“FINN, I’VE got a great job for you. One that will allow you to retire in style and wealth as the undisputed champion of your roguish class.”
I resisted the powerful urge to roll my eyes at Griffin’s overblown phrasing. I was in Griffin’s office in Sydney, Australia, because the criminal facilitator had a task in mind for me, but the fact that he was selling it so hard made me wary.
“Oh?” I kept my tone flat. Appearing uninterested during criminal negotiations was the proper and expected protocol. Whatever Griffin wanted from me, it would undoubtedly be risky and dangerous. To me, to be precise, not to him, Griffin being a mediator only. I briefly wondered who his client was.
“There’s a valuable item I’d like you to commandeer. It’s held in the penthouse of a bigwig collector in New Shanghai.”
I bit back a grimace. “After my last caper, you know I’m not exactly welcome in New Shanghai.” In fact, I was persona non grata for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was my habit of acquiring unique and priceless artifacts—that happened to belong to other people.
The Orient wasn’t one of my favorite hangouts, not since all the shit following the Great Unveiling thirteen years ago. The world had changed. No place more so than the areas around the Pacific Ocean, which now teemed with strange, frightening creatures of the deep seas that could devour whales and smash passenger liners, for fuck’s sake.
But the major transformation affecting me and my trade was the walled fortifications that now protected all major coastal cities. Be the barrier constructed from stone, steel, energy, or magic, it was bad for my profession. Hard being a world-class thief—the notorious Finn Grayson—when escape routes were all but nonexistent.
Breaking into fortified cities was suicide unless you had a foolproof getaway plan. And that usually required a team of experienced operators and well-greased wheels of contacts. There was a time I could have pulled it off on my own. Maybe I still could. But the risks these days were much greater.
“You know, Griffin, those so-called Fire Ring cities are not only virtually impenetrable, but nowadays they house large criminal populaces and private armies too, none of whom I’m rubbing elbows with. I’ll pass.”
I started to rise from my seat. Griffin snorted and waved a dismissive hand. “Bah. That is nothing to a consummate professional such as yourself. You are the best… aren’t you?”
Oh, great. A definite appeal to my ego. I hated that it worked. “Give me the specifics and an extrication plan, and maybe I’ll reconsider.” I crossed my arms and lifted my chin in defiance. “Otherwise I’m walking out the door.”
Griffin chuckled, resting his hands on top of his protruding belly. He was a man who appreciated the finer things, especially fine wines and five-star cuisine. He didn’t walk; he waddled.
“You always strike such a hard bargain,” he chided playfully. At least he didn’t wag a finger at me. That would have been excessive even for him.
I shrugged. “Just looking after my own interests. I place a high value on my life since no one else will do it for me.”
“True enough.” Griffin grabbed a file folder sitting on the desk between us and handed it to me. “Here’s all the pertinent information on the item. I have nothing more to give you. Your choice, of course.” He leaned back to wait for my decision.
I read the dossier closely, beginning to end. The target was a large suite in a newly built crystal spire on the fortified waterfront in a five-story penthouse owned by one Cameron Feilong. Not much public information existed on this reclusive and wealthy artist, poet, and author, whose mother was a British dignitary of the peerage and father a Chinese antiques dealer.
A single photo showcased a tall, muscular man clad in body-hugging yellow silk robes decorated with black swirly patterns. He had long black hair, an intelligent high brow, a notably hawkish nose, and slightly slanted blue-green eyes. Had he not been my potential adversary, I wouldn’t have minded spending a night or two in his bed.
As for the object to be appropriated…. “The Shard?” Why didn’t that name mean anything to me? I usually had the lowdown on every big-ticket item in the world. Of course, the Unveiled planet had gone and changed on me when I wasn’t looking.
Griffin nodded, his expression blank. “Yes. A fabulous, priceless, and ancient artifact of great notoriety in underground circles. How Mr. Feilong obtained the item is a matter of some conjecture. Nonetheless, he will not part with it for any sum of money, not even an obscene amount.”
That worried me. “You made him an offer? If he refused he might see me coming.”
“So you will accept the task?” Ignoring my legitimate concern, Griffin leaned forward, elbows on his desk, his fat fingers intertwined as if in prayer. He appeared calm and collected, but I sensed his underlying eagerness. His hands, even crossed, trembled a bit. For whatever reason, he was intent on procuring this rare artifact. By any means necessary? Hmm.
“How much?” No fee had been mentioned in the dossier.
Griffin’s mercurial smile should have made me nervous. Unfortunately I was already blinded by dollar signs. “Fifty million dollars sounds like a nice round sum, wouldn’t you say?”
