They had to get up in the early hours of the morning to clean the house of DNA, which could only be done right before they left. Sergio woke out of a fitful sleep even before his alarm went off, and immediately felt wide awake. This was it. This was the day he’d been waiting for, planning for, working towards for most of his life. He couldn’t quite believe that it was really here, that they would be executing the biggest heist in history in just a few hours. For a moment, he felt a wave of nausea wash over him, but then he took a few deep breaths and told himself that the odds were in his favor: his plan was solid, his team was solid, his preparations were more than solid. They could do this. They would do this. He turned his head to look at Raquel, still sleeping beside him. Never in his wildest dreams had he thought that he would be doing this with someone like her – a partner in every sense of the word. Just looking at her made him feel better.
When the alarm went off, she opened sleepy eyes and turned to look at him.
“Good morning, my love. How are you feeling?”
He considered this for a moment. “Calmer than I thought I would be. It doesn’t feel real yet. How are you feeling?”
“Ready”, she said simply, and he nodded in appreciation. She was probably more ready for this than he could ever be. He remembered how incredible she was under pressure – focused, quick-thinking, always in control of the situation – and he suddenly realized why he felt so calm: because she would be by his side. He knew that if he stumbled, she would steady him; if he messed up, she’d have his back; and if he failed, if all of this turned into a complete disaster, she would still be right next to him, and as long as that was true, as long as he could take her hand and see her smile, everything would be alright. The heist could never be a total loss, because it had brought her to him. He might not walk away from this with any money, but as long as he could walk away with her, even a failure would feel like a victory.
They got up and got dressed in silence. When they were both ready, they looked at each other, then moved in for a hug at the same time. He held her tight, drawing strength from the solid presence of her, from the familiarity of the shape of her body and the smell of her hair. Inside his head, there was the mantra that he kept repeating over and over again: he would keep her safe, he would keep her safe no matter what. He let their embrace go on for moment after long moment, unwilling to let her go, reluctant to step out of that door, knowing it would break once and for all the little bubble they had built around themselves here, warm and safe and full of love. They might never have another moment like this, so how could he end it, how could he open his arms and let her go? He simply wasn’t strong enough. Finally she looked up at him.
“Do you want to go?” she asked him softly.
He shook his head and buried his face in her hair, and she hugged him tighter in return. He took a deep breath – he had to get a hold of himself or he would never be able to let go of her. He couldn’t be Sergio right now – soft, open, in love – he couldn’t let himself be weakened by his emotions. With an effort, he summoned that other side of himself, and things sharply came into focus as he felt the focal point of his consciousness shift from his heart to his brain, making him feel powerful and completely in control of the situation. Sergio might never be fully ready for this, but the Professor was.
“Let’s do this”, he said, releasing her, and when she took a step back and looked up at him, he noticed with a rush of admiration the fire burning in her dark eyes.
“Yes”, she nodded. “Let’s fucking do this.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him, one last, long, fierce kiss, then they broke apart and stepped out into the hallway.
Everyone helped to clean the house of all traces of DNA, then they carefully set up things like toothbrushes and half-eaten food to look like evidence. Sergio had already gone through the papers in the classroom, removing anything that contained vital information, but leaving up as much as he safely could. On top of that, he’d added a number of fake documents that he’d manufactured specifically for this purpose: strategies and escape plans that seemed plausible enough at first glance but that were entirely fictional. It was essential that the police be distracted, that they lose as much time here as possible so they wouldn’t focus on the team in the Mint.
When it was time to leave, the team gathered around the van they would be leaving in, all wearing red jumpsuits and carrying Dali masks. Sergio walked up to his brother and pulled him a short distance away from the others, feeling the mask of the Professor slip in the face of having to say goodbye.
“Are you ready?”
Berlin grinned. “More than I’ve ever been in my life. Don’t worry, Sergio, I’ve got this.”
He put a hand on Sergio’s shoulder. “And so do you. Don’t forget that you’re your father’s son.”
