London, England; December 20th, 2011
The timing had been perfect.
Closing had come about an hour before and only two guards remained in the silent building, awaiting the replacements that would be relieving them in another half hour.
Harris and Reyes had worked this shift together every night, excluding weekends, for five years, and the two had become good friends. Both men had been sitting in the security room, eyes flickering between the wall of surveillance feeds and the portable small screen television Harris had brought from home, when the lights and video monitors concurrently died. Cursing softly under his breath, Harris stood in the dark and pulled the small flashlight from his belt, suddenly hyper aware of the limited space around him.
“The back-up generator’ll take care of it,” Reyes assured him, lazily stretching back in his chair and rifling through his pockets for batteries. “Just give it a minute.”
Henry Harris was the older and much larger guard, just shy of fifty and well over six feet tall. Despite his age, he was a burly man with a permanently angry expression on his face, unless you, by a miracle, got him to laugh. His hair was salt and pepper, but only where he allowed it to show. In order to beat impending baldness, he’d shaved his head back in college and had never gone back. Short stubble covered his head and grew longer toward his chin, around which he had organized a neat beard. Small, dark eyes were sunken into his withering face.
Fred Reyes, on the other hand, was comparatively meek. The younger man had only just celebrated his twenty ninth birthday the previous week and was still cleaning up his apartment from the surprise party his brother had thrown him, one Coors Light bottle at a time. Reyes stood above average height but resembled more of a toy soldier than a security guard while standing beside Harris. His long, wiry muscles swam in the extra material of his black uniform. He wore his hat over his head, masking his shaggy, dark hair, and allowing only his dull brown eyes to show. Reyes was clean-shaven, retaining a boyish quality that Harris lacked.
“Do you have any Double A’s?” Reyes inquired, finally giving up on his pockets with a deep, dramatic sigh.
“Just take ’em out of the remote,” Harris grunted back. “The generator should have come on by now.”
“The rain might’ve blown out the box,” Reyes shrugged, suddenly pointedly interested in his uniform’s broken belt loop.
Harris grit his teeth, pulling back his sleeve to study his watch. Realizing he couldn’t leave the generator for his replacement, he resolved to go, and by the look on Reyes’s face, he’d be going alone. Fixing his hat upon his bald head, he turned on his heel to leave, despite Reyes’s protests. “Harris!” Reyes called as his friend vanished through the door. “The night guy’ll get it! Harris!”
“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” the officer vowed with a roll of his eyes. “Find the batteries,” he added.
Navigating through the blackened halls of the museum was difficult with only a flashlight, but Harris had memorized every door and crevice so attentively that he could’ve done it with his eyes closed. The back-up generator existed in the basement and was only accessible through the ward devoted entirely to Greek artifacts and literature on its mythology. The basement was off limits to the public for its dangerous setup, concrete walls, and the boiler, making it a hell of its own making beneath the feet of the many patrons each day. It wasn’t a place necessarily enjoyed by the staff of the museum, but whatever minor incidence had brought them down to begin with was usually enough to make them overlook this general distaste for the hot and unkempt room. Harris was no exception to those who despised the basement, but he’d never been, and never would be, one to follow orders any less than perfectly.
The smooth feel of the ring of keys in his left hand was as familiar to him as the flashlight in his right. He made to unlock the door but, as he turned the handle, his ears caught a light sound. From across the room, he heard the small clink of something small, a binder clip perhaps, or a pen, skittering across the granite floor. Back going rigid, Harris froze, flashlight poised over the basement door’s keyhole. He didn’t dare to breathe as he spun to face the noise.
There was nothing against the wall but a podium devoted to paintings of the Trojan War. Even as he swung the flashlight back and forth across the display, nothing appeared to account for what he’d heard. And so, as anyone in such a situation would, he passed it off as a fluke and went back to work. Hands shaking, Harris slipped through the open doorway as quickly as he could and bounded down the metal staircase toward the concrete floor below.
