Darkness gave way, grudgingly, to a slightly lighter darkness. In the endless field of nothing, I couldn’t distinguish between outlines and shapes. My brain simply refused to make sense of the lines and shadows before me. Thoughts and words were a mishmash of directionless ideas. My stomach twirled and flipped, bile rising into my throat as the seconds ticked away. Any effort to think was derailed by a constant vibrating hum, like a third rail, that rattled my skull.
Slowly, my head began to clear. That meant I wasn’t dead. Language returned first, and then memory. I’d been at the gala, waiting for an opportunity to assess the crown’s security. I’d met Mila, bonded briefly over our drinks, before she’d been called away for some professional obligation. Then, an overwhelming urge to sleep had come over me and now, I was surrounded by an oppressive blackness.
Alarm was slow to build, through the fog and haze of my disordered thoughts, but it did build. I remembered that I’d met Mila when she’d spilled my champagne. After that, the drinks we’d shared had been picked out by her. I hadn’t even noticed, though I should have known better. All the paranoia and precautions in the world were no match for simple, human stupidity.
“Sarah?” I croaked into the darkness.
There was no reply.
“Sarah, are you…” I trailed off and reached up for my ear. I vaguely remembered dislodging the earbud, just before I’d lost my balance completely. If it had fallen free, then it was likely lost in the grass of the rotunda already, or tramped to bits by the feet of a dozen different socialites. Either way, it was useless to me now.
I felt around, searching for something – anything – that might provide some information about my current predicament. Beneath me, my fingers brushed against a rough fabric of some sort; in front, there was cold metal. My brain struggled to work out the implications, the drug’s debilitating effect hampering any effort at rational thought. When the answer did come to me, it pierced straight through the shadowy mist like a foglight: I was in a car trunk. The constant hum pressing against my brain, then, was an engine as my kidnappers drove the car off into the night.
Instantly, my breath caught in my chest and pressure descended onto me like a physical weight. Sweat beaded on my forehead and trickled down to the fabric beneath me. Panic spread my head, burning away the miasma like hot sunlight, but I couldn’t afford to let my phobia run out of control. I needed to escape and, to do that, I needed to think. I had to control myself long enough to find freedom.
I took stock of my assets, while a part of my mind split off to work on what to do after I was free. My hands weren’t bound. I tried to move my legs and discovered that they weren’t tied together, either. Perhaps I had been supposed to drink the entire glass of champagne, instead of only toasting with Mila twice. The drugs might have been strong enough, then, to keep me unconscious for the entire ride. Even if that had been the plan – and it seemed reasonable to assume that it was – it was still sloppy work to leave me unrestrained, just on general principle. I was offended, professionally, even as I was elated, personally.
More memories resurfaced. I’d never been sealed inside of a trunk before but I was a professional: I’d studied up on various escape methods, just in case. Cars were typically equipped with emergency safety features these days, on the off chance that some innocent civilian found himself assaulted by thugs or murderers. In case of this exact situation – or, more likely, one in which at least a single party wasn’t a criminal – a release cable was often installed inside the trunk. I let my fingers travel across the surfaces around me, hoping for a little bit of luck.
I was almost entirely recovered by the time I found something metallic and braided with my left hand. Anxiety had almost fully given way to fear by then, and the emotion pounded at the walls of my skull for attention. With so little room to maneuver, I was only able to wrap three fingers around the cord. I gripped it as tight as I could, ignoring the pain as the metal bit into my skin, and pulled. Nothing happened. I strained to add my pinky and tried again, my force bolstered by my growing desperation. Something clicked this time and the now-unlocked trunk opened a centimeter. Fresh air trickled in through the tiny gap. I gulped greedily at the oxygen. When I’d had my fill, I cautiously opened the gap wider.
There wasn’t much light outside and it took my eyes a bit of time to adjust. We were traveling at a high speed down a highway, if appearances were any indication. There didn’t seem to be any visible traffic behind us. I considered jumping out of the car, but dismissed that idea almost immediately. At this speed, that would be a death sentence. Even if I survived the initial impact with the road, rolling with enough force to break bones, I certainly wouldn’t be in any position to go anywhere afterwards. My captors would only have to turn the car around, drive back, and throw me into the trunk again before continuing on to our final destination. In that scenario, I’d actually be in worse shape to deal with whatever fresh torments awaited me.
There weren’t any road signs to tell me where I was. Worse, I didn’t yet know where I was headed. I didn’t even know how long I’d been unconscious. There were too many unknowns. With the assistance of the sporadic street lights, I turned my attention to my immediate surroundings and gave them a more through once-over. I was still wearing my pants, shirt, and vest, but the suit jacket was missing. My cell phone was in the jacket. Without the earbud, I couldn’t communicate with Sarah; without the phone, I couldn’t call for help, either.
