Tag Archives: Stanislav

Chapter 20

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

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

“What do you think?” I asked Anton.

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

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

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

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

He shrugged. “It will do, then.”

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

“What? Why?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perhaps. We will see, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Six AM, local time,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Fancy meeting you here.”

“You look…good.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I think that’s for me.”

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

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

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

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

“Get in the car.”

“What…but I…”

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

Chapter 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, the sniper might leave, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“An AK?”

He shrugged and nodded.

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

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

“But what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stani frowned.  “What do you mean?”

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

“How would you like me to do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 18

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

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

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

Stani said something to his bodyguards in Russian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It caught you, didn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stani did not look up.

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

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

“What’s this?” I asked.

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

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

“Sarah,” I whispered aloud.

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave. Her. Alone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’s that?” I asked.

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

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

“Asher!”

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

Asher!”

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Stani called out.

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 17

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

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

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

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

“You sound confused.”

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

“You think?”

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

“You’re sure about that?”

He nodded.

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

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

“Do you know where that is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are not armed?” Stani asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He faked the report, then? But why?”

“Perhaps to cover his involvement?” Anton offered.

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

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

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

“What are you saying?”

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

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

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

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

“Did you turn it on?”

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

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

Stani leaned over. “October. Why?”

“And the one on the desk?”

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

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

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

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

Chapter 16

The four of us stood in the empty bar and stared at each other.  I wasn’t quite sure how best to start the brainstorming session and it didn’t seem that anyone else was interested in taking the first step.  While I thought over what little I knew, a part of my mind detached to analyze the mounting tension in the room.  There was history between Anton and Stani, that much was painfully obvious, but I couldn’t guess at what it might be.  Stanislav struck me as the archetypal company man, if the ‘company’ was a criminal syndicate.  His bravado told me that he’d probably been promoted a little too quickly through the ranks, but his two goons worked well with him.  I weighed the merits of insinuating a little mistrust into that team dynamic, but shot that idea down before its wings could fully unfurl.  Sabotaging a possible asset before its worth could be fully vetted was a rookie move, and I couldn’t afford to be a rookie, so long as Asher was in the wind.

Anton was, as far I knew, a self-taught expert in explosives.  He had spent countless months learning what went boom and to what degree by himself in a backwater Ukranian city.  After he’d reached the age of majority, he’d left home – or been forced out, I was never really sure – and decided to make a living with the skills he’d acquired.  It must have been tough, working under the judgment of his peers, but he’d somehow made enough of a name for himself that he earned a reasonable living building small devices for heists, robberies, and occasional legitimate demolition work.

I frowned as I realized that I simply didn’t have enough information.  That was becoming a depressingly common situation.  Whatever the root cause of Stani’s animosity was, I couldn’t possibly guess at its nature, and it wouldn’t take very much to derail the already fragile game I was playing.  Without knowing what their issue was, I couldn’t hope to avoid triggering any long-buried landmines.  My best bet was to tread carefully and to stay aware of every exit.

Iosif and Leonid kept to themselves.  They spoke to each other in hushed whispers, one or the other occasionally chuckling at a joke.  The two men simply looked very similar to each other, with the exception of their hairstyles.  After a few moments, I noticed that Iosif stood with his right hand over his left, while Leonid’s hands rested in the opposite position.  It was such a small detail that I doubted I’d notice it in the heat of the moment, but it was better than nothing.  Neither Russian nor Ukranian was programmed into Jules’ handy translation app, so if I needed to communicate with either of the bodyguards, I would have to defer to Stani or Anton.  If Stani gave an order to take me out, I wouldn’t know until the guns came free.

