Tag Archives: Adlai

The Arm of the Law

Cameron Lane – formerly an Interpol superintendent, now a man on the lam – could hardly believe how far he’d fallen.

It had seemed so simple at first. No matter what his superiors said, an end to crime was never going to come. As long as people were jealous, greedy, envious things with the means to do so, there would always be crime, drugs, and murder. He could imprison a million suppliers, hunt down a million serial killers, and bring an end to a million different arms deal, but it still wouldn’t matter. Someone would always be there to be up the slack, to fill the vacuum left behind when one powerful figure fell. It wouldn’t ever stop.

So, when the envelope arrived in his mail slot, he’d suppressed his confusion and accepted it as another way to play the game. Any information that would allow him to save lives was worthwhile, even if he held no illusions about the source of that intelligence. Someone wanted him to be pawn in a larger game and Lane, disillusioned by the passage of time and the release of at least a dozen true monsters, was willing to play along. As long as he could bring down the real bad guys, Lane was willing to dirty his honor. It was, after all, a cost worth paying. What was his personal moral code compared to the lives of the innocent? Hadn’t he sworn an oath to protect those that needed protection?

More information had come, always delivered to his lodgings, and Lane made a name for himself with every bust. The truly dangerous criminals – the insane, vicious, unhinged sons and daughters of bitches – were taken off of the streets. In his heart, Lane knew that he was only furthering the interests of some other party. He had every intention of turning his attention and the increased power of his position to bringing down his unknown benefactor, eventually. But the time was never right. Excuses followed after excuses, a line of justifications a mile long and growing, and Lane found himself depending more and more on the envelopes.

Then, they’d stopped coming. In their place, Lane began to receive requests. Although, they weren’t quite requests. Even if the missives didn’t explicitly threaten him, Lane wasn’t an idiot. He knew when he was being blackmailed. The subtext practically screamed at him: do what we say, or all of your cases can be overturned; your name can be ruined; all the good you’ve accomplished can be undone.

At first, it hadn’t been too bad. A dealer, allowed to walk; a folder, misfiled and lost in the endless stacks of documents; an informant, intimidated into silence. He could almost feel the dirt piling onto his soul, but he told himself that it was worth it. He had done good, and the tiny amount of bad he was doing wasn’t anywhere near enough to balance the scales.

And the envelopes kept coming, albeit at a slower pace. For every one request, he received a folder of information that he could use to bring down some powerful member of the underworld. Then, for every two requests. Then, for every three. The scales were still balanced in favor of the good he was doing, though. He reminded himself of that every night before he fell into a fitful, restless slumber.

When the requests became more serious – a murder weapon wiped clean of fingerprints; a drug raid, derailed at the last critical moment; an investigation, botched – Lane realized what was happening. In his deepest, truest heart, he’d always known what was happening. If he resisted his mysterious benefactor-turned-master, everything would come apart at once. His life, at least as he knew it, would end. And, maybe, that was enough. His reputation had been wholly unearned, after all. Losing it all at once might be the only way for the man to keep his soul in one piece.

But the good he’d managed to eke out was too much to throw away. He’d saved too many lives, protected too many innocents, to throw it all away.

Two years after the first envelope arrived at his doorstep, Lane committed the first murder of his life. Not self-defense, but cold-blooded murder.

It wasn’t the last.

Now, after the latest instruction from his unseen masters, Lane had taken a torch to everything in his life to a crisp and he felt only the barest traces of shame. His pride had long since been burned to cinders and discarded; that was a necessary development, if he wanted to keep his sanity. Where an honorable man had once stood, Lane had become the worst type of criminal: self-serving, cowardly, and motivated only by the need to survive…even if he could only survive for another day.

At the moment, Lane hid in a dark parking garage, just outside of Oslo. Traveling directly from one point to another – by foot, of course, because the trains and planes were obviously being watched – the trip from London would only have taken two weeks. With occasional stops to dilute his trail, however, Lane had spent the better part of a month making his way to Norway. He’d built a safehouse in the city proper and taken steps to keep it stocked, for this exact moment. From the first kill, Lane had known that this day would come. He’d prepared accordingly.

The shoes on his feet were tattered shadows of the finely crafted shoes he’d worn in London. Miles and miles of walking had taken their toll, in blood. His clothes were worn and reeked of too-old sweat. Filth of a dozen unnamed sources formed into thick clots in his hair. More than anything, he wanted to sleep and every inch of his body spoke to how badly he needed rest.

But, no matter what his body did, Lane’s mind remained as sharp as it ever was. He mastered the desires of his bones and blood, turned that pain into focus, and stared out at the land in front of him from the parking garage.

A lack of police cars was a good sign. It wasn’t a great sign – Interpol had, on more than one occasion, used local vehicles to mask their approach – but it was better than the alternative. If his former colleagues had spent the last month searching for his body, it would be another few weeks before they realized that Lane’s bones weren’t in the wreckage. From there, it would taken even longer to discover the truth: he’d been compromised…no, that he’d compromised himself years ago…in pursuit of justice. By throwing himself into the chase Lane had, ironically, turned himself into the kind of person he himself would have hunted.

But that was hours away. Days away, perhaps. The upheaval in London would be more than enough to draw Interpol’s eye. By the time they finished sorting through the mess, Lane would have reached the safehouse. He could change his face, his name, and his accent. There were a variety of fake passports accumulated for this very purpose. Throwing everything away wasn’t ideal, obviously, but it didn’t mean that his entire life had to end. Just the life he’d spent decades building should be enough of a price to pay. For his hubris, for his belief that he should be able to bring down criminals no one else ever had, pride seemed an apt price.

The safehouse was located on the outskirts of the city: a squat, nondescript building that he’d purchased under a false name. Lane waited until nightfall before approaching, carefully watching his surroundings for even the faintest hint of a shadow. When he was sure that nothing was out of the ordinary, he slipped inside and began gathering the materials he’d need to disappear.

While he collected documents – false passports, credit cards, the necessary elements for disguise – Lane thought back to who he’d been, not so long ago, and how he’d ended up here. The downhill spiral wasn’t difficult to understand. In the beginning, he’d been an aspiring agent with nothing but the best of intentions. As time passed, and the envelopes kept coming, he’d chosen fame instead of honor. That fame had elevated him to the rank of Superintendent. It might, in fact, have helped him to rise even higher in Interpol’s hierarchy, if his masters hadn’t needed to dispose of London’s drug kingpin in such a public manner.

He’d flown too high, Lane realized, and this was merely the end of that particular fairy tale. Nothing came for free. Everything had a price. He was simply paying his now.

It didn’t take him long to locate his falsified paperwork. On his last visit to the safehouse, Lane had taken steps to ensure that everything would be close at hand, in case he needed to make a quick escape. With the documents in his possession, Lane would be able to disguise his tracks amid a field of similar footprints. By the time anyone in law enforcement could unravel the knot of dead-ends, he could be living a different life, under a different name.

Maybe, after he burned down the safehouse and discarded his old identity, things would be different. Maybe, with a second chance, he’d be a better man.

It took him thirty minutes to lay hands on everything essential. When he’d tucked the last document away into his satchel, he paused for an instant. The weapon he’d carried as an Interpol agent was one of the many things he’d discarded back in London and he hadn’t been able to replace it yet. He’d stashed a weapon here some years ago – the same gun, in fact, that he’d used to commit the first unforgivable murder – and that would suffice for the next few days. He could discard it when he made it to the airport.

Lane strode into a bedroom at the far end of the safehouse and dropped to one knee. The gun was underneath the bed, if he remembered correctly. He placed one hand on the floor, to steady himself, and the other on the mattress. Before he could lift it, though, he heard a soft, lightly accented voice.

“Why would you do this?” Inspector Adlai asked.

In all fairness, Lane should have been surprised. He’d done everything right: kept an ear to the ground for official movements, followed every rule for counter-surveillance in the book, and scattered more false trails than he could remember in his wake. There shouldn’t have been any way for Adlai to find him here.

But he had. Of course he had.

Lane didn’t stand up, but he also didn’t reach for the gun underneath the mattress. He spoke to Adlai without turning to meet the man’s eyes. “Would you believe me if I said I didn’t see this coming?”

He received the telltale click of a gun being chambered in response. “Why?” Adlai repeated.

“Because I wanted to do good,” Lane sighed. He couldn’t think of any reason to be dishonest now, when the game was so thoroughly up. “Because I thought I would be better at that with some help than I was without it.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Adlai said. “There were years of arrests, a lifetime spent administering law and order, and you threw it all away for…for what? For money? For power?”

“I have power,” Lane said, snorting at the idea. “And money’s never been a big motivator for me. Sure, I was paid well, but that wasn’t the point.”

“What was it, then? Why would you commit this crime?”

“How’d you find me?” Lane asked abruptly.

Adlai was silent for a long time. “As soon as I realized that no one could escape that explosion without pure luck or forewarning, I tasked some resources to examining the wreckage, square foot by square foot.”

“But you had to organize that off-the-books,” Lane said. “Otherwise, I would have caught wind of it.”

“Yes. Off the books.” Adlai seemed uncomfortable, just at admitting how he’d maneuvered around the law instead of serving it. “When I knew for sure that you had not died, I reopened your old files. There was an authorized shooting – the first of your career – in this city. It seemed like a good place to start.”

“But this particular hovel? It’s not like there’s a shortage of poor people in town.”

“I made a guess,” Adlai said. “My gut led me here. And here you are.”

“Good gut.” Lane’s shifted his weight and pivoted slightly so that he could see Adlai out of the corner of his eyes. “You asked why I did what I did? Because I had to.”

“Lies,” Adlai spat out instantly. “You always have a choice. You did not have to do anything”

“Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I just tell that to myself that I didn’t have a choice because it’s easier.”

“Easier for you? Easier for you to manipulate the system, to use it to protect your illegal activities?”

“Easier for you,” Lane shot back. He turned to face Adlai fully now, still keeping one hand underneath the mattress only a few inches away from the hidden gun. “You’re still young. You still think that there’s always a right way and a wrong way to live life, that everything is black and white. It’s not that simple in the real world.”

A muscle twitched in Adlai’s face. It wasn’t a big tell, as tells went, but Lane was an experienced interrogator.

“Oh, did something change? Did you have some kind of a revelation, then? Finally growing up to see how the real world works?”

Adlai shook his head, but the motion was slow and uncertain. “I…understand that there is a game to be played. That you cannot always be both just and effective. But there are limits, Lane. There have to be limits.”

Lane snorted. “You think I don’t know that? But think about many people I put away! How many murderers, slave traders, and drug dealers would be out on the street if I hadn’t cut a deal?”

“How many people have you killed?” Adlai asked. “How many lives have you taken because someone else told you to?”

The rebuke hit Lane like a slap in the face. His eyes flickered over to one corner of the small room and landed on a bookcase. Not every book on the shelves contained coded information, but most of them had a little bit concealed within. If someone were able to piece together every tidbit, all of the little clues collectively amounted to a history of his life since the first envelope. Names, dates, case numbers…everything that anyone could need to destroy Lane, contained in one safe location.

It had been his insurance policy, in case his unseen masters turned on him. Or, in a perfect world, if Lane found himself in a position to take down his puppeteers without incriminating himself.

He might have been able to use the information, still, but the current situation had robbed him of the desire to get revenge on the people who’d ruined his life. Burning everything had been his plan to discard that part of his life. His only concern was the present. He couldn’t hope to think about the future, when it had suddenly become so uncertain.

“Too many,” Lane answered and sighed. “Far, far too many.”

“What happened?”

“I saw a shortcut and I took it. Didn’t think about where that shortcut was leading me until it was too late.”

“And Hill? Why did you kill him?”

Lane considered his options before answering. He wasn’t under any obligation to keep answering Adlai’s questions. There wasn’t anything stopping him from drawing his gun. He might even be able to get a shot off. From what he’d seen in Adlai’s file, the agent hadn’t broken any marksmanship records.

What kept him from that was a sudden, visceral urge to unburden himself. For years, he’d kept the story of his secret masters to himself. Now, maybe, here was someone who might be willing to listen. Someone who might be able to help, where Lane himself was powerless to do so. Of course, no one knew better than Lane how far his masters would go to keep their identity secret.

“You don’t want to know,” Lane hedged. “Trust me.”

Why?”

Lane made up his mind. Adlai was a better man than Lane had ever been; if anyone could face up to the temptation his masters had offered him, it was the younger agent. “Orders. It wasn’t for me.”

“Orders from who?”

Lane shrugged with one shoulder. “Someone with influence,” he said. “Someone with power. I don’t know who.” He tilted his head in the direction of the bookcase.

“What is that?”

“Information. It’s all I know about…them, but maybe it’ll be enough to help you.”

Adlai swallowed hard. “Do you have anything else to say for yourself?”

Lane thought about that question for a long time. “I’m sorry that I let you down,” he said finally. “But I’m not sure that I wouldn’t do the same thing all over again. I did a lot of good. If the cost of all that good is my own soul, then…I’m not sure that it was a bad trade.”

An odd type of peace came over Lane in that moment. He realized that, in effect, he’d just passed on a great burden to Adlai, but he thought the agent could potentially handle the stress. He didn’t have any of Lane’s ego to cloud his judgment and, according to every scrap of paper in his file, Adlai was a truly noble and honorable man. He might very well be able to avoid the corruption that Lane’s masters seemed to exude.

Or maybe he wouldn’t. Everyone had pressure points. If they were able to find Adlai’s, would they be able to turn him into their weapon, just as they’d done with Lane? He didn’t know. He didn’t really care. It was no longer his problem.

If Adlai knew where to find Lane, it was only a matter of time before the rest of Interpol showed up as well.

“Who knows where you are?” Lane asked.

Adlai raised the gun so that it pointed straight at Lane’s face. “I wanted to see you alone, at first. To see if you had anything that might explain what you’ve done.”

Lane shrugged again. “How long until backup arrives?”

“Six hours,” Adlai answered. “Maybe less.”

That meant no more than an hour before armed men came rushing into Lane’s now-compromised safehouse. No matter. There was only one thing left for him to do and he could accomplish that well before any other agents saw him.

“Don’t trust anyone,” Lane said. “No matter how honorable they seem, you can’t trust anyone. If you want to find out why – if you really want to know – you’ll have to be paranoid. Anyone could be working for them, Adlai. Anyone. And believe me: if they find out that you’re after them, they’ll find leverage against you. They’ll make you into their tool.”

“I took an oath,” Adlai said. “Nothing would make me break that oath.”

“Then they’ll kill you,” Lane replied, his voice flat and sober.

Adlai rocked back at that, a little stunned with Lane’s bluntness. He recovered quickly, though.“You will tell everyone what you’ve told me,” he said. “Back at headquarters, where you can be properly debriefed and interrogated.”

Lane laughed, but there wasn’t any real joy in the sound. “I’m not going back to headquarters, Adlai. Let’s be honest; you knew that before you showed up.”

“You are under arrest, Cameron Lane,” Adlai said. His voice quivered slightly.

Lane shook his head. “No,” he said, “I’m really not.”

He plunged the hand underneath the bed and wrapped his fingers around the gun’s grip. He pulled it free, falling slightly backward and brought the gun up to aim at Adlai.

For an instant, the two men made eye contact. Lane read fear in Adlai’s eyes, mingled with befuddlement and horror. But, overlaying all of those emotions, Lane saw confidence. Yes, maybe…just maybe…Adlai could pull off what Lane had failed to do. He certainly hoped so. If he could hold onto any hope about anything at all, the thought of his masters falling to a sort of protege fit the bill.

Lane aimed his shot above and to the right of Adlai’s head and squeezed the trigger. The bullet buried itself into the ceiling, missing Adlai by almost a half foot, exactly as Lane planned.

He didn’t hear Adlai’s gun off, fired in retaliation, but he did see a dazzling flash of light and felt an impact in his chest, to the left of his sternum.

Cameron Lane died in a hovel, surrounded by books filled with a record of his misdeeds, a bullet hole from a trusted subordinate lodged in his heart. He had been an honorable person once; he’d been a criminal and a stooge; he’d been a murderer. But, at his last moments, he was simply a man who wore a slight smile, with a single thought repeating through his darkening mind.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

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Part 6: Recap (1/2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

A little too well, perhaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 137

If I’d expected Asher to lose his cool, I would have been disappointed.

He took my statement with surprising equanimity and even started smiling slightly to himself.  “That,” he said, “is a surprisingly sneaky plan, coming from you.  Setting me up for Interpol like that?  I wouldn’t have thought you were capable of going that far.”

“I didn’t set you up for anything,” I countered.  “If you hadn’t decided that gloating was more important than common sense and self-preservation, you could have walked away.  You did this to yourself.”

Of course, he’d earned this and much more.  The revelation that he’d been behind the attack in Florence wasn’t exactly a surprise, if I was completely honest with myself.  That didn’t lessen the impact.  If not for the presence of Adlai and the detective inspector, I still might have throttled him with my bare hands.

Asher probably would have expected an outburst of that type.  Judging by our respective histories, he could have easily beaten me in a straight fight.  But allowing him to dig his own grave, even if the truth laid bare old wounds?  If it hadn’t been so completely against my character, I reasoned, it probably wouldn’t have worked.

Adlai would have been able to put Asher away with nothing more than his open statements about blackmailing members of the police department.  I’d hoped he might go farther and say something incriminatory about the drug trade and his emerging control over the London side of things.  Not even in my wildest dreams or nightmares had I expected a confession about the disastrous job in Florence and the dreadful toll it had taken on my friend Alex and his family.