I quirked an eyebrow. For that indecent sum I would have sold him my father. Had the bastard been alive, that is.
“WELCOME TO New Shanghai, the jewel of the Great Chinese Empire.”
The message repeated from the screeching speakers in Chinese, English, and a dozen other languages in an endlessly repeating loop. I sighed. I’d avoided the Empire for years—since the Day of the Dragon.
Of all the countries in the world, China had endured the biggest transformation: The communist government had been overthrown in a single night of fire, blood, and chaos as swift punishment for their destruction of China’s cultural heritage and nature. A new Draconian Empire—built by the dragons of the Yellow River, the Gobi Desert, and the skies above Mount Tài—now dominated all of China from the mountains and the plains to the forested shores and the sea, and a Yellow Dragon Emperor now occupied the throne.
Despite the fallout of the Day of the Dragon, one thing hadn’t changed in the Orient: the Great Chinese Empire was still at once welcoming and closed off to outsiders. Perhaps it was something in the water.
A young Chinese businessman next to me was listening to entertainment news on his iPhone with one earbud on and the other dangling against his expensive silk tie. He was so close I could hear everything with one ear, barely focusing.
“…actress Lola Linton was arrested yesterday in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, for an RUI. Both Linton and the Dionysian centaur she was riding were heavily intoxicated. The police took both into custody. Linton’s attorney had no comment. In lighter news, early this morning technology billionaire Anthony Hathaway’s publicist announced Hathaway’s engagement to Lady Kamala, an Icelandic elvish princess. The news came as something of a shock as Hathaway was recently named one of the top five most eligible bachelors in the United States and was rumored to be involved with blonde bombshell supermodel Kit Downton. In other news, three nights ago a male student at Oxford, England, was the victim of an attempted murder by a doppelganger. Eyewitness accounts confirm the apparition lashing out at the student. The attack was thwarted by campus security. This assault is the ninth reported crime by a doppelganger in the past year in the EU area alone. Elsewhere, the town of Miyazaki, Japan, experienced a ferocious attack by a Bake-kujira, a ghost whale. Local rice farmers have reported their crops dying or disappearing as the skeletal ghost whale, impervious to all known weaponry, is reputed to be an ill omen with a penchant for….”
I tuned out then, focusing on the view before me.
Sunlight reflected from the elvish crystal shield around the port of New Shanghai. The field glimmered like a dancing swarm of billions of fireflies in all the colors of the rainbow. It was really quite beautiful. However, the colorful prisms ensured my nearly complete, painful blindness as the reinforced junk made its final approach to the harbor. But I put my industrial-strength sunglasses on and watched New Shanghai loom larger and taller before me.
The walls made it impossible for the coastal cities to spread outward. So like others of its kind, New Shanghai had grown higher and deeper. What once had been a teeming city of fifteen million was now a packed and stacked hell of twenty-five million and counting. Hundreds or thousands of stories were piled on top of each other. Space was a luxury, as was privacy.
To give the city some much needed light and fresh air, the continuous structure now covering the entire city of Shanghai—though not covering the Yangtze River, which was controlled by river dragons—had been constructed of graphene, carbon nanotubes, and transparent aerogel. Shafts of air and light that had no definable beginning or end cut through the architecture.
The most majestic sight, however, was the greenery. Like the Hanging Gardens of myth, flowering vines and branches dotted the glass marvel. Parks, copses, orchards, and whole forests grew on the rooftops, though only accessible to a select few.
Shanghai of old had been hard to navigate if you didn’t know your way around; New Shanghai was a multilayered maze that sent its travelers into spontaneous fits of despair and loss. The only thing missing was a Minotaur.
Although I’d heard several bands of Taurs did hunt farther inland.
NOW THERE’S something you should know about me. I’m not an adrenaline junkie. The crazy stunts I pull to steal what I want are something I consider a job requirement, the necessary evil associated with being the best thief in the big bad world. But do I intentionally seek out thrills that could end with my demise? No.
That said, I’ve never been afraid of heights. Good thing, too, as I stood by the railing on the roof of one of the tallest skyscrapers in New Shanghai.
Dressed in black, also a job requirement, I held myself in check as I studied another skyscraper staring back at me across a chasm—visible in little glimmers of colorful lights like stars in the night sky. The distance between the buildings was 476 feet. And the drop? Well, all I’ll say is that it was over a thousand feet. Should I fall, I’d die on impact.
I’d shot a stainless-steel cable to the roof of the other building using a sniper scope. A pulley was attached to the cable, and my harness attached to the pulley. I was ready to go. In my backpack I had all the necessary tools of the trade, plus a few extras.
