Chapter 6

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.”

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Chapter 5

The inside of the airport was a madhouse.  Men, women, and children of both genders rushed from one end of the terminal to the other.  Some families carried large suitcases and spoke to each other in English, or Spanish, or occasionally just French.  Businessmen strode past them, weaving between the crowds with practiced ease, speaking into their cell phones in crisp sentences. Tourists lingered near the entrances and the counters, or simply gaped in awe at the insanity of the terminal. I was one of the only people not taken aback by the rush and fuss of the interior, but who also didn’t seem to have a particular destination in mind.  I reveled in the bedlam.  Chaos was my best friend and perhaps my only ally at the moment.

I assessed the severity of the problem and quickly built a list of potential solutions.  The first possibility, and the easiest, was to find a civilian who had access.  I rolled my shoulders and felt a little bit of stress leave the muscles before I found a short line at one of the counters.  The clerk was a French lady with a short blonde bob.  A customer stood in front of her desk, berating her in rapid-fire French.  She grimaced at the tirade and tried to turn the expression into an approximation of a smile.  The effort wasn’t entirely effective, but the angry customer didn’t seem to care.  He yelled a few more words at her – several of which almost had to be curses, judging from his inflection – and snatched his ticket off of the counter before he stormed away.

“You’ll do,” I muttered.  One of the basic rules for dealing with service workers or, really, any sort of employee who has to deal with customers on a regular basis is that they feel unappreciated.  Take a little time to treat them like a person, maybe shed a few tears, and most people will inherently want to help with whatever problem you’ve got.

I counted to thirty in my head, before I made my approach.  She gave me a purely professional smile as I approached.  In turn, I gave her a rueful grin.

“Tell me you speak English.” I injected a little bit of panic into my voice and leaned in to read her name tag.  “Audrey, right?”

She flashed her teeth at me.  Names were always a good start.  “I do, monsieur.  How can I help you today?”

I handed her my ticket and, when she took the packet, began to rub my hands together nervously.  “I have a friend in Ukraine who had to go to the hospital.  He bought this ticket for me last night, but I’m not…I mean, I’ve never really flown anywhere except just small trips across the states, and I’m just worried about missing my flight or…”

Audrey interrupted my rant, as I’d hoped she would.  “I am so sorry to hear about your friend.  Let’s figure this out, yes?”  She glanced at my ticket before she hit a few keys on her computer.  “You are on Flight 128, direct to Kiev.  That is the flight you would like, correct?”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes.  Of course, the flight would be a direct one.  “Actually,” I said, making sure to keep up the nervous body language, “he asked me to stop by, uh…”  My eyes flickered up, over the clerk’s shoulders, at the board detailing departures and arrivals.  One name stood out and I formed an additional step in my growing plan, on the fly.  “…by Munich.  That’s where his sister lives.  She doesn’t know he’s in the hospital yet.”

She typed something into the computer.  “Monsieur, we do have a flight on Lufthansa that makes a two hour long stop in Munich along the way.  There will only be a surcharge of…”  She double-checked the figure.  “…one hundred Euros.”

“Oh…no.”  Between both pockets, I probably had the equivalent of that price available.  I just couldn’t purchase an international ticket without any identification.  “I…I don’t have the money for that.”  I waited a second and then faked a sob.  “I’m just so stupid.”

The clerk glanced to her right and to her left.  Her fellow employees were consumed with assisting other customers.  “What do you mean?”

“My wallet got stolen,” I lamented, “and I used the last of my cash on the cab ride here.  I think the driver might have conned me, but what else was I supposed to do?”

The look she gave me was not a professional one; a glimmer of actual, human emotion shone through her practiced mask.  “It is okay, monsieur.  That sort of thing happens to tourists here.  It is too bad, but it is not the end of the world, is it?”

“You’re right, I know.”  I dredged up the saddest memory I could: the image of Sarah’s back, just before she closed the door one of our flats with impunity.  The tears that welled up in my eyes were not entirely faked.  “It’s just that I wanted to make sure she could be there for him,” I said.  “He might not make it, after all.  But, she just had to travel and…”

The clerk reached out for my hand and stopped herself at the last moment.  I fought back the urge to smile.  I had her.  “Monsieur, I…”  She lowered her voice.  “How long have you known this man, your friend?”

“Such a long time,” I said.  “But I’ve just been thinking about it so much these past few years.  When I heard from him, I just wanted to drop everything and go to see how he’s doing.  But…I just didn’t want to forget about the other things.  It’s what he’d want me to do, I think.  I just wish that I could.”

She checked her surroundings a second time.  When no one looked her way, she typed a rapid string of commands into the computer.  She reached under the counter and withdrew another packet.  “Here you go, Monsieur…”  The clerk checked the ticket and raised an eyebrow.  “Monsieur Valjean?”

I wiped at my eyes and gave her a weak laugh.  “My parents have a weird sense of humor.  Are you sure you can do this?  I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

“It is no problem,” the clerk said, in a voice only a hair above a whisper.  “As far as anyone is concerned, you are flying under my name.  It will not be the first time someone has needed assistance, and I am happy to give it.”  She looked at her watch.  “But you must hurry!  Your flight will leave very soon!”

I made a show of checking my pockets and then flashed her a hurried smile.  “Thank you so much!  I just…I’ll pay you back someday, okay?”  Which wasn’t a lie.  I made a point of repaying favors, both personally and professionally.

“Do not worry about it,” she said.  “It is my pleasure.”

I wiped again at my eyes and ducked away, still murmuring thanks as I went.  When I was a safe distance away, I dropped the act.  I hadn’t expected Audrey to use her own employee ID to secure a different flight for me.  At best, I’d hoped for a little more information about the flight plan; maybe, if the stars were aligned, for a delay that would give me a little bit longer to consider my situation from all angles.  Flying under her name, and to Munich no less, was a delightful windfall.  Anyone looking for me or, more accurately, my assumed name would have to wait at the terminal in Kiev for hours for a passenger that wouldn’t be there for hours, on an entirely different flight than expected.

An idea struck me, and I smirked.  The mysterious “they” didn’t know what I looked like.  If I’d had to guess, I’d say that someone had employees placed at key locations throughout Paris, waiting for a phone call or text message to send them after me.  The logistics of an operation at that scale were staggering, but the weaknesses of it were obvious, now that I could see the whole of it.  Someone didn’t trust their employees with information.  That meant there were a lot – possibly a whole lot – of people running blind.  I didn’t have to fool all of them; I just had to get them to look in the wrong direction, while I slipped by.

I needed a patsy.  I examined everyone around me, searching for a specific body type.  I didn’t find one until just before I passed through security.  A suited man, carrying a briefcase, cleared the line a little ahead of me.  He slipped his passport into his front pants pocket before he greeted a woman on the other side with a passionate kiss.  When they parted, he looked around nervously.  The fluorescent lighting caught a glint of metal on his hand: a new wedding ring he tried to conceal with his other hand.  There was not a matching flash of light from the woman’s hand, and I amended my first thought: not a new wedding ring, but a recently cleaned one.

Security gave me a pat-down and an intensely skeptical look when I placed nothing into the X-ray machine.  I gave the stern man a terse recap of the story I’d given Audrey.  He didn’t seem to believe me, but he let me pass anyway.  I felt his eyes on my back as I walked away, but I kept my own vision fixed on the businessman and his mistress.

“Excuse me!”  I called out.  They didn’t react, and I tried again in French.  “Excusez-moi!”

The woman turned.  Her outfit was wildly impractical.  She wore a mish-mash of colors and patterns, red and blue and green, with a pair of stiletto heels.  As I drew closer, she gave me a withering look over the top of her designer sunglasses.  “Est-ce qu’on se connait?”

“Sir!  Monsieur!”  I aimed my voice at his back and came even closer, picking up a little speed along the way.  “Sir!”

The woman sniffed at the air and tapped the businessman on the shoulder.  He turned as well, just as I caught up and crashed into him.  The two of us, as well as his mistress, went down in a heap of limbs.  As he tried to extricate himself, I grabbed his suit jacket and pulled him back down.  In the brief struggle, I slipped my hand into his pants pocket and switched my passport with his.  When the document was safely in my own jacket, I relaxed my grip.  He got to his feet, fuming with anger.  He didn’t help his companion up; she struggled a little more to find her balance on her thin heels.

“I’m so sorry!”  I said, from the ground.  “I thought you were someone else!”

The businessman tugged his jacket back into place and fixed his tie.  “Americans.”  He pronounced the word with a marked disdain, as if the word was toxic.  The woman with him nodded her agreement with the sentiment.  They walked away without offering me a hand.