I would have to tell Alex about this.  That wouldn’t be a fun conversation.  It would give my old friend and his daughter closure, though, so it wouldn’t be a complete waste.  Getting Asher locked away for life in an Italian prison probably wasn’t the type of retribution Alex had in mind, but it would have to do.  The type of vengeance that Alex would have preferred to visit up on Asher would probably also be the type of vengeance that resulted in Allie losing both parents.

Asher watched me thinking.  Adlai and the dark-skinned detective inspector watched him watching me.  “Do you even feel bad about it?” I asked, finally, into the stagnant air of the interrogation room.

“About what?”

“The people at the bank in Limassol.  Alex’s wife.”  I swallowed.  “Me.  Us.”

The smirk dimmed and faded until it was gone from his expression entirely.  “What happened had to happen,” he said in a sober voice.  “They didn’t make me do anything, Dev, and they didn’t change me.  You were always going to be who you were and I…I was always going to be this.”

That wasn’t quite an answer, I realized, but something told me that I didn’t want to push the question any farther.  I said nothing and, instead, met his eyes for several long seconds.  It seemed as though he was trying to convey some sentiment to me through the force of his gaze.  There’d been a time when a moment of eye contact would have been enough.  But that time – and the camaraderie we’d once shared – was gone now.

Asher jerked his eyes first, as if he were stung by my inability to understood the nonverbal communication, and faced the two law enforcement officers.  “Well, you got me.  I mean, he got me, but I guess the details aren’t really important, are they?”

The detective inspector shook his head.  “Not really,” he said in an oddly agreeable tone.

“So, what happens now?  You put me in handcuffs and cart me off in the paddy wagon?”

“Haven’t used those in a few years,” the detective said.  “And I think a chat about these officers you’ve got dirt on is probably in order.”

Asher shrugged.  “I can’t use any of them,” he said.  “Inspector Closeau has got his teeth in me now.”

Adlai’s eyebrows drew closer together at the comment.  I strongly doubted that he understood the reference.  A completely inappropriate chuckle bubbled up from my stomach and I ruthlessly squashed it before it could reach the surface.

“Just like that, then?” The detective inspector raised one eyebrow.

“Here’s the thing,” Asher said.  “If I can’t use them, someone will.  I’m not interested in making it easier for the guy after me.  And believe me: there will be another guy.  Maybe someone local, maybe someone from out of town.  Doesn’t matter either way to me.”

I puzzled over that enigmatic sentiment for a few seconds before I understood his meaning.  The Magi had financial interests in London.  There were countless suppliers, pushers, runners, and contacts just in this city and their network wouldn’t be thwarted by a single missing link.  With Hill’s coup thwarted and their chief enforcer hoisted on his petard, they would probably just promote someone else from their organization to fill the spot.

If Asher handed over the names of every corrupt cop in the Met, there would be unimaginable consequences for the local Underworld and the Magi’s operations in the area would be set back, even if only temporarily.  It wouldn’t be enough to keep him out of prison – premediated murder was a pretty difficult rap to beat, as these things went – and It probably wouldn’t be enough to actually cripple the multinational, shadowy cabal, but it would still be a serious blow.

What was Asher’s game?  He had betrayed me…he had planned to betray Hill…and now he was actively preparing to betray the Magi.  What, exactly, did he hope to gain?  I suspected that he’d been trying to convey that idea to me, only seconds ago, but that moment was gone.

“Turn around, then,” the detective inspector said.

Asher obeyed without complaint.  He stood in place, looking everywhere except at me, while the handcuffs went around his wrists.  Had he been a different man, I would have taken his silent acquiescence as a sign of defeat or of shame.  Not Asher, though.  The smirk returned to his face.  A thought occurred to me, popping into existence with no fanfare or forewarning, and it made my blood’s temperature drop several degrees.

Asher looked as if he’d wanted to be here.

But that was impossible.  I hadn’t come up with the idea to let Adlai handle my dirty work until we’d all been elbow deep in the chaos at the estate.  It had never been discussed over comms or even in person.  There simply wasn’t any way that he’d anticipated this desperate move.

Yet, the cockiness was evident on his face.  He maintained that expression while the detective inspector steered him out of my interrogation room and into one of his own.

Adlai did not go with him.  He stepped aside long enough for Asher to pass and then stepped back into place, framed in the doorway.

“You don’t want to listen in on what he says?” I asked Adlai after I’d endured a few seconds of his silent examination.  “He’s probably knows a lot that you’d be interested in.”

“I am sure my colleague can handle things,” Adlai replied, “until I am finished.”

“Finished?  With what?”

I knew what he meant, but it gave me a tiny amount of pleasure to feign ignorance.  That had always been the largest problem with Plan B.  As a method of extraction from a potentially lethal situation, it was almost all positives.  The police force was larger than my team of five or six people, only of a few of which I actually trusted, and all it took to mobilize them was a carefully worded phone call.  There were certain buzzwords that virtually guaranteed an armed response and Sarah would have taken great care to infuse the phone call with a sufficient amount of concern and fear.  No matter how many people Hill had purchased, most of them would have understood that a shootout with the police was a losing proposition.  London law enforcement had neatly taken care of the virtual army of hired goons and criminals, and they’d done it with an efficiency that had kept Hill in the dark until I’d been able to goad him into making that last mistake.

The problem with the plan, however, had been readily apparent from the moment I’d first thought of it.  I was a criminal and, when they came with their body armor and their fully automatic weapons, London law enforcement would arrest me right along with everyone else.  The Lady had been clear: another trip to Scotland Yard would fall squarely on my own shoulders.  She either couldn’t or wouldn’t help to me to get away another time.  And, even if she had been willing to expose herself a second time, there was little to no chance that she could have done anything to help me.  I’d broken into the estate of a nobleman, stirred up a hornet’s nest of illegal activity, and utilizing Plan B meant that the police would catch at the scene of the crime.

Prison hadn’t been an experience that I longed to repeat.  Two and a half years at La Santé had filled my quota of time behind bars.  But things had gone a lot worse than we’d expected, and they’d gone downhill so quickly that there hadn’t been any other option except to go with the worst possible plan that held even the slightest chance of success.  I had, in essence, placed myself in Adlai’s hands because he could at least be trusted to refrain from outright execution or torture.

Those points flashed through my mind as I waited for Adlai to speak.  When he did, his voice was milder than I would have expected, and the words shocked me out of my ruminations.  “You have done a good thing today,” he said.  “Perhaps a great thing.  Did you know that?”

My mouth dropped slightly open.  That had sounded suspiciously like praise, coming from Adlai and directed at me.  That slight concussion I’d been warned about by the doctors must have been more severe than they’d said.

Adlai closed the door and crossed the short distance to the chair opposite me.  “I think that I was sent here to get me out of the way,” he said, taking his seat.  “The drug ring in this city is – was, I suppose – very influential.  Inevitably, there must have been politicians and other people of influence whose pockets were fed by the machine here.  They would be the sort who only wanted to make a token show of involvement.  If I failed to uncover the root, then two goals could have been accomplished at once.”

That was a worrying implication to consider.  Interpol agents weren’t exactly at the beck and call of the average citizen.  Adlai’s involvement in something as mundane as a museum robbery had struck me as odd, to begin with.  Now, he was telling me that he’d actually been sent into town to investigate Hill’s drug ring…an investigation that would’ve been met with countless obstacles and roadblocks, if even half of what Hill and Asher said about the corruption in the police department was true.

It was possible that Adlai was being perfectly frank and that he was entirely accurate.  Even operating at his absolute best, Hill would probably have arranged for one of his men to take the fall, thereby appeasing the masses and giving Interpol a useful patsy.  At worst, Adlai could have taken a media beating the likes of which had rarely been seen and a talented, dogged investigator could have been removed from play.

There was an undeniable elegance to how brutally effective a plan like that might have been.  Win or lose, Adlai had been in a position where his every action furthered the goals of his unseen enemy.  My intervention into things, then, might have done more than unseat a dangerous drug lord and exact sweet revenge on my former partner; I might have saved Adlai’s job.

I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that.

“What happens now?”

He leaned back in his chair and said nothing.  His lips began to move silently, after a few seconds, and I tried to read them.  Within a few seconds, I realized that he wasn’t mouthing anything in English.  Something about his body language, coupled with a flicker of instinct, told me that he was praying.

Adlai opened his eyes.  “You are a criminal,” he said.

I sighed.  “That hasn’t been proven.  Well…okay, it has been proven, but I already did my time for that.”

“You have broken the law,” he continued, as if I hadn’t spoken at all.  “You have treated it as a choice instead of a guideline of rules that must be followed.  You have endangered others in your recklessness and greed.”

I stood halfway out of my chair in immediate protest.  “I didn’t endanger anyone!  If you want to start preaching about people who put other people at risk, then you should probably point that finger somewhere else!  You wouldn’t even have broken this case, if I hadn’t helped.”

He kept speaking in a calm, implacably remorseless voice.  “You are a thief who has stolen, robbed, and pilfered from law abiding citizens for years,” he said.  He paused for a moment before continuing.  “But you have not done that today.”

I blinked twice, hard, and then stared at Adlai in utter confusion.  “I…what was that?”

He reached a hand into his suit coat, pulled out a thin envelope, and placed it delicately on the table’s surface.  “According to Lord Fairfax’s lawyer,” he said, “no crime was committed today.  Nothing was stolen from his estate and, in fact, a mysteriously well-timed anonymous tip allowed the London Metropolitan Police to detain a number of wanted criminals.  One could almost say that whatever happened on that estate today was a part of an undercover sting, designed to identify and isolate the head of the drug cartel in this area.”

He wasn’t exactly lying, but he was presenting an extremely sanitized version of events.  I quickly thought through everything I’d done since leaving the Brooklands that morning.  If Hill had originally planned to walk away from everything, he would have needed to exercise a great deal of clout pushing his story through the halls of power.  However, if he wanted me to walk out of Scotland Yard and into whatever secret torture chamber he had waiting for me, all he had to do was refuse to press charges.

Nothing was stolen?” I asked cautiously.  My thoughts were on the Book which, of course, Hill couldn’t possibly have reported.  I hoped.

“Nothing at all,” Adlai said and I breathed a silent sigh of relief.

Then, my eyes narrowed in suspicion.  This was entirely too easy.  I’d been prepared to spend even more time in jail as a necessary consequence of this particular desperation move.  Adlai had been trying to catch me for years.  I couldn’t imagine that he’d suddenly become generous enough to look the other way.

I picked up the envelope and opened it, revealing a typed police report.  I skimmed over it, noting that Coleman’s name featured several times through the document, and then slowly lowered it back to the table.  “Coleman attributed his success to me?”

“Among other people,” Adlai said, “who he has adamantly refused to name.  He did not actually remember your name.  At least, that is the only reasonable explanation for his insistence that you were a German, which both you and I know to be patently false, of course.”

“Uh, yes.  Of course.  Obviously.”  I made a mental note to abandon that false name as soon as possible.  Or, I mused, to use it as a smokescreen in other cities, when I needed a bit of cover.

It occurred to me that I was thinking about my release as a foregone conclusion, suddenly, as opposed to a distant possibility.  Adlai must have read the direction of my thoughts somehow, because he leaned his elbows forward and steepled his fingers on the tabletop.  “I do not believe any of this,” he said in an intense whisper, too low for anyone waiting outside of the room to catch his words.  “I am certain that the butler would reveal the truth, if asked the correct questions in the correct way.”

From anyone else, I would have taken that as a threat.  Pressuring Coleman for the truth wouldn’t even be against the law.  All things being equal, it would actually be the moral thing to do.

Adlai was too by-the-book for that, though.  Grandstanding had never been his M.O. and taunting was beneath his dignity.

“But you aren’t going to do that,” I said.

“No,” Adlai said back.  “No, I am not.”

I swallowed nervously.  The smart move was to make a speedy exit.  My curiosity wouldn’t allow me to move a muscle without asking another question, though.  “Why not?”

He went completely still, retreating into himself as he thought carefully about the best answer.  After an eternity, he bit his bottom lip and whispered something to himself in a language I didn’t understand.  “Because,” he said slowly, “you are not the bad guy today.”

Adlai stood up from the table suddenly, as if that admission had caused him some sort of physical pain, and pivoted back to the door.  He stopped in the frame, one foot already out of the door, and spoke again.  “But that will not always be the case,” he said, without turning around.

“What are you going to do with Asher?”  I asked, out of sincere interest and a desire to break the sudden tension between Adlai and me.

“I will take personal custody of him.  I imagine he will have a great deal to tell me and my superiors.”

“And Hill?”  Adlai faced me and I read an unasked question on his face.  “Oh, um…Fairfax.  What about Fairfax?”

“My superior has already taken steps to remove Fairfax from this city.  His influence is too great here and it wouldn’t do to allow a criminal such as him to get away on a technicality.”  His eyes bored into mine.

I blinked first.  “Right.  Well, have fun with that, I guess?”

He scoffed.  “I imagine I will see you again,” he said.  “Although not under such…collegial circumstances.”

Adlai exited the room on that note, without allowing me an opportunity for a retort.  But the door to the interrogation room remained open.

I waited for almost two full minutes, expecting the ceiling to open up and dump the weight of the world on my head, before I cautiously got to my feet.  “No,” I said under my breath, “you really won’t.”

Chapter 136

“You know,” Asher said, “it never ceases to amaze me how often you find yourself in police custody.  And I didn’t even have anything to do with it this time!”

“After a while, you start to miss the familiar embrace of law enforcement,” I replied.  “You should give it a try sometime.”

He laughed.  “No, I think I’ll leave that entirely up to you, old friend.  Why don’t you have a seat?  It can’t be comfortable standing up, what with those injuries you went and got for yourself.”

In truth, I’d only intended to stand up for a little bit.  My ribs were already sending up the preliminary pulses that let me know I was going to be in serious pain before too long and my head was beginning to swim.  Still, I forced myself to feign comfort and balance.  I’d be damned before I let Asher see me in a moment of weakness.

“Seems to me like you’re absolutely desperate for some of the state’s hospitality,” I said, keeping my back to Asher so that he wouldn’t be able to see my gritted teeth.  “You do realize you’re standing inside of Scotland Yard, don’t you?”

I glanced at the two-way mirror, just in time to see Asher’s shoulders drop back into place from a dismissive shrug.  “There are benefits to working with my current employers.  One of which was a clean slate, criminally speaking.  As far as these delightful alphabet agencies are concerned, I have never committed a crime in my life.  It’s actually shocking how much you can get away with, so long as you have a clean record while you’re doing it.”

“Like walking into a police station, in the middle of an interview?”

“Ah.  No.  It was a one-time pass, so that I’d be free to move across borders without raising an alarm.  The…”  He trailed off, racking his brain for some memory.  “Ah!  The Magi…that’s what you called them, right?  Well, the Magi were very clear about the terms of my contract, for lack of a better word.”

“And those terms were?”

In the mirror, Asher pulled out the seat previously occupied by the dark-skinned detective inspector and sat down at the table.  He steepled his fingers in thought momentarily before answering.  “Basically, that they had no intention of stepping in for me every time I made a mistake.  I was…let’s say that I was encouraged to be circumspect.”

“And yet,” I said, “here you are.”

“Here I am,” he agreed.

A muscle in my leg spasmed involuntarily.  It wasn’t a very large spasm, but it was enough that I relinquished my pretense of autonomy and returned to my seat, opposite Asher.  He gave me a searching look and I returned the nonverbal volley with an examination of my own.

He wasn’t dressed as richly now as he had been at the Green Light Gala, but he wasn’t bumming it either.  What he wore now seemed like a reflection of his cocky, confident demeanor: slacks in an understated reddish color, dark brown boots, and a white Oxford button up with the neck open.  The exposed skin at the base of his throat was marred with burns, similar to the ones twining up his arms.  Beneath the scars, an intricate tapestry of tattoos was barely distinguishable.

He’d told me what some of those tattoos meant, long ago when we used to be friends.  I couldn’t remember now.  I suspected that he’d probably take steps to replace the artwork at his earliest convenience; whatever their meaning, Asher had been very serious about his tattoos.

As I thought about that, a question occurred to me.  Since Asher seemed to be in a talkative mood, I asked it out loud.  “Why didn’t you ever do anything about those?”  I gestured vaguely at his arm and exposed neck.

He shrugged again.  “It barely ever hurts anymore,” he said.  That wasn’t quite an answer.  I waited a few seconds and he elaborated of his own volition.  “My employers suggested that I keep the scars, as a reminder.”

“A reminder of what, exactly?”

A shadow crossed over his expression, dimming the self-assured light in his eyes for just a moment.  I remembered the tortures I’d read about in the Lady’s file and instantly regretted the question.  Asher let out a long breath and visibly regained control of himself before answering.  “Negotiations.”

Neither of us said anything for nearly a full minute.  I wondered where the dark-skinned detective inspector had gone.  Unless the coffee shop was in Colombia, it shouldn’t have taken him anywhere near this long to retrieve two cups.

“What’re you doing here?” I asked into the silence.

“I wanted to talk,” Asher replied.

“We tried that.  If I remember correctly, you drugged and kidnapped me.”

He gave me a rueful smile.  “Seemed like a simple way to make contact.  Besides, you managed to get away after causing a staggering amount of collateral damage.  No harm, no foul?”

I wasn’t going to acknowledge that question with an answer.  “And then you tried to have us followed after the Gala.”

“You weren’t exactly going to tell me where you were going,” he said.  “And I had to find out what you knew.  Thanks for leading me to the little girl, by the way.  I had suspicions that something was going on out there, but since you’re the one who got the information from the Texan…”

“Shame you didn’t actually get the girl, though.”  He was entirely too calm, too steady.  The Asher from previous encounters didn’t seem to be present and that was who I needed to speak to.

“I didn’t want the girl,” Asher shot back.  “That was Hill.  Or Fairfax, sorry; I forget that you finally figured out what his real name is.”

