Tag Archives: David

Part Six Recap (2/2)

After a painful hello, Sarah and the rest of the team settle down with Devlin to discuss the day’s events at the Brooklands. The first order of business for the brave thief is a frank discussion with Alex and his daughter about the ambush that had killed Johannah.

Both father and daughter struggle to come to grips with this new reality. The idea that Asher could have been so petty, so motivated by revenge, that he would commission a hit against unarmed and innocent targets is a bitter pill to swallow. The knowledge that Johnnah’s death was nothing more or less than a complete accident is even more difficult to accept. But, with Asher finally brought down by his own arrogance, there is at least a little hope that healing can begin and the family torn asunder by one tragic death might finally begin to reconnect.

Sarah provides Alex and his daughter with the identification they’ll need to get back to their own country without incident and Devlin, growing increasingly angry with every second spent dwelling on his own thoughts, encourages them to leave immediately. The final task he has in mind will require his full attention.

Devlin barely has enough time to shower and change into more comfortable clothing before he and Sarah lead their team downstairs, to a conference room where Billy and his men are celebrating. Upon Devlin’s request, Billy dismisses the majority of his men, except for his two most trusted lieutenants. Chester and James take positions on either side of their leader; Sarah and Devlin share a spot at the opposite side of the table, while Michel and Mila flank them.

The primary issue, as Devlin sees it, is how quickly Hill was able to mobilize and counter their plans. It happened at the processing plant, which would have been enough of a problem. But the fact that he had known the exact time of their attack, had in fact planned for it, implies more than temporary lapse in judgement or a moment of loose lips. For that much information to leak, someone in Billy’s organization would have to be a mole.

Unfortunately, Devlin has no way of proving his suspicions. Without discussing the matter, he passes the bluff over to Sarah, trusting that she will find a path between the truth and exaggeration that rings true enough to shake something loose.

She begins by elaborating the main problem with Hill’s intelligence. The drug lord simply could not have listened to her communications without either the services of a superlative hacker, capable of penetrating Sarah’s electronic defenses, or he would have needed one of her earbuds with an active connection to her network.

Sarah tells Billy that her equipment has certain proprietary technology: upgraded bits and pieces that no other earbud on the market would have any need for. In order to keep her improvements from filtering out into the wider criminal underworld, she makes sure that each earbud has a specific signature. That way, if one goes missing, she’ll be able to identify and brick the gear before anyone else has an opportunity to reverse engineer it.

With every transmission tagged, Sarah continues, it would only be the work of a few seconds to determine whose earbud Hill was using to eavesdrop on their plans. Whoever gave Hill access to to their communications would have to be the mole.

She looks across the table at the three men. Billy, freshly released from imprisonment by his own brother; Chester, brash and angry, even when those emotions were weaknesses and liabilities; and James, steady and reliable.

After a minuscule signal from Devlin, Sarah looks directly at James and asks him why he chose to betray everyone’s trust.

Every person in the room, except for Devlin and Sarah, stare in shocked silence at James. Of anyone, his treachery is the most surprising possible outcome. Had the signal come from anyone other than Devlin, Sarah would have doubted it; but it was from him and she trusts him without hesitation.

Exposed in front of his friends and “family,” James defaults to a position of innocence. He only cracks when Sarah threatens to retrieve all of the audio from his earbud – a boldfaced lie, delivered with the sincerity of a saint – that he cracks and admits his wrongdoings. The team manages to get him to admit to the crime of leaking information to Hill but, before they can uncover how long he’s been playing both sides, James takes drastic action and attempts to simply kill Devlin and Sarah. They’re only saved by the instinctive actions of Chester, their greatest critic and least likely savior, when he draws and fires without thinking.

Prior to his last ditch efforts, James admitted to working for someone…not Hill, but someone higher. For the team, there’s only one entity higher than Hill with skin in the game. Their theories are confirmed in short order when they head upstairs, the entire London affair finally put to bed, and discover the Lady in Avis’ room.

She invites them to make themselves comfortable and keeps the promise she made to Devlin so many days ago, at the beginning of the job. For their success against impossible, unimaginable odds, the team has earned the most precious of rewards: the truth.

***

Devlin and Mila respond to the Lady’s arrival as casually as possible. Sarah and Michel – who have never seen the mysterious Puppetmaster in person – react with more surprise. David, the Lady’s personal giant, steps forward to protect his mistress until Mila issues a sober, serious threat. The terms of her employment leave no room for misinterpretation and, even if they did, her time as a member of a healthy team of compatriots and comrades has caused a change in the stoic bodyguard. Devlin, Sarah, and Michel are her charges and no one – not the Lady, not David, not anyone – is going to put them in danger.

The Lady seems delighted at this development. She calls David off and begins to explain.

While she knew much of what was going on in London, she did not have all of the information. Fairfax’s double identity – as both a nobleman and the kingpin “Hill” – slipped past her as did the connection between Hill and the beggar’s king, Billy. The fact that her much-desired key turned out to be a living child also proved to be a surprise. And, although she was fully aware that someone in Billy’s organization was a mole, she had no particular idea who it might be. Now, with the knowledge of the mole’s identity, she suggests that he essentially committed suicide. Not to protect himself, necessarily, nor to protect the family he mentioned in his last moments.

His suicide, the Lady theorizes, was specifically to protect the very people he betrayed. His masters, the Magi, would have razed the Earth in order to keep him from talking.

When Devlin points out that Hill would likely know even more about the Magi’s operations than a lowly informant, the Lady responds by having David turn on the television. A breaking news report tells the team that an explosion on the M1 has brought traffic to a standstill while emergency services sought to uncover the cause of the detonation.

The central car – the one that went up in flames – is the same one that Hill was traveling in. The Interpol agent assigned to supervise the transfer, Agent Lane, has disappeared. Escaping an exploding car before it explodes leads everyone in the room to the same conclusion: Lane, Adlai’s mentor, must also be working for the Magi.

Sarah can barely wrap her head around the implications of such a highly placed operative. Devlin does better, but not much. The sheer scope of the Magi’s operation, previously intimidating, must truly be gargantuan if a senior Interpol agent is underneath their ethereal, criminal thumb.

The Lady ignores their stupor and presses on. The Book she wanted – the Book that Devlin and his friends risked their lives to acquire – contains a list of names, like Lane’s and Fairfax’s. People of influence and power in the real world who owe their success to the Magi are enumerated within, along with bank accounts and potential soft spots. It isn’t a complete resource containing every agent in every cover, but it is enough that the simple fact of the Book’s existence makes it as dangerous to possess as radioactive materials.

In a just and intelligent world, the Lady would destroy the Book immediately and forget that it ever existed. The team would leave London and find somewhere nice where they could lay low until they were certain the Magi weren’t waiting to string them up as an example. They would be able to spend their acquired wealth in peace and security.

In this world, however, she has other plans. Wronged by the Magi at some point in her distant past, the Lady wants nothing so much as revenge. To that end, she wants to use the names contained within the Book as a first step towards the greater goal of finding out the true names of her enemies. Without the cloak of secrecy they’ve used as protection for an unknown amount of years, the Lady intends to drag the Magi out in the light of day and destroy them.

To that end, she needs Devlin, Sarah, and their team.

Since the prison break in London, the Lady had guided Devlin and Sarah so that they would find themselves in this position. By attacking the business of a duly appointed agent of the Magi – and therefore, attacking the Magi themselves – the team has made themselves targets for the organization. Without the Lady’s protection, it’s only a matter of time before they are captured, tortured, and gruesomely murdered. Even then, the Lady’s resources can only provide a temporary cover and, by using them, she risks exposing herself as well.

Her champions chosen, the Lady puts all of her chips in for one last bet: that Devlin, Sarah, Michel, and Mila – a group of criminals, riffraff, thieves without any particular distinction before this affair – will be able to do the impossible.

“Find their names,” the Lady tells them before she leaves them to ponder their new predicament. “Your lives quite literally depend on it.”

Truer words had never been spoken.

Devlin has been played, manipulated, and positioned like a game piece. His friends, both new and old, have gone into deeper darkness than ever before and emerged safe. He has new allies and new enemies, although he isn’t quite sure who belongs to which category. Up to his neck in troubles he could never have imagined, he knows that the only way around the impossible situation is through.

The team – Devlin O’Brien, Sarah Ford, Emilia Durante, and Michel St. Laurents – have been made pawns by forces far more powerful than they. But there’s no rule that says pawns can’t become powerful in their own right, given time to grow and a reason to do so.

Advertisements

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.

“Reyes Caza”, or “The King’s Hunt”

I could think through the mixture of anger and horror, but I couldn’t speak through it. My mouth opened and closed as I struggled to connect words and ideas.

Sarah stepped in, speaking where I couldn’t seem to regain the ability to do so. “You aren’t going to tell us what you’ve got against the Magi. Okay. I’m not thrilled about you keeping that from us, if we’ve apparently all become comrades-in-arms, but I can deal with it. I’ve still got questions, though. Is there anything else you’re going to keep to yourself?”

The Lady thought about the question for a few seconds. “Yes,” she said finally. “But I assure you, I will not withhold any information relevant to the current matter.”

“And you’re sure about that?”

“I am as sure about that as I am about anything,” the Lady said. “This is not a flight of fancy for me, Miss Ford. I have not recently decided to pit my will against the wills of the Magi. My own life has been mined for every tidbit of information that might prove useful and every possible avenue has been pursued to the fullest. I would not have directly involved myself otherwise.”

Sarah accepted that answer with a slight nod. “Why us?”

“A reasonable question. Perhaps an important question. But I fear the answer is far simpler than you would like.”

“Try me.”

The Lady accepted another refill on her wine glass from David before she spoke again. “I selected Emilia to be your bodyguard because she possessed the skills required for the position, as well as a certain…past that might resonate best with Mister O’Brien’s preferences.”

“You know about my past?” Mila asked. She shook her head a moment later. “Of course you do. How much do you know?”

“I know your real name,” the Lady replied. “And most of your actual history, without the pseudonyms you use to protect your loved ones. I have no intention of sharing those with anyone, even Mister O’Brien and Miss Ford, without your explicit permission.”

Mila crossed her arms, placing her uninjured hand close to the gun in her shoulder holster. “That’s generous of you.”

“Do not think of it as generosity. As someone with my own secrets, I respect your desire for anonymity.”

I was listening, even while my mind continued to connect pieces at lightning speed. I knew some of Mila’s past – or I thought I knew some of Mila’s past – but the revelation that she’d been specifically chosen because of her damage was…honestly not surprising. We’d been thrown together at a desperate moment and, despite the circumstances of our meeting, grown into something resembling friends. I probably wouldn’t have allowed myself to connect with a purely professional, invulnerable hulk of a protector. Mila would have defaulted into that persona with anyone else except for me.

We’d helped each other. That had been the design, of course, but it didn’t take anything away from our friendship.

At least, I hoped that it didn’t.

“That explains her,” Sarah said, calm and steady. I appreciated that she was able to compose herself, when I was clearly unable to take the lead. She was probably reeling from these revelations as much as I was, but our dynamic had always been based on our ability to operate as a duo, instead of two individuals. “What about the rest?”

Monsieur St. Laurents was not something I expected,” the Lady said. “But his instant connection with Mister O’Brien held promise and a dedicated driver is never something to be discounted. That being said, I was not the one who chose to involve him in events as they unfolded. You and Mister O’Brien made that choice, when you met with unexpected difficulties at the Museum of London.”

“Devlin made that choice because you’d pushed him into a situation where he had no other options,” Sarah said.

“There are always options. He could have surrendered to the police. He could have chosen not to go into the Museum at all, least of all in the wake of a literally explosive situation at one of Hill’s satellite facilities. You, Miss Ford, could have chosen to stay in America after the warning about Mister Knight’s intentions. Our choices have led us all to this place and it does no one any good to deny that.”

Surrendering to the police hadn’t really been an option, considering that some of the Museum security guards had been packing firearms, but that was irrelevant.

“As it happens,” the Lady continued, “I have been nothing but thrilled with Monsieur St. Laurents’ contributions to your efforts here. Had I thought to include a driver in the original profile, I could scarcely have chosen better than him.”

“I can agree with that,” Sarah said. “Go on.”

“You are, of course, wondering about why I chose you and Mister O’Brien,” the Lady said.

“You picked Mila because she matched with Devlin’s personality and you allowed us to bring Michel in because of their friendship. But that all depends on you using Devlin as your…what did you call it?”

“My champion.” The Lady smiled. “The term seemed poetic.”

“As your champion, then. So why the two of us?”

“I think it is supremely telling that you have so thoroughly entwined your own sense of identity with Mister O’Brien,” the Lady said. Sarah bit down on her bottom lip but didn’t look away. “I chose you for your skills, yes, your network of hackers, and because of your inability to resist a puzzle. The labyrinthine network of false names and shell companies that comprise the Magi’s more visible assets would be irresistible to you, Miss Ford, and I knew that you would be unable to resist the lure.”

