Raquel Murillo wondered how the fuck she had ended up here. A few months ago, she had been a wife, a mother, a respected and highly-ranked police officer. Now she was in the back of a police van, in handcuffs, being driven to a low-security prison just outside of Madrid. She was still numb with disbelief. She’d known her ex-husband was a bastard – she just hadn’t known how much of a bastard until she had served him with divorce papers and threatened to win full custody over Paula. The van bumped a little over an uneven patch of road and she was jostled against the two police officers sitting next to her – officers she would have outranked only a few days ago.
Then the van abruptly came to a stop, and she frowned. They couldn’t be there yet. She tensed alongside her two ex-colleagues as they heard shouting outside, and the men exchanged nervous glances. A moment later, the door in the back was pulled open, and four large men were standing there, covered in tattoos and aiming heavy semi-automatic guns straight at them. They’re making a mistake, was her first thought. They think this is a money transport. The policeman on Raquel’s left raised his hands immediately, but the cocky twenty-something on her right actually drew his gun.
“Don’t be stupid”, she snapped at him. “Put that thing down. You’re clearly outnumbered and they have better guns.”
One of the tattooed men grinned. “Listen to the lady, kid. She makes a lot of sense.”
The young policeman hesitated, then put his gun on the floor of the van and kicked it towards the back. The tattooed man caught it.
“Good”, he said, then nodded towards Raquel. “You. Come with us.”
“Me?” she said in utter confusion.
“Yes, you. Come out or I’ll drag you out.”
She didn’t much like the thought of going with four men who were armed to the teeth, but she didn’t see any other options, either. She slowly got up and made her way towards the back of the van, where one of the men took her by the arm and helped her out. Then they slammed the back door, and led her away from the vehicle.
“Look”, she said, “I think there’s been a mistake. What the hell could you possibly want with me?”
The man who’d spoken before turned to her. “The Professor wants to talk to you.”
She frowned. “Who?”
“He has a job offer for you.”
She stared at him. “A job offer? I’m going to prison.”
“But you’re innocent, right?”
Her eyebrows rose. “How do you know that?”
“The Professor knows a lot of useful things. If you come with us, you don’t have to go to prison.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Where would you be taking me?”
“To a safe location, where the Professor will be waiting for you.”
“Who is this ‘Professor’?”
He grinned. “That’s information I can’t disclose. The only thing you need to know right now is that he has a proposition for you. Do you want to hear it or not?”
She shook her head. “I only have a short sentence to serve, I’d be out in a few years on good behavior. If I go with you, I become a fugitive for the rest of my life. At least when I come out of prison, I can go back into society.”
He gave her a sly look. “But will they give you back your daughter?”
She stared at him. “How do you know about my daughter?”
“Doesn’t matter. Will you ever get custody of her again?”
She swallowed hard. “Maybe.”
“The Professor has a plan that will get you reunited with her in six months.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “How?”
“I’ll let him explain that. Are you coming with us or not?”
“What if I say no?”
“Then we’ll say we made a mistake, put you back in that van, and let you go serve your prison sentence. It’s your call.”
She hesitated. “Six months, you say?”
“Give or take.”
She did a quick mental calculation. If she went with them and didn’t like the proposition of this ‘Professor’ character, she could always turn herself in again, say she was kidnapped. It probably wouldn’t add to her prison sentence. If I could see Paula again in six months… Maybe it couldn’t hurt to hear what he had to say.
She nodded. “Alright. Take me to the Professor.”
Sergio was fidgeting in his chair in the middle of the living room of the safe house, nervous. Getting his team together had been relatively easy so far, but this next person could present something of a challenge. She wasn’t crucial to the success of his operation, but she could be very useful, and when the opportunity to recruit her had presented itself so neatly, he felt like he would be a fool not to try. Raquel Murillo. For the longest time, he had assumed that she would be their negotiator for the heist, and he had researched her as much as possible. Then her ex-husband had framed her in order to win a custody battle, and his careful planning had been upset. Still, the situation could turn out to his advantage.
When he heard a car draw up outside the front door, he stood up and took a few deep breaths. When they led her in, he immediately recognized her from the many pictures he’d seen of her: an attractive woman in her early forties, looking tired and beaten down after the last grueling months of court cases and inquiries. He’d researched her extensively, but he hadn’t been prepared for the sheer presence of her – her quiet strength, the intelligence apparent in her dark eyes as she took in every detail of her surroundings. From that very first look, he realized that she would be a valuable member for their team.
