My mouth opened, and it made sounds, but those sounds stubbornly refused to form intelligible words. I stopped, exhaled slowly in outright defiance of the rapid acceleration of my heartbeat, and spoke in the most soothing voice I could manage. “Listen, Alex, there’s a totally reasonable explanation for this.”
I went through the last hour of my life in excruciating detail, searching for some mitigating bit of evidence to exonerate myself. I found nothing. “Okay, so…not quite that reasonable, but it’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be.”
Alex put his empty stein down on the nearest table with a deceptive gentleness. “I am ‘making it out to be’ that you came to the Hofbräuhaus in order to steal your…trinkets despite the possibility of witnesses or jail time,” he said. “And I am also seeing my only daughter leaving the ballroom at the same time as you, at the exact moment that a fire alarm provides you with an exit.” He paused, drew in a deep breath, and I crossed my fingers that he was using the air to steady his emotions.
My first instinct was to lie. It took less than a second to remember, with crystalline clarity, how badly that had gone for me in the past. “Can we talk in the car?” I asked. “Plane’s leaving soon and, more important, there are a lot of ears here.”
His breaths were a little too rapid and his cheeks were a little too flushed. Without the stein, there wasn’t any danger of his meaty hands accidentally breaking a glass handle, but that left them free to work open and shut at his side. I wasn’t sure if he would talk to me, beat me senseless, or merely abandon me to my own devices.
Finally, he nodded. “Come.”
He led the way out of the beer hall, slowing only to say a quick greeting to two of the guards, and I followed as fast as I could. He was taller than me, with proportionately longer limbs, so I trailed a little behind him. I was careful to keep my face pointed away from any security cameras inside the beer hall or cell phone cameras outside, where the ejected fans did their best to catch a snapshot of the band before they absconded. When we were through the crowd, both Alex and I increased our pace until we reached his car. He pulled into traffic before he spoke to me.
“Now,” he said, “Why was Alexandria with you?”
I sighed. “Listen, I…” I stopped, shook my head. There was no point in sugar-coating the truth, when he would inevitably hear about it from his own daughter. The least I could do was ensure that he wasn’t blindsided by it. “She knows.”
If I didn’t know what to look for, Alex’ sudden impression of a statue would have merely unnerved me. But I did know what his warning signs were. Both hands tightened around the steering wheel until the knuckles turned white and his jaw, already square and strong, clenched until it resembled marble more than human features. I glanced at the car’s speedometer and watched as the needle gradually ticked higher.
“What does she know?” Alex asked. If the air conditioning ever stopped working at his house, the tone of voice he turned on me would have sufficed to keep his entire family chilled to the bone.
I swallowed a lump of nerves. “She caught me trying to get upstairs. I used a cover story, but she didn’t care about why I was there. Not really. She wanted to know about you.” I sighed. “She knows that you were a thief, Alex. She doesn’t know what you did, exactly, but she does know a little bit. She knows enough.”
He said nothing for a long time. The lights of buildings passed by us and the car accelerated just enough that I felt it, but not enough that we were in any danger. Yet. “And does she…” Alex began, when I’d begun to think he would never speak again. “…what does she know about…”
“Nothing,” I said quickly. “That’s your story to tell her, not mine.”
“It was not your place to tell her what I used to do, either!”
The anger in his Alex’ voice was justified, but I couldn’t fully control my own temper from rising. It snapped out of me in a rush, before I could throttle it back under my control. “I didn’t tell her a damn thing! She figured it out, all by herself. All I did was not lie to her about it!”
“Oh,” Alex said, sparing a fraction of his attention to shoot me a side-eye. “Now, you are against lying? That did not seem to stop you from lying to Sarah, did it?”
It was a low blow, and he knew it as soon as he closed his mouth. I saw that much in his eyes. I clamped down on the surge of emotion his cheap shot stirred, but a few memories slipped through the hastily erected wall. “When did she tell you?” I asked, in a soft voice.
“I knew perhaps a day or two after you two split,” he said. There was less anger in his voice; in its place, there was more sadness and a little of his own nostalgia. “She made no secret of your fight.”
“Why ask me where she was, then? Just to twist the knife?”
“No, of course not. It was…” He hesitated. “I hoped things had changed, between the two of you.”
“Not much chance of that,” I said and then turned to stare sullenly out of the passenger window.
Alex drove on through the night and the air within the car grew thick with unexpressed emotion. I didn’t have to look at him to know where his thoughts were. I had my own memories to get lost in: the first time Sarah and I met, our first job, the bungalow where we’d spent our first night together.
“I cannot talk to my daughter about this,” he said, without preamble or context. The words came out clipped and anxious. “I will not. You should not have spoken to her, either.”
