Tag Archives: Asher

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.

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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.”

Chapter 135

The next couple of hours passed by a slideshow of disconnected memories.

I remembered the police officers calling an ambulance for me.  Two people – I think it was a man and a woman, although I couldn’t be absolutely certain – helped me to my feet and into a stretcher.  From there, they rushed me into the back of the ambulance and began treating my injuries.  They were speaking to each other in serious, though not panicked, voices so I assumed things weren’t bad enough to warrant critical care.  Even if they had been, I found it impossible to muster a corresponding level of worry.  I’d been hurt, I might be losing a lot of blood, but those concerns seemed distant.

I remembered bits and pieces of a hospital, an unknown amount of time later.  Any recollection of my time in the ambulance was lost in a fog of confusion and disorientation.  The people at the hospital treated me with a quick, professional grace and placed me in an otherwise empty room when they were finished.  The room had no phone, no television, and no window.  One of my arms was handcuffed to the bedside rail.

When I reached my free hand up to my ear, I found that my earbud was gone.  Either it had fallen out at the estate or, more likely, they had located it during my treatment.  Again, that thought would probably have troubled me in a clearer state of mind.  As it was, I could only hope that Sarah had taken steps to ensure that the police wouldn’t be able to use the communications device to track her whereabouts.

At the same time, however, the only people who had the vaguest inkling of Sarah’s involvement were Hill, Asher, and myself.  I certainly wasn’t going to tell on her, Asher would have disappeared into the wind as soon as he realized things were going sideways, and Hill…well, Hill was a wild card.  He could tell the police that Sarah Ford had been involved in the incident, but he had no proof.

I remembered speaking to the police.  More accurately, I remembered not speaking to the police. They had dozen of very salient questions to ask me.  What was my name and where was I from; what was my business in London; why had I been at Hill’s estate, in the center of such a catastrophic series of events; and, most importantly, why had the Baron of Berkeley been caught with his hands wrapped around my throat?

They got nothing but a stony silence from me.  Part of that came from long hours training myself to stonewall the police at every opportunity.  The rest of my mute impersonation came from the lingering daze that I couldn’t quite seem to shake.  The fact that both factors allowed me to frustrate the law was a happy coincidence.

There were other scenes I could recall, but none of them seemed very important at the time.  Nurses and doctors came into the room, taking great care to stand out of arm’s reach.  Police tried various tactics to draw some information out of me – good cop, bad cop, understanding cop – and received nothing they could use.  On at least one occasion, someone asked if I wanted a lawyer and I told them no, in a firm voice.  The last phase would only work if I was alone, if it was going to work at all.  I knew that much for a certainty.

My first clear memory came later, when my internal clock told me that the sun should be setting outside of my windowless room.  Even though I’d specifically given instructions for no legal representation, a man in a dark suit entered my hospital room.

I craned my neck so that I could examine the man.  He wore expensive clothing, but nothing so pricy that a well-paid – by which I meant ‘corrupt’ – attorney would be unable to afford.  His hair was slicked back with an unhealthy amount of grease and the slim smile he wore made my skin crawl.

He stepped into the room, turned, and closed the door behind him so that he stood with his back an inch or two away from the door’s surface.

“Who are you supposed to be?” I asked, when it became clear that the man wasn’t going to speak first.

“Legal representation,” he replied.  His voice sounded as slimy as his expression looked.

“I didn’t want a lawyer.”

“As far as the officer outside of this room knows, you have changed your mind.  But, please, do not think that your wishes have been countermanded: I am not here to represent you,” the man said.  “I am Lord Fairfax’s representation.”  He emphasized Hill’s title.  That told me a lot about the man.

“I’m not fully versed on the law, all things considered,” I said, “but I’m pretty sure you aren’t supposed to be talking to me.  Or is that only in civil suits?”

“That law only applies to barristers and only in the case of a trial.”

“Call me crazy, but I think that your boss is going to be spending a little bit of time in a courtroom.”  I shifted my weight, trying to make my arm slightly more comfortable. The effort proved only moderately successful.

The man’s smile became even thinner.  “It is my professional opinion that there will be no trial.  Why would that happen, when no law has been broken?”

I raised an eyebrow and said nothing.  The message was clear, without any further clarification.  Hill was going to use whatever leverage he’d managed to acquire over the years to make this entire thing disappear.  Personally, I wasn’t sure there was a rug big enough to sweep everything under, but Hill must have been confident if he’d sent his hireling to taunt me.

This time, the man broke the silence.  “I am here merely to inform you that Lord Fairfax wishes you to understand the consequences of your actions.”

“Is that a threat?”

The man shook his head.  “A quote.  He has explained to me that he sought you as an employee and you chose to…take another option.  He merely wishes me to express his dissatisfaction with that choice.  Although I am certain he will want to speak with you about it, whenever you find yourself in better health.”

And that was a threat.  Not only was Hill going to use his power to make his own charges go away, he was going to do the same for me.  It wasn’t difficult to imagine why he might do that sort of thing: he wanted to take his revenge on me, personally.  He couldn’t do that if I was in police custody.  Therefore, the easiest thing to do would be to make it seem like nothing had happened at his estate.  I would be freed, the police would stop watching me, and he would be able to snatch me off of the street at his leisure.

If he intended to walk away from his crimes unstained, it stood to reason that he’d want to deal with me in his own way.  I wondered idly how long it would take me to leave the country and decided, after only a few seconds of consideration, that I probably couldn’t skip town fast enough.  If I’d been Hill, and I had enough juice to arrange this level of legerdemain, it wouldn’t be out of the question to have someone waiting at the airport for just such an escape attempt.

I had no intention of leaving, though.  “Is that all?” I asked the man in the dark suit.

“From Lord Fairfax, yes.  But I wish to add a personal comment, from me.”

I waited a few seconds.  “And that would be?”

It wouldn’t be appropriate to refer to what the man did next as a smile, but he did show me his teeth in an approximation of that expression.  “Good luck,” he said.  Then, he turned, opened the door, and left without allowing me an opportunity for a witty repartee.

When he was gone, I settled my weight back onto my pillow and allowed myself a little smile of my own.  I pressed the call button and, less than a minute later, a nurse appeared in the doorway.

He took in the sight of me, relaxing casually in the hospital bed, before he spoke.  “Is everything alright?”

“Considering the extent of my injuries,” I began, “is there any reason for me to stay here?”

The doctor pursed his lips.  “You suffered a slight concussion and your shoulder was dislocated.  The bullet wound in your thigh missed any of the major arteries or veins and passed completely through.  A night or two under supervision would – “

I cut him off.  “So is that a yes or a no?”

He sighed.  “No, there is no medical reason for me to stay here.  The police, however, wish to speak with you and I am under strict orders not to release you until they have had that opportunity.”

I would’ve clapped my hands, had I been able to do so.  “That works out wonderfully, then.  I’m ready to talk to them.  No reason to stay in bed any longer than I have to.”

The doctor gave me long-suffering look.  I couldn’t imagine that he’d had many patients eager to leave the hospital after a gunshot wound, but the expression on his face made me think it was a more common occurrence than I thought.  “I will go get them immediately, then,” he said and started to leave.

“Hold on there,” I said before he could leave.  He turned back around.  “I don’t want to talk to them here.”

“Is there another room you would prefer?”

I tried to suppress my smile and only managed to wrestle it down to a tiny grin.  “Of course.  I’d like to talk to them in Scotland Yard, if possible.”

***

It must have been late in the evening by the time everyone got on the same page, regarding my strange request.  The medical staff insisted that I should stay under their care for at least another night.  The police, who must have sensed the possibility of a trick, only managed to get their way by repeatedly asking if another night was a medical necessity.  Ultimately, I was allowed into the back of another ambulance and transported to Scotland Yard with a stern notice to demand to see a doctor, should anything go wrong with any of my injuries.

A police officer rode with me in the back of the ambulance, presumably to make sure that I wasn’t going to throw myself from the back of a moving car.  He wasn’t carrying a gun – that wasn’t the way of things in England, thank God – but the nightstick at his side would have served as sufficient discouragement, even if the asphalt outside had been a more acceptable landing surface.  He tried to wheedle any tidbit of information out of me and I met each question with my most banal smile, followed by an unyielding refusal to speak with anyone before I was safely inside Police Headquarters.

He eventually gave up and we rode the rest of the way in silence.  That silence continued, even after he helped me out of the ambulance and into the building.  Using a pair of unfamiliar crutches, the two of us made our way through the lobby and onto an elevator that terminated its ride before too long and another officer joined with the first to help me into an interrogation room.

Seated inside was the dark-skinned detective I’d spoken with on my first sojourn into the mouth of the beast.  He was drinking from a Styrofoam cup of coffee and looked a little worse for wear.

“You again,” he said, by way of greeting.

“Me again.”

“I was hoping we’d get the chance to chat again,” the detective said.  “There’s a lot of mystery floating around, regarding you.  Couple of blokes in the station got bets on whether or not I could catch you.”

“If this counts, then I think you stand to make some money, then.”

He shook his head.  “Not so much.  I bet you’d be on the next plane out of here after our last talk.”  He shrugged.

“You know,” I replied, “I almost like you.  Obviously, we’re not ever going to be the best of friends, but there’s just something about you.”

He chuckled and finished the remainder of his coffee.  “I get that a lot, actually.  Heard you wanted to talk to someone about this whole mess out at the Fairfax estate?”

I tilted my head.  “From what I understand, Lord Fairfax doesn’t have an estate out there.  Isn’t it in someone else’s name?”

“Sure,” the detective replied, “but we aren’t blind to the possibility of tax shelters.  The cops do know some things.  Anyway, you left the hospital against doctor’s orders to be here.  What’s on your mind?”

“Would you believe me if I said I was just tired of the hospital’s décor?”

“Not really, no.”

I hadn’t been lying.  The dark-skinned man did seem particularly likeable and astute.  If we weren’t on opposite sides of the law, maybe we could’ve…well, not been friends, but not enemies.

I couldn’t trust him, though.  Hill’s influence surely ran deep within Scotland Yard and anyone could be one of his plants.  “Well, you’re right,” I said.  “And you’re wrong.  I needed to stretch my legs.”

The dark-skinned man rolled his eyes and I got a sense of exhaustion from him, rather than irritation or anger.  “I’m going to get another coffee,” he said.  “You want one?”

“With sugar?” I asked hopefully.  “It’s been kind of a long day.”

“Sure.  I’ll make it a double.”  He stood up and left the room.

I wasn’t handcuffed to anything, which I appreciated.  My wrists were still burning where the metal bracelets had been fastened.  I grit my teeth and used the crutches to help me to my feet to stretch.  The ride in the ambulance hadn’t been good for my circulation and my extremities were beginning to feel sore.  My thigh – the one where I’d been shot – hurt even worse, despite the low level pain medication I’d received in the hospital.

There was a camera in the upper corner of the room.  I wasn’t in the same interrogation room, but I’d noticed a similar one upstairs.

“Sarah,” I said into the empty air, “I really wish you could hear me right now.”

Of course, there wasn’t any response.  My phone was off and probably in some sort of shielded room by now.  I wasn’t wearing my earbud.  The miniature camera I’d worn into Hill’s estate was gone, as well, lost at some point in the scuffle before the police showed up.

Still, talking to her felt natural.  “I know you weren’t really a big fan of this…well, you weren’t a fan of the part I told you about,” I continued, “but I don’t really consider this lying.  I imagine our friend has made it perfectly clear why I had to keep you in the dark.”

The camera did not reply.

“I’m just hoping that, when all this is over, that you’ll give me a chance to explain any, uh…details that might have gotten lost in translation.”

The red light on the camera – the one that let me know I was being recorded – switched off.  Behind me, the door opened with a soft click and closed again with the same noise.

I let out a long, slow breath and centered myself.  “Hello, Asher,” I said.

Something clicked behind me and I smelt the sharp smell of fire, followed by the familiar scent of a lit cigarette.  “Hello, Devlin,” Asher said back.

