Once a Thief

Paris, France

Fall

She spotted the dead fish out of the corner of her eye.

It floated downstream in the murky waters of the Seine. Its bloated body peaked over the river's rim and her gaze followed it, unblinking, until it vanished from her view and a giggle from the couple seated below shattered her concentration.

'Death' she thought darkly, 'Is when you can't swim against the current anymore. Can't fight the inevitable.'

Death was the ultimate defeat.

She propped her elbows against the cast-iron railing that spanned the riverbank and closed her eyes to shut out the autumn chill.

She started falling. Backwards in time.

Trapped inside an elevator. Plummeting to the ground.

A hand moved to her stomach, and she felt it. The death of an unborn child.

Later, a man died in her arms.

Another man ran towards her, on the deck of a cargo ship, just before the world ended in a blaze of heat.

A baby in her arms, in a cold, sterile hospital room. A beautiful baby girl whose ailing heart finally gave out.

They were all gone. Dead.

Her unnamed child.

Then Duke.

Robert.

And now Leora.

Death had taken them all. And in the process, it had defeated her.

Anna Devane stood on the banks of the Seine and let the tears fall down.

Medellin, Colombia

He squinted against the harsh sunlight and wiped a trail of perspiration from his forehead. It barely eleven in the morning and already it was unbearably hot.

"That building," the American told him, pointing to an abandoned warehouse. "That's where we believe they'll meet the collectors."

"I'll set up my men right away," he answered. His English was perfect. Not that this surprised him. His thoughts and dreams were still in English. Yet he used it so rarely it sounded foreign to his ears when he did speak it aloud. In the Beginning one of the doctors had pointed out that he had an Australian accent.

"Good," the American replied. Then he turned to face him. "We really appreciate your co-operation in this."

"Sure," he shrugged, stifling a yawn. It was hot and he was mildly bored.

Cases like these made him miss the drug squad. Being one of the few high-level cops that hadn't't been bought with drug money, once meant he had two bodyguards flanking his every move. It meant he couldn't check his morning e-mail without finding half a dozen death threats. It meant he had, through sheer luck, already survived two of them. It also meant that he had to change his home address every three months.

In short, working Narcotics meant he couldn't lead a normal life.

'That's why I'm here,' he thought, 'Pandering to some self-important American agent tracking down art objects of historical value.' "Trying to stop the plundering of a nation's cultural heritage." That was the exact phrase the American had used.

'If this is normal, I'm not sure I like it,' he thought, unable to stop the yawn this time.

He had worked Narcotics since the Beginning.

The Beginning. That's what he liked to call it.

There were two periods in his life: the Beginning and the Before.

The Beginning was when he left the hospital in Cartagena, with no clue or memory of who he had been coming in. Knowing only that a Colombian fishing trawler had found him, burned and barely conscious, and took him back to their homeland rather than to the shores of Venezuela, not far from where they'd found him.

The Beginning was a chance encounter with a mugger and a street fight that left him with the realization that he knew something about fighting.

The Beginning was about choosing a name and entering the Medellin Police Academy.

It was about rising quickly through the ranks even though Spanish was a language that he mastered with considerably less ease. A language that he knew instinctively wasn't't his own.

There were still days that he desperately wished he could remember something from the Before, although they were fewer now and farther in-between.

There were occasional images that entered his mind when he was asleep. Brief, fleeting images. Of a little dark-haired girl. Of a boat engulfed in fire. But they lasted only long enough to wake him in a cold sweat. And when they did come he was always left with more questions. Were they memories? Were they real or merely dreams?

Years ago he had gone to Australia in the hopes of tracking down a missing police officer. Because someone had told him he had an Australian accent when he spoke English and he assumed his skills in policing implied a previous career in that field.

He had gone there hoping to find himself, and he came back empty-handed. Knowing nothing more about the mystery that was his past than he did before he left.

He had decided then that it was best to leave the Before alone.

Maybe his doctors and colleagues were right. Maybe he had been a target once. Someone had meant to kill him and he had survived by accident. Going back might only help them finish the job.

Maybe not knowing was better. Safer and saner.

