Chapter 29

I met Michel in the hotel lobby, a little after nine the following morning.  I folded a newspaper in half and used it to conceal my face from any possible cameras outside while Michel hurried to open the rear passenger door for me.  “Alright,” I said, settling into my seat, “about this suit…”

My voice dwindled away as I turned to face Sarah.  She’d changed from what she’d worn on the flight into something more appropriate for suit shopping: a forest-green dress, presumably cut from something thick enough to keep her warm, and a pair of black stockings which led down to her black closed-toe shoes.  A dark blue overcoat finished off the ensemble.  Her legs were crossed so that the toes of one foot brushed against my calf.  She noticed the contact at the same moment I did, and moved slightly to break the connection.

Sarah bit down on her bottom lip at my open amazement.  “Most of the things at the safe house aren’t in season,” she said, by way of explanation.  “And we didn’t really spend a lot of time in England, anyway.  Especially not during the rainy months.”

“Which would be every month?”

She chuckled.  “The cold rainy months.”  She cleared her throat and Michel eased away from the hotel, into traffic.  “Can you take us to Savile Row, please?  Devlin is in need of some new attire.”

“How long do we have?”  I asked.

Sarah produced a tablet and checked its display.  “Twelve hours, give or take, until the red carpet.”

“And how exactly are we getting a suit made in that amount of time?”

“As it turns out,” Sarah said, “your favorite tailor happens to be in town.  If it’s for you, I’m sure she can handle a rush job.”

“That’s going to be expensive.  Can you afford to move that much money around without raising any eyebrows?”

“First, I’m not paying for it.  You are.  I reactivated some of your old accounts, and the shell companies we used to hide transactions, last night.  If Asher already knows you’re in play, there really isn’t reason I should keep them mothballed.”

There were risks there, but she was probably right.  “That’s our timetable for tonight, then?  Twelve hours to get a new suit, so that I can attend this showcase?”  I left out the rest of the sentence, in deference to Michel.  He seemed content in the front of the cab, humming some song to himself, but I still didn’t want to risk letting anything about our true purpose in town slip.

“Sounds about right,” Sarah said.  She winked.  “Exciting, isn’t it?”

“That’s one way of putting it, I guess.”  I nestled even deeper into the uncomfortable backseat and closed my eyes in thought.  The clicks and beeps from Sarah’s tablet let me know that she’d returned to her work.

When I opened my eyes again, we’d reached our destination.  Even if the street sign hadn’t been prominently displayed, I would have known from the sudden increase in class.  Instead of the more casual attire I’d seen near my hotel – tourists, mostly, in featureless coats, caps, and scarves – the people outside of my window now wore knee length overcoats atop sharp suits.  We slowed and passed store fronts filled with a rainbow of colors.

“Sarah?”  Michel asked.  “Which shop is our destination?”

“You can go ahead and stop here, actually,” Sarah said in reply.

Michel obliged, after a brief search for a parking space.  “My day is free,” he said, “so I can return to pick the two of you up from here after you are done with your shopping.”

“No need for that.  Devlin will be the only one getting a suit made today, actually.  But if you could stay here for a minute or two, that’d be great.”  Sarah hoisted a backpack from the floor and exited the car before Michel could agree one way or another.

He looked up into the rearview mirror and met my eyes.  I shrugged in reply.  “Thanks again,” I said.

“It is no problem.”

I smiled and joined Sarah outside.  Our umbrellas kept us hidden from any cameras on the street, but they did nothing to stop the judging eyes of the men and women on the street around us.  Men and women alike milled around the two of us.  Occasionally, one would shoot my attire a critical glance, while Sarah received nods of subtle approval.  I ignored their examinations as best as I could; meanwhile, Sarah seemed to preen a little more with every polite compliment.

“Where is she?”  I asked.

Sarah inclined her head graciously to an older couple before she answered me.  “This way.”

She led me down the street, past two shops with lineages dating back decades, and turned into an alley a little bit away from where Michel was parked.  Even in the early morning light, it was difficult to see too far down the space.  I knew my eyes would eventually adjust, but it wasn’t a long enough walk for that to happen.  We reached a blank, wooden door set into the side of the building after only a dozen seconds.  Sarah knocked twice on the door, paused, and knocked three more times.  Several moments later, someone repeated the signal from the other side of the portal.  The lock clicked open and the door hinges creaked as someone opened it from within.

I was standing directly in the path of the door.  Past experience had taught me to widen my stance in preparation, but I was out of practice.  When Suzanne Taylor speared out of the darkness, the assault still caught me off balance and threatened to topple me over.

“Devlin, you naughty rascal, you!  Where have you been?  I haven’t seen you in quite a bit of time, I haven’t!”

