“Alex!” I vaulted over a fallen table, nearly lost my balance, and managed to catch myself just short of falling to the street. “Alex, are you there?”
“He’s off comms,” Sarah said. “Devlin, you’re at the edge of my camera radius. What do you see?”
“I can’t –“ I began, but stopped as I rounded a corner. The Palazzo’s courtyard stretched out in front of me. Police lights stood out against the flat brown earth. Two Fiats and an Alfa Romeo were parked diagonal to each other, lights still flashing in sync. The vehicles formed a makeshift barrier. Behind that protection, six different officers crouched to protect themselves from a hail of bullets. Occasionally, one or two cops peeked their heads above their cars and fired off a few rounds of their own. Of the six, three were armed with small handguns. Two carried submachine guns, and the sixth man held a large shotgun in both hands.
“Devlin?” Sarah prompted. “What do you see?”
“It’s…bad,” I said. “This is really bad.”
“Shit.” Sarah typed something into her computer. “I’m working on getting access to their dash cameras, but I’m blind until then.”
I crept closer to a rampart for a better view. Opposite the police, three shooters armed with what looked like automatic or semi-automatic rifles took turns firing bursts at the police. They didn’t bother using any cover but, with the sheer volume of bullets they were throwing downrange, the police couldn’t afford to take more than a few wild shots at them every couple of seconds. As I watched, a man clad in a black trenchcoat jumped down into the courtyard and dashed over to a ruined wall. He was too far for me to make out his features but, as the man moved from the wall to an entrance into the Palazzo, I knew with absolute certainty who it was.
“He just went inside,” I said to Sarah. “He covered most of the courtyard in a few seconds.”
A yell that I couldn’t quite make out echoed from within the Palazzo. One of the gunmen turned to follow Alex into the Palazzo, but a lucky shot from one of the police forced him back behind a stone outcropping. I wasn’t sure if the gunmen had been hit or not, but I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
Sarah swore, violently. “Dashcams are a no-go. Hard disk backups, no connection to the internet.”
“And that back-up?”
“There’s a lot of panic in the city right now,” she said. “And most of the local police are stuck trying to deal with that. Tourists are losing their minds over the firefight, and the locals aren’t really sure what to do, either.”
“That’s just the local police, right?” I moved, low and slow, to another low wall. When I felt comfortable that neither the gunmen nor the police officers noticed me, I moved to another, closer to the Palazzo’s entrance. “What about the national cops?”
“They’ve got…other things to deal with at the moment,” Sarah said. “They’ll get here eventually, but not in time to help with anything.” She paused. “Devlin, what are we going to do?”
There was a note in her voice that I’d rarely heard. She was scared and, for the first time in a long while, absolutely unsure of what to do next. I injected as much fake confidence into my voice as I could manage. “I’m going in to get them – both of them – out now. With all this chaos, it shouldn’t be too hard to slip into the crowd after and disappear.”
“There are armed men in there, and you aren’t carrying a gun,” Sarah pointed out, then she paused again. “You aren’t, are you?”
“Of course I’m not. The last thing I want to do is have an unlicensed gun on me.”
“Then what exactly are you going to do if you run into one of them?”
I thought. There weren’t a lot of options and the few options that were viable, weren’t the types I really wanted to consider. “I counted five shooters before,” I said, working through the plan a split second before I said the words, “and there’s three out here dealing with the cops. That leaves two inside with Alex and Johannah.”
“It’s like a maze down there,” I said. “Especially in the darkness. I’m assuming you can’t track me after I go down there?”
“Not directly,” Sarah said, after a moment. “The stone’s too thick and it muddles the GPS. Why?”
I dismissed a few options. “But comms will still work?”
“Unless you take off the headset, they should.”
“What about the gunmen? They’ve got to be using some kind of radio system, yeah?”
She paused. “They might be,” she said and began to furiously type into her computer. I waited until the next exchange of gunfire started before I moved inside the entrance of the Palazzo. I could see nothing but darkness ahead of me and, outside, the sun-bleached sand of the courtyard. “Got it!”
“They’re using an old military frequency,” she said. “I’ll have the right one in a few seconds.”
“Can you piggyback off of it?”
“I can, but…” She trailed off as she understanding struck her. “You’re going to follow the gunmen’s signal, and try to take them out before they can find Alex or Johannah.”
“That’s the plan,” I said. I knelt and fished around in my backpack for a small penlight. When I found it, I clicked the light on and went into the darkness of the Palazzo. “If I know where they’re going to be, that gives me an edge.”
“Except that you’re still not armed,” Sarah said. “And you’re not a fighter, Devlin. If you get into a fight, they’re going to kill you.”
“What am I supposed to do, Sarah?” I asked her. I moved carefully through the Palazzo’s underground. There were likely artifacts still hidden in its walls and secret chambers, but I ignored those as I went deeper into the blackness. My tiny light extended maybe six inches ahead of me: just enough of a warning to keep myself from bashing my shins into anything stone. “This is the best I can come up with, Sarah.”
