Category Archives: The Florence Job

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.


The Florence Job, Part 2 (Devlin)

“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!”

“Got what?”

“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.”

“On it.”

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.

The Florence Job, Part 1 (Alex)

The wind picked up and Alex flipped up the collar of his jacket to keep his neck warm.  “Are we on schedule?”

Static popped in his ear.  He winced, and adjusted the headset, as Sarah’s voice came over the comms.  “More or less,” she said.  “There were…complications.”  He’d heard that tone too many times to miss its hidden meaning.

Sure enough, Devlin spoke next.  Just hearing his voice brought a slight smile to Alex’ face.  “Listen, love, there was a lot happening here and it was all happening at once.  I was just trying to keep things copacetic.”

Sarah sighed, but said nothing.  Alex could easily imagine her biting into her lip to keep from yelling at her husband over the comms.  The mental image widened his smile.

“Um,” a woman, not Sarah, began.  The smile was wiped, thoroughly and completely, from his face in an instant.  “Does that mean everything is okay?”

“Everything is fine, Johannah,” Alex said, soothing her with his words as much as his tone.  From where he waited, he had no line of sight to Johnannah’s location.  Still, he turned in her general direction anyway.  All that he saw were walls, buildings, and bridges in front of him.  “Do not worry, okay?”

“I…will try,” she said back, hesitantly.

Two clicks sounded through the earbuds before Sarah spoke again.  “Alex?  Remind me why this is a good idea.”

He found a clear space on his boat to sit and stayed silent.  Johnannah was frightened enough already; the last thing she needed was to hear his own doubts regarding her presence on this job.

“Oh, you’re on private comms,” Sarah said, after a few seconds passed.  “You’re just talking to me right now.”

“It is not a good idea,” he said in a soft voice.  “Not at all.”

“Then why?  Sure, she’s already got the easiest role out us all – all she’s really got to do is watch one building – but I don’t see why we’ve got her with us in the first place.”

“Johannah told me that she wanted to share everything with me,” Alex answered.  “My life, my love, and my occupation.”

Sarah was quiet for the next handful of seconds.  “And how often does that sort of thing work out for people like us?”

“It seems to work well for you and Devlin, no?”

She chuckled.  “Devlin and I are a unique situation.”

He checked his watch.  If things continued according to plan, the specific gondola they wanted would pass under the Ponte Vecchio in the next five minutes.  Sarah was using her network of appropriated cameras to follow the gondola as it moved through the waterways.  Devlin was…somewhere.  Alex wasn’t ever really sure where the roguish thief was, or what his methods were, but they produced results time and time again.  According to Sarah, Devlin was supposed to find a way onto the gondola just after it passed beneath the Ponte Vecchio.  The prevailing opinion was that he should try to fall or swim onto it, but the specific technique he chose to utilize remained up to his own discretion.

Alex had used his connections in Florence to obtain a second gondola, nearly the same size and color of their target.  Sarah’s work in the area had been too clandestine for her to form the right sort of friendships; Devlin was, more often than not, something of a bull in a china shop.  His friends would walk across molten coals for him, but there were very few people who could tolerate his impulsiveness for long.  Alex was one.  Sarah, obviously, was another.  He’d heard Devlin mention one or two other friends, scattered across the globe, but this job had only required four people and so he had only recruited Alex and Sarah.  Alex himself had, inadvertently, provided the fourth man, as well.

It had been a simple mistake; the sort of thing that he treated as a joke, when it happened to others.  Upon returning home to his wife Johannah and their relatively newborn daughter, Alex had forgotten to remove a ticket stub from the inside pocket of an old, weather-beaten coat.  When Johannah found the stub – a departure ticket from Monte Carlo, with an assortment of layovers and transfers – she’d leapt to the assumption that Alex had been unfaithful.  He’d vehemently defended himself against her accusations but, in a moment of emotional shortsightedness, he’d let a hint of the truth slip.  She’d grasped the slim clue and pulled until the whole tapestry of lies unraveled in her lap.