Chapter 124

When I stepped outside of the room, the sound of activity reached me from downstairs.  While we’d been in the tunnel leading up, I’d lost track of distance.  Cautiously, I crept over to a railing and looked down.  I stood on the third floor, staring down into a mass of armed men.  Asher was in positioned in the center of the amorphous horde, ordering people in a ringing voice.

“You two,” he said, indicating two of his goons.  My eyes weren’t good enough to make out their faces and, honestly, it didn’t particularly matter to me.  “East side, up until the fourth or fifth room.  You two, start at the sixth and finish out.  You and…you, go to the west side.  Stay in constant communication with each other.  If something goes wrong, you don’t tell me, and you live to see tomorrow…well, you won’t live to see the day after that.”

The hired muscle rushed to follow his commands.  All things being equal, none of them probably cared too much about who gave the orders, so long as someone deposited money into their accounts.  I continued to badly misjudge Hill, but I clung to the hope that my profile hadn’t been entirely wrong.  He wasn’t the type of person to manage the help in any sort of hands-on fashion; that would mean Asher was the face they saw more often not, the voice they heard when things needed to be done, and the person who they would be predisposed towards following if a conflict of interest became apparent.

Hill couldn’t have wrapped up his own forces any neater if he’d been trying to.  For a kingpin actively courting Asher’s replacement, Hill clearly hadn’t though what might happen if his muscle only knew one man as their direct superior.

That wasn’t important right now, though.  I ducked back, away from the railing, and found some comparatively dark shadows to hide in.  “Sarah,” I whispered, “I need to know where to go.”

Someone just sent his physical protection away,” she said in reply, “so going through the opposition isn’t an option.”

“It wasn’t ever going to be an option and we both know that.  Are we going to have to activate our other plan?”

Silence for three seconds.  Then, “If we do that, everything we’ve done far will have been useless.”

“Not useless,” I countered.  “Avis and Neal could still get away and go into hiding somewhere.  That’s not nothing.”

“It’s not enough,” Sarah pressed.  “Billy’s still being held somewhere.  You’ve got to find him, even if you’re actually willing to give up on the Book and let the Gruesome Twosome win.”

“I’m seeing a distinct lack of options, Sarah.  So if there’s something else you’ve got in mind, I am more than willing to take suggestions right now.”

Her fingers clicked and clacked across her keyboards.  “For right now, we’ve got to get you somewhere they won’t think to look.  They have the entire first and second floors to deal with.  Bright side with that: they’re not going to be where you are anytime in the near future.”

“And the downside,” I said, “is that I don’t have any way to get past them.  They could take days to reach me, but they’re still going to do it eventually.”

“Probably,” Sarah agreed.  “Why don’t we try to make it a little more difficult for them, just on principle?”

The grin on my face turned fiercer.  “What are you thinking?”

“If you can get me access to a terminal, I might be able to pull some information out of his internal network,” Sarah said.  “But for me to get access, you’ll have to find a physical node to access.”

I blinked.  “Sure.  Okay.  Whatever you said.”

“What I mean,” Sarah said, sighing heavily, “is that you need to find a computer.  Any computer, doesn’t matter.  If you can get me access to anything on his intranet, I can escalate myself to a position where I’ve actually got privileges.”

“Find a computer, check.”  I thought about that for a second.  “What about his bedroom?  It’s not going to be as heavily monitored as his security center – assuming that he even has one – and I doubt any of his men are going to be a hurry to check into his personal space.”

“I should’ve thought of that.”  Click, click, click.  “Incoming information.  I’ve marked the room most likely to be his bedroom.”

“How’d you figure out which one it was?”

“I looked at the floor plans,” Sarah said, “and chose the one with the largest measurements.  Rich people aren’t exactly subtle when they want to make their wealth known.  And Hill, in addition to his illicit nightly occupation, is a playboy, remember?  He’s definitely the type of guy who’d need to impress anyone he brought home.”

It was a wild guess and we both knew it.  Intuition was, by and large, my territory; Sarah typically preferred to operate from the realm of facts and figures.  Her last wild guess, though, had led me to the basement and, ultimately, to where Neal had been chained up.  From Neal, we’d found Avis.  I was willing to give her wild guesses a fair amount of latitude at the moment.

So, I glanced at my phone long enough to commit the series of turns and hallways to short-term memory and began moving in the indicated direction as fast as caution would allow.  The noises from downstairs – men jostling for positioning, arguing with each other, Asher’s voice over all of them giving out sharp orders – motivated me to move faster still, but I wrestled down that instinct.

It occurred to me, about halfway to my destination, that Hill could very well be in the house.  He could have been here the entire time.  Nothing we’d done so far would have necessitated his direct intervention.  At least, nothing we’d done yet.  He could very well have taken refuge in some sort of panic room to wait out the entire debacle.

“Sarah?” I asked.  “I know we’re expecting Hill to make an appearance before we’re through here, but did we bother to make sure he wasn’t here already?”

She scoffed at the question.  “Of course I checked.  When I hacked his phone, I made sure to pay special attention his calendar.  At the moment, he has an appointment with another handful of nobles at some sort of self-congratulatory luncheon.”

The image of Hill and a group of entitled high-born lords and ladies patting themselves on the back for their own wealth and magnanimity was as ridiculous as it was entirely within the character of the nobles that I’d met in other countries on other jobs.

I covered the remaining distance at double speed, occasionally ducking into cover in case there was a rogue guard already on the third floor.  Aside from the constant warbling of the alarm that Asher had triggered, things didn’t get any louder or more dangerous for me.  When I reached Hill’s bedroom, I tried the doorknob and found, to my eternal gratitude, that he didn’t bother keeping the room locked.  I slipped inside, closed the door behind me, and locked it myself, just to make sure.  With that finished, I allowed myself to let out a small sigh of relief before I turned to look at the room itself.

As these things went, it was a fairly modest space.  There was still a fair amount of splendor – the bed, for instance, was of the four poster variety with an actual canopy – but it lacked the grandeur that I’d been expecting.  Two dressers of exquisite construction, both made from some sort of dark wood, sat flush against the wall on opposite sides of the room.  A piece of furniture that was longer than a loveseat but smaller than the couch, was drawn close to a glass coffee table.  At the wall farthest away from me, there was a fireplace and, on the mantle above that, an extravagant portrait of a man who looked more like Billy than Hill.

“Okay,” Sarah said into my ear.  “I can see where that might give someone a complex.”

“You think?”  I took a few steps closer to the painting, angling my body so that Sarah could get a view of the portrait as well.  When I’d first entered the estate, the finer points of Hill’s family life hadn’t really registered on my list of ‘important things to remember.’  Now, with the knowledge that his issues were directly or indirectly responsible for a great deal of the misery I’d endured over the past month or so, I found myself filled with a powerful curiosity.

The original Lord Fairfax – at least, the one in the portrait – was a well-built man with a strong jawline and stern eyes.  He didn’t appear cruel, so much as focused.  That sense of focus hadn’t done him well in the business world, judging from the business his sons found themselves so deeply involved in, but that part wasn’t all that surprising.  “Sarah, did you have a chance to look up any information on Hill’s father?  Why they’re broke now, what deals went badly, anything like that?”

Her answer came in the form of several seconds of high-speed typing, before she actually spoke a word out loud.  “Thankfully, there are public records for all of this.  It looks like…it looks like he went into business with a few other Lords, when he realized that his inherited wealth wasn’t going to last forever.  Things would go well for a while – just long enough for Lord Fairfax to start feeling confident to increase his initial investment – and then the whole business would fall apart.”

“How many times did that happen?”

“More times than could possibly be coincidence,” Sarah said.  “You want my personal opinion?”

“Not your professional one?”

“We both know that I don’t have a particularly financial mind.  Personally, though?  It looks like he made friends that weren’t really friends, if you understand what I’m saying.”

Ah, betrayal.  The great equalizer between criminals and cops, lords and ladies alike.  No matter where you were, or how you’d gotten there, there would always be someone clamoring to stab you between the shoulder blades and take your place.

“There’s more,” Sarah said.

“I’m listening.”

“There were four major players who left digital fingerprints all over the former Lord Fairfax’s finances.  They made a killing off of his failures and, all things considered, were four of the most powerful people in London as a result of their financial successes.”

I scowled.  “Would’ve been nice to know that Hill had family rivals before we got to this point in the game,” I said.  “Allies who know the area with plausible motives would’ve given us a little bit of cover.”

“No,” Sarah said, “they wouldn’t.  That was past tense, Dev.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that their businesses were absolutely wiped out seven years ago, practically overnight.  All four rivals, obliterated down to the last Euro.”

I blinked and swallowed hard.  The timeline synchronized a little too closely with our suppositions for it to be pure coincidence.  “You think that’s what the Magi gave him, in exchange for his…I don’t know if ‘service’ or ‘fealty’ is the right word.”

Sarah made an unreadable sound in her throat.  “There were two things that destroyed Hill’s family.  First, the arrival of an unexpected older brother, from one of his father’s indiscretions.  No matter how he felt about that, Billy’s arrival is definitely the sort of thing that would throw someone’s life into disarray.”

“And we’ve seen firsthand what he did to his own family.”

“Exactly.  And now I’m seeing that there were four people, above all others, who had an active hand in nearly bankrupting his father?  The stress of which could very well have exacerbated the illness that ended up killing the man in the end?”  Sarah sighed.  “Yeah, I think some targeted devastation might be something the Magi would have offered him.”

The barest twinkle of an idea glimmered at the back of my thoughts.  I gave it some leash to run.  “Billy is older, isn’t he?”

“Considerably so,” Sarah replied, in the tone of a patient mother tolerating one her child’s mental wanderings.  “Why?”

“Well, we can’t rule out simple inferiority as a motivator, can we?  For why he turned on Billy to begin with, I mean.”

Sarah mulled over that for a few seconds.  “Okay, I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’m going to need you to walk me through the thought process.”

“In a few words, because time isn’t exactly something we’re swimming in, Fairfax picked Billy.  He was stuck with Hill.  Even if Billy was dropped on his doorstep as a baby, there are orphanages that will take children without asking any questions.”  I swallowed hard against the lump that rose in my throat.  There had been more than a few nights where I’d feared that same fate.  “But, instead of doing that, Fairfax takes in the kid.  Maybe he’s hoping Billy gets himself killed, maybe not – and I’m starting to think that I was wrong about that guess – but the point remains.”

“It’s…possible,” Sarah allowed.  She hesitated before continuing and I remembered that Sarah’s sisterly relationship wasn’t exactly sterling.  I hoped that I hadn’t accidentally hit some emotional button.  “What does that do for us now?”

“Nothing at all.  But it could be useful.”  I walked over to the desk and began rifling through its drawers.  It wasn’t long before I found a tablet in one of the bottom drawers, underneath some legal documents and something marked with a seal in the shape of a shield.  I removed the tablet and held it up in front of my mini-camera so that Sarah could see it.  “Can you do anything with this?”

“Is it locked?”

I pressed the power button and was immediately told my fingerprint wasn’t a match.  “I’m guessing so.”

“I can still use it,” Sarah said.  “But I’m going to lose all of the data on that particular tablet in the process.”

“Acceptable losses.  I need access to whatever camera system he’s got running in this mansion, if I’m going to get out of here in one piece.”

“Plug in that flash drive I gave you before I left and then put the tablet down.  It’s going to get uncomfortably hot while it’s doing its thing and you’re probably going to want your hands as uninjured as possible.”

I fished out the flash drive, inserted it into the appropriate slot at the bottom of the tablet, and retreated a safe distance.  It wasn’t that I doubted Sarah’s ability, so much as I’d begun developing a healthy paranoia lately.  Just because I was paranoid, after all, didn’t mean that Hill or Asher hadn’t left an exploding tablet as yet another way of playing my tendency to underestimate one or the other.

In addition to that, I couldn’t deny that a creeping chill was working its way through my stomach and chest.  It was a chill I vaguely recognized: not because it was something I’d felt before, but because it was related to a sensation I knew well.  On other jobs, I’d felt anxiety and tension at the tipping point.  Now, that invigorating sense of anxiety had escalated into nearly blind, physical terror.  I was alone, armed with a weapon I barely knew how to use, and surrounded by men who were likely being paid a large amount of money to stop me, specifically.

