Chapter Seventy-Two

“You are here to investigate the drug ring?”  Michel directed the question to Adlai.  Lane was at the table but, despite efforts to sober up, wasn’t really a factor at the moment.  The Indian agent was a much larger concern, so I had instructed Michel to focus his efforts on him.

“How do you know that?”  Adlai countered.

“That is what I am doing, as well,” Michel said.  Through Mila’s camera, I saw him shoot furtive glances from one side of the bar to the other.  That hadn’t been part of the instructions, but it added some reality to the act.  If Michel really was working with the Special Group, it stood to reason that he would be uncomfortable discussing the particulars of his job in such a crowded area.

Of course, the fact that he was really making sure that Mila was close enough to intervene wouldn’t occur to either of the Interpol agents.  All they would see is a nervous man with a badge, telling them a story that I could only hope they’d buy.

“I didn’t hear anything about an undercover operation,” Adlai said, after a moment or two of consideration.  “Who is your handler?”

“I can not tell you that,” Michel said.

“You mean to say that there isn’t one?”  The uptick in Adlai’s volume was easy to read.  He sensed an opening and, by going on the offensive, hoped to force Michel into making a mistake.

It had also been easy to predict.  “No,” Michel said, “I literally can’t tell you.  The person you are pursuing has many friends.  Some of those friends are in the police department.”

“We’re not part of the local police department,” Adlai said.  “Interpol isn’t corrupted by the same criminals that live here.”  On the surface, the words sounded confident, but a slight twitch at the corner of one eye betrayed Adlai’s own doubts.  He wanted to believe that his agency wasn’t compromised, but he’d worked too many cases and brought in too many corrupting influences to truly believe that anyone was above bribery, extortion, or blackmail.

Michel shrugged his reply.  We’d decided on a line that might have worked, but silence was a better option.  I privately applauded his decision and whispered as much into the comms.  “Good job,” I said to Michel.  “Let him think about that on his own.  No need to oversell it.”

It was Lane, not Adlai, who spoke next.  “Why’re you telling us this now?”  He asked.  “As far as you know, we could be working for the same drug lord you’re trying to bring down.”

If you are actually working undercover as you say you are,” Adlai added.

Mila moved closer, silent and unnoticed, and I saw Michel pinch the bridge of his nose, as if frustrated.  I took the cue.  “You’re going to want to play up Adlai’s ego,” I said.  “This is a man who believes so absolutely in a black and white idea of the world that he’d arrest his own father, if it came down to it.  He doesn’t trust anyone.  Turn that fear into our advantage.”

Michel sighed, perhaps a little longer than strictly necessary, to cover the time he needed to think.  “What would make you believe me?”  He asked, finally.

“A signed document from the local chief of police,” Adlai responded, immediately.

“No one knows where I am, except for my handler,” Michel said.  “It is safer that way.  For me and…for my family.”

That finally got a reaction other than suspicion and skepticism from Adlai.  It wasn’t a very large reaction – he only breathed in a little sharper than he had before – but it was something that we might be able to capitalize on.  “You have a family?”

From beside me, Sarah swore under her breath.  She started muttering to herself, hitting the keys on her laptop like a machine gun, and I only caught a part of what she said while she worked.  “…course, she’ll be able to create an entire identity out of thin air.  It isn’t hard to fake an entire backstory or anything, but…”

I spared the vaguest portion of my attention from Michel’s conversation and refilled her glass of wine.  It had apparently gone empty at some point during the last few crises.  Sarah shot me a look with enough heat that I felt it against the side of my face…then, she took the wine and emptied the half of it in one go, before turning back to her work.

Her part of the plan was easily the hardest.  All I had to do was create a story from whole cloth, on the fly, while Adlai tried his level best to poke holes in whatever I managed to draw out of thin air.  Michel, untrained and probably terrified beyond reason, only had to sell the lie to two trained Interpol agents in a situation we specifically done everything in our power to avoid.  Mila…well, Mila didn’t have to do anything, other than be ready for violence, in case things went even further sideways.  I suspected that her job was far easier than any of ours.