Now, driven to see what her husband did for work, Johannah served as their lookout.  She was positioned on a bench outside of the Uffizi.  Her job was simple and direct.  All that she needed to do was watch the entrance to the museum.  It was closed today and the next day after that; with a forty-eight hour window, the team would not have been particularly rushed if not for the presence of another crew casing the same location.  Johannah was to watch the museum entrance and, if anyone entered the building, for any reason at all, to declare “the cat’s in the cradle.”  That signal would abort the entire operation.

“Alex?”  Sarah asked.

He jolted back to the present and shook the gondola a little.  The boatman shot Alex a look and frowned.  “I am here,” he said.

“So…why are we doing this again?”

“Because,” he said, “I am tired of lying to her.”

Sarah had no answer to that.  “That makes sense, but…”  She stopped, mid-sentence.  Alex heard her fingers flying across her keyboard.  “What are you talking about, Devlin?”

No reply came into Alex’ earbud.  Sarah must have been listening to the other lines, as well.  Whatever had distracted her was enough that she forgot to add Alex back into the general conversation.  “What is it?”  He asked.

Sarah spoke, but she wasn’t responding to Alex’ question. “Devlin, tell me what you see.”  Pause.  “How many?”  Another pause, longer this time.  “Johannah, are you there?”  Alex’ palms began to sweat, and the moisture was cold on his skin.  “Shit,” Sarah said.  “Shit, shit, shit, shit!”

“Sarah!”  He snapped into the microphone, startling the boatman and drawing the curious eyes of some tourists on the Arno’s banks.  “What is happening?”

The line clicked, three times now, and Alex was overwhelmed by the sudden influx of voices.  Devlin spoke louder and his words dominated the tumult of noise.  “I can see where they’re covering her,” he said, “but it’ll take me time to get there.”

“Covering her?”  Sarah asked.  “What do you mean ‘covering her?’ She’s an unarmed civilian!”

They’re not unarmed,” Devlin said.  “I count five gunmen right now.  No telling if there’s more hiding somewhere.”

Johannah whimpered into her microphone.  She spoke, after a moment, in a barely audible whisper.   “What do I do?”

Alex spun and jabbed a finger at the boatman.  His Italian wasn’t the strongest, but simple phrases were easy to recall.  “Portami a riva!”  He punctuated the command by stamping his foot into the gondola.  The boatman began to steer the vessel towards the nearest bank.  Alex switched back to English.  “Who is armed?  Where is my wife?”

Sirens came through the comms, accompanied by the sounds of heavy, rapid footfalls.  It was Devlin who spoke, between ragged gasps for oxygen.  “The other…crew…they’ve got…guns…and…they…”

“They saw her?”  Alex asked.  The gondola drew close enough to the bank and he leapt from it before it could slow or stop.  Only one foot landed with enough purchase to support his weight.  He flailed around until he caught the front shirt of an unsuspecting tourist.  He pulled on the man’s shirt and managed to get his other foot onto solid ground.  The tourist found himself in the canal before he could react.  As soon as Alex felt his footing was secure enough, he took off running without a backwards glance at the soggy civilian.  “What are they doing?  Someone, tell me what is happening!”

Sarah answered.  She was calm, but not unconcerned.  He’d worked with her enough in the past to know when she was forcing herself to remain cold.  “Johannah was watching the Uffizi, but the other crew had their own lookout.  Best guess is they saw her talking into the comms, and figured she was part of a rival team.  So they flanked her and by the time Devlin was close enough to see her, it was too late.  She panicked and ran.”

“Where is she now?”  Alex asked.  Sarah didn’t answer immediately, and so he raised his voice and repeated himself in a near panic.  “Where is she?”

“We…”  Sarah hesitated, then continued.  “We don’t know yet.  Devlin?”

“Lost them,” Devlin said, after a long stretch of silence.  “She’s good, though.  I think she slipped them.”

“Johannah?”  Sarah prompted.

Alex’ wife didn’t respond to the question for what felt like an eternity.  “I am okay,” she said.  Alex swallowed a mouthful of air and realized, somewhat distantly, that he’d stopped breathing at some point.  “I think they do not know where I am.”

