“You don’t mind if I sit in the front, do you?” I asked Michel.
He found the key to the SUV, underneath the driver’s seat, and shook his head. “It is strange,” he said as the car came to life beneath us. “I am used to seeing people in the backseat. Does that make sense?”
It did, in a weird way. There were habits I’d acquired after years in my profession that I struggled to shake. “If you’d be more comfortable with me in the back…”
“No, no. It is fine.” He chuckled to himself. “I still cannot believe the amount of money Sarah showed me two days ago. With that much, I suppose I will not have to drive a taxi again, will I?”
“Not unless you want to,” I said. “Which I can’t imagine, but to each their own.”
The mansion was two miles away, as the crow flies. In reality, the road wound through the small countryside town like a serpent. That was fine by me. Knowing the layout of the mansion was only a small part of the overall job. I’d need to know the fastest way to beat an escape, if the need arose; the location of the nearest police station; and, perhaps most importantly, a particularly good pub where I could drink away the stress that accompanied any haphazardly planned heist.
Michel didn’t seem to mind, either, although there was a slight frown at one corner of his mouth for the first few minutes. “Devlin?” He asked finally, hesitantly. “You do not mind if I ask you a question, do you?”
“Go for it. We’ve got a little bit of a drive before we get to the property, anyway.”
He nodded. “Mila? Is she…uh, how do you say? Available?”
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. “Honestly? I’ve got absolutely no idea what her dating situation is like.”
“Are you interested in her?”
I shook my head. It wasn’t that I hadn’t noticed Mila’s physique, so much as an inability to think about any sort of relationship with everything that was happening.
Well…almost any sort of relationship. “I haven’t really had time to think about anything like that since, uh…”
I decided not to dodge the question. “Pretty much, yeah.”
We rode in silence for a few minutes and entered the town proper. There were a few people on the streets, dressed in heavy overcoats and hats. At a glance, I couldn’t tell the men from the women; the layers were so thick that any revealing shapes were concealed beneath fabric and patterns. One butcher’s shop, two dry cleaners, a handful of restaurants and a sleepy pub appeared and disappeared out of the window. I added their locations to my growing mental map of the area.
“I was married once,” Michel said, without warning.
My attention whipped away from the scenery and back to him. “What?”
“I was married,” he repeated. “We met in the same way that you and I did. Just someone leaving Paris who happened to pick my taxi. It was…immediate. Do you understand?”
“Love at first sight?”
“Oui. Love at first sight.” He sighed. “That is such a perfect phrase. At any rate, we met, we dated, and we married. It was a quiet ceremony. My family, except for my uncle Francoise, did not come, but that…was to be expected.”
“Why?” I asked. “Were you and your family on bad terms?”
Michel considered the question, even as he navigated a turnabout with familiar ease. “You could say that. They did not approve of my relationships. My father, especially…” He broke off the conversational track. “At any rate. We were married for a year before the problems became apparent.”
“We lived different lives,” Michel said. “And that became a point of argument. My job kept me out late, and I became friendly with many people.”
I was missing something. I felt it, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I recalled the information that the Lady’s bodyguard/second/personal Lurch had recited on our first meeting. “Did you…uh, cheat?”
“No! No, of course not.” Michel asked. “When am I in a relationship, I am faithful. But there were fears that I would cheat. After a year, the stress became too much.”
“What was her name?”
He looked over at me and raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Her?”
A piece fell into place. “I mean, you said you were married, so I just assumed…”
“His name was Marc,” Michel said. “His concern – the concern of many that I date – is that I will simply fly away to the next pretty thing. If I am not in a relationship, perhaps. But otherwise, I would never do such a thing. I have no desire to be that sort of person.”
“Weren’t you just asking whether or not Mila was single?”
“I was.” His voice dropped an octave and took on a pre-emptively offended tone. “I am bisexual. Is that a problem?”
“I thought you were…you know, straight when you said you were interested in Mila. And then you said you were married to a guy, so I assumed that you were…” I felt rational sentences slipping away from me and chose that moment to stop talking.