The American's eyes rested a moment longer on his face than they should have, and when he realized he was staring he turned his gaze away in embarrassment.

"Sorry," he muttered. "I did't mean to stare."

Roberto Sandoval smiled.

The large burn scar that ran from his ear, along his jaw line and down to his neck was a permanent, visible reminder of the Beginning. For those seeing it for the first time, it was jarring. Especially if they had caught the unscarred side of his face first, oblivious to what the other side hid.

The men on his squad made jokes about it. They told him he'd be strikingly handsome, if only he never turned his head around. For one of his birthdays (he didn't know what date it was, so he had simply picked one on the calendar), they'd given him tickets to a play featuring a scarred, mask-wearing opera singer.

"No worries," Roberto told the American, like he told everyone else. He used to tell his men the scar came from a drug lord's attempt on his life. He told them it was a reminder that he wasn't easily defeated.

That much was true.

"How long will it take you to assemble a team here?" the American asked him, changing the subject.

Roberto gave him a thin-lipped smile. It was a dumb question. "They're ready now."

Paris, France

She ran her hands over the cool green stone, looking for imperfections on its surface.

"That's a jaguar mask, a common Mayan motif," a voice behind her explained. "It is genuine Guatemala jade. Among the finest in the world." The voice spoke French with an English accent and when she turned around she saw it belonged to an older man, wearing a chequered cardigan that looked like came straight from Marks and Spencer.

"Guatemala jade is merely prolific. The world's finest is from Myanmar." Anna answered him in English, holding up the mask. Her hair was wet and a drop of rainwater fell onto the jade. "This is neither. It's dyed onyx, I suspect. Mexican jade." Mexican jade was trade lingo for a fake.

The old man blushed, pursing his lips. "I beg your pardon?"

Anna's lips toyed with a smile. She had entered the antiquities shop on a whim. It was dark and hidden, on a lane-way off the Rue de Vaugirard, away from the tourist traffic of Montparnasse. She had stepped inside to seek shelter from the increasing rain. Now she found herself intrigued with both its contents and the shop owner. "I could report you for selling fakes."

His pursed lips tightened. "You're very mistaken, Madame."

Anna now understood why the shop was so dark. She suspected the mask she was holding wasn't the only thing here that wouldn't hold up to the scrutiny of bright light. "The surface is too smooth, the colour too even. A microscope would make the dye job obvious."

The old man's cheeks flushed red. "I will not tolerate such insults to my goods. I shall have to ask you to leave my shop, Madame."

"I was kidding," she told him, setting down the mask. She felt a surge of adrenaline holding the fake mask in her hands. She was secretly pleased that she could still spot its flaws with such ease, flaws that would be missed by an untrained eye. "I'm not going to report you."

The man said nothing.

"Your shop," she explained. "Takes me back in time. I used to deal with objets d'art. I have a soft spot for jade."

The man observed her more closely, and this time it was his face that twisted into a smile.

"Anna?"

The question startled her.

"Anna Devane," he announced with certainty. His eyes twinkled. "No wonder it was the jaguar mask that caught your eye."

Anna gulped. "Do I know you?"

"You did," the old man told her, holding out his hand. "Spencer Gooding."

Anna shook his hand, examining him more closely.

"You may not remember me, but I remember you. Some women are impossible to forget." He gestured her to have a seat on an antique divan but she declined. "Your hair was longer then. But, you've become more beautiful with age." His grip was strong. "What impeccable timing you have, Ms. Devane, because I have something in the back room that you of all people would appreciate. Is it still Devane?"

"No, it's not." Anna lied, shaking her hand off his, unnerved by the combination of his familiarity and her inability to place his face. "And no thank you. I'm not interested…"

"Oh, I think you would be."

"No," she repeated, taking a step back. "I doubt it."

"Please," he said softly. "Come with me."

"No," Anna said firmly. "I no longer…" She paused. "I no longer care for your…business. I haven't for a long time."

"Oh…" the old man's face registered disappointment.

"I work in law enforcement now," Anna added, defensively.

"Dear lord," Spencer Gooding bristled. "What a shame."