“Okay,” Sarah said.  The clatter of her fingers striking keys came from her end of the line.  “Wherever you are,” she said, “I can’t get a read on your GPS.  Are you underground?”

“Yes,” Johannah said.  “What is happening?”

“Nothing we didn’t have a plan for,” Sarah said.  Alex heard the pause, but it took him a second to realize it was her tell.  She was lying.


Two clicks in his ear, signifying that she’d isolated the two of them once more.  “What?”  Sarah asked.

“You do have an extraction plan, right?”  She didn’t answer.  “Sarah, tell me you have a plan.”

“We…didn’t expect them to flank us like this,” she admitted.

“Alex, we’re going to get her out,” Devlin said.  Alex was surprised to hear his voice on the line.  Apparently Sarah had only removed Johannah from the communications link.  He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.  “She’s somewhere safe for the moment, and we’ll evac the second we get to her.”

“She is alone,” Alex said, pushing his way through crowds as he dashed through the streets to the café Jonahannah was supposed to be.  “And she is scared.  She is not like us!”

“I’ve got the police headed to her last known location,” Sarah said.  “She’s got no record here, or anywhere, so there’s no chance she goes to jail.  And the law should clear the other team out of the area.”

Alex slowed slightly.  A police presence was normally the worst possible development but now, with his wife pinned down by an unknown number of assailants, it seemed like the only move with a chance of success.  “What are you going to do, Devlin?”

“If I can,” Devlin said, “I’m going to find the group and keep them tied up dealing with me.  That’ll give Johannah a little breathing room.”

“And I’ll keep on the police frequencies.  As soon as they find her, I’ll loop you two in,” Sarah added.  “But Alex?  We’ve got to keep her calm.  Civilians make mistakes and we can’t afford any mistakes right now.  Got it?”

He nodded.  “I understand,” he said.   “Put her back on.”

Three clicks.  “Are you still there?”  Johannah asked.  “Alex?  Devlin, Sarah?”

“I am here, engel,” Alex said.  He made his way around two more tourists, ducking beneath their camera, and came within sight of the café.  A waiter was picking Johannah’s abandoned chair from the ground and righting it at the table.  Alex’ heartbeat quickened, but he forced himself to sound calm.  “Devlin is coming to get you now, okay?”

“What is going on where you are?”

Alex looked around at his surroundings.  There was no sign at the Uffizi or at the café of the rival crew.  He saw other overturned chairs and tables.  The general destruction left a loose trail, heading off down the street, to the Palazzo Pitti.  He set off, staying as close to the trail as he possibly could.  “Everything will be fine,” he said.  “Can you tell me what your surroundings look like?”

“She can’t hear me right now,” Sarah said in his ear.  “Keep her talking, okay?  Any details she can give will help me direct the cops to her.”

“It is…dark,” Johannah said.  “Very old.  It looks like a…fortress, maybe?”

“That’s the Palazzo Pitti,” Alex said, both for his wife’s benefit and to assist Sarah.  “Can you see anything else?”

“No, I am…afraid to look outside.”

“That is fine,” Alex said quickly.  “Stay where you are.”

“Local law’s not far,” Sarah said.  “Devlin, you heard where Johannah’s at?”

“More or less,” Devlin said.  “I’m a couple minutes away from there right now.”

“Alex?”  Johannah asked.  Devlin and Sarah continued to talk, but Alex could only hear his wife’s voice.  “Alex, what is going to happen?”

“We are going to rescue you, engel,” he said.  “And then we will go home to our daughter and we will be happy.”

He heard sirens over the comms and watched as several cars rounded a corner and headed toward the Palazzo.  “I hear the police,” Johannah said.  “That is good, right?”

“It is very good,” Alex assured her.  “Whoever is out there only wanted the art.  With the police here, the job’s blown.  Their best move now is to just pull out and try again – “

He heard three very loud pops, followed by a rapid-fire staccato burst of noise.  It was audible through his comms and in the air around him.  Tourists looked in the direction of the Palazzo; the locals jerked at the sound as well.  The sirens shut off and, after a few seconds of silence, more pops sounded in the air.  Alex’ blood turned to liquid nitrogen and his heart froze in his chest.

