“Sarah.” My stomach twisted into Escher-like knots and beads of sweat blossomed up and down my arms, but I kept my voice calm, level, and low. “Please tell me that you can turn this off.”
“I’m trying,” she said, “but this doesn’t make any sense! I’m in their network. According to the museum’s own computers, everything is fine. Nothing spiked, you didn’t trip anything, and there wasn’t any signal that could even activate a security grid. It’s almost like…” She trailed off. “Oh. Oh.”
“Oh? That doesn’t sound like a very inspired ‘oh,’ Sarah. I’m going to need a little more on that ‘oh’ and what it means for me, okay?”
“I can’t find any trace of that laser grid in the museum’s system, because it isn’t in the museum’s system. And there isn’t a network signal to track down, because it isn’t wireless.”
I parsed that information. I reached the same conclusion as Sarah in short order, but the absurdity was large enough that I still had trouble accepting it as reality. “Someone actually went to the trouble of wiring a physical security system to a pressure plate, to protect this damn thing?”
“Unless you’ve got a better idea. Nothing else explains the utter lack of documentation, does it?”
The angry red lasers rose and fell, changed direction, and intersected with each other at seemingly random intervals no more than a foot away from me. Now that I was looking specifically for them, I could spot the tiny marks in the wall where laser pointers were concealed. “Doesn’t really matter if it make sense,” I conceded. “Can you turn it off?”
“How am I supposed to do that? There isn’t a network to hack into. Short of physically cutting the wiring – which is a bit difficult to do from here – there wasn’t any way for me to stop that trap from activating. I could shut down the power to the whole museum, but even that might not work. If I’d gone to the trouble of setting something like that up, you can be damn sure I’d give it a dedicated power source.”
The pulsing fear at the base of my skull, that primal need to escape that had kept me just ahead of the police for much of my career, had only grown stronger during my stay in La Santé. I kept it under my control, barely, and spoke through clenched teeth. “I’m running out of time. Either I move now and every guard in the building knows exactly where I am, or I stick around until someone patrols by…and then every guard in the building knows exactly where I am. So, I’m going to need you to come up with options.” A tense second passed. “Please.”
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking…can you turn so that I can get a better look at the laser grid between you and the gate?”
I turned, careful to keep my limbs as close to my chest as possible. When the mini-camera was pointed directly at the gate, I stopped and waited. The droplets of sweat grew to the size of large raindrops and crawled down my side and the back of my neck. I took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. When that didn’t work, I repeated the process three more times, with similar results. “Sarah? I’m really starting to weigh the relative merits of just making a dash for it.”
“Give me just a few more seconds,” she said. “I’m almost…”
“A few more seconds?” I could feel the exact instant when my nerves slipped out my control. “I don’t have a few seconds. It’s got to be awfully comfortable knowing that you can just disconnect and skip town, but I will go to prison for this. If not worse, considering the Magi are involved in this. Or did you forget that it’s my actual skin in the game?”
As soon as the words passed my lips, I regretted them. Years of partnership – even the events of that very night – served as clear evidence that Sarah was as much involved in this heist as I was, just on a different playing field. I opened my mouth to apologize, but couldn’t seem to find an appropriate way to phrase my apology.
She spoke before I had a chance to. “Got it!”
“This isn’t ideal,” she said, “and there isn’t really a way to test it, but I might have a way for you to get out of that room.”
“I’m willing to listen to creative solutions.”
“You’re…” Sarah hesitated. “You’ll have to dance,” she finished finally.
“…what?” I blinked, tapped the earbud with a fingernail, and shook my head. “Did I just hear that right?”
“I think there’s a pattern,” she said, “and you could learn it yourself if you had the time. But there isn’t time.”
“So, I’ve got to dance. Through a security grid.” I bit down on the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing out loud at the ridiculousness. “Well, that’s not the craziest thing I’ve heard in the past week, is it?”
“It gets worse,” Sarah said.
“Of course it gets worse.”
“There’s a specific rhythm you’ll need to follow, with very specific footwork. You already know the steps, though. At least, I hope you do.”
“Okay. What’s the dance?”
Instead of an answer, Sarah played a familiar song through the earbuds. I realized it instantly, and a memory played in my mind: the ballroom scene from the remake of Thomas Crowne Affair. “Our wedding song?”
“You’ve only got a minute and change before the guard patrols back,” Sarah said, ignoring my protest. “Get in position. You’ll have to start immediately if you want to make it out of the exhibit with enough time to reach some cover.”
Despite the clammy grip of fear on my heart, despite the nearly audible click as precious seconds vanished, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. The world as I knew it had clearly fallen away, replaced by a world where insanity ruled and everything was stacked specifically to dig at old wounds. “Ready,” I said, out loud.
