Short Story: Ghosted

Lighting flashed. Seconds later, thunder cracked. Timing said the strike was close. Somewhere inside the city. The power’d already been out twenty minutes. Sooner or later people would get suspicious. Problem was, they had every right to be. First Trust Banking was about to have near a billion credits stolen, a little suspicion was healthy.

Widow wasn’t the type to do anything half-assed. But something wasn’t sitting right with her. Between her, Wraith, and Alina Cardona running surveillance off-site, they had more than enough skill to do the job. Problem was, so far they hadn’t needed any. It was as if the block outage Cardona’d caused had fried the bank’s back-up systems too. Impossible. More impossible; Widow expected to enter via roof ventilation, emerge in a systems room for halls full of active cams, roving guards.

Instead, Wraith dropped in ahead of her. He ghosted to a door, hesitated, then moved. That was how Wraith worked. He didn’t need words. Especially on a job. He was former counter-terrorism task force, CTTF, a hard-core spec-ops type from a time before corp governments and privatized military and police.

Widow’d learned long ago that he expected absolute adherence to his ways on jobs. They’d had a tech-head along on a job once. He was meant to crack some over-priced laser gear they weren’t in on. The job went fine ‘til the kid triggered a back-up alarm by mistake. Corp-sec swarmed them like flies on fresh shit. The pissant was obviously terrified. More than likely too, prepped to give everyone up.

Wraith didn’t hesitate. He gutted the kid. Like a fish. In front of the crew. A roomful of corp-sec. And he did it with with the same detachment as a worker in a fish-packing warehouse. It wasn’t mean. It wasn’t malicious. It wasn’t cold. Rather, indifferent. Purposeful. Habitual. Widow’d hammered nails with more sympathy.

She later learned the kid had done a nickel in a corp black-site prison. He was supposed to do a dime. His time was reduced for cracking en-route. How he’d survived, Widow couldn’t fathom. He was a coward at the best of times. Wraith didn’t care. He didn’t give the kid a chance to talk.

Wraith’s seeming brutality was the momentary distraction that allowed them to gain the advantage. Wraith tossed an EMP stunner, frying corp-sec comms and helmets. By the time their gear normalized, Widow’d disappeared into a utility shaft behind Wraith. Two years later, here they were.

Since then, Widow’d become convinced there was no-one better to have on a job than Wraith and Alina. They were brawn and brains. Widow was heart– an ice-cold, black-blooded heart of pure adrenaline, but a heart nonetheless. Plus, she had the contacts, the bright ideas. Widow planned and plotted. Even if the others brought her something, she took over from there. There was no reason to do things otherwise. Tried and true was gold. They weren’t about to start fixing unbroken shit or breaking it trying to.

Even still, Widow couldn’t help but feel the same suspicions she expected were tingling on the under-sacks of First Trust’s execs. She ghosted along behind Wraith, two hunters more than ever feeling like prey. It wasn’t sitting right. She suspected Wraith felt the same way, but he’d have never said it. He didn’t need to anyhow. The air did.

The monochrome stainless and granite lobby was too vacant, too quiet. Granted, it was roughly 21:50 zed, someone was bound to be around– janitors, security, the odd boot-licking wage-slave– someone. There was no-one. Darkness. Silence. Emptiness. All the way from the dark upper-floors, down along the stairwells, through the darkened lobby, to the darkened vault-entrance.

Wraith took a position to guard the path they’d come from. Widow knelt beside the massive vault door. It looked like something from the old heist-flicks; big, metal, brash, like the people employing it. Unfortunately, it was also totally fucking impenetrable without power.

Widow dug through her pack, produced a cylindrical power source like a giant AA battery. Alkaline was obsolete nowadays, but the resemblance stuck. Incidentally, this produced somewhere near a million times more power than those batteries. She set it down beside a single-use plaz-torch, a kit of pliers and cutters. The torch lopped off the bolts holding the vault’s access panel together, and a moment later she was stripping and cutting wires. A full minute after, the power source was connected, fueling the vault panel. All they needed now was a spark of the right wires. The locks would release. Everything from there was man-power.

She prepped the wires, holding them apart, but hesitated. Wraith caught it with glance back.

She breathed, “You smell it, too?” His eyes said yes. “Something in the air.”

Alina piped in over their bone-mics, “Corp-sec piping something in?”

“Not literally, Ali,” Widow replied.

There was a silence. All three knew something was about to go down. Their only hope was that they’d get in, get the routing codes and key-drives, and get out anyhow.

Wraith leaned into his rifle. Widow sparked the wires. Ozone nipped at their nostrils. All at once, the dozen bolts spaced along the vault door thunked from gravity’s pull. The door came loose. Good ol’ man-power and perseverance pushed it open. Widow slipped in alone. SOP; always leave one-man outside in case things went sideways. She couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t matter this time.

She hurried through the vault for the carts of various bit-currency repositories. They were like old-era hard-drives, but bigger, more sophisticated, and built stronger than black-boxes. They had to be; they read, wrote, re-read, and re-wrote data a billion and more times each day, storing transaction lists, balances, routing and account numbers for near-on every First Trust member in the world. At last count, that was something four-hundred million people. A large percentage were multiple-account holders. An insignificant percentage stored more than the rest combined.

Something like twenty trillion credits existed in the world. Half of that was within First Trust’s vaults. The total value of Widow’s vault was said to be a few hundred billion. Taking them all wasn’t an option. It would’ve taken a crew of ten with a pair of troop carriers.

She kept on-mission, located the target cart, grabbed at it. The plan was to wheel the thing straight to the employee entrance at the lobby’s rear. They were risking exposure, sure, but by then the job would be near enough to done that there was no going back.

The cart slid back, around, angled for the door. The lights flared on. The vault door went into lock-down. It slammed closed with an earthquake. The bolts fired into place. Wraith dove out, away, only barely avoided being crushed. Everything happened so fast Widow was stunned. Before she could react, she was locked in the vault.

A voice sounded somewhere overhead, “Send your Doe my regards in hell.”

“What the fuck!?”

Smoke began pouring in. Acrid. Sulfur. Mixed with something like cyanide. Filling the room. Yellow. Stinking like hell.

“Shit.” She took a deeper breath, rubbernecked the vault. “Shit.”

Alina radioed in, “Wraith’s working on the door. You’ve got 30 seconds before the air’s too toxic to breathe. Get low. Slow your heart. Deep breaths. We’re getting you out.”

Widow was already coughing. Sulfur stung her eyes and nose. Cyanide burned her skin and lips. A slow, rolling laughter sounded above. Reality dimmed. Widow wanted to breathe, knew she was better off suffocating. Seconds passed like hours. She fought to push the cart to the vault door, almost completely unaware of it.

The world spun. She couldn’t help it now. She coughed, choked for air. Her breaths were fiery knives. Her eyes were blind from acid-tears streaming agony down her face. She stumbled, slumped against the cart.

Reality flashed past:

The vault door, open. She writhed, floating. Metal-panels. Ceilings. Rolled past. Gunfire echoed nearby. Casings bounced off her boots, stung through her pants. She choked on sweet air, but reality still faded. The last thing she saw before losing total consciousness was the hovering flit of shadows.

She awoke to find Wraith standing over her, arms crossed. Alina’s bright eyes were dark beneath their sockets, but wide in relief.

“She’s up!”

Widow didn’t need Wraith to speak to hear his, “no shit.”

“Hey. You alright?”

Wraith started shining a light in her eyes. She smacked it away, “Get that fuckin’ thing outta’ my face–”

“She’s fine.”

“I know who you are,” Widow said, finding herself inexplicably pissed. “The fuck happened?”

“Doe screwed us,” Alina said. The “no shit” air returned. Ali headed it off. “Sent us in figuring we wouldn’t have a hope in hell. Then hoped if we did, we’d still hand over the data.”

“And? Did we get it?” Widow asked easing herself up.

She found herself home, at the divest of dives, something they called The Grobe. It was like if someone built a hotel to be condemned, never got around to finishing it, then by some quirk of fate, it ended up that anyhow.

Wraith smiled, “Yeah, but we didn’t hand it over.”

“What!? Why?” Widow choked, fearing for their reputation.

“Fuck ‘im. Tried to play us with bad intel. No crew worth their salt would blame us.”

Alina added, “And it’s a message to the other Does that we won’t take being screwed.”

The room slid into silence. Widow slowly tried to reconcile facts, that against all odds, she was alive. She shook off the last of her fatigue and sat up on the edge of her bed. “So what happened to the creds?”

