Chapter Seventy-One

I leaped over the couch and scrambled back to the counter.  “What did I miss?”

“Nothing!”  Sarah’s voice came out in a high pitched squeak.  “Everything was going fine, Lane went to the bathroom, and then…well, you saw!”

Over the comms, I listened to Adlai speak.  “What is this?”  On the screen, Adlai squinted at the mini-camera.  “You are recording this?  Why?”

Michel made a sound in his throat, but didn’t actually say anything.

“Why?”  Adlai repeated as he leaned across the table.  Nothing he did was explicitly threatening – he didn’t even raise his voice – but it was very clear that, if Michel’s answer wasn’t satisfactory, jail was all but a foregone conclusion.

Sarah began inputting commands into her laptop, fingers clattering across the keys at top speed.  “Mila,” she said, “get ready to extract him.  I’ll come up with some sort of distraction.”

“Roger that.”  There was a hint of…something in Mila’s voice.  Regret?  Chagrin?  It was possible that she might have been able to intervene, if she hadn’t taken her eyes off of Michel for her little conversation with the Things.  Perhaps that was bothering her.

At the same time, this was a field-level problem and, therefore, my responsibility to have seen coming.  I didn’t have the time to start wallowing in blame at the moment, however.  “There’s too many people around them,” I said.  “No clean exit without getting civilians involved and there’s still no guarantee that they’ll be able to open up enough of a gap and actually get away clean.  Leaving now causes more problems than it solves.”

“Well, they can’t stay there now!”  Sarah snapped.  “You’re the one who didn’t even want him to go to the table in the first place, and now you’re saying he should stay?”

I closed my eyes for a moment.

“I can’t believe you’re so calm right now!”  Sarah said.

I couldn’t explain it to her.  There was a moment on every job when my thoughts shifted.  Of course, I was concerned about Michel’s safety.  That never went away.  But I couldn’t focus on that; if I allowed my worry to dominate my thoughts, I’d never be able to properly assess the situation.  This moment, when there wasn’t enough time to consider anything past the next few seconds, was where I excelled.  I pushed all of my concern and worry into a little box and sealed it shut.

I looked at the television screen, split into four distinct feeds: the camera Mila wore, the one Adlai held between his fingertips, the general security cameras, and the ongoing football game.  Judging from what I saw, Mila wasn’t close enough to reach Michel before Adlai had a chance to detain him.  There wasn’t any doubt that she could deal with that, but an extraction right now wasn’t the right idea.  Adlai wasn’t the sort of person who could let something like that go.  He’d pursue them immediately and that simply put two more people on his radar.

My mind created, assessed, and discarded plans in the space of seconds.  If Michel left now, that would be problematic.  But, if he didn’t leave now…if he could somehow leave later, in a way that didn’t draw Adlai into pursuit…that option had possibilities.  But how would I pull something like that off?  I needed to explain away a button camera that Sarah had purchased illicitly to the one man on the planet unlikely to accept any story that seemed even the slightest bit implausible.  I could use that suspicion, though, if only…

There was something I’d seen earlier, but not consciously paid attention to.  It floated to the top of my mind.  A plan formed around that single image.  I knew it would cause far more problems down the line, if it worked at all, but it was at least something.  Thinking about tomorrow, after all, required that we all make it there in the first place.

“This is what we’re going to do,” I said.  “Mila, how quickly can you pull off a lift?”

“The faster I do it, the rougher it’ll be.”

“That’s not going to be a problem.”  A horde of people were in the bar, surging and pressing against each other.  There was a rhythm to the madness, however, and I was able to pick out a few key details.  I spent a few seconds searching for a very particular type of person.  Some part of my mind had logged details – body language, general stance, a way of looking at everything without looking at anything in particular – and I swept my eyes across the visual presented by Mila’s camera.

I found what I was looking for a moment later.  “Things are going to get crazy in a second.  As soon as that happens, lift the wallet from the man in the gray hoodie – the one with his back almost against the wall – and slip it to Michel.”

“Crazy?”  Mila asked.  “Do I want to know what you mean by crazy?”

I ignored her and moved onto the next part of my impromptu plan.  “Sarah, watch me for the cue.”

In the throes of frenzied shot-calling, it didn’t even occur to me that I hadn’t told her what the cue would be for.  Explanation was a luxury that could follow later, after the immediate crisis had passed.  Even sticking to complete sentences was more effort than I wanted to spare, but that was necessary for Mila and Michel.