I started to dance. Sarah’s concerns about my memory were unfounded; my feet knew what to do. They’d never forgotten. Since our split, I’d dedicated a part of myself to the simple task of blocking those memories out. It was a relief to relax those guards, even if only for a few seconds. I pivoted, backstepped, dipped, and spun through the lasers. My eyes tracked their movements automatically as I made minute adjustments to the steps when one beam or another threatened to cross paths with my body. When I reached the gate, thirty seconds after I’d moved away from the dais, I found that I didn’t want to stop dancing.
Sarah’s voice brought me back to the moment. “That was perfect,” she said in a slightly breathless voice. “The guard’s on the way back to you. Thirty-three seconds.”
I pulled the gate closed once more and, after it locked with a soft click, hurried across the hallway to a darkened alcove. The shadows around the nearest alcove were deep enough that I had trouble picking it out at first. I slipped into concealment, until my right shoulder touched a wall, and held my breath. I couldn’t turn my head in such tight quarters and all I could see was a black expanse.
“Here he comes,” Sarah said. “Approaching from the south, right on schedule.” The silence from her side of the comms stretched in excruciating, glacial seconds. “And…there he goes,” she said, just when I thought that I’d go mad from the waiting. “You should be clear for the next five minutes.”
I eased out of the alcove and glanced cautiously in both directions. The hallway, further into the museum and leading out to the lobby, was clear. I let out my held breath and dug my thumb into the offending itch. “Well, that was fun,” I said. I’d meant it sarcastically but, suddenly, I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t being entirely serious.
“I don’t know that I’d qualify that as fun,” Sarah replied. “You’ll take the same path back out. Stop off in that office, wait for the guard to pass, and then make your exit.”
“Can you get Michel on the line?” I asked. “I’m going to need a ride out of here, and I’d rather not have to wait for a cab.”
Sarah hesitated. “Give me a second,” she said finally.
I moved back into the shadows and waited until the line popped, letting me know that Sarah had connected the call into our communications. “Michel?” I asked
“Oui, Devlin,” Michel’s voice came in. “How are things at the gala?”
“Considerably more exciting than I’d expected,” I said, as I crept away from the exhibit. “You wouldn’t be able to give me a ride back to the hotel, would you?”
“You have perfect timing, mon ami,” Michel replied. “I was having dinner at a restaurant, not very far from the museum, but I am finished now. I could be there in…ten minutes, perhaps?”
“Hold on a second, okay?”
I couldn’t verbally give Sarah the signal to mute his line, but the pop in my ear let me know that she’d come to that conclusion on her own. “What’re you thinking?”
“Sarah,” I asked, “you said that the guards don’t change rotations for the rest of the night?”
“Not according to their duty rosters, no.”
“Could I hide out in that office until Michel’s almost here, then?”
She considered that. “It isn’t a bad plan. That would give me a chance to get a better look at those documents, at least.”
“Alright, then.” The line popped once more, bringing my French friend back on the line. “Ten minutes should be fine. I can meet you at the café across the street.”
“I am on the way,” Michel said.
I started to say something, but stopped. My instincts told me that something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was bothering me. The pressure plate, complete with its own dedicated security system, was the sort of thing that only a very paranoid person would think of. Someone that paranoid would probably take even more steps to ensure the safety of the crown. Perhaps even setting up a security system for the sole purpose of luring any possible thieves into a false sense and security, only to –
Every light in the museum switched on, at the same time. The light was so abrupt and blinding that I recoiled from it instinctively, almost dropping the crown in the process. A millisecond later, a shrill howling alarm went off that lifted every hair on my arms and set my nerves on high alert.
“What?” Sarah’s voice was louder, by virtue of the earbud, than the alarm itself. “God damn it!”
My legs took off in a dead run without any input from my conscious mind. I spoke into the comms as I ran. “How did I trip the alarms?”
“You didn’t! That pressure plate under the crown must have been set up to manually trigger the museum’s own security system.” There was a burst of frenzied typing from her end of the line. “And to dial out to the police, too. On another damn hard line. Who the hell has a wired phone anymore?”
“Devlin, Sarah? What is going on?” Michel’s voice was filled with concern. “What are you talking about?”
“Absolutely nothing about this job is what it seems like,” I said, to Sarah. I took the next corner without slowing and banged one shoulder against a wall as I changed direction. “And I am really beginning to revisit my stance on guns, as it pertains to Asher for putting me through all this.”
“Guards, ahead of you!” Sarah snapped.
“Guards? What guards?” There was so much confusion in Michel’s voice that I would have laughed in almost any other situation.
I skidded to a halt, just as two guards appeared at the end of the hallway. The surprise in their body language mirrored my own. I recovered first and pushed off of the nearest wall, heading in the opposite direction at top speed. I caught a glint of metal in the corner of my eyes. I rounded the corner I’d just cleared as, just over my head, paint exploded from a bullet that only missed me by inches.
“They’re shooting at me, Sarah,” I said. I gave up on any pretense of controlling my adrenal surge and let it flow freely through my limbs instead. “I need an exit, and I can’t use the lobby anymore. What else have you got for me?”
