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.”
“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.
“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?”
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.”
“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.