The Florence Job, Part 3 (Sarah)

From my safehouse, I could watch practically all of Florence.  Security cameras and CCTV cast a wide net across the city and my system tracked that information, catalogued it, and provided me with a wealth of useful information. Of my three wide angle computer screens, one was dedicated entirely to a mosaic of tiny camera feeds, following the people of Florence as they scurried away from the Palazzo.  I saw, with crystalline clarity, the firefight in the front courtyard.  With this much access, there was very little I didn’t know and even less I couldn’t find out.

And yet, where Alex and Devlin were concerned, I was utterly blind.  So, I clung to the tiny voices in my ear while I entered commands into my main system.

“Alex!”  Devlin’s alarmed cry sent a fresh wave of tension through my body.  I jerked and knocked a half-full can of Diet Coke to the floor.  The soda popped and fizzed as it seeped into the carpet.  “Get down!”

There was nothing I could do from here.  My impotence had never felt so crippling before.

“Sarah!”  Devlin shouted.  I snapped to attention as he said my name.  “Second shooter!”  My worst fear, confirmed in an instant. Through my earbud, I heard Devlin’s heavy breaths and a muffled cry of pain.  I slammed my palm down onto the keyboard, sending several conflicting signals down the abandoned military frequency the gunmen were using, and that I’d gained access to.  An impossibly loud screech of static screamed back at me, amplified by my speakers.  I could only imagine what it would sound like, point-blank in someone’s ears.

I heard nothing for twenty seconds.  Then, Alex spoke up.  I could only hear him through Devlin’s line.  “You saved my life.”  Then, a moment later.  “Johannah!  You are safe!”

Alex’ wife was too far away for any reply to reach me, via Devlin’s microphone.  I let out my breath in relief and keyed up a blueprint for the Palazzo on the screen farthest to my right.  There were countless entrances and exits into the maze-like structure; one spot in particular was the source of a mishmash of conflicted radio traffic.  Without anything else to go on, I took a leap and assumed that my friends were in the vicinity of that knot of signals.  I clicked on the nearest exit, and my computer began to map out a path.

If I hadn’t been looking at the signals at that exact second, I would’ve missed it.  Even with my attention fully on the screen, the addition of another source nearly slipped past me.  Devlin had counted five men chasing after Johannah.  Three had been occupied with the local police in the Palazzo’s courtyard; only two remained outside, still involved in that ill-advised fight.  Devlin had, through some combination of dumb luck and sheer stupidity managed to put one of the gunmen down in the underground.  If Alex’ words of thanks were any indication, the fifth gunmen had been taken care of, as well.

But no one had ever said there were only five men in the crew; only that Devlin had seen five.

The thought stole my breath and, with it, my voice.  I reloaded the same command I’d used only a few seconds ago, but before my finger could press down on the Enter key, I heard it: that distinctive crack of a gun going off.  A second later, echoed between Devlin’s line and the gunmen’s own, a shattered, heartbroken scream of pure, wordless pain.

“Dev!  Dev, what’s happening?”

The sound of movement came back as answer, followed by a wordless struggle of some kind.  I waited nervously, hands trembling with a ferocity I’d never experienced before.  I gripped the edge of my desk to steady them.  After an eternity, Devlin spoke.  “Sarah?  Sarah, are…are you there?”

“I’m here!”  I jerked forward too quickly and nearly threw myself out of my chair.  “What happened?”

“There was another shooter,” he said.  “A sixth one.”

“Is everyone okay?”

He went quiet.  I thought, but wasn’t sure, that I heard soft sobbing from somewhere near him.  “It’s Johannah,” he whispered finally.  “She’s…”

My blood chilled.  “What’s wrong?”

He trailed off.    “The sixth man’s down,” Devlin said.   His voice was shaky and weak.  Part of that was from pain, I was sure; the rest of his uncertainty was out of character, and it only magnified my own concern.  “But he got Johannah.”

“How bad is it?”  I asked, dreading the answer before it came.

He was silent again for a long stretch.  “I need an exit,” he said, after what felt like years.  “And emergency services.”

I didn’t waste a second on a reply; instead, I launched myself into my work.  The Palazzo’s blueprints were already up and my computer was about halfway through plotting an exit course.  “Is your phone still on?”

“It’s on,”

“Sending you the blueprints now,” I said and hit the relevant button.

“And EMS?”

I checked.  The firefight in the Palazzo’s courtyard had scattered the civilians and sent them to ground, but not all of the innocents had moved quickly enough.  There were several reports of wounded bystanders being rushed to area hospitals or receiving some basic treatment wherever they were.  “It’s…they’ve got a lot to deal with right now, so…”

“I need an ambulance,” Devlin said.

