Tag Archives: Patrick

The Gentleman Thief

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?”

More silence.

“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.”

With Friends Like These – Recap

Devlin O’Brien, up-and-coming art thief, is in very serious trouble.  When his old friend, partner, and the mastermind of some of his greatest successes suddenly betrays him on a job, leaving him for the Parisian police, Devlin finds himself at the mercy of the justice system.  Without any hope of dodging the charges – for crimes that, in fairness, he had been about to commit – he is tried, convicted, and imprisoned with some of the worst criminals that Europe has to offer for nearly three years.  Only the mentorship of the gentleman thief, Patrick Lance, helps Devlin to keep his sanity while he was behind bars; only his innate ability to think on his feet keeps him alive.

Six months before the end of his sentence, Devlin is inexplicably broken out of prison, via the machinations of an unknown player who seems to know every one of the thief’s moves, even before he can make them.  Despite his best efforts to slip free of any unseen nooses or traps, Devlin falls short of the mark, and is approached by a messenger at a particularly vulnerable moment.  The delivery is not a set of instructions, nor a threat, but simply information: Asher’s location, from only a few days before the jailbreak.  With these new documents in hand, and a bevy of questions bouncing around in his head, Devlin sets off to find revenge for the botched Paris job.

His first stop is Munich, to retrieve a set of passports he’d never planned to use again.  His old friend, Alexander Jeager, helps him to infiltrate the beer hall where the passports are hidden; when things go sideways, it’s the younger Jeager, Ally, who assists Devlin in navigating the crowded ballroom of twenty-something fans, all set to the driving music of the band Tokio Hotel.  Difficulties notwithstanding, Devlin emerges from the tumult with a new passport in hand, a little extra spending money, and two new – if woefully unsuitable – allies, waiting in the wings.

From Munich, Devlin travels to Kiev, the location listed in his packet of information.  There, he encounters a face he hadn’t seen since the Paris job: Anton Levchenko, bombmaker and all-around chemical expert.  Anton, also betrayed by Asher and left in the metaphorical lurch, teams up with Devlin in pursuit of the rogue criminal, only to lead them both in the presence of a representative of the Russian mafia.  Stanislav Novikof – and his bodyguards/muscle, Leonid and Iosif – is hunting Asher on orders from his Bratva superiors and the foursome proceed to run the man down to the abandoned docks, where Russian goods are smuggled into the country…or so they believe.  In reality, they walk headlong into a “face-to-face” meeting with Asher and a lethal trap.  Quick thinking is the only thing that keeps them from catching a bullet to the brain.

Forced to accept the changing circumstances, and to acknowledge that Asher has made connections powerful enough to be a serious threat, Devlin leaves the Russians to their own devices and catches a flight back to America, to confront the one person he’d hoped to avoid for as long as possible; his ex-wife, Sarah Ford.  Sarah greets Devlin with an arctic reception, at first.  As she comes into new information of her own, as well as her first job offer in months, she becomes too intrigued by the developing mystery to simply walk away.  She browbeats Devlin into working with her once more, and the two set out to steal a crown from the Museum of London (for unknown reasons) for a client (of unknown identity), in hopes that it will lead them closer to stopping Asher before he gets too much influence to be controlled or confronted.

Scattered across the globe, changed by the passage of nearly three years, Devlin’s associates and allies aren’t the assets he’d hoped for.  At least, not anymore.  But with enemies appearing at every turn, anyone else could only hope to have friends as loyal as these.

Chapter 3

My optimism lasted for less than an hour, before I was escorted to my prison cell.  I shared the tiny space with a native Frenchman who appeared to understand me, but steadfastly refused to speak in English.  I tried to engage him in conversation for a few minutes, hoping with a mounting desperation for anything that might distract me from my predicament; eventually, however, I gave up on conversation.  Sweat beaded on my forehead as I examined the walls, seemingly drawing closer every time I looked away.  This wasn’t a new feeling. When the magistrates handed down the prison sentence in the first place, I had known that this moment would come.  I hadn’t expected the severity of the attack, though.