Sending Mila away with Neal and Avis had been the right choice.  I knew that, for a fact.  But accepting that fact didn’t do a thing to assuage my worries.  If something went wrong – when something went wrong – all of my tricks and techniques wouldn’t be enough to save my life.  It would come to a matter of raw martial skill and pure, dumb luck.

I crossed my fingers and hoped as hard as I could for the latter.

The tablet’s screen turned bright blue and white letters began to fill the display, filling in from left to right.  The letters made it about halfway down the display before they stopped.  The screen went black again for about three seconds, then switched itself back on.

“And I’m in.  I managed to keep the credentials for this particular tablet, even if I lost all of the files.”

“Layman’s terms, Sarah.”

“As far as the system is concerned,” she said, “the tablet is still authorized to access the intranet.  I can’t broadcast it, and the tablet never had clearance to actively monitor video feeds, but you can use it to monitor the locations of specific individuals.  Hill made certain to mark his key players so that he could keep an eye on them.”

“But the rest of the goons downstairs?”

“I did what I can,” Sarah said.  Admitting that must have pained her; I could hear the strain in her voice.

“It’s better than what I had before,” I said hurriedly.  The tablet finished booting up.  This time, when I touched the power button, the lock screen disappeared and was replaced with a blueprint of the estate grounds. There were four red dots on the screen and each dot was marked with a letter: two A’s, one C, and one M.  One of the A’s moved with the C and M, while the other A traveled in the opposite direction.

“That’ll be Asher,” I said, pointing at the screen.

“And the other group is the mercenaries: Aiden, Carlos, and…what was his name again?”

“The pharmacist?  Mikhail, I think.”  I paused.  “Is Mila anywhere near them?”

Sarah checked something on her computer.  “Not right now, no, but…”

“But what?”

“But you’ve got to remember that I can’t monitor the rest of the people in the mansion right now,” Sarah said.  “I’ll keep her on comms and I’ll try to warn her whenever she’s getting too close to him.”

That would have to do.  I knew that asking Sarah for anything more wouldn’t be helpful; if anything, the additional stress would probably have detrimental effects on everything else that she was juggling.  Mila had trusted me to survive without her; now, I had to allow myself to really trust that she could emerge victorious from a fight with her own demons, if it came to that.

“Alright,” I said slowly.  Then, once more and with greater confidence, “Alright.”

“Devlin?”  Sarah asked.

“What’s up?”

“Those dressers.  Does something look off about them to you?”

“They look like dressers,” I said.  “But something’s obviously bothering you.  What is it?”

“That wood…it doesn’t look like wood.”  Sarah sighed, as if she’d realized how ridiculous that sentence was.  “I don’t know how to explain it.  But trust me, Dev: something is definitely off about those dressers.”

If anyone else had commented on whether or not the wood was correct, I would have dismissed them out of hand.  Two things forced me to take Sarah more seriously, though.

First, Sarah had never been the type of person who let her judgement be overly affected by the stress of a given situation.  Our current struggle was obviously leagues more difficult than any we had tackled before and the stakes were proportionately higher, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe that she would abandon that core of brute practicality that I’d always admired in her.

Second, the Ford family had begun their climb to financial superiority as, among other things, a lumber company.  They either ran or owned shares in companies in a menagerie of other businesses now, but it was the lumber company that had contributed the most to their enduring prosperity.  Sarah and I had never really discussed her childhood, but a forced lesson in botany when she was too young to refuse wasn’t exactly out of the question.  It would be exactly the sort of thing I’d come to expect from the rich and elite, with regards to their offspring.

So, I examined the two identical dressers again.  They’d barely received the minimum amount of attention possible on my initial visual sweep, but I gave them a closer inspection now.  It took less than five seconds before I realized that they weren’t identical.  One of them, in fact, wasn’t even made out of wood.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered as I walked over to the non-wooden dresser and pulled on it.  At first, nothing happened.  As I exerted more strength however, the dresser groaned and began to swing out from the wall.  I leaned my weight into the task and pushed the dresser all of the way out.

There was a wall behind the dresser.  I was relieved to see that there wasn’t another secret passage.  What surprised me, though, was the intricate network of clockwork gears and combination locks built into the back of the dresser itself.

It wasn’t a dresser.  The entire construction was an elaborate false face to hide the safe in plain sight.  I’d nearly missed it, too.

“Huh,” I said.  “Well.  This changes things, doesn’t it?”

Chapter 122

Neal led us in a half-shuffle, half-walk to a second sealed staircase down the hallway, in the opposite direction from where we’d entered.  Relief flooded into me when I saw that this door had a simple lever, as opposed to an internal keypad.  There was every possibility that Hill would have been stupid enough to use the same passcode on multiple doors, but he’d already snowed us with the shell game.   I wasn’t in the mood to try my luck.

I pulled the lever myself, so that Mila could keep her uninjured hand free to draw, aim, and shoot, if necessary.  Neal didn’t provide much assistance aside from infrequent coughing outbursts and the occasional mumbled, incoherent sentence.

When the door began to grind open, I turned to him.  “Are you sure this is the right way?”

He lifted his head and let it fall once.  “Made a point to…pay attention,” he said.  It hurt me to see how badly coherent speech hurt him.  “Staircase leads up, and…”

“Stop talking,” Mila said, cutting him off before he could put himself through any more misery.  “Tell us where to go, when it’s necessary.  Point if you can.”  She looked over to me.  “Try to keep the questions to a minimum.  I said that he shouldn’t be in any lethal danger, but I’m not a doctor.  These are definitely the kind of injuries designed to keep someone off of their feet.”

“I can do that.”  The dark mouth of the staircase/tunnel beckoned us onward.  I swallowed hard.  “Come on.”

This set of stairs went farther up than the first set and we could only travel at the fastest speed that Neal was capable of.  The effect of those combined factors was that I spent far longer surrounded by darkness and the feeling of pressure than before.  I kept my will focused on suppressing any claustrophobic thoughts, to some small degree of success.  Mila helped Neal as much as she could, but neither of them was at one hundred percent.  I found myself wishing that there’d been a place for Alex on this job.  He could’ve helped Neal up the stairs at a faster pace – hell, Alex could probably have just carried him, if necessary – which would have freed up Mila’s attention, as well as reduced the strain on her already bruised and broken body.

In my heart, and in the part of my brain that rarely surfaced to make intelligent decisions, I knew that Alex would have been a larger liability than an asset.  He would have been fine now, while we were rescuing people who had helped up in the past.  As soon as Asher showed up, though, he would have abandoned any scrap of the plan still remaining in order to run straight at the man who’d kidnapped his daughter.

I couldn’t blame him for that.  I just couldn’t allow it to happen.  Already, I didn’t know how I was going to steer things back onto track for our planned grand finale.  The addition of a furious freight train of a protective German father would not have been helpful.

“People are starting to show up outside,” Sarah said, over comms.  Her voice helped to pull me out of my own musings.  I focused on it, instead of the oppressive darkness.  “Not a lot yet, but it’s building.”

“How many?” I asked.

She was silent for a moment.  “I don’t know.  Michel can’t get into a position where I can see them all without putting himself at risk.”

“If you had to guess?”

“A lot,” she said immediately.  “Too many.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

The stunned silence from her end of the line made me smile, despite the situation.  “In what world is that a good thing?” She asked.

“This way,” I said, “we don’t have to worry about them blindsiding us.  If everyone has the good graces to stand right in front of the estate, then – “

“Devlin,” Mila interrupted.  “Top of the stairs.”

I blinked and realized that, during our short conversation, my surroundings had gradually been growing lighter and more visible.  At some point, we must have reached the top of the underground staircase.  I had been so focused on Sarah that I’d managed to miss the transition, or the fact that we’d stopped moving while the door opened, entirely.

“Neal, which way do we go now?”

He opened his mouth to reply, in blatant defiance of Mila’s orders, but couldn’t seem to make any actual sound in his condition.  He pointed diagonally forward and to the left, instead.

“Are there any other secret doors we should know about?”

He shook his head.

I exited the tunnel and looked around at the room.  The books lining the wall gave it away as some sort of miniature library or study.  A desk made of dark wood tipped the scale in favor of ‘study.’  The décor was tastefully understated, as I would have expected from British nobility; demur enough that it didn’t scream for attention and rich enough that no one would possibly mistake its owner for anything other than old money.  On a normal day, I might have searched for some valuable knickknack.  On this day, however, I was only interested in one thing.

“Mila, put him on that couch,” I said, pointing at the furniture in question.  “We can come back and get him after we retrieve Avis.”

She moved to comply without question or complaint.  When Neal was slumping gradually into a horizontal position, she raised an eyebrow.  “You still haven’t told me how you plan on getting out of here,” she said.  There wasn’t any accusation in her voice, nor was there the faintest trace of anger.  It sounded more like idle curiosity than anything else.

“That’s because you have a terrible habit of deliberately jinxing things,” I said, “and I really don’t think my escape route is going to need any more bad luck thrown its way.  Don’t worry about it, though.  We need to get the girl and rework the timeline.”

“From what to what?”

“We wanted to get the Book secured before tackling this.  Apparently that’s not going to be the way it works out.  We’ll need to figure out a way to at least locate the Book before Hill gives the order to move in and secure his prize translator.”

“That’s not a new plan,” Mila said.

“Huh.  And here I thought it was a well-thought out series of predictable events that would absolutely never go wrong.  I guess I’ve learned something new today.”

The sarcasm was such a natural reaction to stress, that it slipped out before I was even aware that I’d started to speak.  I was pleasantly surprised when Mila took no offense at the tone and, instead, smiled one of her hungry smiles back at me.  “Well, what are we waiting for, then?”

She moved forward and eased the study’s door open before I could say anything for or against any action.  The slight smile on my face, still there from Sarah’s confusion earlier, deepened as I followed after her.  Ahead of the room, and to the left, I saw a thin sliver of light from a door that wasn’t quite closed.  Mila noticed it, as well, and the two of us made crouch-walked over to it as fast as we could manage without making any unnecessary noise.

“Guards?” She whispered.

“Maybe,” I whispered back.

“What do you want me to do about them?”

Considering the stakes of our current game, the lives and livelihoods literally at stake, and the fact that a child might have been in very real danger…I might have given that question more than thought than it really deserved.  Not everyone who worked for Hill was a scumbag.  I broke the law on a regular basis, after all, and I considered myself a fairly moral personal.  Sarah probably found herself in outlaw territory more often than me – at least, in the past, before she’d gone straight – and she was one of the best people I knew.  It wouldn’t be fair for me to start judging men or women based solely on who they chose as an employer.

But…at the same time, I couldn’t go easy on them, either.  They were working for a known drug dealer, which wasn’t so much a problem as the drug dealer they’d chosen to work for.  More than that, whoever Hill had chosen to keep Avis under guard would have to know that they were holding a child hostage and exploiting her natural talents.  Presumably, this hypothetical guard would have orders to shoot her if she put up too much of a fight or argued too aggressively.  Nothing that would kill her, of course.  Just something that would hurt.

I decided that I could live with myself if something bad happened to anyone willing or able to hurt a child.  “Take care of them,” I said to Mila, lacing my response with as many shades of meaning as possible.

With her stated difficulties understanding people, I doubted that she understood every hidden message I tried to send.  The whisper-soft click as she checked her weapon’s chambered round told me that she’d understood enough.

She only had one hand and it was occupied with her handgun.  I took the initiative and held up three fingers, lowering them one at a time.  When the third finger was down and my hand had become a fist, she threw her shoulder into the door, blasted it open, and rolled into the room.  The move seemed a little too dramatic for practical use, but she managed to come up with her gun held straight and true.  Her eyes flickered across the room, searching out anyone who might be hiding in wait.

Except for the small dark-skinned girl furiously scribbling into a composition notebook at a far table, there wasn’t a single soul in the room.