If he had been even a little bit more polite, I might have felt bad about the tail he’d pick up as soon as he touched down in Kiev.  As it was, it took most of my limited self-control not to pump my fist at his back.  I contented myself with a dirty look.  “Have fun with that, asshole.” I stood up again and waved security off when I was on my feet again.  The guard who’d seemed skeptical about me before now gave me a downright disbelieving glare; I escaped his gaze before he had a chance to call me over for a “random screening.”

I was past the worst of it, now.  There was one thing left to do before I could board my flight, and I had just enough time to do it.  I needed to re-establish communications and collect on what few favors I had floating around in the ether.   I couldn’t afford to run solo as long as there was someone out there with plans for me.  I located a stationary phone and dialed a number I hadn’t used in a long time, even before my prison sentence.  The phone rang and rang until it finally clicked over to voicemail.

“This is Alexander.”  The voice was deep and its accent was nearly incomprehensible.  “Leave your message.”  A second passed before I heard a beep.

There were too many possible ways to trace a phone call.  It couldn’t hurt to be a little extra paranoid.  I forced myself to cough several times until my throat was hoarse.  “S-Bahn.”  The rasp in my voice hurt, but my voice sounded different to my own ears.  “Five hours.  Remember Canary.”  I paused and checked my borrowed passport.  “Berger.”  I hung up.

I could only hope that Alex checked his voicemail before I landed, and that he was clever enough to figure out the cryptic message.  If not, then I would have a whole different set of problems as soon as I touched down.  Either way, there was nothing more to be done about it now.

A polite voice came over the speakers and interrupted my thoughts.  “Vol 437 à Munich, embarquement immédiat.”  The voice repeated the sentence again in French, before it switched over to English.  “Flight 437 to Munich, now boarding.  Flight 437 to Munich, now boarding.”

I gave myself a quick check.  My stolen passport rested securely in my jacket pocket.  There were still a few American dollars in my pants.  Other than those two things, all I had to carry with me were my wits.  When I started in the business, I hadn’t possessed much more, and I’d done okay for myself.  There was every possibility that I could start from scratch once again and make things work.

There wasn’t much of a line to board the plane.  The attendant at the gate gave my passport a cursory glance before she waved me through.  I was aboard the aircraft inside of five minutes, and seated only a minute after that.  I thought that the tension and anxiety of the last twelve hours or so would have kept me awake and wired.  I fell asleep, almost as soon as my head touched the seat cushion, and didn’t wake again until the interior lights turned back on and the plane eased itself down into Munich.

Chapter 4

Conveniently enough, La Santé was located right in the heart of Paris.  As soon as I could, I eased the car into a parking spot and ditched it.  There wasn’t any way for me to know if my mysterious benefactor had placed it at the prison specifically for my use, or if it had belonged to a guard, but the safest plan was to abandon it before anyone tracked it down.  On the off-chance that the Peugeot had belonged to a guard, I took a pen and some paper from the glovebox and wrote out a quick thank-you note.  If nothing came of it, no harm, but it couldn’t hurt to acquire a little good karma.  I didn’t sign the note, of course.

I meandered for a few blocks, plotting my next move.  As I walked, I catalogued the passers-by.  The ones who looked like good people, I greeted with a wave and a smile, even as I kept my eyes hidden.  The others, the ones who looked like high-powered executives or the types that don’t tip at restaurants, I made an effort to bump into.  I knew the French word for “sorry,” and I muttered it repeatedly, as I patted them to make sure that I hadn’t ruined their day or spilled their coffee.  By the time I reached the Tour Montparnasse, I’d acquired a good amount of money: a few hundred Euros, and a fraction of that in American dollars.  I placed the Euros in my right pocket and the dollar bills in my left.  There was some change I’d scavenged along the way, as well.  I donated that to a charming, utterly civil homeless man in exchange for directions.  After I’d managed to convey my request through gestures and pantomime, he pointed me in the direction of a thrift shop.  I thanked him, in English, and he thanked me for the money, in French.

At the thrift shop, I found a pair of jeans, an oversized t-shirt that screamed ‘tourist,’ and a large messenger bag.  I used a back room to change out of the guard’s uniform and stuffed it into the bag.  The shopkeeper raised an eyebrow when I left wearing the secondhand clothing, but shrugged and dismissed me as soon as I handed over the Euros.  Several blocks later, I dumped the messenger bag into a garbage can and hurried away.  I watched, without seeming to, each man and woman I passed on the street; in my new clothes, no one seemed interested in me.  Just to ease my paranoia, I took several turns, went down a few blind alleys, and rode the metro all the way to the Champs-Elysées and back again, keeping an eye out for anyone tailing me.  There was no one and, after I walked into a growing crowd of Parisians and exited alone, I began to relax.

With the uniform and the car well behind me, I started to feel more like myself.  My secondhand outfit didn’t fit perfectly, but it was close enough for comfort.  It was a crisp Fall day in Paris and, for the first time in three years, I was able to enjoy the breeze and the sun.  There were pressing matters that required my attention, and I knew that there was something of a time factor to dealing with those problems, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave the outdoors.  I stuffed my hands into my pockets and walked around for hours.  By the time I felt ready to move on, it was late afternoon.  The streets were busier now, with cars and people on their way to lunch, and I was hungry.  My mouth watered at the prospect of a meal with actual food, instead of whatever sawdust and grit they’d used at the prison.  I found a small café after only a minute of searching, and pointed at an enticing picture of some type of soup.  When the food arrived, I handed the waiter a bill from my left pocket without looking at it and dug into the soup.  Whatever denomination I’d chosen, the waiter was considerably friendlier afterwards.  I lingered at the café for an hour and tried a few more dishes before I moved on.

Now that I had a fresh meal in my stomach, and nothing but road in front of me, I picked the highest priority item on my checklist and decided to address it immediately.  I had to stop in several shops along the way until I found a map and a guidebook to help me translate it.  The first store I passed, Deliziefoille, was oddly closed.  I crossed a bridge or two until I found the second name on my list, Berthillion, which was not only open but very busy.  I waited in line (noting the similarities between the lines in prison, where the men had fought for position, and the line in front of me), until I reached the counter.

Bonjour,” the cashier said.  “Que desirez-vous?”

I checked my guidebook and smiled.  Through some divine providence, what I wanted was one of those words that stays the same, regardless of language. “Banana split?”  I asked.

The man behind the counter gave me a quick examination, from head to toe, and sighed.  “You are American, then?”

“Irish, actually,” I answered.  “Why, does that matter?”

“No reason,” he said.  I could swear he actually turned his nose up and sniffed at the air.  “One banana split, monsieur.  If you will wait outside?”

I nodded, still smiling, and found a small table outside of the shop.  There was another table near me, with a trio of young women, maybe in their mid-twenties or very early thirties.  Two of the women, a blonde and a brunette, spoke to each other in hushed tones and giggled at some inside joke.  A minute after I’d sat down, a second waiter brought out a plate of ice cream.  He wore the same slightly offended expression as the cashier.  He placed the banana split on my table and crossed his arms.  I fished a handful of money from my right pocket and selected an American twenty dollar bill.

“Is this enough?”  I asked.

The waiter tried, and failed, to conceal his eye roll.  “Oui, Monsieur.” He took the bill from my hands with two fingers, as though it were something toxic instead of money.  He turned on his heel and walked away snootily, favoring the attractive co-eds with a smile as he passed.

“It’s a twenty, you snob,” I said to his retreating back.  He either didn’t hear me or, more likely, didn’t care.  The waiter entered the café without another word in my direction.  While there was a part of me that wanted to chase him down and make him apologize for his rudeness (or at least to steal back my money, in some petty grab at justice), the dish in front of me looked amazing.  I picked up the fork and dug in with absolute abandon.

The first mouthful sent painful spikes of ice through my thoughts.  I pressed the heel of one hand against my forehead until the brain freeze passed.  Then, more cautiously, I took a moderate amount of banana split and slipped it into my mouth.  The taste was exactly as I remembered it, maybe even better.  I leaned back in my chair and savored it.  Two of the co-eds glanced in my direction and tilted their heads.

Que fait-il?” the brunette girl asked her shorter, blonde friend.

Their companion, a leggy redhead, ignored them and focused instead on a passing, shirtless jogger.  She said something to him that I didn’t catch and couldn’t have translated, even if I had been paying close enough attention.  The jogger paused, smirked at her, and then jogged away again.  She watched him as he left, whistling admiringly at his muscular back.

Qui sait, Marie?”  The blonde replied.

“I’m available,” I volunteered, loudly and in English.  “In case you were wondering, ladies.”

