Tag Archives: Lane

The Arm of the Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t the last.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he had. Of course he had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

“And Hill? Why did you kill him?”

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

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

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

Why?”

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

“Orders from who?”

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

“What is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who knows where you are?” Lane asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

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.

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 Seventy-Two

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

“How do you know that?”  Adlai countered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You, uh, what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michel nodded slowly, but didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone new?”  Adlai repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are sure about this?”  Adlai asked.

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

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

“I…think I did.”

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

Adlai answered with a noncommittal grunt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep,” Mila said.

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

Non,” Michel said.

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

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

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

“It isn’t abnormal,” I said.

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

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

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

Chapter Sixty-Nine

“I…I don’t know,” I said, helpless and dumbfounded.

“You don’t know?”  She repeated.  “You promised he wouldn’t be at the bar.  You swore to it, in fact.”

“He shouldn’t be!”  I heard the squeak in my voice.  “I’ve been doing everything I can to keep up with him as a matter of professional safety, and he doesn’t drink; he doesn’t socialize with virtually anybody; and he absolutely would not go to any place where there are so many people crowding around him.”

“Seems like he got over that,” Sarah said.

“Maybe Lane got him to come out?”  The question was directed more to myself than to Sarah.  “Or something might have shaken things up in his personal life, I just…I don’t know why he’s there, but we’ve got to pull those two out of there now.”

I reached up to unmute the line.  Sarah stopped my hand with hers.  “Wait,” she said.  “Just…wait a second, let me think.”

“What’s there to think about?  The plan was for them to lift some identification from Lane, while he’s drunk and not paying strict attention.  Adlai’s presence obviously throws that whole idea to hell, so…”

“Does it, though?”

I paused and blinked at Sarah.  “What?”

“Does it actually change the plan?  Michel just has to keep the two of them distracted long enough for Mila to make the lift,” Sarah said.  “Those two weren’t ever going to be involved in anything physical at the Interpol office, so they don’t have covers to protect.  That’s why we sent them in the first place.”

“We sent them because you convinced me to take a small risk, not because we wanted to have them serve themselves up on a platter to the very agent who’s trying to arrest me now.  I’m not going to let them put themselves in that much danger, just to make things easier on me.”

“You won’t let them?”  Sarah’s voice hadn’t changed much on the surface, but the temperature around her seemed to have dropped suddenly.  “Easier on you?”

I squeezed my eyes shut and pinched the bridge of my nose for thirty seconds.  I tried to put my thoughts in order, to frame some argument that would convince Sarah that I was right without leading to an argument.  “We can find another way to do this,” I said, finally.  “There’s too much of a possibility that something’s going to go wrong, and that’s only going to put us in worse position later.”

“The thing is,” Sarah said, “I actually believe you mean that.”

I knew her well enough to recognize when she was planting verbal bait.  “But?”

“But that isn’t why you want to pull them out,” she finished.  “And it isn’t why you didn’t like this plan in the first place.”

“Oh?  And what insight have you suddenly had into the inner workings of my own mind?”

“You’re scared, Devlin.”

I rolled my eyes.  “You think?”

“Not of Asher,” Sarah said, with a lethally sharp undertone of sarcasm.  “Not of Hill, or the Magi, or even the Lady.  You’re scared something’s going to happen to one of us, and that it’ll be your fault.”

I opened my mouth to reply.  I closed it again when I realized that I had no clever response available.

She pressed on.  “It’s an absolutely honorable thing to do, and it’s just like you.  It also happens to be one of the most arrogant and stupid parts of your personality.”

“Arrogant?  Wanting you guys to be safe is arrogant, now?”

“It’s arrogant,” Sarah said, “because you assume that you’re somehow such a compelling and charming human being that people would willingly walk in front of the firing squad just because you asked us to.  I’m here because I want to be here.  I made that choice, not you.  And Michel?  He could’ve walked away at any point – hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been trying to get him to leave – and he’s still here.  A complete newbie to this whole thing, in deeper than I’ve personally ever been, and he practically volunteered to help.  His choice, Devlin.  Not yours.”

“And Mila?”

Sarah lifted an eyebrow.  “I’m not going to dignify that with a response.  The point is this: the reason those two are out there and the reason I’m here are because we want to be here.”  She paused.  “It’s because we want to help with…all of this.  You think I wouldn’t have just disappeared if Asher was the only thing I was worried about?”

“You didn’t even know about Asher,” I said.

Her lips parted slightly and there was a single moment where it seemed like she was about to say something.  She blinked, coughed a little, and the moment passed.  “I know now,” Sarah said instead, “and I’m choosing to be here.  And whether or not Michel and Mila decide to roll the dice on this is their choice.  You don’t get to take all of this on your own shoulders.”

As much as it pained me to admit, even just to myself, Sarah was right.  She gave me a look, subtly different from any she’d thrown at me since San Francisco, and I could see that she knew she’d won the discussion.

“We’ll let them decide, then,” I said, and unmuted the comms line.  Sarah made no move to stop me this time.  “Guys.  We’ve got a problem.”

Mila turned her back to Adlai and Lane.  “Imagine that.”

“What is the problem?”  Michel asked.

“Lane is at the bar,” I said, “but he isn’t alone.”

“I noticed that,” Mila said.  “Who’s his friend?”

I sighed before I answered.  “It’s Adlai.  Apparently, Lane talked him into coming out for a night on the town, or…I don’t know, or cats started living in harmony with dogs, but he’s there now and that’s really all that matters.”

Several long seconds of silence passed on both ends of the connection.  Mila cleared her throat first, breaking the frozen instant.  “Speaking of cats,” she said, “can you make sure that Sam gets fed?  Just in case this takes longer than expected.”

I gave the screen a long, confused look before I tapped lightly at the earbud.  Not hard enough to mute it again, but with enough force that I was certain it was actually in place.  “Did you hear what I said?”

“I did,” Mila said.  “Did you hear what I said?  Because Sam gets catty when he’s hungry.”

Sarah snickered.  “Catty?  Really?”

