sending the video to the taskbar and opening the third attachment: a high resolution picture of a golden crown.  I turned and raised a questioning eyebrow to her.

“It’s a crown,” she said.

“I can see that much, thanks.”

She shot me a faint, vaguely amiable, sneer.  “It’s a special crown.  Archeologists uncovered it in Wales and it’s on display at the Museum of London for the next two weeks.”

I mulled over that information.  “So, someone breaks into your server and sends you an email with a balance sheet for a mystery company, a file that shows Asher stealing a book of some sort, and a picture of a crown.  But without actually telling you what job they want to hire you for?”

“If you had to guess,” Sarah began, “what would you say the message is supposed to actually mean?”

“They’re connected, or else why send them together?  Asher’s the link between this BMC and the job in Limassol.  Stands to reason that he’d be the connection to the crown too, so…I’d guess someone’s trying to tell you that Asher is going after the crown next.”

“Five points to O’Brien,” Sarah said.  The twinkle in her eyes told me that she’d come to the same conclusion on her own.

I noticed, finally, the notepad I’d left on her seat.  It lay on her desk, just in front of the left monitor.  “Probably going to need that, if this gets any more complicated.”

“You’ve got no clue.  I had to start an entire file just to keep up with all the moving parts in this.”

“Can you send me that?  Figure I’m going to need that at some point.”

“I can,” Sarah said.   “You’ve got some time before our flight leaves, anyway.”

“Yeah, I can definitely use a refresher on the details, but…”  I stopped, as my mind caught up with Sarah’s last sentence.  “Our flight?”

“What, you thought I’d just send you off with my money, without making sure you don’t just run off with it?”

“Sarah, you can’t –“

She shot me a look, so packed with so much meaning that it actually took me aback.  There was that familiar glitter of interest, hardened by Sarah’s unbendable will, and something else that I couldn’t identify.  I could easily imagine how any argument would play out.  An hour or two of back-and-forth yelling – Sarah insisting that she was capable of making her own choices, me attempting to dissuade her from willingly jumping into a situation of literally incalculable danger – but she wasn’t ever going to budge.  I remembered that much about her.  It wasn’t a question of whether or not she’d take the job offer; it was a matter of exactly how much misery I wanted to earn before I eventually yielded the point.

“When…when do we leave, then?”  I asked, and tried not to feel too happy at the elation that appeared on her face and in my chest.

Chapter 24 (Sarah)

Hairs rose on my arms and the back of my neck.  D’Artagnan didn’t scare easy.  If this BMC, whatever or whoever it was, possessed enough clout to send him scurrying away, then things were well past my weight class.  I shuddered.  If these were the people who who were sponsoring Asher in his revenge plans, it was nothing short of miraculous that Devlin hadn’t found himself kidnapped right off of the street by now.  He had always been good, even spectacular, under pressure, but this situation was developing into a game of chess, taking places on layers miles above my own head.

For the first time since I’d listened to Devlin’s warning, I strongly considered cutting my losses and moving to a sparsely populated island in the South Caribbean.  Barring that, the Ford family kept a fairly sizable security force on hand.  They wouldn’t be enough to stop a suitably determined assailant, but a trip back to the estate could buy me the time I’d need to make more permanent arrangements.

Two things stopped me.  The first was simple, stark reality.  Someone had already cracked my email server.  If a given party was able to locate which server, of the countless anonymous ones that existed in the world, belonged to me, then that same party was likely capable of tracing my access.  And they would have known that I would know that.  It stood to reason, then, that the email’s sender didn’t wish me harm.  If that had been his or her intention, a sniper positioned on a nearby rooftop would have worked with a minimum amount of fuss.  A bomb would have a higher success rate, with a lower cost and commensurately higher collateral damage.  Neither of those things had happened yet, and so I chose to believe that the email’s sender was trying to do exactly what their message said: hire my services in pursuit of some nebulous goal.  Smart money pointed to BMC as the target, although I still had no idea who the client was.

The second reason, though I dug deep and tried to ignore the tiny voice within my mind, was Devlin.  He was in trouble.  That was nothing new.  He was always in one form of trouble or another.  But in only a few days, he had somehow found himself in so deep that he’d resorted to a redeye flight, straight from Kiev back to San Francisco on the off-chance that I might be able and willing to help him.  Asher was hellbent on avenging himself for the events in St. Petersburg, whatever those happened to be.  The madman had betrayed Devlin once and it was unlikely that he would call it even after a few short years in prison.  That was overshadowed by the sudden access and reach of Asher’s network, which only served to make the target on Devlin’s back even larger.  I knew it, he knew it, and a rare flash of intuition told me that the email’s sender knew it as well.

I turned my eyes back to the notepad and added the words “dangerous,” “mystery,” and “finances” beneath BMC’s header.  The list was growing too complex, crisscrossed with lines connecting names and nicknames.  With Darknet closed, the center screen was available to display information.  I opened a word processing program and entered the information there.  My fingers moved on autopilot, freeing my mind to consider other aspects of the problem.  When I finished, however, I’d drawn no new conclusions.  I saved the file under “conspiracy01” and closed the program.  If I needed to check the diagram again, or if something came up that necessitated an addition or subtraction, it would be available on any system I’d connected to the network.

My stomach rumbled, reminding me that I’d only barely eaten.  I went back to the kitchen and retrieved two more sandwiches, as well as a large cup of coffee, filled to the brim with creamer and sugar.  The Diet Coke simply wasn’t going to provide enough caffeine for the work that stretched out ahead of me.  I returned to the room and sat down.  Questions whirled through my mind at high speed, whipping into focus just long enough for me to dismiss them as either “unimportant” or “unanswerable.”  I sighed and lowered my face into my palms.

There was still a third file in the email.  I opened my eyes and clicked on it, hoping against reason that it contained a wealth of information that would help me unravel this growing mystery.  Instead, I found a single high quality jpeg.  It displayed a golden crown, dotted with large rubies and sapphires at equidistant settings along its exterior surface.  Underneath the picture, there was a watermark that read “Museum of London, 2015.”

I looked at the crown for several minutes, but it didn’t seem familiar to me.  Then, I maximized the email again and scrutinized each word, hoping that I’d simply missed an illuminating clue.  I found none at all.

“Okay,” I said.  “So we’ve got a company that apparently doesn’t exist, even though all evidence says otherwise; Asher stealing what looks like a book from a secured bank and killing six Russian Mafia guys to keep it secret from them; and, now, some crown from the Museum of London.  What is the connection?  What are you trying to tell me?”

The email remained the same as it had been.  The words did not change into an answer as I watched.

“Alright then.  Guess I’m on my own, then.”

There was a connection.  I was sure of that much.  I simply needed to figure out what it was.  The company, BMC, was an unbreakable enigma for the moment.  All I knew about them was that they were deeply involved in the criminal underworld in America, possibly overseas.  Their stock name had appeared on my ticker, which meant that BMC was doing well enough that an investment in their company had yielded returns.

I directed the stock market program to print out a list of returns from BMC for the last three years.  When the work was done, I leaned over the files and examined them with a fine toothed comb.  My program only sold stock in BMC whenever one of the overseas corporations I invested in went through some sort of trouble that affected their financial health.  Otherwise, the company continued to grow at an inhumanely steady pace, inching forward a few percentage points every twelve months.  That told me something.

“You’re based overseas, aren’t you?”  I asked the computer, staring straight at BMC on the screen.  “That’s why your business goes downhill whenever there’s a situation that you can’t control.  But where are you?  Exactly?”

There was no way to tell.  I had no email address or website to tag, so back-tracing the connection for an IP address wasn’t an option.  According to D’Artagnan, asking for help from the community of electronic junkies was out, as well.  I could set up a general conditional trigger.  If BMC ever started a website or sent an official email, a small web crawler could be programmed to tag the event and deliver a notification to me.  I didn’t expect that to yield any results, though.  According to my records, BMC had existed as a company for at least three years, and they hadn’t left so much as a digital footprint in the sand in all that time.  There was very little chance that, suddenly, the organization would grow sloppy enough to appear and make themselves traceable.  I decided, after a round of back and forth, to set the program up anyway.  Any information it could uncover would be better than no information at all.

I also knew that Asher had been involved in the heist at the Limassol bank.  That intel wasn’t unique to me; Devlin knew it, and he’d gotten it from Stanislav who had, presumably, been informed of the heist by his superiors.  What I did have that none of the other parties seemed to possess was a separate camera feed that showed Asher inside of the vault, liberating a golden book from a safety deposit box.  The book itself remained an unknown, as did Asher’s reasons for stealing it and only it when a wealth of other secrets laid exposed to his prying fingers.

According to Devlin, Asher had always been a master planner.  There was no way he’d rob a bank and leave the security camera on inside of the vault, unless he’d been showboating.  I stopped, thought, and then revised the thought.  There was no way at all he wouldn’t erase the camera footage, unless he didn’t know that camera footage existed at all.

It made sense, so long as I went with Devlin’s theory about two rival organizations.  One had installed security cameras inside the vault, to keep an eye on whoever came and went.  The other organization, instead of coming to the bank in person, had arranged for Asher to break into the vaults instead and steal the book.  That would keep their identities a secret, in the event of an aforementioned hidden camera.  Killing the Russians on site would have given Asher an extra buffer of a few days, while the Bratva attempted to work out the details of his double cross, and it would provide something of a smokescreen.  So long as I considered the situation from an entirely ruthless perspective – and, by all available accounts, ruthlessness was not a trait Asher lacked – the whole thing made a twisted sort of sense.  Except, of course, for the book.  Its contents were likely the key to uncovering Asher’s entire plan.

That left only the third file, the jpeg of a golden crown.  I’d never really concerned myself with jewelry, either to wear or to steal.  My specialized search engine was still open, though, blinking at me from the taskbar, so I navigated my way to the Museum of London’s website and did some reading.  According to the page, it was a recently uncovered relic belonging to a barbarian king from some forgotten land.  Financially, its worth ranked around where I would have expected for a jewel-encrusted item; historically, however, its value was incalculable.

“What does this have to do with anything?”  I asked myself aloud.  I clicked on a link, which led me to a page with greater detail on the barbarian crown.  It had arrived in London two days ago, and was scheduled to remain on exhibition for exactly two weeks.  After that, it would be whisked away to another museum.  Its next location wasn’t listed.  I considered making a serious attempt at breaking into the private communications of museum employees – specifically the curator and security consultants – but decided that it wouldn’t be worth the effort.

I sat at my desk, shutting my eyes to the soft blue backlights, and connected the dots.  Three disparate pieces of information that, on the surface, were entirely unrelated.  There had to be a link between them; if there wasn’t, I couldn’t begin to imagine what job the mysterious sender had intended to hire me for.  The mystery gnawed at me.  The company, BMC, that didn’t exist on any official record I could locate; Asher’s betrayal of a squad of Russian thugs, all so that he could steal a book of some sort from a safety deposit box; and the barbarian crown, located at the Museum of London for only a handful of weeks before it disappeared back into the ether.

When I made the correct leap, my eyes widened.   “BMC hired Asher to steal the book from the bank.  Then, they’re moving him over to London to steal the crown.”  It didn’t sound any less absurd out loud, but it fit the framework I was quickly building in my head.

If BMC, as an organization, was funding Asher in his revenge against Devlin and contracting his services to extract trinkets from various locations, then that made the entire company a very specific and powerful enemy.  My resources were nothing to scoff at.  Years of low- and high-level jobs, coupled with a very intelligent program designed to grow my wealth, had given me a healthy amount of capital to throw at problems.  To say nothing of the political and financial muscle I could summon simply through virtue of my status as a Ford.  A quick glance at the left screen showed me that, in comparison, BMC positively dwarfed me.

There were other questions, though.  I still didn’t know why BMC would bother targeting Devlin.  Despite his successes and his peerless instincts, he’d never been a corporate or political player.  I didn’t know what was in the book that warranted the murder of six gangsters, and I didn’t know why the crown was important to them.

I sighed, opened the conspiracy file again, and deleted the word “Trinity.”  In its place, I wrote BMC.  Another thought occurred to me, as I typed.  My childhood had been spent in the most orthodox of manners; even though my parents weren’t believers, it was important that we be seen as such.  So, I’d attended countless Sunday school classes and, with nothing else to occupy my thoughts, most of that information had sunk in on a subconscious level.  The name Balthazar sounded familiar, somehow.  A moment later, I snapped my fingers.  Balthazar was, according to apocryphal accounts over the centuries, the name of one of the three Biblical Magi.

I’d known Balthazar was a fake name immediately.  If my guess was correct, then I could guess at what the other two letters in BMC stood for: Melchior and Caspar, the two other Magi.  I wasn’t sure if that knowledge would turn out to be useful; at the same time, I’d yet to encounter information that wasn’t at least a little beneficial.  I deleted BMC and typed out “Magi.”  It seemed to fit.

If the Magi were the ones pointing Asher at targets like some sort of psychotically motivated gun, then that left one other party in play: the one that Devlin had nicknamed the Puppetmaster.  There was little doubt now that the email had been sent by the Puppetmaster.  I couldn’t begin to imagine how he or she or they had cracked into my server, but any group with the financial resources to go after a corporation like BMC had access to more than I could dream of.

A few questions had been answered but, in their place, a dozen more sprang up.  One thing was certain: if Asher was working with or for the Magi, there was little chance that he couldn’t hire a hitman to take me out on some inconspicuous night.  There was every possibility, in fact, that he’d already made arrangements.  Devlin was right; I had to leave San Francisco, at the earliest opportunity.  I did not, however, know where I would go.

I sighed again.  Of course, I knew where I would go.  Since the email had arrived – even before that, if I was going to be honest with myself – a part of me had emerged that I’d thought long buried.  In just a few hours of searching, I’d felt more alive than at any other point in the past four years.   It wasn’t Devlin, and it wasn’t the barbarian crown; it was the chase, the thrill of pursuing information that someone powerful wanted to keep hidden.  Although helping Devlin to stay alive a few more days was a bonus good deed I could add to my running karma total.

I pressed a button and minimized everything on all three screens, including the stock market program.  Most important files were already stored on a variety of encoded servers, including versions of D’Artagnan’s Darknet program backed up on safehouse systems around the globe.  I opened a browser and booked a flight, for two, to London.  It took me a little while to pick a pair of identities to use: names that would open the right lines of communication with the London underworld, but not ones that carried an unnecessary amount of baggage.  When I was done, I leaned back in the chair and sat, stone still, for five solid minutes.

Then, I reopened all of the programs and went back through each bit of information, one document at a time, until a second email arrived in my inbox.  Its contents weren’t unexpected.  In a long-forgotten part of my heart, it was even desired.