For Sarah, though?  She knew me better than anyone.  Her mind didn’t work the same way mine did – she was far more methodical, better able to think five or ten steps ahead – but our methodologies were still complementary.  She handled the far reaching plan, the general overview of what would happen on a job; I took care of the complications and the ground-level obstacles.  Even though I wasn’t technically on the ground at the moment, those dynamics hadn’t changed.  We both slipped back into the old roles with ease.  Perhaps a little too much ease, judging from the way her lips parted and the pace of her breathing slightly accelerated.

Sarah couldn’t understand the way I shelved fear in the moment, and she couldn’t make the same intuitive leaps I did, but that didn’t matter.  When she nodded, her face didn’t betray even the slightest hint of doubt.  “Got it,” she said, all ten fingers hovering over the keyboard, ready to input whatever command I called for.

The game onscreen was reaching a fever pitch, both teams tied at two points each.  The Scottish midfielders were moving their way up the field, passing around the English team’s defenders.  My knowledge of sports wasn’t terribly solid, but I could sense the flow of the game.  The ball went from a midfielder, up to their star striker who lined up a clear shot on an unprepared goalie and…

“Now!”  I snapped.  “Cut the satellite!”

Sarah hit two buttons at once on her computer and the top window of our television screen – the one showing us the game in progress – went black.  In the pub, each screen did the same.  Almost instantly, the horde of men and women reacted with drunken outrage.  They yelled at the screen and each other, pushed, and jostled as they hurled obscenities at the dead screen.  In that chaos, Mila was free to simply move people out of the way and no one thought much about the relatively short Hispanic woman moving out of the crush of bodies.  She passed by the man in the gray hoodie and, eventually, walked by Michel.

Watching through Mila’s zoomed-in camera, I saw that Adlai had grabbed Michel’s shirt, as soon as the feed went dead.  He must have feared that the Frenchman would’ve fled.  That was how Adlai thought.  That wasn’t the plan, though.

“Turn the game back on,” I said to Sarah.

She did as asked and the chaos quieted slightly.  Apparently the striker had missed the shot, but drawn a penalty in exchange.  Lane had left the bathroom during the chaos and now he made his way back over to the table.  He blinked as he saw Michel’s shirt, held tight in Adlai’s grip.

“What’s this, now?”  He asked.

“I was waiting for this man to explain why he is wearing a miniature camera,” Adlai said to Lane.  Then, to Michel, “Well?  Do you have an explanation?”

Michel looked around nervously.  “I…I…”

“Show them the wallet,” I said.  Internally, I was a long way from calm, but my voice was steady and even.

Michel retrieved the wallet that Mila had slipped him.  Adlai plucked it from his hand and opened it.  The agent’s eyes widened and his mouth gaped open.  “This is your explanation?”

Lane took the wallet from Adlai and held it up so that it faced Michel, allowing Sarah and I to see what I had really hoped would be contained within: a silver and black Detective Sergeant’s badge.  “You’re a copper?”  The Scottish man asked.  “Why didn’t you say so?”

Michel, bless his heart, understood what I’d intended.  “I am undercover,” he said in a forced whisper.  “Please, do not show that to everyone; my cover depends on it.”

“Undercover?”  Adlai asked, not bothering to make any effort to conceal his skepticism.  “That’s why you told us that you were only a cab driver?”

Michel hesitated slightly.  I gestured vaguely at Sarah, trusting in her ability to discern my intent, and fed Michel his next lines.  “Tell him that you don’t know who you can trust,” I told Michel.  “Say that you’ve got to get in touch with your handler, immediately.”

Michel repeated my words to the two Interpol agents facing him.

Lane was more than a little drunk, and it seemed like he was willing to accept the story at face value, but Adlai was still crisp and aware.  If his eyes narrowed any further, it was possible that he’d close them entirely.  “I will go with you,” he said, when Michel finished speaking.

“No!”  Michel said sharply.  His accent shifted slightly.  It wasn’t an exact match for a born Londoner, although it was probably close enough to pass in an environment like the pub.  There was too much ambient noise and chaos for anyone to really parse dialects.  Someone who was also not a native speaker had virtually no chance at all.  “I…will be right over there.”  He pointed at an abandoned table; the people who had been seated there were now on their feet, shouting at the football match.

