Chapter One: The Wrong Rack
My heart thrums like a dynamo. I live for this. From the back seat of the van, I can see the silver hair of the Gray Man. The tires hum on the rainy street in tune with my heart, and the water splashes up into the wheel wells and across the rusty pan below my feet. The chemical cruze in my head runs like a slow, compelling orgasm, but soon I must steal, and little Robko must be straight for that.
I have no reason to be here except greed—that, and my pockets will soon be empty so greed grows to inevitability. Still, I like this rack so much I might have paid the Gray Man for the privilege of being here. I pop the upper in my mouth to flush out the trank, and swallow dry. The van stops at the curb by an old-fashioned newsstand. I jump out with the hot box, coffee and food in a big case zipped shut. I march up to a Nouveau-trash building, a good idea gone bad. I flash an admiring scan across the bottom five floors; they squat there like an old Chicago bank. Hollowed out and left as a façade, they carry a massive building that muscles up forty floors and more. The upper floors are a grid of rough concrete and large glazing in garish bronze. It makes the GE building in Rockefeller Center look graceful. I feel the game begin as the pill kicks in. Right in front of me, a man trips and dumps all his change from the newsstand onto the ground. An excellent omen.
I enter the tower of money, stride across the black marble littered with shining crystals. Inside there is a giant stock ticker in LEDs running across the lobby, “4 June 2020, FTSE up 0.5% gaining 24.75 pts and HSI up 0.6% gaining 246.1.” Another good omen—more money to steal.
I put on the ugly Delancy Street accent and announce myself. “Coffee and cake for Insurance on 4. They shoulda caw’ed it down.”
The guard inspects his screen and his activity log. “No, not here.”
“Yea’re shittin’ me. Dey order sixty bucks of cake and latté and den dey can’t ’member to e-mail you?”
“Happens all the time. I’ll have Tina walk you in.”
Tina tricks out as a fat, black girl in a blue uniform, taser and radio on her belted waist. She takes me to the glass fence, scans her card, and releases the gate. We go through and she frog-marches me into one of the elevators on the lower bank. She leans in beside me, scans the card again, and presses the button for the fourth floor. Stepping out, she grins. “Have a nice day.” I’m up and away.
The elevator door opens. First, I listen. I sidle out using the hotbox to hide my face from the camera. As we’ve planned, I step into the men’s restroom and get rid of every liquid molecule I can. A joe in a suit comes out of a stall and ambles out behind me without noticing me.
I find the closet—an oversized wiring cabinet. I open the hotbox, and I drag out a blue uniform and a bottle of water. I message the Gray Man.
It will be a long wait. After I change clothes, I slide down to the concrete floor. My downers are still working a smidge. They create rainbow rings around light sources. I entertain myself by watching the phone circuits wink red and green as they feed calls into the building’s wireless system. It’s mildly entertaining, if I don’t think at all. In a few hours, I’ll ride the elevator up as far as I can, then I’ll climb.
Swinging out into the space beyond, I stand on the sill and reach in to tug the closet panel back into place. My toes hold me up, but my left hand, wedged into a vertical crack, keeps me from falling back, down forty floors. All through this, I strain to hear a rumble—and I’m feeling a thrill a second, because it’s a gamble. At this time of day, the elevator will hurtle past on average every four minutes and scrape off any careless intruder. I hear its thunder and shuffle myself over to the next shaft. The chance of two elevators passing here at the same time is forty-to-one. If the small chance happens, I get smashed like a dog on the freeway. The money makes the risk worthwhile. The risk makes the job a grin and a half.
To cover my tracks, I have to get that closet panel tacked back up. With a bit of one-handed fumbling, I’m able to start two screws and ratchet the metal up snug. I scale the rough interior of the shaft to the next floor in seconds. With a thin punch, I knock screws back into a sister wiring closet. The elevator comes once more, and I crab and swing out of its way again.
Finally I’m safe. I’m in the closet, out of the shaft. The elevator hurtles by again, kicking up eddies of dust and rumbling like a train. With a sneeze, I’m through security level two, into the upper section of the building.
