Throughout his life, Lev Zaytsev was no stranger to fine-dining experiences. Every other meal was had in Minerva’s best restaurants, often in the company of composers and producers. His meals at home were equally, if not more, impressive. Zaytsev mansion filled its kitchens with a rotating roster of Michelin chefs, one of whom had worked in the White House, and another, for the Royal Family.
And so, after a lifetime of ambrosia, Lev Zaytsev did not think he would ever be surprised again. Yet, here he was, eating the best pie he had ever tasted.
In the back of a van.
With a pack of criminals.
Before they robbed a Fortune 500 company.
“I don’t know how,” Chase muttered, mouth full. “But it gets better every time. Fuckin’ witchcraft, Fox. Fuckin’ witchcraft!”
“I’ve been practising,” said Quill. He was folding a piece of rolling paper. “I dug up Astri’s old recipe but her handwriting’s pretty crap, so it’s been a lot of trial and error. Anyone got a lighter?”
MP set down his empty plate. “I thought you quit.”
“I just need a pick-me-up. You know how I feel about corps.”
Vein held up a lighter and ignited it for him. “Here.”
“My man.” Quill leaned in to the flame, breathing deeply. Smoke escaped his scarred lips as he chuckled. “God, I missed this.”
Immediately, the smell exploded into the van. Lev thought nothing of it, until he realised it wasn’t tobacco. “What the hell?” he wheezed between coughs.
“Christ, Quill!” MP waved the air in front of him. “Are ya tryin’ to hotbox us? If you’re gonna smoke, do it outside!”
“I can’t. If someone sees me, the raid’s off.”
“If someone smells you, the raid’s off. You ever seen a pothead corpo?”
“You’d be surprised.” Quill fixed his tie with one hand, the other still holding the cigarette. He had traded his old denim jacket for a tailored suit, and his signature beanie was nowhere to be seen. Lev had trouble not staring at his hair. It wasn’t just the uncanny look of a hairless cat, it was also that Quill had his hair dyed. His once blonde locks were now a deep unfamiliar brown. In fact, everything distinctive about his appearance was stripped away and covered up. Gone were the earrings, the golden tooth was painted white, and even the scar along the corner of his mouth was concealed with make-up.
But that smile– that quizzical grin laced with venom and greed: no disguise could hide that.
“Put it out, Quill,” the Half-Giant insisted. He wore a bright yellow safety vest that was too small for him. Then again, most clothes were. “Before the smell sticks to our clothes.”
“Just one more puff.”
Arc raised her hand to the cigarette, squishing its tip between her thumb and index. When she drew back, the tip was frozen solid.
Quill made an anguished wail. “Am I asking for too much?”
“It’s your fault for not smoking sooner,” said MP.
“It feels better when it’s right before a job.”
Arc’s head tipped back in laughter. The enforcer wore a white office blouse, a name tag hastily clamped near the chest, and her grey suit seemed almost black against her pale skin. Every time she moved, her hair, wound tight in a bun, would loosen a strand.
“And you, young lady.” MP gestured at her. She turned around, letting him reach over to fix her hair. Despite his size, his fingers were surprisingly nimble, though he still struggled to weave the bun back together. “How many times ought I have to tell you to keep still? I ain’t no Astri.”
Arc caressed a strand of red hair as MP finished up.
Lev ate his last bite of heaven and set his plate atop the others. “Is that why we’re in the back of a van parked down the street of Priam? For you to get a good smoke in?”
“Nah, man, it’s tradition,” said Quill.
“Tradition to get high in a van?”
Vein, who was the only person that looked comfortable in formal wear, explained, “in Vulpes, it’s customary to consume a slice of vinegar pie prior to a job.”
“We do it for good luck,” added MP.
“You do it for good luck.” Chase washed down a mouthful of pie with coffee. “I do it cause it’s fuckin’ good food. Besides, nobody’s doing shit for luck when Quill’s here. Man burns through karma like pastrami at the deli.”
“Bottom line,” Quill clarified. “It’s tradition. One Astri started and one we’re sure as hell not gonna give up.”
“Even if it gives us indigestion,” said Chase.
“Even if it gives us indigestion,” Quill agreed. “Alright, everyone, let’s get ready.”
The King took his time meeting the eyes of everyone in the van. Lev could’ve looked away if he wanted to, his mask gave him that privilege, but when it came his turn, he didn’t. Somehow, he convinced himself that it felt right. That it felt proper.
