But Wait, there’s More!
About the Author
By the Same Author
[* 50% John McClane *]
[* 50% Robin Hood *]
[* 100% trouble *]
Reeling from the death of her lover and partner, freelance “exfiltration specialist” Billie Carrie Salton breaks into a high-tech, high-security biotechnology firm to steal their sickle cell anemia cure and broadcast it to the world.
In, out, announce. Easy.
Except Salton’s life never works that smoothly….
The plan: break into Butterfly Star Research. Steal the data, research and processes for their incomplete, suppressed sickle-cell cure. Make everything as public and explicit as a fading starlet’s professionally-shot sex tape. Miller Time.
I’d rather get a Blue Moon, but “blue moon time” means something totally different. You get a doctorate in astrophysics before your twenty-third birthday, they teach you these things.
I still had to learn about betrayal and lies on my own, though.
Say “Billie Carrie Salton” in the right places, usually rancid bars on the wrong side of town or even more rancid corporate boardrooms, and people dive under the table and bawl for momma. Say it in the wrong places, and they’ll either say “Can we afford her?” or “How do you know Beaks?” (BCS, get it?) The FBI has my picture on their wall, right next to my description. Six foot one (too tall), one-sixty pounds. Sharp nose that has nothing to do with my nickname. Size eleven feet. Blonde, redhead, brunette, or sometimes spumoni. There’s one agent with a real hard-on for my head, and another with a bigger hard-on for all the rest of me.
So fine, I’m a killer. Get in my way, this Detroit-born girl will put you down hard.
But I’ve never murdered a hostage or bystander who didn’t make a move first. You get cute, I’ll give you a third eye before the eyes you came with can blink. Behave yourself, stay quiet in that back room till the cops find their map and their flashlight, you’ll get home safe. Probably get on TV and a few days off work and the sympathy vote. I even let this one kid’s poodle live, and I really wanted to punt that little monster out the great big hole we burned in that thirty-third floor window.
I’ve never robbed anyone of anything that wasn’t stolen.
Too bad the whole country’s been stolen.
Along with the rest of the world.
Which takes me back to Butterfly Star.
Sickle cell anemia’s really horrible. You hurt. Sometimes you fall over in agony, no warning, just pow and you’re down. Your body can’t fight off infections so well. You’ll probably die in agony before you’re fifty. It killed a high school friend of mine before he even got his driver’s license. Add in the fact that it’s hereditary and found mostly in blacks and folks from the Middle East. You’ve got these people at the bottom, who’re supposed to work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, except for the little detail that every so often they keel over screaming in pain and get fired.
Butterfly took federal funds to research sickle cell.
A lot of federal funds.
My sources tell me that their researchers learned some interesting things, and even made progress on a cure. It’s not perfect—nothing ever is—but in the sickle cell puzzle it’s a couple corners and enough connected middle pieces that you can make out the horse’s ass.
When you get a degree in a science, like astrophysics or genetic diseases, they tell you the scientific method has four steps. Observation. Hypothesis. Test. Conclusions.
But culturally, science has a fifth step.
It’s not science if you don’t tell people what you learn. If you don’t let others build on your work. Otherwise, you’re just playing solitaire with Petri dishes.
Butterfly didn’t solve the whole thing, so they didn’t manufacture a cure.
But the data—ah, the data’s valuable. Not now, sure, but one day, when someone else puts most of the puzzle together, they’ll whip out the corner pieces and their horse’s ass and shout “We cured sickle cell! We win!” Never mind that some bright young thing in a podunk med school right now, tonight, might look at the Butterfly data and jump the whole thing forward ten years.
Save thousands of lives, and years of agony.
If they’d done this on their own dime, fine. Don’t get me wrong, they’d still be jackasses, but I couldn’t really say they didn’t have the right to do it. You buy the cards, play all the solitaire you want. They’d done their research with federal funds, though. Our taxes paid for that knowledge.
All right, fine. Your taxes.
That knowledge belongs to everyone.
Normally I’d call some people I know and put a raid together. There’s no profit in this, though—it’s a straight smash-and-grab-and-upload. I’ve got a few special people who owe me big, but calling in those favors on a gig like this would be slicing watermelon with a cement truck. And after last week’s Newcastle debacle, my budget was the change in the back seat of my rusty grungy black Econoliner van and the gear I’d accumulated in the last four years.
Fortunately, it’s some pretty awesome gear.
So that’s why I’m hugging the outside of the forty-first floor of the glass-walled Embassy Building, letting the wind whistle through my hollow head.
It’s easy to trust equipment when I’m five or ten feet off the ground. Ten, twenty, thirty floors, no problem. Forty-one floors, though, and my trust gets a little shaky. I wear skin-tight jumpsuits on climbing gigs because the wind can’t whistle up inside them, not because they showcase my great big butt. (Okay, people tell me it’s tiny, but when you’re in a skin-tight jumpsuit, your butt is huge.) At that height the wind, without any trees or all those pesky buildings to slow it down, feels pretty vicious and carries all these nasty smells of exhaust and smoke and diesel and burned jet fuel. The smells come and go, so when I get used to one reek another flavor digs in. Up here, even the air feels like it wants to slap me down like a leaf, especially when there’s nothing whatsoever under that aforementioned butt and I’m carrying a forty-pound pack.
I’m wearing traction pads on my knees and elbows, bootlegged from a nonexistent Special Forces unit returning from an Unnamed Friendly Country. The pads hold the glass like they’ve been nailed there, until I work the toggle strapped to my left palm. Detach one pad, raise one limb, lock it back down. Right leg, left hand, left leg, left hand. Lift with your legs, never your arms.
I’d stretched for an hour before starting this climb, and my hips and shoulders and elbows still grind and pull like frayed belts on dying machines.
In Georgia’s July heat, this glass almost sweats. This high-tech stuff was supposed to clean itself every time it rains, but pollution and condensation still make it greasy and gritty. It isn’t supposed to bother the traction pads. I’d never seen the faintest hint of anything bothering the traction pads.