She didn’t say anything for thirty very long seconds. “Fine,” she said. “But you be careful. If you can get by without a fight, then do that. Okay?”
Enclosed spaces and I weren’t the best of friends, but Sarah didn’t know that. She didn’t need to know that, either. Nerves fired and turned electric beneath my skin. I aimed for a flippant attitude, overshot, and landed on unnecessarily jovial. “Of course,” I said. “I’m not trying to risk this pretty face, love.”
“This isn’t a joke,” Sarah snapped. “I’m going to try to reroute some emergency services to your area. If I can get more people there, maybe those gunmen will decide it isn’t worth it to stick around after all. Worst case, maybe they’ll pull their two men out of the Palazzo.”
“Sounds good,” I said. I went another dozen feet into the underground before I paused and crouched. “Sarah?”
“Try and find out who’s doing this. Get any information you can from their comms, try and track down their gear, take notes on their style,” I said. “I want to know who’s coming after us this hard, okay?”
“You didn’t even have to ask.”
I considered a few responses and decided, finally, on silence. I continued deeper, trying to ignore my increasing sense of claustrophobia, and failing miserably. She worked on her end, furiously typing commands into her keyboard and, presumably, monitoring the situation as best she could.
In the darkness, all I could do was creep through the ruins and think. It had been a mistake to bring a civilian on the job – that much was startlingly clear now – but Alex had insisted. His marriage depended on it, he’d said, and I had chosen to give the untrained Johannah a chance. She’d done well enough during the initial recon, and it had been her keen eyes that let us know there was another crew in town, in the first place. I should have pulled her after that; I should have called off the entire job, until we could find an uncontested score. But the target had been so easy and, instead of doing the safe thing, I’d chosen to try my luck. Now, there were at least five shooters gunning for our heads and a very good friend of mine had gone into an abandoned ruin of a palace to search for his stranded, almost-certainly-in-mortal danger wife. Internally, I cursed at my own foolish cockiness. Out loud, I stayed as quiet as the grave and moved like a shadow through the Palazzo.
“Devlin.” Sarah’s voice was soft in my ear. She whispered, even though she didn’t need to. “There’s one near you. Ahead, maybe? Behind? I can’t tell direction from just the signal.”
I clicked the penlight off and went still. My palms were drenched with sweat and I heard nothing but Sarah’s fingers, hammering something into her computer, and my own heartbeat. I didn’t have to wait long. Fifteen seconds passed before I saw another light hovering in the darkness a dozen feet ahead. The light bobbed as its carrier moved forward and, as it moved, I saw the dull glint of metal. I held my breath.
“What’s happening?” Sarah asked. I didn’t dare answer her.
The light and its carrier moved close enough to me that I could make out a bulky silhouette. The figure swept the light across the room, slow and steady, searching for any sign of movement. Finding none, the figure turned to move deeper into the Palazzo. Static popped and whined from a walkie at its side. As soon as the figure’s light pointed away from me and its back faced the wall I hid behind, I made my move.
I hit the figure hard in the back with my shoulder. He grunted with pain and stumbled forward. The flashlight and the gun flew from his hands and skittered off, out of reach. I regained my footing just in time for the disarmed man to swing at me. There wasn’t enough time to dodge and not enough room in the cluttered underground to maneuver away, but the darkness helped me. The fist didn’t go completely wild, but it only managed to catch my arm, just above the elbow. Pain flared through the limb. I stepped back, deeper into shadow, and assumed a sloppy stance Leigh had taught me a few months prior.
“Devlin? Talk to me, Devlin.”
The dropped flashlight was too far for its beam to show details, but I could discern the darkness of the silhouette from the background. The man moved toward me, reaching out blindly to catch hold of my shirt, my arms, or my hair. I moved backward at the same pace, so that the man’s fingers grasped nothing but empty air. If he turned to retrieve the gun, he would have to face his back to me again.
I reached behind me, hoping to find something to steady myself, and touched a round object. It slipped from my fingertips before I could catch it and clattered to the floor. The man reacted to the sound and lunged at me. I tried to step out of reach, but the same table I’d just touched bumped into the back of my knees. When the man punched this time, his attack struck home. His fist ground into my abdomen and I doubled over in pain. Before I could recover, he threw another punch and caught my temple. Light exploded into my vision and I fell to the ground, dazed from the strike. I tasted blood, hot and metallic, in my mouth.
“Devlin! Say something, Devlin!”
The shadowed figure loomed over me. He blocked the scant light within the chamber with his mass. I reached out to push myself back to my feet, away from the aggressor. My hand fell on the round object, a vase perhaps, that had fallen to the ground. I wrapped my fingers around it so tight that my knuckles hurt. The figure reached down and grabbed my shirt’s lapel. He dragged me to my feet and lifted me a good three inches from the ground.
“Vot vam,” he said to me and smiled. He drew back a fist and, at the exact moment, I brought the vase in my hand up. I swung it with desperate force and struck him in the temple, just above the eyes. He howled in pain and dropped me, staggering back and cursing in what sounded like Russian. I swung again, harder this time, and the vase shattered into clay fragments across the ground. The light dimmed in the Russian’s eyes, he wavered on his feet and then, finally, he fell unconscious to the ground.
