As smoke billows out from the makeshift barbecue pit, Stephen Callahan’s eyes begin to get watery. Rising out from the ground and surrounding him like an ash-filled blanket, it prompts him to try to remember the last time he shed tears.
Was it after the verdict was read by the judge? Or right after “lights out” during his first night in the federal penitentiary? Or was it after his first confessional with the prison priest?
Stephen cannot for the life of him recall at the moment. Perhaps it was before all of this shit had transpired. Or not.
For three long years, Stephen has been planning his revenge against his former boss. To him, Dylan Tanaka isn’t a bad man but rather a dishonorable one. He got away scott-free while Stephen had to sit in a federal prison cell for 1,095 days – stewing in his emotions, denied his freedom. Stephen knows what he did was wrong. But what he objects to is the fact that he got punished for it – and well as witnessed his reputation suffer – while Dylan simply was forced to resign from his position as CEO, pay a fine that he had no trouble paying, and quietly retire from public life. If unofficial house arrest in his palatial mansion is his “punishment,” then the least Stephen deserved was a mighty slap on the wrist. Which he did not end up getting.
“Lunch is almost ready, my man,” Xander, a professional thief he just met a week ago, happily reports to the team leader. Xander is a man recommended by Thomas Sellars, whom Stephen considers in high regard. While in prison, Stephen met Mr. Sellars, a professional safecracker who was caught breaking into a high-end New York City jewelry store and stealing nearly $1.8 million worth of merchandise (the majority of that coming in the form of a rare 1948 edition of a Rue de Pierre Flaubert Modernité XIIV wristwatch). He was convicted of that – as well as a robbery of Caesars Palace’s main casino vault in Las Vegas – and sentenced to five years in prison. Thomas was serving his final year just as Stephen was beginning his first. They formed a “friendship” (which tend to be dubious in nature due to the circumstances of living together with someone in forced confinement) and started plotting what they’d love to accomplish once they both get out. One ingenious plot they came up with was the one they are about to execute later tonight.
“Thanks Xan. Smells great,” Stephen says. “But no beer until tomorrow, remember?”
“Oh yeah, we’re staying clean and sober till our job is done,” Xander reassures his boss. “We all are. I got that, chief. Don’t worry about me.”
Xander returns to the barbecue pit. He splashes a bit more honey glaze on the beef ribs so they don’t dry out too much. Roddy and Cortez, two of the other hired hands who’s worked with Thomas before, are lounging around on lawn chairs sipping Gatorade. It’s not their usual beverage of choice.
Clean and sober until tonight.
Clean and sober until tonight
Clean and sober until tonight.
“We can’t let anything distract us,” Stephen whispers to himself. He wipes away a cloud of smoke with both hands.
Stephen does feel a bit apprehensive about tonight’s job, but that’s natural. Until three years ago, he never considered himself a criminal. He always imagined the “bad guys” to be people not like him: Destructive, amoral, violent, psychopathic, jaded, and social misfits. It never occurred to him that crimes are committed for a wide range of reasons – fear, vengeance, impulsiveness, desperation, mental illness, social conditioning, and so on. His perspective of the world has certainly evolved over the past several years. Now, crime is not just something “bad people” do. Instead, it’s a clause in our Social Contract. Written (unofficially) in fine print. When society has wronged you, it is perfectly justifiable to wrong them back. Without such a system, where is the justice?
It’s not personal. It’s just business.
Dylan Tanaka has wronged Stephen Callahan. So it’s only fair to wrong him back. Thomas, Xander, Roddy, and Cortez have no direct connections to Dylan, Perseus Analytics, or the congressional show trial that engulfed the nation. However, they know a good score when they see it.
And tonight is guaranteed to be a great score.
In 2014, the year before the New York Times essentially ended his sense of “normalcy,” Stephen and Dylan were working on a top-secret project behind the scenes for the U.S. military. They were developing a prototype for a robotic suit that troops could wear on the battlefield. Basically, it took bullet-proof vests, helmets, communications equipment, and other types of armor to the next level. Far from being like Tony Stark in “Iron Man,” these suits couldn’t fly or shoot out laser blasts, but they were sturdy as hell, agile, and contained AI technology that could alert them to enemy movements, strategy, and predict future behavior. Not surprisingly, the military fell in love with the idea of what Dylan and Stephen were working on. Pilotless drones were fine, but sometimes you needed human boots on the ground to do the dirty work you can’t do from the sky. And, casualties are bad for morale back home. It’s terrible publicity. It causes voters to demand that wars come to an end well before the mission is complete. So, how do you fight wars with people without endangering those people?
