“You can’t be serious,” Sarah said.
In truth, I wasn’t entirely sure whether or not I was serious. Possibilities were unfolding my mind like blossoming flowers, a network of choices that could lead us all to either ruin or unparalleled success, and I couldn’t bring myself to commit to any one plan.
Here was the safe we’d been looking for at the start of our little incursion, safely nestled away in a fairly decent hiding spot within Hill’s bedroom. Presumably, the Book was located inside, the information the Lady wanted sealed within its golden covers. We’d planned on retrieving it first, before doubling down in order to retrieve Avis, Billy, and Neal, but reality had already put the screws to that idea. Mila was secreting two of the three people away from the estate, even as I knelt and considered what to do next. It was possible – just barely possible – that I might be able to get my hands on everything we’d wanted in one fell swoop and the thought that I might have to let this prize slip through my fingers was galling.
On the other hand, however, I was still trapped on the third floor of an estate I didn’t know very well, with a veritable army of hired guns systematically searching for me. The blueprints for the estate were clearly falsified or, at the very least, inaccurate. A quick glance at the tablet, with its solid red lights that gave me a bit of insight into the movements of our named adversaries, showed me that much. I didn’t and couldn’t know whether or not there were more rooms and, as a result, it was impossible for me to estimate how much time I would actually have to work on the Fortress. Committing myself to the task of cracking this monster of a safe would turn me into a sitting duck, without anyone to watch my back while I worked.
That might be exactly what we needed. It might also be the last mistake I had the liberty to make.
“I’m thinking about it,” I said to Sarah, after a few seconds of tense silence.
“What is there to think about? Even if you had all the time in the world, you still aren’t sure whether or not you can even get inside of a Fortress, Dev. And you don’t have all the time in the world; you might not even have minutes to spare.”
“That’s definitely one of the factors I’m considering,” I said. “But there are other things we have to keep in mind.”
She snorted, and the sound was loaded to the brim with derision and frustration in equal measure. “Like what? Your death wish? Your complete inability to leave well enough alone? Your – “
“Yes,” I said, cutting her off before she could really start to pick up steam, “all that. But also, there’s the fact that we still don’t have a solid escape route. I’m stuck in this room anyway, until either you or I think of some genius tactic to help me slip the noose tightening around my metaphorical neck. If I’ve got to be here anyway…”
I expected Sarah to say something snide in response to that. Surprisingly, she thought quietly for a moment or two before she replied at all. “Any time you spend working on that safe is time that would be better spent trying to think of a way out of the estate.”
“And even if I did manage to come up with something, I’d still have to figure out a way to find Billy and get him out of here before Hill decides to commit fratricide, just to tie up loose ends.”
“How does breaking into that safe help anyone at all, except for you?”
I wasn’t sure whether she had lashed out from anger or concern, but the effect was the same. A nearly physical pain lanced through my chest at the rebuke. She couldn’t have taken a truer, more accurate shot if she’d been deliberately trying to hurt me. “This isn’t about that, Sarah,” I said, hating the weak note I heard in my own voice.
“It’s never about that,” she retorted. “Especially when it actually is.”
She didn’t have to go into any more depth. I appreciated her discretion, even as I found my own thoughts leaving the present and skimming over the events in our past without any additional prompting on her part. It had been several days since the last time I’d felt guilty about lying to her, so many years ago, and the old hurt swelled within me with an intense desire to make up for lost time.
“I don’t get anything out of this,” I said, “except for possible leverage. Think about it. Seriously think about it. What does Hill want?”
“To either kill or hire you,” she replied instantly. “I imagine that Michel, Mila, and I are incidental to whatever else he has in mind.”
“What does he want more than that?” I pressed. “What’s the one thing we know he wants? What started all of this in the first place? Why did he kickstart this entire affair by using Asher to break into the bank at Limassol? What does the Book mean to him?”
“It’s a way out from underneath the Magi,” Sarah said. She paused, sucked in a sharp breath of realization, and then continued. “Even if he’s willing to bargain, he’s still going to want us dead in the long run, if for no other reason than that we’re an insult to his power base.”
“If it comes to negotiation, I’ll take a stay of execution for a couple of weeks instead of guaranteed death in the moment. If Hill’s hands are full dealing with the Magi, we might be able to find another way to take him down before he can make a move on us. At the very least, we can pick a better battleground than his home territory.”
Sarah said nothing.
“Please,” I begged, “you have to understand that I am not doing this for me. I’m doing it for us.”
It was the second time I’d spoken almost that exact sentence in my life. The first time I’d ended in a firestorm of hurled accusations, insult, and the departure of the love of my life. I hoped that the second time would have better results.
When she finally spoke, her voice was soft enough that I had to strain to hear it over the comms. “This is a stupid idea, Dev.” I didn’t miss her use of the old nickname. “But stupid ideas are all we’ve got right now, I guess. Promise me that you aren’t just saying this.”
