Slowly but surely, the others warmed to Raquel. It started off with Nairobi saying ‘good morning’ to her one day, and Tokyo asking her for the salt without insulting her. Then one afternoon he saw her talking to Moscow during break, and at dinner that night she exchanged a few words with his brother, and he actually saw her smile. They were small things, but he noticed them all.
After the very personal conversation they had had in her bedroom, he had tried to keep his distance from her for a bit, but he’d been spectacularly unsuccessful. Every break, every mealtime, he just automatically gravitated towards her, unable to refrain from at least saying a few words to her, or asking her opinion about something, anything. And if he didn’t go to her, she usually came to him. Somehow, without conscious thought, they always eventually ended up next to each other, like two leaves circling the same drain. He was relieved to find that she didn’t act differently towards him now – she wasn’t overly familiar, didn’t refer back to their conversation and never called him by his name, not even when they were out of earshot of the others. After a few days, he began to relax around her again.
She was showing increasing interest in the plan, which he appreciated deeply. It was becoming a habit for them to stay behind after every class to go through the finer details of the day’s lesson together. She said she wanted to study certain parts of the plan more closely, so he gave her some of his files and notes, which she started studying at night.
“I’m glad you’re taking this so seriously”, he said to her when she came asking for more files.
“Of course I am”, she replied. “If I’m going to be in the control room, I need to know the plan as well as you do.”
The next morning after class, she came to him with a folder in her hand and a thoughtful expression on her face.
“Have you been able to study those files already?” he asked her.
“Yes”, she said. “And I was wondering… can I suggest some improvements?”
His eyebrows shot up. “Improvements?”
“I’ve been working on this plan for years.”
“But you’re only one person”, she said sensibly. “Don’t tell me you’re so arrogant that you don’t think another pair of eyes might notice something you’ve missed.”
He leaned against his desk, curious. “Alright, what do you think I’ve missed?”
She opened the file. “I’ve been studying the profiles of the hostages. They’re very impressive, by the way. How did you manage to get so much information about the people working at the Mint?”
“Ah”, he said, pleased. “I sent in one of my associates as a representative of a worker’s union to ask certain people about their working conditions, their bosses and their colleagues. It was very informative.”
“Nicely done”, she said appreciatively, extracting a page from the file. “Based on that information, I think I’ve identified a threat to our operation: the director of the Mint, Arturo Román.”
He frowned as he took Román’s profile from her. “You think he’ll cause trouble?”
“I’m almost sure of it.”
“Why? I never noticed anything in particular about him.”
“Well”, she said carefully. “Forgive me for saying this… you have a lot of talents, but people skills isn’t one of them.”
He grimaced. “Fair enough.”
“I’m a trained negotiator, so I’ve developed something of a sense for this kind of thing.” She pointed at the profile. “Look at how his employees describe him: arrogant, cocky, overbearing. That kind of overinflated sense of self-importance could cause trouble. I also think he’s having an affair with one of his employees, Mónica Gaztambide.”
He frowned. “Why do you think that?”
She tapped a certain paragraph. “One of the women you had interviewed said that they were “quite close”. I know what that means. That gives him one more reason to play the hero.”
He looked up at her. “So what do you propose we do with him?”
“Keep him isolated”, she said. “Lock him in a room where he can’t do any harm.”
He gave her a thoughtful look, then nodded. “Alright, it can’t hurt to be cautious. I’ll instruct Berlin.”
“Good”, she said, then she smiled. “I have to say I’m pleased you’re taking my suggestion.”
“Of course”, he said. “You made a keen observation, I’d be a fool to risk not listening to you. The smallest disruption can have a big impact.” He gave her an earnest look. “You may have saved someone’s life with this.”
She seemed pleased but waved away his compliment. “Oh, it probably wouldn’t have mattered at all. Anyway, do you have any more files I can look at?”
He gave her a long look. “You’re really invested in this, aren’t you?”
She looked up at him in surprise. “Of course I am. We all are.”
He shook his head. “I don’t see any of the others asking me for extra material to study.”
“They rely on you”, she said. “They trust that you’ll tell them what they need to know.”
A corner of his mouth quirked up. “And you don’t trust me?”
