Copyright© 2020 by Lumpy
They found the car waiting exactly where they told Joe Solomon to leave it. Taylor had half been expecting a black SUV that was the hallmark of official US vehicles everywhere, but instead, he saw a dark blue, older model Volkswagen sedan. Nice enough to not stand out as a noticeable piece of junk, but not so nice as to be noticeable for being a good car. It was, in every way, average.
They stood near a building, looking at it across a mostly empty parking lot. It was near the back of a row, putting it several spaces away from the closest car. There were enough people out and about to make it impossible to be sure none of them were waiting to spring a trap, but not so many that they could blend into a crowd.
“That sucks in just about every way.”
“We have to trust Joe, or we walk away from it. Even if it was out there all by itself, that doesn’t mean someone isn’t watching from one of the dozens of windows facing this direction with squad cars waiting down a cross street somewhere, ready to pounce.”
“So we’re back to, do we trust him.”
“I’m still saying ‘yes.’”
“Fine, let’s go.”
“No, you pointed out we shouldn’t both put ourselves in danger, and you were right. I’ll go get the car. If the trap is sprung, you might have a chance to get away.”
Taylor wasn’t in love with the idea, but it was hard to argue with his own words being thrown back at him.
Whitaker walked away from him at a casual pace, heading down the sidewalk looking into store windows before wandering off, seemingly bored down a row of cars towards the waiting vehicle. It was a believable performance that would mean nothing if it was a trap waiting for them, but a good effort none the less.
Whitaker reached the car and didn’t hesitate, pulling open the door and sliding inside. Joe had told her it would be unlocked and where to find a key. It must have been right where he said it would be since the car started up and eased out of the parking space, and then out of the lot, turning right and driving away from them.
There were no screeching tires and no fanfare that would have preceded the closing of the trap, which meant Joe had come through after all. While he waited for Whitaker to return from a short trip around the block to make sure it wasn’t a setup, Taylor couldn’t help but consider how many times Whitaker and Joe Solomon had lectured him on following procedure to the letter. Now here they were, both operating well outside of what they should have done because they thought it was the right thing to do.
He agreed with them in this instance, of course, but it was going to be tough to keep from saying ‘I told you so’ the next time they started lecturing him on proper protocols.
They drove a mile into the city, roughly towards the area where the person Graf called was located, before pulling off into an empty parking lot.
“What are we doing?” Taylor asked.
“Joe said he’d leave a car and supplies. I wanted to see what supplies he left,” she said, popping the trunk and getting out of the car.
Taylor followed Whitaker around to the rear of the car, stopping next to her to look into the trunk. Inside sat a box filled with a variety of items, including changes of clothes for the two of them, a satellite phone that wouldn’t be traceable by the cell networks, and a box of blond hair dye.
“If we’re going to have to start operating closer into town, this isn’t a bad idea,” Whitaker said, holding up the hair dye.
She pulled out the phone, a baseball cap from the stack of clothes, and the hair dye, leaving everything else in the trunk.
“Let’s find somewhere where I can do this,” she said, walking back towards the driver’s side.
The place they found was a fairly run-down gas station with a bathroom around the back of the buildings. Taylor sat in the car, sitting low in the seat, new cap pulled low on his head, watching the small building while Whitaker went inside.
When she came walking back out, hair still wet, it was kind of a shock. Whitaker’s red hair with its loose curls had been one of the notable things about her, especially when she wasn’t in work mode with it pulled into a tight bun.
Beyond the new color, Whitaker had cut her hair to a shoulder length. For most people, but especially women, hair was one of those things that people use as part of their identity. Seeing her now, Whitaker seemed almost like a different person. Her face even seemed slightly differently shaped, now that it was framed by a hair that no longer fell straight back under its own weight.
“That’s weird,” he said when she got back into the car.
“I know. I looked in the mirror and thought, who the hell are you?”
“Hopefully, everyone else will have the same thought. That washes out, though, right?”
“What, you don’t like it?”
“I didn’t say that. It’s just so different.”
“I’m just messing with you. No, it doesn’t wash out. It will probably grow out eventually, but once this is all behind us, I’m going to dye it back to my normal color. It’s too weird.”
“Yeah. Why’d you cut it?”
“Seemed like a good idea. If I was going to change it to be less recognizable, why not go all out.”