I looked to Sarah for help.  She stepped away, raising her hands so that her palms faced me, and tried to hide the smile on her face.  I turned down to look into Suzie’s mess of tangled brown hair.  “Be happy to tell you the story, Suzie, just as soon as I can breathe again.”

Suzie tightened her embrace for a moment before she released me.  “Oh, of course, of course.  Come on in out of the rain, you poor boy.  And you too, Sarah!  Come on, then!”

She moved enough that Sarah and I could navigate around her into the back room.  When we were all inside, Suzie shut the door and locked it once more.  She managed to find a light switch in the darkness, with an ease that spoke of muscle memory, and light flooded the room.  With my visibility now increased farther than the tips of my fingers, I saw swaths of fabric neatly folded and set out on multiple tables around me.  An ancient sewing machine sat at the head of one of the fabric tables.  Suzie bustled across the room, clearing half-finished shirts from chairs, and brought them over to us.  She planted herself atop one before she spoke again.

“Well, now,” Suzie said, “it’s quite a pleasure seeing the two of you again, isn’t it?  Why, when Sarah sent me a message, I was just overjoyed to be in town when you happen to be need my assistance.”

“Good to see you too,” I said.  “It’s been too long.”

“I was so sorry to hear about your loss,” Sarah added.  “Rufus was a special person and the world’s a worse place for his absence.”

That was news to me.  Suzie’s husband, Rufus, had been sick before I’d gone to jail.  To hear that he’d passed on while I was behind bars bit deep.  “He was the best sort of person,” I said.

“Aye, he was that and more,” Suzie agreed.  A wistful look came into her eyes.  “God rest his soul.”

“How are you doing with that?  Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, no, don’t you worry yourself about me,” Suzie said.  She wiped at the corners of her eyes with her collar.  “Keeping busy helps, and it’s what my Rufus would’ve wanted me to do.  Now, let’s not talk about my troubles; Sarah told me that you’ll be needing a new suit?”

The speed of that subject change gave me mental whiplash.  I blinked, switching my train of thoughts from one track to another, before I replied.  “I’m attending a gala at the museum and none of my other suits are available.”  In all honesty, I didn’t even know at which safe houses I’d left most of my finer clothing.  Sarah probably knew, but the twelve hour timetable ruled all of those out as possibilities.

“And they wouldn’t fit you right anymore,” Suzie said.  She poked at my stomach and I recoiled, a little self-consciously.  “Nothing to be ashamed of, dearie; wouldn’t be right if a man didn’t grow a bit in the midsection as he gets older.  And Sarah, will you be needing a dress, too?”

Sarah shook her head.  “Today’s all about Devlin, I’m afraid.”

Suzie nodded once and her eyes, while still warm with joviality, grew a little sharper.  “Now, will this gala be for your own enjoyment and will it be a work outing?”

She knew, of course.  While Rufus and Suzie lived their lives on the right side of the law, neither had ever possessed any illusions about the nature of their clientele.  “Business,” I said.

“Ah.  And when will you be needing this suit by?”

“Tonight, if possible.”

Suzie whistled, long and low.  “That’s going to be a wee bit of a problem, isn’t it?  It’d take me at least a whole day to make anything worthwhile.”

Sarah cleared her throat.  “What’s it going to cost to get him into a suit tonight?”

Suzie pursed her lips and tapped them in thought.  “I’ve still got the old measurements from back in the day, which would count down a bit on time.  There are other customers ahead of you in line, though.”

“Liar.  If you had any other customers, you wouldn’t even have replied to my message,” Sarah said.  “But if you can’t handle the deadline, I’m sure your competitors would be happy to take the money.”

“Sweetie, I have no other competitors.  Unless you’re talking about those tailors up the street that turn out suits for the local tourists.  Quality costs, my dear.”  Suzie narrowed her eyes.  “Ten thousand, and I can have it done by seven.”

Ten thousand?”  Sarah and I asked, in unison.  Sarah continued speaking, while I recounted the payouts from my last successful jobs in my head.  “A bespoke suit runs for four, maybe five thousand.  Doubling that cost is ridiculous and you know it.  Six thousand, five hundred.”

“Eight thousand,” Suzie countered.  “And if that’s too much for you love, we might have to simply settle for catching up on old times.”

“Seven thousand.”

Suzie smiled.  Sarah did the same.  Both women’s eyes were steely, in complete contradiction to the warm expressions on their faces.  “Well, you are friends of the family.  So, we’ll say seven thousand, five hundred and call it even?”

Sarah considered the price tag – as though the money would be coming from her accounts – and nodded.  “Seventy-five hundred, then.”

Suzie shook Sarah’s offered hand.  “It’s always a pleasure doing business with you.”

“Devlin can pay you after the work’s delivered,” Sarah said.  “Sound fair?”

“Delivered?”  Suzie repeated.  If you want a suit by tonight, I’m going to need to work on him right here, actually in the shop until everything gets fitted just right.”