I sat on the edge of the unoccupied bed and placed my head in my hands.  Panic was the enemy; I knew that perfectly well.  A loss of control would only trigger a downward spiral and that would magnify the problem, not diminish it.  The last time I’d allowed myself to lose control – a collapsed tunnel underneath a Venetian palazzo – it had taken me almost thirty minutes to come back to myself.  Those thirty minutes ranked high on the worst moments of my life.  Just brushing against the memory catalyzed the tension in my chest.  I swallowed bile and tried to force it back down.

Monsieur O’Brien?”  Patrick’s voice, from the cell next door.  “Are you doing well?”

As if I could possibly be ‘doing well’ locked in a tiny room with another inmate who either couldn’t or wouldn’t answer my questions.  “No,” I said honestly.  “Not really doing well at all.”

“You sound out of breath.  What is wrong?”

I attempted to answer, but no sound came from my lips.  My breaths accelerated until I felt light-headed.

He must have heard something in my voice or simply guessed at the appropriate answer.  Either way, his voice softened to the point of delicacy.  When he spoke, it felt like he was in the cell with me, instead of the surly inmate who examined me with mild, dispassionate curiosity.  “Monsieur, you must breathe normally.  In and out, evenly.  Can you do that?”

I nodded, realized that the action was a hold-over from my time with Sarah, and managed to squeak out an “Okay.”  A few minutes passed before my breath came smoothly.

“Now, relax your shoulders,” Patrick commanded in that silky voice.  “Just let your arms hang and think about something else…anything else.”

I did as he said.  My mind traveled back to the last time I’d seen her, from a distance.  She looked beautiful, then, as she always did.  The memory bit like a knife, but it did manage to wrench my thoughts away from my surroundings.  I held onto the image.  “I…I’m better, now.  Thanks,” I said.  “How did you know what would help?”

“I have known people with similar problems,” Patrick said, from the other cell.  “It is not uncommon, I think.”

“In my line of work?”

“In our line of work, you mean.  I did not mean to say that it is common, just that there are people who suffer from things such as this.  At any rate.”  He yawned and, judging from the scratching sound, sat heavily onto his own bed.  “Are you sure you are feeling better now?”

I was still trapped.  Thick walls of stone and mortar separated me from the outside world for the next three years, which was a good bit longer than any of my previous stretches.  Asher, that bastard, was still out there, plotting and scheming his way into larger heists with sweeter paydays.  Nothing had changed, except for my ability to think and reason.

Something about Patrick’s oddly polite speech, though, did make me feel a little better.  “Yeah, I think so.  I mean, I couldn’t get any worse, could I?”

He groaned.  “Please do not say such things.  It is….how do you say?  Tempting destiny?”

A laugh bubbled out of me.  “It’s tempting fate.  But, yeah, you’re right.  Shouldn’t call down any more trouble than I’ve already got.”

“And, if you do not mind me asking, what trouble is that?”

For years, ever since I’d left the tiny apartment my mother managed to afford in St. Louis, secrets had been my weapon and my armor.  It was habit to play all cards as close to my vest as possible.  In the darkness of La Santé, seated opposite a man who watched my every move like a bird of prey, I felt distinctly disarmed.  I told Patrick the truth.

He and I talked throughout the day, and the night.  When the guards came to give us our scant few hours of relative freedom, Patrick introduced me to his friends, a close knit group of other men his age who, for one reason or another, kept finding themselves in the big house.  They’d taken their prison sentences in stride and, over the years, had come to expect it as just another step in the grand game.  Steal something or con someone.  Get away with it, until you don’t.  Go to prison.  Meet up with les hommes (Patrick taught me that) and talk about the good old days.  Wait until your parole comes up.  Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.  Watching as they laughed and joked with each other, heedless of the prison walls around them, lifted my spirits.  Even when the darkness of the cells threatened to wear down my newfound contentment, Patrick was there, speaking softly to me until I was calm once more.

The days passed like that.  I told Patrick what had changed in the world outside of La Santé; in turn, he offered me stories about the criminals he’d worked with over the years.  On more than one occasion, Patrick would mention a legendary heist or con I’d only heard rumors about.  He would just sort of breeze through the details without stopping to give any particular renown to the tale.  The third time he did that, I realized that, for him, he wasn’t retelling the mythology and lore of the underworld; Patrick was simply recalling and sharing the details of a story that wasn’t remarkable to him.  With that sudden burst of understanding, I decided that I would have to work a job with Patrick, and his team of gentlemen thieves, as soon as we were all free again.  I would have even risked another sentence, just to see the Frenchman at work.

