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.”
“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.