"Look," Anna said, heading for the store's exit. "I don't know who you are but I'm no longer who I once was."

"That's too bad," he said softly. "Sometimes, knowing who we are is the only thing that helps us survive."

The words chilled her and Anna left the store hastily, half-running back into the cold, autumn rain.

Medellin, Colombia

One week later

"It's been a week," Roberto Sandoval told the American. "One week of wasted manpower, observing an empty warehouse."

The American did't meet his irritated stare. "They're going to be there," he insisted. "And Uncle Sam is footing half the bill, so don't complain to me about wasted manpower."

Roberto seethed. Two dozen of the force's best men were sitting around watching a vacant building, while elsewhere drug lords were gunning down anyone who tried put a chink in their armour. Dragging poverty ridden teenagers into their endless cycle of wealth and violence.

He remembered the countless days he'd spent begging the bureaucrats for more money to fight the fight. The triumph he felt each time he got a fraction of what he asked for.

No. Not asked. Demanded. Insisted.

It all felt hollow now when he saw those same funds pouring down the drain to impress the two American agencies, here to get back stolen artefacts and missing museum pieces.

"Instead of babysitting your hunches, my men could be doing something useful," Roberto shot back. "Like their jobs."

He took pleasure in the fact that the American couldn't't think of a reply in time.

Paris, France

The next day

"You came back," the old man pointed out. Today he wore a striped vest and a bow tie. A pair of reading glasses hung around his neck.

"I want you tell me how you knew my name," Anna replied, glancing around to make sure no one else was in the poorly lit store. Antique furniture filled every inch of free space, making it hard to move around without bumping into a grandfather clock, a coffee table or a Victorian settee.

The old man smiled. "You were always exceptionally curious. It was how you stayed on top of the game. You always had to know…"

"Cut to the chase, would you?"

"Oh Anna, have a little patience with an old man, would you? Let him indulge in a memory."

Anna fastened the belt on her trench coat, "If you're going to play games then I don't have time."

"You said you worked with objets d'art, Ms. Devane. More accurately, you were a fence. Or as you liked to call it, "a broker." Me, I was an exporter."

"I worked out of New York City," Anna tested him.

"Yes, you did," the old man agreed. "As did I in 1985. My shop was on East 4th street. Chinese jades were my speciality."

Going back in time, recognition suddenly dawned on Anna. The old man, Spencer Gooding, was right. She had done business with him. More than once. He was younger then. His hair salt and pepper, not pure white. And he had to have been about twenty pounds lighter.

"You remember now," the man pointed out.

"Yes." Anna nodded. " I do."

His smile returned. It was congenial, almost grandfatherly. "I don't believe that's the only reason you came back."

"It is," she said coldly. "And now that you're no longer a mystery, I thank you for your time, Mr. Gooding."

"Anna, Anna…what's your hurry?" he asked, moving a hand on her arm. "There is something here that I would love for you to see."

"Whatever illegal activities you're carrying out here," she said, under her breath. "I suggest for your sake that I don't know about them."

"Illegal," he gasped, giving her an insulted look, "Please don't use that word around here, Ms. Devane. Both of us understand that taking a cultural artifact from its origin is always theft. Regardless of who the new owners are, a museum, a government or a private collector. Theft is theft."

"Exactly, Mr. Gooding. Theft is theft, no matter how you try and justify it."

"Have you heard of Quetzalcoatl, Anna?"

"What?" The question took her aback. "The Mayan god?"

The old man nodded, "Yes. The Mayans called him Kukulcan, god of healing. I prefer to use his Aztec name. It was the Aztecs that gave him his notoriety. They merged him with the feathered serpent god of their mythology. According to them he not only taught us to heal but he gave humans fire and he loathed human sacrifice. Because of his benevolence, some call it a weakness, he lost a fight against Tezcatlipoca, the god of smoking mirrors, and thus defeated, he was banished from Mexico and disappeared into the ocean. Legend says he will return one day and bring with him peace and prosperity."

"Nice story. Sounds familiar."