“I’ll do what I can,” I said in response.  I found an unassigned ambulance several blocks away and cut into its system.  It was a few seconds’ work to change its direction and reroute to the Palazzo’s exit.

I worked with the ease of practice and the panicked speed of instinct.  My attention was focused entirely on my little earbud.  Without cameras in the Palazzo’s interior, Devlin’s words were my only source of information.  I hit the mute button on my end, so that the sounds of my panicked, nervous breaths didn’t drown out his soft words to Alex.  I keyed the volume up to its maximum so that I could hear Alex, as well.

“It’s going to be okay,” Devlin said.  “She’s going to be fine.  We just have to get her outside.”

“This is…this is my fault,” Alex moaned.

“It’s no one’s fault, except the bastards who came after us,” Devlin said.  “But we’ve got to get through this right now, Alex.  Sarah’s got help coming and we’ll get Johannah patched up and then we can figure out what to do next.”  Pause.  “You do have help coming, right Sarah?”

I unmuted my line.  “Got an ambulance coming your way, but it’s…it’s not going to be there soon.  You’ll be out before they make it.”

“Soon as we get out,” Devlin lied to Alex, “there’ll be an ambulance there.  We’ll get her inside and they can take care of her, okay?”

Alex said nothing at first and then, barely audible even through my amplified system, he started to sob.  “There is so much blood, Devlin,” he whispered.  “So much.”

“She’ll be fine,” Devlin repeated.  He paused for an instant.  I knew his tells, had spent countless hours since we’d met poking fun at that single deadly moment when a mark could see when he was lying.  “She’ll be fine.”

He didn’t say anything else.  Neither did Alex.  I heard their heavy breaths as they moved, slow and ponderous, through the maze of the Palazzo’s interior.  With nothing else to do, I selected the nearest camera feed to the exit and maximized it on my left screen.  It showed a walkway, empty of foot traffic, and the Arno River.  Orange light marked the setting of the sun, its rays dying even as they glittered off the surface of the rover.

I lost track of time, waiting for them to emerge into the open air.  At some point, the cops at the Palazzo’s courtyard received the backup I’d sent their way.  One of the two remaining shooters had been wounded and the last one standing surrendered to the authorities.  I pressed the “record” button on my communications system, linked into the shooter’s own radio, and listened to his voice.  My Russian was weak, but I could identify the language from just a few words.  He spoke first in his mother language, absent of any telling regional accent, and switched to English when the local police reached him.

When the police took the final shooter into custody, I saved the conversation and filed it away.  Devlin’s intuition was, and always had been, formidable.  He might have been able to make some wild leap of logic.  For my part, I still had no clue who had sent a hit squad after us.

When Devlin, Alex, and Johannah emerged into the setting sunlight, I sat up, straight as a rod, in my chair.  The two men half-walked, half-limped out of the Palazzo with Johnannah carried aloft between them.  She slumped weakly, her feet dragging against the ground.  I zoomed the nearest camera in as much as possible.  Details blurred into incoherence, but I could see a distinct dark spot around her abdomen.  It covered all of her stomach and reached up to just below her breasts.  Something dripped from her shirt and stained the ground below her.

“Sarah?”  There was a small delay between Devlin’s voice and the corresponding movement, as he lifted his head and searched for the camera he knew I’d be watching through.  The effect was slightly unsettling. “Need that ambulance.”

I turned and pulled up the ambulance’s GPS and swore, loudly.  “It’s…stopped.  Traffic accident at an intersection.  It’s trying to find a way around, but…Devlin, how bad is she?”

“Alex,” Devlin said carefully.  A moment later, I saw him reach across Johannah to Alex’ shoulder.  “We’ve got to go a little farther.”

Alex nodded.  They started to move when Johannah stirred and coughed.  Blood fell from her lips.  “I am tired,” she said, and I heard her words as clearly as if she’d spoken them directly to me.  “Can I…can I rest for a bit?”

“Don’t let her rest,” I said to Devlin.  I minimized the blueprints for the Palazzo and did a quick search for ‘gunshot wounds.’  A field of responses appeared.  I clicked the first one open and skimmed the advice it presented.  “If she falls asleep, she won’t…it won’t be good.”

“We’ve got to keep going,” Devlin said.  “Just a little farther, okay?”

They started to move.  Their progress was excruciating, but they kept at it.  Step by lurching step, the three of them made their way down the walkway.  I was forced to switch my viewpoint camera to one farther down the street, at a greater distance from them.  When I zoomed in farther, I only saw them as shapeless blurs.  Alex sobbed, close enough to Devlin that I could hear the sound, as well.  Devlin said nothing about it.  I watched them and felt tears on my own cheeks.