She grinned. “Not in the blind way the others do, no. I like to see certain things for myself. I prefer to go over the details a second or third time, let them really sink in, think about the whats and whys and such.”
He looked at her in such a way that she tilted her head and said: “What?”
He quickly looked away and smiled to himself. “Nothing. It’s just that… I’ve been working on this plan for so long. Most of my life, really. It’s become more to me than just a plan. It’s… my life’s work.”
She nodded. “It’s art.”
He gave her a grateful look. “You understand.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “It must be a very meaningful experience for you to finally be able to share it with other people now.”
He blushed slightly. “It is. But most of the others just listen to it and accept whatever I tell them. They don’t think about it critically. They don’t engage with it. They don’t really appreciate it. Not… not like you.”
“I like engaging with it”, she said honestly. “It’s so well thought-out, so ingenious, so balanced. Beautiful.”
He felt a fierce surge of pride at her words, but all he could manage to say was: “Thank you.”
She smiled. “You’re welcome. Now, do you have any more files for me?”
He handed her a stack of folders, and she thanked him, then said: “Can we talk these through tomorrow?”
“Of course”, he said.
His eyes followed her as she left the room. He couldn’t wait.
A few days later, they were sitting next to each other during lunch, as usual. At the end of the meal, he turned to her.
“I’m giving the others the afternoon off”, he said. “I’d like to work one-on-one with you today.”
“Okay. What do you want to work on?”
“I would like to practice negotiations. I want you to pretend that you’re still part of the police force, and negotiate with me the way you would have done in that situation.”
She nodded. “I can do that. I suppose you want constructive feedback?”
“Yes. Anything that will help me get an edge over the negotiator during the operation.”
They left the clean-up to the others and went upstairs to the empty classroom. He sat down in the swiveling chair behind his desk, and she drew up a regular chair to sit beside him.
“First things first”, he said. “Now that you’re fired, who do you think they’ll replace you with?”
She thought about it for a moment. “That’s tricky. There’s nobody who could replace me directly. The person closest to me in rank and function is my colleague Elena González.”
He nodded. “That’s what I thought. What can you tell me about her?”
“Nothing much, she’s a pretty normal person. About 35, not married, no kids, capable policewoman, very committed. I like her. She keeps a level head.”
He was taking notes. “How likely do you think it is that they’ll bring in Alicia Sierra?”
She raised her eyebrows. “You better pray they don’t feel the need to bring in Alicia.”
“Because Alicia is a battering ram. They’ll only bring her in if they no longer care about consequences, in which case your goal of getting in and out without anyone getting hurt will become a lot more unlikely.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Let’s not push too hard then, so they don’t feel the need to use her.”
“That would be best.”
“What about your partner, sub-inspector Rubio?”
“Ángel? What about him?”
“Do you think they’ll promote him now you’re gone?”
She considered this. “Maybe. Personally, I wouldn’t put him in charge of a critical situation like the one we’re planning to cause, but he’s been on the force for a long time and my superiors might choose to give him a chance.”
“So he might be our negotiator.”
He gave her a calculating look. “Would that make things harder for you?”
She hesitated. “Honestly, yes, a little. Ángel and I are good friends, I hope we don’t have to go up against him.”
He was taking notes again. “Is there anything you can tell me about him that we might use to our advantage? Were you close?”
She hesitated. “Well, yes, quite close.”
He looked up. “Um… I’ve recently learned what ‘quite close’ means…”
She colored slightly, so he asked: “Were you…?”
She frowned. “I don’t want to tell you things about Ángel. It feels like a betrayal.”
“But it’s information that might help us during negotiations, yes?”
She sighed. “Yes.”
He put down his pen and gazed at her steadily. “Look, Lisbon, I don’t like asking you this. I don’t want you to feel like you’re betraying a friend. But every little scrap of information I have can be the difference between successful and failed negotiations. Between a successful and a failed operation. And if we fail…”
She nodded. “I don’t get Paula back. Yes, I understand.” She took a deep breath. “Well, it’s not like this is the best-kept secret of the force anyway. Ángel is in love with me.”
His eyebrows went up. “Are you sure about that?”
“Very sure. He’s been in love with me for years.”