Il est americain,” the blonde said and tossed her hair prettily.  “Ce qui explique qu’il.”

I knew enough to guess what that meant.  “I am not American,” I insisted, around another mouthful of ice cream.  “I just grew up there.”

The blonde pursed her lips and it seemed like she was about to say something else, when she looked past me and over my shoulder.  I turned to follow her eyes and was met with a seemingly endless expanse of abdomen.

“Devlin O’Brien?”  I felt his voice’s bass in my bones.

I angled my head as best I could to take in the man.  He was easily six and a half feet of pure muscle.  He wore a black suit jacket and a crisp white buttoned shirt, stretched to the point of breaking by his broad shoulders.  I could almost count each individual abdominal muscle underneath the shirt.

I was dumbstruck.  There was no way I’d missed this mountain tailing me, as I’d bobbed and woven through the streets and districts of Paris.  Yet, here he was, only minutes after I’d actually stopped moving.  I glanced past him and noticed a camera overlooking the intersection.  “Of course.”  I resisted the urge to facepalm.  “The traffic cameras.”

The giant sat down across from me, blocking my view of the pretty French girls.  “I have a message,” he said.  “From a friend.”

“I don’t have a whole lot of friends here.”  I paused for effect.  “But you’re not from here, are you?”

The man didn’t reply to the bait.  Instead, he reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a slim envelope.  He placed it on the table and slid it across to me.  I examined it without moving.  There was no return address, or even a sending address, on the outside and it was too thin to hold anything substantial.

“I don’t do mysterious,” I said.  “Whoever your boss is, I didn’t ask to get sprung and I don’t owe them a thing.  Someone wants to hire me for a job, they’re welcome to line up like anyone else.  But trying to get leverage on me?  That doesn’t work with me.”

He stood and buttoned his jacket shut.  “That is up to you,” he said.  “But I think you would find it…”  He struggled to find the right word in English for a moment.  “Lucrative.”

He left, before I could form a clever reply.  My eyes followed him until he turned a corner and disappeared.  “Well, that’s fun,” I muttered.  I turned back to continue my chat with the three ladies, but the table where they’d sat was empty now.  “Of course they’re gone.”

I shoveled more ice cream into my mouth and did my best to ignore the envelope on the table.  I managed to last for exactly three forks’ worth of banana split before my curiosity got the better of me.  I slipped a finger under the flap and opened the envelope.  A picture and a piece of paper fell out.  The wind caught the picture and almost blew it away; I snatched it out of the air before it could acquire too much momentum.  I looked at the picture.  My jaw dropped open.  The fork fell from my fingers, hit the table, and then fell to the ground.

“Asher,” I hissed to myself.  The man – the weasel – had his back turned in the photo, but I recognized the small scorpion tattoo where his neck met his shoulder.  I clenched and unclenched my free hand for several seconds before the burst of anger faded enough that I could examine the small sheet of paper.  There were only numbers and symbols written there.  I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose.  When I looked again, I realized what I held.

“Map coordinates,” I whispered aloud, “and a date.  Looks like…”  I glanced around until my eyes fell on a discarded newspaper, halfway into a nearby trashcan.  “Looks like this was yesterday.”

On a whim, I shook the envelope and a third object fell out of it.  I knew what it was, even before I caught it.  “A plane ticket, eh?”  I chuckled.  “Looks like I really do have a friend.”

I thought over this new development while I finished my banana split.  First and foremost, I needed a little breathing room.  Whoever my benefactor was, they were entirely too capable of keeping tabs on me for my comfort.  Without Sarah, I didn’t have any way of knowing which traffic cameras could be co-opted, or even how many there might be.  If someone was using the CCTV system to keep tabs on me, I needed to get away from the cameras as fast as possible.

There was the plane ticket, of course.  I could use that to leave the country, but I didn’t doubt for a moment that the name would be tracked as soon as I set foot on the plane.  I thought over my options and revised my opinion after a moment and another mouthful of delicious ice cream. Whoever was out there probably expected me to dump the ticket or trade it in for another, preferably in the name of one of the aliases I’d used in the past.

I clearly couldn’t use the ticket they’d provided.  Therefore, I needed to find another way out of Paris and onto a plane headed to Ukraine.  The date on Asher’s photograph was already a day old.  The shot wasn’t a clear one, but he seemed nervous.  If he went to ground before I made it to Ukraine, I’d have to start my search from scratch in a country where he had the home-team advantage.  I needed to move, quickly, or I’d risk losing the slim edge that surprise might give me.

I finished my dessert and left the plate on the table.  The giant from before was nowhere in sight, but his presence was unnecessary.  Cameras peered down at me as I walked away from Berthillion, at intersections and through store windows.  I assumed that each and every one was capable of tracking my movements through the city.  The thought made my skin crawl.  I went down a few blocks, off of the island, and hailed a cab when I was back in the city proper.  An older vehicle appeared immediately, as if by magic.

“You are a tourist, yes?”  He gave me a crooked smile, and I noticed a single gold tooth on the left side of his grin.  There was a toothpick clenched between his teeth, which was oddly charming when taken in conjunction with the oversized newsboy cap on his head.

“You could say that,” I said.

“Ah, bon!  Americans are such good tippers, yes?”  He shifted the cab out of park and eased it into traffic.

“I’m not…nevermind,” I answered.  “Charles de Gaulle, s’il vous plait.”

“Ah, you speak French!”  The driver’s smile widened even more.  “You must have been in our country for a very long time, if you have learned the language.”

“You have no idea,” I said.  He raised an eyebrow at my answer, and I forced myself to mimic his expression.  “Just a long day.  Looking forward to getting back to work.”

“I understand, monsieur.”  He nodded, as if he’d said a very wise thing.  “You do not want to go to your hotel, first?”

“No hotel.  Just…Charles de Gaulle, okay?”

He shrugged and turned back to face the street.  “You look like you have much on your mind,” he ventured.  “Perhaps talking about it would make it easier?”

My short trip through potential enemy territory, added to the not-insignificant knowledge that I was a recent prison escapee, made me snappish.  “Can you just…I just need some quiet.”

I needed to know the identity of my guardian angel, but there were precious few clues to go on.  He or she was clearly a long-term planner.  The few scant details I’d picked up about the screening and training process for prison guards told me that the entire thing was extensive and thorough.  Weeks of tests and classes, curated by professionals who’d spent years figuring out the best way to separate the cruel, power-hungry thugs from the genuinely civic minded.  Somehow, someone out there had managed to place their agent inside the program and had been willing to wait until some unknown signal to free me from prison.

After I’d left the prison, it would’ve been easy to grab me off of the street, stuff my head into a black bag, and take me to some abandoned warehouse for a little physical coercion.  That was assuming that a prison break was even necessary.  Anyone capable of planting a prison guard in a specific cell block with a single mission, would likely have been capable of simply bribing a few of the more corrupt employees to beat me until I agreed to help them.  Instead, the third party had given me the space to wander around Paris, to change out of the stolen guard’s uniform, and to find an ice cream shop before sending an agent to deliver my “gift.”  It reeked of a display, with me as the intended audience.

My first thought was “connections.”  In the criminal underground, connections equaled power and power, more often than not, equaled danger.  An involuntary shiver ran up the length of my spine as I considered the weight my benefactor was willing to throw around for such temporary gains.

I swallowed, hard, and forced myself to examine the situation with perspective.  Sure, some shadowy player had their eye on me.  Sure, it was possible that there were eyes, electronic or otherwise, tracking my every movement.  And sure, I couldn’t know whether or not my continued safety was a concern in whatever grand game was being played.  But, regardless of those factors, a lot of effort and presumably a lot of money had gone into springing me, specifically, from prison.  If someone needed me, that gave me a different type of power to wield: leverage.

“Here we are!”  The cabbie’s voice jolted me from my thoughts.  I blinked and looked out of my window at the airport terminal. I’d lost nearly a half hour in my own musings.

“Uh, hold on.”  I fumbled for my pocket.  “How much for the fare?”

The cabbie shook his head.  “For you?  No charge.”

“No charge?”  I didn’t know much about French cabdrivers, specifically, but I did know a great deal about cabbies in general.  “Why’s that?”

“I was asked by a, uh…we shall call him a friend, no?  To keep an eye out for you and to help if I could.”

My guard went up.  “A friend?”

“You remember Patrick, no?”  The driver looked up and caught the shocked expression on my face.  “Ah!  I see that you do.”

“What do you know about Patrick?”

“He is an old family friend,” the driver said.  “He telephoned me and told me to look for a man, about your age who might need some assistance.”

