The Tomorrow Heist Preview
It was the strangest kidnap and recovery mission Hoyt Randall had ever accepted.
Hoyt peered through the binoculars down at the cookie-cutter industrial plaza, a place that looked like it had been designed by an architect with a Lego obsession. Five businesses resided within the repetitive tan stucco frontages, accented by a burgundy sawtooth pattern and identical bushes in front of smoked glass doors. The lights in the empty parking lot provided just enough illumination to discourage amateur thieves but not enough to dissuade a professional. Nothing moved. All was still.
Dressed all in black and wearing latex gloves, Hoyt fingered some notes into his forearm-mounted computing device before he put the binoculars away and pulled a black balaclava down over his face. He double-timed it down the hill, coming to rest behind the sign that said “Crystasis Foundation.”
Arlo Perez, the man who’d hired Hoyt to retrieve his daughter, said Crystasis specialized in freezing the recently dead. Hoyt had heard of cryonics, of course, and most people knew the stories of Ted Williams and Walt Disney supposedly having their heads frozen after death so they could be thawed out in the future.
Hoyt found it all creepy as hell. Personally, he couldn’t think of anything worse than waking up in a world where all of your friends and loved ones had been dead for a hundred years. Or worse, waking up inside a robotic body.
Linda Perez, Arlo’s daughter, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year ago. The prognosis gave her a year to live, at best, with the final few months holding incredible pain and suffering. Six months ago, Linda committed suicide. Or, more to the point, a team from Crystasis had assisted her in their facility. Immediately after death, the team prepared her body and froze her, with the goal of waking her sometime in the future when her condition could be treated. Her parents, who had been vehemently against the procedure, wanted her back. They had plans for her body more in line with their religious tenets than the tiny hope of more life in the future. Hoyt was pretty sure he believed that. He also believed Mr. Perez was interested in the $200,000 that Linda had stolen from him to give to Crystasis.
He checked the area one last time, then jogged across the parking lot continuing around the back of the plaza. Hoyt bypassed the alarm system, then picked the lock on a service door. Inside, Hoyt let his eyes adjust to the minimal lighting before checking the floor plan on his forearm device. The entranceway was unmonitored, but his notes said there was video surveillance. He eased up to the corner and took out a small mirror on a telescoping metal antenna. He extended it and had a look around the corner. His notes were right; there were video cameras mounted high on the wall, but he could also see that the network cable wasn’t connected to the unit. Hoyt figured the unit was under repair, and he’d just lucked out. He moved to the next room—the video surveillance there was disconnected as well. Now cooking inside his mask, Hoyt pulled it off and wiped his eyes before stuffing it into his waistband. A few corridor turns later—each with another disconnected video camera—he arrived at his target, two large metal doors which gleamed even in the low light.
Hoyt pushed through the doors and felt like he’d walked into a science fiction movie. The room, about the size of a small basketball court, had a dozen large, shiny, chrome tanks lining its perimeter. A weird hiss and hum throbbed from the ten-foot tall cylinders.
“Jee-zus.” Checking his forearm computer for the serial number he was looking for, he walked down the line and found a match near the back on one of the shiny cylinders. Linda—or what used to be Linda—was inside.
“And how the hell do I get you out of there?” Hoyt said, rapping his knuckles on the cylinder. A solid thud-thud-thud sounded. The pressure gauges on the outside of the tank, along with the cabling and tubing, were far more complicated than expected. The temperature gauge read -320 F.
Then Hoyt noticed an extra device on the canister. And the cylinder next to it. And the one next to that. Unlike the cryonic hardware, these he recognized from experience—magnetic, timed charges. And with the amount of C-4 packed inside each, someone was trying to put this place on the moon. The red digits on each device were synchronized and counting down.
8 … 7 … 6 …
Hoyt turned and ran. He was only ten feet away when the rockets launched. The blast wave slammed him through the doors, metal shards from the destroyed canisters slicing him to ribbons before what was left of his body slapped into the far cinder-block wall with a wet crunch.
She had not stopped him from going to his death.
Death was a necessary part of life. Stopping someone from dying would be the greatest irony for her.
Once the explosions subsided, and flames began to lick out of the windows broken from the blast, she stepped from the shadows dressed not unlike the late Hoyt, save for the bright red hair that peeked out from her black hoodie. She hurried to the front of the building, pulling a can of orange spray paint from her pack and shaking it in her gloved hand, the sound like a rattlesnake’s warning. When she was done—sirens just starting to sound in the distance—she tossed the can aside, took out her phone, and dialed.
“It’s done,” she said in Japanese. “Moving on to the next.”
She put her phone away as she ran back into the bushes. She wheeled her black Ducati motorcycle out of its hiding place. Straddling it, she lowered her hood and shook her flaming hair free before pulling on her gleaming black helmet. She revved the motorcycle’s engine a few times and sped off into the night. Behind her, the flames illuminated what she had written:
North Pacific Ocean
Dr. Eric Norris, head of the Dead Lights Project, edged out farther along the massive ship’s railing. He wanted to get as far from the door leading back inside as possible, at least far enough to ensure he was out of earshot, but he knew he only had so much time before they came looking for him. Staring into the night sky, he pressed his cell phone against his ear and waited for a voice to come back on the line and break the silence. The ocean spray was cold and felt good on his face. It had been a long time since he’d been topside. He licked salty drips from his mouth and looked down into the black ocean forty feet below him, not at the surface but past it, at something far below.
