It was the worst possible timing—or maybe the best. A major hurricane churning its way up the East Coast, unleashing chaos: traffic jams, stripped store shelves, canceled flights, subways and trains shut down. Overloaded 911. Distracted cops. Prime opportunity for crime—if Fiona could dodge floods and flying debris. Boz offering her a new life for two hours’ work made it worth the risk.
Raindrops pattered the windshield of the junky Toyota SUV. The rainbands arriving faster now, only twenty minutes apart, as the hurricane’s fingers scratched New Jersey and the southern edge of New York. On the radio, a breathless announcer warned the storm was the biggest in decades, almost Biblical—everyone in low-lying areas needed to evacuate to higher ground or kiss their ass goodbye.
Fireball, dark and small-boned in a way that reminded Fiona of a crow, leaned back in the passenger seat so he could place his ratty sneakers on the dashboard. “I swear, you’d think nobody’s lived through a hurricane before,” he said. “I’m in the supermarket two days ago, the shelves are already stripped bare, it’s total panic. This Asian guy walks up and puts his hand on this six-pack of beer, and I tell him, ‘Do you know kung fu or something?’”
“Get your feet off the dash,” Fiona said, staring through the windshield at the luxury condo across the avenue, its lobby doors blurred by curtains of rain and dancing litter.
“Soon as I say that, the guy starts freaking out. He’s yelling, ‘What, I look Asian so I gotta know kung-fu?’” Fireball snorted. “And I say, ‘No, you jerk, you better know kung-fu, because that’s the last six-pack and I was already reaching for it.’”
“Let me guess,” Fiona said, smacking his feet off the dashboard with the back of her hand. “You totally kicked his ass?”
“No, it turned out he was some kind of martial-arts master.” Fireball kicked the air. “Slammed me to the ground—pow!—took the six-pack. It’s amazing how violent people can get when they’re frightened…”
“I wasn’t serious about you beating him,” she said, her gaze shifting to the rearview mirror. Nobody visible on the narrow street behind them, the wet cobblestones reflecting the scuttling gray sky. Under normal circumstances, she loved this border between Tribeca and Battery Park City, where old brick and ironwork gave way to Lower Manhattan’s glass spires. Now she couldn’t stop thinking about an interactive map she saw on a news website a few days ago, the one showing how seven or eight feet of storm surge would put this area underwater.
“I can fight,” Fireball said. “I can kick unholy amounts of ass.”
“Sure, in a video game,” she said. “Now focus. It’s almost time.”
“Already?” Groaning in mock exhaustion, Fireball made a big show of pushing his sleeve back to check his cheap digital watch. “You’re sure he’s that exact? Because…”
Her phone beeped. She answered it in her most cheerful voice, just in case Boz’s Inside Man was calling on speaker: “Wok the Line. May I take your order?”
“Yeah, this is two-oh-five Warren, penthouse. You know our usual order, ah, we might not…” Boz’s Inside Man paused. More chatter in the background now, loud with anger or excitement.
“Hello?” If something was up, this was the best time for her to abort. Go home and ride out watery Armageddon with a bottle of wine and a joint, listen to Bill discuss his latest insane plan for a heist.
“No, come up,” the Inside Man said, and sighed. “But just bring the usual order, okay? Just the usual order, got that? Nothing extra.”
“You got it. Ten minutes.” Ending the call, she slipped the phone into the left-rear pocket of her jeans. “Something’s up.”
“The guy sounded weird. Like he was having second thoughts.”
“But he said come up?”
“Yeah. With the usual order. He kept saying it. ‘Usual order, usual order.’” She wondered whether the actual restaurant would call the penthouse when nobody phoned for dinner at the regular time. Probably not. Whoever handled the phone at the real Wok the Line hopefully assumed their favorite customer wasn’t psychopathic enough to order a delivery person into an oncoming category 4 storm.
“Maybe he was trying to tell you to call it off.”
“Maybe. But I’m going up anyway. Just to see.”
“You think that’s wise?”
“You want to tell Boz we chickened out?”
“I guess not.”
“Besides, I’m doing the hard part.”