“And? I know there’s a follow-up coming.”

“Indeed. I picked you because I could not get him, otherwise. And, before you take that as an insult or a slight to your skills, I chose him because I could not get you in any other circumstance.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The Lady turned to David and heaved a dramatic sigh. “Why do people insist on asking questions they could easily answer for themselves with the slightest effort?”

Sarah blew air out through her nostrils and drew herself up slightly.

I regained my capacity for speech before she could say anything. “Why both of us?” I asked.

“Because you are better as a team,” the Lady said in an exasperated tone. “You have a history of success against impressive odds and Miss Ford has a background in high society that has proven useful on more than one occasion. Having one or the other would not have been sufficient for my purposes. The fact that I could not have hired one of you without also bringing the other in was serendipitous.”

As far as I knew, Sarah had gotten involved with this entire affair because of the mysterious emails appearing in her inbox. Would she have joined me on the trip without that impetus?

“Why the two of us, specifically?” I asked, separating my private ruminations from my mouth.

“Who else would I have contracted to deal with Mister Knight except for individuals with personal knowledge and a possible advantage?”

My mental gears clicked along, searching for each puzzle piece’s proper place. “You wanted us to deal with Asher. But that only works if you knew Asher was going to be involved. How long have you been watching me?”

“Since before St. Petersburg,” she answered immediately. “Although it would be more accurate to say that I have been watching Mister Knight since before St. Petersburg. You rose in my estimations following the disastrous result of that particular job.”

That job had been years ago. “Why were you watching Asher before St. Petersburg?”

The Lady gave me a long-suffering look and said nothing.

I tasked my struggling mental gears to spin a little faster. “Asher’s trajectory in life went awry at St. Petersburg, when he tried to expose the Magi by…oh. Oh.”

“I think I will simply refuse to answer any similar questions,” the Lady said, “since you have proven yourself capable of figuring things out without my intervention.

Her point was obvious, but I spoke it aloud anyway, for the benefits of everyone else in the room and to prove myself capable. “Asher was going after the Magi, that night. Someone had tipped him off to their existence and, in typical Asher fashion, he’d gone after them without bothering to consult with me.”

“Indeed.”

“So Asher was your first choice?”

“I am nothing if unwilling to acknowledge my own mistakes,” the Lady said. “I freely admit that I thought a mastermind of Asher’s capabilities would prove more useful in this stage. However, he was captured by the Magi and turned to their purposes. As such, I required an agent of my own.”

I wasn’t sure if I could reasonably blame her for my misfortunes since that disaster. Asher had chosen to come after me, just as I’d chosen to work with him after Sarah left me.

“How?” Michel asked. It had been his first time speaking in a while and the sound of his voice caught me off guard.

The Lady finished off her wine and passed the empty glass to David. “How what?”

“How would we do this thing?” Michel clarified. “You have more money. You have more influence. If you have not been able to defeat the Magi before this, why do you think that we will be able to?”

“The Book, to begin with,” the Lady said. “Contained within its pages are the names and cover identities of the Magi’s operatives. Not all of those operatives, mind you, but enough to constitute a powerful start. In the wake of Hill’s betrayal, their organization is destabilized and uncertain. Strike at one, and that individual is likely to reveal clues leading to the next chain up the ladder.”

Michel acknowledged that answer even as he doubled down on his original question. “And after that? Another chain, another link separated? Where does it end?”

The Lady turned to me. “Mister O’Brien,” she said, “do you remember what we discussed at our first meeting?”

I did. “Vaguely. What were you talking about, specifically?”

“The Magi are secrets and shadows,” she said. “Lies within misdirections within rumors. It has taken me a lifetime to a reach a point where I felt even halfway as secure about the secrets of my past. I cannot imagine that they would have done any less.”

“So we hurt their underlings to force them out? Is that really what you had in mind?”

“What I have in mind, Mister O’Brien, is for you and your team to unravel their organization one string at a time,” the Lady said. “And, if you follow all of those strings to their natural conclusion, I intend for you to give me the information that will finally allow me to take my revenge.”

“And that is?”

“Their names, of course.” She rolled her eyes. “I could not care less about the enterprises here, or in France, or in the southernmost reaches of Africa. Your defeat of Hill was suitably public that it aligns with my own goals, yes, but I would not have been overly bothered if you’d acquired the Book and left him ensconced within his bubble of delusion. All that I care about is learning the Magi’s true names. Everything else is academic.”

Their names. She wanted their names. That was insanity, to a level I could scarcely comprehend. Before Sarah and me, the Magi hadn’t even had a collective name. The idea that we would somehow be able to get our hands on their real names was absolutely absurd.

Or was it? We’d accomplished more in the past weeks than I would have thought possible. Was stealing a single morsel of information from an international shadow any more impressive than robbing an estate when said estate owner knew to expect us? Was it any crazier than kidnapping an unwilling little girl from the lap of luxury for her own safety?

“You have a plan. We wouldn’t be sitting here if you didn’t. What is it?” I asked the Lady.

“You do not have the Book, but I will see to it that you have access to the names and dates written within as soon as Avis finishes decrypting its contents. Using that, you can begin to apply pressure to all of the Magi’s assets. They are compartmentalized and kept in the dark about the true nature of their masters, but each one will likely know at least one other name.”

“And on and on up the chain,” I finished for her. “Leading to what, exactly?”

“The Magi, of course. With my resources and the protection I can offer you, I feel confident that you will be able to uncover their identities.”

“And then?”

“And then I will destroy them,” the Lady said. There was a hunger in her voice, paired with a desperate need. “I will root them out of their hiding places and see to it that they pay for all of the death they have caused. And, when I have finished ravaging their lands and properties…when their power has been scattered to the winds…I will see to it personally that they die screaming.”

I swallowed nervously. “They’ve been in the shadows for years,” I said. “Decades. Maybe even longer than that. How are we supposed to find out who they really are after they’ve had so much of a headstart?”

“Creativity,” the Lady said. “Ingenuity. Luck. Whatever assets you can bring to bear, you must bring to bear. Without their names, I can do nothing except forestall the inevitability of your demise. You must understand the nature and scale of the conflict you find yourself in.”

And I did. The Lady had manipulated us into a position where we represented the greatest active threat to the Magi’s powers. They would come after us, or allow others to come after us, until we were no longer an issue.

I looked at my team, an unspoken question obvious on my expression.

Mila spoke first. “Aiden’s still out there,” she said. “As soon as he heals up from what Michel here did to him, he’s going to come after us.”

“Figured as much,” I said. “What’s your point?”

“The longer I’m with you, the more of a danger I represent. If you’re going to get involved with this mess, you’ll have enough bullets coming your way without adding whatever trouble Aiden can throw your way.”

“I hear what you’re saying. I just don’t care. Do you want to handle your problems alone or do you want help?”

Mila considered the question for longer than I would have thought necessary before baring her teeth in a fierce grin. “I think I’ll want some help.”

“Excellent.” I turned to Michel. “What about you?”

“I would not want to be the type of person who abandons their friends,” Michel said. “And I am already too involved to back out now. If you need me, I am coming with you.” He paused. “If you do not need me, I will still be there, for whenever you change your mind.”

We exchanged a look, conveying sympathy and solidarity in the blink of an eye. When that moment was over, I looked to Sarah. She still appeared stunned by everything the Lady had sprung on her, which was reasonable. What wasn’t reasonable were the subtle hints of defiance written all over her face, overtaking the shock more and more with every passing second.

“You don’t have to ask,” she said. “If you’re going, I’m going.”

Even though I’d expected that response, my heart still lifted in triumph when she said it. I kept my expression as close to neutral as possible and faced the Lady. “You wanted to push us into a corner,” I said. “Fine. We’re in a corner. And we’ll do what you want, because we don’t really have a choice. But…”

“You have conditions,” the Lady said. She stood up, while David began to wipe down every surface her bare fingers had touched. “Why am I not surprised?”

“We’re the team you wanted,” I said, “so this is what you’ve got to deal with.”

“Fine. What conditions do you have?”

“First, we do this our way. You don’t give us assignments; you just pass on information. We’ll decide who we want to go after, and when, without you pressuring us in one direction or another.”

The Lady nodded. “I hadn’t intended on micromanaging you. Your success here has more than proven your abilities.”

“Second, you have to keep us in the loop on everything, whether or not you think it’s relevant.” I raised a hand before the Lady could protest. “Your past is your past. I don’t care about where you came from. But if you hear something that might prove useful, you pass it on immediately.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then you exposed yourself to danger for no reason,” I said, “because you were too secretive to share potentially vital information. If that’s how you want to play it, then let us know now. Sarah can see to it that we disappear in less than a day. Maybe the Magi find us, maybe not, but they’ll definitely find you.”

The Lady weighed her options for several seconds before nodding again. “That seems fair. Anything else?”

“If we need to talk to you, we need a way to get in contact with you. This magical appearing act isn’t going to work, long term.”

She smiled. “Trust me, Mister O’Brien. If you ever need to talk to me, I will be there.”

A familiar frisson of nerves ran up the length of my arm. I ignored it.

The Lady stood up and walked past me, aiming for the door into the hallway outside. Except for David, who kept pace with his mistress, no one moved. At the door, she stopped and turned to look slightly over her shoulder. “Find their names, Mister O’Brien. I hope you realize the importance of this task.”

I did, of course, but she continued to elaborate.

“My protection is not without limits. A time will come when you must face the Magi’s wrath without my aid, if you allow things to proceed without arresting their inevitable momentum. Find their names, Mister O’Brien, and deliver those names to me so that I can render unto the magi that which they deserve.” She opened the door. “Your lives quite literally depend on it.”

The Lady and David let that sentiment hang in the air for a second before they left, closing the door behind them.

A moment later, Sarah’s phone beeped. She checked it in some kind of a daze.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“An email,” she said, “from Avis. There are five names written here, along with financial information and pseudonyms. I guess the Lady wants us to get right to work.”

I gave each member of my team a searching look.

Mila appeared as steadfast as ever, but I could see past the façade now. There was a fragility there, hidden behind layers of forced apathy and emotional disconnection.

Michel was terrified. He was only barely keeping it together, but he was maintaining his control. I doubted I could have done as much in a similar situation after my first job.

And Sarah…Sarah looked beautiful, perplexed, and intrigued all at the same time. She was biting into her bottom lip while she read the phone in her hand and I couldn’t bear to look at her without feeling a pressure building in my heart.

I looked away from her and let my focus relax so that I could see all of us at the same time. A soft meow caught my attention and, a second later, Sam prowled out from a particularly deep shadow and leapt up into the chair where the Lady had been seated.

“Well,” I said. “What next?”

 

-End Book One-

 

“Gambit della regina,” or “The Queen’s Gambit”

“That’s insane,” Sarah whispered. “Interpol agents are thoroughly vetted at every possible level. Every criminal database in the world is at their disposal. There’s just no way for the Magi to get one of their moles that high in the organization.”

“Moving forward,” the Lady said, “I would recommend that you relax your previous definition of what is or is not possible. With sufficient resources and motivation, you would be surprised to learn exactly what one can accomplish.”

“Surprised?” I asked. “Try terrified.”

The Lady shrugged. “Either works, I suppose.”

I forced myself to think. It wasn’t an easy process, but I managed it. Inspector Lane was working for the Magi. What did that mean, long-term?

One: Any investigation that threatened to unveil one of the Magi’s international fronts was corrupted from the very beginning. Lane had enough influence to steer investigators away from the real targets and, potentially, to shift their focus onto upstart operations.

Two: Using the manpower and resources at Interpol’s disposal, they would be able to keep a finger on the pulse of local underground communities without directly involving themselves. Promising recruits, law-abiding or not, could be identified early and isolated. A few moments of lost tape during an interrogation could easily lead to an entire subsumed industry, given enough time.

Three: In the event of a failure in the system, a law enforcement officer of Lane’s rank could simply disappear troublesome individuals. That hadn’t been the case this time, because Hill’s actions had pushed the Magi to publicly deal with him, but there was no way of knowing how many arrests were never reported or how many bodies had been disposed of. Lane had worked in law enforcement for a long time and had overseen cases on virtually every continent.

“What about Adlai?” I asked. “Is he…you know, working for the Magi?”

The Lady shook her head. “Your instincts regarding Inspector Adlai are entirely accurate and wholly justified. He remains as loyal to the oaths he took as a monk would be to a vow of silence.”

She sounded slightly piqued at that. I wondered if she’d tried to suborn him at some point.

“Who else? Are they absolutely everywhere? Who else do we know that’s working for the Magi?”

The Lady picked her words carefully. “As of this moment, with the information I have at my disposal, it seems safest to assume that no one outside of this very room can be trusted, unless you would be willing to trust a given individual with your life. Literally.”

