Chapter 15

I turned around slowly, only to find that every other person in the bar had fallen into a shocked silence. Every eye that met mine quickly turned to face a wall, or the floor, or a forgotten drink. Everyone, myself and Anton included, was completely still. It was suddenly so quiet that I could hear my own breath. Behind us, a metal shaker fell from the bartender’s nerveless fingers. Sweat beaded on my brow and crept down my cheek.

The man who had spoken stood in front of me, both hands concealed in his pockets. He was a little shorter than me, maybe five foot four, and he wore a black suit, without a tie. The top two buttons of his shirt were undone to reveal a mat of curly, black chest hair. I looked past him to the two men who flanked him. They were larger than him by several inches, and also clad in black suits, although there was a slight difference in the cut. I assumed that their clothes were off-the-rack, while their boss splurged on the finest attire. He seemed to be aware of my examination; he simply waited, silent, as I drew my own conclusions.

I cleared my throat. A dozen suitably devastating openings sprang to mind. I opted instead for simplicity. “So.”

“So,” the man replied. “You are looking for Asher, too.” There was a noticeable pause between each word, like someone who hadn’t quite mastered the language.

“Guessing you are too?”

“You could say that,” the man said. He raised a lazy hand and twitched a finger at one of the two men who’d entered the bar with him. The bodyguard sported a thick, jet-black beard with eyes to match. He stepped forward and started toward me. I flinched as he came within arm’s reach, but he passed by me and approached the bar instead. I turned slightly to see him in the corner of my eyes. The man pointed at the bartender and then held up three fingers. I couldn’t see what the bartender was doing without turning my back to this newcomer, but I heard bottles rattle together and the sound of three heavy glasses being placed on the bar’s counter.

The short man snapped his fingers. My head swiveled back to him. “What is your business with Asher?” He asked.

“Long story,” I said, forcing myself to at least sound calm, even if I didn’t feel that way at all. “Lot of twists and turns. Really, it’s very complicated.”

The man’s lips curled into a thin, unamused smile. “Simplify it.”

“Stanislav,” Anton began. “There is more going on than you – “

Mat,” the man spat out from between clenched teeth. Wild anger leapt into his eyes and his gaze bored into Anton with such ferocity that the bomber actually seemed to shrink a few inches. “Do not speak to me.”

Anton’s mouth dropped open, but he made no more sound. Stanislav glared at my guide with pure, molten hatred for several long, tense seconds. He exhaled slowly, lowering his head and closing his eyes. When he looked back at me, the cocky expression had returned, but I could see the cracks in the façade now. I filed that interaction away. Anton’s sheer presence had brought a violent rage out of the mobster. There was the possibility of some unknown angle there. “So, that’s your name?” I asked, deliberately drawing attention back to me. “Stanislav?”

The man turned his eyes and then, eventually, nodded once.

“That’s kind of a mouthful,” I said. “Any chance you’ve got a nickname?”

“Americans,” he said and rolled his eyes.

“That’s a no, then? Guess I’ll just call you Stani, then.”

Stani motioned at the man who was still barely visible at the edge of my peripheral vision. The burlier man returned carrying three glasses of clear liquor. “Call me what you like,” he said. “You will not be speaking for very much longer, at any rate.”

I didn’t doubt for a moment that this Stani would follow through on it, if given the opportunity and sufficient motivation, but it said a lot about him that he felt the need to speak the threat out loud in the first place. I’d worked with more than a few dangerous people. The people I’d learned to fear the most were the ones who treated violence as an unpleasant side-effect of doing business. The hitters and mob bosses I’d come in contact with had never bothered dangling the possibility of harm. It was simply a given.

“You will answer my questions,” Stani said. “Why are you looking for Asher?”

I considered my words carefully. “He…owes me,” I said finally. “For services rendered. I’m here to collect.”

“Shame that you will not be able to do that.” He took one of the three glasses from his man. “Drink?”

I blinked. “You’re offering me alcohol at the same time as you’re threatening torture?”

Stani shrugged.

Another note went into the mental file. “That’s not drugged, is it?”

Stani answered by taking a large mouthful of liquor from a random glass and swallowing it.

I reached out and the large, silent man handed me both of the glasses. I passed one over to Anton, who took it with shaky hands. I took a sip from the glass while I thought of my next move and regretted it immediately. “You can ask me whatever you want,” I said, trying to hide my disdain for the drink. “But threatening me isn’t a really good way of making friends.”

“Who told you of this bar?”

I took the picture from my pocket and handed it over to Stani. He looked at it for less than a second before his bushy eyebrows rose about a foot. He held the picture up, so that the bald man behind him could see it. A similar moment of shock appeared on the bald man’s face, before he turned to the rest of the bar. “Zalyshaty!” His rumbling baritone echoed in the tiny space.

The command acted like a trigger. Every man inside the bar scrambled to their feet and fled the building. I heard the bartender slam open a door into the kitchen and then, a few seconds later, another door that led outside. It took thirty seconds, if not less, before Anton and I were alone with Stani and his two goons.

“Where did you get this?” Stani asked. “Tell me. Now.”

I clutched at the opening for dear life. ”That’s not how this works. You want information from me, you’ve got to give me something, too. Quid pro quo.”

Stani tipped his own drink up and drained half of it in one go. “Sit.” He pointed at an abandoned table. I took a seat after he did; Anton stood behind me, on my left, and Stani’s two goons flanked him on either side.

“What is your name?” He asked.

“Devlin. What’d you see in that picture?” I didn’t understand what leverage I’d suddenly been granted, but I knew that I had to use it before it ran out.

Stani slapped the photograph down on the table between us. “What do you know of this?”

I’d looked at the photograph every hour or so since its delivery, but I leaned over the table and examined it once more.  Nothing about the photo leapt out at me, although I could definitely tell that Asher had visited this bar specifically. “I don’t see what you’re talking about.”

“Here,” Stani said. “This symbol.”

I noticed it a split second before Stani said the words. It was barely visible against the dark background of the picture and I’d missed it because I hadn’t been specifically looking for it. Now, inspired to give the slip of paper a more careful examination, I could see the small ghost-like circle at the bottom right of the picture. An elaborate symbol, three stylized interlocking triangles, was set as a watermark there. My first instinct was to answer honestly, but I caught myself before a single syllable could pass my lips. Whatever it was, Stani was confused enough by its presence that he’d entirely forgotten about threats and violence. “What do you know about it?” I asked and leaned my weight onto the table.

He glared at me, searching my expression for some hint or clue. Seconds passed before he gave up on that tactic. “This picture was sent to us,” he said. “We do not know from where. With this same symbol on it, in the same place.” He pointed again the triangles.

“I’m listening,” I said.

“There is nothing more to say. My superiors are…interested in the identity of the sender.” He ran a hand through his hair and I realized, for the first time, that Stani was missing the pinky and ring fingers on his left hand. The digits ended at the second and third knuckles, respectively, and I could tell from the scar tissue that the injury was several years old. When he noticed my attention, Stani quickly hid his hand beneath the table.

“I guess that information would be pretty interesting, wouldn’t it?” I was painfully aware of the very real possibility that I could overplay my bluff. There were answers to be had, however. Whatever party had sprung me from prison had involved Stani and his organization, as well. I couldn’t afford to ignore even the faintest glimmer of a lead. “Who are your superiors? Who do you work for?”

The bearded bodyguard stepped closer to Stani’s side and dipped his hand into his jacket. I didn’t need to see the glint of metal to know what he was reaching for. Stani raised his hand without turning to face the bodyguard, and made a fist. The goon stopped and Stani exhaled slowly. “Bratva.”

I barely kept myself from whistling in amazement. I knew more about the mysterious puppet master now than I had before, but what I’d learned was far from heartening. The Bratva were, in essence, the Russian mafia. I’d made a point of giving any organized crime syndicates as wide a berth as possible during my career, but what I’d heard about the Russian mafia had been composed of blood, death, and misery. People who acted against the interests of the mob found themselves in the crosshairs of an organization staffed with former KGB agents, Spetznaz trained killers, and a healthy amount of plain murdering psychopaths. If Stani was a lieutenant in the Bratva – and I guessed that he most likely ranked a little lower than that – then that meant my guardian angel was playing games with the sort of enemies who made people disappear.

Worse than that, the sight of the inverted triangles had shocked Stani so badly that he was actually deferring to me. I hadn’t needed to verify my identity and he hadn’t wanted a passcode or phrase. As soon as he’d seen the picture, his entire demeanor changed. Whoever had sprung me from jail and arranged for my extrication from Paris wasn’t just connected, then; to cow an agent of the Bratva, that person had to be seriously, frighteningly powerful.

I swallowed hard as the implications settled into place. I had more to worry about than Stani and his armed goons, now. If I said the wrong thing or upset my benefactor in some way, there was every possibility that I could spend the rest of a very short life in a dark hole somewhere. I immediately regretted showing him the picture in the first place. I could probably have talked my way out of the situation before; now, I was committed. I couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. “Okay then,” I said.  “Now, tell me what you know about Asher. Where can I find him?”

“We do not know,” Stani said. “I was sent here to locate him and bring him back to Moscow, for a…reckoning. “

That was promising. Anything that could turn the Bratva from a possible enemy into a tentative ally was a good thing. “I don’t see why we can’t both get what we want,” I said. “You want Asher. I want Asher. Why not go after him together?”

“It is…” Stani started and then stopped. “Our dispute with Asher is a matter of professional etiquette. He must be made to pay for what he has done.”

“After I get what he owes me,” I said, “you can have him. Whatever debt he’s built up, you can get it from him however you want. Deal?” If Stani’s behavioral shift was any indication, I probably could have demanded Asher on the strength of the mysterious benefactor’s sigil. A proposal of equality, then, should seem like the offer of a lifetime. It was a chance for Stani to return Asher to his superiors and probably acquire a promotion of some sort in the process.

“I will have to speak with my superiors,” Stani said, after a few seconds.

“Go, then.” I leaned back in the chair and sipped at the liquor. It still burned like acid, but booze was booze. “We’re not going anywhere.” I gestured at Anton. He started at the motion, surprised to be included.

Stani nodded and stood from the table. “Come,” he said to the two bodyguards. They turned on their heels and followed him outside of the bar. I saw him pull a flip phone from his pocket and begin to dial a phone number.

When the door closed, I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. “Guess this is a thing I’m doing now,” I said to myself.

“Devlin,” Anton said, in a near-whisper, “what is going on?”

I pointed at the chair next to me. When Anton sat, I pulled the chair close to him and leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “Play along. I don’t know where this is going to go, but you have got to act like I know what I’m doing.”

“Do you?”

I shook my head. “Not a clue. What do you know about that symbol?”

“Nothing. I have never seen it at all. What do you know?”

“I already told you that; someone is pulling strings to get me…somewhere to do something, and I don’t know who they are or what they want. Apparently, they’ve got connections with the Bratva, which is just thrilling.”

“And you are lying to them?” Anton’s eyes widened. “Stani is…not stable, Devlin. He will kill you if he finds out that you are not being truthful with him.”

“Well, there’s really not a lot I can do about that now,” I countered. “At least this way, I’ve got a chance, and that’s better than nothing. Besides, maybe I’m not lying?”

Anton gave me a blank look.

“Whoever is doing all this went to a lot of trouble to get me here,” I said. “Maybe they didn’t know when I’d get here, and they damn sure didn’t know what name I’d be using, but this was where they wanted me to be. Why go through all that trouble, just to have me offed by some mafia punk who worked his way up to middle management? As far as I know, and as far as you know, I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing here.”

“We should go,” Anton said. He tilted his head in the direction of a door set into the back wall. “Before this gets any more complicated.”

“It’s plenty complicated already. Stani’s a local heavy, right?”

Anton shook his head. “Not local. Not anymore, at least. He moved to Russia when he…how did you say it…moved to ‘middle management.’”

“He’s probably got connections here, though. I wouldn’t get to the airport without tipping someone off.” A thought struck me, fired like a lightning bolt from the background static of my mind. “How do you know Stani?”

The blank look in Anton’s eyes was replaced first with surprise and then shame. Color filled his cheeks. “It is…”

The door opened again. Stani entered the room again and Anton fell silent. He hurried to vacate the chair, but I reached over and forced him to remain seated. “What’d your bosses say?”

“Sovietnik has authorized me to assist you in your search for Asher,” Stani said in a stiff voice. He did not return to his seat as he glared at Anton.

I didn’t know what Sovietnik was, but they apparently had enough authority over Stani to force him to work with me. On the one hand, I didn’t really want the help. My best bet for continued survival was to lose Stani and his men before I said or did the wrong thing. On the other hand, though, there were two massive bonuses that stopped me from dismissing him outright. One: Anton’s knowledge of the area was limited and his connections to the local underworld were tenuous, at the best of times. Two: the last thing I needed was for Stani’s bosses, this Sovietnik, to decide to torture me in pursuit of answers I honestly didn’t have.

After a moment, I amended the list and added a third item: Stani was, despite his attitude, my single best source for information on the mysterious puppet master. My involvement had come from nowhere, without context or prelude. Stani’s reaction and the willingness of his superior’s to work with a relative unknown told me that the relationship between my guardian angel and the Bratva ran deep.

“That’s acceptable. There are conditions, though.” I waited just long enough for Stani to open his mouth before I spoke again. The trick worked wonders for keeping people off balance and, as a power move, its utility was staggeringly underrated. “No taking any violent initiative. Everyone wants to find Asher, but I’d rather avoid bringing the law down on us if we don’t have to. If he’s here, I get him first. After that, he’s all yours. Or Sovietnik, whichever.”

“Of course.”

“That’s not all,” I said. “I don’t know what the deal is between you and Anton here, but he has been…hired as my local guide. An insult to him is an insult to me, and an insult to me…” I trailed off and let Stani finish the thought on his own.
Something passed between Anton and Stani. The glare, from Stani’s end, intensified and then faded into a merely sullen look, as opposed to the unabashed antagonism. In my mental file, under the folder titled “Stanislav,” I added a question mark and resolved to speak to Anton about the matter at the earliest opportunity.

“Good. Sooner we find Asher, the sooner the two of us can leave you all to your business.” I pointed to the two bodyguards.

“These two talkative gentlemen have names? I’d rather not call them Things 1 and 2.”

“Iosif,” Stani said, jerking a thumb at the bald man. “And this is Leonid.”

“And can they answer questions themselves?”

“Their English is very bad. If you would prefer to use Russian, then…”

“No. That’s fine. Can they at least understand what I’m saying?”

Iosif, the one on the right, nodded. A moment later, Leonid did the same, scratching at his dark beard.

I finished off the rest of my drink. Stani’s remained, half-empty, on the table. “Alright then,” I said, in a false tone of joviality.

“Let’s get started, then.”

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Chapter 14

We rode in silence.  Anton and I had never been particularly close, though we had worked together on numerous occasions.  Sometimes, I had found myself teamed up with him and a few of his countrymen; more often, I contracted his services specifically for a controlled detonation, with a minimum of collateral damage.  His skill with explosives was something extraordinary.  I’d personally witnessed him cobble together a high-yield shaped charge in less than a half hour, and then use that same charge to blow an entire vault wall out without blinking.  When he was in the zone, Anton was professional to the point of curtness, nearly oblivious to any outside commentary or conversation.  I’d been able to respect that and the two of us had pulled off a few high profile heists through the eastern Bloc with a fair degree of success.  Sarah had technically worked with him as well, although she’d gone through her usual hoops to ensure a degree of insulation.

Small talk was difficult for him, though.  I’d guessed at his sexuality a few minutes after meeting him and the Ukranians he worked with had been only too happy to confirm my suspicions, in the worst possible terms and with a wide variety of slurs I hadn’t understood.  What I gathered was that most of the local thieves only worked with Anton when there was simply no other option.  Their repulsion extended beyond the professional and into the realm of personal discrimination.  So, despite his obvious talents and willingness to work, Anton had found himself frozen out of any social groups in his home country.  He’d turned inward to deal with that isolation.  His reaction to confrontation – namely to retreat even further into himself – was a direct result of that.  Remembering that, I felt almost bad for my earlier aggression.

