With traffic, and a bad string of red lights, it took Michel nearly twenty-five minutes to navigate from Suzanne’s impromptu shop on Savile Row to the Barbican estate. Large white letters of a black, curved wall marked the Museum of London as we drew nearer. Valets and organizers were already buzzing around like ants, hard at work preparing the building. Streamers, in a wide menagerie of colors, hung from end of the building’s entrance way to the other, while brass poles and velvet ropes were carried out from some room within the museum’s innards. A mass of tourists and the occasional British family were making their way out of the building. Most of the people paused briefly to gape at the growing spectacle. Michel’s cab drew little notice as he found a spot near the building to stop the car.
“Before I forget,” he said, “Sarah said that she found something you might like to have.” He reached over into the passenger seat, felt around for a moment, and then held a leather wrapped bundle back for me to take.
I lifted an eyebrow before I accepted the parcel and unwrapped it. Inside, I found a complete set of aged brass lockpicking tools. “I remember these! These were my first lockpicks,” I said aloud.
I’d meant my sentence for Sarah but, in my excitement, I forgot that I was still in Michel’s car. My jaw clamped shut, but it was too late. Michel turned fully around from the driver’s seat to look at me. “Why would you have a set of lockpicks at all, hmm?”
“They’re sentimental,” I covered quickly. “Something my father left me before he disappeared.” I was becoming talented at telling the literal truth, as of late, without actually saying anything of meaning.
“Ah,” Michel said. His tone made it clear that he didn’t believe me. “Devlin. Whatever you and Sarah are truly in London for…is this a thing that I should be worried about?”
“Should you be worried?” I repeated. “Not at all.”
“No, no, you misunderstand, mon ami. I am offering my assistance.”
I raised an eyebrow and started to respond, but Sarah’s voice cut into my earbud before I could form a single syllable. “What’s happening, Devlin? What are you two talking about? I can only hear your side of the conversation.”
I obviously couldn’t answer her, without revealing that I was wearing an earbud. I picked my words carefully, hoping to convey as much meaning to Sarah as I could. “I appreciate the sentiment, Michel, but why? Assuming that you’re right, and that I may be in town for something a little risky, you aren’t involved. Patrick only wanted you to help me out a little bit, back in Paris. You driving Sarah and me around for the past day is already more than I have a right to ask you for.”
“You do not have to ask,” Michel protested. “That is my point. If you are a friend of Patrick’s, then you are a friend of mine. If you are like family to him, then you are like family to me. What sort of person would let their family go into danger alone, if they could help?”
I sized up Michel, for the third time in less than a week. I still didn’t know much about him, except that he’d been helpful on two separate occasions, exactly when I’d needed the assistance. There was a slight charm to his mannerisms that was equally off-putting and endearing, but I couldn’t be sure how much of that attitude was simply an affectation. My instincts told me that he was trustworthy enough for the sort of work we’d used him for, thus far, but pulling him entirely into the fold was a different matter altogether.
“Listen,” I said. “Let’s just say, for right now, that there are things I can’t tell you. Maybe after I get back from this gala, I can tell you a little bit more. I just can’t deal with that right now, okay?”
Sarah cleared her throat deliberately. “Devlin,” she said into my ear, “what exactly are you promising him?”
“If you insist,” Michel said. “Sarah has my phone number. I assume that one of you will call me when you are finished here?” A measureable amount of warmth was gone from his voice. It was replaced, not with anger or disappointment, but with something that sounded remarkably like sadness.
“One of us will be in contact, yeah.” I opened the car door and stepped outside. I took two steps towards the museum, paused, and turned back around. Michel rolled down the passenger window with an unspoken question written on his features. “Try not to draw too much attention, if you can manage that,” I said. I didn’t know why the words came to my lips. A foreign car would stand out slightly on the streets, but not enough that it would warrant more than a second glance. My intuition told me that it was an important warning to give, however, and I had long since learned to trust my intuition.
Michel tilted his head at the odd request, but nodded his assent. “Okay, Devlin. I will see you later tonight, then.” He rolled up the passenger window and pulled away.
When he was gone, I turned my back to the museum and spoke directly to Sarah. “Either we’re going to have to let him know what’s going on,” I said, “or we’ll have to find another method of transportation while we’re here.”
“I didn’t want to use him as transportation in the first place,” she pointed out. “You’re the one who insisted he could be trusted, because of your ‘mutual friend.’ I only went along with it.”
“True. But we do need allies. What do you think of him?”
Sarah was quiet for a few moments. “I think he’s keeping secrets,” she said finally.
“So are we.”
“Point, but that’s not what I’m saying. His secrets might be the sort that are going to cause problems in the future.” Sarah opened a can of soda from her end of the line. “What do you think about him?”