He tried a tentative smile and nodded at her.
She gave him a suspicious look. “Who the fuck are you?”
“They call me the Professor.”
“So I’ve heard. What’s your real name?”
“You don’t need to know that.”
He held out a hand to a chair opposite his, and she sat. Only then did he notice that she was still in handcuffs. He shot his associates a reproachful look.
“Why is Ms. Murillo still cuffed? She’s a guest here, not a prisoner.”
One of the men produced a metal pin from his pocket and deftly opened Raquel’s handcuffs. She rubbed her wrists as she eyed him, tense, on the edge of her seat. He shook hands with the four men, and her eyes followed them as they left. He sat down in his own chair and began.
“Life has dealt you a terrible hand, Ms. Murillo. You got divorced, you got framed, you lost custody. Now you were headed for prison.”
She gave him a cold look. “Thank you for summing that up so nicely.”
“I have a proposition I think might interest you.”
“They said you can reunite me with my daughter. How?”
He nodded. “I think I can. But I’ll require your cooperation first.”
“You’re blackmailing me?”
He shook his head. “Merely offering you an option beside prison. You’re perfectly free to refuse.”
Her eyes were still suspicious, but she nodded. “Alright. Let’s hear it.”
He cleared his throat and pushed his glasses up his nose. “I’m assembling a team for an operation I have planned. Your inside knowledge of police procedure could prove very valuable to me. If you want to join us, it will require several months of preparation in a secure location, and your assistance during the operation itself.”
“What kind of operation?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“But it’s illegal, I presume?”
He inclined his head. “Technically, yes. However, if everything goes well, nobody will get hurt. Nobody will get robbed. Nobody will suffer any long-term negative consequences.”
“What kind of things would I have to do?”
“You would work as a kind of… consultant. Nothing violent, nothing that might offend your sensibilities. I only want to draw on your knowledge and experience. And, of course, you wouldn’t provide those things for free. If everything is successful, your share of the gains would be at least 100 million euros.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “That’s a lot of money.”
“It is”, he said, leaning forward. “Enough money to start a new life somewhere with your daughter, far away from Spain and your ex-husband.”
He could see her realize the options which that much money would give her. She remained skeptical, however.
“How would I even get my daughter?”
“That’s a simple enough matter of getting her out of school one morning and leaving the country before anyone catches on.”
“How would I get out of the country?”
“I can assist you with that.”
She was quiet for a while, thinking. “What’s to stop me from going to the police with this information? I could probably bargain it for a reduction of my sentence.”
He shook his head. “What exactly would you tell them? You don’t know my name or what kind of operation I’m planning. All you know is the location of this disposable safe house, that I’ll never set foot in again if you decide not to join my team.”
She gave him a calculating look, then slowly bent down and picked the open handcuffs off the floor. “I could arrest you right now and take you in myself.”
He tensed, but didn’t move. “You could try.”
They sat in silence for a moment, measuring each other up. She’s brave and resourceful, he thought, I like that. He liked it even more, however, when he saw her reach the only rational conclusion and throw the handcuffs back onto the floor.
“I don’t have any evidence against you”, she said bitterly.
He shook his head. “No, you don’t.”
She could keep a cool head and think fast – those were valuable things in a control room. He wanted her on the team even more now. He leaned forward again and tried a different tack.
“Ms. Murillo, do you really want to go to prison for a crime you didn’t commit?”
“Why are you so sure I didn’t do it?”
He gave her a careful look. “I’ve researched you thoroughly, Inspectora. You are not the kind of woman to steal drugs from an evidence locker with the intention to sell them. You’re too smart for that, not to mention that you have too much integrity. I assume your ex-husband planted them in your house?”
She pressed her lips together and nodded. “He did.”
“And the judge didn’t believe your allegations of domestic violence?”
He could see that the injustice of it still stung her deeply.
“No”, she said bitterly. “He didn’t.”
He looked into her eyes. “You don’t deserve to go to prison, Ms. Murillo. You don’t deserve to have your daughter taken away from you. If the system is unjust, you need to fight it. That’s what we’re going to do.”
He could see that his words were beginning to sway her.
She frowned at him. “How big is the risk?”