At any other time, I would’ve been happy to engage in a little bit of meaningless banter.  At that moment, however, I could hardly believe that Mila and Sarah were actually joking.  “Adlai is in the building,” I repeated.  “If you want to walk away, we can come up with another plan.”

“If you could come up with another plan,” Mila said, “you would’ve done it already.  Adlai being here doesn’t actually change what we have to do, does it Michel?”

“No,” he answered, after a stretch of silent consideration.  “No, it does not.  I only have to keep this Lane from noticing Mila, no?”

“Which shouldn’t be too hard,” Mila said.  “He’s doing some serious damage to those pints.”

I could feel Sarah’s smug eyes on me, so I elected to keep my eyes focused on the television screen.  “You two aren’t worried about getting caught?”

“I’m always a little concerned about getting caught,” Mila replied.  “But I feel pretty confident that neither Adlai or Hill has much of a chance at keeping me, if I decide I want to go.”

“I am concerned,” Michel added, “but I knew that there were risks when I came.  I can do this.”  He paused.  “Unless you think I cannot?”

I could have answered in the negative.  He’d left me an opening.  If I told him that I was concerned about his abilities, that tiny kernel of doubt would have been enough reason to call the operation off.  We could spend more time analyzing the problem, seeking an angle where Sarah, Michel, and Mila weren’t in so much danger.  It would have been so easy, too.  Even an indirect answer might be enough.  Nothing explicit; just something vague enough that it got into his head and Sarah was forced to pull the plug.

But I also knew that tiny seed of doubt would never go away.  Michel had talent and he’d been interested in the underworld so far.  Those were two traits I didn’t encounter often.  It was likely that he’d find his way back into thievery at one point or another, whether it was with us or not, but that speck of doubt would grow to define him.  It might keep him out of danger, on this one job, but it would also fester into hesitation.  A single moment of hesitation at a key moment – while an alarm system was going off and he couldn’t be sure which path led to the police, versus the one leading to freedom – would be damning.

Sarah was watching me.  I could feel the pressure of her thoughts, like a weight against my skin.  “No,” I said to Michel.  “No, I think you can do it.  I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were walking into.”

He sighed, either in relief or appreciation.  “Okay,” he said.  “What do I do first?”

“This is just going to be a standard approach,” I said, taking care to remove any doubt or ambivalence from my voice.  I started the process of shifting my thought processes into pure problem-solving mode.  “You’re a fellow expat, looking for someone to have a drink with. “

“I can do that,” Michel said.  “I think.”

“Mila,” I added, “just circle around the bar until either Sarah or I call for you.  Try to keep your camera pointed in his general direction, so that we can watch the interactions between him, Lane, and Adlai.  The security cameras don’t give us a lot of detail.”

Sarah cleared her throat.  “And stay close, on the off-chance that something else goes wrong.”

I restrained the urge to groan.  By phrasing her instructions like that, Sarah all but guaranteed that the roof would choose the worst possible moment to cave in, or that a resurgence of the Black Plague would strike down our team members and only our team members, or that Mila would suffer from a sudden bout of spontaneous combustion.  A quick glance in her direction made it clear that she understood what she’d done, immediately, but there wasn’t anything to do about it now.

Sarah had to cross the room and move Sam away from his perch in front of the screen so that the two of us could devote our full attention to Michel’s camera feed.  It wasn’t a long walk from where he stood with Mila to where Lane sat with Adlai, but the bar was jam packed with patrons vying for the attention of bartenders, servers, and a limited supply of attractive women.  Michel picked his way through the crowd with as much delicacy as I would expect from a neophyte, until he was only two tables away from Lane and Adlai.  There, he paused for a moment.

Sarah looked at me, expectantly.  I cleared my throat and shifted mental tracks.  There was a time for second guessing, but that time was over.  “Michel, I’ll walk you through this approach,” I said.  “Sarah’s right here with me, and she’ll be able to pull up information as necessary to make sure your cover ID stands up to any scrutiny.  All you’ve got to do is stay calm and stay in character.  Adlai’s not a social person, so he shouldn’t really involve himself in the conversation.”

Sarah scribbled something on a scrap of paper and pushed it across the counter to me.  I glanced down at the words: “shouldn’t = key word.”  I scowled at her as I crumpled the slip of paper into a tiny ball and threw it at her head.

“How do I approach him?”  Michel asked.

I watched the security cameras for a moment, drawing up a quick and dirty outline for how I’d quickly befriend Lane, if it were me in the bar instead of Michel.  “Unless he’s already drunk, he’s going to notice you before you get a chance to make an actual introduction.  That’s going to come with suspicion.  Counter that by being entirely open and forthcoming.  Eye contact and wide smile, okay?  Start off by letting him know you’re not British, so that he feels a connection with you over that.  He’s going to take the initiative, and that’s fine for right now, but you’ll have to get it back as soon as possible.”

“Why would I do that?  Wouldn’t it be better to let him do all of the talking?”

“Right up until he asks you a question you hesitate on, sure,” I said.  “As long as you’re steering the conversation, I can tell you what to say to keep him away from any problem areas.”

That wasn’t the whole truth.  If it were a one-on-one interaction, sure, the team could work together to ensure that Michel never strayed too close to dangerous topics of conversation.  But Adlai’s presence was a wrench in the delicate mechanics of our plan.  At any given moment, he could say or do something that ruined whatever groove Michel managed to establish with Lane, and there was no way to really keep him in check.

I wouldn’t tell Michel that, of course.  “Remember,” I said, “all we need is for him to be fully invested in you, so that Mila can make the lift, copy the RFID frequency, and beat a hasty retreat.”

“I’ll be right here, too,” Sarah added.  “And you already know where Mila’s at.  Just remember that you aren’t alone out there.”

I watched Mila’s feed as Michel nodded to himself.  He started the approach without any further prompting on my part or questions on his.  Sarah entered a command into her laptop and the zoom on Mila’s feed tripled.  The images were nearly as crisp as if I were there in person.