Quill pulled out a purple handkerchief, the only item that was his. “We are the city’s avarice. We plunder others, for we have no birthright of our own. We are Vulpes. Purple and white.”
“Purple and white,” they echoed. Even Lev mouthed the words.
“I’m here to see the CEO.”
The receptionist replied without looking up. “I don’t think Mr Schafer has any personal appointments on his schedule today.”
“Oh, it’s not personal.” Quill laid his I.D and business card on the desk. “King’s Trust Corporation. I’m the risk analyst representative.”
“Ah!” Her head shot up. Immediately, she started typing away at her computer. “My apologies, Mr Schafer can’t meet with you today, but he did arrange for Mr Andrews to take his place.”
He made a surprised face. “Is that so?”
“I’m sorry about the late notice. Would you be okay with this arrangement?”
“It’s no problem at all, don’t worry.”
“Alright, Mr Andrews will be waiting for you on floor eighteen. We’ll bring someone to escort you.”
“That’s okay, I’ve been here before. I’ll find my way.”
“Oh, well, if you’re confident, Mr…”
“Fox,” Quill shook her hand. “Jordan Fox.”
Born July 7th in Columbia, Missouri, age thirty-one. Social security number is 171-19-6742, mother’s maiden name was Lennard and raised him alone working as a high school English teacher. Hobbies include cowboy movies and drinking margaritas.
Dislikes? Quill chuckled to himself. Choosing fake names that are dangerously and painfully unsubtle.
The receptionist guided his view to the metal detector leading through to the elevator. “Just go through the security check, Mr Fox.”
“Thank you, sweetheart.”
He drew back his fake cards and just as his hand was about to leave the desk, his fingers slithered into a nearby jar of pens. They made no sound, not even clinking against the glass, before returning to his pocket, one pen richer. The entire act, a single motion, went by so fast, neither the receptionist nor the guards noticed anything.
Quill pushed his suitcase through the x-ray machine, and walked through the security gate an innocent man. The guard gave him one quick scan with a metal detector, then presented him with his belongings.
“Thank you, sir,” the guard said. “Have a nice day.”
“This feels kinda nice,” Quill muttered out of earshot. “I could get used to the corpo life.”
Vein’s voice came through the earpiece with a bit of static. “Health insurance and a retirement package. It’s not a bad deal.”
Chase walked up behind him. When he spoke, his voice also came through the earpiece like an echo. “You won’t be saying that when you need to jerk your boss off for a promotion.”
“You can get a promotion out of it?” asked Quill. “Damn, I’ve been doing them for free.”
Laughter broke out on the other end and Quill swore he could even hear the Black Lion chuckle a little.
“Excuse me, sir!” the receptionist called out.
Quill and Chase looked back. MP was by the security gate, his arms hanging awkwardly at his sides as he didn’t know what to do with them. He waddled back to the girl’s desk.
“Is there, uh, is there a problem?”
“Your staff card. It’s expired.”
Shit. Of all the things to go wrong, it’d be the faulty forgery.
“Oh,” mumbled MP. “Uh…oh.”
“Don’t ‘oh’ me, sir.” She sighed. “I’m sorry but I can’t let you in until you’ve renewed the card.”
Immediately, his eyes clung to Quill, mouth gaped open, wordless. Don’t look at me, dumbass.
“I…uh…” MP’s stare turned manic. It had been a long time since Quill saw the Half-Giant so flustered “It was…a friend’s.”
Before MP could make a bigger mess, Quill stepped in. One hand shot past the side of the receptionist’s head as he forced their gazes to meet. Now she was the flustered one.
Quill withdrew his hand into view and suddenly, gripped between two fingers, was a purple rose. The buds were scented with perfume, a trick he learnt from the Radiance. “You’re prettier when you smile.”
Her face grew crimson. Her eyes were still locked with his and seemed to barely recognise the flower.
The King snapped his fingers. The rose flickered from his hand, and he held a playing card in its stead. The perfume’s fragrance still lingered on it. He took the pen he had stolen and used it to write a string of numbers on the card. Finally, he pressed it into her palm.
“Call me,” he whispered with a wink. “Forget about the big guy.”
“Sure.” It came out as a gasp, like the squeaks of a balloon before it popped. “Sure, why not.”
Just to make sure her wits weren’t back yet, when MP walked through the security gate, Quill threw the stolen pen from across the hall. It sunk into its jar with a smooth swoosh, and the receptionist made no reaction. Her eyes were still in a daze and her mind still drunk on romance.
