Let me tell you about the day I died.
It’s exactly 12:47 AM. I know because my job requires precision and attention to detail, two qualities that pump through my veins and spill out when I bleed. The plan calls for being here at 12:47, so I’m here at 12:47.
The room is completely dark and presumably just as empty, save for a strange, pulsating green gem sitting on a platform about thirty feet below me. I’m staring at it, waiting for the sign. It’s gorgeous. Enthralling. I can’t take my eyes off it. Its light quivers mysteriously, translucent on the edges and opaque in the center. I’ve stolen too many priceless artifacts to count, but even an untrained eye could tell this one is unique.
I’m in the underground vault of some downtown skyscraper owned by a tech billionaire, one of those men who cashed in prior to the Dot-com crash of the early 2000’s and still flaunts his money around like it makes him better than everyone else. These are the kind of people you love stealing from: what you take can never be worth more than the equivalent of a penny to them and they typically don’t even notice it’s gone until they look for it years later and convince themselves they sold it for another yacht or piece of art. It’s a victimless crime.
My rope squeaks as I sway, tense as I am, the only sound in the room other than my light, controlled breaths. You might wonder why I’m hanging thirty feet in the air. Well, that’s about how tall the ceiling is, for starters, but you already guessed that. More importantly, there are a handful of guards outside the room’s only entrance, a group of dimwits and hired thugs. I enjoy a nice tussle just as much as the next girl, but I also like to avoid distractions. What’s more, the mist from my spray bottle is revealing dozens of crisscrossing lasers scattered throughout the room, up and down, side to side, a tangled mess. The only way through is from above, and some fool forgot there was a vent that looked down directly onto his precious stone.
A grin crosses my face when I stop to think about how much effort the owner of this gem is putting into protecting it. Armed guards. Laser alarm systems. The vault at the bottom of a skyscraper. I was wrong before, this isn’t a victimless crime. He’ll miss this gem when it’s gone. Too bad by the time he realizes it I’ll already be swimming in cash and have paid off the rest of my parents’ house.
It’s audible, metallic. That’s the sign. The security system is resetting. Every night. Circadian. 12:48 AM. It does so in waves; the lasers closest to the gem are first. It ripples outward until it completes. Any given laser is off for about thirty seconds. I’ll admit it’s a poor design, but it’s not like I designed it, so I won’t feel bad about exploiting it. Should have paid extra for the high-end install if you really wanted to keep someone like me out.
I rappel down. That’s the word, but I only know it because of what I do. A large vocabulary doesn’t matter for a thief. A useless skill. Would you ask a mechanic if he knew how to make brownies? No, because you make them for the mechanic in exchange for good work at a fair price. Everyone knows that.
I’m at the end of my rope, literally and figuratively, though I don’t know it yet. It snaps upward and I’m locked in place. My body straightens. I’m hanging above the gem. Its light is radiant. The pulses are blinding. From high above, they seemed almost an illusion, but here I am, my eyes a foot away, and this damned thing is pulsing at me like some kind of glossy beating heart. For a moment, I’m captivated, unable to move.
That’s the second wave. Now I’m back, and I’m embarrassed. Usually the consummate professional, I let myself be distracted and now I’ve only got fifteen seconds left to scramble through the rest of the job.
Platforms like these respond to pressure. You remove the gem and everyone knows. You so much as sneeze on this thing, and those guards outside you didn’t want to tussle with are rushing in with their tussling shoes already laced up and ready to go. No, I said I had a small vocabulary, but I never said I was a fool.
I take the bag of stones from my belt. Javier weighed it down to the milligram based on the measurements given by our source. It’s easy to understand why they would want this gem: it’s the most hauntingly beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen more haunting beauty in my line of work than you could ever imagine.
It’s a swift motion, replacing the gem with the bag of stones. I’ve done it a thousand times. Breathe in. Breathe out. Go. I like to imagine it being too quick for a video. Like if you watched me do it, it would be a blur even when you paused. I’m that fast. A lifetime of training has gotten me here.
The deed is done. Gem in hand, I reach to the back of my belt and flip the switch. I’m ascending, and rapidly.
I let out a squeak and my blood runs cold. The lights flash on. A man is standing next to the table. Where was he? How did he get there? How come I didn’t see him in the pulsating light of the gem? These are questions I ask as I’m speeding toward the ceiling. They’re the same questions I ask as I feel my ascent slow to a stall. The same ones I ask as the floor is closing in.
It’s a crash. The fall is maybe ten feet, but the table I left my bag of rocks on is narrow and gets me from the shoulder to the waist. The gem bounces on the floor. My neck snaps forward. My mouth moistens and tastes of salt and iron. I’m dazed, helpless, and gasping for breath through what feels like a dozen broken ribs.
