Chapter Sixty-Nine

“I…I don’t know,” I said, helpless and dumbfounded.

“You don’t know?”  She repeated.  “You promised he wouldn’t be at the bar.  You swore to it, in fact.”

“He shouldn’t be!”  I heard the squeak in my voice.  “I’ve been doing everything I can to keep up with him as a matter of professional safety, and he doesn’t drink; he doesn’t socialize with virtually anybody; and he absolutely would not go to any place where there are so many people crowding around him.”

“Seems like he got over that,” Sarah said.

“Maybe Lane got him to come out?”  The question was directed more to myself than to Sarah.  “Or something might have shaken things up in his personal life, I just…I don’t know why he’s there, but we’ve got to pull those two out of there now.”

I reached up to unmute the line.  Sarah stopped my hand with hers.  “Wait,” she said.  “Just…wait a second, let me think.”

“What’s there to think about?  The plan was for them to lift some identification from Lane, while he’s drunk and not paying strict attention.  Adlai’s presence obviously throws that whole idea to hell, so…”

“Does it, though?”

I paused and blinked at Sarah.  “What?”

“Does it actually change the plan?  Michel just has to keep the two of them distracted long enough for Mila to make the lift,” Sarah said.  “Those two weren’t ever going to be involved in anything physical at the Interpol office, so they don’t have covers to protect.  That’s why we sent them in the first place.”

“We sent them because you convinced me to take a small risk, not because we wanted to have them serve themselves up on a platter to the very agent who’s trying to arrest me now.  I’m not going to let them put themselves in that much danger, just to make things easier on me.”

“You won’t let them?”  Sarah’s voice hadn’t changed much on the surface, but the temperature around her seemed to have dropped suddenly.  “Easier on you?”

I squeezed my eyes shut and pinched the bridge of my nose for thirty seconds.  I tried to put my thoughts in order, to frame some argument that would convince Sarah that I was right without leading to an argument.  “We can find another way to do this,” I said, finally.  “There’s too much of a possibility that something’s going to go wrong, and that’s only going to put us in worse position later.”

“The thing is,” Sarah said, “I actually believe you mean that.”

I knew her well enough to recognize when she was planting verbal bait.  “But?”

“But that isn’t why you want to pull them out,” she finished.  “And it isn’t why you didn’t like this plan in the first place.”

“Oh?  And what insight have you suddenly had into the inner workings of my own mind?”

“You’re scared, Devlin.”

I rolled my eyes.  “You think?”

“Not of Asher,” Sarah said, with a lethally sharp undertone of sarcasm.  “Not of Hill, or the Magi, or even the Lady.  You’re scared something’s going to happen to one of us, and that it’ll be your fault.”

I opened my mouth to reply.  I closed it again when I realized that I had no clever response available.

She pressed on.  “It’s an absolutely honorable thing to do, and it’s just like you.  It also happens to be one of the most arrogant and stupid parts of your personality.”

“Arrogant?  Wanting you guys to be safe is arrogant, now?”

“It’s arrogant,” Sarah said, “because you assume that you’re somehow such a compelling and charming human being that people would willingly walk in front of the firing squad just because you asked us to.  I’m here because I want to be here.  I made that choice, not you.  And Michel?  He could’ve walked away at any point – hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been trying to get him to leave – and he’s still here.  A complete newbie to this whole thing, in deeper than I’ve personally ever been, and he practically volunteered to help.  His choice, Devlin.  Not yours.”

“And Mila?”

Sarah lifted an eyebrow.  “I’m not going to dignify that with a response.  The point is this: the reason those two are out there and the reason I’m here are because we want to be here.”  She paused.  “It’s because we want to help with…all of this.  You think I wouldn’t have just disappeared if Asher was the only thing I was worried about?”

“You didn’t even know about Asher,” I said.

Her lips parted slightly and there was a single moment where it seemed like she was about to say something.  She blinked, coughed a little, and the moment passed.  “I know now,” Sarah said instead, “and I’m choosing to be here.  And whether or not Michel and Mila decide to roll the dice on this is their choice.  You don’t get to take all of this on your own shoulders.”

As much as it pained me to admit, even just to myself, Sarah was right.  She gave me a look, subtly different from any she’d thrown at me since San Francisco, and I could see that she knew she’d won the discussion.

“We’ll let them decide, then,” I said, and unmuted the comms line.  Sarah made no move to stop me this time.  “Guys.  We’ve got a problem.”

Mila turned her back to Adlai and Lane.  “Imagine that.”

“What is the problem?”  Michel asked.

“Lane is at the bar,” I said, “but he isn’t alone.”

“I noticed that,” Mila said.  “Who’s his friend?”

I sighed before I answered.  “It’s Adlai.  Apparently, Lane talked him into coming out for a night on the town, or…I don’t know, or cats started living in harmony with dogs, but he’s there now and that’s really all that matters.”