More silence. This time Alina and Wraith share a wickedly smug grin. Suddenly, she knew why.

And she grinned too.

Into Her Darkness: Part 9

9.

Bitter Taste of Victory

“Come out now or we shoot you down!” The voice called.

Angela trembled, “Someone know about the job. They waited for us to grab the goods.”

“Does that really matter now?” Crystal spat.

“I’m giving you ’til five, or we come up shooting. One…”

Angela risked a look at the way forward, careful not to expose herself. “We can make. If we zig-zag between alcoves–”

“Three…”

“Are you crazy!?

Angela unholstered a gun. Crystal followed. “Get to the last one. Stay put.”

“Four…”

They booked it. Crystal didn’t look. Her legs pumped fury and terror. Gunfire barked ahead and behind her. She hit the first alcove after Angela. They angled for the next. Caruso’s men followed. The gunfire’s epicenter echoed nearer-by. The women bolted again. Crystal threw herself into a sideways run, hit the alcove, sprinted off again. They made the last alcove as sparks and gunpowder wafted in ‘round the corner. Small calibers echoed through the dead-night, the steps still moving, but slower. “When I say, run for the truck’s far-side,” she said, yanking away one of Crystal’s holstered TMPs out.

Angela shoved the truck keys into her hands. “What about you?”

“Just go!” Angela spat. She flicked the safety off, snapped the bolt. “Go!”

Crystal fled. Angela leaned out. The suppressed TMP burst in clacks. It cut through the barking pistol fire. Sprayed ammo forced the men to dodge for cover. Crystal reached the truck’s edge. Adrenaline boiled her blood. She shouldered her way along to the driver-side, stopped near the rear-wheel, and drew her pistol.

“Move! Move!” Crystal radioed.

Angela sprinted backward, spraying more fire across the alley. Crystal’s was aimed, accurate. One of Caruso’s men ducked from cover. Crystal forced him back in. It was a distraction: another man opposite him had stepped out, took aim at Angela. He fired off a pair of rounds. Crystal was on him. Angela yelped stumbled forward to her hands and knees near the truck. The gun followed her down. Crystal re-targeted; the man was dead before her could try for another shot. Angela skidded into a roll that put her at the truck’s bumper.

“Angela!”

She clambered up the tailgate, fell over into the truck’s bed. “Go!”

Crystal was in the truck. The monstrous engine roared, drowned the gunfire that chased them from the alley. Spinning tires squealed in a haze of smoke. Steel divoted within it. Splintered orbs appeared in the passenger-windows. Crystal burned from the alley, all twelve cylinders firing. She fish-tailed into the street, headed for anywhere. The mobsters pursued them on foot. A block of gunfire saw another fish-tail around a corner, then another, and another, until she’d put enough distance between them to keep from being found.

Angela’s active comm echoed her words, “Son of a bitch.”

Crystal agreed, “That was too close. Are you hurt?”

Angela checked her shoulder: a minor glancing wound. If she’d been an inch further left, she’d have taken the bullet full-on.

“Nothing serious,” she said, compressing the wound. “Pull over. Let me get up front.”

Crystal did as instructed. She let Angela in, then started off again. Angela set to bandaging herself while Crystal drove for Jonas’ shop. Mid-way through, Crystal’s thoughts mounted, forcing her words out.

“You’re not telling me everything.” Angela winced, fixed her bandage in place. “Angela?”

“I heard you.”

She huffed, “Who the hell are these guys? What’d you do? This isn’t just about the museum.”

“Professional rivalry. Nothing more,” Angela said, evasively.

“Bullshit,” Crystal spat. “Something pissed these guys off. Something you did. I can’t work with you if you’re not honest with me.”

They pulled up to the pawnshop and Angela grasped the door handle, “Not now. Not here.”

Crystal growled, climbed out after her. They entered with packs filled with jewelry. The “open” sign was already off, but Jonas sat at the counter writing in a ledger-book. He raised a finger at them, mentally calculating something. He scribbled it in and shut the book.

He looked up, immediately spying the fresh bandage. “Run into some trouble?”

“Just give me the money,” Angela demanded.

He eyed Crystal’s averted gaze, shrugged, “Merchandise?” They handed over their bags. He tested their weight, “Good haul. Prick’s definitely getting his insurance check.”

“Can you make this quick, Jonas? In case you didn’t notice, I’m still bleeding.”

“Gotta’ call Curie first though.”

“Then do it,” she ordered, her irritation doubling as she compressed the wet bandage again.

He disappeared, leaving them to the growing tension. Crystal’s mind raced with questions. Anger frothed from each of them. She wasn’t even sure why. The truth wouldn’t change things. It might have been shock, but she needed to know and refused to go any further otherwise. She was about to say something when Jonas reappeared.

He eyed Angela alone, “Curie’s on the line. Wants to talk to you. Just you.”

“Stay here,” Angela instructed.

Crystal rolled her eyes. “No shit.” She fell into a lean against the counter as Angela left.

Jonas watched the exchange, waited. “That bad, huh?”

“You don’t know half of it,” Crystal said with waning breath.

“Any idea who it was– or how they found you?”

“Some mafioso named Caruso. Angela won’t tell me more.”

Jonas was suddenly squeamish. The very idea of the two being mentioned together made join act as if a wet snake were slithering up his leg.

“Jonas?” He avoided her eyes. “What d’you know?”

He grimaced, glanced back at the doorway, then leaned forward at a hush, “You didn’t hear this from me, but Caruso’s had a hard-on for Angela for a while now. She heisted some piece of his at an exhibit in San Diego– running a crew hired for the job. They set up in a ritzy hotel to case the joint, then made the play. Problem was, Caruso’s people were aware someone was going to move.”

Crystal’s voice lowered to match his, “So they were waiting for her?”

He shrugged. “Angela ran that job. It went off even with the hitch. She got in, got out, made delivery, but someone recognized one of the guys with her. He got ‘im to talk. Messed him up bad before he gave up Angela.” He glanced back again, breathed. “Three weeks later, she shows up here wasted out of her goddamn mind, ranting about Julia– her partner– being dead. Only she knows for sure what happened. Lotta’ whispers say it was retribution from Caruso though.”

Crystal’s eyes doubled in size. “He killed her partner?”

He winced. “All I can say’s she’s gone, and they were close– thicker than thieves, so to speak. A… personal thing, you know. Not my business. Catch my drift?”

Her heart and stomach were once more in her throat. Angela had said her partner left. Dying hadn’t been mentioned at all. Her face went blank and settled into indifference as Angela reappeared.

“Curie’s done,” Angela said, more calm than before. “Get us our money.”

He disappeared again. The tension returned, albeit muted. Angela said nothing, kept herself focused on her injury to avoid any questions. On the contrary, the new information was still working through Crystal’s mind. Threads still unraveled, connected. Facts fell and fitted into place like puzzle blocks, forming an image thus far obscured. She was still trying to work things out when Jonas paid them and said goodbye.

They made their way back home, and climbed out without a word. Crystal stopped a moment to survey the truck before heading in. The truck’s damage was as cosmetic as the bike’s had been, but the clear signs of a fire-fight meant it required couldn’t simply be driven again. The splintered windows and bullet divots were dead giveaways that the truck– and likely its occupants– spent time outside the law’s confines.

Crystal followed Angela into the house. She stopped at one side of the island. Angela crouched at a cabinet, dug for a bottle, and produced an aged whiskey and a pair of rock-glasses. She stepped over to the counter, poured two glasses, downed one, refilled it, then passed Crystal the other. She set the bottle aside and braced herself on the counter. She stared into her drink, the tension draining from the air, and into Angela.

“Sit.” Crystal sank onto a stool. Silence rang. Then, “I never lied.”

Crystal remained silent; it was not the time to speak. Whatever Angela had to say needed to come naturally. Her eyes remained locked on the glass and its contents. “I was twenty-four. Living on the streets. I’d celebrated my birthday by trying to drink myself to death. Nearly succeeded. I didn’t want to wake up to my life again.” She gave a small shake of her head to ward of old, evil thoughts. “I was found on the street, mostly dead. I was taken to a hospital. When I woke up, I was still alive. I didn’t know that. I figured I was dreaming out the last seconds of life.”

Crystal watched her conscious mind disappear, lost as it was in memories. She drifted back slowly, as if remembering she was supposed to be recalling something.

“Point is, I was twenty-four and wanted to die. Tried to die. The only way I could think of. The only way the streets allowed for a coward too afraid to run into traffic– or put a broken bottle to their wrist.” Her eyes rose, focused past Crystal on a point that only existed in her mind. “Julia changed that. She’d found me after taking payment for a job. Took me to the hospital. Paid my med bills out of pocket. She promised to stay while I got clean, but only if I agreed to help her later.”