“I like him,” I said immediately. “I liked him when we first met. But I also liked Asher, and we see how that turned out. You said you were going to run a background check on him?”
“What’d you find out?”
She entered a command into her computer with a series of sharp keystrokes. “He’s been driving that cab for the last couple of years, since his father died. Little bit of trouble with the law – parking violations, bit of petty larceny, and conning the occasional tourist – but nothing that landed him anything worse than a fine and a sharp slap on the wrist. His encounter with you was his first real brush with any serious criminal activity.”
I blew out a breath and closed my eyes for a moment. “Check out his family,” I said finally. “There’s a connection between his father and a Patrick Hardy, I think, and I want to know what it is.”
“I thought you trusted him? You’ve never doubted your instincts before.”
That was true. When my safety was the only thing on the line, extending some trust cost me very little and the possible dividends were huge. Sarah was a part of this, though. I’d already dragged her into my troubles. If anything happened to her due to a mistake on my part, the guilt would devour me from within. “Better safe than sorry,” I said out loud.
“I’ll get that worked up while you’re in the museum, then. Speaking of which…”
I put any thoughts about Michel or Patrick out of my mind. “Speaking of which,” I repeated, “you said you needed me to do some calibrations?”
“I need to make sure there aren’t any dead spots in the museum’s interior,” she said. “Plus, I’ve got a new program that automatically notes any wireless streaming, which will help immensely with identifying the cameras. On your end, though, I just need you to walk through the museum once. Shouldn’t be too difficult, but I did want to get that handled before the guests started showing up en masse.”
“As you wish,” I said. Sarah snorted with amusement. I crossed the streets, pushed my way through the crowd of exiting tourists and into the museum. A pair of security guards started toward me, but I held out my cell phone with the electronic invitation already open. One guard passed a gadget over my phone and then stepped politely out of my way.
“You’ll find the event in the rotunda,” Sarah said, “although you aren’t going there at the moment. The crown will be in the Roman exhibit. Just make your way over there, casually, and I’ll log the cameras as you pass them. And while you’re doing that…”
“I’ve got good news and bad news. Well, good news and neutral news,” Sarah said. “Which do you want?”
I moved to one side, so that a red-haired woman in an elegant black evening gown could go past me, before I answered. “With that set-up? I’ll go with the neutral news.”
“The firewall,” Sarah said bluntly. “For some reason, the museum’s internal network is using a private key encryption system, which is hilariously unnecessary for…”
I cleared my throat.
Sarah sighed and tried again, with different vocabulary choices. “It’s a very secure system, and I’m having more trouble getting into it than I should. I’ll have to outsource some of this work.”
“Thank you for the Layman’s explanation,” I said. “What’s making it so difficult this time?”
“I wish I knew,” Sarah replied. “This a public building, but I’ve hacked mansions with weaker electronic security than this.”
I paused at a pillar in the middle of the museum’s floor to read a map printed on it. According to the map, I was currently on the museum’s first floor. There were two floors above me, and a basement level. My current floor possessed two exits: the one through which I’d entered and another, through the Barbican theatre at the back of the building. There was another exit on the second floor, too. I made a mental note of the layout and commented all of the salient details to memory.
“You said this crown isn’t even worth that much, didn’t you?” I asked.
“It isn’t, relatively speaking. It certainly isn’t going to pull that high of a price on the open market. It’s a one-of-a-kind item.”
“So, any fence that got their hands on it wouldn’t be able to move it without melting it down first,” I said. “And if you’re going to melt it down anyway, you might as well just go for an easier mark or something with a higher return on investment. But if Asher can’t sell it, what does he even want with it?”
“I still don’t have an answer for that,” Sarah said.
“I know, I know, I’m just thinking out loud.” I closed my eyes and visualized the growing web of connections and conflicts. “We’ve got a recently unearthed crown that everybody seems to want: Asher, maybe the Magi, definitely the Puppetmaster. The financial value of said crown can’t be all that high, considering its rarity and how easily the police would be able to track down anyone who bought or sold it.”
“I’m following,” Sarah said. “What’s your point?”
I continued, speaking the words aloud as they occurred to me. “There is also some heavy duty network security in place, far in excess of what this sort of building should actually have. It almost seems like someone is going to great lengths to steal this crown, while someone else is going to great lengths to keep this particular museum safe from any motivated individuals.”
Sarah mulled that over for a few seconds. “If Asher had those capabilities, he wouldn’t have needed the Russian mob to go into Limassol.”
“It probably isn’t the Puppetmaster or the Magi, either.”
“People do want to steal things from themselves, occasionally,” Sarah pointed out. “Insurance fraud and whatnot.”
“If that’s what the Puppetmaster had in mind, you’d already have the encryption key for this network, wouldn’t you? If someone wanted to cash in on a theft, they’d make sure the theft went off without a hitch.”