Maybe slick glass doesn’t bother the traction pads, but it sure bothers me.
The Embassy Building’s way outside Atlanta, in this chunk of green space and private homes and convenience stores and dentist offices. Atlanta looks like a tangle of Christmas lights, mostly white but with reds and blues and greens all mixed up in there. Christmas is the wrong holiday, though. The fireworks for the Fourth ended a couple hours ago, except for the occasional low sparkle across the countryside where some drunk good old boy has decided it’s okay to piss off the neighbors after midnight. The eight-lane highways run out, individual headlights invisible from up there but all together giving this subliminal impression of slow-flowing light.
For just a moment, looking out at those inverted constellations, I feel even farther above everyone.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not worth more than anyone else. I’m smarter, yeah. Faster. Stronger. The right side of the bell curve is this itty-bitty little dot receding in my rear view mirror. But that’s all genetics.
I’m not worth more than anyone.
Except the scumbags pillaging the planet, of course.
The sky is clear, moonless, but the city’s light pollution eats all the stars except Sirius.
What with slithering around the lit windows I’d crawled the equivalent of maybe forty-eight, forty-nine floors to get to the forty-first. But I needed this window right here. I uncouple my right hand from the traction pad, cautiously shake my arm to loosen that elbow and wrist and knuckles without losing my three points on, and pull out the cutting tool. Each generation of glass gets harder to cut, yes, but the cutting tools get better too. There’s tools to lift a whole big window pane out of its frame, gentle as brushing a baby’s hair, and put it back in so smooth nobody knows how you got in. But they’re slow and annoying.
Truth to tell, I don’t give a damn if they figure out how I’d got in. I only care that the alarms on this floor aren’t active.
Attach the palm-sized disk of the cutter to the glass, right in the center of the hole I want.
Extend the cutting arm and the two anchor arms.
Touch cutter to glass.
Push the button.
The anchors glomp onto the glass. The cutter rotates on its own, making one pass to score the glass, then digging deep. I feel this faint vibration through the pads, not enough to shake my teeth but enough to set up a resonance in my spine. My chiropractor’s gonna love this.
Glass turns back to sand and skitters out of the cut, the wind whipping sand and smell away before they can add to the irritation in my sinuses. Yes, I have allergies—thank God for steroid nose spray, or people would call me Snots instead of Beaks.
The sight of the turning cutter suddenly tightens my heart, and under my goggles I have to blink away tears.
Dammit, not now, I told myself. Not the time.
I’d taken the cutter from Deke’s gear. After Newcastle.
You got hammered. You mourned him. Moving on.
He would have wanted me to.
Risks of the job. He knew it.
I grit my teeth. There’s better things to think of. Like sickle cell anemia cures, and the bastards who don’t want you to have them.
I moved a couple feet to the left while the cutter turned. The glass wasn’t going to fall towards me—even if I wasn’t ethical, having a three-foot disk of glass plunge five hundred feet out of the sky onto the sidewalk or some bastard’s Tesla or just half-bury itself edge-on in a little stretch of starving grass imprisoned in concrete would attract attention up here. It’s not going to fall, but I didn’t get here by taking stupid chances (Deke) that might get me killed.
I force myself to breathe deeply and concentrate on a spot between and just above my eyebrows. Any amateur can meditate on a cushion, but it takes real discipline to hold the thought with forty-one stories of open air between your butt and the cushion.
It’s a long five minutes before the window ripples with this “pop” that I feel through the pads more than I hear, and a gust of cool dry air hisses past me from the paper-thin cut. The cutter arm rotates once more and the whole window vibrates as a three-foot wide disk of glass snaps free.
The sturdy glass stands in place, balanced on its two-inch edge. The cutter’s super-suction braces won’t let it fall out, but it can’t topple in until the air pressure equalizes a little more. It’s maybe thirty seconds until the hissing stops and I can reach out and tap the last button on the cutter’s central unit.
The disk of glass leans inward in exaggerated slow motion, then hits the tipping point and thuds into the dark interior.
With the ingress right there, my strained shoulders and hip are screaming for me to slip through the hole and use some other muscle, any other muscle. I free my right arm again to meticulously retract the cutter’s cutting arm, then hit a button to detach the anchor on the far side of the hole. I retract the whole cutter to the anchor right next to me, where I can easily pull all its arms in and snap it to my belt before detaching the last anchor.
I am not losing this cutter. Not ever. Even if better comes out.
Only once I have everything snugged back onto my belt do I slide over to the window. I turn the infra-red vision in my goggles up to ten percent and peer in.
I flip the goggles back to normal vision.
The hole is exactly wide enough for my pack and I to slither into the building’s darkness.
I don’t believe in cranking up the night vision everywhere you go. Sure, you get this nice green hazy view of damn near everything. It’s great for some situations. But in a raid like this, someone turns on the lights and you’re blind for half a second.
And while your eyes adjust, some rent-a-cop shoots you.
You’re better off with the human eye. We’re descended from a long line of people who didn’t get eaten by lions and tigers and bears, at least not before they had kids. I haven’t had kids, so I’m safe.
It’s a joke, people. Chill. Sheesh.
The glass disk lays at an angle, so I slip down it and plant my high-traction waffle-tread parachute-cord-laced leather boots on the smooth barren concrete next to it. As my eyes adjust, the dark bowels of the Embassy Building’s forty-first floor coalesce from the darkness. The building management company’s system said that some wealth management assholes rented this floor a few months ago and totally gutted it so they could put in fancier and more expensive walls. Looking around I see flashes of the glass exterior all around me, sliced by all these irregular vertical lines. The contractors had gotten the aluminum studs up for the interior walls, but the glass and wallboard wasn’t yet hung.
The place stinks of industrial glue and solvents, passing my face in a steady stream through the hole in the glass at my back. It’s the smell of good honest labor, real people doing real work with real skill, for not enough money, and going home to try to give the families they love a better life.