She hesitated. Crystal suddenly herself mirroring Angela. She knew now how it was meant to repay the old debt.

Angela’s mind was further elsewhere, but her voice remained present. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. Julia never forced me though. She asked, every step of the way; was I willing to do this or that? Would I train with her? Would I drive for her? Eventually, we outright started planning jobs together. Running them. Celebrating. Something had… changed.”

Painful memories played. Crystal was silent, watching. Angela’s eyes shut and her head fell.

“I fell for her. She loved me too, I think–” she shook her head. “–No. She did. I know it. She showed it time and again. I just… never believed it. Not fully.”

She stiffened, gritting her teeth; her memories too unbearable. Crystal wanted to speak, to comfort her, but things needed to play out. She needed the truth– they needed the truth. Angela fought valiantly against the tears welling in her eyes. Soon though, her voice quaked, the levee broke, and they flowed freely.

“A year and a half ago, Curie sent Julia and I to San Diego for a job. Museum job. Problem was, security’d been bolstered by Caruso’s people. We were unknown to him then. But that job…. it had bad idea written all over it. The money was right, but the security was off. We did the job, nearly got popped, and fled. We came back home to make delivery and take payment… ”

She lost what remained of control and her breath stuttered. It stung Crystal’s heart, as if cleaved in two by a lone blow.

“Two days later, a few of Caruso’s guys caught us coming out of a bar. They’d been tipped off by one of the locals on the crew. None of us really knew him, but they beat him ‘til he gave us up. Killed ‘im afterward. They tracked us and–.” Her tears dripped onto the counter, her eyes fixed on her glass and face fighting for stillness. “They chased us for four blocks, cut us off, knocked us out, took us to an abandoned factory.”

Her arms shook, threatening to buckle beneath her weight and white knuckles. Crystal fought with all her might to keep from reaching out to her.

“We woke up, tied up. Caruso was there. He told us he was going to “send a message.” She choked on her next words. “He… he shot Julia three times in the chest. Set the place on fire around us. Left me for dead– or j-just to think on what happened.” Her next movements were apprehensive, conveying all the pain they could: she clutched her glass, lifted it with a trembling hand, paused, then slugged down the liquor. She exhaled hot air. “I broke free. Cut Julia from her chair. Carried her out. She’d been dead minutes. I let the place burn, hoping Caruso would think I was dead. He knows I’m not, wants to fix that.”

Crystal waited for Angela’s words to finish echoing through her mind, then swallowed in a dry throat. She sipped her liquor and finally met Angela’s eyes. A silent question of whether or not she might speak went unnoticed. Crystal took it as a sign that it was alright.

“You loved her. You feel guilty for her death.” Angela gave a lone nod. “I’m sorry. I understand why you didn’t tell me, but you should’ve known it was only putting both of us in more danger.”

Angela’s mouth twitched with guilt. “I couldn’t risk telling you until I was certain you could be trusted– as much as I wanted you to be, if you’d gone to Caruso, told him I was alive, he might’ve paid you off to set me up. I couldn’t risk that.”

Crystal understood her fear, but it didn’t change facts: Caruso knew Angela was alive, even how to find her on the job. Something had to be done. They had to put a stop to it.

“The museum job put you back on his radar?” Again, she nodded. “Then we need a way off it.”

“He’s not going to stop, Crystal,” she said with certainty. “He wants to use me to set an example that he’s not to be fucked with. Just like Julia. Your best chance is to run. Take off. Stay as far away as possible. Maybe he’ll leave you alone. No-one knows who you are. No-one’s seen your face yet.”

Crystal rose to her feet, “Angela, I’m not leaving you. Besides, if we separate, we’re as good as dead anyhow. He might even grab me just to use me as bait. We’re stronger together.” Angela glanced up, eyes wet and face red. Crystal chest fluttered with sympathy, but she stiffened against it to remain composed. “I owe you more than I could ever repay. But more than that, you’re my friend. I’m not going to abandon you. We’ll find a way out, I promise.”

Angela blinked out tears, her voice soft, “Thank you.”

Crystal stepped around the island, ready to comfort her. An alarm screamed through the house. She stopped, glanced around. Angela swore. Arthur’s voice piped in on their comms.

“Someone just breached the escape tunnel. Armed. Armored. Maybe a dozen or so.”

“Caruso,” Crystal said.

Angela drew her gun, started for the gym, “C’mon! We can’t let them get through.”

Crystal followed on her heels. They sprinted for the gym’s atrium, through it to the hallway beyond. The corridor stretched out ahead as the alley had earlier. Doorway alcoves were scattered every few feet, with the escape tunnel far ahead at the right. Angela and Crystal burst into the hall just as the sliding wall hiding the tunnel exploded in a cloud of dust and concrete. They dove for cover at opposite sides of the hall. Gunfire erupted. Angela leaned out, firing.

“Arthur, lock down all interior doors! I don’t want them getting to–” Gunfire cut her off. She growled, leaned out to keep the men from advancing. “Lock the place down!”

The alarm gave way beside Crystal to snapping bolts as they locked in place. The sounds echoed along the halls, and at either end, trapping them in with Caruso’s people.

Crystal blasted off a few rounds without looking, “Now what!?”

“Beat ’em back,” Angela yelled, wasting the last of a magazine.

Crystal leaned out, caught one man in the chest as he hurled something. Her HUD tracked it, spitting alerts across her vision. The object and warnings clicked in her mind. A grenade landed with an explosive bang and a blinding flash. Her eyes and optics reeled. Her head swam. The concussive blast blew her backward, knocked the wind from her lungs. She smacked her head against the concrete-block. The bright light receded. Her HUD deactivated to reboot. Her vision phased in and out of focus.

Moments came in pictures, seconds of blackness between. She saw the wall rise ahead, slumped back against another. Blackness. Then, Angela in a similar heap, gun firing randomly. More blackness. Black-clad figures in riot-gear rushed Angela. She struggled, tried to fight, unbalanced by the grenade. Someone prodded her. Electricity arced along her. She seized, went limp. More blackness. Crystal fought to raise her weapon. A masked man appeared. His boot rose. The last thing she saw was it coming at her before her head hit concrete and she lost consciousness.

Into Her Darkness: Part 8

8.

The Jewelry Store Job

Their day went in usual fashion, or what Crystal had come to know as such. They took breakfast in a quaint diner on the dingy side of town– not unlike the one where they’d first met, and returned home for daily training. They finished in time for lunch, then set to planning the next job.

Given the whole thing was being orchestrated by the store’s owner, it felt disingenuous to plan so much. Angela felt otherwise. Even the easiest jobs could go wrong if not taken seriously. Angela’d seen and heard of it happening enough. Even if the owner was in– the security guards, the whole damned town, even– one do-gooder with a gun or cell-phone could fuck it up.

Angela wouldn’t let it be an issue, but Crystal couldn’t help her nervousness. A niggling fear in her mind and gut only added insult to it. More and more, Crystal felt things were about to go wrong in a big way. Intuition told her it wasn’t the job, but logic and fear saw no other possibilities and overrode it.

The pair sat in the kitchen, on opposite sides of the island. Jonas’ folder and its contents were laid out neatly between them. Angela examined the pages with an eagle-eye view while Crystal sifted her IDs and papers. Mostly, to keep her fidgeting hands moving while Angela mentally sorted the details of the job the following night. It would have to be enough time for Crystal to come to grips with what clawed at her. Otherwise, she’d be carrying more weight than she could handle. The last job had proven how fast one might need to move– and how fast things could turn bad.

The pair spent the night in planning, and broke only for dinner with Arthur. He counseled Angela with vague grunts and low mutters. Crystal was out of place, looking in on an intimate moment between two people forced together by circumstance and make the most of it. Arthur’s tones seemed to hint genuine concern, or interest, alongside detachment.

The night passed with sluggish inactivity. When the trio finally retired, Crystal passed out almost immediately, awoke to distant cooking, and found only Arthur present in the kitchen.

“Angela gone?” She asked, sitting at the island.

He grunted an affirming reply, “Shopping. Tools for tonight.”

Crystal spooned sugar into her coffee. “Didn’t think she’d ever need anything.”

“Ev’ry job’s different.” He shuffled over, dropped eggs and bacon onto a plate. He shuffled back and forth, plopped down toast. “Eat. You’ll need it come nightfall.”

