There was always something unmistakably pleasurable about driving a new car, Michel decided, even if that car wasn’t customized or souped up. He’d spent the majority of his adult life behind the wheel of one cab or another until purchasing his own vehicle with the pennies he’d managed to save up. After that, he had assumed that he would continue life driving people from one place to the next, trapped within the routine purgatory that was professional taxi driving.
All of that changed when Devlin climbed into his cab, back in Paris.
Although, if he was going to be honest with himself, Michel knew that things had changed before that. It had been Patrick’s phone call, asking if he could pick up a bedraggled American from the city’s best ice cream shop…yes, that had been the moment when his life had veered sharply to an unexpected trajectory.
In just the past weeks working with Devlin and Sarah, Michel had driven more exotic cars than he would ever have imagined. The balance in his bank account had commas now, which was a new feeling. And, most importantly, he was enjoying himself. The tension and fear of their situation took its toll on his mood, but even those stressors combined weren’t enough to steal away his exhilaration at being useful and actually accomplishing things.
Devlin coughed and Michel heard it through the earbud. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate your company,” he said, “but I’m really starting to wonder how long Sarah’s going to keep me isolated to just your line.”
“You had it coming,” Michel said. He checked his phone’s GPS for the tenth time. The address there hadn’t changed and the suggested route was identical to the one he’d practiced.
“I thought you were on my side, man.”
“I am not on anybody’s side. But, if I had to pick, I would choose the person who is control of the money.”
Devlin laughed. “Traitor.”
Michel waited patiently for a break in traffic before he pulled his own black Suzuki out of its concealment and into the stream of cars. Timing his entrance into the line of cars was more difficult than it had a right to be. If he drove too slowly, he ran the risk of reaching his destination too late. However, if he went too quickly, the panic wouldn’t have been able to properly spread. It would only take one question or even a single, careful examination to ruin the whole ploy. Arriving exactly at the climax of confusion and disarray was the only real way to pull this off.
But, he knew that he couldn’t account for those details. No matter how much Devlin commented on Michel’s apparent talents, the Frenchman knew that he wasn’t a thief. Not really, at least. He could talk his way past a drunk Scotsman, sure. And his nerves were, to his own surprise, stronger than anyone could reasonably have expected. Neither of those positive traits led him to equate himself with Sarah or Devlin, when it come to their areas of expertise.
Sarah knew more about computers than Michel had ever learned. That had become readily apparent in their first interactions, after the true nature of their business in London had been revealed, that is. Even now, while Michel drove his newest car through the streets of an unfamiliar city toward almost certain disaster, she was working in her mobile command station to organize everyone – the Russians; both of Billy’s men, who brought with them the entirety of that man’s underground operation; Devlin, inasmuch as he could be managed; and Anton – into a cohesive unit. Michel knew that, if they somehow managed to navigate through the insane web of coincidences and blind luck that they were banking on, the lion’s share of praise would fall squarely at Sarah’s feet.
Although, there was also Devlin. It would be his job to handle the job, on a person-to-person basis and Michel had no idea how he was going to do that. Subterfuge wasn’t an option. Neither was subtlety. Hill knew who they were, what they looked like, and what they were after. As soon as word reached him of the bombings at his stash houses, the kingpin would likely realize that the attacks were a distraction. From that point, it was only a matter of time before the figurative noose began tightening around their collective necks.
“You are sure that you can do this?” Michel asked. Speaking out loud to an empty car had never bothered him. It wasn’t much different than carrying on a conversation with an unresponsive passenger.
“If you ask me that again,” Devlin replied, “I’m going to start thinking that you don’t believe in me.”
“It is not that, but…”
“I’m kidding, Michel. Listen. I’ll be honest here: no, I’m not sure. I am rarely sure about a lot of the things we do. This is just the best option we’ve got.”
Michel nodded to himself. “And you are sure there is not more that I can do to help?”
“Not unless you’ve developed skills that we don’t know about,” Devlin said. “For right now, what you’re doing is the most important part of the plan. If I need you in another place later, you’ll have the earbud.”
“Besides,” a second voice added. Mila’s voice. “If things get crazy in there, you’re probably going to want to get as far away as possible.”