That was interesting, but not immediately salient.  We’d already guessed that Asher and Hill probably had different goals, if not directly contradictory desires.  “And then you had my friend’s daughter kidnapped.  Remember that?”

“It was only a few days ago,” he said mildly.  “And that wasn’t about you.”

“Fine.  Okay.  Let’s play.  You want to talk?  You could have done that anytime you wanted.”

“Not really,” Asher said.  “Not the way I wanted to talk, at least.  There were always other people there, getting in the way.  The goons at the warehouse, all of those uptight pricks at the Gala, Alex and his weepy daughter…I just wanted a chance for the two of us to sit down.  No interruptions, no distractions.”

“And now is when you chose to do that?  In the middle of police headquarters?”

He smiled.  “I’m a sucker for a captive audience.  No pun intended.”

Since joining up with Sarah, I’d barely ever worn a watch and I didn’t have one on now.  In hindsight, it had been a mistake not to take extra precautions.  As it was, I had no idea what time it was or how much longer I’d need to stall him.

“Why’d you do it?” I asked my old friend.  “No pretense or bullshit, either.  We worked together for years and then you turned on me.  You had to know that I thought you were dead.”

“Honestly?”  Asher waited until I gave him a slight nod.  “There was a time when I thought you knew the truth.  Or…well, maybe not knew the truth, but suspected.  I spent a lot of time tracking your movements, checking in on you whenever possible, just to find the proof that you’d just discarded me.”

I shivered at the thought of Asher secretly keeping tabs on me.  I don’t know why the thought bothered me as much as it did.  The Lady was clearly capable of tracking me, no matter what steps I took to throw her off of my scent, and Asher knew me well enough to predict what he couldn’t simply ferret out.  Still, the idea was profoundly uncomfortable.

He continued his explanation.  “But then I looked into the official reports from the job.  You couldn’t have known.  There just wasn’t any way for anyone to guess that I’d been taken hostage by an international cabal of criminal overlords.”  Asher laughed ruefully.  “Hell, it happened to me and even I think it’s ridiculous.”

“So why then?  Did they make you do it?  We could have figured out a way to get you out from under their thumbs.”

Asher shook his head.  “Just because I figured out that you didn’t know the truth doesn’t mean that I forgave you.”

“Forgave me for what?  I didn’t do anything!  You were the one who changed the plan at the last minute!”

He shrugged.  “But you were the one who replaced me with Sarah.”

I blinked at that.  “What exactly did you want me to do?  Spend the rest of my life in mourning?”

“Just a little bit of time before you took on a new partner would’ve been nice!”  Asher snapped, raising his volume several levels in a heartbeat.  He slapped one palm down on the table and the impact was painfully loud in the small interrogation room.  “As far as you knew, I was barely cold in the grave before you started up with her!”

He’d brought that up before.  It didn’t make any more sense this time, but it was clearly something he believed dearly.  I didn’t understand what he meant and I realized, just before I could ask him what he meant, that it wasn’t something I was ever going to understand.

Asher must have come to the same conclusion.  He inhaled and exhaled several times and calmed himself back down.  “This isn’t what I wanted to talk about.”

“What, then?”

“Professional curiosity,” he said and tilted his head.  “One thief to another: how’d you do it?”

I pretended not to know what he was talking about.  “Do what?”

“Don’t play dumb,” Asher said.  “Hill had you dead to rights.  His mole compromised your beloved Sarah’s communications.  He installed secret cameras that even I only found out about in the last few hours.  He had more men, more weaponry, more preparation…and you somehow got the Book out of that estate, right under his nose.  So, come on.  What was the trick?”

I whistled a low note.  “You didn’t figure it out?  You, the brilliant mastermind, couldn’t guess what the missing piece was?”  It was very important that I not confirm anything, but I felt confident that the jab at his ego would be enough to galvanize him into really thinking about the problem.

Asher narrowed his eyes in thought for several seconds and assumed an expression I’d seen countless times before.  “Billy’s men were too far away to help,” he said, mostly to himself, “and Sarah was neutralized from the start.  There was the bodyguard, but Aiden kept her occupied until your Frenchman managed to pull her out of the fire at the last minute.  The little girl and her keeper couldn’t have helped you, but…”  His eyes widened as he sucked in a single, sharp breath.  “Alex?”

Instead of responding, I merely smiled.

Asher took that as an answer.  “But that would mean…oh!  Oh, that is elegant.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” Asher said.  “Hill wanted you to get onto the estate, so that he could figure out how you did it and stop anyone else from trying the same trick after he finished taking over the drug trade entirely.  So, you went in and sprang his trap, but…but you didn’t know it was a trap.  I’ve looked over the footage and he should have captured you when you were in the bedroom.  Unless…”

“Hill,” I provided helpfully, “has never met Alex.  He’s never even seen him.  But Alex happens to know several people from all walks of life.  For instance, a great deal of the people of the service industry – waiters, bartenders, butlers – are all pretty easily accessible, if you know someone who can make the right introductions.”  I added a subtle accent to the most important word in the sentence.  It was just enough that Asher would catch what I was referring to and not so much that anyone else would have been able to understand my meaning.

“And Alex would be the type of person who knows absolutely everyone.  He got himself hired, when Hill was scrambling to fortify in preparation for your intrusion, and no one bothered to look too deeply into his past because the timeline was too tight.  So he followed Hill’s orders right up until he gave the command to cut off communications to and from his bedroom.  At which point, you were safe to pass the Book off to him.  And he could get away easily, because no one would think to stop one of their own especially since Hill was already planning to send people to round up your team.”  Asher sat back and whistled in amazement.  “Did I get it right?”

I kept my face expressionless but, internally, I marveled at the way Asher’s mind worked.  I hadn’t even given him a clue, yet he’d pieced together every level of the plan on pure instinct.  The ability to navigate through labyrinthine plans so easily was as frightening as it was impressive.

Of course, he hadn’t gotten everything right.  I appreciated that he was willing to give Sarah and me the credit for every single angle, but the reality was far simpler.  Alex hadn’t told anyone about his intentions to infiltrate the estate before us.  I hadn’t really had an opportunity to talk to him since he’d surprised me in Hill’s bedroom.  The conversation we’d had in the room, during the short period of time when all communications and cameras had been temporarily blocked, focused more on the immediate details that we needed to know.

One: Someone had betrayed the team and, with that mole’s help, Hill was able to listen in on our communications.

Two: Coleman, who had learned his trade under someone who owed Alex a favor, was working with the police.  He had been collecting evidence for months, carefully copying bits and pieces at a time so that Hill wouldn’t have any idea what was going on.  Our arrival, and the subsequent upheaval we’d caused in Hill’s business, had provided him with the cover he needed to start going after the more incriminating evidence.  When Hill moved into the final phase of his plans, he’d been forced to include Coleman and kidnapped his family to ensure his compliance.

Three: Hill had prepared multiple layers of redundancy, specifically designed to ensure that I couldn’t possibly leave the house with the Book.  Moreover, there were men in place to capture or kill my entire team, whenever Hill gave the order.

The last point was something I’d figured out on my own, but Alex’s confirmation forced me to become creative.  In the moment, I’d cobbled together a workable outline and Alex had agreed.  While I took the briefcase out of the room, going out of my way to be as visible as possible to any cameras along the way, Alex secreted the Book itself off of the estate and made it to Sarah.  The idea had been for her to hear the news in person, as opposed to over the compromised channel.  Judging from the way the police had arrived, armed and ready for combat, I could only assume that he’d impressed upon her the direness of the situation.  As soon as she was aware of the hidden cameras, she would have been able to pinpoint their network and take them over.

After that, the police showed up and swiftly detained Hill’s entire force of hired goons.  Without the use of his cameras, he’d been blind to the events happening outside of the estate.  My presence in front of him, so obviously protecting the briefcase that he thought contained the Book, was additional distraction to keep him figuring out the truth before it was too late.

The strategy had relied more on dumb luck and divine intervention than brilliant intuition, but I wasn’t going to disillusion Asher.  Besides, it was important that he think he’d figured it all out, but for him to not think too far ahead.  If he followed that train of thought to its conclusion, it was possible that he’d figure out the final twist before he made that last, fatal mistake.

So, out loud, I said, “That’s a great story.  It’d be amazing if someone actually pulled that off.”

“I remember the days when I was the clever one,” Asher said.  He stubbed out the remains of his cigarette and lit another one.  “I guess you really did learn something in prison, didn’t you?”

The reminder of my time in La Santé struck a nerve.  My hands balled up into fists under the table and I willed myself to stay calm.  Patience was key.  “Thanks again for that.  Really appreciated my time in Crime Academy.”

Asher chuckled to himself, as if he hadn’t heard a word I’d said.  “Alex, though.  I cannot believe I took my eye off of him.  Not that I would’ve stepped in, even if I had figured it out beforehand.  Hill was planning to cut me off, literally, as soon as he got what he wanted.  But you already know that.”

I wondered how much information Asher had managed to ferret away from Hill before we’d assaulted the estate, but I kept my mouth shut.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Asher asked suddenly.  He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial volume.  “Sometimes, I think killing Alex’s wife is the worst mistake I ever made.  He was just too useful in the field, but…ah well.  Mistakes were made, I guess.”

All of the moisture in my mouth dried up.  My heart skipped and stuttered several times.  “What was that?” I asked, in a dangerously low voice.

Asher blinked and mild confusion spread across his face.  “What?  That I killed Alex’s wife?  I mean, I didn’t do it – I just hired the men and sent them to Florence – but I think that’s kind of a moot point.”

The relevant memory came flooding back.  The job in Florence and the mysterious crew of gunmen who’d appeared out of nowhere.  That crew’s odd behavior: ignoring the prize and focusing their attention entirely on a group of thieves who hadn’t done anything to garner that type of violent reaction.  The death of Jules, Alex’s first love and the mother of his child.

“That was you?”  I swallowed several times, so that my next question would be perfectly clear.  “Why?  Alex never did anything to you.”

“It wasn’t about him,” Asher said.  “It was about you.  Or Sarah, really, but what was the difference at that point?  I’d just gotten control of my first hit team – the Magi were keen to get my feet wet with some sort of operation – and I wanted to see how good they were.  Apparently, they worked just fine, but I didn’t have the information network that I have now.  No one told me that you were bringing another woman along and I didn’t give clear enough orders.”

“You sent a team of hitmen to kill Sarah?  My wife?”  The red haze of fury began to seep in around the edges of my vision.

Asher seemed to not notice as the atmosphere in the interrogation room changed.  “Would’ve been nice, if it’d worked out.  After everything went down, and I used my second team to get rid of the other guys before they could talk, I decided to go with a more elegant route.  Something you wouldn’t see coming and couldn’t just run away from.”

It took every ounce of willpower not to throw myself across the table and strangle Asher where he sat.  He’d killed my friend’s wife, he’d kidnapped her daughter, and he’d tried to kill Sarah.  And he sat across a metal table, smirking to himself as though it was just a pleasant memory for him.

What kept me from committing murder on the spot and consigning myself to a lifetime behind bars was a single thought: Gotcha.

“Why are you telling me this?”  I asked coldly.  Then, I shook my head before he could answer.  “So that I’ll have something to think about while Hill’s torturing me to death?”

“Oh, Hill’s not going to get out of prison anytime soon,” Asher said.  “I’m sure his lawyer’s already been to see you.  Probably told you that Hill was going to walk away from everything, due to some ethereal connections, right?”

I gave him a short nod.

“As it turns out, Hill was so distracted dealing with you that he forgot all about me,” Asher said.  “The blackmail he was going to use on the Chief Inspector seems to have mysteriously changed hands in the interim.  I don’t even have to threaten to publicly expose his nasty cocaine habit.  He is more than willing to corrupt himself even further, if it means sticking it to Hill.”

If the Chief Inspector had been in Hill’s pocket, Coleman’s one-man undercover act had been doomed from the beginning.  Hill had probably known about his butler’s activities the entire time.  That explained why he’d gone for the more aggressive route of threatening Coleman’s family, instead of simply buying him off.

“So you’re giving me something extra to chew over while I go back to prison?” I asked.

Asher shook his head.  “Been there, done that.  I’ll have to keep you here for a couple of days, while I go and take care of your crew before they can get their feet under them.  I’ll take special time with Sarah, of course.  But, after that, I think the charges against you will disappear too.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“Because you are so much fun,” Asher said, in a voice that reminded me of grandmothers and pinched cheeks.  “It’d be easy to beat you now, when you’re already captured, but that isn’t really giving you a sporting chance, is it?”

He stood up and walked across the room to the door.  Just before he touched the doorknob, I cleared my throat.  “You know what your problem is?” I asked.

Asher stopped and turned back around.  “I figured we’d have plenty of opportunities to talk, after I finish getting rid of any obstacles, but…sure, why not?  What’s on your mind?  What’s my problem?”

I took in a deep breath.  It was difficult to put all of my anger away, but I managed it.  “Let me see if I’ve got all this right.  You were captured by the Magi after the job in St. Petersburg and they convinced you to start working for them.  You were their enforcer, right?  The hammer they used whenever someone in their organization got out of line?”

The cocky look on his face dimmed slightly.  “I wouldn’t call what they did convincing.”

I acknowledged that point with a small incline of my head.  “Fair.  Didn’t mean to diminish whatever they did to you.  But, my point is that you were being used by the Magi when you came here.  They must have gotten wind of Hill’s impending betrayal, so they sent you down here to sort everything out.”

“There were rumors,” Asher said.  “I was supposed to figure out exactly what was going on.  I didn’t realize exactly how far along he was until I saw how much power he’d managed to consolidate.”

“That’s when you decided to play both sides, wasn’t it?”  I asked.  “If Hill pulls off his coup, you’re in a good position to backstab him later.  If things go sideways, you could deliver the last blow and rise a little bit in the eyes of your handlers.”

Asher winked at me.  “And then you showed up.  That was a stroke of pure luck.”

“You didn’t ever want to beat me, did you?  As soon as I came into town, you were just stringing us along, hoping that we’d be able to cripple Hill for you.  Right?”

“You’re a force of pure, unfiltered chaos,” Asher replied.  “With someone to draw out the flowchart, you are inexhaustible.  I knew that you’d throw yourself at Hill like a living torpedo until either you or he went downAnd I was personally betting on you.”

I ignored that ‘compliment.’  “So, what now?  You’re going to take over the drug business, now that Hill’s out of the way?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Asher lied, “but I’m sure my employers are going to give me some kind of a promotion.  I did orchestrate the downfall of a broken cog in their machine, even if I had to use you like a pawn to do it.”

“This was all a setup,” I said.  “Ever since you figured out we were here, we’ve just been following your marching orders.”

“Don’t feel bad about it.  I’m just better at this than you.  You had to know you could never beat me.”

I nodded.  “You’re right.  I never could beat you.  You were always better at seeing the angles, predicting what someone would do.  Like…oh, knowing that someone wouldn’t be able to resist gloating after pulling off a trick like this?”

The question hung in the air for a few seconds.  “What’re you saying?” Asher asked, after a long silence.  “That you expected me to come here?”

I circled back around to an earlier point in the conversation.  “You just admitted to murder,” I said, “and you’re sitting in a police station.  What makes you think you’re just going to walk out of here?”

“Weren’t you listening?  With the blackmail I stole from Hill, to say nothing of the dirty cops that are absolutely infesting this building, I’m untouchable.  If I get arrested…if I so much as get a traffic ticket, every single corrupt pig in this place is going down with me.”

“Doesn’t sound like a terrible loss,” I countered.  “You just gave a confession, Ash.  Did you not notice that while you were enjoying your ego trip?”

“Who’s going to take the word of a thief?” Asher asked.  “I’ll see to it that you don’t go to jail for this – I’ve got my own plans – but that’s as far as it goes.  There’s no one in the room but me and I own the overwhelming majority of the police outside this door.  The ones I don’t have dirt on report to people who I’ve got dirt on.  I’m bulletproof, Dev and it’s all thanks to you.  So thanks.  I don’t think anyone could’ve taken Hill down like this, except for you.”

“And no one,” I said, “could have beaten you but you.”

The door opened.  Asher pulled his hand back from the knob in surprise.  The dark-skinned detective, who I was irrationally pleased to see, cut an imposing figure in his tweed suit coat and dark pants.  “Where do you think you’re going?”

Asher gave the man a skeptical look.  “I’m leaving,” he said, “and I think your boss will agree with that.”

The dark-skinned detective stepped aside.  Neetipal Adlai, Interpol’s most dogged and incorruptible agent, stood in the man’s shadow.  He raised an eyebrow and, lifting one hand from out of sight, dangled a pair of handcuffs that gleamed in the light.  “I do not think you will be going anywhere.  Premeditated murder is a very serious crime in Italy and, considering your confession, I think it will be a long time before you go anywhere.”

“Life in prison,” I added helpfully.  “No chance of parole.  Just in case you were thinking about gaming the board.  And, unless I’m mistaken, Hill didn’t have any contacts in Italy, right?”

Asher stared at the two men in silence before turning back to face me.  I met his eyes for a moment, then flicked my gaze in the direction of the two-way mirror.  Asher followed my gaze, sighed, and covered his face with his palm. “Of course,” he said.  He was speaking out loud, but I felt confident that he wasn’t actually talking to anyone in the room.  “No one who works in London would dare to arrest me.  But a confession where an Interpol agent could hear me?”

I leaned back and smiled.  He hadn’t been talking to me, but I felt like answering anyway.  “That’s your problem,” I said.  “You stopped thinking like a thief, Asher, and you started thinking like a mark.  And a mark…well, I can always beat a mark.”