Just as I’d predicted, Adlai looked up from his smartphone as Michel drew closer.  The camera Michel wore wasn’t quite state of the art, but it didn’t need a lot of resolution to see that Lane was wavering from one side to the other in his seat, while Adlai’s eyes were alert and focused on Michel.

Pardon,” Michel said, before Adlai or Lane could get a word out.  “Excusez-moi, mais parlez-vous francais?”

Adlai frowned at the question.  For a moment, it seemed like he would ignore Michel, but I’d taken the measure of his personality a long time ago.  “Oui,” he said shortly.  “But I am better at English.”

“Oh!  Bon!”  Michel clapped his hands together in faked excitement.  “I know that English is easier to use while I am here, but I miss my own language.  You understand, no?”

“I have been speaking English for many years,” Adlai said.  “I don’t think of it as someone else’s language, anymore.”

The forced cheer in Michel’s voice dimmed slightly.  Not a lot, but enough that it was audible when he spoke again.  “Oh.  I did not mean anything offensive, I just…”

“Don’t do that,” I whispered into the earbud.  The decrease in volume was automatic and unreasonable.  I could scream into the connection and neither of the agents would hear a single syllable I said.  “That’s how Adlai is.  Move onto Lane.”

“And you?”  Michel asked, turning to the Scottish agent.  “Where are you from, if you do not mind me asking?”

“Scotland here.”  Lane’s answer was brutally short.

I entertained a moment of concern at the brusqueness of Lane’s response.  If our intelligence was wrong and Lane wasn’t a friendly person, this whole exercise would turn out to be nothing more than a waste of time we didn’t have and couldn’t afford to waste.  The moment passed when I realized that his attention was focused on two things in equal measure, judging from the changing angles of his chin: the beer in front of him, and the soccer game playing out on one of the televisions hanging behind the bar.

I motioned for Sarah to pass me a full, clean sheet of paper.  We’d have to communicate through written notes while Michel was in the middle of distracting both agents; it wasn’t the first time we’d been forced to do that.  I used our personal shorthand to write out a message: “top players, coaches, etc.?”

She performed a search for some information, jotted down some notes for herself, and then wrote out a response in the same shorthand: “try Fletcher.”  It took me a moment to piece together the symbols and abbreviations Sarah had chosen for the name.  She took the time to add another window to the feeds on the television screen, allowing us to watch the game, in real time.

I relayed that information to Michel, and it immediately became relevant: the same Scottish striker from earlier ducked around a defender, used a fancy heel maneuver to launch the ball up to about waist height, and then roundhouse kicked it past the goalie and into the net.  The crowd exploded, both in the bar and at the game itself.  “Michel?”  I prompted.

“Fletcher!  Bon, c’est trés bon! Excellente!”  I repressed the urge to laugh out loud.  Michel had elected to pour his Frenchness on layers, complete with the most stereotypical accent I’d ever heard.  If Michel wasn’t actually French, it might have been a little offensive.

Adlai glanced away from the television.  “Fletcher?”  He asked.  He sounded drunk.  “What do you know about the Scots and their soccer?”

Michel responded before I had a chance to feed him an answer.  “Enough to know that the English do not stand a chance if the Army has its way,” he said.

I blinked and scribbled a loose approximation of a thumbs-up on the paper for Sarah.

“Laddie!”  Lane cried out, in an accent that was nearly impenetrable.  “You’re sounding like my kind of Frenchie!  Who’d you come with?”

“I am new to the area,” Michel said, “and I have not had a chance to make any friends, yet.”

“Well, you just did,” Lane said.  “Grab a seat.  Maybe you’ll be better company than this one.”  The inspector hooked a thumb in Adlai’s direction.

Adlai, for his part, hadn’t lowered the pressure of his stare in the slightest.  I could feel the heat and intensity of that stare, as though he were looking right through Michel at me, directly.  I shuddered at that morbid thought.  “You’re doing great,” I told Michel.  “Grab a seat, and start feeding him shots.”

“That was it?”  Mila asked.  “You made it seem like this was going to be something impossible, but that was…”

I winced as Sarah pressed a button on her laptop and filled the comms line with a burst of high pitched feedback.  Michel remained unaffected, so I assumed that she had found some way to exclude him from that noise in the few seconds since I’d been watching her.  “You were saying something, Mila?”  She asked.

“I was saying that, so far, this is pretty…”

The feedback came over the line again.  I was prepared this time and managed to keep my reaction to a slight grimace.

“Go on,” Sarah said.  “I’d hate for this equipment to stop you from saying something impossibly stupid.”

Instead of trying a third time, Mila chuckled to herself and decided to keep her thoughts to herself.

I tuned my attention back to Michel’s side of things.  “…I am only visiting for a little while,” the Frenchman was saying to Lane.  “A vacation, from the rough life of a cab driver, you see.  What brings the two of you here, though?”

“Good job,” I said, nodding at his initiative.  “People love talking about themselves.  Let him open up, but don’t let him get control of the conversation.  It’s easier than it sounds, promise.”

I scratched out a quick sentence on the paper in front of me and pushed it over to Sarah: “how long to copy RFID?”

She adjusted a setting on her laptop, raising the resolution of both Michel and Mila’s cameras, before she responded: “two minutes.  maybe three, depending.  why?”

“got a feeling,” I wrote back.

good feeling?”

I shook my head slowly.  Out loud, I said, “Start ordering shots, Michel.  Lane’s a good old scotsman, so I’m betting he’s a fan of whiskey.  Start off with…”  I tapped an index finger against my chin and considered the options.

“Bell’s,” Sarah provided.

I raised an eyebrow.  “Since when do you drink whiskey?”

“I don’t,” she replied, lifting her eyebrow as well.  “But Lane used a credit card to open his tab and I’ve got access to their system, so…”

“Bell’s it is,” I said.

Michel suggested the liquor with more casualness than I would have expected and Lane, more than a few drinks in the bag already, accepted it with so much warmth that I almost felt bad about deceiving him.  Adlai couldn’t have been good company at any social event, let alone a bar teeming with drunken football fans.  Even now, while Michel attempted to schmooze his way into Lane’s good graces, Adlai continued to glare in his general direction.  Every few seconds, he let his eyes dart around the area – tracking threats, most likely – but he returned to glaring at Michel before too long.