My shoulders stayed taut and my eyes, in an instant of flickering vision, calculated an escape route through the tourists entering and exiting the terminal.  “And you just happened to find me there?  Paris is a big city.”

Oui¸ of course, but I was also told that you would want ice cream?  And Berthillion serves the best ice cream in the city, so I thought to check there first.”

I had mentioned my taste for sweets to Patrick, specifically my preference for banana splits.  I allowed myself to relax, just a little.  If Patrick was involved in this friend, it gave me a potential ally at a time when I sorely needed them. “It’s Michel?”  I took great care to pronounce the name correctly.

Oui¸ Michel St. Laurents.”

“Alright, then.  Michel, I don’t have to tell you that I was never here, do I?”

Who was never here?”

“Perfect.”  I started to exit the car, but stopped when Michel cleared his throat.

“Patrick did not give me your name,” he said.  “Just in case I need to know who I did not drive to the airport.”

I reminded myself again that, if Patrick trusted him, then I could do the same.  “Devlin,” I said.  “O’Brien.”

Monsieur Devlin,” Michel said, in an overly solemn tone, “I hope I will see you again.”  He amended his words.  “Rather, for the first time.”

“We’ll see.”  I opened the cab door and stepped out onto the curb.  “Bonne chance, Michel.”

He grinned.  “Bonne chance, Devlin.”

I didn’t know enough French to continue the conversation, so I waved goodbye and walked deeper into the surging mass of natives and tourists.  I didn’t hear Michel’s cab pull away but, when I looked back, his white sedan had been replaced by a large, black van.  I filed Michel’s name away and then cleared my thoughts of all distractions.  It was time to work.

Chapter 3

My optimism lasted for less than an hour, before I was escorted to my prison cell.  I shared the tiny space with a native Frenchman who appeared to understand me, but steadfastly refused to speak in English.  I tried to engage him in conversation for a few minutes, hoping with a mounting desperation for anything that might distract me from my predicament; eventually, however, I gave up on conversation.  Sweat beaded on my forehead as I examined the walls, seemingly drawing closer every time I looked away.  This wasn’t a new feeling. When the magistrates handed down the prison sentence in the first place, I had known that this moment would come.  I hadn’t expected the severity of the attack, though.

I sat on the edge of the unoccupied bed and placed my head in my hands.  Panic was the enemy; I knew that perfectly well.  A loss of control would only trigger a downward spiral and that would magnify the problem, not diminish it.  The last time I’d allowed myself to lose control – a collapsed tunnel underneath a Venetian palazzo – it had taken me almost thirty minutes to come back to myself.  Those thirty minutes ranked high on the worst moments of my life.  Just brushing against the memory catalyzed the tension in my chest.  I swallowed bile and tried to force it back down.

Monsieur O’Brien?”  Patrick’s voice, from the cell next door.  “Are you doing well?”

As if I could possibly be ‘doing well’ locked in a tiny room with another inmate who either couldn’t or wouldn’t answer my questions.  “No,” I said honestly.  “Not really doing well at all.”

“You sound out of breath.  What is wrong?”

I attempted to answer, but no sound came from my lips.  My breaths accelerated until I felt light-headed.

He must have heard something in my voice or simply guessed at the appropriate answer.  Either way, his voice softened to the point of delicacy.  When he spoke, it felt like he was in the cell with me, instead of the surly inmate who examined me with mild, dispassionate curiosity.  “Monsieur, you must breathe normally.  In and out, evenly.  Can you do that?”

I nodded, realized that the action was a hold-over from my time with Sarah, and managed to squeak out an “Okay.”  A few minutes passed before my breath came smoothly.

“Now, relax your shoulders,” Patrick commanded in that silky voice.  “Just let your arms hang and think about something else…anything else.”

I did as he said.  My mind traveled back to the last time I’d seen her, from a distance.  She looked beautiful, then, as she always did.  The memory bit like a knife, but it did manage to wrench my thoughts away from my surroundings.  I held onto the image.  “I…I’m better, now.  Thanks,” I said.  “How did you know what would help?”

“I have known people with similar problems,” Patrick said, from the other cell.  “It is not uncommon, I think.”

“In my line of work?”

“In our line of work, you mean.  I did not mean to say that it is common, just that there are people who suffer from things such as this.  At any rate.”  He yawned and, judging from the scratching sound, sat heavily onto his own bed.  “Are you sure you are feeling better now?”

I was still trapped.  Thick walls of stone and mortar separated me from the outside world for the next three years, which was a good bit longer than any of my previous stretches.  Asher, that bastard, was still out there, plotting and scheming his way into larger heists with sweeter paydays.  Nothing had changed, except for my ability to think and reason.

Something about Patrick’s oddly polite speech, though, did make me feel a little better.  “Yeah, I think so.  I mean, I couldn’t get any worse, could I?”

He groaned.  “Please do not say such things.  It is….how do you say?  Tempting destiny?”

A laugh bubbled out of me.  “It’s tempting fate.  But, yeah, you’re right.  Shouldn’t call down any more trouble than I’ve already got.”

“And, if you do not mind me asking, what trouble is that?”

For years, ever since I’d left the tiny apartment my mother managed to afford in St. Louis, secrets had been my weapon and my armor.  It was habit to play all cards as close to my vest as possible.  In the darkness of La Santé, seated opposite a man who watched my every move like a bird of prey, I felt distinctly disarmed.  I told Patrick the truth.

He and I talked throughout the day, and the night.  When the guards came to give us our scant few hours of relative freedom, Patrick introduced me to his friends, a close knit group of other men his age who, for one reason or another, kept finding themselves in the big house.  They’d taken their prison sentences in stride and, over the years, had come to expect it as just another step in the grand game.  Steal something or con someone.  Get away with it, until you don’t.  Go to prison.  Meet up with les hommes (Patrick taught me that) and talk about the good old days.  Wait until your parole comes up.  Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.  Watching as they laughed and joked with each other, heedless of the prison walls around them, lifted my spirits.  Even when the darkness of the cells threatened to wear down my newfound contentment, Patrick was there, speaking softly to me until I was calm once more.

The days passed like that.  I told Patrick what had changed in the world outside of La Santé; in turn, he offered me stories about the criminals he’d worked with over the years.  On more than one occasion, Patrick would mention a legendary heist or con I’d only heard rumors about.  He would just sort of breeze through the details without stopping to give any particular renown to the tale.  The third time he did that, I realized that, for him, he wasn’t retelling the mythology and lore of the underworld; Patrick was simply recalling and sharing the details of a story that wasn’t remarkable to him.  With that sudden burst of understanding, I decided that I would have to work a job with Patrick, and his team of gentlemen thieves, as soon as we were all free again.  I would have even risked another sentence, just to see the Frenchman at work.

Two and a half years into the three year long sentence, however, things changed.  I was in the middle of a theoretical discussion with Patrick (the best way to fake your own death, if the need should arise) when a loud bang jolted my attention to the closed, steel door.  “O’Brien!”

“One second,” I said to Patrick.  Then, to the door, “Yes?”

No answer came, at first.  Then, after a moment, I heard the telltale jingle as someone fumbled with a key ring.  My cellmate grumbled above me, turned over, and then went back to sleep.  The door swung open slowly.  Outside of my cell, the hallway was dark and all I could see was the lone prison guard, spinning the key ring around his index finger.  “You are free to go,” he said.  It took me a second to understand him through his heavy accent.

I missed my watch, one of the few things I’d legitimately purchased in the recent past, but it was the first thing they’d taken from me when I’d gone into booking.  “It isn’t time to go outside yet, is it?  The lights are still off.”

The guard said something into his walkie-talkie.  An answer came back, also in French, and he sighed.  “No,” he said.  “You are free to go.  Home.”

“Listen, sir, I appreciate a joke as much as the next person, but I’ve got another year before I’m free to go.  It’s, what?  Six months before my parole hearing?”

The guard didn’t move, either.  He stood outside of the cell, waiting impatiently for me to stand up.

Patrick coughed from the next room over.  “If I were you, I would take this opportunity for what it is,” he said, after he cleared his throat.

The guard tapped his nightstick against the door idly.  My cellmate moved around above me and finally woke.  “Ce qui se passe?”  He asked.

I didn’t answer, but the guard did.  “Rendormir.”  He pointed the nightstick at the bed.  To me, he said, “Let’s go.”

I considered Patrick’s advice.  “I, uh…sure, that works for me.”  I stood and stretched until the joints along my spine cracked and popped.

Il n’a pas purge sa peine!” My cellmate protested.  He leaped off of his own bed and pushed me out of the way.  “Et moi?”