The old man laughed, "It's not."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Thousands of masks have been made in Quetzalcoatl's honour. None of them flawlessly combine the blue jade of Guatemala with the green jade of Mexico." He paused, watching her. "None except for one."

His glance shifted towards a locked door, "Don't tell me you're not curious, Anna."

"Combining the two jades is extremely rare. You've got your work cut out for you if you're trying to sell a fake."

"Oh, Anna, my dear," The old man's smile was an impish grin now. "I'm not talking about a fake."

Anna smirked, "Why don't you let me be the judge of that?"

Spencer Gooding put on his glasses and moved to lock the store's entrance, ensuring no one else came inside. "I thought you'd never ask."

Anna bit her lip. She had only humoured him because she wanted to call his bluff, she told herself. He was wrong to think it was because she had any sort of genuine interest in his forged and stolen goods.

"Follow me, please," he told her, opening the locked door next to the Edwardian dresser that leaned against the back wall.

The room was filled with more antiques, pressed together as tightly as they were in the showroom outside. The quality of these pieces was higher. Most of them were in mint condition, some covered with a protective layer of plastic.

It was obvious that Spencer Gooding kept his best products hidden for his regular customers, away from the probing hands of the tourists that stumbled through his shop.

An oil painting hung on the wall, and Anna watched as he pushed it aside to reveal a brick wall behind it.

The old man's fingernail pressed into a crack on the wall across from it and Anna watched as a half dozen of the bricks moved aside simultaneously to unveil a safe hidden behind.

Gooding stood in front of the safe and stared at a scanner. Anna heard a brief buzzing noise and the safe's door opened noiselessly.

"Retinal scan?" Anna marvelled. "I'm impressed."

Her shock at his high-tech safe was small compared to her awe when he uncovered the blanketed mask it held inside.

The mask was life size. Its features were so finely carved they appeared real, mimicking every facet of the human face with the accuracy of a camera.

Anna held her breath; afraid to touch it for fear that it would spring to life.

Flawless as its details were, they couldn't compete with the striking colours they were embedded in. The hues of blue and green were so well intertwined it was almost impossible to discern where one jade began and the other ended. The result was an imperceptible fusion of the two colours and the two stones.

"The colours… they're incredible," Anna whispered. "But how is it possible? The technology to blend the two stones without destroying them in the process did't exist two thousand years ago."

Spencer Gooding smiled, pleased at her awe. "It's fantastic, isn't't it?"

Anna looked at him, dumbstruck, "Are you saying this is a fake?" She did't think it was possible. To recreate something as perfectly as this.

"Of course not."

Anna reached out to touch it. Gingerly. Her fingers gliding over the cool, silken stone. "Then…how?"

"With unimaginable patience, with craftsmanship, with the help of the gods…who knows?" Gooding raised his shoulders. "Much in the world of art is a mystery. This mask is no exception."

Anna couldn't tear her eyes from it. It was mesmerizing. "I'm afraid to ask where you got it from."

Spencer Gooding laughed and his glasses bobbed from his neck. "Don't worry, Anna. I'm not about to burden your new ethics with that knowledge."

Anna didn't resist a smile. "Do you have a buyer?"

Spencer Gooding nodded. "I do."

"How much?"

It was an inappropriate question. If this mask was what she suspected it was. A two thousand year old cultural masterpiece as perfect and unique as the Mona Lisa, then it really couldn't be given a price tag. Still, her curiosity demanded an answer.

"Seventeen million."

The price tag reflected the illegal nature of the sale. Anna suspected it was a fraction of what it was worth.

She raised her eyebrows. "You can retire after that."

Spencer Gooding chuckled. "Oh no, my dear. I would die if I stopped working."

Anna caressed the mask once more before reluctantly letting him put it back into the safe. "Thank you," she said, meaning it. "Thank you for showing me this. It's incredible." Seeing it disappear back into the safe saddened her, knowing it wouldn't be seen again. Likely not by anyone. Instead it would be mounted behind bulletproof glass inside the home of one absurdly wealthy individual, too selfish to share it with the world.

"How long before the sale?" she asked. She knew she had no right to ask, but at the same time she knew that if the old man didn't trust her he wouldn't have shown her the mask to start.