Two and a half years into the three year long sentence, however, things changed.  I was in the middle of a theoretical discussion with Patrick (the best way to fake your own death, if the need should arise) when a loud bang jolted my attention to the closed, steel door.  “O’Brien!”

“One second,” I said to Patrick.  Then, to the door, “Yes?”

No answer came, at first.  Then, after a moment, I heard the telltale jingle as someone fumbled with a key ring.  My cellmate grumbled above me, turned over, and then went back to sleep.  The door swung open slowly.  Outside of my cell, the hallway was dark and all I could see was the lone prison guard, spinning the key ring around his index finger.  “You are free to go,” he said.  It took me a second to understand him through his heavy accent.

I missed my watch, one of the few things I’d legitimately purchased in the recent past, but it was the first thing they’d taken from me when I’d gone into booking.  “It isn’t time to go outside yet, is it?  The lights are still off.”

The guard said something into his walkie-talkie.  An answer came back, also in French, and he sighed.  “No,” he said.  “You are free to go.  Home.”

“Listen, sir, I appreciate a joke as much as the next person, but I’ve got another year before I’m free to go.  It’s, what?  Six months before my parole hearing?”

The guard didn’t move, either.  He stood outside of the cell, waiting impatiently for me to stand up.

Patrick coughed from the next room over.  “If I were you, I would take this opportunity for what it is,” he said, after he cleared his throat.

The guard tapped his nightstick against the door idly.  My cellmate moved around above me and finally woke.  “Ce qui se passe?”  He asked.

I didn’t answer, but the guard did.  “Rendormir.”  He pointed the nightstick at the bed.  To me, he said, “Let’s go.”

I considered Patrick’s advice.  “I, uh…sure, that works for me.”  I stood and stretched until the joints along my spine cracked and popped.

Il n’a pas purge sa peine!” My cellmate protested.  He leaped off of his own bed and pushed me out of the way.  “Et moi?”

The guard gave my cellmate a supremely bored look and then, without any warning, swung the nightstick at his head.  My cellmate buckled under the sudden attack and the guard followed up with another swing, this time to the ribs.  When my cellmate was on the ground, he kicked him, hard, in the stomach and the other man scuttled away to the far side of the room.  I glanced down at the trail of blood and, after just a second, looked back up at the guard.  He had resumed his impatient position, tapping the now-bloody nightstick against the cell.  “Are you ready to leave now?”

I’d had more than enough time locked up to grow accustomed to random acts of violence.  If it wasn’t an inmate beating another to prove dominance, or a guard taking a little extra time out of his day to show the new guys exactly how things worked in prison, then it was simply two men blowing off steam accumulated over years and years of isolation.  In each case, though, the act had been wild and emotional.  This prison guard had attacked with enough force to cause serious damage, and he’d done it without a single ounce of emotion.

Patrick must have heard the commotion from the other room.  “Perhaps you should go, sooner rather than later?”  He suggested.  He concealed it well, but I heard the nearly inaudible note of anxiety in his voice.  “I hope you will not take this the wrong way, but…”

I smiled.  “I hope I never see you again,” I finished for him.  “Not here, at least.”

“Perhaps somewhere in the real world?”  Patrick smiled back.

“Yeah, somewhere out there.”

The guard cleared his throat and hefted the nightstick.

“Oh, no, no,” I said quickly.  I joined him in the hallway, outside of the prison cell.  “After you.”

He gave my cringing cellmate a disparaging look before he closed the door and locked it.  I followed the guard down several corridors, until we reached a door at the end of spectacularly long and poorly lit hallway.

He opened it and gestured with his hand.  “After you,” he said.

“No booking?”  I asked.  “No paperwork?  Just a long walk and a door in some forgotten part of the prison?”

The guard said nothing.

“Let me guess,” I continued.  “I go outside, and there’s a long black limousine waiting for me.  I get in, only to see that the president of France has need of my services!  For only I can be trusted with this, the most secret of missions!”  I steepled my fingers and assumed my very best evil genius face.

The guard was not amused.  He continued to hold the door open, with one hand gesturing to the outside.