I’d only had Sarah’s voice back for less than an hour and, already, the lack of the earbud felt like a missing limb. I felt its pressure against the walls of my ear canal, even though I knew it wasn’t there. I reflexively reached up and nearly hit myself in the eye with one of my cufflinks. I stopped, mid-motion, and let out a stunned sound. Sarah had specifically told me that the cufflinks were equipped with GPS trackers.
She’d be able to pinpoint my location, using the cufflinks. Sarah might, in fact, have already activated the trackers. But, when she found out where I was going, she could…do what, exactly? My elation drained away as quickly as it had risen. Whether she knew where I was or not, Sarah couldn’t rescue me. She could perhaps arrange for a pick-up, assuming I was capable of eluding my captors long enough to contact her, but even that was a slim possibility. Judging from the car’s speed, I was a good distance away from the city center and traveling farther away with every second.
I stowed that away as a possibility, and tried to get comfortable. It wasn’t easy to do, while still using my knees to keep the trunk from closing completely. I rubbed life back into my legs as I shifted in the small space. The thin layer of carpeting did little to soften the metal beneath. Each time I moved my head, a fresh railroad spike of pain shot through my thoughts. Whenever the car hit a bump or divot in the road, that impact was transferred directly to my skeleton. Still, I found what room I could, settled in, and waited.
The two voices spoke again, startling me. They hadn’t said anything at all since just after I’d woken. Earlier, their worlds had only been a single jumble of indistinguishable sounds. Now, I could make out at least two separate individuals, both male. The first asked a question in a deep, rumbling baritone. After a moment, a slightly higher voice that sounded younger responded in the same language. Baritone asked a second question, in short, sharp syllables. A longer stretch of time passed before the Kid answered with a single word, in a language I did speak: “Asher.”
A chill lanced through my body at that. Asher had found me, apparently. I’d seen his scarred hand at the museum, just before the drugged champagne sent me spiraling into unconsciousness. In hindsight, it made sense. He’d have to case the museum as well, and it wouldn’t cost him anything to issue a general ‘watch out for this face’ message to his hirelings. I should have sent Michel in to collect the intelligence, but it was too late for self-recriminations now. I was captured. The game, as it were, was up.
He’d elected to kidnap me, though, instead of just having me killed on the spot. “Why?” I mused aloud, careful to keep my voice lower than the steady hum of the tires as they sped down the highway. I tried to consider the variables from his perspective. If there were answers to be found, his headspace was as good a place to start as any.
The problem was that Asher’s mind worked on a different level than anyone I’d ever met. It wasn’t that he was better educated than other masterminds – in fact, his formal schooling had come to abrupt end at some point during his ninth grade year – and he wasn’t more skilled with the actual, physical tools of the trade. His value came from his odd perspective: the duality of his nature combined with a ruthless pragmatism. To Asher, assets and targets alike were nothing more than chess pieces; pawns that he manipulated into position with a word here or a gesture there, without actually putting himself in danger. His plans were far-reaching, elaborate affairs that scripted out countless different actions, all culminating in a single perfectly orchestrated heist.
The fundamental differences between us had been instrumental to our professional career. Asher corralled individuals into his following his one clear path, eliminating every other possible option until they found themselves with no choice but to do what he wished. I had terrible foresight, but I was capable of seeing virtually every option a person might take in the short term, and acting to capitalize on any openings that presented themselves. Alone, we’d both had the skills to succeed as moderate thieves; together, we’d tackled private residences, museums, and auction houses and no one had ever stood a chance.
Still, I tried to think like him. The kidnapping wasn’t his only move. It probably wasn’t even his first, in this part of whatever game he was running. It was too simple, too direct. Somehow, drugging me at the gala was a part of some larger plan…but how? After all, Asher had already managed to send me to prison in Paris, and I would likely have died there if not for Patrick’s intervention. He nearly had me in Kiev, as well. The sniper there made a credible attempt at cutting my career brutally short. “What’s different now?” I asked myself. “Why try to kill me, then, and only kidnap me now?”
An answer occurred to me, although I doubted it was the correct one. Sarah was different now. She hadn’t been involved before. If didn’t already know that she’d left San Francisco, he would inevitably find out soon. His new sources were proving too competent. From there, he would be left with two options to weigh: either Sarah was with me, or she’d gone dark all by herself. And while I knew the truth, that uncertainty would still give her a fair amount of protection.
