The newest recruit is blonde and perky, and Sterling has no idea why she’s standing outside his apartment.
“I don’t work at IYS anymore,” he tells her, ready to shut the door in her face.
“I know,” she says quickly. “I just need five minutes of your time. Please.”
He’s not sure why he lets her in. Maybe because he remembers being in her shoes, fifteen or twenty years ago. Maybe because he does occasionally miss his old life at IYS—though he has no regrets about taking Interpol’s offer. Oh, who’s he kidding? He lets her in because she’s very nice to look at.
“Take a seat.” He lets her have the couch. “Can I get you anything?”
She shakes her head, her eyes roving over his spacious home, lingering first on the photograph of his sister, then on the only picture he has of his parents. “I’m fine.”
He sits in an armchair across from her. “So, what did you want to talk to me about?”
Sterling grimaces, decides maybe he needs a drink after all. He rises and pours himself a whiskey, takes a sip as he perches on the arm of his chair.
“What about him?”
“In the two months I’ve been at IYS, I’ve been consistently compared to two people. You, and Nate Ford.”
His lips twist in distaste. It makes sense, he supposes, to put Nate and him in the same class—Sterling got Nate’s job, after all, after Nate’s ignominious fall from grace—but he’d rather their names never be spoken in the same sentence, unless the sentence went: “Jim Sterling arrested notorious criminal Nate Ford today, in a daring and brilliant sting operation.”
(A sentence very much like that one had been composed and on the verge of being sent to the press not so long ago, before Nate’s little band of criminals conspired to con his way out of jail and back into respectability.)
The silence has gone on too long; the young woman is looking at him with an eyebrow raised, awaiting a response. What was the question? Ah, right. “You’re that brilliant, are you?”
She smirks. (He does see the resemblance now—that’s an expression straight out of his own playbook.) “Maybe, but that’s not why they compared me to you. They said that the three of us were equally…vengeful.”
Sterling takes another sip of his whiskey, rolls it around in his mouth. “They’re mistaken,” he says, meaning it. “I’m not a vengeful person.”
“Please. I’ve read your case files, Sterling. You and Ford, you both like to take down the bad guys. If they’re bad enough, you like to make them suffer.” She shrugs. “So do I.”
“I enforce the law,” Sterling counters. “That’s it. It’s not about vengeance or retribution—it’s simple justice.”
She rolls her eyes. “Whatever. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. What I want to know is, what made you decide that Nate Ford was your enemy? Why go after him?”
Sterling finishes his glass and sets it down with a clink on the coffee table. (He doesn’t pour himself another, though he wants to—he has self-restraint, unlike some people.)
“What do you know about Nate?” he asks her.
She spreads her palms. “I know he was the best insurance investigator IYS had, until his son died. I know that he became an alcoholic. And I know that he teamed up with a band of thieves to deliver their own brand of justice, outside the law. What I don’t know is what made you his enemy.”
Sterling’s eyes narrow and he leans forward. “Let’s get one thing straight,” he snaps. “I am not the Sheriff of Nottingham to Nate Ford’s Robin Hood.”
She hasn’t accused him of such, but enough people have over the past few years that he leaps at the chance to dispel any misguided notions she might have.
“Okay,” she says, drawing out the word, calm in the face of his outburst.
"Nate and I used to be friends, I bet nobody’s told you that. We shared a reputation for being unstoppable. The two of us retrieved more stolen merchandise than the rest of IYS’s employees combined. Two peas in a pod, we were.” His fists clench in remembered anger at Nate’s dismissal of their friendship, back during the first David job. “What’s more—and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise—Nate loved his work. So did I. I still do. Back then, he’d never have considered a career change for all the gold in Fort Knox.”
“Nate’s son died, and it was, in part, IYS’s fault.”
“I know about what happened to Ian Blackpoole,” she says, a hint of impatience in her tone.
Sterling smiles in fond remembrance of the way that particular debacle worked out. “Yes, but did you know that Nate stayed at my apartment for three weeks after Maggie kicked him out for drinking too much?”
She blinks. “No.”
“Or that I offered to loan him the cash to get back on his feet, back in the game?” His voice rises with each word.
“He did more than refuse. He hurled the offer back in my face, accused me of being ‘a slave to an unworthy master’—that’s a direct quote, by the way.” Sterling can’t help but chuckle. “Vengeful? Oh, yes, Nate is certainly that.”
“That’s why you turned against him?”