Shit. There were a lot of criminals I’d worked with who I liked, some that I was even rather fond of, but the list of people I trusted with my life was vanishingly small. Obviously, Sarah, Michel, and Mila; the last two had proven themselves countless times over the past few weeks and there wasn’t even a question about trusting Sarah. I could add Alex to that list, but I wasn’t going to. Bringing him into this would be selfish to the extreme.

Outside of that, though? I liked Anton. He and I worked well together. But he’d returned from Russia with Stani without ever explaining what had transpired to force him into the Bratva’s employ. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the Russians had goals that conveniently ran parallel to ours. That was fine and dandy, when allies were in short supply, but a time might come when we were on opposite sides of a conflict.

Could they be working for the Magi, as well? Maybe they didn’t know that their orders came from one of the Magi’s puppets and they were simply carrying out the Magi’s whims unwittingly. Or maybe the manipulation was taking place on an even higher level, moving politicians and captains of industry like marionette strings, steering all of us like pawns into conflicts we weren’t even aware of.

“Why would you tell us this? Why would you put that on us?” My volume was rising, due to stress and anxiety. Paranoia threatened to choke me as it bubbled up from the pit of my stomach, up into my throat.

“Because, Mister O’Brien, it is important that you realize both the stakes and the gravity of our situation,” the Lady said. “And so that you understand the true value of the Book.”

“What could possibly be worth antagonizing a group with as much power as you’re implying?”

“A list, of course. You knew that much. You simply lacked the frame of reference to appreciate what it was a list of.”

I blinked, mentally glimpsing a flicker of an idea through the fog of paranoia. “You aren’t serious.”

“I usually am,” the Lady said.

Mila realized what we were talking about, at almost the exact same time as Sarah. Michel put it together a moment after the rest of us. “A list of their moles? All of them?”

“No. Not quite. That would be a treasure far beyond my ability to express. Simply possessing something like that would be enough to warrant the Magi’s full attention and the undivided strength of their forces, just to ensure that you wouldn’t speak of its existence. And trust me when I say that I am not exaggerating in the slightest.” She placed her empty wine glass delicately on the arm of her chair, balancing it so that it stayed there when she took her hand away. “But even an incomplete list is quite literally invaluable. So much so that its existence was kept secret and it was hidden away within an obscure branch of a relatively unimportant bank, encrypted with a key that the strongest supercomputer couldn’t break with hundreds of years at its disposal.”

“You really didn’t care about Hill’s operation, did you?”

“The damage you’ve dealt to the Magi is not measured in dollars, so much as in reputation. A highly favored agent, placed in control of a lucrative operation within the heart of London, lost his finances, his name, and ultimately control over the operation he had been instrumental in establishing. That he suffered this lost on a truly public scale is damaging to the Magi’s pride, even if they are able to keep control over their agents with a display of strength like the one I’ve just shown you.”

“That’s a very long answer for a very short question,” I said.

The Lady smiled. “Fair enough. I did not care about Hill’s operation, no, but I was very much interested in its destruction. Does that answer suffice?”

“Not really,” I said. “What are you planning to do with the Book? Even if it only has a hundred names like Inspector Lane’s in it – people highly placed in government, law enforcement, politics, whatever – then holding onto it is like picking up the pretty rocks at Chernobyl. Are you going to blackmail them? Use the Book as leverage to get some sort of concession out of them?”

“No,” she replied, “for several reasons. First, the Magi do not bargain. They would consider such an action to be beneath their dignity and would likely respond with fire and brimstone at the mere suggestion. Two, they have nothing that I desire.”

I interrupted her before I could realize exactly how bad of an idea that might be. “Nothing? Everybody wants something.”

The Lady seemed mildly irritated that I’d spoken over her. “Is that so? Tell me, Mister O’Brien, what do you want? What do your companions want?”

I looked at my team, one at a time, asking myself if I really knew what they wanted.

Michel wanted to belong, to fit in, to be a part of something.

Mila…did Mila want forgiveness or absolution? I wasn’t sure. She probably wasn’t sure, for that matter.

Personally, I hated bullies and people who thought themselves superior because of an accident of birth. Hill fit into that category neatly. Everything I heard about the Magi made me think of them in the same way. The Lady was…different, somehow. She undoubtedly considered herself above us – and, in all fairness, was probably correct in doing so – but it didn’t feel like something that had come about from her birth. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was about her behavior, but I would’ve sworn on a stack of bibles that the Lady had earned her power by doing some very unpleasant things for a very long time.

And Sarah? What did she want? Why had she come back with me from America and helped me to dethrone a kingpin? Why was she still staying?

I didn’t know and I couldn’t ask.

So, I looked back at the Lady and said nothing. After about twenty seconds, she nodded. “Yes,” she said, “you understand now. Not all things that one desires are physical. I have more money than I could use in a half dozen lifetimes and the comfort that such money can purchase. I will spend tonight traveling in the height of luxury to a country whose name I doubt you could pronounce and, from there, I will resume my travels around the globe, asserting pressure when necessary and using a soft touch when that would be more beneficial. I have lived a full life and, in that life, done much of what I have wanted. The Magi,” she repeated, “have nothing that I want.”

Her voice went up at the end of her speech, a clear aural marker that she wasn’t quite finished speaking. I waited for her to continue before realizing that she wanted me to prompt her. I smiled a little at that. Even the Lady, at the height of her mystery and intrigue, had a little bit of the showwoman in her. “There’s a ‘but’ coming,” I said.

“Not a but, but a third reason why the Magi will not bargain with me for the Book and the secrets it contains. Because they do not know that I have it and, if everything goes according to plan, they will not have the time to discover that it has not slipped quietly back out of existence.”

That was important, but it wasn’t an answer. “Why do you want it for yourself? It’s no good if you just keep it locked away. You might as well have left it with the Magi to begin with.”

“I will not reveal that I possess it, of course,” the Lady said, “but that does not mean that we will not make use of it. You asked me what I desire. I would think that obvious, considering what you have achieved this day.”

“Revenge.” The realization struck me like a blow, crystallizing in a flash of pure intuition. From me, to Asher; from Billy to Hill, even if the circumstances of that revenge had probably been more lethal than Billy would have wanted. And, ultimately, from the Lady to the Magi. “You want revenge. You don’t care about bargaining with them because you plan on destroying them.”

“Would you have been willing to put aside your animosity towards Mister Knight, given any amount of incentive? Could you have allowed such an egregious breach of faith to go unpunished?”

I didn’t answer, because she didn’t need me to. The answer must have been written all over my face.

“So all of this,” I said, gesturing at our surroundings, “was in pursuit of revenge? You used us to topple Hill, manipulated my anger towards Asher, so that you could get your hands on something to use in your war against the Magi?”

“We all use each other,” the Lady said. “You were paid well for your efforts and, unless I am mistaken, Mister Knight is no longer a factor. Everyone received what they wanted from our arrangement, no?”

“What did they do to you?” I asked. “Every time I find out more about the Magi, I feel like I need to get even farther away from them. They’ve got hands in everything. What could they possibly have done to you that you’d prefer suicide to just letting things go?”

She locked eyes with me. It was only for an instant but, in that instant, I glimpsed a twinkle of long suppressed pain in her expression. I could imagine that tiny twinkle as an iceberg, stretching deeper and deeper out of sight, until it filled the Lady up with nothing but anger and the all-consuming desire for revenge. I’d only had two and a half years to nurse my feelings about Asher’s betrayal. How long had the Lady been planning this? How much money had been spent, not counting the exorbitant accounts in our new numbered accounts? How many people had she put into the field to get all of us into this bedroom, at this exact moment?

The Lady looked away. “They have done enough,” she said. “Let us leave it at that, for the moment. My own reasons do not have any bearing on what comes next for us.”

“You keep saying us,” Sarah said. “I’m getting the feeling that you aren’t referring to you and your giant.”

The Lady took a second to regain her composure for she spoke again. “Of course not. Think about it, Miss Ford. If the Magi were willing to risk exposure to destroy someone who simply planned to flout their authority, what would they do to a group that openly defied them?”

I blinked. “You’re talking about us. The four of us, right here. Because we were the ones who took down Hill, before he had an opportunity to actually try his little coup, right?”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Mila said. “Hill was going to go rogue. The Magi knew he was going to go rogue. So they’re going to come after us for doing their dirty work for him?”

“They will come after you for several reasons,” the Lady said. “That will be one of them, yes. Hill was operating with their full authority and protection when you tricked him into revealing himself. As such, to any other parties underneath the Magi’s aegis, Mister O’Brien and Miss Ford now represent a threat that cannot be ignored. If Hill could be defeated, who is to say that a cartel won’t be next on their list? And what purpose would one have to continue working for the Magi, if the illusion of safety has been stripped away?”

That wasn’t true. I knew that wasn’t true and so did the Lady. But we were both also aware that the truth of the situation wouldn’t matter. If the Magi didn’t actively take steps to eliminate us, other parties would.

“You put us in danger,” I said. The coldness of my voice surprised me. “You put us in their path, so that you could get your damn Book. And now my friends are at risk because of your issue with the Magi. Is that about it?”

“Essentially.”

“Then why didn’t you put yourself in the line of fire?” I stood up in a rush and David, moving just as quickly, stepped closer to the Lady. Mila took a half-step forward, so that she was just behind my left elbow. I only took peripheral notice of either person. My attention was focused entirely on the Lady. “You think that you can just push us around, use as like disposable chess pieces in your game? Why didn’t you take the risk? Why didn’t you get into a fight with the Magi, instead of hiding behind us?”

The Lady watched me impassively. Except for her slowly blinking eyes, she went entirely still. “Mister O’Brien,” she said, “I am at risk now. Perhaps more than I have ever been.”

“I don’t even know your name,” I spat out. “If we get captured or killed, all we can do is point them at some bank accounts that probably won’t link anywhere. Or maybe I could tell my torturer that I’d been manipulated by a woman in a black dress. Is that what you mean by risk? That your description might get out?”

Sarah touched my elbow. “Devlin,” she said, “I think she’s right.”

“How? How could she possibly be in the same danger as us?”

“The Magi are shadows, right? Just ghosts in the machine that manipulate events so subtly that no one ever notices they’ve done anything at all?”

I nodded, still furiously glaring at the Lady.

“Their hands were forced,” Sarah continued. “I don’t think that’s something they’re used to, but they had to act quickly to ensure that Hill wasn’t secreted away beyond their reach. That isn’t subtle. If anything, it’s clumsy.”

“Relatively speaking,” the Lady agreed. “It is still an impossibly dense knot with an impossibly thin thread. But it is a thread and that is more than they have ever left before.”

“So we helped her by exposing them,” I said. “How does that do anything other than put us in the crosshairs?”

“We wouldn’t have been involved at all without the information that she gave you,” Sarah said. “The photo of Asher, the information on the crown, the invitation to the Green Light gala. All of that came from her and there aren’t that many people who could possibly have known everything.” She directed her next question to the Lady. “Am I right so far?”

The Lady gave Sarah an impossibly subtle nod. “I do not reveal myself to anyone, save David. I have not spoken to any other living soul as we are speaking – which is to say, without intent to deceive or mislead – for virtually my entire adult life. In choosing you as my…let us say champion in this matter, I have revealed myself as well. If you fall, so do I. Although much later and, presumably, in a much worse way.”

The wheels in my head clicked into place. I wasn’t a particularly skilled chess player, but I knew some of the terms. “The Magi were planning to use Asher against someone…against you, even if they didn’t know who their enemy was. In response to that, you picked someone to use as your own agent: me.”

“All of you,” the Lady said. “Some were unplanned, but you have performed magnificently and each of you has become an essential part of events.”

The Queen’s Gambit. A symmetrical opening, where both sides moved their pawns into position. In that scenario, though, the player with the greatest risk was Black who, by mirroring his or her opponent’s moves, removed protection from the Queen.

The Lady was watching me. I didn’t bother to hide the expression of dawning realization from my ace. When she saw that, she gave me a sad smile. “Exactly, Mister O’Brien. From this point on, it seems that we – all of us – are in this together.”

“Premier Geste,” or the First Move

“Who the hell are – “ Sarah began, stepping forward and raising the tablet in her hand to point at the Lady in her seat.

I reached out to catch her arm before she could step fully into the room, but I moved a little too late. My grasp fell a few inches short and she breezed forward, unimpeded. She stopped an instant later when a massive hand closed around her wrist and visibly tightened.

“Uh,” Sarah said, “Devlin? Who is this?”

I locked eyes with the Lady. “An old acquaintance who is going to let you go any second now.”

“David? Please, release Miss Ford. I’d prefer her unharmed, if possible.”

“Ah,” the giant David said, a second later. He released Sarah’s wrist and, instead of stepping back into the shadows by the door, moved across the room and take up position behind the Lady, just to her right. He made no effort to hide the gun, visible beneath his suit coat.

“It was you, then?” Sarah asked. “You’re the one that hired us? Devlin’s mysterious Lady in the Black Dress?”