Sergio’s throat suddenly felt tight. He looked down at the ground and swallowed, then said quietly:
“I just want to make him proud.”
“And I’m sure you will”, Berlin assured him earnestly. “I don’t doubt that for a second.”
Sergio looked up gratefully. God knew his brother wasn’t perfect, and often Sergio was painfully aware of his flaws, but then suddenly Andrés would say something like this, showing unsuspected depth, and they would share a moment of genuine feeling and connection. His charismatic older brother. For such a long time, he’d been everything to Sergio – his protector, his mentor, his only friend. Now Raquel had taken a very central place in his affections, but he didn’t love his brother any the less for it. He looked at the familiar face, smiling at him, and wondered if he’d ever see it again. Was this goodbye? The moment didn’t feel significant enough – he felt like he should do something, say something, to make it… bigger, somehow.
Sergio hesitated, then started in a low voice: “Andrés…”
His brother raised a hand. “Let’s not have a sentimental goodbye. We’ll see each other again in eleven days.”
Sergio took a deep breath, willing himself to believe it. “Yes. Eleven days.”
“And we’ll be in almost constant communication.”
“True.” Sergio swallowed hard, trying to get rid of the lump in his throat. “Good luck.”
They couldn’t hug in front of the others, so Sergio held out his hand and his brother took it and squeezed it, hard.
“See you on the other side, Sergio.”
“Take care, Andrés.”
Berlin kept hold of his hand as he softly sang the very last line of Bella Ciao:
“E questo il fiore del partigiano, morto per la liberta…”
Sergio felt a sudden fierce rush of pride as he raised his head and looked his brother in the eye.
“Yes”, he said. “Per la liberta.”
His brother gave him one last grin, then turned back to the team.
“Alright people, vámonos!”
Sergio and Raquel watched the van drive off, then they got onto Sergio’s bike and set off themselves for Madrid. They arrived in the control room at around nine, half an hour before the team would stop and take over the transport to the Mint. Sergio turned on all of the electronics, then they both put on a headset.
“Berlin?” he said. “Checking in.”
His brother’s voice came back immediately. “Hearing you loud and clear. You also there, Lisbon?”
“I’m here, Berlin”, Raquel said.
“How are the nerves, sweetheart?”
She snorted. “Don’t patronize me.”
Berlin laughed. “Steady as ever, I hear. Good.”
“How are things there?” Sergio intervened.
“Everything going according to plan. I’ll keep you briefed.”
There was nothing for it now but to wait, and the tension was terrible. Sergio was experiencing a mix of emotions somewhere between exhilaration and terror that made him feel more alert than he had ever felt in his life. They waited in silence, listening as the team took over the transport, only looking at each other every now and then. Five minutes before everyone was about to arrive at the Mint, he took her hands in his and held on tight as they leaned their foreheads together. Whatever happened, they were in this together. For a moment, Sergio was acutely aware of the fact that he almost hadn’t recruited her, that he’d almost been here alone, without her. The thought seemed absurd – of course they were meant to do this together. It could be no other way.
At 10.15, Berlin alerted Sergio that they’d arrived, and he felt his entire body tense. The next fifteen minutes would be crucial. Everyone entered the Mint without trouble, and he felt his heart rate accelerate, just barely keeping his hands from shaking. Any moment now…
“Go”, he whispered.
The team all drew their guns at once, and suddenly there was shouting coming through every ear piece. He stood up anxiously, hoping fervently that everyone would cooperate without trouble. He didn’t like this kind of violence, scaring people, threatening them, but sadly it was necessary. He started pacing – he hated that he had no control over this part of the operation. Then the team pointed their guns at the group of school children in the museum, and suddenly there were screams in his ear and he hated it, he hated it so much. What had they started, what the hell were they doing? He shot a look at Raquel and saw the shadow of his own dismay on her face.
“This is awful”, he whispered.