I had exactly one thing to use as leverage: the photograph, hand-delivered to me right after I’d been sprung from La Santé, with the inverted triangle watermark.  My natural demeanor, coupled with the mystery surrounding the symbol, had led Stani to believe that I’d been sent to Kiev on behalf of some illusive criminal figure.  I had not cleared up the misunderstanding; in fact, I had leaned into it and the specter of the unknown puppetmaster was apparently so frightening that Stani’s bosses, this Sovietnik, had offered me his services in the pursuit of Asher.  I’d made a professional career of tiptoeing across fine lines, or simply ignoring boundaries entirely, but the idea of misleading the Bratva or potentially upsetting an individual or organization so powerful that even the Russian mafia instantly knuckled under at the mere suggestion of their involvement was…risky.  I had no other options, though.

“Tell me what you know,” I said to Stani.  The beginning was as good a place to start, as any.  “You said Asher owes the Bratva money?”

Stani shook his head.  “No, not money.  This is a matter of blood.”

My eyebrows climbed.

Stani turned and Leonid removed a large smartphone from his jacket pocket.  He handed it over to Stani, who navigated through menus while he spoke.   “Asher was given the use of several men for an operation.  That operation went…poorly.”

He handed me the smartphone.  A video file was displayed on the screen.  I pressed play and watched through an exterior traffic camera as Asher, unlit cigarette dangling from his lips, led a group of low level soldiers into a building with old stone columns and carved gargoyles. “Where is this?”  I asked.

“A branch of Cyprus Central Bank, in Limassol.”

The name sounded familiar.  “That’s a mafia bank, isn’t it?  One of your own?”

He shook his head.  “Not every branch.  That bank was filled with money from rival organizations.  The job was to clear out only the assets of our rivals.  Asher would receive twenty percent of the cash; the rest, we would use to fund attacks on these other organizations.”

I kept watching.  The team of soldiers went into the bank with military precision.  The view switched from an exterior camera to one inside the building’s lobby.  The men spread out and covered each guard, leaving three men and Asher to locate the bank manager.  Asher found the man, huddled amongst the rest of the bank’s customers, and jammed a handgun into his face.  The manager removed a key from a lanyard, hidden beneath his shirt, and Asher went into the back of the bank.  There were no cameras there, I assumed, because the view didn’t switch to track my former partner as he went on.  I could see, however, when an explosion blew smoke and debris from the vault out into the lobby.  Smoke and dust filled the air.

“He blew the vault,” I said out loud.  “That’s new for him.  Why get the key from the manager, if you’re just going to blow the vault?  Hell, why go in to the bank at all when you know there’s going to be people there?”

Stani didn’t answer.  I turned my attention back to the silent video.  It seemed that the Russian muscle was as surprised by the explosion as me; their heads snapped to the vault.  For several seconds, nothing happened.  Something pierced the cloud of dust and one of the soldiers fell to the ground.  The remaining two abandoned their marks and turned their guns to the vault.  Another one of the men went down before he could do much more than place his finger on his weapon’s trigger.  The third man managed to squeeze off a burst of brilliantly lit gunfire before he went down, too.  Asher stepped out of the smoke, aimed up at the lobby camera, and fired a bullet into the lens.  The video stopped there.

“What happened?”  I asked.

“The explosion was not planned,” Stani said.  “Asher used the noise and disturbance as a distraction.  All six of our men were killed and left in Limassol.”

I whistled.  “That’s a hell of a betrayal.  I’m guessing he cleaned out the bank by himself, then?”

“No.”

I blinked.  “What?  He killed an entire squad of Russian soldiers and didn’t take the money for himself?”

“He took a little,” Stani admitted.  “My superiors believe it was to cover expenses and arrange for travel out of the country.  But, besides that, he took only one thing: the contents of a single safety deposit box.”

I tapped an index finger against my bottom lip.  “Who owned the box?”

“According to the records, that box did not exist.  With considerable effort, my superiors were able to identify its owner from those that worked at the bank.  The owner was registered as an M. Balthazar.”

“And where is this M. Balthazar?”

Stani shrugged.  “We do not know.  We were hoping to…persuade Asher to explain that to us.”