“Okay, okay, whatever.” Fireball rolled his eyes. “Let’s get this done before Noah’s Ark sails by.” From the waterproof backpack in the footwell, he pulled out a battered laptop and opened it, waking the machine. He clicked, summoning a black window with a command prompt, and hammered the keyboard. “You can see how the building’s whole wireless setup is outdated, which is nineteen fantastic flavors of excellent,” he said, as if she could understand anything about the lines of code unspooling from the prompt. “You want all the cameras looped?”
“Yeah, I guess. Work faster.” She imagined a wall of water churning up the street behind her, flipping cars and shattering storefronts. Hurricane wind pushed against the windows like a giant’s hand, rocking the hatchback gently on its springs.
“Okay, okay, okay,” he said, smacking two keys with a theatrical flourish. “Cameras are primed.”
Onscreen, a new window popped up, revealing a grid of camera views: angles on a lobby, stairwells, a parking garage lined with expensive automobiles. “Still no cameras on the penthouse level?” she asked.
“Nah. Readout says they’re disabled.”
“And you have no idea where that server is.”
“Actually, I do, but I’ve been opting not to tell you. Just for my own sick amusement.”
“Don’t screw with me.”
“No, I have no idea where it is. We just gotta take Boz’s word it exists.”
“Unfortunately.” She drew her pistol and pushed the slide back a quarter-inch so she could verify the round in the chamber. Leaning forward, she pushed up her left cuff and slipped the weapon into the plastic holster strapped to her ankle. She patted the compact taser in the inner pocket of her jacket, along with the five riot cuffs and the USB stick tucked in the right hip pocket of her jeans. It felt weird to wear all this equipment again after so long, but she might need all of it. Why had the Inside Man hesitated on the phone?
“Whole building’s got those dumbass smart locks, which are now officially my bitch,” he said. “How many guys up there?”
“Two security dudes, but our inside guy’s one of them.” She slipped a wireless earbud into her left ear. “Owner’s away, Boz said.”
“Who owns it?”
“Boz didn’t tell me. For my own good, he said. Did some research when I looked up the floor plan, it said some LLC. No news stories about a recent sale, so it wasn’t a famous actor or CEO.” She snapped her fingers. “Give me the bag.”
From the footwell, Fireball hoisted a white plastic bag stacked with takeout containers. The bag featured the logo of a red rooster above Wok the Line 212-555-2124 in slashing blue script. Fiona slipped it into her lap, surprised at its heat more than an hour after they picked it up from the restaurant. She took a deep, comforting sniff of fried chicken and fragrant rice before flipping her hood over her head and adjusting her mask over her nose and mouth. A worldwide pandemic and its variants, despite the horrors, had one key benefit: you could hide your face in public and nobody thought twice about it.
“See you in the funny papers,” she said, and pushed open her door. It took real effort. The wind screamed through the widening gap and cold rain needled her forehead. She almost slipped on the slick sidewalk as she climbed out and slammed the door. Maybe an inch of water shimmered on the street—not a danger yet.
Over the storm’s rising roar, she heard Fireball yell, “What the hell are funny papers?”
Nobody visible on the street. Hunched over the plastic bag, she scuttled for the front doors. She estimated twenty-five minutes for this op, in and out, hopefully no killing, just a little electrocution if necessary. Unless the situation collapsed into a goat rodeo, she only intended to use the pistol for persuasion. She was trying to turn over a new and more peaceful leaf these days.
The lobby was a marble box with a massive slab of a reception desk blocking the way to the elevator banks. Two receptionists in blue suits sat at the desk, their faces carefully blank as she shoved through the revolving door. They looked like football players who had to find another line of work after too many injuries on the field. Based on their respective hair styles, she decided to call them Dreadlocks and Baldie.
“Hey,” she said, lifting the bag. “I got a delivery. Penthouse.”
“Okay.” Dreadlocks picked up a phone and dialed.
“Pretty wet out there,” Baldie said, his eyes flicking over her.
“That’s what happens with hurricanes.” Did he believe her delivery-drone outfit? Every evening at five, someone wearing one of these bright red jackets (‘Wok the Line’ on the back in huge font, above the rooster logo) delivered the same meal to the penthouse. She should have been invisible to these guys.