Chapter 23 (Sarah)

While my various anti-virus programs scanned the attachments for any malware, I pivoted towards the center screen and opened a cloud server.  This particular one served as a sort of portable hard drive for music files, accumulated and curated over years.  I considered the wall of file names for a few seconds before made a snap decision and searched for Fleet Foxes.  Music, piped through several speakers placed in the upper corners of the room, filled the room in an instant.  I turned back to the right screen and saw that the scans were finished.

“Alright, what’ve you got for me?”  A current of electric trepidation ran through my body, even as I leaned closer to the monitor in excitement.  Someone had co-opted my email server, and they’d done so without setting off any alarms or electronic traps.  That same someone had only sent a job offer with the access he or she had acquired, but they could have done more.  That possibly was as exhilarating as it was frightening.  It had been too long since I’d been challenged, in any significant way.  Not since Devlin and I split ways, and I gave up the game in favor of a more secure, within-the-legal-lines lifestyle.

The first file opened and stretched to fit the entire screen.  At first glance, it looked like nothing more than a default balance sheet.  Numbers and company abbreviations ran down the page in neatly organized columns.  At the top of the page, a header read “Financial Report for BMC, Inc.;” at the bottom, my first name and the number one, a slash mark, and the number 50.  The first of fifty pages, of…what, exactly?

“Why would you send me this?”  I asked myself out loud, and then I froze.  Slowly, I turned to look at the left screen – the one that operated, more or less, automatically and handled the buying and selling that constituted my income these days.  The figures shifted and changed as I watched, rising and falling in some financial dance that I had no desire to understand.  I found the information I was looking for in fairly short order.  That same abbreviation – BMC, Inc. – appeared on my screen as my automated program purchased stocks, waited for some unseen signal, and then sold them again at a profit.

I’d set up my stock market manipulator to display information on any company, whenever I clicked on a given name.  It was important to remain legitimate, and that legitimacy required that I occasionally have the slightest idea what I’m talking about.  I clicked on BMC, and a browser window opened and migrated to the center screen.  The search engine appeared, considered my request for a moment, and then returned an answer: “No information available.”

I tilted my head and took a long swig of Diet Coke.  “Alright,” I said to the computer, “let’s try this another way.”  Manually, I entered the abbreviation into a separate search engine of my own design that trolled more than just the top level of the internet and hit enter.  The same process happened again: my computer sent the question out into the electronic ether, the dark gods of technology weighed my request, and then decided that there was simply no information to give me.  Which never happened.

I leaned back in the chair and shut my eyes for a few seconds.  There were two more files attached to the mysterious email.  I could turn my attention to either of those and perhaps uncover something about BMC, whatever that was.  An unanswered question – any unanswered question, really – bothered me, though.  I decided, after opening my eyes and finishing off one of the Cokes, to split the difference.  I created a new throwaway email account through a virtual desktop to mask my footprints and sent a message to dartagnan3m@gmail.com.

From adleri@gmail.com: Hey, stranger.  Got a question, if you’ve got the time.

I hit send.  D’Artagnan and I had remained in contact, after the split, but not for very long.  He – I assumed it was a he, and there’d be no indication or complaints about that assumption – harbored a desire to meet in person and, perhaps, to form a relationship beyond our digital one.  I’d had no desire to find myself in another romantic partnership, especially not so soon after the disastrous collapse of my marriage with Devlin, and so I’d delicately distanced myself from D’Artagnan.  It had been six months since our last communication.

The reply came a minute later.  A bubble for a live chat appeared on the screen.  I retrieved a fresh Diet Coke and opened the chat.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Who is this?

From adleri@gmail.com: Irene.

As far as I knew, D’Artagnan didn’t know my real name; even if he had ferreted that information, I wasn’t going to use it and confirm suspicions.  Irene referred to the identity I defaulted to in my online interactions: Irene Adler, the only woman Sherlock Holmes had ever…well, not quite loved, but concerned himself with.  Devlin had picked it for me in our first days, before our relationship turned personal, and I’d grown attached to it.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Prove it.

I paused and considered.  His request wasn’t unreasonable.  In point of fact, some third party had taken over my server and it made sense that he would want proof of my identity.  I simply wasn’t sure how best to communicate that information.  My smile widened as a solution presented itself.

From adleri@gmail.com: Good fortune is the best of all mistresses.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Source?

From adleri@gmail.com: The Three Mouseketeers.

D’Artagnan had once confided in me that his user name derived from a childhood fascination with Mickey Mouse.  As an adult, he’d discovered the Alexandre Dumas novel and been incapable of properly pronouncing Musketeers, due to some fight-related injury he’d incurred during a bar brawl.  Instead, he’d used the word he did know and steadfastly called them the Mouseketeers for years, forgetting that he was using a childhood appropriation, until a client corrected him on a job.  The nickname stuck and, after a couple years fighting it, he’d discovered that he didn’t mind being known as the Mouseketeer all that much.

He didn’t send a reply for several minutes.  I spent that time, staring in consternation at the search engine and its “No results available” message.  As I did that, my automated stock market continued to buy and sell shares for a company that, according to the internet and my own personal search engine, didn’t exist.  When D’Artagnan did send a reply, the notification sound came as a relief from my own musings.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Where’d you go, Irene?

From adleri@gmail.com: Just got busy. I need to ask a favor.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: You didn’t burn your system out again, did you?  I can’t get you another CPU for at least six months. 

From adleri@gmail.com: No, of course not.  Just a name I need some information on.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: What’s the name?

From adleri@gmail.com: BMC, Inc.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Corporation or individual?

From adleri@gmail.com: I’m not sure.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: What’s your interest, then?

From adleri@gmail.com: Curiosity.  Can you check with your contacts, see what you can find out?

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: …fine.  It’ll cost you, though.

From adleri@gmail.com: Let’s see what you can find out.  We can discuss price later.

D’Artagnan didn’t respond.  Ten seconds later, he disconnected from the chat.  I shrugged and turned back to the email.  I closed the balance sheet, satisfied that the problem was under investigation – albeit, indirectly – and opened the second attachment, a large video file titled “Limassol15.”

The Limassol file turned out to be the data from security camera feed.  Smoke obscured the lens for the first few seconds of footage but, eventually, it cleared away to reveal a bank full of captive, quivering hostages.  Six men stood guard over them holding a mixed assortment of handguns and assault rifles.  They shuffled in place, speaking to each other, but the file had no sound.  As I watched, something pierced a persistent cloud of smoke around one side of the bank, and one of the men fell to the ground.  The rest followed in short order.  It wasn’t my first time seeing violence, but I gasped at the abruptness all the same.  Devlin had told me about the heist, when Asher had betrayed the Bratva for some unknown aim, but it was still difficult to actually watch the murders play out.

Then, the camera angle shifted.  Instead of the lobby, this second feed looked directly into the vault.  Asher stood there.  He held an assault rifle, braced against his arm, in one hand.  Smoke still trailed from the barrel up to the ceiling.  In the other, he held what looked like a very large, ornately decorated book.  He looked around the vault, smiled to himself, and then left the room.  The screen went dark as the video ended.

“Okay…”  I stretched my arms over my head and cracked the knuckles of my fingers individually.  “That’s new information.”

From what Devlin had told me, Asher had turned on the Russians, but he hadn’t finished the planned robbery on his own.  Instead, he’d removed the contents of a single safe deposit box, under the name of an “M. Balthazar,” and left the rest.  If this video was to be believed, his true objective had been a book.  I tapped an index finger against my bottom lip.  “But why a book?”  I asked out loud.

I rewound the video and watched it two more times, paying special attention to any details that I could glean from what was shown.  There was something in the file that I’d missed.  There had to be.  Otherwise, there was no reason for a third party to send it to me in the first place.  This newest clue, Asher’s book, was the key to this particular mystery.  That hadn’t been a part of the information Stani had shown Devlin, over in Kiev.  Either the Russians were keeping that tidbit to themselves – which was incredibly likely, now that I considered it – or they simply didn’t know.  Both possibilities were…intriguing.

I started the file up a third time and paused it when I had a decent angle of Asher.  The book was large and ostentatious.  The camera had abysmal resolution but, from what I could make out, the book was also golden.  Asher carried it as though it were a baby or a nuclear device: with extreme, delicate caution.  He made no attempt to check its contents.  I found myself learning even closer, my nose almost touching the computer, hoping for a glimpse of something that might help me to identify book.  There was nothing.

I sighed and, finally, took a large bite of my sandwich.  Since I’d entered the room, the tomato-and-mozzarella concoction had sat ignored on the desk.  Temperature and time had made the bread a little soggier than I would have liked, but it was better than nothing.  I ate the sandwich mechanically, paying little attention to the taste.  My mind was occupied with theories and possibilities.  I got up from the computer and walked back into the living room.  There, underneath my discarded clutch, I found Devlin’s notebook and a pen, which I carried back into the computer room.  I turned to a blank page and began to take my own notes.

To begin with, I copied over the general structure of what Devlin had written, only in more legible handwriting.  Then, I wrote “Limassol” and circled it.  I wasn’t sure which of Devlin’s organizations were involved with the bank job in Limassol, but I was absolutely certain that at least one had a stake in Asher’s golden book.  I leaned back and drank deeply from my soda.

“What else?”  I asked myself.  My eyes wandered back to the left screen.  The mysterious BMC didn’t appear in the scrolling list of companies and assets again while I watched.  I bit down on my pen’s cap in thought.

I blew out an explosive puff of air as I realized the trajectory of my thoughts.  “What the hell are you doing, Sarah?  Do you really want to go back to the way things were?”

I didn’t know the answer to that.  There was a thrill to being a thief and nothing I’d encountered since held the same allure.  I considered the question and then, privately, admitted to myself that I was bored with life in San Francisco.  My days passed in a series of routine activities.  I’d wake in the early morning hours, check my email for messages that never came, survey the stock program, and then wander throughout the city until it was time to eat.  I’d made few friends which was, at least in part, a learned survival trait.  My parents had tried to keep in touch, but they couldn’t begin to understand why I’d disappeared for so many years after college, and that hidden stretch of time drove a wedge between us.  My older sister wouldn’t deign to concern with what I did, beyond the bare minimum required by familial decorum.  I was safe in my palatial condo; at the same time, I had long since decided that safety was no longer a priority in my life.

A soft ping brought my attention back to the computer.  On the right screen, there was a new message from D’Artagnan.  I opened it and started to read.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Couldn’t find anything.  No charge.

From adleri@gmail.com: Nothing?  It exists; hell, I’ve got stock in the company or whatever it is. 

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Nothing to find.  Forget about it.

I paused.  The D’Artagnan I’d known six months ago would have treated a mysterious company, with no discernible digital presence, as an enigma that demanded a solution.  It wasn’t just out of character for him to take a situation at face value; it was downright disturbing.

From adleri@gmail.com: Forget about it?  Since when do you want me to forget about anything?

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: LEAVE IT ALONE.

I stared at the screen in shock.  I started to reply, but another message appeared before I managed to finish my thought.

From dartagnan3m@gmail.com: Darknet.

He disconnected.  I tilted my head, confused, for a single long minute before I closed the email server and opened instead one of the programs D’Artagnan had written: a specialized means of communication that routed our conversation through dozens of overseas servers, encrypting and decrypting it along the way.  He’d created Darknet as an overt homage to the underside of the internet, but had never actually used it for its intended purpose.  It was composed with redundant layers of paranoid security, even for thieves and hackers.  I’d always suspected that he’d taken its creation as an intellectual challenge; one that, after completion, he lost interest in.

Darknet was a beast of a program.  It took an absurd amount of time for the program to load, as it connected to servers and systems across the world.  While it worked, I tabbed back to the video and went through the heist frame by frame.  When Asher was on screen, cradling his prize like a newborn, I stopped and saved the image as a jpeg.  I’d look back over it again, after I discovered what secret D’Artagnan had uncovered that necessitated absolute secrecy.

Finally, a simple login prompt appeared on the right screen.  I moved it to the center, shunting the video to the toolbar in the process, and entered my information.  The system accepted my password, lagged for a full thirty seconds, and then allowed me into the chat room.  D’Artagnan, under his general name as the Mouseketeer, waited there for me.

Irene Adler: What is it?

Mouseketeer: BMC is bad news.  Dangerous.  Repeat: dangerous.

Irene Adler: It’s a publically traded company.  How dangerous could it be?  What did you find out?

Mouseketeer: Nothing.  Seriously, nothing.  Asked a few friends.  No one knows who BMC is, but everyone knows what they do.

Irene Adler: And that is?

Mouseketeer: Correction: what don’t they do?  Hiring out hitmen, hackers, bombmakers in large numbers for years.  Widespread influence.  National, possibly global.

Irene Adler:  That doesn’t make any sense.

Mouseketeer:  Right.  Searched them on my own.  Got what you got: nothing available.  Company that can move that much money, with no digital history?

It was possible, perhaps, for a very new company to find themselves without an online footprint, but the odds were vanishingly low.  Those numbers dropped even lower for any company capable of moving around enough money to hire the services of the underworld in the numbers D’Artagnan implied.  I started to wonder if I was being led down a rabbit hole, but a quick glance at my far left monitor showed the initials BMC appear once more in the scrolling feed of purchases and sales.  There was something to the business.

Irene Adler:  That can’t be all there is.  Thanks for the info; I’ll follow up, on my own.

Mouseketeer: NO.  Irene, just leave this alone.

Irene Adler: What are you so scared of?

Mouseketeer: Couldn’t get anyone to talk about BMC, at first.  Rumor is asking the wrong questions gets you disappeared.  Asking the right questions…

Irene Adler:  I’ve never backed down from a challenge before.  Not about to start now.  I’ve got some leads to follow, I think.

Mouseketeer: DO NOT TELL ME.  I like you, but this is…it’s something else.  I’ve got to look out for myself.

I hadn’t expected his help, but it was still surprising to see D’Artagnan categorically refuse to offer it.

Irene Adler: Fine.  Thanks for what you’ve done already.  You said no payment?

Mouseketeer:  Not for a warning.  Don’t want there to be any trail between us, anyway, if you insist on running this down.  But, Irene?

Irene Adler: Yes?

Mouseketeer: Be careful.

He broke his connection before I could reply and left me alone in the Darknet chat room.  After a minute, I did the same.

Chapter 22 (Sarah)

I rode back to my building in a daze.  Devlin’s notepad – the one with names and organizations haphazardly connected by sloppy lines – sat on the seat, where he’d forgotten it.  I’d noticed the pad just before the driver closed my door, and I’d wanted to call out to Devlin, but some emotion got stuck in my throat and kept me silent.  My voice returned a few minutes after we’d pulled away from the Victorian but, by then, it was too late.  I let my fingers play across the paper as I thought.