She nodded, then steeled herself. “There’s nothing for it, though, it has to be done. It will be over soon, they’ll calm down again.”
He kept his eyes on her – she looked so calm and collected whereas he felt like his nerves were fraying. She reached out a hand and he took it gratefully, feeling instantly better, as if some of her strength was transferred to him by her touch.
“This is the worst of it”, she said softly. “Once you’re in control of the situation, you’ll feel better.”
He nodded, recognizing the truth of her words.
Then Tokyo yelled through her headset that she didn’t see the Lamb, claiming all of their attention.
He turned to Raquel in alarm. “Where could she be?”
“Check the bathrooms!” Raquel told Tokyo through her headset.
For a moment, Sergio feared Tokyo might not take the order from Raquel… there was a short, tense pause, but then Tokyo said:
A few minutes later, Tokyo reported that she’d indeed found the girl in a bathroom, and they looked at each other in relief.
“How did you know she’d be in a bathroom?” Sergio asked.
Raquel shrugged. “She’s a teenage girl, it seemed like the logical place to look.”
Everything was under control now. He slowly sat down again, shaking slightly, and closed his eyes. Suddenly he felt her hand on his arm, and he opened his eyes again to see her smile at him.
“Well done”, she said. “Part one couldn’t have gone better.”
He shook his head. “The takeover was sloppy, it could have been done more quickly, and then the thing with Miss Parker, that was…”
“Sergio”, she cut him off firmly. “It couldn’t have gone better.”
He took a deep breath. “Yes. Yes, of course, you’re right.”
She nodded. “Now for part two.”
Everyone executed their assigned tasks, and after about half an hour, Sergio gave his next order:
“Berlin, prepare to open the doors.”
Raquel, meanwhile, was tuning in to the police frequency.
“There’s a 10-33 at the Mint.”
“We’ll be there in two minutes.”
Raquel pressed a timer and said to Berlin: “Two minutes.”
They waited, side by side, on the edge of their seats.
“Z-24 to central, we’ll be there in 30 seconds.”
“30 seconds, Berlin”, Raquel reported.
Sergio was breathing fast. The next part was dangerous, but necessary: it was crucial that the police think they were trapped and desperate.
Sergio waited for his brother to give the order to go outside, but then he heard Rio shout:
Suddenly, there were shots coming over the headset, and Sergio felt almost unbearably tense, frustrated to the extreme that he couldn’t see what was happening. The shots went on for several minutes, then everything went quiet. Over the police radio, they heard:
“We need back-up at the Mint! Officer down!”
Sergio turned to Raquel with a look of horror. She was staring back at him with wide eyes, her hands clapped over her mouth.
They didn’t dare talk over the headsets anymore, since the police might already be listening in. Instead, they had to wait until the analog telephone was set up and their own telephone started ringing. Sergio picked up.
His brother answered him. “Two police officers wounded.”
“Wounded?” Raquel asked. “Not dead?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Who shot them?” Sergio asked.
“Tokyo.” Berlin spoke away from the phone for a moment. “Connect the cameras for the Professor.” Then he spoke to Sergio again. “Rio got hit…”
“Is he alright?” Raquel said urgently.
“Yes, just a scratch. But when it happened, Tokyo started shooting back.”
Sergio looked at Raquel, who rolled her eyes. “Of course she did.”
“Let me talk to her”, Sergio said.
The cameras suddenly connected, finally giving them eyes inside. They saw Tokyo take the phone with a belligerent look on her face.
“Look, Tokyo”, Sergio started heatedly, “I know you’re sleeping with Rio, but you cannot let your personal feelings get in the way of the plan!”
“What?” Tokyo said. “I’m not sleeping with the kid.”
“Don’t play dumb, Tokyo”, Raquel snapped.
“Alright, fine”, Tokyo snapped back. “I shot to protect myself and my partner. You know, Mr. Professor, no matter how well you plan things out, they don’t always go the way you think they will.”