Whitaker pulled out of the parking lot, heading back towards their destination while Taylor stared at her, trying to adjust to the new Whitaker.
“Stop staring at me.”
“Sorry,” he said, looking out the passenger window instead. “Let’s find a hotel somewhere near the cafe. You can give your friend the number to the satellite phone, and then we’ll wait until Graf calls the banker. Even with your new look, I’d prefer if we were off the street as much as possible.”
They drove on into the center of Berlin, ending up at a hotel a half-mile from the city center. Their target cafe was less than a block away, around the corner from the hotel they’d found. It was more expensive than Taylor would usually have liked, but it was the only one in the general area. Luckily, one of the things Solomon had left them was a stack of money, not a fortune, but enough to let them operate for a few days.
Taylor waited in the car while a now blond Whitaker went inside and rented them a room. She’d thought ahead and got one close to the street so they could get out fast once they were alerted to a call. Once inside their room, they both decided to take showers again and change into the clean clothes Joe Solomon had provided.
Taylor couldn’t help but wonder if he was getting soft. When Taylor had been in the service, he would sometimes spend weeks in the field, just changing his socks occasionally. Now he’d gone one day without clean clothes, and he was itching to change.
“Now we wait,” Whitaker said, sitting on the bed next to Taylor.
They’d showered, changed, gone through everything Joe had left for them, and were now just cooling their heels, waiting for something to happen.
“Yep. I don’t think it’ll happen today. It’s already getting dark, and if this guy’s moving money around, it’ll need to happen when banks are open.”
“In my experience, criminals like to operate in cash. Harder to trace that way.”
“Graf probably has the money pulled out and turned into cash so he can hand it out, but I doubt the trust is sending him bags of money. Their accounts have accountants. Their whole lives are structured to make it hard for governments to know exactly how much money is going where, to keep it out of the hands of the tax collectors. Plus, they feel above the law anyways, I doubt needing to operate in cash would even occur to them.”
“Or no one is going to call anyone, and we’re wasting time.”
“Like I said, I’m open to other suggestions, but I think I’m right.”
“Then what’s Graf waiting on?”
“Best guess, he put things on hold when it looked like they were going to grab us near the college. It would be easier for him to let us get caught legally and then have a prisoner off us than have us disappeared. You guys take it seriously personally when someone tries to keep someone in law enforcement. If that person then vanished off the face of the earth, someone would wonder why. If we were captured and then killed by a violent prisoner, that’s just one of the hazards of the system.”
“I think so.”
“If nothing happens tomorrow?”
“I don’t know. We can either try to go public with what we have, which I don’t think will be enough, or put our sights on the trust itself. Honestly, I don’t have a lot of hope that either of those is going to work.”
“So, we just wait.”
“Yep, we just wait.”
Neither slept well that night, both too keyed up, waiting for something to happen. Neither wanted to leave the room, both to keep anyone from recognizing them and to make sure they could move as soon as her friend called in. Whitaker had called her friend the night before and given her the number of the satellite phone, so they were able to dump the burner she’d been using, just in case.
Lunchtime came and went, without much happening. Taylor sat quietly, working everything they’d learned so far over in his head, trying to see if he’d made a mistake or missed something. Whitaker paced to the point Taylor wondered if she was going to wear herself out. She was a ball of nervous energy. She refrained from pointing out, again, how much of a long shot their current plan was, but it wasn’t hard to guess that was what she was thinking.
They were both in their own heads that when the phone rang just before two in the afternoon, it startled both of them. Whitaker answered, listened for a moment, and hung up.
“Your first guess paid off. The ‘banker’ just recieved a call from Graf that he didn’t answer.”
“We have five minutes, let’s go.”
Walking quickly out of the hotel, they rounded the corner and walked partway up the block. The day they’d rented the room, Whitaker had gone out and scouted a spot for the two of them to observe the cafe.
The spot turned out to be a thin alley one building down from the cafe. Whitaker stepped partway into the ally and turned her back towards the cafe. She then told Taylor to stand in front of her, turned slightly so that his body mostly blocked hers, allowing her to hold the satellite phone at chest level unseen by anyone that wasn’t practically on top of the two of them.
