“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Bobby said, stepping in. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for getting this guy off Elia’s back, and that stone sounds like seriously shady business. But you’re talking about stealing something from a super bad dude who probably has it under heavy protection. Aside from the question of if we can even do this is the bigger question of how bad is this going to come back to bite us? Like I said, if it was just me, I’m okay getting on this guy’s radar, but there are other considerations.”
Like your family, Sierra thought, meeting his eyes and nodding in understanding. She looked to Joey. “Is Bobbi Leigh the type of person who would sell all of us out to Orsino just to get to Elia? Will she send her people sniffing around my friend’s homes?”
Joey looked almost offended by the question. “Nah, man,” he shook his head. “Bobbi Leigh’s not big on collateral damage. Besides, we didn’t even know about any of you until tonight. She’ll have called the others back to regroup by now, and she will come looking again. But it’s gonna take them a few days to figure out who any of you are. J.D. was our top technomancer. No one else comes close. We only found you as quick as we did because we picked up on the work he’d already done. Sorting out your friends’ info is a whole other deal. I mean, she’ll have the house where we found you to start, but if no one’s there, worst she’ll do is set someone watching it in case Elia comes back.” He tilted his head, “As far as telling Orsino’s minions? Hell, no. She’s not sharing any more with them than she has to in order to get them off her case. Unless she feels like the only choice is sending them after you guys, she’ll keep what she knows to herself.”
Sierra looked to Elia and he nodded after a moment, agreeing with the assessment.
“So, we’re on a clock,” Sierra sighed. “We have to get this done before Bobbi Leigh’s people identify you three and start digging into your lives to figure out where Elia might be hiding. If she doesn’t get the chance to start digging, she won’t be able to tell Orsino about you.”
Bobby mulled this over, nodding to himself. He sat forward, addressing the group, “So I’ve gotta ask now, can we do this? None of us are exactly criminal masterminds. I manage a bookstore, you sell houses, she teaches grade school P.E., and she’s a records jockey. How do we even begin to pull this off?”
“What about Elia?” Intira asked. “He can turn into a cat. Sounds pretty useful for getting into places we’re not supposed to be. I bet if we can find this stone thing, he could get in and grab it before they know we’re there.”
“Won’t fly,” Joey chimed in. “Pretty much all the security measures in place around the stone are to guard against magic, including shapeshifters.” He paused, cocking his head in thought, then shrugged. “Which is why a group of mundanes might actually be able to pull this off. They won’t see you coming.”
“So you already know where Orsino’s people are keeping it?” Elia asked Joey.
He nodded. “Bobbi Leigh has had us watching them,” he said. “I was on the surveillance team until I got pulled to stake out your place.”
“Have you actually seen the stone?” Cammy asked.
“From a distance,” Joey said. He shuddered. “Even from a building across the street I could feel its power.”
“What, he just has it sitting on display in front of a window?” Intira asked, eyebrows shooting up. “That doesn’t sound very mastermindy. Oh shut up, it’s a word,” she said, when Bobby shot her a look.
“I presume it’s guarded well enough that the windows don’t concern him,” Cammy said, pursing her lips.
“You got it,” Joey agreed.
Bobby gave Joey a long look, as if trying to decide whether or not to take the young man at his word. “Okay,” he said at last. “It sounds like this works better if we hit them without magic, and the sooner we get this done, the better. I’m in.”
“No you’re not,” Cammy said.
“What?” Bobby turned to stare at her.
“You’re right,” she said, holding up a hand, “this isn’t exactly our area of expertise. There’s a high risk of getting caught. Best case, it’s by the police. Worst case, well.” She shook her head. “You’ve got Jackie and Agnes to think about. Your involvement has to end here, Bobby. You can’t take care of your family from prison or worse.”
“So, what,” he asked, anger flaring up, “I just sit here on my ass and twiddle my thumbs while you three go do this?”
“No,” Cammy said, keeping her voice level, “you go home. You be with your daughter.” Bobby clenched his jaw. Sierra and the others glanced back and forth between the two, like spectators at a ping-pong match. Several times Bobby opened his mouth as if to object, but then closed it again without saying. Cammy nodded to herself and turned to Intira, adding, “I don’t think you should come along either.”
Intira just snorted and rolled her eyes. “Like hell I’m sitting this out. Besides, it’s not like I can go home and wait it out. They already have my address.”
“Intira, if you get caught by the police, there’s no way you keep your job,” Sierra tried, understanding what Cammy was doing.
“Then I’ll find a new one. I love my kiddos, don’t get me wrong, but I love you guys too. I don’t have anyone waiting at home for me like Bobby, so I’m not letting you do this without me. End of story.”
