All the King’s Queens – Chapter 9: Hostage Situation

Dylan Tanaka doesn’t believe in the paranormal. He has an auntie who claims to possess extra-sensory perception (and can talk to the spirits of the recently deceased who haven’t yet “passed on to the afterlife”), which confirms his skepticism in such baloney. She’s kooky in more ways than that, a fact that her six ex-husbands could corroborate. Yet, despite his condescending attitude towards people claiming to have ESP, a “sixth sense,” or anything like that, Dylan can occasionally “feel” when something is out of place without knowing why or how…or having any evidence to back up his feelings.

This is one of those times.

He and his party guests are still in the cabaret room, drinking and dancing the night away, completely lost in the little world that they’ve cultivated for themselves. Melanie has stopped teaching Henry how to pose like a bodybuilder and has moved on to asking him how to properly fillet a fish. Henry pontificates with the expert credentials of a tenured college professor. Monique listens intently, also interested in learning proper seafood preparation techniques from Dylan’s talented chef. Peggy is at the bar making herself a margarita. She saw Monique drinking one and decided she should consume one as well.

“Hey, are you okay?” Monique has drifted away from Melanie and Henry’s conversation toward the host, who seems lost in his own thoughts. “You’re just standing around all by yourself. What’s up, honey?” She kisses him on the cheek. Dylan remains in a state of alertness.

“I don’t know why, but I got a funny feeling. I think…someone’s downstairs. Or coming up the stairs, or…”

Before Dylan can finish his thought, the doors at the front of the room violently swing open. Right over Monique’s right shoulder, he sees several moving figures dressed in all black sweep into the cabaret room. In a moment that takes only five seconds but feels like an eternity, the first figure shouts something Dylan cannot understand while the others behind him point pistols at the party guests. Monique turns around to see what the commotion is all about and lets out a high-pitched scream when she sees the men with guns. They aren’t wearing masks – probably because it would attract suspicion and unwanted attention – but without question, they are armed and carry malevolent intent.

“Everybody FREEZE!” the lead man shouts. Peggy drops her margarita to the floor and also screams. Melanie and Henry – who are standing in front of the balcony, furthest away from the entrance – stop conversing and stare in horror at what’s unfolding in front of them.

“What the fuck is this?” Henry says to Melanie. Before she can respond, everyone freezes when the man who shouted fires a single round straight into the ceiling. The bullet blasts a Fresnel stage light into a thousand shards of glass and metal.

“All of you, get your fucking hands up in the goddamn air, right now! I will not repeat myself,” the lead man warns. “Then, I want you all to walk slowly towards Mr. Tanaka and gather around him. Do it NOW!”

Dylan’s eyes finally adjust to the traumatic scene. It is at this very moment that he finally recognizes the leader of this pack of armed men. It’s unmistakable.

“Stephen?” Dylan asks the man.

Thomas, Roddy, Cortez, and Xander also adjust their eyes to the bright lights in the cabaret room. Once they finally see that every single person in this room is naked, they react with a mixture of shock and morbid curiosity. They may be dangerous men in “assault mode,” but they are men nevertheless. Nothing, not even a high-stakes heist, can change that.

“Hello Dylan. It’s, uh, nice to see you again. WOW! Look at you. Look at this place. I thought you were all alone. I seriously thought you’d be here, all alone, jerking off to an old VHS tape you hid under your childhood bed,” Stephen teases his former boss. He stops to regard the scene. His eyes get wide when he sees every partygoer is as naked as the day they were born. “HEY! Damn. What in the actual fuck is going on here? What is this, a Roman Empire-style orgy? Yikes. Can we all join in?”

Dylan doesn’t say a word. He’s too stunned to comprehend what his former employee is saying to him. It’s been at least three years since he last spoke to Stephen Callahan. Their last meeting wasn’t exactly cordial. In fact, it included a lot of cursing, innuendo, threats, and unforgiving stares of bitter anger. And that came from both sides. Peggy cautiously walks closer to Dylan, who has a frightened Monique standing by her side. She quickly glances down to avoid stepping on broken glass with her bare feet. Melanie and Henry, their hands still high above their ears, come closer to their fellow party guests at a snail’s pace. Everyone’s heart rate is racing a million miles per minute.

“Seriously, Dylan Tanaka. What the fuck is going on here? I have to know, my friend.” Stephen’s four companions (miraculously) remain as professional as can be. Cortez, however, recognizes Peggy Cole right away. He would never admit it to anyone, but he’s been a loyal subscriber to her videos and livestreams for years now. It’s like he’s seeing a celebrity!

“We’re just having a party. Maybe not quite like a Roman orgy, but pretty damn close,” Dylan says between gritted teeth. “Are you planning to kill me? Because if that’s your plan, just kill me. Spare my friends. Let them go. They didn’t do anything to you. Your beef is entirely with me. Not them. They’re innocent.”

“Oh, I know they’re innocent. And you’re absolutely right, Dylan boy. I have a lot of beef with you, you fucking coward.” Stephen takes a step closer to him, taunting him by pointing the barrel of his Glock 19 right at Dylan’s genitals. “Hell, I could just blow off your tiny little dick right here and leave the rest of you in peace. It’ll be messy, but hey, that’s why you have a butler, right? To clean up shit like that? But no, I have bigger plans in store for you.”

Dylan is accustomed to hearing taunts about having a “tiny Asian dick” from idiots like him (middle school was the worst years of his life), but the fact he and his men are pointing loaded guns directly at his friends is an entirely different experience. Filling him with rage, he knows he must remain calm and rational so that no one gets hurt. He sighs. “What plans, exactly?”

“Oh, you’ll see,” he grins. At last, all of Dylan’s party guests are standing in a row right in front of Stephen’s band of armed goons. Once he refocuses his eyes on the rest of the partygoers, Stephen realizes these aren’t just normal people Dylan has invited over on this fateful Saturday evening. The tall chubby black man is Dylan’s personal chef. He doesn’t know his name, but he knows his occupation and purpose for regularly visiting the house. The other three are women…

…but not your typical looking women. They are women with…big muscles.

Whoa.

Big muscles. Big, big, big muscles. Really fucking big muscles.

“Holy shit. Are you a fag? A secret fag? What the fuck is with all these muscle chicks? Sweet mother of God, this is fucking incredible. You are a woman, right?” Stephen zeroes in and taunts Melanie. Miss Wright gives him a dirty look that would make even the most sadistic serial killer cringe. “HOT DAMN! I didn’t know you were into muscle chicks! I suppose that’s not something you usually tell people, let alone your coworkers.” Stephen circles slowly around Melanie, keeping his gun pointed right at her head. Melanie, usually full of confidence and raw power, feels utterly helpless in this situation. She may have much larger muscles than this guy, but he has a gun pointed at her. That more than tips the scale in his favor.

Inside his mind, Stephen cannot actually believe that he just used the word “fag” in a derogatory sense. Having grown up in a traditionally liberal northeastern family, he’d been taught all his life that you should never use the f-word. Ever. Especially in today’s era when the gay rights movement has achieved so much progress. But in this case, he’s using it not as a homophobic slur, but as a self-aware immature schoolyard bully insult intended to belittle a man he abhors. He knows this doesn’t excuse his atrocious behavior, but tonight is not a night for taking the moral high ground. That ship has sailed. That will wait until a later day.