Seeing him again had been difficult.  I’d expected residual emotions, maybe even a little of that old attraction.  What I hadn’t anticipated was the magnitude of the tidal wave of memories.  They’d hit me with explosive force, the instant my eyes fell on him.   For the first five minutes, I’d barely been able to speak or move.  Devlin looked the same as he ever had: a little untamed, lit from within by some unnameable vitality, and roguishly charming in his casual wear.  Even his outbursts reminded me of his passion and his spirit.  I’d pushed him hard, hitting where I knew it hurt, and he’d pushed back.

Despite the surging feelings that lingered in dark, unexplored corners of my heart, I couldn’t forget our last job together, when he’d betrayed my trust on a fundamental level.  No matter what I said, Devlin’s sin had been worse – had cut deeper – than any insult I could hurl.  He’d known that, too.  I saw that much in his caution, how he’d avoided my eyes during the car ride.  His apology for that crime, spoken just before the town car’s opaque window blocked him from my vision had been like a balm to my injuries.

“You’re better than this,” I told myself.  Hearing my voice aloud gave my words a legitimacy that thoughts alone lacked.  “You’re past this.  You’ve got a life now, and it’s one he could never give you.”

But I wasn’t sure that I was past it all.  My emotions churned within me, shifting from one moment to the next and I realized that they were too complicated to sort out on the short ride back home.  I placed my face in my palms and tried instead, with limited success, to think about nothing at all.  I didn’t look up again until I felt the car ease to a stop.

The partition slid down.  “Miss Parker?  We’ve arrived.”

Distracted as I was, I almost didn’t respond.  The name was a pseudonym, of course; the matched identity to Devlin’s “Barrow” persona.  The very moment he’d booked a flight using that name, an automated program that I’d forgotten about automatically reactivated my own “Bonnie Parker,” creating four years’ worth of digital history in an instant for both names.  I’d been asleep at the time but, during my morning routine, I’d discovered that he was heading back to the States.  According to my research, Devlin’s prison sentence wasn’t supposed to be over for another six months.  I’d set up a clock on every one of my connected systems, with the express purpose of keeping me informed of that date and time.   My program, however, didn’t lie; someone using the Barrow passport was active and headed my way.  A quick search told me that he was en route from Athens, by the time I’d seen the notification.  I’d needed less than an hour to arrange for the town car, dress myself, and head for the door.

“Miss Parker?”  The driver sounded politely concerned, but distant.  Professional courtesy, without anything personal attached to it.  “Would you like to go somewhere else?”

“No, I…I’d just like to sit for a moment, if that’s okay.”

“Of course, ma’am.  Take as much time as you need.”

I wasn’t sure if limousine drivers were paid hourly or by assignment, but I resolved to leave this driver an inordinately large tip.  Part of that desire came from appreciation for his civility; the vast majority, however, was motivated by a personal desire for his continued discretion.  Bonnie and Clyde weren’t exactly rare names in America.  If this driver hadn’t figured out that I was using a fake name yet, he would undoubtedly do so in the near future.  It was better to purchase his silence before people started to ask him questions and he realized exactly how much that information was worth.

“Thanks,” I said.  I sat in the car for ten more minutes, tamping down my stray thoughts and wayward emotions at every turn until I felt calm and rational again.  Then, I reached into my clutch and found a hundred dollar bill.  “The company is being paid via company card, but this is for you.”

He turned so that he could see the bill in my mind.  His eyes widened.  “That isn’t necessary, Miss Parker.”

“I know.  I still want to do it, though.  Unless you don’t want it?”  I made to return the hundred to my clutch.

“No!”  He seemed shocked at his own outburst.  He stopped, smoothed his jacket of an invisible wrinkle, and plastered the vacant customer-service smile on his face again.  “I mean, if that’s what you would like to do, then that will be fine.”

“I’d hate to not reward such effective service, after all.”  He took the bill from my fingers.  I hesitated before I continued.  “Mind if I ask you a question?”

“Not at all, Miss Parker.  What would you like to know?”

“It’s kind of a personal one.”

He looked at me patiently in the rear view mirror.

“What do you think about love?”  I asked.

The driver blinked.  “What…exactly do you mean, ma’am?”

“I mean…” I struggled with the wording, suddenly unsure exactly what it was that I did mean.  “Have you ever been in love?”

He was silent for so long that I thought he wasn’t going to answer.  I’d just begun to move toward the door when he finally cleared his throat.  “I think so, ma’am.”

“Tell me about her?”  A beat passed, before I realized my mistake.  “Or him, whatever.”

“She was beautiful,” he said.  “Not like anyone else I’d ever met before or anyone I’ve met since.  She was so alive.”

“What happened?”

“She…I…we weren’t compatible, I think.”  He’d revised the sentence twice.  Worse for him, it had been obvious enough that the driver had to know I’d caught his mistake.  After a few seconds, he sighed.  “She cheated on me,” he said.  “I wasn’t quite enough for her.”

I chewed on that.  “I’m sorry to hear that.  What would you do, if you saw her again?”

“I still love her,” he said immediately.  “I don’t think that will ever change.  Two years of my life were defined by her.  Those two years will never go away, no matter how much I hate her or how much I claim to hate her.  But…”

“But what?”

“If I saw her again,” the driver said, “I think I’d want to make sure that she was doing okay, first of all.  After that?”  He shrugged.  I couldn’t see his expression, except for small glances when the light struck his rearview mirror at just the right angle.  “After that, I’d probably want to get back with her.  I actually did, once, maybe six months after we’d broken up.  It didn’t work out.  There were reasons we’d broken up, after all, and nostalgia hadn’t taken those away.  She didn’t want to change, and I needed her to.  But, I’d like to think I’d be smart enough to just walk away.”

I nodded and spoke without thinking.  “I don’t know that I am smart enough to just walk away.”

“That gentleman, ma’am?”

I blinked and cursed furiously at myself for the slip-up.  “What?  Him?  No, of course not.”

The driver turned fully in his seat so that I could see his eyes.  Nothing in them led me to believe that he’d bought my hasty backpedal.  I resolved, for the millionth time, to work on my poker face.  “Of course not, ma’am.  But if, hypothetically, that gentleman is the person you’re referring to?  I think you should try to remember exactly why you broke up in the first place.”

I considered lying again, but decided against it.  I knew my strengths and lying wasn’t one of them.  Moreover, there wasn’t any real reason to deceive this particular limo driver.  Either he believed me, or he didn’t.  Whether he did or didn’t wasn’t likely to influence my life in any meaningful way.  He didn’t even know my real name.  “Oh, I remember.  I’m just sure that it’s…I don’t know, it’s complicated.  I know a lot of people say that, but with him?  It is seriously complicated.”

“Would you like to talk about it, ma’am?”

I shook my head.  “No, but thank you for asking.”  I took another hundred dollar bill from my clutch and offered it to him.

The driver shook his head.  “Advice is free, ma’am.  One of the services your average limousine driver is happy to provide.”  He smiled at me and I smiled back.

“Well, thank you, then.  I don’t know that I have a better idea of what to do – or what not to do – but it’s still good to hear someone else’s thoughts on the matter.”  I opened the door and stepped outside.  The Madrone rose from the ground in front of me, the glass and steel monolith reaching up to the clouds from where I stood.

The driver rolled down the front passenger window, so that I could hear him speak.  “Miss Parker?”

“Yes?”

“There was also a reason that you two ended up together.  I think you should take both into account before you make a decision.”

Any fitting response eluded me in the moment, so I turned and went into my building.  The driver’s words, innocent and unknowing, stayed with me as I rode the elevator up to my floor and entered my condo.

Familiar surroundings gave me a sense of comfort, if not emotional stability.  I threw my clutch onto a nearby empty chair and went into the kitchen for a Diet Coke.  It was barely seven-thirty AM.  I’d read all of the literature on the effects aspartame had on the average person, and I’d told myself that morning – like every other morning for the past year – that I’d cut down in the future.  Today, however, I needed the caffeine.  The first chilled sip was like manna from the heavens.  I savored it for several seconds before I eventually swallowed the mouthful of soda.  I considered removing a second can, to save myself the hassle of another trip later on, but decided against that option.

An aborted attempt at an omelet sat, ignored and abandoned, in a small pan on the stove.  Next to that, an abandoned tablet’s screen was frozen on a YouTube video: “Cooking for Dummies.”  I wasn’t sure, but tendrils of smoke seemed to have lingered over the burnt eggs, stretching up to the ceiling.

“Score one for Sarah the chef,” I muttered.  During our marriage, Devlin had prepared the meals.  According to him, his kitchen skills were the result of years when his mother wasn’t emotionally capable of caring for him or even for herself.  Before him, I’d typically dined out or relied on the family chef to take care of breakfast, lunch, and inner.

I could easily afford to hire a chef of my own, even if my family chose not to provide the money.  Several qualified individuals, likely pointed in my direction by an overly involved relative, had offered their services for the position.  I was resolved, however, to better myself.  Just not this morning.  I removed a prepackaged sandwich from the fridge.  Then, I upended the skillet over the trash can with a silent promise to at least keep the eggs from burning on my next attempt.

I kicked off my shoes on the way to the second of my two bedrooms.  I’d finished a third of the soda by the time I reached the door.  “Of course,” I said. “Because it’s just that type of day.”  I sipped delicately from the soda and pushed the door open.

Computers were like extensions of my limbs.  I’d grown up around them, taught myself to speak their language, and devised countless ways of manipulating the flow of information in ways that benefited me.  Of all the systems I’d assembled, the one in front me was by far the most advanced and sophisticated.  Even using my illicit connections, the cost to import and smuggle the components all the way to San Francisco had been staggering.  Three monitors, each covered in various forms of data, looked back at me.   I approached them like an eager child.  There were more alerts scattered across the center monitor than I could count.  I took my seat, cleared away the nonessential notifications, and set the rest to reappear when I rebooted the system.

The right monitor showed, at that exact moment, a slowly rotating 3D model of the Earth.  For detailed locations, the program was useless, but it worked wonders when it came to general locations.  A tab showed my real name – Sarah Ford – over the San Francisco area; next to that, there was another small tab that showed Devlin’s full name.  The system wouldn’t be able to tell me if he left the Victorian.  It wouldn’t update me to his whereabouts at all, unless he used one of the identities I’d programmed in as pseudonyms to book a flight or buy a ticket.  There were other ways to leave the city – in fact, there were several ways that came immediately to mind that would let someone slip my net and even leave the country – but any use of a connected account would update the program with a new location.  I reminded myself that Devlin had chosen to use a name I was familiar with, specifically for the purpose of getting my attention.  Leaving now wouldn’t make any sense.

The left monitor was devoted entirely to the international market.  Stocks rose and fell, almost at random.  I paid them the same attention I typically did: virtually none at all.  The algorithms I’d “borrowed” from various Wall Street firms worked perfectly without any input from me.  I’d spent a week customizing the investment parameters to fit a certain threshold, and to alert me if any of the stocks I owned fluctuated beyond the norm.  Beyond that, I had no desire to deal with the minutiae of the trading.  Money meant little to me, except for the adventures it could make available.  I’d spent most of my life with an excess of one and now found myself with a distinct lack of the other.

I typed in a short command, relegating the right monitor’s globe to a side-mounted widget bar.  From there, I opened two tabs.  The first was an email server, designed to collect messages sent to any of my dummy accounts and organize them based on importance.  Certain words elevated the emails higher in the ranking.  “Job,” for instance.  “Security,” “electronics,” “computer,” and “services” worked in much the same way.  Since the divorce, I hadn’t worked a single job.  The offers had poured in like a sundered dam in that first year, mixed in with offers for partnership and more than a few vulgar passes.  The romantic overtures dried up quickly and, as time passed, the job offers withered away as well.  Now, the account served as more of a museum piece.

I checked the server each morning anyway, out of habit.  I expected to find the same screen, populated with the same unread emails.  So, I was surprised to find that the server was entirely blank, with the exception of a single unread email, marked as important by the automated custodian.  My heartbeat dropped away for a moment; when it returned, I felt its beat accelerating with each passing second.  The message had been written, as though from my own account.  That had a certain elegance to it that I could admire; there was no email address to trace, since the system treated it as a draft of something I’d written myself.  It also meant that someone had worked their way past my security programs and taken control of the account, for at least as long as it took to the write the message. I found myself guiding the cursor over to the email without even really thinking about it; even after I realized what I was doing, I opened the message anyway.

To Miss Parker:

Your services are required.  Examine attached documents, before accepting offer.  Manner and size of payment, open to discussion.

There was no farewell at the bottom of the email; there was, however, an attached document.  It looked like a Zip file, named, unhelpfully, “information.zip.”  The attachment was a fairly large Zip file, as those things went, which meant that the unzipped contents were likely massive.

“I don’t think I’ll be falling for that today,” I said, and clicked the trashcan icon in the top right of the screen.  The email was sucked away from the main window and vanished.

I swiveled the chair over to face the financial monitor.  The numbers scrolled by and I made no effort to make sense of them.  It was just comforting to not think for a moment.  I took a drink from my Diet Coke and was disappointed when a quick sip was all that remained.  Sighing, I stood and went back into the kitchen.  This time, I removed the entire twelve pack and carried it back to the computer room.  I put the sodas on the floor, next to the right monitor.  My eyes caught something and, without considering it, I looked up.  My jaw dropped.

The email had returned.  I clicked it open, and saw that its contents and its attached file were exactly the same.  “What are you all about?”  I deleted it a second time but, instead of turning away to remain lost in thought, I stared intently at the right monitor.  Thirty seconds passed before the email returned a third time.  I leaned back in the chair and whistled.

If my system was compromised, the smart thing to do was to cut all outside connections and thoroughly scrub the entire registry.  There wasn’t anything I needed on the actual hard drives, after all; almost all of my truly sensitive information was either memorized or stored on a series of cloud servers.  Something tickled at the edges of my thoughts, though – something that told me Devlin’s mystery might be more connected to my life than I’d first thought.

“You’re past this,” I said out loud.  “You don’t need this anymore.  You’ve got a life, and you don’t have to steal things anymore.”

I repeated that to myself two more times, with increasing hesitance.  Finally, I sighed, opened another Diet Coke, and clicked open the attachments.