Phone jammed to his ear, Dreadlocks frowned. What was taking so long?
“I bet you’re cute under all that gear,” Baldie said, smiling at her. “What’s your name?”
“June,” she said.
Dreadlocks spoke a few words into the phone and looked up. “You’re cleared,” he told Fiona.
“Thanks.” She walked across the lobby, angling toward the elevators beyond the desk. “Back down in a blink.”
“Guy up there said he ordered five minutes ago,” Dreadlocks said, lowering the phone into its cradle.
“I guess. I just do deliveries.” She was almost to the desk, moving fast.
“Pretty quick in weather like this.”
She shrugged, already rehearsing her next moves in her mind. Up to the penthouse. Meet the Inside Man. Disable the other bodyguard. Find the server, stick the USB stick into the right slot, squish any trouble until all the information downloaded, and—
Baldie stood, straightening his tie. “I’ll escort you up to the penthouse.”
“No, I’m all good,” she said. “I’ve been here before.”
“No, no, it’d be my pleasure,” Baldie said, slipping from behind the desk. He was almost seven feet tall, more than two hundred pounds of pure muscle, and no doubt hired by a place like this because he had security work in his background, cop or military, potential trouble either way. If something weird happened up there, he could use the microphone clipped to his lapel to talk to Dreadlocks, who would call for backup. And these guys had serious private security on speed dial.
The best time to abort this mission would have been in the car. The second-best time was right now. But if she ejected, Boz wouldn’t give her what she needed.
She could improvise, right?
She stopped in the elevator bank, Baldie standing too close behind her. As he smacked the up button, he said, “You been delivering long?”
How desperate was this walking pituitary accident? Between her bulky restaurant jacket with its hood, her mask, and her loose pants and combat boots, he couldn’t see anything but her eyes and a few wisps of hair. He was one of those jerks who figured if he asked random women often enough, he’d score a quickie in a closet. He totally deserved a hard punch to the throat.
“About a year,” she offered, keeping her eyes locked on the digital indicator counting down the floors.
“What you do for fun?” he asked, looming over her now.
“Hang out with my boyfriend,” she said.
“Yeah? Your boyfriend lets you go out on a night like this?”
“Sure,” she said. “He lets me tie my own shoes, too.”
The elevator doors whooshed open, and she stepped inside. The tight confines and wooden paneling reminded her a little too much of a coffin. Baldie followed, hitting the button for the penthouse. The doors hissed shut.
“You don’t have to be rude about it,” he said. “I’m just talking.”
“And I’m just delivering food.” Her thumb hooked into her pocket, skimming the edge of the taser.
“Whatever.” He shifted away from her.
The lights flickered, the elevator’s smooth ascent stuttering. Please don’t lose power, she begged the universe. If I’m stuck in here, I’ll kill this guy within twenty minutes, tops.
For once, the universe listened to her. The elevator arrived at the penthouse with a cheerful ping, and the doors opened onto a marble hallway bathed softly by recessed lighting. Oversized canvases hung on the eggshell-white walls, abstract splashes of blue and black and red that cost more than a mansion.
Five big dudes stood in front of the door to their left. They wore gray suits loosely tailored, in the way of bodyguards who wanted to hide their holsters. Their stances said they could take care of themselves in a real fight.
Their presence rendered all her intel some prime A-1 horseshit. What crack-smoking, smooth-brained moron had told Boz there were only two bodyguards up here? How was she going to handle all these guys? Was there a whole platoon inside the apartment, too?
She hesitated in the elevator doorway. Don’t freeze, she told herself. Think your way through this. Start with the Inside Man. Which one was he? She should have asked Boz for a photo or a description before heading up here. Another op failure. She was so rusty at this. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
“It’s your floor, lady,” said Baldie behind her, spitting out the last word like it was poison.
This high up, the building creaked as the winds pummeled it. Working her sweaty grip on the handle of the takeout bag, she stepped into the hallway, ready for anything.
Cover and excerpt from HELL OF A MESS by Nick Kolakowski. Text copyright © 2022 by Nick Kolakowski. Reprinted by permission of Shotgun Honey Books. All Rights Reserved.