“Let me guess,” Stephen says to Melanie. “You have a bigger dick than him? I guess that wouldn’t take much…”

“Fuck off,” Melanie mutters. Everyone holds their breath. Melanie wonders if this will be the final thing she ever utters. He looks her in the eye. Instead of being angered, however, Stephen is amused.

“Whoa, your voice isn’t as manly as I had expected it to be. You actually sound like a real woman, so congratulations you slut.” There he is again, with the sophomoric schoolyard insults. Dylan has never heard him talk like this before, even back when they used to go out for drinks after work. “Well, you may end up surviving this if Mr. Tanaka here behaves like a good little Asian boy, like his mommy and daddy raised him to be. So, no pressure.” Stephen glances down at Melanie’s clit to see if it is indeed as large as a small penis. Yikes. It’s considerably huge, he notes, but alas – not as large as Dylan’s small pee-pee. Oh well, it’s still a funny joke.

“I have no fucking clue what you’re all doing here, wearing nothing at all, but that actually works to our favor, doesn’t it?” Stephen glances at Thomas, who still cannot fathom the bizarre sights he’s seeing right in front of him.

“Uh, yeah, very convenient,” Thomas stammers, struggling to return to “bad guy” mode. “We’d probably end up stripping you naked anyway, or at least down to your underwear. The good news is that we know none of you have your phones on you. So, uh. Where are your phones?”

Nobody speaks for a while. The five naked hostages can barely breathe. Roddy, Xander, and Cortez look at the nude women with lustful intentions. The three women notice this unwanted attention but are powerless to do anything about it. Finally, Henry decides to break the awkward silence.

“My stuff is in her bedroom,” he says, pointing to Peggy. She nods.

“Yeah, me too. My phone, my clothes, my luggage, everything is also in my bedroom,” Peggy says. She declined to point out her sex toys, vibrators, collection of lingerie, lube, condoms, and BDSM paraphernalia are also in her bedroom, though she figures these armed jackasses will find that out soon enough. “It’s all there. Nothing is on me. As you can clearly see.”

“I can see that,” Thomas says, checking out Peggy’s body from head to toe. His eyes leer at her enormous breast implants for a moment before he returns to barking out orders. “What about the rest of you? Speak up or I put a bullet through Dylan’s forehead.”

“My phone is also in my bedroom,” Monique squeaks. Her legs are shaking and she is on the verge of tears. Out of everyone currently involved in this mess, Dylan feels the most empathy for her. She’s the one who’s experienced the most trauma up to this point.

“Mine too,” Melanie says.

“My phone is right on that counter over there, by the bar,” Dylan points to the area where Peggy dropped her margarita. Immediately, Xander walks over to it, avoids stepping on the broken glass, and grabs Dylan’s iPhone. He returns to his original spot.

“Fantastic. Give it to me,” Thomas requests. Xander does so. The safecracker takes a small brown leather sack out of his coat pocket and puts the phone inside it. “Where are these bedrooms that you’re speaking of?”

“Go out through the doors you can in, turn left, and walk down that long hallway,” Dylan instructs them. “You’ll find a series of guest bedrooms at the far end. I have no clue who is staying where, so you’ll have to search through all of them. All the doors should be unlocked.”

Stephen nods at the three men to leave the room and search for the other four phones. Xander, Roddy, and Cortez put their Glocks back in their holsters and promptly exit the room. Everyone watches them leave. “Excellent. So far, I like the cooperation I’ve been seeing out of all of you,” Stephen says. “If you want to leave this luscious house alive, just keep up being good girls and boys.”

Suddenly, Stephen looks down at Henry’s penis. He cannot help but be impressed by what Dylan’s chef has hanging between his legs. The jaw-dropping sight of his endowment makes him chuckle.

“Huh. Well. I might as well blast Dylan’s dick off,” he says while pointing his gun back at Dylan’s genitals. “It’s not like anyone will miss it. If I did the same to you, Mr. Chef, I’m guessing a lot of ladies would be sorely disappointed. Emphasis on sore.” He lets out a self-congratulatory laugh. Thomas politely follows suit.

“Go fuck yourself, you fucking piece of shit!” Henry defiantly curses at him. Stephen then points the barrel of his Glock right at the tip of Henry’s member. Dylan closes his eyes tightly, anticipating a gunshot that would be followed by a horrifying scream and gushing blood.

“What did you say to me?” Stephen threatens.

“You heard what I said. Go ahead and shoot me. If it makes you feel like a big man to cut a man like me down to size. Come on. Do your worst,” Henry says coolly. This act of defiance makes Stephen back off from Dylan’s trusted chef. He returns to standing next to Thomas and repoints his gun at the entire group.

“Wooooooooooo, I like your friends, Dylan. They have spunk. They have balls. Literally, I’m sure you ladies also have balls, if you know what I mean.” This elicits a dirty look from Peggy and Melanie. Monique is still too frightened to feel any emotion other than paralysis caused by guttural fear. “Anyway, enough chit chat. Let’s cut to the chase. As soon as my three comrades return with your phones, we’re going to take a little field trip to the basement. Can you guess why we’re going there, Dylan?”

Dylan pauses for a bit and bows his head. From the moment his brain processed that Stephen Callahan and four unknown associates had broken into his home, he knew the purpose of their unfortunate visit.

“I do. I know exactly why you’d want us to go down there.”

Melanie tries to turn her head to look at Dylan, but she decides it would be safer to not make any sudden moves. She wonders what he could possibly have hidden down there.

“Great. I’m glad we’re on the same page,” Stephen sends his former boss a wicked smile. Dylan Tanaka can only stand there, naked and shaking, as scared and vulnerable as he’s ever felt in his life – hoping he and his friends survive until the morning.

***

“Dude, like what the fuck is going on? Did you see the chicks that are in that room?” Roddy cannot contain his excitement as he and his two companions briskly walk toward the guest bedrooms. “I’ve literally never seen shit like that in my life. Fuuuuuuuuuuck dudes!”

“Yeah, this shit is crazy. For sure,” Xander adds. He hopes his fledging erection isn’t visible through his pants.

“Want to know something? I actually recognized one of them,” Cortez quietly confesses.

Roddy and Xander stop dead in their tracks. They turn around to see Cortez following behind them. He has a sheepish look on his face. Roddy has to know what Cortez is talking about. “Really? Who?”

“You know the chick with those enormous boobs? Yeah, she’s like a, uh, a pornographic actress, or whatever they’re called. She’s in porn, for real guys. I sort of, uh, subscribe to her videos.” Cortez looks embarrassed to be confessing to knowing who LATINAMUSCLEPRINCESS67 is. For the past three years he’s been a monthly subscriber to her videos, livestream chats, and photo albums. That part isn’t something he’ll reveal, though.