The guard gave my cellmate a supremely bored look and then, without any warning, swung the nightstick at his head.  My cellmate buckled under the sudden attack and the guard followed up with another swing, this time to the ribs.  When my cellmate was on the ground, he kicked him, hard, in the stomach and the other man scuttled away to the far side of the room.  I glanced down at the trail of blood and, after just a second, looked back up at the guard.  He had resumed his impatient position, tapping the now-bloody nightstick against the cell.  “Are you ready to leave now?”

I’d had more than enough time locked up to grow accustomed to random acts of violence.  If it wasn’t an inmate beating another to prove dominance, or a guard taking a little extra time out of his day to show the new guys exactly how things worked in prison, then it was simply two men blowing off steam accumulated over years and years of isolation.  In each case, though, the act had been wild and emotional.  This prison guard had attacked with enough force to cause serious damage, and he’d done it without a single ounce of emotion.

Patrick must have heard the commotion from the other room.  “Perhaps you should go, sooner rather than later?”  He suggested.  He concealed it well, but I heard the nearly inaudible note of anxiety in his voice.  “I hope you will not take this the wrong way, but…”

I smiled.  “I hope I never see you again,” I finished for him.  “Not here, at least.”

“Perhaps somewhere in the real world?”  Patrick smiled back.

“Yeah, somewhere out there.”

The guard cleared his throat and hefted the nightstick.

“Oh, no, no,” I said quickly.  I joined him in the hallway, outside of the prison cell.  “After you.”

He gave my cringing cellmate a disparaging look before he closed the door and locked it.  I followed the guard down several corridors, until we reached a door at the end of spectacularly long and poorly lit hallway.

He opened it and gestured with his hand.  “After you,” he said.

“No booking?”  I asked.  “No paperwork?  Just a long walk and a door in some forgotten part of the prison?”

The guard said nothing.

“Let me guess,” I continued.  “I go outside, and there’s a long black limousine waiting for me.  I get in, only to see that the president of France has need of my services!  For only I can be trusted with this, the most secret of missions!”  I steepled my fingers and assumed my very best evil genius face.

The guard was not amused.  He continued to hold the door open, with one hand gesturing to the outside.

A thought occurred to me, and I said it out loud at that exact instant.  “You don’t even work here, do you?”  I examined the guard.  His outfit was a perfect match for the uniforms worn by everyone else in the prison, but there was something off.  It took me less than a second of focus to note the details that were out of place.  His hair was a little too long, and his face sported a few days’ growth of facial hair.  Even though he was trying his best to maintain a poker face, his eyes were a tiny bit too nervous.  Most telling of all, his shoes were the right color, but the wrong type: heavy boots, instead of the less military footwear the guards normally wore.

“You should stop asking questions,” he said, “and accept a gift when it’s given.”  His accent was gone, now.  Each word came out in a short, clipped burst of perfect English.

A tiny voice in my head reminded me that all gifts in my line of work came with strings attached.  I had yet to receive a tip about a particular heist without receiving a phone call demanding a favor in return.  Anyone I hadn’t paid to help me was bound to want something from me in return.  That was a lesson I’d learned over several long years, until it became habit to check and double-check any kindness or generosity.

There were only a few months left on my sentence. Fewer than that, if I managed to charm the parole board.  It wouldn’t be difficult at all to slip whatever means they employed to keep track of me.  I could serve out the rest of my time, offer what platitudes were required to the people in charge, and then disappear into the wind again.  There were still enough people spread across safe-houses and hideouts that still owed me for services rendered in the past.  It would be easy and, more importantly, it would be safer than finding myself beholden to a mysterious party.  Especially a mysterious party with enough juice to arrange for an impromptu extraction like this.

At the same time, the larger part of my mind saw blue skies and white clouds through the open door.  A breeze came through the opening and caressed my cheek, making my decision for me.  “Don’t mind if I do,” I said.  I stepped outside.  The guard did not follow me.

“Good luck,” he said and then he closed the door before I could reply.

I stared at the door for a minute, weighing my next move.  Whatever instructions the not-guard had been given, ensuring my safe transportation had obviously not been included.  It was still early morning.  I had no phone, no contacts, and no particular direction in mind.  I turned around and smiled at the half-full parking lot.  If nothing else, I had an abundance of transportation options.

There were trucks, sedans, and a few SUV’s to choose from.  I selected a late model Peugot, a Clio if I wasn’t mistaken, and tried the driver’s side door.  It was unlocked.  My eyebrow steadily rose as I climbed into the car.  There were keys dangling from the ignition switch, but there was a garment bag draped across the passenger seat with a note attached to the front.  I moved the bag just enough that the writing on the note was visible.  It read, “For your use,” and nothing else.

My curiosity grew.  As I considered the implications of the cryptic note, I unzipped the bag.  Inside, I saw a uniform, identical in every way to the ones worn by the prison employees, with an ID pinned to the front lapel.  A picture of me, from a few years before, smiled up at me from the ID.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” I quoted to myself.  It didn’t even occur to me to check the size on the outfit.  It would fit, I knew.  It took me a minute to slip out of my prison garb and another minute to change into the uniform.  Then, I turned the keys and eased the Peugeot out of its parking space.  My mind tried, and failed, to sort through the criminals I knew capable of arranging for something like this.  Several came to mind who could have pulled off a prison escape, some with considerable ease, but none of those were predisposed to any degree of subtlety.  If Sam had wanted me out of prison, for instance, I would have expected a series of explosions to rip through the building in the late hours of the night..  If it had been Lucas, however, there would have been a frighteningly large number of bodies before all was said and done.  There were others who might have wanted me free, but an exhaustive review of the usual suspects didn’t match this particular operation.  It was too smooth, too well-orchestrated.  I shrugged and continued to ease my new vehicle through the parking lot.

The guard post rose in front of me as I approached.  Nervously, I fingered the ID on my chest and began to think of alternative means of escape.  I didn’t have to.  The guard inside the booth was distracted by something on a small television screen in front of him.  I held out my card to him and he passed it front of a scanner without glancing at it or me.  The scanner beeped and a small light in front of me turned green.  He handed back the ID and pressed a button that I couldn’t quite see, raising the partition separating me from the street.

“Thanks,” I said without thinking, in my best impression of a French accent.  Internally, I cursed at my own stupid need to speak.

The guard didn’t say anything.  He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and returned his attention to the show playing in front of him.  I didn’t stick around to test my luck any farther.  I continued out of the prison, reminding myself to drive on the opposite side of the road, and drove away.  I looked up at the rear view mirror after a few minutes, just to see the prison as it dipped below the horizon and out of sight.  When it was gone entirely, I breathed a sigh of relief and rolled my shoulders.

“Now what?”  I asked myself out loud.

Chapter 2

The lawmen had me clean on the theft.  On the bright side, there wasn’t quite enough evidence to tie me, personally, to the explosion at the power station.  Obviously, there were more than few detectives who just knew that the heist was too perfectly timed to just be coincidence, but they couldn’t find any physical evidence to make the charges stick.  They offered me the usual deal (immunity, in exchange for Asher’s name) and I gave them the usual answer (a variety of swear words, culled from some particularly mean languages).  I went to court, they found me guilty of theft in the first degree after maybe twenty minutes of deliberation, and I was sentenced to three years behind bars.

I make a habit of avoiding jail-time as much as I can, but no one’s perfect, and this wasn’t my first time in lockup.  It was, however, my first time in French lockup.  Problem number one: I don’t speak French very well.  And, by very well, I mean “not at all.”  My grasp of the language is limited to a few curses, the words for “hello” and “goodbye,” and ordering brunch…so long as brunch consists of crepes and nothing else.  Problem number two: while Sarah and I worked together, I didn’t have much need to work with any of the locals when we pulled jobs.  As a result, my network in the area was severely lacking.  I didn’t even know who to talk to in order to find the right connections.  I was, for the duration of my prison sentence, on my own.  Problem number three: even though I’ve been in prison before, I’ve never particularly liked it and I am notoriously bad at reigning in my sarcasm.  That’s not the sort of thing that works well when you’re surrounded by convicts who are also not skilled in that mystical art of self-control.

There are certain inevitable realities in virtually any enclosed setting.  If you take away someone’s freedom, take away the skies and the stars, and take away their name, then you leave them without much else to do except find a way to survive.  Unfortunately, very few people develop survival traits that bring out the best in them.  If you’ve already got a mean streak, then you might get a little meaner.  If you’re sarcastic, maybe your jokes start to cut a little bit too close to home.  If you’re the nervous sort, expect to have that magnified a thousand times at the slightest hint of any danger.