She also knew that as a former law enforcement officer she had every obligation to find out where the mask came from. To report its presence here.

But she knew she wouldn't. Gooding knew that as well, or else he wouldn't have shown her the mask.

The old man pursed his lips. "I don't have a date."

"You said you had a buyer."

"I do," Gooding answered. "I have a buyer who's prohibited from leaving his home country. A buyer who needs it delivered."

Anna's eyes widened, "That's a huge risk."

"It is," he admitted. "I need someone I can trust implicitly. Someone not only willing but capable of taking the risk."

He paused and then Anna suddenly realized what he was inferring.

She coughed, almost choking at the thought. "You've got to be kidding. I haven't done this in almost two decades."

"You would be perfect."

Anna raised her hand and shook her head at the same time, still struck at the absurdity of the old man's notion that she would go back to working for him. "I couldn't…no, absolutely not."

"You would retain ten percent of the sale."

"I don't need money."

"No one has to need money to accept a simple job that pays over one and a half million."

"This job is anything but simple," Anna corrected him. "Depending on where your courier is going, getting caught could mean a death penalty."

Spencer Gooding sighed and took a seat on one of his Victorian chairs. "I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, Anna. I believe you entered my shop for a reason. Just as I was getting desperate to find someone I could trust to do this job."

"I'm sorry," she said, eyeing him. Oddly enough, she almost meant it. Merely holding the mask and speaking openly of an illegal trade she hadn't thought about in years, had an exhilarating effect on her. There was a flicker in the back of her mind that pondered what it would be like to take on the task.

The challenge.

The thrill.

"I'm sorry," she repeated. "But it's not an option for me. Not anymore."

Gooding looked at her sadly. "It's alright, my dear. I understand."

"I have a grown daughter now. She's here, in Paris," she told him. "I couldn't stand it if she were to find out."

"We all have our reasons." He smiled, "I imagine she must be a lovely young woman now. Little Robin. Especially if she takes after her mother."

Anna looked at him, stunned. "How do you know?"

"You brought her to my shop once," he explained. "In New York. She was a little girl then. With long dark hair, just like her mother."

"I wouldn't have…" Anna protested. "I wouldn't have brought her to your shop. Or told you she was my daughter."

"It was a late afternoon in November. Cold and wet, much like today," Gooding told her. "You said something about her grandmother being late to pick her up. You did't tell me she was your daughter, that's true. But you didn't have to."

Anna blushed, "You're very good."

He shook his head modestly, "No. I just have an excellent memory. Especially for unforgettable people."

"Robin is the only thing I have left," Anna said softly. "She's my everything. She's become an amazing young woman, who is so much like her father it breaks my heart sometimes, and it would kill me if she found out that I did something like this."

To her surprise, Spencer Gooding moved to hug her. "You don't have to explain, Anna. I understand."

His embrace caught her off guard and for an instant she thought she saw Leora's face flash before her.

She wiped a tear from her eye, "Thank you."

Paris

"So what do you do all day anyway?"

Anna took off her shawl and draped it over Robin's messy sofa. It was covered in textbooks and lab notes. "What do you mean?"

Even in her over-sized shawl and trench coat, her mother carried herself with an effortless elegance. It made Robin smile. "I mean, you've been here for three weeks now, aren't you bored of sightseeing yet?"

Anna narrowed her brows, "Bored? It's Paris. I doubt I'll ever run out of things to see."

"Nah. You will," Robin shot back, putting the end of the pen she was holding between her teeth. "You've already gone to the Louvre twice."

Her mother sat down across from her with a grin. "There's more to Paris than the Louvre."

"Like?"

"Like…the Musee d'Orsay, for instance."

Robin raised her eyebrows. "You went to the Musee D'Orsay today?" It was Monday today. The Orsay museum was closed Mondays. Every Parisian knew that.

"The setting is beautiful. A work of art all on its own."