“Damn, dude. That’s fucking sick. But I shouldn’t judge. I’m into some kinky ass shit myself,” Xander jokes. At last, they reach the part of the hallway where the guest bedrooms are located. Cortez wants their conversation to come to a swift end for obvious reasons. Hopefully, the search for everyone’s phones will do the trick.

“Bruh, what kind of porn does she do?” Xander inquires.

“I don’t know how I found her, but she does the usual shit. Girl on girl. Her with a guy, or two, or three, or fifty,” Cortez smiles. “She does a lot of normal shit, no joke dude. And she’s a real chick, not a guy who became a chick or nothing. Seriously.” As they chat, Roddy enters an empty bedroom, takes a quick look around, and moves on to the next room. He is now in what is currently Melanie’s bedroom.

“Where the fuck is it?” Roddy asks himself. “Ah, there it is.” He finds a larger-than-usual phone with a fuchsia-colored case sitting on a bedside table. He figures it’s rather fitting that a huge lady (at least he thinks she’s a lady) would possess such a huge phone. Seems logical enough. He picks it up and leaves the room, turning off the lights before closing the door.

“Wow, that’s like, uh, weird that she’d be here. But I guess that makes sense. Rich motherfucker like him could invite skanks like her over to his place. He’s rich enough.”

“Oh yeah. So I subscribe to her videos. It’s pretty cheap. Only two dollars a month,” Cortez lies. It’s actually $19.99 a month to subscribe just to her videos. It’s an extra $4.99 on top of that for the weekly livestreams. And subscribers have to pay a shit ton more for personal one-on-one virtual chats. He’s never done that, though. He doesn’t have that kind of money to burn. “It’s a pretty good deal. Yeah, it’s pretty wild that she’s here. Fuck, man.”

“Oh yeah. Fucking wild.”

“Hey, you pathetic little fuckwads. Get to work!” Roddy commands them. This snaps Xander and Cortez out of their pleasant little chat. Xander dashes to the bedroom next to the one Roddy just came out of. Sure enough, it’s the one belonging to Monique St. Martin. The hot black chick seems like she’d be a good fuck (like a lot of sisters who keep themselves in shape), except for the fact she was on the verge of tears the whole time. That’s not hot at all, Xander thinks. It’s too bad there had to be innocent bystanders unexpectedly inside the house during this time. He really hates to get people who don’t deserve shit all covered in shit. It’s a stain on his professional record, not to mention a permanent black mark on his conscience. Even though he’s lived the life of a criminal-for-hire for several years now, he still has enough of the proverbial angel sitting on his shoulder to remind him that he’s still a human being. And, that the people he encounters during jobs are also human beings.

After sifting through the black girl’s purse, Xander finds her phone, stashed away next to a tube of lipstick, a taser, a spare tampon, a small travel makeup kit, a phone charger, and her wallet. He looks at the tampon and imagines what it would be like to shove it up her tight little pussy, watching her squirm as she experiences this unexpected painful penetration.

(Like he said to his partners in crime, Xander is into some kinky ass shit. He is not necessarily proud of this fact)

At the same time, Cortez silently prays that he’d be the one who could enter into LATINAMUSCLEPRINCESS67’s room. It would be like walking into a holy house of worship, a sacred palace, an historical monument. And to his pleasant surprise, it sure looks like the bedroom his (favorite) pornographic actress is staying in. The bed is a complete mess. Cortez sniffs at it, noticing the distinct scent of sweat and body odor. The muskiness is enough to send shivers down his spine. He turns on the lights and audibly gasps at what he sees.

“What the fuck is this shit?”

The room is littered with clothing and costume pieces strewn across the floor. Several bottles/tubes of makeup are lined up perfectly on top of a pearl white dressing table, with a suitcase full of sex toys and erotic equipment sitting in the corner. Cortez’s professionalism instantaneously goes out the window as he regards the beautiful mess surrounding him. It truly feels like walking into a sacred altar where one could experience the Divine. He picks up a clear glass dildo that looks about eight to nine inches long, significantly longer than his own dick. He puts it down once he sees on the floor by the foot of the bed a pair of sparkly, scarlet-colored bikini bottoms. After bending down to pick it up, Cortez takes one long sniff of it, taking in the musk and history this bikini has gone through. He looks around to make sure his compatriots aren’t spying on him. Thankfully, they are nowhere to be seen. He stuffs the bikini bottom into his inside coat pocket, hoping he can have fun with it later once this job is complete. Several seconds later, he finds her phone sitting on a chair, next to her wallet. He opens the wallet to see if her driver’s license is inside. It is.

“Peggy Cole. That’s her name. Wow. I had no idea. And she lives in Vegas. I guess I already knew that…”

“Hey, have you found it yet, you horny bastard?” Roddy’s voice beckons in the distance. Cortez takes the phone, drops the wallet back on the chair, and turns around to leave the room. He is, at the moment, a horny bastard, but he can’t act out on his horniness until they successfully steal whatever it is that they came here to steal. That means later. Much later.

“Yeah, I found it!” Cortez slams the door shut behind him to rejoin his other two companions. Roddy says nothing as they walk back to the cabaret room. Xander, however, has one last question for him.

“Was that the porno chick’s room?”

“Yeah, it was.”

“Did you find anything, uh, weird in it?” Roddy is several steps ahead of them, clearly not interested in this conversation. “I’m just curious, man.”

“Oh yeah, there’s some weird ass stuff in that room. We’ll come back later tonight to check it out. Trust me, my dude, she’s one hell of a fine bitch. I’ll show you a video of her squirting all this juice out of her pussy…”

“Squirting? What the fuck? Wow, that’s hot shit for sure. Real hot shit!”

“Hey, you two, get off the horny train and get your mind back in the game,” Roddy chastises them without turning around to look at them. Their sudden silence tells him all he needs to know. Those two horny idiots may have their alternative preferences, but Roddy won’t allow that to distract them from the job at hand. He knows Stephen and Thomas would agree. The stakes of this heist are too high to allow unnecessary levity to seep in.

The walk back to the cabaret room did not include any further chatter about LATINAMUSCLEPRINCESS67 or her breathtaking anatomical abilities.

***

“I learned a lot while in prison, Dylan.” Stephen finds a plate of maraschino cherries sitting on the bar and eats one. “I learned a lot about myself, the world, the criminal justice system in our country, and, most importantly, the ins and outs of being a top-notch professional thief.” He glances at Thomas, who feels touched by the direct acknowledgment of his expertise. Stephen flicks the cherry stem on the floor carelessly, showing little regard to cleanliness. “The things I learned and the shit I experienced have led me to this moment. And you know what I want from you, don’t you?”

By now, Dylan, Henry, Melanie, Peggy, and Monique are bunched together, as if this formation gives them the most power in a scenario where they lack all power. Thomas has his gun in hand but not pointed at anyone in particular. Stephen’s firearm is now in his holster. “I do. But you’ll have a difficult time getting it. I made sure of that,” Dylan says.