He was on the line with the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service—known to insiders as the SIS, but better known to the world as MI6. He’d already told his story—or as much of it as he was willing to tell without guarantees—three times. Everyone he spoke to had started off apathetic, but either his story or the angst in his voice managed to convince them he was on the level, and they’d tell him to hold before passing him up the chain. Small successes, yes, but each new voice asked him to tell the story from the beginning again. He didn’t have time for this. If the old woman, or worse, that black limey bastard heard him revealing their secrets to a government agency, things would get real hairy, real fast.
“Come on, come on,” he urged.
“Something I can help you with, Dr. Norris?” A British accent not unlike Norris’s own said from behind him. He spun around, hiding his phone behind him like a child caught with a cookie.
“Just … just getting some air. You know, it can get kind of stuffy down there,” Norris said, proud of his quick thinking. He slipped the phone into his back pocket.
The man was dressed impeccably in a three-piece suit and trench coat, the collar pulled up against the ocean mist, his dark-skinned face almost invisible. Norris didn’t know his name and didn’t want to. He had seen the man with the old woman on several occasions, and there was just something about his bearing, his presence, that made Norris’s colon tighten up. The man lit a cigarette, momentarily illuminating his features. Norris thought his expression was one of—bemusement.
“Sure, darling,” the man said. He eyed Norris quietly as he took a long drag from his cigarette before sending a wide plume of smoke into the world. After what seemed like minutes: “Well, don’t dawdle. You wouldn’t want to miss your ride.” Without waiting for an answer, the man flicked his cigarette into the black water before turning and walking silently away.
When the man had disappeared around the corner, Norris exhaled, turned back to the railing, and took the phone out of his pocket. He saw that in hiding it, he’d inadvertently hung up. He had to start all over again.
“Damn i—” Before Norris could finish cursing, a hand gripped his throat from behind as another stripped the phone from him. He fought for breath, but the assailant pinned him against the railing.
“Who are we calling, darling?” the man said.
“Just … just some friends on the mainland. Nobody—”
The man had hit the redial button and put it on speakerphone. “SIS. How may I direct your call?”
“MI6, Dr. Norris? Now why would you do that?” the man hissed into his ear.
“It … it’s too dangerous,” Norris said.
He was trying to convince the man that he was talking about the project and what it could mean for the general public, but if he’d really cared about any of that, he never would have signed on to the project in the first place. No, what Dr. Norris was really worried about was what would happen to him now that his work was complete. Norris had lost touch with half his team already after they went ashore and never came back, and he was scared he was next. Or worse, they’d start doing to him what they were doing to Dr. Reese, someone who had been stupid enough to fail the old woman.
“Well, darling, I guess you should have thought of that before you took all that lovely money.”
The knife blade shoved up through his neck only hurt for a moment, then Norris felt nothing even though he was still fully aware. Suddenly, he was flying, the spray blinding his unblinking eyes. He hit the water like a sack of dirt, the slap echoing across the waves. Panic spiked through him, but not for long. Soon his thoughts were as black as the water. And then they were gone.
12:15 P.M. Local Time
Jonathan Hall hadn’t been home in almost two years. Not that he hadn’t had a place to live during that time. As a matter of fact, Jonathan had lived in some extravagantly opulent locales—a penthouse in New York, a yacht on the Aegean Sea anchored off Mykonos Island, even an abandoned palace in Thailand. But none of those were home. The last home he’d known was a tiny, run-down house in Tallahassee, Florida. But it hadn’t been the building that had made it home. It had been the company.
Now, as he sat in a café in London, watching the crowds pass by outside in the midday September sunshine, oblivious to the magnificence of the Thames and London Bridge, Jonathan thought of his daughter, Natalie. Not that his thoughts were ever far from her. He hadn’t seen her in person in almost a year. And the year before that he’d only managed to see her a few fleeting times. These were important years for her, and he was missing them. The same way he’d missed the first five years of her life. He hadn’t even known Natalie existed back then, but it still bothered him.
He wished Natalie’s mother was still alive. That’s what a thirteen-year-old girl needed, a woman to explain all those things she was feeling and experiencing as she became a teenager. Not a father who, when he was around, put her life in danger. A father who had no idea what he was doing. A father who had been an art thief for the past twenty years.
Jonathan squeezed a napkin to ease his tension as the waiter drifted by. He ordered another chai tea. The waiter nodded and took the old cup away. It was Jonathan’s second.
He checked his watch. Their contact was over half an hour late. But he wasn’t giving up just yet; Fahd was skittish as hell and in all likelihood was pacing back and forth up the street trying to decide what to do. In the end, Jonathan knew he’d show. It wasn’t hubris speaking, it was pragmatism. Fahd needed the money that was weighing down Jonathan’s black leather jacket, making it hang on the back of his chair at an odd angle.
Jonathan had found Fahd the same way he found all their jobs these days: through the Dark Web. Using a special Web browser that protected his identity, Jonathan could access Web sites and discussion forums where normal search engines couldn’t go, with no fear of being tracked. He still had to vet his contacts carefully before actually meeting them—law enforcement agencies around the world were well aware of the Dark Web, and stings were becoming more and more common—but after all these years, Jonathan had become quite skilled at knowing who was and wasn’t on the level.
As the waiter brought his beverage, Jonathan took the opportunity to scan the room again. He avoided direct eye contact—especially with the hulking man sitting by the window, hunched over a plate of pastries and a giant, ridiculously sweet coffee, his long duster coat hanging over the back of his stool. The man was Lew Katchbrow, Jonathan’s longtime partner and about the only person in the world he trusted. Jonathan nodded thanks as the waiter left again, confident that the scattering of patrons were oblivious to him.
