Our Nordic guide led the way through the extravagantly appointed warehouse. Sarah and I followed, playing our role as a power couple to the hilt, while Mila trailed behind us and watched for threats. With the exception of an increasingly severe examination directed our way by the occupants of each table that we passed, along with an uptick in attention from a menagerie of bodyguards, no one made any aggressive move in our direction. After only a minute, I found myself wishing for some sort of overt action; the patient, searching way they weighed us left me with an unclean feeling.
Abruptly, the guide stopped and gestured to a large table. At least a half dozen chairs dotted the perimeter, evenly spaced out and identical in presentation. “Is this acceptable?” He asked.
I turned, ostensibly to ask Sarah for her opinion; in reality, I scanned the tables behind us. From here, I would have a good vantage point of the other conversations. I could position myself at one end, with Sarah a chair or two away for additional coverage, and Mila could cover my blind spots with a short patrol. Her movement wouldn’t raise any flags. There were several different bodyguards performing similar short paces or, in the case of a pair of Japanese twins, walking the entire circumference of the table at a leisurely pace. “Darling, what do you think?” I asked.
Sarah covered her mouth with her fingertips and faked a yawn. It was convincing enough that I felt a strong urge to yawn myself. “I suppose,” she said. For all the world, she sounded like a bored power broker forced into a situation out of her control. There were imperfections in her façade, of course, but they were the sort of personal tics that nobody but me would even know to look for. “One table is as good as any other, isn’t it?”
“True enough,” I replied, nodding sagely, “true enough. This will do just fine, then.”
The balding man lowered his head and pulled two chairs from beneath the table. I ignored his offerings and took two different chairs, chosen for the vantage point they offered. Sarah took a seat in the chair I magnanimously gestured to and, when she was comfortable, I sat down as well. Mila took position behind my left shoulder. The Nordic man watched this happen with an expression of dawning consternation and, after the three of us were settled into our places, hurried to return his two chairs to their positions under the table. “Of course, of course,” he said, “pick whichever seat you desire.”
I dismissed his apology with a wave of my hand. “You mentioned others who wanted to discuss business?”
The man produced a phone from a pocket I hadn’t seen and checked its screen for information. “Apologies, sir, but prior arrangements have called your dining partner away for the moment,” he said. “It is requested that you extend your patience in this matter.”
That gave me more time to settle into character, which was good. Even just a few minutes might be instrumental in gleaning the necessary information to survive this strange party from the surrounding dinner parties. I welcomed the delay, even as I assumed an expression of supreme displeasure. “Is this the manner with which all things are to be handled here?”
“No, sir, but…”
“But what? I was informed by you that there would be business opportunities to discuss here. And yet, here I am, with no such discussion awaiting me.”
Sarah reached across the empty seat between us and touched my shoulder with her long fingers. The contact sent an electric wave through me and I shuddered, purely on instinct, before I could control myself. She gave no indication of having noticed. “We arrived later than expected,” she purred, “so perhaps we can afford to extend a bit of courtesy to our partner. It is only polite, after all, and you know how our employer detests impoliteness.”
I made a show of breathing in deeply, calming myself more with each exhale. The act was a little overblown but, judging from the fear in the man’s eyes, effective. “Fine,” I said, after a particularly dramatic breath. “You are right again, of course.”
Sarah accepted the compliment with a demur incline of her head.
The man released a sigh of relief. “Excellent, sir. Ma’am. While you wait, would you care to peruse the menu for the evening? Or perhaps simply some refreshment?”
I rubbed at my chin. People were dining all around us; it stood to reason that there would actually be some form of dinner provided at an event that Mila had described as a dinner party. My stomach hadn’t adjusted yet to life on the outside. Any meal tastier than featureless gruel and larger than the offerings one might expect in a child’s lunchbox seemed sumptuous and decadent. “What sort of refreshments?”
“Whatever you would like. If your preference isn’t available,” the man said, “I am certain arrangements could be made to locate it.”
“My darling,” Sarah interjected and dragged the word out for all its worth, “will have a pint of Guinness, served just slightly below room temperature. You do have someone who can handle that in the proper way, I assume?”
“Of course, ma’am.” He typed the order into his tablet. “And for you?”
She considered the question. “Sauvignon Blanc,” I said. I paused and then pulled a year out of thin air. “2002 was an excellent vintage, wasn’t it, dear?”
“Quite,” Sarah answered. She smiled drily at the waiter. “If you don’t have that available, simply bring me the absolute driest white wine you can dig up.”
The Nordic man entered that information into his phone. “Would you care to hear tonight’s offerings for dinner?”
I opened my mouth, but it was Sarah who spoke. “Not at the moment. I prefer to discuss my business while hungry. Gives the proceedings something of an edge.” The dry smile turned predatory as she turned it on the poor, witless man.
I joined in with a savage grin of my own. “Oh, quite. Now, run along, little man. Those refreshments won’t bring themselves, now will they?”