Once those smells wore off, the place would stink of perfume and corruption.
Standing sparks flames from my toes all the way up my spine. My feet had dangled from my knees for the last hour and a half, and now I suddenly made them do all the work. My knees and hips demand their union-contracted break, and my elbows threaten a sympathy strike if I don’t ditch the clunky traction pads. The shoulders demand I ditch the pack while I’m at it.
I hold myself still, though, and study the room.
The red and white beacon of an EXI sign, the last letter cloaked by a tangle of cables drooping from the ceiling. Tiny green LEDs gleam from the central stack, where the elevator and the wiring and the water transfix the floor and ceiling. Scattered dots of red LEDs from the smoke detectors and the carbon monoxide detectors, still active even during construction. Aluminum ventilation shafts, too narrow to crawl through and too thin to stop bullets, hug the ceiling and reflect sharp lines of light.
A few feet before me, sawhorses shape the shadows. A square thing a little smaller than a kitchen cabinet lurks to my left. One edge of the severed glass plug had landed on it, tipping the glass at a good fifty-two degrees or so. A tool chest?
But the space to my right is open and clean.
I sink to my knees on the warm concrete with a sigh of simple pleasure and shrug out of the backpack’s shoulders and hip belt. I unbuckle the traction pad from my right elbow, and the skin beneath it suddenly seems to steam beneath the skintight suit. The pad goes into a special pouch on the outside of the backpack, and the other three pads follow. From the bottom part of the backpack, I stash my climbing belt and pull out the one with my penetration tools: a couple special-purpose microcomputers, lock picks, a silenced tiny .38 semi-auto, a couple other breaking-and-entering gadgets.
I figure that was Batman’s secret, too. He didn’t put everything on his utility belt. He kept a separate utility belt for each villain. Always learn from the greats.
Then I rotate my legs into the splits and start turning my shoulders to work out the strains.
In the movies, someone climbs a building and charges straight off to disarm the alarm system before getting into a firefight and blowing up the place. People reload their guns and neatly stow their electronic countermeasure devices, but they forget that their greatest weapon, their most powerful tool, is their own body. When you push yourself to your limits, find a secure location and take a moment or two to loosen up.
In a couple minutes the splits get comfortable, so I stretch my feet straight out in front and lower my head between them, pushing my arms further out, straightening my spine. My left hand brushes a stray socket wrench, but I ease my fingers past it. Fingerprints don’t worry me—my gloves are this incredible synthetic stuff, high-traction, breathable, and totally resistant to stains. Picked them up at Costco. Advertised for use with cell phone touchscreens. They probably work okay for that, too, but I use a phone with a physical keypad when I’m on the job.
In a few minutes I float to my feet, joints free and muscles relaxed. The tool belt clips around my waist, the backpack on my back, everything carefully secured and tucked inside light-absorbing dark green cloth that matches my jumpsuit. I feel like I’ve just had a massage.
The central stack of a business tower holds the building’s vitals, like the elevator shafts and the great big sewage and water pipes. The Embassy’s builders had thought ahead, though, even back when they built this place, and right next to the elevator they’d put in this ten-foot shaft just for wiring.
The wiring shaft has a mechanical lock, and an alarm. You don’t want your wiring shaft on the building’s swipe card system, because if the swipe card wiring breaks and the door locks you can’t get at it to fix it. It’s keyed on both sides, so maintenance people can use a key to leave the wiring shaft. So they usually put a pretty decent lock on the door—a high-end Schlage in this case.
It’s a tough lock. I need a whole three minutes to pick it. I carry a Lock-Release in my bag, this gun-like thing law enforcement uses to automatically open locks. It works, but having to use it makes me feel like I’ve failed, and I’m not in a hurry tonight.
The wiring shaft is lit with these old fluorescent tubes, one on every floor. There’s kind of a floor. It’s a metal grid with wire panels, kind of like a drop ceiling you can see through. The floor panels near the corrugated concrete walls are all removed so these tie-wrapped or twine-bound bundles of dozens of different types of wire can pass up and down. Two holes in opposite sides of the shaft, each the size of a dinner plate, act as pass-throughs for this floor’s wiring. A clean new bundle emerges from each hole and pours down through one of the gaps in the floor. Up near the roof, this shaft is pretty empty. Down in the basement, it’s a choked claustrophobic nightmare. The wiring shaft stinks of grease and ancient plastic and ages and ages of dust. (All hail the mighty steroid nose spray!)
The wires carry the building’s secrets. I could learn so much with a couple carefully placed sniffers.
But the greasy grimy flat metal rungs of the ladder carries me up to the forty-ninth floor and Butterfly Star Research.
This is where things get tricky. First, the alarm.
I’m in the wiring shaft, with all the dust and grunge and probably a constant thin rain of asbestos, right outside the access door to Butterfly Star’s offices. The alarm cable’s pretty clearly marked. It’s a gray cable stamped VIGILANTE SECURITY, like they’re going to come after me with a six-shooter and a noose. Deke always says—
You can’t just cut the wire. Losing the heartbeat signal triggers an alarm back at the security company HQ and activates the local fallback system. Lose both signals, the police get sent out. I have a massively illegal 4G jammer to block the backup, but I would need to get into the office for it to be any use. Disabling this alarm won’t stop the fire alarm, that’s on a whole separate circuit, but I have no intention of burning this place down.
There’s lots of ways to take care of the alarm, lots of toys you can buy from hard-to-find specialists, but I like artificial heartbeats. I slice the plastic sheath over the wire, the long way, exposing the eight color-coded wires within.
The drab gray plastic-cased bypass unit’s about the size of an old-fashioned pager with a power button and two little lights. Eight thin wire leads trail from its bottom, each uniquely color-coded, each ending in an alligator clip.
The colors on the bypass unit leads match those on the alarm cable wires.