“Keep the pen!” he shouted, turning away.
The moment they were in the elevator, MP fell apart. “I’m sorry, I fuckin’ panicked. My brain just straight turned to mush!”
“Chill, it’s fine,” Quill laughed. “You should’ve had some of my smoke earlier.”
Vein’s voice came through the earpiece. “Arc said she hopes you recorded that.”
“I wish I had,” said Chase. “But MP would kill me in my sleep.”
“Not in your sleep. I’m an honourable man.”
“I’ll never let you live this down.”
“Maybe I will kill you in your sleep.”
Quill breathed deeply. He reached for his earpiece. “Vein, how’s the situation on your end?”
“My apologies, it appears we are behind schedule.”
Quill checked his watch. “By how long?”
“One minute, forty-five seconds, and counting.”
“Heh. Trying to be stylishly late?”
“Not of my own volition, boss.” The sound of shattering glass. “It’s the Black Lion.”
Lev kneeled over the toilet bowl. He removed his mask and hurled his guts out.
You shouldn’t be here, he told himself. The raid has already begun. You should be out there. His body gave no reply. No excuse. He was still hunched in the bathroom and his stomach continued to churn.
This had never happened before a job. Not before the raid on Veragreen, or when he had to murder Priscilla. Even when Pierce’s brain gleamed in the evening air or Khan’s neck split in two. He had never felt sickness like this.
Lev stumbled to the sink. He let the water run and slipped his hand underneath it, splashing a little on his face. The coolness felt nice, but it did little to remedy him.
This time, they weren’t gangsters. They weren’t people who chose to be there. If their blood was spilt, it would be his fingers grasping the knife.
What was it that Chase said? Corpo fuckers. They didn’t use guns or blades, but they stole and swindled all the same. Even if they did not commit the act themselves, they were complacent in it. What difference would it make if they died? The world would be a better place for it.
He tried to imagine the scene. One corpse. Its eyes were staring, its lips blue. One dead corpo, his blood rich with stolen gold.
All he could see was his father.
Lev vomited into the sink.
He used a handful of water to rinse his face and mouth, then turned up the tap to wash down the rest of the vomit. When he glanced up at the mirror, angry eyes stared back.
You’re too soft, they accused. You will never find Sehyun like this.
The mirror shattered. Lev only realised he himself broke it when he withdrew his fist. He took another glance at himself; at his face, framed by a web of cracks. The water had washed away some of his make-up, revealing the imperfection underneath. Sunken eyes, a bit of bruising, and cuts on his cheek. Even without the mask, he was unrecognisable.
That didn’t stop him from covering his face when someone walked in. They didn’t say anything and they didn’t need to. The sudden brush of cold air was greeting enough.
“I’m almost done,” he said to her. “I just need a moment.”
Arc leaned down, picking his mask off the floor. She held it out to him with one hand, and covered her eyes with the other.
Lev kept his face covered as he stared at her. Was she peeking? He craned his neck. No, her fingers were pressed tight. After a final check, he accepted her offering.
“Okay.” He clicked the straps in at the back. “You can look again.”
She unveiled herself and glanced around the bathroom. Her gaze latched on the broken mirror and bits of vomit still in the sink.
“It’s none of your concern,” said Lev. “Let’s go.”
Outside, they stood in a lonely corridor of the hotel. The floor was carpeted; a fine crimson wool, patterned in an intricate and vaguely oriental design. It was an elaborate kind of luxury. The sort that sought to replicate the grandeur of foreign and much superior establishments, only to become a parody of it. A poor pastiche, one painted on the same canvas and with the same colours, but captured none of the elegance.
Nevertheless, it was an environment that attracted the wealthy, and one Arc struggled to adapt to. Her gait was subtle and soft-footed, the sort more used to sneaking around corners. Her pace, as well, was too fast, as if she could not wait to be rid of such a place. It was a sentiment Lev understood much too well.
As they walked, Arc passed him a crumpled paper bag.
“What is it?” he asked.
She shook the bag. Just take it.
He opened it and reached his hand inside: a squashed slice of vinegar pie.
Arc made an eating motion and pointed at him.
“I’m not hungry.”
She cringed, as if he had said something stupid. Her hands signed furiously, and when he couldn’t understand her, it became a game of charades. She made an exaggerated impression of vomiting.
She pointed to the pie.
“I vomited the pie.”
Finally, she cocked her thumb into her fist and flicked it out. A coin toss. Quill?