“Hey,” I said.  “Mind if I ask you a question?”

Anton turned slightly so that he could see me in the corner of one eye.  He nodded after a moment.

“Why do you stay here?  In Kiev, I mean.”

“Where else would I go?”

“Anywhere else, maybe?  Somewhere the underworld doesn’t treat you like…”  I considered several possible phrases.  “Where they don’t treat you like you’re…I don’t know, less of a person?”

Anton drummed his fingers into the steering wheel.  Instead of pressing further, I looked out of the window.  The hours after midnight had always been my favorite time to visit a city.  The skyline lit up with tiny flecks of light that stretched from one end of the horizon to the other.  Many of the buildings had domed roofs and, judging only by silhouette, I couldn’t tell where the slopes began or ended.  On my one previous visit, I’d noticed the menagerie of colors that adorned the surfaces of every building in sight, but I couldn’t make those out in the dim starlight.  I gazed at the architecture as we passed it by.  When Anton finally spoke, it startled me.

“This is my home,” he said, in a sad voice.  “I am proud to be from Ukraine, even if my country is not proud of me.”

“You’re good, though.  Better than you get credit for, and a hell of a lot better than you get treated.  I’ve seen what you can do when the pressure’s on, and there’s not a lot of people I’ve worked with who could pull off half of what you can, even with perfect conditions.”

He shrugged.  “Do you know what it is like to love something, even if you know it does not love you back?”

I thought about Sarah, about that final catastrophic fight.  “Yeah.”

“It is like that, then.”  He was silent for another long stretch.  I looked back at the buildings and waited until he felt ready to continue.  “I figured out that I was…different when I was very young.”

My ears perked up.  On the rare occasions when Anton had started a conversation in the past, the topic had always been about business.  Details from his personal life, outside of the unavoidable reason of his ostracization, had always been scarce.

“My parents did not approve, of course,” he continued.  “There are camps here.  You have similar ones in America, I think.”

It took me a second.  “Conversion camps?”

He frowned slightly and then shrugged.  “In these ‘conversion camps,’ what do they do?”

“I haven’t read much about them,” I admitted.  “But from what I’ve heard, they try to make you not…the way you are.  Does that make sense?”

Anton nodded.  “Yes.  Then, yes.  In Ukraine, they also have ‘conversion camps’ and for the same reason.  My mother and father sent me to one when I was twelve years old.”

I recalled the single article I’d seen on the topic.  What I’d read had been so horrifying that I’d put down the magazine and refused to read any further.  I felt Anton’s tension and I realized, almost subconsciously, that he longed to tell me the story.  “What happened?”

“Many things,” he said.  “The people in charge of these camps showed us movies with men.  Sometimes shirtless men.  At the same time, we were given drinks that would make us ill.  They hoped that the sickness would make us less attracted to the men in the movies.”

Morbid curiosity took over where common decency left off.  “And if that didn’t work?”

“There were other methods.  Electricity, for one.  In some camps – not the one I was sent to – the ‘counselors’ would beat you, to ensure that you understood your thoughts were wrong.”  Anton spoke in a flat, matter-of-fact tone.  “But those were more expensive.  My parents did not have much money, and so I only had to drink the poisons and watch the movie.”

I didn’t speak for several seconds, as the mental images sank deep into my mind.  “Why are you telling me this?”  I asked, finally.

“I spent two summers at camps like these,” Anton said, instead of answering my question.  “When I was fourteen, my father became sick and they could not afford to send me anymore, and so I spent those months at my home.  My father did not die until I was one week away from eighteen.  He did not speak to me until the night he died.”

“Not at all?”

“Perhaps if he needed me to bring something to him, or if there was work that needed to be done.”  Anton shrugged.  “I do not remember.  But he did not speak to me until that last night.  Do you understand what I mean?”

I nodded.

“When I came to his bedside, he looked old and weak.  Nothing like the man I had grown up admiring.  I held his hand and, when the time came, he leaned over to me and whispered something into my ear.”  Anton fell silent.

I waited.  I realized at some point that I was holding my breath.  I released the air in an explosive burst.  “What did he say?”

“I…do not know,” Anton said.  “He had been sick for a very long time and his voice was all but gone.  I would like to think that he told me that he loved me, that he was sorry for what he had put me through as a boy, and that he understood that I did not choose to be the way I am.”

There was an obvious lead there, and I took it.  “But?”

“But that is not very likely.  If I had to guess?”  Anton shrugged.  “I think my father’s last words were to tell me that he was disappointed in me.  That he wished he had a son, instead of a mat like me.”

I didn’t know the word.  The implication was undeniably clear.  “Anton, I…”

He kept speaking, as though I hadn’t interrupted him at all.  “My mother…I think she blamed me for his death.  She thought that I broke his heart by being as I am, and that a broken heart had killed him.  She did not speak to me after that night.  She still hasn’t.  I had no brothers and no sisters.  A month after we buried my father, I left my home and I have never returned.”

He stopped and I knew he had reached the end of his story.  “Why,” I repeated, “are you telling me this?”

“Because, Devlin, I still love my mother.  I loved my father, even as he hated me.  I loved them both when they sent me away to camp, when they told me that I was defective and wrong.  If I could still love them, even with all that they did to me, how could I not still love my country for all that it does?”  Anton turned onto a side street.  I had completely lost track of landmarks and didn’t know where he had taken us.  “My love for Ukraine has nothing to do with its love for me.”

I turned and searched Anton’s eyes.  Unshed tears glistened from his eyes, but his chin was still held high.  “Ah,” I said.

“Ah,” he said back.  Then, he switched the car off.  “We are here.”

We were parked in front of a squat, one story building that looked as though it was scheduled for condemnation in the near future.  I counted three other cars in the parking lot.  The nearest two were brand new and gleamed under the single naked lightbulb set above the bar’s front door.  The third was dilapidated and rusted.  The front of the building had only two windows, both of which were boarded shut.  There was no way to see through the obstacles into the bar’s interior.  Anton exited the car and waited by the entrance until I mustered the courage to join him.

“Anything I should know?”  I asked.

“The police will not come to this bar, unless they have a very good reason to,” he said.

“The guy who runs this – whoever he is – has that much pull?”

Anton shook his head.  “No.  But the people that he works for do.”

Which meant more layers to navigate.  “Just once,” I muttered.  “Just once, can’t it be simple?”

“What, Devlin?”

“Nothing.”  I rolled my shoulders until the joints popped and the muscles loosened.  “Let’s get this over with, I guess.”

He opened the door and motioned for me to enter before him.  I couldn’t help but notice the beads of sweat on his forehead and the nervous way he licked his lips.  The hand that wasn’t holding the door was nearly invisible behind his back.  In the lamplight, I caught a glimpse of him nervously cracking the knuckles, one at a time.  Anton’s anxiety at simply being here was a far cry from encouraging.

The inside of the bar looked exactly like the outside, with the notable exception of its occupancy.  The vehicles had led me to imagine the interior as abandoned, perhaps staffed by a single aging bartender who stared listlessly at a floor full of empty chairs.  The exact opposite was true.  Each table that I saw was occupied and each chair or stool supported the weight of a native.  Women moved between the tables, deftly avoiding the groping hands of customers with professional ease for the most part.  A handful of the girls actively encouraged the attentions of their male patrons, either with strategic winks; or pouted lips; or the ever-effective flash of cleavage, as they leaned over to retrieve empty glasses and beers.  An old coin-operated jukebox played a song I’d never heard and couldn’t translate.  Some of the men raised their beers in time with the music.

As the door swung shut behind us, the eyes of the patrons slowly swiveled to face us.  First, the people looked at Anton.  Recognizing him, they dismissed him from their thoughts almost immediately.  Then, they turned their attention to me.  I could feel as they evaluated me, decided whether I was a threat of a potential asset, and then found things to do that allowed them to continue their examination in a more covert manner.  This wasn’t something I was unaccustomed to.  Most of the bars in the criminal underground that served a particular type of client – either by specialty or nationality – had given me similar welcomes, the first time I’d visited.  I wasn’t planning on staying inside this dive any longer than absolutely necessary, either, so the locals’ opinions of me ranked exactly at the bottom of my “things to be concerned about” list.

“Busier than it looks,” I said to Anton.

“What?”  He blinked, then understood.  “Most of the customers walk here from wherever they live.  The cars are for…more important people.”

As far as I could remember, there hadn’t been a residential area within at least two miles of the bar, but I said nothing on the matter.  Anton led me deeper into the bar, past the jeers of a particularly drunk pair of men, until we were at the bar itself.  It took another two minutes before the bartender, an aged man with a full head of jet black hair, detached himself from customers and greeted us.

“What’ve you got for beer?”  I asked.  It wouldn’t hurt matters to insinuate my way into the bartender’s good graces, early on; besides, I’d been thirsty for beer for nearly three years.

The bartender looked first at me, then at Anton who shrugged, and then back at me.  “Money, first,” he said.  The accent was thick enough to stand on.  I took one of the rainbow colored bills from my wallet and passed it over.  The bartender glanced down at it and then, after the initial shock passed, stared at the single bill I’d given him.  His eyes became the size of flat fishbowls in his head.

Anton leaned over and whispered into my ear.  “That is too much.  That is far too much.”

“Hmm,” I mused.  “What can I do to win over this crowd?”

“Be Ukranian,” Anton answered, as our bartender returned with two foreign beers.  He made no move to offer me change.

I sipped at the beer and hid my grimace as soon as the liquid touched my lips.  Whatever swill this bartender had provided, it formed a good basis for a legitimately fatal concoction.  “You work here long?”  I asked, between mouthfuls of the beer.

“Long enough,” the bartender answered.  “Why?  Who wants to know?”

I tilted my head over to Anton.   The bartender followed my eyes, and his expression darkened as he took in my current translator and local guide.  Anton, for his part, appeared not to notice the dirty look.

“My friend,” he began, “is looking for someone.  Someone that you might know about?  Or perhaps that someone you know might know something.”

“What’s it worth to you?”  The bartender asked.

Anton handed the conversation back over to me.  “I’ve got money, but those accounts are…inaccessible,” I said.  “Soon as I get that sorted out, I’m thinking…I dunno.  Fifteen thousand?  Maybe twenty?”  The bartender’s eyebrows rose, and I knew I had him.  “Depends on how good of a job you do, yeah?”

“Who are you looking for?”

I took the photo from my back pocket and passed it to the bartender.  “Name’s Asher.  If he’s got a last name, I don’t know it.  Got a tip that he might be hiding out somewhere in Ukraine after the last job he and I worked together.”

The bartender picked up the picture and looked closely at it.  When he noticed something at the bottom of the page, he sucked air through his teeth.  He handed me back the picture.  “No one knows where Asher is,” he said.  His voice was louder than a whisper, much more quiet than a normal chat.  He spoke like he was afraid of something.  “Since that picture was taken, he has become ghost, the mist, just…”  The bartender mimed an explosion and its parts drifting away into the night sky.

“Yeah,” I said, “that’s not going to work for me.  Asher and I’ve got unfinished business and I didn’t come all the way here, just to get stonewalled at the first bar I walk into.”

The bartender tilted his head.  “Fifteen thousand?”  He asked.

“Fifteen for giving me information that helps me figure out where the hell Asher went,” I said.  “Bonus if you can help me bring him up to face the metaphorical music.  You interested?  Payment as soon as I get my accounts back, and Anton here can vouch for me.”

“He is telling the truth,” Anton said.  “Devlin has been working for a very long time; his team, people he just knows, even strangers know that much.  If he says that he will pay you…”

The bartender considered the question for a lot longer than such a simple request required.  “No,” he said finally.  “Cannot spend anything if I die before you get into your accounts.”

Die?”  I repeated back, incredulous.  “You don’t tell me anything, that’s fine.  I’ll be disappointed, sure, but I won’t come after you just for answering a question.  I don’t kill people.”

“No,” a voice said from behind me.  My heart jumped over at least three beats in response to the new arrival.  “But I do.”

Chapter 13

The flight was uneventful, and I spent the time coming up with increasingly creative methods of getting even with Asher. I lost track of the hours and was legitimately surprised when a polite voice came over the intercom and informed us that we’d reached Kiev.  I exited the plane, passed through security without incident, and entered the main lobby of the Ukranian airport.  There, I found an unoccupied bench and parked myself, searching the people nearest me for anyone who might be Alex’ friend and my potential ally.  I waited for a half hour, until a large clock set into an arch’s keystone showed that it was a little past midnight.

“Well damn,” I said to myself in a soft voice.  “That’s going to make things even more difficult.  Goodie for me.”

I retrieved the phone from my pocket and scrolled idly through its applications.  For the most part, there was nothing surprising about its contents; Skype, Facetime, and Kik were displayed at the center of the first screen, with a variety of games on the next page.  I used my thumb to swipe to the third screen.  A large calendar appeared there.   A handful of events were set in the next few days: book club meetings, drinks with some friends Jules had made, and an appointment with a German language coach.  After a moment of thought, I decided to clear the calendar entirely.  I hoped that it wouldn’t affect the backed-up copy, stored in some ephemeral cloud of data that I’d never quite understood.  I swiped two screens to the left, past the main display, and over to one I hadn’t seen yet.

On the third screen, I saw more apps that I’d never heard of.  Some looked like unfamiliar mobile games, two appeared to be music streaming services, and one – right at the center of the bunch, and larger than the rest – was a shortcut to a translation program.  I pressed down on that icon.  A microphone took the place of every other icon and began to pulse.

“Good morning?”  I said into the phone.

Gutentag,” the phone said back to me.

“Can you translate anything?”

A couple of seconds ticked by.  “Können Sie alles zu übersetzen?”

I whistled.  The sound attracted the attention of an older woman.  She shot me a look, and I shrugged at her until she continued on her way.  “Google Translate for the jetsetting crowd,” I said.  “Not bad.”  A symbol at the top right of the screen caught my eye, and I pressed it.  A drop-down menu of options appeared.  Another click, and a short list of alternate languages took up the entire display.

“English, French, German,” I read out loud, “Spanish, and…Chinese?”  I paused.  “Why Chinese?”

The phone did not provide an answer.

I sighed and closed the translation program entirely.  “Of course there’s no Ukranian, but it’s better than nothing, I guess.”

I looked around the terminal again.  A few people glanced at me, the strangely dressed man talking to himself, and gave my bench a wide berth.  I turned my eyes back to the phone and searched through the entire list of apps installed on the phone until I found the Maps program.  While it opened and located me through some satellite system, I dug out the envelope I’d received in Paris.  The picture of Asher fell to the ground.  I left it there and fished around until I found the small slip with latitude and longitude coordinates.  The phone beeped to let me know it had accurately identified my location, and I typed the numbers into the search box.

The map zoomed out briefly, showing the whole of Kiev, before it zoomed back in at a specific location.  A list outlining a series of instructions appeared after another moment, presumably leading me to the specific location of the coordinates.  According to the directions, that spot was at least twenty minutes away from the airport, by car.  I didn’t even want to think about the necessary multipliers, if I decided to travel on foot.  I also carefully avoided considering the inherent danger in spending that much time exposed and with limited mobility.  Ukraine wasn’t bad, per se, but Kiev wasn’t the sort of place where I wanted to feel any more vulnerable than I had to.  Asher was here – had been here, at any rate – and he would have left a veritable minefield in his wake if he thought, even for a moment, that someone might be coming after him.

I looked up from the phone.  A third sweep of the room still showed no one familiar.  I pushed myself off of the bench and went off in search of a conversion window.  Alex had said the rate would be less than ideal at an airport, but even just a few bills of currency that could actually be spent here was better than a wallet filled with useless Euros.  I practically walked into a sign which directed me further away from the terminal to a healthy, but dwindling, line of tourists and travelers, all waiting to change their currencies into something more palatable to the Ukranian market.  I joined at the back and waited patiently.  Prison lines had done wonders for my ability to endure boredom.  When it was my turn, I dropped a messy handful of Euros to the counter.