“I promise,” I said immediately.
“No,” Sarah replied, “don’t just say the words. We both know how that goes. I want you to really think about it. Honestly, ask yourself why you’re willing to put yourself – and you know that if something happens to you, every single one of us is going to throw ourselves into the grinder to save your idiotic life – at risk. Then, and only then, promise me that you aren’t letting your ego or your own desires guide you.”
I fought down the urge to repeat myself and, instead, did exactly what Sarah had asked. I’d acquired a lot of skills over the course of my criminal career and enlightened introspection wasn’t one of them. Still, she wasn’t making an unreasonable request. I’d put the two of us in danger before because of my desire – my need, really – to complete the job, to pull off the perfect heist. I couldn’t deny that the ever-escalating difficulties of this job called to a part of me that had been asleep for almost three years. But was I allowing myself to fall back into the same trap? Was I really going to put my friends, both old and new, in danger so that I could put another feather in my cap?
“I know that you think I’m being driven by my…issues,” I said. “And you’re not entirely wrong. But I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t honestly believe that it gives us the best chance to get out of this alive. All of us. I promise.”
I realized that Sarah could very well choose not to believe me. It wouldn’t stop her from helping me survive this mess, but it would absolutely destroy the possibility of any sort of relationship between us in the future, even a merely platonic one. I crossed my fingers.
Sarah heaved a sigh. “Alright. Alright, fine, I believe you. For the moment. How can I help?”
A massive knot of tension unclenched itself in my stomach at her words. “Have you been able to find out anything at all about this safe?”
“Nothing you couldn’t figure out or guess on your own,” she said. I listened to her fingers tapping a machine gun rhythm on her keyboard. “Six number combination lock, for starters. Each wheel has at least two false contact points.”
“This monster isn’t even on the open market yet, Dev. I’ve managed to pick up a few rumors, but I can’t risk asking my sources because we don’t know who is or isn’t working with Hill, the Magi, or Asher.”
“Okay,” I said, breathing out slowly to calm myself. “Let’s call it two and work it from there. Any other serious problems I should know about?”
“Nothing that I can think of. Although, technically, I should say that this safe comes with the option of a manual connection into the owner’s home security system.”
The siren was still warbling at top volume in the background. During our conversation, I’d managed to tune it out for the most part. “Which is not really a problem right now.”
“Dev…if you want, I can try to reach out. That safe had be constructed in a factory and someone in the community would have hacked it.”
“No!” The exclamation came out louder than I’d planned. “No,” I repeated, in a quieter voice. “There’s no reason for you to put yourself in the line of fire, too.”
Which was true, even if it wasn’t the entire truth. I had an idea that I knew Sarah would despise and that idea wouldn’t work if she implicated herself, even if only within her hacker’s community, any more than she already was. If Sarah suspected that my motivations were slightly more misogynistic than she would have preferred, she kept that thought to herself.
I waited for her to say something in rebuke. When no reply came, I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out my safecracking tools: a collapsible stethoscope, a click-pen, and a small blank notebook. “I’m starting now. Let me know if anyone says something I should hear about.” Then, I started to work without waiting for her to respond.
When my fingers first touched the knob, a wave of fear washed through me. It had been many years since the last time I’d successfully broken into any safe, let alone a Fortress. I knew perfectly well that safe manufacturing companies spent millions in research and development, specifically to foil people like me from doing exactly what I intended to do, and I’d been out of the game for a long time.
An instant later, that fear passed. My hands knew what to do, even if my conscious brain had forgotten. I set to work, spinning carefully and jotting down notes to myself in the blank notebook.
Safecracking isn’t a science, so much as an art. Of course, there were hard rules that I’d learned to follow through my career; statistical variations I’d memorized, despite my general weaknesses in math; patterns that recurred, time and time again. But learning those had made me a mediocre thief, at best. It was the art that spoke to me, and the art was where I excelled.
Delicate manipulations of the primary spinner, so that I didn’t miss the nearly inaudible click that signified a contact point. The slightly deeper sound that let me know when I’d found a real point, instead of one of the fakes. Learning to hold my breath as I inched the knob carefully to the left, because even the barest whisper of sound might cause me to miss something critical to the process. All that, and more, were skills I’d honed over the years and cultivated.
I fell into a kind of trance, effectively switching my conscious mind off and allowing muscle memory to run the show. The blaring siren faded into white noise as all of my focus narrowed to the tips of my fingers and my ears, strained to the breaking point to catch even the slightest noise.
Click. I started to write down a number, then stopped. That had been too shallow. A false contact point, perhaps?
I spun the dial a few more digits to the right and heard another click. To the untrained ear, there wasn’t any difference between the two sounds, and even my own hearing wasn’t superhuman. But this one felt different. It felt right. I wrote down a number and calculated a standard deviation to work with later.
