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!”