Several long seconds of silence passed on both ends of the connection.  Mila cleared her throat first, breaking the frozen instant.  “Speaking of cats,” she said, “can you make sure that Sam gets fed?  Just in case this takes longer than expected.”

I gave the screen a long, confused look before I tapped lightly at the earbud.  Not hard enough to mute it again, but with enough force that I was certain it was actually in place.  “Did you hear what I said?”

“I did,” Mila said.  “Did you hear what I said?  Because Sam gets catty when he’s hungry.”

Sarah snickered.  “Catty?  Really?”

At any other time, I would’ve been happy to engage in a little bit of meaningless banter.  At that moment, however, I could hardly believe that Mila and Sarah were actually joking.  “Adlai is in the building,” I repeated.  “If you want to walk away, we can come up with another plan.”

“If you could come up with another plan,” Mila said, “you would’ve done it already.  Adlai being here doesn’t actually change what we have to do, does it Michel?”

“No,” he answered, after a stretch of silent consideration.  “No, it does not.  I only have to keep this Lane from noticing Mila, no?”

“Which shouldn’t be too hard,” Mila said.  “He’s doing some serious damage to those pints.”

I could feel Sarah’s smug eyes on me, so I elected to keep my eyes focused on the television screen.  “You two aren’t worried about getting caught?”

“I’m always a little concerned about getting caught,” Mila replied.  “But I feel pretty confident that neither Adlai or Hill has much of a chance at keeping me, if I decide I want to go.”

“I am concerned,” Michel added, “but I knew that there were risks when I came.  I can do this.”  He paused.  “Unless you think I cannot?”

I could have answered in the negative.  He’d left me an opening.  If I told him that I was concerned about his abilities, that tiny kernel of doubt would have been enough reason to call the operation off.  We could spend more time analyzing the problem, seeking an angle where Sarah, Michel, and Mila weren’t in so much danger.  It would have been so easy, too.  Even an indirect answer might be enough.  Nothing explicit; just something vague enough that it got into his head and Sarah was forced to pull the plug.

But I also knew that tiny seed of doubt would never go away.  Michel had talent and he’d been interested in the underworld so far.  Those were two traits I didn’t encounter often.  It was likely that he’d find his way back into thievery at one point or another, whether it was with us or not, but that speck of doubt would grow to define him.  It might keep him out of danger, on this one job, but it would also fester into hesitation.  A single moment of hesitation at a key moment – while an alarm system was going off and he couldn’t be sure which path led to the police, versus the one leading to freedom – would be damning.

Sarah was watching me.  I could feel the pressure of her thoughts, like a weight against my skin.  “No,” I said to Michel.  “No, I think you can do it.  I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were walking into.”

He sighed, either in relief or appreciation.  “Okay,” he said.  “What do I do first?”

“This is just going to be a standard approach,” I said, taking care to remove any doubt or ambivalence from my voice.  I started the process of shifting my thought processes into pure problem-solving mode.  “You’re a fellow expat, looking for someone to have a drink with. “

“I can do that,” Michel said.  “I think.”

“Mila,” I added, “just circle around the bar until either Sarah or I call for you.  Try to keep your camera pointed in his general direction, so that we can watch the interactions between him, Lane, and Adlai.  The security cameras don’t give us a lot of detail.”

Sarah cleared her throat.  “And stay close, on the off-chance that something else goes wrong.”

I restrained the urge to groan.  By phrasing her instructions like that, Sarah all but guaranteed that the roof would choose the worst possible moment to cave in, or that a resurgence of the Black Plague would strike down our team members and only our team members, or that Mila would suffer from a sudden bout of spontaneous combustion.  A quick glance in her direction made it clear that she understood what she’d done, immediately, but there wasn’t anything to do about it now.

Sarah had to cross the room and move Sam away from his perch in front of the screen so that the two of us could devote our full attention to Michel’s camera feed.  It wasn’t a long walk from where he stood with Mila to where Lane sat with Adlai, but the bar was jam packed with patrons vying for the attention of bartenders, servers, and a limited supply of attractive women.  Michel picked his way through the crowd with as much delicacy as I would expect from a neophyte, until he was only two tables away from Lane and Adlai.  There, he paused for a moment.

Sarah looked at me, expectantly.  I cleared my throat and shifted mental tracks.  There was a time for second guessing, but that time was over.  “Michel, I’ll walk you through this approach,” I said.  “Sarah’s right here with me, and she’ll be able to pull up information as necessary to make sure your cover ID stands up to any scrutiny.  All you’ve got to do is stay calm and stay in character.  Adlai’s not a social person, so he shouldn’t really involve himself in the conversation.”

