It was raining in London, to the surprise of absolutely no one. After we disembarked, Sarah and I purchased two umbrellas with a little bit of US currency she had with her. Sarah picked a blue and white striped one, which matched the lettering on her t-shirt and the coloring of her light jacket. I selected a plain black one.
“All things considered,” she said, “this weather is probably a good thing.”
“Oh? Care to explain why that is?”
“Cameras.” I followed her gesture to one of several cameras inside the terminal. “The CCTV network here is ridiculous. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of individual cameras keeping track of…well, everything.”
“And this is where we think Asher is? Nothing like an elevated chance of arrest and imprisonment, when we’re already worried about outright assassination attempts.”
“The feeds don’t actually help the police all that much, since there’s too much information for someone to actually sort through. Crime happens all the time; if they started cracking down on everything – even if they were capable of it – people would just start vandalizing the cameras whenever they saw one.”
“But that’s not going a problem for someone looking for the two of us, specifically,” I said.
Sarah nodded. “Probably not. What I’d do is focus on the feeds from bus stations, airports, and ferries. If I was lucky, I could catch you right when you got into the country, and just track you from there.” She chuckled. “In fact, that’s pretty much what I did do.”
“I count it as a small miracle that they don’t know we’re coming, then.”
The rest of that thought rang clear in the pregnant silence. When our enemies became aware of our plan, the bulk of their attention would fall on me. Sarah would be removed from the field; her assistance worked best with several degrees of separation from any ongoing jobs. That was the best possible version of events, actually. Asher’s desire to hurt her only existed as a necessary step in his revenge scheme against me. “How do you want to play this after we get out of the public eye?”
“I’ve got a nice hotel room set up for you under a newly formed LLC. I stayed there a few times with my family, so their system has been thoroughly subjugated. As long as you head to the room and don’t make a fuss, I should be able to spoof any cameras you appear on.”
“And where will you be?”
She continued forward, careful to keep her face angled away from each camera she passed. “You remember that high rise we used on the Fisher Job?”
I searched my memory. When the appropriate image clicked into place, my jaw dropped open. “But I love that one!”
“So do I,” Sarah said. “But there’s only the one bedroom, and I need the space for my equipment. It’s already linked into enough local networks for a museum job.” She turned slightly to look at my crestfallen expression. “You didn’t think we’d be sharing a room again, did you?”
I ground my teeth together to keep a sharp retort from my lips. “It’s probably for the best, anyway.”
“Glad to see you’re so forward-thinking.” Sarah’s voice vibrated with scarcely-restrained laughter. Part of me smoldered at the exile she’d sentenced me to; another part, far larger than the first, longed to hear that laugh out loud.
We stopped again at a pre-paid cell phone stand, just in front of the exit. Sarah waited patiently for a willowy redhead in front of us to select a basic flip phone from the offerings; when Sarah’s turn came, she bought two mid-range smartphones and gave one to me. I slid it into my jacket pocket, which bulged with the new device and the two I’d acquired in Munich and Kiev, respectively.
Outside of the airport, I saw a familiar face. Michel waited there, smoking a cigarette against the front passenger door of his car. I froze for an instant, spun, and pushed Sarah back through the doors. “What are you – ?”
I shushed her. The abruptness worked and surprised her into silence. “Why is he here?” I muttered to myself.
“Why is who here?”
I leaned out of cover long enough to catch another quick peek. “It’s the driver who picked me up in Paris, right after someone delivered Asher’s whereabouts to me on a platter.”
Sarah peeked out, as well. “From France? That’s…”
“Impossible?” I suggested. “Unlikely?”
“I was going to go with ‘highly improbable.’ Why would a French cab driver be in London?”
“That does seem to be the question.”
“Do you think he’s following us?”
The driver, Michel St. Laurent, was halfway through his cigarette. His cap was pulled low over his eyes and his head was pointed away from the airport proper. Nothing in his body language suggested that he was doing anything other than what he appeared to be doing. “I…don’t think so, no. But this is weird, right?”
“I think we’ve left weird a fair bit behind us,” Sarah said. “What do you want to do?”
I started to respond, but Michel took that choice away from me. He flicked the rest of his cigarette away, pushed away from his car’s hood and started toward the entrance. I tried to move before he could lay eyes on me, but the crowds of travelers chose that exact moment to part. My eyes met his and his expression lit up with recognition. “Guess we’ll play this by ear,” I murmured as Michel doubled his speed to the two of us.
“Monsieur Devlin!” Michel wrapped me in a fierce bear hug and kissed both of my cheeks. I’d feared something a little more violent than the effusive greeting and I was nonplussed for a few precious seconds. “What a coincidence it is to see you here! How have things been, my friend?”
“It’s, uh, been kind of a rough week,” I said. “Probably going to get worse before it gets better, I think. What are you doing here?”
