Over the years, Patrick Lance had lost more than a few friends. But he’d never “lost” anyone quite like he’d lost the Irishman.
The Irishman hadn’t seemed the type to try for an escape. As a first time resident of the French prison sentence and someone who, inexplicably, had proven utterly incapable of picking up the language, he’d been isolated…except, of course, for Patrick and the coterie of elderly thieves that he still considered friends. There had been no visits, no phone calls, no whispered conversations in dark corners. For nearly three years, the Irishman had waited for the day when he would be free to chase down the traitor whose betrayal had consigned him to La Santé.
But escape? No, never escape. Not a single word on that subject ever passed his lips.
Yet, he had escaped. In the early hours of the morning, about six months before his sentence would have legally ended, one of the prison guards had opened the Irishman’s cell door and simply…let him go. Or, more precisely, the guard had insisted that he leave the cell, and there hadn’t been any indication that ‘no’ would have been an acceptable answer.
Poor Hugo’s shattered jaw served as proof of how serious the guard had been.
There had been no alarm raised in the prison, no chaotic rush of guards attempting to catch their wayward charge before he could make it into the city proper. For all intents and purposes, the Irishman simply vanished.
On a whim, Patrick had spent a favor and contacted a friend on the outside. Asking Michel to keep an eye out hadn’t cost Patrick too terribly and, he thought, it was really just a token gesture. Nothing had been likely to come of it.
Two days later, Michel had disappeared too.
That had been more surprising than the Irishman’s vanishing act. Michel was a cabdriver, a local through and through. As far as Patrick knew, Michel hadn’t even left the city in years. Since the boy’s father had evicted him for his sexuality, Michel had taken on the responsibility of making sure that he worked, ate, and had somewhere to sleep. When Patrick had gotten arrested for the diamond job, Michel had taken over ownership of his small apartment. There had never been any talk of moving out, of getting a place on his own merits. He was cautious, a little sheepish, and far too much like an overgrown child to go very far on his own.
But, still, he was gone, as thoroughly as the Irishman was.
Patrick tapped every resource, called in every favor, and contacted every friend who had somehow managed to escape the long arm of the law. He found nothing, heard nothing, discovered nothing at all. It was like the Irishman had walked out of La Santé and straight off the face of the Earth, taking Michel with him.
If the Irishman had run straight at his rival without concern for subterfuge or stealth – a rival who could have spent years preparing for an inevitable showdown – it was more than likely that he’d simply been killed. That didn’t explain Michel’s absence, but the cabbie might have fallen in with the Irishman and followed him to their mutual fate. Michel was something of a follower.
That didn’t feel right, though. Some half-formed idea gnawed at Patrick’s mind, denying this simplest solution for no reason other than pure intuition. It was that same niggling intuition that kept him up nights, staring at the walls or the ceiling or the floor, attempting to make sense of a puzzle without pieces. That was why he was still awake, looking blankly at a book that he wasn’t reading, when one of the guards rapped his baton against the bars of his cell.
“Monsieur Lance?” The guard waited for Patrick to respond. It was a courtesy extended to very few inmates. Most wake-up calls were performed in close quarters, with far more pain than politeness. Patrick had been a resident of La Santé for many years now, however, and most of the inmates and guards respected him for his old-world sense of honor and geniality.
Patrick lay in the darkness of his cell for several seconds, weighing whether or not he should respond to the summons. Courtesy won, in the end. If the guard was willing to show a little bit of civility to an inmate, responding in kind was the least Patrick could do.
“Yes, I’m awake. What is it?”
“You, uh…you have a visitor?” The guard’s voice betrayed his own uncertainty and doubt.
Patrick felt the same uncertainty, magnified by a factor of two or three. Everyone that he considered a friend or ally was either dead, in prison alongside him, or otherwise incapacitated. He’d never settled down and started a family. Any former lovers had long since distanced themselves from him. It had been almost six years since his last visit and even that had only been from a former teammate intent on finding an alleged fortune that Patrick legitimately hadn’t hidden.
If anything, Michel was his only real connection to the outside world and Michel was gone.
Patrick sat up in bed. “Did this visitor give you a name?”
A few moments of silence passed, presumably while the guard checked for an answer. “Vincent,” he said finally. “Vincent Peruggio. I might be mispronouncing that.”
It took another heartbeat or two before Patrick’s mind made the connection. Vincenzo Peruggio, not Vincent, had stolen the Mona Lisa back at the turn of the century. The theft was famous in the underworld for its brazenness, if not its artistry. Instead of an elaborate plan, Vincenzo had simply walked into the Louvre and taken the Mona Lisa off of the wall. It was a scheme that could only ever worked the one time, and Vincenzo had only pulled it off because no one else would have thought it possible.
