I was six when I first saw the Birth of Venus. In the years since, I’ve traveled across the globe in its wake, taking every chance to admire the brushwork, the colors, the beauty. I’d acquired artwork from across the world in those years, from Macao to Mozambique, but I always found my way back to the painting that had inspired me to begin with. Now, with a tapestry of stars twinkling overhead, I checked my watch and finally prepared to steal it.
The plan had taken weeks to orchestrate. There were more layers than I could remember and, knowing Asher, probably more moving parts that he’d never bothered to tell me about. I wasn’t worried. In nearly two decades, Asher remained the single best mastermind I’d ever worked with, bar none.
A breeze kicked up and I reached up to my neck without thinking. One finger brushed against my left ear. I felt the lack of an earbud like a phantom limb, sighed, and amended my assessment; Asher was the best planner except, maybe, for her.
He stood next to me on the darkened street, blowing lazy smoke rings into the air. “Just like old times, Dev, isn’t it?” He asked, without looking at me. “London; that sheik in Abu Dhabi; hell, those weeks in China? The boys, back together at last.” Asher laughed. The sound was brittle in the dry air.
I checked my watch again. “If I remember correctly, none of those jobs went particularly well.”
He shrugged. “There’ll always be little surprises. That’s why I keep – why I kept – you around.”
That didn’t warrant a reply, and so I gave it none. Of course, he was right. In the years when our partnership had thrived, I served primarily as a problem solver. I lacked the foresight to create the elaborate flowcharts that Asher and she had been so fond of. What I lacked in organizational skills, I made up for with raw instinct and quick thinking. When things went wrong – and they inevitably went wrong – I could be trusted to steer the job back on track.
“You mean, that’s why I kept you around,” I said.
“Six of one,” Asher answered. He waggled a hand and, as he did so, revealed the handle of a Makarov pistol in a shoulder holster under his coat. I flinched away before I could help it.
I made a noncommittal noise, which Asher seemed to accept. “Tell me about these thugs you hired again.”
One of the “thugs,” a heavy-set bearded Ukranian, looked up at me from his position further down the street. He scowled as Asher laughed again. “What, this guy? He’s harmless.”
Another handgun was visible at the man’s waist. I gave it a pointed look. “You know what I mean.”
Asher’s smile dimmed for a moment; then, he shook his head and turned the brightness back up to full. “After our ‘assistants’ blow the grid, we’ll have twenty minutes before the back-up system comes online. Twenty-five minutes maybe, from start to finish, before the local law makes an appearance.”
“There’s only one guy on night shift. Samuel Trowel was scheduled to work. Ex-military, politically conservative. A very conscientious sort of guy. I arranged for him to have the night off. His replacement, a Pierre something, was much easier to buy off. He’ll find something very interesting to occupy his attention while we work.”
So far, so good. “And then?”
“One team hits the North side, takes any art the curator forgot to nail down. Me, you, and this chatty fellow go straight for the Botticelli exhibit. Might grab some other stuff on the way.” He flicked the stub of his cigarette off into the darkness. “Who knows?”
“What about our getaway?”
“Two cars, one at each entrance. We’ll take different paths through town until we lose the cops, ditch the cars, and call for pick-up. We’ve got drivers standing by far enough away that no one should connect the dots. Even if they do, it’s straight to the rendezvous point and then the airport. Two hours, max.” His eyes narrowed. “You’re awfully interested in the details, all of a sudden. Where’d this come from? Back in the day, you just assumed I knew what was going on.”
I thought about her again. “I got spoiled. I’ve got this thing now where I like knowing that something isn’t about to go sideways the second I stop looking. Besides, Ash, I’ve worked with you before. I’m pretty sure you’ve got pieces in play that you aren’t telling me about.”
Asher placed a finger to his temple. “That’s smart, but unfair. Things change, Dev. I’m not the same person I was…before.” My eyes traveled involuntarily to the pockmarked burn scars that wound around his exposed left arm.
“So you aren’t keeping anything from me? This is just a straight museum job?”
“You didn’t used to be so paranoid. I swear, as soon as you started working with – “ Asher stopped, as both of our watches beeped in unison. “Pick this up later?”
I knew he’d dodged the question both times. I almost called him on it. The tinny alarm signaled game time, though, and I knew that I couldn’t afford to drive an even deeper wedge between the two of us. The mistakes of St. Petersburg were too fresh and raw. The last thing I wanted now was to form an impassable rift that might lead to a mistake. Instead, I tightened the straps on my pack. Asher did the same and started forward.
“Fine.” I fell in step. “But we’re not done. If we’re going to do this again, things have got to change.”
“Right, right.” He tilted his head so severely that I could hear the joints pop. “Soon as we finish up with this.”
The museum stood, two blocks away from us, squat and dark in the slumbering city. Our timeline required us to be close, but not so close that a camera might catch our faces. We’d chosen a local closed bakery as a starting point, after a few hours of deliberation. Asher and his silent foreign associate had availed themselves of the bakery’s goods while we waited. After they finished, I had peeled off two hundred Euro notes and left the money on the counter.