“Let me think for a second.”  The story kept growing in layers and complexity; I had even less of an idea what was going on now than I had before coopting the services of Stani and his men.  Asher’s assault of the bank had been textbook.  It didn’t make any sense for him to turn on the Russian soldiers, though.  Twenty percent of a bank job was likely to be a considerable sum; higher in value, though, was the favor of the Moscow branch of the Bratva.  Using that, Asher would have had a link into any number of more lucrative jobs and a deep roster of potential assistants for any personal assignments he chose to pull off.  He’d already penetrated the vault; all that he’d needed to do was escape with the resources from the bank, and Asher would have been home free.

So why would he blow all that to kill off his entire team, anger the mafia, and only leave with the contents of a single safety deposit box?

“You thought that Asher could lead you to your enemies?”  I asked.  “What enemies?  What organization were you robbing?”

Stani was silent.  Leonid and Iosif shifted nervously behind him.  “It is…complicated,” he said.

“Uncomplicate it.”

“There is a…group, perhaps, that is attacking the assets of my superiors,” Stani said, reluctantly.  “Efforts to identify and eliminate these aggressors have not been successful.”

“And you thought he could lead you to this other organization?  Why?”

Stani gestured for his smartphone.  I handed it back to him and he clicked his way through to the gallery of photographs.  When he found the one he wanted, he held it up so that I could see it.

It was a picture of a short note, handwritten in impeccable cursive.  The writing was direct and left no room for interpretation: “Send two million US dollars to the following bank account, each month.  Disobedience will be met with repercussions.”  At the bottom of the letter, there was another symbol, distinct from the one on my own photograph.  This symbol was three interlocking triangles as well, but the points of the shapes pointed up instead of down.  There was no signature.

I examined the symbol for several seconds.  “So, this is…what, exactly?”

“We do not know.  But, just before we received this message, there was an explosion at one of our…facilities.  Twenty-five men, and at least a million dollars in illicit funds.  There was only one survivor.  He drew this symbol in the hospital, before he died.”

My head swam with questions.  I sat down, closed my eyes, and thought.  The difference between the symbols, one inverted and the other upright, told me that yet another player had entered the game.  Or, perhaps, had already been in the game to begin with.  Some organization had freed me from prison and pointed me in the direction of Asher.  Another group, who seemed to prefer outright violence to coercion, was threatening the Russian mafia – actually running the equivalent of a protection scheme against them – with alarming effectiveness.  The possibility of a double blind – that there was actually only a single organization manipulating situations so as to conceal their true involvement – occurred to me.  If that were the case, though, why would the metaphorical left hand have aimed me to take out a tool in the metaphorical right?

Stani continued speaking.  “Asher promised us that he would be able to give us information as to this group’s identity, so that we could strike back.  He had a branding on his back that matched the symbol.  Our interests were aligned.”

“But then he double-crossed you.”  I leaned back in the chair and opened my eyes.  “He does that a lot, as it turns out.”

“That is all I know,” Stani said.  “My superiors wish to locate Asher; your superior also wishes the same, no?”

I hesitated for a second, confused by the breadth of secrets piling up before my very eyes, before I nodded.  “I’ve got to come up with some names here,” I muttered.

“What?”  Stani asked.

“Nothing.  Anyway.”  I pinched the bridge of my nose and focused past the glut of unanswered questions.  “We’ve got the satellite image that says he was here pretty recently.  Could he have gotten out of the country?”

“It is possible,” Stani admitted.

“No,” Anton said.  He had barely spoken since Stani and his goons had come into the bar.  “I was also looking for him, due to the last job we worked together.  If he flew out of town, then I would have heard something about it.”

Stani sneered.  “Because the other criminals in this town would bother to inform you of anything?”

“Reign it in,” I said, injecting just the right amount of calm menace into my voice.  It worked.  Stani raised his hands in surrender and took a step away from the table.  “Anton, go on.”