But Vincenzo had to be dead by now and, even if he wasn’t, Patrick had never come in contact with the man. No one outside of the Italian underworld ever had, as far as he knew. If this visitor wasn’t the legendarily foolish and lucky thief, then who was using his name now? Was it a message? Some sort of code that he should recognize?
There wasn’t any real way to know, Patrick realized, but his curiosity had been roused. Ignoring the protests from his knees, he stood up and walked over to the door. “Well, let’s not keep Monsieur Peruggio waiting.”
Patrick spent the walk assembling a list of people who might want something from him. The fake name implied someone with a secret to keep, for starters. That might have been a client from the old days with a public face. Perhaps a child of someone he’d worked with who had a grudge to bear. Or maybe he’d misjudged one of the women he’d spent time with before falling afoul of the law. Simone had always been particularly fond of him, even after learning about his real occupation.
While Patrick’s thoughts traveled back to pleasant nights spent with the limber, energetic Simone, they reached the visiting area. A row of desks, uncomfortable chairs, and telephone receivers waited for him. At this angle, he couldn’t see who waited for him on the other side of the bulletproof glass, except for a pair of dark hands. Manly hands.
Even at his age, he still felt a stab of disappointment.
“You’ve got ten minutes,” the guard said. He gestured for Patrick to walk forward and took up a position near the door; close enough to intervene, if necessary, but far enough away to provide him with a semblance of privacy. A purely token gesture since the conversations were recorded and mined for even the slightest hint at secrecy, but still a nice gesture.
Patrick acknowledged that gracefully and strolled over to the indicated desk. He eased himself into the chair before looking at the man across from him.
Michel, dressed in what looked like a very expensive suit, smiled back.
Before Patrick could say anything, Michel placed an index finger over his lips and winked. He removed the receiver from its hook, waited for Patrick to do the same, and then spoke into the line. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Ten years?”
“About that long,” Patrick replied, dumbfounded. Thankfully, he was still capable of fabricating a story on short notice. “I hardly recognize you, uh…Vincent.”
Michel shrugged and his expression turned rueful. “I hardly recognize myself. A lot has happened since the last time we saw each other.”
He seemed different. Two months ago, Michel had possessed a unique flavor of charm, engaging without being overly intrusive, but there had always been an air of reluctance in every action. Every action was measured, every sentence carefully chosen to ruffle the fewest feathers, each step just the right length to avoid committing to any one direction.
He’d reminded Patrick of a lost puppy almost, although he would never have spoken that thought out loud.
Now, though…now, he seemed like a man with a goal, someone with an objective. He sat upright in his chair, when he once would have slouched, and made fierce eye contact with Patrick. He even sounded older, in a way that two months didn’t quite explain.
“I did not expect a visit today,” Patrick said. “Is everything alright with…” He deliberately trailed off, so that Michel could fill in whatever details he wanted to.
Michel waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Everything is…well, not fine, but it is as good as can be expected. But I needed to make a trip back here, to Paris.”
“Did you need something from me?” There were some stashed valuables that Patrick had managed to secret away. He couldn’t imagine why Michel would possibly need them, but it wasn’t as though Patrick could make any use of them himself.
“No, no! You have done more than enough for me already.”
“Then, do you mind if I ask what brought about this visit?”
“It has been a long time since we talked,” Michel said. “I wanted to see if you were alright and to ask if there was anything I could do for you.” He paused for a moment and his eyes briefly unfocused. “Also, there is someone else who insists on letting you know that he’s okay.”
Patrick’s mind leaped, immediately, to the Irishman, but that was nonsensical. No one who managed to escape from La Santé would voluntarily return to the scene of the crime. That wouldn’t just be arrogant; it would be astoundingly idiotic. The prison kept records of each inmate. Even if they hadn’t caught the Irishman before, there had to be some sort of system to recognize him if he returned.
Michel tilted his head and watched Patrick as he thought, a slow smile spreading across his lips. He lifted his eyes slightly, so that he was looking at one of the cameras in the visiting room. “I think that it has been long enough,” he said, in English.
Before Patrick could even begin to ask himself why Michel had switched languages, he heard a crackling sound behind him: the guard’s walkie-talkie, most likely. Patrick turned slightly in his chair to see the man.
The guard lowered the volume on his walkie-talkie down before speaking softly into it. A voice responded. While Patrick couldn’t make out the words, he recognized the tone: imperious, commanding, and without room for debate. The guard looked down at the walkie-talkie before, impossibly, leaving the room without saying another word.
Patrick blinked. Guards didn’t leave prisoners alone. They just didn’t. Not even the favor he’d accrued through years of good behavior wouldn’t have convinced someone to give him free reign. He started to voice that thought out loud, if only to see if it made more sense to hear the words instead of simply thinking them, when the door on Michel’s side of the glass opened.