“Even if she hadn’t run into me,” I said, without taking my eyes away from my window, “she would’ve blundered into it some other way. There are people here who know what you used to do, Alex. If you wanted to cover your tracks completely, you should’ve moved away.” He said nothing, so I continued. “What were you hoping? That she’d never grow up? That she’d never have questions?”
He remained silent for a few more seconds. “I told her mother the truth,” he said. “And now she is dead. Because of me and because of the damned job.”
“That’s not because you told her the truth.” I turned to gauge his reaction. His face was statuesque, flat, expressionless. The only indication of his humanity were the two trails of tears that rolled slowly down his cheeks and fell from his chin to the seat. “You know that. What happened was…”
“Inevitable?” Alex chuckled humorlessly. “No. If I had quit before, if I had retired when I met her, then Johannah would not have died.”
“We don’t know why that happened,” I said. I couldn’t bring myself to speak in specifics about that disastrous attempted heist. “But what went down could have happened anywhere.”
“Then, I should not have gotten involved in that life to begin with. That is why I left: so that my daughter would not become an orphan, to make up for my own stupidity so many years ago.”
“So what are you going to do? Keep lying to her?” I asked. “I looked in her eyes. If you try to keep her in the dark about this, she will chase right after you until she finds someone who will tell her. Wouldn’t you rather the truth come from you, instead of some random we used to work with?” I paused. “I know I wish I’d just told the truth.”
“Of course I wish that I could tell her the truth, but…”
“But what if she blames me for what happened to her mother?” He sniffled and the twin tear-tracks increased in speed. He took one hand from the steering wheel to wipe them away. “I could not bear for her to hate me.”
“She’s not going to blame you,” I said immediately.
He turned to meet my eyes, searching my expression for any sign of deception or subterfuge. After ten seconds, satisfied with whatever he found or didn’t find in my bearing, he sighed and shook his head. “How?” He asked.
“How do I tell her about who I used to be?” He elaborated. “Where do I begin?”
I lifted and dropped one shoulder. “Sarah was on the job before I even met her. Didn’t have to come up with the ‘talk,’ honestly. But…I don’t know. Maybe just start with letting her know how much you love her? That, no matter what you used to do, you’re her father now and you’re here for her?”
“Are you what?”
“Am I there for her?” Alex turned into the airport. He found a parking space near the terminal’s entrance in short order. I checked the time on my phone before I relaxed into the seat a little. There was time.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“After Venice, it was…easier. There were leads to follow, people to interrogate. I had a purpose. I wanted to find whoever sent a team to kill us, and I wanted to make them pay. I owed Alexandria as much; I owed Johannah the same.”
“That isn’t what she would have wanted,” I said gently. “I barely knew her, but even I could tell you that much.”
Alex shook his head. “You do not understand. I could not go home again. I could not look at my daughter and know that her mother’s death was because of me. I would rather have spent my life running around the globe than see the eyes of the girl who I made into an orphan.”
A string of poorly planned jobs, tracing back to the moment when Sarah had thrown the wedding ring in my face and slammed the door shut on our lives, appeared in my mind’s eye. “I get that,” I said.
“Even when I decided to retire, I had missed so much of Alexandra’s life. She was raised by friends of Johannah’s and I don’t think I got to know her at all until she was nearly fifteen years old. Even now, she is…she is so much like her mother, Devlin.”
I had noticed that much almost immediately. Ally had her mother’s long black hair; her slight, knowing smile; and, worst of all, she had her mother’s eyes. Looking into the girl’s face had been like facing a ghost.
Alex saw something in my expression. “You see it too, yes? I love her more than words, but everytime I see her, it is like…it is like failing Johannah all over again. Alexandra and I spend almost no time together. She and I are like strangers who happen to live together.”
“How long are you going to rake yourself over the coals, Alex?” He looked up sharply at me. “Seriously. How long? Are you going to risk losing your daughter over something like this?”
He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
“You’ve made mistakes, sure,” I pressed, “but you’ve got a chance to fix some of the damage now. Talk to your daughter. Tell her the truth about her mother, and – “ I paused. “What did you tell her?”
“When she was twelve, I told her that her mother died in an accident.” Alex lowered his eyes. “I asked some of my local associates to falsify the appropriate paperwork. I only wanted…I only wanted to keep her innocent of all this.” He gestured at me, not unkindly. Still, the assessment made me shrink a little.
“She’s her own person now,” I said. “Just like you were your own when you decided to get on the job and just like Johannah was when she decided to come with us.”
“Do you really believe she will find out what happened, regardless of what I do?”
“Even if you could keep it secret from her for the rest of her life, is that really fair to her? Is that really how you want to treat your own child?” I knew my own issues were bleeding into what I said. I continued anyway. “She wants to understand her father, and part of that means getting to know who he was before she was born. And she deserves to know the truth about what happened to Johannah. Otherwise, someone might start paying attention if Ally keeps asking around.”