Chapter 21

She said nothing as I took a place next to her in the backseat.  The driver entered from his door on the side of the car.  A moment later, the engine hummed to life and we pulled away from the curb.  My eyes went first to the opaque partition between the backseat and the front; then, after a moment of hesitation, to Sarah’s face.  She was stone still, a gargoyle in dark jeans and a blood-red button down shirt.  Her eyes met mine and bored into me, searching for…something.  I found a spot on the floorboard to examine instead of withstanding that examination any longer than strictly necessary.

“Uh…hi?”

“Hi?”  She repeated.  “That’s all you’ve got to say for yourself?”

“I, uh…thought I’d have more time to think of something clever, honestly.”

Somehow, her expression darkened further.  I imagined her eyes piercing through my torso, before Sarah flayed me alive with nothing more than her palpable disdain.  “What the hell are you doing here, Devlin?”

“That’s kind of a long story.”

“Oh?  Is it?  Well, let me tell you about why I’m here.”  She leaned forward and folded her hands together in her lap.  “Imagine what it would be like if you had built a life for yourself.  Started a business, maybe, or just made some good investments.  Maybe both.  You had things in your past that you’d rather not think about, but you were moving on.”

I winced.  I’d expected anger from her, but the reality was more painful than I’d thought possible.  Still, it was nothing less than I deserved.  “I didn’t know that you…”

“So,” she continued, ignoring my interruption, “you’re starting to make something of yourself.  And then, out of nowhere, you get an alert telling you that a name you’d forgotten existed is flying into your town.  And you just know – you know it like you know your own name – that it’s going to be trouble.  Can you imagine that, Devlin?”

“Sarah, I…”

“Because that’s what I’m going through.  So, go ahead and tell me: what the hell are you doing in my town?”

Facing up to my own emotions had never been easy for me, with the exception of anger.  That had always been second nature.  Pressed to the seat with the sheer force of Sarah’s scathing sarcasm, I defaulted to that old standby before my higher brain functions had a chance to engage.  “I’m here for you,” I said.  It took effort, but I forced myself to meet her eyes.  “I know that what we had is gone, and I know I’m probably the last person you want to see here, but I’m here to save you.”

She blinked.  “What are you talking about?”

“It’s Asher. He’s coming after you.”

Her expression transformed in an instant.  Anger turned to confusion.  “What?  Why?”

“He’s trying to hurt me,” I said, “and the best way to do that is to hurt you.”

Several seconds ticked by in silence.  I heard car horns outside, but the windows were tinted a deep, impenetrable black and I could see nothing except for the blank surface.  Finally, Sarah cleared her throat and leaned back into her seat.  “Start from the beginning.”

I did as she asked, going back to Asher’s betrayal at the Museé, on through my retrieval of our passports in Munich with Alex’s daughter.  When I finished recounting the events in Kiev, she sat immobile for a long time.  “Sarah?”

“I’m thinking,” she said.  A moment later, she sighed and lowered her face into her hands.  “Let me see if I’ve got this straight.  Someone – maybe one person, maybe a whole organization – decided that you should get out of La Santé ahead of schedule, but they didn’t tell you what they wanted in exchange?”

“Until they sent me that photograph,” I said, and then paused.  “I never said I was in La Santé?”

She raised her face.  “I knew where you were.”

“How did you know that?”

“I…keep track of things.  Anyway, that’s not really the point.”

I knew her tells, and I’d long since learned the minute signs that she was embarrassed.  I wisely decided not to press the matter.  “Okay.  But, yeah, that’s pretty much how it happened.”

“And they knew your size already?  When you got to the parking lot, I mean.”

“Not just that.”  I thought back to that first day.  “Whoever it was, they knew enough about me to know which car I’d pick.  Left the keys in the ignition and everything.”

“Or they just left keys and suits in every car,” Sarah said.  Her lips turned slightly up at the idea before she shook her head.  “That’d be insane, though.  Not that it isn’t already insane, but…so, after that, you went to Munich to get back the passports?  Our passports?”

I shrugged.  “What else could I do?  Whoever was out there, they’d already given me a name they could track.  I couldn’t keep using that without leaving a trail.”

“Fair enough.  And then, when you went to Kiev?”

“I thought I might be able to catch him off-guard, but that trap was already in place.  I just had the bad luck to set it off,” I said.  “But now he knows where you are.  He couldn’t wait to tell me that much.  That’s how I knew to come to San Francisco.”

“How could he know that?  You said he works with hired help normally, didn’t you?  Where’d he get the money to hire the kind of resources it’d take to track me down?”

“Hell if I know.  I went to jail for a few years and, when I came out, Asher had all sorts of connections, with people I’ve never even heard of.”

“That organization he was working for, when he went to Moscow?  With the three triangles?”

“The three that pointed up, yeah.”  I showed her the notepad I’d filled on the flight.  “This other symbol means…I don’t know what it means, actually.  Might be the organization that sprung me in the first place.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose.  “So, Asher is trying to make you pay for what happened in St. Petersburg and to do that, he’s working with this one shadowy organization.  The…”  She checked the notepad.  “Trinity?”  Her nose scrunched up slightly in distaste.

I shrugged.

Sarah’s eyebrows drew closer together while she considered the name before she, probably deciding that she didn’t have anything better offer, accepted the sobriquet I’d landed on.  “Okay, Trinity.  And Trinity’s got enough influence to outright threaten the Russian mafia into doing what they want.  But there’s this other group, the…Puppetmaster?  Who might be working against Trinity, maybe, or they might be an entirely different group that has nothing to do with the whole situation.”

“It’s possible,” I admitted.  “But I don’t think so.”

“Why not?  Asher’s made a lot of enemies in the past.  Just in this last year, he pissed off you, the Bratva, and presumably the organization he’s working for in the first place.  There could be a lot of people who want to catch him, and they don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.”

“I know that, but…”  I trailed off, unable to find the right words.

“But what?”

“But it doesn’t feel like that.”

Sarah bit down on her bottom lip in thought.  “Let’s say you’re right.  What’s your role in all of this, then?  Why get you out of prison just to send you after Asher if he’s got the sort of connections you’re talking about?”

“That’s what I want to know,” I said.  “But don’t worry about any of that.  It’s my problem.  This is all my fault, and you got caught up in the middle of it through no fault of your own.”

“Devlin.”  Sarah’s voice lowered slightly.  It forced me to abandon my careful examination of the black window and lean in to hear her.  “What, exactly, happened in St. Petersburg?”

I saw the fires again, as brilliant and vivid as they’d been that night.  Phantom screams echoed in my ears and I felt heat on my fingertips.  I shuddered involuntarily and pushed the memory as far away as I could.  “I…don’t want to talk about that.”

“Fine.”  It was obvious that she wasn’t pleased with my non-answer.  “Whatever happened, was it enough to justify sending Asher off on this revenge bender?”

“Apparently,” I said.  “Which is why I came here, to warn you.  He knows where you’re living and I don’t doubt for a moment that he’d send someone to kill you.  You need to get out of town and lie low somewhere.  At least until I can get ahold of him and stop all of this.”

“How are you going to do that?”

I took in Sarah’s appearance: exactly as beautiful as the last time I’d seen her, even with her bed-hair rampaging out of her control.  My answer came unbidden to my lips, and I spoke it aloud with the absolute conviction of the fanatic.  “I’ll do whatever I have to.”

Sarah sighed.  “What, you’re just going to hunt down all of them?  This Trinity, the Puppetmaster, Asher…I need a diagram to keep all this in mind.”

“If you promise to get out of town, you can have mine.”  I offered her the notepad.

She did not reach out to take it.  “I can’t just leave, Devlin.  I’ve got connections here.  People will miss me if I just disappear.”

The bottom of my stomach evaporated in an instant.  “People?  So, you’re…?”

It took her a second to understand my implication.  The temperature in the car dropped a few degrees as she turned a glacial stare in my direction.  “That isn’t really any of your business, is it?”

“No, you’re right, it isn’t,” I said, while I smothered the sudden impulses to find and hurt someone.  My time in La Santé had changed me more than I wanted to admit, even to myself.  “But if there’s…someone…you should get them and get out of town.  Can you do that for me?  Please?”

Sarah sat there for another long stretch.  “This is just like you,” she said, finally.

“This is…huh?”

“Whenever you’ve got a problem, you always bring it to my doorstep.  Now, I’ve got to pack up and leave town, just because you’ve got a problem with Asher over something that happened years ago?  Something you won’t even tell me about?”

“I didn’t bring this to your doorstep, Sarah!  Asher wants to hurt me, and he’s always wanted to hurt you, ever since we teamed up to begin with.  He sees it as…I don’t know, some kind of betrayal that I didn’t drop everything the second he showed back up.  Whether I came here or not, even if I’d stayed in prison until the end of my sentence, he was still coming for you.  You think he tracked you down in the last three days?”

“You expect me to believe that you only came here because you were worried about me?  With our past?”

That brought me up short.  I choked down another outburst and picked my words carefully.  “What I did doesn’t change how I feel about you,” I said.  “Even if it did, we were partners for a long time.  That means something to me.”

“It didn’t mean enough, though, did it?”

I grit my teeth.  “If you want to just hurl abuse at me, that’s fine.  I earned it, and I’ll take whatever you’ve got to dish out.  But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a madman with access to a disturbing amount of resources who knows where you live.  All I’m asking you to do is to get to somewhere safe.  After that, you don’t ever have to talk to me again, if you don’t want to.”

She tilted her head.  “And you’re going to do what, exactly?  You went through all that effort to slip your patron, so you’re not getting any help from that quarter.  And, without that, it’ll just be you up against Asher and whatever resources he can throw at you.”

I hesitated before I spoke again.  We had managed to reach the part of the conversation where I asked Sarah for help, in the most indirect ways imaginable.  Whether she would help or simply hang me out to dry was up in the air, still.  “I’d need access to an account.  Not a big one; just enough to get around while I’m looking for leads.”

Sarah sighed, but there was a difference in her bearing.  “Of course you do.  Any other favors you want from me?  Not that you deserve them, but still.”

“Another passport would be nice.  This one’s got…a history.  If he didn’t think to look for this identity yet, he’s going to get around to doing that, sooner or later.”

She rolled her eyes and passed a weary hand over her eyes.

“The accounts and the passports are mine too,” I pointed out.  “But as soon as I finish dealing with Asher, I’ll give control back over to you, if that’s what you want.  I’m not here for the money.”

“That all?”

“There’s a…phone, too.”  I fished the sniper’s locked cell phone out of my pocket and passed it over to her.  “The sniper in Ukraine had that on him.  I don’t know if there’s anything I could use on there, but it’s locked, so….”

She snatched the phone from my hand in a sharp movement, her long fingers catching the phone with expert ease.  I’d taught her that sleight-of-hand technique and an unreasonable surge of pride welled up within me at her practiced usage.  “You want the company card too, while you’re at it?”  She asked.  Sarcasm, cruel and biting, seethed in each syllable.

“Sarah.”  Without thinking, I reached out for her hand.  She snatched it away.  The action sent another stab of regret through my heart, but I managed to keep the agony from my face.  “As soon as I finish dealing with Asher, I’ll give control back over to you, if that’s what you want.  I’m not here for the money.”

“I know that.  You think I don’t know that?”  Her eyes narrowed to slits for an instant, and then relaxed into a look of resignation.  “But it wasn’t about me, either.”

I searched myself and found, to my dismay, that there wasn’t an answer to her unspoken accusation.  Whatever I said, she would refute and deny.  I ran the risk of irritating her beyond her limits if I pushed my own point any further.  Besides, there was an element of truth in what she said.  My mistake had been motivated by a lot of things and there was nothing I could say or do that would convince her how deeply I regretted it.

Sarah banged on the opaque partition; after a moment, it slid down and revealed the driver at the wheel.  “Take us to the Red Victorian,” she said.

“Of course, ma’am.”

The partition slid back up.  Sarah took out a smartphone out of a small clutch and began to navigate through its menus.  “I’m putting you up at a bed and breakfast for a night,” she said, without looking up.

“Why would you do that?”

“Because you need a shower,” she answered immediately.  She glanced up and her eyes softened slightly.  “And because I don’t want you under my feet while I’m working.  I’ll arrange access to one of the Cayman accounts for you and see which identities are still viable.”

“Sarah, I – “

She talked over me.  “And I’ll see what I can do about this phone.  If there’s anything on it, then I’ll print you a copy.”

“That’s great and all, but what you really need to do is get out of town.  Everything else can wait.”

“That’s easier for you to do than me,” she said.  “I’ve got a business to worry about, and that requires a little more notice than simply disappearing overnight.  Algorithms have to be written to cover my absence, I’ll need to hire a double for any appearances I need to make, and I’ve got a pet to take care of now.”  She bit down on her lip at the last item.  “And my main setup is located here.  If you want me to find out anything, this is where it’ll have to be.  After that, I’ll go to ground until this all blows over.”

I noticed that, in her listings of things to handle, Sarah had conveniently failed to mention the presence of another person.  “So, there isn’t anyone else?”  I asked, before I could stop myself.

Anyway,” she said, layering sarcasm and stress on the two syllables.  She finished with her phone and returned it to her clutch.  “This shouldn’t take more than a night, Devlin.  I appreciate you coming to warn me, I really do, but you being here is…dangerous for me.  In a lot of different ways.”

I didn’t understand what she meant by that.  Asher’s men had already tracked her down.  She wasn’t in any more danger by my presence, than she was without it.  If anything, she was considerably safer, since Asher would likely prioritize my own death and give her a little extra time to make an escape if he made his move.  Instead of sharing my thoughts, I opted for a sincere look of gratitude.  “This is so much more than I expected, but thanks, Sarah.”

“Don’t thank me,” she said.  “Listen…this doesn’t mean we’re on good terms again.  What we had is gone, understand?”

I nodded.  “I do.”

“Good.”

The town car slowed and then stopped.  I heard as the driver made his way around the car to my door.  When he opened it, I saw that we were now in front of a tall, cinnamon red building.  “The Red Victorian” was written across the front in large white letters.  A couple sat at a café table, only a few feet away from where we sat.

“Devlin?”

I turned. “Yes?”

“You’ve got to leave town after this,” Sarah said.

I’d thought my heart had reached the bottom of my stomach.  Something opened up in me, and my heart sank even further, past the soles of my feet and came to rest beneath my shoes.  “I know.”

“It isn’t that I…”  She stopped and shook her head.  “Nevermind.  I’ll handle this for you, but then you’ve got to skip town.  I’ve done too much just to lose it to a vendetta between you and Asher.  Even worse, between this Puppetmaster and Trinity.”

“I get that.  Really, I do.”

“Just show them your passport,” she said.  “They’ll show you where the room is from there.  I’ll have someone pick you up to take you to the airport in the morning.”

