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