“I have family here who…do not know what I am,” he said.  “Some of them still talk to me.  I could not keep him from leaving Kiev if he wanted to, but I think I would have heard about it.”

“So you’re saying he’s still here?”

Anton nodded.  “I believe he has gone to ground in Kiev somewhere.  I do not know where, though.”

“Or why Kiev, specifically,” I added.  “He could’ve taken a lot more money and gone anywhere in the world, but he ripped off the Russians and then came to their backyard.  There’s got to be a reason for that.”

“What,” Stani asked suddenly, “does your employer want with him?  If you do not mind me asking, I mean.”

I answered immediately.  “He’s a rogue element, and he’s got to be stopped.  Simple as that.”

For the first time since he’d entered the bar, Stani gave me a genuine smile, albeit one tinged with sadistic glee.  “Then our interests are aligned, as well.  And if things should not go as planned, at least I will not have to look very far to…settle the score.”

“Uh, sure.  That works,” I said.

“Well, then.  Where should we begin our search?”

I’d worked with Asher long enough that I knew his habits and tendencies; at least, I knew them as much as anyone possibly could.  Randomness ran deep in his nature, and that made him difficult to track and even more difficult to anticipate.  Still, there were some consistencies.  When it occurred to me, I slapped my forehead.  “Cigarettes,” I said.  “He’ll need cigarettes.”

“There are many places for a person to buy cigarettes here,” Anton said.

“Not just any brand.  He prefers uh…Sobrev something.  Or something with an S.”

“Sobranie?”  Stani suggested.

I snapped my fingers.  “Yes!  That.  Where could he get those?”

Stani discussed the matter with his bodyguards for a minute.  I waited impatiently.  “There is a smuggling operation on the outskirts of Kiev,” he said to me, finally.  “Our cigarettes are brought into the country there, at the Podil port.”

I looked to Anton for translation.  “Not far,’ he said.  “Thirty, thirty-five minutes.”

“Asher’s addicted to those.  If he’s here, you can bet he made sure he could still get some of his usual brand.  That’s where we should start looking.  Stani, how many men do you have with you here?”

Stani looked at Iosif and Leonid, who looked back at him.  He turned back to me and shrugged.

What?”  It was too absurd for words and I sputtered for a few seconds until I regained control of my faculties.  “Asher killed six of your trained soldiers, and they knew where he was.  So your bosses sent you and two hitters to bring him back, when he’ll have the element of surprise?”

“He is only one man,” Stani protested.

“He’s one man who’s already escaped the Bratva and who’s apparently got connections with some real heavyweights.  I’m going to need for you to start taking him a little more seriously.  I promise, if you underestimate him, you and your men are going to end up catching a bullet.  Got it?”

Stani gave me a stiff nod.  Presumably, Leonid and Iosif understood as well; they nodded, too.

I took a deep breath and released as much of the anger as I could.  “I’m just saying.  Until we know what he’s playing at, we can’t be too careful.  Do you know where your operation is here, specifically?”

Stani pulled up a map on his phone and nodded.

“Alright.  We’ll check at the docks first, and then we’ll fan out to the nearby houses.  If he didn’t already skip town, then he’ll be lying low or someone there will have seen him.  Asher came to Kiev for a reason, gentlemen.  If I had to guess, I’d say it was the same reason he blew the bank job for a single box.”  I thought.  “Might be the same reason he left you guys out to dry too, Anton?”

“And the reason he betrayed you, as well?”  Anton asked.

My expression darkened.  I felt the frown creep across my face and my eyebrows draw closer together.  “No.  That’s for other reasons.  He and I have history that…predates what happened in Paris.”

Stani stood up straighter.  “Paris?”

“Don’t worry about that.  Sufficed to say, everyone here is suitably motivated to finding Asher, and no one more than me.”  I cracked my knuckles, one at a time. “We’ll search every house we find, one at a time.  Question everybody who might know something.  Can you call in for more reinforcements?”