Michel’s mouth went dry. He tried to say something clever, anything, but nothing came to mind. Mila was an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Every time he thought he’d figured out some aspect of her personality, another facet emerged that stymied his efforts. She was intelligent, yet went out of her way to feign unenlightened disinterest. She was a bodyguard but, according to her former employer – had their relationship only been professional? – Aiden, she’d worked as a mercenary and a hitman. She showed little to no affection for most of the humans that comprised their crew, but treated her cat Sam like a lifelong friend.
She was a ball of oxymorons, wrapped in the body of an extremely attractive woman. That intrigued him. He hadn’t been intrigued by anyone since his last marriage.
He’d been with people, of course; he wasn’t a monk. But those encounters had been casual and his interest in his occasional sex partners waned with the passage of time. Since he’d first met Mila, he’d been fascinated by her. Flirting with Anton had been a fun way to pass the time, and he suspected that either Devlin or Sarah saw possibilities for something beyond that. For his part, Michel had no interest in pursuing a man in a relationship with another man, even if that ‘other man’ vehemently refused to admit his own feelings in the matter. The closet could be strong, indeed.
The attraction to Mila went beyond the physical, though. Which was good. Sex was often fun in its own rights, but it could also serve as a distraction from more meaningful connections. Relationships were often complicated things, at best. Without knowing anything about her past, there was no way of knowing how a sexual advance might be met. If she were amenable to that, it might reduce everything to simple mechanical actions. If she wasn’t okay with the suggestion…he’d seen her take men twice her size apart in seconds. Michel had no illusions about his own chances.
It wasn’t all bad news. She’d shown no signs of having any physical interest in him, but she hadn’t displayed interest in anyone else either, male or female. And their interactions had become slightly warmer, lately. He figured that her walls might be weakening. And Michel was a patient man. Keeping things purely intellectual was probably the best plan, if he wanted to forge a long lasting relationship with Mila, even if that relationship only turned out to platonic.
“I am not going anywhere with the two of you,” Michel said. “So let us hope that things do not get crazy in there.”
Mila didn’t say anything for a few seconds. Then, she forcefully cleared her throat and muttered, “Whatever.”
“Michel,” Devlin said, “can you ask Sarah what’s going on with Anton and the others?”
The earbud popped twice. “I can still hear you,” Sarah said. “I just muted you so that you’d stop distracting them while they were hijacking the other Suzuki.”
“I don’t want to correct you and find myself completely silenced,” Devlin began, in a cautious tone, “but I’m pretty sure you don’t hijack a car.”
“That works better. I’m pretty sure you only hijack big things. Like planes. Or ships. We might have hijacked that train, come to think of it.”
“We gave that back.”
“Somehow, I doubt that the good people of the Metro Authority would see it that way.”
“Did you want me to cut your line again?”
Michel smiled. For all of his careful consideration about the ramifications of sex, he couldn’t think of any two people who needed to stop talking and just be together more than Devlin and Sarah. Not for the first time, he wondered what had ended their marriage in the first place. From what he could see, their mutual antagonism, coupled with the way they synchronized on the job, made them ideal matches. He resolved to ask Devlin about it later.
“How far away are you from the target?” Mila asked, cutting through the banter. “More importantly: how long do I have before I should be ready for things to go wrong?”
That sentiment sobered Michel’s expression in a hurry and he amended his previous thought. He would have to ask Devlin about Sarah if there was a later.
He looked down at the GPS, even though he knew exactly where he was. “Five minutes,” he said. “Perhaps more.”
“Have you seen any other cars?”
He knew what she meant. “None. But that does not mean they are not already there or on the way, does it?”
“Hell if I know,” Mila said.
“Let’s hope for the best.” Devlin was forcing good will into his voice, with only a marginal degree of success. Since Michel knew he could be a much more convincing liar, he took that as proof that the accomplished art thief was struggling with thoughts beyond the immediate future. At the moment, he and Mila had the easiest jobs out of the entire crew.
He suspected that would change in the next five minutes, one way or another.
Sarah typed something into her computer. “I have Anton, Chester, and James dropping off the car they stole,” she put subtle emphasis on the word, “and depositing the drivers at Scotland Yard, as discussed. We hadn’t planned on a pair, but it doesn’t throw anything off.”
“And we’re sure they’ll be out of commission for the duration of this?” Devlin asked.