The lady at the counter arched an eyebrow at me.

“Sorry,” I said.  “Do you, uh…speak English?”

She nodded, without lowering her eyebrow even a single millimeter.  “I do.  Can I help you?”

“I needed these changed into…”  I rifled through my memory.  “Hryvnia?  That’s what you use here, right?”  I looked at her nametag, intending to use it to ease this transaction.  The name was a series of consonants in strange places and distinctly lacking in vowels.  I decided against butchering her name and fell silent instead.

The lady, whose name remained an unpronounceable enigma, narrowed her eyes before she took the bills from the counter and put it into a counting machine.  As the machine did its work, she looked back at me.  “You are American?”

I shook my head and attempted a smile.  It felt wrong, even as I stretched my lips to form the gesture.  “Irish,” I said.  “But I get that a lot.”

She tutted at me.  The machine dinged at her.  She turned, checked the figure, and then began to pull multi-colored bills from a drawer somewhere out of sight.  The attendant’s exasperation was palpable and I felt a little uncomfortable just being near it.  When she gave me the bills and a receipt to sign, I took a second to remind myself which name this passport was under, and then I wrote “Carl Gugasian” on the bottom line.

I started to leave the airport, but some instinct stopped me.  Instead of walking to the exit, I turned another ninety degrees to the right, until I faced a small kitsch stand, covered in sunglasses and burner cell phones for illicit communications.  Behind the stand, doing his best to remain concealed from any of the airport’s numerous cameras, I recognized a face.  I strode over to him, concealing my own face with a series of strategically timed pivots and head-tilts.  When he finally did recognize me, his eyes widened to saucers and he began to backpedal away from me.  I caught up and grabbed hold of his shirt before he had a chance to move very far.

“You,” I growled.  “Where’s Asher?”

“I…I do not know,” the man said.  He was taller and heavier than me, but he lacked the benefit of anger and surprise.

“You don’t know?  You were there, Anton.  You and Asher left me there to rot, dammit.”

“What?”  I pulled harder on his shirt and Anton cried out slightly, more from shock than any actual pain.  Two security guards turned in the direction of the sound and started towards us.  I immediately released his shirt and raised my hands in surrender.  One of the guards continued forward, reaching for a baton at his side; his partner stopped him with a quick shoulder squeeze, and the two returned to their posts.  The first guard shot looks at me every now and again as he left.  I gave him my best innocent smile and then returned my attention to Anton.

“You didn’t know?”  I repeated.   “You expect me to believe that?”

“It is the truth!”  He glanced nervously to the left and right.  There were just enough people in the terminal that he had no chance of a quick, clean getaway.  Trapped, he turned back to me.  “Asher told us all that you had escaped before any of us.  I did not know you had been captured until…”  He stopped, worked his way through my previous sentences.  “Asher left you there?”

“He tased me,” I spat out, anger rapidly building in my chest.  In a disconnected way, I was aware that Anton was probably telling the truth.  He wasn’t a con man or a thief.  If he’d had anything to do with Asher’s betrayal, my simple presence would have shaken the truth from him.  Still, I let my anger vent out on him.  It was better than keeping it bottled up inside.

Anton’s eyes grew wider and his face paled.  His mouth worked open and shut and not a single sound escaped it.  When he finally did find his words, there was a surprising hint of steel beneath his voice.  “So, I am not the only one he abandoned, then.  That bastard.”

I blinked and felt my outburst’s momentum fade a little.  “What’re you talking about?”

Anton looked around again.  I stepped away from him and he led me to a relatively secluded corner.   When he was satisfied that no one was close enough to hear his words, he scowled at the ground.  “He assembled a team recently.  He offered cash up front, provided transportation from where we were.   Asher promised us all – everyone on the crew for the Paris job, except for you – that he knew of a job that would pay us all well.  We spent two months planning, and another getting into position.  But, after we pulled it off, he took all of the money and…”  Anton wiggled his fingers in the air.

“How long ago was that?”

“Perhaps…six months ago?”

I had the picture in my hand before I was even aware of the thought forming in my head.  I looked past the map coordinates to the date and timestamp at the bottom right of the photo.  The timeline didn’t fit perfectly, but it made sense that Asher would be on the run if he’d decided to abscond with the spoils from a job.  What didn’t make sense was his enduring presence in Kiev.  I showed Anton the picture.  “You think he’s on the run from your team?  Are you guys looking for him to?”

Anton shook his head.  “I do not know what my ‘team’ is doing,” he said.  “They…parted ways with me, afterwards.  It was only because of the money that they would work with someone who is…”  He trailed off, suddenly awkward in a way that had nothing to do with fear.

I made the necessary logical leap instantly.  Anton was a homosexual, in a country that was notoriously unforgiving of homosexuality.  It was only through my record of successful heists and Asher’s forceful personality that a crew of native Ukranians had accepted Anton into their ranks in the first place, even though the man’s work was consistently top notch.  Anton was notoriously uncomfortable discussing his sexuality, however, and I wasn’t going to drag him into a public discussion if it wasn’t necessary.  “If he’s running from them, it’d make sense for him to kick rocks, but…why stay in Ukraine?  What was your cut of that job supposed to be?”

“Seventy-five thousand dollars, US,” he answered immediately.  I got the impression that he reminded himself of that number often.

“Split between how many?”

Anton counted on his fingers.  “Six, plus Asher.  Why?”

I crunched the numbers in my head.  “Little over a half million, and he’s stayed in the same country where he’s pissed off a lot of the local underground?”  Wheels began to spin as I worked through the problem.

“Oh!  There was a bonus, also.  Another five hundred thousand US dollars, to be split amongst all of us.”

That new piece of information stuck in my mental gears and ground them to a halt.  There was a lot a person could do with a million dollars anywhere, especially in Ukraine where the economy was less than stellar.  It was certainly enough to purchase a fake passport and enough of a history to disappear entirely.  I adjusted my thinking and a possible solution appeared to me almost instantly.  “He wasn’t just running from you,” I said.  “Someone else is after him.  He ever say anything about owing people money?”

“Asher was…it would not surprise me to find that he was in debt,” Anton answered.

If he owed money to some of the more unsavory elements in the area, Asher wouldn’t have stayed in Ukraine for neither love nor money, if it was within his power to leave.  A suitably well-connected cartel, though, could easily arrange for his passport to be blocked and blacklist him from all available methods of obtaining new paperwork.  Without documentation, and deep in debt with the most dangerously unbalanced sorts of people, the likelihood of Asher escaping the country dropped to nearly zero.  That was good for me and, paradoxically, terrible at the same time.  If Asher owed some powerful mover or shaker, their claim would supersede my own.

“Of course,” I muttered, ignoring Anton entirely for the moment.  “Because it’s never easy.  Why would someone even send me the damn picture, if it’s just a set-up?”

“What are you saying?”  Anton asked.

Distracted by my own sudden, foul mood, I quickly summarized the events of the last few days to Anton.  Midway through the story, he was forced to take a seat as the details began to jumble together into a thoroughly unbelievable story.

“That is…”  His voice faded into silence.  He shrugged, incapable of finding the right words.  I mirrored the gesture, for the same reason.  “What are you going to do?”

“I’m not about to let Asher get off the hook for Paris,” I said.  “Even if it means I’ve got to cut a deal with whoever he owes money to.  And there’s someone out there who pulled an awful lot of strings to get me here, even if I did decide to go off book for a little bit of it.  I want to know who that is, and what they want.  Only way to do that is to see this out.”

Anton heaved a heavy sigh.  “I…think I might be able to help you with that,” he said.

“Oh?  How’s that, exactly?”

“You said that your friend Alexander would arrange for a contact for you here?”  He gave me a weak smile.  “That is me, I believe.”

“You?”  I blinked three times.  “What?  How do you even know Alex?”

“We have worked together once or twice before.  Small jobs, but…”  He shrugged again.

For what felt like the millionth time, I marveled at Alex’ massive web of connections.  “Is there anyone he doesn’t know?”  Anton tilted his head at the question, and I waved dismissively at him before he answered.  “Alright, then.  I believe you didn’t have anything to do with sending me down the river in the first place.  And you’re looking for Asher, too?”

“I am.  He owes me money, as well.”  Anton hesitated for a split second.  “Although, I do not have the same resources you seem to.”

“Maybe you can figure out where I’m supposed to be headed, then.”  I took the phone from my pocket, navigated back to the map screen, and passed it over to Alex.

He scrutinized the coordinates and the map for a few seconds before he said something that sounded extremely vile in Ukranian.  He handed the phone back to me.  I waited as he stewed over what he’d seen for a long time.  “That is…not a good place,” he said finally.  “It is not safe for me, at all, but it is also not safe for you.  Or Asher, for that matter.”

I gave him an impatient look until he decided to continue.

“There is a local group that resides there.  At a small bar with a very large back room.  I have avoided going there for many years.”

“You think they might be the people Asher owes money to?”

Anton took a second before he nodded.  “If not, someone there will almost certainly know who he does owe.  It is just…”

“Just what?”

“Nothing,” Anton said, a hair too quickly. “We should go.  It is already late, but there might still be customers in the front of the bar.”

“We want there to be customers there?”  I asked.  “Why, exactly, do we want civilians if the conversation’s probably going to be about business?”

“We do not want civilians,” Anton answered.  “We will want witnesses.”  The simple sentiment sent a fresh wave of chills down my spine.  He started to move to the exit and I, after a quick reaffirmation, followed my guide out to his waiting car.

Chapter 12

My mouth opened, and it made sounds, but those sounds stubbornly refused to form intelligible words.  I stopped, exhaled slowly in outright defiance of the rapid acceleration of my heartbeat, and spoke in the most soothing voice I could manage.  “Listen, Alex, there’s a totally reasonable explanation for this.”

“Explain.”

I went through the last hour of my life in excruciating detail, searching for some mitigating bit of evidence to exonerate myself.  I found nothing.   “Okay, so…not quite that reasonable, but it’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be.”

Alex put his empty stein down on the nearest table with a deceptive gentleness.  “I am ‘making it out to be’ that you came to the Hofbräuhaus in order to steal your…trinkets despite the possibility of witnesses or jail time,” he said.  “And I am also seeing my only daughter leaving the ballroom at the same time as you, at the exact moment that a fire alarm provides you with an exit.”  He paused, drew in a deep breath, and I crossed my fingers that he was using the air to steady his emotions.

My first instinct was to lie.  It took less than a second to remember, with crystalline clarity, how badly that had gone for me in the past. “Can we talk in the car?”  I asked.  “Plane’s leaving soon and, more important, there are a lot of ears here.”

His breaths were a little too rapid and his cheeks were a little too flushed.  Without the stein, there wasn’t any danger of his meaty hands accidentally breaking a glass handle, but that left them free to work open and shut at his side.  I wasn’t sure if he would talk to me, beat me senseless, or merely abandon me to my own devices.

Finally, he nodded.  “Come.”

He led the way out of the beer hall, slowing only to say a quick greeting to two of the guards, and I followed as fast as I could.  He was taller than me, with proportionately longer limbs, so I trailed a little behind him.  I was careful to keep my face pointed away from any security cameras inside the beer hall or cell phone cameras outside, where the ejected fans did their best to catch a snapshot of the band before they absconded.  When we were through the crowd, both Alex and I increased our pace until we reached his car.  He pulled into traffic before he spoke to me.

“Now,” he said, “Why was Alexandria with you?”

I sighed.  “Listen, I…”  I stopped, shook my head.  There was no point in sugar-coating the truth, when he would inevitably hear about it from his own daughter.  The least I could do was ensure that he wasn’t blindsided by it. “She knows.”

If I didn’t know what to look for, Alex’ sudden impression of a statue would have merely unnerved me.  But I did know what his warning signs were.  Both hands tightened around the steering wheel until the knuckles turned white and his jaw, already square and strong, clenched until it resembled marble more than human features.  I glanced at the car’s speedometer and watched as the needle gradually ticked higher.

What does she know?”  Alex asked.  If the air conditioning ever stopped working at his house, the tone of voice he turned on me would have sufficed to keep his entire family chilled to the bone.

I swallowed a lump of nerves.  “She caught me trying to get upstairs.  I used a cover story, but she didn’t care about why I was there.  Not really.  She wanted to know about you.”  I sighed.  “She knows that you were a thief, Alex.  She doesn’t know what you did, exactly, but she does know a little bit.  She knows enough.”

He said nothing for a long time.  The lights of buildings passed by us and the car accelerated just enough that I felt it, but not enough that we were in any danger.  Yet.  “And does she…” Alex began, when I’d begun to think he would never speak again.  “…what does she know about…”

“Nothing,” I said quickly.  “That’s your story to tell her, not mine.”

“It was not your place to tell her what I used to do, either!”

The anger in his Alex’ voice was justified, but I couldn’t fully control my own temper from rising.  It snapped out of me in a rush, before I could throttle it back under my control.  “I didn’t tell her a damn thing!  She figured it out, all by herself.  All I did was not lie to her about it!”

“Oh,” Alex said, sparing a fraction of his attention to shoot me a side-eye.  “Now, you are against lying?  That did not seem to stop you from lying to Sarah, did it?”

It was a low blow, and he knew it as soon as he closed his mouth.  I saw that much in his eyes.  I clamped down on the surge of emotion his cheap shot stirred, but a few memories slipped through the hastily erected wall.  “When did she tell you?”  I asked, in a soft voice.

“I knew perhaps a day or two after you two split,” he said.  There was less anger in his voice; in its place, there was more sadness and a little of his own nostalgia.  “She made no secret of your fight.”

“Why ask me where she was, then?  Just to twist the knife?”

“No, of course not.  It was…”  He hesitated.  “I hoped things had changed, between the two of you.”

“Not much chance of that,” I said and then turned to stare sullenly out of the passenger window.

Alex drove on through the night and the air within the car grew thick with unexpressed emotion.  I didn’t have to look at him to know where his thoughts were.  I had my own memories to get lost in: the first time Sarah and I met, our first job, the bungalow where we’d spent our first night together.

“I cannot talk to my daughter about this,” he said, without preamble or context.  The words came out clipped and anxious.  “I will not.  You should not have spoken to her, either.”

“Even if she hadn’t run into me,” I said, without taking my eyes away from my window, “she would’ve blundered into it some other way.  There are people here who know what you used to do, Alex.  If you wanted to cover your tracks completely, you should’ve moved away.”  He said nothing, so I continued.  “What were you hoping?  That she’d never grow up?  That she’d never have questions?”

He remained silent for a few more seconds.  “I told her mother the truth,” he said.  “And now she is dead.  Because of me and because of the damned job.”

“That’s not because you told her the truth.”  I turned to gauge his reaction.  His face was statuesque, flat, expressionless.  The only indication of his humanity were the two trails of tears that rolled slowly down his cheeks and fell from his chin to the seat.  “You know that.  What happened was…”

“Inevitable?”  Alex chuckled humorlessly.  “No.  If I had quit before, if I had retired when I met her, then Johannah would not have died.”

“We don’t know why that happened,” I said.  I couldn’t bring myself to speak in specifics about that disastrous attempted heist.  “But what went down could have happened anywhere.”

“Then, I should not have gotten involved in that life to begin with.  That is why I left: so that my daughter would not become an orphan, to make up for my own stupidity so many years ago.”

“So what are you going to do?  Keep lying to her?” I asked. “I looked in her eyes.  If you try to keep her in the dark about this, she will chase right after you until she finds someone who will tell her.  Wouldn’t you rather the truth come from you, instead of some random we used to work with?”  I paused.  “I know I wish I’d just told the truth.”

“Of course I wish that I could tell her the truth, but…”

“But what?”

“But what if she blames me for what happened to her mother?”  He sniffled and the twin tear-tracks increased in speed.  He took one hand from the steering wheel to wipe them away.  “I could not bear for her to hate me.”

“She’s not going to blame you,” I said immediately.