“What kind of man would I be, if I turned against a grieving man because he lashed out? No. No, I forgave him. He disappeared for a long time after that, which I thought was for the best. But the next time he turned up, he was in cahoots with Sophie Devereaux. And that? That I could not forgive.”
She cocks her head. “Why? Were you interested in Devereaux?”
He slams his fist against his palm. “She’s a grifter! Not just any grifter, but one Nate and I had chased halfway across Europe and back. Oh, she wasn’t as violent as some thieves we’d chased—not like Eliot Spencer, for example—but she destroyed people’s lives as thoroughly as Spencer can destroy someone’s body. Do you know what grifters do? They insinuate themselves into your life. They pretend to be your friend, all the while digging up your secrets, your weaknesses. Then, when you least expect it—they crush you.” He sneers. “It’s not a noble profession. Sophie Devereaux, whatever she is now, was not a thief who followed a code of honor. She was just a thief.”
“So when you saw Nate with her you felt betrayed?”
“If Nate had just gone against IYS, that I could have understood. I couldn’t have supported it, but I’d’ve understood. If a man takes revenge for a wrong done to him, I won’t object. Blackpoole got what he deserved. But that’s not what Nate was doing—what he’s still doing. He didn’t take the law in his hands one time, for personal reasons. He’s decided that he’s outside of the law completely. He’s joined forces with scum who used to make a living hurting innocent people.”
He gets up and pours himself another drink. He gives himself a moment, almost overcome by his burning resentment, before he turns around and faces her again, leaning back against the kitchen counter.
“Nate isn’t Robin Hood. He’s not some hero who’s fighting a corrupt system to help innocents. Nate is Lancelot. The once noble knight who is seduced by how much easier it is to do the wrong thing.”
“I suppose you’re Arthur, in this example,” she says, smirking again.
“I’ve spent my entire life in defense of those who ask for my help,” Sterling retorts, not seeing the humor. “I gave up a lucrative career at IYS to become a public servant. I’ve stayed true to what I believed. Nate has not. For that, I will see that he gets the punishment he deserves.”
They lapse into silence. Several minutes pass. Sterling finishes his drink, but it brings him no comfort.
“I’ve got no qualms with hurting bad people,” she says eventually. “If you read my file, you’ll see that. But I also understand that sometimes, to help people, you have to do what’s right, not what’s allowed.”
“That’s dangerous thinking,” Sterling replies.
“What would you have done, in his place?” she asks in return.
Sterling frowns. “I don’t follow.”
“I think you’re underestimating Nate Ford, if you think that it’s easier for him to do the wrong thing than the right one. I think the two of you have a lot more in common than even you realize.”
Sterling sighs, suddenly tired, and rubs his forehead. “Miss Mars—”
“Veronica. Why did you wish to talk to me?”
She tilts her head, a secretive smile playing along her lips. “A source tipped me off to a con Nate and his crew are going to run in the next few days. I’ve been trying to decide how…aggressively…to investigate.”
Sterling feels a tingling of excitement, which he fights to keep out of his voice. “What’s the con?”
She snorts. “Yeah, because I’m that naïve.” She stands, hitches her purse over her shoulder. “Thanks for your time, Agent Sterling,” she says, offering her hand.
He shakes it, doesn’t let go when she tries to pull away. “You haven’t got a choice,” he tells her. While he speaks, he puzzles over the curious calluses on her palm. After a few seconds he realizes that they are from handling a camera. “If Nate’s going to commit a crime, you have to report it or you’ll be considered an accomplice.”
She extracts her hand with a quick twist of her wrist. “Of course I’m going to report it. Once I’m sure that the tip was genuine. Until then, I’m not a cop. I’m an insurance investigator. And it’s amazing, isn’t it, how much leeway we insurance investigators are given by foreign law enforcement?”
She opens the door and doesn’t hesitate before walking out. He goes to the door, watches her stride down the hall.
“Veronica,” he calls out. She pauses, turns to look at him. “Be very careful. Decide whether you want to become my enemy. There’s one last thing you should know about me. I never lose.”
She gazes evenly at him for a long moment. “In this situation, I’m Merlin, aren’t I? On the side of right, but sympathizing with the criminal. Judging Arthur and Lancelot.”
He grimaces. “It’s an imperfect metaphor.”
“Maybe,” she says. “But try to remember—Arthur didn’t want to condemn Lancelot. He did it because he had to.”
“And I’ll continue to do what I have to do.”
“I know you will. So will I,” she says. It sounds vaguely like a threat.
Sterling shuts the door.