The floor holds the corporation’s big computing and a new generation of data servers. A floor-to-ceiling glass wall with a slider door fronts this IT department. I enter a four-digit code into the keypad beside the door and get the expected blinking light. I take out a latex cylinder from my breast pocket—a fake finger—and I press the fingerprint into the glowing pad above the keys. The door opens as I expected. Beyond the door, an expansive computing room sits dark, surrounded by a ring of office space. I see only two people in their dwarfish glass cubicles—they stare into the green flicker of code and data, extensions of the machines they serve. It’s an anachronism of a room, huge to fit old style computing, but now a few small boxes crouch in the center. The slider door trundles shut behind me, and I pace around the periphery of the room. As I pass each of the lighted cubicles, I raise my hand to wave. They don’t even look up. “Evening. Just making rounds.” I am a blue smudge of invisibility. I find the printer room. This is so easy; my heart rate is at a crawl.
I’m as close to my next destination as walking will get me—now I have to crawl. I pull up a tile from the old-fashioned flooring and wiggle down into the eighteen-inch cavity. Six feet away is a vertical shaft. Once it carried fat bundles of copper up and down the spine of the building—now it carries four optical cables. I climb into the conduit. I’m standing on a grate that’s welded into place. I keep my arms up over my head and scrape my chest as I go. Up eight feet. I love tight places like this.
I have my toes wedged into a horizontal seam. I switch on a light on my headband, casting an intense beam that tracks my head.
A motion detector blinks its red light ten feet above me. I wait, wedged against metal walls in a forty-story tube that slices down through the building below. A work light a few floors up casts a frail glow down to me. It blacks out; the power to the building has just gone off. The Gray Man.
I scramble up the shaft. I get a floor and a half up before I hear a general bang. The work light comes back on and I freeze. The building is now running on generators. In a half minute, another loud noise echoes down the shaft, and we’re back on city power. Within two minutes, the work light goes out again. I climb in a sprint before it comes back on again. I stop dead in the shaft a half-floor from my destination. I need one more power outage, but the Gray Man will give me two more. Just in case.
The light blinks off and I rush up. I double onto my belly into a fat, horizontal space and follow the optic cables into a side tunnel. I wiggle forward and dig in with my elbows. My feet just clear the shaft before I hear the bang of the power coming back on. I feel ecstatic, a true rush of well-being and happiness. I lie in the dark, wait to catch my breath, and revel in the thrill.
A day before the rack, Robko paced back and forth, trapped in the Gray Man’s apartment.
“Let’s go over it again.” The Gray Man brought the floor plans up on his desk tablet and showed them at the same time on the screen on the wall.
“Let’s not.” Robko narrowed his eyes. Robko, Robert Zlata, strode back and forth in front of the screen. One of the apartment windows had been replaced with a white panel, a plastic sheath shot through with antennas. Robko could see the mesh of copper that covered the room’s ceiling and the walls. The Gray Man had created a radio wave shield, a Faraday cage. “You know,” Robko said, “this apartment is a microwave oven. I’ve been in here on slow cook for two hours.” He fished in his pants for one of his floating pills but didn’t find one.
“Boosting something this big from Governor O’Brien is both lucrative and dangerous.”
“Big deal. You think just because he’s mega-rich, he’s dangerous?”“He is…,” the Gray Man sighed, “and if you work with my crew, you rehearse. You know the rules.”
The furniture, dark oak and ornate, looked like some grandmother’s possessions. The gear did not. Robko answered, “The crew is you and me.”
“Not quite true, Robert. There were those who came and went before you ever entered the scene. This has been a one-year job. Months of surveillance.”
“I’m sure it was fascinating.”
The Gray Man shook his head and ground on. “You have to bypass four levels of security. Now, let’s start again. Lay it out for me.”
Robko took a sip of hot sweet tea. “Level one, standard first floor reception, guards, and elevator banks. Employees get in with keycards through chest-high glass while deliveries and guests are signed in and escorted. I come through as the coffee boy, and they bang me up to the fourth floor to Insurance.” Robko eyed the apartment instead of the floor plans on the wall. A seven-foot-tall metal box protruded into the room, its end framing a cheerless steel door. This brutal airlock was another layer of security, and the Gray Man insisted all electronics be left in it. Even now Robko’s iMob phone—his little electronic world—lay on a shelf behind that door.