He turned to meet my eyes, searching my expression for any sign of deception or subterfuge.  After ten seconds, satisfied with whatever he found or didn’t find in my bearing, he sighed and shook his head.  “How?”  He asked.

“How what?”

“How do I tell her about who I used to be?”  He elaborated.  “Where do I begin?”

I lifted and dropped one shoulder.  “Sarah was on the job before I even met her.  Didn’t have to come up with the ‘talk,’ honestly.  But…I don’t know.  Maybe just start with letting her know how much you love her?  That, no matter what you used to do, you’re her father now and you’re here for her?”

“Am I?”

“Are you what?”

“Am I there for her?”  Alex turned into the airport.  He found a parking space near the terminal’s entrance in short order.  I checked the time on my phone before I relaxed into the seat a little.  There was time.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“After Venice, it was…easier.  There were leads to follow, people to interrogate.  I had a purpose.  I wanted to find whoever sent a team to kill us, and I wanted to make them pay. I owed Alexandria as much; I owed Johannah the same.”

“That isn’t what she would have wanted,” I said gently.  “I barely knew her, but even I could tell you that much.”

Alex shook his head.  “You do not understand.  I could not go home again.  I could not look at my daughter and know that her mother’s death was because of me.  I would rather have spent my life running around the globe than see the eyes of the girl who I made into an orphan.”

A string of poorly planned jobs, tracing back to the moment when Sarah had thrown the wedding ring in my face and slammed the door shut on our lives, appeared in my mind’s eye.  “I get that,” I said.

“Even when I decided to retire, I had missed so much of Alexandra’s life.  She was raised by friends of Johannah’s and I don’t think I got to know her at all until she was nearly fifteen years old.  Even now, she is…she is so much like her mother, Devlin.”

I had noticed that much almost immediately.  Ally had her mother’s long black hair; her slight, knowing smile; and, worst of all, she had her mother’s eyes.  Looking into the girl’s face had been like facing a ghost.

Alex saw something in my expression.  “You see it too, yes?  I love her more than words, but everytime I see her, it is like…it is like failing Johannah all over again.  Alexandra and I spend almost no time together.  She and I are like strangers who happen to live together.”

“How long are you going to rake yourself over the coals, Alex?”  He looked up sharply at me.  “Seriously.  How long?  Are you going to risk losing your daughter over something like this?”

He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

“You’ve made mistakes, sure,” I pressed, “but you’ve got a chance to fix some of the damage now.  Talk to your daughter.  Tell her the truth about her mother, and – “  I paused.  “What did you tell her?”

“When she was twelve, I told her that her mother died in an accident.”  Alex lowered his eyes.  “I asked some of my local associates to falsify the appropriate paperwork.  I only wanted…I only wanted to keep her innocent of all this.”  He gestured at me, not unkindly.  Still, the assessment made me shrink a little.

“She’s her own person now,” I said.  “Just like you were your own when you decided to get on the job and just like Johannah was when she decided to come with us.”

“Do you really believe she will find out what happened, regardless of what I do?”

“Even if you could keep it secret from her for the rest of her life, is that really fair to her? Is that really how you want to treat your own child?”  I knew my own issues were bleeding into what I said.  I continued anyway.  “She wants to understand her father, and part of that means getting to know who he was before she was born.  And she deserves to know the truth about what happened to Johannah.  Otherwise, someone might start paying attention if Ally keeps asking around.”

Alex blinked in confusion.

“If she starts asking around for answers about what you used to do, there’s no telling who she’ll ask.  Might be she asks the right question to the wrong person, and…whoever…is still out there.”

It took him another second before understanding dawned in his eyes.  It was followed swiftly by naked anger and his fingers tightened once more around the steering wheel.  “That person is still out there?”  He asked, between clenched teeth.  “You and Sarah did not find who it was?”

I shook my head.  “The trail was cold before you retired.  We were just chasing dead ends at that point.  After you got out, she and I spent another year trying to find more to go on, but…”  I shrugged.

“What about the people who did the deed?  What happened to them?”

“Sarah kept a watch on the shooters that ended up in jail.  Two died at the scene, and the other four fell victim to a series of insanely implausible accidents behind bars.”

“Someone would kill their own team?  Just to cover their tracks?”

“Sarah had a theory about that, actually.”  Shop talk was infinitely preferable to emotional conversations.  I felt myself warming to the topic and recalled the countless hours I’d spent with Sarah, poring over documents and files.  “While she worked on following leads, I ran down some contacts in Russia.  No one there had heard anything about a hit on us.  Vlad – that safecracker from the Beijing job – tried for a month to find out who gave the order.”

“And nothing?”

“And nothing.  So we tried to think about it a different way.  It took us a day or two, working from different ends, to scare up some local talent in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a few other cities.  Turns out the market is absolutely flooded with hitters and shooters for cheap.”

Alex’ hands didn’t release the steering wheel, but his expression turned a little more thoughtful.  “So, whoever came after us could be…”

“…could be anyone, yeah,” I finished.  “And they could be anywhere.  The team that came after us in Florence was just the hired help.  No loyalty to speak of.  If they hadn’t been killed in prison, odds are they would’ve turned on their employer to get a better deal.”

“Someone who can arrange synchronized murders in an Italian prison?”  Alex thought for a moment and then turned pale.  “That would be someone who could also arrange for prison breaks, no?”

My thoughts snapped into place with an audible click.  Someone had been keeping an eye on me for a long time; there was no other explanation for the absurd level of detail that had gone into my prison escape.  I’d assumed that their surveillance began after I split ways with Sarah, but that was based off of an unfounded assumption.  “You think…?”

“I do not know anymore,” Alex said.  He finally relaxed his grip.  “But it is not for me to know.  I am sorry, Devlin.  You are right.”

“Right about…what, exactly?  I said a lot of things on the way here.”

He smiled briefly, and it was like the sun coming out.  “I made a choice, to leave the job and to be with my daughter.  But I have not really left the job and I am not really with my daughter, at all.  Perhaps it really is time to tell her…what happened.”

“I think that’s the best move, really,” I said.  “Who knows?  She might be the next you.”

Alex’ smile widened.  “I will lock her up myself to keep that from happening.”  He noticed the time.  “It is nearly time for your flight, no?”

“Getting there, yeah.  Thanks for your help here, Alex.”

He waved the sentiment away.  “Is there anything else that you need me to do?”

“Be safe,” I said immediately.

“Yes, of course,” Alex said. “What else?”

I thought.  “Is this phone international?”

“Julia uses it to call her parents back in the United States, so…”  He stopped.  “Keep it.  I can afford to get her another one.”

“You don’t mind?”

The look he gave me spoke volumes.  “You will need money, as well.”  Before I could say anything to the contrary, Alex removed his wallet.  He opened the bill folder and took a thick sheaf of notes out.  “Here.  You have been to Ukraine before?”

“Once,” I said.  “But I didn’t get there aboveboard.”

“There are a few places there that will accept Euros, but not many.  You will need to exchange this for the local currency, either when you land or at a hotel.”  He forced the Euros into my hand.  “I would think that a hotel would be best, but it is up to you.”

“Do you have any contacts in Kiev?”  I asked.  “If Asher’s running from someone, I’m going to need a guide around town and someone to vouch for me.”

Alex tapped one meaty finger to his lips.  “I believe I know someone,” he said finally.  “I can arrange for them to meet you at the airport.  More discreetly than I met you here, of course.”

“Thanks for that.”  I opened the car door.  I checked my pockets for the passport and my tickets.  Both were where I’d left them.  “Alex?  I hope things work out with Ally.”

“So do I, my friend.  Be safe, Devlin.”  His eyebrows drew closer together.  “If it is not too late for me to fix things, perhaps it is not too late for you to do the same.”

I considered that and then shook my head.  “Coming back from a lie like that is catching a unicorn, Alex.  You got yours; we can’t all get one, though.”  I checked the time again.  A plane roared overhead, easing to a stop on a runway behind the building.  “That’s my ride.”  I started to get out of the car.

“Devlin?”

I froze, one foot halfway to the ground.  “What?”

“Promise me,” Alex said.  “Promise me that you will at least try to talk to Sarah.”

“As soon as I finish dealing with this.”  It wasn’t a lie, but I wasn’t quite sure if it was the truth, either.  I sped into the terminal, too far away to hear Alex, before he had a chance to call me on it.

Chapter 11

The room exploded with sound, light, and motion.  Bodies pushed against me from all sides, driven into a fury by the music.  I hadn’t really had a chance to listen to any music since I’d been sprung from La Santé, and I liked the song, but this was hardly the time to enjoy a show.  Concern welled up within me as I looked out on the churning sea of fans.  With this much chaos, the odds of me being seen and recognized dropped to nearly zero, which was nice.  But, with so many people packed into such a comparatively small space, there was no way for me to actually make my escape.  The passports sat heavy in my back pocket and I wished, not for the first time in the last few years (not even for the first time in the past few minute), that I still had Sarah in my ear.  She would have already come up with some alternative way out of the room and enacted that plan the very instant the band went on stage.  Without her guidance, I was left stranded in a room full of twenty-somethings, holding my forged paperwork, and without the foggiest idea of what step came next.

Ally’s eyes never left me, even as her friends jostled against her for position.  She said something, but the song was too loud for me to make out even a single syllable.  I motioned for her to come closer and she let herself be pushed from behind, so that she fell forward into my chest.  She had to yell for me to hear her, even at this distance.  “What do we do now?”

We do nothing,” I shouted back.  “Enjoy your show; I’ll find my own way out!”

The words came easily to me, and I honestly meant them.  Ally shouldn’t have been involved in the first place, and the timely arrival of the band made it easier for me to detach myself from the situation.  She had a viable reason to be here, friends to corroborate her story, and no previous criminal history.  In point of fact, she still hadn’t done anything illegal.  She’d never known what I needed, after all, and hadn’t been party to anything more illicit than helping me jump the line.  Without my presence, she could enjoy the rest of her night out, and I wouldn’t have to worry about her father’s justifiable wrath.

It was not as easy, however, to accept the possibility that I might be captured and returned to prison, due solely to a surprise performance from a German rock band.  I gritted my teeth to keep any hint of my inner turmoil from leaking out.

“What about you?”  Ally asked.

“I’ll, uh…”  I considered staying for the remainder of the concert, blending into the crowd as they exited the ballroom.  That plan had the benefit of being incredibly simple and incredibly foolproof.  I managed to pull my borrowed cell phone from my pocket to check the time.  There were only thirty minutes until my connecting flight to Kiev was scheduled to leave.  I could always grab the next flight.  Alex’s connections at the airport could easily handle those logistics.  If I did that, though, I ran the risk of my already nebulous lead vanishing into the ether.  Safety was important, yes, but finding Asher and exacting revenge for his betrayal ranked at the very top of my to-do list.  Leaving later wasn’t an acceptable option.

I realized that Ally was still looking at me.  Her eyes were wide, her mouth slightly open.  “Don’t worry about me,” I said.  “I’ll get out of here in time.”

“How?”

My mind was blank.  I pretended not to hear her and waved a farewell to her.  “You did good,” I said.  “I’ve got to get out of here, though.”

“Devlin!”  Ally’s voice sharpened.  “Do not leave me here!”

I cupped a hand to my ear, in the universal sign for ‘sorry, can’t hear you,’ and started to move away from her.  She reached out for my arm, but missed it as two fans pushed into her and knocked her grasp off target.  I let the crowds fold around me until I couldn’t see Ally anymore in the sea of dancers and moshers.

Leaving Ally behind gave me a little more freedom to move, but not much.  If there was a pattern hidden somewhere in the gyrating silhouettes, I couldn’t see it.  The people around me danced in a frenzy, waved their hands in the air, and generally made it impossible for me to see where the exit was, let alone plot a course to it.  Seconds ticked away, and I was painfully aware of each excruciating movement of the clock.  “Think,” I told myself.  “Think, dammit!”

Over the heads of the other dancers, I saw one of the security guards.  He stood with his back to a wall, dark sunglasses obscuring his eyes.  He was one of the two guards I’d encountered downstairs.  A thought began to form in my head.  I winced as it crystallized into an image, but I acted on the impulse anyway.  My best work almost always came just before I had a chance to think about any potentially disastrous consequences.

I turned and selected a fairly bulky man next to me.  His shoulders were wide enough for two smaller men and he stood at least a head taller than me.  A smaller woman, probably his girlfriend, danced beside him.  His mass cast a literal shadow over her.  If she noticed it, or felt uncomfortable because of it, she didn’t let it show.  She danced and swayed to the music, protected by her giant of a boyfriend, and he stood like a mountain amongst hills.

“This should be fun,” I muttered to myself.

I threw a punch at the man’s stomach.  The girl noticed my fist approaching, and moved out of the way with a surprised shriek.  He reacted to his girlfriend’s shout, but not to my fist.  It continued on until it smashed into his abdomen.  The German grunted at the hit, but remained fully upright; my hand, however, burst into a scarlet blossom of pain.

I wasn’t a fighter before La Santé.  Despite Patrick’s watchful eye, his guidance, and the protection that his name offered behind bars, I’d been forced into more than a few scraps in the previous two and a half years.  At first, I’d lost many more of those fights than I won.  By the end of my time there, my record sat at about fifty percent.  That only served to keep me high enough on the totem pole that none of the bruisers saw me as easy meat, but I hadn’t been one of those inmates who devoted all of his team to exercise.  A few pushups each day, perhaps a few situps, typically sufficed for my routine.  Still, I was in better shape than I’d ever been in previously.

I hadn’t put a lot of muscle into the punch. My goal was simply to instigate, not to actually injure.  But, I hadn’t thrown a wet noodle at him, either, although the bemused look he turned on me made me feel like I had.  My hand hurt.  I couldn’t, and didn’t, let that pain reach my expression.

The man gave me a genuinely confused look, while I assumed a boxing stance that I’d acquired from a French hitman who’d been on good terms with Patrick.  I sent another punch at the German’s sternum, which he leaned away from.  My punch glanced off of one shoulder which was just as thick with muscle as his abdomen.  The bemused expression shifted, transformed from amusement into something a little closer to irritation.

Behind the man, one of the guards noticed the scuffle.  He considered the size difference between me and my target, shrugged, and continued his even visual sweep of the room.  Not enough of a disturbance yet, apparently.  Nerves fired beneath my skin and I bounced on the balls of my feet.  The man opened his mouth to say something.  I didn’t let him even start to articulate his thoughts.  My fist flew out and caught his chin, forcing his teeth to clack shut.  It was a pretty good punch, as these things go, and I saw the reaction in his eyes that I’d been looking for.

Lucky for me, his girlfriend stepped in front of him, waving her hands in his face to get his attention.  His nostrils flared in anger as he glared over his diminutive lady friend.  I tried to meet his anger with some of my own.  I dug deep within my personal wellspring of betrayal, focused on Asher, and found a tight knot of rage to tap for inspiration.

Other people around us finally noticed the two of us squaring off against each other, with a five foot tall girl standing dwarfed between us.  I let my eyes leave the man’s face for a fraction of a second.  The guards, finally, saw what was going on.  Two pulled flashlights from their suit coats and began to push their way through the crowd.  People resisted their advance at first; when they turned to see who dared to intrude on their space, and saw the black-suited men looking at me behind darkened sunglasses, the fans quickly found other places where they could enjoy the band’s music.

The guards reached us and I raised my hands immediately, dropping my eyes away from the man’s face.  My entire posture changed.  In an instant, I went from belligerent to contrite, every ounce of anger I’d leveled at the innocent man vanishing in the space of a heartbeat.

“I’ll go, I’ll go,” I said, keeping my hands up.  The guards looked at each other, looked at me, and then looked back at each other.  “What?  That’s what you guys want with me, right?”

One of the guards glanced at his comrade, who nodded and gestured at me.  The first guard stepped forward.  “There is no fighting here,” he said.  “Follow me.”