“Oh? You were expecting me?” Stephen laughs. Dylan’s face remains cold and unchanged. “Whether you were or weren’t, I’m flattered you wouldn’t just let any old associate of yours waltz in here and take whatever they want. Who knows? I may decide to take more than I had anticipated.” He pinches Monique’s left nipple, causing her to squirm. Melanie almost comes forward to her defense but chooses to not directly confront two armed men while she and her friends are standing around as naked as the day they were born.

“Don’t touch me,” Monique warns in a low voice. Stephen backs off, apparently remembering that he’s still a civilized human being, despite the present circumstances. Watching his former deputy violate Monique makes Dylan seethe with rage.

“Sorry, my dear. I got ahead of myself.”

The tension is broken when Stephen’s three hired goons return with a sack full of everyone’s phones. Roddy hands it to Thomas. He looks inside, pokes around, closes the sack, and nods his head to Stephen, signaling that everything they need to collect has been collected. Stephen nods back. “Excellent. It would appear our business up here is done. And I must say, Dylan, I love what you’ve done with the place. You have some sort of stripper joint right here in your home. Is that what this place is?”

“It’s a cabaret room,” Dylan says coldly.

“Oh. Whatever you call it, it’s quite a sight to see. I feel like I’m on Broadway.” Stephen takes a deep breath and sighs. “Well, let’s get on with it. Time is short. I don’t want to be here all night. Where is it?”

Henry and the three ladies look at Dylan, still confused as to what he and this vicious monster is talking about. As Dylan’s loyal chef, Henry has been to this house thousands of times over the years. He’s never been aware that anything valuable or important is hidden here. He’s well aware of his boss’s taste in women, but nothing that would incentivize armed bandits to break into his house and commit multiple felonies over.

“Downstairs. In the basement. Where everything about my past life is stored,” Dylan says.

“Excellent. Shall we?”

“No, not yet,” Dylan insists. “Please. Let my friends go. Let them get dressed, gather their things, and leave this property. I asked you before to let them go. I’m asking you again. You have their phones. You can get whatever you want without them here. I’m sure they’ll promise not to call the cops because if they do, you’d no doubt execute me, right?”

Stephen eyes Dylan’s friends. He can tell they are all tremendously uncomfortable, wondering how this fun evening suddenly came to a crashing halt. “Yeah, that’s what I’d do. But I don’t want to risk it. Whether you like it or not, your friends are now a part of this. They’re in this until the very end. Sorry about that, old pal. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Let’s get moving. Now.”

“Let’s go. Move it. Lead on,” Thomas demands.

“Okay.” Dylan turns to his friends. “I’m so, so, so sorry about this. I had no idea this would happen. Please forgive me…”

“Hey, boss man. It’s all good. It’s not your fault. It’s their fault. He’s doing this to us, not you. You’re good, my man. You’re good. He’s the one doing this,” Henry reassures his employer. The rest signal their agreement in their own way.

“That’s right. We’re here and we’re not going anywhere,” Peggy declares. “We’re here to protect you, Dylan darling. We all love you. If this motherfucker, or any of these motherfuckers, lay even one goddamn finger on you, there’ll be hell to pay. For sure.”

“Thanks, love.”

“Oh, how charming! The love in this room is palpable,” Thomas says sarcastically. “Let’s fucking move! Downstairs, NOW. All of you. Let’s move it or someone will get a bullet through their skull.” Dylan (reluctantly) leads the way as the group exits the cabaret room. Everyone walks in a single file line to their ultimate destination. Xander and Cortez cannot help but stare at Monique’s perfectly round butt as she walks by. It’s still a shame that she’s practically been on the verge of tears for as long as they’ve been here. Roddy shows no emotion as he decides to be the one at the back of the line. Dylan leads, followed by Stephen, Thomas, Henry, Peggy, Monique, Melanie, Xander, Cortez, and Roddy at the tail. The three guys in the back have holstered their firearms but are prepared to draw them in the event that any of the hostages decide to make a run for it. Chances are nobody will do anything foolish. Especially since all the hostages are without clothing, weapons, or a reason to run.

“You have a lovely home,” Stephen says.

“Go fuck yourself, old buddy,” Dylan responds. This makes Stephen so happy to see Dylan so pissed off, scared, angry, confused, embarrassed, powerless, emasculated, and whatever else emotions he’s feeling at the moment. They say vengeance rarely tastes as delicious as one would hope, however, so far Stephen begs to differ. This is going exactly the way he thought it would. Watching Dylan’s pathetic naked self, full of dread and guilt, is as satisfying as he had fantasized about while sitting in his prison cell.

The group trudges down the spiral staircase at a leisurely pace. Like dominoes, all it takes is for one person to accidentally trip to send everyone crashing down to the ground like ragdolls. Nobody says a word the rest of the way. Dylan is careful not to make any sudden moves or take any sharp turns, out of fear that all it takes is one of Stephen’s men with an itchy trigger finger to cause an unnecessary bloodbath. Once everyone is on the ground floor, Dylan leads the group to the staircase leading downstairs to the wine cellar (where he, Monique, and Melanie were earlier this evening before dinner, which seems like centuries ago), home gym, a meditation room (which Dylan rarely uses), and a storage room. This is where they are eventually going. It’s here where Dylan has allowed many things to collect dust over the years. It’s also where he keeps his walk-in safe. Very few people are aware that he has this. Lawrence does. A few former Perseus Analytics executives also know. So does a friend who lives in London. Henry doesn’t, nor does Joey the landscaper. It is in this room where Dylan’s memories from the good old days are stored, along with a few unexpected surprises.

“That’s one impressive collection of wine,” Stephen observes casually.

“It is,” Melanie chimes in, feeling more confident to stand up to her captors. “Dylan appreciates the finer things in life. He has no time for low-brow trash.”

Stephen stops mid-stride. He turns around to look at Melanie. Even compared to his hired goons, Melanie’s size is remarkable to see up-close. She truly is a large muscular woman who could snap his neck in half if she had to. No doubt she wants to at this moment. “Ouch. That hurts. You should hold your tongue, young man.”

Melanie’s eyes widen. Nothing makes her angrier than to hear a man sarcastically refer to her as a man. She didn’t mind when that little boy at the airport didn’t know whether she was a boy or a girl, but he’s a kid who doesn’t know any better. This prick is a full-grown adult. She considers making a comeback but refrains after Peggy gently grabs her hand to warn her to cool it. Melanie’s better nature comes out, telling her to remain quiet.

His time will come, she thinks to herself.

“We’re almost there,” Dylan says, trying to calm everyone down. He’s the last person who wants to see anybody get hurt this evening. That would live on his conscience until the day he dies.

The large home gym takes up the majority of the basement’s floor layout. Once you get to the bottom of the stairs, you see a long hallway that sort of looks something out of a horror film if all the lights are turned off. When Dylan, Melanie, and Monique went downstairs earlier to fetch a couple bottles of wine and spirits, they kept the lights on, almost as if they intuitively knew they’d soon return down here. The gym is on the left side. On the right is a shower/changing room, a meditation room, a few emergency guest bedrooms (with futons instead of actual furnished beds), and finally, a spacious storage room. Stephen sees that the thick glass door has no handle. Before he turns to Thomas to ask him to break through it, Dylan sticks his thumb onto a small scanner pad. It makes a small “beep” noise, which unlocks the door. This makes Stephen smile. Thomas is also amused at this. Henry, who hasn’t been down in the basement in a while, cannot believe there’s a secret room in this house that’s secured behind a thumbprint scanner. How long has this been installed? What could Dylan possibly be hiding that’s so important?

