A voice came over the plane’s speakers, as we landed. “Achtung. Bitte halten Sie Ihre Reisepässe zur Verfügung für einen kurzen Scan.” The sentence was repeated a second time in German. I didn’t understand a word of it, except for the last word: “scan.” There were probably a dozen different reasons, and most of them wouldn’t be particularly bad for me. So, of course, the directive wouldn’t be any of those.
My suspicions were validated a moment later. “Please have your passports available for a security check. We apologize for the inconvenience.” Security checks weren’t the norm in EU airports; usually, if you’re going from any one country in the EU to another, all you have to do is declare whatever you’re carrying across borders. For there to suddenly be a plane-wide mandatory check meant that something had gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Either Alex hadn’t gotten my message, or he hadn’t understood it, or – the most bitterly ironic possibility – he’d chosen to side with Sarah over me. I couldn’t blame him, if that was the case, but it still made me a prison escapee with a stolen passport inside of a German airport. In a perfect world, I would be just lucky enough to end up with a lazy or incompetent customs officer who waved me through with nothing more than a cursory examination of Monsieur Berger’s passport. I knew that I wasn’t that lucky, though. What was infinitely more likely, then, was that I would be sent to one of those small windowless rooms in the basement of the airport while they ran my fingerprints through the system. I had stolen quite a few things from various residences and museums in Germany over the years. It wasn’t unreasonable that an influential enemy might catch wind of my presence and take action to bring me to justice.
A third possibility occurred to me. The same benefactor who had sprung me from prison and arranged for my flight to Ukraine probably had agents inside of law enforcement. If I ended up in custody, my fingerprints might send up a flag that attracted their attention. Going through the trouble to slip the tail, only to need that same person to come to my rescue was more than pointless; it was embarrassing. I chuckled suddenly. Possibility four: the third party did have an eye on communications between the police and the local airports, but only in France and Ukraine. So, by eluding the network of eyes tracking my movements there, I might have also lost the only means I could’ve used to get out of custody here.
“Wouldn’t that just be perfect?” I muttered. There was a German couple ahead of me. They turned their heads slightly when I spoke and shuffled forward a little, widening the distance between us.
The process at the checkpoint was fairly quick. Each person swiped their passport over an automated scanner. Their names and faces flashed briefly on a screen before an immigration agent waved them through. It didn’t take more than thirty seconds per passenger. When my turn came, I ran my passport over the red light. It beeped and Monsieur Berger’s face appeared. I hoped that my scruffy facial hair accounted for enough of a difference that the immigration agent wouldn’t insist on a more in-depth check.
The agent at the station started to wave me through. He stopped when a small phone chirped at him from his pocket. He held out his arm to keep me from moving past the checkpoint as he used his other hand to answer his phone.
“Ja?” I couldn’t hear anything from the other end of the call. The agent waited patiently as someone spoke into his ear, and then he turned slightly and looked up. I followed his line of sight to a camera, pointed directly at me. “Wenn Sie das sagen,” he said after what felt like an eternity. He hung the phone up and turned his attention back to me.
“Everything okay?” I hoped I kept any trace of nerves from my voice.
The agent cleared his throat. “There is a small problem, Herr Berger,” he said in a thick, almost incomprehensible accent. “If you could step this way and wait one minute.”
“I’m in sort of a hurry,” I said. “My friend’s in the hospital, so if there’s any way we could speed this up…”
“Just one minute,” he repeated, with a supremely unimpressed look.
I waited. It didn’t take very long before a severe man with a wide graying mustache approached from my right. “That will be all,” he said. The agent passed him my passport and returned to his duty at the scanner.
The newcomer examined my passport. My heartbeat doubled, but I kept my hands at my side and did my best to exude an air of impatience. This stern man was a manager, at least. What worked on the typically downtrodden employees rarely worked on those with a vested interest in the system. It didn’t help matters that Germans were, by and large, such a business-oriented people. Short of bribery or blackmail – neither of which was a viable option – all I could do was wait for an opportunity to present itself.
“What’s this all about?” I asked in a loud voice. The guards shifted fractionally, and I didn’t miss their hands inching closer to their weapons. The suited manager’s eyes jerked away from the passport and locked onto me. “I have somewhere to be, and this whole…show is wasting my time.”
The first step was aggression. I didn’t want anyone taking a good look at the passport. The best way to accomplish that was, paradoxically, to make myself the center of attention. I needed to be just enough of a threat that he couldn’t afford to look away, but not so much that the guards had a reason to step in. If this new manager didn’t deliberately find a way to give me additional paperwork, he would just chalk me up as something to be dealt with and gotten rid of.