“That is extremely useful to know. We can certainly use it to our advantage. Were you having an affair?”
“No”, she said, but something in her voice made him look at her more closely.
“But you slept together?”
She gave him a disgruntled look. “I don’t see how this is any of your business.”
“The more information I have, the more I can use against him. Did you sleep together?”
“Once”, she admitted reluctantly.
“Was it good?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “I can’t imagine how that’s relevant for your negotiations.”
“I need to know what kind of emotions are attached to this encounter. Was it good?”
She shrugged. “It was okay.”
“For me, yes.”
“I’m more interested in his point of view. Was it good for him?”
She’d clearly had enough. She raised her chin and looked him straight in the eye. “Buddy, if I sleep with a guy, you can bet it’s going to be good for him.”
He felt himself go red. “Oh, I… I didn’t want to imply that…”
“… that I’m bad in bed?”
“Well, yes, I mean, no, I would never think that.”
“So this is something you’ve been thinking about?”
Was the room getting hotter? “I… no, I didn’t…”
She raised a suggestive eyebrow. “Do you want to give it a go?”
He was blushing furiously now. “I… well… I… no…”
She kept a straight face for a few more seconds as she watched him squirm, then she grinned broadly. “I didn’t think so.”
He relaxed as he realized that she was only teasing him, then tensed again as she leaned closer to him for a moment.
“Next time, don’t ask me questions you can’t handle the answer to.”
She pushed against his chair so it swiveled halfway around. “Alright, let’s practice some negotiations, shall we?”
“Yes”, he said, slowly turning his chair back, still red in the face. “I think that’s a good idea.”
He reached into the cupboard under the desk and took out several thick binders full of papers. She raised her eyebrows.
“What are those?”
“My notes on the negotiations.”
She let out a low whistle. “You’ve been preparing rather thoroughly.”
“These negotiations are very important. I want to be prepared for every eventuality.”
“But… you can’t possibly prepare for every eventuality. You’re talking to a human being, you can’t know exactly what they’re going to say.”
“There are assumptions you can make about where the conversation is going, though. Police negotiators have their scripts. I made one of my own.”
She gave him a thoughtful look. “You really need to feel like you’re in control of the situation, don’t you?”
He shot her an annoyed look back. “Of course I need to be in control of the situation. If there comes a point where I’m not in control of the situation, we’re in trouble.” Then he sighed and relented. “But yes, fine, I don’t feel particularly comfortable with unscripted conversations, especially if they’re important. And these are extremely important.”
She gave him a curious look. “Do you script conversations in daily life, too?”
“Not on paper”, he said, then admitted reluctantly: “but yes, I sometimes rehearse conversations in my head.”
“Have you ever rehearsed a conversation you’ve had with me?”
“I’ve tried”, he grumbled. “But it’s impossible.”
“Because you’re too unpredictable. I never know what you’re going to say.”
She smiled. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay”, he said. “It keeps me on my toes. Now let’s get started.”
They set up their chairs so they were facing away from each other.
“Okay”, he said. “Let’s say we’ve taken over the Mint, the police have set up their center of operations, and this is the first phone call I make to, presumably, Inspectora González. Are you ready?”
“Yes”, she said.
“Good.” He took a deep breath, then said: “Inspectora, what are you wearing?”
She turned around in her chair in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? That’s how you want to open negotiations?”
He turned around too. “Yes.”
“And what if it’s Ángel on the other end of the line?”
He grinned. “Then I’ll let you ask the question.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Very funny. But seriously, why the fuck would you start by asking Elena what she’s wearing?”
“It’s unexpected”, he explained. “It’s personal and a little sexual. It will unbalance her right from the start, allowing me to set the tone for the conversation.”
She looked at him in disgust. “You’re only asking her that because she’s a woman.”
He nodded. “Yes.”
Her eyes suddenly widened. “Wait – you were going to ask me that!”
He nodded again, a little more reluctantly. “Yes.”
“What else were you going to ask me?”
He hesitated. “Um… maybe it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m going to be in the control room with you”, she reminded him. “I’m going to hear it anyway. What other inappropriate questions are you going to spring on my unsuspecting colleague?”