This is when Perseus Analytics swept in. Already a trusted government contractor, PA’s top engineers drew up several plans for developing this “Battlefield Smart Armor Tech” that would eventually be presented to high-ranking military and government officials. The BSAT Program was in its infancy when the bombshell New York Times report made everything come to a crashing halt. The news that innocent Iraqi and Syrian civilians were being incinerated to death did not sit well with the public. Of course, they had few objections to the hundreds of terrorists PA’s technology helped kill. But photographs of charred men, women, and children should make anybody’s stomach churn.
After the federal trial wrapped up, Dylan quietly put all his research – blueprints, sketchbooks, CDs, DVDs, photographs, computer models on external hard drives, USB flash drives, and even a personal diary kept by Stephen himself – into a large impenetrable safety vault somewhere in his mansion. The BSAT Program may have come to an end, but the dream lives on.
That vault contains information that, if utilized by a rival tech company, could be worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Warfare is costly (especially in terms of soldiers’ lives), so anything governments can do to reduce that cost – with no regard to innocent civilians, of course – would be invaluable. Priceless. Coveted. Worth a damn fortune.
Tonight, Stephen and his crew plan to break into Dylan’s home, steal every piece of intel they can, and sell it to the highest bidder on the black market. Stephen may or may not kill Dylan in the process. He hasn’t decided yet. But afterward, all five men are guaranteed to become rich beyond their wildest dreams. There are already two interested buyers whom Stephen has already spoken to. Both have the financial resources to participate in this expensive transaction. No more petty crimes. No more jobs. No more “living the life” because there would no longer be any need to steal anything.
Stephen approaches Roddy and Cortez casually, wanting to take the temperature of the whole crew. “Hello fellas. How are things going? Nervous for tonight?”
“Nah, we should be fine. He has basic security and no armed guards at his place, right?” Cortez asks. He takes a sip of his Gatorade.
“That’s correct. His self-imposed exile has made his life so low-key he doesn’t think he needs it,” Stephen hypothesizes. “That means we can just simply walk up to the front door, knock, invite ourselves in, threaten him with our weapons, and take what we came to take.”
“Holy shit! Seriously? It’s going to be that easy?” Roddy asks. Stephen laughs.
“No, it’s going to be a little more complicated than that. But don’t worry. I’ve got it all figured out.” Stephen looks at both men, hoping neither of them is having second thoughts about tonight’s score. It would be a shame if anyone got cold feet this late in the game.
Roddy and Cortez nod along, seemingly happy with the plan. This puts Stephen at ease. As it were, the plan is to arrive at Dylan’s home in two separate vehicles. Stephen and Thomas would arrive in Stephen’s Buick; while Xander, Roddy, and Cortez would arrive in a spacious SUV with plenty of room to store their loot. They’d park their cars a block away at around 11:00, activate the anti-security system measures at around midnight, sneak onto the property, and armed with Glock 19s (Xander claims he has an Uzi, but no one has seen it yet), break in through the back door, and calmly round up Dylan Tanaka and put him in the basement. They would take his phone away and threaten to kill him (and any unlucky son of a bitch who happens to be there) if he disobeys.
Stephen anticipates Dylan will most likely be alone. From a safe distance, he and his team have spent a lot of time scoping out the joint. The landscaper shows up a few times a month. A couple of women (both of them hot, it should be noted) visit during the day but never on weekends. Henry, the cook, leaves by 7:00 p.m. Lawrence, the butler, normally leaves about an hour after that. Sometimes two hours. But by midnight, everyone should be gone except for the owner of the house. Dylan Tanaka.
He’ll occasionally have company over, but it’s usually a small crowd of no more than four or five guests. Assuming none of them are packing heat, Stephen and his crew should have no issues handling a small crowd – assuming such a small crowd will even exist tonight. Stephen doubts it. His former boss is living as a hermit. All alone. Living life aimlessly with no clear purpose. No more parties with celebrities. No more luncheons with politicians, powerful businessmen, and global influencers. That part of his life is over.