“The guard will program the elevator to carry you there. You can’t change that without cracking open the control panel. You also can’t get out of the elevator. The hatch is wired.”
Robko waved a hand. “But once I deliver the coffee, I can take an unsecured return trip. I punch three and get off on the maintenance floor.” Dim afternoon light filtered through the windows. The tiny copper mesh across them flickered bronze in backlight.
The Gray Man’s voice plodded on, through Robko’s hiding place, the disguise and the journey through the building. “At eight p.m. you take the elevator to the fortieth. Go up when you can get on and hide in a crowd. Lock yourself into the next closet. The back wall has an access hatch into the elevator shafts. It’s not monitored—no sensors this low in the building. You enter the elevator shaft and ascend one floor.”
Robko said, as he stifled a yawn, “You mean I make a one-floor free climb with no rope in a shaft that has a busy elevator.”
“Yes. That’s basically what you do and why you’re here.” The apartment doorbell rang and the Gray Man fluttered his fingers over the tablet, opening camera views to the hallway and into the security airlock.
The first camera showed a dingy hallway, painted red and poorly lit. A girl stood there with a white plastic bag in her hands, holding it up in view, the bag open and the lip rolled down. The Gray Man opened the hall door. The girl stepped forward and let the door lock behind her. Quite beautiful, she stood in the harsh light, a goth in dark lipstick and serious eye makeup, looking a lot bored. “Let me in, already.” The steel door into the apartment clacked four times—top, bottom, sides.
She minced in, scowled at Robko. She dumped the bag onto the dining table in the middle of the room, shoved aside papers and memory devices, placed out small cartons of Thai food. With a haughty glance over her shoulder, she slipped through a glass door into the back of the apartment.
Robko said, “She looks pissed.”
“She didn’t want to come back to the city, not during the summer.”
“Come back from where?”
“Someplace more—copacetic. Hand me chopsticks.” The two men distributed the food. Robko chose soup with rat-shit chilies and stirred its noodles up with a white plastic spoon.
The Gray Man started again. “Now, you crawl out of the closet into the elevator shaft and make the climb.”
The apartment was stiflingly hot. Compelled to take up the narration, the Gray Man supplied his own soundtrack. “That gets you to the IT floor. From the IT floor you can climb up to the executive floor in the old cable chase. Once you are onto—or at least under—the executive suite floor, you’ll move along until you get to the printer room behind Reception. There you have to get up and out through an access hatch after moving a copy machine forward out of your way. The machine weighs one hundred sixty-three pounds without the paper. More than you.”
“Stop with the drama. I use an air-powered skid your people hid there some time ago. Did I mention I could have set up the machine myself? Or for that matter, just gone in direct as a copy repairman and done the job without all this climbing?”
“You would never have gotten from the printer room to the vault—we have to get you in before everyone comes to work. At this point, you’ve already run three major risks we can’t control. The guard could have called the fourth floor and found out the coffee and cake order was fake. You could have been stopped in the hallways by real security. You could have… um… encountered an elevator.”
“You’re reminding me why my rates should go up.”
“Yes, but we’ve already fixed the deal.”
“For this job.”
The Gray Man’s gaze swiveled to Robko. He showed thin lips in a death-head grin. “Yes. So, by this point you’re on the right floor. Now you have to get into the executive suite. Up here it’s eye scans, not fingerprint readers. This is simple. We have a device here,” and the Gray Man held up a small box that resembled a digital camera. “You use it to project the retinal scan of O’Brien’s personal assistant and unlock the door.”
“How did you get the scan, by the way?”
“Let’s just say we have a tame optometrist. Go down this hallway to the double doors.”
The Gray Man peered at the plan, his back to Robko. Robko flipped him the bird, then shrugged.
The Gray Man droned, “Use the scanner to the left of the door to enter the executive suite.”
Robko pursed his lips. He reached for the Gray Man’s wallet lying on the table. He took the hundreds out, stuck one back in, replaced the wallet. The Gray Man strobed his chopsticks in a shimmy at the images on the wall. “I’ve marked the cameras inside this section—and the dead spots. Keep your head ducked, and don’t look up at the cams. So tell me, what comes next?”
