In 2012, I wrote a short story as a challenge for a writing program I was with. I’m happy with the character, and the type of story it is – a ticking clock, a heist, a love story of sorts. I’ve decided to post it for folks to read here on the blog. So, ladies and gentlemen, sit back, and Breathe.
Breathe By D. G. Speirs
Copyright ©2013 D.G. Speirs. All right reserved.
I looked through the monocular in night vision mode.
Just keep breathing. You can do this.
I scanned the balcony on the building across the gap for signs of surveillance – cameras, sensors, guards. It was as I’d been told – dark, quiet, a blind spot in a place that wouldn’t have many. Best to exploit what few advantages I could. Hopefully I could remember the others that might still be there in time.
Breathe. Don’t dwell.
I glanced down from the window I was standing behind. Fifteen stories below, the ground waited for me to make a mistake, knowing I wouldn’t win any arguments on appeal. I leaned backed, scanned once more for any signs I was under surveillance (besides the one obvious one) and exited the office. I walked with a deliberate pace past the darkened cubicles to the fire stairs. As I opened the door, I checked my watch.
Twenty-six minutes left.
I had twenty-six minutes to finish this or Sarah would be…
Breathe. Don’t think of that now. Focus on the task. Accomplishing that. Stairs. Five flights of them. Get moving.
I pounded up them, one after another, quickly; sixteen steps, then a landing and a turn. Then sixteen more. 17th floor. 18th floor. Each step was a precious second, a grain of sand in an hourglass I wasn’t getting back.
Haste will get you killed, boy. Quickly, but not hastily.
It was ironic that I heard Henri’s voice in my head as I reached the top of the stairs. After all, it was climbing stairs like these on a job for him I’d first met her…
Her hair was cinnamon red. She was an artist – she had a sketch pad and was sitting in the stairwell of the old building, sketching the railing and the patterns the shadows made on the wall. I saw her for all of seven seconds as I bounded past. But as our eyes met, I thought I’d never seen a pair more striking. Azure blue. As I continued upward, I heard her laugh.
The door to the rooftop was locked, but a quick spray of liquid nitrogen and some judiciously applied force took care of that. I moved outside to the southern edge of the roof and looked again at my target.
As hiding places go, Stevens Global was pretty effective. Just another nondescript office building in midtown, with faceless, nameless people wandering in and out. As they say, the best way to hide is in plain sight. I certainly hoped so – I’d spent a lot of money and effort over the years to make it that way.
I put down my backpack and methodically laid out my gear. First, the crossbow; the components snapped and locked together, too loud to my ears. Next, the bolt. I carefully looped through and crimped off one end of the wire I’d brought. I reexamined the crimp as if my life depended on it.
Not just mine, this time.
Laying it aside, I grabbed a small object the size of a mascara tube and kneeled at the parapet. A couple of twists and the tube extended a small tripod. I placed it on the edge, and flipped a switch on top. Both ends of the tube glowed green. I switched the monocular back into night vision and immediately a bright green line speared out across the gap, painting a target on the wall of the balcony. I glanced behind me. I’d gotten lucky – I’d be able to anchor the line above the door leading to the stairs.
I grabbed an anchor plate and a quick epoxy patch from the bag, moved to the door, and climbed atop it, careful not to slip and risk her life. At the base of the stairwell I could hear voices and feet running. I’d set off the alarms and security was on its way. I had three minutes. Maybe four, tops.
I slid the anchor plate with its wire guide onto the epoxy patch, then slapped that over the laser target and onto the wall and pushed my weight against it, hard. I waited the eternity of sixty seconds for the epoxy to cure, my thoughts straying, her voice in my mind…
“Strange to keep running into you all over,” she said, her eyes crinkling as she smiled. “If I didn’t know better I’d say you were following me.”
“Or you, me.”
“Oh, monsieur, you have discovered the truth. I am in fact a detective, trailing your every movement.” She laughed again. “You are giving me a merry chase, no?”
She tasted of cinnamon and café au lait and sunlight…
I pulled at the plate. Then I hung down from it, using it to support my full weight. It held.
I swung back up onto the door. I fished out the end of the wire I’d brought, and a device that looked like a tube with teeth. I fed the wire through the wire guide on the plate into the tube. Once I was sure the line was secure I flipped a switch on the tube. Small motors started to run as the wire started feeding through the plate.
Quickly, not hastily.
I jumped down, ran to the crossbow and in a single smooth motion brought it up to fire. I started to aim, then blinked and lowered the bow. My eyes were stinging. I wiped away the sweat.
I never used to sweat when doing a job.
This job was different. This job mattered.
I raised the crossbow again, and aimed. Henri’s voice came unbidden, a habit from years of training.
Slow down. Feel your breathing. Remember to aim a little high. Exhale. And squeeze.