Behind him, veiled by the dark, a much smaller figure, clad entirely in black, slid purposefully through the doorway, keeping his arms crossed over his chest so the door slid easily back into place. Black leather gloves shoved the broken clip he’d dropped on his way into the building back into his pocket.
The generator was in the furthermost corner of the room where the wires connecting it to the building’s main box were bolted to the wall. Wiping the accumulating drops of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, Harris passed the boiler to find the generator, gasping with the sudden change in temperature. His loud, clumsy footsteps reverberated through the cave-like enclosure like a sad metronome, or a quickening reminder of his impending demise. The fire raging in the boiler cast a red glow over the room, but that was its only source of light. Harris’s black shadow stretched out from toe to ceiling, covering every inch of the floor before him in a shroud of darkness.
The boiler growled with a flicker of the vengeful flames within, spitting out a small surge of glowing embers onto the concrete floor. As Harris approached the generator, everything seemed normal, the large black square, undisturbed. The building’s central power box screwed into the wall seemed untouched as well. The thick black cords connecting the box to the generator were hidden mostly by the shadow of the machine, but one cord was pushed unceremoniously away from the metal strip bolting it to the wall. Narrowing his eyes suspiciously, Harris knelt to its height and trained his flashlight onto the offending wire.
It was cut through.
“What the hell?” he muttered. He rolled the wire between his thumb and forefinger thoughtfully before a movement on the floor caught his attention. His large figure had cast a much larger shadow onto the floor, but while he was kneeling to investigate the generator, the light from the fire was able to illuminate the room much further. His shadow separated, without cause from him, into another being, moving slowly and silently around the room. The unmistakable sound of an exhale coiled Harris’s muscles to spring. He adjusted his grip on the flashlight as he rose slowly to his feet, skin prickling with the promise of looming danger.
Giving no warning, the guard spun around, flashlight outstretched so it would give a satisfying crack against the intruder’s head upon impact.
That satisfaction never came, for when Harris’s eyes eventually adjusted to the quick movements, he realized that the head of the flashlight had fit itself into the gloved palm of the phantom’s hand instead of his masked temple. His brain didn’t get the message fast enough to respond as his opponent followed this retaliation with a blow to the neck. The tips of his fingers shot out like a snake, connecting harshly with Harris’s windpipe, doubling him over. Ignoring the hoarse gurgle of protest directed at him, the intruder placed his hands on Harris’s lowered shoulders and forced his knee into the older man’s gut with a force that knocked him to the concrete ground and sent his hat flying across the room.
Spitting blood through his teeth, Harris let his body slump flat against the ground. His eyes opened with some difficulty and found his much smaller opponent standing mockingly above him, pulling the black ski mask off his head. The face that emerged, however, was not a man’s, but a petite woman’s with lank, strawberry-blonde hair and light blue eyes; she stared down at him with a taunting smile fixed across her face.
She cracked her knuckles once in reminder of his crushing loss and shook her head. “I was truly wishing for a worthier adversary, Mr. Harris. You have disappointed me greatly,” she murmured smoothly, her voice obviously influenced by a thick, Czech accent.
She crossed the room leisurely to retrieve his hat and fixed it onto her head. “It looks better on me, I think,” she concluded, outwardly blasé. He seemed to be down for the count, but she’d been tricked by opponents into a false sense of security before. His accusing eyes had no effect on her, she’d been doing this far too long to feel anything. “Do not feel bad, Mr. Harris, you would not be the first man to be bested by me, and you will most certainly not be the last. It is what I do.”
“W—?” Harris gasped, unable to move, or speak.
“Nothing you need concern yourself with Mr. Harris,” she promised, striding back to him with the brim of his cap pinched between her fingers.
He tried to question her again, but all he could emit was a breathy moan of pain.
“Goodnight, Mr. Harris,” she sighed in contentment, stomping on his cheek, eliciting a sharp crack as his head snapped to the side and his body went slack. The uneven gasps of breath ended.