Even in this dim, dismal lighting, I only need about ten seconds to magnetically stick the bypass to a convenient iron strut, clip each wire to its mate, verify they’re secure, and push the button.
The bypass silently analyzes the signal from the alarm box inside Butterfly. In about two minutes, its LED flashes green three times and goes dark.
I snip the alarm wire right above the alligator clips. The bypass unit will silently take over, transmitting the Butterfly heartbeat to the security company.
A really paranoid Butterfly would have a double heartbeat, one going in and one going out. I’m sure management can’t imagine anyone stealing their data, especially since nobody knows about it.
Nobody but the researchers, that is.
Researchers like my contact.
No, I won’t tell you who. Sheesh!
So: the door.
Butterfly’s put a second lock on the access door. The Schlage will take three minutes, maybe less, but the big cylindrical Maximus—
—has already been popped.
From this side.
The access door to the forty-ninth floor isn’t quite shut all the way.
Someone’s already broken into Butterfly Star.
Everything changes in a flash.
Standing on this wire mesh floor, with fifty-some airy mesh floors between me and the bottom of the sub-basement, warm oily air rising from below, my heart is suddenly doing triple time.
I hadn’t exactly dawdled, but I hadn’t done everything as quickly as possible either. I’d climbed the slick glass outside walls at a fairly comfortable pace, taken the time to pick a lock by hand, clambered up the wiring shaft ladder like I was playfully climbing an apple tree. The leisurely stretch had been mandatory, but I could have shaved half an hour or so off of the whole thing.
Butterfly’s security people would have checked that access door before they left.
Someone had beat me here.
Illicitly entered through this door.
This gig has gone totally fubar.
Pull out, I think. Abort.
Beneath the skintight dark green jumpsuit, a dot of sweat trickles down my spine.
A fine tension ripples down my shoulders, my arms, my legs.
My brain overrides the fight-or-flight impulse.
Every floor of the Embassy Building except forty-one is in use and alarmed. When I’d cut a hole into the glass, the floor still had overpressure. The perps hadn’t come in the same way I did. They used the same wiring shaft to enter Butterfly, though. They probably either did a roof entrance with a helicopter, or got working passcards and waltzed right in the front door.
Had the perps killed the security guards? Tied them up? Or were the guards oblivious behind their big desk, eating fries and talking smack?
How had the perps disabled the alarms? Would my circumvention clash with their circumvention? Had I summoned the SWAT team?
And what did the perps want? Was this a smash-and-grab? A quiet exfiltration? Blow out the whole floor?
A squad of testosterone-crazed commandos or one lone sneaky woman?
This is nuts, I think. Smart thing to do is abort. You’re the smart one, remember?
Whenever a gig slid sideways, whenever the ground rules completely changed halfway through, I’d usually push hard to cancel. Back off, try again. Others (Deke) said we should continue, that things always went wrong and that we—I had the skills to pull things off.
It’s always a decision.
A team decides before they start who gets to make that decision.
I’m the team.
I was going to sleep in the van tonight, no matter what.
The only question was, would I sleep the sleep of the just, or stay awake frustrated that I’d missed my chance?
I’m not usually the angry one.
I guess that’s my job now too.
So let’s get through that door.
Opening an unlocked door is simple. One push and it should swing right open, letting me escape the grungy wiring shaft into Butterfly.
Unless the perps put a Claymore on the other side. No, not a real Claymore. Probably a chunk of plastique, or even a grenade on a string. Some kind of fangy-bangy alarm with teeth. They won’t use too much explosive here, though, even if they’re on a blowout gig. The wiring shaft is part of the spine of the building, and they won’t want to damage it until they’re ready to retreat.
They might have a small shaped charge to kill whoever opens the door. Maybe a grenade. Any blast won’t go much past the concrete wall.
My utility belt has all kinds of gadgetry, from a cluster of smoke pellets to my .38 semi-auto. I don’t like guns, can’t stand to use them if there’s any other way, but a gun intimidates damn fool civilians faster than anything else. And I practice for a few hours a month, because a weapon you can’t use belongs to the other guy. My backpack has another whole set of tools in the bottom compartment, though, and one delightfully special tool in the top.
I climb to the next floor up and pull out my locking extensible pole and a pair of earplugs. It’s a little thicker than an old-fashioned TV antenna and a lot stiffer. I extend it one section at a time through the mesh floor until it touches the door.
My heart is pounding.
The door will probably pop open.
I let out my breath and push the rod.
The rod bends just a little, scraping against the wire mesh floor.
Tension ripples from the door, through the rod, up into my hand.
Then the far end gives, and the door creaks open an inch.
I ease it a couple more inches, just to be sure, then push it the rest of the way. Some pros mine the backside of the door, so that the blast doesn’t go off until you open it wide enough for a person to get through.
I’ve done that booby-trap myself. It’s the right thing to do on some gigs.
But I feel the door bounce against a wall.
I let out my breath. This isn’t a kill job. Well, not a blatant one.
I might discover a pressure switch or tripwire beyond the door.
Or these perps are just stupid and sloppy.
Can’t tell yet.
So I retract the rod and slip down to find out.
Looking from the filthy grungy wiring shaft through the doorway looks like a glimpse of heaven. Pale industrial-grade carpeting, crapped out by the mile in some Third World hellhole. Bright white walls. The smells of some sharp soap and a hint of pine. Every other lighting panel in the suspended ceiling is half-lit, after-hours illumination almost brilliant after the dismal lighting I have out here.
The gray, tightly woven carpet beyond the door is intact. No pressure plate. I don’t see any trigger lasers stuck on the walls, either, or dangling wires that might indicate a poorly planted mine.
So I step into Butterfly and ease the door to behind me, blocking out the shaft’s rank greasy dustiness. The bastards who pay for these places don’t give a damn if the behind-the-scene dirt causes face cancer—the people they send to work in the access shaft don’t matter to the Powers That Be. I empty my lungs of filthy working-class air and pull in Butterfly’s clean, bright, upper-class freshness.
