Heads turned and conversations everywhere trailed off into silence when Yelena Markov walked into the Exchange, but she was used to that by now. She wasn't exactly sure when it had started happening; maybe it was after word had gotten around about what she'd pulled off at the Guggenheim, or the day after CNN had broken the story about the Gardner Museum theft. She remembered the day she noticed, though. The first day that she realized that the best thieves in the world (because to even know where the Exchange moved to on its daily trips around the world put you into a class of elite criminal) no longer saw her as an equal, but as a superior. Instead of treating her like one of the boys, they all looked at her like musicians looked at Clapton, like soldiers looked at Patton. It was a strange feeling, proud and lonely all at once. Like she'd become an exhibit in a museum of Great Criminals of the 21st Century.
She didn't think about it so much anymore. Let them think what they wanted. She walked past them, a vision in dark gray (all except for her hair, where she'd only just started finding a gray hair or two among the black), brown eyes hidden behind sunglasses while hearing the whispers behind her with well-trained ears. Three men exchanged rumors of her latest job (all untrue.) Two more expressed a desire to fuck her. (Not worth her time, really. She knew better than to get involved with a fellow thief, physically or emotionally.) Another two or three talked about involving her on one of their jobs. (Unlikely. She worked alone. She only stole for the challenge now.) She ignored it all, and walked to the long black table where Mr. Stone waited.
She sat down and took off her sunglasses. A courtesy to the broker, letting him look her in the eyes. Mr. Stone nodded. "Ms. Markov," he said, with quiet old-world politeness and an accent that had been worn away to dust through years of contact with the criminal element of every nation. "I trust there were no difficulties?"
"None at all," she said. She reached into her breast pocket and pulled out a single gold coin, just over an inch across. She flipped it over her fingers as though she didn't know it was worth over seven million dollars. "A genuine 1933 Double Eagle, just as requested. I trust there will be no difficulties with payment?" Her own accent had dwindled to equal non-existence; despite her name, even a trained linguist wouldn't be able to pick up a trace of Russian in her speech.
"None at all," Mr. Stone replied. "The client has already expressed interest in hiring you on for another job, as a matter of fact." He noticed the expression on her face. "I did explain to him that you were not interested in taking on an exclusive contract with any bidder, but he had hoped that if I presented you with a sufficiently challenging job, you might be willing to bend your rules slightly."
She paused. "On the whole, I think not. They always say they respect your independence, but when you take a second job, they have a third, and when you take a third, they have an idea, and then before you know it you're..." She gestured dismissively. "Tame. Leashed. Comfortable. I have no interest in that, Mr. Stone. Tell them to find someone else. I'm not the only thief in the world."
"Not even the best," someone said from behind her. She heard the man's voice, a thick British accent harsh and slightly slurred with drink. The problem with turning from a woman into a legend, she thought idly as she stood up in her chair and turned to see the source of the challenge, is that there are more people out to topple legends than there are out to catch thieves.
"Oh, and now she just gives me the look," the other thief said loudly, "and thinks I'll go quiet just like the rest of you lot!" All around them, conversations were stopping as everyone turned to watch the drama. Yelena became uncomfortably aware that whatever happened, she would have an audience for it. "She's got all you fooled, but not Mick Eden!"
She'd already have dismissed him as a drunken idiot, if not for the silence of his approach. Whatever else he was, he was talented. She slipped out from between the chair and table. "That's all it is, innit?" Mick said, stalking closer. "Just a fancy trick, just a little stage magic for the boys. You walk in 'ere, you give 'em the eye as you walk by, you act all cold like a little ice queen, and everyone just stares and wonders, 'Ooh, how does she do it all?' The crap I've heard about you, you wouldn't fucking believe it."
He was much closer, now, close enough so that she could smell the liquor on his breath. He had a foot of height on her, and muscles that suggested that he was the heavy on just about every job he pulled. "You probably would, though. You probably started half those stories, just to make yourself look good. They say nobody can take your picture. They say you can dodge bullets. They say motion sensors don't even know you're there. They say you're a fucking ghost, girl." He grabbed her arm tight enough to hurt. "You seem solid enough to me."