“Oh, very well,” Cammy agreed, blowing a piece of hair out of her eyes. “If you must.”
Sierra glanced at Bobby, half expecting him to renew his objections to being left out. Cammy must have struck a nerve when she brought up Jackie. He looked unhappy, but there was resignation on his face.
“I’m coming too,” Joey said, breaking the silence that had fallen over them. “It’s my crew at stake here, just as much as any of you. I want to help.”
“You can’t,” Elia said, “at least not like that.” He pointed to Joey’s wrist. “Even if you can bear the pain of a shift in your condition, you won’t be able to fly.”
“Help us by telling us everything you know about where the stone is being kept,” Cammy said in a gentle voice. She offered Joey a smile and squeezed his shoulder. “That will see us through this in safety.”
He glanced up at Cammy for a moment, then away, letting out a sigh and nodding. “‘Kay,” he mumbled.
“Not tonight, though,” Cammy said, stepping back. “It’s late, and as much as I am loathe to give up the added security of this place, it really isn’t suitable for planning something like this. I’ll take Bobby home, and we can meet back up at my house. In the morning we’ll start planning. With any luck, we can move tomorrow.”
Everyone stood up except Joey, who was still tied to his chair. “Uh, a little help here?”
Sierra still had her pocketknife, so she knelt to begin slicing his bonds. “Do we have enough twine to tie him back up?” Intira asked.
“No need,” Cammy said. “You’re not going to try to get away, are you Joey?”
“No, ma’am,” he said, meeting her eyes. “I want to help.”
Elia frowned, giving Joey a hard look. “You don’t believe him?” Sierra whispered as she rejoined him.
“I do,” Elia said after a long pause. He looked surprised. “He means it.”
“Well that’s one less thing to worry about,” she muttered as they left.
No one slept very well, except maybe Joey. Despite his promise to stay with them, Elia and Intira insisted on taking turns standing watch over him in the night. Sierra wondered if Bobby had gotten much sleep back at home, or if he had been up worrying over his friends and what kind of trouble they were getting into without him. In the morning, Intira called in sick to work, pleading a nasty cold. At least it was the time of year for it. That bought them a long weekend, and Sierra hoped it was enough time to get this done. It’ll have to be, she reminded herself. We wait too long and either Bobbi Leigh finds us or Orsino’s men stop chasing our false lead down south and come to reinforce the rest of his people.
Joey was quite forthcoming about the security situation at Orsino’s men’s hideout. If Sierra had to guess, she would have said Bobbi Leigh considered exactly the same thing they were planning now. Steal the stone, take away Orsino’s hold over her crew. Orsino was the kind of man to anticipate that, so he’d planned his protections accordingly. He’d taken over a suite of offices in the city, and was keeping the stone in the conference room. Four guards in the room, and two on the door, “Sorcerers,” Joey told them. “All with strengths in defense. They can confuse you into forgetting why you’re there, just flat out make your brain scream, or put you to sleep, and some can physically repel or restrain intruders.”
“Lovely,” Sierra said, pursing her lips and glancing at the layout Joey’d drawn for them.
“That’s not even the tricky part,” he added. “We’ve also got this nice little bit of magic on top of all the other stuff,” he tapped the conference room. “Ward.”
“For the unmagically inclined in the room?” Intira prompted. She seemed to be warming up to the idea of magic. A little. But not enough that she didn’t want explanations for how everything worked.
Elia sighed and crossed his arms. “Like an energy shield, but tuned to magic. Nothing and no one with magic gets through the barrier unless they have the proper talisman.”
“Which we have to assume the guards have,” Sierra guessed.
Joey nodded. “Amulets. They wear ’em around their necks, like dog tags. They only have the six of them, as near as we can tell. Whenever we saw them switch shifts, they passed the amulets to their replacements, two at a time, so the stone stays guarded.”
“Is there any time when there are no guards in the room?” Elia asked.
“As it so happens,” Joey smirked, “last week on a whim, one of my guys set off the building’s fire alarm. They all left to secure the entrances to the suite, and there was a five minute window where the room was empty.” He grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck with his good hand. “That’s when we figured out about the ward. The hard way.”
“Ouch,” Intira whistled.
“You have no idea.”
“I do,” Cammy spoke up. “About the plan, I mean.” Everyone nodded and looked at her, waiting. “Your man must have gotten inside the building to pull the alarm,” she pointed out. “Which means we should be able to do the same. When is our best window to get in without attracting notice?”