“You’ll have to excuse David,” the Lady said, completely ignoring everything that Sarah had said. She took another drink from her wine glass. “He is somewhat…hmm. Let’s say that he is somewhat protective of me and leave it at that, yes?”

I stared at her, unwilling or unable to force myself to step into the room with her. Even from the hallway, I could feel her cold calculation against my skin. It wasn’t anything as simple as an examination. The Lady was weighing me with her frigid eyes, deciding exactly how much I was worth and whether my continued good health was essential to her plans.

Mila broke the spell. She coughed, deliberately louder than necessary, and pulled back her own jacket to reveal the gun holstered there. “I’m a little protective of my charges, too,” she said. “Touch her again and I’ll show you exactly how protective.”

The Lady let a single second stretch out for what felt like hours before she spoke again. “Emilia,” she said, “surely you wouldn’t risk biting the metaphorical hand that feeds you.”

“You hired me to protect them. You didn’t specify who I was, or was not, supposed to protect them from.”

“And if I decided to change the terms of your contract?” The Lady didn’t seem irritated, so much as interested or curious. “What would you do then?”

“The terms are the terms. Tell your guard dog to back off or he and I are going to have some unpleasant words.”

The Lady considered that for a moment before she leaned back and laughed. The sound was perfect, like a single crystal floating in the air. It rang with a note of genuine amusement, supported by absolute self-confidence and serenity. Just as quickly as it had appeared, the laugh ended, leaving all of us in the silent room with nothing but our thoughts for company.

“Very well,” the Lady said. “I certainly did not go through all of the effort of arranging this face to face meeting just to see whether you or David would win in a confrontation.”

“It’d be me,” Mila said. “Just saying.”

The Lady shrugged one shoulder. The fabric of her black dress shifted at the movement. I forced myself to focus on her eyes, instead of glancing down at the pale perfect skin of her shoulder and the gentle curve of her neck. “We have a great deal to discuss,” she said, “and not an exorbitant amount of time to discuss it in. Would you prefer exchanging subtle barbs or finally acquiring the answers that I’m sure you’ve all been seeking?”

That did it. I stepped into the room before the thought fully formed in my head. As soon as I’d taken the first step, I found the rest were easier. I walked until I was standing within two or three yards of the Lady. David growled at this presumption, but he didn’t move to stop me. “Avis and Neal; where are they?”

“Are you certain that you’d like to hear this conversation?” The Lady asked, directing her question at Michel. He was wavering in the doorway, visibly unsure of what he should do. “You have heard more than I would generally prefer, and you have seen my face, but none of this is sufficiently damning. Yet.”

“I can go?” Michel asked. “You would simply let me leave?”

“Of course. The payment for a job well done has already been deposited in the numbered account I used for the museum heist, along with an additional bonus for the danger you found yourself in. Ask your compatriot Mister O’Brien: I am not in the habit of pressganging individuals into my service.” She paused and the ghost of a smile touched the corners of her lips. “Not under these circumstances, at least.”

Michel thought about that for a second or two. “But, if I leave now, then…”

“Then what happens next is none of your concern,” the Lady finished for him. “Not because of any prohibitions I would lay upon your friends but, I suspect, from their own desire to keep you as far removed as possible. It is dangerous to simply know some things, Monsieur St. Laurents.”

Michel pursed his lips in thought for another second and then nodded once, in affirmation. He stepped into the room and closed the door behind him.

Less than a month ago, I would have groaned at Michel’s decision. I wanted to protect him – I wanted to protect all of my friends – and I couldn’t do that if they kept putting themselves next to me in the crosshairs.

That’s what I would have thought a month prior. When the door clicked shut behind Michel, however, all I felt was a fierce pride.

“About that question,” I said, speaking around the lump in my throat. “Avis? Neal? Where are they?”

The Lady raised an eyebrow at Michel but, when she spoke, she answered me. “Gone. Obviously.”

“I sort of figured that out. Where did you take them?”

“Somewhere safe.” She finished her wine, seemed to consider the empty glass for a moment, and then held it out to her side. David moved to refill it without exchanging a word with his mistress. “You have done an exemplary job seeing to her safety, don’t get me wrong. But the forces that will begin pursuing her in the near future are far more than you would be able to outwit with anything so simple as fake names.”

“I promised her that I’d keep her safe,” I said. “That we’d keep her safe.”

“And she will be kept safe, Mister O’Brien. You have my word on that.” Pause, sip. “I require the girl’s abilities for a relatively short period of time, after which she and her companion are free to do as they please. I will see to it that they are compensated for their trouble here in London, as well as any difficulties they may face in the process of translating the Book into something more readable.”

“How am I supposed to know you aren’t just saying that?” I asked. “I’m pretty sure Hill promised the world to the girl, too.”

I,”, the Lady said, “do not answer to any masters. If I say that a thing will be done, then it will be done.”

The proclamation landed with the force of a ringing church bell. I decided to take her at her word, rather than prod her ego or potentially insult her.

“What do you want, then? If you’ve already got the girl and the Book, you should be done with us, shouldn’t you?”

“I promised answers at the beginning of this,” the Lady said, “and I keep my promises. You lack the proper perspective to truly understand the import of what you have done here.”

“And that means…?” Sarah asked. She’d recovered from her shock at David’s appearance and was apparently defaulting to sass.

Sass was good. I could work with sass. I’d given the Lady a fair amount of lip on our first meeting and she hadn’t ordered her personal giant to snap my neck. If Sarah was sarcastic, we were at least operating on familiar territory.

“What that means, Miss Ford, is that it falls to me to enlighten you. Now, if you will stop attempting to exorcise your inferiority issues by baiting me into an argument, I can get on with what I’ve come here to say.”

Sarah jerked back like the Lady had reached across the table and slapped her. “I don’t…what are you…”

The Lady sighed. “I do my homework, Miss Ford. A great deal of resources – both financially and in terms of simple manpower – went into the decision to choose your ex-husband for this particular engagement. Surely, you didn’t think I would hesitate at acquiring your psychiatrist’s notes, when your involvement was a foregone conclusion?”

Sarah opened her mouth to reply, thought better of it, and closed her mouth again.

The Lady wasn’t playing games on this outing, then. She’d come for a specific goal and the scant dredges of patience she’d shown earlier were gone.

“Okay,” I said, hoping to take the attention from Sarah, “answers, then. How much did you know?”

“About what?” The Lady retorted. “Be specific.”

“Did you know that Hill was actually Fairfax? You as good as told me that he was using a pseudonym when you hired me to begin with.”

She considered her answer. “I had my suspicions. I was aware of the elder Fairfax’s true identity, despite his attempts to use the lower class as a sort of smokescreen. With that in mind, the symmetry of Fairfax – or Hill, if you prefer to continue using that moniker – playing a similar role did occur to me.”

“And you didn’t think that was something I should have known? We could’ve taken the fight to him weeks ago, before he had a chance to fort up.”

“That would only have worked if my guess had been correct,” the Lady said. “If not, all you would have accomplished is revealing yourself to an adversary without being in a position to strike. Which, as it turns out, you managed to do anyway.”

I wanted to fire off a snappy retort, but none came to mind. Besides, she was right. Knowing her suspicions wouldn’t have helped. If anything, I would probably have discounted those suspicions on the strength of my introduction to Fairfax at the museum. I’d thought of Hill and Fairfax as two different people which had, somehow, been an asset in the long run. Without learning both sides of the man’s personality, I wouldn’t have been able to walk him into that final trap.

“And Avis? Did you know that she was your key?”

“No. That was a surprise. There was no particularly way for me to know anything about the Book and so I could not hazard any guesses as to what form the key might take. That you were able to retrieve her, without actually knowing what it was that you were searching for, was a particular stroke of genius. Otherwise, everything might have fallen apart before it had a chance to truly begin.”

David lowered his head to whisper something into the Lady’s ear. The little bit of movement took me by surprise. It wasn’t that he was doing anything threatening or dangerous. I had just never seen him move a muscle without receiving some verbal or nonverbal cue from his mistress.

She listened to him, nodding occasionally as he made some point I couldn’t catch. The words that I was able to make out – from a combination of lip reading and sharp hearing – weren’t in any language that I spoke, or even one that I’d heard. When he finished, David straightened his back and went back to his position as a silent sentinel.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“David feels that I am being unnecessarily cold,” the Lady said, “and, in this situation, I agree with his thoughts. I am not immune to the young Avis’ plight, nor to the extraordinary efforts you undertook to rescue her. Had you saved the girl and lost the key, I would not have been displeased with your efforts. It was nothing but pure luck that allowed you to accomplish both worthy goals in a single blow.”

I noticed that she’d used Avis’ first name, instead of calling her Miss Williams or something equally distant. That meant something, even if I didn’t have the context to know exactly what it meant. Also, the fact that David had taken it upon himself to correct the Lady and that she had listened was important, too. Their relationship, so far, had seemed like an employee/employer sort of thing. But he was smarter than he looked – I remembered that from our first meeting – and held enough esteem in the Lady’s eyes that he felt comfortable making suggestions.

The Lady’s style of leadership was more likely to incentivize creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking, even if it could potentially create dissent down the line. If she was going to allow David to correct her in public and to vocally credit him with making a good point that she herself had overlooked, then she must not have felt the interruption would do anything to her aura of control.

She was right about that. If anything, I saw her in an even more impressive light. If one was willing to be an absolute nightmare, it was easy to maintain absolute control over one’s subordinates. At least, up until they revolted. But, in order to remain flexible and approachable, control depended on more than simple fear. It depended on respect.

I didn’t vocalize any of my thoughts. The tiny exchange between her and David was a glimpse into their dynamic and, potentially, the first clue that there was a human being beneath her splendor and mystery. I planned to keep that tidbit of information as close to my chest as I could manage.

“Did you know about the mole?” I asked. “That it was James?”

The Lady blinked in elegant slow motion. “I knew that there was a mole in the elder Fairfax’s underground organization, of course. There are moles in many such organizations, at various levels. There are far too many players in the game, especially at your level.”

The subtle accent on ‘your’ had a vaguely condescending lilt to it.

She continued. “That being said, I had ruled out the actual guilty party myself. Mister Vidoc – I use this name for convenience, as I am sure you’ve figured out that he was using a pseudonym – had no contact with Hill prior to a few weeks ago. I personally verified that information. As a result, I made an erroneous judgement call.”

“Why would the Magi bother with placing an asset in something as low level as Billy’s Halfway House?”

“The Magi have assets everywhere, Mister O’Brien.”

“Were they holding someone hostage?” Michel asked. “Is that why he worked for them? What will happen to his family, now that he is dead?”

“Ah, Monsieur St. Laurents,” the Lady said. “Always the humanist. The Magi have no interest in harming Mister Vidoc’s family, as he is no longer of any use to them. Since there is no power to be gained through their deaths, his estranged wife and both of his children will remained unharmed.”

“That is why he was so frightened? What drove him to…”

The Lady tilted her head for several seconds before understanding dawned on her. “Ah. I see what you mean. You have been operating under a similar error in judgement, which is only reasonable based on your perspective. Mister Vidoc was not afraid for himself; he was afraid for his friends, the young Mister Owens and the elder Fairfax.”

“Afraid for them? Why would he be afraid for them?”

I answered, instead of the Lady. She’d confirmed my suspicions, in a roundabout way, and explained exactly why she’d offered Michel a chance to leave the room in the first place. “Because if the Magi thought that Billy and his gang had even the slightest idea that they existed – if, for instance, James had been taken alive and interrogated – they would have come down on the Halfway House like a plague of locusts. Every witness and everyone who might have been a witness would have been killed.”

“Yes,” the Lady said. Her full red lips thinned to a nearly invisible line and her voice was tight with suppressed emotion. “That is exactly how they operate. By forcing his friend’s hand, Mister Vidoc ensured that Mister Owens and the elder Fairfax would live to see the end of the year.”

Silence. There really wasn’t anything to be said, in the face of that statement. I knew that everyone else in the room was thinking their way through the implications. Sarah and I had known about the Magi. We’d been the one to name the mysterious group. Michel and Mila, though, had been kept mostly out of the loop. By sitting in on this conversation, any hint of innocence had been taken away from them. If the Magi came down, they came down on all of us now.

“What about Hill?” Sarah asked. Since the Lady had slapped her down with the psychiatrist comment, she’d been quiet. “He knows more than James did and Interpol has him.”

The Lady’s eyebrow ticked minutely upwards. “Do they? David, if you could please bring up the latest information on Hill’s whereabouts?”

David pulled out his phone and began to work.

The Lady continued speaking while David searched. “Hill was attempting to throw off the Magi’s yoke, to break free of their control, and he would have managed a small amount of success if not for your intervention. It would not have been as thorough or as conclusive as he hoped, however. The Magi would have swiftly stepped in to crush him beneath their heel for his presumption and things would have continued much as they already had.”