If the guards escorted me out, they’d be providing my exit.  Better than that, the dark room and the sheer number of people still dancing around us made it extremely unlikely that either guard would bother to commit my face to memory.  So long as they took me closer to the exit, on the other side of the gyrating pit, I could make a break for the door before they had a chance.  Why should they care, after all?  If I let myself out, or if they escorted me, the result was the same.

“Wait,” the second guard said.  Both I, and the first guard, did exactly that.

The second guard, the one whose face I remembered, approached.  He kneeled slightly and scrutinized my face.  I kept my eyes on the floor, my shoulders hunched, and slouched down a few inches.

He gave me a slow once-over.  “You,” he said.  “You were downstairs?  With Herr Jeager’s daughter?”

“Nah,” I said.  I gave myself a touch of a different accent to throw him off.  Irish was my preferred choice, for obvious reasons, but I went with Scottish instead.  “Not in a long while.”

The second guard said something to the first in German.  Guard number one replied in the same language, and the second guard turned back to me.  “Ticket,” he said, and extended one hand.

“What about it?”

“Show me,” he said again.

I made a show of patting at my pockets.  When I came up with nothing except lint and spare French change, I shrugged at the guards.  “Guess I lost it.”

“What is that?” Guard number two reached for the green passports, peeking out from my back pocket.  He reached out a hand for the passports and I stepped back on pure instinct.

“No need for all that, pal,” I said.  My accent cracked slightly.  Both of these guards were armed, sure, but my real worry was bureaucracy: twenty-four hours, if not more, behind bars would keep me from catching the flight.  There was also the very real chance that I had warrants out in Munich, and another few years in lockup was an unappealing prospect.  “You want me to go, I’ll go.”

“No,” the second guard said.  He motioned to his comrade, and they both moved to box me in.  “You must work here, no?  You have on the uniform.”

I winced.  The last thing I wanted was to involve Alex’s family in my drama any more than they already were.  “Look, I just snuck in,” I said.  “Wanted to see the show.”

The band finished their song with a flare of feedback.  Cheers and whoops went up from the crowd.  I didn’t look away from the guards and they didn’t look away from me.  They weren’t buying my cover story. Guard number two stepped closer and reached out for my shoulder.  Onstage, the band prepared to launch into a second song.

A siren pierced through the room.  It cut off the applause and shouts from the crowd, sliced through the dark fog and sawed its way into my head.  Both of my hands flew to my ears.  The guards did the same.  Thinking was almost too difficult with this much sound in my head.  “An alarm?”  I shouted at the guards.  “You think I’m worth an alarm?”

They didn’t answer.  The siren warbled through the entire room, high pitched enough that I could easily imagine a neighborhood’s worth of dogs forming in front of the Hofbräuhaus, baying at the supersonic call to arms.  All of the lights in the room, not just the performance spotlights, came on at the same time and began to flash red.  A heartbeat later, the building’s sprinkler system activated and rained down on us from above.

At the sight of the flashing lights and the cascade of water, the cheerful chaos of the ballroom erupted into a frenzy.  Men and women alike pushed and shoved their way toward the door.  In the confusion, I let myself get carried forward by the mob’s momentum.  The guards looked at me, considered giving chase, and decided that evacuating the partygoers was more important.  I detached myself from the tidal surge of people with a little bit of effort.  People howled at their friends and pushed toward the only exit the powers that be had deemed necessary for such an event.

With a perfectly wrapped gift horse in front of me, I elected not to look too carefully at its teeth and threw myself into action.  “Lucky, lucky, lucky,” I said to myself.  If, in their panic, any of the guests heard me, they gave me no indication at all.

The guards had left their posts and now stood in pairs to either side of the lone door.  Their sole purpose now was to ensure the safe extraction of the partygoers.  Mostly, they talked to each other, or yelled something confrontational to a straggler, but they didn’t check tickets, they didn’t check faces, and nothing about their carriage led me to believe there was even an outside chance that any of the guards might ask for my name.

A short, soft body pushed into me from behind.  The push felt deliberate.  I turned and saw Ally next to me.  “What are you doing here?”  I yelled, over the siren.  I pointed at the lights.  ”Seems like that would be an incentive to get out of here.”

“I’m the one who started it,” Ally said, without the faintest trace of shame.

“What did you – why did you?”  Words were there in my head, as there always were, but I found it exceedingly difficult to connect letters into the words.

“You did not know how to leave,” she said.  “So, I gave you an opening.  That is good, isn’t it?”

I blinked slowly.  Apparently, I was really out of practice.  Adding even more insanity to an already chaotic situation should have occurred to me.  “That’s good, Ally.  Oh that’s real good.”

“I have only read books.”  Her eyes shone with something that reminded me uncomfortably of pride.  “But I am a fast learner.”

“You’re not learning anything else today,” I told her sternly.

The pride dimmed in her eyes.  “This is what my father did, isn’t it?  Why can I not know the truth?”

I paused. “Trust me,” I said.  “There are some things you’re probably better off not knowing.”

The ballroom was emptying quickly.  Ally shot me an annoyed look and sighed.  “Fine.  You promised to tell me whatever my father leaves out, though.”

I nodded.  It wasn’t quite a lie; I simply didn’t expect to be reachable after Alex had a particularly unusual variant of The Talk with his daughter.   “Sure, sure.  Later.  We’ve got to get out of here, or we’ll start looking suspicious.”  I reached back to grab her arm and we went to the dwindling line out of the ballroom.  The guards were occupied with a belligerently drunk couple.  The two argued with each other in loud, raucous German.  While two of the four guards struggled with the pair, Ally and I slipped around them.  I kept my eyes on the floor and my face hidden as I passed.

There were several similar lines at various points in the dining area.  The patrons downstairs were moving away from the ballroom in an orderly fashion, forming lines at several exits that opened out on the street.  “You use that one,” I told Ally, pointing at the closest line.  “I’ll take that one over there.  See if you can find your friends.”

Suspicion bloomed in her eyes.  “Why?”

“Because I’m trying to keep you away from this,” I said.  “Now, go.”

Ally hesitated, sighed once more, and went.  I watched her until she found a place in line and then, finding one of her friends further ahead, moved to join them.  I waited until she was just another shape in the crowd before I turned for my own line.

Alex stood in front of me.  He held an empty stein in a tight fist.  His knuckles were stark white against the flushed red of his skin.  “Devlin,” he said in a low, flat voice.  “Why was my daughter with you?”

Chapter 10

I walked into the room just a second in front of Ally. In that single second, while I stood at the door leading into the ballroom, a wave of memories rushed over me. I remembered the last time Sarah and I had stood here. It was only five or six years ago, and the recollection was still sharp in my mind’s eye. We’d been decent enough thieves, back then. I took care of the physical labor; she handled the technical side of operations. Occasionally, we teamed up with a friend or a contact established through trustworthy channels but, for the most part, Sarah and I worked as a pair. That was how we’d met and it was how we worked best; it was how we fell in love and, on that night not too long ago, it was how we were married.

We were on “vacation,” laying low after a lucrative grifting job in Monte Carlo. Sarah had suggested Munich and I, not particularly caring, had agreed. Alex pulled some strings for us and we found ourselves in a palatial room, just down the street from the Hofbräuhaus. I don’t remember which of us suggested breaking into the ballroom.

Sarah had gone first, that time. Her excitement was contagious, but never more so than on that night. Ground level work was never her area of expertise, and the thrill of actually picking locks was a thrill, when she got the opportunity to indulge.

After a few fumbling attempts, she worked the lock into the ballroom open and entered ahead of me in awe.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” She’d asked.

I’d seen nothing except for her. “Absolutely.”

We’d danced across the floor to our own music, held each other close until the exertions left us in a breathless heap on the tiled floor. “We should do this again,” she’d said.

“We should get married,” I’d replied. I didn’t know where that thought came from, or why it sprang so readily to my lips, but it seemed right in a way that nothing else ever had.

Sarah had looked as surprised to hear my proposal as I felt, having said it. Then, her face had melted into that slow smile that I loved so much and she’d said, “Okay.” Just that.

We married three days later, in the same ballroom, during regular operation hours. The friends we’d made across the globe – those that knew our real names – made a special effort to attend and the party lasted well into the night. After the ceremony, when our friends and colleagues had gone back to their business, Sarah had insisted we leave something behind to commemorate the occasion. I, so love-struck that I would have agreed to anything at all, suggested the passports we’d wed under.

What was meant to be a one week vacation turned into a one month long honeymoon. That became a whirlwind spree of romance and theft, each of us daring the other to greater heights. Regardless of anything else, we returned to the same ballroom every year, on the same day, to celebrate and to remember.

I saw all of that in a flash of emotion and heartache, before Ally entered the room and spoke softly into my ear. “What do we do now?”

The spell broke. I saw the room as it was, not as it had been. Where Sarah and I had danced across the tiles, now a veritable mob of fans struggled for a spot closer to the stage. Machine-made fog twisted and curled around us all, winding through any available gap in the shifting, pushing wall of flesh. Feedback occasionally burst from one of the two oversized speakers that marked the edges of the makeshift, elevated stage in the center of the room. Only two of the eight spotlights bolted to a portable rig were active.

It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but I managed to push all but the most relevant bits of my memory away. “Follow me,” I said to Ally and started to move without waiting to see if she did as asked. I felt, more than heard, her breath and footsteps behind me after a moment.

If the room had been empty, it would have been relatively simple to retrace my steps and find the specific tile we’d secured the passports under. I would have been able to search carefully without the constant specter of identification looming over head. Of course, if I’d had the time to wait for an opportune moment, I could also have waited for Alex’s forgers to make new paperwork to begin with. “If wishes were fishes,” I muttered.

“What?”

“Nothing, never mind.”

I stopped in the middle of the crowd, almost in the exact center of the room, and closed my eyes. I needed to think, to remember, and I had to do that without getting lost in the emotional element. I visualized the ballroom, immediately after the wedding. Phantom images of Alex, Leigh, and a dozen other thieves popped into my mind. I cleared them away and focused on the room itself, which was a fair bit more difficult. In my head, I counted the number of tiles from the door to the center of the room and, from there, to the where Sarah and I had said our vows.

I turned, eyes still closed, in a circle, drawing mental lines. “There,” I said finally. I opened my eyes and pointed. A tight knot of fans stood on the otherwise non-descript tile. “I need to get there. And I need them to move. Can do you that?”

“What do you – “ Ally began. She interrupted herself.

I gave her a second to finish her sentence. When she didn’t, I twirled a finger in front of my face. “What do I what?”

“It does not matter,” she said.

“Just…just try not to attract any attention,” I said. Ally looked at me, obviously expecting some further instruction. I had none, so I shrugged. Slipping into a crowd was second nature to me. Years of public school, both in Ireland and overseas, had drilled the art form into my very bones. I couldn’t explain what I meant any more than I could explain breathing.

An idea struck me and I froze as I thought through the possibilities. “Actually. Where are your friends right now?”
She looked around the room and found her friends after a few seconds of scanning. “There,” she said and pointed over my shoulder. I turned slightly, just enough that I tracked a cluster of shapes in my peripheral vision, but kept the majority of my attention on the specific tile where the passports were concealed.

“How close are they to the stage?”

Ally’s head swung from her friends to the stage and back again. “They are not in a good place, but it is not a bad one, either. Why?”

“So that other group? The one I need moved? Are they in a better spot?”

She considered the question. A few precious seconds ticked away. I couldn’t afford for the show to begin. As soon as the band began to play, the already bustling room would erupt into absolute chaos: fantastic for cover, but terrible for any sort of detailed search. There’d be no way to keep an eye on the tile and no chance to make my way over to it. If I was going to act, it had to be before the band took the stage.

“Perhaps my friends would like to meet those people?” Ally asked. I smiled, impressed that she’d grasped the plan without needing me to spell it out. Good instincts must have been genetic.

“Just keep things casual,” I advised. “If they can cause a distraction – even just a little one – that should give me enough time.”

She nodded. “Is this…is this the sort of thing my father would do?” Ally paused, struggled and hesitated with her next thought. “Was my mother a thief, too?”

My smile dimmed and faded. “That’s not my story to tell,” I said. Ally’s face fell. “If I get out of here with what I want, and without the cops getting called on me, though, you can sit down with Alex and ask him yourself. I’ll fill in whatever he leaves out, if I think you need to know it. Sound like a deal?”

“It is a deal.” She stepped past me, closer to the cluster of people standing atop the tile. Watching her move reminded me of Sarah’s first attempt at crowd-navigation. She was eager, gave off a little too much presence, and drew disapproving murmurs from several people she bumped into. The memory of Sarah’s first tries queued up in my mind, ready to play along with a dozen other clips of our time together. I shut that down, hard, and refocused on the present. Ally found her way to where I needed her to be, turned on her heel, and waved both hands in the air at her friends. I couldn’t see them without turning my head but, when Ally lowered her arms and motioned for someone behind me, I assumed they’d seen her gesture and responded.

It’s nearly impossible to predict what a single person will do, without extensively scripting their activities or simply intervening directly. People, however, are essentially programmed, playing out their social functions with mechanical efficiency. As Ally’s larger group of friends parted the crowd in front of them, the three or four people standing on the tile noticed their approach. They moved slightly closer to meet Ally’s friends, almost unconsciously. In doing that, they left the tile that I was interested in open for a few precious seconds. The instant an opening appeared, I moved to take advantage of it.

Ally had moved well, but she barely ranked as a novice at crowd work. When I started forward, the crowd flowed around me like water. A series of expertly placed light touches, subtle gestures, body language, and a little fancy footwork carried me through. I was through the wall, kneeling in front of the tile, before Ally’s friends and the fans who had so graciously moved even began to speak to each other. Ally caught my eyes as I began to work, and then flicked back to the people nearest her. She spoke to her friends in rapid-fire German, which I couldn’t quite make out and wouldn’t have been able to translate, even if she’d spoken directly in my ear. Whatever she said, it served to keep both groups locked in place, perhaps five feet away from me, and locked their attention squarely onto her.

When Sarah had suggested leaving the passports, I’d had the rare foresight to insure that a full stonecutting team wouldn’t be required to retrieve them again. I’d nicked the tile on one corner, and left a space wide enough for a thin knife blade between it and the surrounding stones. It was practically invisible, even in the best circumstances. I ran my thumb along each side of the tile and felt nothing at all. Panic fired up in me as I traced a square around the tile a second time, slower, and ended up with the same results.

A loud burst of feedback came from the stage. It hung in the air long enough that I grew increasingly concerned and, when the static faded back into the hum and tumult of an anxious crowd, I breathed a tiny sigh of relief. That relief evaporated when a third group, separate from the two that Ally had managed to engage in conversation, stepped in to fill the gap. In the darkness of the ballroom, they hadn’t seen me, and a particularly burly man with a full beard knocked me over. I lost sight of the tile as I tumbled about a yard away.

The conversation between Ally’s friends and the other fans was drawing to a close. I could see that in their body language when I glanced up at them. Hurriedly, without raising my eyes, I waved away any apology from the burly, bearded man and started to push myself up to my feet. I froze when my thumb caught on the nicked corner. It was four, maybe five tiles, away from where I’d thought.

The urge to strike my forehead was strong and sudden; the desire to retrieve the passports before it was too late was even greater. I took a penknife from my pocket, hoping that the darkness would conceal its presence, and wedged into the tiny gap. I levered it urgently, then violently, until the tile popped free in sync with an explosion of sound from the nearest speaker, followed by another lingering guitar chord. Beneath the tile, barely visible in the spotlights, I spotted two green packets. I grabbed them both and let the tile fall back into place.

Ally returned, shooting me worried glances, and led both groups of music fans back to their original location. I slipped the packets into my back pocket and palmed the penknife and stood in time to meet them, plastering an unassuming smile onto my face as a matter of course.

Ally was her father’s daughter, through and through. She stepped in front of her friends, turning so that they faced her instead of me. “Das ist der Freund mines Vaters,” she said, gesturing at me. I smiled and nodded dumbly.

