Police sirens approached us from the right and then continued on to the museum. I remained flat across the back seat until I couldn’t hear them anymore. “Devlin,” Michel said, “they are gone. I cannot see them anymore.”
I gave it another two dozen seconds before I risked a quick peek up, into the rearview mirror. I couldn’t even see the telltale lights of the police cruisers. I sat up, wincing as soreness spread through my shoulder. “Sarah?”
“It’s going to take them at least an hour to get back control of their network,” Sarah said. It was an awkward feeling, hearing her voice through Michel’s speakerphone and my earbud. “I could make it longer, but that’s going to require an active effort and it’s only a delaying measure.”
“And the guards are locked into the building without control?”
“Not only that, but the police are locked out. Their resources are likely going to be tied up trying to gain entry, so that they can figure out what was taken.”
I considered the available options. “Go ahead and disconnect,” I said as I eased into a more upright position. “No need to risk anyone tracking down the signal. An hour is more than enough time to disappear.”
“Track me down?” I could taste the disbelief in her choice of words. “This hack is routed through a half dozen different systems, with my own personal encryption. If I want to keep those guards sealed away, I can do it almost indefinitely.”
“And I have the utmost faith in your ability to do so,” I said, “but we’ve been in over our heads every step of the way here. Can you honestly tell me that you’re that sure someone can’t find a trail to you?”
Sarah went silent. Then, she cleared her throat. “Connection’s terminated.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “I opened a backdoor, though, so I can regain access, if I need to.”
“I don’t know why we’d need to go back into that deathtrap.”
“Devlin?” Michel sounded unsure of himself. He looked down to the phone in the passenger seat, made a note of something on its screen, and took a left turn. The car choked and threatened to turn off entirely. “What is it that you are involved in? That I am involved in?”
“I’ll be honest with you here,” I said.
The line popped. “What are you doing?” Sarah asked. I knew immediately that she’d excluded Michel from this part of the conversation. “We still don’t know anything about his background. You’re sure you want to risk exposing ourselves even more?”
She was right. There were countless reasons to keep Michel out of the inner circle. What we didn’t know about Michel vastly eclipsed the knowledge I’d gleaned from our interactions. He was connected with Patrick in some way that I hadn’t yet uncovered, but that connection could easily have been criminal in nature. If he had any soft areas in his personal life – a family, perhaps, or a child – the Magi, or Asher specifically, could use that to turn him against us. He was clearly not a frequent participant in theft or high intensity jobs, as evidenced by the quiver running through his voice. Fear was a vulnerability that we couldn’t afford, even at this early juncture.
He had saved me, though, by showing up precisely when I needed him. And my instincts said that he was as trustworthy an ally as I could hope to find. Plus, I’d learned my lesson about secrets years in the past. The last one I’d kept had cost me my marriage. I chose not to respond to Sarah, and spoke directly to Michel instead. “There’s…this was never about a vacation.”
Sarah sighed, but didn’t complain.
“I am listening, mon ami,” Michel said.
“Asher – someone who sent me to jail and who’s been trying to kill me ever since I got out – is involved with some serious people. Sarah and I call them the Magi.”
“As in the wise men?”
“Exactly like that, yeah. We were…tipped off that Asher was interested in this crown, and we think it’s got something to do with the Magi. So, obviously, we couldn’t let him get ahold of it.”
We stopped at a traffic light. A passerby paused to look at Michel’s cab and waved acrid smoke away from his face. Michel offered a smile to the civilian and then frowned at me, through the rearview mirror. “You are thieves,” he said softly.
There wasn’t any real point in denying the obvious. “We are thieves,” I agreed.
“And whoever tipped you off…they are the ones who are paying you to steal that…?” He glanced in the backseat and saw the crown, cradled to my chest.
“According to the offer,” Sarah said. “Although we still don’t know much about that party either. At this point, all we’ve figured out is that someone wanted to get Devlin out of jail early, and that someone else is supporting Asher. But even that’s just a theory. Maybe the Magi decided to do both things, setting up Asher and Devlin in some sick battle royale.”
My eyebrow leapt. “That’s a new one, Sarah. When did you come up with that idea?”
“I’ve got a lot of ideas,” she replied testily. “It’s just that none of them make any more sense than any other. The probability of any single thing that’s happened to you, just in the past week, is astronomical. But everything that’s happened, all at once? Sprung from jail, pointed directly to the city where a Russian lieutenant and his enforcers were searching for Asher, routed back to America where I was conveniently enticed to come along, kidnapped in broad daylight, and then having to run a gauntlet of traps out of an Indiana Jones movie?” Sarah stopped, caught her breath. “Does any of this make sense to you?”
“You’re right. This goes way past coincidence.” Something about the way I’d said that struck a note in a corner of my mind.
“While you were infiltrating the museum, I got another email from the Puppetmaster. That’s what we’re calling whoever arranged for Devlin’s jailbreak,” she added, for Michel’s benefit. “Details for the drop, and numbered accounts where our payment will be deposited.”