“Here we are,” Dylan says. “The last time I cleaned this place up was last summer. So that was almost a whole year ago. Forgive the mess.”

“Not to worry. I don’t give a shit about how your interior decorating preferences,” Stephen responds. “No offense.”

The large room (though not as large as the gym) is filled with glass shelves showcasing the various plaques, awards, honorary degrees, and trophies Dylan has earned throughout the years. Every institution, from Harvard University to the Sierra Club to the U.S. Department of Defense to the Seattle Seahawks, have at some point in time given him an award. It’s basically all symbolic. There’s also some spare furniture, a few paintings that Dylan couldn’t find wall space for, a small bookshelf full of old college textbooks, Christmas decorations, and clothing that he’s been too lazy to donate to charity. It’s not quite an obstacle course to get around it all, but one must be careful about where one steps. Dylan switches on a light that illuminates all the treasure (and worthless junk, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition) the room has to offer. Finally, Stephen sees clearly a modest metallic door in the far corner of the room, surrounded by a sturdy dark gray frame. The wall itself looks like it could withstand a tank shell blast from point-blank range. This is the “Holy Grail” Stephen Callahan has been seeking all these years, right here in front of him. Right within his grasp.

“At long last, here we are. Look at it, I’m impressed. It looks like a bank vault,” Stephen observes. Indeed, he is correct. There’s a long vertical steel handle on the left side, a round black security camera hanging over the top with an ominous red light glowing at all times, and a white panel right next to the handle that’s connected to the wall. Thomas takes a closer inspection and sighs when he sees the white panel contains two keyholes.

“Fuck. Damn it. This shit isn’t going to be the walk in the park that I hoped it would be,” Thomas complains. “It can only be opened by two keys. I’m assuming he has one of them, right?” The safecracker turns to Dylan. Everyone also looks at him. For the first time since these thieves crashed his fun little party, Dylan Tanaka cracks a genuine smile.

“I do. In my bedroom. But you’re wasting your time. You’re right. It takes two keys to open it. I have one upstairs. The other, however, is in Europe. A friend of mine who shall remain nameless has it in their possession. They live in London, in case you care. I’m assuming you don’t have a plane scheduled to land in Heathrow anytime soon?” Dylan gives Stephen a sassy look, believing this stumbling block will derail his carefully laid out plans. “What are you going to do now?”

“You’re right, we don’t have any contacts heading to Europe or based in Europe. At least, not yet. We may get there, eventually.” Stephen rubs his temples, realizing now that he’s in for a long night. “I get it. We knew this would be a possibility. It’s impossible for you to open the safe by yourself. You need a second person, or more specifically, a second key, to open it. I can threaten you, your friends, or even burn down your entire fucking house, but that wouldn’t make any difference. At all.”

“That’s correct, Stephen boy,” Dylan taunts him. “Kill me. Shoot me right in the chest. It won’t get you any closer to accessing the contents of this safe. It’s a fail-safe system, no pun intended. I can’t open it even if I wanted to. You can clearly see it for yourself. It can only be opened if my friend hops on a jet, flies across the Atlantic Ocean, gets their ass down here, and provides us with the second key. Do you want to know where my key is?”

“Yes.”

“Fourth floor. You’ll find it on the bedside table, bottom drawer. Underneath an old high school yearbook.”

Thomas turns to Roddy and Xander. “Go get it. Now.” The two men promptly leave to fetch it. Cortez takes a few steps back so he can have all five hostages in his sightline. His hand hovers over his firearm but he does not remove it. Melanie just realizes that she and Dylan made love near this key that apparently can help unlock this safe that she (like Henry) never knew existed. This surreal feeling brings goosebumps down her massive body. Monique can feel her shivering.

“Sit down, all of you.” Stephen eyes a long couch sitting along the wall. Melanie, Peggy, Monique, and Henry sit down. Dylan defiantly remains standing. Even though it’s summer, all five nude hostages suddenly start to feel chilly. Basements are supposed to be chilly, Henry reminds himself. That’s why they always put the wine cellars down here. It makes sense.

“I want to make sure he’s not lying. We’ll try opening the safe with just one key,” Stephen thinks aloud. “If it doesn’t work, as I expect it wouldn’t, then we’ll go with Plan B. Can you get that ready, please?”

“Sure thing.” Thomas squats down, unzips his duffle bag, and takes out a series of gadgets and devices. The four hostages sitting on the couch lean over to watch, curious what equipment a professional thief has at his disposal. Dylan’s eyes remain locked on Stephen, the inner rage against this man boiling over to an almost unbearable temperature. He never thought he’d ever see his former deputy again. And if he did, it certainly wouldn’t have been under these circumstances. Dylan’s mind is spinning a million miles per second. This is making an escape plan almost impossible to come up with. For now, he’s just going to have to accept that he and his four beloved friends are stuck being hostages. It stinks, but it is what it is. Any resistance will certainly be met with punishment.

“While we wait for your key to be retrieved, do you want to tell your friends why I’m here and why this safe is so fucking important?” Stephen gives his former boss a self-satisfied smile, knowing he’s just getting deeper and deeper under Dylan’s skin. “I’m sure they’re eagerly waiting for an explanation of why they’re down here, naked, afraid, and at the mercy of a bunch of thugs like us.”

Dylan turns toward his friends, as he’s lost all interest in looking at Stephen’s face. His voice is calm but authoritative. He knows the truth must be revealed in order to prevent a massacre from happening. All four of his friends watch him intently. Dylan takes a deep breath and starts speaking.

“Right before I resigned from my position as Chief Executive Officer of Perseus Analytics, a company I love, founded, and worked tirelessly to grow, I took with me a bunch of documents outlining an ambitious project we were in talks to do for the U.S. government. We were developing a prototype for a Battlefield Smart Armor Tech suit. It’s basically a wearable suit of armor that incorporated the most advanced artificial intelligence capabilities available to us. It would have been a game-changer in the world of modern warfare,” he says.

“Stephen and I worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get this program up and running. Pilotless drones could kill people high above the sky, but they’re prone to lead to civilian casualties,” Dylan continues. “We all know what led to my downfall. So the military wanted my help in developing armor that could protect our troops from bullets, bombs, IEDs, biological and chemical agents, and any other conventional weapons they encounter on the battlefield. No technology in the world could replace the necessity of boots on the ground. No technology can replace human agility.”

“And,” Stephen interjects. “We were sooooooooo close to getting something substantial to the Department of Defense until, well, until the wheels came off the bus. And just as Perseus Analytics fell like the Roman Empire being sacked by the Visigoths, Dylan here made sure this new cutting-edge technology wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. Or anybody’s hands, for that matter. Isn’t that right?”