I stepped out of the car and started toward the front door.  I made it two steps before I stopped and turned back.  “Sarah, I’m…I’m sorry.”

She met my eyes for less than an instant.  My notepad, covered in scribbles and half-formed ideas, sat on the seat beside her.  Her driver closed the door and went back to the driver’s side.  He pulled the town car away from the curb and back into traffic with a brief tip of his hat to me.  I stood alone in front of the Red Victorian, doing everything in my power not to notice the happy couple eating a meal near me.  Then, defeated in every way that mattered, I pivoted on my heel and went into the building.

Chapter 20

Stani phoned his superiors and they made the necessary arrangements on their end so that I would have a business-class ticket in whatever name I desired at the international airport. I requested that they use the name I’d flown in under; the same name that Sarah and I had used at our wedding. I’d personally watched her write a program to monitor the usage of certain names – although I hadn’t understood the fine technical details, at the time – and I was certain that she’d extended the reach of that program to cover any of our previous aliases. I could only hope that she took the signal as a flag of truce and didn’t, for instance, mark the identity as a wanted terrorist, purely out of spite.

We went first to a local clothing store. So late at night, the shop was closed, but a terse phone call from Stani brought the owner, bleary eyed and stumbling, from his home. I purchased new clothes with the remainder of the money Alex had lent me. The outfit he’d given me back in Munich was far too large for me to begin with and the encounter at the docks had left the outfit soaked in my sweat. When I peeled it off of my skin in exchange for a pair of khakis and a long sleeved shirt, I breathed a small sigh of relief. Things had started out of control, and spiraled farther off into insanity over the past three days. It felt good to have a grasp on at least one thing in my life.

“What do you think?” I asked Anton.

“It is not bad,” he said, hesitantly. “But does it really matter right now?”

“It’s been a…long time since I’ve seen her. I figure the least I can do is look my best. If you had to go see the love of your life, wouldn’t you want to –?” I stopped mid-sentence.

Neither Anton nor Stani moved for a long time. Finally, Stani spoke up. “You should see a tailor, if you wish to really stand out.”

I didn’t miss the way his back stiffened or how he pointedly avoided looking in Anton’s direction. “Time’s kind of a commodity, or I would.”

He shrugged. “It will do, then.”

“I think,” Anton said suddenly, “that I will go now.”

“What? Why?” I asked.

“You will go to see your ex-wife to warn her about Asher, no? And Stani will deliver that sniper to his superiors, so that they can see what information can be…coerced from him?” Both Stani and I nodded. “Then I will help, as well. Asher must have worked with someone. He is only one man.”

I thought about that and then nodded. “No matter how much money he’s suddenly got to throw around, he’s still got to hire them from somewhere or someone. Unless he’s just pulling trained snipers off of the street, I mean.”

“Perhaps I can find out something – anything – about where his money comes from. Or, maybe who it is going to. After all,” he shrugged and offered a weak half-smile, “everybody needs a bombmaker, no?”

It was a sound idea. I couldn’t have stopped Anton from doing whatever he pleased – at least, not without a physical confrontation – but I realized with some shock that he was asking for permission. “Alright,” I said. “But keep in touch. Use that email address I gave Stani if you find out anything.”

“Of course,” Anton answered. He inclined his head to me. Then his eyes met Stani’s; they held the contact for five seconds before Anton averted his gaze and ducked out of the room.

Stani saved me from the awkwardness by simply changing the subject outright. “What will your employer think of tonight’s events?”

“I don’t know,” I said, honest as a saint for once. “But it’s my problem to deal with. Whatever happens from this point on, it’s going to be on my head to fix it.”

He scratched his thin growth of facial hair in thought and nodded in commiseration. “My superiors feel the same. It would have been very bad for me to return home without something to show for the effort.”

“That hired shooter’s got to be worth something.”

“Perhaps. We will see, I suppose.”

We went back to the car. Leonid sat in the backseat, examining the bullet wound in his partner’s shoulder. Blood soaked the upholstery, but Leonid didn’t appear worried. “Is it bad?” I asked Stani, as we got into our own seats.

Stani shook his head. “It is a flesh wound. After the airport, we will go to a local doctor and have it taken care of.”

“Are you going to wake him up like you did that shop’s owner?”

He gave me a slight smile. “This doctor is a…coworker. Our business will not be unexpected.” He started the car and began to drive.

It wasn’t a long trip back to the airport, but it passed by in the blink of an eye. Adrenaline had kept me awake, at the bar and later at the trailer, but it was rapidly draining away now and I felt hollow without it. My eyelids grew heavy and it took all of my focus to stay awake. I didn’t realize we’d parked until Stani cleared his throat.

“Already?” My own voice sounded sluggish to my ears.

“Yes. Your flight back to the States leaves in…” He checked his watch. “Fifteen minutes. You should not have trouble with security, if you move quickly.” He took several bills from his inside jacket pocket and held them out for me.

I was in no position to turn down assistance, so I took the money without a second thought. “Got it.” I forced myself out of the car, dragging my feet slightly. “I’ll keep you informed about anything I find out while I’m there.”

Stani nodded. “I will do the same.” He paused. “Devlin?”

“Yeah?”

“Be safe. When the rich fight, it is the poor that die.”

I blinked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It is a Russian saying. It means…” He thought about his words for a moment. “I am afraid that you and I – maybe even Asher – are small pieces of something larger.”

“Pawns, you mean.” Someone had sprung me from jail and pointed me at Asher, like a weapon. Someone else, probably not the same puppetmaster who’d provided me with an escape, was providing my former partner with considerable resources. It stood to reason that Asher’s proprietors had their own demands of his skills and time. “Pawns are the first pieces to go, by and large.”

“Exactly.”

Concern from the Russian was unexpected, and it took me a second to process his sincerity. “You too, Stani.”

Stani had been right: at the sight of my passport, I found myself fast-tracked through the security line and customs. As with my entry into the country, only a few hours earlier, my lack of luggage sped the process up even more. I made it the terminal with a good five minutes to spare before it took off. My seat had plenty of leg room and I was one of only five people in the cabin on that particular flight. The regular amenities were there, of course: privacy screen, flat-screen television, plenty of room for the luggage and carry-ons I didn’t have. I concerned myself with nothing beyond the electronic panel at the side of the seat, which laid my seat back until it was nearly horizontal and the additional pillows one of the attendants gracefully provided. Before the flight was ten minutes out of the international airport, I was fast asleep.

The reclined seat was the closest thing to a bed I’d had access to since La Santé. It was hard to believe that I’d barely been out of prison for three days. I hadn’t slept during the other flights and jaunts, so much as I’d closed my eyes and simply stopped thinking for a while. Rest felt like a divine gift and I fell into the black nothingness of slumber with almost greedy abandon. I woke three hours later, just long enough to leave the plane when it landed for a brief layover in Greece. I purchased a gyro at a stand, ate it mechanically, and then found two adjacent seats by my second terminal. There I slept for another two hours, uncomfortable in the metal seating, before the flight all the way to San Francisco began boarding. I dragged myself up, onto the flight, into my seat, and fell once more to sleep.

The flight from Athens to San Francisco was scheduled to take nearly eleven hours. I didn’t wake up for the first four. Even when I was awake, it took an entire hour and a half, as well as a comically large cup of coffee, before I was capable of forming coherent thoughts. I spent the last five and a half hours, considering the situation with Asher and his mysterious backing organization. Twenty minutes into building my mental map, I asked an attendant for a pen and a notepad.

There was a greater game being played. I knew that much in my bones. What I didn’t know, however, were the particulars: what was expected of me, what Asher’s goals were, or how the various players I’d encountered so far fit into the grand scheme of things. I started to draw a diagram on the notepad, beginning at the bottom. I wrote my own name, circled it, and then added a question mark.

“What do you want with me?” I asked the paper and, by extension, the mysterious puppetmaster who floated out there in the ether somewhere.

I drew lines and added additional names: Asher, Stani, and Anton. Asher’s name was written on the opposite side of the page from my own and followed by three question marks. Stani’s and Anton’s names appeared under a small header that read “Bratva.” I gave the paper several minutes of serious contemplation before I added Alex to the sheet, with a small “J” under his name. His first wife had been killed by Russians; I would never be able to forget that day, as long as I lived. I didn’t think there was a connection between Asher’s newfound affinity for the Russians, but I couldn’t afford to rule anything out. I left Ally’s name off.

There were five names on the list now. I went back and added explanatory text beneath the lines. Asher and I were connected by our previous partnership and his homicidal, obsessive desire to make me pay for the events of St. Petersburg. Alex and I were friends and had been for years. Stani worked directly for a wing of the Russian mafia, based out of Moscow, and he had some history with Anton. Asher had taunted them with the implication of a romantic relationship, and neither man had denied his claims. I closed my eyes and, unbidden, the image of Stani’s mutilated hand materialized in my mind. As far as I knew, Alex and Asher barely knew each other, and their relationship had ended long before the ambush in Italy. Stani and his Russian superiors had sent Asher to steal something from a rival organization’s banks, but his betrayal had left them holding the metaphorical bag.

I paused. “You’ve got your own men now.” I tapped my pen’s tip against Asher’s name. “So why go to the Russians for soldiers, if you’ve got your own?”

I wrote the question underneath Asher’s name, in shorthand, and went back to clarifying the connections. I’d worked with Anton a few times in the past, but not enough that Asher would specifically target the Ukrainian. At the same time, my former partner was driven now by desires I couldn’t begin to understand, and I decided not to rule out the possibility.

The names on the paper, and the lines that linked them all together, gave me nothing to work with that I hadn’t already known. I’d hoped that seeing it all in ink in front of me might trigger some realization; none came. I drew the three upright triangles that had appeared on Asher’s letter at the top of the page, went over them several times so that the ink was thick, and circled it. Inside the circle, I wrote “Trinity” and drew a line down to Asher’s name. For lack of a better title, Trinity would have to work as the name of Asher’s mysterious backers. Next to that, I drew the same symbol but inverted, circled it, and wrote “Puppetmaster.” That bubble was connected to my own name.

Between Puppetmaster and Trinity, I drew a two sided arrow and, underneath that, added seven different question marks. “What did I get myself into?” I amended the thought after a moment. “What did you get me into?” I tapped the Puppetmaster’s bubble.

I closed my eyes again. There were too many questions to ask and far too many angles to consider. I didn’t have enough information to make an intelligent decision in either direction. In virtually any other situation, I would have done the smart thing: disappear like smoke in the wind, and simply wait until one party or another decided to make a move. But if Asher was involved, and if he suddenly had access to the type of resources he’d need for an international operation, then Sarah was in danger. I hadn’t gotten her into the game, but I had connected her to Asher. If anything happened to her that I could stop, that would be my fault and I was not willing to deal with the possibility of her getting hurt on my account.

I didn’t harbor any hope that she’d be happy to see me. Our last fight had made her feelings perfectly clear. All I needed to do was to warn her. She had the skills to disappear and she certainly had access to the necessary resources. As soon as she was safely out of the crosshairs, I could return my full attention to dealing with the threat Asher constituted. With the support of the Bratva, it was entirely possible that I might even accomplish something.

At some point, I fell asleep again. I didn’t realize I’d done it until an attendant gently nudged me back awake.

“Sir?” Her voice was cautious. “We’ve landed, sir.”

I blinked sleep from my eyes and vague shapes eventually coalesced into the form of a young woman. “Already?”

“Yes, sir. Would you like some assistance to help you out of the plane, sir?”

“No, I’m fine.” I turned the notepad so that its writing was hidden against my leg. “What time is it?”

“Six AM, local time,” she said.

I groaned, but rose from my seat. “Thanks for the wake-up,” I said. “Mind if I keep the pen?”

“Of course not, sir. Are you…” She hesitated. “Are you sure you’re alright, sir? If you don’t mind me saying so, you seem a little…out of sorts?”

“Just going to see the ex-wife. I imagine she’ll have all sorts of things to say when she sees me again.”

“Oh.” She opened her mouth to add something else, decided against it, and plastered a customer service smile on her face instead.

I disembarked without another word. As soon as I entered the terminal, the doubts and questions that I’d wrestled with on the flight over vanished and were replaced, almost instantly, with a crushing anxiety. It was ridiculous that, with everything else going on, the thought of seeing Sarah again after four years dominated my thoughts, but there it was, pressing against the walls of my skull. I tapped the notepad against my leg as I walked toward the exit, passing through the requisite security checkpoints without really noticing them. Silently, I ran through a dozen different opening lines.

“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Fancy meeting you here.”

“You look…good.”

I discarded them all with a pained grimace. Years spent in the underground, navigating through precariously worded arrangements with dangerous individuals; just as much time working the field, conning CEOs and heiresses out of their money; and a full year in a hellhole of a prison where the wrong word could have earned me a shiv didn’t offer a single insight as to how I should approach the situation. She’d kicked me out; she’d made it perfectly clear that she had no desire to ever see me again, in any conceivable context; and yet, here I was, back in America looking specifically for her. I hoped, somewhat counter-productively, that my search for her would take a few days. That would give me the time I needed to find the right way to speak to her again.

I was so lost in my own nervousness that I nearly missed the driver, waiting patiently by the front of the airport. He held a sign that read “Barrow” in large, block letters. I blinked at the same time as my heart began to skip every other beat.

“Barrow?” I asked, as I approached the driver. “Clyde Barrow?”

“Yes, sir,” the driver said. He lowered the sign. “Are you…?”

“Yeah. I think that’s for me.”

“Ah. Very good, sir. If you would follow me? Your limousine is waiting outside.”

I narrowed my eyes, but followed the driver outside. If this was a trap, I had no real way to escape it. Whoever had sent the driver for me knew the name on my passport, and it was the only one I had access to. I barely had enough money to survive for a day in San Francisco, and I couldn’t leave the country again. Someone wanted to see me and there was nothing I could do, except to grant their wish.

The limousine wasn’t a limo, in the stretchy sense of the word. A Lincoln town car sat at the curb, glistening in the early morning light. The driver went to the rear passenger door. I tensed, prepared to flee at the first sun of danger. He opened the door. My jaw dropped.

“I, uh…I…” My grasp of the English language evaded any attempts to pin down actual words and I opted for disconnected syllables, instead.

“Get in the car.”

“What…but I…”

Sarah glowered at me from the backseat. “Get. In. The damn. Car.”