The bolt leapt across the one-hundred-twenty-foot gap and buried itself in the concrete seven feet above the balcony. As soon as I was sure the shot had hit I pressed a button on a small remote hanging from a belt loop. The motors in the small tube sped up, feeding more wire through it, pulling the line taut. As I finished packing my gear, I listened for a moment.
They were only six or seven floors away.
Time to go. Keep moving.
I pulled the zip line pulley out of my pack, clipped it onto the line, and without taking time to think leapt out over the gap. The line held, although it sagged more than I would have liked. Gravity did its job and I was down the line and across the gap in ten seconds. I just barely cleared the balcony edge.
Even as I dropped off the pulley, I reached for my cellphone and entered a three digit code. On the far rooftop there was a brief white flash. The zip line wire glowed red, then white, then fell away from both anchors toward the street below. Before it hit, it disintegrated into a cloud of dust.
I saw movement on the rooftop and ducked into the shadows. I glanced at my watch.
“You’ve got her all wrong, Henri. She’ll be no trouble at all. Look, her father is a low-level aide at the US Embassy in London. She’s a bit of a troublemaker herself – you know the type, tomboyish at times, stands her ground. Something of a geek girl, too. She’s enjoying one last summer on the continent before starting school in the fall – Columbia Law, I think.”
“Bah. You’re not thinking with your head. Or at least, not with the big one. So, what’s her name?”
“Trinity. But she likes to be called Trin…”
There’s still enough time.
I sneak a glance over the edge of the balcony railing – the rooftop is now abandoned.
Standing, I walked over to the door. This was easy – Henri taught me how to bypass alarm circuits when I was twelve. Of course, when it came to this building, I also knew about the misdirection – you’d see a big obvious sensor, but the small unobtrusive one is the one you’d miss. The one that’d nail you.
I bypassed those, too. All three of them.
There’d only been two the last time. So much for the blind spot.
But I was inside, and my watch said I had 13:48 left. I was still ahead of the game.
Until I heard the door to the outer office open.
I quickly slid closed the balcony door and dove under the closest cover – a desk. I crouched there, frozen, listening, my heart pounding. Panic building. Each heartbeat another second off the clock.
No. I wanted to breathe, but I held it, fearing even that tiny sound would bring the world down on me.
I heard rustling in the front portion of the office, where the secretary would be. I hesitated, then slipped out my phone and activated the camera, placing it so the lens could see under the bottom edge of the desk. I turned it slowly to scan the room. Movement, then a light came on.
I evaluated my options. Going through this woman was at the bottom of the list. But getting caught really wasn’t an option, either. Not with only a little more than twelve minutes left.
The good news, though, was if this woman was just starting on this office, I would be able to work unmolested elsewhere on the floor.
Unless they’d changed the cleaning schedule.
You should’ve never gone on a job this big alone. Again, Henri’s voice, chiding me inside my head. Fat lot of good…
“…never go on a job that big alone. Too many ways things can go wrong – get stuck in a shaft, rope breaks, you need a distraction. On and on, boy, on and on. Too big a list. That’s why you need a partner.”
“I know, old man. And I know Trin is the one.”
“The girl? Bah. Bad road, that one. Oh, if what you say is true, she might have her uses. But as an inside man? Never happen.”
“That’s the wine talking, old man…”
I looked behind me. The credenza was open, and inside were two bottles of 2007 Fabrice Gasnier Vielles Vignes Premiere Chinon, still in their presentation box. I’d had four cases delivered and distributed during my last ‘visit.’ I couldn’t still be that lucky – could I?
Don’t get excited. Be slow. Measured.
Quietly I reached out and slid the box out toward me, undid the latch and took out the bottles. The false bottom was still in place, silver and glass, its prize inside. I opened it and removed the flash drive. Yes, this would work nicely.
I pocketed the drive and replaced everything else as it had been, then risked glancing out the office door. The light was on, but the cleaning woman wasn’t visible. I closed my eyes for a moment, concentrating, remembering the plans to this floor. She must be in the private bathroom. Quickly I scrambled to my feet, around the desk and to the doorway.
The bathroom door was open. I could hear her humming a tune as she worked. She had a pretty voice.
I walked quietly to the open outer door and glanced down the hallway. No one else. I exited and turned left.
I looked at my watch.
Not enough time.
I felt the panic rise as I ran down the hall. The office at the end had a commanding view of the river. I know. I’d enjoyed it for the past couple of years. I had the feeling it might be a while before I got to again.
Breathe. Concentrate. Don’t dwell.
But considering the alternative, what’s ten years of your life?
“Let’s get married.”
She looked for my reaction. I propped my head on one elbow. “Love to. Can’t.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“Probably a little of both.” I leaned over to kiss her. It was how I avoided fights—make love, not war.
She dodged the kiss. Diplomacy was not going to win the day today.