On my first day, after I’d endured the general dehumanizing paperwork of the system, I found my way to the cafeteria just in time to find a spot at the end of the lunch line.  The other men shuffled forward at a depressing pace.  I waited to receive my tray and used the alone time to draw up a quick plan of attack.  After so many years in the business, it was second nature to identify marks, whenever and wherever I saw them.  There were several, right in front of me: first time offenders, caught on petty charges, who were horrifyingly out of their depths.  They were the ones who’d turn over a new leaf, as soon as they finished their three month stint in prison.  It would be easy to manipulate them, if I spoke their language, but it wouldn’t be particularly useful.  I noted them, committed their faces to memory, and then moved on.

Farther ahead, I saw more problematic individuals.  In the real world, they’d been enforcers and hired muscle.  Without anything to trade, I couldn’t exactly purchase their services to keep me safe in here; at the same time, enforcers had never been known for their smarts, and I was reasonably certain that I could talk a circle around any of them, even on my worst day.

As the line continued forward, I sorted the huge men into a few simple, more specific categories.  The ones with gang tattoos or swastikas were the worst, obviously.  Associating with those kinds of criminals left a stink that followed you wherever you went.  More than that, I didn’t think I’d even be able to fake the type of conviction they’d want before they gave me protection.  There were a few other men without any particular markings who, even in the crowded cafeteria, had a circle of space around them a mile wide.  Even the guards made an effort to avoid making eye contact.  I couldn’t know what crimes they’d committed, but they were obviously insane.  No amount of charm would help me, if I ran afoul of them.  At that point, the odds were 50/50 on my continued good health.

The final group consisted of low-level pushers and dealers, people who broke into abandoned liquor stores in the dead of night for a few extra dollars.  They could be dangerous in large numbers, or if they were working for someone with half a brain, but in here they were just cannon fodder without a war to fight.  I memorized each of their faces, as well.

At the end of the line, after I’d received my personal portion of indigestible slop, I scanned the cafeteria.  On my first sweep, I didn’t see any table that wasn’t occupied by members of one group or another.  I felt their eyes on me as they decided whether I could be an asset or an obstacle.  I pushed their collective examination out of my thoughts and looked across the cafeteria again.  This time, I spotted a small space in the far corner of the room.  The table was dirty, but the seats at it were empty and I started toward it without a second thought.  Just before I reached it one of the large men who I’d marked as a hired thug jostled me from behind and pushed into the seat just before I could take it.  I barely managed to adjust my balance and keep my “food” from falling to the floor.

Ce tableau es pris,” the inmate growled at me.  His voice was like gravel.

I didn’t understand the words, but I could definitely guess at their general meaning.  I put on my best non-threatening expression and attempted a smile.  “No worries here,” I said.  “Just looking for a place to eat, is all.”

Ce tableau,” he repeated, “es pris.

“Guess I’ll just move along, then,” I said to myself.  Nothing about the man, so far, gave me any hope that he might speak English.  I began to turn around and walk back to the front of the room, where I could scan for a second table.

I made it, perhaps, halfway through my turn when I felt a wall of muscle hit my shoulder.  My first instinct was to move away, and my feet reoriented themselves to do exactly that.  My second instinct, only a millisecond later, was to actually check to see who I’d bumped into and recall what category I’d placed them in.  My torso turned in the direction of the intruder, in order to accomplish that task.  My third instinct, as soon as I realized that the first two commands were wholly incompatible, was to ensure that I wouldn’t fall on anybody that might be capable of violent, disproportionate retaliation.  My head aimed itself at the ground in preparation for the inevitable tumble.

The next few seconds were a blur of flailing limbs.  When I could think again, I found myself on the floor of the cafeteria.  My shoulder throbbed with the beginnings of a bruise.  I rubbed at it with one hand and ran the other through my hair.  “Just my luck,” I muttered under my breath.  Then, as I realized that both of my hands were now free, “Fuck.”

I looked up, into a pair of furious brown eyes.  My food, if the term still applied, decorated the front of his shirt.  Some had splashed onto his face and he made no move to wipe it away.  Instead, he inhaled and exhaled angrily through his nostrils and glared down at me.  His hands closed into fists and I thought I could hear his skin stretch taut over his tattooed knuckles.  I couldn’t make out what was printed on them, but the symbols looked uncomfortably similar to swastikas.

The entire cafeteria fell silent.  From my sprawled position, I noted the guards by the entrance.  They looked  at me, and conspicuously turned their backs.  I didn’t have to look in the other direction to know that the guards posted there would have done the same.  If they didn’t see it, then they weren’t obligated to stop it, after all.  I thought about calling out to them, making too big of a scene for them to conceivably ignore, but quickly decided against it.  The only decision that could possibly be worse than spilling food all over a possibly psychopathic neo-Nazi would be angering the guards on the first day.

I don’t consider myself a coward, but I do like to think of fear as more of a survival trait than something to be ashamed of.  In the real world, faced with this situation, I would have been more than happy to duck out of sight, to bargain, or simply to apologize profusely for what had been nothing more than a simple accident.  Better to lose my pride and keep my life, after all.  The rules were different in prison, though.  Anything other than an explicit show of strength would cause far more problems down the line.

I got to my feet.  “You got a problem?”  I asked and puffed out my chest.  The utter lack of reaction in his face let me know, for certain, that the inmate didn’t understand a word I’d said.  I kept talking anyway, hoping to either psych him out or amp myself up.  Whichever worked first.  “You want to start something, then?”

I can imagine how it looked.  I’m a little under six feet tall and not what anyone would describe as “muscular.”  Even before I got into the business, I made a habit of avoiding as much conflict as possible, getting by on charm and luck.   In here, I was just another piece of a fresh meat in a prison referred to, by people who know a lot about that sort of thing, as the worst prison in the world.  Yet there I was, barking in a foreign language at a seven foot tall man who could probably kill me before breakfast and might have a better appetite afterwards.

The insanity of my actions wasn’t lost on me.  I doubled down anyway.  “You think this is my first time dealing with one of you?”  I advanced on the inmate.  Surprised, he took a step back.  I swallowed the urge to pump my fist at the tiny victory and pressed my temporary advantage.  “You really want to start something with me?  With me?”  I hooked a thumb at my chest for emphasis.

The neo-Nazi’s hands still opened and closed at his side, but he didn’t close the distance between us and he didn’t throw a punch.  I didn’t need to speak French to understand the slight downturn at the corner of his lips: he felt the situation slipping out of his control.  He was on the defensive now and I could see from the stunned, glazed look in his eyes that it wasn’t a position he was familiar with.

For the benefit of everyone else, I continued to speak.  “I’ve been in worse prisons than this,” I lied, “and you are far from the worst I’ve ever encountered.”  The tipping point loomed ahead of me, and I barreled into it before my nerve could fail.  I stepped closer to the inmate, who took another smaller one away on sheer instinct, and poked him in the chest with an index finger.

“I’m not stuck in here with you,” I said, channeling my inner Rorschach with everything I had.  “You’re stuck in here with me.”  I turned my back on him, dismissing his presence in the showiest way I could think of.

If I’d guessed right, the psychotic inmate would be so confused that he’d walk away, without a clue as to how he’d lost control of the room so quickly and so totally.  I’d come out with, hopefully, enough of a reputation that I wouldn’t have to worry about getting shanked in line in a few days.  If I’d guessed wrong, though, then he had a clear shot at the back of my head.

There were a few more seconds of silence.  Then, a guttural roar from behind me.  I braced myself, as best as I could, for the coming punch.

Vouz ne voulez pas le faire,” a very small, soft voice said.  The roar stopped, as abruptly as it started.  I turned my head slightly to see who had spoken.  It was an older man, maybe in his late sixties.  He was shorter than me and his gray hair was thin to the point of invisibility on top of his head.  He stood between me and the neo-Nazi, whose hand was frozen in the air less than a foot from me.

Quitter,” the old man said.  He didn’t raise his voice, but there was something in the single word that demanded compliance.  The neo-Nazi glared at me for an instant and the older man cleared his throat delicately.

Rien que pour toi,” the larger inmate said to the older man.  He shot me a hate-filled look and then, miracle of miracles, walked away.

I waited until he was back at his seat, surrounded by empty space, to turn entirely around.  I leaned against the wall and tried to look as though everything had just happened according to plan.  The older man stood nearby, as well.

“That was a good plan,” he said under in his breath, in thickly accented English.

“You speak English?”  I asked.  I answered my own question a second later.  “Obviously.  What’d you say to him?”