“Thank you.” He grunted, ready to trundle off. “Wait.” He hesitated. “I just want to ask…”

He about-faced, his figure suddenly imposing in a paternal sort of way. He gave her a placid indifference while she struggled for words– the last thing she wanted was to speak ill of Angela. After all she’d done, it wasn’t right. All the same, a question needed to be asked, even if Arthur refused an answer, perhaps speaking it aloud would seal an idea in her mind.

“Is Angela…” Arthur’s brow rose. She breathed deep, exhaled slowly, “Should I be worried? I mean, is she being honest– about repaying some kind of debt?”

Arthur’s eyes narrowed skeptically. “You’re asking if she can be trusted. If she’d betray you, or cast you out.” Crystal gave an apprehensive, but solitary nod. “Her business is her business, Crystal. I can’t tell you what’s in her heart. But I’ve been here a long time. Long enough to know she does not often betray her word. If she says there is a reason for something, there is one. If she says that reason is something personal, it is. But you want to know if you should leave.”

Crystal’s eyes fell to the floor, “Yes.”

“I can’t tell anyone how to live their life, girl, ut there’s not a thing Angela has shown me to distrust her. Perhaps it’s different for you. Perhaps not. But I’ve never wanted for, nor feared anything, since I met Angela. In this world, that’s more than most can say.”

Crystal met his eyes a final time with a silent gratitude. He replied with a slow, solemn nod, and turned away. She was left to stew in her thoughts. He hadn’t said much, but it was enough. However he felt really, there was no denying Anglea’d kept an old man off the street, gave him money, shelter, food. In exchange, she asked only occasional household aid.

The same went for Crystal; Angela’d given her everything. Not only was it in a possibly-vain hope she stay, but also to repay something deeper, more personal. She’d been a street-kid until someone helped her from the gutter. Who that was, when, and why, remained a mystery. In fact, the more Crystal thought, the less she knew about Angela and her past. Everything from her birthday to her hometown was a mystery. Was Angela Dale even her real name?

It hurt to think of, but their attachment forced her to evaluate the situation honestly. Crystal’d never had friends. Not really. Even if she’d had, it was so long ago now it didn’t count. For her to stay, commit to Angela’s partnership, she’d have to be sure of every possible variable. The only way to do that was to learn more about Angela. She’d picked up on enough surface details to fill in anything Angela might willingly tell. There was little indication she’d been anything but herself as well.

But deeper, personal things were another matter. Crystal couldn’t fully commit until she knew them. That meant confronting Angela. It would be a delicate task to broach– likely best when celebrating their next job. She’d decide afterward whether to stay or go.

The afternoon turned to evening with more speed than Crystal liked. Angela returned with a box of toys to be used on the job. Among other things, were laser-focuser prisms; small attachments to avoid triggering laser alarms; old-fashioned cam-jammers to loop empty feeds on security cameras. Angela’d taken the job as seriously as she’d said. Crystal was glad for that honesty, if nothing else.

They geared up. Crystal gave her weapons extra care. If something did go wrong, she wanted to be ready. Freezing up again was unacceptable. Were circumstances different, she’d have been killed. Not exactly an auspicious start to her career. Moreover, she’d started to come to grips with the prospect of death on the job– preferably someone else’s, rather than hers.

Death was a certainty. Everyone knew, every day, death might come. The difference for her and the mobster was the deliberate skirting of death’s cross-hairs. To mourn the loss of a random mafioso seemed as pointless as futile. Countless more, better people would die the same instant without ever having a choice or being mourned. Crystal merely hoped she wouldn’t be one. Any other feelings were unnecessary and dangerous.

Angela led her to an over-sized Chevy pick-up in the garage. It was a tank with a lift-kit, run-flat tires, inch-thick steel-plated doors, bullet-proof acrylic-glass windows, and pro-tuned suspension. All of it was propelled by a super-charged V12 capable of outrunning all but the most luxurious police super-cruisers.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit over-kill for a smash and grab?” Crystal asked.

“You wanna’ take that chance?” Crystal winced. “Didn’t think so. Cops love these kinds of jobs. They get to nail a suspect, confiscate the merchandise, and tell all the news vids they made a million-dollar bust. Meanwhile, who’s gonna’ notice a few diamonds missing and in a wife’s ears, or on a husband’s finger?”

“I see your point,” Crystal said, heaving up and into the passenger’s side.

Angela climbed across from her. The truck was roomy, more than comfortable, but with a definite utilitarian feel. Its engine fired and Crystal shuddered in fear that it might explode. Instead, the truck idled forward into garage’s main aisle. It inched toward the elevator. Crystal cringed at the clearance. Moments later, they emerged at ground-level, unscathed.

They started for the far-side of town, biding their time to blend in. Amid a bustling, thriving city, the truck was hardly conspicuous. The most notable thing was the two women inside it. But the half-tinted windows and dark night made it impossible to tell they were there. So far, things were going smooth, but the nagging fear in Crystal’s gut remained. It might not be the job that would go sideways, but something would.

Soon they were parked in an alley a block from their mark. Nondescript, uptown alleys formed maze-work paths through the city blocks. They’d parked along a main one, wide enough for a pair of vehicles. The first, branching alley was too small for anything but Angela’s bike. It would keep them from getting blocked in if they had to ditch the truck. Crystal pled with her gut that they wouldn’t.

They hopped out, started forward. An undeniable exposure descended over Crystal. Clad in black, faces painted, and carrying more fire-power than a Texan at a gunshow felt asking for trouble. Before Crystal could question her, Angela dug a pair of tailored trench-coats from her pack, handed one over. The long leather had no sleeves, but perfectly hid their arsenal. All that remained visible were their beanie-caps and face-paint. Anyone passing by would be none the wiser. Crystal just hoped no-one stopped. They’d know right away something was up.

The walk began, shorter than expected, but each cross-street and intersecting alley was approached with upward hand, a creep to the nearest corner, a peek up and down, then a rush across. The last intersection was as nondescript as the rest. Indeed, the Jewelry store was sandwiched between buildings with an alley behind it. It was completely unremarkable and indistinguishable from the rest of uptown.

Crystal kept a look out while Angela knelt, picked the lock on the back-door. She flew through the primary lock, the deadbolt, re-pocketed her picks, and instructed Crystal to wait with a hand on the knob. She slid down the wall toward a junction box, popped it open, then fiddled with the wires inside. On a silent three count, she shorted a wire while Crystal pushed open the door.

Angela hurried back, took point. They slipped in and their night-vision flared: a lone security camera roved beside the door, angled for a full-view of the door’s surroundings. The door itself was a major blind-spot Angela took full advantage of. She dug out a cam-looper, spliced it on, and double-checked the feed on her HUD. Crystal watched it too, with a picture-in-picture view; Angela waved a hand before the camera, but the image remained as it was, expertly looped.

They advanced into the main show-floor. It was everything Crystal expected from a high-end jewelry store. Glass and chrome cases were everywhere. Jewels and polished metals glistened in them, along colored satin and velvet. Mannequin necks, hands, wrists, and fingers, were adorned with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and every other gem imaginable.

Angela was focused elsewhere. Crystal turned from the splendor to see lights glowing in the main-room’s corners. The camera’s vision cones suddenly appeared on her HUD; a few oscillated here and there. Angela handed over loopers, motioned Crystal left. She waited, timed herself. Angela couldn’t begin the right side until the first camera was looped. Crystal took her chance, moved like a swift shadow.

In moments, the wire was stripped, spliced, and her HUD showing a looping feed. Angela moved to the next camera, repeated the process, then ushered Crystal up. The rhythmic bypasses of rudimentary security continued until each vision cone faded and the place was nearly theirs for the taking. All that remained were the lasers.

Angela stood beside the first display case, passed over a bag of prisms, “Pick each case. Use your HUD to locate the grid. Put a prism over the emitters, then grab everything out. Remove the emitters in reverse order. Got it?” Crystal nodded. “Take the left, I’ll take the right.”

Crystal stood before the first case, took a deep breath, and fished out her picks. A visual aid appeared on her HUD, displayed the crisscross grid invisible to human eyes. Beside it was a small, 3D render of the lock she was picking. She minimized it, worked the lock by feel to set the pins. With a final twist, the case opened.

“Cakewalk,” she breathed, following the grid-lines back to their emitters.

She removed a prism: the name was deceptive. It was really a small L-shaped bracket with a hole machined in one side. The hole held a highly-polished, faceted crystal around a copper heat-sink. She held her breath, started in the lower left corner, angling one arm carefully through a cross of beams. Her heart jumped as she rotated the first prism through her fingers, hovered it in place over the emitter.