“Sir,” he said. I could hear the Munich accent, but he spoke English well enough that I was certain he’d been to school overseas. “There has been a small…”
His answer wasn’t what I’d expected. For whatever reason, he hadn’t shifted into the purely professional, “just business” mode I’d come to expect from German officials. I wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I moved onto the next phase of my hastily constructed plan. “A small what, exactly? A small delay? My friend is…” I faked emotion, choking up just a little before I continued. “My friend is in trouble and I’m being held up here?”
The man opened his mouth; a second later, he closed it. A second passed before he tried again. “There has just been a very small issue with your paperwork, sir. It will surely be fixed soon.” He spoke to me in a calming tone. He was trying to mollify me. One stroke of luck in an encounter was chance; two, with my personal experience, meant that there was something more than luck at work. Belatedly, I realized that he’d been calling me “sir” since his arrival. Not “herr” or “monsieur.”
“I apologize for the inconvenience,” the manager said. I have never met a German that apologized for doing their job. My danger sense went on high alert, and I started to scan the room for possible exits. I didn’t know how my benefactor had found me so quickly. Their first message, with the large man and his serendipitous envelope, had been subtle and a little tongue-in-cheek. There was no telling what the second would be like.
“Can you just scan it again?” I asked. “There shouldn’t be any problem.”
“If you could come with me, sir?” He phrased it as a question. The presence of the guards changed that into a command. Security moved into position in front of and behind me before the manager began to walk away from the terminal at a brisk pace.
Running wasn’t an option anymore, if it had ever really been one. As soon as I tried to escape, one guard or the other would hit me with their telescoping baton. I’d been on the receiving end of one several years back, and I had no desire to repeat the experience. Charm wasn’t a choice, either. The manager wasn’t reacting to the typical social cues in the way I knew. He was either a plant or an active agent; either way, I wasn’t going to be able to con him into doing anything I wanted. There was nothing else to do but see where things took me, and hope – against all reason and probability – that something shifted and presented me with a way out.
We reached a door. There was both German and English writing visible on a sign: “Employees Only.” The manager turned and pointed at the guard behind me. “Sie gehen köhen.” The guard nodded and left, leaving just the three of us. The remaining guard swiped a key card through the reader to the right of the door. The lock clicked open and the manager led us into the long, featureless corridor. When the door closed and locked behind me, my stomach dropped into my knees.
The manager didn’t say anything, either to me or the guard. He walked down the hallway, ignoring the doors we passed, and we followed behind him. It took everything I had to keep my hands steady. No matter what, it was never worth it to let anyone see you sweat. Reputation has its own sort of power and, being led to my possible death or torture, I couldn’t afford to throw any potential power away.
We reached a door, similar to the ones we’d already passed, and the manager stopped. “I’m guessing this is mine?” I asked. “Just curious; what does…whoever the hell is doing this even want from me?”
The manager shrugged. “I do not know what you are talking about,” he said. “I am only doing my job. If you would please?”
I took a second to steel myself. When I reached for the handle, my hands were steady, even if my heart trip hammered inside of my chest.
A man sat inside of the room, at a blank metal table. He wore traditional lederhosen and was sipping gingerly from a mug of some steaming beverage. He looked up at me in shock when I entered; the shock gave way to a slow smile that spread all the way across his face.
“Devlin! Berger was you?”
I let out an explosive breath. “You can’t just call someone, Alex?”
I took a seat across from my friend. The immigration agent gave my friend a nod and closed the door. When the two of us were alone, I allowed myself to smile. “This was all you, then?”
Alex nodded and took another sip from his mug. “I had heard that you would not be out of prison for another few months.”
“Yeah, about that.”
“You decided that, perhaps, there was somewhere else you would rather be than behind bars?” Alex winked at me. “I would understand that, if I had been in your position. But, I did not know that you had chosen to…leave early. Yet, you are the only one who would mention canary. So, I decided it would be best to be prudent. If you were coming to Munich, you could have just used your own name, though.”
“I’ll explain later. When we’re somewhere that isn’t liable to be filmed.” The camera in the small room was switched off; I could tell by the darkened bulb beneath its lens. That meant nothing about the numerous cameras I’d probably passed on the way down to the room, and the ones I would have to walk in front of whenever I left.