“I appealed to his kinder nature,” the older man said, without a trace of sarcasm.  “Although it would not have worked, I fear, if you hadn’t given such an impressive performance.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The older man examined me slowly, starting from my feet and working his way up to the top of my head, and then back down again.  “I do not think you have spent very much time in prison, at all,” he said, when he finished.  “Just enough, perhaps, to know when it is best to run and when it is best to use what tools are available to you.  In your case, a very large amount of…”  He paused for a moment.  “Bravado is the right word, yes?”  He smiled at me.

Instantly, I liked him.  There wasn’t any reason that I could name, and I could easily find a great many reasons why I shouldn’t, but there just something about him.  “Name’s Devlin,” I volunteered.  “Devlin O’Brien.”

“Patrick,” he said back.

“No last name?”

“Last names,” he said sagely, “are for those who are not distinctive enough without one.”

I laughed, before I could help myself.  “So why’d you help me, Patrick No-Last-Name?”

He shrugged.  “I see a little bit of myself in you.  You do not seem like the type for assault, so…it would be theft, then?  If I remember correctly, that would earn you two years here, yes?  Or is it three?”

“Three,” I said.  I was caught off-guard by the accuracy of his first guess, but I kept that surprise from my face.

“You are worried about your time here,” Patrick said.  “You should not be.  It will be over, before you know it.  Like this.”  He snapped his fingers.  “It will be okay.”

I thought over the train of events that had put me here.  The argument with Sarah, the reckless heists, and Asher’s betrayal.  Nothing in the past year of my life had taught me that things might work out.  Still, Patrick continued to wear his easy smile and I let myself hope, for just an instant.  “Maybe you’re right.”

“Come,” he said.  “Let’s get you settled.”

Chapter 1

I was six when I first saw the Birth of Venus.  In the years since, I’ve traveled across the globe in its wake, taking every chance to admire the brushwork, the colors, the beauty.  I’d acquired artwork from across the world in those years, from Macao to Mozambique, but I always found my way back to the painting that had inspired me to begin with.  Now, with a tapestry of stars twinkling overhead, I checked my watch and finally prepared to steal it.

The plan had taken weeks to orchestrate.  There were more layers than I could remember and, knowing Asher, probably more moving parts that he’d never bothered to tell me about.  I wasn’t worried.  In nearly two decades, Asher remained the single best mastermind I’d ever worked with, bar none.

A breeze kicked up and I reached up to my neck without thinking.  One finger brushed against my left ear.  I felt the lack of an earbud like a phantom limb, sighed, and amended my assessment; Asher was the best planner except, maybe, for her.

He stood next to me on the darkened street, blowing lazy smoke rings into the air.  “Just like old times, Dev, isn’t it?”  He asked, without looking at me.  “London; that sheik in Abu Dhabi; hell, those weeks in China?  The boys, back together at last.”  Asher laughed.  The sound was brittle in the dry air.

I checked my watch again.  “If I remember correctly, none of those jobs went particularly well.”

He shrugged.  “There’ll always be little surprises.  That’s why I keep – why I kept – you around.”

That didn’t warrant a reply, and so I gave it none.  Of course, he was right.  In the years when our partnership had thrived, I served primarily as a problem solver.  I lacked the foresight to create the elaborate flowcharts that Asher and she had been so fond of.  What I lacked in organizational skills, I made up for with raw instinct and quick thinking.  When things went wrong – and they inevitably went wrong – I could be trusted to steer the job back on track.

“You mean, that’s why I kept you around,” I said.

“Six of one,” Asher answered.  He waggled a hand and, as he did so, revealed the handle of a Makarov pistol in a shoulder holster under his coat.  I flinched away before I could help it.

I made a noncommittal noise, which Asher seemed to accept.  “Tell me about these thugs you hired again.”

One of the “thugs,” a heavy-set bearded Ukranian, looked up at me from his position further down the street.  He scowled as Asher laughed again.  “What, this guy?  He’s harmless.”

Another handgun was visible at the man’s waist.  I gave it a pointed look.  “You know what I mean.”

Asher’s smile dimmed for a moment; then, he shook his head and turned the brightness back up to full.  “After our ‘assistants’ blow the grid, we’ll have twenty minutes before the back-up system comes online.  Twenty-five minutes maybe, from start to finish, before the local law makes an appearance.”

“Guards?”

“There’s only one guy on night shift.  Samuel Trowel was scheduled to work.  Ex-military, politically conservative.  A very conscientious sort of guy.  I arranged for him to have the night off.  His replacement, a Pierre something, was much easier to buy off.  He’ll find something very interesting to occupy his attention while we work.”

So far, so good. “And then?”

“One team hits the North side, takes any art the curator forgot to nail down.  Me, you, and this chatty fellow go straight for the Botticelli exhibit.  Might grab some other stuff on the way.”  He flicked the stub of his cigarette off into the darkness.  “Who knows?”

“What about our getaway?”

“Two cars, one at each entrance.  We’ll take different paths through town until we lose the cops, ditch the cars, and call for pick-up.  We’ve got drivers standing by far enough away that no one should connect the dots.  Even if they do, it’s straight to the rendezvous point and then the airport.  Two hours, max.”  His eyes narrowed.  “You’re awfully interested in the details, all of a sudden.  Where’d this come from?  Back in the day, you just assumed I knew what was going on.”

I thought about her again.  “I got spoiled.  I’ve got this thing now where I like knowing that something isn’t about to go sideways the second I stop looking.  Besides, Ash, I’ve worked with you before.  I’m pretty sure you’ve got pieces in play that you aren’t telling me about.”

Asher placed a finger to his temple.  “That’s smart, but unfair.  Things change, Dev.  I’m not the same person I was…before.”  My eyes traveled involuntarily to the pockmarked burn scars that wound around his exposed left arm.

“So you aren’t keeping anything from me?  This is just a straight museum job?”

“You didn’t used to be so paranoid.  I swear, as soon as you started working with – “ Asher stopped, as both of our watches beeped in unison.  “Pick this up later?”

I knew he’d dodged the question both times.  I almost called him on it.  The tinny alarm signaled game time, though, and I knew that I couldn’t afford to drive an even deeper wedge between the two of us.  The mistakes of St. Petersburg were too fresh and raw.  The last thing I wanted now was to form an impassable rift that might lead to a mistake.  Instead, I tightened the straps on my pack.  Asher did the same and started forward.

“Fine.”  I fell in step.  “But we’re not done.  If we’re going to do this again, things have got to change.”

“Right, right.”  He tilted his head so severely that I could hear the joints pop.  “Soon as we finish up with this.”

The museum stood, two blocks away from us, squat and dark in the slumbering city.  Our timeline required us to be close, but not so close that a camera might catch our faces.  We’d chosen a local closed bakery as a starting point, after a few hours of deliberation.  Asher and his silent foreign associate had availed themselves of the bakery’s goods while we waited.  After they finished, I had peeled off two hundred Euro notes and left the money on the counter.

When we’d closed the distance to a single block, I checked my watch again.  As if I’d cued the detonation with my thoughts, a rumble came from farther into the city.  The street lights around the museum dimmed and switched off.  I smiled to myself and pulled a flashlight from my pack.  Asher already held his and we switched them at the same time.  Our twin beams pierced into the gloom.  “See?”  He asked.  I could see the fierce gleam of his own smile in the light.  “Nothing to worry – “

A second, much larger explosion rattled the windows around us.  The ground quaked beneath our feet.  I managed to adjust my balance before I fell.  A long trail of smoke twined into the night sky.  “The hell was that?”  I asked him.

“I don’t know!”  He took a cell from his pocket and dialed a number.  I could barely make out the sound of voices from the other end of the line, but the speaker was Russian and used his native language.  Asher listened for a moment, said a short sentence in reply, and then hung up.

“So?  What happened?”

“Anton,” Asher said, as though that one word was explanation enough.  “He made a mistake.  Too much C4 for what we needed.  Caused a reaction and then…”  He mimed an explosion with his hands.

I knew next to nothing about explosives, but I knew a great deal about Anton.  “Anton doesn’t make mistakes,” I said.

“Then sabotage?  Someone switched in a higher yield explosive when he wasn’t looking?”

That was possible.  Unlikely, considering the fastidious nature of Anton’s personality, but he wasn’t infallible.  “We should pull out and come back another night.  The cops’ll mobilize in larger numbers to deal with the explosion and, you know, the possibility of a terrorist attack.”

Asher hesitated.  “Or…”

“Or what?  You don’t want to finish the job, do you?”