While this meant that only Taylor could look for their subject, it allowed Whitaker to call her contact, using the phone on speaker with the volume turned low, without being easily seen. It had the benefit of cover since they looked like a couple stopping to talk. If the conversation got more intense or if Whitaker couldn’t hear her friend well, she could step into the alley, out of sight.
Taylor leaned on the wall next to the alley, trying to look casual, positioning himself so it would be hard to tell if he was looking at the cafe or Whitaker. From this spot, Taylor had a good view of the patio seating in front of the cafe. They’d discussed it the day before and agreed the banker would choose to sit outside, where he could keep his voice down and be covered up by the noises of the neighborhood, rather than inside where he could be overheard arranging illegal payments. It was a gamble, but Taylor was reasonably sure it was a safe one.
Taylor looked at his watch. Four minutes and thirty seconds had passed since the first call. There were two people on the patio: a woman in a stylish but understated dress, and a man in a suit. Both had been seated before Taylor and Whitaker got there. Taylor alternated between looking at the man and his wrist, watching the seconds tick away.
The five minutes passed, and Taylor looked back up at the man, who was still looking at papers in front of him, sipping a coffee. Taylor’s eyes slipped over to the woman, who was now on the phone.
“Call your friend. See if the banker is on the phone with Graf.”
Whitaker sidestepped into the alley, out of view of the cafe, and dialed the satellite phone. A sentence and two single word responses later, she hung up and moved back in front of Taylor, leaning close.
“Yes, exactly five minutes from the first call. They are on the phone now.”
“Huh,” Taylor grunted.
“Our banker’s a woman.”
“What, women can’t be criminals?”
“No, I was just picturing a middle-aged man in my mind.”
They were too far away to actually hear anything, and the woman was seated facing away from them, so all Taylor could do was watch her back as she talked on the phone. The call lasted under two minutes. As soon as she pulled the phone away from her ear, the woman downed her coffee, stood up, and walked away from them.
“On the move,” Taylor said.
Whitaker moved to Taylor’s side as he started walking forward, her left arm hooked through his right, leaning in close. For all intents and purposes, they looked like a couple in love, out for a stroll. It was harder to walk this way and wouldn’t have worked if the target had been moving fast. Thankfully, the woman was walking at a normal speed, never looking around to see if she was being followed.
Not a hardened criminal at all, Taylor thought. She was comfortable in the routine of whatever she did for Graf. The precautions of the burner phone and two-call setup were almost certainly something mandated by Graf. She did them because she was told to, but she didn’t go one step beyond that. She hadn’t looked around at the cafe and had chosen a seat that left one direction unobserved, as opposed to keeping her back to the cafe itself so she could see anyone looking in at her.
She walked like a normal person, back to the office. No sense of urgency. No looking around for anyone following her. She was used to the trip to the cafe for her clandestine calls. Comfortable. Taylor was certain he was right, and she was a money person of some time. A professional feeling safe in the functions of their office. It’s easy for white-collar criminals to justify breaking the law. It’s just a piece of paper, they think. It wasn’t like they were holding a gun on anyone.
They followed her for two blocks to a tall office building, an awning stretching out onto the sidewalk. Taylor slowed down. This was the hard part. They couldn’t just walk in right behind her, get in the elevator with the woman, and follow her up. She might not be looking for threats, but even a civilian would notice that.
They needed her in the elevator before they went inside, assuming the woman didn’t work on the first floor. They’d have to find out what kind of people worked here and do research on them. It would probably extend how long they needed to stay in hiding since they’d have to independently find out who the woman was. Maybe they’d stake out the closest parking garage and building front, find out if she had a car and a license plate they could trace.
Taylor and Whitaker slowly walked towards the awning, giving the woman time. There wasn’t a doorman, which was good. They didn’t need someone paying attention to their snooping. Their luck continued when they got inside the building. There wasn’t a reception or security desk that some buildings have, with helpful guards taking down names and observing faces. There were also no ground floor offices.
Instead, there was a bank of five elevators in the middle of a polished but empty lobby, one facing the front door and the other four in pairs of two facing each other. On the side of the left-hand bank was a large black sign in a silver frame with white, stick-on letters helpfully telling them which businesses were on what floors.
Taylor’s luck held yet again. There were all kinds of businesses listed. Lawyers, an IT company, an employment placement company. On the fifth floor was a CPA, who happened to be the only company listed that had anything to do with money.