He sipped his tea as his thoughts drifted back to Natalie. She’d just started high school last week, and he hated that he couldn’t be there. But it was for her own good. Because of him, her life had been in jeopardy twice in the past two years. He wasn’t going to let that happen again. No matter how difficult it was.
The first year Natalie was away at boarding school in British Columbia, Jonathan had tried to stay away, but he’d given in to his emotions and slowly started visiting her every few months. Then it became every few weeks. She’d been mad at him for sending her away at first, but she soon came around.
Then the unthinkable had happened. They’d found her. He didn’t have any proof, but he was sure it was because of his visits. Canton George, an industrialist with a score to settle, had sent men to take her and to find Jonathan and Lew any way they could. It was only by sheer dumb luck that Lew had been with Jonathan on that visit to her campus when Canton George and his men came. Several tense hours later, George was blind in one eye, his men were dead, and Natalie had been forced to once again abandon her life. Sadly, George had managed to get away.
A new identity and a few months later, Natalie was enrolled in another boarding school. This one in Switzerland. And that was the last time Jonathan had seen his daughter in person. Even their encrypted Skype calls had started to make him nervous. As painful as it was, he’d stopped taking her calls and instead paid the school’s headmaster to keep Jonathan updated on his daughter’s activities through a series of back channels, again on the Dark Web.
The bell over the café door rang, shaking Jonathan from his memories. It was Fahd, his contact, a guard at a local museum. Jonathan waited for a small crowd of patrons to finish leaving before he motioned to Fahd. The caramel-skinned, slight, black-haired man nodded and moved toward the table, furtively scanning the room as he approached. As he did, Jonathan’s phone, resting on the table, buzzed. He looked down and saw Natalie’s picture displayed on the screen.
He swore under his breath and swiped the reject button as Fahd sat down. The waiter drifted over and asked Fahd for his order, but Fahd, who kept wiping sweat from his brow with a napkin, tried to just wave him off. Jonathan smiled, apologized for his “friend” and ordered an espresso for him. Though as the waiter left, Jonathan thought more stimulation was the last thing this guy needed.
“You’re late,” Jonathan said flatly.
“I almost didn’t come,” Fahd said in a British accent that said he’d been schooled well despite his position at the museum. Jonathan knew the story behind that though not from Fahd himself. Fahd had been expelled from school after only two years for running an illegal poker game out of his dorm. A position as a guard at a local museum was the best he could do with that track record. It was one of the reasons Jonathan had decided to deal with him in the first place. He was motivated by money even more than most people.
The job was a small one, as far as their jobs went—a stolen set of rare books. But lately that seemed to be the rule of the day. Not that there weren’t bigger opportunities out there, but Jonathan had become selective, taking lower-profile jobs, which, of course, meant lower pay. But if they could stay off the radar of their usual vindictive billionaire targets, maybe it would be safe to reconnect with Natalie. Still, their resources were starting to feel the pinch, and Lew was starting to notice the pattern.
Sometimes Jonathan wondered what it would be like to sell the works he and Lew stole instead of settling for the finder’s fee from the original owner or museum. Even though what they did had never been about the money.
Jonathan took the envelope from his jacket pocket and placed it on the table. Fahd, his nervousness gone at the sight of the fat envelope, reached out and tried to take the money, but Jonathan kept his hand on it.
“The name,” Jonathan said when Fahd looked up at him, confused.
“Oh, right,” Fahd said, licking his lips and appearing to weigh responding against letting go of the envelope. “Jacobson. Peter Jacobson.” Jonathan hesitated for a moment but then took his hand away. Fahd yanked the envelope off the table and held it in his lap under the table, peeking inside.
“The address?” Jonathan asked.
Fahd told him the address, practically giggling as he pocketed the envelope. The name and address were new information for Jonathan, but he’d already met briefly with Fahd and knew that Peter Jacobson was another guard at the museum. One with even fewer scruples than Fahd.
“Nice doing bus—”
“Sit down,” Jonathan said, his tone slamming Fahd’s already rising butt back down on the uncomfortable wooden chair. “Why’d Jacobson tell you he has the books? You’re obviously not friends.”
“I honestly don’t know. He doesn’t really have any friends that I’ve seen. He’s, well …” Fahd seemed to be looking for the right words.
“Well, he’s weird. Has conversations with himself. Only wears half his uniform sometimes. He’ll sit down across from you on break, stare at you, and never say a word.”
This Jonathan didn’t like. It made his ultimate target unpredictable. And that meant dangerous. He also figured something else out from Fahd’s subtext.
“So he didn’t tell you. You just heard him talking to himself,” Jonathan said.
Fahd looked like a kid caught swiping a sweet from the local Tesco.
“Relax,” Jonathan said. “You can keep the money. Assuming this pans out. If it doesn’t, you’ll be the one your coworkers are calling weird.” It was a vague threat, which Jonathan found worked best.
“Can I …” Fahd said, nodding toward the door.
“Yeah, beat it,” Jonathan said. He thought about stopping Fahd and making him pay for the espresso just for kicks but let him go. He knew from past experiences with guys like Fahd, the less you had to do with them, the better.
Jonathan watched as Fahd stumbled his way back out of the café. The second he was out the door, Jonathan grabbed his phone. His anxiety eased when he saw that Natalie had left him a voice message. He was about to dial his voice mail when Lew dropped down into the seat Fahd had just been in.