“Right,” I said, “but they already suspected that much, right? Or else they wouldn’t have sent Asher to audit the organization to begin with.”

“Correct. But it was important that they wait until he made his move to sweep in. The effect would have been greater if the other cogs in their machine could see how effectively they destroyed Hill for his arrogance. By maneuvering him into the clutches of law enforcement, you effectively took that option away from them.”

“Okay,” I said slowly. “What are they going to do now, then?”

“Make a larger statement,” the Lady said. “Something more grandiose and large enough that their power remains unquestioned, despite the risks that such a public spectacle might open them up to.”

“You’re being evasive. What is going to happen to Hill?”

David cleared his throat. “I’ve found a relevant station, ma’am.”

“Put it on the television, if you please,” the Lady said to him.

The four of us – Sarah, Michel, Mila, and myself – shared a look before we turned as one to face a large television mounted on the wall behind us. The screen came to life a moment later. A news reporter was reporting on something, his body language quick and furtive, but the sound was off.

David turned up the volume so that we could listen to the report. “…four cars burning on the M1, with several dozen more impacted by the sudden and unexplained explosion,” the newscaster was saying. “Reports indicate that many injured are being removed from the area, although paramedics have revealed that at least one individual died in the initial blast.”

The image on the television changed to an aerial view of the M1, where we could see thick black smoke climbing up from the scene of an explosion. Paramedics and police officers were on scene, hurriedly trying to evacuate any civilians from the area, on the off-chance that something else might blow up.

My mouth was completely dry. I swallowed several times to moisten it and was only marginally successful. “They killed him,” I said finally. “They killed him like that? People are going to have questions! They just committed a terrorist act!”

“I do not believe it will be recorded as such,” the Lady said. “And I feel that you will come to the same conclusion, if you calm yourself and think about what this means.”

I was finding it difficult to think calmly. A public assassination like the one on the screen was terrifying in its scale and its implications. The Magi didn’t have to send Asher into Hill’s organization, if they were bold enough to simply execute him on national television.

“One body,” Mila said. A slight tremor in her voice told me that even her calm had been disturbed by the news report. “They only found one body. That’s going to be Hill?”

“In all likelihood,” the Lady replied.

“Devlin,” Mila said, without looking away from the screen, “didn’t Adlai say that Inspector Lane was taking custody of Hill?”

“Yeah, he did, but what does – “ I stopped. “But there’s only one body. That means Lane’s either injured or he got out of the car before the explosion happened.”

“How would he know to leave the car,” the Lady asked, “before an explosion happened? Who would even know to suspect such a thing?”

I swallowed once more. “He wouldn’t. Not unless he was the one who set the bomb up to begin with.” I turned away from the television and stared at the Lady. “He was a high ranking Interpol agent, with a long history of drug busts and takedowns. Adlai looked up to him, and he’s the farthest thing from corrupt I could imagine. Are you saying that he was…surely you don’t mean that…”

I couldn’t finish the thought. It was too horrifying of a prospect and my brain simply refused to connect the doubts. There were connections and there were connections. Surely, some things must be beyond the reach of even the most powerful criminal cabal.

The Lady had no such problem. “They have assets everywhere, Mister O’Brien,” she said simply. “Everywhere.”

Part 4: Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Ninety

I stared at the Lady in silent confusion and she returned the look evenly.  Although her clothing was different, she still wore the same effortless grace that I remembered from our first encounter.  When David started the limousine and eased it away from Scotland Yard, she leaned back in her seat and flashed a barely decent amount of leg at me.  I looked away immediately and, just as soon, realized that I’d probably failed some sort of test.

“So,” I said, as an opener.  “You’re the one who got me out of there?”

She raised an eyebrow.

“I mean, you pulled some legal mojo to get me away from Adlai before I could talk?”

The Lady smiled at that.  “If you had chosen to talk, Mister O’Brien, what exactly would you have told the man?  That you should, by all rights, still be behind the walls of La Santé in Paris, except for the intervention of a well-connected woman whose name you do not know?  Or perhaps that your ex-wife, who has thus far managed to remain out of Inspector Adlai’s crosshairs, has been assisting you in a not-inconsiderable crime spree these past weeks?”

Irritation climbed from the pit of my stomach up into my throat.  I forced it back down for two reasons.  One: the only things separating my throat from David’s meaty hands were a privacy screen and the Lady’s whims.  Two: she was absolutely right.

“I only ask,” I said, through gritted teeth, “because I don’t know if this is another thing I’ll owe you for.”

“Ah.  Well, then, the answer to your question is ‘no.’  I was not directly responsible for the…what did you call it?”

“Legal mojo?”

“Yes, that.”  Her smile deepened slightly, but only on one side.  The effect was off-putting.  “I was responsible for the action, but I find it distasteful to reveal myself in person quite so easily.  If you are looking for someone to thank for your extraction, might I recommend my associate?”

I blinked and turned to look at the opaque privacy screen.  “David’s a lawyer?  That’s what he does for you?”

“It is a service he provides,” the Lady said.  “Among others.”

Smart and physically imposing ranked low on the list of traits I wanted in a possible adversary.  I had enough enemies that could out-think and out-fight me; the possibility of adding another to the list made my mouth go dry.  I swallowed twice before I managed to ask another question.  “Why?”

“You’ll have to be more specific,” the Lady replied.

“Why did you get me away from the interrogation?”

“The reasons for my indirect action involve powers you are not yet fully aware of,” the Lady said.  “For the moment, let us simply agree that you are better suited for my purposes outside of jail, as opposed to locked away.”

I swallowed a third time and squeezed my eyes shut for almost ten full seconds.  I used that time to center myself.  She had caught me off-guard, again; there was a reason she chose to ambush me like that.  She wanted control: control of the setting, control over the situation, and control over what I thought.  The Lady had successfully claimed the first two things without any competition, but my mind was my own.

“I’m working on your job,” I said, on the eleventh second.

“Oh?  I did not realize that my task for you involved waking the ire of the London police department.”

“It doesn’t.  But if you want my team to take on Hill, we had to come up with some way to keep the police from getting in our way at every step.”

Your team?”  The Lady dipped two long, delicate fingers into a clutch by her side and removed a smartphone that resembled the one in my own pocket.  She bypassed the security and swiped at the screen a few times.  “This would include the Russians Stanisliav Novikof, as well as his lieutenants Iosif and Leonid, in addition to the bodyguard I hired for you?”

“Her name’s Mila,” I said.  My voice was just a touch shy of snapping at her and I could swear the privacy screen to my back inched down slightly at the high point of the sentence.

“If you honestly believe that she uses her real name,” the Lady said, “then I would be better served returning you to Inspector Adlai and trying my luck with one of your underworld associates.”

I opened my mouth, closed it, and opened it again before speaking.  “I’m just saying that she isn’t ‘your bodyguard.’  She has a name and Mila’s the one she’s using for right now.”

The Lady favored me with a smirk so soft that it was barely visible and a steady look.  I shrugged to hide the chill that ran through my torso and all the way down to my legs.

“Anyway,” I said.  “I know what I said: for right now, they’re my team.  And we’re doing what you want.  We got the key from the manor house and Sarah’s working on getting access to any information that might point us to Hill’s real identity.  As soon as we know that, we can start working on a plan to steal back the golden book.”

If the Lady hadn’t made a point of flaunting her knowledge over me at every turn, I would have felt more uncomfortable with the slight untruth I slipped into a wall of otherwise unassailable facts.  We were planning to go after Hill and the golden book.  We had stolen the ‘key’ from the manor house, just in front of Asher’s team of trained killers.  However, it wasn’t Sarah translating the information we’d managed to steal; it was the child Avis, and her friend/guardian Neal.  The idea of offering up a child to the Lady’s whims – whatever those might be – didn’t sit well with me.  My stomach churned at the very thought.

The Lady showed no sign at all of catching the lie.  “I cannot help but imagine that your efficiency would be negatively influenced by nearly a day and a half of jail-time.”

“Is time a factor now?  If you’d told me that to begin with, I might have turned this job down to begin with.  That was an option, wasn’t it?”

“It was.  It is no longer one.”  The Lady returned her smartphone to the clutch and pressed a button on the armrest.  A panel slid away from the back of my seat, revealing a steaming carafe.  “However, with the exception of the authorities you’ve managed to incite, you and your team are doing spectacular work thus far.”

I shifted my gaze slightly so that the carafe was easier to see in my peripheral vision.  “What’s that?  Some sort of drug that’ll knock me out and erase the last few minutes of my memory?  Truth serum?  Or is there some other pharmaceutical trick you have up your sleeve?”

“I don’t have any sleeves, Mister O’Brien.”

I scowled at her, still taking effort to keep the expression as polite as possible under the circumstances.  “You know what I mean.”

“Your grasp of figurative language never ceases to amuse me,” the Lady said, without the faintest trace of laughter on her face or in her bearing.  “Why would I offer you some sort of drug, when I could simply ask David to feed it you forcefully?”

She leaned over, flashing the pale skin of her cleavage at me and I flinched away instinctively.  The Lady reached past me, removed the carafe and a small teacup from the hidden cabinet, and poured herself a cup of the scalding liquid contained within.  “Coffee?” I asked.

“It has been a rather long night,” the Lady said.  “You haven’t had much opportunity to rest over the last twenty-four hours, or so my sources have led me to believe.”

My eyebrows knit together for a moment as I thought my way through that statement.  “Sophie,” I said, after a moment.  “Sophie’s keeping you informed of our movements?”

“Sophie.  That would be the concierge at the Brooklands, I believe?”  The Lady continued without waiting for me to answer.  “She is incredibly talented at her job – truly, perhaps one of the most resourceful concierges in the greater London area – but she prefers to remain as hands-off as possible, when it comes to criminal activities.  She informed me that you had procured a vehicle, yes, but your activities beyond that were outside of her…shall we say, her realm of expertise.”

“Then how?”  I doubted that the Lady was the sort of person who would see the benefit of seeding sources among the downtrodden men and women in Billy’s Halfway House.

“I have spent a great deal of time and money preparing for this operation,” she said.  “I was aware of Hill’s operations, both legal and illegal.  When one of his plants suffered a tragic chemical accident, it occurred to me that there are very few people so brazen, so bold, or so unaccountably clumsy that they would dare to involve themselves in the affairs of a drug kingpin.  When Miss Ford’s name appeared in the register of guests at Scotland Yard, the rest was simple enough to piece together.”

I smothered the instinct to swear.

“Oh, calm yourself,” the Lady said.  “The program that you went to such lengths to plant in Scotland Yard’s system served multiple purposes.  In addition to the corruption of the files on your own crimes, several key minutes of security footage was irretrievably damaged.  Miss Ford’s identity remains a closely guarded secret, from nearly all interested parties.”

“Nearly all?”

She gave me that half-smile and, as if my body’s reactions were hers to toy with, I shivered.

“So.  What do I owe the privilege of your company to?” I asked, more so that I could come up with a better question than out of any real curiosity.

“Other than enjoying the opportunity to watch you squirm?”  The Lady sipped from her teacup of coffee.  “Your actions this evening have been incredibly loud and resulted in a disastrous amount of attention cast in your direction from the local authorities.  However, not every single thing you have managed to accomplish has been without merit.”

She dipped a hand into a larger bag on the floor.  I hadn’t noticed it there and, in virtually any other situation, I would have berated myself for the lapse in my attention.  As it was, the Lady consumed so much attention simply be existing that I allowed myself a pass.

When her hand came back into sight, she held a thick manila folder.  “While your driver was engaged in the extraction of any physical evidence, I decided to use the services of an occasional employee to remove some information of my own.”

“You have people inside Scotland Yard?”

“I do not have people,” the Lady said.  “But there are individuals who owe me favors and, on occasion, I call those favors in.  How else did you think I managed to arrange for your early release from prison?  How have I been able to keep track of you so absolutely since you absconded from Paris, information in hand?”

With great effort, I managed to maintain the expressionless mask.  Twice, since Paris, the Lady had missed things.  Thus far, she’d made no mention of Alex or his minor role in the drama so far.  And she seemed to be operating under the assumption that the ‘key’ was a formula or document, instead of a small girl with an intuitive grasp of impossibly complicated mathematics.  Neither of those facts provided me with an edge I could use to wiggle out from under her thumb, but the knowledge that she wasn’t omniscient led me to believe that it might be possible to fool her.  I didn’t know exactly how I might pull that off at a later date, but simply knowing that it was possible was a great boost to my mental state.

“What information did you need from Scotland Yard?” I asked.

“There were…questions that required answers,” she said.  “Not for myself, of course.”

“Then for who?  Your partner?  Or – what did you call him?  – your associate?”

The Lady laughed.  The sound surprised me, not least of all because it was utterly unexpected.  What shocked me the most was the genuine warmth in the laugh.  “David,” she said, “has never been particularly interested in the minutiae of grudges.  He does as I ask and, at least so far as I am aware, that is enough for him.”