“They’re shooting?”  Devlin’s voice was sharp and pitchy.  “What the hell?”

Alex threw himself into motion, running flat out without regard for the people he bowled over in his haste.  “Johannah!  What is happening, Johannah?”

His wife whimpered something unintelligible into her microphone.  She cleared her throat and tried a second time, in a marginally more understandable voice.  “They are shooting at each other,” she whispered.  “Outside, the police and…the people who followed me.”

Alex’ mind moved as fast as his feet.  He turned a corner, knocked an unoffending florist to the street, and ran on without stopping.  The artwork they’d come for was valuable, of course, but not so valuable that a prolonged shootout with the local police was a proportionate response.  The Italian police were armed, more often than not, and occasionally those weapons took the form of submachine guns and higher caliber weaponry.  The smart move was to disperse.  The score wasn’t worth this much trouble.  It didn’t make any sense.

Devlin spoke, dawning horror in his every syllable.  “This isn’t about the painting,” he said.  “This is personal.  They’re not here for the job; they’re here for us.”

Alex stopped.  “What?”

“How else would they have known to look for a spotter?”  Devlin asked.  “Why would they bring guns to rob an empty museum?  And why would anyone start a fight with the police, instead of going to ground?”

It made sense.  Alex knew it was perfectly logical, if he considered the situation impersonally.  Devlin had made enemies in the past.  Sarah remained detached from most jobs, but there was always the possibility that she had offended some other hacker’s sensibilities in the past.  And Alex, despite his best efforts to remain in good standing with the criminal community, had been forced to protect himself from recklessly dangerous thieves before.  A chance to eliminate three prominent threats would be difficult to ignore.  And, in pursuit of that target, a single civilian casualty would be an acceptable loss.

Except, that single civilian casualty was his wife.  Alex didn’t know when he started to run again; he felt the soles of his feet pounding into the pavement as he ran toward the gunfight, wind whipping tears from his eyes.  “Johannah!”  His voice echoed back from the buildings around him.

“Alex,” Sarah said, “I’m directing backup to the Palazzo now.  Devlin, where are you at?”

“I’m three minutes out,” Devlin said.  He was out of breath.  Alex could hear him choking down as much oxygen as he could.  “How long until the backup?”

“I don’t know,” Sarah said.  Then, after a single beat of silence, Alex heard a loud crash.  “Damn it!  The police are holding position, but…”

“But what?”  Devlin asked.

“They’ve only got eyes on three shooters.  The others are…”

Johannah sobbed into the line.  The sound of her fear galvanized Alex and he forced more speed from his body, left more destruction in his wake.  Most of the citizens had fled the Palazzo as the gunfire increased in duration and intensity; those few that remained, paralyzed by fear, Alex swept from his path.  He saw the Palazzo approaching.  Police lights twinkled at the entrance to the courtyard.

“Alex,” Sarah said, “I see where you are, but you’ve got to hang back.  Backup’s only a minute or two out.  You can’t go in there now.  They’re trigger happy and they’ll shoot you before you can explain yourself.”

Johannah spoke, then.  “The…the cat’s in the cradle,” she whispered in a barely audible voice.  “Someone is here.”

Alex’ heart went into overdrive.  He heard Sarah’s voice, cautioning him to keep his distance, trying to speak reason.  He ripped the headset free and threw it behind him, leapt over a low wall and landed in motion, running full speed.  Two police officers turned at the sudden movement, but he was behind another wall before they could bring their weapons to bear.  A moment later, he found an entrance into the Palazzo itself and slipped inside.  The light fell away as he went deeper into the ruins.  He forged ahead, stubbing his toes and banging his shins against hidden obstacles.  After a while, a light appeared in the gloom.  It bobbed up and down, at about average shoulder height.

“Johannah!”  Alex yelled into the darkness.  “Johannah, ich komme!”