Neither of us said anything for a long time. Sarah finally spoke the obvious conclusion aloud. “Another player?”
I started to agree, but stopped when a thought hit me. “We’re assuming there’s three different Magi, right? How many many criminal enterprises do you know of that didn’t ultimately fall apart because of infighting?”
“That’s a possibility,” Sarah mused. “The right hand’s trying to limit what the left hand is capable of. That doesn’t make things any clearer, though.”
“No,” I agreed, “but it’s something. Anyway, you said there was good news, too?” I asked Sarah.
“Since we’re already on the topic,” she said, “I was researching the Magi while you were getting fitted by Suzie.”
“You found something?”
“No, not those Magi; the original biblical ones.”
“Alright,” I said. I started walking again, following an arrow that pointed me in the direction of the Roman artifacts. “Tell me about them.”
Sarah took a drink from her soda and swallowed audibly. “As it turns out, there isn’t actually a direct reference to the number or names of the wise men that went to visit Jesus.”
“Where’d the names come from, then?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Sarah said, “but the number part is more important for this idea of mine. According to scripture, the Wise Men brought three gifts to the manger where Jesus was born. Three gifts equals three people.”
“Sounds like simple math to me,” I said. “What’s the controversy?”
“There’s a surprising amount of debate amongst theologians, actually. According to Eastern Christian tradition – say, Oriental Orthodox – there were as many as twelve different Magi, none of whom are actually named.”
I stopped again. “Twelve?” I repeated. “There could be twelve of these super-mysterious criminal overlords?”
“There could be, but I don’t think so. See, they used the initials BMC: Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar, the traditional names used in Western Christian tradition to refer to the Magi. Which maybe tells us something about the people we’re probably going to be pissing off in the near future.”
“Those names, and the idea that there were only three Magi, are distinctly a part of Western tradition. Not Eastern. So, if our mystery men and women picked those names…”
I picked up the thread. “Then we can assume they’re Western Christians.” I started to walk again. A guard looked in my direction but, apparently satisfied with the cut of my suit, continued a slow visual sweep of the room. The regular civilians were all but cleared out now, in preparation for the evening’s festivities. “That does narrow it down…to the tune of half the planet’s population,” I muttered.
“About ninety percent of Christians worldwide ascribe to the Western school of thought,” Sarah corrected me. “That shakes out to a little over a third of the population, not half. And that’s two-thirds of the population we don’t have to worry about.”
I sighed. “Sorry, Sarah: the stress of all this is just starting to get to me.”
“You? Stressed? Perish the thought.” She laughed her golden laugh and I instantly felt a little better. “I didn’t suddenly develop paper-thin skin, Devlin. If you’ve got to unload on someone, I’d rather you get it out of your system now, rather than making a mistake in the field. Don’t start treating me like I’m too delicate to handle your outbursts.”
I stuck my tongue out at Sarah’s disembodied voice. One of the only remaining families in the building – an American one if the wife’s star spangled fanny pack was any indication – faced an abstract painting and discussed it in low tones. Their only child noticed my extended tongue and took it as a personal insult. He returned the raspberry with gusto.
“Devlin,” Sarah asked, “why is that child teasing you?”
“No idea,” I said. I turned away, just before the boy’s father chastised him for making faces in public. My burner phone beeped and buzzed in my pocket. I removed it and looked down at an alarm labeled ‘gala opening’ in large, blinking red letters.
“I connected our calendars,” Sarah explained before I could ask. “Just in case you forgot.”
“I’m literally standing in the museum,” I said. “How could I forget?”
“I set that up before you went in, obviously. Besides, it’s still useful as a reminder.”
I deliberately searched for a reflective surface. When I found one, I arched my eyebrow, knowing that Sarah could see the expression through the mini camera.
“Anyway,” Sarah said. Her fingers clicked across the keyboard. “I’ve got a count on the cameras now. The guards are moving downstairs, which is where you should be headed, too.”
“Ah, well.” I used the mirror to adjust my tie knot. “If it weren’t for the guards, who would protect all the bigwigs from us scary entrepreneurs?”
“Is that you’re calling us now?” Sarah asked. “Entrepreneurs?”
I shrugged and started back toward the rotunda. “We are in business for ourselves, aren’t we?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I kind of liked ‘wealth redistributors.’ That one had a nice ring to it.”
“You hated that one!”
“Well, it grew on me.” She popped open another Diet Coke and fizz filled my ears for several seconds. “Now, go find out why everybody wants to redistribute this crown so damn much.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said. With great effort, I kept myself from locating another mirror and snapping off a salute to the command. Inappropriate humor was my go-to weapon against fear and nervousness; as I headed toward the rotunda, to throw myself back into the job I hadn’t done in nearly three years, I felt like a heaping doze of levity was in order.
I kept my head down, instead, and prepared to work.