I stepped off the edge, resisting the urge to scream with excitement.
Gliding by the force of gravity, I slid down the inclining wire. The two buildings weren’t identical in height, a fact that had provided this relatively easy entry into an otherwise secure building.
As I approached I shot an EMP grenade to the other roof, knocking out any surveillance cameras that might be deployed there. The range of the grenade was quite limited, so it wouldn’t affect anything else, such as a penthouse security alarm that would summon the guards.
The brakes of the zip wire worked perfectly, and my journey through the air came to a swift but smooth halt above the gravelly rooftop. I released my harness and readied myself to proceed.
There are three ways to break into a building: under, over, or through. As I’d chosen my version of a flying trapeze act, I had several options available. One, I could descend down the side of the building to the desired floor with the aid of angel abseiling, as I liked to call it. Two, I could use the roof access hatch or maintenance door, since there pretty much always was one or more of each. Or three, I could use the ventilation shafts connecting every floor all the way to the roof.
But I hadn’t brought angel abseiling equipment with me. And access to the stairwell would undoubtedly be connected to the security feed in the lobby or surveillance office.
So my only viable option was the ventilation system. I’ve never liked them. They tend to be cramped, dirty, and full of fans swirling at maximum speed that can scalp or flay, depending on what part of the anatomy comes into contact with them first. Plus, they smell. Dust mixed with foods, alcohol, dirty laundry, cigarettes, and perfumes. No one ever mentions that in action flicks as the hero uses them to make his escape.
But on the plus side, some mega-tall structures have air and electrical shafts running through their centers, with ladders, vents, and best of all, space. I could always dream.
Less than ten minutes later, I unscrewed the vent bolts with an awesome silent power tool I’d constructed myself for just such scenarios. I left one intact so the vent swung gently out of my way, and I had an unobstructed view into the penthouse suite.
Through the ventilation shafts, I’d observed one patrolling guard on the first level of the penthouse but none on the four levels above. Also, I’d detected no security offices or surveillance rooms. That seemed odd to me. Especially considering the number of priceless art objects and historical artifacts on display at each level.
I put on my night-vision goggles. On the primary setting, the monochrome view gave me a clear picture of the second floor of the penthouse suite. Even the tiniest amount of light grew easily detectable, so I usually didn’t need to use the secondary setting, which was thermal imaging. This time, however, I wanted to cover all my bases.
Despite the absence of guards or the elusive and mysterious Mr. Feilong, paper lanterns and candles on a variety of pedestals were lit. The glow sharpened as I focused on them, almost to the point of blinding me.
With thermal imaging, though, I saw no shining, blurry blobs moving anywhere. Only the one guard below me, and he had stopped patrolling and now sat in front of what appeared to be a TV set. I couldn’t hear any sounds from him (or her) as they were on another floor.
The second weird thing that caught my attention was the distinct lack of infrared or laser beams safeguarding this massive, multilayered treasure hoard. I’d never seen a place that housed piles of unspeakable riches, or a single rare item, that didn’t come with a thief-proof security system. Sure, every system had a flaw; you just needed time to figure it out.
But this lack of guards and a security system? Got me on edge.
Apart from the candles, nothing and no one else emitted a thermal image. I stashed the goggles away and, despite my alerted instincts, inched my way down from the vent shaft. I landed on a rich Oriental rug with a soft thump.
Perhaps at this point a brief physical description might be in order. I’m twenty-eight years old, relatively tiny at five six, small framed at 139 pounds, lean, agile, and swift, with short brown hair and hazel eyes, more greenish than brown.
My features are not exactly striking. I’m unremarkable. While that means I don’t attract a fuckton of men at clubs, it also means I leave no lasting impressions in the memory of potential eyewitnesses. Not that I’ve had any of those since I was seventeen and got caught with my pants down. Long story. I’ll tell you later.
In any case, my small stature makes me nimble to the point of acrobatic. My landing was so soft that I only heard it because, well, it was me. No one else would hear me. That is why I gave you my stats, so you’d know why I was so good at my disreputable job. So there.
I was extremely impressed by the penthouse, particularly the museum-style layout. No rooms cordoned off, merely wide, open hallways exhibiting treasures. And these items? Wow. If I stole as few as five individual pieces, I could buy myself a tropical island and be set for life. Paintings by Gauguin, Cézanne, Picasso, Rubens, van Gogh, Klimt, Pollock, Monet, and so forth. Any one of them could make me a very rich man.
But the other pieces were far more along my line. These were, of course, cultural and historical artifacts, rare and irreplaceable, such as an ancient Persian cuneiform clay tablet or an equally ancient Incan jeweled headdress, an intact sexual stone relief from Banteay Srei or an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus with the mummy still inside. These objects were nigh impossible to obtain and absolutely impossible by legitimate means.