“It is a common mistake,” Michel said, after I’d had a chance to stew in embarrassment. “Men think that I am only attracted to men; women think that I am only attracted to women. When they find out the truth, many find that they cannot deal with that reality. There is a…fear that I am incapable of commitment, I think? But that is not true. I cannot be anyone except for who I am, and many people do not like who I am.”
“As long as you can drive,” I said, “I don’t care who you go home with. Although I think Mila might be a little unreachable.”
A smile touched Michel’s lips. “That is good to hear, Devlin. Not that Mila is…unreachable? Hmm. That is a strange word.” He shrugged. “But that you do not judge me for my preferences. I have not met many people who were not bothered by it, in some way. First my husband, and then many of my friends; both male and female find it…unusual.”
“Well, I don’t, for whatever that’s worth. Is…is that why your family didn’t come to the wedding?”
Michel nodded. “After the divorce, I would not return to my father’s house. Oh, what he would have said to see me crawl back to him. It would have been too much. I did not know what I would do, when Patrick took pity on me.”
“That’s how you two met?”
“No. My father would, occasionally, drive people like you and Patrick away from places in exchange for some of the money. I don’t think there is a word for it in French, but…”
“Getaway driver?” I suggested. “Wheelman?”
“That first one sounds closest. Getaway driver.” He seemed to taste the word and nodded approvingly. “Yes, that is it. My father was a ‘getaway driver,’ and that brought him into contact with Patrick on a few occasions. That is how I met him.” He chuckled.
“It is funny that he met Patrick, in the same way that you met me. Irony, yes?”
I wasn’t sure if that was the technically correct usage of the word, but I wasn’t about to split hairs. “Ironic, yeah. So, you and Patrick were friends, even though you and your father weren’t the closest?”
“Oh no,” Michel said quickly. “Not friends. He and I were not close when Marc and I divorced. I had barely spoken to him. One day, while I was looking for any work that I could do, I ran into him at a café. He saw that I was in trouble and offered to help.”
That seemed exactly like the kindly Frenchman I’d met behind bars. I smiled in remembrance. “So, when he called you and said that he needed a favor…?”
“I rushed to help, of course,” Michel said. “Although I think that the current situation is more than he had in mind.” He turned slightly and grinned at me.
The winding road through town turned sharply to the right; at the same time, the mounted GPS beeped and said in a polite, insistent voice, “Your destination will be on the left. Your destination will be on the left.” I dismissed all extraneous thoughts from my mind immediately. Michel met my eyes for an instant before he tightened his grip on the steering wheel.
I removed the camera from its bag, reclined the chair so that only the lens was visible from a distance, and started to take pictures. I caught glimpses of the viewfinder screen from my awkward angle. There were guards, obviously. Cameras were mounted at two different points along each corner, in addition to a single camera positioned in the middle of the wall.
There were no obvious exterior lights, which I found strange, but their absence left an approach from darkness as a viable option. Michel drove past the house once, turned around a distance away, and returned slowly, while I clicked photograph after photograph. Sarah could sort through the data when I got back to the cottage, deciding what was and was not important; my job, at the moment, was to acquire as much information as humanly possible.
Michel gripped the steering wheel with bone-white knuckles as we made our second pass. Sweat beaded on his forehead. I reminded myself that he was not a seasoned operator yet. For all intents and purposes, this was the first job he’d been a part of. I remembered my first assignment, so many decades ago; in comparison, Michel was doing splendidly.
“Keep going,” I said in a low voice, designed to keep Michel calm and steady. “You’re doing a great job. I need you to tell me what you see, okay? Is there any reaction from the guards?”
“Nothing noteworthy,” Michel replied. “Two of the nearest guards do not seem happy with our presence, but they are not moving to stop or question us.”
“How many guards do you see?”
“That is why you brought the camera, no?”
“I brought the camera for the layout of the grounds. But it never hurts to double check your numbers. How many guards?”
Michel swallowed a knot of anxiety. “I have seen six different people on this side of the building,” he said. “I should assume that there are at least six on every side?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. This place is surrounded by forest on three sides. No one’s going to sneak through a forest, so the guards might be lighter there. Let’s be safe and assume twelve guards. Split the difference, okay?”