He cleared his throat and checked his notes. “Well… keep in mind that these will be sprinkled through the conversation, spread out over several days. So, um… "What are you wearing?', ‘Tell me about your first time’, ‘Have you ever faked an orgasm?’…”
He looked up at her tentatively to see how she was taking these. She gave him an unimpressed look, then said drily:
“You’re a pig.”
He ran an embarrassed hand through his hair. “Look, I know it’s crude, but I need to unbalance her somehow and these are better than the alternative.”
“What’s the alternative?”
He sighed. “Vague threats. Like letting her know that I know what school her kids go to, that sort of thing.”
“I agree. That’s why I prefer these, they’re much more elegant.”
“What if she just gets annoyed and angry?”
“That’s fine, it will mean that she’s not thinking straight. It will still help me get the upper hand.”
“But you already have the upper hand. No matter what happens, you’re so much smarter than anyone you could get on the other end of that line.”
“That wouldn’t have been true if it had been you”, he said without thinking.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Flattery won’t get you back in my good books.”
“I wasn’t…” He suddenly stopped, pushed his glasses back up his nose and completely changed his tone. “Look. This isn’t a negotiation. I’ve thought this through, I’ve decided on a strategy and I’ve been working on this strategy for months. I’m not changing it now because it offends your sensibilities.”
She gave him a long look, then nodded. “Fine.”
“Unless you think these questions won’t work”, he said. “In that case I’m open to suggestions for improvements.”
“Oh, no”, she said drily. “If your goal is to annoy your negotiator, these will definitely work.”
He looked at her. “You’re annoyed at me too.”
“That’s a very astute observation.”
“Because you’re a sexist asshole who’s going to embarrass my colleague in front of all her coworkers.”
“Ex-colleague”, he said softly. “Ex-coworkers.”
She sighed deeply and leaned back in her chair. “Yes, of course, you’re right. I shouldn’t care anymore. In fact, I should be happy that you have a good strategy worked out.”
He gave her some time to collect her thoughts, then he saw her mentally shake herself.
“Alright”, she said, sitting up straight again. “Let’s do this. Ask me what I’m wearing.”
That evening, she didn’t sit down next to him at dinner, and she didn’t say a word to anyone during the meal, eating with a rather subdued expression on her face. After the plates were cleared, she got up and walked out of the room. He hurried after her and caught her at the foot of the stairs.
“Can I talk to you in private for a moment?”
“Sure.” She glanced up the stairs. “In my bedroom?”
He took a step back. “Um… it doesn’t need to be that private.”
She threw him an impatient look. “Where, then?”
They went up to the classroom together, and she leaned against the desk, facing him.
He hesitated. “Are you still mad at me?”
She shook her head. “I’m not mad. I’ve just had to make a difficult mental adjustment and I don’t like it.”
He nodded. “I understand. You’d rather still be with the police force if you had the choice.”
“Yes”, she said honestly. “I would. Then I’d be home right now, cooking dinner with my mother, putting my daughter to bed. Instead I’m here.”
“Well”, he said carefully, “I know this doesn’t make up for all that you’re missing, but I have something for you.”
She looked up at him in surprise. “You do?”
He took an envelope out of his pocket and gave it to her. She opened it, curious, then gasped as she took out several photos of Paula at the playground. She went through them slowly, her eyes big.
“How did you get these?” she whispered.
“You said you were worried about her”, he explained. “So I sent someone to check on her. She seems to be alright, both emotionally and physically. As far as we could determine, your ex-husband and sister are taking good care of her, and your mother keeps an eye on all of them.”
She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the pictures, drinking in the familiar face of her daughter.
“Can I keep these?”
“Of course”, he said.
He waited a few more moments, then decided to give her some privacy. He started to leave, but as he passed her, she put her hand on his arm and looked up at him. There were tears in her eyes.
“I don’t know what to say. Thank you, Sergio.”
He was so aware of her hand on his sleeve that his mind totally blanked on a response. He stammered out some incoherent syllables for a moment, then cleared his throat and pulled himself together. “You’re welcome.”
She withdrew her hand and turned back to the pictures. He kept looking at her for several more seconds before he remembered that he was leaving. As he walked out the door, he felt a little dizzy, and he vaguely wondered why. His skin was still tingling where she had touched him.