She held the manila folder out to me.  I made no move to accept it.  “What is that?”

“Open it and see.”

I sighed, shifted uncomfortably under the weight of her steady gaze, and finally took the folder from her fingers.  I opened it and scanned the first page. Halfway down the sheet of paper, the temperature of my blood dropped by about twenty degrees.  “St. Petersburg,” I muttered to myself.  Then, to the Lady: “This is the police report from St. Petersburg.”

“Indeed.”  She swallowed another mouthful of coffee, as if the steaming hot liquid didn’t bother her in the slightest.  “Among other things.”

“Why would you want this?”

“Because I did not already have it,” she answered.  “And because I have realized that you will require all of the information available, if you are to stand even the slightest chance of completing your task.”

“I was in St. Petersburg,” I said, feigning disinterest.  “I don’t need to read the paperwork to remember what happened.  Asher and I were working a job and things went sideways.  I got out; he didn’t.  Fast forward a couple of years, lightly season with insanity, and you end up with an obsessive asshole who’s hell-bent on killing me. Not a real big mystery.”

The Lady sucked her teeth at me.  “I could entice you with promises of answers; I could offer you threats of danger in the near future.  Neither would suffice for my purposes and, more importantly, neither would be necessary.  You want to know what happened to Mister Knight to make him into the man he is today, almost as much as you wish to bring him to heel for his betrayal in Paris.”

She was right.  I knew it, and so did she.  I refused to give her the satisfaction of acknowledging that point, so I looked back at the top sheet in the manila folder instead.

“There were other reasons for my arrival,” the Lady said, after a few moments.  From her tone, I realized that she considered the matter of the manila folder closed.  “You mentioned a time constraint earlier.”

“I did.  You didn’t say there was going to be a timer running on this job.  Planning these sort of things take time.”

“As much time as you needed to arrange the theft of the barbarian crown?  Or as much time as you needed to forcefully assault the manor house and abscond with the key?  Or, perhaps, as much time as you and yours needed to organize the destruction of Mister Hill’s primary processing plant?”

I bit back several sharp words before they could touch air.  “Those were different,” I said.  “No one in their right mind would choose to work under those circumstances.”

“Ah,” the Lady said, ticking one long index finger back and forth in the air in front of her face.  “But I did not hire anyone in their right mind.  I hired you.  And, if my sources are correct, this is where you excel.  This, in fact, is one of the main reasons why I sought to contract your services in the first place.”

“Because I’m crazy?”

She nodded.  “Because you are resourceful.  I doubt you even realize the true value of your actions these past few days, but allow me to assure you: no matter how badly it seems things have gone, you and your team have done exemplary work under less than ideal situations.  For that, you have earned my genuine respect.”

Oddly enough, I felt as though she were telling the literal, unvarnished truth.  My profession didn’t typically afford me a great deal of praise, either from clients or teammates, and every instinct I possessed told me that the Lady wasn’t in the habit of doling out idle compliments.

“So,” I said, “you respect what we’ve managed to pull off so far or maybe you just respect that we’ve been able to do anything at all without having the faintest amount of time to plan.  Fine.  You know what you’re actually after; why don’t you tell me what it is, so that we can start taking the time to come up with something that doesn’t end up literally exploding in our faces?”

“Multiple reasons,” the Lady said.  “For the moment…let us say that you do not yet have the proper frame of reference to appreciate my motivations.  Even if I were to tell you my true goal, you would fail to grasp the true import.  Please, do not think that I am insulting you; it is simply a matter of position.”

“You’re just going to leave us in the dark, then?”

“For now.”  She gestured at the manila folder in my lap.  “Although I am willing to provide answers when the time is necessary, as I have already proven.  Do not overly concern yourself, Mister O’Brien.  As soon as the time arrives, I will tell you exactly what I have been positioning you for.”

With that said, the Lady fell silent.  I spent five minutes in quiet contemplation before I opened my mouth to say something.  At that exact moment, the car lurched to a stop.  I hadn’t been paying attention to the momentum of the vehicle and the sudden deceleration surprised me.

“We have arrived,” the Lady said.

“The Brooklands isn’t anywhere near this close to Scotland Yard,” I said.

“No, it isn’t.  However, it would hardly do for me to be seen in your company at a location so thoroughly connected to your falsified identities.  Appearances must be maintained, of course.”

“Of course,” I said.  I meant to inject the words with a heavy dose of sarcasm, but I managed only light sardonic humor.  The Lady’s presence was intimidating, but her appearance threatened to lull me into a potentially dangerous stupefaction.  Which, I assumed, was almost certainly the reason for her attire and body language.

“In keeping with that, it is important that you understand: David cannot risk being seen in connection with you at any other point, so long as you are engaged in London,” the Lady said.  “Already, it is possible that he has risked too much, and if my operations in this area were more extensive, I would not have allowed him to involve himself in the first place.”

Allowed, instead of ordered?  That implied the giant had taken it upon his own initiative to step in on my behalf, which did not fit with the image of the man I’d cobbled together from our two previous encounters.

I nodded at the Lady, while my mind continued to mull over that possible nugget of information.  “No more get of jail free cards, then?”

“Nothing is free, Mister O’Brien,” the Lady said.  “But, in answer to the question you meant to ask?  No.  Any additional encounters with the authorities must be resolved in whatever way is most expedient to you, your team, and your available resources.  I leave the details up to you and yours.  Unless I’m mistaken, they should be arriving shortly.”

“You’re just going to leave me?  After all the trouble your personal jolly Green Giant went through to get me out of Scotland Yard?”

“I have no intention of allowing any of your associates to tail me,” the Lady said.  “Although I suppose I should offer points for ambition.”

I bit down on my bottom lip, and said nothing for several seconds.  The Lady made no move to indicate that I should leave the limo.  Eventually, I took it upon myself to open the door and stepped out.  We were in a particularly isolated portion of an unused parking garage.  There were no cars that I could see or hear in the vicinity, but I didn’t doubt that she knew more about Sarah’s location than I did.

I turned to close the door, clutching the manila folder tight to my thigh.  As soon as it clicked shut and locked, the car window rolled slowly down.  The Lady gave me a serious look, those dangerous eyes glittering over the rim of her teacup.  “I have invested a great deal into you, Mister O’Brien.  See that I am not disappointed.”

The limo started to pull away and finally, my brain clicked over a question she’d alluded to, but never quite answered.  “Wait!  You said there’s a time constraint.  Why?  What changed?”

The car didn’t stop, but her voice floated back to me through the cracked window.  “Your friends,” she said, “will be the death of you.”

I stared after her for a long while, watching as her limousine turned a corner and disappeared, mulling over what she might have meant by that cryptic farewell.  Even after Sarah arrived in her mobile command center, even after Michel wrapped me in a warm embrace, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Lady’s cold eyes and colder words hinted at some darker twist we’d yet to discover.

Chapter Eighty-Nine

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

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

“I haven’t done anything!”

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

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

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

“Hypothetically.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adlai gave me a nod.

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

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

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

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

Adlai gave me a second sharp nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

I stared back at him.  “My what?”

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

“So you’re letting me go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Forty-Three

“If only it were that simple,” the lady said.  She motioned toward the manila folder.  I lifted it from the table, but didn’t open it.  “This is a complicated matter, and the nature of these complications require additional explanation.”

“Isn’t that just the worst?”  I asked, running a finger along the folded edge of the envelope.

“Quite.”  She pursed her lips and shot a pointed look at the folder.  I sighed and unsealed it, to reveal a black and white photograph of a splendidly suited man, frozen in the act of pointing out something.  His back was facing the camera, and the shot had been taken from a good distance, but the warehouse in the background of the image was immediately recognizable: the place where Asher had intended to torture me.

“For the moment,” the lady said, “we shall refer to that man as one Mister Hill.”

“That’s probably not his real name, is it?”

The lady shrugged.  “You might not be wrong.  For our purposes, let us proceed as if it were.”  She paused momentarily.  “You apply too much value to names, Mister O’Brien.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said.  “How else am I going to address this guy’s Christmas cards?”

“The value of a given name is that it functions as a method of identification.  In that capacity, one name is as good as any other, yes?”

There were too many discarded aliases in my past to entirely discount her point.  I had friends in the business whose names I still wasn’t sure I actually knew.  “Fair enough,” I said.  “But you still aren’t going to tell me your name?”

She half-smiled.

“Not even a fake one?”  I persisted.  “Just so that I don’t have to call you the Puppetmaster, anymore?”

The smile faded.  “I would prefer something a bit more dignified, but choose whatever you’d like.  Returning to Mister Hill, however?”  Her voice went up at the end, as though it were a question, but the looming presence of David added a measure of finality to the lady’s suggestion.  “You and Miss Ford are already aware of the thriving drug trade here in London, I believe.  Your temporary difficulties earlier this evening took place at one of the warehouses that facilitate the purchase and sale of various narcotics.”

“Where Asher took me, you mean.  Yes, Miss Ford and I are aware.  Your point being…?”

“That particular warehouse was only one of many, located in various areas on the outskirts of London.  Mister Hill is the individual in charge of that enterprise,” the lady said.  “Or, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that he is in charge of maintaining its functionality.  For the most part, the drug trade runs itself.”

“Is that your business?”

The lady motioned for David to pour her another glass of wine.  “I am many things,” she answered.  “One of which does involve the drug trade, yes.  My revenue stream is considerably more diverse than simply that.”

I added that piece of information to my thin mental file on her.  “So what’s your problem with Mister Hill, then?  Rival organization, perhaps?”

“Yes,” the lady said, “and no.  If you would allow me the opportunity to finish explaining what I require of you, without further interruption, this would go considerably smoother.”

I was learning things about her, based solely on her reactions, but they weren’t the sort of things I could use.  She expected a certain measure of respect, but wasn’t used to actually having to fight for it.  That much was obvious from her brusque demeanor and the “back to business” attitude she wore like jewelry.  From that, I could surmise that she’d been involved in the underworld for a long time, but had somehow managed to grow her power without direct confrontation.  Under normal circumstances, I would have needled her until she slipped up and revealed a key detail, but the memory of her frostbitten eyes gave me pause.  Instead, I nodded and waited for her to continue.

She took a long drink from her wine glass.  “As I was saying, Mister Hill’s control over the local drug trade is only a hair shy of absolute; there will always be low level dealers and pushers struggling over the scraps, of course.  The largest portion of the profits available, however, flow from the streets of London directly into Mister Hill’s pockets.  From there, they move into the hands of…other interested, well-connected parties.”

“The Magi, you mean.”

She gave me a curious look.  “The Magi?”

“Don’t play dumb,” I said.  “Whoever is behind BMC is the same party that’s backing Asher – Mister Knight, if you’d rather – and they’re also in charge of Mister Hill, right?  That’s what you’re trying to say?”

“Ah,” the lady replied.  “I hadn’t considered that particular sobriquet, but it seems oddly fitting.  The Magi it shall be, then.  Yes, Mister Hill’s domination of the London drug trade continues and is facilitated by the largesse of the Magi.”  She gave me a brief half-smile as she spoke the name.

“We figured that much out,” I said.  It wasn’t an entirely true statement, but Sarah and I had guessed as much previously.  I didn’t see any particular need to reveal what we had and had not confirmed already.

“Money has a corrupting influence on many people,” the lady said. “Mister Hill is no exception to that rule.  His employment under the Magi has been lucrative for many years, but he has recently decided that he deserves more of the profit in this endeavor.  To that end, he has undertaken several procedures that would allow him the leverage to remove himself from under their thumb.  Among other things – fraudulent bookkeeping, hiring unsavory types to serve as a personal bodyguard – he has moved to acquire the cover identities and real names of integral pieces in the drug trafficking network.”

“He’s working for the Magi, but he didn’t know who else is working for them?  How did he get his supplies?”

“Secrecy is perhaps one of the most valuable weapons an individual can wield,” she said.  “With sufficiently paranoid obfuscation, a person can remove themselves from the public eye and make themselves too elusive for reproach.  Knowledge is power, Mister O’Brien.  You would do well to remember that.”

I digested what she’d said and looked at the next photograph, a picture of a large golden book covered in elaborate designs.

“Your former associate removed that from a vault in Limassol several months ago.  Which, I believe, you were already aware of.”  She waited for me to signal my understanding before continuing.  “Through information gleaned from several different sources, it has come to my attention that the Magi required a physical record of those they employed.  The largest reason for that decision was organizational.  It is difficult to maintain a network of any real size without a record.”

“And,” I finished for her, “it serves as a paper trail.  If any of their employees try to hurt the Magi, there’s documentation with enough information to bury them as well.  Mutually assured destruction.”

“Americans are so fond of that phrase,” she said.  I noted her word choice.  “Effectively, however, you are correct.  By keeping their employees separate and maintaining a forced silence on intercommunication, the Magi ensure that no one individual gains enough knowledge to lay claim to the drug trade here.”