About fifteen digits later, I heard another soft click. This one felt like the first, and I knew that my guess had been correct. “Two false points,” I murmured to myself. It might have been three points – hell, there could be as many false points on each wheel as there were wheels in total, but I didn’t allow myself to think about that. Three false points, instead of two, would render my efforts pointless.
Using the numerical range as contact area as a base, I spun the knob through all of its numbers six times and heard a satisfying click on every rotation. I hurried to reset all of the wheels and, when that was finished, repeated my earlier actions, listening even more carefully so that I could narrow down the numerical possibilities. As I worked, I wrote down numbers, reducing the field of numbers with each pass. In complete defiance of common decency, this Fortress’ dial went from zero to two hundred, instead of the more common one hundred. One of those design decisions that wouldn’t keep me from breaking into the safe – every safe was crackable, with sufficient time and equipment – but would keep the average thief in place long enough for an alarm system to get him or her caught.
I sent up a silent curse to everyone who built safes this complicated.
Under normal circumstances, I took great care not to rush the process. It was all too easy to get one number wrong, which would only lead me down a long path to nowhere, but Sarah was right: time was not on my side. Time was never on my side. So, it only took me fifteen minutes of hasty math before I came up with six numbers, between one and two hundred, that might have constituted the lock’s combination: ninety, ninety-two, one hundred and ninety-five, one hundred and eighty-four, one hundred and seventy-one, and thirty-nine.
“Yes?” Her reply came immediately.
For her sake, I pretended not to hear the anxiety flooding her voice. “I’ve got some digits here. Can you see if they correspond to anything in the information you’ve got about Hill?”
I read the numbers out to her. She worked for a few seconds, the steady clicking of her fingers across the keys filling the comms, until she sighed. “No, I can’t find anything that ties them all together. If I had more time, maybe, but as it is…”
“Trial and error, then,’ I said. “An oldie but a goodie.”
I let myself fall back into that trance. The brute force approach to safecracking wasn’t my favorite, but there was a reason that so many people used it around the world: when every other option failed, there was something inescapably effective about simply exhausting your options through simple persistence.
First, I ruled out the two combination of numbers that were in ascending and descending order. Then, playing on a hunch, I removed every combination that began or ended with the highest or lowest numbers. There wasn’t any logic or reason to that decision, except for a vague feeling that Hill wouldn’t do that. I didn’t know him well enough to socially engineer the password and, even if I’d had the opportunity to look into his personal life and observe how he behaved as a nobleman, there were layers to the man that I couldn’t begin to guess at.
Carefully, I started at the top of my diminished list. 92, click. 90, click. 195…nothing.
I reset the wheels and tried another combination, replacing 195 with 184. The wheel clicked into place. I spun the knob to 195 in the fourth slot, instead of the fifth, and was rewarded by a soft noise as the wheel fell into place. 171 was also correct. When I tried to enter 171, however, I heard nothing at all.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” I said aloud. I reset the wheels and spun them until I’d entered all of the numbers again and reversed the order of the numbers 39 and 171. Both numbers clicked into place. I smiled to myself, suppressing the urge to pump my fist in glee, and pulled on the door.
Nothing happened. I blinked and exerted more muscle. The door didn’t move and the steel handles stubbornly refused to budge.
Had I gotten it wrong? Was the Fortress more difficult than I’d been assuming? Had I misread the false contact points? If so, I didn’t have the time to start from scratch. As it was, I was already risking my life and the lives of my team on a slim hunch.
No. No, I knew my trade, and I hadn’t made a mistake earlier. But, I recalled, this wasn’t the Fortress. This was a new model, not yet available on the market. And, if there was one thing I understood about businesses and thieves alike, it was that misinformation was often worth its weight in gold.
I spun the wheel all the way back to 92 and heard, to my immense gratification, another click. That was followed by a slight shift in the way the handles felt in my hands. I spun those, instead of the knob, and they moved. The safe door opened three seconds later.
Contained within, I saw a thick stack of passports and several bundles of money, in various currencies. I moved those aside. In the very back of the safe, a small silver attache case rested. I pulled it free and opened it on the bedroom floor. There, shimmering in the light cast by an interior bulb, sat the Book.
I closed the attache case and it snapped shut with a tiny click. “Sarah,” I said, “I’ve got the Book. Time to get out of here.”
The earbuds popped twice and went absolutely silent.
“Sarah?” I stood up and eased the safe’s door shut. “Are you there?”
I started to turn towards the door when a massive shadow fell over me. I froze in place, at the exact instant that I heard a noise. Before, the sound had been longed for, something to pursue and celebrate. Now, it made my knees quiver and sent my heartbeat skyrocketing into unhealthily high numbers.