“Yes, you are correct,” Dylan admits. His gaze remains fixated on the floor, utterly embarrassed to look at his friends in the eye. “The documents I took with me outlined everything we were doing. Sketches, 3D models, code, concept reports, documentation, transcripts of planning meetings, you name it. I took papers, DVDs, thumb drives, blueprints, photographs, even one of Stephen’s personal diaries. I took it all. I left behind only meaningless things that were meant to give the DOD the impression that this program was still in its infancy. In reality, we were much deeper into the project than we led on.”

“We were two years away from an earth-shattering breakthrough that could revolutionize the future of warfare for good,” Stephen beams. “Unfortunately, this progress has stalled. For three years it’s been stonewalled, forgotten, locked away in this secret hidden vault that you see before you. Dylan holds the intel that could give any nation the military might they need to become unquestioned superpowers. The U.S., China, the European Union, the Russians, Saudis, Iranians, you name it. However, it’s not just this particular technology that could change world history forever. It’s the doors that this tech would open. The future is limitless. This would only be the beginning.”

Stephen takes a deep breath, proud of the future that will be in the palm of his hands. Thomas and Cortez look at each other, this being the first time they’ve ever heard in full detail what it is they are intending to steal. They knew they were snatching something important, but they had no idea it was this important. Smart tech that could transform ordinary human beings into super soldiers? This is definitely a game-changer if put into the proper hands. Military vehicles, troops, and commanders equipped with state-of-the-art smart technology? That would be a force to be reckoned with. That type of power is unprecedented.

“Damn. That sounds like some scary ass shit,” Peggy breaks the room’s silence. This elicits a faint snicker from Thomas. Melanie, who is hearing this for the first time, is in shock. She had no idea Dylan was this close to inventing tech that could lead to world domination. While that’s probably an over-exaggeration, to hear it directly from both Dylan and his former partner speaks volumes. She knew Dylan was involved in things that he’d rather not talk about, but this is a whole other ballgame. This is about human lives on a massive scale. This could tip the scale of geopolitical game theory. This is about what a hypothetical World War III would look like. Melanie hangs her head low, dreading the fact she may have to reconsider her entire view of a man she loves.

“This is as scary as it gets,” Stephen says to Peggy. “Dylan here has many skeletons in the closet. Before tonight, I had no idea he was into, um, women like you. I thought he was normal. Amanda McDermott isn’t a bodybuilder, is she? She’s about as skinny as it gets, if I recall.” Dylan looks up at him, miffed that he’s referencing his ex-girlfriend and current CEO of The McDermott Corporation, the company that “merged” with Perseus Analytics during the aftermath of the federal investigation. Amanda isn’t strong physically but she’s as mentally strong as any human being on planet Earth. Dylan resents Stephen mentioning her name.

“No, Amanda isn’t like these women you see before you,” Dylan mutters under his breath. He gives a loving look at Melanie, Monique, and Peggy, regretting even more the fact that they had to be dragged into this personal vendetta. He also sees Henry, his buddy and loyal chef, sitting quietly on the edge of the couch, processing everything that he’s just heard. All four of his friends appear to be thinking long and hard about their relationship with Dylan and whether or not they want to continue being his friend once this nightmare comes to an end. Assuming they all make it out alive, that is. “Well, I can assure you that if you want to steal the contents of this safe, you’re going to need one hell of a powerful drill. You need two keys to open it. The other one is on another continent, I promise you. You can strip this house down to its last floorboard. You’ll never find the second key here.”

“Oh, I believe you, but I must do my due diligence,” Stephen says. “You understand, don’t you? Never leave any stone unturned.”

“That’s right. Why, if you don’t mind me asking, do you believe me? I could be lying. The second key could actually be somewhere in this house,” Dylan inquires.

“It could be, but I doubt it,” Stephen begins. “I know you pretty well. Better than you think. We go way back, after all. But if there’s one thing I know about you, it’s that you believe in accountability. Checks and balances. That sort of thing. Which means, there’s no way you’d allow anyone to singlehandedly access this safe’s contents. Even you. You know how dangerous that would be.”

“Very good, old buddy. You do indeed know me pretty well.”

“That, I do. Plus, I have no patience for tearing this house down brick by brick. It would be easier, and more cost-effective, to just break in the old-fashioned way. I trust my man to do just that. It shouldn’t be too difficult, right Dylan?”

Before Dylan can respond, two of Stephen’s goons return with a long silver key that was (until tonight) safely stored in his bedroom. The key looks unremarkable, except for the length and the inordinate number of grooves on it. If you look at it from afar, it’s just like any other key that would lock and unlock a liquor cabinet or backyard fence. But upon closer inspection, one could clearly see that it’s designed to be “uncopiable,” meaning one could not simply go to a Home Depot and get it replicated. Roddy hands the silver key to Thomas. The safecracker gives his boss a quick look. Stephen nods his head. Thomas walks up to the key panel, inserts the key into the right slot, and turns it. He then attempts to open the door, but it won’t budge. He then inserts the key into the left slot and turns it. Once again, the door doesn’t open. He faces his boss and shakes his head in defeat. They are indeed in for a long night.

“Sorry, boss. He wasn’t lying. The key works, but we need two of them to open this sucker. I should get to work right now if we want to open this thing up before morning.” Thomas leans over to pick up a high-powered drill and a few spare Titanium drill bits. Everyone watches with interest as Thomas sets up his industrial drill meant to cut through steel beams. He inserts a fully charged battery into the bottom, locks it in place, and inspects the safety vault’s door to look for a logical place to start drilling.

“Well, well, well. It looks like we’re going to be here a bit longer than we had anticipated,” Stephen says, no hint of disappointment found in his voice. “Will it be loud?”

“Oh yeah, very fucking loud. It’s going to sound like a construction site in here really soon,” Thomas warns. “I recommend that everyone leave if they don’t want their eardrums blown out.” Taking his own advice, Thomas puts around his neck a pair of yellow over-the-head earmuffs. Once he finds the right place to begin drilling, he fully intends to wear them properly so he doesn’t go deaf.

“Hm. In that case, let’s get out of here and shut the door behind us. You don’t need us, do you?”

“No, sir. I can do this all by myself. I should have an estimate of how long it’ll take once I start seeing what I’ve got to work with,” Thomas promises. “Honestly, it’s impossible to tell at this juncture. I need to begin. Like, now.”

“Sounds good. Let’s get out of here and let Mr. Sellars get to work,” Stephen says. “Let’s move to that home gym I saw while coming down here. I’m sure you’ll all feel right at home there, am I right ladies?” The three women refuse to give Stephen Callahan any acknowledgment whatsoever. Henry shows no emotion. Dylan also remains silent. This pleases him. He doubts any of them will put up a fight. “Let’s move it.”

“Up, sugar tits,” Xander says to Peggy, who then gives him a dirty look while standing up. Dylan leads the way, followed by Stephen, Henry, Melanie, Peggy, Monique, and Xander, with Cortez at the rear. Dylan sees a few old fleece blankets sitting on a pile of clothes and bedding in the corner of the room. He stops and turns around to face Stephen.