He bowed several times, bending nearly in half by the end. “Of course, sir. Ma’am. If you’ll excuse me.” He hurried away, weaving a path through the tables at high speed and eventually disappearing behind a rich green velvet curtain hung from the ceiling.
“As it turns out,” Sarah said, in her usual voice, “2002 actually was a good year for Sauvignon Blanc. Although I’m more of a Riesling fan, nowadays.”
“The more things change,” I replied. “I seem to remember someone absolutely detesting any assignment that required a grift.”
She shrugged. “A girl’s got to have some secrets, you know. I assume that Guinness is still your preferred drink? I noticed them in the fridge earlier.”
“After you’ve spent a few years with nothing but prison wine, your tastes become decidedly less refined. Hell, at this point, I’d probably have taken a cold beer.”
Sarah mock-gasped in horror. “Perish the thought, Dev. Perish the very thought.”
I smiled, for real, and she smiled back. Our professional relationship rarely involved the opportunity for both of us to play roles. On assignment, Sarah had preferred to remain at a safe distance, orchestrating each individual element of the plan, while I threw myself into the thick of things. Personally, however, we’d developed a game of assuming identities at random and seeing how well the other could keep up with any unexpected changes. I was the reigning champion, although Sarah’s skill at improvisation had grown considerably during our time together. If our performance thus far was any indication, she’d only improved further during the years apart.
“Are you two having fun?” Mila asked. It took me a second to understand her; she spoke without moving her lips.
“If you aren’t having fun at work,” I said, deliberately quoting something Patrick had said to me at La Santé, “then you aren’t doing the right job. A wise man told me that once.”
“That does sound like something you’d ascribe to,” Sarah said, not entirely unkindly. “Mila, what’s up?”
“Michel doesn’t have anything specific to share,” Mila said, “but something doesn’t seem right. Most of the drivers are professionals with long histories as wheelmen. If what he’s hearing is right, then a lot of those hardened criminals feel like something’s off.”
“Off?” I asked. “How so?”
“No idea, yet. He’s asking around for names and information. I’ll let you know if he finds out anything definite, or if he comes up with a name you can add to your search.”
I started to reply, but stopped when our waiter returned to view. Between the fingers of one hand, he held the neck of a wine bottle and an empty glass; in the other, a nearly perfect pour of Guinness. He made his way over to us, threading an expert path through the tables. He stopped in his tracks when a tall, broad-shouldered man with a full head of jet black hair, hidden beneath a wide brimmed cowboy hat, stood suddenly and blocked his path. The two exchanged words for a bit before the waiter handed over the bottle of wine, the glass, and the beer and returned to the back of the hangar. The man who’d intercepted the drinks turned and walked directly over to us.
When he reached us, the man placed all three items on the table and pulled a chair free with his foot. “I hope you don’t mind if I sit,” he said in a thick Texan drawl. “These things require so much walking that I just have to take every opportunity to rest my dogs. You understand, right?”
“And you are?” I asked.
Instead of answering my question, the man patted his jacket and frowned. “One second,” he said. He stood from the table and rushed back to his previous seat, searching for something there.
I used the temporary break to turn slightly towards Mila. “Who’s that?” I asked under my breath.
“I’ve seen him before,” she answered, “but I don’t know his name.”
The Texan returned a moment later. He held a small glass half-filled with a dark brown liquor and a chewed cigar. “As I was saying,” he continued, “apologies for not being here when ya’ll showed up. Got a little tired of waiting and I figured I could take care of a couple different issues instead of just wasting the time.”
He leaned his chair back onto two legs and took a long drink from his liquor. His jacket parted as he did so and I could see clearly that he wasn’t wearing a shoulder holster. There were other places to hide a weapon, of course, but nothing in his demeanor told me that he was a physical threat. In contrast to virtually everybody else in the hangar, a bodyguard wasn’t standing vigil over him, either. I cleared my throat with as much authority as I possessed. “I’ll ask again; who are you?”
“Who am I?” He laughed. “Why, I’m the person your waiter over there said was waiting for ya’ll to get here. Pleasure to meet the two of you, I got to say.”
Immediately, my defenses came up. I felt Sarah stiffen slightly and, when she spoke, her voice was slightly more controlled. “The pleasure is all ours,” Sarah said. In reaction to the unexpected guest, she’d gone deeper into the persona. I recognized it now for what it is: a note-perfect impersonation of her older sister. There were worse parts to play in this situation, but Sarah’s act was based on years of personal experience and knowledge; for better or worse, she knew her sister as well as anyone could know a person. She didn’t like her, but that was irrelevant when it came to the grift. She gestured toward the wine bottle with two lazy fingers.
“Oh, damn, forgot all about that.” The Texan – for lack of a better name – filled the glass with Sauvignon and passed it to Sarah, before he handed me the Guinness. He raised his own glass into the air. I mirrored the gesture; Sarah cast a cool eye on both of us for several seconds before she did the same. “To business.”