I raised my hand.  “Do I get a say in this?”  No one paid me any attention.

“That’s fair,” Sarah said to Suzie.  “I’ll leave him with you, then.”

“I do have my own opinions about things,” I pointed out to no one in particular.

Sarah turned back to me.  “This is for you.”  She placed the backpack on a clear space, between two piles of colored fabric.  “Just leave it alone until Suzie’s finished, though.”  She pivoted on her heel and was gone before I could reply.

Suzie watched my ex-wife go and then spun on me.  “Well?  What’re you waiting for?  Strip!”

I did exactly that.  Suzie poked and prodded at me for hours, and I endured the inspection with as much grace as I could imagine.  She and her husband were quite simply the best tailors I’d ever met or worked with.  If a small amount of discomfort – in addition to seventy-five hundred dollars – was the price I had to pay for work at her caliber, I was willing to do exactly that.

At some point in the process, after I’d lost track of the passage of time, Suzie paused.  “Devlin?  You never answered my question earlier; where have you been for so long?”

I waited until she removed a tape measure from my inner thigh before I answered.  “Prison.  A job I was working went sideways and I ended up serving almost three years behind bars.”  My teeth ground together, seemingly of their own accord.

Suzie gasped.  “But you’ve always been so careful about your work.”

“The fact that things went badly had very little to do with me,” I said in a soft voice.

Suzie picked up two bolts of fabric from a nearby table.  One was a deep, rich crimson; the other was a lighter, almost bubble-gum shade of pink.  She raised both to her eyes, sucked her teeth, and returned the crimson fabric to the table.  “Who was it, then?”

“Suzie, listen, it’s…”

“Who was it?”  Her tone was a touch sharper now.  “You are one of my very favorite customers and anyone could do that to you isn’t anyone that I want to work with anymore.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “That’s all you’re going to do?  Refuse to make suits for whoever it is?”

“That’s all that I’ll do.  I’m just a wee little seamstress.  But I can’t help what some of my other customers might do, in exchange for a little discount here and there.”  Suzie gave me a beatific smile.  “That would be entirely out of my control, wouldn’t it?”

There were possibilities there.  Suzie’s broad network of scoundrels and rogues would inevitably intersect with Asher’s.  A distraction at a critical moment could prove invaluable.  “I’ll tell you,” I said, finally, “but you’ve got to promise to be discreet.”

“I am the very soul of discretion.”

“I’m serious here, Suzie.  If things go badly here, I don’t want any of this to blow back on you.”

“Badly?”  She folded the pink bolt of fabric over her arm.  “What are you on about?”

I sighed and told her the story while she worked.  It took me longer to cover all of the salient details, while still being careful to omit any mention of the Magi than expected; by the time I finished talking, Suzie was almost done with her tinkering.  “It’s a bloody shame,” she said, “you two boys going to war with each other.  You were thick as thieves, if I remember correctly.”

“He left me to rot in prison for three years.  Things change.”

“Fair enough, I suppose.  But…hmm.”  She pursed her lips and considered my appearance.  “Wait there.”  Suzie strode across the room and out of sight, through a barely visible door.  She was gone for a full minute and, when she returned, a vest was draped over her arms.

“Three pieces?”  I asked.  “Really?”

“It’s civilized,” she said.  “And the vest really helps with the whole visual.  Now, put this on.”

Her tone brooked no argument.  I added the vest to my ensemble.

Good,” she said, emphasizing the syllable with a decisive nod.  “Now, step down from there and tell me what you think.”

I stepped down and examined myself in the mirror.  It had been a very long time since I’d needed something made with as much care, though, and wearing it felt more right than anything I’d done since leaving prison.  The suit was cut from a high quality blend of cashmere and wool, cut so that it hugged my torso without suffocating me.  My pink silk tie was the only article that wasn’t specifically created for me, but it matched perfectly with the thin pink highlights that outlined my suit coat and the equally dazzling shade of bubble-gum that comprised my lining.  And, I had to admit, the vest did add a certain elegance to the outfit.

While I’d put on a little weight in prison, my feet were the same size as they’d been during our last appointment.  Suzie handed me a pair of black Oxfords with raised insoles while I admired her work.  “Can’t have you ruining my work with a pair of factory made shoes, now?”  She asked.  I smiled and accepted the gift without comment.

I turned and examined myself from a different angle.  “Can I be honest here?”

“If you say you doubted me,” Suzie said, “I’ll be tempted to double the price on principle.”

“Well, then, I won’t say that, then.  But this is incredible.”

“Good work is its own reward, dearie.”  She paused.  “Money is always nice, though.”

I laughed, still marveling at my own reflection.  Seventy-five hundred dollars was a high price tag for a suit, even a bespoke one; for one of Suzie’s masterpieces, it was a bargain.  “I’ll have the money transferred, as soon as I get back to a computer.”