The mysterious woman circled her prey twice, admiring her work. She pushed the hair that had fallen in her face back behind her ear flirtatiously as she sensed another presence in the room, watching her. “How long have you been watching?” she grinned, biting her lip. She was an attractive woman, as she well knew, and she used it to her advantage, even when her job didn’t necessarily call for it. She kept her back to the visitor, knowing he would speak of his own volition soon enough.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to play with your food?” the weary voice questioned with a deep sigh.
“I am afraid my mother did not feel any need to remind me of such trivial things. However this hardly constitutes your metaphor. I am many things, Kierlan, but a cannibal does not make the list,” she insisted, eyebrows knit together.
“Ugh,” he replied. “Let’s just get the book and go. If I have to deal with anymore of your…interesting mannerisms tonight, I’ll put a bullet in my head.”
“And then where would we be?” she laughed. “Silly boy, there is no book, only a page.”
Her partner merely shook his head in disappointment. He didn’t care if it was an entire library, so long as he got paid and could go home. “Put on your mask, Natalia, someone might see you,” he ordered.
“No one who will live to tell about it,” she chuckled. “Perhaps you should take care of the other guard. We will need his uniform to leave the building.”
“What happened to the plan, Natalia?” he snapped, knowing immediately what had happened and wondering increasingly why he’d agreed to work with someone so incompetent. Well, he amended reflexively, not completely incompetent.
Natalia Petrov was the best assassin just as he was the best thief to accomplish this job, and, for the most part, she did the job better than he could have hoped, aside from nearly falling into the museum when she broke the clip to her harness. Her only flaw was theatrics. A lifetime of cold killing had taken away every ounce of the humanity born to all men and women, leaving her cruel and frigid. She enjoyed the hunt. She enjoyed the death. She enjoyed the mockery.
“Your team’s equipment is crap, Kierlan! It was by no fault of mine,” she insisted, becoming immediately defensive, as she always was when her work ethic was questioned.
“Or, could it be, that you’ve just become careless over the years, Natalia? You seem to be losing your touch! Dropping your only way out? Letting your target hear you coming?” he made a face under the ski mask he wore as he stared at her in accusation. “When I heard you were the best I was expecting something a bit more professional.”
Natalia’s freckled face turned bright red. Kierlan could hear her teeth grinding together from across the room and inwardly grinned. He loved making her upset. “Do you have the page, then? Since you can stand there and criticize my work! Where is the page?” she growled, trying her best not to shriek at him.
“Killing was never part of this plan, we were just supposed to get the page and go,” he protested, coming to the realization that he would have to end the life of the much younger man upstairs. Kierlan had never done the killing before; he’d always had someone on his team willing to do it for him. Thievery was his game, and he was good at it. That and organization; he could organize a murder, but he would never have the stomach to carry it out himself like Natalia could. He took no joy in killing, nor the chase, nor the mockery that followed.
“Ohh grow a pair! I have been in this trade since I was fifteen, you worthless man! Even you can certainly manage it once,” Natalia snarled. She gathered herself after a moment of peace and softly added, “I cannot wear this man’s uniform, Kierlan. Would you prefer it if I dispatched Mr. Reyes myself?”
Kierlan knew he should’ve said yes, but his mind had warped Natalia’s words into something condescending. Ms. Petrov wasn’t kind, not now, not ever, and even the strange attraction she had developed towards him wouldn’t change that. Feeling the sting of her ridicule reverberate through his brain, he let a moment of silence pass between them before he finally whispered, “No. Don’t worry your pretty little head about me. I’ll do it myself.” His voice was quiet, but steely, and as cold as ice. Without another word, he turned on his heel and strode back up the steps, blending easily into the shadows.
Natalia was fully aware that she’d wounded the less experienced man and gloried in it. She was accustomed to being worshiped and sought after for her talent. She was the best in the world. She was paid well every time outside parties hired her, and this time was no exception.
Nevertheless, she was never one to simply overlook a chance for advancement in anything, especially money, so she stooped beside the body she’d turned cold, pulling her gloves tightly against her small fingers, and searched the corpse for a wallet.