There was a brief flurry of conversation amongst them. One boy, a particularly tall one who towered a good six inches above me despite his obvious youth, started to say something to her. A third and final burst of feedback, long and loud, cut him off. It was followed by a haunting guitar chord that stretched out into the room and stilled the people. That was followed, finally, by darkness. The only two spotlights which had been on in the first place switched off, and the crowd found positions for the coming show. In the place of the spotlights, a slow pattern of colored laser lights swept across the room.

The dull roar of conversation sharpened into a fevered roar of excitement and mania. I looked to the stage, despite myself and the tension of the moment. There was something to be said for theatricality. Tokio Hotel had that in spades.

“Are you ready?” The lead singer wailed into the microphone, mercifully in English. I doubted that most of the people actually spoke the language fluently, but that didn’t matter. They howled their response to him in a maddened fury.

“I said,” the singer howled, “are you ready?” I noticed the slight delay between words, as if he struggled to maintain the proper cadence of the English language, as opposed to his natural German. Once more, the crowd screamed their assent.

Behind the lead singer, the other band members took their places – at the drums and their respective guitars – and weathered another storm of fresh cheers. The lead singer nodded, when the noise died down again. The men with instruments, clearly familiar with the call and response, returned the gesture.

In the split second before the lead guitarist’s pick actually connected with the strings, in the frozen moment when the drummer’s sticks still fell slowly to the snares, I felt a dark amusement at the situation. There had been nights when I would have loved a private concert from a band I genuinely enjoyed, but not now. Now, I was trapped at a party I hadn’t been invited to; holding illegal paperwork from a relationship I was over three years removed from; shackled to the daughter of an old friend, who would probably kill me just for being near her; and still without the foggiest idea of what step should come next. But, at least the band was good.

Then, the guitar pick struck down and it was too loud for me to think about anything except the music.

Chapter 9

I wasn’t sure if the oversized steins of frothy beer, the generally friendly atmosphere, or the busty servers were what made the Hofbräuhaus better than the competition.  Whatever the reason, I just liked being here, and I always had.  When Sarah and I needed a location for our clandestine wedding, I’d suggested this particular beer hall and she’d agreed without hesitation.  Each year after that first, we’d cleared our schedules and flown back to commemorate the occasion.  Each year, except for the last four: three of which I’d spent behind bars and one when I’d wandered from country to country, accepting whatever jobs were available in search of that feeling I’d had before.

If there’d been time, I would have liked to meander through the building.  Memories tugged at me when I caught a glimpse of that stool or those chairs.  It felt like Sarah’s presence was imprinted into the very building.  Sentiment is the kind of thing that makes you slow and sloppy in the field, and I don’t normally suffer from it, but the emotions hit me like a fist.  For a golden moment, there was nothing else in the world except for me, the Hofbräuhaus, and those years when Sarah and I had been happy together.

Someone jostled my elbow from behind.  A male, baby-faced waiter gave me a look that transcended any language barrier: “Get to work,” his eyes said.  He moved on to another table without actually saying anything out loud, dismissing my presence from his thoughts instantly.

I exhaled slowly, pushed my nostalgia away from the forefront of my mind and, heeding the waiter’s unspoken command, got to work.  There would be plenty of time to reminisce, later.

The dining room was packed to capacity.  Waiters, both male and female, bustled through the aisles, delivering food and drinks as quickly as they could.  Families crowded around tables and spoke to each other in raucously loud German, laughing at jokes I couldn’t understand.  I allowed myself a minute smile.  With this much activity, the odds that anyone would so much as notice my face, let alone remember it, dropped to almost nothing.  The busboy is all but invisible, on the best of nights; with Tokio Hotel preparing to play upstairs, and the cacophony of the main dining room, my nondescript uniform was as good as an Invisibility Cloak.

There were occasional gaps and spaces in the shifting mass of people; it took me a few seconds to decide on a path that would lead me across the floor to the third-floor staircase.  When I felt comfortable, I started to walk.  Where my assessment had been wrong, the waiters and patrons were more than happy to move out of my way.  Occasionally, I stopped and retrieved an empty stein or plate for authenticity. I navigated my way from one end of the room to the opposite.  There, a line of twenty-somethings, their younger friends, and parents who really should have known better waited impatiently, shuffling forward an inch or two at a time.

The double doors that led upstairs were at the end of the line. Two guards, one male and one female, stood in front of the doors.  The man carried an electronic reader of one form or another.  As the line of fans approached, he waved the reader over their extended cell phones.  After a moment, the gadget beeped, the man crossed a line through something on a clipboard in his other hand, and he waved the fan or fans through.   At first glance, the woman held nothing at all.  On second glance, however, I saw the black handle of what looked like a collapsible baton, barely visible beneath her sportscoat.  Her arms were crossed, and one hand dipped a little lower than its mate, close enough to the handle that she could reach it in a hurry.  Both the man and the woman wore deep black sunglasses and carried themselves like professionals.

I stepped out of sight and bit back a curse.  “Electronic tickets,” I muttered to myself.  “Because that isn’t overkill.”  One of the fans heard my voice.  She turned, tilted her head at me, and then shrugged my existence away.

One of the easiest tricks a con man has (in theory) is presence.  Most people in most settings are perfectly content to make everything somebody else’s problem.  The attitude of the waiters and waitresses was proof of that.  Surely, at least one of the employees had noticed that I wasn’t a familiar face.  But, in keeping with that simple age-old precept, they had all assumed that I must have been hired by someone higher up the food chain.  If not, why else would I be there?  And then, they would forget their momentary confusion and focused instead on their own, infinitely more important, problems.

There are people immune to that sort of mind trick, though.  Suitably attentive police, other con men who’ve grown accustomed to the technique, anyone with a vested interest in protecting a specific target from a specific threat…those groups, and others, had trained themselves to foster a low-level paranoia that ran in the background of their thoughts at all times.  I cursed in my head, considered the situation, and cursed several more times.  The scanner in the male guard’s hands was a problem I couldn’t charm my way out of.  Any act that went to that much trouble would already have made arrangements for the employees that were, and were not, allowed upstairs.  I fit firmly into the latter category.

Even if I’d had a chance in hell of taking out a trained, armed individual who knew I was coming, a fight would have been the absolute worst idea.  It would have blown my cover and it would have compromised Alex’ friendship with Karl, the busboy who’d risked his own job.  More likely, I would have spectacularly lost the conflict, setting me back days in my pursuit of Asher.  I started to back away, evaluating what my next move should be.  Lost in my own ruminations, when my back touched someone’s shoulder, the contact startled me enough that I dropped my tray and lost my balance.  Plates and steins clattered to the ground as I windmilled in an effort to stay upright.  The same person who I’d bumped to helped to steady me on my feet.  When I felt balanced once again, I turned to say a quick apology and froze in shock at one of the three or four faces staring back at me.

The girl’s mouth hung open for a fraction of a second before her features smoothed over into a perfectly placid expression.  “Es geht mir gut,” she said to her friend.  Then, to me, she said, “I am sorry for that!  Are you okay?”

“I’m, uh…fine.”  If I hadn’t seen the split second of recognition on Ally’s face, I would have thought she didn’t know who I was.  Still, I played along.  “Was my fault, really.  Should’ve been paying attention.”

“But your plates!”  Ally knelt and began to gather the flatware.  “Let me help you collect these, and we will be even, yes?”

I started to protest, but she fixed her eyes to mine with an intensity I hadn’t expected.

She turned back to her friends.  “Ohne mich,” she said.  They hesitated and she gestured with her hand.  “Gehen Sie!”

The line of fans continued to move forward.  There was a moment of visible conflict, before they started to walk.  “Wir oben sein,” one member of the group, a slightly older girl with multi-colored hair said, “wenn Sie uns brauchen.”

Ally didn’t look up as she waved their concern away.  She gathered dishes and placed them back into my tray until her friends were too far away to overhear.  Then, the look in her eyes sharpened to a point and she hissed at me.  “What are you doing here?”

“Look,” I began, “I’m just a huge fan of the band.  Heard they were playing and – “

“My father,” Ally said.  “Is my father here?”

That caught me off guard.  “What?”

“Did he come with you?”  She repeated.

“I…think he’s having a beer,” I answered.  No harm in telling the truth, when it was so innocuous.  “He doesn’t know I snuck up here, though, so if we could just keep this between us…”

“You worked with him, didn’t you?”  Ally pressed.  “Is that why you came here?”

I hesitated, momentarily unsure of what to say.  “What are you –“

“What are you here to steal?”  Ally’s eyes darted left and right and then bored into mine as she searched my face for clues.  “What would bring my father out of retirement?”

She kept talking, partly to me in English and to herself in German, but I didn’t track any of what she said.  “What was that?”  I asked, when my brain finally re-engaged.  “What did you just say?”

Ally blinked, pulled her thoughts back to reality, and opened her mouth to speak.  I saw the exact moment when she realized that she’d tipped her hand prematurely.  “I mean,” she said, suddenly unsure, “why would he want to see this band, and…”

I grabbed Ally’s upper arm with just enough pressure that she could feel how serious I was.  “Come with me,” I said, under my breath.  The slow-moving line of fans took notice of our conversation.  I heard a smattering of whispers, saw more than a few fingers pointed in my direction, and I released Ally.  “Too many eyes,” I whispered to her.  Louder, for the benefit of our audience, I added, “Thanks for the help, but I’m going to need a broom to get all of this up.”

“It is my fault as much as yours,” Ally said.  “The least I can do is go with you.  Just to make sure that everything is okay.”

I faked a sigh of resignation.  “They keep the brooms over there, if you insist.”  I pointed to a distant, utterly ordinary blank wall near the kitchen’s double doors.  “Follow me?”

I led Ally away from the spilled dishes and steins but, as soon as the dwindling line lost interest in us, we angled away from the kitchen towards a reasonably secluded corner.

“Alright,” I said, when I felt comfortable no one had followed us and no one was listening to our conversation.  “What do you mean ‘retirement?’”

Ally wound one strand of her hair around her index finger and, nervously, unwound it a moment later.  She sighed.  “You know what I mean,” she answered.

“Pretend I don’t.”

“You really don’t want to talk about this here, do you?”  Ally asked.  I crossed my arms and met her eyes.  She sighed again.  “My father hasn’t worked,” she explained, “since before mama died.”

“And?”

“He never talked about what he did,” Ally continued.  “For a long time, I thought he was a superhero or a spy.  Who else is gone from home so much, and to so many different places?  But then I grew up.”

“Look,” I said, pulling Ally a little deeper into the corner and a little farther away from the patrons, “I knew your dad back then, yeah, but what’s that got to do with…with what you said earlier?”

“I have done my research.  Checked my diary from when I was young against the dates where certain…activities were reported.  But when mama died, all of that stopped.  But then here you are, one of his ‘old friends’ and…”  She searched my eyes, shook her head, and lowered her voice.  “He was like you.  A thief.”

My first instinct was to lie. It wouldn’t have been difficult.  Over the years, I’ve had plenty of practice in the arts of “deception,” “misdirection,” and “creative application of the truth.”  Even with her standing less than a foot in front of me, the lies were already popping into mind, ordering themselves into a coherent story, pressing against my skull in their eagerness to be used.

What stopped me was the naked hunger written in bold across Ally’s face.  To her, this wasn’t about the crime itself.  It was about her father. “Let’s…let’s say you’re right.”

She let out a high pitched squeal.  “I was right?”  Before I could answer, she barreled on.  “I knew it!  How long did you two work together?  Where did you go?  How much did you…take?”

“Lower your voice!”  She snapped her jaw shut with an audible click.  “Are you trying to tell everyone here?”

“No, no, but…”  Ally paused, just long enough to regain her composure.  “No, you are right.  I am sorry.”

“That’s better.  Listen, though, Alex isn’t…”  I rolled my shoulders, to loosen them and so that I could have another handful of seconds to think.  “Alex isn’t, uh…working again.  He drove me here, set me up with someone who helped me get in, but that’s it.”

“What are you here for?”

“That’s complicated,” I said.  “Personal.”

“What could be so complicated,” Ally asked, “that would you risk so much exposure?  You could not have known Tokio Hotel would play, no?”

I shook my head.  “No, I didn’t know that…”  Something clicked in my mind.  “What?  What do you know about ‘exposure?’”

Ally’s cheeks turned a pale shade of pink and, for the first time since our chance encounter, she averted her gaze.  “I have read books,” she said in a tiny voice.

“You’ve done what?”

“I’ve read books,” she repeated, with a touch more certainty.

“A couple of books,” I said, “aren’t going to teach you anything how this kind of thing goes down in the real world.”

“So, then, you will teach me how to be like you?  Like my father?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose and closed my eyes.  “I’m not going to give you the ‘how to be a thief one oh one’ class.  You need to get out of here, now, and forget this conversation ever happened.”

“No!”  Ally took a half-step closer to me.  “You do not understand!  I have waited for years to know the truth about him.  I will not walk away now!”

“He didn’t tell you what he did for a reason,” I snapped.  “So you think I’m going to throw all that away because you feel like living a little dangerously?”

As soon as I spoke, I saw the pain my words caused her.  “He is my father,” she pleaded.  “I only want to understand him.”

I winced.  Old wounds I’d long since buried reopened with that one sentence.  I started to reach out for Ally’s shoulders, to comfort her or to reassure her, but stopped midway and let my hand fall down to my side.  “I don’t have time for this,” I said.  I could see the line dwindling to nothing as men and women were admitted upstairs into the ballroom.  I could not see the bodyguards/security experts from where I stood, but I harbored no real hope that they’d moved very far from their posts.

Ally cleared her throat.  “You need me,” she said.

I ignored her and examined the merits of several different plans.  None of them made it very past the conceptual stage.

“Whatever it is that you want,” she continued, “you must want it very badly.”  I turned to her and she held up her phone.  There was a digital invitation displayed on the screen.  “This will get me and one other person upstairs.  If you want to get past the guards without making a scene, you need me.  You need this.”

Tokio Hotel’s sound check reached my ears from upstairs.  I checked my own phone, borrowed from Alex, for the time; it was too late in the evening, already, and rapidly approaching my self-imposed deadline.  There were options available to me.  I could have called this low-level job off on the spot, made a graceful escape and returned a day later.  The ballroom would be empty, then, and I could take my time retrieving the passports.  Alex could use his connections to arrange another flight for me, under an identity I hadn’t used in years, and my mysterious guardian angel would lose track of my movements, if they hadn’t already.  It would only cost me, perhaps, twelve hours.  Sixteen hours, at the most, before I was back on the hunt for Asher.

Sixteen hours, though, might have been too long.  I couldn’t take that risk.  I sighed heavily and assumed my sternest expression.  “You’ll do exactly what I tell you to,” I said.  “Exactly when I tell you to do it.  Alex would never forgive me if I let you get into trouble.”  Alex was going to kill me anyway for not bundling Ally off of the premises immediately, whether she got into trouble or not, but I didn’t say that out loud.

“You are the expert,” Ally said and nodded.  Excitement bubbled under the surface of her carefully constructed veneer of calm.

I ran through every other plan that might get me upstairs without having to enlist Alex’ little girl and came up with nothing.  “Damn it,” I said to myself.  Quickly, I pulled off my apron, untucked my shirt and rolled up the sleeves of the uniform.

“Here,” Ally offered.   She dug her fingers into my hair and churned it into a mess of knots and loops.  “That is better.”

“Let’s just get this over with,” I said, in lieu of thanks.  She gave me a look that I couldn’t interpret before she gave me another short nod.

We walked out of the corner, back to the staircase.  The line of fans had waned down to a single couple, a man well past his prime sporting a Tokio Hotel t-shirt, and two girls.  Ally and I waited until the people in front of us had shown their digital invitations to the male guard, who checked his list, crossed off their names, and opened the velvet rope so that they could pass.  When our time came, Ally spoke up before they had a chance to ask for her invitation.  “Zwei für Jaeger.”

She passed the man her phone.  There was a tense moment while we waited for confirmation.  I kept my face turned away from him and his partner, thinking quiet, invisible thoughts.  Ally’s shoulders were tense and drawn together.  When the male guard’s phone beeped affirmatively at him, it took a conscious effort not to sigh in relief.