He removed a ticket from his jacket pocket and waved it in the air in front of his face. “I felt that it was time for a vacation,” he said, “and I have always enjoyed London.”
Sarah stepped closer and whispered directly into my ear. Her voice sent a wave of chills down my spine. “Coincidence?”
Michel noticed Sarah’s presence, seemingly for the first time. I watched as he slipped into the consummate Frenchman role: suave, sophisticated, and charming. “And you would be, Madame?”
“Mademoiselle,” she corrected, automatically. She looked at me, and I nodded. Her unspoken request for confirmation was odd, but far from the most important question at the moment.
“Mais oui,” Michel said, “Mademoiselle, then.”
I cleared my throat with a little more force than strictly necessary. “Well. My…friend and I have to be going,” I said. “It was a pleasure seeing you again, of course.”
“Of course,” Michel agreed, smiling. “But, if you are going to need a cab, why would you not simply ask me to assist you? For no charge, seeing as we are friends, after a fashion.”
“You’re just going to drive us around London, for free, without even knowing what we’re doing?” Sarah asked. She made no effort to keep the suspicion from her tone.
“I enjoy driving,” Michel replied. “Besides, it would be difficult to find a taxi in this weather. Unless there is some reason why you would prefer some other driver?” He looked wounded at the idea. Michel’s emotions so easily read that it almost felt like cheating…unless, of course, that was what he wanted me to think. I’d only had my feet on British soil for a few dozen minutes and I was already seeing enemies around every corner.
Sarah looked past Michel into the rain and sighed. “He’s right. Every cab that pulls up is gone in seconds. Plus, there’s the matter of my card…”
Our cards. The subtext was clear: free transport was better than using one of the new accounts, and she’d used the last of her paper money for our umbrellas.
“It is up to you, of course,” Michel said. A little enthusiasm had gone out of him, but he maintained a cheerful expression. “But I did promise our mutual friend that I would help you, if I could do so.”
Deliberately or not, Michel had played the right card. II still trusted Patrick. There was a growing list of reasons why I shouldn’t trust anybody, but I refused to let myself be overcome by paranoia. I’d already gone through the doubt and second-guessing, when I’d first met Michel, and decided to trust him an ally.
Patrick wouldn’t have sent help, if he didn’t trust that help himself. At least, that’s what I told myself. Michel was still looking at me, expectantly. I nodded once. “Alright, sure. We shouldn’t need your help for too long, but anything’s better than trying to catch a cab in the rain, right?”
I could feel Sarah’s eyes on the back of my neck. “You’re sure?” Her voice was so low that I could barely feel its whispers against my skin. I turned slightly, so that one of my hands was hidden from Michel’s eyes and gave her the ‘okay’ signal. She sighed, releasing a hot wave of air that raised hairs in more places than the breath actually touched. “If you say so.”
“Bon!” Michel exclaimed. His eyes swept across the ground. “You do not have any luggage with you?”
“No,” Sarah said, “we’ve already got some things here. What about you? You’ve already got your own stuff loaded in the cab?”
“Mais oui, mademoiselle,” he answered. “I am ready to go, whenever you are. I am at your service.” He reached out for her hand and she reluctantly gave it to him. He laid a delicate kiss on the backs of her fingers.
Sarah kept a straight face. “So, you met Devlin back in Paris, correct?”
“Hmm. Well, I guess you should get the car started?” Her voice went up, as though it were a question, but every line of her body language made clear that her sentence was a command.
Michel blinked and nodded. “I will be waiting outside, then.” He left the airport and I watched him hurry through the milling crowds back to his cab.
When he was gone, she stepped forward next to me. I turned reflexively to face her and found her eyes boring into mine. “You trust him? With what we’re getting into?”
“I don’t really know him,” I admitted. “But I do trust that mutual friend he mentioned.”
“How’d you meet this ‘mutual friend,’ then?”
Sarah’s mouth opened, hung like that without any escaping sound, and closed slowly. I felt a swell of appreciation for her discretion. She hadn’t asked me about my time in La Santé yet and, while I was sure that I’d eventually have to tell her what happened, this wasn’t the time.
Sarah sighed. “Fine. But I don’t know this mutual friend, and I don’t know Michel. I’ll have my sources run a check on him when I’m all set up. Just in case.”
I felt vaguely offended. I’d vouched for Michel, as Patrick had done first, but I decided again to keep my mouth shut. If Sarah didn’t trust me, it wasn’t as though I could reasonably blame her. “Fair enough,” I said, instead. “So? What do we do now?”
“We need a plan.”
“Yes, we do.” She settled into her seat and ran a hand through her wild hair. “Got any ideas?”