“Devlin!” Sarah’s voice had reached a fevered intensity.
“I’m fine,” I said, spitting a mouthful of blood to the ground. “Just a…” I wilted to my knees, exhausted from the brief scuffle.
“What happened? Are you okay? The signal went away, but…”
I interrupted her with an ugly cough. “One gunmen down,” I said, when I had my breath again. I forced myself back onto my feet and, after a moment of fumbling, clicked my penlight back on.
“What did you do?”
“Jumped him when his back was turned,” I said. “He…didn’t agree with that, but he’s not in much of a position to complain now.”
“What were you thinking? He could have killed you!”
“Yeah,” I replied, “and he could’ve killed Alex or Johannah too. I had a shot, and I took it.” There was anger in my voice, and I knew it wasn’t properly directed at Sarah. The man had only scored two solid hits, and I felt weak already. I needed to push ahead to find Alex.
“I want them out of there safe, just as much as you do,” Sarah said. “But I also don’t want you to get yourself killed trying to do it.”
“I’m doing my best here,” I said.
“I know, it’s just…” She stopped and sighed. “Nevermind.”
I heard a voice, not too far from where I stood. “Johannah!” Alex’ voice boomed through the chamber. “Johannah, wo bist du?”
“I’m going,” I said immediately and pushed forward.
I moved through what felt like a hallway until it opened up into a wider room. There were actually wall-mounted lanterns in this area, placed at intervals along the room’s interior wall. As I entered, I clicked my light off and slipped it back into my pocket. The space was covered in half-destroyed walls, benches, and tables. A thick layer of brown dust covered everything in sight. A nearby staircase led down into the room. From my vantage point, I saw Alex. His clothing was covered in grime and he’d left his coat somewhere behind him. He must have taken a different route than I did through the Palazzo’s underground. Ahead of him, at the other end of the room, a female cowered behind a wall just barely big enough to conceal her. At the sound of Alex’ voice, she peeked over the top of her barrier.
“I see them,” I said for Sarah’s benefit. “They’re safe. They’re both safe. What’s going on outside?”
She blew out a relieved sigh before she answered. “Cops put down one of the shooters. With just two gunmen, the local police have got them on the retreat. Backup should be there in the next five or ten.”
“Good.” Pain still shot through my stomach. I wrapped an arm around my midsection. “We’re going to need a way out of here that doesn’t put us all in prison.”
Slowly, wincing slightly as each step aggravated the pain in my stomach, I made my way down the stairs. Alex continued forward at the same deliberate pace. He picked up speed as he saw Johannah, still barely visible over the top of her concealment. I started to jog forward as well. I stopped, skidded to a halt, as a third figure entered the room from yet another entrance way. This one carried something metallic in its hands.
“Alex! Get down!”
Alex turned first to me and then, belatedly, to face the gunman. Only distance saved him when the man squeezed his trigger and fired a short burst of rounds into the air. Alex fell and rolled to safety behind an overturned stone table. The man sent another spray of bullets in my direction, but I was far enough away that nearly all of the bullets found their way into the wall high above my head. The man said something I was too far away to hear, and fished a clip from his jacket pocket. I ran forward at top speed, ignoring each stab of pain.
“Sarah!” I shouted. “Second shooter!”
I reached the man just as he slid the second clip into his gun. He brought the gun around to bear on me. I stepped in time with his swivel and kicked out at his knee. The attack lacked a solid foundation, but it was enough that he stumbled. That gave Alex time to reach us, as well. He threw a punch, backed with his considerably larger mass and what I imagined to be a great deal of righteous fury, and hit the man in his chest hard enough that I heard something crack. Despite that, the man stayed upright. He stumbled back three steps but, at the same time, brought his gun up so that both I and Alex were in his sights.
Then he winced and cringed, dropping the gun to his side as he reached to his ear and ripped something out. It only took a moment, but a moment was all Alex needed. He threw another punch and knocked the man’s gun from his hand. Then, he wrapped the still-staggering attacker into a chokehold and held on until his body went limp. Alex let the unconscious man fall to the ground.
“You saved my life,” he said to me, between gasps for air. Then, he remembered Johannah and he lurched over to her. “Johannah! You are safe!”
She left her cover and ran into his arms. “Alexander!”
I was too out of breath to do anything except watch their reunion. As I watched, however, I saw as Johannah’s eyes went wide. I turned to follow her gaze without thinking about it. A third shooter, one that neither I nor Alex had considered, entered the room. He held a single shot hunting rifle. It was braced against his shoulder and the barrel pointed straight at Alex.
“Alexander, move!” Johannah said. She pushed into her husband’s bulk with all of her strength. He was so surprised that her desperate act managed to force his greater mass three steps back.
I tried to get to my feet fast enough. I was still halfway between standing and kneeling when the muzzle flashed.