“Can you set one up for Michel?” I asked. “He’s a part of this job, now, so he should get paid.”
“No,” she said. “Because, of course, there’s already one set up for him. The message contained three numbered accounts, with our real names attached to each one. I tried to check the financials for each, but every check I’ve run makes it seem like they’re entirely legitimate business accounts, with long histories of above board transactions.”
“You don’t think…?”
“No, I don’t. Of course they’re fake. I just can’t figure out how they were faked. I could do something like this, if I had a lot of time to kill, but I wouldn’t. There’s no point to this level of detail. If Interpol was looking this deep into the history of even one of these accounts, then we made a mistake somewhere else.”
“Maybe someone’s just thorough?” I offered.
“Thorough isn’t the right word,” she said. “Meticulous sounds better. Explicitly, over-the-top, meticulous. It’s almost like a display of power.”
She’d said that last bit, almost as an afterthought. At my question, she warmed to the idea and began to speak more rapidly. “Alright, say you’ve got a ridiculous amount of information. You know our real names, you know where our accounts are, but you need to let us know what you can do with that. What do you do?”
“I would…” The car hit a bump in the road, jostling my shoulder so that the ache flared back up. I divested a portion of my attention to self-pity and returned to the question. “I’d have to prove that I could find them where they felt safest, I guess.”
“Exactly. So, for you, they break you out of prison ahead of schedule, just so that there’s no doubt about their reach. And, for me, they hack into my email server and deposit a job offer in a place where I’m bound to see it. Not all of my servers, though.”
“Right. That would just make us go to ground.”
“This is just enough of a display to make us scared, but not enough to actually make us run. And the accounts, with all three of our real names in plain English?”
I nodded. “That’s to let us know that we’re being watched. Michel’s new to all this, and all he did was drive the car. No offense, of course.”
Michel waved away the apology from the driver’s seat.
“There’s something I don’t get, though,” Sarah said.
I’d come to the same conclusion. “What about…are these comms secure?”
“It’s a dedicated line,” she said, “using proprietary technology that I built personally for equipment that isn’t even publically available. So, it’s as safe as it can possibly get. With the way things are going now, I don’t know if it’s safe enough, though.” That admission stung her pride. I heard that much in her voice.
“Ah. Well, then.” I couldn’t immediately come up with a way to express my thoughts that wouldn’t also tip my hand. “Can we agree that this Puppetmaster isn’t omniscient?”
“Exactly what I was thinking,” she said. “I don’t know how helpful that’s going to be, though.”
I shrugged to myself. “Me either, but it’s better than nothing.”
“What is ‘better than nothing,’ Devlin?” Michel asked. He shifted his car down into a lower gear as we approached a roundabout. “I fear that I am missing something. I am missing quite a bit.”
“That would not be exactly wrong,” I said.
“I can tell you about the rest of it later,” Sarah chimed in. “I’ll need you to drive back over here and pick me up after Devlin’s back at his hotel, anyway, and then we can talk in person.”
He nodded slowly. I poked one of his shoulder blades from behind and, when he turned to face me, tapped an index finger against my ear. It took him a second to get it, but I saw the light of understanding come on in his eyes. He nodded once.
We passed a street lamp and I saw sweat trickling down the back of Michel’s neck in the sudden glare of light. He reached a hand back to wipe at the moisture, seemingly without even paying attention to the action. “Listen,” I said, “if this is too much for you, I understand.”
“Hell,” Sarah added, “this is getting to be too much for me, and I’ve been aware of things since before we targeted the crown. After the drop, I can give you the account number and you can just disappear into the wind. I’m sure we can find another driver for the rest of our time here.”
He scratched fervently at the nape of his neck. I watched his mouth open, close, and then open again, without any words passing his lips. “I…am unsure,” he said finally. “There is a lot of information I did not know before. I thought that this was something simple.”
“It’s never simple,” I said. “If it starts looking too simple, then you’re being set up.”
“Ah,” Michel replied. The two of us drove in silence for a good distance. No sound came from Sarah’s side of the comms for a minute and then she busied herself with something on her computer. Her typing was as rhythmic as ever, though the pace of her keystrokes was lower than I’d heard in a while.
“What’s happening at the museum?” I asked, more to break the oppressive atmosphere than out of any real curiosity.
“Local police are still trying to get into the building,” Sarah answered, “while the guards are still trying to get out. According to the scanner, they’ve got some wunderkind in their IT department, so it won’t take him all that much longer to re-open the ports and reverse the lockdown protocol.” She laughed suddenly.
“Well, it wouldn’t take too long, if there weren’t someone making it as much of a pain as possible.”
“You’re still connected? Why are you doing that?”
“I’m not doing anything,” she said. “Helen left a bug behind before she disconnected. It’s a fairly dumb piece of code. All it can do is carefully and thoroughly shut every port that opens from outside of the network, as soon as it appears. Excepting my own backdoor, of course.”