“Which Mister Hill wants to do.  So, he needs the book?”

“He has the book,” the lady corrected.

“And you want me to get the book away from him?”  I asked.  “So that you can seize the same assets that Magi used in London to get so rich and powerful?”

“Financially speaking,” she said, “I desire very little.”

I scratched my temple, to conceal the motion as I wiped a bead of sweat from my forehead.  “Point taken.  So, you want to hire me to steal the book from Mister Hill?  How does that connect back to Asher?”

She seemed to consider her wording.  “Mister Knight has acquired resources, both in money and in men,” the lady said.  “With those, he intends to extract a measure of revenge against you for leaving him in St. Petersburg and against Miss Ford, for becoming your confidante.  Neither you nor she is equipped for a prolonged battle.  You do not know the local element well enough to hire them to your service and, even if you did, the Magi – and, by extension, Mister Knight – are simply capable of providing larger sums of money.”

“If this is a pep talk,” I said, “you are clearly out of practice.”

The lady ignored the comment.  “By impeaching Mister Hill’s integrity in the eyes of the Magi, you could easily remove a formidable obstacle in your path to Mister Knight.”

I winced when she said ‘easy.’  I added another individual to the growing list of people who simply didn’t understand irony or jinxes.  “It’s in London?  The book, I mean.”

She hesitated before answering.  “I believe so,” the lady said, “but I am not entirely certain where.”

I waited for her to elaborate.  When she didn’t, I removed the third item from the envelope: two slips of paper, with holographic lettering that read: “Green Light.”  Those two words were followed by GPS coordinates, a time, and the date.  “And these are?”

“Those, Mister O’Brien, represent a chance to acquire that most useful of weapons for your own arsenal.  One you will need if you intend to combat Mister Knight: knowledge.”

The skin up and down my arms tingled.

“In the same way that you and yours occupy a realm beneath the notice of the average civilian,” the lady said, “there is an entire world of conflict that exists above your capacity to notice.  What you now hold is a…shall we say, a pass into the world.  You’ve already taken note of the coordinates.  On that date, you and another ally of your choosing will be able to glimpse the stars, as it were.  In doing that, you will have the chance to pinpoint the exact location of what I require and what, ultimately, will prove essential to your struggles with Mister Knight.”

“This is where I can find Hill?  He’s got one of these invitations, too?”

“Yes, among others.  Your task at that particular event, however, is to discover the location of the second piece of the puzzle.  The book is only one of two parts.”

I placed the envelope and its contents back on the table.  “It’s in code.”

“Quite.”  She leaned in and, without thinking about it, I mirrored the gesture.  “That is the job, in its entirety.  First, find the key to deciphering the code.  Secure that before anything else.  Following that, identify the location of the book and acquire that, as well.”

“Oh, that’s all?”  I asked.  Sarcasm leaked into my voice.  “You seem to know everything about everyone, lady.  You can’t just tell me where the key is?  Or where Hill’s hiding out?  Seems like that would make it a lot easier for me to get the items you want.”

She seemed vaguely uneasy.  “You fail to understand the magnitude of this matter, Mister O’Brien.  Mister Hill has spent a staggering amount of capital to ensure his secrecy in all but the most dire of circumstances.  The only other individuals with knowledge as to his whereabouts or movements operate in a tier several levels above you.  Thus, your invitations.”

The first thought that popped into my mind was petulant.  I nearly told the lady to leave my hotel room, hulking bodyguard/assistant in tow, so that I could prepare for Asher’s inevitable visit.  I didn’t have the time, nor the desire, to involve myself in power plays between the idle rich.  I licked my lips and parted them in preparation to speak.  My second thought stopped me cold, however.  “You said that this is dangerous.  You weren’t referring to Hill, specifically, were you?”

“No.  In strictest point of fact, you have been in a great deal of danger for several years now.  Moving forward now will increase the threat, but remaining where you are will not in any way alleviate the forces that Mister Knight is arraying against you. Thus, my decision to procure a guard of sorts for your activities.”

Mila finally turned away from the window.  “That’s me.”

It was difficult to turn my attention away from the lady’s luminous beauty, but I managed.  “You were watching me at the museum?”

“That was the job, yeah.  And,” she added, after a moment’s thought, “I like the art.  It’s soothing.”

“So that’s your part in all this?  Her go-to bodyguard?”

Mila laughed.  The sound seemed utterly alien to the tense atmosphere in the hotel room.  “God, no.  I’m hired help, same as you.  I’ve just got a different skill set, is all.  You handle the thefts, and I make sure you get home in one piece, more or less.”

“How long have you been keeping me safe?”  I asked.

“I was waiting for you in Kiev,” Mila said.  “I’ve been following you since, trying to keep you out of danger.  When that fails, I do what I can to keep danger away from you.”  One hand was out of sight, stroking something I couldn’t see; the other clenched into a tight fist in plain view.

My skills must have severely atrophied, if three people had been tailing me for the better part of a week without me knowing.  One part of my thoughts rebelled against the idea that I needed coddling; the much smarter portions of my brain realized that I had only barely managed to stay alive this long. “And this danger?” I asked, turning back to the lady.   “It scares you, too?”

Her expression sharpened to a point and David uncrossed his arms.

I powered on before either of them could interrupt.  “If it didn’t, you could just ask…whoever is supposed to be at this ‘green light’ yourself about the names.  This feels like someone who’s making an active effort to avoid direct confrontation.”

The lady looked away from me for the barest flicker of an instant.  When she turned her eyes back, the expression on her face was blank and featureless.  I was worried that I’d overstepped some invisible boundary with my observation, that she would have me killed for the audacity of speaking the truth as I saw it.  David moved forward and I tensed, preparing to run.  She stopped him with a light touch on his waist.  “No.”

He stopped immediately.  “Ma’am?”

“I cannot hire an individual who relies largely on instinct, and then punish that same individual for exercising the very skills I require,” she said to David.  Then, to me, she sighed and said, “Very well.  The answer to your question is ‘yes.’  Exposing myself would be detrimental to my long-term goals.”

“Exposing yourself?  What’s that supposed to mean?”

The lady glanced up at David, who moved back to his position behind her shoulder reluctantly.  “In your chosen profession,” she said, “anonymity is key.  The perfect heist is one in which no one realizes anything has ever been stolen, yes?”

I nodded.

“Although you and I operate on vastly different levels, the principle is the same.  The organization providing resources to Mister Knight is an inarguable fact of the landscape, shrouded perpetually in secrecy and shadows.  To that end, their agents are equally obfuscated.  If I wish to compete with them, then I must do the same.  The only way to fight an idea is to become one; in order to overthrow an organization that lives in shadow, one must reside in shadow, as well.”

Her words weren’t wrong.  There were thieves I’d only heard about, men and women who systematically erased any trace of their real identities and guarded the information that remained like a dragon guarded its treasure.  Those thieves, however, had been caught or killed eventually, betrayed by the people they worked with.  “A person can’t live like that,” I said.  “Not indefinitely.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “I beg to differ.”  The lady finished her glass of wine.  I expected David to refill it once more, but he plucked the glass from her fingers instead.  She gave no indication of surprise at the change in his actions.  “I would ask after your commitment to this job, but I see in your eyes that you have already decided to accept the task.  Unless I am mistaken?”

I could have lied.  There wouldn’t have been any point.  Instead, I negotiated.  “You’ll leave Sarah out of this,” I said.

“I will do no such thing,” she replied, immediately.  “The decision to participate in this job rests entirely in her hands.  If she wishes to continue working with you, that option will remain available to her.  If you wish to cancel her involvement, then you should do so with your own words.”

I knew Sarah well enough to realize that was an impossibility.  “I want answers, then.  If I pull this off, then I want to know exactly what Asher’s involved in.  I’m not about to suffer through a variety of shots from Asher, whenever he feels like it, without more information.”

“Mister O’Brien,” the lady said.  She raised a hand solemnly, although the amused twinkle in her eye never faded.  “I promise that, at the successful conclusion of this job, you will have an absolute understanding of the situation.”

“And if you’re lying?”

She lowered her hand.  “Lying is the weapon for those who cannot use the truth effectively,” she answered.  “I have no need to lie.”

Despite the considerable wealth of anecdotal evidence in my past, I believed her.

The lady watched my expression for a long moment and then stood.  She cast a disparaging eye at the room around us.  “Moving forward,” she said, “you will require more…suitable accommodations.”

“Professional courtesy?”

“Necessity,” she replied.  “An agent in my employ requires a certain level of class.”

The lady turned and gave David a significant look.  In response, he removed the blackberry from his jacket pocket and busied himself with something for two full minutes.  When he finished, he nodded to her once and said, “Ma’am.”

“Excellent as ever, David.”  The lady moved away from her seat and David produced a cloth, which he rubbed across every surface that her bare fingers had touched.  She noticed me watching David and gave a slight smile.  “Fingerprints, Mister O’Brien.  Surely, you understand.”

“Oh, of course.  Can’t be anything less than an absolute ghost, could you?”

The lady either ignored my sarcasm or simply didn’t notice it.  The four of us waited while David wiped her fingerprints away from every surface in the room and then gave her a short, sharp nod.  “Mister O’Brien,” she said.  “I hope that this business arrangement will be profitable for both of us.”

“Profit isn’t really my top concern,” I said.

“Survivable, then.  For you,” she said, smiling her incongruous smile, “not for me.”

I started to reply, but found my mouth suddenly dry once more.  The lady moved, her long legs flashing through the long slit in her black dress, towards the door.  David followed her.  He didn’t even spare a glance at me, as he passed.  They left without another word.

Mila didn’t speak until they were gone.  “I’ve got some personal things to take care of,” she said finally.  “But I’ll catch up with you a little later.  If you could at least try to stay out of anyone’s sights until then, I’d appreciate it.”

She used both of her hands to lift something off of the window sill.  My jaw, already sore from dropping so much in the space of a single conversation, fell again.  The item she’d been stroking wasn’t an item; it was a large, puffy white cat.  “And that’s yours?”  I asked.

“I prefer to think of Sam as a partner,” Mila said pointedly.  “He isn’t just a possession.”  It was more emotion than I’d heard from her yet.  “Don’t do anything stupid.”  She took the cat and left the room, as well.

I waited five minutes before I lifted the bottle of Guinness and drank deeply from it.  I didn’t use the phone to call Sarah until the bottle was empty. “Well,” I said, when she answered.

“Devlin?”  Sarah asked.  “What are you calling for?”  Before I could answer, she barreled forward.  “I just got another email.  There’s a new job.”

“Yeah,” I said.  The image of the lady, black dress and long legs, eyes like liquid nitrogen, flashed in my head.  “About that.”

Chapter Forty-Two

Panic shot through me like a bolt of lightning.  The lady watched me with a cool, discerning eye and didn’t shift an inch from her position. She wore a form-fitting black evening gown speckled with tiny jewels across the neckline. Her nails were a brilliant shade of red, which matched the twists and curls of her voluminous hair.  An oversized emerald glittered from her ring finger. It caught the light as she raised her glass of red wine and emptied it. She held the glass out to the side and the giant behind her, without missing a beat, refilled it from a bottle with a French label. The lady inclined her head to him, without taking her eyes away from me, and he stepped back into the shadows without a word.

“Well?” She asked, in an accent I couldn’t quite place.  One corner of her lips turned up slightly. “I would imagine that, after your stressful evening at the museum, you’d prefer to take a seat.”

Somehow, the alarm bells in my head found a higher volume. I struggled to keep the shock from my expression. “Who are you?”

“What I am,” she said, “is in a hurry.  Sit or don’t sit; either way, make up your mind.”

I considered the situation. Here I was, in a room that Sarah had rented for me under a psuedonym. And here they were, two people I’d never seen before and one I clearly knew nothing about, seemingly perfectly at ease in my personal space. The lady had thrown my real name out casually, disdainfully.  When that hadn’t led to her desired outcome – whatever that outcome might have been – she’d followed it up with a reference to the job I had only just finished.

Knowledge was power and, as an opening display, she’d made a devastating first move.

The man was large enough that it pushed the constraints of reality.  Where her eyes were cold and intelligent, his were entirely impassive.  His hands were the size of basketballs and his arms bulged beneath the fabric of his expertly tailored suit.  I thought, but wasn’t sure, that the outline of a handgun was visible under his jacket.  He didn’t quite glare at me, so much as he cast an unflinching gaze in my direction.  The expression wasn’t a threat.  It was closer to an unspoken promise: “I can hurt you.”  An involuntary shiver traveled up my spine at the thought.

Mila’s back was turned to me.  She faced the window, looking out on the city itself.  Most of the room’s lights were off, and my visibility was limited in the dimness, but her hand seemed to move rhythmically against something on the window sill.

Calling for help wasn’t an option.  I’d logged off of the comms line and the earbud was now in my pocket.  I held little illusion that this lady, her pet giant, or Mila would allow me to remove the bud, slip it into my ear, and then politely ask Sarah to send over armed assistance.  I was, for all intents and purposes, alone.