He leaned in. Yelena stood perfectly still, knowing that nobody would come to help her. If you had to be helped in the Exchange, you didn't deserve to be here. If she didn't handle Mick Eden on her own, she'd be like meat dropped into a shark tank the next time she came in. "You don't fool me, Miss Markov. You're a good thief, no doubt, but you're just a woman. You can't do magic. All those things people say about you, it's just so they don't notice that. 'Cause if they did, maybe next time they'd treat you like I'm treating you right now, and you don't seem to be doing much about that, do you?"
She blinked once. "Look down, Mr. Eden," she said.
He looked down. Very, very slowly, he let go of her arm.
"That's a .50 caliber Desert Eagle Mark XIX," she said. "I'm not certain how much you know about firearms, Mr. Eden, but I guarantee you, if I fire that pistol at this range, it won't simply be a question of never getting to have sex again. You will bleed to death in seconds from an exit wound the size of a softball, and your obituary will be most embarrassing indeed."
He swallowed slowly. "I didn't even see you draw..." he said, sounding more astonished than terrified.
"Is this your first time in the Exchange, Mister Eden?" she said, not unkindly.
"Where did you even pull it from?" he said, looking at her body and the slim catsuit she wore.
"Mister Eden," she said, "I'd like you to focus, please."
"I...yes." He'd taken a step back from her now, involuntarily, but the gun continued to point squarely at his crotch.
"I thought as much," she said. "Since it's your first time, I'll give you a bit of friendly advice. And I probably won't turn your genitals into a fine red mist. Two services, Mister Eden, that I don't perform lightly." She noticed the stain begin as she spoke, small at first but spreading quickly over the crotch of his jeans. "I don't have much interest in frightening people, Mister Eden. Not unless I have to. Whatever stories you might have heard while drinking with your fellow crooks are just that." He wasn't hearing her words, though, and neither was anyone else who was listening. They were all remembering the way she drew that gun on him.
"Don't put too much weight in stories, Mister Eden, and don't worry too much about 'reputation', your own or anyone else's. But at the same time, Mister Eden?" She finally let the gun point away from him. "Be on your best behavior. You never know what might happen to you when you're not."
She turned and sat down, hearing his no-longer-stealthy footsteps behind her as he ran. She brushed off Mr. Stone's apologies and began discussing her next job, but all she could think about was how on her next visit, those whispers would be even more awed, those stares even more reverent. The pedestal they put her on got higher every time.
Magic. That was the worst part of it, really, Yelena thought as she slowly and delicately made her way across the darkened floor of the museum. They all thought it was magic. They didn't bother trying to figure out how she did it, they didn't attempt to duplicate the techniques and equipment she'd spent a lifetime perfecting. No, Mick Eden had it right, for all that he was a drunken boor who'd pissed himself in front of the best of the criminal underworld. They all thought she was a magician, not a thief.
She carefully ducked under a laser eye whose beam was picked out thinly by a handful of baby powder floating in the air. 'You can't do magic,' he'd said. Like he was telling her anything she didn't already know. She'd studied every security system ever built for decades now, developed contacts in the field that shipped her blueprints of the latest designs years before they ever got installed. She spent constant, endless, lonely hours training until she could disable locks and alarms in her sleep. She fell asleep every night and dreamed about nothing but the next job. She lived for the challenge.
She approached the next set of motion detectors with icy stillness, her body heat carefully masked by the dark gray suit she wore. (Darkness was never perfectly black, she'd found. Dark gray blended better.) None of them understood, or even tried to understand. They simply stared at her in blank astonishment, the awe of the audience watching the magician. She couldn't understand how so many crooks could have so little ambition. They didn't want to learn from her, they simply wanted to be dazzled by the impossible baubles she brought in. African masks, Chinese coral sculptures, gemstones of every color of the rainbow...they gawped, when they could be studying.
That was the truth, she realized. "Doing it for the challenge" was a meaningless phrase. The fact was, she did want admiration. She just wanted the admiration of an equal. She wanted someone to understand every bit of the intricate strategy she'd used to overcome every trap, pick every lock, and walk away with the goods with not a soul the wiser. She didn't want someone to just appreciate the fact, she wished someone would understand the process. Stares of vacant admiration meant nothing to Yelena. They'd just become another trap.
