One of the most important requirements for a freelance spy – even one like me that tends towards jobs devoted to my own brand of patriotism – is to develop the contacts necessary for anything. Most importantly, these need to be contacts that are loyal – or paid to be loyal – to you, and not to any other employer. The fastest way to have your cover blown is for one of your assets to sell your identity.
Michael Westen needed to get out of France yesterday. His cover was compromised, and worse, there were two assassins, a squad of Interpol agents, and at least one spy hunter between him and all of the legends he had available in this country. Granted, he didn't have many on hand because Paris is not Kandahar, Beijing, or Kiev, and he rarely needs an independent exit strategy in Allied territory.
Days like today, or weeks like this week, make him a little misty-eyed for a time when he had back-up. Sam Axe would be a really good face to see right now.
Thinking about the past, or dreaming about the retribution he'd rain down on the double-faced asset that had bit on not one, but three individual bounties on his head, was not going to get him out of Paris. Getting out of Paris would require either a human trafficker – which he'd rather trust his fate to the spy hunter, thank you very much – or a very skilled forger. Several problems existed with the skilled forger option: they tended to be rather shy, especially when there was as much heat as what was presently searching for Michael; and they were very expensive.
Unfortunately, Michael's wallet fell out when escaping the car bomb set by assassin number one.
Still, there was always the chance that a forger would do work for someone like the infamous Michael Westen in exchange for a favor (or two, depending on the quality) to be named at a later date. The only challenge was to locate them. This, as in everything involved with cultivating assets, required that one know their audience.
This brings us to Michael Westen desperately trying to not scratch off the stolen mustache he was wearing as a disguise while touring the Grand Louvre, and staring at one of Rysselberghe's lesser paintings. He's spent some time this month in the company of a young art student – blonde, young, entirely too romantic, but rather intelligent – who would natter on about art gossip. One bit that did stick with him was that several people were suspicious of this painting by the Belgian – not because of any technical flaw, but rather the circumstances under which it came into the Museum's collection.
Michael doesn't know enough about post-impressionists, or Rysselberghe's style, to make any judgments, but he does have an eye for detail. And he notices several marks that seem out of place, especially in comparison to the other Rysselberghe on the adjacent wall. In just the right light, NC can be made out.
His blonde art student had taken him to several gallery openings that had doubled as dead drops for one of Michael's contacts. He remembers an NC – Neal Caffrey, a young man that was difficult not to notice. If Michael's right, he has the leverage to make sure that Caffrey will cooperate with his request – with the promise of future payment. And if he's wrong, he knows a local trafficker that can get him on a boat returning to Senegal. Not the best of back-up plans, but at least in Senegal he can lay hands on a legend that can get him somewhere else.
Now to find Caffrey.
Light burns through his closed eyes. Light? Neal always draws the heavy blinds shut when he returns to the hotel after 2 a.m. Especially when he actually returns alone (thus ensuring that nothing interesting will wake him up and allow him to finally get a full eight hours – something nice to do once or twice a year).
Blearily, Neal rubs his eyes as he concludes he must have been even drunker than he thought last night if he neglected the blinds.
"Coffee? I ordered room service for you," a male voice says. Neal immediately freezes. "Italian roast, I've heard that's your favorite."
Well, whoever his visitor is, he hasn't hurt him, and hasn't read him his rights yet. Neal wants to burrow under the covers and hope that this new wrinkle in life would go away, but somehow, he doubts that will happen. Instead, he sits up and rearranges the pillows so he can lean against the headboard.
"Do I know you?" he asks as he holds out a hand for coffee. If he's going to be awake before 11 am (and without female company), he might as well be caffeinated.
"I could be a very good friend to have, Neal. Especially for someone like you," says the stranger. He has dark hair, steel-grey intense eyes, and a body that marks him as the type of person Neal tries to avoid "knowing". He's dressed in a non-descript grey suit with a white shirt – expensive enough to not be a federal agent, but not flashy enough to be organized crime.
"I'm just a twenty-something art school grad enjoying the museums of France. And you're really not my type."
The stranger quietly drinks his coffee while staring at Neal in a way that makes him want to squirm. All the hairs on Neal's neck are telling him the smart play in this situation is to be this man's friend. Or at least, pretend until the SOB leaves.
"I saw your work at the Louvre. I love meeting anyone with that much talent."
The coffee is hot enough to burn his throat, but Neal would prefer the man think that his eyes are wide from pain rather than fear. "I dream of the day that any piece I paint would appear at the Louvre. Sadly, all I do is study and admire its exhibits."
"As much fun as this witty repartee is, I don't have the time to play twenty questions until you trust me enough to do what I need. So, suffice it to say, I know the recently acquired Rysselberghe is a forgery, I've spotted at least three places that you signed it, and I'm willing to tell everything to one of the Interpol agents that are after me unless you agree to forge me a passport. And no, I can't pay you now, but trust me, I repay my debts."
"Excuse me if I don't jump at the chance to give you even more blackmail material by breaking a dozen international laws just so you'll keep quiet about an alleged art forgery."
The smile the stranger gives him screams danger. "Trust me, Neal, I have plenty of blackmail material. Here's a freebie: if you're a heavy sleeper, you should never keep this much evidence in your room."
Suddenly Neal wonders exactly how long his visitor has been here. Nothing in the room looks like its been touched, but then again, the man got in – with coffee – without waking him up. "The least you can do is give me your name then."
The man's eye twitches. "Normally, I would, but my past week in Paris hasn't been my ideal getaway. It's not that I don't trust you, but right now I don't even trust my mother. Well, actually, that's almost never a good thing to do. Call me Carmichael."
"Okay, Carmichael. A passport. When do you need it, as that will dictate how good it is."
"I have a flight booked for tomorrow night." Carmichael stands and reaches into his suit jacket. Neal tries not to flinch, but knows he probably fails. "Here's all the documents you'll need and a photo. Don't worry, I already have the backstops in place in case it gets pinged. I just need to get out of France."
"Do I need to worry about why you need to get out of France?"
Carmichael shakes his head. "You've never been seen with me, and you never will be. So unless your skills as a document forger are widely known to the less-savory aspects of society, you'll have nothing to worry about."
"How am I going to deliver the passport then?"
Carmichael tears a sheet off the hotel's stationary pad and starts writing. When he's done, he tears it in half. "Take the passport here, and find the travel guide to Wisconsin. Slip the envelope in by the section about Madison," he instructs as he hands Neal the first page. "And this is the number to call if you ever need my services. Good for one get out of free jail card. And if I'm tied up –" Neal interprets his expression to mean that in the literal sense of the statement "I'll make sure someone else can help you."
Neal takes both pieces of paper. "And if I don't drop the envelope off?"
Carmichael smiles. "No harm, no foul. Like I said, I need to get out of France. And trust me, I'm a very good person to know. Especially if you ever get caught selling all those pretty bonds to the wrong type of customer."
Neal watches as his new friend leaves. He's going to have to cancel some dates if he's going to get the right type of paper to make the passport.