“To business,” she and I repeated. We all took a drink.
“Now,” the Texan said, rubbing his hands together, “let’s deal.”
“Just like that?” I asked.
“Don’t see a reason why we should wait. I got deals to make and hands to shake. Planning to be back on a flight home before morning. Unless you’re saying you changed your mind about that information?”
I kept myself from raising an instinctive eyebrow. “Depends on the price,” I hedged.
“The work you people did undermining the security at the museum was worth its weight in gold to the right folk. Plus, there’s the matter of the crown itself. Far as I’m concerned, you met your end of the agreement. Your employer stands to make a fair bit of change on the sale; my clients get what they want; and little old me, well…well, I get a commission and a bump in credibility.”
There was a lot of information there. I sorted through it while I took another long drink of the Guinness. He’d referred to “our employer,” which meant he bought the fiction of Sarah and me as agents at the Lady’s behest. Then, however, he’d specifically said that he would make money, in the form of commissions.
“Funny thing,” the Texan drawled. “I’ll be honest; when I put that request out, I wasn’t expecting someone to snap it up that quick. Especially not a party I’d never heard of. And, as you can imagine, I know a lot of the movers and shakers. Who doesn’t need a good fence, right?”
He’d never heard of the Lady before. I committed that information to memory and added a mental question: how could she have amassed as much power as she obviously had, if the local fence had never heard of her before? For that matter, how could a fence – typically, the most interchangeable part of any illicit deal – rise to the point of power hinted at by our opulent surroundings?
Sarah provided the answer to the second question. “Information broker might be a more descriptive term,” she pointed out. “Unless you insist on representing yourself as less than you are?”
The Texan touched two fingers to his forehead in acknowledgment. “Way I see it, so long as people are looking to sell something and people are looking to buy something, I can do my part to put the two together. Doesn’t matter to me what they’re selling, within reason.” He reached into his jacket pocket and removed a thin slip of paper.
“That’s for us, then?” I asked.
He placed the paper on the table. “Usual rules apply. I’m not involved past this point. All I’m doing is answering a question your employer asked. Whatever you do with this, it’s got nothing to do with me.” His eyes narrowed. “Unless, that is, you’ve got something else to offer?”
I shook my head and looked pointedly at the paper until the Texan moved his hand away. I pulled the slip over to me. “Not at the moment, no.”
“Fair enough, I suppose.” He finished his drink in a large swallow. “Your employer’s got ways of contacting me, if something comes up.”
“And if we wanted to speak with you?” Sarah asked. I shot her a look. The expression on her face remained placid and calm.
The corners of the Texan’s lips turned up. He took a second item from his jacket: a black business card with a phone number and email address written on one side in a bold red font. “You got a request or you got something to sell, send me a message at one of those. I don’t ask what you plan to do with any of that information. Not my business, understand?”
“It seems to me,” Sarah said, “that would be exactly your business.”
“You do understand, then,” he replied. He smiled at me. “One hell of a woman you got with you, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“I don’t mind at all,” I said. “Whether or not she minds, however, is an entirely different matter.”
The Texan raised his hands in surrender. “No offense intended. But, if you’ll excuse me, I got other clients waiting for my presence and this drink seems to have disappeared.” He waved the empty glass in the air. On the other side of the hangar, a waiter noticed the gesture and began to make his way over. “Here’s hoping I hear from ya’ll in the future.”
“Quite,” I said with a polite nod. Sarah did the same, although she didn’t speak a word at all.
He stood and left the table, headed in a different direction from where he’d come. I waited until he was seated to turn over the slip of paper. “What is it?” Sarah asked.
I read the paper twice and then handed it to her. After she finished, Sarah discreetly passed it back to Mila. “An address?” Mila asked after she’d had a chance to look over the information. “To what?”
“We stole the crown,” I mused out loud, “and the Lady had us drop it off somewhere so that the Texan could pick it up for one of his clients. Asher wanted to steal the crown, too…maybe for the same reasons? Except that would have embarrassed Hill, so…”
Sarah leaned closer and lowered her voice. Both Mila and I were forced to do the same to hear her. “It’s the key,” Sarah said. “This might be where the key’s located.”
“The Lady arranged for us to steal the payment we’d need for information she hadn’t asked for yet?” I pursed my lips and let a slow whistle blow over my lips. “That’s a hell of a lot of foresight.”
“So, what now?” Sarah asked.
“Finish our drinks,” I suggested. “Maybe mingle with some of the other tables, but don’t make any concrete arrangements. If we leave now, people will look and they’ll wonder. These don’t seem like the kind of people I want wondering about who we are, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want anyone here taking an interest in my life.”
“I don’t know about all that,” a voice said. I sat up to face the speaker and felt every drop of blood in my body instantly turn ten degrees colder.
“What are you…?” I began.
Asher kept on speaking. “You’re a nice enough person, if you ask me. Little slow on the uptake, but who’s perfect?”