“That,” Alex said, as he rose and walked over to the door, “should not be much of a problem.” He rapped his knuckles twice against the metal. It swung open and revealed the stern immigration agent, waiting patiently with one hand crossed in front of the other.
“Yes, Herr Jeager?”
“The car, if you please? I believe we will be using the back exit.”
The stern man withdrew without a word. When his footsteps receded out of earshot, I turned and looked at Alex. “Moving up in the world, I see. Got your own assets and everything now.”
He blinked. “Who? Phillip?” Alex laughed and clutched at his belly as he returned to his seat. “No, he is simply a friend.”
“A friend who can arrange for an entire flight to get a ‘random security check’ on short notice? And, if I’m not missing what just happened, can sneak you and a friend out of an international airport?”
Alex finished laughing and shrugged. “He is a good friend,” he said simply. “But, enough of that. You mentioned canary in your message. Where is Frauchen O’Brien? Or does she still prefer Ford?”
It was my turn to blink. Sarah had been…upset when we’d parted ways. It had taken me a few burned aliases and one literally torched safe-house to realize that she’d put out an all-points bulletin, blacklisting me. I understood why she’d done it; I even knew that the violent actions people had taken against me weren’t done at her request, and were probably against her express wishes; but it still didn’t help when the pool of available talent shrunk down to people too young, too inexperienced, or too incompetent to have heard to stay away. Alex was none of those things, but if he’d somehow managed to miss the notice, I wasn’t going to be the one to inform him. “Elsewhere,” I said. Best to hedge the truth until I knew how much Alex had already heard.
His eyes narrowed and he placed the mug of mulled wine down on the table. “You have not come here without Sarah in a very long time,” he said. The jolly smile faded to a thin, pinched line. “She is not working, is she? You are not here working?”
“You know I wouldn’t work any jobs in your town, Alex. We’ve got too much history for that. No, Sarah’s just, uh…back in America right now.” I neglected to mention that she’d been in a fine rage when she’d boarded the flight home or that I wasn’t entirely sure if she’d stayed in San Francisco upon landing. “I haven’t had a chance to get in touch with her, yet. It’s been a, uh…tough twenty-four hours, let’s put it like that.”
“I had to ask, of course,” Alex said. He rubbed at his cheeks until they were rosy once more. “Things have not been good, here. People in our…line of work have decided to intrude upon my city. I must protect my people, and I needed to know if you were a person I need to protect them from.”
“Your people? Feeling a little extra fatherly today?”
Alex spread his arms wide. “Oh no! I have just the one child,” he said, “and she is more than enough for poor me.”
“Just a figure of speech. What I mean is: how exactly did you get an immigration agent to help you out with this? How much did this whole thing set you, personally, back?”
“Not much at all,” Alex answered. “I simply asked Phillip to look for a person carrying a passport with the name Berger and, if he found someone, to bring them to me.”
“So, what? You were just going to wait down here until someone showed up? What if you hadn’t seen me on camera?”
“I…may have stepped outside. But I trusted Phillip to detain you, if necessary.”
“Where else did you have to go, more important than someone who might have possibly broken our code?” I looked at his half-full mug. “Nevermind. Christmas stuff is already up, isn’t it?”
“It is not, sadly, but I…know people. They informed me that some of their wares had arrived early.” His face lit up. “I would have apologized if I had not been here before you were brought her, but I could not miss my Gluhwein.” He gestured at me with the mug. “You must try some. It is particularly good this year.”
“I will…pass, for the moment. Maybe later?”
The stern immigration agent entered the room quietly. “Your car is waiting, Herr Jeager.”
Alex gave Phillip a pained expression. “There is no need for such formality.”
“Still, Herr Jeager. Whenever you are ready.”
Alex sighed, but he didn’t push the issue. “Devlin, we have much to talk about!”
“We certainly do.” I stood and he stood, as well. “Lead the way, I guess?”
He did exactly that, inclining his head at his contact before he left the room. I fell in step behind him. We went a short distance down the hallway before we reached a door that read ”Ausgang”. There was a card reader to the right of it. The agent passed us both and swiped his card through the reader. “Will you require anything else, Herr Jeager?”
“No, no, this is more than enough!” Alex clapped the man on the shoulder with enough force that he stumbled forward a half step. “And what we discussed earlier is as good as taken care of.”
The agent smiled, for the first time since he’d pulled me aside in the terminal. “Truly? So easily?”
“It was nothing,” Alex said. “Now, you must be going, no?”
“Of course.” He straightened his suit jacket and tie. When he looked back up, he had returned to his impassive, stoic expression. “If you should require anything else…”
“I will ask, of course. But, you have a job to do.”