Unless they were a diplomatic gift from a regime.
The funny thing was, I saw one of each in the various dimly lit halls of the penthouse. In addition, numerous other treasures lay in plain sight. On one pedestal stood a Jordanian copper codex in excellent condition; on another, intact fossilized skeletal remains of a prehistoric animal from the Gobi Desert; and on a third, a fabled crystal skull, lit within by a jade-green glow.
My head was spinning. I’d never seen so many rare, priceless artifacts in one place so shamelessly on display before. Except in a museum or gallery. Private collectors tended to specialize in one or two categories of items over everything else, based on personal interests.
As I walked around, forgetting all about inspecting my environment for booby traps or security measures, I saw sealed wine rooms, open libraries with regulated temperatures behind walls of safety glass, and locked cases of medieval manuscripts and Dead Sea scrolls. I saw stone pieces with cave paintings on them, bronze objects from Knossos, a complete Antikytheran mechanism that was totally unknown to me, half a dozen Terracotta Warriors that I was certain were authentic, unique, half-assembled Viking boats, a table packed with perfectly preserved spearheads, and endless fabulous relics from cities all across the history of the Chinese Empire.
I walked along the candlelit hallways, utterly mesmerized by the sights before me. In all the years I’d been in this shady business, I’d not seen such a cornucopia of priceless artifacts. It was a dream come true.
At one point I passed by a dragon-shaped clay piece, painted gold, with a warm glowing belly and smoke coming out of its nostrils, so it undoubtedly had a burning candle within. It didn’t look valuable. However, situated along a wall with numerous other amazing artifacts from the Chinese Empire, it appeared perfectly fitting. I stumbled along in a daze. Wonders surrounded me at every turn, no matter where I looked. This place was insane.
“I’m in heaven,” I murmured, enthralled by the sweet visions unfolding before my very eyes. Everything I’d ever craved in my professional career was present in these halls, taunting me from glass and crystal cases, mocking me with their delightful promises of what we could mean to each other.
Yes, I admit it. I have an extraordinary relationship with the items I covet and steal.
But, despite all the magnificence and beauty around me, I did not see the Shard.
Where the hell was the one item I actually needed to find?
A passing thought of forgetting the Shard and taking any or all of these other rarest of the rare artifacts instead flew through my mind. This was a client job, after all, not one of my own interests or challenges.
But whether I liked it or not, this was a client job, and in good conscience, I couldn’t abandon it. That would cause way more problems for me in the future. In the criminal world, it was best not to alienate or antagonize anyone, especially bigwigs with vast resources and armies of thugs.
That was the moment when everything went crazy.
My body jerked of its own volition, and I was suddenly a mere puppet, controlled by the strings of an unseen puppet master.
I lurched forward, unable to stop myself. I stumbled to the wall, snatched two Viking broadswords from their brackets, and crossed them on the dark red rug on the floor. My hands lifted above my head as I rose up on my tiptoes. An Irish jig filled the air, the bagpipes and drums beating a rhythm my feet followed on their own.
Before I knew it, I was dancing a jig over the crossed swords, leaping and bouncing over the sharp blades, my rising steps graceful and my feet exact—while my upper body swung about precariously, like a windmill in a tornado, tilting this way and that.
I could barely keep up with my apparently possessed feet.
Whatever this was, I was in way over my head, and I started to curse out loud. “What the—‘He that first cries out stop thief, is often he that has stolen the treasure.’”
The phrase fell from my lips in my own voice but not by my own intent. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t even slap a hand over my mouth as it spilled out quotes by people who weren’t me. I vaguely recognized the phrase from some British poet, but I honestly didn’t have time to do deep research into my memory banks.
New hops and skips and the pace of the jig was intensifying. Soon I’d skyrocket right off my feet, dammit. Here I’d been worried about technology—when I should have been alarmed about magic.
“Hey, listen,” I half pleaded, half shouted. “Stop this, okay? I’ll leave, forget all about this place, and I promise never to come back. This was just a prank, you know, a dare? Funny ha-ha and all that jazz. A mere whim, just a—‘A hunting we will go, a hunting we will go. Heigh ho, the tower-o, a hunting we will go! A hunting we will go, a hunting we will go. We’ll catch a thief and give him grief. An’ we won’t let him go!’”
What the fucking hell was that? A nursery rhyme? One that had words changed in it? Oh, dear God, could this situation get any more ridiculous?
Someone was definitely screwing with me. And whoever it was, he had a wicked sense of humor.