“Twitchy give us anything good?” Lew asked, still chewing on a pastry.
“How are you not a thousand pounds?” Jonathan asked as he watched Lew inhale the rest of his “snack.” Jonathan had eaten with Lew more than he had anyone else on the planet, even Natalie, and the amount of food Lew consumed was always amusing. Especially since Lew was six feet tall and over 220 pounds, but only about 10% body fat. Jonathan was jealous. He had a thinner body type than Lew, but the past couple of years he’d had to really work to stay in shape. And he couldn’t remember the last time he’d let himself have anything resembling a pastry.
“Clea’ libbing,” Lew mumbled through a mouthful of dough. “So what’s up?”
“Talie called,” Jonathan said.
“Yes! I knew it. Told you, didn’t I? What did the little squirt say?”
“I don’t know. She called just as Fahd got here.”
“No, don’t tell me … you rejected her call? For that sleaze? That’s messed up, man,” Lew said, shaking his head.
“We got the name and address,” Jonathan said, ignoring Lew’s jabs. After all these years, he’d gotten good at that. “We’ll go tomorrow. Make sure you get some sleep tonight.”
“Yes, Mom.” Lew drained his coffee. “Still can’t believe you didn’t answer the kid’s call.” He stood up, the chair creaking a sigh of relief. “I’ll come by your place in the morning. Call your kid.”
“Want some company?” Jonathan said, standing up and throwing a few pounds onto the table. Lew furrowed his brow and looked at him. Jonathan knew why; they’d made a habit of not being seen in public together. Just in case.
“Uh, sure. Anything specific you want to do?” Lew asked, donning his Ray-Bans.
“Just walk,” Jonathan said.
They stepped out into the afternoon and headed east toward St. Paul’s Cathedral. They didn’t talk for almost an hour. They were as close as brothers, and their silences were never awkward. Sometimes it was just good to be around someone who meant that much to you. After getting a couple of ice cream cones, they ended up leaning against a railing and watching the afternoon river traffic.
After a while, Lew turned around and leaned back against the railing, watching the crowds. Tourists and businessmen strolled by in the September sunshine. But Jonathan knew Lew wasn’t people watching; he was making sure there were no threats about.
“You gonna tell me what’s on your mind?” Lew said without taking his eyes off the crowds.
“We’re running out of money,” Jonathan said. The smaller jobs had taken their toll. Paying off Fahd had actually made Jonathan worry about making his rent this month.
“I know,” Lew said.
“Sure, but this is what you do.”
“What I do?”
“Every now and then you get all freaked out about drawing too much attention, and you only set up smaller jobs for us. But you get over it; and then we’re flush and back to normal. I have to admit, it’s gone on longer than usual this time, but you’ll come around. You always do,” Lew said.
“You seem awfully sure of yourself,” Jonathan said, trying to roll with what he’d just heard. He’d had no idea he was being so transparent or that there had been enough of these times for there to be a pattern.
“I do, don’t I,” Lew said, looking at Jonathan over his Ray-Bans. The look Jonathan could take, it was the shit-eating grin that went with it that got under his skin. “It must be annoying.”
“Hang on,” Jonathan said. “Why are you so calm about this?”
“I’m not calm.”
“You seem calm.”
“I don’t know why I’d seem calm.”
“Maybe because you’re calm.”
“After your last spate of cut-rate jobs, I figured it was time to add a little cash to the bugout bag in my closet.”
“A little. How little?”
“About fifty grand,” Lew said.
“You can borrow some if you want.”
“Sure. All you have to do is ask.”
Jonathan sighed and braced himself. “May I borrow some money.”
“What’s mine is yours, amigo. But you know there’s a way we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
“Uh-huh. How’s that?” Jonathan asked, but he was pretty sure he knew what was coming. Lew took off his glasses and looked Jonathan dead in the eyes.
“Let’s be The Monarch again.”
Jonathan knew Lew had never minded being The Monarch. Liked it, in fact. Especially the big payouts. They had started all of this because they’d been fed up with the system—Lew with the army and Jonathan with intelligence. Both had felt they were doing more harm than good. But then a chance meeting in Bogotá, Colombia, had set them on the path to make a difference. Though there was a big distinction between returning some rare books stolen by a delusional security guard and finding a lost Rembrandt the world had thought destroyed. As The Monarch, they were preserving culture and history, but there was a big price to pay.
“What about Natalie?” Jonathan said. She wasn’t just Jonathan’s daughter, she was Lew’s surrogate niece.
“We can figure something out,” Lew said, sounding like a kid trying to convince his dad to take him to a ball game.
“‘Figure something out,’” Jonathan said flatly. “Jesus, you thought harder about which pastries to eat back at the café! Natalie isn’t something to figure out. She’s all that matters.”
“And I don’t know that?” Lew said, getting defensive. “I’m just the fucking idiot muscle.”
“I didn’t say that,” Jonathan said. Then after a minute: “But there are times—”
“Fuck you,” Lew said, pushing off from the railing. “If I’m such a mouth breather, get your own fucking money.” He roughly put his glasses on, swung around, and marched off, his coat swirling in his hurry.
“Lew, don’t be like that. You know what I meant,” Jonathan said, but Lew kept walking. “Lew! Are you coming tomorrow?”