“I’m going to need a chance to scout the museum,” I said. “I haven’t been in there in a long while. No telling what new security measures they’ve got in place. We’ve got…what, two weeks before the crown moves?”
“About that long. Why, what’re you thinking?”
“Just trying to put myself in Asher’s head,” I answered, ignoring the shiver that ran through me at that proposition.
Sarah stood silent for a few seconds, chewing absently on a fingernail. “I’ll play devil’s advocate here. Maybe that’ll help.”
I shrugged. “It’s worth a shot.”
“Alright, then. What would you normally do, if Asher wasn’t a factor?”
“If I were working without opposition, I’d take my time to scout the place. Maybe try to turn one of the guards to help the entry and exit, collect information on the layout…you know, the usual.”
“Ah,” Sarah said, raising a finger. “Asher has had all that time. We’ve got no way of knowing how long this job’s been scheduled for him.”
“It can’t be that long. The crown just got there fairly recently. Any measures they’ve got in place are going to be relatively new.”
She lowered the finger. “Good point. Go on.”
“If I were working alone, I’d have to contact the local element for supplementary skills. But if you were my partner, in this hypothetical job, I’d just have to get you looped into the internal network. Then you could handle most of the electronic stuff without it becoming a huge issue.”
“Does Asher have access to someone who can do what I do?”
“No one can do what you do.” I said it without thinking. Sarah didn’t react negatively to the flattery, though, and she didn’t say anything about it, so I kept going before the brief pause grew too awkward. “But, no, I don’t think so. He had some basic stuff in Kiev – webcams and motion sensors – but nothing really high tech.”
“Still. We shouldn’t assume that he can’t just hire someone.”
The likelihood of anyone approaching Sarah’s skill level was so minute that it barely warranted consideration, but her advice was good in a general sense. “For the purposes of this thought experiment, sure. He can keep his crew small – just him and his hacker – so that he can get in and out with a minimum of fuss.” I paused, as a thought occurred to me.
“What is it?”
“Asher doesn’t do ground level jobs,” I said. “He’s never done that, if he can help it. He’s a lot like you.”
Sarah arched an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Not in a bad way,” I said quickly. “But neither one of you likes to actually be in the thick of it. If he could find any way at all to stay somewhere safe while he organizes things, he’ll take it.”
“So, what does that tell us?”
I chewed over that new consideration. “He’ll want a perch,” I said finally. “Somewhere near the Museum, so that he can call audibles as the job develops.”
Sarah gave me a blank look.
“Change the plan,” I explained, with a dramatic sigh. Sarah took a perverse pride in having absolutely no knowledge of athletic references. “Three plus years, and you still haven’t learned a thing about your country’s sport?”
“I prefer chess,” she said. “And, in three years, have you managed to pick up any other languages beside English? Maybe the one you should know, considering your parents? Or French, seeing as you were a guest of their largesse for all that time?”
My jaw snapped with an audible click. That…was a fair point.
“Anyway,” Sarah said, “you mentioned something about a perch?”
“That’s not the really important bit,” I said. “We don’t have the manpower to search every possible location he could be working out of. What it does mean is that Asher would absolutely have to work with the locals. Or bring his own team in from parts unknown. Either way, it means we’ve got time. He can’t have made a plan already, and he won’t work it alone if there’s any possible way to avoid it.”
“And you’re sure about that?”
“Absolutely.” She narrowed her eyes. “I’m serious. Absolutely sure that he won’t do this without a team; I’d bet my life on it.”
“You’re betting my life on it, too,” she said. But her expression lightened enough that I knew she believed me. “How much time do you think we’ll have before he makes his move?”
“His plans were normally incredibly complicated. Traps, and blind alleys, and double agents. Spy games, basically.” I did a few quick calculations in my head. “Without seeing the setup of the museum, I’d guess it would take him maybe a week to get everything in position, regardless of the resources he can bring to bear.”
“Then we’ll cut that in half, and assume we’ve only got three, maybe four days,” Sarah said. “Better we make our own move before he gets in place. Then we don’t have to worry about his plans; by the time he puts his pieces into motion, we’ll already have the crown.”
“That’s a good plan and all, but I still need to do a walk-through, at least.”
“I’m working on that,” she said. “There’s got to be some kind of showing for the crown. I’ll put some feelers out in the community and see what I can find out.”
“And until then? What should I do while you’re waiting for invitations and the like?”
“I don’t know. Take a shower, maybe?”
I blinked and fell silent for a long time. “That wasn’t entirely called for,” I said finally.
“Oh, Devlin; it’s called for.”
With great effort, I managed to maintain an otherwise straight face as I sniffed at the air. Instantly, my nose wrinkled. “The last few days have been…kind of a blur.”
“Mmmhmm.” Sarah looked supremely unimpressed at the explanation.