A thought occurred to me, and I said it out loud at that exact instant.  “You don’t even work here, do you?”  I examined the guard.  His outfit was a perfect match for the uniforms worn by everyone else in the prison, but there was something off.  It took me less than a second of focus to note the details that were out of place.  His hair was a little too long, and his face sported a few days’ growth of facial hair.  Even though he was trying his best to maintain a poker face, his eyes were a tiny bit too nervous.  Most telling of all, his shoes were the right color, but the wrong type: heavy boots, instead of the less military footwear the guards normally wore.

“You should stop asking questions,” he said, “and accept a gift when it’s given.”  His accent was gone, now.  Each word came out in a short, clipped burst of perfect English.

A tiny voice in my head reminded me that all gifts in my line of work came with strings attached.  I had yet to receive a tip about a particular heist without receiving a phone call demanding a favor in return.  Anyone I hadn’t paid to help me was bound to want something from me in return.  That was a lesson I’d learned over several long years, until it became habit to check and double-check any kindness or generosity.

There were only a few months left on my sentence. Fewer than that, if I managed to charm the parole board.  It wouldn’t be difficult at all to slip whatever means they employed to keep track of me.  I could serve out the rest of my time, offer what platitudes were required to the people in charge, and then disappear into the wind again.  There were still enough people spread across safe-houses and hideouts that still owed me for services rendered in the past.  It would be easy and, more importantly, it would be safer than finding myself beholden to a mysterious party.  Especially a mysterious party with enough juice to arrange for an impromptu extraction like this.

At the same time, the larger part of my mind saw blue skies and white clouds through the open door.  A breeze came through the opening and caressed my cheek, making my decision for me.  “Don’t mind if I do,” I said.  I stepped outside.  The guard did not follow me.

“Good luck,” he said and then he closed the door before I could reply.

I stared at the door for a minute, weighing my next move.  Whatever instructions the not-guard had been given, ensuring my safe transportation had obviously not been included.  It was still early morning.  I had no phone, no contacts, and no particular direction in mind.  I turned around and smiled at the half-full parking lot.  If nothing else, I had an abundance of transportation options.

There were trucks, sedans, and a few SUV’s to choose from.  I selected a late model Peugot, a Clio if I wasn’t mistaken, and tried the driver’s side door.  It was unlocked.  My eyebrow steadily rose as I climbed into the car.  There were keys dangling from the ignition switch, but there was a garment bag draped across the passenger seat with a note attached to the front.  I moved the bag just enough that the writing on the note was visible.  It read, “For your use,” and nothing else.

My curiosity grew.  As I considered the implications of the cryptic note, I unzipped the bag.  Inside, I saw a uniform, identical in every way to the ones worn by the prison employees, with an ID pinned to the front lapel.  A picture of me, from a few years before, smiled up at me from the ID.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” I quoted to myself.  It didn’t even occur to me to check the size on the outfit.  It would fit, I knew.  It took me a minute to slip out of my prison garb and another minute to change into the uniform.  Then, I turned the keys and eased the Peugeot out of its parking space.  My mind tried, and failed, to sort through the criminals I knew capable of arranging for something like this.  Several came to mind who could have pulled off a prison escape, some with considerable ease, but none of those were predisposed to any degree of subtlety.  If Sam had wanted me out of prison, for instance, I would have expected a series of explosions to rip through the building in the late hours of the night..  If it had been Lucas, however, there would have been a frighteningly large number of bodies before all was said and done.  There were others who might have wanted me free, but an exhaustive review of the usual suspects didn’t match this particular operation.  It was too smooth, too well-orchestrated.  I shrugged and continued to ease my new vehicle through the parking lot.

The guard post rose in front of me as I approached.  Nervously, I fingered the ID on my chest and began to think of alternative means of escape.  I didn’t have to.  The guard inside the booth was distracted by something on a small television screen in front of him.  I held out my card to him and he passed it front of a scanner without glancing at it or me.  The scanner beeped and a small light in front of me turned green.  He handed back the ID and pressed a button that I couldn’t quite see, raising the partition separating me from the street.

“Thanks,” I said without thinking, in my best impression of a French accent.  Internally, I cursed at my own stupid need to speak.