I want the door exactly like I found it, maybe half an inch shut. I’m easing it back into place when something near the floor catches my attention. It’s a tiny paper strip, maybe two inches long, fluttering on the edge of the door.
As I push the door closed, it matches up to another strip, attached to the wall.
Opening the door, I tore the strip.
There’s a little bulging white dot glued to the wall. I wouldn’t have noticed it if it wasn’t for the torn paper.
Paper with silver lines.
That isn’t paper.
It’s part of a circuit.
A circuit I broke opening the door.
The perps didn’t wire the door to blow. They wired it with an alarm, to tell them if someone followed them.
From somewhere further in the building I hear the drumming of running feet, accompanied with a rhythm section of heavy gear clunking in time with each step.
I’m blown—not to the Embassy Building’s security, but to the perps.
And they’re pros.
I break into a run.
I’ve studied the city office blueprints of the Embassy Building, of course, paying special attention to the Butterfly Star floor. Blueprints don’t tell you that they painted everything except the floor this annoying eggshell off-white. My gray-green jumpsuit, dark hair, and green zebra face paint don’t buy me any stealth at all in here. A spangly-white disco outfit would hide me better.
I pass a door labeled RAT LAB and catch a faint animal whiff, then veer through the glass-walled kitchen. Someone’s left half a sheet cake on the counter, almost petrified after the long weekend, and the store-bought sweetness with a hint of rot fills the air. It takes me away from the computer room, but the limited information I have tells me that the perps are focused the computer room.
I need to come around the back way. Through the cubicle farm.
Scope out the opposition and figure out their plan.
Butterfly doesn’t give their administrative staff cubicles, though. It’s an open floor plan, long flat tables with an in-and-out box and a flat panel monitor on each, a cheap office chair pushed up hard against each table. Everything is exactly in its place. The fake pine smell is stronger here, with an underlying noxious whiff that twists my stomach. There’s no outside window. Most of the tables have one little bit of decoration, like a small framed photo or a tiny trophy. I bet if I found the employee handbook, I’d find a line starting with “Staff are permitted one small personal item, not to exceed four by six inches…”
I can imagine more dehumanizing office environments, but only without the Emancipation Proclamation. The Butterfly owners are not only greedy and selfish, they’re flat-out ruptured hemorrhoids.
Maybe the perps are a blowout team. Hired by the staff. That would be nice.
Once I get the data, that is.
I need to make a few adjustments to my gear. Stash the backpack. Get some eyes.
Distant running footsteps.
I drop to my knees. Loosen my pistol in its holster.
A raised voice, made indistinct by distance and architecture.
The footsteps recede.
I get to the edge of the office space, where a half-open door exposes a dark meeting room. I exchange some of the gear on my utility belt for items from the backpack’s bottom compartment. The last thing I take out is a tiny gas mask. I don’t care about the gas part, but I make my gear do triple duty whenever I can. And I was about to go straight into air thick enough to chew.
I stash the backpack inside a credenza. Then I’m on top of the credenza. I pop a two-foot-square fiberglass ceiling tile, grab the edge of the wall, and hoist myself into the overhead crawlspace.
Most of the walls inside modern office buildings don’t go all the way up. Restroom walls do, as well as some secure offices, but generally, they go up about six inches above the suspended ceiling, leaving a good three feet of dead space. Once I’m in there, I ease the ceiling tile back into its frame and push down the edges, sealing myself in darkness.
Here’s where I need the infra-red goggles. There’s all kinds of network and phone cable run everywhere, not to mention aluminum and steel structural supports running every which way. If you’re careful and balanced and use your brain you can crawl along the top of the walls. I don’t dare crawl quickly—I’m a little over six feet tall, remember? If I hurry, the weight will shake the wall under me and tell anyone with a brain precisely where I am.
It’s hot. It’s so filthy the wiring shaft looks pristine. I’m already sweating, and the sweat’s leaving tracks in the dust already sticking to my face.
But slow and steady, I can get through this whole building and nobody’ll know where I am or what I see. I can sneak in and rob these Butterfly bastards blind.
I’ve crawled about ten feet when my phone buzzes.
No, my phone doesn’t have a cocky ringtone. It vibrates. Always.
And no, I don’t answer it. Not while I’m balanced atop an eight-inch-thick aluminum strut meant to support drywall. Even if I wanted to, I’d have to lift up the mask to answer, which means I’d suck in a lung full of dust and dirt and probably little bits of that awful fiberglass thread they make ceiling tiles out of.
If someone’s calling to tell me I’m blown, they’ll leave a message.
So I ignore the intermittent buzz as I climb another few yards towards the computer room.
Butterfly doesn’t have one of these military-grade or life-sustaining datacenters, just a computer room with extra cooling and connections to a backup generator. The city plans claim it has a drop ceiling just like the rest of the office. I should be able to get eyes on the perps from there, see who I’m dealing with.
I wear this tiny remote unit on the inside of my left forearm. Some of my gear can feed information there. If I have my goggles set to night vision, it automatically cranks the contrast down to gray-on-black that’s clear as a Times Square billboard on Saturday night. If certain people send me a text message, it pops up there in minuscule letters.
It’s Rob Fender.
I owe him.
And the text reads CALL ME ASAP.
My phone has an actual physical keyboard. I can’t type out long messages or anything, but I can flip the cover open, tap BUSY and hit Send, then flip the case shut.
I haven’t gone five more feet when Rob’s reply comes.
PERFORMING ATLANTA BUTTERFLY?
My guts seem to drop out of me.
There’s only one reason for Rob to use that phrase with me right now.
He’s the opposition.
Rob been in the business longer than I’ve been alive. He’s not as brainy as I am, but I’m smart enough to concede that experience plus a pretty good brain will outperform a less experienced superstar brain. He’s not as good with his hands as he used to be, but he knows loyal hands to hire.
And he stays bought.