Sarah, however, had to actually support our bullshit.  Working through several official databases, filling information in as it came up, fact-checking any name we needed to use…Sarah had to do all of that, without any time for preparation or planning.  On the surface, this was the type of situation she hated having to deal with.  In the years before our split, she’d told me as much on several occasions.  Watching her work now, though…I couldn’t understand why she complained.  I multi-tasked my way through problems, sorting through and discarding plans based on their viability, in the field on a regular basis.  What she did with her computers was so far above my capabilities that I felt, irrationally, more than a little jealous.

As Michel and I spoke, Sarah pulled up the fake identity she’d created for the Frenchman and corrected the information she’d input on his false driver’s ID.  She pulled two names from a database of the most common first and last names in London, searched through his falsified tax returns, and added two children to his list of dependents.  There was an automated program she’d created years ago that handled the particulars of that.  As soon as she finished with the appropriate commands, Sarah’s program began backdating purchases for diapers, clothing, Legos, and Christmas gifts through the requisite number of years.  While that work took place, Sarah moved onto the task of Photoshopping pictures together and arranging for them to rise to the top of any web searches.

She was amazing.  I looked at her work, openmouthed, and felt something stir within my belly.  The sensation was a familiar one and I identified it after a heartbeat: this was how it had felt, in the moments before I’d proposed to her.  This was Sarah at her finest.

Her eyes flickered away from her work, finding my own gaze.  “What?”

“What?”  I blinked and looked away.  “I, uh…”

“You, uh, what?”

“Just thinking that you, uh…I was just wondering how things are going over there?”

Internally, I kicked myself for the sudden inability to form coherent, believable sentences.

“They’re fine,” Sarah said tersely.  “Michel, you’re clear.  It won’t hold up to scrutiny, so you’ll have to keep him from looking too deep into those files.”

I didn’t know how she managed to pull it off, considering the time constraints, but it worked.  On the television screen, I watched as Adlai entered Michel’s fake name into Google.  Sarah finished a few split seconds before Adlai pulled out his phone.  Judging from the slight deflation on the part of the Interpol agent, her work had been successful.

“This does not mean you are a police officer,” Adlai said, after his time searching for flaws didn’t provide any usable ones.  “You could be an opportunist.  Someone who pretends to be an officer.”

That was a weak move, on Adlai’s part.  I spoke the next words into the comms and Michel, dutifully, parroted them back at the agent.

“If I were an opportunist,” Michel said, adding a little sarcastic inflection to the words, “I would have run away as soon as you said that you worked with Interpol.  Why else would I stay and talk to you?”

“That is a very good question,” Adlai said.  “Why did you stay?”

“Because I am getting close to the truth,” Michel said.  “I needed to know if the two of you were people that I can trust.  Are you?”

That was the hook.  If Adlai took the bait, Michel’s hastily constructed cover would do more than just get him out of the room without handcuffs; it would serve as the first step towards pointing Adlai’s talents at the real bad guys.  If it didn’t work…well, Mila was circling nearer to the table, almost within arm’s reach of Lane.  Neither of the Interpol agents had noticed her yet.

Adlai considered the question for a long time.  “Tell us what you know,” he said finally.  “We will see if you have any information we can use.”

“Adlai,” Lane said.  He dragged out the vowel sound and lurched slightly forward.  The look in Adlai’s eyes told me that he attributed the unsteadiness to alcohol and not, thankfully, to the short Hispanic woman who passed by at that exact moment.  “He’s one of us!  If he needs help, we ought to find a way to do that, don’t you think?”

“Hmm,” Adlai replied.  He pulled out a chair for Michel.  “Sit.  Talk.”

Sarah let out an explosive breath and I realized that I’d been holding mine, as well.  “Do you think he really bought it?”

“It seems that way,” I said, without turning away from the screen.  “But we aren’t home free yet.  Michel, I hope you remember the story we’re using.”

Since he couldn’t say anything to me without betraying the presence of an earbud, Michel responded to the question by speaking to Adlai.  We’d managed to pull together a coherent lie in the past few minutes that conveniently contained a reasonable amount of truth.  Michel played the part of an undercover DS, tasked with infiltrating the local drug ring and identifying the man or woman at its head.  The job took him away from his family and, in order to further obscure his true identity, he’d taken on a French accent and worked as a delivery driver for the cartel.  There weren’t many stash spots that he knew about – save the warehouse that Mila had destroyed – but his work had left him in position of vital information that might prove instrumental in dismantling the entire operation.