“Think about it.”  He lowered his voice.  I leaned in to catch his voice without thinking about it.  “Sure, there’ll be more of the law around town, but they aren’t going to be looking for us.  As far as they’re concerned, the explosion is the actual attack, not just a diversion.  We can still get in and out before anyone realizes what’s happening over here.”

I thought that I could already hear sirens in the distance.  The power station was located in a primarily industrial part of the city.  It wasn’t close enough to the Eiffel Tower that the military would need to respond and it was far enough away from any major residential areas that the odds of any civilian casualties was vanishingly low.  “This wasn’t part of your plan, was it?”

“No!  You think I want more police attention in a city I’m trying to rob?  I want the payout for this job, just as much as you do.  What benefit would I get from putting the whole of Paris on high alert?”

“This is a bad idea,” I said.  “Best move would be to regroup, figure out what happened with Anton’s gear, and try again another time.”

Asher scratched at his burn scars and met my eyes with his.  “This is the last night of the Botticelli exhibit, Dev.  If we don’t get it now, we’ll have to plan an entire new op for a different museum.  Maybe one with security I can’t get around.”  He hesitated for effect, before he dropped the hammer.  “If she had organized this, you’d still go in.”

I scowled.  His manipulation was blatant, but that didn’t make it any less effective.  The thought of her had its desired effect.  Something deep within me rebelled at the idea that I needed her plans to pull off a successful job.  I felt heat rising into my cheeks.  “I did jobs before I met her, and I can do jobs without her now.”

“So, you’re saying…?”

“Damn it, Ash.”  I glared at him.  A moment later, I started forward again, towards the museum.

The second, more powerful explosion killed all electricity around us for several blocks.  The plan had involved turning the security system of the Museé off, so that wasn’t an issue.  The double doors that led into the main building were secured now by only a single tumbler lock.  It took me less than a minute to pick my way past that and then we were inside.  Asher and his thug turned on flashlights of their own as went into the building.  My beam of light fell on pottery, portraits, and sculptures from a dozen different artists.

Any other time, I would have considered each work of art for its relative value, asked myself if I was in contact with the appropriate fences to turn a profit, and then decided whether or not a little impulse theft was in order.  Tonight, I was on a very specific mission, though.  Asher had found an American buyer for the Botticelli and only the Botticelli.  There wasn’t enough flexibility in the plan for any side trips.

When we reached another set of doors, leading into the more sensitive areas of the museum, I turned to Asher and held out an expectant hand.  He dug into his pack until he found a keycard, which he held out for me to take.  “Wasn’t easy to get that,” he said while I swiped the card into the reader.  The red light turned green and I typed in a four digit code.  “Had to find the guy who installed the damn thing and bribe him for a duplicate key.”

“Since when are bribes hard?”

“Well, they aren’t,” he said, “but when he decided to take the money without providing the goods, I had to get some of my men here to pay him a little visit.”

I stopped and turned.  “You didn’t…?”

“Kill him?”  Asher chuckled.  “No, we didn’t have to.  But he probably won’t be enjoying any long walks for the foreseeable future.”

He seemed genuinely amused at the idea.  I could feel the horror on my own face.  “That was just a regular guy, doing his job,” I said.  “You couldn’t find another way?”

“Maybe.  But that was easier.”  His smile fell away in an instant.  “You went soft, Dev.  None of this used to bother you.”

His words hit a nerve.  I grew older inside and the frost reached my voice.  “That was then.”  I turned away from him and waited until the door clicked open.

We encountered several more keycoded and passcarded doors as we went into the building.  I put Asher and his sentiments out of my mind.  It was easy as the job stretched out before me.  I was in the zone, for the first time in a long time, and it felt good.  My mind was clear of any lingering doubts, any fears or uncertainties.  My thoughts were clear, ordered, and precise.  I clicked through what I remembered of the building’s layout and navigated through the twists and turns without hesitation.

At some point along the way, I noticed peripherally that the Ukrainian had peeled off into another wing of the museum.  “Where’d your friend go?”

“He’s checking in with the North team,” Asher said.  “Figured that we should make sure nothing went wrong on their end.  If someone sabotaged Anton’s equipment, then…”

“That wasn’t part of the plan.”

“Neither was the fireball tearing across Paris,” he countered.  “But we make do with what we’re dealt.”

The two of us kept going.  Seven minutes ticked away before we found ourselves in front of the Botticelli.  I paused for a few seconds to admire the artwork.  “Oh, there you are,” I whispered.  “And aren’t you just a beauty.”

I knelt and searched through my pack.  When I found the long, nondescript cylinder, I pulled it free, opened it, and unraveled its contents.  Moving carefully, it took me two minutes before a nearly perfect reproduction of the Birth of Venus stretched out on the floor in front of me.  Asher whistled.  “Dominique’s work, yeah?”

“As always.”

“How did she get the coloring so perfect?  I’ve been looking for a forger half as good as her for years, but…”

I ignored the question.  From deeper within the pack, I withdrew a two inch long boxcutter.  “Listen, we’re going to go for a little walk,” I said to the painting.  “Nothing to worry about it.  We’re just going to switch you out.  But you’ve got to be really still for me, okay?”  I started to cut, working my way around the edge of the frame with an abundance of care and caution.

Three minutes passed.  When I’d finished, the forged painting was framed where the original had been; the original was, at that moment, safely hidden within the cylinder in my pack.  “Alright.”  I looked around and saw only Asher.  “Where’d that other guy go?”

“How should I know?  I’m not there with him, am I?  He probably decided to stick with the North team and make a little extra profit.  That works for us; the more that gets stolen from the rest of the museum, the less likely anyone’s going to look too hard at this forgery.”

“The staff’ll figure it out eventually,” I said.  “When that happens, they’re going to do a complete inventory of the whole building.”

“They always do.  But we should’ve fenced it by then.”

I shouldered the pack.  “Let’s get out of here.”

Asher clapped me on the back and I stumbled forward.  “See, Dev?  This is a whole lot better than working with that b –“

I whirled on him.  The flash of anger came like a ball of lightning, melting the sheen of ice I used to cover the emotions.  “Do not finish that sentence,” I said.

“Okay.”  Asher held up his hands in the universal sign of surrender.  “I’m just saying.”

Mentally, I counted down from thirty.  When that didn’t help, I started over from fifteen.  “Just don’t.  It’s…still sensitive.”

“I get it,” he said, in a voice that made it perfectly clear that he did not ‘get it’ in the slightest.

“Come on.”  I led the way out of the room, away from our forgery and the exhibit.

We didn’t speak to each other at all as we made our way out of the museum.  With the doors already unlocked and open, it took us a fraction of the time to reach the exit again.  As the doors came into sight, Asher reached out and threw an arm around my shoulder.  “Who would’ve thought we’d be back at it again, eh Devlin?  Remember the last time I tried to get you to help out on a job?”

“That was a different situation,” I said.  “I was working with a new team, and…”

“No, no, I understand.  Times change, people grow up…”  He trailed off.

I turned to face him, drawing in the oxygen to explain why I’d turned down his previous offer.  I didn’t see the punch coming.  My head made it ninety degrees before pain exploded across my face and cheek.  Light leapt into my vision and I fell to the ground, hard, before I had a chance to form a coherent thought or defense.

“Friends get replaced,” Asher finished.  He stood over me and rage, raw and harsh, blazed in his eyes.

“Ash, what are you…”

He reached into his jacket.  My own eyes widened, but he reached past the Makarov and took a small taser from an interior pocket instead.  “You left me there,” he hissed.  “And you thought that I’d forgive you for that?”

“I didn’t leave you, Ash!  It was just – “

He fired the taser.  Both prongs stuck into my chest and fifty thousand volts of electricity rammed through every nerve and cell of my body.  I jerked like a fish on the floor for an eternity before he stopped.  “You have no idea what I went through,” he said.  My muscles refused to coordinate, and it was all I could manage to look up at him.  “You abandoned me, and you replaced me with her.  So, now it’s my turn.”

“What…what are you…?”

“Enjoy the next couple years,” he said.  “The way I see it, acts of terrorism plus armed robbery will get you…well, a good long time behind bars.  More than enough time for you to really think about what it means to betray your team.”  Asher knelt next to me, so close that our noses nearly touched.  “And don’t think I won’t be paying Sarah a little visit, too.”

If I could have moved, I would have swung on him then and there.  He was armed, and I was wounded, but I would’ve fought him until Asher was forced to kill me.  But I couldn’t do much more than glare at him.  He stood up, ejected the cartridge from his taser, and reloaded it.

“I…you’ll…”  I started to say.

Asher fired the taser a second time.  There was light, heat, and a sea of exploding stars.  Then, there was darkness.