The Irishman entered the room, striding from the door to the table in long, confident strides. He wore a pair of khakis, a long-sleeved shirt made from some heavy material, and a black windbreaker to protect against the temperature. He smiled at Patrick as he approached.
“Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” Devlin said, taking a seat next to Michel. He radiated absolute confidence and comfort, seemingly unaware of the camera pointed directly at him.
In his surprise, Patrick forgot about the subterfuge entirely. “You…you…you came back? Why?”
“When Michel told us who he wanted to check on, I rushed through my own errands so that I didn’t miss an opportunity,” Devlin said. “I’ve got to admit, you look better than I even wanted to hope.”
“You came back,” Patrick said, ignoring Devlin’s cavalier attitude. “They record these conversations! Someone will watch this tape and realize what happened!”
“Let’s just say that I’d be very surprised if anyone watched this tape, ever. Surprised and very disappointed.” He looked away for a moment. “Sarah, can you kill these feeds, please?”
Patrick opened his mouth to ask a question. He closed it again when he realized that, judging from Devlin’s tone and the pitch of his voice, there was someone else listening to their conversation.
That guess was borne out a moment later when Devlin tilted his head and listened intently to someone that Patrick himself couldn’t hear. “Yes, I know that. Obviously, I know that. I was just thinking that it would have made all of us look a lot cooler.” Silence, while the third party replied. “Well, not now, no. It’s going to be a whole thing.”
“Who are you talking to?” Patrick asked.
Devlin rolled his eyes. “Women,” he said, as if that explained every question Patrick had asked himself in the past two months.
Something clicked above him and Patrick glanced up. A camera pointed directly at him on his side of the glass with a tiny red light next to the lens. As he watched, the red light dimmed, switched to green, and then turned off entirely.
“There we go,” Devlin said. For a moment, Patrick wasn’t sure who the Irishman was talking to. “Sorry about that. Apparently, it’s rude of me to just ask for things. There’s some kind of protocol I’m supposed to follow.”
“She did have a point,” Michel said. “You could have been more polite about it.”
“I wasn’t trying to be rude,” Devlin protested. “I was just trying to have a moment. Am I allowed to have a moment?”
Michel shrugged. “Apparently not.”
Devlin sighed. “And that, in a nutshell, describes the entirety of my life.” He shook his head and refocused his attention on Patrick. “Sarah would like me to thank you for looking out for me while I was locked up in here.”
“Sarah?” Patrick asked. He realized, in a distant sort of way, that he’d been asking a lot of questions and receiving no answers in response.
“She’s the reason that the three of us can have this conversation without getting the authorities involved,” Devlin said. He paused, squinted, and spoke again. Patrick guessed that he was speaking to this Sarah again. “I don’t know for sure what she did and neither do you. I’m sorry if I interrupted your busy day of watching soap operas and playing video games.”
Michel let out a low whistle.
“What?” Devlin asked.
“I think,” he said, “that you are going to pay for that comment, sooner or later.”
Devlin gave the cabdriver – former cabdriver, Patrick thought, because that occupation no longer seemed to apply to Michel – a sad nod. “I was going to pay for it anyway. Might as well get my shots in while I can.”
Michel considered that for a few seconds, then shrugged. “It is your funeral.”
“Anyway,” Devlin said, focusing entirely on Patrick, “we don’t have to worry about someone paying attention to this particular conversation. There’s a lot of technical details that I’m sure Sarah would love to outline, but the essential point is that we are, for all intents and purposes, by ourselves.”
Patrick didn’t understand that. He had more questions now than he’d had during the two months when Devlin and Michel had vanished off the face of the planet but he realized, in an oddly detached sort of way, that he wasn’t likely to ever get all of the answers. So, instead of seeking further clarification, he simply nodded. “If you say so. Where have you been? What have you been doing?”
Devlin shared a look with Michel for a heartbeat. Communication passed between the two men in that instant of eye contact, without either man uttering a single sound.
“That’s complicated,” Devlin said finally. “It’s honestly better if we don’t tell you everything. You’ll be safer if you don’t have all of the details.”
“Or any of the details,” Michel added.
Patrick snorted. “I am an old man in prison. Whatever is going on, I am certain that I would not be in any danger. If someone wanted to hurt me, they would only have to wait until my age finishes me off.”
“Is there anyone you still care about?” Devlin asked, all traces of jocularity wiped from his expression. The sudden change caught Patrick off guard. “Not necessarily in here, but out there? Any children, family members, loved ones?”
If there were any children, the mothers had chosen not to tell Patrick about them. He felt a little bitter at the possibility, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it now. His parents had died sometime ago, disappointed that their beloved only child had turned to a life of crime, instead of using his potential for more lucrative – by which they meant ‘legal’ – pursuits. There were some friends who hadn’t known about his life of crime, Patrick supposed, but they were few and far between.