She slammed the phone down and Sergio was left with the dial tone. He put his phone down too, fuming.
“I should have known Tokyo would mess things up!”
Raquel put a calming hand on his arm. “Don’t panic, nothing’s lost yet.”
“If those police officers die, we’re screwed, Raquel!”
“I know”, she said, “but let’s worry about that if it actually happens.”
He took a deep breath, trying to calm down. “You’re right. We’ll just have to wait for the police to set up their center of operations and call us.”
It was a long wait, and neither of them said very much. Sergio kept practicing his “what are you wearing?” line with different inflections and tones. He needed to get it exactly right, as it would serve to unbalance the negotiator and help him establish the upper hand in the conversation. He just hoped they would indeed bring in Inspector Elena González from a different district, as Raquel predicted, because the line would be useless if they put Ángel in charge of the operation.
He suddenly noticed that Raquel had a slight smile on her face.
“What?” he asked her.
“Do you realize…”, she said. “If things had been different… About now would have been the first time we would have talked.”
That made him smile too, and for just one second his nerves were forgotten. “I’m sure I would have liked you instantly.”
“And I’m sure I would have hated you”, she laughed. “With your inappropriate questions.”
He gave her a sly look. “Would you have hated me though?”
She considered him for a moment with sparkling eyes. “Well… maybe not entirely.”
He grinned and sat down, feeling just a little better, just a little more relaxed.
When the police radio crackled out another message, he glanced at her. “It must be weird for you to be on the other side of this.”
She hesitated, then nodded. “I can’t pretend that it isn’t.”
He observed her carefully, and he was proud to see no sign of regret in her, no sign that she was anything but committed to the success of their operation.
Finally, the phone rang. Now that it came down to it, Sergio felt the Professor take over, calm and collected. He took up a red piece of paper to fold and picked up.
“Hello”, a female voice sounded on the other side of the line, and Sergio smiled.
“I am Elena González and I’m the Inspector in charge. Who am I speaking to?”
“The leader of the operation. How are your colleagues?”
“Hurt, but still alive at this point.”
Sergio breathed a silent sigh of relief, and so did Raquel next to him.
“I’m glad. I’m really glad.”
“Excuse me”, the Inspector said, “is that robot voice really necessary?”
“I’m sorry for this ugly metallic sound, but you understand that I have to protect my identity. In case we get a helicopter to go to Brazil.”
“Is that what you want? A helicopter?”
“What I want, first of all, is to negotiate with someone who doesn’t hesitate, someone who doesn’t need to check in with their superior officer or Intelligence or their mother to tell them yes or no.”
“Well”, she said drily. “Like I said: I’m in charge. I won’t pretend to have absolute power, but I can assure you that I won’t ask my mother for anything.”
Sergio grinned, and the Inspector continued:
“Any other questions?”
“Yes…” Sergio said, tensing. “What are you wearing?”
He’d expected the question to throw her off, but she didn’t miss a beat.
“A blue blazer, what are you wearing?”
He blinked. “You… you want to know what I’m wearing?”
“I told you what I’m wearing, it seems only fair that you return the favor.”
He looked at Raquel – this wasn’t in their script. She was shaking her head vehemently, but he decided to play along, establish trust and goodwill, make her think that he was willing to cooperate.
“Jeans and a blue sweater”, he lied, and Raquel groaned.
He frowned at her to stay quiet as the Inspector responded.
“Conducting your robbery very casually then.”
He couldn’t help but smile. “Why the interest in my apparel, Inspector?”
“Well, don’t you think our clothes say a lot about us?”
He raised his eyebrows. That was going to be his next line. He cleared his throat.
“And how do you like your men, Miss González? Well-dressed or a little scruffy? The gentleman or the rogue?”
“The gentleman”, she said immediately. “No question. Are you a gentleman, sir?”
“I believe I am.”
“A real gentleman would introduce himself.”
He laughed softly. “You can call me the Professor. Everybody does.”