I won’t say we’re friends. We get along well, and we’ve gone out to celebrate with him after a few really successful gigs. And by celebrate, I mean he spent a week in the expensive part of Rio with me (and Deke), blowing a few thousand of a “performed beyond expectation” bonus.
But if a contract brought us into opposition, we’d stay in opposition until the contract ended. Which probably means ending one of us.
He’d made a courtesy call.
If he knew it was me, he probably knew I was alone. He was giving me the chance to quit with the Catwoman routine, get myself out of the way before he and his posse launched me out a window.
He’d be really unhappy about it afterwards. Probably have a drink in my honor next week and every New Year’s.
But he wouldn’t hesitate.
Rob respects me way too much to hesitate.
Even for half a second.
The stale crawlspace suddenly feels even hotter and more cramped. My pulse throbs in my temples, and a headache billows at the top of my head. The gas mask over my mouth and nose seem tighter, the space around my mouth less humid.
No need for me to answer that message.
He already knows the answer.
Rob’s got a contract. That contract doesn’t include “let Beaks rob the place.”
The message didn’t mean Rob had been given my name. He could have figured it out from evidence. I hadn’t left many clues, of course, but absence of evidence is a kind of evidence. That little open-door detector might have had a camera, or he could have put one nearby. He might have gotten a real good look at my face when I bent down to check out the tear-snip sensor, green and black camouflage stripes over my olive skin and all. Plus a better look at my oversized rear when I turned to flee.
Yes, I want the Butterfly Star research data. I want to give it to the world.
But do I really want to go up against Rob “You’ll Never Know You’re Dead” Fender?
Feet tromp below me.
They pass through the wall I’m balanced on. There must be a door right in front of me. There’s a thud. A clank. Someone swears under his breath. Three quick beeps, then a click. A man says “Device sixteen. Meeting room four prepped,” not loudly, but not like he’s afraid of being overheard.
The feet tromp back through the wall, pass my feet, and recede.
I wait for them to disappear, then lie belly-down on the filthy aluminum strut so I can use my right hand to tug at a fiberglass ceiling panel below.
The goggles transform this meeting room into shades of green, but I can still make out the oval meeting table of polished mahogany, and the glass-fronted wet bar and the eighty-inch video screen behind the head chair.
If all eighteen of the executive chairs had held executives, I would have been perfectly happy to see the brutal, ugly device plopped on the table. Seeing as we were down a bunch of bosses and plus one me, the blocks of explosive and the detonator didn’t thrill me.
I can disarm a bomb. Radio detonator? No problem. You study the wiring for a couple minutes and pull the correct wire. It only takes a little bit of brains.
Well, okay, a lot of brains. An understanding of electronics. And explosives. You’ve got to reverse-engineer the wiring from first principles.
But still. I can do it.
But the flunky had said device sixteen. Implying that there were fifteen more like it. At least.
This was a blow-out job.
If all sixteen bombs were the same size as what I’d seen, they might take the top ten floors of the tower with them.
Time to run. Grab my backpack and get the hell out.
I waver for a moment.
Go up against Rob?
It’s not like our goals were incompatible. He was here to blow the joint. I was here to steal two labeled hard drives from the computer room. I could do the theft and clear out, leaving him plenty of time.
But he’d never go for it. A blowout meant taking everything with it, including any hard drives and any witnesses.
I (we!) would never go for it either. Against the spirit of the deal. And when you charge our—my rates, you keep the spirit of the deal.
Smart thing to do was run.
But I couldn’t make myself do it.
After Newcastle, after everything that had gone so horribly wrong that one horrible day last week, I need a win. I need to strike a blow for liberty and hope and life and joy.
Somebody has to pay for Deke, and I’ll never find the people responsible.
So I scuttle along the top of the ceiling as fast as I dared.
The computer room is easy to find from above. All the network cables converge on that one area. I turn off the infra-red, slide a tile out, see nobody, and drop to the white linoleum floor below.
Four rows of glass-fronted computer cabinets run from one beige gypsum board wall to the other, like library shelves. And it is a library, sort of. The computers humming inside these cabinets hold more information than the whole Library of Congress. Bundles of thick blue cables rise from each cabinet into the ceiling, running into special rings cut into the fiberglass panels right next to the brilliant banks of fluorescent lights. A dedicated air conditioner wheezes in the corner. In the back, a set of double doors lead to the lobby, for moving cabinets and heavy machines into this room. They’re rather fancy dark wood, in case they have to be open when an important bastard comes swaggering in from the elevator. A single, much plainer metal door on the side leads to the computer operations staff area. The smell of floor wax is so thick it paints my tongue, and the machines hum and growl loud enough that I’d have to raise my voice to talk.
The whole room’s just… sterile.
I know that there’s a lot of geeks like me that like to play with computers—no, I take that back. I like to play with the information in computers, I like the number-crunching and the experimenting that they empower. I know there’s a lot of innocent geeks who like fiddling with the machines and how they hook together, but they’re just mechanics. They’re like the guys who rebuilt car engines in the 1950s. Tinkerers, with less grease and more carbs.
I couldn’t imagine spending my life servicing the lifeless life in this room, rather than playing with everything they empowered.
The rows are lettered. Each cabinet is numbered. I find row C, then scuttle down to cabinet 8, one from the far end. Green and red LEDs glow behind brown-frosted glass. I didn’t bring the Lock-Release, but I learned to pick better locks than these when I was eight. Blindfolded.
Hey, locks were the toughest puzzle I could find back then.
But cabinet C8 is already unlocked.
The door is barely latched.
My stomach twitches with nausea and just a hint of fear.
The whole cabinet is dedicated to shelves of hard drives, mounted vertically in little plastic cases, snug up against each other. I skim down the cabinet, and—yep.
The drives labeled C8-115 and C8-116 are missing, plastic case and all.
Rob’s got them.
Steal the data. Torch the building. Claim the insurance, shut down. Claim more federal funds under another name. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I stand up and shut the door, frustrated anger churning in my guts.