The guard didn’t say anything.  He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and returned his attention to the show playing in front of him.  I didn’t stick around to test my luck any farther.  I continued out of the prison, reminding myself to drive on the opposite side of the road, and drove away.  I looked up at the rear view mirror after a few minutes, just to see the prison as it dipped below the horizon and out of sight.  When it was gone entirely, I breathed a sigh of relief and rolled my shoulders.

“Now what?”  I asked myself out loud.

Chapter 2

The lawmen had me clean on the theft.  On the bright side, there wasn’t quite enough evidence to tie me, personally, to the explosion at the power station.  Obviously, there were more than few detectives who just knew that the heist was too perfectly timed to just be coincidence, but they couldn’t find any physical evidence to make the charges stick.  They offered me the usual deal (immunity, in exchange for Asher’s name) and I gave them the usual answer (a variety of swear words, culled from some particularly mean languages).  I went to court, they found me guilty of theft in the first degree after maybe twenty minutes of deliberation, and I was sentenced to three years behind bars.

I make a habit of avoiding jail-time as much as I can, but no one’s perfect, and this wasn’t my first time in lockup.  It was, however, my first time in French lockup.  Problem number one: I don’t speak French very well.  And, by very well, I mean “not at all.”  My grasp of the language is limited to a few curses, the words for “hello” and “goodbye,” and ordering brunch…so long as brunch consists of crepes and nothing else.  Problem number two: while Sarah and I worked together, I didn’t have much need to work with any of the locals when we pulled jobs.  As a result, my network in the area was severely lacking.  I didn’t even know who to talk to in order to find the right connections.  I was, for the duration of my prison sentence, on my own.  Problem number three: even though I’ve been in prison before, I’ve never particularly liked it and I am notoriously bad at reigning in my sarcasm.  That’s not the sort of thing that works well when you’re surrounded by convicts who are also not skilled in that mystical art of self-control.

There are certain inevitable realities in virtually any enclosed setting.  If you take away someone’s freedom, take away the skies and the stars, and take away their name, then you leave them without much else to do except find a way to survive.  Unfortunately, very few people develop survival traits that bring out the best in them.  If you’ve already got a mean streak, then you might get a little meaner.  If you’re sarcastic, maybe your jokes start to cut a little bit too close to home.  If you’re the nervous sort, expect to have that magnified a thousand times at the slightest hint of any danger.

On my first day, after I’d endured the general dehumanizing paperwork of the system, I found my way to the cafeteria just in time to find a spot at the end of the lunch line.  The other men shuffled forward at a depressing pace.  I waited to receive my tray and used the alone time to draw up a quick plan of attack.  After so many years in the business, it was second nature to identify marks, whenever and wherever I saw them.  There were several, right in front of me: first time offenders, caught on petty charges, who were horrifyingly out of their depths.  They were the ones who’d turn over a new leaf, as soon as they finished their three month stint in prison.  It would be easy to manipulate them, if I spoke their language, but it wouldn’t be particularly useful.  I noted them, committed their faces to memory, and then moved on.

Farther ahead, I saw more problematic individuals.  In the real world, they’d been enforcers and hired muscle.  Without anything to trade, I couldn’t exactly purchase their services to keep me safe in here; at the same time, enforcers had never been known for their smarts, and I was reasonably certain that I could talk a circle around any of them, even on my worst day.

As the line continued forward, I sorted the huge men into a few simple, more specific categories.  The ones with gang tattoos or swastikas were the worst, obviously.  Associating with those kinds of criminals left a stink that followed you wherever you went.  More than that, I didn’t think I’d even be able to fake the type of conviction they’d want before they gave me protection.  There were a few other men without any particular markings who, even in the crowded cafeteria, had a circle of space around them a mile wide.  Even the guards made an effort to avoid making eye contact.  I couldn’t know what crimes they’d committed, but they were obviously insane.  No amount of charm would help me, if I ran afoul of them.  At that point, the odds were 50/50 on my continued good health.

The final group consisted of low-level pushers and dealers, people who broke into abandoned liquor stores in the dead of night for a few extra dollars.  They could be dangerous in large numbers, or if they were working for someone with half a brain, but in here they were just cannon fodder without a war to fight.  I memorized each of their faces, as well.