Part 4: Recap

After the problematic extraction of “the key” – actually a preteen girl named Avis, as well as her friend/handler Neal – Devlin O’Brien and the rest of his team soon discover that their exploits in the London countryside have garnered the attention of the London Metropolitan Police and, in a spectacularly unfortunate turn of events, Adlai Neetipal, Devlin’s own personal nemesis.  With his name and face publically displayed on the news and the noose slowly tightening around his neck, Devlin and Sarah decide that they must first tackle the problem of the police before turning their attention fully towards whatever challenge lies around the next corner.

First, he must find a way to steal an authorized identification card, from someone with the clearance necessary to enter Scotland Yard and retrieve or destroy any incriminating evidence.  Sarah works her networking magic to ensure that Adlai’s superior, Inspector Lane, will be at a specific location at a very specific time and, as Devlin’s face is the one on display, Mila and Michel take point on the initial leg of the operation.

The plan is deliberately uncomplicated.  Michel is to pour shots down Lane’s throat, until such time as Mila is capable of lifting and copying the man’s identification card.

Immediately, the framework of that plan falls to ruin, when Mila and Michel discover that Adlai himself has joined Lane at the bar.  Instead of calling things off, however, Michel musters the resolve to follow through with the approach.  With Devlin in his ear to guide the conversation, Michel deftly navigates past any conversational traps planted by the Indian agent.  Even Mila’s unplanned detour – leaving her ward momentarily for a hasty discussion with the Japanese twins that Devlin calls The Things – doesn’t cause too many ripples.  At least, until Adlai discovers the miniature camera on Michel’s lapel.

Some fast thinking, faster fingers, and a touch of a silver tongue manage to derail Adlai’s suspicions.  Michel manages to convince both the agent and his Superintendent that he is a police officer, planted undercover in Hill’s organization.  A quick call from Lane luckily provides confirmation that at least one officer is, in fact, working to derail the operation from the inside.  Using that serendipitous knowledge as a basis for his new cover identity, Michel is able to distract Lane long enough for Mila to do her work, and then beat a hasty escape before any questions can be asked that might compromise his true goal.

Before the night is out, though, Devlin receives a terse phone call from associates he had not expected and was not prepared for: Stanislav Novikof, the Russian Mafioso, and his two lieutenants.  Stani requires Devlin’s presence in the slums of London, for some task that might potentially provide illumination to the mystery of the Magi, the ephemeral crime lords that seem to be providing Asher with both support and considerable firepower.

Mila cannot be contacted, for some reason, and Michel is incapacitated by one too many celebratory shots.  Sarah’s physical presence is completely out of the question, so Devlin goes to meet the Russians alone.  The meeting is supposed to take place within a local black market, an impoverished pocket of commerce and activity within the world of the downtrodden and destitute.  Devlin meets the Russians and, after a short conversation, discovers that Stani now suspects that he is involved with the Magi and might actually be working on their behalf.  The unexpected arrival of Mila, walking the black market for her own mysterious reasons, doesn’t help matters.

Devlin temporarily diffuses the situation long enough for the group – consisting now of Devlin, Mila, Stani, Leonid, and Iosif – to head towards their true destination: a building constructed of black stone, standing tall and unbowed within the poverty of the black market.  Inside, they meet a man with ties to Hill, the Russian mafia, and to the people who seek shelter in his Halfway House, who introduces himself simply as Billy.

Billy makes a request of Devlin’s team that might help all parties involved.  A processing plant in the area is run by Hill and serves as a cover for his drug smuggling.  Inside, a special type of plastic can be transmuted back into pure cocaine.  Billy wants to sabotage the plant entirely, by replacing the treated plastic with a special version.  This version, when subjected to extreme heat, will produce extreme quantities of toxic smoke, forcing a shutdown of the processing plant and hobbling Hill’s efforts.

In exchange for leading this raid, Billy offers to answer any question that Devlin has about the man. The opportunity to deal another blow to Hill – and, by extension, Asher – is too much for Devlin and Sarah to turn down.  With the addition of James and Chester, two of Billy’s men, they set off for the factory with a hastily constructed plan and no real idea of how badly things could go wrong.

The approach goes perfectly.  The infiltration, with Sarah’s crucial long-distance assistance, goes perfectly.  In fact, everything goes wonderfully until Devlin and Mila reach the center of the operation, where the chemical process is supposed to take place.  Then, and only then, do they discover that the product contained in the loading area is common baking soda, not cocaine.  And the center of the plant does not harbor the mechanism for transmuting plastic into cocaine.  For some reason, nothing is the way it should be.

Instead of a successful raid, Devlin and Mila discover that they have walked themselves directly into a trap.

With law enforcement on the way, summoned by a deliberately triggered alarm, and Aiden’s group of cutthroat mercenaries even closer, Devlin makes the call to finish with the plan.  Instead of relying on a scheduled chemical process to activate Billy’s fake plastic, he uses two of the chemicals located within the plant to forcibly create a fire that will provide cover for his escape.  The fact that the factory is not up to safety standards, and the localized reaction results in a massive conflagration instead of a controlled burn, comes as a surprise to everyone in the building.

Chaos rains from the sky around them, as Devlin and Mila, as well as Stani and his lieutenants, search for a way out of the burning factory.  A path out, via the loading bay, is provided by Sarah, but the presence of Aiden’s man Carlos complicates matters.  In complete defiance of Devlin’s wishes and fervent requests, Mila takes it upon herself to do her job: protecting Devlin from harm, no matter the cost.  She stays behind, firing blindly into the fire to distract Carlos until Devlin and the Russians can make it to the relative safety of Billy’s Halfway House.  Devlin watches, transfixed, as the building tears itself apart and Mila is lost to the blaze before the toxic fumes he has inhaled drag him away from the world of the conscious.

When he wakes again, Devlin is surprised to see that Sarah has left her command post at the Brooklands.  She informs him of his injuries and informs him that Mila survived the explosion at the processing plant and is now held at Scotland Yard, awaiting further questioning.  Devlin rallies and marshals his wits for an impassioned speech, only to learn that Sarah and Michel have already decided on the only appropriate course of action.  Mila is one of theirs.  Where the previous twenty-four hours had been bent wholly to the task of removing Devlin from beneath the watchful eye of the police, now they must go directly into the dragon’s lair to retrieve their teammate before things can find a more disastrous path to follow.

Billy, and a few more men in his employ, join them for the initial approach on Scotland Yard.  Billy engages with several workers and a foreman, working on the reconstruction of the building, and provides Sarah with access to a working set of blueprints.  Michel uses the stolen identity card, as well as a falsified uniform, to gain access to their internetwork.  With all that done, Sarah readies herself to do something she has not done since joining forces with Devlin, so many years ago: she must go into the field, to provide a distraction for Adlai that he cannot ignore, so that Michel is able to steal, destroy, or corrupt anything that might provide the police with any solid basis for further investigations into Devlin or his allies.

But Adlai is not interested in Sarah’s stories and he shows no weakness to the Ford name.  With time running out, and fearing that Sarah might be compromised, Devlin takes it upon himself to sever the complicated knot.  He presents himself to the agents, prepared to match wits with the man who has hunted him for nearly a decade.

The conversation between Adlai and Devlin is civil, yet charged with a terrifying energy.  Their ideals clash in violent exchanges.  Just when Devlin is convinced that he will be forced to spend even more time in jail – only thirty-six hours, instead of the two and a half years inflicted on him by Asher – he is rescued by the intervention of a mysterious figure.  Within seconds, he discovers the identity of that savior: David, the giant who stood like a sentinel over the shoulder of the Lady in the Black Dress.  She greets him as he exits the police station, gives him a thick file of information pilfered from the clutches of Scotland Yard during his operation, and leaves him with a few cryptic words: “Your friends will be the death of you.”

It is not until some time later, safely ensconced within the protective walls of the Brooklands, that Devlin remembers the ignored calls and missed text messages from his old friend Alex in Berlin.  While he listens to those messages, an email arrives from an anonymous source, whose identity is quickly made clear: Asher, reaching out to taunt his former partner just a little more.

Instead of attempting to run down Devlin, Asher has also elected to cut the knot and take the shortest path to his goal.  Why search for his former partner when the kidnapping of Allie, Alex’ only daughter, will accomplish the same goal?

Now, Devlin finds himself faced with an even more impossible task than any he has faced thus far.  How can he steal Allie away from Asher’s clutches, without exposing his team to even greater risk?  Is there a way to turn events away from their inevitably disastrous conclusion and to pull success from the clutches of almost certain defeat?  If one man can go from most wanted to exonerated in a single night, might it also be possible to go from defense to offense?

He does not know.  What he does know is that he will have to find new reserves of intelligence and cunning, lest his alleged crimes against Asher finally come calling for a price too expensive for anyone to pay.

Chapter Eighty-Nine

“I don’t even know why I’m here,” I said, still clinging to the whinier version of myself as cover.  “Will someone just tell me what’s going on?”

Adlai’s hands tensed for a second before relaxing slightly.  “I do not find your little act amusing, O’Brien,” he said.  “You and I both know why you are here and what you have done.”

“I haven’t done anything!”

“Very well, then,” Adlai said.  “Excuse me while I retrieve the information on each and every one of your crimes.  The list is quite substantial, or I would have done so before coming in to this…interview, to begin with.”

He started to stand and I held out a hand to stop him without even thinking.  Sarah had been very clear; if Adlai accessed the files that she was corrupting, the entire process would be a non-starter.  His attention had to be kept away from any computer that might provide him with an opportunity to ruin our plans.  For the moment, the only way to keep his eyes firmly on me was to play his game.

“Let’s say,” I began, “that I hypothetically know what you’re talking about.”

“Hypothetically.”

His intonation made it clear that he didn’t consider my choice of vocabulary as valid, but I wasn’t talking for him at the moment.  The one-way glass might conceal a cadre of police officers and prosecutors, waiting with baited breath for me to misspeak.

I gave Adlai a nod.  “In fact, let’s assume that whatever conversation you want to have is preceded by an invisible ‘hypothetically.’  I’d hate for someone to get the wrong idea about our chat, or to start thinking that I’m confessing to crimes that I obviously don’t know anything about.”

Adlai tapped two fingers against the side of his left leg in thought.  I watched him silently, hoping I’d read him correctly.  I knew from miserable firsthand experience that his slavish adherence to the law made him the kind of opposition best handled from a distance of several hundred, or thousand, miles.  But it wasn’t his faith in the legal system that brought him back into my life, time and time again.  For some reason I couldn’t understand, Adlai treated our relationship as a personal affront to his sensibilities.

It was that personal angle that I hoped to take advantage of.  A good police officer would have left the room, regardless of my protest.  In fact, a good police officer probably wouldn’t have entered the interrogation room without as much evidence as he could lay his hands on, and he certainly wouldn’t have sent away any corroborating witnesses.  To my reckoning, Adlai was a superlative officer of the law: fastidious and exacting in a way that had, on more than occasion, convinced me that the man would have made an excellent thief.

He was also, however, a human being.  It took him less than ten seconds to decide to walk back across the room, pull his chair from under the table, and seat himself opposite me again.

Adlai steepled his fingers once more and turned his eyes to me.  The look on his face hit me like a well-thrown punch.  “Let us say that.  What do you have say for yourself?”

“About what?”

“You have stolen,” Adlai said, “you have broken into houses across Europe, and you have been complicit in widespread panic and destruction.”

“I have not,” I protested.  Then, a moment later, “Hypothetically speaking, of course.”

“You think that I did not keep up with your trail of destruction?” Adlai asked.  “What led to your incarceration while in Paris, then, if not a firebomb that left several neighborhoods in darkness for two days?”

“That wasn’t…okay, that wasn’t exactly me.”

“Oh, of course not,” Adlai said.  A mirthless laugh escaped his lips.  “It is never you.  You are just unlucky enough to always been in the wrong place – the wrong city, or the wrong country perhaps – at exactly the right time.  It is a coincidence that so many items of value disappear when you go on vacation, is it not?”

“Items of value?  You mean paintings and jewelry…things like that?”

Adlai gave me a nod.

I snorted back in derision.  “Those things don’t have any real value.  Having a Renoir doesn’t help feed anybody, but it does look damn good when you’re having thirty of your closest friends over for a fancy dinner party.   An original Castellani is only good for one thing: looking good around the neck of a dilettante whose father or husband or pool boy has more money than they know what to do with.”

It occurred to me that Sarah’s family owned several Castellanis and at least one Renoir; I elected to keep that information to myself.

“And you are such a good person,” Adlai asked, “that you do not care about the value of these things?”

“If I did anything you’re accusing me of, you think I did it for the money?”

Adlai gave me a second sharp nod.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.  What’s something you think I’ve stolen?”

“Four and a half years ago, one Vermeer from the private collection of Nathaniel Romanov.”  He didn’t have the files in front of him, but he provided an answer without even pausing to check his memory.  I must have been on his mind more than I’d let myself admit.

“Something like that would go for…”  I pretended to think, while actually racking my brain to recall exactly how much Sarah had been able to negotiate for that particular piece.  If my memory wasn’t failing me, that had been a commissioned job and we’d voluntarily taken a pay cut on the deal, in exchange for future considerations in the area.  “Let’s say twenty million.”

“If you add a zero to that number,” Adlai said, “you would be closer to the truth.”

“Really?  Two hundred million?  Vermeer’s actually go for that much?”  Apparently, I’d taken a larger pay cut than I’d realized.  No wonder the client had been so effusive about referring further work our way.  “Well, even if it were just the original number.  You don’t think a man can live his entire life off of twenty million dollars and live comfortably?  And you’re implying that I’ve been involved in other thefts like that, right?”

Adlai parted his lips, probably to rattle off a list of my other successes over the years, and I waved him into silence.

“So, any one or two of those jobs could pay for a lavish life of luxury, don’t you think?  Why would I continue stealing these things, opening myself up to greater and greater risk every single time, if I’d already gotten away with a small fortune?”

“Then why?  Why would you do the things you have done?”

I opened my mouth to answer, then froze as I realized I didn’t have an easy answer to that question.  I had, on previous occasions, spent some much needed time in self-reflection on that very point: what drove me to steal, why I chose the targets that I did, and why I simply didn’t leave the business entirely.  I’d spent a lifetime on the edge of capture, evading police forces and private investigators across the globe by nothing more than the skin of my teeth; I’d worked with some particularly distasteful individuals who performed unsavory tasks for unsavory people; and, though it was painful to admit, I’d unwillingly sacrificed my marriage to the job.

And I had not, for the life of me, been able to identify why I continued to go through it all.  After the divorce, I’d only been attempting to chase down that feeling I really only felt when Sarah was pulling strings from a safe location.  But before that?  Even before I’d started working with Asher and well before I’d met and married Sarah…I couldn’t put my finger on a single, solid answer.

“Why?” I repeated to Adlai, giving myself more time to think and also ensuring that he wouldn’t leave the room before I answered.  “Because it’s fun, I guess.  No one really gets hurt.  The marks have all of their property ensured, so it isn’t like they’re actually money.  And they get a great story to tell when they meet up for drinks on top of the Eiffel tower, or whatever else it is that fabulously rich people do with their spare time.”

“You do not think you hurt anyone?  What about the law?  Does that mean nothing to you?”

“The law isn’t a person,” I said, immediately.

“It is important,” Adlai shot back.  “Just because you personally enjoy flaunting the law, that does not mean you are some sort of Robin Hood figure.”

I barked out a laugh.  “When did I say I was some sort of noble thief, out to help the people?  Anything I stole – hypothetically – I either kept or sold.  Mostly sold.  I don’t really see the point of holding onto extravagant paintings, and it isn’t like I find myself entertaining a lot of people, what with the relatively short period of time I spend in a given country.”

“So you admit that you are just a thief!” Adlai cried out, triumphant.

“I did not admit any such thing,” I said.  “But, if what you’re saying turned out to be true, then yes.  I would be a thief.  I’m not under any illusions about that.  But seriously?  Can you honestly tell me that I’m the worst criminal that’s had the displeasure of your attention?”

“That is not the point,” Adlai said.  “A crime is a crime; it does not matter if you think that your crime is somehow less of what it is.”

I blinked and searched his expression for any hint of dissemblance.  There was none to be found.  “You’re serious?  You actually think that art theft is bad as every other crime?”

The stony stare he directed my way served as answer enough.

“What kind of cases do they have you working, Adlai?  You don’t deal with murderers, or rapists, or human trafficking?  I’m serious, here.  Are you, like, in the welterweight division as far as Interpol goes?”

“Welterweight?”  His eyebrows drew closer together in thought for a moment.  “What is that supposed to mean?”

“What I mean,” I said, “is that you’re out of your mind if you think that what I allegedly do is anywhere near as bad as a whole hell of a lot of crimes I can name off the top of my head.”

What had originally only been intended as a diversion now felt subtly different to me.  I’d been on the run from Adlai for more years than I could count and, all things considered, I honestly felt that it was something purely professional on both of our parts.  Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog, taking shots at each other all day long, only to drop the act after the cameras switched off.  Even if the small matter of my dubious relationship with the law didn’t matter, it wasn’t likely that I’d want to spend a lot of time with the man, but I could respect his work ethic and dogged tenacity.

Listening to him now – actually seeing him, face to face – gave me the impression that it wasn’t just professional for him, and it certainly wasn’t just a personal vendetta.  The worst thing I’d ever done to Adlai specifically hadn’t done much worse than ruin a suit and cost him a few frequent flyer miles.

“What did I do to you?” I asked him, foregoing the fiction of my innocence.  It wasn’t going to convince Adlai of anything, and Scotland Yard didn’t have enough to hold me, anyway.

“You…what?  You did nothing to me.  You have broken the law, and that is enough.”