And an inescapable one, it seemed. She refused to relent, to explain just how she'd done it every time. If they had to be told, they weren't worth telling. Perhaps Yelena would always be alone on the pedestal. There'd never be someone who truly appreciated her, not on the level she wanted.
Magic, she thought with a silent snort, coming up on the Stradivarius violin she'd come to steal. There's no such thing.
Then she heard someone approaching.
Earphones designed to amplify the slightest sound picked up the footsteps while they were still at the far edge of the exhibit hall. With a skill born of long practice (and nothing more), Yelena pressed herself up next to a support pillar, keeping herself perfectly still and letting the silence and shadows cover her. She listened for the crackle of a walkie-talkie and the speech of a guard, but the figure remained silent as it approached the case where the antique instrument was held.
To an ordinary observer, the darkness of the museum would have obscured the intruder completely, but Yelena's custom-built low-light goggles picked out her features as though it were daytime in the exhibit hall. She was of indeterminate age (but seemingly younger than Yelena), with long, light blonde hair (foolish--never let pursuers find anything they could grab) and eyes that Yelena picked out as blue despite the washed-out colors of the low-light lenses. She wore a white dress that stood out like a flare in the dimly-lit exhibit hall, and held in her hand a...a walking-stick of some sort? What kind of amateur smash-and-grab moron was this girl? Did she really plan to just walk up and break open the case, without anyone the wiser?
The girl held up the walking stick in front of her. It seemed to taper towards the top, from a perfect circle to a chunky, carved square. Yelena couldn't quite make out the carvings from this angle, though. She tensed, expecting the crash of breaking glass that would bring the security guard running, but the girl didn't move at all.
The glass did, though. It softened and sagged as though it were melting under a heat-lamp, as though years flowed by for the case while seconds passed for Yelena and the girl. Within moments, it dripped down the side of the case like candle-wax, leaving the violin sitting on the cushion for the girl to take. Which, with a simple sweep of her hand, she did.
Yelena felt torn. On the one hand, this stranger had just walked into the room and snatched Yelena's prize out from under her with casual, almost idiotic ease, and Yelena couldn't help but feel furious. On the other hand...the device, whatever it was, was brilliant. Was it sonics of some sort, a resonator that vibrated the glass into a liquid state? Heat-based? Yelena had to know. She had to tell the girl that whatever deficiencies in her technique, her equipment was absolutely brilliant. She would express her admiration of a kindred spirit.
Then she'd steal the violin from the girl. After all, she did have a client waiting.
The girl turned, and Yelena realized just as she did that while they'd been intent on the case, someone else had been intent on them. The security guard approached with his gun at the ready. "Put the violin down very carefully, ma'am," he said, "and the cane as well. I want to see both your hands in the air, now."
The girl smiled enigmatically. She held out the walking-stick, letting the guard see the carvings that continued to elude Yelena's view. She could see the girl, even if her profile was slightly shadowed, she could see the guard, but the staff remained a mystery.
But Yelena wasn't prepared for what she saw next.
When he saw the staff, the guard's expression changed to one of pure awe. His eyes opened wide in utter astonishment, and his mouth hung open, slack and dazed. "Ohh..." was all he said, his lips barely even moving.
"That's right," the girl said. Her voice echoed in the soft hush of the museum.
Yelena watched as the guard's pupils widened. At first, she assumed it was just some sort of additional effect of the devices built into the cane, some sort of sonic projector that perhaps affected his balance, or reasoning. She'd heard of technologies like that, things that one military or another had been working on. She'd even stolen plans for prototypes of something along those lines...although that was the size of a city bus and could be heard from three blocks away. Yelena couldn't hear anything, despite almost being close enough to touch the pair and having amplifiers in both ears.
But his pupils kept widening, engulfing his irises completely until his eyes were a perfect circle of black surrounded by white. Then...then Yelena felt a cold shiver run down her back. She watched through keen eyes as the pupils began to contract inwards again, even as they expanded outwards. The white and the black of his eyes began to mingle, first in notches, then in bands as the pupil changed shape right in front of her disbelieving view.