Danke,” she said.  We started to move through the velvet rope.

We made it two steps before the female guard raised her voice.  “Warten sie.”  Ally and I froze.  She turned back, while I kept my head down.

Ja?”

Sie sind Alexander Jeager’s tochter?”

Ally chuckled, either from nerves or genuine amusement.  “Ja, das ist mein vater.”

Sag ihm,” the lady guard said, “dass er schuldet mir ein Bier.

Das werde ich tun,” Ally said.  “Noch etwas?”

Viel spaß!”

Ally walked away without saying anything else.  I followed after her.  On the staircase, I whispered, “What was that about?”

“She knows my father,” she answered.  “Everyone knows him.  Everything is okay, though.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Of course, you’d say that.  Like father, like daughter.”

“What?”

“Nevermind,” I said, as we reached the top of the staircase. “Just wondering why you two always insist on jinxing things for me.”

I pushed the door open into the concert before Ally had a chance to phrase a reply or, perhaps, before I could I talk myself out of what I was about to do.

Chapter 8

A pulsing hoard of teenagers and twenty-somethings surged around the tour bus.  “Do you know who they are?”  Alex asked, over the roar of the crowd.

“I knew who they were,” I answered.  “Been a little preoccupied for the last few years.  Sort of forgot to keep up with what bands were still making music.  You understand.”  Stress bubbled up and eroded any grip on civility.  Sarcasm slipped, unbidden, into my words.  I didn’t make any effort to wrestle it back under control.

“So, they are popular?”

“Look around, Alex.”  I gestured at the men, women, boys, and girls in the street in front of the Hofbräuhaus.  “What do you think?”

“We should go, then.”  He pulled on my arm.  “We should do this another day, if we have to do it at all.”

I barely heard him.  The sheer, abject unfairness of my life occupied my thoughts.  I honestly should’ve known better.  Even considering my historically abysmal luck, the past few days had been record-worthy.  Asher’s betrayal; my nearly three year long stint locked behind the walls of La Santé; the omnipresent feeling of eyes on my back, courtesy of an enigmatic figure with time to waste, money to burn, and an unhealthy interest in me for some currently unknown reason; and now, a major recording artist, guaranteed to pull in huge numbers of fans and potential witnesses to an already busy beer hall.

Someone bumped into me from behind.  Alex reached out quickly and caught my forearm.  “Are you okay?”

I gave the question more thought than it required.  “No,” I said, “I’m not.”

“Let us go, then,” he stressed.

“If it isn’t this,” I sighed, “it’ll be something else.”

Alex said nothing.  I took his silence as agreement and focused my thoughts down more productive avenues.  I had none of my usual resources, of course.  Any liquid funds that Alex might have stashed away in the years since we’d last worked together weren’t likely to be the kind that he could access at a moment’s notice.  Leaving a day late was a possibility, yes, but Asher had seemed harried in the blurry snapshot gifted to me by my benefactor.  If he hadn’t gone to ground yet, it was only a matter of time before he managed to weasel his way into the good graces of someone with a bolt hole or safe house.  That wasn’t an option, either.

I could only think of two possible ways to move forward.  Option 1: I could ask Alex to drive me back to the airport and try to use the Valjean identity.  Without any physical documents, that prospect was dodgy.  The best case scenario involved my benefactor pulling even more strings in my favor to grease the bureaucratic wheels at the airport; that would not only put me even further into their debt, but it would provide whoever it was with a clear snapshot of where I was and where I was going.

“Devlin?”  Alex jostled me.  “What are you thinking?”

I rolled my neck until the muscles loosened slightly.   Option two, then. “We’re going in.”

Alex passed a hand over his eyes.  “You are certain?”

“Absolutely.  It’s either this or I might as well just hand myself over to whoever’s out there pulling my strings.”

He lowered his hand.  I was surprised to see the corners of his eyes crinkled together and a rougish grin playing about his lips.  “Just like old times, yes?”  He heaved a dramatic, fake sigh.  “I thought I was getting too old for this work.”

I grinned back at him.  “You know what a good friend told me once?  You’re only as old as you’re willing to admit.”

“That friends sounds wise,” Alex said.  “Do I know him?”

“With your network?  I wouldn’t be surprised if you did.”  Patrick’s face flashed by in my mind.  “So, here’s my question for you: how old are you willing to admit to being?”

Alex took in a deep breath.  His chest swelled and he stood, for a moment, as tall and strong as he’d been when we’d first met.  “It is a beautiful night,” he said finally.  “I am feeling very young, indeed.”

As we’d talked, my mind had continued to run on autopilot, clicking through plan after plan, and discarding each one in turn.  One idea clicked into the forefront of my thoughts; was examined twice; and then, without fanfare, delivered to the part of my brain responsible for actually making judgment calls.  I spoke at the same time as the thought crystallized.  “Think this thing’s going to be catered?”

“I would think so.  Even if not,” Alex said, “there are always employees in the kitchen.  The restaurant is open, no matter what is going on upstairs.”  He paused as he picked up the thread.  “They likely be overworked tonight.”

“I was thinking the same thing.”

Alex frowned slightly.  “I spend much of my time at this hall,” he said.  “My face is much too easily remembered.”

I considered that.  “So, you know a lot of the people who work here, then?  Maybe some of the kitchen staff, perhaps?”

“Most of them, yes.”

“Just because you can’t go in with me,” I said, “doesn’t mean you can’t help me get in to begin with.  Come on, I’ve got an idea.”

I started to walk towards a side alley of the building.  Alex snorted through his nostrils and fell in step behind me.

On any normal job, there would have been days, if not weeks, of prep-work.  Sarah would’ve worked her computer magic to get access to the full blueprints of the building.  She would have pored over them, made notes to herself in the margins, planned every minute of the operation in excruciating detail.  Then, I would have gone back over the plan, anticipating failure at every step, in a way that only someone exquisitely familiar with failure could do.  There would have a plan for each letter of the alphabet; escape routes at every conceivable exit; and more redundancies than I could possibly remember, in the heat of the moment.  Ever since the disaster in Florence, I’d refused to work any other way.  When I’d broken that rule for Asher, in the name of old times, I’d paid the price.

I had none of those things here.  There was only one member of my old team with me and Alex had been out of the game for a long time.  I had no money to bribe guards or staff with; no assets already in place; and, it occurred to me as I turned a corner and entered the alley, there was every possibility that Sarah had already paid this ballroom a visit in the past three years and removed the very passports I was after.  By any reasonable standard, I should have felt crippled with fear, anxiety, and nerves.

Instead, I was exhilarated by the prospect.  A quick glance over at Alex told me that he felt the same.  This was the business, at its most pure, and it had been far too long since I’d gone to work.  My pulse quickened beneath my skin and I savored the feel of it.  A small job like this – really, just retrieving what was rightfully mine in the first place – was just what the doctor ordered.  A warm-up, if nothing else, for the real work that would follow when I got to Ukraine.

Instinct and training took over, where forethought and consideration were lacking.  Ahead of us, exiting through a side door, a man pulled a large trash can out of the Hofbräuhaus.

“Hey!”  I sped up and crossed the intervening yards in several long strides.

The busboy’s head jerked sharply at the sound of my voice.  He started to say something to me, but whatever sentence he’d planned died on his lips as Alex jogged up behind me.  “Servus, Herr Jeager,” he said, in surprise.

Servus, Karl!”  Alex boomed in response.

The busboy – Karl – looked at the narrow, dirty walls around us.  As he turned his head, I noticed a thin, shadowy line of facial hair along the ridge of his jawline and mentally placed his age at somewhere around twenty.  Easy pickings.  “Was mascht du hier?”  Karl asked Alex.  “Und wer er ist?”

Alex hit the kid with a full-force fatherly smile.  The poor boy seemed almost dazzled by the attention.  “My friend does not speak German,” he explained, as he laid a heavy hand on my shoulder.  “Perhaps we could speak in English, for him?”

Karl cleared his throat twice.  I could practically see the wheels in his head grinding into a different language.  “My English is not good,” he said.

“It is good enough!”  Alex clapped his hands together.  “In answer to your question, my friend here is from America.”

I resisted the urge to shoot him a dirty look.  “Ireland, actually,” I said.

Alex kept talking as though as I hadn’t said a word.  “He is in Munich for a few days, but he did not expect the city to be so expensive.  He was wondering if there might be somewhere needing help.  I could not help but notice that the hall is busier than normal tonight.  That is because…”  He trailed off and looked at me for help.

“Tokio Hotel,” I supplied.

“Ah, yes!  The band that we saw in front, in the street.”

Karl nodded slowly.  “They are playing a…private show,” he said.  “It is an important girl’s birthday, I think.”

“Perhaps, then,” Alex said, “you will be needing extra assistance tonight?  He looked first at Karl and then at me and then, tilting his head as he did so, back at Karl.

I marveled at how easily Alex worked poor Karl.  Here was a men who’d voluntarily chosen to leave the game – albeit, under fairly mitigating circumstances – and who’d stayed away from the business for at least three years.  He’d given up heists for hall monitor duty, chosen his daughter over the thrill of the chase.  And now, without missing a beat, he’d slipped right back into that old role.  I’d developed charm, as a matter of necessity; it came off of Alex in palpable waves, as easily as breathing.

And, with unneeded elegance for an already impressive performance, he hadn’t actually lied yet.  I suspected that he wouldn’t tell an explicit untruth, if he could at all avoid it.  I approved, of course; when I eventually got what I wanted and skipped town, I didn’t want to leave him holding the bag.  This way, he had a decent amount of cover for whatever I did.  Even in the absolute worst case, he could disavow me entirely (although I knew, in my very bones, that Alex would have thrown himself onto molten glass before he betrayed a friend).  I don’t know if he was being careful on purpose, or if it was just a habit he’d internalized and forgotten about, but it did make me feel better about (directly or indirectly) putting him at risk.

Karl’s eyes went from Alex, to me, to the ground.  “But I cannot – “

“Look,” I interrupted.  “It’s Karl, right?  I’ll tell you what.  I’ll do tonight for free, alright?  No charge.  If you guys like what you see, maybe then we can work out something a little more long-term?”  I injected a hint of desperation into my expression.  Just because Alex wasn’t lying didn’t mean I was held to the same standard.  “I just really need the work, okay?”

Alex followed up, almost instantly.  “Think how much help another person will be, my friend.  You are already looking tired, and the night is only beginning.”  He lowered his voice conspiratorially.  “We could consider this a secret, between friends, if it would help you.”

Karl struggled with an answer for what seemed like an hour, but was probably less than ten seconds.  “Of…of course, Herr Jeager.”

“Thank you so much!”  I bobbed my head up and down quickly, blurring my features.

Eile, eile!”  Karl waved me through the open door, into what looked like a storage area for the beer hall.  He pointed at a box in a darkened corner.  Collars peeked out of the box’ lip.  “Change,” he said.

I’d pretty much lost any semblance of modesty back at La Santé.  I pulled my borrowed clothing off without a complaint and passed all but the underwear back to Alex before I dug out the beer hall’s uniform: shorts, suspenders, and an off white shirt.   I looked at Alex with a great deal of very genuine distress.  “This is the uniform?  Really?”

He shrugged.  “Bavarian pride,” he said, with a note of solemn reverence in his voice, “is a serious thing.”

“Change!”  Karl snapped at me.  I managed to not roll my eyes, reminded myself of the stakes, and changed into the uniform quickly.  It was a little loose in the waist, and the suspenders bit a little too tightly into my shoulders but, when I was done, I looked more or less like Karl.  His hair was darker than mine and he was shorter, but none of the patrons were likely to see anything different about us at first glance.

Alex gave me a once-over.  I glared at him before he had a chance to say anything negative about my clothing.  He chose, instead, to turn back to Karl.  “You are too kind,” he said.  “I will owe you many beers for this, yes?”

The busboy shook his head.  “You are good to me.  Is my pleasure to help your…”  He barely stopped himself from turning his nose up at me.  “…friend.”

Alex dug into his pocket and fished out a cell phone.  He tossed it to me.  “You will need a ride back to your hotel when you finish here,” he explained, for Karl’s benefit.  “It would not do for the cabs to take your hard earned money, would it?”

Translation: “Call me when you need a getaway driver.”

“If I take your phone,” I asked aloud, “how will you answer if I call?”

“That is not my phone,” he answered.  “My wife left hers in the car.  She will not miss it for a single night, I think.”

“Thanks, then.  Where will you be?”

“I am thinking,” he mused, “of having a beer or two.  Jules is busy and Alexandra is out with her friends.  Karl, is the restaurant still open?”

“Of course, Herr Jeager.”

“My name is Alex,” my friend said, with a pained expression.  “You do not need to use such formality with me.”

Karl merely nodded in agreement.  “Yes, Herr Jeager.  Would you like someone to escort you past the crowd?”

“Will those people up front understand?  I would not want them to think I was getting in to see this band before them.”

Karl hesitated.  “There is another entrance to the main floor,” he said.  “I can show you how to get there, if you would like.  Only…”

“Only what?”  Alex asked.

“I do not know if everyone would like you entering through the kitchen.  IF you could not tell anyone who let you in…?”

Alex looked shock at the very idea.  “I would never.  Your secret is safe with me.”  He gestured at me.  “It is the least I can do, since you are helping my friend.”

Karl’s head swiveled to face me.  I realized that, for him at least, I had stopped existing the moment Alex began to pay him direct attention.  “You must go to the kitchen!  Quickly!  I will be there soon.”

“Kitchen, right.”  I took a step towards the door, then stopped.  “Which way is the kitchen?”

“Left,” Karl said, pointing in that direction.  “You cannot miss it.”

“Right?”

Nein, left!”  His eyes widened.  “Right will take you to the main floor.  Turn left and wait for me.”

“Ah,” I said.  With that question answered, I had a more complete idea of how to make my way upstairs to the ballroom.  I made eye contact with Alex and, as Karl tossed the trash into the dumpster, winked.  “I’ll see you on the other side, yeah?”

“Always,” Alex said.  He waited patiently for Karl to finish with his duties.  When the busboy re-entered the building, Alex entered alongside him.  They left the storage room quickly, peeking around corners to ensure that no one saw Karl sneaking Alex past the front door.  I waited until I could no longer hear their footsteps before I stepped out of the storage room, too.  I looked left, toward the kitchen, cooks, and servers and then, personally checking to ensure that I wasn’t being watched, turned right toward the main floor of the beer hall.

Chapter 7

Alex refused to elaborate until I was settled in.  I followed him into his house and upstairs to a bathroom.

“Shower,” he said, bluntly and without any elaboration.

I didn’t push the issue.  I could smell sweat and stress on my own skin.  When he left, I stripped off my slightly used clothing and let it fall to the floor in a crumpled heap.  Steaming water washed the dirt and grime off in tiny brown rivers down my arms and legs.  I hadn’t been able to enjoy a decent shower for over three years, and I lost myself in the heat and steam.  When I came back to myself, I noticed that Alex had somehow left a pair of blue jeans (exactly my size) and a button-down shirt on a hangar by the door.  I toweled myself off, dressed, and went downstairs.

A young girl nearly ran into me at the bottom of the stairs.  The first thing I noticed was a pair of large, golden hoop earrings and a single stud in her left nostril.  She wore a pair of jeans, a little thicker than mine, and a heavy, patterned sweater.  Her thick, curly black hair was tied out of her face.  “You are my father’s friend?”  Her accent was as close to impeccable as any non-native speaker I’d ever heard.

“I’d like to think so.”

She rolled her eyes.  “He is in the kitchen.  We will be eating in…”  The girl squeezed her eyes shut for a moment.  “I do not know.  Five minutes.  Ten, perhaps?  At any rate, he is in there.”  She pushed past me, up the stairs.  I heard a door slam shut from the upstairs.

“You do not slam doors in this house, missy!”  A female voice yelled.  I hadn’t heard Alex’s wife really screech in a while; her heavy Jersey accent quickly reminded me why I avoided upsetting her, as a rule.