There’s no way I can get the drives now.
All I can do now is escape before the blowout.
Outside the door, something dings. An elevator.
A high, threadbare voice outside the double doors shouts “Security!”
There’s the pop of a handgun.
A man’s voice right beyond the door says “Dammit.”
My guts plunge.
He wants to move the body.
The doorknob rattles.
The computer room is all bright lights and square corners.
You can describe me in many ways, but “square corners” isn’t one of them. Anyone who Rob hired isn’t going to back into the computer room. They’ll come in and glance down each aisle, verifying that their initial sweep didn’t miss a rat.
The linoleum is a little slippery, but my boots hold just about anything.
The man who steps in is only a little shorter than me. He’s wearing a short-sleeve button-up shirt and dress slacks, but he’s ripped off the blue tie and stuffed it into the pocket. With those biceps, he looks like a gorilla stuffed into a clown suit.
One of those biceps has a tattoo.
The sound of my feet catches his attention. He turns just as I crash into him.
Some people call Marines dumb. Usually dumb people with dumb opinions.
You get a Marine by taking a normal healthy man, running him within an inch of his life, and teaching him that he can take a lot more of a beating than he ever thought possible. The first time you get socked in the jaw it’s a shock. The fiftieth time, you think I’ve had better punches from my grandma and move in for the kill.
My only hope is an immediate takedown.
I knock him into the wall, trying to smack his head against the fire extinguisher cabinet and stun him. He stumbles but gets his feet under him right away, veering us off target a critical inch so he smacks the drywall instead of the steel case.
We’re at it.
I sidestep a punch and whirl to his side, launching an elbow at his nose in passing, but he turns his head and leans in to take it in the ear. He swings his arm to grab me, but I dance out of the way. He’s stronger, I’m faster. Eventually I’ll wear him out, but I don’t have eventually, his radio is already squawking asking what the problem is, so I jab loosely folded fingers at his eyes and make him recoil and blink.
Not even the Marines teach you to strengthen your eyeballs.
He raises his hands up instinctively and takes a step back to get a bit of distance.
I dance back as well, reaching down with the step.
My weight has barely shifted when I draw my .38 and shoot him point blank over his heart, the silenced report like a loud cough.
The impact knocks him back – he’s got a bulletproof vest beneath that shirt.
So I shoot him between the eyes.
No hesitation, this time.
I didn’t want to kill him. I went for a blackout hold, then a knock to the head.
But there he is, dead. Limp on the floor in his button-up disguise and blue tattoos.
Just doing a job. While the rest of the team is handing out the fireworks, he’s guarding the back.
Shooting a security guard.
He’d sworn after shooting the guard.
Guess he didn’t want to kill anyone either.
That’s enough. I’ve got to get out of here. Everything is about to go to hell, and I’ve killed a man without getting anything.
I take a step into the lobby and stop.
The reception area inside the elevator is decorated with more money than taste. The walls have rich paneling, with gold-framed black-and-white portraits along one wall. I recognize the founders and principal backers from the files I’ve studied, but they’re not nearly so prettied-up in real life. A stylized blue-and-red-and-gold butterfly dominates the wall behind the curved receptionists’ desk. A phone on the desk blinks with enough light-up buttons to launch the USS Enterprise—the aircraft carrier or the starship, whichever. Even the plush leather chairs are better than any piece of furniture owned by anyone I knew growing up.
The security guard lies face down in front of the elevator. His peaked cap has rolled off, exposing a ring of thin hair yellowed by age. Rich scarlet blood stains a growing circle in the plush white carpet. Dammit.
I hate it when old men security guards die. They should be retired. They should get an adequate pension so they don’t have to do shit jobs like guarding rich assholes’ stuff on the Fourth of July. This whole system needs to burn.
The electrical wire stripper sticking out of the canvas tool bag plopped in the middle of the floor catches my eye.
Could I be that lucky?
Yes—it’s an explosives tool kit. I thought I recognized that Marine’s other tats. And right on top of the bag, in a clear plastic box, is a detonator.
It’s roughly the size of a bulky television remote control. There’s a big red button with a separate plastic cover toggled over it. Nineteen lights shine a merry green on it. One shines red.
As I watch, it turns green.
Twenty devices, ready to go.
But better still—beneath the detonator…
Two hard drives, in plastic trays.
Labeled C8-115 and C8-116.
Sorry, Rob. You lose this time.
But I really do honestly like the guy. And winning doesn’t mean crushing.
I stuff the hard drives into the cargo pockets on the thighs of my jumpsuit. Then I dash back into the computer room, slam the door, and lock it from the inside. The dead ex-Marine’s radio comes out of his belt pretty easily, and I make my way to the big circuit breaker panel next to the single door.
I lift the radio, key the button, and say, “I have the detonator.”
Then I throw the master breaker, killing power to the whole floor.
On my way out of the computer room, I pull the fire alarm.
When I leave the party, that party’s over.
Rob’s not an idiot. When someone else has your detonator, you run. I bend low and scurry through empty halls and open-plan office prisons, navigating by dim widely-spaced emergency lights set near the floor. Elsewhere I hear men shouting and roaring, and I catch echoes of Rob’s commanding bellow herding their anger and outrage somewhere towards usefulness.
My backpack’s where I left it, in the credenza in one of the chintzy meeting rooms reserved for the squalid peons. I stuff the precious hard drives into the pack’s bottom compartment, safely tucked in a padded space, then yank the extra strap out of the pack’s underside.
Then I shrug the backpack on.
Crotch strap—tighter than any man could take it.
I slap a lump of plastic explosive into the middle of the glass window, stick in a fifteen-second timer, and dash out into the hall, putting a couple walls between me and it and squeezing my hands over my ears.
The explosion shakes the whole floor. A sudden rush of air launches papers and dust and debris towards that meeting room.
We’re going to vacuum out this place.
Then I’m running, wind at my back, straight for the ten-foot jagged hole in the glass. I space my steps so I can kick off the edge of the hole.