“Are you a teacher?”
“Too many questions, Miss González.”
“Let’s get to business then, Professor. What do you want?”
Sergio paused for a moment, then said: “Time. To get things straight. Listen, Inspector, we almost got away. We’re perfectly prepared to defend ourselves, so try not to intervene. Can I trust you?”
“Of course. But to know that I can trust you, you have to give me something. There is a group of school children among your hostages, all of them minors. They shouldn’t be mixed up in something like this.”
“You want me to let them go?”
“Yes. They’re children, and you have plenty of other hostages. Please release them.”
He nodded. “I’ll consider your request.”
“It’s what a gentleman would do”, she said, and he put the phone down with a smile.
Immediately, Raquel turned to him with an exasperated expression.
“Come on, Sergio, I was clearly indicating that you shouldn’t tell her what you’re wearing!”
“What does it matter? I didn’t tell her the truth.”
“It matters because now she knows you’re not in the Mint with the others!”
He frowned. “How?”
“Because they saw the team come out, all wearing red jumpsuits!”
“You’re right”, he said, stricken. “I… I answered without really thinking. I didn’t expect her to ask the question back.”
She laughed. “You asked that question to throw her off balance and she bounced it right back at you. Admit it, she beat you at your own game.”
He grinned, his dismay turning into delight. “Oh, I like that. She’ll be very interesting to deal with.”
“You shouldn’t sound so pleased about that! She outsmarted you right in your first conversation.”
He felt a fire kindle inside him. Oh, a real challenge, a worthy opponent – the prospect was extremely appealing.
“I’ll have to do better next time then. I underestimated her. That won’t happen again.”
He thought about it for a moment, then said:
“You know, this isn’t so bad. Let her think I slipped up…”
“You did slip up.”
“… that way she’ll underestimate me, and it will make it more believable when I ‘accidentally’ let things slip later.”
She raised her eyebrows at him. “You better be careful, Sergio. She seems like a match for you.”
He could barely contain his enthusiasm. “I agree. Oh, this is going to be interesting.”
She shook her head at him, but he was too excited to care.
They knew the police would plan to enter the Mint in the middle of the night to try and save Allison, so they both stayed awake and watching the cameras, nervously waiting for the police to make their move. Once they detected movement, Sergio called Berlin and the team set the next part of the plan in motion. The police intervention team went straight to the loading bay, exactly like Sergio had predicted. At that point, Rio had Allison call the national radio and tell them the hostages were dressed the same as the robbers. The team at the loading bay, meanwhile, had drilled a hole through the door and seen the Browning machine gun. For a few tense moments, nothing happened, and Sergio and Raquel kept their eyes glued to the screens. Then, all police teams pulled back at once and Sergio took off his glasses and rubbed a shaking hand over his eyes.
“We should be fine for a while now”, he muttered. “They’ll need to rethink their strategies, see how they want to play this.”
“It worked”, Raquel whispered next to him. “It worked out exactly the way you said it would. You’re a genius, Sergio, a goddamn genius.”
He laughed shakily and pulled her in for a kiss, then another and another and another, and she responded by getting up out of her chair to sit astride his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him back enthusiastically. They couldn’t stop laughing, both light-headed with relief, and he gave her kiss after kiss, suddenly hungry for her, for her mouth, her hands, her skin. She seemed to feel the same way, because her hands were in his hair and she pressed herself close to him as he ran his hands down her back. When she started unbuttoning his shirt, however, he pulled himself together with a supreme effort.
“No”, he said, pushing her hands away, “Raquel, we said we wouldn’t.”
“Did we?” she said innocently.
“Yes, we agreed weeks ago: no sex during the heist.”
“I don’t think I remember that”, she murmured, leaning in for another kiss.
He grinned. “Yes, you do!”
She quickly undid another button on his shirt and he pushed her hands away again, laughing.
“Control yourself, woman!”
“Don’t you think we deserve to blow off some steam?”