“I…maybe.  They would not arrive until much later, if at all.”

“Make the call anyway.  Better to put some feelers out and find out we’re on our own, than to just assume there isn’t any help coming.”

Stani looked uncomfortable, but he nodded.  He spoke to his bodyguards in short Russian sentences; they turned and walked out of the bar.  A moment later, their cars roared to life outside.  “Whenever you are ready,” Stani said.

I looked down at the picture and traced the odd symbol with an index finger.  “Time for some answers, old buddy, old pal.”

Chapter 15

I turned around slowly, only to find that every other person in the bar had fallen into a shocked silence. Every eye that met mine quickly turned to face a wall, or the floor, or a forgotten drink. Everyone, myself and Anton included, was completely still. It was suddenly so quiet that I could hear my own breath. Behind us, a metal shaker fell from the bartender’s nerveless fingers. Sweat beaded on my brow and crept down my cheek.

The man who had spoken stood in front of me, both hands concealed in his pockets. He was a little shorter than me, maybe five foot four, and he wore a black suit, without a tie. The top two buttons of his shirt were undone to reveal a mat of curly, black chest hair. I looked past him to the two men who flanked him. They were larger than him by several inches, and also clad in black suits, although there was a slight difference in the cut. I assumed that their clothes were off-the-rack, while their boss splurged on the finest attire. He seemed to be aware of my examination; he simply waited, silent, as I drew my own conclusions.

I cleared my throat. A dozen suitably devastating openings sprang to mind. I opted instead for simplicity. “So.”

“So,” the man replied. “You are looking for Asher, too.” There was a noticeable pause between each word, like someone who hadn’t quite mastered the language.

“Guessing you are too?”

“You could say that,” the man said. He raised a lazy hand and twitched a finger at one of the two men who’d entered the bar with him. The bodyguard sported a thick, jet-black beard with eyes to match. He stepped forward and started toward me. I flinched as he came within arm’s reach, but he passed by me and approached the bar instead. I turned slightly to see him in the corner of my eyes. The man pointed at the bartender and then held up three fingers. I couldn’t see what the bartender was doing without turning my back to this newcomer, but I heard bottles rattle together and the sound of three heavy glasses being placed on the bar’s counter.

The short man snapped his fingers. My head swiveled back to him. “What is your business with Asher?” He asked.

“Long story,” I said, forcing myself to at least sound calm, even if I didn’t feel that way at all. “Lot of twists and turns. Really, it’s very complicated.”

The man’s lips curled into a thin, unamused smile. “Simplify it.”

“Stanislav,” Anton began. “There is more going on than you – “

Mat,” the man spat out from between clenched teeth. Wild anger leapt into his eyes and his gaze bored into Anton with such ferocity that the bomber actually seemed to shrink a few inches. “Do not speak to me.”

Anton’s mouth dropped open, but he made no more sound. Stanislav glared at my guide with pure, molten hatred for several long, tense seconds. He exhaled slowly, lowering his head and closing his eyes. When he looked back at me, the cocky expression had returned, but I could see the cracks in the façade now. I filed that interaction away. Anton’s sheer presence had brought a violent rage out of the mobster. There was the possibility of some unknown angle there. “So, that’s your name?” I asked, deliberately drawing attention back to me. “Stanislav?”

The man turned his eyes and then, eventually, nodded once.

“That’s kind of a mouthful,” I said. “Any chance you’ve got a nickname?”

“Americans,” he said and rolled his eyes.

“That’s a no, then? Guess I’ll just call you Stani, then.”

Stani motioned at the man who was still barely visible at the edge of my peripheral vision. The burlier man returned carrying three glasses of clear liquor. “Call me what you like,” he said. “You will not be speaking for very much longer, at any rate.”