“I gathered. What’s really going on?”
She turned and sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, then walked over, naked, to the window. I used to joke with Trin that her American friends wouldn’t believe she was living in Paris, because we had the only flat whose window didn’t overlook the Eiffel Tower.
“I’ve been offered a job.”
“I didn’t know you’d been looking.”
“I hadn’t. It’s the sort of job that comes looking for you.”
“I see. And what does it involve?”
“Moving back to America.”
I didn’t say anything, I just watched her.
“Somebody wants me. I was hoping…”
“That maybe somebody else wanted you more?”
She nodded, biting her lower lip. I’d seen Trin in all sorts of ways before, but this was new. A little hopeful, but also frightened. I could not remember a time I had ever seen her fragile. It gave me pause.
“Ah. A little sudden, don’t you think?”
“It happens that way.”
“And if I say yes?”
“Happily ever after.”
“Well, for you, yes—”
I did not see the slap coming.
I did not know she could move that fast…
It had to look like they’d been violated by someone sophisticated, but also misdirected – a complete outside hack. At the same time, I needed to get the data my guest was demanding – files from one of my clients – electronic transfer validation keys. Generated daily, good for 24 hours only.
I glanced up and down the hall again and then pulled out a set of lock picks. They’d been Henri’s. I was inside the office in 12 seconds.
You’re slowing down boy. Henri’s voice again, looking over my shoulder.
Breathe. Concentrate, damn it.
Sorry, old man. A little busy.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out two flash drives – the one I’d been given and the one I’d gathered.
Now, whom should I blame?
The Turk’s been quiet lately. Maybe I’d give him a little credit where it wasn’t due and see what scattered from under his rock. Perhaps some good might come out of this yet.
I closed my eyes, focused my thoughts, let out my breath slowly. My path decided, I went to work…
“Get over it, man. If it’s important enough, she’ll be there when we get back. And if not…”
“You’re not doing a very good job cheering me up, Henri.”
“$20 million in uncut stones will do that for you instead. Besides, it’s who we are. You and me, we’re thieves first, gentlemen second. No room in that life for someone else”
“’Course I’m right. You couldn’t even bring yourself to tell her. Or did you? Ah, thought not. I’m just trying really hard not to say I told you—“
“Fine. Just shut up and let’s get this over with.”
Shooting and anchoring the line went well, and I was over in a flash. But Henri…
I never figured exactly what happened. Did the line fray? The epoxy fail? The line suddenly sagged; he dropped five feet straight down and stopped moving forward just out of my grasp.
I remember reaching out, starting to say “Grab my hand.”
Then him, tumbling backwards, in slow motion.
You don’t win the argument on appeal.
I finished the job. Called Trin and got her voice mail. Got to the flat, and found all her things gone.
I gathered the stones and walked away, alone for the first time since I was nine and Henri had caught me trying to pick his pocket. After an hour wandering the streets of Paris carrying a fortune in diamonds, I decided to take fate into my own hands. I climbed up the steps of the Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciaire building and directly into the Interpol office.
“I’d like to report a robbery.”
Slow and steady. Breathe in and out. Be measured. Be careful.
My laptop sat on the desk now, next to the main terminal, as both systems flared to life through their boot cycles. The main system showed the Stevens Global logo as a background; my laptop, a picture on the Left Bank of a woman with cinnamon hair and sunglasses and smiles. Another lifetime, long-lost.
I used the main terminal to access my backdoor privileges into the company mainframe, but flubbed the password deliberately a half-dozen times, common errors, each one slightly different. As soon as I was able to connect, I used the mainframe to hack a hidden remote link into our Istanbul office’s systems. Those machines were ordered to create a legit remote link back to the main offices. Through this loop, I accessed the targeted client files with a newly forged admin account and started the download.
On the laptop I copied another set of these downloaded files in-house and ran those through a custom crypto-breaker that I’d had built. After all, you never knew when a client was going to forget their house keys. Within a minute, both sets of files were ready to load to their flash drives. I plugged them in, one to each system and hit enter. A grey progress bar sprung to life.
Data moved silently as I stared at the screen…
“Her name is Sarah. And as I said, you will get me what I asked for.”
I stared at the screen, transfixed by the video on the tablet. The young girl had been on a swing set. Two men – no, thugs, really; no other word for men that brutal to a child. They simply ran in, snatched her, stuffed a rag in her mouth and carried her off to a white van. A Good Samaritan had run in and tried to help. It was over in three punches.
As I said, brutal.
I rewound the video. The girl swung back and forth. I froze the image, zoomed in for a better look. To be sure.
My breath caught.
Cinnamon hair. Azure blue eyes. That smile.
And that nose.
That damned Roman nose.
Lord knows I’d seen it the mirror enough times to recognize it.