My thoughts ground to a halt and rewound through the previous few minutes. Sarah was working with me, and there was a way for Asher to prove it: the cufflinks I wore were broadcasting a signal. Presumably, some tech wizardry would be capable of tracing that signal’s destination. Even if Asher wasn’t able to do that – and I wasn’t really sure about what someone could or could not do with wireless signals – the presence of the cufflinks at all would tip him off to Sarah’s presence. After that, it would only be a matter of time before he closed all avenues of escape and slowly, painstakingly ran her to ground.
If there was some way to get her out of town, she could at least be safe for a little while longer. Of course, that would leave me to my fate of punishment at Asher’s hands, but that was still a better option than letting him capture her as well. Ideally, she would be able to leave before Asher found out that she was working with me on this one last job. Without my phone or my earbud, I couldn’t send her a message. I couldn’t reach out and warn her that Asher was, as always, a step or two ahead of us.
I thought over what my options were, with such vastly limited equipment, and then realized what I could to keep Sarah safe. I plucked the cufflinks from my sleeves, looked at them for a long second, and then threw them out of the car. They exploded in tiny pinpricks of sparks as they hit the highway.
I sank back into the trunk, still careful to keep the latch from closing again. Asher would probably torture me now. He was probably going to do that, anyway. But, if Sarah couldn’t find a way to locate me before too long, I hoped that she would follow our old protocols and leave town with as little fuss as possible. I could contact her if I managed to make it out of here, but that was entirely on my own shoulders now. Whatever happened after the car stopped wouldn’t be able to blow back on her.
When the car finally did stop, an unknown amount of time later, I realized that I’d drifted off into my own thoughts for a while. The cufflinks were almost certainly too far away for Sarah to accidentally stumble onto whatever building Asher was using, and that meant her search would be far enough away that Asher wouldn’t notice her performing one. The Kid said something to his partner and a car door opened. I lowered the trunk hood so that it was entirely dark inside once more, but kept the latch from engaging by the barest sliver of space.
I waited until I heard the key click into the trunk’s already-disengaged lock before I kicked up with all of my strength. My timing was either excellent or just lucky. The trunk flew open with my attack, digging into the flesh beneath a burly man’s thick, black beard. He choked out a pained gurgle as I leapt free from the trunk and cast a panicked look at my surroundings.
In one direction, there was a warehouse surrounded by floodlights. In another, I saw nothing but dark land underneath a starless sky. I hesitated for a single heartbeat, torn between my choices. There wasn’t any help to be found in either direction. Without any point of reference, I had no chance of fleeing these men on foot and finding cover. The warehouse wasn’t a good choice, either; whatever men he’d assembled were likely in position, and my explosive exit from the trunk would raise an alarm.
I took a third option. Surprise had worked for me so far, and I intended to ring every last drop of utility from it. The burly man was pushing himself up from the ground. Blood stained his beard and his eyes blazed with fury. I took two steps, jumped, and drove my skull down into his nose with a sickening crunch. The impact drove his own head back, into the rear spoiler of the car. He rebounded off of the car and slid to the ground in dazed, semi-conscious agony.
I wasn’t done yet. I pushed off of the trunk to keep myself from colliding with the car, spun, and kicked the passenger door shut just as the second man attempted to open it. He screamed as the door’s edge smashed his fingers into the frame, but the sound was muffled by the raised window.
That gave me an idea. I pulled the door open again, just long enough for him to start to step out of the car, and then slammed it shut once more. The window held, but the man did not. The glass caught him, just above his right temple, and the light of awareness left his eyes. I was worried that I might have accidentally killed him, and relaxed when I saw his chest still rising and falling, his eyes rapidly flitting around beneath his eyelids. I waited for almost a full minute, but no guards came outside.
Neither man seemed capable of much anymore, except for the occasional wordless moan of pain. I caught my breath and then pulled the man with the higher voice from the car by his feet. He put up token resistance, but there wasn’t any fight in him. It took a little effort to drag him over to trunk and throw him inside. The bearded man was heavier; I was forced to struggle with his bulk for thirty or forty five seconds before I managed to get him into the trunk, as well. Then, I checked both men for weapons. The bearded man carried a medium caliber handgun in a shoulder holster, while his companion only had a collapsible baton. I left the holster, took the gun, and slipped the baton into my pocket. Armed now and riding high on adrenaline, I closed the trunk on both of them, and broke the key off in the lock.
A quick check showed that I had nine bullets in my weapon. I clicked the safety off and looked at the warehouse. No sound or movement came from the building, but I knew that wouldn’t last. Eventually, someone would come outside to check on the car’s occupants. Before that happened, I needed to find out where I was and find my way back to society. I took a deep breath and went to meet the warehouse’s inhabitants, before they came out to me.