“That’s the number I got, then. So we both know that we’re not wrong. What else do you see?”
Michel was quiet. “Three people are coming out of the house. There is…a girl with them.”
“The Lady?” I asked immediately.
“No, Devlin; not a lady. They have a girl with them. She cannot be older than eight or nine.”
That was shocking enough that I sat up completely, just to see what he was talking about. Sure enough, three men in identical black suits were ushering a little girl into the backseat of an American minivan. After the girl was buckled in, one of the three men entered the driver’s side and started the car.
“Michel!” I snapped. “Get us out of sight!”
The Frenchman did as asked, to the best of his ability. A nearby overgrowth of foliage provided just enough cover that the minivan’s driver didn’t look in our direction as he passed. I used the camera’s zoom function to snap a quick picture as they drove away.
The little girl sat in the backseat of the car, deeply engrossed with a heavy book that lay across her knees. The spine of the book was just barely high enough for my keen eyes to catch the title: “Modular Elliptic Curves and Fermat’s Last Theorem.”
Michel and I waited until the minivan was barely visible before we pulled back out onto the road. “What should we do?” He asked. “You have your pictures; that is what Sarah wanted us to get, oui?”
“That was the assignment, yeah. We get the pictures while she works on her virus.” I paused. “But she probably isn’t done with that, yet. I mean, that’s the kind of the thing that would take hours for her to complete. And I’m wondering about that girl.”
“Follow them,” I said. “There’s something rotten in the state of…wherever this is.”
“Yorkshire,” he supplied, after a quick glance at the GPS. “Or somewhere very close to Yorkshire.”
“That works, sure.” I returned the camera to its bag and the chair to its upright position. “There’s something rotten in the state of Yorkshire, Michel; I think it’s time we got a little closer to figuring out what exactly that might be.”
We followed the minivan back through town, to the small pub we’d passed earlier. I instructed Michel to drive a bit farther down the street before he parked. “This is strictly recon,” I told him as we walked back to the pub.
“What do you need me to do?”
“Just follow my lead.”
He nodded. “I can do that.”
It wasn’t a long walk to the pub, and we took it at a good pace. Michel was slightly out of breath by the time we reached the front door. An older couple, both on the portly side of average, greeted us from a nearby table. “Hey there, lads!” The male called out. “And how are you this fine day?”
His accent was distinctly Welsh. I mirrored it without meaning to. “Doing fine, doing fine. And you?”
“We can’t complain, can we, Cat?”
A full belly laugh came from his wife. “No, sir, we can’t!” She stood from her chair and bustled over to us. “Welcome to the Rose and Thorn, lads. This is me husband Evan and, as he just told you, I’m Cat. And who would you be?”
“Nathan Bennett.” I paused, weighed my options, and decided to err on the side of simplicity. “And this is my mate Michel, fresh from overseas.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Nathan! Michel!” Cat shook both of our hands vigorously. “So, what brings you this far out of the way? It’s been a goodly few years since we’ve met anyone else from Wales out here in No Man’s Land.”
“Business,” I said and sighed. “Wouldn’t be in England for any other reason, would we?”
Evan guffawed from his seat. “There’s a man after me own heart!”
Past him, I could see into the Rose and Thorn. As pubs went, it was smaller than most, but still large enough that two waitresses worked the floor with a bartender handling alcohol from behind the bar. At the table farthest from the door, nestled into a dark corner, I saw them: the clean-shaven man working over a plate heaped with food and the little girl, fully consumed by the book she’d been reading earlier.
“So, which part of Wales are you from?” Cat asked innocently. “Might be that we’ve got friends in common or family.”
I started to answer and stopped immediately. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the names of Welsh cities. It was that I could not, for the life of me, pronounce them. “Here and there, Cat, here and there,” I non-answered. Before either Cat or Evan could ask another question, I took a gamble. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a decent bite to eat and a pint.”
It worked. Cat reacted immediately, shifting into ‘mother mode.’ “Of course! Why didn’t you say so? Evan, help these two lads inside, you daft sod!”
“Alright, Cat, alright!” He laboriously got to his own feet, grumbling good naturedly about his wife.