Joy bubbles out of me. I can’t help shouting with sheer pleasure at the open air, the wind around me, the ground rising towards me.
Then I pull the rip cord.
The parachute in the top compartment of my backpack explodes upward. I’m kicked in the shoulders and crotch.
Then I’m gliding into the night, sailing north towards the touchdown point and my black van and a few hours driving before a night’s sleep.
I’ve almost hit the ground in an empty school playground when my phone buzzes. I ignore it until I roll to a stop and disconnect the shroud lines.
It’s from Rob. One word.
Rob’s a friend.
I pull the detonator from the half-empty backpack.
As the sky lights up I can’t help thinking, Deke would have loved this show.
Two days later, I’m relaxing in a streetside café in a small town in a state I’m not going to name, sipping a mocha latte and contemplating a blueberry scone, anonymous in a bustling crowd intent on their own post-holiday business, when my phone rings.
I pick up. “Hey.” I keep my voice relaxed, but my nerves are on fire. I’ve always thought he’s a complete professional, but this might have hit home. But one of his died. I fouled his gig—I had to, don’t get me wrong, but he might take it personal.
“Beaks.” His voice is rich and cultured, like he’s a BBC announcer. I happen to know he’s Jersey born and raised. New Jersey, not the Brit one. “How are you?”
“I’m doing great.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” He sounds relaxed and happy, like always, but I still can’t get rid of the knot of animal awareness in the back of my skull. “I was terribly sorry to hear about Deke.”
The shadow doesn’t cancel my tension, only cloaks it. The Butterfly data’s gone, uploaded to the Internet. Even the most stubborn client would know that killing me won’t recall it—but they might find my death satisfying for purely non-professional reasons. “Thanks,” I finally say.
“I’m on to a new show,” Rob says. “And I fear I must call in my marker.”
My heart beats a little faster. A trap? “What’s the gig?”
“When I accepted my last commission, you were mentioned by name.”
Sudden alarms ring in the back of my mind. Without moving my head, I glance around at rooftops and passing cars. Move too quick and I’ll attract attention, highlight myself that way.
“Don’t worry, dearest,” Rob says. “That performance is complete. You have my inviolate word. Besides, I fear I’m rather peeved about how the whole thing came about.”
I make myself relax. Rob’s word is good—if he says he’s not on the job, he’s not on the job. “How come?”
“You were mentioned only in passing. Something along the lines of ‘if someone interferes, like that self-righteous autodidact Billie Carrie Salton, we’ll need you to handle the matter thoroughly.’”
Translated: kill them.
“Pretty standard clause,” I say.
“Indeed.” Rob is almost purring, he’s laying the accent on so thick. We might be sitting over tea and cigars, planning the next expansion of the Empire. “But I have to wonder why your name, specifically, was dropped.”
I feel a cool flutter in my soul.
“And then I must wonder, why you were there. I know you, my dear. You do not work alone unless it’s tied to one of your personal obsessions. I’ve advised you to practice caution so many times before.”
“Sometimes there’s no choice,” I say.
“Your last performance met with poor reviews,” Rob says.
The lingering hint of coffee in my mouth tastes bitter. “You can just say it,” I said. “It was a fucking disaster.”
“Everyone canned but you,” he says. I wish he’d drop the acting pretense, and just say it. Deke. Four more, well-known—no. Well-loved, all. Friends, occasional co-workers.
But, first and front forever: Deke.
“So I have to ask,” Rob says. “Who would want my dear Beaks retired? And who would put her in the way of another operation?”
The cold flutter in my soul turns to a lump of dry ice.
“This means that someone tried to short me,” Rob says. “I agreed to a single performance—a bit of a spectacle, true, but still, one performance. And someone tried to make it a double ticket.”
The edge of the sun slips out from behind the awning overhead. The sudden warmth feels good, and I raise my hand to shield my eyes.
“I do not appreciate anyone taking advantage of my good nature,” Rob says, his voice cold.
“And you want me to help,” I say.
“Rehearsals start in Lisbon, Portugal. Two days. Can you make it?”
I suck in a deep breath and look at my van, parked in the lot nearby. “Rob, I want to. I really want to. But I’m flat busted right now.”
He paused, then gave a little laugh. “You misunderstand, my dear. The favor isn’t you take the part without compensation. The favor is you agree to take the part at all.”
Something inside me melts.
“The pay isn’t much, I have to say. Let’s call it community theater. But I’ll send you a token. Enough to get a halfway civilized flight here and back, and at least a three-star hotel.”
I know damn well Rob doesn’t have a customer. He’s fronting me a stake out of his own pocket.
“I’m in,” I say.
“Let me know when you arrive,” Rob says. “I’ll meet you at an airport, and we’ll have a toast. To absent friends.”
My eyes water. “Absent friends.”
“Soon,” he says.
The phone goes dead.
I down the last of my latte and head for the van.
I wrote Butterfly Stomp and readers demanded more. So I wrote more.
While Butterfly Stomp stands on its own just fine, it also grew into the first 11 chapters of my novel Butterfly Stomp Waltz, available at bookstores everywhere, online and off.
In any case, I hope you enjoyed this tale as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Michael Warren Lucas lives in Detroit, Michigan, with his wife Liz and their pet rats, practices martial arts, and is busy writing his next novel.
Want more of his books? Join his mailing list at http://www.michaelwarrenlucas.com. He sends mail only when he has a new book out.
Butterfly Stomp Waltz
Copyright 2016 by Michael Warren Lucas. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, in whole or in part in any form. Published in 2016 by Tilted Windmill Press.
Cover photo © Eakakeeak | Dreamstime.com – http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-bangkok-night-street-center-city-image41506262 – Bangkok Night Photo
Copy Editor: Amanda Robinson
Book design by Tilted Windmill Press.
print ISBN-13: 978-0692652404
print ISBN-10: 069265240X
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.
Tilted Windmill Press
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