Alex blinked in confusion.
“If she starts asking around for answers about what you used to do, there’s no telling who she’ll ask. Might be she asks the right question to the wrong person, and…whoever…is still out there.”
It took him another second before understanding dawned in his eyes. It was followed swiftly by naked anger and his fingers tightened once more around the steering wheel. “That person is still out there?” He asked, between clenched teeth. “You and Sarah did not find who it was?”
I shook my head. “The trail was cold before you retired. We were just chasing dead ends at that point. After you got out, she and I spent another year trying to find more to go on, but…” I shrugged.
“What about the people who did the deed? What happened to them?”
“Sarah kept a watch on the shooters that ended up in jail. Two died at the scene, and the other four fell victim to a series of insanely implausible accidents behind bars.”
“Someone would kill their own team? Just to cover their tracks?”
“Sarah had a theory about that, actually.” Shop talk was infinitely preferable to emotional conversations. I felt myself warming to the topic and recalled the countless hours I’d spent with Sarah, poring over documents and files. “While she worked on following leads, I ran down some contacts in Russia. No one there had heard anything about a hit on us. Vlad – that safecracker from the Beijing job – tried for a month to find out who gave the order.”
“And nothing. So we tried to think about it a different way. It took us a day or two, working from different ends, to scare up some local talent in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a few other cities. Turns out the market is absolutely flooded with hitters and shooters for cheap.”
Alex’ hands didn’t release the steering wheel, but his expression turned a little more thoughtful. “So, whoever came after us could be…”
“…could be anyone, yeah,” I finished. “And they could be anywhere. The team that came after us in Florence was just the hired help. No loyalty to speak of. If they hadn’t been killed in prison, odds are they would’ve turned on their employer to get a better deal.”
“Someone who can arrange synchronized murders in an Italian prison?” Alex thought for a moment and then turned pale. “That would be someone who could also arrange for prison breaks, no?”
My thoughts snapped into place with an audible click. Someone had been keeping an eye on me for a long time; there was no other explanation for the absurd level of detail that had gone into my prison escape. I’d assumed that their surveillance began after I split ways with Sarah, but that was based off of an unfounded assumption. “You think…?”
“I do not know anymore,” Alex said. He finally relaxed his grip. “But it is not for me to know. I am sorry, Devlin. You are right.”
“Right about…what, exactly? I said a lot of things on the way here.”
He smiled briefly, and it was like the sun coming out. “I made a choice, to leave the job and to be with my daughter. But I have not really left the job and I am not really with my daughter, at all. Perhaps it really is time to tell her…what happened.”
“I think that’s the best move, really,” I said. “Who knows? She might be the next you.”
Alex’ smile widened. “I will lock her up myself to keep that from happening.” He noticed the time. “It is nearly time for your flight, no?”
“Getting there, yeah. Thanks for your help here, Alex.”
He waved the sentiment away. “Is there anything else that you need me to do?”
“Be safe,” I said immediately.
“Yes, of course,” Alex said. “What else?”
I thought. “Is this phone international?”
“Julia uses it to call her parents back in the United States, so…” He stopped. “Keep it. I can afford to get her another one.”
“You don’t mind?”
The look he gave me spoke volumes. “You will need money, as well.” Before I could say anything to the contrary, Alex removed his wallet. He opened the bill folder and took a thick sheaf of notes out. “Here. You have been to Ukraine before?”
“Once,” I said. “But I didn’t get there aboveboard.”
“There are a few places there that will accept Euros, but not many. You will need to exchange this for the local currency, either when you land or at a hotel.” He forced the Euros into my hand. “I would think that a hotel would be best, but it is up to you.”
“Do you have any contacts in Kiev?” I asked. “If Asher’s running from someone, I’m going to need a guide around town and someone to vouch for me.”
Alex tapped one meaty finger to his lips. “I believe I know someone,” he said finally. “I can arrange for them to meet you at the airport. More discreetly than I met you here, of course.”
“Thanks for that.” I opened the car door. I checked my pockets for the passport and my tickets. Both were where I’d left them. “Alex? I hope things work out with Ally.”
“So do I, my friend. Be safe, Devlin.” His eyebrows drew closer together. “If it is not too late for me to fix things, perhaps it is not too late for you to do the same.”
I considered that and then shook my head. “Coming back from a lie like that is catching a unicorn, Alex. You got yours; we can’t all get one, though.” I checked the time again. A plane roared overhead, easing to a stop on a runway behind the building. “That’s my ride.” I started to get out of the car.
I froze, one foot halfway to the ground. “What?”
“Promise me,” Alex said. “Promise me that you will at least try to talk to Sarah.”
“As soon as I finish dealing with this.” It wasn’t a lie, but I wasn’t quite sure if it was the truth, either. I sped into the terminal, too far away to hear Alex, before he had a chance to call me on it.