I breathed a sigh of relief at the realization that Mila wouldn’t have to kill anyone right now.  At least, not on my orders.

“Avis,” I said, coming into the room as Mila stood up and pushed the door closed behind me.  “Avis, we’re here to get you away from Hill.”

“Again?” Avis asked, without looking up.

“Uh…yes,” I said.  “Again, I guess.”

“It didn’t work the first time,” Avis said.  “Why should I think it’ll work this time?”

“We made a mistake.  We didn’t have enough information and that cost us.  We do know what’s going on now and that’s why we’re here to get you out of the state and somewhere safe.”

A bitter laugh came from the little girl.  There was too much weariness in that sound for a girl her size and age.  “Nowhere’s safe,” she said.

I couldn’t think of any way to reply to that.  Mila saved me by stepping up, taking my place in the conversation.  “You’re right,” Mila said.  “There aren’t any real safe places.  But your place with us is safer than it is with Hill.”

My mind caught Mila’s usage of “us,” even if this wasn’t the perfect time to draw attention to that subtle verbal reveal.

“He’s got the men with guns,” Avis said.  “Your team has a woman with a broken arm who’s barely holding on right now and a thief who’s convinced himself that he’s a good guy.  I think Hill’s the safer option.”

“You know he’s going to kill you, right?” Mila asked.

Avis shrugged.

“As soon as you finish decrypting the Book, he’s going to have you and Neal executed,” I confirmed.  “He straight up said that to my face a few days ago.”

“I’ve…I’ve got to die someday,” Avis said, but there was a quaver in her voice now.  She didn’t have any concern for her own welfare.  She only worried when a specific someone else was in danger.  And that had been why Hill hadn’t outright killed Neal when he’d kidnapped Avis in the first place.

Hill had her psych profile.  He knew that she wouldn’t fight back so long as Neal was in danger.   Torturing him downstairs hadn’t been an opportunity; it had been the intention.

“We’ve already saved him,” I said, lowering my voice to conspiratorial volumes.  “He’s out of that room now.”

Avis, finally, looked up sharply from her work.  Her eyes were wide and the pupils had become tiny pinpricks of black in a field of white.  “You’re lying.”

Before I could say anything to persuade her, the door to room opened.  Mila spun with blurring speed and brought her gun up before I could anything more than suck in a sharp breath of surprise.

Neal stood in the doorway.  It might have been more accurate to say that Neal leaned against the doorway, actually.  He was weezing, gasping for oxygen, and blood was pouring from numerous wounds.  “Avis,” he croaked out.

The girl was out of her chair in a flash.  She rushed across the room so quickly that the papers on her tiny desk were whipped away in her passing and she barely stopped herself before she bowled Neal over with her tiny body.  “Neal!”

“We’ve got…to…”

“We’ve got to get you two out of here,” Mila finished for him.  “Or get you somewhere relatively safe.  Things are about to get a lot worse if we have to keep up with the two of you.”

Avis slowly turned away from Neal, back to Mila and me.  “Hill said he’d kill him if I did anything wrong,” she said.  “He’d bring him up here every couple of hours, just to show me what he could do.”

Confirmation of my suspicions didn’t make me feel any better.  In fact, I felt bile beginning to rise in my throat.

“I knew he wasn’t going to let us go, but…I didn’t want them to hurt him anymore,” Avis said.  “I thought that…I didn’t think anyone was coming.”

“We said we’re your friends, didn’t we?” I asked.  “That we’d take care of you, as best we could, right?”

Avis’s head moved up and down in jerky movements.  Without looking, she raised one hand behind her back and Neal somehow found it with his own.  “I didn’t think…I just thought you were…”

“We weren’t,” I said.   “Now, here’s the deal.  We need to get you guys somewhere safe for the moment and then get the Book away from Hill.  Do you know where it is?”

Avis shook her head.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Hill brought me pictures and I decrypted them.  What Book are you talking about?”

I bit down on the inside of my lip, hard enough that it hurt.  That would’ve been too much to ask for.  So long as Hill had the Book in his possession, he didn’t need to actually show it to anyone. After all, the Book itself wasn’t worth anywhere near as much as its contents.

“We’ll have to find it, then.  We’re running low on time, but – “

“Devlin,” Sarah cut in.  “You aren’t running low on time.  You’re out of it.”

“What do you mean by that?”

She spent a few seconds typing.  “Okay, I know what room all of you are in.  Look out of the window.”

I found the only window in the room and walked over, drew back its curtains, and looked outside.  At first, I saw nothing except for the green of Hill’s estate grounds.  I changed the angle of my gaze and saw a cluster of black Suzukis.  The backdoor on the passenger’s side of one of the cars opened and a figure stepped out.

From this distance, it would have been difficult for anyone except me to recognize the figure.  But I knew the subtle quirks like I knew my own name.  I could see, if I strained my eyes to their absolute limit, the mottled and warped skin that extensive burns left in their wake.

“Asher’s here,” I said in the smallest voice possible.

There was more, though.  The other three doors on the Suzuki opened as well and three more men stepped out of the car.

“Oh no,” Mila said, from right beside me.  It was a testament to my own growing horror that her sudden presence didn’t give me a heart attack.  “Oh no.”

“Michel’s close enough that I might be able to use his camera and some lip-reading software to figure out what they’re saying,” Sarah said.  “One second, and…”

The line popped twice as she connected Michel’s line to ours.  I could hear the Frenchman breathing frantically into his own microphone, but he stayed silent.  Instead, the digitized voices of Aiden, Asher, Carlos, and Mikhail came through the earbud.  From this angle, I could see their lips move, so I was able to connect the speaker to their oddly robotic voices.

“…must have figured it out,” Asher was saying.  “Or at least he took a shot in the dark.  What other reason would he have for the distraction at the stashes?”

Aiden began to pace.  Everything about his body language was different now than it had been at our dinner with Hill.  There, he’d been calm, controlled, and menacing like a patient tiger might be.  Now?  I wasn’t close enough to see his face and I counted that as a mercy.  He seemed…ravenous?  Untamed?  I couldn’t think of the exact right words, except that he appeared raw in a way that promised violence, hot and bloody.

“She’s with him,” Aiden said.  “She has to be.  He wouldn’t come in without her, and she wouldn’t let him.  Oh, she’s here, and she knew I’d be here.”

Asher took a long step back, away from Aiden.  “Whatever you say.  Our deal still stands.  Leave him to me, and you can do whatever you want with everybody else.”

With so much distance, I didn’t think it would be possible for me to see a specific expression cross Aiden’s face.  I was wrong.  He turned and looked up the building and I swear, he looked straight through me.

“Oh,” Asher said.  “Will someone sound an alarm, please?”

A second later, one of the guards on the ground floor followed the command.  A shrill, angry sound like a thousand bees being fed into a blender came from hidden speakers all throughout the estate.

“Oh, Devlin,” Asher said, in a sing-song voice made even eerier by its synthesized nature, “don’t you think it’s time to come out and play?”

Part 5: Recap

When Asher Knight – Devlin O’Brien’s former partner, ex-friend, and the brains behind all of our hero’s most recent difficulties – kidnaps Alexander Jaeger’s daughter, the team of thieves and criminals find themselves pushed to a new breaking point.  Prisoner exchange terms are offered, rules are dictated, and a seven-day long timer is set into place.  Within a week, Devlin, Sarah, and their team must come up with a way to spirit the young Ally away from her captors or face terrible consequences for their failure.

They are joined in their planning by Alex himself, frantic after a red-eye flight across Europe in pursuit of his daughter.  Joining forces with Devlin and company, the entire group decides to ask their newest ally Billy for his insight on the situation.  Where their knowledge of London is fairly limited, Devlin hopes that a native Londoner might be able to provide a clue as to where Ally is being held.  That hope pays off when Billy instantly recognizes subtle details in Asher’s “proof of life” video and is able to identify where the video was made: an abandoned Tube station turned bomb shelter, far enough away from prying eyes that secrecy is a given.

Starting with that tidbit of information, the team is able to cobble together a plan that relies more on luck than foresight – involving the Ukrainian bomb-maker Anton, a thorough grasp of the train schedule, and a stolen subway engine – just in time to meet Asher’s deadline.

At the abandoned train station, Devlin and Asher face off with each other.  Barbs are exchanged, insults are offered, and the tension rises to a dangerous level when Asher reveals his remote controlled device, specifically to kill Ally if he doesn’t get what he wants.  Sarah, anticipating such a move, activates a signal jammer to block Asher’s move and Devlin ends up in a position where he can hold Asher hostage against his will.

Still, Devlin can’t bring himself to kill his old friend, no matter how much that move would help him, his cause, and the people working beside him.  Instead of pulling the trigger, Devlin and his team use an expertly timed explosion to drop through the floor of the train station and down to a waiting subway engine, “borrowed” from a station a ways out of London proper.  Alex and his daughter are reunited, the veritable horde of hired goons are temporarily neutralized, and yet another of Asher’s power plays has been intercepted before it was able to grow any worse.

It isn’t until the team returns to their penthouse suite at the Brooklands that they find the young theoretical mathematician and her Man Friday – the girl, Avis, and her friend Neal – have been stolen from underneath their noses.  In addition, Billy – the proprietor of the Halfway house and a thorn in Hill’s side – has also been taken

Using some of the information left in the wake of Avis’ kidnapping, Sarah points the team towards one of Hill’s primary supporters and a possible link in the chain leading to their friends.  With that scant clue in mind, Devlin, Sarah, Michel, and Mila all head to a tense dinner with Lord Charles Fairfax, who has repeatedly appeared in their lives since first setting foot on English soil.

Things at Hill’s palatial estate go well enough.  Devlin, under the false identity of a German business magnate, engages in a verbal sparring match with Hill regarding their different philosophies and Sarah, using her own name and all of the prestige that it comes with, provides a counterpoint.  However, things take a decidedly sinister turn when Fairfax reveals a surprise guest: Billy, beaten and held captive by the psychopathic mercenary Aiden, with whom Mila shares a dark past.

Things begin to fall into place for Devlin rapidly.  Fairfax – the arrogant nobleman, the foppish ladies man, the ever-present irritant – is none other than the mysterious “Hill” himself.

Fairfax – or Hill – informs the team that he has taken steps to consolidate his power, in preparation for a move away from the stranglehold of the Magi.  To that end, he has used Asher to facilitate matters on a ground level, but Devlin and company’s impressive record against him in the past few weeks has caused him to reconsider things.  Instead of using Asher for as long as possible before eventually discarding him, Hill offers Devlin an opportunity: if the Irishman will work for Hill, then Hill will deliver his nemesis to him on a silver platter.  If the team chooses to work against Hill’s designs, he will simply have them exterminated at his earliest convenience.

Hill gives the team one week to consider his terms.  It takes them only a few minutes to agree that working for Hill is a non-starter.  He is a mad dog, hungry for more power, and heedless of the cost that pursuit might take upon the innocent.

Back at the Brooklands, Devlin, Sarah, and the rest of their group finally bring in every person potentially affected by Hill’s final move – not just Billy’s men, Chester and James; but also Anton, Stani, and the Russian pair Leonid and Iosif – so that, together, they can come up with a plan to dethrone London’s reigning drug kingpin at the height of his power, before his plans can come to fruition.

They are thieves, getaway drivers, and hackers.  Taking on a madman fully capable of murder is well beyond anything they have ever done.  But Devlin and Sarah know that no one else is in a position to do anything to stop Hill – except for the mysterious Lady, who has chosen not to involve herself directly – which means that the mantle of responsibility falls to them.  If they have the skills to potentially stop the death of an innocent child, then they owe it to Avis to give their all.

Noblesse oblige: those with the power to help have the responsibility to do so.  It’s apparent that the power-mad Lord Fairfax, in his guise as the kingpin Hill, has forgotten this simple principle.  Whether or not Devlin, Sarah, and the crew of international misfits will be able to remind him of that fact remains to be seen.