“That’s enough for the way you’ve been chasing me for years?  Let me ask you a question: what about the real bad guys?  Do you have the same level of obsession with them?”

“I will catch any criminal,” Adlai said.  He spoke robotically, as if he was repeating something he’d committed to memory a long time ago.  “The law is not something to be played with.”

“And that seems right to you?  You have to understand how absurd you’re being.”  An idea occurred to me.  It might be possible to accomplish two things at once, if I spoke carefully.  At the moment, there wasn’t any way to check what information had and had not been released to the public, and I didn’t want to provide any of these delightful law enforcement officers with more solid legal footing.  “You’re international, so maybe you heard about a bank robbery a few months ago?”

Adlai nodded before he could stop himself.  “Was that you, as well?”

“From what I heard, people died there. You know I wouldn’t play things that way.”

He didn’t betray any emotion but, after a few seconds of thought, his head inclined slightly in acknowledgement.  “What does that have to do with you, then?”

I could have named Asher.  Adlai’s focus on me had been like a laser, so I wasn’t sure if he was even aware of Asher’s existence, but I could have done it.  It might even have worked.  There was every possibility that it might even be enough to put pressure on Hill and Asher’s plan.  What stopped me wasn’t common sense, but simple ego.  I wanted to catch him on my own.  Handing him over to the police before I’d had a chance at a long, long conversation with Asher didn’t sit well with me.

“It doesn’t,” I said, after a moment.  “I mean, not really.  But there’s…someone out there who is killing people, threatening innocents, and you think that’s the same as me?  Compared to that, I’m the good guy.”

Adlai slammed his fist onto the table.  The action exploded out of nowhere and I jerked away from him instantly.  “You are a criminal,” he said.  “I am the ‘good guy.’  I am the one who is trying to preserve the law!”

“Not like this you aren’t,” I shot back.  My own temper began rising up from the pit of my stomach and I made no particular effort to hold it down.  “If you’re going to focus all of your resources on catching me, instead of going after the real monsters, then you’re as good as helping those assholes get away with actual murder.  I can help, Adlai; I’m trying to help, but I can’t do that if I’ve got to deal with you on my tail every second of every day.”

“So, this is your angle?” Adlai asked.  “Convince me of some spectral threat and make yourself out to be some sort of hero?  I thought that you were not the Robin Hood type.”

“I’m not,” I said.  “But I’m far from the worst person in the field right now, and you have got to know that.  What brought you here, in the first place?  It certainly wasn’t the break-in at the Museum of London and the whole situation at the manor house isn’t something that would involve Interpol.  Your superiors sent you here to deal with something, but you got distracted by the possibility of catching me.  How, exactly, is that acting in the pursuit of justice?”

An interesting thing happened to Adlai’s eyes.  They narrowed first, and locked onto me with malevolent force, as if he could somehow will me out of existence.  Then, they widened slightly at the corners.  I recognized that micro-expression: a piece of some puzzle had fallen into place within his mind.

“What is it?” I asked.  “What are you thinking?”

“No,” Adlai said.  It took me a moment to realize that he was talking to himself.  “No, that isn’t right.  But…how else…?”

Without more information, I couldn’t help him proceed further down his train of thought, nor could I stop him.  I didn’t even know which option would be better for me and my team.  So, instead of interrupting, I sat quietly and watched Adlai for any sign that might help me make the best decision.

Lost in a sudden torrent of thoughts, it was like the agent had forgotten entirely about my presence.  He removed a smartphone from his pocket and checked something on the screen.  Then, shaking his head slowly, he closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose, and looked a second time.

“When,” he asked, finally, “did you arrive in London?”

Before answering, I considered the mental odds of him managing to run down the fake identities Sarah and I had used to enter the country.  On a given day, at least a hundred thousand passengers went through Heathrow.  I was safe to answer that question.  “Maybe two weeks ago.  Why?”

“That was before the museum was robbed,” Adlai mused.  “But…”

“But what?”  When he didn’t answer, I leaned forward and rested my weight on the table in front of me.  I could sense that he was close to a revelation, even if I had no idea what that revelation might turn out to be.  “Are you just going to sit there and be deliberately inscrutable?”

“I will be back,” he said.  Without giving me the opportunity to say anything that might keep him inside the interrogation room and away from any computer, Adlai rushed out of the room.  He left the folder, filled with documents on the table in his haste.

I bit back a sharp curse and checked my phone.  I’d managed to keep Adlai in the room for maybe ten minutes.  Sarah’s ability to function at the top of her game on short notice wasn’t as pronounced as my own, but she wasn’t someone to be discounted.  My faith in her was validated when, only a second or two after Adlai left me to my own ruminations, the encrypted cell phone in my pocket vibrated.  I fished it out and answered the incoming call.

“Good, there isn’t a delay on these things,” Sarah said, without preamble.  “I wasn’t sure, and there isn’t really a way to check.”

“Ah yes,” I said, “the dreaded delay.  Worst thing ever when it happens to…what are you talking about, again?”

“The camera, idiot.”  In my peripheral vision, the solid red light blinked on and off several times, signaling Sarah’s control over the equipment.  “There aren’t any networked microphones, and the resolution is terrible, but I’ve been watching to see if we needed to step directly in.”

“That would defeat the entire reasoning behind my current predicament, Sarah.  What’s the deal with Mila?”

“She’s here,” Sarah said.  “Looking a little perturbed that we came after her, but she’ll get over it.”

“What happened?”

“I…honestly don’t know,” Sarah admitted.  “Neither does she.  They just came in, uncuffed her, and said that she should make an effort to stay reachable for the next few days.  I’ll be honest, I’ve never been arrested; is this something that happens a lot?”

“Not in my experience, no.  But, I’ll be honest: the last time I dealt with the police in any meaningful fashion, they ended up throwing me in jail.  I might be a little biased.”

“We can figure everything out from the safety of the Brooklands,” Sarah said.  “We’ve just go to figure out a way to get you out of there.”

“You want to walk back into Scotland Yard and destroy the only reason I’m sitting in this predicament in the first place?  Adlai doesn’t have anything on me, and we aren’t in America, where he could just lock me up for forty-eight hours because he’s having a bad day.”  Pause.  “He doesn’t have anything on me, does he?”

“Not anymore,” Sarah assured me.  “Those files are corrupted beyond repair.  He’ll realize something happened, but there’s not a lot he can do about that.”

“That’s what I’m saying.  There’s no reason to come in, guns blazing, when I’ve only got to wait out this interview.”

Silence from Sarah’s end of the comms for several seconds, punctuated by the rapid fire clicking of her computer keys.  “As it turns out, Adlai can’t put you in jail for forty-eight hours, but there’s nothing stopping him from a solid thirty-six.  Maybe even longer, if he can find a magistrate who’ll listen to whatever he’s got to say.”

I blinked and resolved to learn more about the various legal statutes of any country I planned to rob.  “Still, it’s only thirty-six hours.  Avis is still working on decrypting the documents and we don’t even know who or where Hill actually is yet.  All we can do is wait anyway.”

A noise outside of the room drew my attention to the door.  Sarah, presumably watching through the low resolution camera, must have seen my head swivel around.  “I think I’ve got an idea.  Just in case it doesn’t work, don’t worry about the phone.  If someone other than you tries to use it, it’s only going to wipe the hard drive.”

“Good to know, Sarah,” I said, just as the door opened and Adlai stepped back into the interrogation room.  “Talk to you…”

The line disconnected suddenly.  Sarah protecting the line, perhaps?  I shrugged and, when I looked up, expected to see suspicion in Adlai’s eyes.  He would almost certainly realize that I was somehow responsible for corrupting the files in his system, even if he couldn’t prove it.

What I saw instead was closer to frustration and it wasn’t directed in my direction, at all.

“What is it?”

“Your…lawyer,” Adlai said, forcing the word past his lips like they tasted foul.

I stared back at him.  “My what?”

“You heard me.  Your lawyer is insisting that we either release you or formally charge you.  Scotland Yard does not have the manpower to pursue an investigation right now, with the disaster at the processing plant – I am confident that you know all about that – and other situations that have cropped up over London in the past few weeks.”

“So you’re letting me go?”

“I am allowing you to a brief moment to collect yourself,” Adlai said.  I could see how much it killed him to play by these rules, and I understood that feeling in a vague sort of way.  Someone higher up had probably forced his hand and Adlai, despite being incredibly accurate about the state of affairs in London, hadn’t been given a choice.

I tried not to gloat as I stood up.  “Well, I enjoyed our talk.  And I’m serious; you should really take some time to think about everything.  Know what I mean?”

He glowered at me and the temperature around the man seemed to drop five or ten degrees.  “And you should remember that I am not fooled by your lies.  You will make a mistake, and I will be there to catch you.”

“I make mistakes on a daily basis,” I replied.  “So, what you’re saying is that we’ll see each other sooner rather than later.”

“Yes.”  A thin smile spread across his face.  “Sooner, rather than later.”

I walked out of the room, taking great care not to bump into Adlai and technically find myself charged with assault.  Back in the general office, there wasn’t any lawyer that I could see.  I made my way downstairs in a hurry, wondering idly how Sarah had managed to arrange a lawyer in the few seconds she’d had available.

That answer came when I exited Scotland Yard and found myself confronted by a black stretch limousine that seemed conspicuously out of place in the early morning light of London.  As large as the car was, it was dwarfed by the man standing next to the rear passenger door.  The giant David looked coldly at me for several seconds before he opened the door and motioned for me to step inside.  I swept my eyes across the surrounding area first and saw that Sarah’s mobile work station was gone from the area.

David gestured a second time, more forcefully.  I stepped into the limo, for fear that he might simply throw me into the limousine.  Seated opposite me, wearing a white wool dress decorated with twining lengths of black vines and flowers, sat the Lady.  She appraised me with eyes as sharp as knives and, before the door closed and locked me into the back of the limo with her, I found myself wondering whether thirty-six hours in prison would really have been so bad.

Chapter Eighty-Eight

What happened next could most charitably be described as a circus’ worth of activity, contained within the storm wall of a particularly chaotic whirlwind.  The two officers at the front desk first blinked at me, then at each other, before realization dawned on them.  From that point, it took only a single phone call and two words – my name – to bring several burly men rushing into the lobby, both by elevator and the stairs.

There were benefits to my hasty decision, I realized, as men in uniforms began ushering me upstairs, to the nearest interrogation room.  Primarily, I’d turned myself in, rather than waiting for the law to locate me on their own.  I was only listed as a person of interest, in connection to the museum robbery and the shootout at the manor house.  Just because the owners of the Rose and Thorn had described me well enough to produce a passable sketch, the police still didn’t have enough hard evidence to actually place me under arrest.  Of course, it would still be preferable to remove or otherwise impugn even that sketch, but any port in a storm would have to do.

Another unexpected positive angle occurred to me a moment later, when we reached the second floor and I was ‘escorted’ into a featureless room, marked by a wall mounted camera and double-sided mirror.  I was in England, and the police in England didn’t carry weapons typically.  That wasn’t an immediate benefit – I doubted anyone would try to shoot a surrendering suspect, just because – but it was still something worth keeping in mind.  It wasn’t as though I could defend myself, so it was comforting to at least be able to minimize the amount of threats I had to concern myself with.

When I was comfortably seated in the interrogation room, the officers left me seated there in isolation.  The space itself reminded me of the room where Asher had stashed me, back at the warehouse, before he’d been able to enact whatever dastardly tortures he’d intended.  The double sided mirror was a change.  While I’d only been forced to endure one prison sentence of any appreciable length, I’d spent more than my fair share of time seated in rooms exactly like that one, so I waved casually to whoever was watching from the other side of the glass.  A table was also bolted to the floor in front of me, with a little divot and bar combination designed to restrain anyone in handcuffs.  I was not cuffed – at least, not yet – but my wrists began to ache in anticipation of that inevitable conclusion.

Other than the minor benefits and environmental changes that I’d noted, nothing particularly heartening came to mind.  I had absolute faith that Sarah, once she was able to leave the building without bringing legal attention to herself or the Ford family at large, would be able to erase any digital footprint that might exist.  As I was in the process of deliberately leaving very large physical footprints, however, I didn’t hold out much hope for my own situation.

One minute into my lonely considerations, the encrypted cell phone I’d taken from the car began to play the opening chords from ‘Cruel Summer.’  My eyebrows crinkled together for a few seconds before I understood the joke.  Before answering, I looked up at the camera, mounted high on the wall opposite me, so that it was nestled into a corner.  The indicator light was dark, but that didn’t mean anything.

I leaned back in my chair, waved once more to the invisible watchers on the other side of the double sided glass, and pressed the ‘Answer Call’ button on the phone.  “Hello?”

“Devlin, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Sarah hissed at me.  “You think we went through all this trouble, just so that you could turn yourself in the first chance you get?”

“Glad to hear you made it home safe,” I said.  I couldn’t assume that the police weren’t recording everything that went on the interrogation room while they left me alone to stew over my own thoughts.  Sarah would understand any slight dissemblance I chose to use.  “It was touch and go for a little bit there, wasn’t it?”

“That’s not the point,” Sarah said.  “I could have figured something out.  Even if not, there’s nothing Adlai could have done to me, other than decide to treat me with more suspicion the next time we encountered each other.  And I wasn’t exactly planning on there being a next time.”

“How’s the family?” I asked.  “You haven’t talked to them in a while, yeah, but you know what they say.  Blood is thicker than water and all that.”

Sarah was quiet for a few seconds.  When she spoke again, the razor’s edge of anger wasn’t quite gone from her voice, but it was least blunted by audible concern.  “Fine.  I’ll acknowledge that.  But do you have any plan, at all, to get out of there?  Or were you just going to hand yourself to Adlai with a bow, hoping that Hill and Asher don’t have people in the prison system specifically to deal with loose ends?”

It was my turn to think in silence.  The beginnings of a plan were beginning to crystallize in my mind, but I couldn’t exactly convey the steps to Sarah while someone might be watching or listening to every word I spoke.  “It’s kind of a long story,” I said, finally.  “I’m clearing up a misunderstanding right now.”

I didn’t speak for a few seconds, as if Sarah were asking me some question.

“It’s complicated,” I said, after an appropriate amount of time had passed.  “But I’m pretty sure it’ll go away as soon as they figure out they’ve got bad information.”

Sarah sucked in a sharp breath.  “You want to me to erase the files, while you’re there?”

“I’m about to talk to whoever’s in charge now,” I said.  “No telling how long it’ll take, but it’s not like I’ve got anything better to do.”

“I can get Michel into the evidence room.  The ongoing construction, coupled with the amount of officers moving in and out of the building tonight, is going to make that easier than expected.  You want all of the digital information gone too?”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Sarah didn’t say anything for a second or two.  “I could do that, but that’s only going to let Adlai know for sure that you’re working with a hacker.”

“Say that again?” I asked.  “I didn’t understand that.”

“I said…oh, you know what I said.  What I mean is that I can corrupt the files, instead.  Same difference, but at least there’s the outside possibility that it was something that happened naturally.  You think that’ll work?”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding at the camera and the double sided mirror in turn.  “Yeah, that sounds like it could work.  When do you think you’ll get here?”

“I don’t have complete access yet, but…no, nevermind.  Listen, I’ll get in.  I don’t know how I’ll let you know, but I can do it.”  She paused.  “You’re going to have to keep Adlai from pulling up the files, though.  I can’t change anything if the files are open.  His entire focus has to be in the room, with the two of you.”

At that, the door to the interrogation room swung open with such force that it bounced off of the wall and came to rest at a forty-five degree angle.  I turned in my seat to see Adlai storming into the room, flanked by a dark-skinned man in a travel-worn tweed jacket and thin red tie.

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” I said to Sarah.  “I’ll have to call you back, though.”

I hung up before she could respond and assumed a posture of absolute innocence.  Adlai took up position in one corner of the room, under the presumably inactive camera, while the dark-skinned man turned the chair opposite me around so that he could lean his weight across the back.  He was a big man, and the chair wasn’t meant to be used like that, but he made it work.  Barely.  He placed a thin, tan folder on the table between us, as well as a steaming cup of what smelled like cheap coffee, and locked eyes with me.

“Mister O’Brien,” the dark-skinned man said in a rich baritone.  “We’ve been looking for you.”

“I just saw that on the news,” I replied, widening my eyes to convey a suitably confused wariness.  “I was out of the area on, uh, business.  I came down as soon as I heard.”

“And what sort of business are you involved in, Mister O’Brien?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Could you un-complicate it for me, then?” The dark-skinned man scratched at a thick layer of stubble and gave me a rueful sort of smile.  I imagined that smile had lulled any number of criminals into a false sense of security before.  It might very well have eased a little of my own tension, if Adlai hadn’t been perched in the corner, watching me like a hawk sizing up the best angle to pounce on its next meal.

“Acquisitions,” I said, honestly enough.

Adlai barked out a sharp laugh at that.  When the dark-skinned man turned slightly, Adlai raised both of his hands and signaled that he didn’t have anything to say.

The dark-skinned man returned his attention to me.  “Ah,” he said calmly, loading the single syllable with a surprising amount of subtext.

“What’s this about?” I asked.

“Well, there’s been more than a few spots of trouble in London, these last few days,” the British detective said.  “And my associate here seems to think that you might know a bit about that.  You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that trouble, would you?”

“I don’t even know what trouble you’re talking about,” I protested.

The dark-skinned detective opened his folder and removed several photographs.  Carefully, as though the pictures might be damaged by his large hands, he spread them out across the table so that I could see each one.  When that was done, he pointed at the picture farthest to my left.  “A couple of days ago, we got an anonymous tip to examine this area outside of town.  Do you know what we found?”