Lew spun around and walked backward. “Sure! You might need me to lift something. Ladies and Gentlemen, Jonathan the giant brain. Give him a hand,” Lew said to the people around him, waving his arms like a circus ringmaster. Then he turned and disappeared into the crowd.
Sometimes I can be such a dick.
Jonathan didn’t believe for a minute that all Lew brought to the table was his physicality, but it was a button he could push to make Lew drop The Monarch nonsense. In retrospect, Jonathan knew he was lucky Lew hadn’t knocked him on his ass. He had to apologize, but when Lew got like this, you just had to leave him alone for a while. The only person who could cut through his moods was Emily, his on-again, off-again girlfriend.
But as far as Jonathan knew, they’d been off for a long while. Ironically, for the same reason Jonathan was staying away from Natalie. Not that Lew would admit it, of course. Jonathan actually wished they could work things out, but he knew Lew could be a lot to take on a constant basis.
She was probably better off without him.
3:00 P.M. Local Time
Emily’s head rocked back from the masked man’s slap, blood and spittle flinging across her living room. White flashes exploded in her head, and her ears rang as she distantly felt hands push her back down into the chair. She coughed and spit more blood as the white faded, and her two captors came back into focus, one beating her while another stood back a little holding a gun even though they’d duct-taped her hands to the arms of the chair.
“Where are they?” an electronic voice with a South African accent demanded. It came from the iPad sitting on her coffee table beside her. A man with deep black skin and an eye patch peered out from the screen: Canton George. She’d met him before, only then, he had been the one being beaten for information. That scenario had ended with George’s being locked in his own vault and his ill-gotten mansion explosively spread across half an acre.
He’d been hunting Jonathan and Lew ever since.
She wanted to scream and cry—to give in to the fear and pain—but that was exactly what George wanted. And to be honest, after searching for her for so long, she was a little insulted that he was phoning it in though she was pretty sure she knew why he wasn’t there in person. George had found Natalie in her British Columbia boarding school about a year ago, and he’d tried to take on Jonathan and Lew in person. It had not worked out well, as his eye patch and the scar peeking out from under it attested.
“They’re right outside your compound, Georgie. I’d start running if I were you,” she said. She knew she was going to pay for the lie, but the look of fear on George’s face, even though it only lasted a second, made it worth it. His remaining eye widened, and he disappeared from the screen, apparently gone to make sure she was lying. When he returned, with a very different look on his face, Emily was laughing harder than she had in a long time. Her face still felt like it was on fire, and the teeth on one side of her mouth felt loose when she touched them with her tongue, but this little victory made her momentarily forget the danger under her sofa.
“Again!” he shouted, his anger throwing spittle onto the screen.
Emily’s laughter was abruptly cut off by a powerful right cross from one of the masked men. This time she did lose a tooth, and she was pretty sure her nose cracked. She spit out the tooth and tried to put on a brave face and laugh some more, but it came out as mewling.
She was forcing herself not to look under her sofa. Her cell phone was under there, dimly glowing its existence, but to Emily it felt like a spotlight. She’d been on the phone with Natalie when the masked goons had burst in through her door. The door had hit her from behind, and the phone had gone flying, luckily ending up under the sofa. It was encrypted, but she hadn’t had time to lock the screen. All they had to do was look at her call log, and they’d track Natalie down in a matter of minutes. She just prayed the connection had been severed. If Natalie was still on the line listening to this nightmare—she shook that idea away. It was too horrible, and she needed to concentrate on coming out of this alive so she could warn Jonathan and Lew.
“Miss Burrows, be sensible,” George said, his voice quieter as he feigned compassion.
No one had called her that name in over a year. It was her pen name back when she was a writer though her only work had been about The Monarch, Jonathan and Lew’s abandoned alter ego.
“If I were sensible, I would have put a slug into your psychotic brain when I had the chance,” Emily said. This enraged George again.
“Another!” he shouted. The masked man wound up and hit her again, this time with a closed fist. He hit her so hard, her slender frame was knocked right out of the chair, and one of her hands tore loose of her taped bondage. Lying on the floor, the chair still attached to one hand and on top of her, she fought for breath, coughing. She felt something in her mouth and spit it out. Another tooth landed on the carpet beside the first—right beside her phone.
“Pick her up, idiot,” George barked from the screen.
The man crouched to pick her up but hesitated. He reached past her head and under the couch.
Up on her knees, she swung her free hand, knocking the phone from his hand. Then she gripped the arm of the chair in her still-taped hand, looking into the eyes of her assailant. It only took him a second to realize what she was going to do.
She swung the chair at him with all her strength. The hardwood legs slammed into his face and raised arms. As he howled, and before the other man could react, she drove one of her long legs into the wounded man’s midsection. With an oof!, the masked brute fell back against her bookshelf, howling. She tried to get to her feet to smash the phone, but the wounded hood’s partner swung his gun at her. She caught his arm and used her weight and the swing’s momentum to pull him down onto the floor with her, slamming her knee into his throat. Before she could do anything else, the first man picked her up from behind and tossed her and the chair through the air against the same bookshelf. Excruciating pain burst out from her side as she fell to the floor in a heap, the chair smashing to bits. She fought for her breath, every inhale now a stabbing pain. Lew had taught her how to defend herself, but in the end she was just too slight.
The man who’d thrown her picked up the phone while his partner lay motionless where she’d left him. She wanted to jump up and run away, but the pain was just too much. She could feel her consciousness starting to swim. But through all of that, the worst thing she felt was the grief.