Chapter 100

Mila’s bullet took Asher in the shoulder, forcing him to drop the phone from fingers that, for a moment, refused to obey his commands.  The report of the pistol shocked all of the guards and, in the instant of frozen confusion, I crossed the intervening space in three long strides, grabbed the gun, and moved behind Asher with surprising grace.  He struggled, ignoring what must have been searing pain in his wounded shoulder, until I placed the barrel of the little handgun to his forehead.  Then, he went still.

“Neat trick,” he said, under his breath.  The words were for me, and me alone.  “How’d you pull it off?”

“I figured you’d have some way to hurt Ally, if things went wrong,” I replied.  “Whatever it was, you’d want to be able to trigger it remotely.  And that equals radio signals.”

He followed that lead to its logical conclusion.  “Ah.  Signal jammer.  I wouldn’t have thought of that.”  Slowly, so as not to force me into any movement, he clapped his hands together.  “Not bad…not bad at all.  You do realize, however, that there are at least ten different people in this room who would be more than happy to kill you if I gave the word, don’t you?”

The guards in the room had recovered from their temporary daze.  Their guns were raised once more, trigger fingers within millimeters of the triggers.  Half of the men pointed those weapons at me; the other half maintained a steady watch on Mila.  Thin tendrils of smoke spread lazily from the barrel of her handgun.  Sarah moved closer to Mila, her eyes flickering up to survey the room and then back down to the tablet in the crook of her elbow.

“I’m aware,” I said.  “But you aren’t the guy who’ll commit suicide, even if it means getting revenge.  I know that much about you.”

“So you’re threatening me now?  What are you going to do, Devlin?  Shoot me and then hope you can fight your way past all of my men?  Because there are a lot more than these ten holed up here.  Jamming the signal temporarily isn’t going to stop them from coming to ask some very serious questions about who started firing guns.”

Asher wasn’t lying.  Even as he spoke, burly men with long assault rifles began pounding up the staircase leading into the dormitory.  They came through the door into the room, blank expressions on their face as they surveyed the scene, and then spread out to take up strategic positions around the perimeter.  As they did that, Mila and Sarah inched closer to where I stood until a half circle of armed and angry goons faced my tiny group, the captive Ally, and Asher.

“Tell them to stand down,” I growled.

“Or what?  You’ll shoot me?”  Asher laughed.  “What possible reason do I have to do anything you want me to?  If you kill me – and you aren’t a killer, Devlin, don’t pretend – these gentlemen will punch neat little holes in all of you.  If you let me go, then I’ll just be able to do it myself.  The jammer was a nice move, but what’re you going to do now?”

The sarcastic edge in his voice, coupled with the certainty that Asher was only a second or two from actually smiling, managed to temporarily shatter my calm.  I pressed the barrel harder against his forehead, until a grunt of pain escaped his lips.

“You needed me to drop the phone,” Asher continued, “because your trick doesn’t work twice.  Or it doesn’t work for long.  Just tell me if I’m getting warm, okay?”

“Shut up, Asher,” I said.

“I don’t think I’m going to do that,” he said back.  “So.  Sarah was able to come up with jamming technique on the fly, just to stop me from sending the signal to the gun.  Now you’ve got it pointed at my brains and even if I could send that text now, it wouldn’t do me any good.  So, this…this is a stalling technique?  You’ve got something else in the works?”

I pressed my lips together, but couldn’t stop myself from giving Sarah a significant look behind Asher’s back.  She responded with the barest possible lift of a single shoulder before returning to her work.  In my pocket, the phone vibrated once more.  I couldn’t exactly check it, though.

Asher was still talking.  Whatever focus he’d intended to spend on undermining Mila’s focus, he now turned fully to me.  “You were right, by the way.  I’m not about to commit suicide-by-thief…especially when I don’t have to do anything other than wait.  Eventually, your Hill is going to figure out that things haven’t gone exactly according to plan here.  Then he’ll send in the type of people who’ll just start opening fire into this dorm, trusting that it’ll all work out eventually.  The girl might have given them pause, but…well, you thought the best idea would be to keep her far away from here.”

“I’m not seeing that as a bad idea,” I said.  Asher knew my buttons too well for me to fully ignore him.  If that wasn’t an option, then, I would simply have to engage in verbal combat.  We were still running on a timer and things would fall apart remarkably quickly if Asher’s prodigious mind was given enough leash to figure out every detail before we could put them fully into place.

“And I’m not saying you’re entirely wrong.  But keeping her somewhere else does have the unfortunate side effect of putting her outside of your protection…whatever that protection is worth, I mean.”

“Who said I left her alone?”

“The guard from the manor house?  What was his name…Neal, right?”  Asher snorted.  “You’ll excuse me if I don’t treat the threat of a new hire as something worthy of my full attention.  We only need the girl alive; what shape she’s in is debatable.  Considering the information she’s got access to, Devlin, killing her when we’re done might be the humane thing to do.”

“Humanity,” I said.  “From you?”

“The people I’m working for would torture and kill her to get what they want.  Especially now that she’s gone rogue.  At least she was kept happy at the manor house, until you decided to go be a hero.”

“You had people coming to kill her,” I said.  “If I hadn’t decided to save her, she’d already be in a shallow grave somewhere.”

“It’s only been a few days,” Asher replied.  “She’d probably be in a dark room by now, decrypting every last bit of information before she, uh…had an unfortunate accident.”

“Information’s what you want?  Maybe the information in that golden book of yours?”

The stunned silence that came from Asher was both gratifying and exhilarating.  Even when we’d been partners, it was a rare verbal jab that stunned him into silence.

“How…”  He trailed off, swallowed audibly, and started again.  “How do you know about that?”

“You aren’t the only one with contacts,” I said.  I nearly referred to the Lady as a ‘friend’ or ‘employer,’ but decided against either of those options at the last second.  The former took far too many liberties with the relationship between the mysterious black-clad woman and myself; the latter would have given away more to Asher than I was willing to risk.

“That book is more important than you could possibly know,” Asher said, after several seconds of silence.

“Connections, supply chains, corrupt men and women who can be paid to look the other way.”  I faked a yawn, directly into Asher’s ear.  “Big deal.”

“You…you really don’t know anything, do you?  How the hell did you get this far if you are this absolutely ignorant about what you’re playing with?”

There was a surprising lack of mocking in his voice now.  No…Asher sounded entirely serious.  Earnest, even.  The sharp change in tone was enough to give me a moment’s hesitation.

“You know what they did to me,” Asher continued, lowering his voice even farther.  I had to strain to catch the words.  “But you don’t know.  You can’t know.”

“But you got out, Ash.  The Magi let you go and you could have come to me.  I don’t know what they’ve got you doing, but we could have found a way out.”

We?”  He laughed, and the sound was filled with bitterness and derision.  I almost recoiled from it.  “Me, you, and the missus?  You expect me to believe that you would have worked with me ever again, if she didn’t want you to do it?”

I blinked.  “What?  What are you talking about?”

“I saw you with her,” he said.  “Leaving the benefit, in love with each other.  You were practically skipping, you were so happy.  You wouldn’t have given that up just to throw your lot back in with me.”

My mind supplied the relevant memory a heartbeat later.  I’d had my suspicions about what the Magi might have shown him to convince him that I’d moved past him, but the reality was still staggering.  “The benefit?  That was the first time we’d even seen each other, Ash.  You…that’s what you thought happened?”

“You’re saying it isn’t?”

“You’re damn right I’m saying it isn’t!”  At my raised voice, the half circle of guards tensed.  Mila, who had kept her eyes on a constant swivel, looked sharply at me.  Sarah jerked and, finally, looked up from her tablet.  We shared a moment of eye contact and she nodded imperceptibly.

“It…it doesn’t matter anymore, does it?” Asher asked, resignation thick in his voice.  “We could back and forth over this all day, but it’s in the past now.”

“It isn’t in the past,” I snapped.  “You kidnapped Alex’s daughter.  You sent me to jail and then you tried to kill me in Ukraine.  You did all that less than a month ago, Asher.  Hell, you drugged and dragged me out the museum two weeks ago!”

“You didn’t leave me a choice!”

Silence.  From above, I heard the subway car from before start to ease its way away from the station.  I felt its acceleration in the soles of my feet, as the vibrations started again.

“I tried to keep you out of this,” Asher said, in a quiet voice.  “But you didn’t leave me any options, Devlin.  If you’d stayed in jail, then…you wouldn’t have to be here for this.”

I tried, and failed, to wrap my head around the mental gymnastics required for that sentiment to make even the slightest amount of sense.  “You betrayed me.  You set me up, hit me with a Taser, and left me for the police because you wanted to keep me safe?  Asher, when I say this, I want you to know that I’m not kidding: you are insane.  You need help.”

Sympathy welled up inside of me, almost against my will.  Despite everything he’d done to me…despite everything he’d threatened to do to Sarah and Michel and Mila…despite the very real risk he posed to my friends and families, I felt sorry for him.  His upbringing on the Street was a mystery that I was unlikely to ever fully comprehend, but whatever happened there had been enough to prejudice him against the very idea of true friendship.  I’d thought that he might have learned something about it during our partnership, but this conversation sharply disabused me of that notion.

“What I need, Dev,” Asher said, “is for you to stop with this whole charade.”  He inhaled slowly.  I couldn’t see his face, but the tension in his muscles told me that the mask of cocky smugness, or arrogant self-possession, was sliding back into place on his features.  “You made your choice.  I made mine.  And now, here we are.”

Two more vibrations from my pocket.  Sarah took a tiny step closer to Ally and, in a motion so slight that I nearly missed it even while specifically waiting for it, drew a small circle on the screen of her tablet with one thumb.  Then, she tapped her fingernail against the back of the tablet six times, without looking at me.

“So?” Asher asked.  “What’s it going to be?  Either you kill me now and all of you – Alex’s precious girl included – get to go down in a glorious hail of bullets.  Or you let me go, we finish our deal as discussed, and…well, they’ll still die anyway.  But at least that way, you can tell yourself they have a chance.”

“You don’t have to do this,” I said.  There had been a moment when I’d felt my old friend, just beneath the surface of the madman held hostage at the barrel of a stolen gun.  “This doesn’t have to go down like this.”

“Yes,” Asher said, “it does.  Honestly…how else did you think this was going to end?”

He fell silent once more and, this time, he showed no intention of speaking again.  I stood there, gun to the temple of a former friend, with the power of life and death literally at my fingertips.

Asher’s words – at least, the words of the real Asher, underneath the posturing and bravado – rang with an uncomfortable note of truth.  If he was under the thumb of the Magi, then he could no more slip his bonds than I could find a way to trick the Lady.  Even without that, though…even without that, I realized, Asher had lost too much to find his way back after a simple conversation.  Some of it had been lost before we’d even met; more had steadily eroded every time he’d felt the need to lie about some detail on a job; and the Magi had painstakingly, carefully, scoured out the last of it during weeks of inventive and effective torture.  The man in front me wasn’t the one I’d known.  Not anymore.

Sarah’s thoughts on the matter played on a loop in my head.  Asher couldn’t be allowed to live.  He was too much of a danger, even operating under whatever limiters his situation had.  Unhampered, and motivated by the delusional belief that I had somehow betrayed him by moving on after his apparent death, the only way my friends could hope to survive would be to go so deep underground that even the memory of light became a faint dream.  Michel could never go home, never return to his life in France.

Sarah…Sarah could never go home.  Not really.  As long as Asher was out in the world, free to harass and harry her at his convenience, she’d be forced to live life on the run.

“Untie her,” I said, in a cold voice.

“Why?  So you can all die on your feet?”

Untie her,” I repeated, pressing the barrel of the gun into Asher’s temple with a little more force.

He sighed, but fiddled with the knots on Ally’s bonds until the ropes fell to the floor.  She stood up, tore the gag from her mouth, and then open-hand slapped Asher with enough force that the crack of it reverberated through the space.

“You…you…”  She couldn’t wrestle her thoughts back under control.  Emotion – fear, anger, disgust – rolled off of her in nearly visible waves.  Stammering incoherent rage was apparently all that she could muster.

“Yes,” Asher said.  He reached up and touched a spot on his lip, where a small blossom of red blood had appeared.  He wiped the blood away with a thumb and then popped that same thumb into his mouth.  “Yes, me.”