Stomping feet rush in from outside and surround me, bringing the laughter of dozens of men and women with them. The sound must be deafening, but with each passing moment the room grows quieter. The end of my rope fell harmlessly on the ground within my reach. With shaky hands, I pull it close to my blurry eyes. The cut is clean. Not a tear. Severed by a knife. They knew I was here, but how? The question hangs as the room fades to darkness.
Next thing I know, I’m tied to a chair, my back against the table. They may have even used my own rope to do it. I’m drifting in and out, so I can’t really tell. By the time my head catches up to my body, the entire crowd is silently staring at me. Their grins are as maniacal as they are merry.
One man in the back seems out of place. His eyes look sad. His shoulders are slumped forward. I never saw him participate in the yelps and high-fives of the men and women that surround him. They didn’t seem to notice, but I did. He looks peculiar, almost guilty. He’s soft, not cut out for this type of work. Even his victim can see that.
The first man clears his throat again. The horde parts and he walks through like he’s Moses, though I’ll soon see he thinks himself more God than mortal, and in time I’ll learn he may actually be right.
We’re face-to-face, but my eyes struggle to focus. He’s tall and broad, arms rippling under the skin-tight synthetic shirt you might see on a bro at the gym. He has a salt and pepper goatee and a curious scar on his cheek. The worst ones always have the goatees. I’ve worked with a few. It’s like they wake up one day and Google “how to look evil” and that’s the first result that pops up. It’s sickening, but the look in his eyes is even more so. It’s murderous, but with an unhealthy slather of sadism. This one, I can already tell he likes prolonging it, and despite him and the mob that surrounds us I still can’t help myself.
I force a shudder to go along with a high-pitched scoff. “That thing on your face—hoooo boy—like a dead raccoon.”
It catches them by surprise. A few snickers sound out while the rest of the group remains silent. I’m going to die, and it’s obvious from the start that this one wouldn’t have made it quick anyway.
The man smiles. “Thanks for noticing.” He pulls a knife from his belt and touches it to my cheek. “It doesn’t grow very well here.” The blade enters the skin and cuts downward. It’s cold at first, and then warm and wet as blood drips from my cheek to my shoulder. “Or here, either.” He takes the knife to the other side and repeats. The pain is immense, but I hold steady.
“A pity,” I say, spitting out what blood is left in my mouth from the fall, “is that also why your neck is so smooth? It just grows in all naturally pathetic like that?”
There’s a slight grin, accompanied by a hollow, psychotic gaze that fits naturally on his face. “I see what you’re doing, girl, but you won’t get the courtesy of me slitting your throat just yet.”
I snort. If only I were so lucky, though I realize if he won’t end it quickly, perhaps Javier will make the daring rescue he’s always dreamed of. “What do you want from me, then?”
“Tell me who hired you,” he demands.
My response is a shrug. I don’t have a name. I rarely ever do, to be honest. My source wanted the gem. That was good enough for me.
My shrug is not enough for the goateed man. He slams the hilt of his blade into my temple. My neck snaps. I black out for a moment before coming back. It hurts, but now I’m just laughing.
“You’ve got all those muscles and you still hit like a little girl?”
Keeping my mouth shut has never been my strong suit. The room cheers as he throws the knife down and rains blows upon me. Teeth are flying. My breaths are as heavy as his fists. The floor is painted red. I like to imagine he’s getting tired, but he’s showing no signs of stopping. I also like to imagine some of the blood is his own, like he punched me so hard he cut his hand open, but I think we all know that’s not the case. It hurts, yes, but I suppose every moment he wastes inflicting pain is a moment my life is spared.
Finally, it’s too much to bear. “Tell me how you knew I was here, and I’ll tell you who hired me,” I say through a set of lips that are already swollen almost to the point of uselessness.
The goateed man’s response begins with cruel laughter. “I heard it through the grapevine.” He turns to the woman standing closest to him. Her face snarls as they lock eyes, as though she knows what he’s going to say before he even says it. “Get the rat.”
She nods and obliges, retreating into the crowd with one of the men standing next to her. My eyes scan from them to the guilty man in the back. It’s hard to tell through blurred vision, but his face seems to have lost all color and his eyes are as wide as golf balls. No one else seems to notice.
The man and woman return a moment later, dragging an unconscious man behind them, throwing him facedown between me and the goateed man. He lands on the tile with a hard, unceremonious thud.
The goateed man’s cackles echo over the cheer of the crowd. He steps forward, eyes locked on my own. “Now you see what happens to those who cross me, girl.”