She swallowed hard, released the bypass. It slotted over the emitter, halved the bottom section of grid. She repeated the movements on the next, bottom corner, exposed the entirety of the bottom section of case. Deft movements slotted the next crystal. Then the next. The case was cleared. She dropped her pack, stuffed the case’s contents in it.

She glanced back to see Angela a few cases ahead and quickened her pace. She removed the prisms, then repeated the process at the next case. The pair went along the walls, cleaning out jewelry by the thousands in moments. Crystal finished the last wall-case while Angela made a move for cubical displays in the room’s center. Laser-grids encompassed the innards, but an extra pair of emitters made it nearly impossible to clear the whole grid.

Angela swore under her breath. Crystal caught it. “What?”

“It’s going to take longer than I thought.”

Crystal made her way over, pack now laden with liberated wares, “What d’you need?”

Angela thought for a moment, “Give me your prisms. Pick the register. Find the safe. I’m not leaving anything behind.”

Crystal handed over her prisms. Angela picked the display’s lock, made for the register across the room. She had it open in seconds, found it empty, scanned the display cases of rings, bracelets, and other items beneath it.

“Register’s empty. There’s no grid on this stuff,” Crystal whispered into her comm.

“Alarm,” Angela said, focused on the emitters before her. Crystal knelt, felt around the bottoms of the cases for wiring. “Use your fingers. Metal cutters will set them off.”

Crystal nodded, pinched the thin wiring with a pair fingernails, severed one case’s alarm. She went along the horseshoe of cases, cutting alarms, then working locks. The first opened with difficulty. She tried the HUD render. Inaccurate for the lock-type. She shut it off, closed her eyes. Springs popped and set. The tension arm twisted. The first display opened. She didn’t bother with deft movements. Instead, she swept all the merchandise into her pack en-masse and picked at the left-overs.

Angela liberated the last of the stand-up displays, then hurried past, “Keep working, I’m going for the safe.”

Crystal pivoted to the next case, picked it, and swept the merchandise into her pack. She was about to move to the next when headlights appeared outside. She flattened against the floor on instinct. Her heat raced.

“Someone’s here,” she radioed with a whisper.

Angela froze at the safe, “What!? Who?

“I don’t know. I can’t—” she hesitated, inched sideways along the floor to peer out at the doors. A man in an expensive-looking suit sat in a car, glanced in through binoculars. He clearly wasn’t a cop. The shifty way he checked his surroundings said it wasn’t anyone affiliated with the store. He was avoiding suspicion too much, as if it were important he not be questioned.

It hit her: it was one of Caruso’s men. She was certain of it. He’d been at the last job, one of the incapacitated guards she’d sneaked past. Now he was here.

“It’s one of Caruso’s guys from the museum.”

“Shit!” Angela’s heart leapt into her throat. She focused on the safe, “Has he seen you?”

“No, but–” He laid down his binoculars and the car rolled forward. “He’s leaving.”

Angela didn’t feel better. Crystal didn’t either. Caruso’s men had learned about the job. How was less important than finishing and getting the hell out before they were ambushed. Crystal double-checked the door, then rose for the last of the cases. She located and picked the locks without looking, eyes on the doors. She moved as fast as possible, sweeping the last of the merchandise into her pack. Angela reappeared, safe-money liberated and ready to finish the job.

They moved as shadows, removing the loopers in reverse order. One-by-one, the camera-cones reappeared. They returned to the back room and the last camera, then slipped out as they had in. They sprinted along the alley toward the truck. Angela hesitated at the corners, then ushered Crystal through before taking off again. They passed the first few unhindered. Angela’s confidence returned. Crystal’s waned. Her stomach gurgled, lurched bile up her throat. This was the thing she’d been fearing. When it hit, it was nearly catastrophic.

They crossed the last intersecting road, into the last section of alley. The truck was parked with its broad side in the center of the T, far ahead. Crystal could taste freedom, home, drinks of victory. Atop it all, the bile came up. Things were going completely fucking sideways. At the same instant, they crossed the street headlights kicked on from the perpendicular road. Tires squealed. Crystal had enough time to throw Angela into the cover of a dumpster-alcove before the car squealed to a stop.

Feet dropped onto asphalt and a voice called out, “We know it’s you, Dale. Give it up.”

Angela’s face whitened. Crystal’s heart seized. She clasped her pistol.

Into Her Darkness: Part 6

6.

In the Field

The first few tests were less harrowing than Crystal expected. They amounted to running the course in its entirety, picking locks within a time-limit, and accuracy-based speed shooting. Angela had trained her well enough that pressure felt as natural as daily practice. At lunch, Angela’s personal gravity seemingly increased. Her stiff-lip hardened. Crystal soon learned why: all of her field skills were about to be tested in the field.

The pair took their lunch break, sat at the island counter across from one another. Angela’s sudden taciturnity kept her from saying much while they ate. Still, Crystal ate slowly, hoping to prolong a possibly untimely end of their partnership– and her newly-comfortable life. Angela downed a drink, fished for another in the fridge, then cracked the top on a can of soda.

She deliberately waited for the fizz to die before speaking, “You’ve done well.” Her tone was short, firm rather than cold. “Better than I’d anticipated, but there’s only so much we can learn with imaginary pressure. We’re going to put your skills to use.”

Crystal sipped autonomously from a cup, watching Angela beyond it.

She continued, “I’ve spoken to my Fixer, the woman that sets up my jobs. We call her Madame Curie. She’s lined up a job; a Museum piece is being transferred into town on a truck-full of others. The goal’s to nab it. Together. If you wish to continue, that is. This will be the final test. If the job goes as planned, you’re in.”

Crystal let the words sink in with an other drink.

Angela gave it a full minute. Then, on cue, “You in?”

Crystal didn’t want to make the decision in haste, but wasn’t sure she couldn’t. She guessed her answer would’ve proven the same regardless. If the options were repaying Angela or returning to stinking like a corpse, she’d attempt repayment every time. With that in mind, she nodded.

“I’m in.”

Angela’s eyes narrowed. “Then we’ll begin planning the job.”

The next hour was an exercise in focused listening. Every detail Angela gave was as important as the last. Every sentence was dense, packed full of information to warn, plan, or instruct. Not a single word was wasted. Before Crystal realized it, she and Angela were standing beside the BMW bike, fitting finger-less gloves. They were like digital-age warriors; clad in all black, beanie-caps, and loaded with guns, tools, and an empty pack for loot.

Crystal was floored. Yet beneath it all, her stomach churned inexplicably. She wasn’t sure why, the plan was simple: Await the delivery vehicle. Sneak inside to it. Grab the target. Run. The devil was in the details, but no matter what she examined, she found her fears rooted elsewhere. Even her minor fear of choking under pressure wasn’t the origin. Angela’s faith in her, she knew, would override that. Eventually she was left with no choice but to focus on the job and hope it worked itself out.

Angela stepped over with a small tin of make-up, began smearing her face. “All cameras have facial-recog software linked to central crime databases. If you’re spotted without this, they’ll peg you before you realize they’re there. It’s one of the most important tools we use. Never leave home without it.”

Angela stuffed the tin in a pocket of Crystal’s vest, then produced another to coat her own face. Metal flakes and gray, thermal paint made for a glittering, tight mask that smothered the skin. It was a small price to pay to keep them safe against the inevitable lawmen looking to stake claims. Crystal knew next to nothing about tech, but figured the metal flakes somehow confused the software. How, she couldn’t say, but all she cared to know was where Angela needed her.

Gear secured, they saddled up the bike. The engine ignited its high-performance growl, then bellowed a roar into the elevator. At street level, the roar repeated, echoing into the freshly risen night until it reached top-speed. Crystal’s HUD activated: Temperature and barometric readings appeared immediately, various metrics and calculations beneath them fading in and out as the bike angled around corners.

They glode along straights at top-speed. Ramshackle harbor-buildings turned to rundown ghettos. Vagrants and usual passersby whizzed past with futile readings. The ghettos turned middle-class– or as much as was left in their brave, new world. In truth, they galloped through what remained of the middle-class; slum-lord ghettos whose only difference from the lower ones were fresher coats of paint. Then, the upscale, downtown buildings began to appear.

The glitz and glamour of a cocaine-nightlife surged around them. Sharks and prey of all types emerged from the crevices to take it all in. Drunk couples walked hand-in-hand. Lower-upper class groups queued for list-only bars and restaurants while the A-listers entered from Limos at the back. The homeless and poor pan-handled, or hid or ran from men in blue armor. The city was a surging, roiling organism awash in colorful light and a parasite called humanity that the bike passed as if an impulse along the nerves of its streets.