"That's right," the girl said again, her voice filled with smug satisfaction as the guard continued to watch. The bands of white arrowed their way into the center of his pupil, the bands of darkness widened as they traveled out to the edges of his eyes, and before Yelena knew it, the design had formed a perfect spiral from the tiny dot at the center all the way out to where it met flesh. Yelena wondered for a moment if the girl had dealt with them both by releasing some sort of hallucinogen into the air, if she was having drugged visions, but the sick chill in her gut told her it was all absolutely real. She'd waved a...sto za bljadstvo...a magic fucking wand in front of the guard, and his eyes had turned to spirals.
Then they started spinning. Slowly at first, but then turning rapidly as his eyes widened even more, widened more than any natural eyes should be able to. He gaped straight ahead, staring unseeing at the girl as his eyes spun gently in their sockets. "That's right," the girl said one final time. "Sleep for fifteen minutes, then awaken, remembering none of this." She walked right past him and headed for the door.
Yelena followed, but cautiously. More cautiously than she'd ever done in her life, the memory of the case and the guard like a weight in her mind. On some level, she wanted to run away, find a bar and drink until she'd convinced herself the whole thing never happened.
Two things stopped her. First, the girl was walking away with a Stradivarius violin worth over three million dollars. It had been eleven years since Yelena Markov had failed to fulfill a contract, and she would be damned if she broke that record today, especially not to another thief.
And two...the girl was lazy. Clumsy. She'd set off alarms, alerted the guards, and yet, she was walking away with goods she hadn't earned. A lifetime of labor, of caution and skill and yes, false modesty aside, of brilliance, and this girl achieved the same effect with a stick? With a magic wand?
The girl had cheated, Yelena fumed as she drove behind the limo that her quarry had stepped into, keeping carefully out of view of the driver as she followed them. She hadn't worked, she hadn't sweated, she hadn't...there was no other word for it, she hadn't earned that theft. Yelena had started the night disbelieving in magic, now she ended the night hating it. Any idiot could wave a magic wand. Where was the challenge in that? Where was the skill? And yet, the foolish girl no doubt thought herself Yelena's equal. Maybe even her superior.
She watched the limousine pull into the long driveway leading up to a mansion on a hill, and Yelena knew what she had to do. Part of her counseled caution; normally, she spent days or even weeks studying a target in preparation for a job. But even the simplest of glances told her that this girl's security was a joke. Yelena needed no preparation, not for this arrogant girl who relied on...on magic. She would demonstrate to this girl that Yelena Markov was truly the best thief in the world. She almost wished they were here right now, those gawkers from the Exchange. This would be a story they would tell forever. Yelena Markov, stealing from a sorceress. She was born for this night.
She waited fifteen minutes, letting her target settle in, and then climbed the fence with cat-like ease. Dropping lightly to the ground, she crossed the estate in a matter of moments. She moved from shadow to shadow like she was one of them, darting between little patches of night so swiftly and easily that even a trained observer would doubt their own eyes. She reached the window and almost laughed out loud when she saw the lock. She had been picking these when she was a child.
Once inside, she listened for the sounds of conversation, but heard only a pair of footsteps treading lightly down the hall. Yelena ducked into an alcove and watched a man in chauffeur's garb walk past her down the hall, his tread never breaking a perfect rhythm, his eyes staring ahead in unseeing, whirling spirals as he headed to some unknown task. It reminded Yelena of the need for caution, and she felt for the Desert Eagle's grip, checking to ensure that it remained secure in its concealed holster.
She moved swiftly down the halls, noting treasures lining each wall and resting in display cases that were, themselves, antiques. Part of her, the hot vengeful part that remembered the lazy ease with which this girl had mocked her skills and her gifts, wanted to loot the place bare. She could do it, too, she knew. Magic was magic, but fools were fools, and this girl had left her house open for the taking to a thief like Yelena. But the craftier, cannier part, the part whose skills had been honed by long experience into instincts that transcended conscious thought...that part of her warned her of danger. She didn't need to see the thief-traps to know they were there, didn't need to see the alarms to know that the clock was ticking.