I didn’t doubt for a moment that this Stani would follow through on it, if given the opportunity and sufficient motivation, but it said a lot about him that he felt the need to speak the threat out loud in the first place. I’d worked with more than a few dangerous people. The people I’d learned to fear the most were the ones who treated violence as an unpleasant side-effect of doing business. The hitters and mob bosses I’d come in contact with had never bothered dangling the possibility of harm. It was simply a given.

“You will answer my questions,” Stani said. “Why are you looking for Asher?”

I considered my words carefully. “He…owes me,” I said finally. “For services rendered. I’m here to collect.”

“Shame that you will not be able to do that.” He took one of the three glasses from his man. “Drink?”

I blinked. “You’re offering me alcohol at the same time as you’re threatening torture?”

Stani shrugged.

Another note went into the mental file. “That’s not drugged, is it?”

Stani answered by taking a large mouthful of liquor from a random glass and swallowing it.

I reached out and the large, silent man handed me both of the glasses. I passed one over to Anton, who took it with shaky hands. I took a sip from the glass while I thought of my next move and regretted it immediately. “You can ask me whatever you want,” I said, trying to hide my disdain for the drink. “But threatening me isn’t a really good way of making friends.”

“Who told you of this bar?”

I took the picture from my pocket and handed it over to Stani. He looked at it for less than a second before his bushy eyebrows rose about a foot. He held the picture up, so that the bald man behind him could see it. A similar moment of shock appeared on the bald man’s face, before he turned to the rest of the bar. “Zalyshaty!” His rumbling baritone echoed in the tiny space.

The command acted like a trigger. Every man inside the bar scrambled to their feet and fled the building. I heard the bartender slam open a door into the kitchen and then, a few seconds later, another door that led outside. It took thirty seconds, if not less, before Anton and I were alone with Stani and his two goons.

“Where did you get this?” Stani asked. “Tell me. Now.”

I clutched at the opening for dear life. ”That’s not how this works. You want information from me, you’ve got to give me something, too. Quid pro quo.”

Stani tipped his own drink up and drained half of it in one go. “Sit.” He pointed at an abandoned table. I took a seat after he did; Anton stood behind me, on my left, and Stani’s two goons flanked him on either side.

“What is your name?” He asked.

“Devlin. What’d you see in that picture?” I didn’t understand what leverage I’d suddenly been granted, but I knew that I had to use it before it ran out.

Stani slapped the photograph down on the table between us. “What do you know of this?”

I’d looked at the photograph every hour or so since its delivery, but I leaned over the table and examined it once more.  Nothing about the photo leapt out at me, although I could definitely tell that Asher had visited this bar specifically. “I don’t see what you’re talking about.”

“Here,” Stani said. “This symbol.”

I noticed it a split second before Stani said the words. It was barely visible against the dark background of the picture and I’d missed it because I hadn’t been specifically looking for it. Now, inspired to give the slip of paper a more careful examination, I could see the small ghost-like circle at the bottom right of the picture. An elaborate symbol, three stylized interlocking triangles, was set as a watermark there. My first instinct was to answer honestly, but I caught myself before a single syllable could pass my lips. Whatever it was, Stani was confused enough by its presence that he’d entirely forgotten about threats and violence. “What do you know about it?” I asked and leaned my weight onto the table.

He glared at me, searching my expression for some hint or clue. Seconds passed before he gave up on that tactic. “This picture was sent to us,” he said. “We do not know from where. With this same symbol on it, in the same place.” He pointed again the triangles.

“I’m listening,” I said.

“There is nothing more to say. My superiors are…interested in the identity of the sender.” He ran a hand through his hair and I realized, for the first time, that Stani was missing the pinky and ring fingers on his left hand. The digits ended at the second and third knuckles, respectively, and I could tell from the scar tissue that the injury was several years old. When he noticed my attention, Stani quickly hid his hand beneath the table.

“I guess that information would be pretty interesting, wouldn’t it?” I was painfully aware of the very real possibility that I could overplay my bluff. There were answers to be had, however. Whatever party had sprung me from prison had involved Stani and his organization, as well. I couldn’t afford to ignore even the faintest glimmer of a lead. “Who are your superiors? Who do you work for?”