“If we’re going to be down here for an extended period of time, the five of us are probably going to get cold. Do you see those blankets over there?”

Stephen glances over at the corner and sees the blankets. “Yes, I do.”

“Can we bring a few of them with us so we don’t catch a cold? And to cover our modesty, if that means anything to you.” Stephen smiles, looking down at Dylan’s penis and over at the three naked ladies and naked black man. The chilly basement may be unflattering to Dylan Tanaka, but it certainly hasn’t affected his chef one bit, Stephen observes. Shrinkage is all relative, after all. And we all know who hit the genetic jackpot.

“Yeah, we can do that. Cortez, grab a few blankets and take them with us, please.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Cortez acknowledges. He goes over to the pile of blankets and picks out a few at random. He coughs when a cloud of dust poofs in the air. After wiping the dust away with his hand, Cortez chooses five large fleece blankets, rolls them up, and takes the bundle with him. One by one, they file out of the room, leaving Thomas all alone to begin drilling through the vault’s door. By now, he’s put on a pair of heat-resistant work gloves, a welding mask, and a protective jacket (in addition to his earmuffs). Stephen snickers at how ridiculous he looks, but he realizes Thomas isn’t trying to win a fashion contest. He’s a professional thief on the job, doing what he does best, facing a monumental task. He’s entitled to look however he needs to look.

As quiet as church mice, the group silently walks down the long hallway. You can hear a pin drop, as the old cliché goes. The mortuary-like atmosphere is not lost on anyone. The five hostages don’t feel like dead bodies yet, but they have no illusions that they could very well be living their final moments on Earth. Their next destination could be an actual morgue. This is why none of them have any intentions of acting out or crossing their captors in any way. It may not just be them who receives a bullet through their skull. It could be others, too. This gives them a sense of responsibility and incentive to not act irrationally.

Once they enter the home gym, Stephen spots a few metal folding chairs and a long wooden bench situated on the far right-hand corner. He decides this will be their “home base” for the time being. He leads the group over there, walking past a fruit smoothie bar, several exercise machines, a box full of kettlebells and elastic cables, and a stack of clean white towels. He points to everyone to sit on the wooden bench. All five hostages sit down without saying a word and immediately grimace at the thought of wood splinters poking their naked bottoms. Cortez hands out a blanket to everyone. Dylan just holds his while the four others wrap them around their naked bodies. Eventually, Dylan follows suit and puts a red and green Christmas-themed blanket around his torso.

“Damn, this room is also impressive as fuck,” Stephen marvels. “You could open this place to the general public, not just the two girls who come here on a weekly basis.”

“How…how do you know about that?” Dylan asks. Only three people use this gym on a regular basis: Dylan Tanaka, Lindsay Wells, and Laura Kang. Their presence is kept under-the-radar for obvious reasons, a mutually agreed-upon arrangement that benefits all parties involved. Dylan is horrified that Stephen would know this fact about him and his deal with those two women.

“We’ve done reconnaissance work for the past several weeks, Dylan boy. Do you honestly think we just showed up out of thin air without scoping out the place first? Come on! Gives us more credit than that,” Stephen replies. Dylan finally realizes that’s where the mysterious marijuana smell came from earlier today. It wasn’t Joey lighting up on the job. It was one of these goons snooping around his property.

“Did you know we were going to be here tonight?” Melanie asks. It suddenly dawns on her that Stephen Callahan knows a lot about Dylan’s normal routine, but not necessarily his plans for this weekend. Were they a monkey wrench thrown into the engine? Are they a wild card element he wasn’t expecting?

“To tell you the truth, no. I did not expect you to all be here. I knew Dylan’s landscaper would be here this morning and that he’d leave before lunch. I figured your butler would be gone before eight o’clock and your cook shortly before that. I fully expected you’d be all alone, old sport. I guess I was wrong.” By now, Roddy is standing at Stephen’s side while Cortez and Xander are leaning against the wall. Stephen pulls up a folding chair and sits to face his hostages at their level. “That’s okay. Luckily, none of you are any threat to us. I mean, how dangerous can a naked person be?” He reaches out to stroke Monique’s supple leg. She, once again, squirms at this unwanted touching.

“Don’t touch her like that!” Dylan lashes out. “I mean it. Don’t even think about it. Leave them alone, do you hear me? Don’t you fucking touch her!”

Amused but not angered, Stephen pulls away and leans back in his chair, letting everyone know he doesn’t intend to make anyone feel more uncomfortable than they already are. “Forgive me, my dear. I may be a monster to you, but I am still a man. You are one gorgeous, delicious little cookie. You don’t look like the other two. You clearly keep yourself in shape, but you’re different. Who are you, exactly?”

“Don’t talk to him. You don’t owe him shit!” Peggy warns Monique. “He doesn’t deserve to know anything about you, honey dear.”

“It’s okay sweetie. I can handle myself,” Monique says, breaking her long silence. “In case you must know, I’m an Olympic athlete. A weightlifter. I do the clean and jerk and the snatch. I competed at Rio and tore my UCL while attempting a heavy lift. Maybe you recall that?”

“Oh shit! I remember watching that. Holy fuck, that was you?” Xander interrupts. Everyone looks at him. “Damn, I remember watching you on the floor, crying and shit. Wow. I didn’t recognize you.”

“Uh huh. Well, yeah, that was me.” Monique lifts her right arm and flexes it, showing off her full bicep. “As you can tell, I’m training for next year’s games in Tokyo. I intend to compete and win the gold. If anything happens to me tonight, you can bet the whole world will hear about it. There’d be nowhere for any of you fuckers to run.”

Xander raises an eyebrow. Cortez lets out a whistle. Stephen and Roddy look at each other, thoroughly impressed that the silent black girl who looked like she was on the verge of tears had some spunk in her. Apparently, they had an international celebrity (not just Dylan) as one of their hostages. And Cortez is fully aware of how famous LATINAMUSCLEPRINCESS67 is in the world of online porn. He’s now just discovered her full name but that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people around the globe know who she is. And none of them know who Melanie Wright is, though it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a woman with a sculpted body like hers probably isn’t completely anonymous. All of a sudden, it dawns on the bandits that they must tread carefully because they aren’t holding hostage a bunch of nameless, faceless nobodies that wouldn’t be missed if they were killed off. Rather, they’re actual somebodies who would garner a lot of attention if they were to meet their untimely demise.

“Unbelievable. So you’re a famous Olympic athlete. I had no idea. I don’t pay attention to sports, so I wouldn’t have known that otherwise,” Stephen confesses. “I guess that means we must treat you with respect, right? I apologize for touching you inappropriately like that. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.”

“Fuck that. That should be the least of your worries,” Monique scolds. “You’ll pay for this. One day. Mark my words.” Dylan wants to tell her to cool it. He refrains from adding fuel to the fire.

“Oh, that’s quite the threat. I believe you when you say that. We will all get our comeuppance. Some day. Maybe not tonight. But perhaps later. I don’t know.” Stephen sits up in his chair. He takes out his pistol and waves it in the direction of his hostages. This causes all of them to flinch. “Huh. If I were to kill one of you, that would surely make the evening news. Or at the very least, trend on Twitter for a few hours. So I shouldn’t do that if I ever intend to get away with this little heist unscathed. Good to know.”