Sarah scribbled something on a scrap of paper and pushed it across the counter to me.  I glanced down at the words: “shouldn’t = key word.”  I scowled at her as I crumpled the slip of paper into a tiny ball and threw it at her head.

“How do I approach him?”  Michel asked.

I watched the security cameras for a moment, drawing up a quick and dirty outline for how I’d quickly befriend Lane, if it were me in the bar instead of Michel.  “Unless he’s already drunk, he’s going to notice you before you get a chance to make an actual introduction.  That’s going to come with suspicion.  Counter that by being entirely open and forthcoming.  Eye contact and wide smile, okay?  Start off by letting him know you’re not British, so that he feels a connection with you over that.  He’s going to take the initiative, and that’s fine for right now, but you’ll have to get it back as soon as possible.”

“Why would I do that?  Wouldn’t it be better to let him do all of the talking?”

“Right up until he asks you a question you hesitate on, sure,” I said.  “As long as you’re steering the conversation, I can tell you what to say to keep him away from any problem areas.”

That wasn’t the whole truth.  If it were a one-on-one interaction, sure, the team could work together to ensure that Michel never strayed too close to dangerous topics of conversation.  But Adlai’s presence was a wrench in the delicate mechanics of our plan.  At any given moment, he could say or do something that ruined whatever groove Michel managed to establish with Lane, and there was no way to really keep him in check.

I wouldn’t tell Michel that, of course.  “Remember,” I said, “all we need is for him to be fully invested in you, so that Mila can make the lift, copy the RFID frequency, and beat a hasty retreat.”

“I’ll be right here, too,” Sarah added.  “And you already know where Mila’s at.  Just remember that you aren’t alone out there.”

I watched Mila’s feed as Michel nodded to himself.  He started the approach without any further prompting on my part or questions on his.  Sarah entered a command into her laptop and the zoom on Mila’s feed tripled.  The images were nearly as crisp as if I were there in person.

Just as I’d predicted, Adlai looked up from his smartphone as Michel drew closer.  The camera Michel wore wasn’t quite state of the art, but it didn’t need a lot of resolution to see that Lane was wavering from one side to the other in his seat, while Adlai’s eyes were alert and focused on Michel.

Pardon,” Michel said, before Adlai or Lane could get a word out.  “Excusez-moi, mais parlez-vous francais?”

Adlai frowned at the question.  For a moment, it seemed like he would ignore Michel, but I’d taken the measure of his personality a long time ago.  “Oui,” he said shortly.  “But I am better at English.”

“Oh!  Bon!”  Michel clapped his hands together in faked excitement.  “I know that English is easier to use while I am here, but I miss my own language.  You understand, no?”

“I have been speaking English for many years,” Adlai said.  “I don’t think of it as someone else’s language, anymore.”

The forced cheer in Michel’s voice dimmed slightly.  Not a lot, but enough that it was audible when he spoke again.  “Oh.  I did not mean anything offensive, I just…”

“Don’t do that,” I whispered into the earbud.  The decrease in volume was automatic and unreasonable.  I could scream into the connection and neither of the agents would hear a single syllable I said.  “That’s how Adlai is.  Move onto Lane.”

“And you?”  Michel asked, turning to the Scottish agent.  “Where are you from, if you do not mind me asking?”

“Scotland here.”  Lane’s answer was brutally short.

I entertained a moment of concern at the brusqueness of Lane’s response.  If our intelligence was wrong and Lane wasn’t a friendly person, this whole exercise would turn out to be nothing more than a waste of time we didn’t have and couldn’t afford to waste.  The moment passed when I realized that his attention was focused on two things in equal measure, judging from the changing angles of his chin: the beer in front of him, and the soccer game playing out on one of the televisions hanging behind the bar.

I motioned for Sarah to pass me a full, clean sheet of paper.  We’d have to communicate through written notes while Michel was in the middle of distracting both agents; it wasn’t the first time we’d been forced to do that.  I used our personal shorthand to write out a message: “top players, coaches, etc.?”

She performed a search for some information, jotted down some notes for herself, and then wrote out a response in the same shorthand: “try Fletcher.”  It took me a moment to piece together the symbols and abbreviations Sarah had chosen for the name.  She took the time to add another window to the feeds on the television screen, allowing us to watch the game, in real time.

I relayed that information to Michel, and it immediately became relevant: the same Scottish striker from earlier ducked around a defender, used a fancy heel maneuver to launch the ball up to about waist height, and then roundhouse kicked it past the goalie and into the net.  The crowd exploded, both in the bar and at the game itself.  “Michel?”  I prompted.

“Fletcher!  Bon, c’est trés bon! Excellente!”  I repressed the urge to laugh out loud.  Michel had elected to pour his Frenchness on layers, complete with the most stereotypical accent I’d ever heard.  If Michel wasn’t actually French, it might have been a little offensive.

