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.

Short Story: Fabulous Honeymoon

The expedition of Vladimir Von Kaufer had been planned for months. It was widely known in Vladimir’s Hungarian hometown– a place notorious for spreading small news in big ways. The little village, as it was more apt to call it, consisted of about thirty homes. Each of them was situated in two circles of fifteen that expanded outward from the town-square in its center. The square, in turn, was a circle of a dozen buildings of varying sizes and uses.

The aforementioned represented the entirety of the village. It had a most peculiar name that, though known to residents, rolled so harshly off the tongue they merely called it “The Village” or “Home.” When abroad, and asked where the residents came from, most merely answered “Hungary.” Others parroted “the country,” as if their rural dwelling were the only in existence. For many of them, it might well have been.

The Village was such a melding of old-time living with new-world ways that on first glance, one would be forgiven for thinking it a town of Luddites. Anyone venturing in to visit its shops, or pass by at night would quickly recognize their error. Though the people kept the quaint, homely appearance for their own pleasure, it was as much civilized as any other place. Indeed, in some ways, more-so.

Thus, Von Kaufer’s expedition was bound to attract some measure of renown as soon as it escaped his lips. He made preparations for days, planning the best route to and through the cavern he would traverse. He hired on neighbors and friends to follow him in, promised a share of credit and loot if found.

Legend had it that long ago a gypsy caravan had run off with an entire estate after its owners had disappeared. Before the estate of the wealthy couple could be auctioned off, or passed to kin, the gypsies had raided it. So the legend went that all they left behind were the brick-walls and cobwebs. The caravan fled authorities, fearing discovery, and hid their boon for later recovery in the cavern.

It was said however, that the gypsy caravan had never been able to return. Over a decade, all manner of ills befell them until only one family-member remained. The old man, even more ancient than he’d been when liberating the possessions, could find no-one to follow him. He was said to have died a vagrant’s death steps from the mouth of the cavern where his boon lay hidden. The unmarked grave in The Village’s churchyard lent credence to at least some of these facts.

It was with this in mind that Vladimir Von Kaufer set about his planning. The cave had claimed many through its treacherous obstacles. No matter how far similar expeditions had made it inside, the cavern’s end seemed ever beyond reach. Some expeditions, ill-provisioned for the trek, had even returned unharmed and utterly dismayed. Most of their leaders lived in despair of their failure afterward. With their places as laughing-stock in folk-lore, they could never again convince others to follow them to that grisly place.

Von Kaufer however, had the upstanding confidence of all the Village’s people. As soon as the utterance came from his lips, men and women lined up to follow. It was as if his very reputation guaranteed he not return empty-handed. His own determination ensured it.

A week before the expedition was set to begin however, Vladimir fell ill. He was deathly pale, his hands cold and clammy, and his eyes sunken. He looked as though he had lost all the blood from his body. Indeed, his doctors concluded an anemic attack of unknown cause had thinned his blood to dangerous levels. That whole week passed with him in varying states of decay.

Then, for two whole days, Vladimir teetered on the brink of death. With him, the Village held their breath in hopes of his recovery so that he might complete his expedition. It would undoubtedly be the ultimate triumph, especially after so deathly an illness.

He rose from his bed on the second night, once more strong and colorful. Though the coldness of his skin had yet to abate, he assured everyone he would continue the expedition at once. Having already been past schedule by two days, he rounded up his team from their nearby homes, and set forth at-once for the cavern.

He rallied them at the mouth of the cavern before dawn, and plunged for its depths. Aided by head lamps, climbing ropes, harnesses and other miscellanea, they descended with their own weight in rations and water. Vladimir was certain they could not turn back lest they fail and never return. Each person in their own right agreed and loaded themselves amply.

For the first day, there was nothing ominous. They crossed chasms and scaled precipices in single file. When it came time to rest, it was past noon on the surface. The mile of rock between them and the sun cast them in darkness all the same.

The group collectively set down to eat and sleep, doing both with vigor. They awoke hours later with to find their number one less than they’d been before. Vladimir was disappointed. The man must have left, gone in the night so as to not be deterred by his leader or companions. The leader himself seemed to pity him, but rallied the group again and set forth.

Again, more climbing of plateaus, reverse-scaling of precipices and crossing of chasms all with a downward attitude. They neared the furthest point ever traversed, the cavern’s sometimes jagged, claustrophobic passages confirmed the fact. After one, particularly harrowing passage, the cavern opened up, and they took rest for the night.