Chapter 19

Iosif spun away from the impact, clutching at his shoulder at the same time.  Instinct rammed through the other four of us like a live wire.  As the Russian teetered and lost his balance, his partner stepped up to cover the falling man with his own body.  Stani joined him, after a moment, and both Russians sent a hail of covering fire off into the darkness.  None of the bullets had the vaguest chance of hitting a target, of course.  Deep within the docks, with the starless gloom of night settled in around us, it was all I could do to make out the vague silhouettes of the four people I’d arrived with.  Wherever our invisible assailant was, the odds of a lucky shot ending the conflict before it had a chance to escalate was slim to the point of irrelevance.

I squeezed off a few bullets along the general trajectory of the sniper’s bullet as well, as I scrambled to my feet.  I ran straight for Iosif, who had slumped to his knees.  His eyes blazed, though, and his teeth were gritted.  “Anton, where are you?”

I saw him a second after the question hit the air.  The Ukranian was huddled in relative safety, squeezed in the thin space between two shipping containers.  Unless there was a second shooter, and I wasn’t willing to rule out that possibility, nothing short of divine intervention would give the sniper a clear angle.  Anton looked at me and I could see, in the barest second’s worth of eye contact, that he understood what I was going to do.  His eyes took in my forward momentum; the fallen Iosif; and Stani, standing shoulder to shoulder with his associate, firing blindly at a target they had no hope of hitting.  Then, he ducked further into the darkness between the two containers.

“Damn it!  Anton!”  If he heard me over the roar of guns, the explosives expert gave no answer or sign.  I dropped and slid, just as the second sniper bullet whizzed through the air.  It passed like an angry hornet a foot or two to my right and dug a furrow into the dirt where it ended up.  My slide brought me to just behind Iosif.  He was trying, and failing, to force himself back to his feet.  I laid a hand on his shoulder without thinking; he winced, cursed in his mother tongue, and fell back to the ground.  My hand came away sticky with blood.

“The trailer!”  I yelled at Stani’s back.

He didn’t acknowledge me until his clip reached its end, and he was forced to perform a tactical reload.  “What?”

“That trailer!  The office…whatever you want to call it,” I said.  I grit my teeth and pressed down hard on Iosif’s shoulder wound.  The Russian let out a string of words that had to be vile, but he didn’t try to throw me off.  “We can’t stay out here.”

A third bullet came through the darkness.  It struck the side of a nearby container and then ricocheted off elsewhere with a painfully sharp twang.  Stani looked at the container and then made a decision.  “Help me with him.”

The Russian was easily double my size, and he looked like the sort of person who carried more muscle than fat.  I moved so that one of his arms was over my shoulder.  Stani gave an order to Leonid and the man slammed an extended magazine into his empty gun, a heartbeat after the weapon clicked empty.  His submachine gun allowed him considerably more latitude with ammo.  Short bursts of fire seemed to be helpful, if in no other way than forcing the sniper to take shots that he or she would otherwise not have missed.  When Leonid started up another rattling barrage, Stani took up Iosif’s other arm.

We moved as fast as we were able, supporting Iosif’s considerable bulk, as Leonid provided covering fire in brief, brilliant explosions of light and fire.  The sniper sent three more rounds in our direction.  Two went entirely wild and struck nothing nearby.  The third shot came periously close.  When it hit a metal surface, close to my face, I flinched away and was rewarded with a scoring of steel chips and splinters up my cheek.  I felt dampness there and decided that, if the injury was bad, I was better served ignoring it until I was in a position to deal with it.

I don’t know when he decided to move but, at some point during our fighting retreat, Anton left his hidey hole and slipped into the trailer ahead of us.  I started to form a particularly cutting series of invectives the instant I saw his shadow slip into safety.  When Stani and I reached the trailer and half-carried, half-heaved Iosif into cover, I was too tired to call up the appropriate amount of anger.  Leonid fired off a sustained burst of bullets until his gun clicked empty.  He slammed the door shut and, for lack of a better option, shoved a heavy chair in front.  Then, he locked the door and looked to Stani for further instructions.

Two more bullets pierced the thin walls of the trailer, and left twin pinholes in their wake.  Then, there was silence. I touched my cheek and was relieved that to find that the cuts weren’t deep.  I wiped away the layer of blood.  “How bad is he?”  I asked, pointing to Iosif.

Iosif said something to Stani, who translated it back to me.  “He says that he is angry.”

“That’s nice, but what about his arm?  That’s a…lot of blood.”

There was another quick exchange of Russian between the two.  Stani raised his voice at the end of their discussion and Iosif lapsed into sullen silence.  “He will rest until this is over,” Stani said.  I got the distinct impression that he’d abbreviated the conversation its ultimate conclusion, but that wasn’t important enough o warrant more than a moment’s worth of consideration. “What is this?  What is happening?”

“A trap,” I said, “inside of another trap.”  I drew conclusions at lightning speed, speculating at some points when necessary.  “He knew the Russians would send someone to investigate, but he didn’t know who or where.  So he set up an alarm system – maybe a motion detector? – to let him know whenever anyone entered that back room.  But whoever he hired as a sniper would need time to get in position, and he couldn’t actually get to anyone inside the building.  So Asher needed to stall so that we’d still be here, and then he needed to get us back outside so that we’d be sitting ducks.”

Stani knelt next to Iosif and tore a long strip of fabric from the sleeve of his sportcoat.  He tied it around the bullet wound and knotted it tight before he spoke again.  “How do you know all of this?”

“I know how he works, that’s all.”  I grimaced.  “Apparently not well enough, though.”

Anton hadn’t spoken since well before the shooting had begun.  Now, he cleared his throat.  I spun on him with fire in my eyes.  The heat died away when I saw how absolutely terrified he was.  “What should we do, then?”

I spent another five seconds considering the merits of a cathartic rant, but decided to shelve it until later.  “If he can call for backup, they’d be close by, but I don’t think he can do that.  Asher runs as light as possible.  The more people he’s hired, the more people who can be bought out by another party.”

“So, the sniper might leave, then?”

“He might, sure.  He might also drop dead from a spontaneous heart attack.  I don’t think either outcome in particularly likely, though.”

Stani finished with Iosif’s makeshift tourniquet.  He took the handgun from within Iosif’s jacket, ejected the clip, and then pocketed the bullets.  “So we wait until someone comes along?”

“Not a chance,” I said instantly.  “He thinks I’m just going to sit here while he lines up a shot at Sarah, then he’s lost his damn mind.”

Stani’s expression reminded me that he had no idea who Sarah was to me.  “What, then?”

I thought over the possibilities.  “If that sniper can’t get to us out there, he’ll have to come after us in here.”  Stani and Leonid nodded, unison. “He’s probably better armed than us.  I’d wager he’s got the sniper rifle, but maybe something else more suited to a close-quarters situation.  He can’t have come entirely unprepared.  Something like that submachine gun you’ve got, Leonid?”

The bodyguard lifted the weapon and raised an eyebrow.  Stani translated the expression.  “No.  He would not have something so small.”

“Small?  Seems like a submachine gun is kind of a heavy gun to be just carrying around.”

“It is portable, yes,” Stani said.  “It is not a strong weapon, though.  I would carry a larger rifle, in his position.”

“An AK?”

He shrugged and nodded.

“That’s more of a long range gun though, right?”  I shook my head as soon as I’d asked the question.  “And this is a sniper we’re dealing with.  How would an AK work in quarters this small?”

“It would work fine.  That is the point.  It works fine in almost every situation.  But…”  Stani trailed off.

“But what?”

Anton answered in a whisper-soft voice.  “It would be difficult to turn quickly with such a large barrel.  If he were in a hallway, or somewhere too tight for him to easily move, then the gun would not be ideal.”

“That’s something, then.”  I formed a plan and dismissed it almost immediately for a variety of reasons.  I bowed my head in thought, shifting my weight from one to leg to another.  Something resettled in my pocket and, as soon as I realized what it was, a new idea twinkled from the depths of my mind: something insane and suitably unpredictable.  I turned the second plan over in my mind, examining it for critical flaws.  Finding none, I motioned for Leonid and Stani to come closer.  “This is what we’ll do.”

It took three minutes to explain the barebones of my plan, and two more before we got into place.  Iosif was moved to an empty room next to the office, where he complained about his treatment to Stani.  I gathered from the complete lack of reply in the same language, that Stani had chosen to ignore his bodyguard’s protestations.  After those first five minutes, it took another two before we heard scraping sounds from outside the trailer.  I borrowed one of the Russian’s signals, and held up a closed fist: the international sign for “hold fast.”

Thirty seconds later, the door to the trailer creaked open.  The barrel of a Russian-made AK-47 peeked through the crack first, and was followed by the shadowy silhouette of the sniper a moment later.  He swept the gun from right to left, checking the corners of the center room immediately with an ease that came only from great practice.  When he walked further into the room, I noticed that he wore heavy-duty military-grade combat boots, relieved perhaps from a pilfered shipment or purchased at a surplus store.  When his footsteps made next to no noise, even to someone who was deliberately listening for them, I amended that thought and added the possibility that the sniper had come by the boots in the honorable way.  Russian hitters had always been numerous, and the fall of the Soviet Empire had done nothing more than flood the market with skilled, easily purchased assets.

The sniper, who I took as Russian for lack of any other available information, came fully into the room and shut the door behind him.  A barely audible click let me know that it locked behind him.  Without lowering his eyes, he removed a wrapped shape from his back and laid it on the floor.  Unburdened, he moved deeper into the trailer.

There were four rooms in the trailer, not including the office at the back.  Iosif was sequestered in the farthest free room with Anton; I trusted that they would both stay quiet until the crisis was past.  Stani and Leonid hid behind an opened door, with just enough room for the larger Russian to peek out into the living room without being seen in return.  The barrel of his gun was just barely visible.

I’d never killed anyone in my long career.  It was rare for violence to become necessary at all, in any form.  Sarah and I had operated with a minimum of fuss.  More often than not, we were already on a return flight by the time any of our marks realized what we’d done.  If I’d found myself confronted with a hitter, then I had made some horrific mistake earlier in the assignment.  Still, at that moment, I drew from my own deep well of rage.  Asher had found Sarah, and he’d sent this sniper to ensure that I wouldn’t be able to save my ex-wife from the revenge of a madman.  If someone insisted on getting in my way, there was no telling how far I’d go to protect her.

I took in a long, steadying breath and waited.  I didn’t have to wait long.  A voice, computerized and tinny, spoke a long string of Spanish from somewhere in the building.  I watched as the sniper’s attention swiveled to face the sound, just as the voice repeated its single sentence.  The attacking Russian moved toward the couch, under which I had hidden Jules’s cellphone.  I tensed, waiting until he was fully committed to searching the area and, therefore, not prepared for an ambush.

I looked back to the doors at the end of the hall.  Stani mouthed something in English.  It took me a second to decipher it.  “Are you ready?”  He’d asked.

I placed an index finger on my lips and shook my head.  “Not yet,” I mouthed back.

The Russian wasn’t a complete mook, as it turned out.  He slowed just before he leaned over the couch to examine the source of the computerized voice and tilted his head in confusion.  My eyes met Stani’s and I nodded.

In the enclosed space, Leonid’s Makarov boomed like a mortar round.  The sniper’s life was saved by pure luck.  In the instant when he’d tilted his head, unsure of what he should do next, Leonid’s bullet passed through the air where his skull had been.  Leonid recovered quickly and squeezed off two more rounds that struck the sniper center mass.  He rocked back under the hits, grunted, and then lifted his assault rifle.  I caught the glint of layered Kevlar plates beneath his shirt.

Hiding wasn’t an option.  The walls in the trailer were too thin to provide much protection against a sustained spray of bullets.  We had no room to maneuver and, seeing as the sniper had thought to wear some sort of body armor, shooting him was out of the question.  The amount of time it would take to line up a headshot would be at least double the time the sniper would need to perforate us.

Instead of freezing, I charged, screaming incoherently in a mixture of terror and foolish courage.  The sniper stepped back, shocked and surprised at my wild assault.  I could actually see the realization of his superior position occur to him seconds later, and a smile crept across his face.  He leveled his gun at my head.

I fired my own weapon wildly as I ran.  Most of the bullets only served to add additional holes to the trailer’s walls, but one hit the sniper’s body armor, just above the solar plexus.  He took two steps away from me, the wind knocked from his lungs before he could brace himself.  The smile vanished from his face and he aimed his gun once more.  That’s when Stani hit him from the side like a ballistic missile.

The short Russian didn’t have much mass, but he struck with every ounce of momentum he could muster.  The sniper was driven to the floor with an audible crack.  His assault rifle skidded away from his hands as the knuckles struck the metal flooring.  He and Stani struggled with each other, nothing more than cloud of hands and feet, for several seconds, before Stani managed to gain the upper hand.  He straddled the disarmed sniper and swung, hard, at his face.  The sniper turned his head slightly, so that the first punch missed.  The second, third, and fourth did not.

The whole encounter took less than a minute.  Leonid was just beginning to come out of his hiding spot, his Makarov held at the ready, when he saw Stani astride the fallen and beaten sniper, his eyebrows leapt in undisguised disbelief.  “What?”  Stani asked, when the look became too much for him to deal with.  “It is not the first time I have fought.”

I kicked the fallen assault rifle away before I knelt next to the sniper and began searching through his pockets.  “You saved my life,” I said to Stani, as I worked.

“No.”  He shook his head.  “You saved mine.  I was…paralyzed, at first.”

I could see that the admission caused him nearly physical pain.  If either Anton or Leonid spoke English, Stani’s pride might not have let him say anything at all.  “Call it even?”

Stani considered that. “I must admit,” he said, “I am glad that your employer saw fit to send you to Ukraine.”

I started to respond, when my fingers brushed against a small cell phone, hidden in one of the sniper’s numerous pockets.  A cursory attempt to check its contents provided me with nothing except a view of the lock screen.  I slipped the phone into my own pocket and then retrieved the one I’d borrowed from Jules.  “Anton,” I said, raising my voice slightly, “it’s over now.”

The door at the end of the hall creaked slightly open.  “Did you…?”

“No.  He’s still alive.  Probably not too happy about that, but it is what it is.  Stani?” The Russian had been cracking his joints with a systematic method that seemed entirely too painful to be of any use.  He stopped when I said his name.  “What’re you going to do with this guy?”

He flashed a grin at the unconscious sniper.  “I am sure there is much he can tell us about Asher’s organization, his contacts, and the like.”

I was fresh out of good will and couldn’t scrounge up even the slightest concern.  “Well, have fun with that.  But…”  I decided to gamble on any good will I’d accrued.  “Anything you find out…I’m going to need a copy of that.  Personally.”

Stani frowned.  “What do you mean?”