If Dylan refuses to hand over the loot willingly, Thomas says he can crack the safe in two or three hours. Most personal home safety vaults contain either a combination lock or a keypad and password. Thomas guesses the vault’s steel walls should be at least two inches thick. Using his supremely sharp drill, it might take a few hours to crack open the door. But none of them suspect it’ll come down to that. Most likely, Dylan will succumb to his survival instincts and just open the vault himself without putting up a fight. He knows the secrets contained in that vault cannot stay hidden forever. Eventually, it will come out into the light. But he has no idea tonight would be that day. Or who would show up to snatch it.
Once they get the booty, everyone will quietly exit the house, get into their vehicles, and drive back to the safehouse using different routes (so traffic cameras can’t spot them as easily).
So that’s it. That’s the master plan.
But right now, all Stephen and his crew are thinking about is lunch.
The safehouse is located in Cle Elum, a small town in Central Washington. About a two-hour drive away from Seattle (depending on traffic), it’s far enough from the crime scene that no one will suspect they’re holed up there. But it’s also close enough that they can drive there, steal their loot, and drive back before the sun rises.
“Let’s eat! Have at it,” Xander announces. Everyone hovers over the grill to see what’s been cooking. Ribs, corn on the cob, potato fingerlings, and some kind of homemade coleslaw. In addition to being a former U.S. Marine who was dishonorably discharged from active service after participating in a robbery of an Iraqi museum (he and a few of his fellow Marines drunkenly stole some priceless artifacts after one of their translators dared them to. They were caught and subsequently kicked out of the military after a speedy court-martial), Xander is apparently an excellent cook. He may have done that while on active duty. Or not.
“You know, I have a feeling – a gut feeling, you know – that this guy may not be alone tonight,” Roddy says nervously. “When I was there earlier this morning, he, I don’t know, seemed to be in a different kind of mood, you know? Like, he was excited for something, you know?” Taking a generous bite out of a succulent piece of barbecued beef rib, Roddy leaned against a moldy wooden picnic table to eat his lunch. The past few Saturdays, Stephen has sent at least one person on the team to scope out Dylan’s property in order to learn about his daily routine, movement patterns, and report back anything unusual. That, and to become familiar with the terrain.
“Excited for what? I’ve known the man for a long time,” Stephen says, cracking open a can of LaCroix. He sips it. “He doesn’t usually wear his emotions on his sleeve. Did he say anything strange?”
“Nah, man. I couldn’t hear him exactly, but he had, I don’t know, sort of like a skip in his step, know what I mean?” Roddy tries to replicate how he observed Dylan walk around the house, but it doesn’t seem to persuade anyone that anything would be out of the ordinary. Everyone shakes their heads dismissively.
“You’re just imagining things, my dude,” Cortez reassures him. “Please don’t tell me you were smoking weed at the time. That shit smells. And he notices bullshit like that, remember? I learned that the hard way.”
Stephen looks up at the group, chewing on a piece of grilled potato. “He does, yeah. Several years ago we sat next to each other at a board meeting and he literally could smell on my breath what I had for dinner the night before. It was pretty fucking insane. I brushed my teeth the night before, trust me. I’ve never met anyone who had that great sense of smell.” He meanders toward Roddy, eyeballing him carefully but not with any hint of intimidation. “Were you lighting up near his property?”
Roddy smiles sheepishly, trying to diffuse any hint of him messing up the mission. “Nah, man. It was nine o’clock in the fucking morning, dude! I don’t smoke that early, man. Nah, that ain’t me, bruh. Don’t worry about it, we’re good.” Seemingly convinced by his defense, Stephen resumes eating his lunch. Roddy looks around at the others. Nobody looks back at him. Thomas, who’s been silent practically the whole time, burps loudly. He stands up and grabs a second beef rib from the grill pit.
“Good. Let’s not be reckless. Not today. Not now. We’ve come this far, we’re not fucking up now.” Thomas rips a huge chunk of meat from the bone like a primitive caveman. He swallows it quickly, almost as if he didn’t even chew on it. “Clean and sober until tonight, am I right?”
“Fuck yeah, my man. Clean and sober until tonight, yeah, yeah, yeah,” Cortez grins. He finishes his Gatorade and tosses the bottle in a nearby recycling bin.