“I don’t…what…” Her ability to deal with the unexpected was taxed now. I berated myself for missing the signs.
I stopped for just a second, and knelt behind a display case, so that I could catch my breath. “Sarah,” I said, injecting every ounce of calm I still possessed into my voice, “I need you to be my eyes. You’ve still got the cameras, don’t you?”
She inhaled audibly. “I…I’ve still got them.”
“If I’m about to run into anyone, give me a heads up. Michel, I don’t know what you’ve got to do, but I need you here now.”
I couldn’t imagine the shock he was feeling, but there must have been steel in him. I heard him lean into the horn of his car and several other horns responded in kind. “I am hurrying,” he said. “I do not know what is going on, but I am hurrying. You will be at the café?”
“Wait!” The word came from Sarah’s end of the line in a single, sharp sound. Several rapid-fire clicks came over the line. “I’m sending you an address, Michel. Go there, and then wait. Devlin, you’re going to have to go through a different part of the museum, out to the theatre. Do you remember how to get there?”
“Past the people with the guns? Because I am not a fan of the people with the guns.” I stopped and thought. “Guards don’t even carry guns in England!”
She didn’t comment on my realization. “I can pull some of them away from you, but not all of them. If there’s one or two in the way, you’ll have to handle that on your own.”
“How are you going to pull them away?”
“You said it yourself.” I thought I heard a shadow of a smile in her voice. “I’ve got the cameras.”
“False trail,” she said.
“False trail?” Michel asked. From his side of the comms, tires squealed and horns blared their displeasure. “What is this false trail?”
I started to run in the direction of the theatre. Sarah explained when, after twenty seconds, I said nothing. “These feeds were still running,” she said, “it’s just that I intercepted what they saw and what the guards saw. Now that they know Devlin’s in the building, there’s no point in pretending everything’s just fine. Instead…” She typed a command into her computer.
Voices reached my ears from the other end of the hallway. They stopped, spoke in thick Cockney accents, and then went in the opposite direction.
When Sarah spoke again, she sounded positively triumphant. “Instead, I can show them exactly what they’re looking for. Which still isn’t the truth, but it gives them something to chase after.”
“I do not…zut alors, I do not understand what it is that you are saying,” Michel said.
I interjected before Sarah could continue her explanation. “She can put up video of me running through the hallways,” I said, “except away from the theatre. Even though they’ve got to know their system’s been subjugated, people fall back on familiarities when they’re stressed out. If their cameras still look like they’re working, then there’ll be someone who trusts them implicitly.”
Sarah picked up the thread. “But not everyone. If we’re lucky…well, nevermind. Devlin, you’re coming up on the theatre now. Michel, where are you?”
I could almost hear the gears in the Frenchman’s mind clicking and grinding as he forced them to work, despite the unimaginable strain of this new information. “I am almost there. Perhaps five more minutes?”
“The police are on the way to the museum,” she said. “They aren’t concerned with some speeding or traffic violations. Can you get there in three? Or two and a half?”
The tiny engine in his car whined as he forced it to even higher RPMs. “Oui, mademoiselle,” he said. “I will make it.”
I entered the theatre. My lungs ached from lack of oxygen, but I didn’t slow my pace. There were two guards in the aisles. My arrival, clad in a bespoke suit of fine fabric, sprinting in a dead heat away from the museum proper provoked something like a blue screen in their minds. They froze for an instant; powered by panic and terror, I did not. I crashed into one with my shoulder and knocked him to the ground. My momentum helped me and I rolled back up to my feet, just as the other guard reached for a collapsible baton. I kicked him once on the inside of his thigh and then reversed my own attack with a diagonal elbow strike to the back of his neck. He followed his partner to the carpeted floor.
The theatre door opened behind me. I didn’t waste a second checking on either of the two unarmed guards I’d dropped. I ran like a madman to the exit. I heard a lone voice yell something at me. The words were English but, in my haste, my brain refused to translate the sound into anything intelligible. The door was only a couple of yards away. I reached and opened it, just as the sound of a gunshot echoed through the acoustically enhanced space. Something pushed into my shoulder, giving me an extra boost, and I tumbled out of the theatre into open air. Michel’s cab, smoke pouring from beneath its hood, screeched up ahead of me.
“Devlin!” Sarah yelled into the comms. “Devlin, are you hurt?”
I yanked the back passenger door open and threw myself and the crown into the seat. Michel slammed his foot down and the car began to accelerate.
“Sarah,” I gasped out. Every muscle in my body hurt. “Lock them in.”
“What are you…oh!” She keyed a command into her computer. “Lockdown’s initiated. Now, are you okay? I saw one of them shoot at you, just before you made it outside!”
I rolled over, so that I could face the ceiling of the car and sucked down oxygen greedily. My shoulder, in particular, hurt much more than my abused and overworked legs. I reached a tentative hand up to touch the area and pulled the fingers away instantly as they brushed against something hot.
“Good news,” I said, between hungry gulps of air. “Suzie does great work.”