“What if something happens when we’re not paying attention? We can’t afford to be distracted.”
She sighed and sat up. “I suppose you’re right.”
He gave her a warm look and pulled her in for one more kiss. “It’s only for eleven days.”
“This is going to be a long heist”, she said drily.
When she got off him, however, he instantly regretted it. He didn’t want to stop kissing her, he didn’t want her warmth and her scent and her mouth to go away. He reached out a hand to pull her back, but at that moment she glanced at the screens and said:
“Look! They’re starting the presses!”
That got his attention. They watched eagerly as the hostages filed in and started work, Nairobi marching amongst them like a general. He got up and put a record on the record player, and the triumphant strains of Beethoven’s Ninth rang out through the hangar as they watched the money start rolling… rolling… rolling… They couldn’t stop grinning at each other. This was what they had come for – now it was really beginning.
It was almost six in the morning when he turned to her.
“What will she do now?”
“If I were her, I’d quit after Intelligence overruled me like that. I’d want nothing to do with it.”
“Do you think that’s what Miss González will do?”
She considered this for a moment. “No, I don’t think so. From what I know of her, she’s not the person to just give up on a case.”
“Very committed, is she?”
“Practically married to the job.”
“As far as I know, yes.”
“Will she go home and rest now?”
“Not at this point, no. They’ll have to consider their next move.”
“What would you do now if you were her?”
“Honestly? I’d go out for a coffee to clear my head.”
He gave her a sharp look. “You think she’ll go out for coffee?”
“It’s a distinct possibility, yes. I’d want to get out of that tent.”
“In this neighborhood? Probably Hanoi.”
He got up. “I have to meet her.”
“I’m going to Hanoi and wait for her there.”
She stared at him. “Are you actually insane, Sergio? You want to meet the person leading the case against you?”
“I want to get a sense of her, what kind of person she is, who I’m dealing with.”
“And you need to meet her for that?”
“I want to look her in the eye. That’s the quickest way to get the measure of someone.”
“Sergio, that’s such a crazy risk to take!”
“It’s not, really. She has no way of knowing who I am.”
She got up too and put her hand on his arm when he reached for his jacket.
“Don’t make such a big decision on an impulse!”
“It’s not an impulse”, he admitted reluctantly. “It was always my plan to try to meet the person in charge of the case face to face.”
“What?” she frowned. “I know every letter of that plan and you never said a word about this.”
He didn’t meet her eye. “Because I knew you wouldn’t agree.”
“Well, you’re damn right about that!”
“I’ve got this under control, Raquel, don’t worry. It’s a calculated risk.”
He shook off her hand and put on his jacket. Her eyes were wide.
“Sergio, don’t do this!”
“I’ll be fine”, he soothed her. “And I’ll be back as soon as I can. Remember, you are not to talk to the police under any circumstances.”
“Yes”, she said. “I know, but…”
“If they call while I’m out, you don’t answer the phone.”
“I won’t. But…”
He started moving towards the door. “Keep an eye on the cameras at all times.”
“I will, but are you seriously doing this?!”
He turned around, giving her an appealing look. “I have to meet her, Raquel, I have to. Don’t you understand?”
“No”, she said heatedly, “I don’t understand at all!”
“We’ll be negotiating with this woman for days, and these negotiations will determine how long we’ll be able to stay in the Mint. I need to know who I’m dealing with. She’s clearly a capable person, so every edge I can get over her will help.”
“How will meeting her give you an edge over her?”
“I don’t know yet”, he said, “but it might.”
“This is such a stupid idea!”
“You’re vastly overestimating the risk I’m running, Raquel. Please calm down. I’ll be back soon. If something goes wrong, call me.”
And with those words, he opened the door and stepped out into the early morning light, leaving Raquel behind, angry and worried.