“There are some people,” Patrick admitted, “but they are innocents. They are upstanding citizens, for whatever that is worth. Completely removed from the life we live.”
“That wouldn’t matter,” Devlin said. “Not even a little bit. And if those people have people they care about, then an entire family could be in the line of fire.”
Michel was the closest thing to a son that Patrick had ever had. But he was apparently neck deep in whatever was going on, judging by his body language. Devlin had a strong personality and it made sense that he was more likely to take the lead in conversations. But Michel wasn’t carrying himself like a subordinate. With the occasional glances to each other, the silent conferences conveyed only by eye contact, it seemed like Michel was something closer to a partner.
From anyone else, on almost any other day, Patrick would have dismissed the darkening of his own thoughts as paranoia. However, despite his personal commitment to limiting violence whenever possible, he had known dangerous men and women in his lifetime and worked with a few of them. He knew fear well enough to recognize it in the eyes of someone else.
Michel and Devlin were holding it together admirably. Michel, in particular, showed more control than Patrick had ever seen from him before…but that made sense, in a way. Whatever these two and the unseen “Sarah” had been up to in the past few months must have been intense enough to put some steel in the man. Whatever the cause, he bore up under the strain of some invisible weight with poise and confidence and that same surety was matched by Devlin’s serious, focused eyes.
But both men, no matter their posturing, were terrified of something.
He cleared his throat to get rid of the sudden lump. “Is what you are doing that dangerous?”
Devlin nodded. “More, probably.”
“Why would you do it, then? If this Sarah can hack into La Santé, surely you can disappear and find other means of making money?”
“Money’s not the problem,” Devlin said, with more than a little sourness in his voice. “And we’ve thought about vanishing before, trust me.”
“Why get involved at all, then?”
“For my part…well, let’s just say that nothing comes for free. If someone’s going to go through all the trouble of arranging an early release from prison, then…” Devlin trailed off and spread his hands wide, inviting Patrick to finish the thought.
He connected the dots immediately, chastising himself for not thinking of that obvious solution to begin with. If you needed someone to take on a suicide mission, it never hurt to amass some leverage against them first.
“And you, Michel?”
“Because my friends might need me,” Michel answered, smoothly and immediately. For all of the fear simmering beneath the surface, he didn’t show an ounce of hesitation at the question.
Although he desperately wanted to counter that, it was impossible for Patrick to attack an idea as simple and noble as loyalty. Even if he could have found a way to chip away at it, he wasn’t really sure that he wanted to.
“Are you sure?” He asked the question in French.
“Of course,” Michel replied, in the same language. “Or…I am as sure as I can be.”
“Is this the life you want to live?”
“I think that it is the life I was meant to live.”
Again, another sentence so straightforward that it defied any possible rebuke. Patrick wondered who’d taught Michel how to do that.
Devlin tilted his head to one side and listened to an unseen, unheard voice for a handful of seconds. “How much longer?”
“Okay, can you ask Mila to bring the car around?”
“Oh, hi, Mila; didn’t know you were on the line. We’re coming out in a second.”
Another stretch of silence, shorter than the previous ones.
“If you don’t stop jinxing us, I swear I’m not taking you to my favorite ice cream shop.” He focused his eyes on Michel. “Time to go. Did you have anything else you needed to say?”
Michel swallowed and coughed to clear his throat. “No, I do not think so,” he said, using English, so that Devlin could understand. “Patrick, I just wanted to let you know that I am okay…that we are okay.”
“How long do you think it will be until you are finished with…whatever it is that you’re doing?”
Devlin snorted. “If we’re lucky, a couple of months. So, seeing as we obviously aren’t, who knows?”
“And when you are done?” Patrick asked. In the corridor behind him, he heard someone rapping a nightstick against the walls. Whatever makeshift errand had pulled him away from the room, it had obviously run its course. “When it is over, will you be able to tell me what was going on, then?”
It was Michel who smiled first, devilish and wicked, and answered the question. “When we are done,” he said, “you’ll be able to see for yourself. Everyone will.”
With that bold pronouncement, Michel stood up from the table. Devlin joined him. Both men said their goodbyes quickly and rushed out of the room, just before the guard returned.
The man was in the middle of spinning his nightstick by the handle when he saw Patrick, seated alone and looking blankly at the unoccupied visitor section. “Where did your friend go?”
“He had…business to attend to,” Patrick managed to say. Then, his mind re-engaged and he elaborated for no reason other than simple habit. “We knew each other before I started…all of this.” He gestured at his prison attire to illustrate his point
“Ah,” the guard said, as though he understand everything from that one sentence. “Are you ready to go, then?”
Patrick gave the question a lot more thought than it really required. Was he ready to go? Or was there something worth hanging on a little longer for? A story, perhaps, from a friend finally grown into himself?
“Take me back to my cell,” Patrick said. “I think that I am looking forward to the next time my friend can visit.”