Still, if the only thing that Adlai did was think harsh thoughts, I could deal with that.

“I’ve got to take care of something,” Mila said, without warning.

I blinked at the sudden interruption of my thoughts and wrenched myself away from speculation and back to reality.  “What?”

“I have to take care of something,” she repeated.  “Shouldn’t take too long.”

“Is this something you can deal with later?”  Sarah asked, incredulously.  “Because we’re kind of in the middle of something.”

“No,” Mila said.  “It can’t.  Don’t worry about it.  I’ll be back before too long.”

I reached out to Mila’s feed without really thinking about it.  “Wait, what are you –“

The feed went dead as Mila switched her camera off.  Through the building’s security cameras, I saw her move away from the table and back towards the bar.

I started to write out a note for Sarah, but Michel spoke first.  His words were so low that I might have missed them, if Sarah and I hadn’t gone completely quiet.  “What do I do now?”

“Just, uh, keep doing what you’re doing,” I said.  “We’ll figure out what’s going on with Mila.”

He made a little grunting sound in his throat that I took as agreement.  A server brought over two shots of Bell’s Whiskey and Michel lifted his glass to clink against Lane’s.  He could handle this for the moment, while I got Mila back into position.  At least, I hoped he could.

On the other hand, I had absolutely no idea how I was going to do anything so many miles away, limited to a voice in an earbud, but Michel didn’t need to know that part.

Chapter Sixty-Eight

“Michel, do you know what to do?”  I asked.

Sitting at the counter in our penthouse suite while Mila and Michel were in transit felt strange.  I shifted uncomfortably while I waited for a response.

“I think so,” he eventually answered, over the comms.  I noted the uncertainty in his voice.  “And you are certain that this will not be too difficult?”

“It’ll be fine,” Sarah said.  She was seated atop a stool in the kitchen, the remnants of a late dinner on the high counter in front of her.  “For one thing, you aren’t doing anything illegal.  Nothing wrong with striking up a conversation over a few drinks.”

“And,” I added, “you aren’t the one doing the actual lift.”

“That’s my job,” Mila said, also over comms.

The two had left the hotel an hour earlier, using a very common vehicle that Sophie made available for our purposes.  Sarah stayed behind with me, ostensibly to protect her cover for when she made the actual approach.  Personally, I suspected that it had less to do with that and more to do with keeping me away from her sensitive equipment, but I didn’t mind.  Her presence was comforting and, even though it wasn’t quite the same as it had been during our marriage, I still enjoyed her company.

“Out of all the bars in the area,” she said, “only one of them is showing the Scottish football league playing tonight.  Stands to reason that Lane’s going to pick that one.  All you’ve got to do, Michel, is get as many drinks as possible into him.  The more he has, the easier the lift’s going to be.”

“But he will not notice that his ID is gone?”

“Not if you keep him distracted,” I said.  “It won’t even be gone for that long.  As soon as Mila pulls it, Sarah’s going to copy the RFID frequency and then we’ll make one of our own when we need to.”

“How is she going to do that?”

I started to explain the intricacies of Sarah’s custom app, and stopped almost immediately when I realized that I didn’t have the foggiest idea of exactly how it worked.  I shot Sarah a helpless look and she rolled her eyes back at me.

“It’s technical,” she said, to Michel.  “Sufficed to say, we only need a minute or two with the card before Mila can give it back.  This should…well, it isn’t the hardest thing we’ve done in the past week.”

What she had been about to say would have been damning: if everything went perfectly, the approach, engagement, the lift, and the blow off should only take thirty minutes.  But nothing about my time since the Lady arranged for my breakout from prison – or even since Asher’s betrayal – led me to think that the world would allow any plan to proceed without complications.

“What place are we looking for?”  Mila asked.

“Rob Roy’s,” Sarah said.

“Then we’re here.”

“Mila,” I said, slowly.  “You’re just going to stay at the bar until Michel signals you, okay?  Nothing violent, unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

“Do I get to define when it’s necessary?”

“I’m going to go with a no on that one.  Turn on the cameras, please?”

Mila sighed before she did as I’d asked.  The mini-cameras that Sarah had pinned to their lapels came to life and their outputs were transferred, via an extremely long cable that snaked through the hotel room, to the oversized television screen in the living room.  The display was split in two: one for Michel and one for Mila.

As I watched, Michel found a garage and parked the car.  He and Mila made their way out of the garage, back down to street level, and approached Rob Roy’s.  While they moved, I muted my earbud and turned to Sarah.  “How’d you know which bar was showing the game?”

“You mean, aside from using my powers of observation and my devastating intellect?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Besides that.”

“Every other pub in a five-mile radius had sudden, inexplicable problems with their satellite reception tonight,” Sarah said, and a tight smile stretched across her lips.  “Which is just a shame for business.  I’ll upgrade their service packages for free after we finish, just to make up for the trouble.”

“Isn’t that going to make Rob Roy’s incredibly busy?”

Sarah’s eyes flickered over to me, a trifle too defensively for my tastes.  “The level of access I’ve got into Interpol’s databases wasn’t high enough for psych profiles.  It was either this, or we spend half the night guessing where Lane is most likely to go.”

Which was, of course, a much worse situation than the one we’d engineered.  Michel probably wouldn’t see it that way – more people equaled more chances to be seen and identified at a future point – but a crowded environment would help Mila make the lift without attracting too much attention.  “You did great,” I said.  “A lot better than I could’ve done under the same circumstances.”

“These are exactly the circumstances you work best under,” Sarah replied.  A beat passed and she bit down lightly on her bottom lip.  “But thanks.”

We locked eyes and held that contact for three or four seconds before turning, at the same time, back to the television.  There, we could see what looked like nothing so much as a thriving horde teeming outside of Rob Roy’s entrance.

“I might have underestimated how busy this would make the bar,” Sarah admitted.

“You think?”  I unmuted the microphone.  “Okay, Michel, Mila.  You’re headed for the front door.  There are two bouncers there, and they’re going to try to keep you out.”