"Really?" Robin bit her tongue, annoyed at the lie. It wasn't the first and it certainly wouldn't be the last. Her mother had spent a fair share of her childhood stretching various truths under the guise of protecting her. Most of the time Robin had seen right through the lies, but even back then she usually didn't have the heart to let her parents in on the fact that they did't always succeed in sheltering her from all of life's hardships.

Finding out that she was HIV positive was ample evidence that the truth could hurt.

Robin bit her lip, 'Had you been around, I wonder how would you have tried to protect from that news, Mom…'

Growing up, her parents' obsessive need to protect her had made her want to kick and scream sometimes, and then, in one unbearable day, she lost them both. After that she would have given an arm and a leg to have their love back in her life. Complete with all its overprotective half-truths.

Robin observed her mother, for an instant both guilty and worried. Worried that maybe the grief that had almost overwhelmed her when she had first arrived in Paris was somehow taking its toll on her again.

"Hey," her mother poured herself a glass of wine. She could still read her like an open book. "Why so serious?"

Robin shrugged, "No reason. Just wondering what you're up to these days."

"Well, I was coming home to invite you out to dinner but…" Anna glanced at her textbook, "I see you're busy learning another language. That is Greek, isn't it?"

Robin smirked, her concern fading at the sound of the lightness in her mother's voice. And the mischievous glint in her eyes. She looked happy.

"Latin."

She felt her mother's arm around her shoulders, "How did I end up with such a brilliant child?"

"They probably gave you the wrong baby."

Her mother laughed, "I bet my real daughter is running a scam at a racetrack somewhere."

"You think we should try and find her?"

"Nah," her mother shook her head, planting an unabashed kiss on her cheek. "I think I'll keep this one."

Robin smiled. A familiar warmth filled her. Her mother had a way of doing that, of making her feel like the most cherished person in the world. Robin knew she would never completely understand the enigma that was her mother, but she never doubted how much she was loved.

She put down her pencil, "Well, in that case, this daughter will take you up on your offer for dinner."

Medellin, Colombia

One week later

The raid took place ten days after the American arrived.

They did come.

Just as he had promised.

And what a bloody mess it was,' Roberto thought. His thoughts came in English. As they always did.

At first it went surprisingly smooth. One of Escobar's right hand men showed up with four bodyguards in tow to meet three apparent sellers. Roberto's men were about to record the entire transaction when one of the bodyguards caught on. Weapons were drawn and his men stormed the building. A steel canister erupted during the gunfire, causing an explosion that ripped half the warehouse apart.

Roberto flinched at the memory.

He had watched the explosion from afar and as any explosion did, the sight took him back to a night over ten years ago, to the explosion that was the divider between the Before and the Beginning. To the wall of fire that changed everything. Like all explosions, the sight unnerved him and he had to make a physical effort to bring his shaken nerves under control.

When it was all over two of his men were injured. One bodyguard was dead and seven people were arrested.

He should have cared about the smugglers they caught. Or at least, like the American agent, he should have cared about the stash of artefacts and cultural treasures they found.

The truth, after his years on the drug squad, he was only interested in Escobar's right hand man, Jose Morales. Catching him red-handed was a major coup and he would have given an arm and a leg to be part of the interrogation. He had spent years trying to put a chink on Escobar's armour, and now that he had caught Morales, he was told to stay out of it. Told that it was no longer his business. His business were the trinkets they found at the scene.

"Has visto la mascara? Es increible."

"I don't give a damn about the mask," he mumbled to Juan Dominguez, his new second in command. Unlike himself, Dominguez was perfectly suited to this department. He was a lover of details who was as passionate about the stolen art they recovered, as Roberto was about justice. Dominguez was a quiet, meticulous man and now his head was buried in the photographic evidence they had taken to document the items they had recovered from the warehouse.

"No te preoccupes con Morales…" Dominguez warned him without looking up, knowing the reason for his foul mood.

Roberto banged his fist on the table, furious. "I'm the one who's been on his tail for years and now that we have him here not on a technicality but on an actual damn charge they're telling me to stay out of it?"

"They're right," Dominguez repeated, nonplussed. "He's not your problem."

"I want to be in that interrogation room, before Escobar either gets him out or has him killed…" Roberto told him. "We both know it won't be long before that happens."