“Oh,” he realised. “Luck. Good luck. I have to eat another vinegar pie for good luck since I vomited out my previous one.”
Arc nodded, satisfied.
“I don’t think it’s a great idea to eat right before the job,” said Lev. “Besides, I have no utensils.”
Her lips drew back in vivid disgust. She struck him in the shoulder, too hard to be banter, and since it didn’t break his arm, too soft to be serious.
“Fine, fine,” he relented, lifting his mask. He scooped a handful of pie into his mouth and chewed. Under the crust, he found a sweet-and-sour custard, rich and heavy on his tongue. It was still better cold and squashed than most pastries fresh out of the oven. “Happy?”
They stopped in front of room four hundred, and knocked three times: twice in succession and one after a beat. Vein opened the door and hurried them in.
“Would it be impertinent of me to note that we are currently more than three minutes behind schedule?” He shut the door. “No matter. Shall we start?”
On the other side of the room, there was a window that took up most of the wall. Its glass was entirely removed and there was a thick cable running through the hole. One end was pinned into the ceiling.
Lev leaned out the window frame. The cable stretched from the hotel room, all the way to the roof of Priam Tower in a gentle slope. Down below, he could hear the faint rumbling of everyday traffic.
“Is it connected properly?” he tugged at the thick wire.
“Why? Are you not thrilled at the prospect of plummeting seventy-thousand feet to your squishy demise?”
“I am not.”
“Where is your sense of imagination and romance, Mr. Lion? Let us pretend to be actors on a sky-bound stage. You can play the part of Icarus and I, Daedalus.”
“If it’s not safe, both of us will die.”
“Ah, then we shall share the role of Icarus.” Vein clipped the first duffel bag to a pulley on the cable, then pushed it off. The bag sped down, past the abyss, and found land again on the rooftop across. “A shame. I have a real passion for theatre, I’ll have you know.”
Quill’s voice came through their coms. “I think your theatrics is wasting more time than the Black Lion did. I’m coming up on floor fifty. Chop chop.”
Vein sent another duffel bag off. “Yes, sir.”
It was their turn now. Vein attached a new pulley and handed Lev a harness. “If you have regrets, this is your last chance to leave,” he offered. “Else join me as Icarus.”
Lev put on his harness, hooking his carabiner tight. He climbed atop the window frame. The sound of traffic was somehow louder here, and he could imagine it reaching a crescendo as he plummeted. “I’ll fly, but I won’t be Icarus.”
“Vein, shut the fuck up,” he said, and flew.
For a man as high up on the food chain as Julian Carter, his office was rather cramped. It had one desk, fine maple though simple in design, that ate up most of the space, leaving only scraps for the cluttered shelves that ran floor to ceiling. For a thin man, it was a little on the small side. For a fat man like Mr Carter, it was choking.
“So what dark secrets does the fatass hide?” Chase came through in his ear.
Quill reached into a box of documents and pulled out a fat ledger. “Take your pick, the man’s a sleazeball.”
He opened the file. A magazine fell out, its cover graced by a topless woman with a finger hanging from her mouth. “As in when the USB finishes downloading, it’ll have more porn than work.”
“For god’s sake. What did you say got him kicked out of Radiance again?”
“He preferred fawns over does.”
“And this man has children?”
He furrowed through more documents. “Two.”
“All in favour of shoving lead up his ass?”
“Aye,” said MP.
“Aye,” said Vein.
Arc grunted in approval.
“Oi, Lion-Man,” said Chase. “You’re awfully quiet.”
The download just finished when the Black Lion replied, “I’m busy.”
“Busy diddling kids?”
“I’m trying to open up the rooftop access.”
Quill pulled the USB out. He turned the computer off and returned every document to its file and every file to its box. Finally, he gave everything a quick wipe just in case he left his fingerprints on anything. He never did, but MP had drilled the practice into him until it became habit.
Chase sneered. “It’s a five-wheel lock. I can pick it in thirty seconds, and that’s before my morning coffee.”
“Can we leave this for after the job?” asked MP.
“Look, I’m just saying. Astri can pick a lock. Not as fast as that Irish fuck, but faster than me. She’d be done in twenty. Astri’s good at it.”
“Astri’s good at everything.”
Quill closed the office door behind him and wiped the knob too. The bickering continued in his ear as he rounded the corner of the hallway. His breath caught in his throat. He just slammed into Julian Carter. Their eyes met.
“That’s the thing. Astri can shoot, she can drive– “
“Chase,” Quill whispered. “Shut the fuck up.”