“Right. Give me a day—“
My guest’s laugh was sharp, like a cough. “A man of your talent and resources? Hardly. No, you’re on a much shorter leash. May I?” He held out his hand and I gave him back the tablet. He made a couple of swipes to the surface and touched it once, then handed it back. There was now a countdown timer displayed.
It read 75:00.
He touched it and the clock started. “Call me when you have the item. We will then meet. Do so before the timer runs out and the child lives.” He stood and walked away
I got up and started to follow. My phone rang. The number was strange, foreign. “Hello?”
My guest, already out the door. “Don’t bother. You won’t find the girl that way. Besides, her grandparents have already suffered one tragic loss today. You don’t want to compound the tragedy.”
My mind put meaning behind his words. Trin. “You bastard—“
“You have less than 73 minutes. I suggest you make the most of them.”
He hung up. I stared at the phone. My mind was a jumble. Then I heard Henri’s voice.
The grey progress bar continued crawling. I looked at my watch.
Make the most of them. I grabbed a notepad, and scribbled off a quick note to Reed Johnson, asking if the cookie dough I’d ordered from his daughter’s soccer team was in. If it was, would he mind holding onto it for me, I’d be delayed getting in on Monday.
I finished and folded the note quickly, origami style, into a crane. The grey bar finished, copies made. I pulled the flash drives out, dropped the origami on the keyboard, and walked out of the office.
Don’t stop. Don’t panic. Breathe. And move!
I used the elevator and walked out through the lobby as if I belonged there. Technically, I did. After all, I owned the company, and the building.
But right now, that didn’t matter.
As I reached the corner mailbox I knelt down to tie my shoe. Then I pulled out my cellphone and hit redial. He picked up after two rings.
“I have it.”
“And with all of twenty-two seconds to spare, I see. I told Henri it would be foolish to let someone with your talents go to waste. Now bring it to–”
Don’t hold your breath. You have this, boy. Breathe.
“No? Surely you understand that–”
“Oh, I understand the consequences. But I also know if I say yes, you’ll figure the next time you need me, all you have to do is threaten her and I’ll come at your beck and call.”
“You have to admit, your response was positively Pavlovian.”
“True, but you also caught me by surprise. Among civilized men, a threat to an innocent isn’t needed. I propose a different arrangement.”
I could hear his leather chair creak as he shifted his weight. He slowly exhaled. “Go on.”
“Leave the girl out of this from here forward. Completely. Instead, I agree to come and work for you directly. We’ll keep it discreet. You become my sole client – under my usual terms, of course.”
“So you’re trading your life for hers.”
“Well, when you put it that way—”
“Is there any other way, really?”
“I suppose not.”
Another pause. Another long exhalation. “Fair enough. And as a gesture of good faith, I’ll even arrange for you to work out of London.”
“Yes, London. The girl lives there. You’ll even be able to look in on her now and again. After all, don’t you agree that you’ve been absent from her life long enough?”
I pondered that. “No, I don’t agree. After all, even not knowing me is still dangerous. It got her kidnapped. If you were willing to use her as a pawn, who’s to say others won’t?”
I sighed. “Henri was right. I am much too sentimental.”
“I never thought so, Tomas.”
The voice was soft and feminine and right in my ear.
Damn it. I’d let my guard down and someone was right atop me. Instinctively I dropped down, pulled the revolver from my ankle holster and whirled in the crouch, bringing the gun up—
Azure blue eyes. Cinnamon hair. A black beret. A knowing smirk.
A 9 mm Beretta pistol held by an expert aimed at my head.
- Tough when looking at those eyes, but force yourself. Breathe.
“Not dead. Sarah’s mother. Working for them now. Take your pick.”
“All of the above, I guess.”
“Look, Tomas, I’m here to bring you in. Let’s just put down the guns together, okay?”
“That’s not how this works. You know that. Together.”
I nodded and slowly lowered my gun as I stood up. Trin lowered hers.
I let out my breath slowly. Trin did the same. I shrugged. “So what now?”
“Now we figure out how to best use one of the world’s greatest thieves — pardon me, security consultants — in an organization like ours. I’m looking forward to the challenge. Give me your gun and walk this way.”
I handed her my gun, then followed her. I patted the flash drive in my pocket, with its load of corrupt data, and permitted myself a small smile. Its identical twin with the correct files, now glued under that corner mailbox, was further and further behind me, unlikely to be found in time without my assistance.
I thought of the clock ticking away on all that data, and what Trin and her bosses would trade for it.
I thought about the two goals Reed’s son had scored at the soccer match and knew how my company’s head of security would react when he found that note in four hours.
I thought about how one of the world’s greatest security consultants—no, thief. Definitely thief. I considered how a thief could best use an organization like hers, right after he’d stolen it from under her very attractive nose.
And not for the first time, I thought I’d rather just let her walk that way. She did it so very, very well.