“O’Brien’s office lies behind the secretaries. I use the same projector for the eye scanner on his door, enter, and let the system lock me in. The nice thing about the Governor’s office is its low security. No motion detectors, no cameras.”
“Except the vault’s security.”
“Yes, the vault.”
The Gray Man has brought me all this way for what is in that vault.
In front of me are spread the usual trappings big bosses require: the couches, the bar, the immense desk, and the panoramic sweep of glass. But what’s important lies through the double doors to the right. I open them and lights flicker on. I can see the vault waiting there in all its transparent simplicity. The glass box crouches six feet away from the walls on its own pedestal. Huddling inside are a data server, a translucent desk with a holographic monitor, and several lustrous boxes.
First I have to get into the vault. The dog that guards this glass cube is a dual tumbler bank lock mounted in the door. A case-hardened steel box holds the lock suspended on the glass. It’s a simple, elegant, mechanical lock with no electronics and no timer. We don’t know the combination.
I drill two holes, each to the right of a tumbler knob. If I drill in the wrong place, I rupture a manifold that holds an acid. It will ruin everything in the lock, just like ATM machines. Once I’ve drilled through the safe spots and into the mechanics of the lock, I use a standard needle listening device and unlock each tumbler set. I hear the last click; now I can throw the handle.
Disarming the lasers and the pressure switches inside the vault is the final trick. Before I jerk the door open, I start my timer. I’ve only got a minute to rush the keypad and enter the right password. The code this year is the names of O’Brien’s ex-wives, entered backwards. A bitch, or two in fact.
It is indeed close, since I mistype once. My iMob counts down, tolling out seconds, and it reaches “three” before I get the code in. Silently I scream for joy, and my adrenalin pumps around in a waterfall of delight. I have an aching erection. I’ve cracked through level four, and all I have to do is steal the data off the server and unlock the boxes.
I jack my memory device into the server and start a huge download. Next, the translucent glowing boxes. The boxes each have a keypad; I have the codes because the keypads face the window. Days of surveillance from an adjacent building have revealed all. O’Brien’s boxes hold portable memory devices, and as instructed, I drop each into the bag. But in the last cube, I find something I’ve never seen before. The Gray Man hadn’t prepared me for this.
It’s an acrylic box, one by two by three inches. The box holds a gray mass of powder or crystals. Notches on the outside allow it to connect or couple into something. I see sets of contacts on each end, maybe two hundred in an array.
What? Are the crystals some exotic compound to provide O’Brien with a unique experience? Could it be an electrically activated drug, like a Singapore Slam? Could it be gene replacement to prolong his life? Maybe the crystals could cure his cirrhosis, or relieve his diabetes, or give him the circulation system of a twenty year old.
Whatever this little gem is, it’s something only the very rich could afford—important enough for him to keep close at hand. Maybe the contacts are either an alarm or lock, or the crystals are inert until activated by way of the contacts. A mystery—how charming!
The Gray Man doesn’t have to know about this drug. It’s not part of the negotiated deal, but it could get me killed. Killed dead. Either by the Gray Man, or O’Brien. Of course I’ll keep the box—I’m doomed by my blood to keep it.
The day before, they looped over and over the plan. It wasn’t enough to get in. Robko had to get out.
The Gray Man’s voice wheezed on. “You exit by riding on the elevator roof down to the ground. It’s a cinch from O’Brien’s floor. The doors protect against someone breaking in, not breaking out.”
“The reverse of a lobster trap.”
“A simple switch disables the alarm on the stairwell door. You unlock the elevator maintenance door with this key.” The Gray Man held it up. “Their security is laughable on this end.”
“It will improve after I’m gone.”
“There is that. You’ll have to wait, but you can stroll onto the roof of either of the executive elevators when they come to the top. Don’t move after you’re on the elevator—interferometer scans in the shaft. Once the elevator is on the ground floor, drop down the side into the basement and proceed to the loading docks. You can exit onto those docks with no challenge. Use this key card.” The Gray Man gave Robko the card.
“And then I walk away.”
“You know the place where we’ll meet. Message ahead, and I’ll be there for the exchange. We’ll transfer your fee from my bank to yours right away.”
“Anyone else coming to the drop?”
“No. And it’s a public place. I probably won’t shoot you.”
“And I’ll probably bring the stuff.”
“See that you do.”