Of the establishments in which he had stakes, Renoir Karzai most preferred the Cafe Perdu. It was a misnomer, since it had never served coffee, but the atmosphere was almost pleasant by end-of-the-world standards. It occupied a waterfront corner in the Market District, commanding a wide view of the street, and served various spirits and carbonated alcoholic beverages to the more monied class of guildsmen and criminals.
For Karzai, the investment had been a profitable one. He invested his Litres in all manner of watering holes and dives, and paid handsomely for reports by their various employees. Information was his business, and he was good at collecting it.
The Perdu was always more active in the evening, when various acts of indiscretion or violence might occur. During the day, it was a refuge. He never had to pay for his wine, and there was an open air seating area where he could, if he squinted, just imagine he was on vacation in Beirut. He also had one of his many apartments upstairs, a reinforced second story cargo box that had been fitted out in reasonable comfort. He had been spending a lot of time there lately.
At this moment, he was not in an appreciative mood. His small family had been split asunder, and he had lost interest in his business affairs. His son had been his student in such matters, and he had entertained the faintest hope that Reza would grow up with wisdom and wit enough to make some kind of life for himself in this pestilential, dehydrated hell. Now he didn’t even have that. Sergei had him, and there was no telling what that beast might subject him to.
As so often happened, Renoir Karzai felt the presence of the shaytan before laying eyes on him. A hush fell over the Perdu’s few other patrons, and the squeaking sound of the bartender’s rag went silent. Karzai did not turn his head, only listened as the booted footfalls filled the empty space, belonging to at least six. A seventh detached themselves, these heavier and lazier than the others, now coming closer. He knew what he would see when he looked up— the interior seating space occupied by the modest kettle of Lammergeiers, and their platinum-haired chief, head tilted as he gazed down on him like an old carcass.
Karzai took a deep, heavy breath and met Sergei’s flat, pale blue eyes. Shaytan eyes. His generous mouth stretched into a bland smile.
“I just want to talk.”
He went over to the leather bound club chair opposite, and sank down into it, his broad, hard shoulders shrugging up as he propped his elbows on the armrests. Karzai said nothing as he reached down and helped himself to one of Karzai’s cigarettes, lighting it and taking a drag, smoke issuing from his nostrils.
“Aren’t you going to ask me about Reza?”
It made Karzai feel a little sick, hearing his son’s name in this man’s mouth. He did want to ask, but he was determined not to feed him any more of his pain and anxiety.
“He’s doing well,” Sergei said as he ashed his cigarette in Karzai’s wine cup. “Lieutenant-Commander al-Sayed is pleased with his progress in hand to hand fighting. Still skinny, but we’ll build him up. You should be proud.”
“I am proud,” Karzai said quietly. “I know who my son is. You will never understand that.”
“You’re right,” Sergei said abruptly, flicking the spent cigarette out into the street. “I don’t really give a fuck. I’m here about the girl.”
He frowned. “What girl?”
“Come on, you saw her. The one with Arnaud.”
Sergei leaned forward slightly, folding his hands under his chin. “So you do know her.”
Karzai took a moment to consider his answer. “She is, how would you say it… a courtesan.”
He could tell Sergei didn’t believe him, but he knew better than to contradict himself. “I know her in passing.”
“Renoir,” Sergei chastised. “I know I don’t have a reputation for intelligence, but you do, and you can’t expect me to believe that you weren’t aware of Arnaud’s plans. He couldn’t have found a woman like that all by himself.”
“All right,” Karzai agreed. “She was a high class prostitute Arnaud hired to seduce you and then kill you. Clearly he made a mistake in his choice.”
“That’s the word on the street? That I killed both of them.”
Karzai did not like the way he was smiling over the knuckles of his folded hands, like he was waiting for his opponent to lay down his losing cards.
“Is she alive?” he ventured finally, knowing he’d need to give away a layer or two of truth. That was how he had been trained back in the days before, when he was a real intelligence officer.
Now Sergei’s smile broadened into something more genuine, though no less intimidating. “Oh, extremely. She’s really very good. But you know that, Renoir. Tell me what else you know.”
Karzai bent down, took a cigarette from the pack and lit it, sucking in smoke to try and steady his nerves. Those unblinking flat lapis eyes watched him steadily as though waiting for him to move, to give himself away.
“You know the name Morrígan.”
He nodded. “The best, supposedly.”