The agent practically bowed to Alex before he walked away, back down the hallway and out of sight. I turned to Alex. “Okay, I’ve got to know. How’d you get him to do all of this?”
“His daughter required…additional assistance in her pursuit of schooling. She desired to travel overseas, but there were complications in the process. I eased those complications.” He shrugged. “Also, Phillip and I frequent the same beer hall. Helping a friend is often the easiest thing to do.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “You realize that sort of thing only works for you, right?”
“Perhaps you are not asking the correct way?” Alex extended his arm. “But, time is wasting. Let us find you a place to rest and recuperate.”
“Rest doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”
We walked outside, Alex in front, to a waiting Audi sedan. He opened the passenger side door for me. “After you.”
I climbed inside. The seat was a thousand times more comfortable than the harsh metal chair from earlier and I sank into it with a small sigh of relief. “Question.”
Alex closed my door and entered the car from his. He turned his key in the ignition before he looked at me. “Yes, Devlin?”
“Is there a baby seat in the trunk of this thing?”
Alex chuckled nervously. “Not at the moment,” he said, “but there is always hope.”
He eased the vehicle into motion, through the parking lot, and out of a gate that led to the main street. “So, tell me.” Alex shifted the car into a higher gear. “What is going on?”
I told him, starting with Asher’s betrayal at the Museé D’Orsay. I didn’t go into too much detail about the horrors I’d witnessed in La Santé, but I lingered on Patrick and his crew of aging thieves. I told Alex about the surprising assistance I’d received, the preternatural skill with which my mysterious benefactor anticipated my moves, and the envelope that had been delivered to me. We spoke about the difficulties in leaving a country without assistance, after I informed him of my last minute effort to switch identities at the airport. By the time I’d finished relaying my story, almost forty minutes had passed.
Alex listened to me speak without a hint of judgment on his face. When I was done, he leaned back into his seat. “That is…quite a story, Devlin. Still, things would be much easier if Sarah could assist, yes? If you like, I could reach out to her. My associates are very discrete.”
“No!” Alex looked sharply at me. “I mean, no. I don’t…until I know who’s doing this, I don’t want to get her involved.” Which was true. Even if she hadn’t left me holding the literal bag, I wouldn’t want Sarah within a thousand miles of this.
He must have read my mind. “She is her own woman,” Alex said. “And it is her choice whether or not to assist you. I do not feel that she would be happy to find that you left her out because you were concerned about her safety. Or her ability to protect herself.”
“I didn’t…that’s not what I meant.” I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. “I know she can take care of herself. That’s why I started working with her in the first place. It’s just…this isn’t something I can’t handle yet. Tell you what; if whatever’s going on reaches a point where I don’t think I can take care of it without involving her, then I’ll loop her in. Okay? But, until then…”
“Until then, you would prefer I not tell her what I know?” I nodded. “I will not promise to lie to her, Devlin, no matter how long we have known each other. But, I will not tell her without her asking first. Is that a deal?”
“That works, Alex. Thanks.”
He shook his head. “I do not think it is a good idea, but it is your relationship. I am only concerned that she will not appreciate being lied to.”
I could still see the rage and pain in her expression, and I could still hear each and every word she’d hurled at me before she left. “No,” I said, “I don’t think she would appreciate that at all.”
We didn’t say anything for the next five minutes. Alex navigated his way through the streets until we reached a relatively modest house. He pulled the car into the driveway and turned it off. “We will get you changed and rested before we go to…” He paused. “What are you in Munich for?”
“You, uh…remember when Sarah and I first came here?”
“Of course! That was when you two became one, yes?”
I kept my expression calm, despite the sharp pang in my heart. “Yeah. Before we left, Sarah talked me into leaving some…documents here. Kind of a keepsake.”
Alex sat quietly for a moment. “Okay. And that ‘keepsake?’ Where did you leave it?”
“The ballroom, at the Hofbräuhaus. After the wedding, we replaced one of the tiles and left it there.” Just thinking about the ceremony, the friends who’d flown in from a dozen different countries just to be a part of it, felt like a knife between my ribs. I pushed through the feelings. “Shouldn’t be hard to retrieve, unless they remodeled the place.”
Alex avoided my eyes. I could see the words he was deliberately not speaking, written in every line of his face.
“They didn’t remodel, did they?” I asked.
“They did not,” he said. “But there might be a…problem. I do not think retrieval will be as easy as you are thinking.”