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.
“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.