Michel honked the car horn, scattering a few Brits away from his vehicle, and flashed his lights. “What do you want to do about him?”
“For now, we use him for a ride. I’ll see if any of our getaway drivers can get into London without raising suspicion but, until then, we need transportation.”
“He could be useful,” I said. “It would save us the time of having to bring in someone else and hoping that they aren’t plants.”
“I’m not sure that he isn’t a plant,” Sarah pointed out. “We leave him out of this until I get my background checks back. Agreed?”
I gave a reluctant nod. Sarah returned the gesture, in a curt motion, and left the airport without any further discussion. I followed in her wake.
The vehicle hummed to life and Michel pulled us out into traffic. “Where am I taking you?” He asked.
Sarah pulled up a map on her tablet. “You know the city?”
“As well as anyone can, mademoiselle. I spent several years here, with my uncle.”
“Just Sarah will be fine,” she said. “And we’re headed to Gomersal Park, on Moor Lane?”
Michel kept his eyes on the road and nodded his assent. We rode in silence through the London city streets, the heavy absence of sound punctuated only by Sarah’s fingers flying across her keyboard.
We reached my stop before too long: an extravagant hotel surrounded by green space and open air. A valet waited at the front of the building for the car to stop. Michel parked the car and exited, lighting up another cigarette as soon as he was in the open air.
“I’ve got my work laid out,” Sarah murmured to me under her breath. “What’re you going to do?”
“I can probably get a few locals to fall in line, if I need to. We could use them for distractions or false flags, maybe.”
She tilted her head. “Elaborate, please?”
I lowered my voice, just in case Michel was eavesdropping. His attention appeared to be fixed on an attractive young woman entering the hotel, though. “If Asher finds out that you skipped town – and he will, just as soon as he gets around to ordering a hit on your condo in San Francisco – then he’ll have to assume his entire plan is compromised. It isn’t, obviously, but he wouldn’t want to risk that we knew too much. We can force that change if we send some people on a blind run at the museum.”
“If we do that, any recon we manage will be useless. They’ll just change the protocols.”
“I didn’t say it was a good plan. Just that it was an option.”
Sarah sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “See what you can pull together on short notice, but don’t actually make any promises or hire anybody, okay? You’re right; it’s better that we have that option in case we need it, rather than needing it and not having it.”
“Always be prepared?” I smiled, without meaning to. “Somebody’s Girl Scout training is showing itself.”
“Two months, Devlin. It was two months. Are you ever going to let that go?”
“I will let that go,” I said solemnly, “exactly as soon as it stops being funny.” The call and response was familiar. I had more lines to speak, but they wouldn’t fit into the new dynamic of our relationship, so I lapsed into silence.
The valet, a fresh-faced British boy with a messy crop of brown hair, stepped up to my side of the car. I rolled the window down. “Good morning, sir,” the valet said. “If I could assist with your bags?”
“No bags,” I said back, as I got out of the car. I turned back to Sarah. “And I will see you later in the day…?” I trailed off. She had handed me my passport mere seconds before I’d needed to use it, back in America, and I had simply forgotten to look at it in the time since. Clearly, I was out of practice, and I’d chosen a terrible time for my relative atrophy to kick in.
“Of course, Hubert,” Sarah said. “I simply must finish with my duties for the day first, though.” I marveled at two things. She had effortlessly switched to an upper class British accent, without blinking an eye. And, without giving away the information, she’d let me know which names we were using during our time in London.
The accompanying name to the Hubert identity came quickly to the forefront of my mind. “I look forward to seeing you soon, then, Janice,” I said, in a mimicry of Sarah’s upper class affectations.
The valet watched the exchange without speaking. He stepped away from the car, closer to his stand, and waited there patiently for another car to approach.
Michel’s eyebrows were elevated, almost to his scalp line. Of course he’d heard the fake names. That probably wouldn’t surprise him, though; after all, he at least knew that I hadn’t wanted anyone in Paris to know about me. “Ah, Monsieur…Hubert,” Michel said in a low voice. “That is…quite the woman, no?”
I kept myself from looking at Sarah and maintained a vocal volume that, I hoped, would keep my ex-wife from hearing me. “Trust me. I am well aware.”
Sarah sat up and looked through the window at both of us. “Michel? There are engagements that require my attention.” Now that she was in character, every line of her body radiated imperiousness.
“Of course,” he answered. He gave me an unreadable look, and then walked back to the driver’s door. Just before he opened it, he looked over the top of the car. “Quite a woman.”
He shifted the car back into drive and pulled away from the hotel, leaving me standing in front of the building alone. Three separate phones rested in my pockets, along with a filled wallet and fake paperwork. I checked their locations separately, looked wistfully at the taxi as it retreated into the distance, and then sighed. I turned and walked into the hotel, plans already beginning to take root in my mind.