I recognized the landscape in the picture, but there was nothing else there except for the smoky ruins of a building.  It looked considerably different in the full light of day.

The dark-skinned detective continued, taking my silence as an answer.  “Right around here, you can see the foundation of what looks like a very large building.  But you don’t see the building itself because it was burned to the ground.  I personally went through some records and there’s no mention anywhere of a building out there.  Of course, if someone wanted to build anything that far out of town, there really wouldn’t be any way to know, would there?”

He pointed to the next picture in line, and I was more familiar with that than the landscape.  “Isn’t this that crown that was on display at Museum of London?”

“Indeed it is,” the dark-skinned detective said.  “Or, it might be more precise to say that it was the crown.  It was stolen from the museum.”

I wasn’t quite playing a character, but I still modified my reactions to fit with a hypothetically innocent person.  To my estimation, most people wouldn’t particularly care about the theft of artwork or jewelry, so long as it didn’t affect them personally, so I only gave the picture a skeptical look and shrugged with one shoulder.  “When did that happen?”

“To the best of our forensic estimation,” the dark-skinned detective said, “it seems like the theft took place around the same time as this building – whatever it was – burned to the ground.”

“What does any of this have to do with me?”

Instead of immediately answering, the dark-skinned detective took a long drink from his tiny Styrofoam cup of coffee.  “Good behavior,” he said, finally.

The quizzical expression that came to my features wasn’t faked in the slightest.  “What?”

“Good behavior,” the dark-skinned detective repeated.  “You were paroled early in France, for good behavior.  Is that right?”

I blinked several times, contemplating how to answer.  It said a lot about the last few days that I wasn’t terribly shocked to discover the Lady’s ability to manipulate events extended to changing public record.  Adlai would almost certainly have been keeping tabs on my prison sentence, so erasing me from the system entirely would have set off red flags.  By adjusting the date of my release, however, the Lady had done just enough that I could move around Europe without setting off alarms at every airport or checkpoint.

“I made a mistake,” I said, picking my words carefully.  “And I paid for that mistake.”

“And what mistake was that?”

My not-quite character assumed a more aggressive posture and tone.  “You’ve got my record.  You tell me.”

The dark-skinned detective raised his hands, palms facing me, in the universal sign of surrender.  “No need to get hostile,” he said.  “Just trying to understand everything.  What can you tell me about this?”  He pointed at the third picture: the manor house, swarming with police officers, techs, and forensic analysts.

“A post-modern take on Downton Abbey?” I asked.  “I’m here on business, yeah, but none of that business requires me to spend any time with lords or ladies.”

“Just…what was it?  Two days ago?  Three?  Anyway, a few days ago, there was a major incident at this location.”  The detective tapped an index finger against the photograph.  “Guns and everything.  Unlike Americans, we take guns very seriously here in England.”

I rolled my eyes.  “I’m not American.”

The detective raised an eyebrow.  “Sure about that?”

“Both my mother and father are Irish,” I explained, “and that’s where I was born.  I grew up in America, which isn’t the same thing.”

The detective jotted down some notes on that and I instantly rejected the clarification.  It wasn’t likely to amount to anything – my mother had been buried a long time ago and the whereabouts of my father remained a mystery I couldn’t bring myself to care about – but it was the principle of the thing.

“My apologies about that,” the detective said, when he finished writing.  “Now, you say you didn’t have any business to be up in this area?  Can you explain this, then?”

He pointed at the third picture, which was not a photograph at all.  It was the sketch I’d seen on the news.  I pretended to examine it for several seconds before I shrugged again.  “It’s someone who looks like me, I guess?  What’s your point?”

“We’ve got a witness – two, actually – who can put you in town right around when this shootout was happening,” the detective said.

“If you have two witnesses who can do that, I’ll be impressed,” I countered, “seeing as I wasn’t there.  And even if I was, and you could prove it, all that would do is prove…what, exactly?  That I was traveling somewhere?  That’s not illegal, is it?”

“Not unless you’re carrying weapons,” the detective said.  “You aren’t carrying weapons, are you?”

“I was searched before they brought me up here, so you already know I’m not.  Look, do I need to call a lawyer?  Or a barrister, or whatever you call them over here?”

The detective tilted his head at me.  “I don’t know.  Do you?”

“If you don’t get to the point soon, I think I very well might have to.”

“I’m getting to that.  Now, can you tell me what you see here?” The detective pointed at the final picture in the lineup.  “Just a couple of hours ago, this factory went up in smoke.  And I suppose you wouldn’t happen to know anything about this?”

“Who do you think I am?” I asked.  “I mean, seriously; what do you think I do?  I’m in acquisitions.  Why would I blow up a factory?”

“That’s a very good question,” the detective replied.  “Now, I’m just getting up to speed on this case, but my friend here is convinced that you know more about what’s going on than you’re letting on.  And I’ve got to tell you; from all appearances, this is a very smart man.”

“Well,” I said, directing my voice to Adlai.  He still hadn’t spoken, but it was important that I keep his attention inside of the room.  It wouldn’t take much before he decided to check on my files and, in doing so, make it impossible for Sarah to finish with her work.  “Do you talk for yourself?”

Adlai’s eyes narrowed.

“Because if you did,” I continued, “I’d ask you why you’re letting this fine detective do all the interrogation himself?  If you’ve got questions, ask them with your own lips.”

Still nothing.

“If I was involved with any of the things you’re showing me,” I said, “why in God’s name would I turn myself in?  Why wouldn’t I just hide until this all blew over?”

For several seconds, Adlai continued to watch me silently and I repeated my last question in the vaults of my own mind.  Hiding would have been a fantastic plan, if Asher’s presence wasn’t forcing my team and me to take increasingly reckless actions.  Then, jarring me from my ruminations, Adlai spoke.

“Detective Inspector,” Adlai said, in his soft and lightly accented voice.  “If you could leave the two of us alone.”

“You sure?” The dark-skinned detective gave me a dubious look.

Adlai didn’t take his eyes from me for a heartbeat.  “I am positive.”

The detective – detective inspector, actually – pushed away from the table.  He took his cup of coffee, but left the photos spread across the table.  “Good luck, mate,” he said to me and then stepped out of the room.  The door closed behind him with a loud, ominous click.

Adlai walked from his corner to the chair where the detective had sat.  He turned the chair back to its proper orientation, sat, and neatly stacked all of the pictures up before returning them to the thin, tan folder.  He placed the folder to his right with its edge flush with the edge of the table.  Adlai steepled his fingers and then wove them together in a penitent fashion, watching me over his knuckles with hunter’s eyes.

“So,” he said, finally.  “Here we are.”

Chapter Eighty-Seven

It was only through an exertion of palpable self-control that I kept myself from asking Sarah not to go through with her idea.  She wouldn’t have listened, at best.  At worst, the implication that she might not be able to handle this task could cause a fight that we couldn’t afford to have.  And, I admitted to myself, she had been absolutely right in her original estimation.  Using Sarah in this way, at this moment, was simply the best option.

Adlai didn’t know that Sarah was working with me, or that she’d been instrumental to some of the greater heists I’d successfully pulled over the years.  As far as he would know, she would be Sarah Ford, scion of a particularly powerful and influential American family.  While she made a point to stay out of the news – unlike her sisters, who consumed every second of available media time like oxygen – Sarah was still a known quantity.

She’d appeared at high society functions sporadically before retiring to San Francisco following the dissolution of our partnership and marriage.  Her full name was listed on copious amounts of legal paperwork; she’d attended a prestigious college; and, during a wild two years immediately following her graduation, the tabloids had flirted with the idea of portraying Sarah as some sort of wild child.  Her public persona was flighty and unfocused, which clashed so horribly with the reality of the situation – Sarah’s ability to focus on, identify, and absolutely eradicate a problem defied logic sometimes – that I still found it hilarious to consider.

Even with the glut of negative press, however, she was still a Ford.  The family held political influence in America and, through clever trade deals and backroom arrangements, possessed connections in several overseas markets.  If Sarah made a request of local authorities, she couldn’t exactly be ignored, without facing potential career suicide.  Adlai wouldn’t necessarily care about that, but he’d follow protocol.  That was, after all, what one was supposed to do.

I thought about all of this, and more, while I drove the van back to the front of Scotland Yard.  When Sarah stood up, before she opened the door to step down from the van, I finally found something to say.  “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“I hadn’t planned to get kidnapped, start a shootout, or blow the building up,” Sarah said.  “If it’s all the same to you.”

I scowled at her.  “You know what I mean.”

Sarah’s expression softened.  “Yeah.  I know what you mean.  You understand how to work this system?”

“Press button,” I replied, in my very best ‘caveman’ voice.  “Speak loud.”

“That’s about the gist of it,” Sarah said.  I noticed, to my great delight, that she was struggling to hide a smile.  “Let me know what the system comes up with about the evidence room, as soon as it pops.  I can probably do most of the work from my tablet, I think.”

“Probably?  You think?”

Sarah shrugged.  “Stop trying to stall.”

I blinked, and then realized that I was trying to keep her from leaving.  “Alright,” I said, after a heartbeat or two.  “Get out of here, you’re cramping my style.”

Sarah started to say something.  She shook her head, dismissing the half-formed idea, and stepped down from the van without another word.  I closed the door for her.

As soon as I did that, I jumped up into her chair and spent a few seconds fiddling with the installed controls.  The joystick on the left side of the repurposed wheelchair was fairly intuitive, but it took me a few tries to master the ability to snap directly to a given monitor and stay there.  When I had that under control, I moved myself to the first monitor and clicked the icon marked ‘Ford,’ switching the camera feed away from Michel to the brooch Sarah had pinned to her lapel before leaving the Halfway House.

Where Michel had simply entered through the security checkpoint, Sarah headed directly to the front desk.  Two officers were stationed there.  One of the two gave Sarah a slow once-over.  “Yes, ma’am,” the officer said.  “How can we help you?”

I rolled my eyes and imagined Sarah doing the same.

“There is something that I would like to discuss,” she said, “with regards to an ongoing investigation.”

She was using her oldest sister’s carriage again.  I wondered idly whether that was a deliberate choice, or simply an accident of circumstance.

The second officer – the one who hadn’t immediately started to undress Sarah with his eyes – lazily began to type information into an older computer in front of him.  “And what officer is working your case?”

“That is a complicated answer.  However, if you tell one Inspector Adlai that a Miss Ford is here to see him…well, I think that will clear things up.”

The two guards took a second, blinking confusion at Sarah and each other, before they drew the appropriate connections.  The first guard immediately blushed and snatched a phone from its cradle.  He pressed two buttons, connecting the front desk to Adlai’s floor, and informed the Interpol inspector that a Ford had arrived to discuss a case.  The officer had to repeat that information several times before, finally, he hung the phone back up again.

“He’ll see you in his office,” the first officer said.  “It’s been a, uh…been a bit of mess around here, what with the renovations and all going on just ‘round back.  You understand.”

“Ah,” Sarah said.  Just the one syllable, delivered so drily that she had to be deliberately playing the character a shade over the top.

“Just, uh…just go right on through the metal detectors over there, and take the elevator straight up to the third floor.”

“Excellent,” Sarah said.

She turned and walked away.  Through the security cameras, I could see as the two officers watched her depart with slack jaws.  When she was far enough away, they felt comfortable whispering to each other like children caught by a stern teacher.

I waited until she stepped into the elevator before laughing out loud.  “Was that really necessary?” I asked.

“Probably not,” Sarah replied, “but it was fun.  Let him worry that I was offended for a little bit.  It’ll do him good.”

My chuckling continued until she reached the third floor and stepped off of the elevator into absolute bedlam.  The relative calm of Michel’s floor and the entryway had lulled me into a false sense of ease, I realized.  Here, on the floor where they were keeping Mila, was where the chaos had been sown.  It seemed like an electric wire of adrenaline had been inserted into the room and subsequently overcharged.

Sarah picked her way through the bullpen, taking great care not to accidentally disturb any of the police officers, until she found a corner of the room that the chaos seemed to have missed: Adlai’s office.

“And here we go,” she whispered to me, and then knocked twice on the door.

A large window allowed me to see as Adlai looked up from his work and, recognizing Sarah after a split second of blankness, waved absently for her to enter.

“I am busy,” he said, before she’d even had the chance to take a seat.  “What do you need, Miss Ford?  I am not aware of any case involving your family; I am not certainly not investigating anything, at least.”

“Is there someone else I can speak to, then?”  Sarah asked.  I frowned.  Adlai had already put her on the back foot.

“My superior is…unavailable, at the moment.  Perhaps you could make an appointment to see him tomorrow?  As you can see, there is a great deal happening tonight that makes it…difficult to sort through information, at the moment.”

He hadn’t looked up from his documents since Sarah had entered the room.  There weren’t any security cameras in the office and the angle wasn’t good enough to allow me a view of his work.  I considered asking Sarah to try for a better look, but I knew Adlai well enough to guess that he’d simply cover everything up if it seemed like privileged information might risk getting out into the public domain.

“That simply won’t do,” Sarah said, doubling down on the ‘idle rich’ affectation.  “This is a very important matter, and time is of the essence.”

Adlai sighed.  “What is the matter, Miss Ford?”

I tuned Sarah out temporarily and slid over to the second monitor to check on Michel’s progress.  He was nearly at the evidence room now and, so far, no one had stopped or questioned him.  One of Sarah’s computers beeped to let me know that it had found the appropriate procedural manual and the correct frequency.

I clicked the comms over to speak to Michel.  “Can you hold that ID card over your phone’s IR port?” I asked.  “I need to change your level of access.”

He removed the wallet from his pocket in a smooth gesture and slipped the ID card out.  I double clicked on the icon marked ‘RFID’ and a single window appeared on the display.

I smiled to myself.  Sarah must have written this program specifically for a luddite’s use; a blinking, bright red button in the center of the screen told me that I should ‘click to activate.’  I did exactly that and, a few moments later, a second window flashed across the screen, notifying me that I had been successful.

“That’ll do,” I said.  “When you get to the evidence room, remember; all you need to do is…well, if you can’t remove the evidence, just misfiling it will buy enough time for us to finish up in London and clear the area.”

“What about Mila?” Michel asked, under his breath.

“Sarah’s in place right now, keeping Adlai from getting any alone time with her,” I assured him.

I glanced over to the screen displaying Sarah’s viewpoint and immediately regretted my optimism.  I assumed that Sarah had given Adlai our agreed-upon cover story, but the Interpol inspector didn’t seem the least bit interested.

“One sec,” I told Michel and switched lines back over to listen to Sarah’s conversation.

“Let me see if I have this correct,” Adlai said.  At least he was looking up from the documents now, but the expression of barely concealed suspicion on his features wasn’t a great improvement from the top of his head.  “You believe that I should drop everything I am doing at this moment, in order to pursue someone who might have stolen your purse?”

“Well, you are an international police officer, aren’t you?” Sarah asked.  “I remember seeing you on the television earlier.”

“There are more important things that require my attention,” Adlai said.  “I will see to it that an officer is detailed to assist you in drawing up a sketch, but if you’ll excuse me, Miss Ford…”  He stood as if to leave.

“Wait!” A little bit of Sarah’s true anxiety bled through into her voice.  That was good; the fictionalized version of herself that she was playing would probably be feeling pretty anxious, too.  “I had very important documents in that purse…it would be disastrous if they were to fall into the wrong hands.  Are you sure you can’t help me?”

What happened next was subtle.  Michel or Sarah would have missed it, had they been in my position.  Any of the Russians almost certainly wouldn’t have caught it and I doubted that Mila would have cared much about the subtleties of micro-expressions.  It was possible that Alex might have noticed, if he’d been given forewarning and been at one hundred percent, but his specialty dealt with making friends instead of analyzing potential enemies.

I was the right person to see it, though.  I knew Adlai well enough to realize that the slight hesitation before he spoke didn’t mean he was unsure of what answer to give, so much as he was debating various options.  His eyes widened by a millimeter – maybe not even by that much – as an idea hit him, then narrowed as he looked at Sarah in a new light.  The right corner of his mouth twitched minutely up, then down.  And, in a movement that was so quick that I might only have imagined it, his gaze flickered away from Sarah’s face and down to the brooch she wore on her chest.

I opened Sarah’s line.  “Shit,” I said.  “He’s not buying it.  I think he knows you’re wearing a camera, too.”

Sarah obviously couldn’t respond with Adlai watching her so intently.  She couldn’t even touch the earbud to acknowledge that she’d heard me.  But the soft, sharp intake of breath was enough of a statement, in and of itself.

“Well,” Sarah said suddenly, rising to her feet, “I suppose if you’re simply swamped with work, I can come back another time.”

“Not at all,” Adlai said.  His eyes were still narrowed as he plastered a saccharine-sweet smile.  “I would be happy to take your statement.  If you would just give me one moment to collect the proper forms, we can begin to figure out what is going on…was going on, I mean.”  The smile grew sharper.  “With your purse, that is.”

“Ah…yes, that will be very good,” Sarah replied.  Reluctantly, she took her seat again.  Adlai returned all of his documents to the manila folder and tucked it underneath his arm before leaving the room.

“You’re staying?” I asked her, as soon as the door clicked shut behind him.

“Well, I can’t leave, can I?  He knows my name, Devlin!  If I try to walk away, he’ll know something’s going on.”

The corollary to that thought became apparent an instant after Sarah finished speaking.  She still had a public identity to maintain.  Whereas I could conceivably change names or go underground until the heat died down, the circumstances of Sarah’s birth made her a person that couldn’t easily disappear.  That wasn’t to say she couldn’t manage it, but doing so would necessitate a complete severing of any relationship that might be used to track her down.

“Maybe lose the brooch?” I suggested.

“And where am I going to put it?” Sarah countered.  “This isn’t the largest office, and I’m pretty sure he’ll notice that I changed as soon as he left the room.”