“What do we do?”  Michel asked.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Stick to the plan and use the IDs Sarah gave you.”

“Try not to overuse them,” Sarah added.  “Those things aren’t easy to make, and they might be useful later.”

Oui,” Michel said.  “I will do my best.”

“That’s all we can ask for,” I said.  Then, muting my microphone, I turned to Sarah.  “How much effort did you put into his paperwork?”

“Not much,” she admitted.  “I didn’t really have enough time to do a proper job on them.”

“Let’s not tell him that,” I said.

“You think?”

We watched on the television as Michel and Mila made their approach, threading their way through the crowds of people pushing for entry into the pub.  When they reached the entrance, Mila took point and stepped in front of a bouncer before he could put a hand on Michel’s chest.

“I think you’re expecting us,” she said.

The bouncer arched an eyebrow and grumbled something that the microphone didn’t pick up.

Mila chuckled.  “Go check with your bosses,” she said.  “I’m pretty sure they’ll want us in there.”

The bouncer examined Mila and Michel both with a skeptical eye before he motioned for his partner to head into the pub.  He stepped back to the door, just barely far enough away that he couldn’t possibly hear anything Mila or Michel said, so long as they were quiet.

“What now?”  Michel asked.

Sarah pushed aside her uneaten food and began to hammer commands into one of her laptops.  “Now that you’re within range of their wireless network,” she said, “I can get into their systems and…there we go.  I’ve got the security cameras and the email servers.”

“And what does that mean?”

“It means that there won’t be any physical record of your faces,” Sarah explained, “And the manager of this establishment just received a strongly worded email from the owner, describing how he’s going to treat the two of you with the utmost respect, but not to make it obvious that you’re being treated differently.  If that makes sense.”

“How did you do that?”  Michel asked.

I drummed an irregular rhythm into the countertop with my fingertips.  “College buddies?”  I guessed.

“Family friend,” Sarah corrected.  “Easier to pull that off, seeing as I don’t actually know anything about who the owners are.”

I considered that.  It wasn’t the option I would’ve gone with, but it would still work.  Probably.  “You could have gone with a mistress,” I said.  “People will do almost anything to get out of that conversation.”

“I could also have made Mila or Michel into a long-lost child,” Sarah shot back.  “But someone’s inevitably going to recognize them after that.  I do know what I’m doing.”

I do not know what you are doing,” Michel said, softly.

Mila chuckled.  “I’m starting to think that’s the point.”

Anyway,” I said, stressing the syllables to the breaking point, “the punchline is that you’ve got a way in.”

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before one of the bouncers hurried back and whispered to his partner.  The man who’d eyed Mila went from suspicious to solicitous in approximately zero seconds.  He held the door open so that our bodyguard and our driver could enter Rob Roy’s without any further incident.

The interior of the pub was, somehow, even more chaotic than its exterior had been.  Several large television screens hung at regular intervals from the ceiling, each one playing a different game.  Rowdy groups of men and women, dressed in wildly clashing colors and wearing sports paraphernalia in at least three different languages, clustered around each screen.  They yelled at each other, they yelled at the rival teams, and they yelled at the screens themselves.  Servers did their best to manage the hordes, carrying two or three pitchers at a time to this table or that one; retrieving emptied plates and trays; or generally keeping the tumult and roar of the soccer fans from boiling over into a riot.

Judging from the cameras placed throughout the building, Michel went statue-still as soon as he entered the main area.  Mila, of course, remained calm and professional.  She turned in a slow, tight circle, so that Sarah and I could see her full field of vision.  “I don’t see Lane,” she murmured.

I shook my head, even though Mila couldn’t actually see that gesture.  “Neither do I.  Sarah?”

She played back the feed from Mila’s camera on her own laptop, at half speed, and propped up her tablet with a photograph of Superintendent Lane on the screen.  “I’ve got nothing.”

“Michel,” I said, “go with Mila up to the bar.  Try not to attract too much attention, obviously, and…I don’t know, try not to look suspicious.”

He took in a deep breath, faced one of the bar’s security cameras, and nodded decisively.  “Okay, I am ready.”

They made their way over to the bar, picking paths that wound separately through the crowd, but still staying close enough that Mila could react to anyone who tried to attack Michel.  No attack ever came.  There were enough people that the trip to the bar took more than a few minutes.  “Sarah?” I asked.  “You want something from the fridge?”

Sarah shook her can of Diet Coke thoughtfully.  “Is it too early for wine?”

I answered that question by walking into the kitchen, retrieving a beer and an entire bottle of wine, and then depositing the latter onto the counter by her discarded food.  “It’s five o ‘clock somewhere,” I said, as I returned to the kitchen for a wine glass.

Sarah gave me a smile, warm enough to raise the temperature in the room by a few degrees.  “Thanks for dinner, by the way.”

I shrugged that off.  “Can’t work on an empty stomach.”

“Sophie was able to arrange for a cottage in the countryside, several cars, and forged papers on extremely short notice,” Sarah said.  The lines around her eyes crinkled slightly.  “Something tells me she could arrange for dinner.”

“I just like cooking,” I said defensively.  “Keeps me calm.”

“And I was just thanking you for doing it,” Sarah said.  “That’s still okay, isn’t it?”

It was a simple enough question.  For some reason, the answer seemed far more important than that question implied.  There was a sudden tension in the air as Sarah watched and waited for a response, her left hand crossing unconsciously over the right underneath the counter where she thought I couldn’t see it.  “That’s still okay,” I said slowly.

She nodded, just as slowly as I’d spoken, as if she wasn’t quite sure how to take it.  I started to say something else – I had no idea exactly what  – but Mila saved me from stumbling over my words.  “We’re getting drinks now,” she said into my earbud.  “What do you want us to do if he isn’t here?”

Sarah pivoted back to the television screen.  There were three feeds displayed there now: one for Michel, one for Mila, and a third window that changed every couple of seconds to one of the six or seven security cameras installed inside the pub.  My ability to multitask was limited to last-minute, emergency planning; Sarah’s, apparently, allowed her to track each of the feeds without difficulty.