“No rush.”  She bustled across the room and began to tidy up the scraps of fabric that had fallen to the floor.  “I’ll be leaving town tonight or tomorrow, traffic depending, and I won’t be able to check any accounts until I’m back in Wales.  Just see to it that the payment does arrive, yeah?”

“Absolutely.”  I slipped my cell phone into one of the interior jacket pockets, straightened my double Windsor knot, and nodded once more.  “I might throw in a little extra, for the speedy work.  I assume you won’t mind?”

“If it’s for the suit, that’s always an absolutely lovely thing to do,” she said.  “If it’s for the shoes, though, I’ll be offended that you couldn’t take a gift for what it was.”

“I was thinking a thousand extra for the rush job.  This can’t have been easy.”

“I won’t take a dollar over five hundred,” she countered.  “It was good to see you again, and I was worried about you.  Plus, I rarely get the chance to try anything fun anymore.”

“Five hundred, then,” I said, quietly deciding that I would tip at least seven hundred and fifty dollars.  Her largesse was a kindness, but good work deserved good pay.  If she really didn’t want the money, she could always return it at a later date.

“You’re off to the Museum of London now, then?”

“That’s the plan.  Just doing a walk-through tonight.”

Suzie raised a questioning eyebrow.  I reminded myself that while Suzie often worked with the criminal element, she wasn’t a thief herself.

“Just checking out the security,” I explained.  “Identifying where the cameras are, counting guards, that sort of thing.  That’s why Sarah didn’t need a dress, too.  She doesn’t really do that sort of thing, if she can help it.”

“A lot like Asher in that way, isn’t she?”

I’d considered the similarities between the two, privately, and I nodded at the suggestion.  “A little.”

“Ah.  Well, then, you be safe.  Don’t get into any trouble, okay?  It’d be a shame if we had to go another three years between appointments.”

“I’m always safe.”  I turned away from the mirror to face her.  “Didn’t you know?”

Suzie stuck her tongue out at me.  “Don’t forget that pack Sarah left for you,” she said.

I actually had forgotten about it.  The pack was within arm’s reach of where I stood.  I pulled it over to me and peered into its depths.  Inside, there was a small earbud, a golden tie bar, and a pair of monogrammed cufflinks.  I smiled and attached the cufflinks first.  The letters matched the pseudonym she’d selected for the two of us, back in America.  I slipped the tie bar into place and, with those two things handled, slipped the small earbud into my ear.  I felt around for an instant for the miniscule button that turned the device on.  It beeped twice to let me know I’d at least managed to properly activate the earbud.

“Devlin?”  Sarah’s voice came over the comms, as clear as it ever had been.

“I’m here,” I said.  “What’s with the toy chest?”

“I picked up some new toys in San Francisco,” she said.  “I thought they might turn out to be useful, so I grabbed some things before we left.  First up: bone conduction earbuds.  Small enough to fit in your ear, and your voice is carried through the little bones in your skull.  If you’re whispering, the equipment still picks up the vibrations.”

“I thought you were out of the game,” I whispered, just to test.  “Why keep up with this sort of technology?”

“Just because I wasn’t stealing things, that doesn’t mean I lost interest in these wonderful toys,” she said.  There was genuine glee in her voice, and that excitement put a smile on my own face.  “Next up: those cufflinks have built-in GPS trackers.  I can keep an eye on your general location, so long as you’re wearing those.”

“And the tie bar?”

“Mini-camera, so that I can follow along with what you see.  Until I can get into the Museum’s security system, I won’t be able to keep an eye on your movements.”

“Well, I’m all kitted out then, aren’t I?”

She was quiet for a moment.  “I’m not going to send you in there just to get picked off because you didn’t have the right gear.  There are some calibrations I’ll need you to do when you get to the gala.  I’m thinking you should get there a little early, see if you can find a computer so I can shortcut my way past their firewall.  Michel should be on the way to pick you up right now.”

“Alright, then.  I’ll check back in when I’m in position.”

The communications line beeped twice and Sarah’s voice was gone.   Suzie stopped in the process of cleaning.  “That’d be your cue to leave, then?”  She asked.

“Indeed, it is.  I’ll see you around, Suzie?”

“Sooner rather than later, I hope.”  I started to leave.  I made it two steps away before Suzie wrapped her arms around me, from behind.  The hug was unexpected, but I accepted her warmth without complaint.  She released me after a few seconds.  “Go on, then.  Handle your business.”

It had the distinct feeling of a benediction, rather than a farewell.  I took it as such and bowed my head for a moment.  When I looked back up, Suzie had returned to her clean-up, so I left the back room and started the process of getting myself in the right headspace for the work I hadn’t done in so many years.

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