Emily had almost been responsible for Jonathan’s and Lew’s demise two years ago, but she’d made amends, and in the end, she’d not only helped them, she’d had a torrid love affair with Lew. But it was all for naught. She was right back where she’d been at the start, responsible for their impending deaths. All because she cared.
She’d felt sorry for Natalie, being left alone. She understood why Jonathan had severed contact with her, but that didn’t mean she agreed with his actions. Despite her promise to him, she’d been calling Natalie on a regular basis, keeping her up to date on her father and her uncle Lew. Not that Emily’s motivations would matter if George got ahold of Natalie.
“I’ve got it, sir!” the masked man exclaimed. “His daughter’s phone number.”
“Please! She’s just a—” Emily’s pleas were cut off by a kick to her side.
“Bring me the girl.”
“What about Burrows?” the underling asked, looking at his partner. “I think she might have killed Neill.”
George didn’t even hesitate. “Kill her.” The screen went blank. George was gone, along with Emily’s chances of saving Natalie.
And that was it. It was over. The sin she’d committed years ago returned in full.
The man pulled out a gun and turned toward Emily.
At least I’ll be first, she thought. Standing by and watching it all go down again was something she just couldn’t take.
Emily closed her eyes and braced herself for the shot. A crash reached her ears, and she flinched before she realized it wasn’t a gunshot. She opened her eyes and saw that her front windows had shattered into the flat; two ropes were hanging on their sills, left behind by the two new masked men standing before her. These men looked different—more professional. They were wearing body armor, and each held an automatic weapon, red beams slicing from their sights. They instantly targeted the other masked man and the one on the floor, efficiently putting a staccato hail of bullets into each one’s head.
“Clear!” one of the men shouted after checking the entire flat.
“We’re clear, sir,” the other one said, even though he wasn’t wearing an earpiece.
Her front door opened, and a well-dressed man with incredibly shiny black shoes walked over to where Emily was huddled and crouched beside her.
“Can you hear me, Miss Denham? Are you all right?” The man said, using her real name.
Before she could answer, the murkiness grabbed her and pulled her down into unconsciousness, the idea of Jonathan and Lew—mostly Lew—being safe allowing her to let go. She pictured Lew’s face one final time before everything was gone.
12:02 P.M. Local Time
The helicopter swung in from the east. Per Broden stood by his rental car dressed in a tan wool trench coat over a matching three-piece suit and perfectly knotted brown bow tie. He held his briefcase in one black-gloved hand, his other hand hung, ungloved, by his side as he waited.
His journey had started over thirty-six hours ago in a place where his attire made more sense. Stockholm, Sweden, his home since he was a boy, was almost fifty-one hundred miles from the spot where Per was currently rooted. At fifty-four, he still called it home though in all those years, he’d traveled the world several times over.
The helicopter was only fifty feet off the ground when it stopped its arc above the scrub grass that stretched as far as the eye could see. It rocked for a moment, then descended to the desert floor, blowing Per’s thinning dirty blond hair from its perfect side part down over his round-lensed spectacles, dust following the wind and peppering Per. He remained still.
When the chopper finally came to rest, Per reached up with his free hand and swept his hair back into place.
A man in jeans, a blue checked button-down shirt and black cowboy hat stepped from the chopper. Holding his hat in place and bending slightly to avoid the rotor blades, he jogged to where Per was waiting.
“You Broden?” he said with a thick Texas accent.
Per took a business card from his inside vest pocket and handed it to the man: “Per Broden, International Investigations. ”
The man read the card, shrugged and handed it back to Per, who pocketed it.
“Name’s Green. Hank Green,” the man said, wiping sweat off his brow with one forearm. “Jesus, you must be hotter than a four-balled tomcat in that getup. I work for Mr. Harcourt. He’s waiting up at the main house.” Hank eyed Per’s briefcase. “Mind if I take a look?”
“Yes, I do,” Per said, the first words out of his mouth in almost two days.
Hank jerked back slightly at the refusal. “Look, amigo. Either you let me look in that case and frisk you, or this meeting ends before it starts.”
“I understand,” Per said.
“Good. Now if you’ll—”
“Good day,” Per said as he turned and opened the car door.
“Whoa, hang on,” Hank said, grabbing Per’s arm. Per continued into the car as if nothing was stopping him. Hank looked surprised that Per wasn’t as weak as he appeared. It was a look Per was well acquainted with.
“Tell Mr. Harcourt I hope he solves his mystery. Now please back up,” Per said.
“All right, all right,” Hank said. “I won’t look in it. Can you at least leave it in the car?”
“Yes, that would be acceptable,” Per said. He placed his briefcase on the passenger seat and rejoined Hank.
“Should I bother to try to frisk you?” Hank asked with a smirk.
“It would not be wise,” Per said flatly.
“Huh. You’re an odd one, ain’t cha?”
“That would be an accurate assessment, yes.”
They climbed into the helicopter, buckled themselves in, and, a few moments later, they were airborne. Per sat straight in his seat, neither looking out the window nor avoiding the view. He simply wasn’t interested in it. What he was interested in was why his new employer hadn’t been here to meet Per himself.
“Mr. Harcourt doesn’t leave the house much these days,” Hank said, apparently anticipating Per’s question. “He’s taking these attacks personally. But you can’t really blame him.”
Per nodded slightly and waited for more information.
“To be honest, he thinks someone is trying to kill him. Figgers the words left behind is just a smoke screen to draw him out.”
Per raised an eyebrow and turned to look at Hank. This was why he was here.