“Look, let’s just sit here quietly while your guy tries to break into my safe,” Dylan suggests, trying to avoid any bloodshed. “I won’t put up a fight. I promise. You’ve already won. I’ve lost. You’ll leave here with your treasure, go along your merry way, and we’ll remain here suffering from PTSD. Right?” It’s clear Dylan wants to play peacekeeper. He hates Stephen’s guts but doesn’t want any of his friends to die. Dylan’s former friend also senses this attitude.

“Yes, that sounds like a prudent plan. Let’s just sit here, quietly, and not do anything stupid. We have these guns…but trust me. We don’t want to use them. Am I right, guys?” Stephen looks around at his associates.

“Oh yeah. That’s right,” Roddy says.

“Yup.” Xander acknowledges.

“Sure thing. We’re not animals. We just want to get what we came here for and leave as quietly as possible,” Cortez reassures the group of hostages.

“Excellent! So we’re all in agreement. I love it,” Stephen taunts Dylan. He leans back in his folding chair with a self-satisfied grin on his face. After several moments of silence, he turns to Roddy to ask him a question.

“Check on Mr. Sellars to see how much progress he’s made so far.”

“Of course, boss. I’ll be back.” Roddy exits out of the gym and goes to the storage room.

“He can’t get in without me,” Dylan reminds Stephen. “He can’t get in unless he has my thumbprint. Get him to come back.”

“Shit. You’re right. I forgot about that,” Stephen curses. “Go after him and open the door. And don’t do anything funny, or one of your lady friends will get a bullet between their eyes. Or up their pussy.” He points his pistol directly at Melanie’s crotch. She gasps, her heart skipping a beat. Dylan immediately stands up (with his blanket still wrapped around his body) and walks slowly toward the door. He glances at the group before exiting to make sure no harm comes to Miss Wright. He loves her dearly and would hate himself if any harm were to come her way. He’d also tear Stephen limb to limb if he actually shot her (even if it kills him). For his own sake, he’d better not do anything foolish.

“You sick motherfucker,” Melanie tells Stephen once Dylan has left the room. “Put that damn gun away. I’m not going to do anything. I’m not stupid enough to try to escape. Stop pointing that at me!” Now it’s Melanie’s turn to be on the verge of tears. For whatever reason, she feels protective over Dylan, Henry, Peggy, and Monique – as if she’s the mama bear looking out for her cubs. If anybody is to get hurt, it might as well be her…nobody else.

“Don’t worry, my man,” Stephen lowers the gun and puts it back in his holster. “You’re safe. You’re good. All of you. Oh! That reminds me. If you don’t mind me asking, you are a real woman, right?”

Melanie closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and reopens them to focus on her captor. “Yes. I am a woman. I’m more of a woman than you’ve ever known. You’ve never met anyone who’s more of a woman than me. Just because you’ll never be as strong as me, both literally and figuratively, doesn’t mean you can call me a man. I’m not a man. But if I were, I’d be more of a man than you’d ever be.”

Stephen stands up, takes out his Glock 19, and pistol-whips Melanie directly in the face. She lets out a sharp cry of pain. Henry, Peggy, and Monique jump up in shock. Even Roddy, Xander, and Cortez flinch at this sudden act of brutal violence. Stephen then points the barrel of the gun at the rest of the group and cocks it, warning them that they should remain seated if they want to avoid suffering a similar fate.

“Sit down, all of you. If you say one word, I’ll give you the same treatment.” He looks at Melanie, who’s already developing a dark blue bruise on her left cheek. A few drops of blood run down her jaw where the edge of the pistol sliced her skin. “Sorry my dear, but I hate being insulted like that. I suppose I should also apologize for mistaking you for a man. You are a woman. You talk like one, that’s for sure.”

“I’m glad we cleared the air on that,” Melanie grimaces in pain. “I don’t think Dylan will appreciate that you did that to me.”

“No doubt he’ll get pissy about that,” Stephen says, genuinely regretting his actions. “Let’s just sit here and not say another word until Dylan gets back with news about Mr. Sellar’s progress.” Everyone returns to a seated position. Stephen’s associates remain alert. The tension in the air lingers, even though all involved agree a bit of détente could go a long way.

Several moments pass. It’s the most awkwardly silent atmosphere that anyone in this room has ever experienced before. A few minutes pass until Roddy, Thomas, and Dylan enter through the home gym’s front door. Dylan is still wrapped in his blanket. Thomas is completely covered in his industrial “construction worker” gear. He’s mildly out of breath, acting as if he’s just run a country mile at full speed.

“Hey boss. I’ve made some progress but it’s going to take me, oh, an hour and a half to get the door busted down, I think,” Thomas estimates. “At a minimum, it’s going to take me seventy minutes. Two hours at the most. Good thing I brought extra drill bits because the one I’m currently using is being worn down pretty good. It’ll last about twenty more minutes until it’s reduced to nothing but a useless nub. But don’t worry. I’ll get it open. It’ll take time, but time is on our side. If the butler shows up early, we’ll capture him and bring him into our custody.”

“Thank you for the update. Keep at it. Give me updates every thirty minutes, alright?”

“Yeah, I can do that. I’ll keep you posted.” Thomas turns around and disappears from sight, eagerly wanting to return to his project. Thomas Sellars has broken into many safes in his life, but this one takes the cake. This is the Mt. Everest of safes, as far as he’s concerned. After Thomas leaves Dylan sits back down. Then, he notices the blood dripping from Melanie’s face.

“Wha…what happened?” Dylan caresses her face, careful not to touch the bruise.

“Ask him.” Melanie points to Stephen. Without needing to ask, Dylan boils over with rage.

“You…fucking…piece…of…SHIT!” Before he can stand up to confront him, Stephen and Roddy point their guns right at Dylan’s forehead. Cortez closes his eyes in anticipation of Mr. Tanaka’s brains being blown out, which would leave a graphic bloody mess. He doesn’t like gory horror movies and would hate to experience one in real life.

“Ah, ah, ah! Stay where you are. You don’t want to know what’ll happen to you if you charge at me like that,” Stephen warns his former boss. “Just sit down, shut up, and nothing terrible will happen to any of you. I won’t repeat myself. Got it?”

Dylan closes his eyes, breaths deeply through his nose, and calmly sits back down. He’s not normally a believer in “Zen” or whatever that means (this explains why the meditation room is rarely ever used). But right now, he needs all the positive vibes he can possibly muster. Melanie kisses him on the cheek. Peggy grabs his hand and holds it tightly. Monique grabs Henry’s hand, just so everyone feels connected and supported. Even Stephen decides to relax, sitting down in his chair and letting out a rasping sigh. The other three gunmen put their pistols away, sensing the détente happening before them is for real.

Nobody speaks a word for a long, long time. The silence is much welcomed.

All the King’s Queens – Chapter 3: The Master Plan

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.”

“Good. Thanks.”

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.