“I would be very surprised if your good friend Adlai lets known criminals with a connection to Hill slip through the system.” Sarah laughed bitterly. “If only everything was as reliable as he is.”
“One less thing to worry about, I guess,” Devlin said. “Michel?”
“You’re doing great. Seriously.”
Michel swelled a little at the praise. “This is…” He stopped himself before finishing the thought. Devlin’s ridiculous superstition must have worked its way into his subconscious. “This is not the most difficult thing I will do today,” he finished, carefully.
“You can say that again.”
Michel entered into a busy roundabout, which ate two additional minutes, and then followed the road straight through. He passed by the Beatles memorabilia shop and continued forward, fingers tightening around the steering wheel with each mile, until Hill’s palatial estate came into view.
He had noticed the massive gates on their first visit. Then, they’d been unattended and open. Now, they were sealed shut and two men with very large assault rifles stood at either side. The man on the right held up a hand and Michel slowed the car to a complete stop.
The man on the left approached the car. He took up position a few feet away from the door and gestured for Michel to roll down the window. “You got any business here?”
Michel swallowed nervously, while trying very hard not to look nervous at all, and assumed the British accent he’d used in the bar. “Trying to get off the streets right now,” he said. “Someone’s setting off bombs in the city.”
The guard did not appear moved by this plight. “Other places you could go, if you’re just looking to get a bit of shelter.”
Michel wasn’t sure what the guard wanted him to do, so he gave the man a weak smile and hoped that would suffice. “Figured the boss would want us somewhere safe, in case someone’s making a play.”
The guard’s eyes narrowed. “The boss? What’re you on about?”
Behind him, the second guard noticed a change in his partner’s body language. He took a half step forward and raised the barrel of his gun about six inches.
“Easy,” Devlin advised through the earbud, his voice a soft whisper that Michel could almost feel. “Don’t push things. Let them figure it out on their own.”
Michel thought about that. He’d arrived too early, apparently. After him, the guards would be more willing to allow similar vehicles onto the estate grounds, but the brunt of convincing the man lay squarely with him. There might have been code words that he needed to speak or, perhaps, the guards might simply have recognized one of the other drivers. There wasn’t any real way to know for certain.
He considered the stakes and decided, ludicrously, to take a risk. He gave the guard a frank look and lowered his voice. “You know what I’m supposed to be carrying, don’t you?”
The guard blinked, but he did not answer.
Michel pressed the advantage. “You don’t know why the boss has cars traveling all across London. You never even thought to ask? Think about it!”
The guard’s eyes went down for several seconds and, when he raised them again, Michel could see that the man had an idea. “You got, uh…supplies?”
“More important than that,” Michel snapped. He could feel himself genuinely getting into the role and wondered if Devlin felt like this whenever he stepped into another alias. “Those bombs are going off in the boss’ stashes. And if he didn’t think he’d need extra security right now, we both know you wouldn’t be here. So what I am trying to do is get my very important cargo somewhere safe before I get caught and questioned by the police. Understand?”
“Don’t know about that,” the guard said, dubiously. “Orders were to keep people out.”
“Other people. Do you want the coppers to get their hands on what I’ve got?”
The guard looked through the window at the empty backseat. “Doesn’t look like you’ve got much of anything. First car had a little girl in the back.”
Michel allowed his very sincere frustration out in an explosive sigh. “You’re right. I should’ve put my cargo right there, in plain view of everyone. Listen, if you don’t know what it is, then the boss didn’t want you to know. So you can either let me in or you can explain to him why someone managed to grab me off the street.” He paused for effect. “Or maybe you’d just have to explain it to the new guy and his muscle.”
The last sentence did it. The guard struggled with the concept for a second or two, but Michel knew when he’d won. Before too long, the guard turned and gestured to his partner by the gates. “Let ‘em in.”
It took a great deal of self-control, but Michel managed not to whoop in delight. He kept his expression stern and intimidating while the guard nearest to the gates pressed a button and the twin gilded barriers swung open on automated hinges.
He drove through without wasting any more words on the guards. Michel didn’t see the need to risk ruining a good thing. Devlin didn’t say anything at all for a good two minutes, until the gates were closing in the Suzuki’s rearview mirror. “I can admit when I’m wrong,” he said. “Well played. I wish we could have found a way to get onto the estate without paving the way for the other cars, but…”
“I’m on that, actually,” Sarah cut in. “I’ll have the Russians move into place and conveniently get into a car accident at that roundabout. It won’t stop anyone from taking an alternate route, but it should at least give you a little bit of extra time.”