He sat at the end of the counter in the café, perfectly prepared to wait for a while, but it was only half an hour before she came in. He recognized her from the photos he’d seen of her: mid-thirties, medium height and build, her dark hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. He noted with interest that she was not, in fact, wearing a blue blazer like she’d told him, but a grey shirt. He kept observing her out of the corner of his eye as she walked to the counter with a quiet kind of confidence and ordered a coffee. He got up as she got her cup, and just as she turned around to take it to a table, he bumped into her, causing her to drop the cup and saucer, which shattered on the ground.
“Oh god!” he said, “I’m so sorry!”
She shot him a piercing look. “Watch where you’re walking, will you?”
“Really, I’m so sorry! I’ll pay for the cup”, he assured the owner, who came around the counter with a mop and a disgruntled look.
Then he turned back to the Inspector. “Please let me buy you a new cup.”
“There’s no need for that.”
“Please, I insist. Regular coffee?”
She hesitated, then said: “Yes. Black.”
He gestured towards a table. “Please, sit down, I’ll bring it to you.”
He waited for the owner to pour a fresh cup, then set it down in front of the Inspector.
“Can I… can I join you for a moment?”
She considered him. “Alright, why not.”
He sat down across from her. “I’m usually not that clumsy, I hope you’ll be able to forgive me.”
She gave him a long, intense look, and he was struck by the intelligence in her dark eyes.
“You bumped into me on purpose, didn’t you?”
“There was plenty of room to walk past me. You did that on purpose.”
Damn, she was sharp. He swallowed. “Why would I do that?”
“You tell me.”
He looked down, and gave an embarrassed laugh. “Alright, you got me. I… I just wanted an excuse to talk to you.”
“Picking up women at six in the morning?” she said, one corner of her mouth quirking up in a half-smile.
He shrugged and shot her a shy smile in return. “You just seem like an interesting person.”
“And you thought making me spill my coffee was a good way to get to know me?”
“You’re right”, he said contritely. “That was a very clumsy thing to do. Can we start over?”
He held out his hand. “Salvador Martín.”
She kept those intense eyes on him for a long moment, and he thought she might refuse his hand, but then she reached out and shook it.
He gave her a genuine smile. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss González.”
Raquel kept pacing up and down in front of the desk, keeping only one eye on the screens. Everything was quiet in the Mint, the presses running smoothly, most of the hostages sleeping, but she herself felt wide awake with worry. She couldn’t believe Sergio had gone out and put himself right under the nose of the police. Or actually, no, she reminded herself, that wasn’t Sergio, it was the fucking Professor, damn arrogant bastard that he was. Thinking he was untouchable, thinking he was so much smarter than everybody else. She’d always liked the Professor in the classroom and especially in the bedroom, but she was beginning to realize that they might not always see eye to eye now that things were getting serious.
After about an hour, the door to the hangar opened again and he walked back in. She felt faint with relief as she rushed to him and hugged him.
“Thank god you’re back.”
He chuckled as he patted her on the back. “I was never in any danger, Raquel, she had no idea who I was.”
“So how was it?”
His eyes were shining with enthusiasm. “We’re in for an interesting few days. She’s a chess player too.”
“You talked about chess?”
“We didn’t have to, I could just tell.”
She gave him a skeptical look. “You can tell if someone’s a chess player?”
“She has such a sharp mind, incisive, strategic. A quick thinker, too. Amazingly quick.”
She raised her eyebrows. “You do remember you’re fighting this woman, not dating her, right?”
He waved a hand. “Yes, of course, I know.”
“Do you though?”
He laughed. “Yes! I’m just pleased to have a skilled opponent.”
“This isn’t a game of chess, though, Sergio! This is our lives you’re playing with.”
His expression sobered. “I know. I know, my love, don’t worry. I do take this seriously.”
He took her in his arms and kissed her, and she felt some of her worry melt away. Of course he knew what he was doing. She was probably overreacting because she was stressed and tired. She hugged him tight for a moment, and he hugged her back. Then he said:
“You can sleep first. I’m not tired yet.”