“He’ll be there,” Sarah said.  “There are more than a few citations on record about his drinking, and this game isn’t one he’d want to miss.”

Mila sighed.  I watched her portion of the screen as a burly bartender handed her a mug of beer.  “Okay, sure.  But, humor me.  What if he isn’t?”

“If he isn’t there, then…”  Sarah stopped, tapped an index finger against her bottom lip, and then filled her glass with wine.  “Then we’ll figure out something else.  There’s still time to come up with a way into Interpol.”

Time, of course, was both our greatest asset and our largest problem.  The longer we took to come up with a solution, the more likely it was that Adlai would find a lead that would put him on our doorstep.  Asher hadn’t stopped being a threat, either.  I doubted that he would take our assault on the manor house without formulating a response.  And, topping off the soufflé of misfortune that the bad guys were serving us, Aiden was a still unknown quantity.  Mila remained tight-lipped about the mercenary, her relationship with him, and anything that Sarah or I could have used to plan against the man.  All she had told us was that Aiden would be coming for her, and us, at some point in the near future.

We couldn’t afford to wait for long.  I shot Sarah a look and saw, in the way her eyes narrowed by a millimeter, that she had come to the same conclusion.  She just wasn’t saying it out loud.

“Wait,” Mila said.  “I think I see someone.”

“Michel,” I said, “turn so that I can see what Mila’s seeing.  I don’t want her to make eye contact, if possible.”

Michel did as asked.  He didn’t turn smoothly; the movement was jerky and stilted, which I attributed to his complete lack of experience.  One of the Scottish strikers pulled off a particularly impressive goal, however, so no one was looking at the Frenchman turning like a broken robot.  The field of vision presented by his mini camera panned across the pub stopping to focus on the bartender; then, on a pair of Japanese twins that I recognized from the Green Light gala; then, on a tight knot of inebriated Englishmen, yelling at each other in an accent so thick that I could barely understand it; and, finally, passing over a big man with a fierce, flame-red beer who was yelling something unintelligible at the television screen nearest him.

“Stop!”  Sarah said sharply, and Michel stopped.  “That’s him.  The guy who looks like the Quicker Picker Upper mascot.”

“Who?”

“The man with the beard,” I translated.  “That’s Lane.”

“What do I do?”

“Just approach him casually,” I said.  “Try to build a rapport.  Offer to buy him a drink and we’ll play it by ear from there.”

“Speaking of ears,” Sarah chimed in, “you won’t be able to talk to us after you go over there.  Devlin will walk you through the conversation, and I’ll provide him with intelligence, but you’ve got to act like it’s all you.  Can you do that?”

“I, uh…I can do that,” he said.

The determination I’d seen from him the previous night was gone, replaced by uncertainty and doubt.  That was to be expected from anyone working themselves up to their first cold approach; considering the stakes of our current predicament, I could hardly blame Michel for being afraid.

“It’s just a conversation,” I reminded him.  “Mila’s going to move into position near you, and she’ll be there to pull you out if anything goes wrong.”

As if summoned by my poorly chosen words, that was when I saw him.  I almost didn’t notice him at first, but the glass of water stood out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of mugs and steins, liquor drinks and shots.  He picked his way across the crowded floor and the way he carried himself – stern, upright, and focused beyond reason – had a physical effect on the people around him.  They didn’t consciously melt away from him, but a buffer formed around him, and he was able to move to Lane’s table without incident or interruption.

The earbud clicked twice.  I hadn’t muted it, so I turned away from the screen and found myself staring into Sarah’s wide, worried eyes.  “Devlin,” she said.  For a single word, she managed to convey a thesaurus’ worth of meaning.  “What the hell is Adlai doing there?”

After The Warehouse (Adlai)

There was a specific order to the work; if things weren’t done in the same order, every time, the shrine just felt off.  Neetipal Adlai missed the relative simplicity of the shrines back home.  All he’d had to do was wake up before the thriving city, make his way through the streets and back paths of Nashik, and deliver his customary offering – a loaf of bread, split between the gods Vishnu and Ganesha, and a burnt hunk of meat for Rama – before the citizens clogged the thoroughfares with their bright colors and their noise.  There had never been any question of him accidentally placing a statue inappropriately higher than another; he didn’t worry about the proportional distances between the two primary Gods and his chosen Avatar; and, most galling of all, there was never the possibility that an overzealous maid might ruin his work, either by accident or design.  That time felt impossibly long ago to him, now, even though it had only been a decade since he’d left to join Interpol.

At the same time, there was something appreciable about the setup.  When his assignments sent him to another city in a foreign country, Adlai knew exactly what to do.  Even before he went to whatever hotel room his superiors had arranged for him, Adlai found the nearest bakery and purchased several of their finest loaves of bread.  The more recently it had been prepared, the better.  He had no desire to risk offending his gods by providing a subpar offering.  Beyond that, finding the best possible bread was just something he always did.  In ten years, he hadn’t forgotten to make the bakery trip, and it was a key element in the order of things; Adlai always appreciated doing things in their proper order.

After that, he went to his room and began his ritual of cleaning and preparing the southernmost corner of the room.  It wasn’t enough to simply wipe down every surface, vacuum the carpet until it was spotless, or to burn the sticks of incense he kept in his pockets for just such an occasion.  Adlai had to prepare himself, as well.  His stress and anger from the job needed to be wiped clean from his thoughts, just as the presence of previous hotel occupants needed to be removed from the shrine’s space.  He couldn’t afford to let what had transpired before affect his decisions in the future.  His father taught him that, before the incident, and Adlai clung to that mantra like a life raft.  Only those words, and the routines he’d established to deal with the chaotic nature of his profession, kept him strong and true.

When the space was clear of debris and his heart was clear of doubts, Adlai unpacked the statues.  These were items that he’d only managed to keep safe by secreting them away, changing the location where he hid them every single time he went to an airport.  The measures he undertook to ensure that all three arrived in one piece, undamaged, went past precaution into the realm of paranoia.  Adlai was aware of that, but that knowledge didn’t bother him.  He’d given up so much when he left India to pursue the law – to find justice, if such a thing even existed anymore – that he simply refused to lose the only three links to his country.  So, he treated them with the respect artifacts of their religious value deserved.  That was just the right thing to do.