“I’ll take whatever you can give me,” Devlin replied.
Michel took the car up the extravagant road, noting with rising concern the sheer number of armed men on the grounds. It seemed like there were two or three for every few hundred feet, milling around with walkie talkies and automatic weapons. He was gripped by a sudden irrational fear that, somehow, one of the men would realize that Michel was not one of their number and open fire. Mercifully, that did not happen.
Just before reaching the house itself, he turned and drove to the side of the mansion. The area there was covered in deep shadow, cast by a large tree that stretched until its longest bough could just barely touch one of the mansion’s upper windows. He shifted the car into park and stepped outside.
“So that worked,” Devlin said. He sounded…impatient? Anxious? Michel couldn’t quite put his finger on the emotion, but he knew it when he heard it.
“Yes it did,” Sarah said. “The rest is up to you. I’ll help from here as best as I can, but…”
“But you don’t know what we’re going to need and so you can’t make any promises,” Devlin finished for her. “I know how this goes.”
It was the cargo space, Michel decided. The thought struck him out of the blue sky. Compared to the supercars he’d been driving since hooking up with Devlin and Sarah, there had been something about the Suzuki that he’d enjoyed. It wasn’t the horsepower. It certainly wasn’t the flare. No, it was the cargo space. None of those more powerful, fancier cars would ever have been able to accomplish what the simple, unassuming Suzuki could.
He pressed a button on the trunk of the car and it popped open. There, nestled in what truly was an impressive amount of empty space, lay Mila and Devlin. An empty candy wrapper had been balled up and tossed away, so that it flew out of the trunk and past Michel’s face.
Both Mila and Devlin covered their eyes at the sudden light. Devlin recovered first. “Step one,” he said. “Infiltrate the fortified estate of one Lord Fairfax of Berkeley. Check.”
“Step two,” Mila said. She extended a hand and Michel rushed to offer her assistance out of the trunk. “Find the girl, your new friend, and this book, whatever it is.”
Michel helped Devlin out of the car as well. No alarm went up from the estate, so he assumed they’d managed to pull off this without ruining things too badly. “What is the third step?”
Devlin shrugged and pulled down on his clothing. The cut was excellent and, somehow, it had resisted wrinkling during his enclosure. “I don’t know yet,” he admitted. “But I think step four has something to do with profiting. Mila?”
She nodded before he could finish the thought. “Whenever you are.”
He returned the gesture and patted Michel on his shoulder. “Find somewhere you can lay low. If everything goes right, we’ll need to make a quick getaway.”
“And if everything does not go right?” Michel asked. Just voicing the concern brought back all of the worry he’d been successfully sidelining.
Devlin gave him a look, but did not reply. After a few seconds of that, both he and Mila turned and set off for a low window, further into the shadows cast by the large tree. Michel watched them go. Even after they’d managed to slip inside the estate, he stayed there, staring at the area where they’d last been for a long time.
“They’ll be alright,” Sarah said into his ear. Michel wondered how she knew what he was thinking and then remembered that his mini-camera was on and hadn’t moved for a minute or two. “They will be. Trust me.”
Michel believed her as much as he could believe anyone. “Okay,” he said. “I will be on standby.”
Then, with nothing else to do, he reached into the car and pulled out a crushed pack of cigarettes. He’d barely been able to smoke these last few weeks. But now, more than any other time, he found that he desperately needed the nicotine. He lit one cigarette and smoked it down to the filter.
“Sarah,” Devlin’s voice said over the comms. “We’re in.”
The earbud popped twice. “Sarah?” No response came back. She must have isolated Devlin’s line, so that she could focus entirely on the input coming from him and from Mila.
Michel wanted to smoke another cigarette. Instead, he got back into the Suzuki and drove back to the front of the mansion. There, he reclined his chair all the way back and hoped that none of Hill’s hirelings were smart enough to wonder about the abandoned Suzuki. He imagined that, with all of the chaos likely to descend on the estate in the near future, that question would be at the bottom of anybody’s priority list.
And, for the first time since before meeting Patrick, Michel prayed.