“I will do whatever I want, Jules,” the girl replied from upstairs.  The naked scorn in her voice drew an involuntary cringe out of me.

“You will call me mom or mother or…”  There was a pause.  “…whatever word means mom in German.  Is that clear?”

No reply came back.  After a few beats of silence, I shook my head and stepped softly off of the stairs and into the kitchen.  There, Alex stood over a stove.  He had changed out of his lederhosen and suspenders into jeans, a solid black sweater, and an apron.  The smell of cooked meat permeated the air, and I savored every second of that divine aroma before he noticed me and placed a glass top over his the pan.

“Guessing that was Alexandra I ran into, then?”  I asked.

Alex sucked air through his teeth.  “She prefers Ally, now.  She is growing faster than I would like, but what am I to do?”  He sighed and leaned backwards against the sink.  “I fear that she does not like me very much, lately.  She and her mother fight more often than not.”

“I don’t have any kids,” I said, “but I’m pretty sure ‘not liking you’ is part of the process.”

“But that does not mean I have to like it very much.”  He cracked his knuckles.  “So, about this ‘keepsake’ of yours?”

“Yeah, about that.  What time is it?”

Alex checked his watch.  “A little after five-thirty.”

I did some quick math.  “Not a lot of time, then.  How hard will it be to get in to the beer hall and back out again?”

Alex visibly hesitated.  “Perhaps you should simply wait until a later time?  Let this mystery person lose interest in you, speak to Sarah about the problem, and then pursue this Asher?”

I could only hope that Asher hadn’t already gotten to Sarah.  Mentioning the threat to her now would only give Alex a very good reason to immediately contact her.  I decided to tell only a part of the truth, and kept the remainder to myself.   “He’s too good for that,” I said.  “Every second he’s out there, he’s going to be making connections and getting even harder to find.”

Alex sighed again.  “Very well,” he said. “You said you left your item in the ballroom?  Well…there is an event there tonight.”

“An event?”

“A concert,” he clarified.  “A very large concert.  There will be many people there.”

“Witnesses, you mean.”

He nodded.

“Well, damn.  You can’t just…”  I wiggled my fingers at him.  “…you know?  Ask the manager for a favor?  Just to clear the place out for a half hour?”

Alex returned the gesture, with a decidedly sarcastic flare.  “I cannot simply ask someone to empty out an entire beer hall, Devlin.  What is this thing that you need so desperately?”

I sighed.  “Passports.  The ones Sarah and I got married under.”

“That is all?”  The corners of his lips turned up.  “I know many people who could make the documents you need.  It is only a matter of time.”

“I don’t have time.  If I want to catch him, I’ve got to do it now.”

“Why could you not do this with the identity you were given in Paris?”  Alex asked.  “From what you’ve told me, it seems like there is someone with a lot of power who also does not like Asher.”

“Think about it.”  I counted off points on my fingers.  “There’s someone out there who can arrange to spring me from prison.  That same person didn’t want to go through official channels, but was willing to burn an asset to get me on the streets only a few months early.  Then, just when I need it the most, I get an envelope with the exact information I was about to start hunting down.”

“You think it is a trap?”

“What, Asher?  No, I think that’s legit.  What I do think is that someone is playing a larger game here, and I’m just a piece.  Neither one of us is big enough to warrant these sorts of resources.  I don’t want to just be a piece; it’s time for me to get off the board entirely.”  I began to drum my fingers against the countertop.  “I could have used the Berger identity, but you might’ve ruined that with your security alert, and I can’t really risk that.”

“I did not know you were in such dire straits,” Alex said.  “I did not even know that you were you.”  I waved away the apology and he continued.  “You do not have the paperwork to move on to your next country.  You lack the time to have said paperwork made for you.  And you cannot simply stroll into the ballroom without a dozen people seeing your face, any of which could be agents for this mystery financier.”  He rubbed his temples with his index and thumb.  “What other options do you have?”

There were few things I despised as much as a poorly planned job.  A thousand things went into a perfect heist: timing, positioning, personnel assessments, and so on.  The job with Asher at the Museé D’Orsay was the most haphazard job I’d pulled since Sarah, and even that one had taken weeks of coordination before I felt comfortable enough to go into the field.  Still, time ticked inexorably away from me and, with each second that passed, the chances of Asher finding Sarah rose.  “I’ll just steal it,” I said.

Alex blinked once.  “You would sneak into one of the busiest places in Munich, during a show where there will be many people to witness you, and try to pry loose a tile located somewhere in the ballroom?”

“Well, ideally, I’d get in there before the concert actually starts, but…yeah, pretty much.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose.  “You will not reconsider this, will you?”

“In favor of what, exactly?”

“Very well.”  He sighed.  “When are we leaving?”

It was my turn to blink.  “There isn’t a ‘we,’ here.  I can handle this on my own. I don’t want you implicated in anything.”

Alex straightened his back and rose to his full height.  It was easy to forget how effective he could be at brute physical intimidation.  With his arms crossed in front of his chest, I could see his biceps and triceps threatening to rip free of his shirt.  I wasn’t worried that he might hit me, but the effect was disconcerting nonetheless.  “I do not need your protection, Devlin.”

“You’ve got a good thing going here,” I said.  “Wife, a kid, a home…I just don’t want you too close to this.”

“I would not have my wife or my child were it not for you.  You saved my life in Venice.”

I turned my eyes to the floor and tried very hard not to think about that afternoon at the Uffizi.  “You don’t owe me for that.”

“So you say.  I do not agree, however.”  He looked at his watch.  “Time is short, so I will make this simple.  If you continue to remain stubborn and pigheaded about this, I will simply see to it that you cannot leave Munich at all, until you come to your senses.”  He didn’t inject any particular gravitas into his voice; he simply issued the threat, the same way a person might order a coffee or point out a pothole.

My eyes snapped up to meet Alex’s.  “You don’t have that kind of juice.”

“I have many friends,” he said.  “And I would gladly use my connections to ensure that an old friend does not run haphazardly into danger without assistance.  Let me worry about my family and the possible attention of your guardian angel.”

We stared at each other for the space of a full minute.  I looked away first.  “Fine,” I said.  “But you’d better get out of there at the first – and I mean the first – sign of trouble.  The last thing I need is Julianna hunting me down because you got pinched.”

A small smile crept across his face and broke the stern, stony weight of his expression.  “True, true.  She would most certainly not be happy, if that were to happen.  But…”  He turned slightly and looked at the pan behind him.  “There is something important we must do first.”

“What’s that?”

Alex removed the lid and filled the room with that sweet aroma again.  “Dinner!”  He bellowed, at the top of his lungs.  He winked at me just before his family entered the room and motioned for me to take a place at the table.  I took the seat, prompted by a significant look on his part, and reluctantly began to eat.

Dinner was short and, except for a brief argument between Ally and Jules, uneventful.  I chewed in silence and watched the scene unfold.  I hadn’t actually seen Alex’s wife and daughter at the same time in several years, and neither one remembered me.  Now that Ally was considerably older, I could see the marked differences between the two.  Jules was from New Jersey, and she looked like the most stereotypical representation of the state I’d ever seen: hoop earrings, long nails, and jet black hair that reached past her shoulders down to the middle of her back.  In all the years she’d been married to Alex, she’d yet to make an appreciable dent in her accent.  She didn’t look a thing like Ally, except for their identical hair color.

Alex wore a contented smile through most of the meal, even as his wife and daughter warred across the table.  Seated at the head of the table, I understood why he was generally so calm, so fatherly, and so at peace.  He loved his family; it was as simple as that.  I’d never wanted kids.  Sarah hadn’t either, thankfully.  Still, there was something about the three of them, seated around the same table in Alex’s modest house, eating the dinner he’d prepared for them.  I felt emotion begin to rise up into my chest.

When we finished, Ally said a few words in German and rushed out of the house through the kitchen door.  “Friends,” Alex said, when I lifted an eyebrow at his daughter’s dramatic exit.

“And you just let her do whatever she wants.”  Jules stalked over to the sink and deposited both her and Ally’s plates into the soapy water.  “You just spoil her, you know that?”

“No more than I spoil you,” Alex retorted.  “But she is a good girl, and I trust her.”

Jules turned a positively molten glare to him.  His grin didn’t dim and, after a few seconds passed, her expression softened.  “That’s why you’re her favorite.”  She walked back across the kitchen.   Alex met her halfway and wrapped his arms around her from behind.

“You and she are very much alike.  Almost too alike.  But you know she loves you.”

“But I’m not her mother.  Not really.”

“Perhaps.”  Alex stepped back and shrugged.  “But you are her mama.”

Jules sighed.  “If you say so.”  She turned and gave me a sad smile.  “Sorry you had to see that…what was your name again?”

“Uh…Devlin.”

“Just some family drama.  Mother-daughter stuff, you know?”

Privately, I thought about my own family history.  Out loud, I said, “Yeah, I get it.  No worries.”

“I’m going to Skype my mom,” Jules said, turning back to her husband.  “Are you two going out?”

Alex nodded.  “I wanted to show Devlin some of the sights, here in Munich.  You don’t mind, do you?”

“Of course I don’t mind.”  She stood on her tiptoes and kissed Alex’s forehead.  “Think you’ll be out late?”

“I would not think so.  We are only going to the…”  He made a show of considering his options.  “Perhaps the Hofbräuhaus?”

“You do like that place, don’t you?”  Jules shook her head.  “Well, get home safe.  Love you, honey.

“And I love you, Liebchen.

She blushed a little at the pet name, gave me a brief nod, and left the room.  I heard her footsteps as she went up the stairs to her room.  After the door closed, Alex blew a lungful of air out and met my eyes.  “She doesn’t know what you…what we do?”  I asked.  “What you did, I mean?”

“Juliana has never asked where our money comes from,” he said, “and I have not felt any particular desire to tell her.”  He glanced away briefly.  “We cannot all be as lucky as you and Sarah.  I do not think that my wife would appreciate knowing what I did before we met.”

“That was a long time ago,” I said.  “You haven’t worked in years.”

“Who I was is still a part of who I am.”  Alex’s eyes remained fixed firmly on an unremarkable tile.

“Look, that’s just another reason for you to stay out of this.  I can take care of this without getting you involved…”

Now, Alex raised his head.  “I hope we will not have to go through this disagreement again.”

I raised my hands in surrender.  “Just a suggestion.”

“A suggestion that I will pretend you did not make,” Alex said.  “With the holiday season approaching, traffic might be difficult.”

He exited the kitchen through a backdoor and went to his car.  I followed a step behind and climbed into the passenger seat.  We drove in silence for a few minutes.  I spent the time analyzing a menagerie of possible cons and discarding them for a variety of reasons: not enough time, not enough people, not enough resources.

“Do you have a plan?”  He asked.  “Or are we simply going to hope for the best?”

His voice roused me from my thoughts.  “Way it’s looking now?”  I didn’t finish the thought, but Alex nodded once anyway.

“It has worked before,” he said.  “Perhaps it will work again.”

“It will, because it has to.”

“You are right.”  Alex cracked the knuckles on one hand with the help of his thumb.  “This should be…”

“Do not finish that thought,” I cut in, with a little more heat than was necessary.  He looked at me in shock.  “What?  No reason to jinx this before we even get there.”

Alex chuckled.  “You and your superstitions, Devlin.  I am only trying to think positively about this.”

“It’s worked this far,” I countered.  There was a beat of silence.  “Okay, it’s mostly worked this far.”

A self-satisfied smirk crept across his face, but he said nothing else on the matter.  I lapsed back into my own thoughts.  I hadn’t been back to the Hofbrauhäus since Sarah and I parted ways; even when we’d come annually, neither she or I had been particularly concerned with much about the building except for the fastest path up to our customary room and the occasional trip downstairs for sustenance.  The ballroom where we’d hidden our passports was centrally located, which was nice.  Getting in wouldn’t be much of a problem.  The real issue would be acquiring the paperwork without drawing too much attention and getting back out again.

“You just had to leave a keepsake,” I muttered to myself and, by proxy, to Sarah.

“What was that?”  Alex asked.  He turned the car into a parking garage, paused to accept a ticket from the attendant on duty, and began to search for an open space.

“Just thinking,” I said.  “How big of a concert is this going to be?”

He shrugged.  “I do not know.  All I know is that the workers there were very busy these last few days.”

Alex found an available spot, not too far from a stairwell, and guided his car into it.  We walked down the stairs, out of the parking garage, and were greeted by a thriving hub of activity on the street.  As we made our way to the beer hall, Alex was greeted by a dozen different people.  Everyone from the older men, to the waiters at a few of the outdoor cafes, all the way down to some children who couldn’t have been more than nine.  They made a point to wave at him as he approached, to shake his hand, and smile in his wake.  In comparison, I might as well have been invisible.

“People are eager for the holidays,” Alex explained.  He couldn’t quite keep the childish grin of delight from his face or his voice.  “The market is being set up already.  If you had more time, I would insist on taking you to see it.”

“Tell you what.  If we get through this without going to jail or calling down the wrath of whatever shotcaller’s got me in his sights, the first thing I’ll do is come back here for whatever Christmas traditions you’ve got in mind.  Deal?”  I returned his smile with only a little bit of difficultly.  Holidays had never been a good time for me.  For Alex, I was willing to at least fake it.

“Deal!”  Alex grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously.  “You will bring Sarah too, yes?  She would love the festival, I think.”

It took considerably more effort to maintain a happy expression, but I managed.  “That’s up to her.  As long as you’ve been married, Alex, you should know that I don’t get to make any of the decisions with her.”

He sighed, much more dramatically than was necessary.  “That is the truth, my friend.”

I’ve never felt particularly bad about lying, but there was something about misleading Alex that felt wrong.  He hadn’t directly asked if Sarah and I were still together, and so I hadn’t had to outright deceive him, but the feeling was still there.  It sat heavy in my stomach.  Beside me, he smiled and waved at a couple who returned the greeting.  Again, I felt a pang of longing for the life he’d managed to make for himself.  When I’d met him, so many years ago, Alex had been just another asset in the field, a contact I could use whenever a job called for his expertise or local knowledge.  Now, wearing his clothes, walking through his town, I realized that he’d become more than just a possible member of my team.

“Hey, Alex?”

“Yes?”  He turned his head slightly in my direction.

“It’s good seeing you, man.”   Alex stopped walking.  I faked a cough and found something interesting on the ground.  “Let’s not make a big deal out of it.”

A wide, lip-splitting smile spread across Alex’s face as he reached over with one arm and wrapped me in a crushing bear hug.  “It is good to see you, too!”

I shrugged off the embrace and started to walk again.  He fell in step beside me.  We turned the corner and, again, both of us stopped in our tracks.

Behind us, the street was busy, but navigable.  Ahead, in front of the Hofbräuhaus, there were so many men, women, and teenagers of both genders that I could barely make out the entrance.  Even with the benefit of that typical German efficiency, the entire area was pure bedlam.  Something caught my eye in the distance: a tour bus, creeping its way through the crowd of cheering fans.  From this distance, I couldn’t make out the words, but I could see the capital letters “T” and “H” emblazoned in glittering print.

“You’ve got a smartphone, don’t you?”  I asked Alex.

He nodded and fished it out of his pocket.  “Why?”

“I’ve got a feeling that I’m going to regret this,” I said, “but can you see what German bands – rock bands, specifically – have the letters T and H in their names?”

He gave me an odd look, but thumbed the information into his phone’s browser.  It took him less than a second to find an answer.  His eyebrows jumped and his jaw slacked a little.  He handed me the phone without a word.  I didn’t need to read the screen, but I did it anyway: Tokio Hotel.  I hadn’t even known they were still together, let alone touring.

“What were you going to say in the car, Alex?”

His mouth worked open and shut for a full minute before he found his voice.  “Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof,” he muttered to himself.

I cleared my throat.  “Translation for those of us who aren’t fluent?”

“It means,” Alex said, “that I should have known better to think things would go easily.”

“Do they ever?”  I asked.