The further they traveled, the more sparse the land became. It turned from the ass-shaking gold and silver of downtown to the tea and crumpets of old money-uptown. Pristinely groomed foliage and parks cut swaths between lavish, high-rise apartments or gated communities. Verdant hues dominated bright-white flood-lights and neutral, newer-than-most skyscrapers with out-of-season beauty. There was no denying “uptown” varied wildly from its lower counterpart. Of course, that meant infinitely more to the two thieves sizing up a mark than anyone.

Angela leaned them onto a long, four-lane avenue, aimed for a central area of grounds. They twisted, turned. If Crystal knew anything about the city she’d inhabited her whole life, it was that this was the height of its cultural contribution. The raving, boozing downtown district may have been what made the news, but Museum Mile made the society pages. In the end, those were the ones counted.

The grounds were immaculate, assaulting to the senses. That was the point. Dirt and asphalt didn’t exist here. Everyone from the Groundskeeper to the Grand Curator worked to ensure the little bit that did was forgotten. The Mile was different from anywhere else in the city– even the world. The colossal museums looked as if some Roman architect had been sucked through time to design the largest, most luxurious forums ever seen.

The largest of the museums was no different; all domes, hard angles, filigrees and columnar supports. The place was cast in tastefully opposing shades of beige, white, and gray. Sculptures of Gods and Goddesses lined the apexes and column-bases, outlined the front and sides of the museum. Various depictions of rituals, historical events, or people, lined the filigrees in between. Truly, the place was a wonder of human engineering and ego.

And they were about to rip it off.

Angela killed the bike’s headlight and Crystal’s night-vision software engaged. Her HUD dialed up its contrast, lightening the area so she might focus on the task at-hand. They went quiet, as they sailed along a side-road for a Museum’s rear-lot. They passed wide around a fenced, compound of loading bays. A guard-house cast an imposing silhouette in the darkness near the gate, but was far enough that they’d passed unheard and unseen.

The bike banked around like a fighter-jet to come about. It cut through the parking lot behind the compound and came to a rest somewhere in the middle. The two women climbed off to watch the for the truck’s arrival and confirm its markings. This was the easy part. The next, entering the compound to nab the target, wasn’t. Angela had hinted it might be as simple as scaling the fence, but Crystal doubted as much. Only time would only tell.

They left the bike, sneaked to the half cement, half chain-link fence encircling the compound. They kept their gravity centered near their knees, and crept along to the far, left side for an ideal vantage point. The guard-house remained far enough to keep from being spotted, yet was close enough to watch the guard, the gate beside well in view, too.

“There’s only one delivery tonight.” Angela said, sweeping the compound with binoculars. “One truck. Driver and loader. Two people. Two guards near the door. Cameras. A guard in the shack.”

She handed the binoculars to Crystal, whom confirmed her assessment: A pair of uniformed security-guards stood outside the personnel door at the furthest loading bay. Cameras were stationed along the building’s corners, near the rolling doors, and through-out the lot on light-poles to capture roughly the entirety of the inner-compound.

Crystal couldn’t help but notice the coverage, “How do you plan to get past the cameras?”

“Stay covered ’til we’re ready to move. Once anyone knows we were here, we’ll be long gone.”

Crystal chewed her tongue, “Not much room for error.”

“Think on your feet. It’s what I trained you for.”

A truck lumbered up to the gate. Crystal handed the binoculars back. “Mark’s arrived.”

Angela watched the truck stop and the gate creep open. The truck rolled in. “Payday’s a– Shit!

A sedan rolled in behind the truck, followed it through the lot with a wide berth to allow it to back up against a loading bay.

“Curie, you hag, you fucked us!”

Crystal’s adrenaline flowed. “What is it?”

Angela handed over the binoculars, “Security escort. Not unheard of, but not on the roster. The artifacts are private property. It’s the only reason they’d be here.”

Crystal watched the delivery truck settle into place. Its two occupants climbed out. Ahead of them, the Sedan’s four doors opened. Four, large men in suits climbed out. From her HUD, Crystal knew they were packing heat. They walked with excess weight to their hips, confirming as much. Her stomach bubbled and churned again: things were about to go completely sideways.

“Maybe it’s not our night,” Crystal whispered.

“No.” Angela dug in a vest-pocket for disassembled bolt-cutters and a cell-phone. She assembled the cutters, handed them over. “We’ve committed. We’ve got a client waiting. Stop now and we might as well write off our reputation– my reputation. Start cutting.”

Crystal took the cutters, hands near trembling. A breath forced adrenaline through them, and she began snipping apart the fence. Angela rolled it back in a large section, ushered her through, then followed her in. They skirted the edge of the lights, careful of the roving cameras. Light-yellow cones showed the camera angles on their HUDs– another useful tool of the trade Crystal was grateful for.

Angela stopped her mid-way through the lot. “There.”

Two, roving cones intersected periodically, a blind spot forming behind one as they did. The only problem was the glaring light all around it from above.

“We need to ensure no-one sees you.”

Crystal was exasperated. “Why me?”

“Because I have to draw them away,” she said, thumbing her phone.

In the distance, the bike started. Its engine revved. The faint silhouette of the performance-tuned bike raced for the gate. It angled around, stopped in front of it.

“Get ready,” Angela instructed. “One chance; get to the light. On my say, go for the truck.”

Crystal swallowed hard. Bile surged upward. Adrenaline flowed, knocked it down. The bike’s head-light flared on. It’s back tire began spinning. Burning rubber screamed with stinking, white smoke. The guard-house lit up and someone appeared at its side. Crystal was ready. Angela watched the guards near the truck halt mid-step, then turn to gawk.

“Go!”

Crystal bolted. The vision cones hit their first apex, began to swivel back. She dodged others, slipping in and out of shadows at the raised cement-bases of light-poles. The cones began to meet. The group near the truck headed for the smoking bike, weapons-out. One stayed behind, urging the driver and his comrade inside as he took a post at the truck’s rear.

Crystal ducked behind the target pole, glaring light all around her. All anyone needed was to look in her direction. She was literal deer in the headlights; eyes plastered wide, body frozen in terror.

All eyes were trained on the bike. The group approached the gate, guns drawn. The screeching tire went silent, and the light shut off. Smoke curled and wafted through the newly dead night, drifting away on a breeze to reveal the bike’s riderless form.

Angela’s voice piped in over Crystal’s comm-implant, “On three, make for the truck’s far-side. Don’t stop. Get inside it. I’ll handle the last guard.”

Her three count lasted an eternity. Time passed in flashes. Crystal found herself sprinting for the truck’s side. The bike’s headlight flared, strobed, incapacitating the group. Security was down, writhing, shouting in pain for help. The guard at the truck sprinted for his comrades. Crystal slipped behind the truck. The man stopped midway between the group and the truck to see the men shaking off the sudden attack. They groaned, rolled, rose to their feet one-by-one. The bike gave a pair of meeps and tore off into the night.

Crystal’s hands worked triple time, picking the truck’s padlock. Moments later she was in. She shut the door, found herself at the rear of a truck-full of crates, each stenciled with black painted lot-numbers.

“I’m in,” Crystal radioed.

“Lot 1-6-9-1.”

Crystal’s HUD flickered with an indicator, automatically searching as she skimmed the tight quarters. It located the lot number at an angle, highlighted it near the front of the truck. Crystal side-stepped, squeezed between two rows of larger crates, and centered herself before it. She fought for a grip on the crate, found it wedged in place.

“It’s stuck.”

Angela was running, panting, “Crack the box. We only need the contents. Terra Cotta warrior. Sixteen inches.”

Crystal fished out a few, small tools, jammed a mini pry-bar between the edges of the crates lid, and heaved her weight against it. Wood snapped. Metal groaned. Then, the slight cascade of packing materials and confetti-like paper spilled atop Crystal’s feet. She dug, felt her fingers clutch cool ceramic, and rejoiced internally. She yanked the artifact out, and stuffed it in her pack.

“I’ve got it,” Crystal said, edging toward the door. “Is it clear?”

No response.

Crystal hesitated, “Angela?” Her heart doubled its rhythm. “Angela?” She glanced around hopelessly. “Shit!”

With a deep breath, she pushed a door open and peered out to the right: where the guards should have been was nothing. She swallowed terror, crouched, and climbed out as quietly as possible. She rounded the rear of the truck, set her HUD to search for Angela. Nothing.