The bearded bodyguard stepped closer to Stani’s side and dipped his hand into his jacket. I didn’t need to see the glint of metal to know what he was reaching for. Stani raised his hand without turning to face the bodyguard, and made a fist. The goon stopped and Stani exhaled slowly. “Bratva.”

I barely kept myself from whistling in amazement. I knew more about the mysterious puppet master now than I had before, but what I’d learned was far from heartening. The Bratva were, in essence, the Russian mafia. I’d made a point of giving any organized crime syndicates as wide a berth as possible during my career, but what I’d heard about the Russian mafia had been composed of blood, death, and misery. People who acted against the interests of the mob found themselves in the crosshairs of an organization staffed with former KGB agents, Spetznaz trained killers, and a healthy amount of plain murdering psychopaths. If Stani was a lieutenant in the Bratva – and I guessed that he most likely ranked a little lower than that – then that meant my guardian angel was playing games with the sort of enemies who made people disappear.

Worse than that, the sight of the inverted triangles had shocked Stani so badly that he was actually deferring to me. I hadn’t needed to verify my identity and he hadn’t wanted a passcode or phrase. As soon as he’d seen the picture, his entire demeanor changed. Whoever had sprung me from jail and arranged for my extrication from Paris wasn’t just connected, then; to cow an agent of the Bratva, that person had to be seriously, frighteningly powerful.

I swallowed hard as the implications settled into place. I had more to worry about than Stani and his armed goons, now. If I said the wrong thing or upset my benefactor in some way, there was every possibility that I could spend the rest of a very short life in a dark hole somewhere. I immediately regretted showing him the picture in the first place. I could probably have talked my way out of the situation before; now, I was committed. I couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. “Okay then,” I said.  “Now, tell me what you know about Asher. Where can I find him?”

“We do not know,” Stani said. “I was sent here to locate him and bring him back to Moscow, for a…reckoning. “

That was promising. Anything that could turn the Bratva from a possible enemy into a tentative ally was a good thing. “I don’t see why we can’t both get what we want,” I said. “You want Asher. I want Asher. Why not go after him together?”

“It is…” Stani started and then stopped. “Our dispute with Asher is a matter of professional etiquette. He must be made to pay for what he has done.”

“After I get what he owes me,” I said, “you can have him. Whatever debt he’s built up, you can get it from him however you want. Deal?” If Stani’s behavioral shift was any indication, I probably could have demanded Asher on the strength of the mysterious benefactor’s sigil. A proposal of equality, then, should seem like the offer of a lifetime. It was a chance for Stani to return Asher to his superiors and probably acquire a promotion of some sort in the process.

“I will have to speak with my superiors,” Stani said, after a few seconds.

“Go, then.” I leaned back in the chair and sipped at the liquor. It still burned like acid, but booze was booze. “We’re not going anywhere.” I gestured at Anton. He started at the motion, surprised to be included.

Stani nodded and stood from the table. “Come,” he said to the two bodyguards. They turned on their heels and followed him outside of the bar. I saw him pull a flip phone from his pocket and begin to dial a phone number.

When the door closed, I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. “Guess this is a thing I’m doing now,” I said to myself.

“Devlin,” Anton said, in a near-whisper, “what is going on?”

I pointed at the chair next to me. When Anton sat, I pulled the chair close to him and leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “Play along. I don’t know where this is going to go, but you have got to act like I know what I’m doing.”

“Do you?”

I shook my head. “Not a clue. What do you know about that symbol?”

“Nothing. I have never seen it at all. What do you know?”

“I already told you that; someone is pulling strings to get me…somewhere to do something, and I don’t know who they are or what they want. Apparently, they’ve got connections with the Bratva, which is just thrilling.”

“And you are lying to them?” Anton’s eyes widened. “Stani is…not stable, Devlin. He will kill you if he finds out that you are not being truthful with him.”