They walked for five minutes before they stopped again.  Devlin and Alex eased Johannah to the abandoned street.  “What are you doing?”  I asked Devlin.  “If she rests, she’ll die, dammit!”

“She’s…”  Devlin stopped, his voice choking to silence in his throat.  “She’s not going to make it.”

“You’ve got to keep going,” I said.  I heard myself growing frantic, and I didn’t care.  “It’s not that far.  You can make it there!”

“No,” he said.  “No, we can’t.  She can’t.”  I watched on the screen as he turned to Alex.  “Alex, I’m so sorry.”

“Johannah?”  Alex pulled his wife close to him, held her to his chest.  “Johannah, can you hear me?”

I had to strain to hear her words.  “Yes, I…I can hear you.”

“I should not have brought you here,” Alex said.  “I should not have brought you into this danger.”

“It was…my choice,” she said.  There was an obvious effort to her words.  It broke my heart to hear it.  “I…I love you, Alexander.”

Even the shapeless blur of colors on my screen hurt to watch.  I could see sadness in every pixel as it shook with tears; I couldn’t imagine what Devlin felt like, watching the tragedy unfold in front of him.  I pressed a button and the audio switched to my speakers.  Heartbreak filled my room.

“Johannah, I…”  Alex stopped.  “Johannah?  Johannah!”

Devlin spoke.  His voice was clearer to me, and it was thick with unshed tears.  “Alex, I…”  Silence.  There was no need to finish that thought.

I reduced the zoom on the camera so that I could make out the distinct shapes of Alex, Devlin, and Johannah.  Devlin rose to his feet and stepped away from the couple.  The tiny speck that signified Alex leaned across Johannah and didn’t move.

“Devlin, is she…?”  I asked.

“We don’t need that ambulance,” he said, and it was answer enough.

I rerouted the ambulance to the front of the Palazzo, too dazed to form thoughts.  Seconds turned to minutes and those minutes stretched into forever as I watched Alex mourn his wife’s passing.  I waited, respectfully silent, through the hardest five minutes of uselessness since my first job.

“Tell me you got something on these bastards,” Devlin said.  His voice sounded…different.  A heartbeat later, I understood: anger.  Not even anger, so much, but fury.  It burned beneath Devlin’s voice, like boiling magma, and he was struggling to keep it under control.

“A recording of some conversation,” I said.  “They’re Russian, I think.”

“Me too.  One of them seemed to know who I was.”

“What do you…what can I do, Dev?”

He didn’t answer.  Together, he and Alex lifted Johannah from the street.  They carried her out of the main thoroughfare and back to the Palazzo.  There, they had privacy.  No one entered the Palazzo and no one left it.  A gondola passed by but, at that distance and with no reason to pay special attention, its boatman ignored the two men and the strangely shaped object they carried.

When they reached the entrance back into the underground, Alex spoke.  “I want to kill them,” he said.  His voice vibrated with rage and grief in equal measure.  A chill down my arms and raised goosebumps on my flesh.

“So do I,” Devlin said back.

“Good,” Alex said.  Then, he let his wife slip to the ground and followed her down.  On my feed, I saw him fall to his knees over his body and raise his head to the sky.  His scream, wordless and raw, shattered my own heart to pieces.  When he wept, I wept with him.  And when he stood again, minutes or hours later, I arranged for a local clean-up crew to retrieve Johannah’s body and deliver her back to Munich.

“We’re going to get them, right?”  I asked Devlin, after I finished with the only thing I could help with.  “They aren’t just going…we aren’t going to let them get away with this, are we?”

“Oh we’re going to get them,” he said back.  “And we’re going to make them bleed for this.”

Alex said nothing, at first.  When he did speak, he sounded empty, hollowed out, drained of the vitality he’d radiated every moment I’d known him.  “I want…”  He stopped, swallowed, started again.  “I want to go home,” he said.  “I want to see my daughter.”

Devlin was quiet for a long time.  “Let’s get you home, Alex.  Sarah and I can take care of it from here.”

“No!”  Alex’ shape turned sharply to face Devlin.  “Do not do this without me. Someone killed my wife; I want to know who.”

“Okay, then.  We’ll take care of…things back in Munich,” Devlin said, “and then we’ll figure this out together.”

Alex nodded, and both he and Devlin turned to look out across the river Arno.  The sun set across the water.  Light danced across the surface, beautiful in its own way, but I didn’t – couldn’t – appreciate it.  I kept my comm line muted as I wept, and wept, and wept.

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