When we’d closed the distance to a single block, I checked my watch again. As if I’d cued the detonation with my thoughts, a rumble came from farther into the city. The street lights around the museum dimmed and switched off. I smiled to myself and pulled a flashlight from my pack. Asher already held his and we switched them at the same time. Our twin beams pierced into the gloom. “See?” He asked. I could see the fierce gleam of his own smile in the light. “Nothing to worry – “
A second, much larger explosion rattled the windows around us. The ground quaked beneath our feet. I managed to adjust my balance before I fell. A long trail of smoke twined into the night sky. “The hell was that?” I asked him.
“I don’t know!” He took a cell from his pocket and dialed a number. I could barely make out the sound of voices from the other end of the line, but the speaker was Russian and used his native language. Asher listened for a moment, said a short sentence in reply, and then hung up.
“So? What happened?”
“Anton,” Asher said, as though that one word was explanation enough. “He made a mistake. Too much C4 for what we needed. Caused a reaction and then…” He mimed an explosion with his hands.
I knew next to nothing about explosives, but I knew a great deal about Anton. “Anton doesn’t make mistakes,” I said.
“Then sabotage? Someone switched in a higher yield explosive when he wasn’t looking?”
That was possible. Unlikely, considering the fastidious nature of Anton’s personality, but he wasn’t infallible. “We should pull out and come back another night. The cops’ll mobilize in larger numbers to deal with the explosion and, you know, the possibility of a terrorist attack.”
Asher hesitated. “Or…”
“Or what? You don’t want to finish the job, do you?”
“Think about it.” He lowered his voice. I leaned in to catch his voice without thinking about it. “Sure, there’ll be more of the law around town, but they aren’t going to be looking for us. As far as they’re concerned, the explosion is the actual attack, not just a diversion. We can still get in and out before anyone realizes what’s happening over here.”
I thought that I could already hear sirens in the distance. The power station was located in a primarily industrial part of the city. It wasn’t close enough to the Eiffel Tower that the military would need to respond and it was far enough away from any major residential areas that the odds of any civilian casualties was vanishingly low. “This wasn’t part of your plan, was it?”
“No! You think I want more police attention in a city I’m trying to rob? I want the payout for this job, just as much as you do. What benefit would I get from putting the whole of Paris on high alert?”
“This is a bad idea,” I said. “Best move would be to regroup, figure out what happened with Anton’s gear, and try again another time.”
Asher scratched at his burn scars and met my eyes with his. “This is the last night of the Botticelli exhibit, Dev. If we don’t get it now, we’ll have to plan an entire new op for a different museum. Maybe one with security I can’t get around.” He hesitated for effect, before he dropped the hammer. “If she had organized this, you’d still go in.”
I scowled. His manipulation was blatant, but that didn’t make it any less effective. The thought of her had its desired effect. Something deep within me rebelled at the idea that I needed her plans to pull off a successful job. I felt heat rising into my cheeks. “I did jobs before I met her, and I can do jobs without her now.”
“So, you’re saying…?”
“Damn it, Ash.” I glared at him. A moment later, I started forward again, towards the museum.
The second, more powerful explosion killed all electricity around us for several blocks. The plan had involved turning the security system of the Museé off, so that wasn’t an issue. The double doors that led into the main building were secured now by only a single tumbler lock. It took me less than a minute to pick my way past that and then we were inside. Asher and his thug turned on flashlights of their own as went into the building. My beam of light fell on pottery, portraits, and sculptures from a dozen different artists.
Any other time, I would have considered each work of art for its relative value, asked myself if I was in contact with the appropriate fences to turn a profit, and then decided whether or not a little impulse theft was in order. Tonight, I was on a very specific mission, though. Asher had found an American buyer for the Botticelli and only the Botticelli. There wasn’t enough flexibility in the plan for any side trips.
When we reached another set of doors, leading into the more sensitive areas of the museum, I turned to Asher and held out an expectant hand. He dug into his pack until he found a keycard, which he held out for me to take. “Wasn’t easy to get that,” he said while I swiped the card into the reader. The red light turned green and I typed in a four digit code. “Had to find the guy who installed the damn thing and bribe him for a duplicate key.”
“Since when are bribes hard?”
“Well, they aren’t,” he said, “but when he decided to take the money without providing the goods, I had to get some of my men here to pay him a little visit.”
I stopped and turned. “You didn’t…?”
“Kill him?” Asher chuckled. “No, we didn’t have to. But he probably won’t be enjoying any long walks for the foreseeable future.”
He seemed genuinely amused at the idea. I could feel the horror on my own face. “That was just a regular guy, doing his job,” I said. “You couldn’t find another way?”
“Maybe. But that was easier.” His smile fell away in an instant. “You went soft, Dev. None of this used to bother you.”
His words hit a nerve. I grew older inside and the frost reached my voice. “That was then.” I turned away from him and waited until the door clicked open.