Joey seemed to think this over. “We missed the morning rush,” he mused. “Lot of people to blend in with at entrances during lunch time and at quitting time though. If you’re looking to move around inside the building, I’d say lunch hour is your best bet. Building gets a little quiet, since it empties out a bit, but people are up and moving around. Won’t seem out of place for you guys to be doing the same.”
“That doesn’t give us much time,” Intira pointed out. It was already nine, and they’d need at least an hour to get to the city and make their way to the building. That didn’t leave them a huge window for planning if they wanted to be in place by noon.
“We’re already short on time,” Sierra muttered.
“She’s right about that,” Cammy agreed. “So here’s what I’m thinking.” She bent over the drawing and laid out her idea. Sierra thought it could work. They gave up a little time to go over every angle, each of them taking turns throwing out possible worst-case scenarios and potential places to go wrong. By ten-thirty, their plan was as solid as it was going to get. “Damn,” Cammy muttered, looking over their notes one last time. “I’d feel better if we had one more person on the team,” she confessed.
“Just say the word, and I’m on board,” Joey piped up.
“No, Joey,” Cammy told him with a level look. She smiled. “You’re staying here. We’ve already discussed this.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he sighed, slumping back in his chair and staring down at his sling-wrapped wrist.
“Look at it this way,” Elia said, “if this blows up in our faces, Orsino won’t know it was one of Bobbi Leigh’s people who ratted him out. It keeps your crew safe.”
Joey gave a grudging nod of acceptance.
“Besides,” a voice spoke up behind them, “you’re forgetting that there already is one more person on the team.”
They all turned around to find Bobby standing in the doorway.
“Bobby!” Sierra was at once both relieved and terrified to see him. “What are you doing here?”
“We’ve discussed this, too,” Cammy pointed out, crossing her arms.
Bobby just shrugged. “When I got in last night, I slipped into Jackie’s room to give her a kiss and she woke up. Asked me how her aunties were.” He looked around at them. “Kid reminded me that you’re just as much family as she is. What kind of person would I be if I turned my back on you when you need help? What would Jackie think of me?” He shook his head, defiant. “I’m not sitting this out.”
“But if this goes wrong,” Intira breathed, eyes wide, “Jackie–“
“Will be in good hands. She’s still got Agnes. I left a letter,” he added, shoulders falling a hair. “If I don’t come back from this, she’ll know I did what I thought was right.”
Cammy let out a long breath and glanced down at their notes. “If you’re sure,” she said, relenting.
“Yup,” Bobby replied. “So what’s the plan?”
“We’ll fill you in on the way,” Intira said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “It’s go time.”
They piled into Cammy’s car and, after a quick stop along the way, arrived in enough time to be selective about their parking location. They picked a spot two blocks away from the office building. Close enough to run from the back exit, but not far enough away to wear them out. A one way side-street with a straight shot to the highway. “Let’s just hope traffic will let us pull away from the curb before Orsino’s goons catch us,” Intira muttered, putting enough change in the meter to last them an hour.
“That gonna be enough?” Bobby asked. “Last thing we need is a parking ticket putting us here.”
“If we’re not out by then,” Sierra told him, “I don’t think we’re coming out at all.”
They left the car behind, trying to blend in with the flow of people spilling out of the surrounding buildings. Thankfully, a decent stream was moving in their direction, and they followed a group of preoccupied office workers right through the front door. It required a keycard to open, and visitors were supposed to check in at the desk in the lobby, where the guard would confirm their right to be in the building and summon an elevator. Sierra and her friends avoided both of these by following close behind the office workers, acting as if they had every right to be there. The guard at the desk was eating his lunch, and glanced up enough to identify the people in the front of the group and wave them on before returning to whatever he’d been reading on his phone.
Orsino’s rented suite was on the fourth floor, so Elia pressed the button for five. A quick internet search had told them that the fifth floor was held by an outpatient clinic that closed its offices for lunch from noon to one. They exited the elevator and made a sharp turn for the north corner of the building, and the door to the stairwell that would take them back down to the fourth floor. On the wall beside the door was also an emergency fire alarm. Elia and Intira slipped down the stairs to the fourth floor door, which was locked from the other side. The each took up position on one side of the door and Elia called back up, “Go!”
Cammy hefted the flashlight she carried in her purse and used it to break the glass on the alarm, then she covered her hand with her sleeve and pulled down the lever. Everyone winced at the deafening sound, and Sierra had to fight to keep from covering her ears. This must be hell for Elia, she thought, as sensitive to sound as he was. Less than a minute after the alarm started, doors began opening on the floors below them as people poured out to evacuate. Only one person came out of the fourth floor door, a scrawny little man with an ill-fitting suit and a cautious expression. Not cautious enough, though. His eyes fell on Elia and widened, giving Intira the chance to kick the back of his knees, knocking him to the ground, flailing.