The statues weren’t all the same size; Vishnu was slightly taller than Ganesha, and Ganesha was considerably heavier than either Vishnu or Rama.  The inconsistency bothered Adlai, but it was a needling sensation he’d had plenty of time to grow used to.  He assembled them in a particular order, each statue positioned with the same proportional distance from the next.  Vishnu was the farthest back and higher than the other two, so that he was the most visible.  Then came Ganesha and, lowest of all – though still elevated above the floor itself – Rama formed the end of the line of gods.  Adlai carried a small foldable table, with the appropriate platforms already built in, in case the hotel room didn’t have any knickknacks that he could repurpose to fit his needs.  He’d purchased it during one of his first assignments and somehow managed to hold onto it for so long that it, too, felt like an essential artifact in the ceremony.  More often than not, even if Adlai didn’t strictly need to use the table, he did so anyway.

After all of that – the bakery, the cleaning, the careful placement of the statues – Adlai prayed.

The prayer was different in every city.  At times, he prayed for the gods to guide him to the perpetrators of some vile, unspeakable crime; other times, he pled for the wisdom and skill to navigate a political landscape that was oftentimes directly inimical to his goals.  It could be short enough that his incense stick couldn’t fully burn down or long enough that even the lingering trails of smoke and scent had vanished completely.  No matter what he prayed for, and no matter how long he knelt before his personal shrine, he ended each supplication the same way: peace, in the native tongue he was so rarely able to speak to anyone else. Peace, repeated nine times, three each for the gods he worshipped.  Peace, for the world he lived in, the world beyond, and the souls lost and struggling in between.

Then, and only then, Adlai allowed himself to work.

This trip wasn’t any different than the ones before, or the ones that would inevitably follow.  Adlai went through the entire routine, enjoying the long minutes of familiar routine; when he was finished with his prayers, he went to the unassuming desk in the center of one wall and opened his laptop to read over the relevant files once more.  His superiors had assigned him to London, ostensibly because a particularly successful drug and weapons trafficking ring had begun to grow too powerful for Interpol to officially ignore.  Years of instinct, coupled with countless hours slogging through office politics led Adlai to a different conclusion: the powers-that-were were being pressured to make a token response.  Any operation that grew to the size his documents implied almost certainly had the ear of important people in the local government.  Whatever he uncovered, there was little to no chance of action being taken.  He would investigate, draw connections, interrogate suspects, write a report…and then watch as the paperwork fell between the cracks or was willfully disregarded.

That was one of the most draining aspects of his job, and it was one that he’d never fully grown accustomed to.  Adlai considered the merits of another prayer – this time, for patience and sanguinity – but his cell phone vibrated before he made up his mind in either direction.  He answered without really looking at the caller ID.  There were only a few people who knew the number to his Interpol phone, after all.

“This is Inspector Adlai,” he said in a crisp, professional tone.  It took a little more effort to inject the appropriate amount of respectability into his voice, but that effort helped to hide the traces of his accent that had managed to survive, so he didn’t mind.

“Adlai, I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for hours!  Where’ve you been?”

The voice was distinctive and immediately recognizable.  “I was…preparing myself for the day, sir.”  It was often easier to hedge his wording than to explain his religion to a superior.

Despite Adlai’s first impressions of the man, however, Superintendent Lane was considerably more aware of things than people gave him credit for.  “Oh, that’s right; you’ve got your whole ritual to take care of before you get started, isn’t it?” Lane didn’t wait for Adlai to reply before he barreled on.  “Ah, well, now that you’ve got that out of the way, that means we can get right to work!”

“I had planned to do that, sir,” Adlai said.  “You said that you were trying to call me?  May I ask what you needed?”

“Two things,” Lane said.  “One, I wanted to touch base, see where your head was at.  I’ve been keeping one eye on that situation here in London, and it’s been getting trickier and trickier by the day.”

Adlai blinked.  “Here in London, sir?”

“Of course, laddie!  Where else did you think I’d be with a case this big on our plates?”

“I thought that, uh…”  Adlai stopped, squeezed his eyes shut, and counted to ten.  Another trick he’d picked up from his father.  “I thought that you were busy with the crime family in Beijing, sir.”

Lane barked out a laugh.  “That was all smoke and no fire.  Couple of kids got ahold of some guns, decided they’d start shooting up things awfully close to the border.  The locals mostly had it taken care of by the time I got there; nothing left for us but the paperwork and the cleanup.”

“So you came to London?”

“Of course I did!  This was my case,” Lane said, “long before it crossed your desk.  You didn’t know that?”

“I…did not, sir.”

“Drop the sir,” Lane commanded.  “If we’re going to be working together, might as well get comfortable.  I don’t stand much on ceremony between colleagues.”

“Working together?”  Adlai barely managed to keep himself from appending the honorific.  Instead, he said it in his head.  If his superior wanted him to forego the proper terms of respect, Adlai was willing to at least pretend.  He wouldn’t actually do what Lane asked of him, though.  It was too inappropriate to even consider.

“You didn’t think they sent you all the way out here just because, did you?  I’m the one who asked for you.  Petitioned for it, actually.  I saw the work you did over in Dubai with those jewel thieves; down in Sierra Leone with that human trafficking business; and even followed that whole mess in Venice a couple of years back.”

That memory made Adlai’s back stiffen.  He had been so close, but something had gone horribly wrong in Venice.  A masterpiece of surveillance and planning, gone to waste in a hail of gunfire and the intervention of the Italian National Police.  By the time the dust had settled, Adlai’s quarry had vanished into the wind.  He’d arrested the shooters, brought an end to the chaos and disorder their activities caused in the Italian city, but he still didn’t know what had gone wrong.