“And what do you think, Mr. Green?” Per asked.
“Me?” Hank said, surprised. “Hell, I ain’t paid to think!” He slapped Per’s shoulder as he laughed a loud, hacking laugh.
Per believed him.
Thirty minutes later, a large, ranch-style house appeared on the horizon, surrounded by a barn and a corral filled with horses. They landed in the front yard as workers fought to control the spooked horses. Per followed Hank out and up to the front door.
Hank started to open the door, but then stopped and turned to Per, concern in his eyes.
“You have to help him, Broden. It was all I could do to get him to meet with someone. He’s a real mess. I may work for him, but he’s the best friend I ever had, and it kills me that I can’t do nothin’ for him.”
Per waited, then realized they weren’t going to pass through the door until he responded verbally.
“I’ll do what I can, Mr. Green,” Per said. It was the truth. Per was actually incapable of doing any less. But truth be told, he couldn’t care less about a rich Texan’s sudden phobias. He was here for one thing and one thing only—the puzzle.
As a child in Stockholm, Per’s brother Peter had been kidnapped by a serial killer. The killer taunted Per’s family for weeks with riddles and unsolvable clues. In the end, his brother was killed. Per had thought at the time that if he’d just been smarter, more clever, better at puzzles, he could have saved Peter. Despite reassurances from his parents, the authorities, and several therapists over the years, Per still blamed himself for Peter’s death.
Since then, he’d spent his life solving puzzles; first for the police and now freelance as an investigator. Per would never let himself feel that way again. He’d rather die than fail.
Every time Per solved a case, he felt like he’d made an attrition to his murdered brother. A drop in a bucket that would never be full.
Per followed Hank into the house, and he suddenly felt like he was only a few kilometers from home. Despite the mansion’s exterior, the interior was decorated in classic European designs rather than what one expected of a Texas estate. The space was immense, easily fifteen meters high with an expanse more like an auditorium than a living room. The floor was cream-colored marble, brown diamond shapes inset where the large tiles met. The furnishings were green and gold and crimson. Staircases ran up the walls on both sides of the room, large paintings resting on the wall wherever a landing occurred. Against the far wall was a fireplace with more furniture arranged around it. In the corner was a grand piano just a few feet from a dining room table covered in a deep red tablecloth and surrounded by fourteen chairs. In the center of the room was a large plant on top of a working fountain, gurgling away.
They walked to the fountain, and Hank asked Per to wait. He went up one of the staircases and was gone for almost half an hour, his absence accompanied by echoing shouts. Finally, he returned, and asked Per to follow him upstairs. At the end of a long corridor, they entered an office bigger than Per’s entire house.
The office was decorated as extravagantly as the rest of the house, but a foggy sheen seemed to obscure the brilliance. The leather sofa against the wall held rumpled pillows and a blanket, and there were more than a few empty beer bottles along the floor beside it. From the smell, Per doubted that Harcourt had left anytime recently.
At the end of the room, slumped behind a wide desk covered with food trays and open books, James Harcourt sat dressed in a green plaid bathrobe. Per could see a shiny silver .44 Magnum revolver lying in front of Harcourt along with a mostly empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s and several half-empty bottles of pills.
Harcourt was a big man with a wild, unkempt beard. Even seated, Per could tell that Harcourt was taller than he, , but since he was only five-nine, that didn’t say a whole lot.
“Mr. Broden, this is James Harcourt,” Hank said before fading into the background. Per stepped in front of the desk and waited for his host to speak. Or, to at least acknowledge he was there. Five minutes later, he got his wish.
“Jesus! Where’d you come from?” Harcourt slurred, grabbing his gun and pushing back in his overstuffed brown leather office chair. The only thing that kept Per rooted to his spot was that despite his antics, Harcourt had yet to point his gun anywhere but at the floor.
“He’s the Swedish detective,” Hank said, floating into the scene again. “You sent for him, Jim. Remember?” Hank looked at Per apologetically.
This was not what Per had expected. When the first cryonics facility had been bombed, and the first occurrence of the enigmatic “Dead Lights” phrase had been scrawled onto the pavement, Per had read about it on the Internet. He’d immediately contacted Harcourt with an offer to investigate. After several more bombings and even more e-mail exchanges, Harcourt had finally acquiesced and invited Per for a meeting. But the man Per had communicated with online had been articulate and wary. Not the self-indulgent, ready-to-surrender figure before him.
Harcourt looked at Hank, then back at Per. A long moment stretched out as the big man’s eyes fought to focus.
“Right. Right,” Harcourt said, seeming to just now notice that he was holding his gun. “Jesus, sorry … Broden, is it?” Per nodded as Harcourt put the gun back on the desk before swallowing down more pills with the whiskey. “Sit down, sit down.”
Per obliged. Harcourt shook his head and grunted, apparently trying to clear his head.
“The pictures, Jim. Show him the pictures,” Hank said before taking a seat against the wall, holding his hat in his lap.
“Uh. Right, the pictures.”
Harcourt picked up a stack of eight-by-ten photos from his desk. He looked at them before turning his attention back to Per.
“It started a few weeks ago,” Harcourt said, handing Per one of the photos. Per took it from him. It was a picture of what had once been a building, now half-missing and all burned. On the remaining brickwork in front of the structure were the words “Dead Lights.” It was from a different angle, but this was the image Per had seen on the Internet that had first drawn his interest to the mystery.
“What am I looking at?” Per asked, willing to play whatever game Harcourt was selling. To a point.