“Don’t touch his skin!” Elia warned, eyes wide in recognition. He caught the door before it could swing shut again. “He can make you feel pain.”
“Got it,” Intira confirmed, kicking the man in the middle of his back and sending him sprawling to the floor with an “oof.” She knelt on his back and pulled his arms behind him, securing them with the plastic zip ties they’d bought on the drive over. Sierra, Bobby, and Cammy stepped over him on their way through the door, turning to wait for Intira. She hauled the man up by his upper arm and dragged him into the suite, careful to avoid his questing fingers. It was much quieter on this side of things, though the alarm still sounded. Cammy searched around for the reason they’d chosen this stairwell, and pulled open the janitor’s closet. “You won’t be needing this,” she said, pushing him forward to shake the amulet loose from his shirt. She yanked it off his neck and tossed it to Elia. “One down.”
They ran toward the conference room, crashing into each other when they slammed into a halt in the lobby. The five remaining guards stood across the hall that led to their goal. The guards recovered from their surprise quickly, but not before Cammy could yell, “Scatter!” The lobby was a hub for all of the suites on the floor, with multiple hallways leading off from it. Each of them darted down their own hall, and the guards gave chase. They’d tried to keep their plan simple, heeding Bobby’s comment that none of them were in the habit of conducting heists. Everyone got a guard to lead away from the conference room. Bobbi Leigh had been curious enough about the building to have J.D. hunt down the building’s records, and her crew had gone over the plans for the fourth floor before abandoning the idea of stealing the stone. The rest of the floor was vacant, and Joey had been able to give them some viable suggestions for places to lock up the guards. Nothing that would hold the guards forever, but hopefully long enough for them to grab the stone and get out.
Sierra raced down her hallway, running through the floor plan in her head. She could hear her pursuer’s heavy breathing behind her, far too close for comfort. She couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, so had no way of knowing which powers this particular guard possessed. She decided to heed the advice Elia had given them on the way over, “Stay as far ahead as you can, and don’t let them get their hands on you. If you can hamper their vision, do it. Most of these powers require line of sight to use.” Her side burned and she could feel her energy waning. She couldn’t keep up this pace much longer. She managed a whimper of relief when her target came into view–an empty file room. Like all the doors in the vacant suites on the floor, it stood open, propped in place with a door jam. Sierra stopped, leaning against the wall facing the open door, a small smile flickering across her face.
“Why do you smile, signora?” the guard leered as he caught up to her, stepping between her and the file room. “I’ve caught you. It’s over.”
“Maybe I’m the one who caught you,” Sierra suggested. She took a deep breath while her words registered and grabbed the front of his shirt, ducking enough to slam his forehead into the wall behind her. He let out a strangled cry and reached up for his face. Sierra took another breath and braced herself, swinging her leg with all her might, connecting her foot with his stomach. She managed enough momentum to knock him back into the file room, darting forward to kick up the jam and pull the door shut before he could recover. The lock let out a satisfying click just seconds before the door rattled from impact. Automatic lock. Sierra let out a wheezy laugh as the doorknob began jiggling. Good luck, the thought, starting a limping run back to the lobby, only unlocks from the outside, with a key.
She reached the lobby at the same time as Elia and a wave of relief washed over her to see him unhurt. He shot her a feral grin and together they continued down the hall to their goal. They rounded a corner and found Cammy standing up, having just secured another of the guards with zip ties. She held his amulet in his hand, looking at it with curiosity. “Pretty little thing, you have to admit,” she murmured, flashing a smile at them before dropping it in her pocket. “It will make a nice trophy.”
Sierra rolled her eyes and bent over, catching her breath. “Well?” she asked, gesturing to the conference room door. “Time’s wasting.”
Cammy nodded and stepped through the doorway, stopping short on the other side to scan the interior. Sierra was right behind her, and she moved out of the way to let Elia in. He let out a small gasp as he crossed the threshold, shivering, then winced and directed his gaze to something on the table. Nestled on a velvet pillow in the center of the table was a round polished gemstone about the size of Sierra’s fist. Even in the low light of the room, it glittered. It was a swirl of colors. Sierra thought it looked like photos she’d seen of galaxies.
“Joey was right,” Elia said through clenched teeth. “It feels terrible. No, wait! Cammy, don’t tou–“
Cammy stepped forward, reaching out to trail a finger over the stone with a frown. “A tuar ceatha,” she murmured. Cammy picked up the stone and stared at it with a combination of marvel and disgust. “How can something so insidious be so beautiful?”