“Let him go,” Lane slurred.  “We know what he looks like, and we’ve got his name.  If he’s making it up…”  He trailed off and shrugged with one shoulder.

Adlai considered that for a long moment and then nodded.  “Fair enough, I suppose,” he said.  “Right over there.  Do not go any farther than that.  I would like to clarify the situation.”  He handed the camera back.  As far as he knew, there wasn’t anything to be gained from holding onto it.  It wasn’t as if he had any way of knowing that I was watching the encounter and steering the conversation.

Michel took the button and walked over to the empty table.  He was only a few steps away before he hissed into the comms, keeping his voice so low that Sarah had to raise the volume on the line.  “A police officer?”  He asked.  “What am I supposed to do now?”

“You needed to stall,” I said.  “What else were you going to do?”

“A police officer?”  He repeated.

Sarah spoke before I could form a reply.  “This isn’t great,” she said, “but I might be able to work with it.  A little bit.”

Michel reached the table and went through the motions of dialing a number into his burner phone.  It was a good sign that he still maintained the presence of mind to stay in character.  “How?”

“If you’re undercover, you have a perfectly good reason for not looking like a cop,” Sarah said.  “When Adlai tries to check your credentials, and he doesn’t find anything, it will just look like a deep cover operation.”

And,” I added, “it’ll keep him from asking anyone else about you.  It won’t hold up forever, but we only need the story to survive until we can get him pointed at Hill and Asher.”

“And if he asks me questions about who I am working with?  These undercover officers have…what did you call them?  Handlers?”  Michel pressed.  “What am I supposed to do then?”

Sarah tapped me on the shoulder, drawing my attention to the screen of her laptop.  Apparently, she had understood what my vague gesture meant; displayed there, I saw a list of London’s finest, categorized by name and rank.  “Sarah’s sending a list of names to your phone right now,” I said.  “Look over them and start memorizing names.”

“Right now?”

“You wanted to do this,” I said.  “This is what it’s like.  As long as you aren’t trying to make a run for it, Adlai’s not going to pressure you for time.”  There was an unspoken maybe that hung in the air like a storm cloud.

“I…okay,” Michel said.  His phone beeped audibly as he received the file and, a moment later, he started to mutter names to himself.

“What do you want me to do?”  Mila asked.  She’d been silent since I’d put her on pause, which I appreciated.  Multitasking several conversations wasn’t the easiest thing to do, even when my thoughts weren’t already being split in six different directions.

“For right now, nothing,” I said.  “Stay in position.  Try to get closer, if you think you can do it without tipping either of them off.”

“And the badge?”

“That cop you stole it from is drunk as nonsense.  As long as we get it back to him before you two leave, he probably won’t even notice it went missing.”

Mila grunted.  “If you say so.”

I turned to Sarah and made a snipping gesture with my fingers.  She muted both of our earbuds with that familiar double clicking sound.  “How’d you get those names so fast?” I asked her.

“SQL injection,” she said.  “Went to the official website, through the HTTPS port, and…nevermind.  There’s a database and it isn’t protected very well.”

“Good job,” I said.  “I was a little worried that it might take longer than that, but this works a whole hell of a lot better than my other plan.”

“What was your other plan?”

My thoughts traveled back to Ally, and the Hofbräuhaus, and the concert.  “Let just say it wasn’t a very good one.”

She accepted that non-answer with a grunt.  “How’d you know that guy was a cop?”

“Body language,” I said.  “Legs apart, one foot back.  Even drunk, the way he stands isn’t going to change unless he’s falling over.”

Sarah tilted her head and lowered her eyelids slightly.

Fine,” I said, “it was a guess.  A very good one, though.”

Sarah pursed her lips and nodded.  “I forget exactly how good you are at this,” she admitted, after a moment.  That odd look came into her eyes again.  On anyone else, the expression would’ve been easy to read.  When Sarah wore it, I found myself too distracted by the interesting things it did to the shape of her mouth to think clearly.

Michel spoke up.  “Okay,” he said.  “What do I do now?”

Sarah reconnected the lines without needing a prompt from me.  “I can play keepaway for a little bit, as long as they’re using the pub’s wireless,” she said.  “But that’s a stalling measure.”

“We’ll just have to use the time we’ve got creatively,” I said, nodding to myself.  “Michel?  This is how we’re going to play this.”

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