“How much do you know about me, Broden?”
“Not much,” Per lied. If he hadn’t known everything there was to know about Harcourt, he never would have gotten on the plane to come here.
Harcourt had made his money like most millionaires in Texas—in oil. But he’d gotten out of the black gold business years ago. Since then, he’d been interested in one thing and one thing alone—life extension. In every capacity.
Toward that interest, he had created the Crystasis Foundation. The rumors in the life extension chat rooms Per had frequented before coming here were that, in truth, Harcourt was only interested in finding ways to extend his own life. Per thought it made sense that someone who was business savvy wouldn’t experiment on himself but find a way to experiment on others until he found what he was looking for. And Per thought the influx of capital from people willing to pay hundreds of thousands for even a shot at more life wouldn’t hurt either. But the facilities where Harcourt stored frozen corpses with the hope that one day they could be thawed and cured of what killed them was just part of his longevity empire.
“Look around you, Broden. It looks like I have everything a man could want, doesn’t it?”
“I’ve been lucky. I have enough money for several lifetimes. The problem, of course, is that I don’t have several lifetimes. Like everyone else, I have just one. I can’t change that. But I can make the one life I do have long. Really long.” He took a long pull on the bottle and wiped his mouth with his forearm.
Per just looked at him.
“That used to be one of my life extension facilities. There used to be seven of them around the world. Here, South Africa, Europe … even had one in Russia. Most of them are just repositories, but I’ve got a research lab up in Toronto too.”
“You used to have seven?”
Harcourt tossed three more photos on the desk in front of Per. “Over the past few weeks, there have been bombings at three of my facilities. No warning, no explanation. Just that goddamn message on the bricks in front of the ashes.
“I’ve beefed up the security at my other facilities, but I don’t want to just be safe. If a coyote is taking your herd, you don’t build a bigger fence; you kill the mongrel.”
Per looked at the photos for a while longer, then put them down in a neat pile on the desk. He leaned back and brushed some hairs from his suit.
“The only leads we’ve got are this man and this security camera picture.” Harcourt handed Per two final photos.
Per examined the first photo. It was of a thin, bearded man in a lab coat. The word “Crystasis” CRYSTASIS was embroidered across the lab coat’s breast. Beneath was a name tag: “Dr. Reese. ” He put the picture with the others.
“Up until six months ago, Dr. Chris Reese worked out of my lab in Toronto on special projects,” Harcourt said.
“What happened six months ago?”
“He just up and disappeared. Poof. He didn’t resign or, as far as my inquiries could tell, take a job anywhere else. He emptied his bank account and walked away from his house. No mortgage payments or other bills have been paid since then. A few months later, the attacks started.”
Per turned his attention to the final picture. It was dark, the only source of light the flames from the burning building in the background. He squinted and could just make out a figure on a motorcycle. The shape of the skintight leather and the hair splaying back from the rider’s helmet told him the rider was female, and probably young.
“That was taken by a warehouse security camera just up the road from the first facility that was attacked minutes after the alarm went out to the fire department. We enhanced the photo as much as we could without washing out the details. Afraid that’s the best we could do.”
Per put the photo down on the pile, looking up at Harcourt. He examined the man for a few long moments, Harcourt seeming uncomfortable under Per’s gaze. If not for the booze and pills, Per would have probed the discomfort further.
“Why me?” Per asked, finally.
“I heard what you did in Spain last year,” Harcourt said, glancing at Per’s one gloved hand. “You’re the man for the job, all right.”
Per understood why Harcourt had looked into his past, but he didn’t like it. There was too much there to find.
“As I said in my correspondence, my fee is one hundred thousand dollars and expenses. Deposited to this account,” Per said, holding out a business card with his bank account transfer information on it. Harcourt just looked at it. Hank got up and took it from Per before returning to the sofa.
“I’ll need full access,” Per said.
“You’ll have it,” Harcourt said. He reached in a drawer and took out a passcard. He tossed it to Per. “This will get you into all my facilities. And this should take care of your expenses.” Harcourt tossed another card onto the desk. This one was a credit card. It was black. “No limit. And you can use it at any ATM for as much cash as you need. Passcode is L-I-F-E. 5433,” Harcourt said, taking another drink.
“You are being very trusting, Mr. Harcourt,” Per said. The implication was, how do you know I won’t rob you blind?
“As I said, Broden, the one thing I do have is money. And my horse sense. You hold your cards pretty close to your chest, but I can tell I can trust you.”
Per simply looked at him, wondering what the drunk would say if he knew that Per had no intention of killing anyone for him—unless they got in his way, of course. Per would solve the Dead Lights mystery—what it meant and what the bomber was trying to achieve—and then move on to his next puzzle. The answers were all that mattered to Per. All that would ever matter to him. He’d trade his life for those answers—his and anyone else’s.
Per stood up, pocketed the cards, and picked up the photos.
“I’ll solve your riddle, Mr. Harcourt,” Per said.
“You misunderstand me, Broden. I don’t care what the meaning is. I want you to find the coyote and put him down.”
Per had expected as much.
“Of course. There could be … collateral damage,” Per said. The last thing he wanted was his new employer’s reporting him to the authorities because he didn’t approve of his methods.
“Do what you have to do, Broden. I don’t care what it costs. It’s self-defense. And in Texas, that can be bloody.”
Not just in Texas, Per thought.
Excerpted from The Tomorrow Heist by Jack Soren. Copyright © 2015. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.