“Well, there’s really not a lot I can do about that now,” I countered. “At least this way, I’ve got a chance, and that’s better than nothing. Besides, maybe I’m not lying?”

Anton gave me a blank look.

“Whoever is doing all this went to a lot of trouble to get me here,” I said. “Maybe they didn’t know when I’d get here, and they damn sure didn’t know what name I’d be using, but this was where they wanted me to be. Why go through all that trouble, just to have me offed by some mafia punk who worked his way up to middle management? As far as I know, and as far as you know, I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing here.”

“We should go,” Anton said. He tilted his head in the direction of a door set into the back wall. “Before this gets any more complicated.”

“It’s plenty complicated already. Stani’s a local heavy, right?”

Anton shook his head. “Not local. Not anymore, at least. He moved to Russia when he…how did you say it…moved to ‘middle management.’”

“He’s probably got connections here, though. I wouldn’t get to the airport without tipping someone off.” A thought struck me, fired like a lightning bolt from the background static of my mind. “How do you know Stani?”

The blank look in Anton’s eyes was replaced first with surprise and then shame. Color filled his cheeks. “It is…”

The door opened again. Stani entered the room again and Anton fell silent. He hurried to vacate the chair, but I reached over and forced him to remain seated. “What’d your bosses say?”

“Sovietnik has authorized me to assist you in your search for Asher,” Stani said in a stiff voice. He did not return to his seat as he glared at Anton.

I didn’t know what Sovietnik was, but they apparently had enough authority over Stani to force him to work with me. On the one hand, I didn’t really want the help. My best bet for continued survival was to lose Stani and his men before I said or did the wrong thing. On the other hand, though, there were two massive bonuses that stopped me from dismissing him outright. One: Anton’s knowledge of the area was limited and his connections to the local underworld were tenuous, at the best of times. Two: the last thing I needed was for Stani’s bosses, this Sovietnik, to decide to torture me in pursuit of answers I honestly didn’t have.

After a moment, I amended the list and added a third item: Stani was, despite his attitude, my single best source for information on the mysterious puppet master. My involvement had come from nowhere, without context or prelude. Stani’s reaction and the willingness of his superior’s to work with a relative unknown told me that the relationship between my guardian angel and the Bratva ran deep.

“That’s acceptable. There are conditions, though.” I waited just long enough for Stani to open his mouth before I spoke again. The trick worked wonders for keeping people off balance and, as a power move, its utility was staggeringly underrated. “No taking any violent initiative. Everyone wants to find Asher, but I’d rather avoid bringing the law down on us if we don’t have to. If he’s here, I get him first. After that, he’s all yours. Or Sovietnik, whichever.”

“Of course.”

“That’s not all,” I said. “I don’t know what the deal is between you and Anton here, but he has been…hired as my local guide. An insult to him is an insult to me, and an insult to me…” I trailed off and let Stani finish the thought on his own.
Something passed between Anton and Stani. The glare, from Stani’s end, intensified and then faded into a merely sullen look, as opposed to the unabashed antagonism. In my mental file, under the folder titled “Stanislav,” I added a question mark and resolved to speak to Anton about the matter at the earliest opportunity.

“Good. Sooner we find Asher, the sooner the two of us can leave you all to your business.” I pointed to the two bodyguards.

“These two talkative gentlemen have names? I’d rather not call them Things 1 and 2.”

“Iosif,” Stani said, jerking a thumb at the bald man. “And this is Leonid.”

“And can they answer questions themselves?”

“Their English is very bad. If you would prefer to use Russian, then…”

“No. That’s fine. Can they at least understand what I’m saying?”

Iosif, the one on the right, nodded. A moment later, Leonid did the same, scratching at his dark beard.

I finished off the rest of my drink. Stani’s remained, half-empty, on the table. “Alright then,” I said, in a false tone of joviality.

“Let’s get started, then.”