Lane was still talking.  “I figured I needed a man like that to help me out with my drug ring problem.  So, I started sending requests – formal requests, mind you – to the National Office, until they finally decided it was easier to give me what I wanted.  So, here you are.”

Adlai took several seconds to process that.  He’d never worked with Lane before, although nearly everyone in Interpol had heard stories about the man.  According to reports, he was a crass, borderline insubordinate man who thumbed his nose at the organizational structure.  He made far more enemies than friends and, as far as Adlai was concerned, it was only his frankly impressive arrest record that kept him from an ignominious posting in Estonia.  Instead, Lane was frequently sent to deal with the most troublesome cases that came Interpol’s way.

His earlier assumption – that his assignment was simply a way of covering their political bases – had been entirely off base.  If Lane was working the case, and his request for Adlai’s assistance had been granted, then it was worse.  He was actually expected to solve the case, or he’d go down alongside the disagreeable Scotsman.

“Thank you,” Adlai said, surprising himself even as the words passed his lips.  “For the opportunity.”

“Opportunity?”  Lane repeated.  “You serious?  I pretty much sentenced you to a slow career death, and you’re thanking me?”

“I do this job so that I can make a difference,” Adlai said.  “If my career is to end, I would rather have it do so while I am at least trying to do good.”

Lane was silent for a while, before he spoke again.  “Glad to hear you say that,” he said, finally.  “I figured you’d be one of the few who’d look at it like that.  Anyway, for the time being, we’re as good as partners…except you’ve got to be the one doing the actual on-the-ground investigation.  You alright with that?”

“That would suit me fine,” Adlai answered.

“Excellent!”  Lane clapped his hands together, judging from the sharp snap of sound.  “Let’s get right into it, then.  No reason to waste time, letting the grass grow under our feet.  We’ve had some new developments and…have you had a chance to look over the file, yet, or should I call you back later on?  You had your thing to take care of.”

That was more consideration than Adlai ever received, regarding his personal habits.  It was so jarringly unexpected, coming from Superintendent Lane, that Adlai’s thoughts skipped momentarily.  “I read over what we knew on the plane,” he said.

“Well, I’m hearing rumors that the recent spike in traffic is because our drug kingpin is getting ready for a big move.  Don’t know what it might be, yet, but that’s still something.  Got any thoughts?”

Adlai hadn’t heard those rumors, but he did have thoughts.  He opened his mouth to voice them and stopped, as a notification appeared at the bottom of his screen: a new email, delivered to his personal address.  He double-clicked it open and skimmed the contents.  It didn’t take long; there weren’t many words written there.

“Adlai?”  Lane asked.  “You there?”

What he had read was impossible, Adlai decided.  Interpol covered nearly two hundred countries, and there were even more places that he might have decided to go in the interim.  Besides, as far as Adlai knew – and he’d made an active effort over the past two and a half years to keep track of the details – he should still be in prison.  But this email had come from Interpol’s own servers, routed directly to him by someone in the local office.  The name written there was clear and undeniable.

“Sir?”  Adlai asked tentatively.  “Have there been any recent thefts in the area?  Nothing drug related; art, perhaps?  Or jewelry?”

“That’s an odd question,” Lane said.  “There’s always robberies, in one form or another.”

“What about any thefts that seem…”  Adlai struggled to find the right word for a moment.  “…impossible?  Things taken that a thief couldn’t possibly have gotten to, for instance.  Or maybe a dramatic robbery of some sort?”

“Nothing lately,” Lane said.  “Why?”

“No reason,” Adlai said back, a little too quickly.  “You asked for my thoughts on the drug traffic?”

“I did.”

“I’ve looked at some of the financials we’ve been able to monitor,” Adlai said.  “If this is a prelude to a larger move, I don’t quite understand who or what this…drug kingpin…is planning to move against.”

“That’s what I thought.  But I’m getting this from some fairly reliable sources.  Not real eager to start ignoring what I hear from people who’ve got a reason to keep track of that sort of thing.  What if…”

Lane trailed off, just as a second notification flashed at the bottom of Adlai’s computer screen.  He didn’t need to open this one to guess at its contents; the subject header provided him with enough information to make an educated guess.  He used his login information to access Interpol’s database of incarcerated criminals, instead.  “Did you receive this message, too?”

“Sure did,” Lane said.  “Robbery at the Museum of London.”

“What was stolen?”

Lane was quiet, while he read through the email that Adlai had only skimmed.  The Superintendent probably had more information available at his fingertips.  “Looks like…”  The Scotsman paused.  “I don’t know.  The guards inside are using their phones to communicate with the authorities, but the police haven’t been able to get in to ascertain what happened.  Whole place went on lockdown and no one can get around it.”

While Lane spoke, Adlai navigated through the labyrinthine database and searched for a single name.  When his computer returned with the answer to his query, Adlai was barely even surprised.  Somehow, despite being caught redhanded with stolen goods, Devlin O’Brien had been granted an early parole.

Except…Adlai had been checking in, every week, since his nemesis had been arrested.  A parole hearing wasn’t on the books; it wouldn’t be on the books, for at least another six months.

His heartbeat speeding up, sweat appearing on his forehead in tiny beads, Adlai realized several things in rapid succession.

One: everything he understood about the situation here in London was fundamentally flawed.  It wasn’t that his intelligence was wrong.  But, if Devlin was in the game, that made the knowledge Adlai possessed insufficient.  Devlin wasn’t involved in the drug trade, as far as Adlai knew.

Two: It had been nothing short of divine providence that had led him to London, at this time, on the exact day when Devlin performed one of his signature heists.  That made Lane an agent of the gods, even if he turned out to be an unwilling or unaware one.  Adlai was not in the habit of refusing aid from the gods.

Three: He would have to pray again.  These prayers would be dedicated to the avatar he’d chosen for himself.  Rama would hear Adlai’s prayers for strength, for the courage to pursue justice, and for the wisdom to catch the one man who had managed to escape him at every turn for nearly a decade.

Adlai almost smiled at that thought.  He kept the amusement under control, reminding himself that justice was supposed to be impersonal, and opened the email containing the robbery’s details.  It was going to be a long night, apparently.