“Come over here, Ally,” I said.

The girl gave Asher a look, as if she were considering a second strike, before she kicked the chair out of the way and came to my side.  An uncomfortable amount of adoration was plainly apparent on her face, directed at me, which I wisely chose to ignore.

“Should I be picking out some final words?” Asher asked.  Not quite taunting, but a far cry from serious.

My finger went from the trigger guard to the trigger itself.  A part of me itched to squeeze the trigger.  That would end the threat of Asher.  We could let the cards fall where they wanted after that.

A larger part, however, couldn’t bring myself to take a life.  Least of all, the life of someone I’d once considered a friend.

“Go,” I said, pushing Asher away from me, closer to the staircase that led up into the dormitories and his waiting throng of armed men.  I made sure to keep the gun pointed at him, though.  Mila kept Asher in her sights, as well.

Asher stumbled forward a few steps before he caught himself.  With a gesture, one of the men positioned nearest him removed a second handgun from a hidden holster and passed it to Asher.

“Well.  I guess this is how it ends, then,” Asher said.  “I’ve got to admit.  Even when things were good…even when we were taking on the hardest jobs…I always knew it’d go down like this.”

I stepped closer to Sarah, without moving my eyes away from Asher’s, and smiled.  “You have no idea how right you are.  Ally, bend your knees for me.”

She blinked.  “What?”

My phone vibrated three times and, one second later, the floor beneath our feet exploded, shooting chips of rock and metal in every direction.  I wrapped an arm around Ally’s shoulder, holding her close to my body.  Sarah pressed herself to my other side and Mila adjusted her aim as we fell down one floor, out of the dormitory and down to the station itself.

There, the gleaming subway train we’d borrowed from its stable waited.  Michel was nowhere to be seen, and Anton had moved away from the blast zone before detonating the ring of explosives he’d planted in a vague circle around our location.  Alex, however, rushed into the cloud of dust and debris, tearing Ally away from me and pulling her into a bear hug that lifted her from her feet.

“My girl!  Oh, my girl, you are safe!”

“Not quite safe,” Mila said.  She glanced up at the circle of open air above us.  There, in the dormitory, Asher and his men coughed and spat out mouthfuls of congealed dust.  “Maybe you can have the touching reunion somewhere else?”

Alex nodded, not bothering to hide the ecstatic smile on his face.  He pulled Ally out of the cloud of dust and ushered her into the waiting subway car.  Sarah looked at me, nodded once, and then moved to join them.  Mila and I lingered there for a moment longer, until Asher peeked over the edge and down.

“This isn’t going to change anything,” he called down.  “I’m still going to see you again.  You know that, right?”

I took note of the fact that he was talking, rather than ordering his men to fire blindly down on us.  That meant something.  I wasn’t sure what, but I knew it meant something.  I turned to hurry into the subway car, which was already beginning to back out of the station, back towards its stable where a car waited with fake license plates – another gift from the invaluable Sophie – without bothering to reply.

Those final words haunted me.  I’d only stalled Asher.  A reckoning between the two of us was still brewing on the horizon and, sooner rather than later, I knew that I’d have to make a final decision with regards to my old friend.

I didn’t speak those thoughts out loud, though.  Instead, I clung to Sarah as Michel guided the stolen subway train out of the Hostel and back towards whatever safety distance might provide.

Chapter Ninety-Nine

For several precious seconds, the sound of blood pounding at my temples blotted out any trace of conscious thought.  My hands, clenched tight into fists, squeezed even more blood from the tiny half-moon cuts made by fingernails.  I noticed, without any particular concern or desire, Sarah’s sharp intake of breath and the small rattling that came when Mila shifted from her casual posture into one more suited for action.  A red haze descended over my field of vision, erasing everything except for anger from my mind.

They were waiting for me to act.  This display had been meant to provoke me into an error.  While Asher couldn’t know precisely what we had planned, he was familiar enough with me to realize that I wouldn’t have come to the meeting without some trick up my sleeve.  So, instead of waiting for me to spring my trap on him, he’d set up this show to play on my known emotional vulnerabilities.  Show me Ally, daughter of my oldest friend, beaten and cowed; show me a gun positioned within inches of her forehead; show me the fate he had in mind, hoping that I would react before I stopped to think.

It made perfect sense, in a Machiavellian sort of way.  Subtlety was a tool for those with time.  But Asher had time…didn’t he?  This whole situation was of his design.  Every string that could be pulled had been pulled so that we had no choice but to show up when and where he wanted.

Except…

Except he didn’t have the girl, Avis.  In my immediate fury at Ally’s kidnapping, I hadn’t allowed myself the opportunity to think through his requests.  He might have been able to find and kill me at his leisure, if he’d simply waited for me to make a mistake.  Everything Asher had directly done to me, so far, and been designed to force me out of hiding.  Eventually, I would have made some miscalculation.  That much applied to every thief who insisted on working the type of jobs I did.

But he hadn’t waited.  He had pushed, he had teased, and he had manipulated me into tackling tasks of ever-increasing intensity and risk.  Each time I’d emerged…well, not victorious, but undiminished.  So, here, he made his final play.  What I saw in front of me was more than Ally, bound and gagged, a phone call away from death…no, what lay in front of me was proof positive of Asher’s final desperation.

He needed the girl, as much as he’d needed the golden book from Limassol.  It was even possible that he required Avis more than he desired my own death.  Asher must be under tremendous pressure from someone higher up than him.  Hill, perhaps…maybe even the Magi themselves.  The specifics didn’t matter, so much as the conclusion I drew from the room: I had leverage.

Not much leverage.  Probably not enough.  But it was still something.

With effort, I froze myself to the scene, dousing every twinge of guilt and fear in a thick layer of liquid nitrogen focus.  As I did so, I felt the fire in my veins cool and frost over; my thoughts began to return themselves to some semblance of order; and the red filter receded back, clearing my vision.  The pressure in my chest eased just enough that I could draw in a single, shaky breath.  Then, another.

Asher watched the process with interest, then confusion, and finally – although he tried his best to conceal his fingers as they roamed up and down his burnt arms – concern.

“You are insane,” I said, marveling internally at the calm steadiness of my voice.  “Absolutely insane.”

“I prefer to think of it as creative,” Asher replied, “or suitably motivated.  Are you suitably motivated, Devlin?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”  I looked away from Asher and made eye contact with Ally, instead.  “Don’t try to say anything, okay?  I’m going to get you out of here, Ally.”

Asher whistled sharply, drawing my attention back to him.  “That’ll be an impressive trick,” he said, when he was sure that I was focused entirely on him.  “If you try to move her, I press send on this phone, and…”  He trailed off.  His hands closed into tight fists and then, slowly, expanded until his palms faced with me, fingers splayed as wide as they could go.

“And if I take that phone?” Mila asked.  I could have kissed her in the moment.  I doubted that she would have sounded any more involved if it had been someone she legitimately cared about – Sam, maybe? – but her cool professionalism helped me to get a tighter grasp on my own.  “And…oh, let’s say the arm along with it?”

“Other than you being in position of a very used arm?  Well, I imagine these men would be interested in having a serious discussion about killing off their most reliably overpaying client.”

“This is you, then?  Not Hill?”

Asher blinked before he answered.  “Oh, yes: Hill.  No, Hill has nothing to do with this.  He’s got his own problems to deal with right now, I believe.  Something about a ‘major part of his operation’ and OSHA.”  He shrugged.

I shrugged back.  “Sounds like a tough beat for him.  Convenient that it frees you up to take care of old debts, isn’t it?”

“Also, new ones.  Never kill two birds with one stone when you can get three, as they say.”

The wheels in my mind ground through the thick layers of ice I’d deliberately cooled them with, forcing me to consider the situation from every imaginable angle.  Asher wasn’t the type to lie about what might trigger the gun.  So, getting the phone itself away from him was the first priority.  Mila could handle that.  But, if she took long to get the device out of his hands, there was every possibility that he might be able to trigger it anyway.  Even if we stopped that, neither Sarah nor I stood any chance in a confrontation with ten armed men who were ready and waiting for conflict to break out.  A frontal assault would likely end in at least five deaths: Sarah, Mila, Ally, and myself…getting Asher out of the picture didn’t strike me as a good deal.

The timer in my pocket was still counting down.  By now, Sarah’s program should have found a way to use the derelict subway station as a starting point for a hostile takeover of the systems used to power subway rails.  We didn’t want or need complete access to the entire database – names, social security numbers, and addresses fell outside of our purview on this operation – but Sarah had assured us that a quick backdoor would allow her to reroute the electricity from a lesser used station long enough to get Michel’s train started.

It was probably already on the way, come to think of it.  We were operating on an unforgiving timeline, however, and it was important that any issues be resolved as soon as possible.

“So?” Asher’s question pulled me out of my thoughts.  “Here’s your girl.  Where’s mine?”

“You didn’t say anything about hurting her,” I said.

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t, either.”  He removed a cigarette from behind his ear, lit it, and then blew a steady cloud of smoke directly into Sarah’s face.  She coughed once before realizing that he’d only done it for effect.  After that, she resolutely refused to so much as blink.

“Why?”

“Alex’s kid…she’s got a little bit of spirit to her,” Asher said.  “And seeing how this little get together wouldn’t have worked if I’d taken any, uh…more permanent measures, I had to give a few of my men here permission to get rough.”

I couldn’t help but look at Ally again.  She was a woman – no, a girl – who had only received confirmation about her father’s criminal past less than two weeks prior, and she’d still found it in her to fight back against Asher and whatever goon squad he contracted to kidnap her.  A thought occurred to me, in that moment: if Asher could try to get under my skin, there wasn’t anything stopping me from trying the same thing.

“So she gave you that little scratch there?”  I gestured at a thin red line underneath Asher’s ear.  It wasn’t bleeding, but the coloring led me to believe that it wasn’t an old wound.  “You’re losing your touch, then.  Or maybe you can just can’t afford to hire decent help these days.  Don’t worry, man…I hear it happens to a lot of guys your age.”

The cocky smile on Asher’s lips froze around his cigarette for a second or two, then eased back to life.  “You’re stalling.  Why is that, I wonder?”

Oh well.  It hadn’t cost me anything to try.  “Because I enjoy the pleasure of your company so much.  I’m not stalling; I’m just trying to figure out what the hell you hope to get out of all this.”

“I’m not about to monologue, Devlin.  You think I read all those Bond novels, only to miss the primary rule of confrontation?”

“And that is?”

“Always leave them wanting more,” Asher said.  “Now.  I want the girl.  When I have her, I’ll let you say your goodbyes to the beautiful missus, before Mila escorts her and this little bitch out of my sight.”

“How do I know you’ll keep up your end of the bargain?”

“You don’t.”  I’d expected something a little more florid, so the blunt nature of that reply gave me a moment of pause.  “But if you don’t want to make the deal, go ahead and leave.  You can call Alex and let him know exactly why his daughter died screaming.”

My poker face didn’t slip for a heartbeat, even as I secretly exulted in Asher’s inadvertent admission: he didn’t know where Alex was.  As far as he knew, my friend was still in the dark.  How much Asher knew about Alex’s involvement had been a dark spot.  Too much information would have compromised at least one angle of the plan, possibly more; so long as he was in the dark, we could still proceed as we’d discussed before leaving the Brooklands.

“I want to talk to my friends,” I said.

“Friends?  Devlin, it’s your ex-wife and someone you hired to keep me from just putting a bullet in your head.  Calling them friends is drawing it a little thick, don’t you think?”

I gave him a stony gaze, instead of any verbal reply.

Asher heaved a heavy, dramatized sigh.  “Fine.  I assume you’ll want some privacy so that you can work out the details of whatever half-cocked plan you’ve got in mind?”

He gestured at his men, who moved into flanking positions behind Mila, their weapons pointed at the ground but still ready, without waiting for an answer.  Asher walked past the men, smoking the remainder of his cigarette and flicking ashes all across the dormitories without any concern for possible fire hazards.