Michel told the lie with a straight face, more or less; when his composure broke, it still fit with the aesthetic of a cop in over his head.  Occasionally, Adlai poked at one aspect of the story or another, seeking a weakness that he might be able to exploit.  Working at her computer, Sarah managed to close any hole in the story as soon as they came up.  Records were changed or hidden; information concealed or creatively reinterpreted; and some websites were outright blocked.  She did it in such a way that Adlai could not, despite his best efforts, find any solid bit of information he could use to contradict Michel’s story.

Mila retreated from the table and started the process of copying the RFID into Sarah’s app.  That task was automated so, with nothing else to do, she ordered another beer and sipped at it from a shadowed corner.  She played with the coaster while she waited, flipping it between her fingers; a habit I shared with her.  I’d developed mine after quitting smoking, but Mila didn’t strike me as the type of person who would have picked up a pack to begin with.  In another setting, at another time, I would have devoted a part of my thoughts to the mystery.  For now, I noted it absently, but didn’t think about it in any depth.

Lane listened to the first few minutes of conversation, before he excused himself to make a phone call.  Sarah followed the Superintendent’s movements through the security cameras, but Mila wasn’t close enough to hear his words or read his lips.  I watched that camera, while I listened to Michel’s words.

When Michel finished the story, Adlai leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers.  His half-empty glass of water sat forgotten in front of him.  “Tell me what you know about the manor house,” he said in that soft, lightly accented voice.

I blinked.  Michel hadn’t said anything about the manor house.  We’d deliberately excised that from the retelling, because it was one of the only connections to me in the entire case.  “Try to find out what he knows,” I told Michel.

“What are you talking about?”  The Frenchman asked Adlai.

“There was a shootout in the countryside,” Adlai said.  “Someone I have been…looking for was involved, but owning property isn’t his typical method.  It is possible that he has changed his techniques, but…no, I don’t think that is very likely.  I did some research on the area and found that the owner on record was a Mister Hill.”

Michel nodded slowly, but didn’t say anything.

Taking his silence for an invitation to continue, Adlai kept talking.  “Further research shows that this Mister Hill doesn’t exist.  It seems absurd to think that this false identity is not connected, in some way, to this drug kingpin.  I thought that it might be some sort of storage facility, but that did not make sense.  Perhaps some sort of holding area?  A person important to this mysterious Hill, who could not be allowed past his supervision?”  He sucked his teeth.  “I don’t have enough information yet.  Tell me, what have you found out about this place?”

That was the worst thing about Adlai.  It wasn’t just that he was frightfully singleminded.  It wasn’t that he treated his pursuit of me as a personal vendetta.  It was that he was so damned smart.  Courtesy of the Lady’s resources and the information provided by the Texan, we’d managed to find the manor house and divest it of its most valuable property under considerable duress.  That had taken us three days and had come perilously close to costing us our lives.

In less than a day, he’d managed to find out nearly as much we knew.  “If you lie,” I told Michel, “he’ll know.  This is a trap.  Give him just enough to think about that he has to check into it later.”

Michel didn’t say anything for a second.  I knew that he was thinking about what to say next but, to Adlai, it was likely that he would simply appear thoughtful.  “I have heard some things about a place like that,” he said slowly.  “Nothing solid, though.  They say that Hill keeps his books there, perhaps.  I have not heard anything about this shootout, but information is very regulated.  Only the people who need to know would know what really happened, and I am not high enough in the organization.”  He paused for effect.  “Yet, I mean.”

“Ah,” Adlai said.  He sounded…not satisfied, but mollified for the moment.  “If this operation is as large as we think, it would stand to reason that he keeps his records somewhere safe.  But we have men searching through the manor house now, and we haven’t found anything of record yet.”

“There was also talk of someone new,” Michel said.

I hadn’t expected him to say anything, so what he said surprised me.

“Someone new?”  Adlai repeated.

“Yes,” Michel said.  “Some sort of mercenary.  I do not know what he was supposed to do, but the other men talk about him as though he is a bad person.”