“Clean and sober until tonight,” Xander repeats.
“Because this time tomorrow, all five of us will be on our way to become rich beyond our wildest dreams,” Stephen promises. “Seriously. Whatever petty amount of money you’ve made before will pale in comparison to what we’re going to acquire from this. And that you can believe.”
“Here, here!” Roddy exclaims.
Roddy, who was in fact smoking pot earlier this morning while he was sneaking around Dylan’s spacious property, hopes his eyes aren’t bloodshot, which could reveal his lie. Still, he doubts this rich guy can smell that well from a distance. Nevertheless, he hopes his incessant smoking – which he does mostly to relieve himself of anxiety, which becomes more prevalent on the day of a risky job – didn’t blow his cover or the cover of the team. That would be fucking brutal. Not to mention he’d never work with this outfit – or any outfit – ever again. It would be career suicide. Word spreads fast in the business when people screw up big time.
After lunch, Stephen plans to gather everyone around and meticulously go over the master plan once more. If he’s learned anything during his brief life outside of prison, it’s that it’s impossible to be overprepared when you’re about to do something like this. Poor planning, complacency, or forgetfulness is a one-way ticket back to the slammer. And that’s something Stephen refuses to experience again. He’s done that before. He’s not doing that a second time.
No way. No fucking way.
After a brief ten-minute jog on the treadmill, Dylan walks into his home gym, an expansive room in his basement that contains enough equipment to open his own CrossFit business. Well, that might be an exaggeration, but it’s pretty damn close.
Dylan has always been (fairly) in shape, but never as much as he is now. During his days as a celebrity CEO, Dylan rarely had time to do anything health-wise. He’s always eaten right, never smokes, and drinks occasionally (a classic “social drinker”). But now that he has much more time on his hands, Dylan regularly works out in his home gym an average of 4 to 5 times a week. After all, he has nothing better to do with his copious spare time but run, lift weights, stretch, and down protein shakes afterward.
The other reason he built this gym was so his guests could have a place to work out while they’re over. Tonight won’t be the first time Melanie, Peggy, and Monique have visited his residence. Nor are they the only female bodybuilders and athletes he’s had over. Locally, 3 to 4 times a week a young woman named Lindsay Wells – a CrossFit star in the making – comes over to train. In fact, she comes here (where she doesn’t have to pay a membership fee) more often than she goes to her actual CF gym. In exchange, Lindsay is more than happy to “entertain” Dylan for an hour or two after she’s finished. She lives up in Snohomish, which is only about 35 minutes away in good traffic.
It’s a small price to pay for accessing world-class exercise equipment for free! There is also no crowd of creepy guys hitting on her or staring at her while she works out.
Dylan also invites Laura Kang, a half-Taiwanese amateur bodybuilder who lives down in Olympia, over for dinner about once a month. Her husband and 6 kids (you read that right!) have no idea she does that. They just think she drives up to Seattle for “business reasons,” which isn’t technically inaccurate. She’s 48-years-old but looks half that, a testament to the fact she’s Asian and she treats skincare like a religious ritual. She and Dylan have never had sex (that’s a strict limitation for her), but she appreciates a quiet place to lift and enjoy a fantastic Henry-cooked meal afterward.
All Dylan asks for is to be able to “worship” her for an hour in his bedroom. She gladly obliges. Then, she goes home and resumes her life as a working mom.
Today, Dylan decides to go light. A few sets of dumbbell back rows, pull-ups, seated dumbbell shoulder presses, front raises, and lat pull-downs are all that’s necessary for now. He usually finishes with stretching and several sets of incline bench sit-ups. Normally, Dylan does deadlifts on Saturdays, but today he’ll play it safe and not do any significant heavy lifting. He’s always cautious, but today is a special day – it could very well be the best day of the year! – and he wouldn’t want to accidentally injure himself in any way.
“Got to get the blood flowing, especially for tonight!” Dylan gleefully tells himself. He picks up a towel to wipe the sweat off his face.
Dylan is pretty sure Lindsay came over yesterday, but he can’t be certain. He can usually smell her scent. Miss Wells probably needs to consume more magnesium in her diet because her musky odor is noticeable even 24 hours after visiting. Then again, Dylan does possess remarkable olfactory senses, so perhaps he’s being a little (pardon the expression) oversensitive. He makes a mental note to talk with her about this the next time he sees her.