I made a signal of my own, motioning Sarah and Mila back from where Ally sat.  As I moved to join them, I made an effort to keep my back facing the closest men.  “I need Alex,” I murmured under my breath, taking great care to keep any movement of my lips as minute as possible.

The earbud clicked twice.  No sound came from it for the first few seconds, and I nearly asked Sarah if she had made some mistake, but a soft cough answered that question for me.  “You there?”

“Devlin?” Alex’s voice was eager and the anticipation in the one word was enough that the hair on my own arms stood on end.  “Is everything okay?  Is Ally okay?”

“She’s fine.”  I gestured with my hands, for effect.  As far as anybody behind me knew, I was talking softly to Sarah and Mila.  “Ally’s here and she’s alive.”

Danke Gott,” Alex breathed out.

I didn’t know the language, but the sentiment contained in his words was impossible to misinterpret.  “He’s got more men than we planned on,” I continued, “but we shouldn’t have to change anything here.  Are you in position?”

“…not yet.  I will be there in time, though.”

“You’re sure?  Because if we need to move things around…”

“Devlin.  I will be there.”

“Alright, then.  Sarah, link him into Michel’s line.  They’ll have to coordinate on their own.”

Sarah’s deft fingers inputted the command with a few sharp motions and the earbud beeped twice, then went dead in my ear.

“I’ve got the access we need,” Sarah whispered to me, when only Mila and I could hear her.  “Rail’s active, so Michel and Anton should be on the way.”

I gave her a miniscule nod.  “They’re on time?”

“A little late,” she admitted, “but Michel can make it up without raising suspicion.  I can’t slow down the other thing without seriously getting attention.  Not to mention, screwing things up for us.”

“That should be fine, though?”

Sarah hesitated, just a hair too long for my comfort.  “It should be fine, yeah.”

“How much longer do I need to stall?”

While I wouldn’t remove the encrypted smartphone in Asher’s presence, Sarah’s tablet was something he’d already seen and likely dismissed.  It wasn’t at all strange, then, for her to swipe through a few apps until she reached the appropriate one.  At this distance, neither Asher nor any of his men would see anything other than the gestures, anyway.

“Five minutes,” Sarah said, in that same barely audible whisper.  I might not have been able to understand the words, if I hadn’t learned how to read her lips mere weeks into our professional relationship.  “No way of knowing how long it’ll take Anton to come up with the right sort of explosive, though.”

“Deal with that when we get to it,” I said.

Mila shifted her weight from one foot to another.  She had been so still since entering the dormitories that my eyes were automatically drawn to the slight adjustment in position.  “And me?”

I decided, with only a hairsbreadth of a second’s worth of thought, not to mention Mila’s impairment.  She kept her broken arm tight against her ribs, as though the cast itself might serve as some kind of weapon.  Seeing as she’d incurred that energy in the process of saving me from Aiden’s mad driver Carlos, I couldn’t quite squelch the feeling of responsibility and guilt that threatened to damage my calm whenever I noticed it.  The last thing I needed was for her to feel like she had something to prove.

“Stay alert,” I said.  “Same as Asher knows I’m planning something, I don’t think for a second that he doesn’t have a dozen tricks in store.”

Mila nodded.

I turned back to Sarah.  “Where’s Billy?”

She checked the tablet in the crook of her arm.  “He should be on the train with Neal and Avis,” she said, after a moment.  “You want to check in with him?”

I considered that possibility for a few heartbeats before deciding against it.  “No need.  He’s just got to keep an eye on those two and make sure they don’t decide to do something stupid.  If they go off mission, then he’ll contact you.  You told him how to get your attention?”

“Of course,” Sarah said.  “His earbud is off for the moment, but if he does the double-touch, it’ll automatically alert me.”

I looked over my shoulder.  Leaning against the far wall, Asher had lit another cigarette.  He took long drags off of the cigarette with the air of someone without a care in the world.  Anyone else might have believed the posturing, but I’d seen his little tell earlier.  Of course, I couldn’t let him know that I’d seen the tell; doing that might cause him to trigger whatever traps he had in wait prematurely.

“What a web, what a web,” I muttered, under my breath.

Sarah lifted an eyebrow.  “What?”

“Nothing, nevermind.  You ready to get back into this?”

She nodded.  A moment later, Mila did the same.  I led my group back across the empty space until we stood only a foot or two away from Ally.  Asher, after finishing off his smoke and stubbing the cherry to death against one of the dormitory’s stone walls, joined us.

Asher favored Sarah with a thin smile, as he took up position behind Ally’s chair.  “You get all of your final goodbyes out of the way?  Set up a last will and testament…for whatever good that’ll do you, I mean.”

She returned the smile with one of her own.  “Meaning?”

“Meaning,” Asher said, “that I hope you don’t think this is going to be the end of it.  Sure, I’ll let you walk out of here right now.  Not exactly sure what your little bodyguard would be able to do, considering her condition, but I’m patient.  I can wait until she’s off payroll before I come after you.”

“For what?” Sarah asked.  “No, wait; forget I asked.  The fact that I’m talking to a lunatic slipped my mind for a moment.  My bad.”

“I think it’s a decent question,” I said.  “I’ve read the file on you, Asher.  I know – at least, I think I know – what happened to you after St. Petersburg.  But all this?”  I gestured at our surroundings.  “If all you wanted was revenge for something I didn’t even do, why would you go through all this trouble?  Getting in bed with Hill, dragging us all across London…what’s the point?  What’s the endgame here?”

Asher sucked his teeth.  “I can’t believe you’re still calling him that.”

“Who?  Hill?”

“The kingpin allegedly known as Hill, sure.  With everything you’ve been doing, you still haven’t figured out what his real name is?”

My heart skipped a beat.  “You know his real name?”

“Among other things.  I don’t – how did you put it? – get into bed with just anybody, you know.”

Behind me and to the left, Sarah tapped her fingernail against the back of her tablet.  One click, pause, one click, pause, and then a third click.  I translated that nonverbal signal into English: three minutes.  No…not three minutes.  Thirty seconds.

As if on cue, the walls began to rattle.  Asher glanced up at the ceiling, as flakes of dust and concrete rained down.  “Problem with an underground base,” he said in a conversational tone.  “The subway makes it difficult to keep anything clean.”

“Little loud, too, isn’t it?”  The volume of the passing train steadily increased as it drew nearer, shaking the walls and floors.  I had to raise my voice.  “Couldn’t pick a better location for this?”

“Nothing I can’t wait out,” Asher said.

One sharp click from behind me.  I didn’t have to turn to see Mila shifting into a ready position at the sound.  My own muscles tensed beneath my shirt, preparing themselves to explode into action.  Every second was important.

“These are your men, then?  Not Hill’s?”

My phone vibrated in my pocket.  Time was up.  I couldn’t risk looking at Sarah for confirmation.

“It’s surprising what you can do when you’ve got money to throw around.  Of course, they don’t get paid until I get what I want, but my word is worth a surprising amount as of late.”

“So they need you alive, then?  I mean, if they want to get paid.”

“Just the way I prefer my muscle,” Asher said.  “Can’t take too many precautions when you’re dealing with such untrustworthy criminal types.”

I smiled.  It was the first genuine smile I’d found myself wearing in almost a week, and it felt good.  The stress of the past seven days – the fear, the doubt, the anxiety – poured out of my body in a single, sharp laugh.

“Good.  Mila?  Shoot him in the knee.”

She drew her gun.  Asher, without changing expression, slipped a hand into his pocket.  “Very funny, Devlin.  But we both know you aren’t brave enough to risk anything like that if Alex’s kid is in danger.”

“You said it yourself, Asher.  No matter what I do, you’re not going to leave any of us in peace.  At least this way, I can make sure that the smallest amount of people are in danger from you.”

Ally’s eyes, already as wide as dinner plates, grew to the size of small beach balls.  I tried to convey my thoughts to her in a moment of eye contact; judging by the panicked breaths and the fervent glances she shot to the gun at her temple, my efforts were in vain.

The train continued overhead.  The vibration and the accompanying noise let me know that it was almost in position, directly overhead.  Exactly as planned.

Asher removed his phone, his thumb poised directly over the send button.  “Last chance to stop bluffing,” he said.  The frigid chill in his voice lowered the temperature of the dormitory by several degrees and I forced myself to lock eyes with him.

“No deal,” I said.  “Mila, if he presses that button, put a bullet in him.  In fact, put several in him.”

“Can do.”  She shifted her weight.  Something about that small movement was enough to let the guards in the room know that she was serious.  They reacted at varying speeds, but their actions ultimately were the same: they raised their weapons up to their shoulders or into proper shooting stances, every barrel in the room save Mila’s pointed directly at my group.

Asher paid them no mind.  He shrugged, and the subtle movement of his shoulders was meant for me and me alone.   “Her first, then.  Then, Sarah.  Aiden can do whatever he wants with Mila and the girl…well, she’s not as big of a problem as I thought she’d be.”

He raised the phone until it was level with his head, then pressed the send button.  Mila closed one eye and squeezed the trigger on her relatively small caliber handgun at the same time.

The train above stopped; something below shook with considerably more force; and I, terrified of a miscalculation that might lead to all of our deaths, exploded into action.

Chapter Ninety-Eight

“You know,” Asher said in a conversational tone, as we made our way down into the depths of the London Underground, “he really wanted to be here for this.  He might very well have literally killed for the opportunity.  But, alas, the body and the heart don’t always agree on what’s going to happen.”

It took me a few heartbeats to realize that he was talking to Mila, rather than to Sarah or me.  I caught the insinuation that Aiden wasn’t feeling particularly well, though, and added that to the growing mental file of suppositions and guesses.

Mila didn’t reply for several seconds.  When she did, only a single word passed her lips.  “Shame.”

“There’s a lot of confusion, so I was wondering if you might be able to clear a few things up for me,” Asher said.  “When you started working with Aiden, did you already know you were going to end up working under him?  Or was that just something you hoped for?”

The innuendo there was deliberately obvious.  It was just as obvious, in fact, that Asher was trying to get under our collective skins.  I had enough experience with the man to understand what he was playing at and Sarah, bless her heart, was naturally resistant to that sort of manipulation.  Mila was…an unknown quantity.  She maintained a constant air of disinterest, but I’d learned enough about her in the past two weeks or so to understand that she was the type of person who bottled up feelings instead of properly processing them.  In the field, that ability would typically make her a reliable asset, unlikely to be distracted by errant thoughts when work needed to be done.  A point would ultimately come, however, where her ability to compartmentalize failed and she was forced to confront the weight of emotions she’d been ignoring for God only knew how long.

I became aware of the similarities between the two of us almost immediately and dismissed that epiphany almost as quickly.

Asher was still speaking.  I tuned back into his words and blocked out any thoughts about my submerged emotional state.  “He’s attractive and all that, I guess, if you’re into that sort of thing.  Brooding, damaged, charismatic as all hell.  But still.  You were…what, sixteen?  Seventeen?  And it wasn’t long at all before you fell into bed with him, willing and able to service him in whatever manner he required, so I’m just asking – “

Mila cut him off.  “You do know that I’m going to kill you, right?”

“Is that so?”  Asher turned back and gave Mila an artificial smile.  “You certainly wouldn’t be the first person to make that particular threat.”

“Not surprised,” Mila said.  “But I can promise you one thing.”

“And that is?”

“I’ll be the last.”

Silence fell over our assorted group.  Asher continued picking his way down the steps into the Underground and I continued to follow him into the depths.  Already, the sounds of life above ground had faded into a mishmash of non-distinct noises.  If the path down had been any narrower, my claustrophobia might very well have been triggered, but the staircase was just wide enough that I could travel down without feeling trapped or ringed in.  The bare bulbs, placed at even intervals on the walls, helped a little bit.  Not enough that my nerves weren’t thrumming like taut guitar strings with each step, but just enough that I could function.  For the moment.

Apparently, failing in his attempts to rile Mila up – at least, to rile her up so that she’d be distracted – didn’t phase Asher in the slightest.  He continued speaking, with his eyes facing forward.  “I’ve got to admit, I’m more than a little curious, Devlin.  What exactly do you think you’re going to be to pull off here?”