“Of course. That can’t be traced back to you, though?”
“There isn’t, as far as I’m aware, any way to trace it back to Helen. The program doesn’t require active direction on her part. And even if it gets traced back to her, she doesn’t know my real name or what we were after.”
“Sarah,” I said. “That sounds suspiciously like good news.”
“How are you so calm?” The question erupted from Michel. His eyes widened at the same time as my own, as though his voice was a surprise. “How can the two of you joke with each other? You are not worried?”
If I’d been less concerned with my routine post-job banter, I would have known to expect the outburst. There were soothing platitudes I’d committed to memory in the past, a great many of which had been used to calm me down after my first handful of jobs. None of them fit the moment, however. I cleared my throat and spoke directly from my heart.
“I have no idea what’s going on,” I said to Michel. “I haven’t had a clue since La Santé…since before that, even, when Asher left me all but gift-wrapped for the Parisian law. Every conceivable thing that could go wrong has gone wrong. And right now, I’m sitting in the back seat of a dying car – no offense – holding a crown that means something to a psychotic mastermind hellbent on revenge, while working in opposition to or at the pleasure of some mysterious figures capable of hiring muscle from all over the planet, apparently. The only friends I’ve got right now are my ex-wife, who I haven’t worked with in years, and you. You think I’m not worried? I’m fucking terrified.”
The dead air in the car and over the comms was profound and absolute.
After a minute, I swallowed my spit and spoke again. “But being terrified isn’t going to help me, is it? I didn’t choose to get involved in this, and I’d be absolutely thrilled to not be in the middle of whatever the hell I walked into, but here I am. I can either get played or I can be a player. And I absolutely refuse to be played.”
Sarah spoke up, almost immediately. “Seconded.”
I softened my tone. “This is a thing that I’m caught up in. Sarah can get you a new identity, and you can get out of this. You don’t have to stay, if you don’t want. That’s for you to decide. Right now, all I need is for you to help us finish the job, okay?” I glanced up and saw my hotel rising from the horizon in front of us. “Can you do that?”
“I can do that,” he said, with a voice that spoke volumes about his doubt. The car coughed and shuddered violently when he found an available space near the hotel’s entrance. “I might need to use that money just to buy another cab,” he said. It took me a second to recognize that he was joking.
Sarah must have heard the same thing in his voice, because she gave the joke a sharp laugh. “If these numbers are right,” she said, “then you won’t be worrying about car payments for a while.”
“If you aren’t in London tomorrow,” I said, after I’d stepped out of the car and onto the curb, “I won’t hold it against you. Trust me; you’ve already done more for me than I had any right to ask, and I don’t know that I’ll ever really be able to repay you.”
“I…okay,” Michel replied. He nodded again, though this one was more to himself than me.
I touched a finger to my earbud. “Sarah, I’m going off comms for the night. Can you call me on the room phone after you finish up with the drop?”
“I think I can handle that,” she said. She spoke again, just before I removed the tiny piece of equipment from my ear canal. “Devlin?”
“Good work tonight. I’m…glad you made it out safe.”
“As it turns out,” I said, smiling broadly, “I’m fond of that outcome as well.” She scoffed, but I heard the familiar note of laughter in that dismissive sound. “Alright, checking out for the night. See you in the morning.” I nodded once to Michel, who offered a wan smile in return, and then removed the earbud. I clicked it off and slipped it into my pocket.
The interior of the hotel was empty, save for a single employee manning the front desk. His eyebrows lifted significantly as he beheld my new suit. I walked past without comment and rode the elevator up to my floor, removing my tie and adding the mini-camera equipped tie bar to my pocket as I ascended. In hindsight, a thousand gentler ways of speaking to Michel popped into mind, but there was nothing to do about it now. Either he would decide to show back up at the hotel tomorrow morning or he wouldn’t. Considering how dangerous things had already become, the best option might actually be for him to simply vanish in the wind. It was absolutely the best thing for Sarah, whether she wanted to admit it or not. I began to form a plan that would guide her out of the line of fire and into safety.
I was so distracted by my plotting that I stepped off the elevator, approached my room door, and almost didn’t notice the imperceptible space between my door and the jamb until my fingers wrapped around the door knob. Even after noticing it, my own bodyweight worked against me. I tried to stop myself from turning the knob; my bulk pushed the door open anyway. I fell in a tangle of limbs, rolled, and I came up in a makeshift fighting stance. Nothing moved in the hotel room except for me.
Seated in one of the plush chairs, sipping delicately at a glass of blood-red wine, a woman regarded me with a cool eye. A hulk of a man stood at her shoulder, his massive arms crossed just under his breastbone. And, looking out of the window onto the sleeping city of London, I recognized Mila’s distinctive build. The lady spoke first, in a voice that reminded of cold knives; jagged icicles; and a wide variety of other beautiful, dangerous things.
“Mr. O’Brien,” she said. “I believe the time has come for you and I to discuss matters…personally.”