“Alright”, she said, feeling the exhaustion of the day catch up with her now that the adrenaline was wearing off. “Wake me in six hours, or if you get too tired.”
She turned away from him and opened her bag to take out her toothbrush and pajamas.
“So she really had no suspicion of who you are?”
He sat down behind the screens. “No, why would she? And next time she’ll trust me even more.”
She froze. “Next time?”
“You’re going to meet with her again?”
“Well, we have no fixed plans or anything, but I’ll go wait for her at Hanoi again. I’ve established contact now, I want to build on that.”
“To what possible end?!”
“If she trusts me, she might tell me things about the investigation. And the better I get to know her, the bigger the advantage I’ll have over her in the negotiations.”
“That’s such a big risk to take for only a very vague possible payoff!”
“We don’t know that, the payoff may be more significant than you think.”
“I don’t think you really believe that! You’re trying to rationalize an irrational feeling, making up seemingly reasoned arguments because you won’t admit to the real reason.”
He raised his eyebrows. “And what’s the ‘real reason’ according to you?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “I think you just like the thrill of it. I think she intrigues you. She outsmarted you before and now you want to see if you can outsmart her.” She shook her head. “She’s a challenge and you simply can’t resist that.”
He shifted guiltily, and she knew she was right. His expression remained stubborn, however.
“Well, so what? It can’t do any harm if I talk to her again.”
She felt a stab of unease. Why was he fighting her on this, when she clearly made sense? Did he want to see her again so badly?
“But the risk, Sergio!”
He sighed. “We went over this before, Raquel, there’s no real risk involved, how could she possibly know who I am?”
“You said yourself that she’s so clever.”
“But she’d have to be psychic to figure out my identity.”
She decided to let it go, since he clearly wasn’t going to change his mind. She took a deep breath and told herself that this was part of who he was and she wasn’t going to change him – nor did she want to.
“Alright”, she said tiredly. “You’re the mastermind, I’m sure you’ve calculated every risk. I’m going to bed.”
She changed into her pajamas and brushed her teeth, then went over to where he was sitting in front of the cameras to kiss him goodnight. When she got close, however, he held out a hand with a soft look in his eyes.
She dropped gratefully into his lap and he pulled her close and kissed the top of her head as she leaned against him.
“I know you’re worried”, he said. “I understand, and of course you’re right that it’s not without risk. But I promise I’ll be careful. If I get the sense that she suspects me even in the least, I’ll stay away from her.”
She nodded silently, just enjoying his nearness.
“You were amazing today”, he murmured in her ear, and she couldn’t help but smile. “So calm, so steady. There’s nobody I’d rather have by my side in this than you.”
She cuddled closer to him and they talked softly about the events of the day for a while, going over the big moments, both good and bad. They concluded that, on the whole, this first day had been a success.
“Can you believe it?” he said quietly, nodding at the screens where the presses in the Mint could be seen working at full force. “We’re doing it, Raquel, we’re really doing it.”
She smiled. “Yes, we are.”
He sighed happily. “It all worked out exactly the way I planned it.”
“Yes, yes”, she chuckled, “you’re a genius.” She reached up a hand and stroked his beard appreciatively. “And a very handsome genius at that. You’re the whole package, aren’t you?”
“Funny”, he said, looking down at her with a warm smile. “I was just going to say that about you.”
She smiled and lifted up her face so he could press a long, soft kiss to her lips, and she felt with a rush of relief that they were in tune again. His arms around her were warm and comforting, and for the first time all day, she felt safe. She felt herself relax as she leaned her head against his shoulder and let her eyes close for just one moment, exhaustion washing over her. Before she knew it, she was asleep.
She didn’t even notice it when he carefully lifted her and carried her over to the bed. He covered her with the blanket, then kneeled next to her and gently brushed a lock of hair away from her cheek. For a long moment, he just kept looking at her, then he reluctantly got up and went back to his screens. In the Mint, a new day was beginning.