“He’s a criminal,” Adlai replied, automatically.  “Of course he is a bad person.  They all are.”

“Still,” Michel said.  “Someone worse than the others.”

I’d been so focused on shifting attention onto Hill that I hadn’t really considered the effect a police presence might have on Aiden’s movements.  I would have applauded Michel for the initiative, if he weren’t so far away.

Sarah’s laptop beeped behind me.  “Does that mean what I think it does?”  I asked.

“Sure does,” she replied.  “I’ve got the right frequency for Lane’s ID and can duplicate it later, when the time comes.  This is a trick that’s only going to work one time, though.  As soon as he figures out his card was stolen, he’ll just replace it and keep a closer eye on it in the future.”

“One time’s all we need,” I said.  “Michel?  Start the blow-off.”

“I have to go,” Michel said to Adlai, in a hushed voice.  “There are too many eyes here.  You will keep this conversation to yourself?  There are not many people in my precinct that know what I am doing.”

“I understand what undercover means,” Adlai said.  “Although I am not still convinced that you are telling me the whole truth.”

“What would you need to know?”  Michel asked.  “Ask me and I will answer, if I can.”

Adlai opened his mouth to say something.  Lane, finished with his phone call, interrupted him.  He was still obviously inebriated, but the worst effects had passed.  “I just called the Chief Superintendent,” he said to both men.  “He’s an old friend of mine, and one of the only men I’d trust not to be a part of all this.”

Shit,” I hissed.  We hadn’t expected Lane to actually know anyone personally in the force.  “Mila, we might be going to plan B in a second.”

“He wouldn’t give me details,” Lane continued, “but he confirmed that they do have someone working undercover.”

“You are sure about this?”  Adlai asked.

“Sure enough,” Lane answered.  He stumbled forward a half step as he jostled from behind, and then extended a hand to Michel.  “You’re doing good work, lad.  I’ll see to it that your information gets put to good use.”

I blinked, turned, and looked at Sarah.  She blinked back.  “You heard that too, right?”  She asked.

“I…think I did.”

Michel had to be even more nonplussed than Sarah and I were, but he rolled admirably with the surprise punch.  He shook Lane’s offered hand, but didn’t break eye contact with Adlai.  “Is that enough for you?”  He asked.

Adlai answered with a noncommittal grunt.

Lane withdrew a business card from his back pocket.  “In case you need to get some information to us, and you can’t get your handler on the line.  You call me, and the two of us’ll see to it that you’re taken care of.  Sound like a plan?”

“That…sounds like a plan, yes,” Michel said.  He accepted the card and slipped it into his own pocket.  “But I must go now.  I have talked to you long enough, and…”

Lane raised a hand.  “Say no more, lad.  Just know you’ve got friends looking out for you.”

“Friends are always a good thing to have,” Michel said.  He left the table with a few quick nods and headed toward the exit.

Mila, walking a little faster than necessary, overtook Michel.  From there, she took a detour by the drunken police officer in the gray hoodie, before meeting back up with the Frenchman at the pub’s exit.

“So,” I said, when they were clear of the building and headed back to the car.  “There’s already someone working undercover in Hill’s organization.”

“Yep,” Mila said.

“And we don’t know who they are, what they look like, or whether or not they’ve gone native?”  Sarah asked.

Non,” Michel said.

“To say nothing of the fact that the most tenacious Interpol agent I’ve ever had the misfortune of encountering now thinks that Michel is actually a police officer, working to destroy Hill’s criminal organization in pursuit of truth, justice, and…well, I guess the British way?”  I asked.

Sarah choked back a laugh.  “We got what we needed, though.  That’s one less thing we have to worry about tomorrow.”

“You say that like this is something normal for the two of you,” Mila said.

“It isn’t abnormal,” I said.

“Is there something you…I do not know, is there something you should say now?”  Michel asked.  “I do not know how these sort of things go, but it feels like you should say something.”

I thought about the possibilities.  Michel had just gone through the most harrowing trial by fire imaginable, and he’d done so nearly flawlessly.  If he wanted an inspirational comment, he damn well deserved one.

What ultimately came to mind wasn’t inspirational, per se, but it was exactly the sort of thing that could initiate someone into our inner circle.  “Way to go, team?”

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