“Tell your bosses whatever you want, of course,” I clarified.  “I’m not trying to get in the Bratva’s way.  But if you need to get some information to me, directly, or to my…employer, I want you to route all that to me.  I’ll sort it and figure out what’s relevant.”

“How would you like me to do that?”

I blinked.  I was already working on an entire selling pitch to convince Stani to help me.  “Just like that?”  I asked, slightly miffed that a decent speech would go to waste.

“You and your employer share enemies with me and mine.  Asher tried to kill me and he tried to kill my…associates.”  His eyes flickered over to the room where Anton remained.  It was only for a split second, but it was long enough.  “If sharing information with you helps us to find Asher, then I am happy to do it.”

“Alright, then.”  I felt a small tinge of guilt for misleading Stani, but not enough that I wanted to clarify the situation.  “I don’t think I’ll be using this phone very long, so…”  I sighed and, after a moment of frantically considering other options, gave him one of my burner email addresses that I hadn’t checked in four years.

“And you, Devlin?  Where will you be going?”

I felt the locked phone in my pocket and reminded myself that, no matter what I did, Sarah was already in Asher’s crosshairs.  He knew where she was and without information, she was defenseless.  “Home,” I answered, finally.  “I’m going home.”

Chapter 18

The reaction from my allies was instant and dramatic. It was also woefully useless. Anton leapt in surprise closer to Stani, who took a short step away from the computer, one hand dipping closer to his holstered weapon. Leonid drew his own handgun, a high caliber with a barrel like a mineshaft, and pointed it at the screen. Iosif did nothing at all, aside from widening his eyes in shock and surprise.

Asher’s eyes witnessed all of this and his cocky smile didn’t budge an inch. After a brief rush of adrenaline accelerated my heartbeat into the triple digit range, I managed to meet his smirk with a fake one of my own. “Me? Prison? You must be getting your information a little behind schedule.”

“Must be,” he said, agreeably. “I’ll have to look into my sources, I suppose. Decide whether or not their information is still worth keeping them around.”

Stani said something to his bodyguards in Russian.

Asher laughed. “You can try that if you want,” he said, “but it’s just going to be a waste of time. What do you think, Dev?”

I bristled at his use of the shortened nickname, which was probably the only reason he’d done it in the first place. With effort, I kept the smirk plastered on my features. “Think about what?”

“Ah, yes. I forgot that you don’t speak the language. Really, you have got to start working on that. Hell of a failing for an erstwhile international thief, don’t you think?” I ignored the jibe and waited for Asher to continue. His smile dimmed slightly at my non-reaction. “Your suited friend there was suggesting that his associate should search the immediate surroundings. Seeing as I can so obviously observe what you’re doing, I suppose he believes that I must actually be close to you.”

I shook my head. Without turning, I addressed Stani. “He’s right. Just because he’s on the screen now, doesn’t mean he’s anywhere nearby. If I had to bet, I’d say he’s out of the country already.”

Asher clapped his hands together. “Ten points for intelligence, Dev! Glad to see your time as a ward of the French state didn’t rob you off your smarts.”

“Far from it,” I shot back. Despite my focused exertion of willpower, my cheeks were growing hotter with each passing second. My hands clenched into fists at my side. “In fact, if you want to tell me where you’re at, I’ll be more than happy to demonstrate exactly what I learned in La Santé.”

“Tempting, but I’ll have to pass. If you want to have that chat in person, you’ll just have to pick up the pace, won’t you?”
I narrowed my eyes and glared at the computer screen; Asher’s expression remained lightly amused. Now that I was looking, I could see the tiny red light at the top of the computer screen that indicated the web camera. “You never used to be all that tech savvy,” I said after a moment. “Picking up some new tricks?”

He shrugged. “I’m not as skilled as your lost Lenore, no, but it seemed like a useful skill to learn. I saw what she was capable of, same as you. What, you don’t like?”

“It isn’t bad. Little clumsy with the bait, though.”

“It caught you, didn’t it?”

The back-and-forth was familiar. It was easy to fall back into the pattern, although my own shots were laced with anger. I knew, academically, that there were three other people in the room with me and the computer monitor, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about their presence. In my mind, there was only Asher and me.

“Fair enough,” I said. “So. What do you want?”

He adopted an innocent, beatific expression. “Me? What makes you think I want anything from you?”

I walked over the desk and picked up the forged ledger. Each number was written with a precise hand, exactly in its appropriate place. I held it up to the camera. “You went to a lot of trouble to get me here. You’re saying you did all that just to gloat?”

“If you’ll remember,” he said, “I wasn’t quite expecting you to be here with the Russian boys. Your presence is something of a surprise. Not an unpleasant one, of course, but certainly not one I’m unprepared to take advantage of.”

Leonid said something to Stani. He replied to his guard in a terse voice and then switched back to English, in order to address Asher. “What did you want from me, then?”

“Your name is…Stanislav, right? That’s what your friend there calls you.”

My Russian was so weak as to be nonexistent, but even I could tell that neither Leonid nor Iosif had said the syllables that formed Stani’s name since the computer switched on. I was fairly sure that no one had said his name since we’d entered the trailer.

Stani noticed that as well. His lips sealed tight and pressed tighter into a tight pale line.

Asher’s smile deepened and turned a little sinister. “Not your mooks there, of course. I’m referring to Anton.”

Stani’s taciturn expression shattered in an instant. His eyes turned to saucers. I looked away from the computer fully to take in the sudden shift with more of my attention. Anton’s face mirrored the Mafioso’s, down to every minute detail: shock, mute horror, and a slowly dawning realization that Asher knew something they dearly wished he didn’t.

“Oh, you haven’t told him yet?” Asher giggled, so clearly pleased with himself that I wanted to reach through the monitor and wipe the Cheshire grin from his face with my bare knuckles. “You’ll like this, Devlin, seeing as you’re such a huge proponent for the redeeming quality of love and all that. The story goes that Stanislav there actually grew up in Kiev. Spent the first eighteen years of his life here, even after he got involved with the mafia. And can you guess who his very best friend was, all those years ago?”

“S-silence!” Stani’s voice thundered in the small space. I winced, but resisted the urge to cover my ears.

Asher continued, undeterred. “Now, we both know about Anton’s…proclivities. And,” he dragged the syllable out, “we both know that people with his predilections are not exactly welcomed in the Russian sector of our beloved underworld. So, tell me, Dev. What conclusions can you draw from this?”

It took five seconds for an idea to surface, and another five before my mind connected the appropriate dots. My eyes traveled from Stani’s furious expression, down to his left hand and its missing fingers. “You two?” I asked. With the pieces laid out in front of me, it made perfect sense. The odd quality of their interactions fit with ex-lovers. Stani’s explosive anger in particular resembled too many deeply closeted people I’d encountered on various jobs over the years; instead of accepting themselves, they turned that hatred outward. Anton, openly gay if not comfortably so, was a perfect target for that explosive rage.

Stani averted his eyes from mine instantly, before I could read anything in his expression. Anton met my searching gaze, blinked slowly, and then carefully turned so that his eyes faced in the opposite direction of the Mafioso.

“Isn’t that just darling?” I faced the monitor again. Asher was still on the screen, alone in whatever room he occupied at that moment, with a sadistic smile plastered on his face. “A tale of forbidden love set against a backdrop of crime and brutal homophobia! Really, it’s quite the tale.” He lowered his voice and looked past to me, to Anton. “Personally, I think you can do better than someone who’d throw you to the wolves, the second someone takes the very small step of cutting off two fingers. What’s love, if not sacrifice?”

The room was silent. Iosif and Leonid said nothing, but their body language pulled slightly away from their leader. I had to remind myself that they understood English, even if they couldn’t speak the language themselves. I cleared my throat, to break the mood settling into the tiny space. “Why’d you do it, Ash?”

“Why’d I do what, exactly? It’s been a very busy couple of years since you had that unfortunate incident at the Museé. Why did I…decide to spill the beans about Stani’s checkered romantic past? Because it was interesting, of course. Why did I…betray Anton and his crew? Because I didn’t want to share! Or do you mean, why did I set you up back in Paris?” The joviality left his voice. His eyes thinned to slits. “Because you already know exactly why that happened.”

I recognized that as the false lead that it was, so I sidestepped the bait. “Why’d you take the safety deposit box?”

Asher exhaled and closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them again, the rage was gone from his bearing. “My own reasons,” he said. “It would be entirely too difficult for me to explain, at the moment. Sufficed to say, what I recovered was well worth the lives of those poor criminals.” He paused and tapped a finger against his bottom lip. “Why, I suppose I should arrange to send some sort of flowers to their families, shouldn’t I? Anton, do you happen to remember if those soldiers you loaned out to me had families? Wives, kids, that sort of thing?”

Stani did not look up.

“Oh well. I suppose I’ll just have to look them up myself. I’m not a monster, after all,” he said, with a look that resembled nothing so much as a well-fed cat. He turned his attention back to me. “Speaking of which, Dev, I do have something that I think you might be interested in.”

He pivoted slightly so that he faced off-camera and said something in Russian. A voice answered from off-screen, the pitch rising at the end of the sentence. Asher replied sharply and jabbed an index finger to punctuate his point. No reply came from the other voice. Seconds passed and then the image on the screen changed from Asher to what looked like a live feed.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Oh, just wait,” Asher’s voice replied.

I waited. The monitor showed me a regular intersection. I squinted and could barely make out the word “Haight” written on a street sign. The other sign was too pixelated for me to decipher. People came into and left the intersection, in cars, on bicycles, or simply on foot. The scene was pedestrian, to say the least. I opened my mouth to say something to that effect, when my blood froze in my veins. I recognized one of the people there, waiting patiently for a street light to change.

“Sarah,” I whispered aloud.

The feed switched off and Asher returned to the monitor. “Exactly! I’m going to be honest with you here; it took a ridiculous amount of effort to track her down. Your girl – well, your ex girl – covered her tracks with a paranoia that I almost feel I should applaud.”

My mouth worked open and shut for several seconds before I found my voice. “What do you want?”

“From you? Nothing at all,” Asher said. “I’d planned for you to find out about all this when you got out in a few months. Maybe an all-points bulletin to the community. If I could’ve found you, I might have just sent an envelope with a picture of her broken body, so that you’d be all alone when you found out. But this? This is so much better.”

His tone was conversational, polite in a way, even as he spoke of murdering Sarah. My own temper rose from deep in my chest, melting the ice in my arteries, and it took every ounce of will I could muster not to rip the monitor to shreds with my bare hands. “I’m going to find you,” I said, from between clenched teeth. “I will kill you if you so much as touch a hair on her head. She’s got nothing to do with this.”

“Doesn’t she, though? The way I see it, if it hadn’t been for her, you and I could’ve worked past that whole misunderstanding. Jobs go bad, after all. No harm, no foul. But you just left me out in the cold, after I…” He stopped, shook his head. “But that’s a different story. One I fear you will never actually get to hear.”

“Leave. Her. Alone.”

“It’s so cute that you think you’ve got any sort of say in this, Dev.” Asher tilted his head. “I do have a question for you, though. How exactly did you get out of prison? Who should I thank for this delightful windfall of an opportunity?”

Thankfully, my brain continued working, despite the red haze that had descended over my body. Asher knew as much about my mysterious benefactor as I did; that was to say, he knew nothing at all. “I’ll tell you that,” I said, bluffing with everything I possessed, “just as soon as you call off your goons.”

“I don’t want to know that much. However you did it, I’ll just have to arrange for someone to pay that person a visit after I figure it out on my own. Honestly, it’ll probably be more fun this way.”

A thought occurred to me. It probably would’ve struck me sooner, if not for the dull burning rage simmering beneath the surface and blocking out most of my rational thought functions. Asher was good, but the scale of his actions the past few months – just the actions I knew about, and I assumed that there were more I wasn’t yet privy to – was beyond anything he could pull off without support, infrastructure, and manpower. “Who’re you working for?”

“I’m not working for anyone,” Asher hissed back at me. He ran the scarred hand across his scalp and calmed himself before he continued. “But I am working with a few partners, who would prefer not to be named.”

“They’ll probably be pretty upset that you even tipped us off to their existence, won’t they?” I searched for the smug smile and found it again after surprisingly little hunting. “If you touch Sarah, if you so much as look at her the wrong way, I will make it my mission to hunt you down and make you suffer.”

He sighed. “Alright, well, now I’m bored. Empty threats don’t amuse me anywhere near as much as actual promises. You’ve got no resources to speak of, Dev, and your only allies are two ex-lovers who can’t admit their feelings for each other, and two goons that are swiftly starting to realize that they threw in with the wrong metaphorical horse.”

Asher was giving away more information than he realized, which surprised me. He didn’t know anything about Alex, apparently, or he would have included him in the summary of my assets.

“And, even if you were somehow capable of accessing the funds you’d need to challenge me and my backers, it’s really something of a moot point,” he said.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Think about it, Dev. This was just a trap, and you’re already inside the trailer, exactly where I wanted you to be. Why would I bother talking to you at all?” He bared his teeth at the camera. “I’m stalling, you idiot.”

The image changed again. Instead of the live feed, the number thirty was displayed in large block font. “I suppose I’ll have to amuse myself with the memory of your horrified expression. Shame I couldn’t be there in person, though.”

“Asher!”

“Later, Dev. Or…well, probably not later, but you get what I mean.”

Asher!”

There was no reply. I faced the other three men and saw identical expressions of shock on their faces. Then, a single long beep came from the computer. I turned back, just as the number changed from thirty to twenty-nine.

“Go!” I was on the move, even as the order passed my lips. “Get out!”

The next twenty seconds were a blur of tangled limbs as we all fought our way out of the small trailer, tripping over each other in our haste. I made it out first, followed closely by Anton and Stani. Leonid and Iosif brought up the rear. I beat a path as far away from the trailer as possible for five more seconds, before I lost my balance and slid the last few inches behind a heavy metal crate.

I counted down the last five seconds in my head, as the other men found barricades of their own nearby. At the end of my internal countdown…nothing happened. I went through another ten seconds before I hazarded a peek over the container. The trailer was where it had been, and in the same condition.

“What is it?” Stani called out.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “If he was going to kill us, there should have been a bomb, but…”

I reminded myself that Asher worked in diagonals. He treated every situation as a hypothetical opponent, and he almost never attacked in a way that anyone expected at first. If the countdown had made me think bomb, and flee the trailer, then there almost certainly was not a bomb. After all, why have a countdown to warn us at all?

“If there wasn’t a bomb, then…” Asher had backers. He’d spoken to someone off-screen during our exchange and the tone of voice implied that he’d been in a position to give orders. He’d put a hit out on Sarah from the safety of a computer screen located, presumably, somewhere other than where she was.

