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.”
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?”