Between the two of them, Michel and I were shuffled into the Rose and Thorn. The nearest available seating was just barely close enough that I could overhear anything the man or the girl said. I picked the chair which afforded me a view of the corner table.
“Now,” Cat said, when we were settled. “What’ll it be to start?”
I leaned back in the chair and caught a glimpse of the taps. “Two pints of Welsh Black to start, if you don’t mind.”
“Two pints, Welsh Black, coming right up!” She hustled away in a flurry of fabric and hair. The other two waitresses working the room moved out of her way and smiled at her passing.
“That was…sudden,” Michel said.
“Yeah,” I said, easing back in my chair and watching the man and the child, without appearing to. “Suzie’s like that, too. Seeing someone hungry is almost physically painful for her.”
He let out a breath. “Suzie is…she was the seamstress that you visited before the museum, no?”
“The same. Except for the part where I pay her exorbitant amounts of money every couple of months, she’s the closest thing I’ve got to a mother.”
“What about your actual mother?”
Every drop of moisture in my mouth turned to dust in an instant. When Cat returned with two pint glasses, I took a long drink from mine before letting it touch the table. “Well, someone really was thirsty, I see!”
“A bit, yeah,” I said, and took another drink. It wasn’t bad, as beers go.
“Now, Evan and I are going to make something special for the two of you. A little taste of home in a strange land. You just rest your bones. If you need anything, one of my girls will be along to help you out, alright?”
She was gone before I could answer. Michel waited until she was in the kitchen before he pushed the beer away from him and closer to me with two fingers. “Not a fan?” I asked.
“I have never been a beer drinker,” he said. His lip actually curled up at the sight of the Welsh Black in front of him.
I sipped at a leisurely pace from my beer and, when after I’d emptied my glass, attacked the one that Michel had abandoned until something happened at the corner table. The little girl reached the end of her massive textbook, closed it, and dropped it on the table with a painfully audible thud. She looked at the walls around as if noticing them for the first time.
“Where are we?” She asked in a clear, ringing English accent. Her clothes, now that I was close enough to notice them, were shabby and clearly secondhand. She spoke like royalty, though. The effect was jarring.
The clean-shaven man looked up from his food. “We’re in town,” he said slowly.
She shot him a withering look. “Where are we in town?”
He blinked. “The Rose and Thorn. You wanted to get some fresh air, remember? And you’ve got to eat something.”
The girl switched tracks. “I’m bored.”
“Why don’t you read your book? You only got that one last night, didn’t you?”
“I finished it. I want another one.”
The clean-shaven man put down his fork and sighed. “Avis, you can’t be done with that book. That’s a book that grown-ups read when they…when they want to look smart, I guess.”
That was precisely the wrong thing to say. The girl, Avis, sat up straight and glared at the clean-shaven man with unfiltered malevolent fury. “An elliptic curve over Q is said to be modular,” she said, with the tones of recitation, “if it has a finite covering of a modular curve of the form X sub zero.”
Her dining partner froze and then reached across the table for the book. He flipped a couple of pages. “What are…” He struggled with the word. “…Galois representations?”
Avis didn’t hesitate. “Let p be an odd prime. Let sigma be a finite set of primes including p and…”
He cut her off with a raised hand and flipped to a point halfway through the book. “Lemma 2.5.”
“If the value of q not being equal to p is a prime and r is greater than or equal to one, then the sequence of abelian varieties..”
“Jesus,” the man breathed. “I guess you weren’t kidding.” He reached under the table and removed another book from a bag. The spine on this one read ‘A Course of Pure Mathematics.’ At least, I understood that name.
Avis took it from the man, opened it, and proceeded to disappear into its pages without a word. After a few seconds, though, she looked up. “Thank you,” she said.
The man inclined his head in acknowledgment.
Michel cleared his throat. “Nathan?”
I caught the cover name and turned, just in time, to see Cat approaching the table with two plates balanced on her forearms. “Here you go, for starters,” she said and deposited the plates in front of us. “Something to keep you going strong so long as you’re stuck here in England, with their terrible food.”