My thoughts ground to a halt. He’d put out a hit. Asher had hitmen on his payroll.

“Get down!” I yelled, as the first sniper round found Iosif’s shoulder.

Chapter 17

Anton, Leonid, and I rode in one car. Stani took another with Iosif. The ride to the docks was quiet and painfully awkward. Neither I nor Anton had any particular desire to speak and potentially share details about our own secrets; Leonid didn’t speak English at all. Even when Stani had been near him, the bodyguard had still only spoken a few syllables to anyone other than his partner, usually in direct answer to a question or order from his superior. I chose to indulge in my new favorite pastime – contemplating a variety of different ways I could extract my revenge on Asher – while we drove through Kiev’s streets, in lieu of anything more productive. When we reached the docks, it was a pleasure to step out of the vehicle and stretch my legs.

Only a few seconds after we parked, Stani’s car pulled up beside me. He exited from the passenger’s side and his associate stepped out from behind the wheel. Overhead, the sky remained dark, except for the occasional pinprick of light. The entire area was as silent as the grave.

“This is it?” I asked Stani. My voice sounded odd in the still air.

“It is,” he answered. His eyes swept the area at a slow, suspicious pace.

“You sound confused.”

“It is…strange. There should be workers here, I think.”

“You think?”

He scratched at the back of his head, exposing the missing fingers on his left hand as he did so. “I am not sure. There are always shipments arriving here from Moscow,” he said. “This dock should be staffed with our people at all times.”

“You’re sure about that?”

He nodded.

Aside from the general creepiness of an abandoned area, my instincts told me nothing. The hairs on the back of my neck lay flat against the skin and no goosebumps crawled their way up the flesh of my arm. That meant very little, though. Asher had always been disturbingly capable of navigating around that unusual sense for danger. “Let’s assume there’s something going on here, then, until we’ve got a reason to think otherwise. Is there a…headquarters, I guess? Something like a command center?”

Stani thought about the question. “There should be a bookkeeping room,” he said finally.

“Do you know where that is?”

He shook his head. “This is not my area of expertise. I have never been assigned to work in Kiev before.”

If my senses hadn’t been on high alert, I would’ve missed the slight skip in his words. The pause was nearly imperceptible, but I’d keyed myself up and caught it: he was lying. I turned slightly to look at him and caught the tail end of yet another wordless conversation between Stani and Anton, communicated only with their expressions. A mental link clicked into place. “Is whatever history you two have going to be an issue?” I asked. “I’m a huge fan of not having things fall apart while we’re in the field.”

They exchanged another look before Stani shook his head. “It will not be a problem, of course.”

Anton cleared his throat. “Of course. Finding Asher is the most important thing.”

Not exactly lies, but clever misdirection. I would have pressed them on the matter, but the darkened docks stretched out in front of us. In one of the buildings I could see, or perhaps in one that I wasn’t yet aware of, we’d find ledgers about the smuggling operation. That meant the possibility of a lead to follow, in pursuit of my wayward ex-partner. On the list of priorities, the secret past of Anton and Stani ranked near the bottom. “If you get me killed…”

“That will not happen,” Stani said. He withdrew a pistol from his inside jacket pocket and clicked the safety off. Leonid took out a similar handgun, while Iosif revealed a compact submachine gun slung across his chest and hidden beneath his sportcoat.

I whistled without thinking about it. “You three came loaded for battle.”

The sound of a chambered round from out of my field of vision surprised me. I spun and prepared to roll away. Anton gave me a sheepish look as he lowered his own Makarov to point at the ground. He shrugged. “What?”

“You too? Since when do you carry a gun?”

“Asher is a dangerous person,” Anton replied in a soft voice. “It could be fatal to underestimate him.”

I couldn’t argue that point. They had been my words and, what’s more, they’d been absolutely true.

“You are not armed?” Stani asked.

“I am…not a gun person,” I answered. It was apparently my turn to sidestep a direct question. None of my temporary allies needed to know more about my past than they already did.

Stani pointed to Iosif and then to the car they’d arrived in. The bodyguard moved without a word to the trunk. He opened it to reveal a veritable smorgasbord of firearms and military hardware. “Take what you require,” he said. “Moscow will refill our operation supply as needed, when we are home again.”

Everything I knew about guns, I’d picked up by accident over the years. The sight of so many weapons gave me pause, but Anton’s words resonated within my head. Asher was terrifyingly dangerous, mentally speaking; he was also volatile, unpredictable, and playing a deeper game than I fully understood. All of that, in addition to the considerable grudge he carried, made my decision for me. After thirty seconds of careful examination, I picked up a gun like Stani’s and a bulletproof vest. The Kevlar went over my head and the gun remained clenched in a nervous, uncomfortable grasp. The other four men removed extra ammunition and protective gear for themselves. Anton added a sawed-off shotgun to his repertoire and threw its strap across his shoulder so that the butt of the gun bumped into the small of his back.

“Everybody ready, then?” I asked. My answer came in the form of grunts and silent nods.

Iosif took point, flanked by Leonid. They moved like professionals, ghosts in the darkness of the docks. When one swept their gaze to the left, the other stepped into their blind spot and did the same for the opposite side. All that Anton, Stani, and I needed to do was follow in their wake, stay low, and keep our aural footprint to a minimum. After twenty minutes of searching empty buildings and finding nothing but uninhabited space, it became very clear that our precautions were, at best, redundant. The docks were empty.

“This is wrong,” Stani whispered, maybe six inches away from my ear.

I nodded. “Do you know how many people normally worked this shift?”

“I do not. If I were forced to guess, I would say…ten or fifteen of our people. Perhaps more and perhaps less.”

“So ten, maybe fifteen, people just up and disappeared? You’re right, then. There is definitely something wrong.”

We continued forward. The possibility of violence had begun to form, the instant that Leonid revealed his employer’s stash of illegal firearms. It had only grown sharper and more intense as we checked and cleared building after building. Now, it was like a raid siren in my ears, screaming its warning at full blast. I couldn’t ignore it, exactly, but I relegated the sensation to my mental backburner. Danger was a given; it wouldn’t do me any good to allow that fear to dominate my thoughts. If Asher said he was going to make me pay for abandoning him back in St. Petersburg, then that was exactly what he would endeavor to do. To avoid that, I had to find him now and I had to put him somewhere he couldn’t hurt anyone else. It was that simple.

I had no idea how to go about accomplishing that, of course, but the prospect of revenge in the near future bolstered my spirits.

We moved through the abandoned dock for another fifteen minutes before Iosif held up a clenched fist. I recognized the signal and froze where I was. Stani and Anton, flanking me on either side, did the same. He pointed to a small trailer ahead of us, just on the waterfront. The walls were covered in a thick sheen of rust and the windows had been, more or less, blacked out. The yard, such as it was, was nothing more than a small square of neglected grass and dying flowers. One half of the building was painted a grayish tone; the other was covered in garish graffiti that I couldn’t make out.

None of those details mattered, though, and they hadn’t been responsible for Iosif’s sharp warning signal. The front door of the trailer was slightly ajar. Light was visible through the small space between the door and the doorjamb. It was the first sign of life that we’d seen since entering the Docks to begin with.

Stani stepped in front of me. As he passed, I caught a glimpse of his eyes. There was no uncertainty in him now. He gave orders in a low, barely audible voice to Iosif and Leonid. They nodded their assent and then he turned to me. “They will cover the entrances. We will go in and see what is inside. Perhaps we can end all of this tonight.”

“I wouldn’t count on that,” I said. Despite the tension of the moment, I barely kept a wry grin from crossing my face.

Stani didn’t grace my comment with a reply. He pointed with two fingers and his men, their training suddenly undeniable, moved out. Iosif peeled around the building to the right like a shadow and, a moment later, Leonid covered the ground between where we stood and the trailer’s front door. When they were in place, Stani checked the chamber of his weapon and motioned for Anton and me to do the same. Anton did so with the ease of someone who’d spent long hours practicing. My weapons experience, on the other hand, boiled down a few hasty sessions with my favorite bodyguard, whenever her contracts had coincided with my own jobs. I could point the gun; I could squeeze the trigger; and, God willing, I could put a bullet into whatever or whoever was attacking me. But the minutiae remained firmly out of my grasp. Anton had to help me with the slide, while Stani watched with an expression I couldn’t quite read.

When our weapons were squared away, Stani raised an open hand to the sky. I counted internally. I reached ten and Stani’s hand balled into a fist. Iosif leaned back and delivered a kick to the door that nearly took it from its hinges. He rushed inside, followed by Stani and Anton. I brought up the rear. Our vanguard came into the small space with his gun up, forming a straight line from his shoulder to the end of the barrel. He looked left, then right, in easy, smooth motions; seeing nothing worth his attention, he moved into the next room.

Leonid took a little longer to join us. The sound of a heavy impact, followed by another, came from his door. There was a slight delay before he simply shattered a window with the butt of his gun and entered through the remnants of glass and metal. He performed the same check as his partner and then, after acknowledging Stani with a single word, continued deeper into the trailer.

Two minutes passed before both Leonid and Iosif returned to the central room. Stani asked them a question and Leonid replied with a short sentence. Stani turned to me. “It is empty,” he said.

My emotions at that development were a jumble of relief and disappointment. I kept them from my face. “Alright. Let’s check the trailer, see if this is where they keep the books. Any clue’s better than nothing.” I started forward and stopped, as the tip of my shoe rolled slightly over something on the floor. I looked down and picked up the offending object. It was a cigarette. I stiffened in shock.

“What is that?” Stani asked, and then he understood. His eyes widened and the grip he maintained on his Makarov tightened enough that I thought I heard the skin stretch over his knuckles. “He was here.”

“Looks like,” I said. “Let’s see if we can find out where he went.”

It took very little searching to find the ledger. It was located in the farthest room from the front door, in a small office lit by a bare overhead lightbulb. A relatively new computer sat on the desk, next to the ledger. “What should I look for?” Stani asked.

“Dates,” I answered immediately. I channeled Sarah and Asher, as I tried to approach the situation with the same level of foresight they usually had. “When the last shipment came, how many cigarettes were on board, and how many were sent out and reported as sold. That’ll let us know when he was here; at least, assuming that he just stole his smokes wholesale and didn’t buy them from a supplier.”

“If he was here after his betrayal, then no supplier in the area would provide him with anything,” Stani said.

I snorted. “Because smugglers are the type of people who adhere to organizational structure and rules. Can you find out those things or not?”

Stani didn’t answer with words; instead, he turned his eyes to the walls and began to search. Iosif and Leonid stepped outside of the room, on either side, with their guns still held in ready hands. Anton stood nervously next to me. He’d placed his gun on the desk and begun to wring his hands nervously. I didn’t know how to comfort him and so I didn’t try. I looked around the room, instead. There were several cigarettes of the same brand scattered across the floor of the tiny records room. If Asher had purchased these smokes from the smugglers, or simply stolen them, there was something to be said about the number of cigarettes within the small room. I’d only located a single butt in the common area, which could easily be attributed to simple laziness. Asher didn’t always make an effort to find the nearest receptacle, if he was one of his manic planning phases. But, inside this rat cage, there were cigarettes scattered across every conceivable surface. I saw ash on the back of the computer, on the rolling chair, and the floor beneath the desk.

“He was here for a while,” I said out loud. “Why, though?”

Stani looked up from the ledger. “I…do not know,” he said slowly. “Everything appears to be exactly as it should have been. Goods came over to Ukraine from the motherland, were examined, signed for, and sent to the next station. There are no discrepancies or errors in the paperwork.”

I couldn’t control the defeated sigh. “So, we’ve got nothing?”

“No,” Stani said quickly and shook his head. “There is no such thing as a perfect smuggling operation. It is as you said. The workers will always take away even more of it to make some money on the side. The dockhands will skim product from the top of shipments to sell to their friends.”

“Sounds like the kind of thing that Bratva should be cutting down on.”

“If I could,” Stani said. I blinked. Stani had never used the first person in a conversation with me, ever since he’d met at the miserable bar in the area. “But my superiors feel that it is an acceptable loss. This is different, however. As far back as three months ago, every single report that left this dock was perfect, exactly as it should have been. That does not happen.”

“He faked the report, then? But why?”

“Perhaps to cover his involvement?” Anton offered.

Both Stani and I shook our heads. I spoke first. “Not like this, he wouldn’t. If this place starts running too well, all of a sudden, the higher-ups back in Moscow were going to send someone to check things out sooner or later. If he was trying to hide, this was like sending up a flare, specifically to attract the people he’s trying to avoid.”

“This is a good thing, then? A mistake that we can work with?”

“It is a mistake,” I said, but I felt suddenly unsure. “Except it’s such an obvious screw-up. It could only have worked for a few months before someone figured out that that something was wrong at the docks.”

“What are you saying?”

“I don’t know.” I paced out of the room and thought. The Asher I knew was a tactician and an expert at attacking problems in unusual ways. He routinely thought several steps ahead of whatever the current problem was and he’d only ever been caught off guard by a gross deviation from his plans. Avoiding the attention of the Russian mafia would be difficult, if not impossible, for most people I’d worked with. Asher wouldn’t have betrayed them at all if he didn’t already have a plan in place to help him disappear.

“What are you playing at, Ash?” I asked myself aloud. “What’s the next step?”

A noise came from the office. When I returned, I saw all three men clustered around the desk. “What is it?” I asked.

“This.” Stani moved aside. In the single minute since I’d left the room, nothing had moved except for the computer. The machine was quietly booting up.

“Did you turn it on?”

Everyone shook their heads. The bottom of my stomach dropped a few inches and the hairs on the back of my neck began to rise. Without explaining myself, I spun and looked at the shelves surrounding us. Countless ledgers adorned the shelves. My eyes skipped over them, not really paying attention, until they landed on a bound stack of papers with the word “oktyabrya” written on the spine.

“What’s that say?” I asked, pointing at the ledger.

Stani leaned over. “October. Why?”

“And the one on the desk?”

Anton picked up that one and examined its spine. “Also, October.”

I tore the ledger from the shelf. A small wireless camera looked back at me. “We didn’t follow his trail here,” I said. “He led us here.”

The computer switched on. A moment later, a small window appeared and stretched across the scene. I watched as the program dialed a phone number, although I knew what was coming next. I wasn’t disappointed. Ten seconds after the program attempted to make a connection with an exterior system, it succeeded, and a familiar, smirking face met my eyes.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Asher said, from behind the screen. His eyes twinkled in what appeared to be genuine amusement and surprise. “Aren’t you supposed to still be in prison, Devlin?”