“Getting Ally away from you, for starters,” I said.

“And Mila?  Your personal bodyguard isn’t going to be a whole lot of good, seeing as you’re going to turn yourself over to my tender ministrations, will she?”

We had discussed this part of the story enough that I answered smoothly, without even the faintest trace of hesitation.  “She’s here to make sure you don’t renege on your deal.  Something smells even a little bit fishy, and she gets to indulge herself.”

“I’ve got men in places you haven’t even begun to consider,” Asher said.  “You really think that one little girl is going to be enough to stop me if I decide to just snatch you and your precious Sarah right now?”

“Maybe not,” I admitted.  “But she’s more than good enough to kill you.  And I guess that’ll just have to be enough, won’t it?”

At this, he actually stopped and turned to face me.  We locked eyes for a long moment, electric lines of invisible tension springing into life between us.  Asher broke eye contact first, resuming his trek down into the darkness of the Underground at a slightly faster pace than before.  The gap between us widened even further, as I slowed my own descent.

“I need Michel,” I said, under my breath.

Sarah was close enough that she heard the words.  It wasn’t uncommon for her to carry a tablet whenever she was away from her computer system, so it hadn’t looked out of place for her to have one now.  With a few deft motions, she entered the requisite command and connected my earbud with Michel and Anton.

The first thing I heard was laughter.  It was jarring for that sound to be piped directly into my ears, at the same time as I happened to be stolidly marching into darkness.  I cleared my throat to make certain that both men knew I was on comms and to give them a moment to compose themselves.

Anton spoke first.  “Who is this?”

“It’s Devlin.  We’re moving into the base now.”  Crisp and business-like was the appropriate tone to take.

Silence for one or two beats, before Michel said, “We are in position.  How long until this train becomes active?”

I glanced at Sarah.  “Three minutes,” she murmured, barely moving her lips.  “The Trojan is still infecting the relevant bits of the intranet.”

The timeline was the only part of what she said that made sense to me.  She would have connected herself to Michel and Anton, at the same time as linking me in, so there wasn’t any need to repeat her words.  “There you go.  Remember to stay on the timeline.  We don’t want to blow the wall early and risk tipping him off.”

Oui.  And…how are things there?”

From where I stood, I was able to see the top half of Asher’s body, while the lower half disappeared into the gloom of the Underground.  He started to whistle, deliberately off-key and louder than necessary.

“Strained,” I said.  “Sarah will let you know if anything changes.”

There was a tangible hope that the situation wouldn’t spiral too much farther out of our control, but it went unsaid.  A point came when additional prayers or well-wishes only served as meaningless words; that point had passed nearly a full week ago.

Sarah disconnected Michel’s line from mine and we walked the rest of the way into Asher’s domain, leaving the world of sunlight at our backs, until the only light we could see at all were the sporadic lamps installed on the walls of the staircase.  My claustrophobia shifted into a higher gear and I began to wonder exactly how deep into the earth we would have to travel, just as the path opened up into a wide chamber of stone and metal.

“The Hostel,” I whispered, so softly that no one else should have been able to hear it.  In my momentary awe, I forgot about the bone-conduction microphone and the fact that Sarah would be able to hear anything I said, regardless of the volume.

The Hostel – or, at least, its entrance – looked exactly like a dozen other subway stations I’d visited in twenty different countries.  The rails were empty, of course, and both tunnels leading out of the area were boarded up but, aside from those two details, I wouldn’t have considered the area out of place.  With its paint touched-up and the signs updated to match the current century, it could very well have been a station that warranted a decent amount of traffic.

According to the information Sarah had been able to dig up, supplemented by anecdotal stories from Billy, this particular station had closed decades ago, specifically because it brought in less money than it cost to maintain it.  I found myself wondering whether the authorities in charge of that decision would have forked over the extra cash, if they had known what sort of people would eventually come to take up residence in the underground fortress.  Lives might have been lost during the bombings of World War I, sure, but the officers who’d used this abandoned station would probably have found other places to hide.

Asher would almost certainly have come across some other suitable location for his criminal work, as well.  That fact cast a long shadow over any further idle musings.

There were two men standing at either side of a rusted metal door, each armed with an assault rifle and a sidearm.  One of the men looked vaguely familiar.  At our approach, he tightened his grip on the rifle and made as if to raise it.  His eyes were fixed on a spot behind me and he unconsciously lifted one corner of his lips, baring his teeth like a wolf at Mila.

“Keep it in your pants,” Asher said.  He walked right up to the snarling man and laid a burned hand on his shoulder.  “They’re here on actual business, this time.  Besides, you don’t want to get between her and the guy who’s already called dibs.”

Another thinly veiled reference to Aiden.  I forced my mind to work out the implications, revising my earlier opinion of his motivations.  Asher wasn’t just casting out random lines.  Something about Mila’s presence had him rattled, and he was channeling that nervous reaction into a concentrated effort to shake her out of her comfort zone.  I couldn’t imagine why he would be so bothered by the presence of a known element.  Mila was, for the moment, my bodyguard.  It stood to reason that I would demand the same protection for any of my team.  He’d seen us at the Green Light gala.  Hell, Asher had even taken deliberate steps to involve Aiden, probably for the sole purpose of inducing catatonia in Mila whenever possible.

Yet another question, then, to add to the pile of growing unanswered ones.  I filed the information away and promised to examine it again at a later date.  Assuming that the catacomb-like tombs in the Hostel released me from their grips long enough to have a later date.

If his words had any effect on Mila, she kept that to herself and maintained a rock-solid, absolutely impenetrable poker face.  Asher knocked on the door in an irregular rhythm – two knocks, pause, two more knocks, pause, three knocks, pause, and then one final knock – before the sound of sliding deadbolts and locking mechanisms came from the other side.  In the dead air of the underground, the noises were haunting.  I allowed a shiver to run down my arms, raising the hairs on my arm, but kept my expression as neutral as I could manage.

He entered the corridor beyond the door first.  I followed after him, then Sarah, and Mila brought up the rear.  I risked a glance back to see her as she passed between the two men, one of whom still hadn’t relaxed, even if he held himself back from openly starting a fight.  He gave Mila a long, slow examination from top to bottom, before offering a sickeningly lascivious smile.

“I’m going to make you pay for that one,” Mila said.  She spoke with the same air as someone ordering fast food or outlining a grocery list: simple fact, without any need for emotion.  “Picked a bad day.”

The man’s lip twitched upward again, but he kept himself from speaking.  I took an unconscious mental snapshot of the man: tall, with broad shoulders and a weak jaw.  He could have been anywhere between twenty and forty, although the thinning brown hairline led me to believe that he was closer to the latter.

When we were through, and into the corridor, Asher led us down another claustrophobia-inducing hallway.  At regular intervals, open metal doors displayed men lounging or reclining while they waited for action.  I counted fifteen before I gave up and tallied Asher’s available forces somewhere between ‘considerable’ and ‘a shit-ton.’

In tight quarters, able to use the landscape to force confrontations on her terms, Mila might have been able to carve a wide enough swath through the men to guarantee us an escape…if she wasn’t injured.  As it was, and as convinced as I was about her dedication, I doubted her physical ability to meet that many armed combatants and make it out alive.  If the processing plant was any indication, she would likely take that trade – her life for ours – but I wasn’t even sure if that would be enough to get us out of any confrontation.

A quick glance at Sarah, just before Asher led us up a short set of stairs into another part of the Hostel, showed me that she had come to a similar conclusion.  One of the contingency plans had relied on Mila to give us a few minutes of cover, in the unfortunate event of a catastrophe.  It had been as low on the list of contingency plans as humanly possible, or so we thought.  Seeing the forces at Asher’s command pushed the ‘shoot them all and let them God sort them out’ plan directly off of the lineup.

We reached the dormitories, where another ten men stood sentinel.  Half of that number faced the stairway up directly, their weapons held at varying states of readiness.  The other five milled around the space – which was wider than I would have thought, all things considered – with their eyes alert and every inch of their body language vibrating with scarcely contained energy.  Asher walked past all of his men with barely a second glance.  Some were forced to deviate from their routine to move out his way.

“When I was a kid,” he said, still forging his way deeper into the dorms, “I didn’t have a lot of creature comforts.  No point in getting a television if you aren’t sure where the power’s coming from in a day, or a week, or a month, you know?”

He paused, turned back to face us, and flashed me another of his insincere smiles.

“Well,” he continued, “you might know, Devlin.  But I doubt Sarah has a lot of experience with true poverty.”

“I’ll be happy to escort you back to that lifestyle,” Sarah shot back.  I could barely see her in my peripheral vision, but even that scant image was enough to convey the unmitigated hatred radiating from her.

“Thanks, no thanks,” Asher said, laughing.  “Anyway, that wasn’t my point.  Even though I wasn’t ever able to really watch a lot of television, it was incredibly easy to get my hands on books.  I had to teach myself how to read English first, but after that?”  He shrugged.

“Get to the point, Asher,” I said.

He shook his head.  “Always in such a rush, aren’t you?  I get that improvisation is your M.O., and it works for you, but it couldn’t possibly hurt to take a little bit of time out to really appreciate what people are saying, would it?”

Instead of favoring him with a verbal response, I leveled my best malevolent glare.

As it turned out, my best wasn’t enough to even make Asher falter.  “Bond novels,” he said, with a great deal more gravity than that simple pronouncement required.  “Ian Fleming’s original works, right?  Casino Royale, Thunderball, Moonraker…the classics.  But here’s the thing: I never really found myself empathizing with Bond.  He’s this perfect white male figure.  Athletic, intelligent, great with the women, always ready with a quip in hand.  How’s a poor Latino from the Street going to find anything in that to connect with?”

A subtle shift in his intonation conveyed the capital ‘S.’  I’d heard Asher mention the Street before, and he’d even shared the occasional story from his time there when he was blackout drunk, but the amount I didn’t know about that time in his life far eclipsed the scraps I’d been able to piece together over years of partnership.

“But the others?  His…adversaries?”  Asher whistled again.  “Oh, I could see their points.  Wanting to make a little money off of the misery in the world and trying to blackmail a few American fat cats…those, I understand.  So, while everybody else was busy fighting over the role of Bond in their little pretend games, I wanted to be one of the villains.  If you can call them that, anyway.  They were the ones with the real power.”

“They all lost,” I said.  “So if you want to emulate them, you go right ahead.”

“They lacked context,” Asher replied.  “They didn’t know they were living in a world where the hero always wins.  But the real world doesn’t have that caveat, does it?”

He extended both arms and turned in a slow circle.

“So,” he said, amplifying his voice and forcing an insidious excitement into the words, “how do you like my lair?  I’ve always wanted one and then situations happened to collide in such a way that I actually got what I’ve always wanted, ever since I was a little kid.  Dreams really do come true.”

I couldn’t help but to look closer at my surroundings.  The Hostel didn’t seem particularly inspiring, or like something that would really have earned more than the barest glance from Asher under normal circumstances.  He was clearly proud of it, however.  There might be something I could use there.

“You were getting to a point?” I asked.  “All this, just to point out that you’ve lost your mind?”

Asher sucked his teeth.  “It’s all part of the drama, Devlin.”  He turned and gestured at two men, standing near the back of the room.  They parted, revealing an area that their bulk had thus far concealed, and I felt the breath almost literally ripped away from me.

Seated in a plain metal chair, Ally was gagged and bound with more knots than I could count.  Her brown hair was dirty and matted; her skin – at least, the skin that I could see – was bruised in places; and dried red flecks were visible on her cracked lips.  While they had already been wide, her eyes stretched open even farther when she saw me, then flickered to her left.  I followed them and saw an elaborate contraption atop a tripod: a cell-phone, duct-taped to some sort of wiring connected to a Beretta 92 pointed directly at Ally’s temple.

“The point,” Asher said, his smug voice filling the silence that followed his dramatic reveal, “is that I had to have a little death trap in place.  Sorry, but I just couldn’t help it.”