“Just…give me a second to think about this.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and, as the speed of my thoughts seemed to accelerate, allowed myself to consider all of the options.  Sarah was right; she couldn’t leave the room, so long as Adlai suspected something might be wrong with her cover story.  But he couldn’t have suspected that she was connected to me.  Sarah was too thorough to have left a digital trail he might be able to follow.  Besides, if he had any idea that Sarah even knew my name, he wouldn’t have risked leaving her in the room alone to begin with.

That meant it wasn’t a targeted suspicion.  Adlai was naturally paranoid and the events at the processing plant – which had, presumably, been noisy enough that he’d felt compelled to come to work on his night off – would only have put those senses on high alert.  A member of the prestigious Ford family arriving at the exact time might not normally have put him on edge, but tonight was apparently the night where he second- and triple-guessed everything.

He was looking for a connection and grasping at straws.  Sarah was, metaphorically speaking, the latest straw in his clenched fist.  I needed to think of a way to get her out of that room without elevating her perceived value in Adlai’s eyes.  I needed to…

I knew exactly what I needed to do.  “Sarah, listen.”

“Can’t really do anything else, at the moment.”

“In about three minutes, Adlai’s going to get called away from that floor.  You can use that time to make an escape – I’m sure there’s a back staircase you can find – and get back down to the van.  You’ll have to help Michel through whatever problems he runs into.”

“Why am I going to have to…wait, you aren’t serious.”

I sighed and rose from my seat.  “If I’m remembering this one episode of Law and Order I watched, I should be able to keep my phone for a bit.  No idea how long that’s going to hold up, but it’ll have to do.  I’m leaving my earbud in the car so that there’s no chance of the line being intercepted.”

“Devlin, I can figure something out.  Just give me – “

I deactivated my earbud and removed it before Sarah could say anything else.  I made a point to look away from the screen, in case she was mouthing words into her camera.  A quick check of my person told me that I wasn’t carrying anything incriminating or illegal, which was a small favor in a sea of unfairness.  After a quick instant of consideration, I kept the encrypted cell phone.

I left the keys for the van in the back, underneath Sarah’s seat, and stepped out into the street.  Moving at double speed – this whole gambit would be useless if Adlai returned to the office before I made it inside – I rushed into Scotland Yard and approached the two guards seated behind the desk.

What I needed to do, I realized, was give him exactly what he’d been looking for.  Any attention that might have fallen on Mila or Sarah would evaporate like fog on a hot day the instant Adlai thought he might be able to arrest me.

The officers frowned as I hurried towards them.

“My name’s Devlin O’Brien,” I replied, as soon as I was within earshot.  “I heard you guys might be looking for me?”

Chapter Seventy-Two

“You are here to investigate the drug ring?”  Michel directed the question to Adlai.  Lane was at the table but, despite efforts to sober up, wasn’t really a factor at the moment.  The Indian agent was a much larger concern, so I had instructed Michel to focus his efforts on him.

“How do you know that?”  Adlai countered.

“That is what I am doing, as well,” Michel said.  Through Mila’s camera, I saw him shoot furtive glances from one side of the bar to the other.  That hadn’t been part of the instructions, but it added some reality to the act.  If Michel really was working with the Special Group, it stood to reason that he would be uncomfortable discussing the particulars of his job in such a crowded area.

Of course, the fact that he was really making sure that Mila was close enough to intervene wouldn’t occur to either of the Interpol agents.  All they would see is a nervous man with a badge, telling them a story that I could only hope they’d buy.

“I didn’t hear anything about an undercover operation,” Adlai said, after a moment or two of consideration.  “Who is your handler?”

“I can not tell you that,” Michel said.

“You mean to say that there isn’t one?”  The uptick in Adlai’s volume was easy to read.  He sensed an opening and, by going on the offensive, hoped to force Michel into making a mistake.

It had also been easy to predict.  “No,” Michel said, “I literally can’t tell you.  The person you are pursuing has many friends.  Some of those friends are in the police department.”

“We’re not part of the local police department,” Adlai said.  “Interpol isn’t corrupted by the same criminals that live here.”  On the surface, the words sounded confident, but a slight twitch at the corner of one eye betrayed Adlai’s own doubts.  He wanted to believe that his agency wasn’t compromised, but he’d worked too many cases and brought in too many corrupting influences to truly believe that anyone was above bribery, extortion, or blackmail.

Michel shrugged his reply.  We’d decided on a line that might have worked, but silence was a better option.  I privately applauded his decision and whispered as much into the comms.  “Good job,” I said to Michel.  “Let him think about that on his own.  No need to oversell it.”

It was Lane, not Adlai, who spoke next.  “Why’re you telling us this now?”  He asked.  “As far as you know, we could be working for the same drug lord you’re trying to bring down.”

If you are actually working undercover as you say you are,” Adlai added.

Mila moved closer, silent and unnoticed, and I saw Michel pinch the bridge of his nose, as if frustrated.  I took the cue.  “You’re going to want to play up Adlai’s ego,” I said.  “This is a man who believes so absolutely in a black and white idea of the world that he’d arrest his own father, if it came down to it.  He doesn’t trust anyone.  Turn that fear into our advantage.”

Michel sighed, perhaps a little longer than strictly necessary, to cover the time he needed to think.  “What would make you believe me?”  He asked, finally.

“A signed document from the local chief of police,” Adlai responded, immediately.

“No one knows where I am, except for my handler,” Michel said.  “It is safer that way.  For me and…for my family.”

That finally got a reaction other than suspicion and skepticism from Adlai.  It wasn’t a very large reaction – he only breathed in a little sharper than he had before – but it was something that we might be able to capitalize on.  “You have a family?”

From beside me, Sarah swore under her breath.  She started muttering to herself, hitting the keys on her laptop like a machine gun, and I only caught a part of what she said while she worked.  “…course, she’ll be able to create an entire identity out of thin air.  It isn’t hard to fake an entire backstory or anything, but…”

I spared the vaguest portion of my attention from Michel’s conversation and refilled her glass of wine.  It had apparently gone empty at some point during the last few crises.  Sarah shot me a look with enough heat that I felt it against the side of my face…then, she took the wine and emptied the half of it in one go, before turning back to her work.

Her part of the plan was easily the hardest.  All I had to do was create a story from whole cloth, on the fly, while Adlai tried his level best to poke holes in whatever I managed to draw out of thin air.  Michel, untrained and probably terrified beyond reason, only had to sell the lie to two trained Interpol agents in a situation we specifically done everything in our power to avoid.  Mila…well, Mila didn’t have to do anything, other than be ready for violence, in case things went even further sideways.  I suspected that her job was far easier than any of ours.

Sarah, however, had to actually support our bullshit.  Working through several official databases, filling information in as it came up, fact-checking any name we needed to use…Sarah had to do all of that, without any time for preparation or planning.  On the surface, this was the type of situation she hated having to deal with.  In the years before our split, she’d told me as much on several occasions.  Watching her work now, though…I couldn’t understand why she complained.  I multi-tasked my way through problems, sorting through and discarding plans based on their viability, in the field on a regular basis.  What she did with her computers was so far above my capabilities that I felt, irrationally, more than a little jealous.

As Michel and I spoke, Sarah pulled up the fake identity she’d created for the Frenchman and corrected the information she’d input on his false driver’s ID.  She pulled two names from a database of the most common first and last names in London, searched through his falsified tax returns, and added two children to his list of dependents.  There was an automated program she’d created years ago that handled the particulars of that.  As soon as she finished with the appropriate commands, Sarah’s program began backdating purchases for diapers, clothing, Legos, and Christmas gifts through the requisite number of years.  While that work took place, Sarah moved onto the task of Photoshopping pictures together and arranging for them to rise to the top of any web searches.

She was amazing.  I looked at her work, openmouthed, and felt something stir within my belly.  The sensation was a familiar one and I identified it after a heartbeat: this was how it had felt, in the moments before I’d proposed to her.  This was Sarah at her finest.

Her eyes flickered away from her work, finding my own gaze.  “What?”

“What?”  I blinked and looked away.  “I, uh…”

“You, uh, what?”

“Just thinking that you, uh…I was just wondering how things are going over there?”

Internally, I kicked myself for the sudden inability to form coherent, believable sentences.

“They’re fine,” Sarah said tersely.  “Michel, you’re clear.  It won’t hold up to scrutiny, so you’ll have to keep him from looking too deep into those files.”

I didn’t know how she managed to pull it off, considering the time constraints, but it worked.  On the television screen, I watched as Adlai entered Michel’s fake name into Google.  Sarah finished a few split seconds before Adlai pulled out his phone.  Judging from the slight deflation on the part of the Interpol agent, her work had been successful.

“This does not mean you are a police officer,” Adlai said, after his time searching for flaws didn’t provide any usable ones.  “You could be an opportunist.  Someone who pretends to be an officer.”

That was a weak move, on Adlai’s part.  I spoke the next words into the comms and Michel, dutifully, parroted them back at the agent.

“If I were an opportunist,” Michel said, adding a little sarcastic inflection to the words, “I would have run away as soon as you said that you worked with Interpol.  Why else would I stay and talk to you?”

“That is a very good question,” Adlai said.  “Why did you stay?”

“Because I am getting close to the truth,” Michel said.  “I needed to know if the two of you were people that I can trust.  Are you?”

That was the hook.  If Adlai took the bait, Michel’s hastily constructed cover would do more than just get him out of the room without handcuffs; it would serve as the first step towards pointing Adlai’s talents at the real bad guys.  If it didn’t work…well, Mila was circling nearer to the table, almost within arm’s reach of Lane.  Neither of the Interpol agents had noticed her yet.

Adlai considered the question for a long time.  “Tell us what you know,” he said finally.  “We will see if you have any information we can use.”

“Adlai,” Lane said.  He dragged out the vowel sound and lurched slightly forward.  The look in Adlai’s eyes told me that he attributed the unsteadiness to alcohol and not, thankfully, to the short Hispanic woman who passed by at that exact moment.  “He’s one of us!  If he needs help, we ought to find a way to do that, don’t you think?”

“Hmm,” Adlai replied.  He pulled out a chair for Michel.  “Sit.  Talk.”

Sarah let out an explosive breath and I realized that I’d been holding mine, as well.  “Do you think he really bought it?”

“It seems that way,” I said, without turning away from the screen.  “But we aren’t home free yet.  Michel, I hope you remember the story we’re using.”

Since he couldn’t say anything to me without betraying the presence of an earbud, Michel responded to the question by speaking to Adlai.  We’d managed to pull together a coherent lie in the past few minutes that conveniently contained a reasonable amount of truth.  Michel played the part of an undercover DS, tasked with infiltrating the local drug ring and identifying the man or woman at its head.  The job took him away from his family and, in order to further obscure his true identity, he’d taken on a French accent and worked as a delivery driver for the cartel.  There weren’t many stash spots that he knew about – save the warehouse that Mila had destroyed – but his work had left him in position of vital information that might prove instrumental in dismantling the entire operation.

Michel told the lie with a straight face, more or less; when his composure broke, it still fit with the aesthetic of a cop in over his head.  Occasionally, Adlai poked at one aspect of the story or another, seeking a weakness that he might be able to exploit.  Working at her computer, Sarah managed to close any hole in the story as soon as they came up.  Records were changed or hidden; information concealed or creatively reinterpreted; and some websites were outright blocked.  She did it in such a way that Adlai could not, despite his best efforts, find any solid bit of information he could use to contradict Michel’s story.

Mila retreated from the table and started the process of copying the RFID into Sarah’s app.  That task was automated so, with nothing else to do, she ordered another beer and sipped at it from a shadowed corner.  She played with the coaster while she waited, flipping it between her fingers; a habit I shared with her.  I’d developed mine after quitting smoking, but Mila didn’t strike me as the type of person who would have picked up a pack to begin with.  In another setting, at another time, I would have devoted a part of my thoughts to the mystery.  For now, I noted it absently, but didn’t think about it in any depth.

Lane listened to the first few minutes of conversation, before he excused himself to make a phone call.  Sarah followed the Superintendent’s movements through the security cameras, but Mila wasn’t close enough to hear his words or read his lips.  I watched that camera, while I listened to Michel’s words.

When Michel finished the story, Adlai leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers.  His half-empty glass of water sat forgotten in front of him.  “Tell me what you know about the manor house,” he said in that soft, lightly accented voice.

I blinked.  Michel hadn’t said anything about the manor house.  We’d deliberately excised that from the retelling, because it was one of the only connections to me in the entire case.  “Try to find out what he knows,” I told Michel.

“What are you talking about?”  The Frenchman asked Adlai.

“There was a shootout in the countryside,” Adlai said.  “Someone I have been…looking for was involved, but owning property isn’t his typical method.  It is possible that he has changed his techniques, but…no, I don’t think that is very likely.  I did some research on the area and found that the owner on record was a Mister Hill.”

Michel nodded slowly, but didn’t say anything.

Taking his silence for an invitation to continue, Adlai kept talking.  “Further research shows that this Mister Hill doesn’t exist.  It seems absurd to think that this false identity is not connected, in some way, to this drug kingpin.  I thought that it might be some sort of storage facility, but that did not make sense.  Perhaps some sort of holding area?  A person important to this mysterious Hill, who could not be allowed past his supervision?”  He sucked his teeth.  “I don’t have enough information yet.  Tell me, what have you found out about this place?”

That was the worst thing about Adlai.  It wasn’t just that he was frightfully singleminded.  It wasn’t that he treated his pursuit of me as a personal vendetta.  It was that he was so damned smart.  Courtesy of the Lady’s resources and the information provided by the Texan, we’d managed to find the manor house and divest it of its most valuable property under considerable duress.  That had taken us three days and had come perilously close to costing us our lives.

In less than a day, he’d managed to find out nearly as much we knew.  “If you lie,” I told Michel, “he’ll know.  This is a trap.  Give him just enough to think about that he has to check into it later.”

Michel didn’t say anything for a second.  I knew that he was thinking about what to say next but, to Adlai, it was likely that he would simply appear thoughtful.  “I have heard some things about a place like that,” he said slowly.  “Nothing solid, though.  They say that Hill keeps his books there, perhaps.  I have not heard anything about this shootout, but information is very regulated.  Only the people who need to know would know what really happened, and I am not high enough in the organization.”  He paused for effect.  “Yet, I mean.”

“Ah,” Adlai said.  He sounded…not satisfied, but mollified for the moment.  “If this operation is as large as we think, it would stand to reason that he keeps his records somewhere safe.  But we have men searching through the manor house now, and we haven’t found anything of record yet.”

“There was also talk of someone new,” Michel said.

I hadn’t expected him to say anything, so what he said surprised me.

“Someone new?”  Adlai repeated.

“Yes,” Michel said.  “Some sort of mercenary.  I do not know what he was supposed to do, but the other men talk about him as though he is a bad person.”

“He’s a criminal,” Adlai replied, automatically.  “Of course he is a bad person.  They all are.”

“Still,” Michel said.  “Someone worse than the others.”

I’d been so focused on shifting attention onto Hill that I hadn’t really considered the effect a police presence might have on Aiden’s movements.  I would have applauded Michel for the initiative, if he weren’t so far away.

Sarah’s laptop beeped behind me.  “Does that mean what I think it does?”  I asked.

“Sure does,” she replied.  “I’ve got the right frequency for Lane’s ID and can duplicate it later, when the time comes.  This is a trick that’s only going to work one time, though.  As soon as he figures out his card was stolen, he’ll just replace it and keep a closer eye on it in the future.”

“One time’s all we need,” I said.  “Michel?  Start the blow-off.”

“I have to go,” Michel said to Adlai, in a hushed voice.  “There are too many eyes here.  You will keep this conversation to yourself?  There are not many people in my precinct that know what I am doing.”

“I understand what undercover means,” Adlai said.  “Although I am not still convinced that you are telling me the whole truth.”

“What would you need to know?”  Michel asked.  “Ask me and I will answer, if I can.”

Adlai opened his mouth to say something.  Lane, finished with his phone call, interrupted him.  He was still obviously inebriated, but the worst effects had passed.  “I just called the Chief Superintendent,” he said to both men.  “He’s an old friend of mine, and one of the only men I’d trust not to be a part of all this.”

Shit,” I hissed.  We hadn’t expected Lane to actually know anyone personally in the force.  “Mila, we might be going to plan B in a second.”

“He wouldn’t give me details,” Lane continued, “but he confirmed that they do have someone working undercover.”

“You are sure about this?”  Adlai asked.

“Sure enough,” Lane answered.  He stumbled forward a half step as he jostled from behind, and then extended a hand to Michel.  “You’re doing good work, lad.  I’ll see to it that your information gets put to good use.”

I blinked, turned, and looked at Sarah.  She blinked back.  “You heard that too, right?”  She asked.

“I…think I did.”

Michel had to be even more nonplussed than Sarah and I were, but he rolled admirably with the surprise punch.  He shook Lane’s offered hand, but didn’t break eye contact with Adlai.  “Is that enough for you?”  He asked.

Adlai answered with a noncommittal grunt.

Lane withdrew a business card from his back pocket.  “In case you need to get some information to us, and you can’t get your handler on the line.  You call me, and the two of us’ll see to it that you’re taken care of.  Sound like a plan?”

“That…sounds like a plan, yes,” Michel said.  He accepted the card and slipped it into his own pocket.  “But I must go now.  I have talked to you long enough, and…”

Lane raised a hand.  “Say no more, lad.  Just know you’ve got friends looking out for you.”

“Friends are always a good thing to have,” Michel said.  He left the table with a few quick nods and headed toward the exit.