At the end of the line, after I’d received my personal portion of indigestible slop, I scanned the cafeteria.  On my first sweep, I didn’t see any table that wasn’t occupied by members of one group or another.  I felt their eyes on me as they decided whether I could be an asset or an obstacle.  I pushed their collective examination out of my thoughts and looked across the cafeteria again.  This time, I spotted a small space in the far corner of the room.  The table was dirty, but the seats at it were empty and I started toward it without a second thought.  Just before I reached it one of the large men who I’d marked as a hired thug jostled me from behind and pushed into the seat just before I could take it.  I barely managed to adjust my balance and keep my “food” from falling to the floor.

Ce tableau es pris,” the inmate growled at me.  His voice was like gravel.

I didn’t understand the words, but I could definitely guess at their general meaning.  I put on my best non-threatening expression and attempted a smile.  “No worries here,” I said.  “Just looking for a place to eat, is all.”

Ce tableau,” he repeated, “es pris.

“Guess I’ll just move along, then,” I said to myself.  Nothing about the man, so far, gave me any hope that he might speak English.  I began to turn around and walk back to the front of the room, where I could scan for a second table.

I made it, perhaps, halfway through my turn when I felt a wall of muscle hit my shoulder.  My first instinct was to move away, and my feet reoriented themselves to do exactly that.  My second instinct, only a millisecond later, was to actually check to see who I’d bumped into and recall what category I’d placed them in.  My torso turned in the direction of the intruder, in order to accomplish that task.  My third instinct, as soon as I realized that the first two commands were wholly incompatible, was to ensure that I wouldn’t fall on anybody that might be capable of violent, disproportionate retaliation.  My head aimed itself at the ground in preparation for the inevitable tumble.

The next few seconds were a blur of flailing limbs.  When I could think again, I found myself on the floor of the cafeteria.  My shoulder throbbed with the beginnings of a bruise.  I rubbed at it with one hand and ran the other through my hair.  “Just my luck,” I muttered under my breath.  Then, as I realized that both of my hands were now free, “Fuck.”

I looked up, into a pair of furious brown eyes.  My food, if the term still applied, decorated the front of his shirt.  Some had splashed onto his face and he made no move to wipe it away.  Instead, he inhaled and exhaled angrily through his nostrils and glared down at me.  His hands closed into fists and I thought I could hear his skin stretch taut over his tattooed knuckles.  I couldn’t make out what was printed on them, but the symbols looked uncomfortably similar to swastikas.

The entire cafeteria fell silent.  From my sprawled position, I noted the guards by the entrance.  They looked  at me, and conspicuously turned their backs.  I didn’t have to look in the other direction to know that the guards posted there would have done the same.  If they didn’t see it, then they weren’t obligated to stop it, after all.  I thought about calling out to them, making too big of a scene for them to conceivably ignore, but quickly decided against it.  The only decision that could possibly be worse than spilling food all over a possibly psychopathic neo-Nazi would be angering the guards on the first day.

I don’t consider myself a coward, but I do like to think of fear as more of a survival trait than something to be ashamed of.  In the real world, faced with this situation, I would have been more than happy to duck out of sight, to bargain, or simply to apologize profusely for what had been nothing more than a simple accident.  Better to lose my pride and keep my life, after all.  The rules were different in prison, though.  Anything other than an explicit show of strength would cause far more problems down the line.

I got to my feet.  “You got a problem?”  I asked and puffed out my chest.  The utter lack of reaction in his face let me know, for certain, that the inmate didn’t understand a word I’d said.  I kept talking anyway, hoping to either psych him out or amp myself up.  Whichever worked first.  “You want to start something, then?”

I can imagine how it looked.  I’m a little under six feet tall and not what anyone would describe as “muscular.”  Even before I got into the business, I made a habit of avoiding as much conflict as possible, getting by on charm and luck.   In here, I was just another piece of a fresh meat in a prison referred to, by people who know a lot about that sort of thing, as the worst prison in the world.  Yet there I was, barking in a foreign language at a seven foot tall man who could probably kill me before breakfast and might have a better appetite afterwards.

