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.