She hesitated to survey the lot; guards were still searching for the bike. The group roamed like ants swarming an insect carcass at the gate. Vision cones of the blind spot oscillated, beckoning her forward. She readied in a crouch to sprint. A loud click sounded behind her.

“On your knees, hands behind your head.” Crystal clenched her eyes shut. The voice repeated itself. “I will shoot you. Do it now!”

Crystal was torn. Where the hell was Angela? Why was this happening? Why was she even here? What was she going to do now?

“On your knees!

Crystal winced, chest deflating. She sank to one knee, then the next, “Don’t shoot. Alright? I’ll do what you say.”

“God damn right you will,” the man said, advancing toward her. “On your stomach. Flat. Arms out.” Crystal did. The man jerked the artifact from her pack. “Look what we have here. Guess it’s not your day. Get up. Hands up. Don’t even think about going for those pieces.” Crystal sighed, rose back to her knees then to her feet. “Good. Face me.”

Crystal turned in time to see Angela appear behind him. The next moments progressed in slow motion; Steel flashed. Disappeared. Crimson spilled, spurted. His jugular was pierced. He dropped the artifact, head forced against the truck’s rear-edge. It caved in with a bloody crunch. Angela was fast on the catch; the artifact was in her hand. He fell to a heap, gun firing randomly from a spasm.

Time resumed its pace.

Shit!”

Crystal was still frozen. Men rushing toward them were muffled by Angela tackling her into cover. The bike’s engine revved up again, was beside them seconds later. Crystal was still frozen, her eyes traumatized, stuck on the body. Angela jerked her toward the bike. Her legs worked autonomously to put it under her. More flashes. Moments formed vague pictures. They burned a trail toward the gate, gunfire aimed for them. Sparked colored the road, the bike’s extreme edges. Angela kept accelerating, weaving this way and that until they rocketed through the gate with a wide turn.

Muzzle flashes followed them down the Mile, but the bike soon left it behind. Crystal’s mind remained there, caught in the man’s lifeless eyes.

The Collective: Part 8

8.

Heist

Lex stamped a boot on a rear bench-seat of a cargo van. Her body seemed gyroscopically stable against the Alps’ rough roads. She tightened her laces while Rachel jostled absently beside her. Her eyes had been empty since they’d left Japan. Full-days of boat and car-rides had gotten them across the Asian continent and upward into central Europe, but in all that time, neither she nor Lex had said much. They merely ate, stopped occasionally to rest, resupply, or sleep.

Now the journey was almost over. After they took the vault, they would rocket back to Japan, finish what had been started. The way forward however, would be no easy task.

The Collective housed their vault in the basement of a castle once belonging to a Swiss Baron– a literal dungeon dated to the late fourteenth century. The Baron had been murdered in his sleep by Hitler’s Schutzstaffel while his other forces made their French push. The insurgency however, was thwarted by the Baron’s security forces before it could become a full-blown Casus Belli and drag the country into war. Switzerland remained neutral but the castle changed hands more times than Lex cared to count– all of them greased by dirty money.

She sank beside Rachel whom hunched over in her coat against cold that leaked in. The engine and transmission strained beneath them, urged onward by a heavy foot. Yang-Lee’s scarred face peered back from the passenger-seat, “We’re close.”

Lex readied herself at the rear-doors, “Pull off the road. We’ll walk from here.”

Minutes later Lex and her team, Rachel included, began to hike the final, long twist of road that led to the castle. They emerged on the far-side of a wide curve. Mountains loomed with an ubiquitous boldness to their right and in the background, but the spectacle ahead was curiously level given its craggy surroundings. Jagged, tooth-like ramparts and walls formed a wide barrier between a courtyard and the road with turrets every hundred meters. Gray and white patchwork prevailed through-out the weathered stone-walls. Off-center, but even with the road, stood the gate in all its impenetrable stubbornness.

A man with a rifle patrolled along the wall, security lighter here than it would be inside. The place would be filled with armed GSS Emergency Response Squads– the most elite of the elite not deployed to external security teams. They would bleed all the same.

“Kaz,” Lex said to the Japanese woman. “Go.”

She needed no further instruction. The man had yet to spot them, his mind fatigued to complacency by boredom. Kaz was behind him in a flash, her feet silent. The only sound was that of the blade as it pierced his back, cracked his sternum, and emerged from his chest. He fell face-first into the snow, dead and bleeding.

Lex and Yang-Lee were at Kaz’s side as she stooped to rifle through his pockets. Rachel and Ryo approached, their heads swiveling. The former was more paranoid than the strategic latter. Kaz rose, a key-card and radio in-hand, passed them to Lex. She stuck the radio’s ear-piece in to monitor the GSS frequency, moved them up to an arched, wooden door in the wall beside the massive gate.

The key-card touched a panel beside the door, scanned a magnetic stripe. The door eased open on a small, quiet hydraulic. Lex stepped in, nearly blind from the relative darkness.

She kept her senses honed, whispered at the others, “The rampart will lead into a tunnel. From there, we follow passages to the vault. Stay sharp.”

Rachel was silent, unsure why she was even there. Though Lex assured her she would be safe, there were more than a few doubts to her sincerity. More than likely, she would be looked to for any unforeseen developments that might arise. The only explanation Rachel could surmise verged on wafer-thin; she might know how the Collective think.

Whatever the real reason for her presence, she kept dead-center in the line of bodies that stalked the shadows beneath the ramparts. Centuries ago, this place would have been filled with the stinking bodies of medieval soldiers ready to fight and die for their home or Monarch. Now, it was desolate, empty. Its wide, arched passageways were more a curious, historical oddity than anything. Most certainly they were no longer necessary as secondary pathways to the turrets above.

They managed to find the cross-chamber that led to the vault unimpeded. The retro-fits became more obvious as the group dodged the sweeping gazes of security cameras. Old, crumbled stone transformed to restored brick work, finally morphed into steel plating that covered the walls, ceiling, and floor, reinforced them against whatever intrusion had been thought of. Evidently the Collective didn’t expect anyone walk through the side door, much less with minimal force.

They found another, circular cross-chamber with a pillar in its center. It led around to three, other pathways. From the database Andersson had given her, Lex knew two passages led to the upper-levels and the castle’s Great Hall. The third then, led to the vault and the first of its security measures. Casual footsteps echoed over the sound of voices. Lex and the others hurried to back up, out of sight.

A German voice spoke patchwork English, “Herr Steinsson hat arrived.”

“Yeh?” An Irish man’s accent asked. “What’s ‘e want?”

Der Kommandant sagt es ist about die monthly inspektion,” the German replied.

The Irish man said something as his voice curved around the inner-portion of the cross-chamber. It began to fade away, trail off down the second passage that led to the upper-levels. Lex stealthed forward, double-checked the chamber, then urged the others back into place.

The first of the security measures began just inside the passage to the vault. It wasn’t immediately obvious, and in fact, Lex wouldn’t have known were it not for Andersson’s intel. The steel-plated floor was randomly pressure-sensitive with no external indication of triggers; a singular height and shined to a high-gloss.

Thankfully, “random” actually meant patterned in a non-obvious way. Much like a musical phrase, there were obvious repetitions with only mild variation, then wild variations on either end of the phrases that led into one another. Together, they formed a mental picture in Lex’s mind that would zig-zag her across the floor-tiles.

“Step where I step and nowhere else,” Lex said quietly.

She planted her foot on the first plate, reassured herself by putting her other down and standing still for a moment. She admitted a small relief to herself, then closed her eyes to envision the layout. Left two, up one, right one, up two, left two, up two, right two. She stepped through the first series of tiles. The others followed carefully. Their eyes darted between their own feet and those of the person ahead. Each step was a vise around their hearts that tightened the further they progressed.

At the right, ninety-degree angle the hall formed, Lex stopped, stared ahead. She knew what lay unseen, between her and the massive, three foot-thick, circular-door. She also knew what would happen if she blundered forward; the castle would go on lock-down. The vault’s entry systems would be isolated, locked out of the castle’s security network until remotely reconnected. Meanwhile all GSS assets in-country would be diverted to neutralize the threat while panels in the ceiling opened, emitted hydroflouric acid and methoxyflurane gas. In other words, they’d be awake just long enough to go into shock, then die from cardiac arrest while unconscious– or else live disfigured the rest of their lives in prison.

Lex breathed, prepared. She pulled a small, cylindrical emitter from a pocket, the size of a D-Cell battery, but black with a hard shell. Its bottom-half twisted to engage it. Then, with another, careful motion, Lex followed the zig-zag of free-plates to the center of an invisible laser emitter. She stooped down, placed another cylindrical-device that misted the air every few seconds.