Adlai glanced away from the television.  “Fletcher?”  He asked.  He sounded drunk.  “What do you know about the Scots and their soccer?”

Michel responded before I had a chance to feed him an answer.  “Enough to know that the English do not stand a chance if the Army has its way,” he said.

I blinked and scribbled a loose approximation of a thumbs-up on the paper for Sarah.

“Laddie!”  Lane cried out, in an accent that was nearly impenetrable.  “You’re sounding like my kind of Frenchie!  Who’d you come with?”

“I am new to the area,” Michel said, “and I have not had a chance to make any friends, yet.”

“Well, you just did,” Lane said.  “Grab a seat.  Maybe you’ll be better company than this one.”  The inspector hooked a thumb in Adlai’s direction.

Adlai, for his part, hadn’t lowered the pressure of his stare in the slightest.  I could feel the heat and intensity of that stare, as though he were looking right through Michel at me, directly.  I shuddered at that morbid thought.  “You’re doing great,” I told Michel.  “Grab a seat, and start feeding him shots.”

“That was it?”  Mila asked.  “You made it seem like this was going to be something impossible, but that was…”

I winced as Sarah pressed a button on her laptop and filled the comms line with a burst of high pitched feedback.  Michel remained unaffected, so I assumed that she had found some way to exclude him from that noise in the few seconds since I’d been watching her.  “You were saying something, Mila?”  She asked.

“I was saying that, so far, this is pretty…”

The feedback came over the line again.  I was prepared this time and managed to keep my reaction to a slight grimace.

“Go on,” Sarah said.  “I’d hate for this equipment to stop you from saying something impossibly stupid.”

Instead of trying a third time, Mila chuckled to herself and decided to keep her thoughts to herself.

I tuned my attention back to Michel’s side of things.  “…I am only visiting for a little while,” the Frenchman was saying to Lane.  “A vacation, from the rough life of a cab driver, you see.  What brings the two of you here, though?”

“Good job,” I said, nodding at his initiative.  “People love talking about themselves.  Let him open up, but don’t let him get control of the conversation.  It’s easier than it sounds, promise.”

I scratched out a quick sentence on the paper in front of me and pushed it over to Sarah: “how long to copy RFID?”

She adjusted a setting on her laptop, raising the resolution of both Michel and Mila’s cameras, before she responded: “two minutes.  maybe three, depending.  why?”

“got a feeling,” I wrote back.

good feeling?”

I shook my head slowly.  Out loud, I said, “Start ordering shots, Michel.  Lane’s a good old scotsman, so I’m betting he’s a fan of whiskey.  Start off with…”  I tapped an index finger against my chin and considered the options.

“Bell’s,” Sarah provided.

I raised an eyebrow.  “Since when do you drink whiskey?”

“I don’t,” she replied, lifting her eyebrow as well.  “But Lane used a credit card to open his tab and I’ve got access to their system, so…”

“Bell’s it is,” I said.

Michel suggested the liquor with more casualness than I would have expected and Lane, more than a few drinks in the bag already, accepted it with so much warmth that I almost felt bad about deceiving him.  Adlai couldn’t have been good company at any social event, let alone a bar teeming with drunken football fans.  Even now, while Michel attempted to schmooze his way into Lane’s good graces, Adlai continued to glare in his general direction.  Every few seconds, he let his eyes dart around the area – tracking threats, most likely – but he returned to glaring at Michel before too long.

Still, if the only thing that Adlai did was think harsh thoughts, I could deal with that.

“I’ve got to take care of something,” Mila said, without warning.

I blinked at the sudden interruption of my thoughts and wrenched myself away from speculation and back to reality.  “What?”

“I have to take care of something,” she repeated.  “Shouldn’t take too long.”

“Is this something you can deal with later?”  Sarah asked, incredulously.  “Because we’re kind of in the middle of something.”

“No,” Mila said.  “It can’t.  Don’t worry about it.  I’ll be back before too long.”

I reached out to Mila’s feed without really thinking about it.  “Wait, what are you –“

The feed went dead as Mila switched her camera off.  Through the building’s security cameras, I saw her move away from the table and back towards the bar.

I started to write out a note for Sarah, but Michel spoke first.  His words were so low that I might have missed them, if Sarah and I hadn’t gone completely quiet.  “What do I do now?”

“Just, uh, keep doing what you’re doing,” I said.  “We’ll figure out what’s going on with Mila.”

He made a little grunting sound in his throat that I took as agreement.  A server brought over two shots of Bell’s Whiskey and Michel lifted his glass to clink against Lane’s.  He could handle this for the moment, while I got Mila back into position.  At least, I hoped he could.

On the other hand, I had absolutely no idea how I was going to do anything so many miles away, limited to a voice in an earbud, but Michel didn’t need to know that part.

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