I peer down at the unconscious man, noting the soft, rhythmic expansions of his torso. “He’s not even dead. I’d expect more.”
“Oh, he will be,” the goateed man says, taking a step toward me over the body, grin on his face. “As will you, in time. But first, this traitor wasn’t working alone. Tell me who hired you and your partner.”
“Partner? I work alone. I don’t ha—” I get only this far before the crowd parts once more and Javier is thrust before me. His face is beaten and bloodied and swollen almost beyond recognition, like I envision my own looking at this very moment. His hands are tied. His mouth is gagged. They remove it just long enough for him to squeak out an apology.
“Please, Vic, I had no choice,” he gasps. “I told them everything.”
The butt of a handgun knocks him out cold. He crumples to the ground, taking my heart and any hope of rescue with him. I make no attempt to conceal my horror.
The eyes of the goateed Man lock on my own. They are evil. Pure. Unadulterated. He’s still smiling. I want to rip that damn rug off his smug face, but I am helpless.
“I’ve shown you mine. Now you show me yours. Who were you working with?”
“Presumably someone who wants to steal your boss’s little gem?” I say before offering a weak shrug.
He forces a laugh and then looks down at the gem before back at me. I can see it throbbing in his hand. “My boss?” he questions. “I answer to no man.”
“Don’t know what to tell you, then,” I say, shrugging once more, “but I got nothing. I just wanted to know where I messed up.”
“Your mistake was trying to steal my anchor.” He laughs as though it’s obvious, and perhaps it is to everyone else, but I’m lost. I blink at him until the smile tapers at the corners of his mouth.
“Anchor?” I ask.
My question takes him by surprise, like he expected me to know exactly what he was referring to. The smile slowly returns, starting at the corners of his mouth before stretching across his face.
“Oh, you honestly don’t know?” His laugh deepens, echoing throughout the room as he turns to the woman who retrieved the unconscious man on the ground between us. “This will be fun.”
The woman grins and shrieks with callous enjoyment. The goateed man then steps over the unconscious man and kneels down in front of me, holding the gem out to my face. “My anchor. You dare challenge a thousand-year-old god?”
A chorus of cheers erupts, but all I can do is chuckle. It starts as a giggle and I try to hold it back, though it grows until it’s uncontrollable. What else can I do at this point? My partner is unconscious. My life is ending before my eyes. The man responsible for my death is so delusional he just referred to himself as a god, and that actually seems fairly low on the list of things that make him a lunatic.
He returns my chuckle with a snarl. “You’re more out of your depth than you realize, girl.” Standing, he turns to the rest of the room. “Someone bring me another anchor.”
The man who helped retrieve the body disappears, leaving an air of palpable delight in his wake. Everyone but me knows what the goateed man is talking about. Even when his subordinate returns with a small, wooden box I am still confused.
“What are these ‘anchors’ you keep talking about?” My mind is slow, and my tongue can barely form the words, but he’s been here enough times that I suppose he can understand the words of one beaten nearly senseless.
He takes a small, colorless, transparent glass orb out of the box. It pulses with a light and frequency like that of the gem, though is more transparent. It’s mesmerizing.
He gestures toward it. “You’re about to find out.” Then gestures to himself. “You may have had a god before, girl, but I am your god now.”
Dropping the box on the ground, he moves forward and places his free hand on top of my head. The room falls in an anxious hush. Our eyes are locked on one another, mine feigning confidence, his lustily cruel. All is quiet until he speaks once more.
A sudden and excruciating pain rips through my body. It starts at my chest and flows up through my head and neck. I scream when he slowly pulls his hand away, the pain in my torso and head mounting while my limbs go numb beneath them.
As he steps back, my head lurches forward and pulls my body with it, held back only by the chair I’m tied to. I instinctively try to straighten my feet to keep from falling, but they don’t respond. When I clench my fists behind my back, I find that they are limp as well.
The goateed man places his hand on the glass orb. “Vinculum,” he says through a smile. Still reeling from the pain in my head, I feel nothing at this word, but when he moves the gem side-to-side immediately after, I feel my body pulled ever so slightly in its direction.
The numbness creeps inward from my limbs and after a moment I can move nothing but my eyes. A vicious cheer erupts from his subordinates as he reaches behind his back and retrieves the revolver he used to bludgeon Javier. It’s staring me in the face. It’s six inches away. Its barrel gleams in the light and encircles the dark abyss within.
I’ll never forget the look in the man’s eyes as he pulls the trigger, nor my feelings of hatred as he takes everything away from me. There’s a muzzle flash, but no sound. Victoria Simone is dead. For the first time, anyway.
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