Whoever said “to die would be an awfully big adventure” had probably never been shot at by seven armed security guards.
Harper Barton was all for adventures, but as a bullet zinged past her ear and through the window at the end of the hall, she figured getting shot was an adventure she could live without.
There weren’t supposed to be armed guards. When she’d been given the dossier on this job, Johansson had promised her security would be light and the retrieval would be a simple smash and grab.
She ran full tilt towards the large window, its glass now fractured by the bullet. None of this was part of the plan. Nor had any of her contingencies included jumping out of a window two hundred feet up.
Being the professional she was, she decided to just roll with the punches, because the alternative clearly involved her taking a bullet to the head.
Thanks, but no thanks.
She lunged for the broken glass panel, wrapping her arms tightly around herself and turning her shoulder towards the pane. If she remembered the layout of the building properly she would hit a catwalk below the tower. If she was wrong, she’d be dead.
Harper tried to never be wrong.
Wind lashed at her clothes as she fell. She held her breath and waited for impact, and a second later she landed hard on the brick outcropping just below the tower. Before she was able to get her bearings she rolled a few feet too far and over the edge of the roof, starting a steep slide down the tile.
She bit back a swear, not wanting the guards to hear her voice. With her layers of black clothing and the balaclava she insisted on wearing, they would have a hard time knowing she was a woman. Getting out of this situation alive would mean keeping that ace up her sleeve, and flying under the radar.
Women were so often overlooked as criminal masterminds.
Planting her feet on the sloped tile she was able to get enough traction to halt her slide, coming to a stop at the very edge of the roof. Below her there was a steep drop down to the cobblestone courtyard and a slew of fancy valet-parked cars.
The museum gala had drawn all of Bogota’s upper crust. None of them would be too thrilled to have a dead body crushing the hood of their nice ride.
Harper was all too ready to oblige them by not falling to her death.
She scrambled back up to the catwalk, using the tiles for grip.
“Alto ahí,” a deep voice shouted in Spanish.
Harper had left her Spanish phrase book in her other tactical turtleneck, but she doubted he was offering to lend her a hand.
As she got her feet under her on the catwalk, a bullet ricocheted off the stone.
Seriously, dudes? These guys couldn’t let her have two straight minutes without gunfire? You’d think she had stolen something incredibly valuable.
She smirked to herself.
Running away from the tower, she headed directly towards the main hall of the museum where the gala was taking place. Harper had only glanced at the banners for the event, but considering what she had grabbed from the artifact vault, the theme of the event was Really Expensive Trinkets We Found in the Jungle.
As soon as she was out of sight of the tower she started to strip off layers of clothing. First went the mask, sliding down the side of the building and off the edge of the roof to the parking area below. Next she dumped the turtleneck, revealing the low, scooped neck of her favorite little black dress.
Blending in was key, and the dress had been part of plan C or D. She’d wanted to avoid running into any civilians at all, but she wore the dress under her other clothes just in case. A black dress allowed her to fit in just about anywhere, no matter how casual or formal the rest of the guests were dressed.
Each layer Harper shed made her feel lighter, like she was leaving behind anything that might draw the guards to her. Their shouts had become distant, giving her the distinct impression they were looking for her in the wrong place. Their misdirection wouldn’t last forever, but she’d be damn sure to take advantage of it while she could.
She withdrew the stolen artifact—a small jade amulet carved with the image of a jungle cat baring its teeth—and slipped it down the front of her dress. Probably not the ideal place to store something worth more than most Silicon Valley CEOs made in a year, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
Shaking out her long dark blonde hair from its ponytail, she shucked the last of her tactical gear and sprinted towards the front wing of the museum. It was easy to tell where the bulk of bystanders would be from the well-lit entryway and the faint sound of live classical music.
Her dress, a short black cocktail number that had fit reasonably well under all the rest of her clothes, hitched up on her legs and she ran. No one had yet to design a dress to be worn for marathons, so until that day Harper just had to deal with showing a lot too much leg.
If anyone below was looking up they’d probably get an eyeful, but she was counting on no one looking up.
That was sort of the major crux of her escape plan.
The rooftop catwalk ended so abruptly Harper tried to skid to a stop, but she’d taken one running step too far, and suddenly there was nothing underneath her except a hundred foot drop to Splatsville, population her.
In spite of all her previous efforts to stay quiet, she let out a loud “Shit.” Given the circumstances she could probably be forgiven for letting her cool as a cucumber demeanor slip just a wee bit.
She twisted in the air, saying a million rapid-fire prayers to a God she didn’t believe in, and scrabbling to get a handhold on anything. Salvation came in the form of a rusted old drainpipe, which she managed to hook one flailing hand on. Her fall stopped as quickly as it had started, and she help the drainpipe with a white-knuckled grip, wondering if she’d ever catch her breath again.
“Oh, come on.” The distinctive sound of groaning metal told her two things: the drainpipe was about to break, and perhaps she should not have had a second helping of the carnitas for dinner.
One of the metal brackets supporting the narrow pipe whined loudly and a bolt popped off of the wall.
Harper scanned the area around her with feverish intensity, knowing she had scant few seconds left before her one-way trip to the ground was back on.
A window on the building behind her had been left slightly ajar, and it was just a small enough drop she could probably catch it if she kicked off.
This was, naturally, a big if, because there was a good ten-foot gap in between the two buildings. But, left to choose between a certain death in waiting, and a maybe death in jumping, Harper picked maybe.
In spite of most current evidence to the contrary, Harper Barton really liked being alive.
“Here goes nothing,” she muttered.
Creeeeak, replied the drainpipe.