Dominguez threw him a file folder, "This is your case. Forget about Morales."

"I'll tell you what I'll forget…" he hissed, interrupted when one of his junior officers entered the room.

"They need you in the interrogation room," the man told him.

Roberto flashed Dominguez an 'I-told-you-so' look. "I knew they wouldn't leave me out of this."

"Not for Morales," the officer told him, lowering his voice. "Juan-Carlos's wife went into labour. He can't make it. They need an interpreter."

"What?" Roberto narrowed his brows.

"For the woman, the one who had the mask…she doesn't speak Spanish."

Roberto angrily threw his hands in the air. "You want me to head down to the prison to be an interpreter for a mule?" He glared at both men, "It's been two damn days since the raid! I thought you were only giving this one a few hours before she cracked?"

"Sir, the order came from the top. They need you there."

Roberto grabbed his badge and ID card from the desk. "When I get back, I'll let you know how it went with Morales."

Dominguez rolled his eyes. "Yes, please. We're dying to know."

La Catedral, Maximum Security Prison, Medellin

Roberto Sandoval flinched when the steel doors clanged shut behind him.

It was the third and last set he had to go through before entering one of the main interrogation rooms.

A permanent smell of urine and sweat permeated the air, making him nauseous. It was damp and humid in the stone hallways, and coupled with the poor lighting and the nearby din of human voices, the whole god-forsaken building made him want to crawl out of his skin.

Every time he came here he was reminded why he went to great lengths to avoid setting foot in La Catedral.

An officer outside the interrogation room demanded his ID and frisked him, before running a swipe card through it, allowing him to enter.

Once inside the lighting improved and he recognized the three plain-clothes officers who sat at a long table in the room.

Roberto held out his hand to the third man, who was staring at his scar. "Sandoval."

"Riviera."

Roberto guessed it was Hector Riviera even if he did't recognize the man's face. He worked out of Bogota, tracking international smuggling rings, and had been expected yesterday to help him on this case.

The other two officers were part of his detail and he half expected them to be here, to take part in the interrogation, Sgt. Valencia Munoz and Det. Luis Rigato doing the leg work for him. The sat at opposite ends of the table, which didn't surprise him. They were usually at each other's throats.

"Where's the suspect?" Roberto asked. "I usually need one for an interrogation."

"She did't have a good night here," Munoz answered him. "The medics are fixing her up for us."

"Excuse me?" Roberto bristled and the hair on his skin stood on end. He had no pity for anyone choosing a life of crime, but he hated senseless violence and brutality as much as he hated its victims being deprived of justice. "Don't tell me you put her a communal cell?"

None of them answered, and Roberto's anger rose at the base of his throat.

"Which one of you decided to put her in a communal cell?" He stared at each of them. "Answer me, damn it!"

Luis Rigato, the oldest man at the table met his stare. He was a trigger happy chauvinist who was long overdue for retirement. "She wasn't't co-operating. We thought it would be a good idea to give her a real taste of La Catedral, to convince her that she wouldn't want to…"

"That woman is one of my prime arrests in this case. Don't ever do anything like that again, without consulting me," Roberto threatened.

"I thought that…" Rigato tried.

"You didn't think," Roberto corrected him. "They beat her to a pulp, didn't they? If she's lucky, that's all they did. And if they had killed her, I swear, I would've made sure you followed her straight to hell."

Had she been killed last night, she wouldn't have been the first inmate at La Catedral who did't leave alive. Inmates died, and killed themselves at La Catedral with stunning frequency.

The thought of almost having lost one of his arrests to a senseless prison brawl made him furious.

With disgust Roberto watched the man's face burn with anger. Having embarrassed him in front of his peers, even worse, in front of a female officer, was unforgivable, and he knew that from now on Rigato would do what he could to work against him.

Roberto Sandoval didn't care. He didn't care about making friends and he had no tolerance for petty malice. Nor for stupidity.

He vaguely remembered the woman they had arrested during the raid. She had worn a designer suit that afternoon. She had been well dressed and confident. Slim and petite, with a pale complexion. Attractive even.