“I wonder if the four of us should work out together tomorrow morning before everyone leaves?” Dylan wonders aloud. Then, he proceeds to make his pre-workout smoothie. He pours protein powder, a banana, yogurt, and other frozen fruits into a blender and turns it on. The loud whirring of the machine fills the entire room. The thought of the four of them lifting weights together in the privacy of his own home is quite…arousing.
“Unless Henry wants his own private time with Peggy, of course. Devilish man, that Henry is.” He stops the machine, opens the lid, sticks his finger in it, and tastes the smoothie. It meets his standard of excellence. Dylan pours himself a tall glass and drinks it as quickly as he can. This turns out to be a mistake once “brain freeze” takes over and gives him a headache.
“Damnit! I got to be more careful next time.”
An hour later, Dylan walks over to the shower stalls located right next to the weight room. It contains four showerheads in one large room. Perfect for himself, Melanie, Peggy, and Monique! The very thought of the four of them, naked together and showering off their sweat and grime, is enough to give Dylan an unexpected erection. He looks down at his hardened penis, smiles, and chastises it. “Calm down, little fellow! You’re in for a real treat after dinner tonight. Just keep calm. Don’t want to get too excited yet! Your time will come. Literally.”
After drying off, Dylan gets dressed, puts on his shoes, and heads outside to take a casual stroll through the neighborhood.
This beautiful summer-like weather won’t enjoy itself, after all. Time to get some Vitamin D.
“You seem nervous. But you shouldn’t be,” Thomas says to Stephen, who’s noticeably twiddling his thumbs with enough anxious energy to power a whole skyscraper. Both men are still outside, lunch being long over. The other three companions are inside either cleaning their weapons or going over the schedule again.
“I know. We’ve done our due diligence. We’ve spied him outside his home almost every day for the past five weeks. We know his daily patterns, his sleep schedule, his normal activities, everything. We know who comes in and out of his house,” Stephen says. “I shouldn’t be nervous. But I am. Don’t know why.” He spits on the ground.
“I think you’re nervous about seeing him again, not the job,” Thomas replies, channeling his inner psychologist. This isn’t the first time he’s had to calm down an anxious colleague. “We have five armed guys robbing one rich guy with minimal security systems. And your guy is taking care of that. We have the clear advantage. His butler won’t be there. His fucking cook won’t either. The bitches who come over to work out won’t be there either. We’re good. We’re good to go.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Stephen stands up to stretch his legs. He hates long drives, which the five of them will be embarking on soon. The plan is to leave Cle Elum at 9:30 p.m. and arrive in Seattle at around 11:00 p.m. From there, things should be pretty straightforward. Stephen has a man inside the company that provides Dylan his security. He’ll make contact with him to get the party started. Once inside, the only issue is how easily Dylan surrenders and delivers to him what he wants. Will he put up a fight? Or will he capitulate the moment a gun is pointed at his forehead? And if he does, what will this vault be like? Can Dylan easily open it himself, or has he installed some special security protocol where a second authorized person (who could very well be thousands of miles away) has to help him open it? This is the nightmare scenario that is somewhat keeping Stephen on his toes.
But that’s why Thomas is along for the ride. He’s an expert safecracker who can do it all – and has seen it all. In fact, he was the one who suggested the possibility of the two-person authorization protocol (heck, it could require three or four people to open up this fucking vault, depending on how valuable its contents are). That’s why he’s bringing his high-powered drill and other specialized equipment with him. Just in case.
“Well, I’m guessing this’ll be much easier than we think it’s going to be. At first, I was concerned that he’ll have advanced systems like security cameras, electric fences, or even a 24-hour armed guard standing at attention at the front door. Thankfully, that’s not the case,” Thomas says. “Like you said before, he’s a loner and a social pariah. Who the fuck would want to break into his house anyway? Tourists? People looking for his autograph?”
“People like us, my dude. People like us.” Stephen and Thomas fist bump. Inside the safe house, they can hear Xander and Roddy arguing about which version of the Remington RP is better. It’s unclear who’s winning the argument. Probably neither of them. Cortez seems to be taking a nap on the sofa.
The two men who sat next to each other at the prison lunch table for nearly a year exchange a quick glance before returning back inside.
There’s work to do.