He shrugged. “There’s always a risk, of course. But I can assure you that I’ve planned this operation most meticulously, and you would be the person who will be least likely to get caught.”
“And what if I do get caught?”
“Then you’ll go to prison. Not unlike your current situation.”
She hesitated, and he played his trump card. He’d rehearsed this next part over and over.
“Think of your daughter, Ms. Murillo. How many years did you get?”
She bit her lip. “Nine, but I’ll be out in seven.”
“And how old is she now?”
“So she’ll be fifteen when you get out. Think of all the things you’ll miss. Birthdays and Christmases, report cards and play dates. New friends. Her first boyfriend. She’ll be almost grown up the next time you see her.”
There were tears in her eyes. “I’ll still see her!”
His voice was soft. “Really? You think your ex-husband will allow her to visit you in prison?”
She glared at him. “This is pure emotional manipulation.”
“Maybe it is, but does that make it any less true?”
She kept glaring at him for a few more moments, then lowered her eyes. “No.”
He gave her a moment to regain her composure as she took a few deep breaths. Then…
“What if I say yes?”
He perked up. “Then you’ll stay in this safe house for the next two weeks. There is plenty of food and clean clothes, a television and books to read. They’ll be looking for you, so you shouldn’t go outside under any circumstances until one of my associates comes to pick you up to bring you to the location where we will prepare for the operation.”
She was quiet for a long time, staring at the floor. After several minutes, he moved to get up.
“No need to decide now, Ms. Murillo. You can stay here for a few days while you think things over.”
“No”, she said softly. “I don’t need to think things over.”
He sat back down, and when she raised her gaze he saw a fire in her eyes that hadn’t been there before.
“They took everything from me”, she said in a low voice, “and I thought that I couldn’t do anything about it. I thought my life was over. But you’re giving me a chance, and I’ll be damned if I don’t take it. I won’t be a victim anymore. I’ll show those bastards.”
She gave him a fierce look, and he felt a flash of admiration.
“You really think I could get my daughter back?”
He nodded. “I can promise you that I’ll do everything in my power to arrange it.”
She took a deep breath, then gave a determined nod. “Alright. I’ll do it.”
Two weeks later, he stood on the front steps of the house near Toledo that he’d rented for the occasion, and watched the members of his band trickle in. He greeted them all without calling them by their names, including his brother, who arrived at the same time as the rest of them so as not to give away the personal nature of their relationship. Raquel was the last to arrive, and he wondered for a moment if she’d run away after all, if his associate would have found an empty house waiting for him. Then the car came up the driveway, and she got out, dressed in a leather jacket, carrying two bags. He noticed immediately that she looked much better than she had two weeks ago: well rested, full of energy and determination. Hope could do that to people.
When she reached him at the front door, she gave him a nod, unsmiling, and he nodded back.
“I thought perhaps you weren’t coming.”
“Like hell I wasn’t”, she said, and he could feel the quiet anger burning underneath her calm exterior. “If I say I’m in, I’m in. Let’s fucking do this.”
He smiled to himself as she swept past him into the house.
Now that everyone was there, he let them file up the stairs and into their ‘classroom’ for the first time. They all sat down, some of them a little tense, others immediately at ease. He turned to the blackboard, trying not to show how nervous he was, and wrote ‘Bienvenidos’. The instant he turned around to face them, though, he felt his nervousness disappear. This was it. The moment he had been preparing for all these years. He knew what to do. He knew what to say.
“Welcome, all. I want to thank you for accepting this job offer. We will live here, far away from any distractions. We will stay here for five months while we study this heist.”
“What do you mean, five months?” asked the man he knew to be Agustín Ramos. “Are you mad?”
He sat on the edge of the desk and prepared to explain his reasoning, a reasoning that he had repeated to himself dozens of times. “Look. People spend years in school, to end up with a salary that, even in the best of cases, is kind of shitty. What are five months? I’ve been thinking about this…” he needed a moment before he could continue, thinking of the years, the decades of his life that he had spent planning this, “… for much longer. So I would never have to work again. And neither will you. Or your children.”
They all shifted in their seats.
He nodded, then moved to the blackboard, all business. “Right. We don’t know each other, and we’ll keep it that way. I don’t want any names, or personal questions, and of course…”
He looked up, and his eyes were drawn to the back of the classroom, where Raquel was sitting, looking at him intently. “… no personal relationships.”