A steaming pile of meat and vegetables released a long tendril of aroma that twined up from the plate and directly into my nostrils. I hadn’t been hungry before but now, with that delicious smell filling the air around me, I was absolutely ravenous. “Oh, you’re a saint, you are,” I said, “and don’t let nobody tell you differently, Cat.”
She blushed. “If you keep talking to me like that, Marc, I might have to bring back a little laverbread for you to take with you. But, go on now! Eat! I’ll have someone bring over another two pints for you, alright?”
Michel raised his hand tentatively. “I am fine,” he said, “but thank you for your hospitality.”
Cat whistled. “A Frenchie? Why didn’t you say so earlier? I spent six months in Paris when I was at university, I did. You’ve got such a beautiful country. Some of the best cheese I’ve ever had was in Paris, it was.”
Michel nodded graciously, as though he’d personally been responsible for the cheese.
“Look at me, chattering about and keeping you from your food. Evan always says that I talk too much, but I tell him…” She continued talking to herself, even as she walked away from the table.
I loaded a fork with as much food as I could manage and took a bite. The food was heavenly, as expected: lamb, with a side of vegetable medley emphasizing leeks. “Classic Welsh,” I moaned and savored the feeling. Michel lifted a smaller fork to his mouth. His reaction was similarly positive.
We ate in silence for a bit, while I kept an eye on Avis and her handler. The two didn’t interact any further; he ate his food and drank gingerly from a pint of a lighter beer, while she read through her mathematics textbook. “You heard what they were saying?” I asked Michel, in a low voice.
He nodded and swallowed a mouthful of food. “I did not understand much of it.”
“Math’s not my strong suit,” I said. “But I’m guessing that girl’s named Avis and math is her area of expertise.” I closed my eyes and replayed the scene. The clean-shaven man had flipped through the book and asked her non sequitur questions. She’d provided answers immediately, which typically spoke to understanding, but the context was off. It didn’t feel like she was answering in her own words; it felt like she was reciting information.
“What are you thinking?”
“Photographic memory?” I asked myself out loud, barely cognizant that Michel had spoken. “But why would she need a guard…?”
“Maybe she is related to Hill, in some way? That might explain why the man guards her, but…but it does not explain why the Texan sent us here for the key.” His eyes darkened briefly and then lit up once more. “Or she knows where the key is, perhaps? I cannot see her; is she wearing any jewelry?”
“It’s simpler than that,” I said. “I’m just missing something.”
The man finished his meal and beer. “Avis, let’s go.”
She stood without looking up and held out a hand. The clean-shaven man peeled off two bills from a money clip and dropped it on the table before he took the offered appendage. She balanced the book in her other hand. They walked past us, still not taking notice of our presence.
“Should we go after them?” Michel asked, once they were out of earshot.
“No,” I said. “This was risky enough. Worthwhile, I think, but still risky.” I took a bite of lamb and thought about our next move. My musing was interrupted by an insistent vibration in my pocket. I dug out the burner cell phone. There was a single new text message, from Sarah.
The message read: “Where are you?”
I let my thumb travel down the keypad and started to reply, when a second text came in: “Heard back from Anton.”
That piqued my interest. Anton’s involvement was yet another factor that Asher wasn’t taking into account. If there was a way to attack this problem on two fronts, it gave Sarah and me an advantage; as a rule, I take every advantage I possibly can. I relayed both messages to Michel and a quick, dirty breakdown of Anton’s involvement in the whole ongoing situation. “Finally,” I exhaled.
“Finally, what?” He asked.
“Finally, a glimpse of something that might be an end to this damn tunnel,” I said. I finished the remainder of the meal quickly.
“So, we are leaving?” He started to stand, reaching into his pocket for money.
“Almost.” I switched back to the Welsh accent and raised my voice slightly. “Cat?”
I didn’t turn, but I heard the kitchen door open. “Oh, what do you need, dearie?”
“Could I get another plate of this delightful lamb, to go? It’s just too good for me to have only one serving, it is!”
“Of course, dearie; no man is ever going to leave a table of mine hungry!”
Michel lifted his eyebrow. I shrugged a response to him. “What? It’s good food,” I explained. “You can’t just let that sort of an opportunity go to waste.”