The insanity of my actions wasn’t lost on me.  I doubled down anyway.  “You think this is my first time dealing with one of you?”  I advanced on the inmate.  Surprised, he took a step back.  I swallowed the urge to pump my fist at the tiny victory and pressed my temporary advantage.  “You really want to start something with me?  With me?”  I hooked a thumb at my chest for emphasis.

The neo-Nazi’s hands still opened and closed at his side, but he didn’t close the distance between us and he didn’t throw a punch.  I didn’t need to speak French to understand the slight downturn at the corner of his lips: he felt the situation slipping out of his control.  He was on the defensive now and I could see from the stunned, glazed look in his eyes that it wasn’t a position he was familiar with.

For the benefit of everyone else, I continued to speak.  “I’ve been in worse prisons than this,” I lied, “and you are far from the worst I’ve ever encountered.”  The tipping point loomed ahead of me, and I barreled into it before my nerve could fail.  I stepped closer to the inmate, who took another smaller one away on sheer instinct, and poked him in the chest with an index finger.

“I’m not stuck in here with you,” I said, channeling my inner Rorschach with everything I had.  “You’re stuck in here with me.”  I turned my back on him, dismissing his presence in the showiest way I could think of.

If I’d guessed right, the psychotic inmate would be so confused that he’d walk away, without a clue as to how he’d lost control of the room so quickly and so totally.  I’d come out with, hopefully, enough of a reputation that I wouldn’t have to worry about getting shanked in line in a few days.  If I’d guessed wrong, though, then he had a clear shot at the back of my head.

There were a few more seconds of silence.  Then, a guttural roar from behind me.  I braced myself, as best as I could, for the coming punch.

Vouz ne voulez pas le faire,” a very small, soft voice said.  The roar stopped, as abruptly as it started.  I turned my head slightly to see who had spoken.  It was an older man, maybe in his late sixties.  He was shorter than me and his gray hair was thin to the point of invisibility on top of his head.  He stood between me and the neo-Nazi, whose hand was frozen in the air less than a foot from me.

Quitter,” the old man said.  He didn’t raise his voice, but there was something in the single word that demanded compliance.  The neo-Nazi glared at me for an instant and the older man cleared his throat delicately.

Rien que pour toi,” the larger inmate said to the older man.  He shot me a hate-filled look and then, miracle of miracles, walked away.

I waited until he was back at his seat, surrounded by empty space, to turn entirely around.  I leaned against the wall and tried to look as though everything had just happened according to plan.  The older man stood nearby, as well.

“That was a good plan,” he said under in his breath, in thickly accented English.

“You speak English?”  I asked.  I answered my own question a second later.  “Obviously.  What’d you say to him?”

“I appealed to his kinder nature,” the older man said, without a trace of sarcasm.  “Although it would not have worked, I fear, if you hadn’t given such an impressive performance.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The older man examined me slowly, starting from my feet and working his way up to the top of my head, and then back down again.  “I do not think you have spent very much time in prison, at all,” he said, when he finished.  “Just enough, perhaps, to know when it is best to run and when it is best to use what tools are available to you.  In your case, a very large amount of…”  He paused for a moment.  “Bravado is the right word, yes?”  He smiled at me.

Instantly, I liked him.  There wasn’t any reason that I could name, and I could easily find a great many reasons why I shouldn’t, but there just something about him.  “Name’s Devlin,” I volunteered.  “Devlin O’Brien.”

“Patrick,” he said back.

“No last name?”

“Last names,” he said sagely, “are for those who are not distinctive enough without one.”

I laughed, before I could help myself.  “So why’d you help me, Patrick No-Last-Name?”

He shrugged.  “I see a little bit of myself in you.  You do not seem like the type for assault, so…it would be theft, then?  If I remember correctly, that would earn you two years here, yes?  Or is it three?”

“Three,” I said.  I was caught off-guard by the accuracy of his first guess, but I kept that surprise from my face.

“You are worried about your time here,” Patrick said.  “You should not be.  It will be over, before you know it.  Like this.”  He snapped his fingers.  “It will be okay.”

I thought over the train of events that had put me here.  The argument with Sarah, the reckless heists, and Asher’s betrayal.  Nothing in the past year of my life had taught me that things might work out.  Still, Patrick continued to wear his easy smile and I let myself hope, for just an instant.  “Maybe you’re right.”

“Come,” he said.  “Let’s get you settled.”