Harper used her feet to push off from the side of the building, turning her body in the air and hoping like hell she hadn’t underestimated the distance or the drop.
She smacked against the wood frame of the window and hooked both arms over the side before her weight could pull her back down. Taking one—okay seven—breaths to steady herself, she dragged herself through the open space and into the room on the opposite side.
Just a quiet office with a series of knick-knacks on the desk and more books than the narrow shelves should have been asked to support. Instinctively Harper snooped on the desk to see if any of the items were valuable. A few old coins, and a small metal box that looked Incan, but nothing that would fetch a big price tag. She left them.
Inside, the music was louder, though still at a distance, and now she heard voices added to the mix. Laughter and chit-chat were a new orchestration layered on top of Dvorák.
Most importantly she hadn’t heard anything resembling shouting guards or folks screaming about guns, so she was probably safe for the time being.
Harper smoothed out her dress, pulling the hem back down to knee length, which blessedly hid the smear of orange-red rust she’d acquired on her inner thigh while hanging onto the drainpipe for dear life. With a quick finger comb of her hair and a grandmother-approved pinch of each cheek to fake blush, she might almost look presentable enough for the crowd.
Her kingdom for some lipstick
A flawless red lip went a long way to convince people you were glamorous as hell.
Oh well. Confidence alone would have to get her through the lobby.
One last dust off to be sure she didn’t have any feathers or roof tiles hidden anywhere on her person and Harper flounced out of the office like nothing in the world could have been more natural.
Pretend you belong and people think you belong.
It was one of the first things Johannsson had ever said to her, and that more than any other wisdom he’d imparted had been the thing that stuck out the most. For Harper, who had never truly belonged anywhere, it was much easier to pretend she fit in places than to actually feel like it was true. That’s what made faking it come so naturally.
All of this was an act. One long role-play. And if there was anything Harper could manage with her eyes closed, it was pretending to be someone else.
She moved quickly, but without looking like she was rushing. A large curving stairway took her down from the third floor down to the main area, where the music was louder and there were people everywhere. Her dress was ever so slightly too casual given the floor-length gowns and tuxedos worn by the event guests, but that was also the joy of a little black dress. She might not look as fancy as everyone else, but she also didn’t look entirely out of place. She’d have fit in whether this was a cocktail mixer or an Oscar after-party.
Her hand went up to her chest, double-checking that the amulet was still there.
Safe as houses.
Or safe as tits.
Either way no one was getting their hands in there.
The only thing that might be a dead giveaway of her out-of-placeness was her shoes. She’d been able to fit a dress under her gear, but it wasn’t like she had room in her pack for heels. Even if she had, what a kind of dumbass would carry heels with them on a supposedly easy snatch and grab?
So she was wearing lightweight black slip-on shoes designed for free running. Better these than the bright pink and teal ones she had at home, but not the most ideal footwear for a gala event either.
She wove her way through the sparse crowd towards the heart of the event. The more people around her the less she’d stand out. Harper could just walk out the front door, but she had a suspicion she’d probably waltz right into a waiting guard, and then she’d be up a creek.
Come to think of it, what was up with the guards?
Earlier she’d been too busy running for her life to give it much thought, but now she had to wonder. What was a Colombian museum doing with a dozen heavily armed guards protecting one item? Sure, the amulet was worth a butt-ton of money. Yes, a ton of other groups aside from the Syndicate were probably interested in it. All fair points. But she had never seen that level of security before at an event like this.
The guards reminded her of something but she was having a hard time putting a finger on it. Without a doubt they weren’t museum security. Put perhaps the exhibit had called for a little bit… extra.
A waiter passed by her carrying a full tray of champagne flutes and she grabbed one, tipping the bubbly gold liquid into her mouth as she scanned the crowd.
More guards in here. Big guys in dark suits near each exit, all wearing small earpieces. The way they watched the room she knew without a doubt they’d been tipped off to the theft. They all wore the same eager, intense expressions, like they were hungry for a kill.
And she was the lone fox to their slavering hounds.
Not today, gents, she thought smugly.
Still, the ease with which they carried their weapons—concealed in the case of the ones here, but still no less obvious to her—was setting off a million of her internal alarm bells. These were not average guards. Not even hired help.
These were professional killers masquerading as bouncers.
Her blood went cold.
Who would need such heavy-handed security?
She had an idea, and it didn’t give her the warm and fuzzies.
Harper peered through the crowd, trying to find the easiest exit. The guards appeared to be stopping anyone who tried to leave and enforcing a pat-down. Not ideal, but she could probably still get out okay given where the amulet was currently hidden.
One of the guards looked over and spotted her staring. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously and Harper faked her best smile, pretending like she was checking him out. She gave a flirtatious wink and he merely glowered more.
All right, no feminine wiles for that guy.
She took another slow sip of her champagne and crossed that particular exit off her list. When she glanced back over her shoulder she noticed the guard had left his post and was making a beeline directly for her.
Taking inventory of the area in her immediate vicinity her gaze landed on a young-ish, lean-looking man near the edge of the dance floor. He was reading index cards and mouthing the words, like he was practicing a speech. He had lovely, wavy black hair and copper skin that was currently paled with obvious nerves.
He glanced up towards the stage and Harper got a really good look at him, and for a moment her breath caught in her throat. She’d taken him for the professorial type because of his glasses, but now she could tell he was unlike any professor she had ever seen before. He had lovely brown eyes, and his face was stunning, all statuesque angles and strong features. He seriously looked like a Greek god carved out of marble. Harper’s cheeks flushed and her ears got warm.
This wasn’t going to be a hardship after all.
Harper set her glass on a passing tray and grabbed hold of the man as she moved towards the dance floor.
“Dance with me.”