Mila, walking a little faster than necessary, overtook Michel.  From there, she took a detour by the drunken police officer in the gray hoodie, before meeting back up with the Frenchman at the pub’s exit.

“So,” I said, when they were clear of the building and headed back to the car.  “There’s already someone working undercover in Hill’s organization.”

“Yep,” Mila said.

“And we don’t know who they are, what they look like, or whether or not they’ve gone native?”  Sarah asked.

Non,” Michel said.

“To say nothing of the fact that the most tenacious Interpol agent I’ve ever had the misfortune of encountering now thinks that Michel is actually a police officer, working to destroy Hill’s criminal organization in pursuit of truth, justice, and…well, I guess the British way?”  I asked.

Sarah choked back a laugh.  “We got what we needed, though.  That’s one less thing we have to worry about tomorrow.”

“You say that like this is something normal for the two of you,” Mila said.

“It isn’t abnormal,” I said.

“Is there something you…I do not know, is there something you should say now?”  Michel asked.  “I do not know how these sort of things go, but it feels like you should say something.”

I thought about the possibilities.  Michel had just gone through the most harrowing trial by fire imaginable, and he’d done so nearly flawlessly.  If he wanted an inspirational comment, he damn well deserved one.

What ultimately came to mind wasn’t inspirational, per se, but it was exactly the sort of thing that could initiate someone into our inner circle.  “Way to go, team?”

Chapter Seventy

I wrote a quick note to Sarah, asking her to handle Michel’s side of things for the moment, and moved from the kitchen counter over to the couch.  She passed me a tablet after a few seconds, without a word.  She had opened a document containing the information the two of us had managed to cobble together about Mila.  The file was depressingly thin.  We knew her name – or, more likely, the name she’d chosen for herself – and I could personally attest to her combat skills.  There were some speculations, written in a different font for ease, about where she might have worked in the past.  That part was new; I looked over the list of ideas, trying to draw connections to jobs I’d been a part of or heard about.

Caracas.  Barcelona.  Honshu.  Some of those locations sparked faint memories, but none came with a solid image.  All that I knew for certain was that, if Sarah’s guesses proved accurate, Mila’s professional career had taken her around the world.  Which wasn’t really surprising, if I gave it more than a few seconds of thought.  The jobs I worked didn’t typically require physical security, but I’d met more than a few crew leaders who preferred the smash-and-grab to the carefully planned heist.  They were the type of people who might find use of someone with Mila’s skillset.

Sarah tapped me on the shoulder and handed the slip of paper back to me, folded in half.  I opened it and read her words: “leaving this in your hands, for the moment.  will provide more information when i have it.”  The earbud popped twice in my ear and I thought the line had gone dead.  A heartbeat or two later, I realized what Sarah had actually done: removed Michel’s conversation from my ears, so that I could focus entirely on Mila.  That also freed me up to speak to her without worrying Michel any more than was strictly necessary.  I nodded to Sarah in appreciation, and navigated to a new page of the file.

“Mila,” I said out loud.  “What are you doing?”

“Handling something,” she said back.

“Is this something that could be handled later?  Maybe when you aren’t in the middle of an operation?”

“Obviously not, or I’d been doing it later, wouldn’t I?”

There were pictures in the file now.  Crime scene photographs, gleaned from local newspapers and some police files.  Each picture was accompanied by a tag at the bottom of the screen and those helped solidify the links I’d begun forming between Mila’s supposed previous jobs and the things I’d heard in the underworld.  To my relief, I didn’t see any murder scenes in the pictures.  I wouldn’t have necessarily been surprised if there had been, but what I did see was only marginally better.  Instead of killing the victims, Mila had gone to work on them: fracturing arms, splintering bones, and generally reducing her competition to unconscious meat.  It was the violence I’d seen at the warehouse, and again at the manor house, raised exponentially.  These files weren’t the work of a calm, dispassionate professional; the only way a person could cause the kind of damage I saw would be if they were trying to hurt their opponent.

I shivered at the thought.  “You’ve still got a contract with me,” I said, when I had my voice back under control.

“I have a contract with the Lady,” Mila corrected.  “But that’s irrelevant, because I’m not breaking it.  I’m allowed to take care of personal stuff.  Unless you’re saying you want me off the team, then…”

I blinked.  It hadn’t occurred to me that she might actively try to force me into a position where cutting her loose was the only real option.  Our conversation hadn’t gone the way she expected…or had she wanted it to go badly?  I didn’t know enough to draw a conclusion in either direction, and I resolved to take strides towards rectifying that problem.

“That’s not what I meant,” I said.  “But you agreed to this plan.  If something happens to Michel, then…”

“I’m not going for a joy ride,” she interrupted.  “Nothing’s going to happen to Michel.  Now, be quiet…I’ve got company, and I’d rather these two not know that I’ve got a little leprechaun in my ear.”

Irritation at the comment warred with amusement at its content.  I went with silence, instead, and listened.  Mila walked to one corner of the bar, next to a well-dressed man.  The angle presented by the security camera wasn’t a good one, but it was better than nothing.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Mila was saying.  Not to me, but to whoever her company was.

“We saw you at the gala,” a masculine voice responded.  The words came out a little too quick, cut shorter than they would normally be, and the rhythm was off.  Whoever the company was, he or she wasn’t a native speaker.  It almost sounded like they’d learned English, but refused to practice the language until its cadences became second nature.  What did that tell me?

“Work,” Mila said, with a little laugh.  “You know how it is.”

“Indeed,” a woman said, as she sidled around to Mila’s other side.  The accent was similar to the first in all the right ways.  A split second passed before I connected the disparate facts into a solid theory: Mila was talking to the twins we’d seen at the gala, and that I’d glimpsed in the bar.

“So,” Mila dragged out the vowel, “what brings you into town?”

“Work,” the man said.  For lack of a better name, I mentally tagged him as Thing One.

“You know how it is,” Thing Two – his sister, maybe? – added.

The Things chuckled and they did it in sync with each other.  Creepy.

“What is it that you need from us?”  Thing One asked.

Thing Two followed immediately in his wake.  “We have never been friends.”

“Only enemies,” Thing One said, agreeing with his sister.

Not enemies,” Mila said.  “We’ve worked opposing jobs, sure, but I’ve never had a problem with the two of you specifically.  And I’m guessing that you’re off assignment right now…?”

She left the question open, inviting them fill the space with an answer.  The Things’ reply took a while to come.  “Our business in the area has concluded, yes,” Thing One said.

“Did you come to hire us?”  Thing Two asked.  “That would be…”

“Interesting,” Thing One finished, for his twin.

“I’m not free to do that,” Mila said, “and I’ve never been in the market for my own muscle, anyway.”

“Then what?”

Mila cleared her throat.  “I’ve got questions.  The two of you have always been more involved in the underworld side of things, so I figure you might know more about…things than I do.”

“This information,” Thing One said, “is worth something to you?”

Silence over the earbud for a long time until Mila, eventually, nodded once in agreement.

Thing Two started speaking again.  “How much are these answers worth to you?”

“I’ve got money,” Mila said.  “If that’s what it’ll take, we can work something out.”

“Not money,” Thing One said.  “That is too…”  He paused, apparently searching for the right word.

“Transient,” Thing Two supplied, in a smooth voice.

“Yes, transient.  Perhaps favors?”

Mila considered that suggestion and made a soft, almost inaudible sound.  The earbuds were sensitive enough that I could hear it, but it had probably been too soft for the Things to catch.  “Depends on what kind of favors you’re talking about.”

“Your assistance,” Thing One said.  “There are times when we find ourselves in need of additional hands.”

Your hands would be most helpful,” Thing Two added, emphasizing the pronoun.

“I’m not going to break a contract for you,” Mila said.  “You understand that, right?”

The Things laughed in unison again.  “Of course not,” Thing One said.  “Your…honor is well-known.  We would not ask you to betray that.”

“If you did not have this thing,” Thing Two said, “we would not be having this conversation at all.”

Mila sighed. “If I’m not under contract, and you aren’t doing anything that requires I break my word, then…fine, I’ll take that deal.  One favor, in exchange for some answers.”

“What if we do not know the answers?”  Thing One asked.

On cue, his sister spoke the next sentence.  “Does this invalidate your part of the bargain?”

“No,” Mila said.  “I’ll do the favor, so long as you give me your word you’ll actually try your best to get me the answers I’m looking for.”

“So easily?”  Thing One’s voice sounded perilously close to laughter once more, but he managed to keep it restrained to a slightly elevated pitch.  “This is hardly an equitable arrangement for you.”

“I’m aware,” Mila said.  The words came out clipped.  “One favor, in exchange for some questions.”

Pause.

“Ask your questions,” Thing One said.  “We give you our word that we will do our best to give you the answers you seek.”

“Agreed,” Thing Two said.

“What do you know about Aiden?”

Both Things inhaled sharply at the name and their body language – at least, the details I could make out with such poor resolution – became less predatory and more nervous.  “Is…is he in play again?”  Thing Two asked.

“We should leave,” Thing One added.  “If Aiden is here, we should not be.  You should not be.”

“I’d be surprised if anyone wanted to get out of town more than I do,” Mila said, “but that’s not a possibility right now.  So I’ll have to settle for information I can use to avoid him until I can put a couple of continents between the two of us.”

Silence.  This stretch of wordless time somehow managed to possess an ominous quality that I could feel over the comms line.

The Things had a quick conversation with each other in Japanese.  After a minute of that, Mila coughed theatrically.  “Do you know something or not?”  She asked.

“We…know a little,” Thing One said.

“Not much,” his sister said.

“I’m trying to figure out what he’s doing in town,” Mila said.  “Who hired him, what he’s been doing, that sort of thing.  Does this ‘little’ bit of information you have skew in that direction?”

Another burst of Japanese between the twins before Thing One spoke in English again.  “Aiden has not worked much in the past months,” he said.  “After your…disagreements with him, he and his crew went to ground.  We did not even realize he was working again.”

“There’s a new member of his team,” Mila said.  “He had to get him from somewhere.  Do you know anything about that?”

“Mikhail,” Thing Two said, with obvious distaste.  “Yes, we have heard about him.”

“Carlos and I have history,” Mila said.  “What’s Mikhail do?  That might be help me to figure out what he’s after in town.”

I refrained from saying anything into the comms.  Mila knew perfectly well what Aiden wanted from his trip to London.  She also knew – or at least suspected – who had hired the mercenary.  With the exception of this latest question, everything she’d asked so far had been redundant.  I made a mental note to examine the conversation later, with Sarah’s help, for any hidden context that I might be missing.  Nothing about this felt right.  I was missing vital context; I could feel the absence of some important piece in my chest.

It wasn’t a complete waste of time, though.  While Mila’s decision to go off-mission wasn’t ideal, it did afford me an opportunity to get a better feel for the intricacies of the underworld, as it related to hired muscle.  It was much more openly antagonistic than the network of thieves and conmen I worked with, but that antagonism was moderated by a sort of professional respect.  Mila had said something along those lines in the manor house, before things went sideways, and I could hear how that respect played out.  The Things didn’t necessarily like Mila, but they did regard her well enough to comment on their feelings without any subterfuge or double-speak.  More importantly, they were willing to come to an agreement with her and share their information, in exchange for an unspecified promise of future assistance.

They worked with favors.  There had to be some way to use that.

Thing One started speaking, and I automated my train of thought, shifting most of my conscious attention back to the conversation.  “Mikhail is a…”

“Physician,” Thing Two said.

She provided the word before her brother had an opportunity to stumble over the word choice.  She had covered a gap in translation two times, in perhaps the last five minutes.  That had to mean something…I just didn’t know what and didn’t have the mental resources available to figure out an angle.  I shelved that thought for later review.

“Yes,” Thing One said, “a physician.”

“Field medicine?”  Mila asked.  “Battlefield stuff?”

“No,” Thing Two said.  “Perhaps pharmacist would be a better word.”

I tagged my previous thought with a note: Thing Two apparently had no problems with English.  Pharmacist was at least as difficult a word as ‘physician’ or ‘transient,” but she’d pulled it without the slightest hesitation.  Perhaps she’d been taught the language earlier in life, or Thing One simply wasn’t as good with different tongues.  If the latter case turned out to be true, I could hardly judge him: I’d been in a French prison for nearly three years, and I still barely spoke the language.

“A pharmacist?”  Mila asked.  The tone implied that she hadn’t directed the question to either of the Things.  “Why would he need a pharmacist?”

“Perhaps he is sick?”  Thing One suggested.

“Because drugs are tough to get when you’ve got the sort of firepower Aiden’s got?”  Mila shot back.

“We do not know why he needs the pharmacist,” Thing Two said.  Her voice displayed no signs of offense at Mila’s snappy retort.  “Only that Mikhail has a history as one.”

“A drug dealer,” Thing One said.  “Prescription medication, in addition to personal concoctions.”

“Is that disgust I’m hearing from you?”  Mila asked.  “Drug dealers are part of the business.  It isn’t like we’re exactly good people.”

“Mikhail sold to children,” Thing Two said.

“Oh.”  Pause.  “Well, fuck him, then.”

One of the numerous phones I’d begun to collect since Paris vibrated on the table in front of me.  I had become so engrossed in the conversation between Mila and the Things that, for a moment, the reality of my location had slipped my mind.  The vibration against the table’s surface shook me back out of my head.  I grabbed the phone – the one Alex had given me before I’d left him in Munich – and saw that Alex was calling.

I silenced the call and tossed the phone onto the love seat.  I could call him back later, or text; he’d understand if I missed a phone call or two while working.

Using the tablet Sarah had given me, I entered the name “Mikhail” and “drugs” into a search engine she’d helped develop.  The underworld consisted of individuals with vastly different skill sets and navigating between strata was difficult, at the very best.  I’d used the engine to find Anton, back when I’d first had need of his explosive expertise; it was how I’d learned Asher hadn’t died in St. Petersburg; and, now, I used it to double check the information that the Things had given Mila.  If there was something to find about Aiden’s newest hire, Sarah’s search engine would be able to dredge it up, and then we could all go over the details in relative safety.

The search engine began to work, digging through an unknowable amount of information contained within the deepest corners of the Dark Web, and I left it to its work.  Mila was talking again.  “Wait.  You said that Aiden hasn’t been working lately, but you kept up to date on his newest hires?  Why?”

“We make it a point,” Thing One said, “to be aware of his activities.”

“And,” Thing Two added, “we stay far, far away.  You would be wise to do the same.”

Having seen Aiden for only a few moments, I understood why these professional hitters would be cautious of him.  Judging solely from the inflections the Things were using, caution was drawing it lightly; they devoted effort to just avoiding the man.  That knowledge was chilling enough that I upgraded Aiden’s mental ranking from “scary man who frightens professional killers” to “scary man who frightens professional killers, and should be avoided at all costs.”

Even as I did that, I was absolutely certain that we hadn’t seen the last of him.  If he was working for Asher, Hill, or the Magi – and I was becoming increasingly certain that those were three distinct factions, instead of one large enemy to be dealt with – we’d have to deal with him in order to take a run at the golden book.

“Anything else?”  Mila asked.

A few moments of silence passed.  “Nothing comes to mind,” Thing One said.

“That’s more than I knew, at least.  When are you going to want to call in this favor?”

Thing Two made a sound.  It wasn’t quite a chuckle or a cough.  If pushed to label it, I would have said that she purred.  “We will let you know.”

“Assuming,” Thing One said, “that you survive your business in London.  We will be…leaving the country.  Immediately.”

“If something goes wrong,” Mila said, “it won’t end with me dead.  At least, not if Aiden gets his way.”

Thing One pushed the remainder of his drink over to Mila.  She downed it in one go.

“Let us hope, then, that he does not,” Thing Two said.  “Be safe, Mila.”

Mila didn’t say anything in reply, as they took their leave.  A solid thirty seconds passed before she spoke at all.  “I’m assuming you got all of that?”  Mila asked.  There wasn’t anyone nearby, so I assumed she was talking to me again.

“This whole conversation is backed up in a few different locations,” I said.  “What I didn’t catch, we can go over later.  You want to explain why that conversation was so important that you’d risk going off-mission when Michel needs you?”

“Not really.”  Pause.  “The twins have gone up against Aiden’s team before.  It didn’t go well for them, so I figured they might be keeping track of his movements.  So long as I’m working for the Lady, I can’t risk contacting anyone in the underworld that might be working for the Magi.”

“So you trust them?”

“Not at all,” Mila said.  “But I can tell when they’re lying and when they aren’t.  They know more than they’re saying, sure, but the tip they gave me was the truth.”

The tablet beeped to let me know that its search was finished.  A quick glance showed me a list of posts about Mikhail’s work, his back alley business dealings, and a variety of prescription medications he’d arranged to have stolen or redirected.  “Seems like it,” I said to Mila.

“I would have waited until later, but the twins never stay in town for more than a week after a job.  It was now or never.”

I let out a breath.  “Fine.  We can talk about it later.”

Mila switched her camera back on.  I could still see Michel in the corner of the camera’s field of vision.  She hadn’t gone far from where the Frenchman still sat.  “Or not,” she said.  “There’s really nothing to discuss, after all.”

I raised a hand in the air and motioned to Sarah.  She understood the vague gesture – bringing the two my index and middle fingers together slowly – correctly and, two pops of the comms later, we were all connected again.

“Michel,” I said.  “How are things going?”

Even as I spoke, I glanced up at the television screen.  There, on Michel’s camera feed, I watched as Adlai reached across the table to Michel.  His hand went straight to the button camera that Michel wore and plucked it from the Frenchman’s shirt, bringing it up to his eye.  Then, lowering it slowly, the look in his eyes sharpened to a point.

“Ah,” Adlai said softly.  “I believe there might be more to you than just a simple cab driver, hmm?”