“Lucretia Byrne is their captain. They use dead drops for their communications, only take clients if they like the look of their contract.”
Sergei grinned. “How many contracts for me?”
Karzai gave him a hard smile. “Who doesn’t want you dead?”
“And yet here I am.”
“They haven’t accepted a contract on you until now, one assumes.”
“No.” Sergei looked thoughtful, something odd to witness up close. “They’ve never accepted a contract on me at all. She had the perfect opportunity. Unarmed, naked, my cock still wet. It would have been easy, just like it was easy for her to cut your friend and watch him bleed out. I would’ve been even more helpless.”
Karzai wanted to agree, to enlighten Sergei as to his peril, to tell him that one day his reign would end, and he would not live to be old, but the information that Lucretia had been the one to kill his old friend troubled him. He was uncertain now of the balance, but he was not going to share that uncertainty with this man.
“I want you to find her for me,” Sergei said, rising gracefully as he shot his black cuffs, and adjusted one holster strap. “I am certain your son will continue to do well, knowing his father has his best interests in mind.”
He signalled to his people, and just like that, they were gone, not a feather remaining to testify to their presence. Karzai waited until the deadly stillness finally lifted from the air, then rose from his seat, and headed to the staircase that was tucked behind the bar.
Upstairs, in the narrow furnished box apartment, Lucretia sat in the window, looking out through the transparent curtains. Her eyes followed the posse as it moved with brisk purpose, their leader in centre position like a Roman emperor with his Praetorians, until they disappeared behind a corner.
He paused as she turned her head to look at him with those sacre bleu eyes that had so much more depth and fire, and yet made her of a species with his recent companion. He was temporarily breathless, as he always was whenever he saw her after an absence, however brief.
“Well?” she prompted.
“Did you kill Tomas Arnaud?”
She didn’t blush or flinch. “It was unavoidable.”
“And me,” he said drolly, a little of the initial enchantment wearing away. “Will my death be unavoidable, too?”
“I shouldn’t think so,” she said kindly. “Provided you stay out of the way and don’t interfere with my operation.”
“You can’t possibly think you can tame that monster.”
“Of course not. That’s not the objective.”
He went to her, put his hands on her freckled shoulders and kissed her lips. They were naturally ruddy, and smiled so easily. He entertained no illusions with her, but their liaison was more an artifact of friendship than anything else. She didn’t rely on his networks much these days, but she did have a genuine enjoyment of his company, something he cherished.
“Edward is putting you up to this.”
“You know perfectly well Edward indulges me,” she said with a smile. “I’ve had my sights on our friend for some time.”
“Then kill him,” Karzai said, now pulling the ties of her dress, letting his fingers run over the curves of her body. “And have done with it. Either of you could make the hit. What can leaving him alive possibly serve?”
“It serves, Renoir,” she told him reprovingly as she nudged him back towards his bed, straddling him, clearly trying to distract him. She kissed him, running her fingers through his salt and pepper hair, and he was content to submit to her attentions.
As he indulged in her warmth, he reflected on their working relationship. She was so good at hustling him without ever making him feel manipulated or unworthy. She didn’t need to sleep with him to achieve her aims, just as she hadn’t needed to sleep with Tomas. It saddened him to see such beauty weaponized, but he also considered himself privileged to be one of her victims.
It was peculiar to think he now shared that category with humanity’s worst enemy, but he knew her, knew she liked to collect dangerous men. Her training as a member of Fás Ard had focused on honey trapping enemy military and police personnel and then disposing of them for strategic or propaganda purposes. It was brutal work, and she had been very, very good.
Neither did he disagree that such tactics were the best way to reach her target, but he could not fathom what benefit she or Edward could possibly see in prolonging contact. Karzai was one of the few who knew about their connection, and while Edward was the least jealous of men, he was utterly devoted to her. It was difficult to believe he would endorse this risk.
“Lucretia,” he said, speaking her name into the darkness as they lay together in a comradely afterglow. She gave a sleepy moan of acknowledgement and turned towards him without opening her eyes.
“You must help Reza, and the other children. Provide me with information on them, so I can be ready to act.”
“Whoever follows Sergei won’t have anything to gain by keeping them,” she mumbled against his neck.
“I’ll look in on them,” she said sleepily. “No promises. I have to be careful.”
“Of course. I don’t want anything to happen to you.” Karzai stroked her hair, filling his hand with her dark curls. “The world is too small already.”