We encountered several more keycoded and passcarded doors as we went into the building. I put Asher and his sentiments out of my mind. It was easy as the job stretched out before me. I was in the zone, for the first time in a long time, and it felt good. My mind was clear of any lingering doubts, any fears or uncertainties. My thoughts were clear, ordered, and precise. I clicked through what I remembered of the building’s layout and navigated through the twists and turns without hesitation.
At some point along the way, I noticed peripherally that the Ukrainian had peeled off into another wing of the museum. “Where’d your friend go?”
“He’s checking in with the North team,” Asher said. “Figured that we should make sure nothing went wrong on their end. If someone sabotaged Anton’s equipment, then…”
“That wasn’t part of the plan.”
“Neither was the fireball tearing across Paris,” he countered. “But we make do with what we’re dealt.”
The two of us kept going. Seven minutes ticked away before we found ourselves in front of the Botticelli. I paused for a few seconds to admire the artwork. “Oh, there you are,” I whispered. “And aren’t you just a beauty.”
I knelt and searched through my pack. When I found the long, nondescript cylinder, I pulled it free, opened it, and unraveled its contents. Moving carefully, it took me two minutes before a nearly perfect reproduction of the Birth of Venus stretched out on the floor in front of me. Asher whistled. “Dominique’s work, yeah?”
“How did she get the coloring so perfect? I’ve been looking for a forger half as good as her for years, but…”
I ignored the question. From deeper within the pack, I withdrew a two inch long boxcutter. “Listen, we’re going to go for a little walk,” I said to the painting. “Nothing to worry about it. We’re just going to switch you out. But you’ve got to be really still for me, okay?” I started to cut, working my way around the edge of the frame with an abundance of care and caution.
Three minutes passed. When I’d finished, the forged painting was framed where the original had been; the original was, at that moment, safely hidden within the cylinder in my pack. “Alright.” I looked around and saw only Asher. “Where’d that other guy go?”
“How should I know? I’m not there with him, am I? He probably decided to stick with the North team and make a little extra profit. That works for us; the more that gets stolen from the rest of the museum, the less likely anyone’s going to look too hard at this forgery.”
“The staff’ll figure it out eventually,” I said. “When that happens, they’re going to do a complete inventory of the whole building.”
“They always do. But we should’ve fenced it by then.”
I shouldered the pack. “Let’s get out of here.”
Asher clapped me on the back and I stumbled forward. “See, Dev? This is a whole lot better than working with that b –“
I whirled on him. The flash of anger came like a ball of lightning, melting the sheen of ice I used to cover the emotions. “Do not finish that sentence,” I said.
“Okay.” Asher held up his hands in the universal sign of surrender. “I’m just saying.”
Mentally, I counted down from thirty. When that didn’t help, I started over from fifteen. “Just don’t. It’s…still sensitive.”
“I get it,” he said, in a voice that made it perfectly clear that he did not ‘get it’ in the slightest.
“Come on.” I led the way out of the room, away from our forgery and the exhibit.
We didn’t speak to each other at all as we made our way out of the museum. With the doors already unlocked and open, it took us a fraction of the time to reach the exit again. As the doors came into sight, Asher reached out and threw an arm around my shoulder. “Who would’ve thought we’d be back at it again, eh Devlin? Remember the last time I tried to get you to help out on a job?”
“That was a different situation,” I said. “I was working with a new team, and…”
“No, no, I understand. Times change, people grow up…” He trailed off.
I turned to face him, drawing in the oxygen to explain why I’d turned down his previous offer. I didn’t see the punch coming. My head made it ninety degrees before pain exploded across my face and cheek. Light leapt into my vision and I fell to the ground, hard, before I had a chance to form a coherent thought or defense.
“Friends get replaced,” Asher finished. He stood over me and rage, raw and harsh, blazed in his eyes.
“Ash, what are you…”
He reached into his jacket. My own eyes widened, but he reached past the Makarov and took a small taser from an interior pocket instead. “You left me there,” he hissed. “And you thought that I’d forgive you for that?”
“I didn’t leave you, Ash! It was just – “
He fired the taser. Both prongs stuck into my chest and fifty thousand volts of electricity rammed through every nerve and cell of my body. I jerked like a fish on the floor for an eternity before he stopped. “You have no idea what I went through,” he said. My muscles refused to coordinate, and it was all I could manage to look up at him. “You abandoned me, and you replaced me with her. So, now it’s my turn.”
“What…what are you…?”
“Enjoy the next couple years,” he said. “The way I see it, acts of terrorism plus armed robbery will get you…well, a good long time behind bars. More than enough time for you to really think about what it means to betray your team.” Asher knelt next to me, so close that our noses nearly touched. “And don’t think I won’t be paying Sarah a little visit, too.”
If I could have moved, I would have swung on him then and there. He was armed, and I was wounded, but I would’ve fought him until Asher was forced to kill me. But I couldn’t do much more than glare at him. He stood up, ejected the cartridge from his taser, and reloaded it.
“I…you’ll…” I started to say.
Asher fired the taser a second time. There was light, heat, and a sea of exploding stars. Then, there was darkness.