Criminal inclinations aside, everything about her suggested that she wasn't used to getting her fingers dirty.

Most of the female inmates of La Catedral were as vicious and hardened as their male counterparts. Throwing a woman like the one he had arrested into one of their shared cells would be like throwing a hunk of meat into a tank full of hungry sharks.

"The other inmates did attack her, but it appears that she's tougher than she looks. She fought back and injured two of her attackers. One of them is still unconscious."

"That means we can add on additional charges of assault and unruly behaviour," Rigato pointed out

"Right," Roberto stopped short of rolling his eyes. "An assault charge for defending her own ass. Makes sense to me. Exactly the kind of triviality we rely on now, to make up for our investigative shortcomings."

He stood across from the table they sat on, separating him from the rest of them, both in stature and physical distance. It was a fitting image of the authority he had over them. "I'd like you to leave the room while interrogate the prisoner."

"I'm here on a transfer from Bogota specifically to assist you on this case, I have a right to be here," Hector Riviera protested.

"I don't care if you flew in from Russia," Roberto replied impatiently. "As the officer in charge I have a right to interrogate my suspect without an audience."

Valencia Munoz was the first to stand up, and she gave him a nod, before looking at the other men. "Vamonos."

Roberto returned the gesture with a nod of his own, marvelling how she put up with the rampant machismo in the force.

He waited, taking a few minutes to refocus and to turn on his recorder before calling for the woman to be brought in.

If the questioning was done in English it would have to be translated back into Spanish by the same interpreter who should have been here in his place.

Interrogating a woman, no matter how often he did it, always made him uneasy.

He flinched when the steel doors opened and the handcuffed prisoner was led inside.

His frown deepened when he saw her face. One of her eyes was closed shut, nestled amidst a deep, purple coloured mess of flesh. Hastily done stitches ran down her temple, alongside her black eye. Her long, dark brown hair was matted with blood on one side of her face.

Shame washed over him.

Regardless of the crime she had committed, her injuries were a direct result of his professional neglect. Had he stayed informed of his own case instead of fretting over Morales, he would have been aware of Rigato's reckless decision to throw her into a communal cell, and he would have been able to reverse that malicious move before it happened.

If she had been un-cooperative before, Roberto doubted that last's events night would help.

"I'm sorry," he told her in English, meaning it.

Her handcuffed hands held on to the back of one of the chairs in the room. Her back was perfectly straight and her uninjured eye stared at him levelly, giving her an air of dignity that he didn't expect.

Small, slender and with a face that was an obvious painful mess, she was still facing him as an equal and it unsettled him. So did the knowledge that she had fought back and injured two of her assailants.

Roberto's forays into La Catedral had taught him that you could strip a person of virtually everything. Health, looks, wealth and strength were four tangible traits that defined most inmates, and they could be taken with surprising ease whenever they wanted to weaken their resilience.

Yet there were other inherent, intangible possessions, like this woman's pride, that were harder, almost impossible, to wrench from someone.

And when that was the case, as it was with this woman, they were labelled "difficult."

He met her glance and when he did, he saw something other than defiance in her eyes.

Shock.

Because of his scar, he was used to stares. Whispers and lingering glances even. But her bewilderment was excessive.

She looked at him as though she had seen a ghost.

"Who…are…you?" she whispered, suddenly pale.

For no reason, her voice sent a chill up his spine.

"I'm Roberto Sandoval," he answered mechanically, disturbed by the physical effect she had on him. "I'm the Assistant Commissioner of the Medellin Police and the officer in charge of the raid during which you were arrested and charged for possession of stolen goods."

A hand moved to her mouth, and now he could barely hear her.

"Robert? Is it really you?"

He looked at her and then he saw it again. The inferno on the boat. The explosion that engulfed everything.

He had seen the image before. Countless times. But this time it was different.

This time he heard a voice calling out to him.

"Robert! No!"

Her voice.

Her grip on the chair tightened, turning her hands chalk white and when she tried to walk towards him, she swayed.

He caught her just before she fell.

And instantly he knew.

That he had held her in his arms before.