Nine became seven. Two more had left. A man and a woman. They had previously been enamored with one another, smitten to the point that they must have convinced one another to flee. Nonetheless, the expedition would continue, the shares more robustly divided.

Vladimir led them forward at once, passed scattered skeletons from a lost expedition. The dusty bones and tattered rags of clothing from a past age infected the air with a lingering dread. It lasted until they bedded down again several hours later.

Again they awoke to fewer numbers. Seven became four. Vladimir seemed to halfheartedly dismiss the attitudes of the departed compatriots. All the same, they searched about, finding but one small trace of blood. A drip, only partially dried to brown, was muddled by the dust and dirt-laced floor.

A shudder went among the remaining expedition. Vladimir himself seemed unaffected. Perhaps it was by his cunning or confidence that he inspected the area. He felt around with his finger-less-gloved hands on the walls. Near the drip on a wall he found yet another fleck, evidently at hand height. It seemed someone had leaned against the rather sharp bit of rock too hard before fleeing.

No matter, Vladimir told the others, it was as rational an explanation as any. The other three, remaining comrades felt that so-present dread. Still they packed their sleeping equipment, and ventured forth, led as always by Von Kaufer’s vigor and tenacity.

It was during one of their short breaks that another comrade seemed to make off for nowhere. She had left her pack near the others and gone off to relieve herself. Much like Von Kaufer, she’d isolated herself for a moment, but unlike him, she never returned.

Vladimir spirits finally felt the blow. He had but two comrades left; one male and one female, whom both seemed as determined as he to go forward. Again they started forth, that awful dread afflicting even Vladimir’s seemingly unassailable vitality. When at last they bedded down for the night, Vladimir sank into a kind of depression. Even if by some means the treasure existed, he’d never offset the cost of the expedition by retrieving only one-fifth of the share. That was to say nothing of the lost hope of becoming wealthier off it.

He lie down to rest only to awake and find the last man gone. He, alone with the woman, would continue forward. There was equally as much dread between them now. Some phantom force, it felt, had cursed their expedition and would forever hound them. Still they climbed, descended, leapt and crawled. They knew not when the end of the cavern might come, but forewent sleep to ensure they see it as soon as possible.

It was nearly forty-eight hours after that last man had left Vladimir and the woman alone that they descended into a pit. From the wall they’d started down, they trudged forward. Their limbs and eyes were heavy, but their eyes wide, alert, peeled for anything signaling their boon.

Their headlamps swept the ceiling and walls for ways out of the pit. They found none. It was then that their lights flitted along the floors. Gold sparkles froze them. Their minds were stuck, stunned by what lay before them.

The far-wall was piled with gold and silver. Rubies and Sapphires gleamed in golden cups. Emeralds shined from inlaid fittings in silver cutlery and other tableware. Mounds of coins of gold, silver, even bronze, were scattered in a marvelous painting of riches. Priceless artworks in dusty, wooden frames seemed untouched by the ages. With them were equally earthen-hued trunks and cases which later revealed infinitely more jewelry.

Von Kaufer and the woman, Anika, embraced in excitement and triumph. They even kissed deeply, as though possessed by animal carnation at their success. It was then that Vladimir parted from Anika and stepped back a few paces.

“I must confess,” he said formally. “Five of those eight whom fled are not in the Village.”

Anika’s brow furrowed. She looked about to question him. His face flashed. All of his features became squared and pointed, including his carnivorous teeth. His eyes glowed yellow with fearsome slits and his back became arched as if poised to pounce. He expected Anika to recoil in terror.

Instead, she laughed heartily, “Three of those eight too, are neither home nor yet live.”

Her face took on a similar disposition. Anika’s blue eyes turned ice-cold white. Her back arched too, and her arms and legs became sinuous, her teeth long.

Vladimir laughed too. Their faces reverted, he stepped over and placed a hand in the small of her back, directing her to stand beside him as if his bride. They stared at the pile of riches together, chuckling for a long while.

There and then, Vladimir looked into Anika’s eyes and smiled, “We shall return to the village with as much as we can carry, then come back for the rest, no matter how many trips it takes.”

Anika flashed a deranged, predatory smile, “Then we will take the whole village, and add it to the pile in our home.”

Together they laughed with malice. They parted to begin stuffing their pockets. Vladimir had to admit it wasn’t what he’d expected, but it certainly wasn’t for the worse. His homecoming would only be but an extension of his good fortune. Together, he and Anika would reign, King and Queen, over the Village, as it drowned in blood.

She caught his eye over a mound of gold she sifted, “It will be a fabulous honeymoon.”