Rachel watched faint outlines of red-lasers bowed upward above Lex. The others engaged their countermeasures, followed after her. The mist caught the edges of the next set of emitted lasers. They bowed upward, reshaped by the static-discharger in Lex’s hand as she approached. Rachel held her discharger, heart in her throat as they made a start-stop progression while Lex placed the misting canisters. At the line’s rear, Ryo retrieved each one, then proceeded forward. As the last of the mist settled and Ryo moved from range, the lasers relaxed, ensured the group they would be forced to leave as they’d entered.

Lex’s goal was within reach now. No-one would stop her– not even the men in the security room that monitored the vault from the cameras at either side of it. With a final, calculated step, she passed from the mine-field of pressure plates and onto a wide, singular section of floor before the vault door. It spanned at least as much of the door’s sweeping gait, more even, it seemed.

The others followed, disengaged their countermeasures. Kaz and Yang-Lee split for the cameras, cut open their insulated wires to splice small, box-like devices to them that magnetically latched to the cameras’ bodies. They backed away from their respective cameras; Yang-Lee stood sentinel at the edge of the lone plate, faced the way they’d come.

Kaz returned to Lex’s side, “We’re ready.”

Lex nodded, “Ryo?”

He stepped past for a large panel beside the door. A hand-print scanner was housed in a touch screen below a retinal scanner and voice-print lock. In addition, numbered keys said a code was necessary to breach the state of the art security. Ryo had none of those things. Instead, he produced slam-bore from his pack, punched through the panel’s half-dozen screws, then pried it from the wall. The panel came loose, caught by Kaz’s hands. It jostled as he fished through the wires, spliced them to a bundle of cable connected to a hand-held tablet computer.

A full minute later hydraulics hissed over a series of loud clicks. Giant, steel bolts grated metal on metal as they slid back, in. The group stepped aside for the vault door to ease open, reveal its innards and their bounty. They stood in awe for a moment– even Rachel’s eyes gleamed dully at the hundreds of tons of gold and platinum bullion. A smug, knowing smile crept across Lex’s face.

This was the bulk of the world’s economy. It made Fort Knox look like chump-change. Despite the comparatively small vault, the bullion here was two and three times as valuable as Knox in its heyday. What was more, it was the Collective’s only physical measure of wealth. Long before the Sleep paper money had become useless, but even digital currency required physical assets to remain fiscally solvent, its value relative to what backed it. With a well-placed explosive, Lex planned to destroy– or at least nullify– the Collective’s stock-piled wealth.

“Take only what you can without being weighed down,” Lex said as she entered the vault. “Don’t get greedy.”

They entered the marble-floored vault. Lock-boxes formed mausoleum-like walls around the massive carts of gold and platinum. Kaz and Yang-Lee went to work to hack more cameras in the room’s corners then joined in ransacking the carts. They filled canvas packs with as much metal as they could carry.

Lex took a wide path around the vault, set small, thermos-like devices in its corners: they could never destroy the vault, or indeed even the metal in it. What they could do was turn the room into a super-powerful magnet so strong it– and everything inside it– would deform. The devices would create a singularity of unrivaled proportions by building to critical mass. The vault would contract, re-fuse until no larger than an SUV. The molten ball formed wouldn’t cool for weeks, months even. The repository would be eradicated in one, fell-swoop, its value gone.

The group procured their metal, then readied to make the trek back. The vault door swung shut as the super-magnets’ timers engaged. In a little less than five minutes, they would activate, begin to build up their polar charges, and the chaos would begin. Lex moved quickly back across the safe plates, through the lasers, and into the central passageway.

The timer was already down four-minutes when they reached the pillared cross-chamber. Lex shoved her bag of bullion into Rachel’s hands, “Go with them, I’ll meet you in Tokyo.”

Rachel was suddenly irate, “What? Are you crazy? Where are you going?”

“Steinsson is here,” Lex replied with a knowing look to the others. “Viktor Steinsson is a member of the Collective. He can not be allowed to live.”

“Forty-five seconds,” Kaz said with a look to her watch.

Rachel argued over her, “You’re crazy, Lex, you can’t–”

“Get out!” Lex ordered with a caustic hush.

“Come on,” Ryo said, pulling Rachel along.

Rachel watched Lex as the seconds ticked down. She suddenly drew her blades, disappeared around the pillar. Rachel swallowed acid; as much as she’d been against Lex, she was the closest thing left to a friend. Between what the Collective would do, and her weariness at the others like Lex, she didn’t want to be without even the minor rapport they’d built.

Rachel’s safety was admittedly nearer in Lex’s mind than her own as she sprinted through the maze of main-passageways that curved around, back, straightened out, and widened again. Her blades gleamed while her feet beat a gallop along plated floors toward a pair of men. They turned in time to be cut down, cast aside from the passage’s center. Lex followed through without a missed beat. Her blades dripped trails along the zig-zag of stairs that led up to the Great Hall.

She exploded onto the marble floors just as alarms screamed through the castle. The magneto-bomb had been detected. In moments it would reach critical mass, destroy the world’s last repository of hard currency. Nothing could stop that now, but Lex wouldn’t have let it anyhow.

Orders were shouted all around the Hall, echoed through its expanse over boots that marched down toward the vault. Lex saw the castle’s blue-prints in her mind, knew Steinsson would be in the security room just off the right side of the hall. Her feet danced poly-rhythms near a door over a melody of steel cutting skin. She severed the jugulars of a pair of guards there. More began to appear, their attention directed elsewhere form the chaos downstairs.

She shoved her way through a heavy, wooden door. The narrow hall beyond was long, filled with doorways of various non-importance. Her goal lay dead ahead, behind an open doorway with bodies that moved every which way around chromed-out tech.

She made the door in a few steps, bolted inside with a flurry of movement. She whirled round, blades cutting. The commotion inside barely registered the deaths of three security techs. Steinsson turned, the glaring eyes accented the white of his thinning hair. His recessed hair-line made jagged points of already-angled features.

Lex’s blades thrust and sliced, incised and slit their way across the room. Her body followed, the entities inseparable in their blurred motions. Before Viktor could react, Lex’s brought the katanas’ hilts together in a deep lunge. The blades sank into him, pierced clean-through with a splatter of blood that painted an abstract on the wall and tech behind him. The blades slid out in time to spin, catch two GSS guards on either side beneath their helmets.

Blood spilled from freshly cut throats as she came about, blades in their downward-point. Three GSS officers stood across the room with raised rifles. They shouted commands in various languages over the wail of klaxons. She refused to flinch. A man fingered his trigger.

A burst of fire riddled his body from the doorway. A second cut down the man beside him. The third turned as Lex’s right-hand blade sailed through the air, into his chest at an angle. A third burst cut him down simultaneously. He fell, dead. The smoke of the gunfire cleared in time for Lex to catch Rachel in the doorway.

For a moment both women were too shocked to move. Lex shook it off first, sprinted forward, retrieved her blade then made for the door. She drug Rachel with by the shoulder until she regained her wits.

“I wasn’t going to come back for you,” Rachel panted, in-step with Lex.

“Not now,” Lex said as they entered the Great Hall for the castle’s main door.

Sunlight beckoned them forward from the open doors, kissed them with its frosty presence. The courtyard was empty. Distant metal grated, ground as something behind them exploded. Neither woman paused to look back. Instead, they rushed for a door in the wall they’d entered through, took the rampart’s interior in a few steps, then shoved their way back into the day-light.

Their chests heaved, feet slipped on icy snow, caught traction on the road. Limbs pumped with aching muscles to launch them down the mountain, around the winding corner toward the awaiting van. Kaz had already angled it around, the back-doors open and the engine running.

Lex shoved Rachel inside as she climbed in, “Go! Go!”

The van started into a gallop, assisted by the road’s steep grade. The rear-doors slammed shut as Lex and Rachel pushed themselves up from the floor, fought opposing gravity to re-take their seats over a wheel.

Rachel swallowed hard with a look to Lex beside her, “We… actually made it.”

Lex gave a long sigh to recompose herself, “Yeah. We did.” She glanced at Ryo across from her, “The metal?”

He looked sideways at the pile of bags that clanked and clanged from the road’s twists and turns. Lex threw her head back, relieved, and leaned against the van’s wall. Her head rolled along her neck to meet Rachel’s eyes.

“Thank you.”

Rachel winced, grimaced. Then, with a small nod she replied, “You’re welcome.”

Missed Part 7? Read it here!