I could always run away.  That strategy had worked well for me in the past.  A willingness to leave an unfavorable situation, coupled with a distinct lack of foolish masculine ego, were valuable assets in the field.  There were only a few feet between where I stood and the door.  I weighed the chance of a successful escape. The lady was seated, her legs crossed provocatively at the knee, with a large glass of wine held inches from her lips.  Her heels were several inches long and the carpet beneath my feet was soft; if I fled, and she gave chase, she’d only trip and fall to the floor.  A quiet voice in my mind, distinct from the alarm sirens blaring at full volume, told me that she wasn’t likely to move at all.  The giant, however, kept his eyes on me, almost daring me to act.

He was large, but I’d learned a long time ago that size was not mutually exclusive with speed. I gave myself even odds.  With a little luck, I could reach the hallway.  From there, a dash to a stairwell would allow me to open some distance.  I would at least be able to slip the earbud back in and call for a ride away from the hotel and to safety.

But, the lady had already found me once.  I didn’t know how she’d managed it, but there was no point in denying objective facts.  If I ran now, it was very possible that I would only lead her to Michel or Sarah.  I needed more information before I made any decision; without that, any move I made – every move I could possibly make – carried the risk of opening myself up to further harm.

Neither the lady in the black dress or her bodyguard made a single threatening move towards me.  Mila didn’t even turn to acknowledge my presence.   I made the call, nodded to myself, and sat opposite the lady.

“Excellent,” she said with another slight half smile.  “Would you care for a drink?”

“Wine’s not my thing,” I said.  I continued to examine every inch of the lady for any clue to work with.  Her dress was elegant, with a thigh-high slit that displayed a great deal of her legs.  I swallowed hard at the sight.  Years in prison had not been kind to my libido.  She noticed my gaze and shifted, just enough, so that the display of legs verged on indecent.  I looked away.

She took another long drink from her wine glass.  “Which is a shame, of course.  But, I expected as much.  You prefer…Guinness, I believe?”

As she spoke, the giant produced a bottle of Guinness.  He stepped past her and placed the drink on the table between the two of us, close enough that I could reach it if I stretched.  I glanced at his face and a glimmer of recognition twinkled in the back of my mind.  He moved back to the shadows before that flash of a thought crystallized into anything solid.  I took the bottle from the table with two fingers.  It was still cold.

“You know an awful lot about me,” I said.  I returned the beer to the table.  The memory of my most recent drugging was strong enough that I had no desire to drink from an already opened beverage.  “I’m going to assume you aren’t about to introduce yourself and I’ve already made Mila’s acquaintance.  Who’s the giant?”

“David, you mean?  He is my second.”

“David?  The opposite of Goliath, the actual biblical giant?”  I raised an eyebrow.  “That can’t be his real name.”

She tilted her head slightly at the question.  “That is a singularly unique take on a fairly common name, Mr. O’Brien.  You haven’t been particularly religious since your eighteenth birthday, so you can imagine my surprise that you would leap immediately to that allusion.”

My jaw dropped instantly.  “How do you…”  I stopped myself from finishing the question.  This was just another blatant display of power and knowledge.  She’d been doing that from the instant I’d walked into my hotel.  If she knew my full name, it wasn’t that large of a stretch to imagine that she’d done thorough research on my life before I became a criminal.  My mother’s death was a matter of public record.

She read my expression flawlessly.  “I have, of course, done a great deal of research on you.  I am nothing, if not thorough.”  She held up her free hand and the giant – David, until more information could be gathered – placed a smartphone in her palm.  The lady used her thumbprint to unlock it and scrolled through a list.  “Your relationship with your mother is well documented, as is your marriage and divorce from Miss Ford.  David, how much information do we have on the cab driver?”

He cleared his throat.  I expected him to answer the question with another wordless gesture.  He surprised me by speaking, instead, in a deep voice.  “Thirty-two years old, native Parisian.  Abandonment issues.  Sexually promiscuous, but on good terms with most of his past lovers.”

She held up the phone.  He stopped speaking and took the smartphone back.  “As you can see, Mr. O’Brien, I am very well informed.”

I knew what she was doing.  Now that I’d calmed down enough to look at the situation rationally, the lady’s play was transparent: frighten me with an absurd amount of knowledge, lead me to believe that she was effectively omniscient, and make me more likely to acquiesce to whatever her demands were.  Knowing that academically, however, did little to decrease the visceral effect of the display.  I swallowed twice to moisten my suddenly dry mouth and throat.  “What do you want?”

“To talk.”

“About what?”

“Business, Mr. O’Brien.”  She leaned back in the chair and drank deeply from the wine glass.  “Always, business.”

“I’m a little overbooked at the moment,” I said.  “Surely, you understand.”

“Are you referring to your dispute with Mr. Knight?”  The lady asked.  “Or your soon-to-be completed association with that relic you stole tonight?”

“Ah,” I said intelligently.  “Well.”

Clouds passed away from the moon outside of the window and, for the first time, light streamed in.  I was able to get a better look at the lady.  She was absolutely gorgeous.  I couldn’t deny that much.  The half-smile on her lips was alluring and off-putting, in equal measure.  I found my eyes traveling down the length of her dress, but halted as a memory of an attractive redhead from the Parisian ice cream shop flashed in my mind.  A moment later, another memory – now, of a tourist with thick red hair standing outside of an airport kiosk – presented itself.  “You’ve been following me,” I said.  “I saw you in Paris and again when I got into London.  Why?”

“I was beginning to wonder how long it would take you to reach that conclusion,” the lady answered.  “Now, follow that train of thought to its end.”

I glared at her, even as my mind continued to work.  The giant, David, was familiar.  I closed my eyes for an instant before I remembered him as well.  “And he’s the one who gave me the information on Asher’s whereabouts.  That would make…you’re the Puppetmaster?”

The lady’s eyebrows drew close together.  She frowned slightly, but only on one side of her mouth.  “If that’s the name you and your ex-wife have assigned to me, then yes.  I am the person who arranged for your premature release from prison.  I am also the individual who hired you to…liberate the crown. ”

“So, this is what?”  I asked.  “You threaten my life so that you can get out of paying what you offered?”

“Why would I do something like that?”  She seemed genuinely upset at the idea.  “The money has already been wired to the accounts, as specified.  What I came to say, Mr. O’Brien, is that any future business dealings between the two of us proceed on a foundation of proven skill.  Your work with the unexpected developments at the museum were impressive.”

“What did you want with the crown?”

“Nothing at all,” the lady said.  She finished her wine and David refilled it instantly.  The rhythm between the two was daunting.  She didn’t glance at the glass and he was in motion before she raised it high enough for him to pour.  The simple routine spoke of hard-won synchronization.  “Its value was based solely on the interest of other parties.  Circumventing the security measures protecting it was the primary purpose of your involvement.  Personally, I couldn’t care less what happens to it.”

“But…why?”

“As I’ve said, Mr. O’Brien.  Business.”

I took a deep breath.  The tension of the situation had pushed me past fear and into the realm of inappropriate anger.  David’s muscles provided an excellent reason to stay as calm as possible, however.  I wrestled my rising temper to the ground before I spoke.  “And what business is that?”

“I have a proposition for you,” she said.  “Before we get into that, though, please verify that the payment has arrived in your account.  I’d like to make several things clear before I proceed.”

David removed a phone, as well as a slip of paper, from his interior pocket and tossed them both to me.  I caught the device and, a moment later, snatched the paper from the air.  Several numbers and letters were written in two lines on the slip.  The phone was the one I’d lifted from the Ukranian sniper.  As it touched my hands, the phone vibrated and a new message appeared on the front screen.  I accessed the phone’s browser, carefully keeping my expression neutral, and went to the site indicated.  The touchscreen gave me a little trouble when I entered in the long strings of characters as both identification and password.

When the account information appeared, my jaw dropped slightly.  I couldn’t help it.  Sarah hadn’t told me exactly how much the job had been worth.

I looked at the number and the zeroes that covered a good portion of the screen, before I slipped the phone into my pocket.  I didn’t look at the message I’d received.  I could wait until after my guests were gone to do that.  “Okay.”  I rammed every ounce of composure I owned into the word.  “What’s the point of this?”

“I’m simply making it clear the sums I’m willing to provide for work well done,” the lady said.  “And, if you’ll remember, the crown meant absolutely nothing to me personally.”

The phone vibrated once more in my pocket.  “You went through all the trouble of springing me from prison, just so that I could steal something you don’t care about?”  I shrugged.  “It’s your money, I guess.”

“Please, Mr. O’Brien.  I’m well aware of your talent for problem solving and your ability to multi-task your way through several issues at the same time.  Do so now, and save us both the time of these pointless interludes.”

That old familiar anger rose again.  She was right, though.  I didn’t have to think about the question; the answer had already occurred to me.  “It was an audition,” I said.  “A test, to see if I could handle whatever your real goal is.  Right?”

“Indeed,” the lady replied.  The accent continued to gnaw at me.  On certain words, she sounded distinctly Baltic.  On others, the accent shifted to French, upper-class British, even German.  “I’m glad to see that your reputation wasn’t entirely ill-deserved.”

“Reputation?”  I asked, and immediately regretted it when that corner of her lips rose once more.  I shook my head.  “Nevermind.”

“There is an item that I wish to acquire,” the lady said.  “I’d like for you to acquire it for me.”

Another job?  Something else that you don’t particularly care about?”

An emotion flickered across her face.  It vanished too quickly for me to decipher, but its simple appearance was enough.  “No,” she said cautiously.  The half-smile disappeared.  “This…item…is of considerable importance.”

The glimpse beneath her façade emboldened me.  Whatever this was about, it meant more to her than she was willing to let on.  “If it’s so important,” I asked, “why not get it yourself?  Or send your personal Bigfoot, if you can’t be bothered to handle the matter personally?”

“There is a fair amount of danger inherent in said acquisition,” the lady said.  “I am, as you can imagine, reluctant to expose myself to that sort of danger.”

“And you want me to do it for you?  I don’t even know your name.”

She didn’t take the bait.  I didn’t think she would, but there was always a small hope.  “I don’t expect you to do it simply out of the kindness of your heart.”

“And if I say no?”  I tried to hide my instinctive nervous swallow with a cough.  I smirked for effect, despite the growing pit in my stomach.  “You’ll kill me?”

“Mr. O’Brien,” the lady said.  The temperature in the room dropped several degrees as she impaled me with a humorless, steely glare.  “I assure you.  You do not wish to test that theory.”

David was easily two hundred and fifty, maybe three hundred pounds.  He looked at me, not as a person, but as an obstacle to be removed if necessary.  He moved and the outline of a large caliber handgun clarified in the moonlight.  Even without that, he could easily strangle me to death with his gigantic hands or pummel me to death in short order.

I’d personally seen Mila go on the offensive, leveling several men who were heavier, stronger, and taller.  Even though she still hadn’t turned around to face me, it would be foolish of me to forget about her presence.

Despite their presence, in that moment, the lady in the black dress was by far the most dangerous person in the room.  I stayed quiet and tried very hard not to make eye contact.

“But no,” she continued, after her threat had a chance to hang in the air between us.  “This task will likely require your absolute best.  For that, I need your willing cooperation.  Anything less will be insufficient.  If you choose not to accept this assignment, I will be forced to move onto yet another, less qualified and untested, individual.”

“You know,” I said, “the typical strategy is to downplay the dangerous part of the job.  That way, I don’t’ know what I’m getting into until I’ve gotten into it.  What possible reason could make me take a job that’s so bad you’ll openly tell me how bad things are going to be?”

“A truly absurd amount of money,” she answered immediately and with perfect ease.

That gave me pause.

While I floundered to form the appropriate words, she accepted a manila folder from David and placed it on the table in front of me.  “So?  Will you accept the job?”

My mouth opened and closed for several seconds before I found the words.  “I’ve got my own issues to worry about,” I said.  “You aren’t going to threaten or hurt me and mine if I turn this down?”

She shook her head.  “You are free to leave, whenever you wish.”

I stood, watching David for any movement or threat.  There was none.  “Then, as interesting as that sounds, my plate’s a little too full for me to take on outside work.”  I stood up and started toward the door.  It struck me as supremely unfair that I was being forced to leave my hotel room, but any escape with my limbs intact was a good escape in my book.

“And if I told you that Mr. Knight is a key player in the unfolding events?”  The lady’s voice rose from behind me, almost musical.  “That, by your involvement, you could deal a not inconsiderable blow to the organization protecting him?”

I froze.  I knew bait when I heard it.  I turned back around and my eyes met the lady’s.  That half-smile was on her face again but, aside from that, every inch of her had turned to resolute stone.  She was deadly serious.  I looked down at the manila folder, inhaled long and slow, and then sat back down.  “What’s the job?”