Upstairs, Reyes was becoming uneasy by Harris’s extended absence. He’d also been unable to find batteries.
Without company or a distraction, he was officially creeped out and bored. Slapping his hand onto his head to adjust his hat, he pulled himself to his feet without much hesitation and resolved to look for his partner. “Harris!” he called, enjoying the sound of his voice echoing through the abandoned building. Any second now, he told himself, Harris is gonna turn out of some corner that he was, miraculously, able to hide his fat ass in. He’s gonna threaten to kill me if I keep acting like a child, just like he always does.
No such response ever came. No response at all.
“Harris!” he repeated in the same manner as the first time. When he was, again, ignored, Reyes’s tone took on an air of desperation. “Henry! I’m not fooling around!” When Reyes’s latest attempt produced the same result as the first, he pulled out his flashlight and journeyed further into the depths of the museum, focusing his eyes on the ground so he wouldn’t startle himself with the sight of mummies in the dark.
Unlike Harris, Reyes’s death was swift and painless. It was debatable, in fact, whether or not he knew what was happening at all. A hasty kick to his tailbone sent the guard sprawling to the floor, dazed as he flattened himself against the granite. Above him, two legs straddled his back as a pair of gloved hands found either side of his face and swiftly twisted, ending Fred Reyes’s short life.
Kierlan had to swallow back shame, and possibly bile, before he could stand and face what he’d done. It was over now. I don’t need to worry anymore, he reminded himself, but he couldn’t shake the horrible feeling that had overtaken him with his first kill. He stood over the body, still warm under his hands as he pried them from the man’s neck. Still warm. It would be so easy to pretend that he was only sleeping.
“Not bad,” her sultry voice made him want to jump out of his skin when she suddenly appeared beside him. She did that a lot. “Not a drop of blood spilled. Could not have asked for a better job well done, myself.”
For a rookie…
The words were left unspoken but they hung in the air, nonetheless.
Natalia didn’t find her compliments offensive; she’d meant it when she told him how well he’d done. After this job, she hoped that she could possibly convince him to train with her for a time. She wasn’t stupid, and her astute observations as an experienced assassin made her far from oblivious. She knew raw talent when she saw it. And Kierlan Cole definitely possessed that raw talent.
“Take off your mask, Kierlan; enjoy your work!” she suggested cheerfully, pulling the ski mask off in one fell swoop.
Kierlan Cole was a handsome man with chiseled features and closely shaven black hair. He was large, almost as large as Harris, and between the ages of twenty and thirty, though it was unclear which he was closer to. His eyes were the darkest of grey, like a storm-cloud, and were bordered by dark circles, displaying a worry and exhaustion far beyond his years. His face had obviously gone unshaven for the last few days while they stayed in London waiting for their chance, but its ordinarily tan glow was sallow with nausea.
“I’m gonna to throw up,” he informed her, covering his mouth and circling his arm around his abdomen.
“No! They cannot find any evidence!” Natalia snarled, beginning to strip Reyes of his uniform. Once Kierlan had sufficiently calmed down, she continued, “Go to the basement and take the other uniform. The next shift will be here soon.”
Wordlessly, the broken man did as he was told.
Ten minutes later, two uniformed men strode down the long set of stairs toward the sidewalk, passing two other men in similar uniforms as they approached the doors of the museum. The smaller of the two departing guards kept his hand fixed firmly around a fragile piece of parchment paper, knowing it wouldn’t be missed for at least a day. A tendril of blonde hair threatened to fall from the cap, but the guard’s particularly feminine lips blew it out of its owner’s face. Both guards kept their faces directed pointedly toward the ground, obscured by the lack of light. The smaller guard smiled a predatory grin.
“Evening, Reyes,” one of the replacements smiled. “Harris.”
The larger guard merely gave an unintelligible grunt in response, whereas his companion gave no retort at all. The two stepped out into the street, seeing their car at the very end. They never lifted their heads, even when they pulled themselves into the front seats.
They got away.